25 July 2007

Crichton is a Family Values Conservative!

In transcribing Michael Crichton's views on the problems of evolution (here), I reread the entire chapter and I found something very interesting. In the later part of that chapter he describes a theory of the evolution of humans that went as follows: Primates move out into the savanna. They start standing more to see over the tall grass. This leaves both hands free. This causes more use of tools and more complex tools. This causes the brain to expand rapidly to manipulate these more complex tools. This causes a cycle of more advanced brain function feeding more complex tools and vice-versa. This causes children to be born with larger heads. This causes the children to be born earlier (so they'll fit through the birth canal) and more helpless for a longer time. This causes humans to develop society to support the now necessary teaching and protection of these children. (Whew!) And, he concludes with something along the lines of "You might say that the whole purpose of civilization is to raise children."

By itself, this is not so exceptional. But, we've got to interpret it against the backdrop of the entire book ("The Lost World"). In this book, Ian Malcom goes back to the (other) island where the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park fame had been hatched and now many are living in the wild. Malcom also has a specific, primary interest in extinction and the subject is raised throughout the book. Some extinctions can be connected to cataclysm, but many cannot. Malcom has theories about extinction based on complexity theory. Basically, I'd put it as evolution going awry or maybe even as a species evolving itself into a corner. Somewhere in the highly complex and non-linear interplay between biological evolution and social behavior something goes wrong.

There is one more episode which completes the picture. It is with the velociraptors. They are observed eating a kill and the young raptors are being pushed at and bitten when they try to eat. They are also noted to be too thin for their height. Also, the nest area is dirty and badly tended, with surprisingly few eggs. This also stood in sharp contrast to the well maintained and protected nest of the Tyrannosauruses. Crichton really doesn't develop or directly address the ideas implied by these observations. But, there they are nonetheless: these raptors are on the road to extinction.

When we put this altogether, I think there is a clear message coming through. The survival of our own species is not guaranteed and our own civilization is showing disturbing signs of dysfunction. What are the velociraptors above but an allegory of failing human civilization? Absorbed in our own avarice, we neglect our young and fail to give them what they need. That is, when we even bother to have children at all. (Consider "The EU's Baby Blues," for example.)

I don't want to put words in Crichton's mouth (... just thoughts in his head, as in my outlandish headline). So, I'll use my own perspective to expound this idea. We're in trouble. We're extincting ourselves via childlessness, poor family environments (like single parents or both parents working), and abortion. We're forgetting what is one of the main purposes of life, to have children and to have them thrive. It doesn't matter if you're religious or not. "Be fruitful and multiply," or "Pass on your DNA," take your choice. Furthermore, society and culture is like a great ship whose course cannot be changed quickly. The cultural and economic biases against having children and in favor a childless, care-free life are going to be very difficult to overcome. Or impossible.


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