Sunday, May 16, 2010

Barriers to my zeal

Readers of the Antipodes blog will have noticed that my enthusiasm for the ideas of Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins is such that I have a tendency towards evangelism: a constant wish to spread the Good Word. Well, at times, I've run into problems. Recently, in the course of an impromptu lunch-table conversation with Natacha and Alain, I drifted unthinkingly into a spontaneous presentation of the basic facts of Darwinian evolution. I chose an unlikely creature as the hero of my demonstration: the parasitic tick that attaches itself to mammals such as dogs and humans, and sucks blood.

A friend once told me about tick behavior. Since then, I've remained fascinated by the strange lifestyle of this creature, whose destiny appears to be invested in the tick equivalent of a perpetual grand lottery of a Zen Buddhist variety. More precisely, a young tick has a one-track mind, and that track leads to the tip of a branch of weed where the creature sets up its residence. There, it hangs upside-down, motionless, day and night, with its outstretched claws facing the heavens, like a religious hermit in a trance, waiting for a godsend: namely, the chance arrival of a warm-blooded mammal to which it can immediately attach itself, to suck blood. If such an animal arrives on the scene, then the tick can survive, indeed thrive. If not, it dies. Now, from a Darwinian point of view, that sounds like a good story. But Natacha (whom I had imagined naively as a Darwinian) turned out to be reluctant to allow me to pursue joyfully my storyteller's role.

NATACHA: "William, have you ever actually been in close contact with a tick, in the kind of situation you're describing?"

WILLIAM: "Well, not exactly, because the ticks are out there in the open fields, perched on their weed stems, waiting for a beast to pass by. But we can't necessarily see them."

NATACHA: "You seem to be describing a horde of goblins…"

The bottom fell out of my didactic presentation of a tick-oriented Darwinian case study. It never took off. The ticks are still waiting there, patiently…

Later, I was under the charm of the Dawkins presentation of dam-building beavers, which constitute a spectacular case study in The Extended Phenotype (which the author seems to think of as his major scientific publication). Basically, the general idea is that a beaver's genes result in the existence of dams in exactly the same way that my friend's genes, say, produced her blue eyes. There's an obvious difference, one might object. The blue eyes are actually an intimate part of my friend, whereas nobody would seriously suggest that the gigantic log constructions are bodily appendages of their beaver builders. Dawkins astounds us by saying no, there's no essential difference. The beaver's determination to build dams and my friend's blue eyes can both be considered as phenotypes of the individual's genetic heritage. The fact that the color of my friend's eyes is inside (her body), as it were, while the presence of the beavers' dam is outside (their bodies), changes nothing. The blueness and the "damness" are perfectly comparable consequences of the phenotypical effects of genes.

Well, in much the same way that I had wished to transmit my Darwinian enthusiasm to Natacha, I found myself obsessed by the challenge of telling my son François about the wonders of beaver dam-builders, as explained by Dawkins.

WILLIAM: "François, imagine a young beaver who gives the impression that he's about to decide what he's going to do with his life. Is it imaginable that he might be in a position to choose between a traditional dam-building existence and some other lifestyle that has nothing to do with building dams?"

Retrospectively, I realize that the wording of my rhetorical question was silly, falsely naive, indeed awkward and wrong to the point of offering my son an invitation to produce the following delightful scenario, entitled The Emancipated Adolescent Beaver, which annihilated instantly my zealous didactic pretensions:

FRANCOIS: "Yeah, man, I'm a young beaver, and I decided I don't have no time for all that old shit from my parents about buildin' dams. They been doin' it for ages, but it don't get them nowhere. Ain't no sense in it, believe me. They been doin' that out in the wild country. Me, I moved into the city. Shit, man, on a Saturday night, do you see me tellin' the brothers and sisters that I ain't gonna stay with them, coz I got a mother-fucken dam to build? Fuck that, man. I'm an emancipated beaver…"

Obviously, I'm in need of better Darwinian/Dawkinsian examples.

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