Divide the world, the Stoics teach, into those things which are beyond control, and those things which are within control. Then, focus on what is within control. This is how we get free. Of course, this very move presupposes choice.
This leads me to the thought: if there were no free will, why then is there consciousness at all? Why doesn’t the whole set of processes which constitute our being go on in the dark, like digestion, or the pacing of the heart?
No, I take it that there is some measure of free will. Granted, I could be wrong on this. But it is a practical assumption, worth making.
I also take it that what constitutes our conscious life comes late in the process, late in the causal chain, and that the bulk of our being isn’t subject to control. We have little choice in deciding whether or not we’ll grow hungry, or tired. But we can, with proper understanding, regulate these processes. We can, for example, postpone when we will take supper, or advance the time our morning alarm will ring. And this being done — in harmony with with the processes which govern nature and the demands of culture — we can set a pattern of being for ourselves, autonomously, with freedom.
Now it will be objected, doubtlessly, that the ocean of values and variables in which we swim is really what determines our choices. We can’t choose our preferences, and it’s these preferences — deeply submerged in nature and culture — which govern the currents of our choices. But I contend, extending the metaphor, that though we are as a ship on this sea of nature, our ship is captained with greater or lesser skill. And skill founds itself on what must be, on necessity. It is a subtle art. It entails noticing, feeling, anticipating, and remaining open as the horizon.
I suppose many set out to sail this sea of life uncaptained, and float about with a false sense of control. Yet, among these are those who — already well along in the journey — figure how to follow the currents in their corner of the wide world well enough to make the journey their own. Others either get through on chance, or sink — with all their cargo aboard.
But we do know much about the ocean, though much remains mysterious and unfathomably deep. Then, knowing how little we do know, we navigate, curious, awake and aware, prepared always to tack a new course when we have learned.
Perhaps it is the case that did we know all and absolutely, free will would be superfluous, awareness would be superfluous. Awareness is an adaptation to the unknown. Awareness’s raison d’être is the unknown. Awareness looks on the horizon, informed with possibility, making its best inferences, never certain, knowing that yesterday, at its clearest utterance, rhymes with today, but not with tomorrow.
Not knowing makes deliberation valuable. We compare possibilities, with awareness, and predict with limited prescience, and get, with better or worse skill, to a better or worse world.
No one can tell us what that world must be. Our best friends, knowing us for fellow travelers, as we will with them, share stories, maps, and weather reports.
To say we are bird-brained is not so much to scramble as to fry a truth overeasy.
Yet we’re not so different from the crow, who avoids that garden with the great-horned plastic owl perched at its gate. Like that scared crow, some part of the human brain mistakes counterfeits of nature for nature, and takes flight.
When my children were younger — about two and three years old — we’d go shopping for clothes. I’d get a kick watching them react to mannequins. Sometimes, the mannequins modeled dresses, and my kids would sneak up, lift the dresses, and peek. I’d check over my shoulder, blush, laugh, and redirect their attention. Look, over there! It’s Dora The Explorer! And off they’d go.
(Come to think of it, they never once asked if this or that Dora was the real Dora. And a monkey in boots never once troubled them. Little literalists, they, believing as they did in The Map. What they’d see is what they’d get, and that’s the way it was — our childhood is more ancient than we suppose.)
I’m really not so different from my children, though I’m a bit less literal, a bit less inclined to pull up a mannequin’s dress. Still, I’ve noticed that I’m wired to do something quite the same, and as literal — but in the yoga-pants aisle. Passing those well-muscled mannequins, perched as they are above an ancient garden, my eyes, of their own accord and disobedient, peek.
I mean, I catch myself, and I avoid gawking. (I am, afterall, a grown and civilized man, who does his best not to embarrass his family.) Yet my eyes, my eyes the windows of a soul much older than my own, duck-like, take flight without me, in the direction of an ancient objective, blind to the fact that these yoga-pants but cover a well-placed decoy. And unlike my eyes — or that unconscious part of my brain which has intention but not volition — I know this world to be filled with duck blinds, behind which hunters take aim at our wallets, treating our credit cards like sporting clays.
Our modern world is much made up of such plastic illusions. Just as in a dream, during which that part of us sleeps that might call the dream a dream, we mistake our visions for reality; so in waking, we respond to what we see, in part, as it were the Great-Horned Owl itself, perched at the gate. Part of us does not distinguish between the real and the unreal. For that part of us, what we see is what we get. For that part of us — as old as the most ancient of fish — it is all real. (It is not for that other, newer part of ourselves to distinguish between light and shadow, but to distinguish between meals, lures, and lies.)
Once, in Costco, approaching Halloween, pushing my then four-year-old daughter along in a shopping cart, I spotted decorations — pumpkins, skeletons, scarecrows — and grew excited at the prospect of decorating our home for all the little trick-or-treaters who were to come for candy. But as we rounded the corner, my daughter panicked, crow-like, on spotting three life-sized witches stirring their wicked brew in a wicked cauldron while laughing their wicked laughs, with their eyes lighting red, and with lightning flashing against a backdrop of night.
One of the trio turned her head directly to my daughter, chanting Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble! My little girl burst immediately into tears, screaming for me to turn around, which I did, after what was for her a forever moment.
But, being a dad, and curious, I got no farther than the underwear aisle, when I got bored, and found my eyes taking flight, bat-like; and the cart’s wheels found themselves following, slowly, slowly, until we could hear a witch laughing again: I come, Graymalkin! My daughter’s eyes turned to me, her protector, as if to ask, Really, Daddy? Are you fucking with me? We’re going back there?
Of course we were.
But as we again approached the corner, and she began to cry, I told her not to worry, that the witches are not real, that they are just plugged-in plastic, a superstition. What she said next exactly defines what separates us from fishes, birds and bats: “I know they’re not real, Daddy! But they scare me anyway!”
“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” — Scout, from To Kill a Mockingbird
Show me a racist, and I’ll show you a fool. We now have evidence — strong scientific evidence — linking racism to stupidity. Scientists have linked racism with low intelligence in what is called a meta-analysis. That is, they have done a study of studies. Doing meta-analyses allows scientists to see wide patterns — kind of like looking at a forest instead of the trees.
Controlling for factors like education and economic status, scientists have found that lower intelligence in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood (Busseri). In one specific study, scientists examined how well young children could notice, when water was poured from a short-fat glass into a tall-skinny glass, that the amount of water remains the same. Children usually develop this ability — called conservation — by age seven. In the study, white children of the target age who had more difficulty noticing that the amount of water stayed the same were more likely to hold negative views of black children (Herbert).
Thinking in the abstract takes intelligence. Thinking in the abstract entails the ability to recognize that things which appear to be different may in reality be the same. For example, it is because we can think abstractly that we can recognize that snow, water, and steam, despite appearances, are all the same substance. H2O is the abstraction of water.
Things which appear on the surface to be different may in reality be identical. Four quarters make a dollar; and a short-fat glass can be the equivalent of a tall-skinny glass. Reality and appearance are not the same, which confuses our more dim-witted fellows. On the surface, people appear different. Some are dark, and some are light. So they must be different, right? After all, we have a word for these differences: race.
Let’s dismantle the word race, and expose it for the fraud it is. And let us begin this dismantling by examining the whale, which, on first glance, appears to be a fish. We once called whales fish, despite several anomalies. Here are two key anomalies which led scientists to say that’s strange. First, whales birth their young live. Second, they have horizontal tails. Fish lay eggs and have vertical tails.
Focusing on these anomalies, scientists discovered that whales and dolphins and porpoises have more in common with people than with fish, despite appearances. We find evidence for this in their spines. Whale spines, like our spines, bend forward and backward. Fish spines, unlike our spines, bend side to side. Whales once walked on land, and were wolf-like creatures. Notice in this image of the early whale called dorudon that it had hind legs — for walking (“The Evolution of Whales”).
Things which appear to be the same may be in reality quite different; things which appear quite different may in reality be quite similar. And things which appear to be different may in the abstract be the same. Whales and dolphins are not fish; they are mammals, like us.
People appear to be different; and so we use the word race as if there are in reality different species of humans. There are not. Scout is right. “[T]here’s just one kind of folks. Folks” (Harper, 304).
Closer inspection proves that the word race points to a mere shadow, not to a reality. Like the people in Plato’s Cave of Ignorance, racists take pride in how they name shadows. Often, they name shadows with dehumanizing words — like the N-word. So let us cut to the chase. There is only one species of human: homo sapiens.
Understanding what a species is entails an understanding of sex. Species are distinguished from one another along reproductive lines. To have a baby requires that a sperm and an egg would successfully combine to create an individual, who could, on average, reproduce. That is, the DNA of the father and mother must be of a common kind. A hippo and a housecat cannot breed. The hippo is therefore a different species from a housecat.
Yet there are species who are nearly the same species, such as the lion and the tiger. Only about 5 million years ago, lions and tigers were the same species. Then two groups of this species got isolated and did not interbreed. Slowly, they became lions and tigers. But five million years is short in evolutionary terms; so the DNA of lions and tigers only slightly differs. With some difficulty can interbreed lions and tigers, and get the biggest cat in the world: the liger. What we cannot do is get a second generation. So lions and tigers are as near as two species can be to one another while yet remaining different species.
Humans from any part of the world can easily have children with humans from any other part of the world; and those children can easily grow up and easily have children with humans from any part of the world. Humans are not genetically diverse. Our genetic family ties are tight.
Humans have had little time to genetically drift from one another. Roughly 70,000 years ago, humans almost went extinct. We lost most of our genetic diversity. All people can trace their family tree to a population in Africa between of fewer than 10,000 individuals (“Humans”). We are all Africans.
Whereas lions and tigers have had five million years to drift apart, we have only had 70,000 years — an evolutionary eye-blink. That’s the difference between a seventy-one yard rush and a one-yard rush. Inside of a yard, a fullback can only do so many spins, tucks and turns.
In order to become separate species, we would have to remain isolated from one another for millions and millions and millions of years. I prefer to travel. And having travelled much, I have seen many of my friends fall in love with people from other cultures. I have seen whites marry blacks, blacks marry asians, and asians marry whites. In every case, the result was the same: kids.
Though people appear quite different, we are very much the same. There is no single gene that distinguishes, say, Japanese from French (Roach). And having two beautiful children of my own from an intercultural marriage, I can attest that only ideas separate people.
Not all ideas are equal. Some ideas are plain stupid. Stupid ideas cannot stand once we know the facts — unless we choose to ignore the facts. But what intelligent person would choose to be ignorant? What intelligent person would prefer to remain in The Cave of Ignorance? None but a caveman.
Here is why this all matters: we are a nation of laws. Not many would argue that cows should get equal protection under the law — this is because cows are a different species. We are equal before the law because we are equally human. This is the great idea which makes America exceptional: we are all created equal. The evidence is in our DNA.
Yet in the United States, we have a history of treating people who look different as less than human. As we read To Kill a Mockingbird, keep this in mind: we are equal before the law because we are equal in our humanity. Atticus Finch will prove to be a fine man who recognizes the humanity in others, and practices law according to this deep principal.
To understand the superficial differences between people, consider the following. As our ancestors migrated out of Africa, they adapted to different environments. Being human, they used the UV-B rays in sunlight to create vitamin D in their skin. We all need vitamin D. So, as they travelled north, where there is less UV-B radiation, their skin lightened. That way, they were able to get the more UV-B rays to synthesize the vitamin D they needed. It is a tradeoff: less UV protection for more vitamin D.
This adaptation in no way made them more or less human. We’ve been fully human for about 200,000 years (Avasthi).
Humans who migrated farther north got less UV light, and so grew more lightly pigmented — whiter. That’s it. It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.
Avasthi, Amitabh. “After Near Extinction, Humans Split Into Isolated Bands.” National Geographic.
National Geographic Society, 24 Apr. 2008. Web. 21 Feb. 2015
Busseri, Michael A., and Gordon Hodson. “Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes Lower Cognitive
Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup
Contact.” Psychological Science. Association for Psychological Science, 25 July 2011.
Web. 22 Feb. 2015.
“The Evolution of Whales.” The Evolution of Whales. Berekely, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird. New York: Grand Central, 1982. Print.
Herbert, Wray. “Is Racism Just a Form of Stupidity?” Association for Psychological Science
RSS. Association for Psychological Science, 20 Aug. 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.
“Humans Change the World.” Humans Change the World. Smithsonian Institute, 02 Feb.
- Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
Roach, John. “Massive Genetic Study Supports “Out of Africa” Theory.” N.p., 21 Feb. 2008. Web.
Kids are perfectly capable of dealing with evolution — as if it were an issue with which “deal.” Kids who are not raised to fear hell-fire and the undiscovered country; kids who are not taught to believe that The Flood was a real event and not The Epic of Gilgamesh plagiarized; kids whose imaginations are left wide open and curious: these kids are fascinated and not fearful to learn about our evolution.
And why should they be fearful? My own son is four years old and fascinated to see in his own anatomy traces of our deep aquatic ancestry. He loves to recount the fact that when he was in the womb his testes were way up inside of him — just like a fish’s. He loves to recount the fact that, as he developed, his “little balls” slowly dropped from way up in his belly down into his “little sack.” He does not for a moment blush, ashamed of his animal body. He just gives an account of the curious and fascinating fact.
Nor is he terrified to learn that, for a short time in his mother’s belly, he was encased in an amniotic sack — water filled — which is a remnant of our egg-laying past, a remnant of our slow transition from fish to reptile. Nor is he terrified to learn that, in his mother’s womb, attached to his belly button, he had, for a just a moment, a little yolk sack. None of this terrifies him. He rather loves to learn of it; and he asks questions, unafraid of the adult dark.
For other kids, taught differently, evolution is not an enlightening inquiry, not a candle in the dark, but a subject fearsome, not for its ultimate implications, but for more immediate reasons: life at home. The theory of evolution pokes holes in the amniotic sacks of “safe” cultural teachings given them of their parents, whom they are taught to honor, in some cases, even as they were omniscient. To contemplate evolution for these kids is to risk cutting their umbilical chords before they are able to feed themselves. For some of these kids, to contemplate evolution is to risk wrapping that very line of life around their necks and to become bound and blue for a contradiction. How can these children at once honor their parents and yet ask questions of a fatherless past? It is psychically tantamount to patricide, and would leave mother to weep, cold and alone with serpents in the dark.
The evolutionary inquiry challenges traditional parental authority. So, we teachers tread lightly, and sometimes tremble to teach what would otherwise fascinate our students: that fish see better in dark than we do, because our wet eyes, like theirs, evolved underwater.
Though some bedtime stories help our eyelids to grow heavy, these will not improve our aquatic eyes. Nor do they help us to see into the deep. And yet our children sometimes grow out of their childhood beds and learn to read and think independently. Sometimes. And among these, many come to feel shame at father’s or mother’s cowardice for having taken refuge in children’s stories. Noah’s Ark, indeed. For shame. For pity.
What adult worthy of respect and authority; what adult on whom a child would rely; what adult in whom a child would place faith; what adult indeed would take such a story as it were a fact?
And for the rest of society, struggling with other problems — big boy and big girl problems — we suffer for these blinding stories. Too many a promising mind has been sacrificed to the monster hiding under the bed. We have pressing mortal problems to solve, sufferings to soften, and a sick, sick planet. Speak ye of a flood? Look ye to the polar caps, and welcome rapidly changing ecosystems and the next Great Dying — we know why more than 10,000 species are going extinct every year.
We need every promising young mind to the problem, for only we can steer this course. It is our moral duty to teach our children the best we know. Yes, we should be sensitive. No, we should not seek primarily to be polite.
We know how to solve many of our problems. To deny evolution is to deny practical, proven hope, and to sink our scientific ship, leaving our crew’s clear eyes to be picked at by indifferent fish as our own eyes stare blankly upward, through water, maladapted, at a refracting sun, as we clutch a book of maladapted myths in which our children’s names do not appear.
To the extent that we do not listen to him or her with whom we would speak, we speak with a fiction, a phantom, a ghost.
than even a circus
elephant very tall-
er than would a tree pine;
farthermore reaching than
a snaking-river’s strike,
God’s tarantuala hands
are climbing up and up
and up the string holding
most: Earth is a balloon
When the very old man with enormous wings falls from the sky and lands in Pelayo’s courtyard, Pelayo and his wife, Elisenda, figure that the old man is a Norwegian sailor. His dialect is unintelligible. Yet they want to make the unknown known. So they force their best conjecture upon the old man, ignoring the inconvenient fact that the old man has wings. Norwegian sailors don’t typically have wings. Yet Pelayo and Elisenda are satisfied with their explanation, and ignore the inconvenient fact. They prefer to know, that this world would wax intelligible, rather than to endure the ambiguity of not knowing.
The substance of their conjecture is supplied by children’s books. With this bit of evidence — the very old man with enormous wings — they can substantiate the narrative they’ve been telling one another in their more private hours of drudgery and monotony. In these hours, they have imagined a wide world of adventure, filled with ships and pirates, in which escape is possible. They have contorted fact to fit fantasy.
Ironically, they miss what is infinitely more interesting: very old man with enormous wings has fallen from the sky and has landed in their courtyard.
A wise woman who knows everything about life and death lives next door to the couple. She does not ignore the old man’s anomolous wings. She draws the obvious conclusion: the very old man is the angel of death. He has come for Elisenda and Pelayo’s sick baby, to carry the child away into the dark shadows of death. So the old man must be clubbed to death.
Pelayo and Elisenda then decide to cram the old man into a chicken coop. After all, this very old man has wings; and things with wings belong in chicken coops. He is a foreigner; he is the angel of death; he is a chicken: he belongs in a box.
We know these people, their presumptions, their prejudices. The priest, however, knows better.
Father Gonzaga, whose knowledge of the world is supplied by the Good Book, learns of the disconcerting news. Rumor has gotten out to the villagers about the angel, and they have begun to charge a fee to view this very old carnival freak. Father Gonzaga knows better, much better. He is a man of God.
When he arrives, he notes that the very old man has parasites in his wings. The old man is therefore too human to be an angel. Angels are more than human, he knows, and are no metaphor of what we are or could be. An angel’s is a fey grace.
Father Gonzaga is right that the others are wrong. He is right that the very old man is not an angel. But he is wrong that the very old man is not an angel. The very old man is not an angel, but he is not not an angel.
Ganzaga’s vocabulary is wholly inappropriate for the problem — indeed, his vocabulary covers and conceals Being itself.
Father Gonzaga’s deep learning and reliance on authority have blinded him and have masked the truth from him, which simply is that before him is a very old man with enormous wings.
Father Gonzaga, reliant on authority, sends a letter to Rome to get an official verdict from the Pope. But Rome doesn’t get back to him. Meanwhile, the carnival grows and grows, and Pelayo and Elisenda get rich at the expense of the very old man, treating him like a zoo animal.
But a zoo animal in a cage is not itself. A lion in a cage is not a lion, and a very old man with enormous wings in a chicken coop is not a very old man with enormous wings. It is a chicken.
Soon enough, the fickle villagers grow tired of the very old man with enormous wings, and a new freak show comes to town: the spider woman, who was changed to spider for having disobeyed her father.
You can find the story at this link: