Me and The Genies
Content by person Content by ideas Sample chapter 2
Looking to evolution for values
“Me and The Genies,” started the same way every week. You saw the primeval Earth with meteorites plunging and volcanoes belching, all red with fireworks going off all the time. Then the Earth began to spin, lost its fireworks, turned green, got traced over with clouds, and then you zoomed in and landed somewhere. And a new adventure began.
One week it was a fight, or a series of fights, between a community of sweet caring people—us, of course—and them, evil scowling people who practice—wait for it—Natural Selection! Our people practice a form of democracy. The creatures they send in to do battle with the goons give off genies, and these genies work together to create new defensive and non-lethal weapons. The other side selects for the longest horns, the most vicious teeth, and the sharpest talons. But somehow, as these creatures get more fearsomely armed, they start going blind or toppling over. They’re no match for our champions. So we win. Down with Natural Selection!
Some people were very happy to see natural selection get its comeuppance. Sung-Tin met with a deputation of religious ministers from churches around the city who were very pleased indeed. Now just go the next step, they said, beaming, and give the genies wings and messages from God, drawn from the bible. That’s obviously what the show was leading up to. Could they help move things along? Sung-Tin said, politely, no.
I could tell Sung-Tin didn’t like the public side of being a celebrity but she was a trooper. Out of all the requests for appearances she got she’d pick one or two and we’d either invite people in or attend meetings outside.
“Let’s get our feet wet with this,” she said. It was from a cleric-reporter from one of the city religious newspapers. He asked to speak to us both about the show. We set up a time when we could see him together in Sung-Tin’s office. I was actually looking forward to seeing how Sung-Tin would handle a man of the cloth.
Turned out, she almost didn’t. Just moments before he was due to arrive she phoned in to say she couldn’t make it. I felt a sudden wave of panic. “Sung-Tin, you can’t leave me alone with this guy. I’ve no idea what to say to him. I know nothing about your program, and I’m phobic about the clergy. Sung-Tin, do whatever you have to do, but come rescue me. Please!”
There was silence the other end. At that moment I heard a knock on the door to my office. I guess she heard it too. “I’m sorry, Henry, I can’t rescue you.” Click. There I was, alone with my nemesis, a man of guaranteed probity and conscience.
I opened the door. He was dressed in clergy costume, that funny collar, a sort of Cossack outfit, and I thought I detected a slight halo. He breezed in, shook me vigorously by the hand, and introduced himself. Reverend Kelly. Fortyish. Denomination I don’t know because I wasn’t really listening, I was still in a panic and anyway I don’t know one denomination from another. He drew me to the sofa at one side of the room and sat me down at one end before himself sitting down at the other. I guess he was used to managing people with clergy phobias, there’s a lot of us around.
I apologized for Sung-Tin’s absence. He said, no matter. Did he mind if I recorded the meeting, I asked, wanting to have something to reproach Sung-Tin for when she returned. Of course not, he said. Then, could he ask me a few questions?
It didn’t take him long to realize I knew nothing. Nothing. I had no idea where the program was going, I didn’t even know what it was about, I was indeed nothing more than the hand on the spigot, turning it on and then turning it off.
Not to worry, he said. Oh, really?
He asked me about various issues to do with evolution. Again his net came up empty. “Do you understand why we’re all interested in Dr. Chi’s work?” he said.
I said, frankly, no.
Can I explain? he asked. I said, please, go ahead.
A history buff. Not my thing. “Anything before telephones and automobiles is ancient history to me,” I warned him. That shouldn’t be a problem, he said.
I’ll summarize what he said from the transcript of the recording.
Darwin’s very unusual, he said. Evolution is the only major scientific field where everyone refers back to the work of a single individual. When we argue over what evolution means, we’re arguing about ideas Darwin came up with almost two centuries ago, back before there were railways or steam ships. “Before the telephone,” I asked. Yes, he said gently, before the telephone, before electricity. That always gets my attention. How could anyone do anything before the telephone?
Darwin based his account of evolution on three ideas, Kelly said. One: species evolve out of other species, from one another. All today’s species of animals and plants are descendents of other species, going back to a single ancestor billions of years ago. “That was shattering,” Kelly said. “It said we’re descended from animals too, in our case the great apes. That’s been a very bitter pill for Christians to swallow, but that battle’s pretty much over. Even the Catholic Church has accepted that.”
“Do you follow?” he asked. I said I did.
Darwin’s second idea was, animals and plants adapt to their environment. “That wasn’t such a shocking idea. People already knew that. It’s not even totally true, a peacock’s tail isn’t adapted to the environment, exactly, for example. But in general, most people could go along with his second idea.”
It’s Darwin’s third idea that causes all the trouble, Kelly said—natural selection. Once Darwin had ideas one and two pinned down, he started looking around for the clincher, how to explain why evolution happened, why species budded off from one another and in the process got better adapted to their surroundings. It’s this third idea, not evolution itself, that we’re all arguing about.
“Do you follow?” he asked again. I said again, I did. I remember feeling at that moment that I did. I knew about natural selection. Survival of the fittest. Only the strongest survive and get to reproduce. So it’s their genes that get passed on to future generations. Over time, this makes the species more and more fit and better adapted. It all seemed pretty straightforward. So what was there to argue about?
“If we were going to look for one single mechanism today,” Kelly said, “we probably wouldn’t come up with natural selection. But at the time, that’s the kind of explanation you had to come up with. First there was Newton and atoms. Then Adam Smith and his ‘Invisible hand of the marketplace,’ By Darwin’s day people expected you to come up with a mathematical formula to explain things. Darwin found his in an equation that said, population always grows faster than food supply. Darwin took that and turned it into natural selection—competition for food, only the fittest get to survive and reproduce themselves and so on.”
“Good,” said Kelly. “Then perhaps you can tell me why it isn’t true.”
“Why it isn’t true,” I repeated stupidly, caught off guard. “It isn’t? I always thought it was.”
“Well, if it is, that’s very bad news for people like me,” Kelly said.
At this point, I saw the handle of the outer office door inch round and the door open a couple of inches.
“Come inside, sit down, and keep quiet,” I said loudly. Sung-Tin slipped in, smiled, quickly introduced herself to the Rev Kelly, and sat on a chair facing us. She crossed her quite excellent legs as if to say, there’s a woman present, watch your language, and shine for me. For a moment I forgot what we’d been talking about, which is what that always does to me. Kelly filled in.
“Dr. Chi, I’ve been giving Henry some background on the theory of natural selection. You’ve come at a very opportune moment. I was just about to say that, up to now we’ve had only two theories for what drives the evolution of species—natural selection, and direct creation by God—Creationism. Now you come along with a children’s show that takes potshots at both these theories. We’re all wondering if you’re going to come up with a new theory and show us a new way forward.”
He stopped, looking expectantly at Sung-Tin. Like a fool—if I’d kept my mouth shut I might have learned something really important—I faced him squarely and said, “Wait a minute, what’s wrong with natural selection?”
“It tells us nothing,” he said, “or at least, nothing we want to know. Where does our intelligence from? Do we come with some kind of moral compass? Natural selection tells us very little about issues like that. Instead it tells us the roots of human nature lie in lethal competition. Human life is inherently nasty, brutish and short. It’s so gloomy a message that, whatever problems Christianity has, to many of us it still seems preferable to evolution driven by natural selection.”
Now I too turned towards Sung-Tin. “Are you going to save us,” I said, “Are you our Pied Piper, leading our children to the Promised Land? Just what’s going on when I turn on that spigot every Saturday morning?”
Sung-Tin ignored me and flashed the Reverend a smile.
“Dr. Kelly, thank you so much for taking the time to educate my colleague about the basics of evolutionary theory. I follow your column with great interest. I almost wrote you a letter last week when you wrote about every glass ceiling being someone else’s solid hardwood floor. It’s reassuring to see the church tackling issues of such pressing social concern. I wonder what column you’d write about evolution. What issues does it raise for the church now even the Pope concedes the battlefield to Darwin?”
“The Pope and I take much the same position,” Kelly said. “We both agree that species evolve. It’s natural selection we can’t abide. The social issues involved are awesome. The basic morality and sense of self worth hammered out over a millennium and a half of Christianity have been eroding for centuries, of course, but I see them really falling apart starting around 1920. I was born about halfway back to then. I remember how little of that morality and self worth was left while I was growing up. It’s hard to imagine how little of it there must be left for kids growing up today. I look at them, they just radiate, ‘Don’t expect anything of me, I’m nothing’.”
Sung-Tin nodded sympathetically.
“What’s frightening is, we’re not creating any alternative. I think many religious people look quite favorably on evolution as how we got here. But they, and I think even many scientists, are appalled by the implications of Darwin’s proposed mechanism, natural selection. I think we’re all hoping for a new miracle, a way ahead to some other source of self-esteem to replace what we’ve lost.”
We fell silent. Sung-Tin looked down at the carpet. Kelly settled his chin on his chest with his hands folded in his lap. I looked from one to the other.
Sung-Tin broke the silence. “What do you suggest? Teaching religion in science class?”
“No, I really don’t want that. I don’t think anyone does, at least no one I meet in my line of work. Let’s see, what’s the problem? Let me approach it this way. I was looking through a book on Greek sculpture the other day and I was struck by how much sense of self worth the figures conveyed. Warriors, bare-chested, standing erect and proud. Philosophers, gazing out of the page at me with such a sense of deep calm and assurance. I felt their profound sense of how grand a thing it is to be a human being. It’s that sense I want communicated to my kids. That’s being taught, of course, as ‘self-esteem’, but it’s taught detached from anything else. That sense of how grand human beings can be, it’s dropped out of the curriculum, it doesn’t fit anywhere. And it certainly isn’t taught in the mass media. How are kids going to encounter it?”
I spoke up. “You don’t think they get it in the movies?” I asked. “I see a terrific amount of talent involved in movie-making.”
They both looked at me thoughtfully. For a while no one spoke. Uh-Oh!
Sung-Tin: “Henry, that’s a very reasonable suggestion. I don’t know why, but I see movies as part of the problem, not part of the solution. They’re generally about intensity of feeling, intensity of response, not about an effort to develop judgment or to be as fully human as possible. The model of human nature they’re built on seems to me to be shrinking all the time. I find characters in 19th century novels much richer and deeper than characters in movies. Maybe you just can’t get that richness of character into what you can show in pictures, it needs to be put in words, what characters are thinking.”
Kelly nodded. “I feel the same,” he said.
“Pardon me!” I said, wondering what a Victorian novel involving The Simpsons would be like. I guess it would be short.
“That sense of—I’m going to call it profundity, richness of awareness, sense of self worth—now they aren’t encountering it even in science,” Kelly went on. “Instead they learn that we’re just a bunch of genes and the only mechanism acting on our ape-like ancestors to make us human was a crude filter winnowing out bad mutations. What’s scary is, if that’s all that’s taught, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In another 50 years that’s all humans will think they are.
“You know, I’m going to have to put it this way—I want schools to maintain some channel kids can use to encounter various ways humans have been excellent. Sung-Tin, does that sound so crazy?”
“Oh, I wasn’t laughing at you, I’m just wondering how you’d communicate that except through just those channels you and I think are dumbing people down. I think you’re too late. I think there’s a new human nature in formation, and that’s just that.”
“And teaching we’re created just through natural selection in science class is part of it?” Kelly asked.
“Here, try this. Press the magic button,” said Sung-Tin, her finger pressed on the table next to us. “Go on, put your finger here. What would that button do, if it could do anything you want to solve that problem?”
“I want science to come up with a basis for seeing humans as finer than they’ve ever been,” said Kelly. “That’s really what I want. I don’t preach religion just for the sake of religion, I preach religion because I think it’s how we can be most excellent today. Show me a better way to be excellent, and I’m on board. Look at all living creatures—cats, worms, donkeys, apes—then look at us. There’s something different about us, some ways we’re more different from other living creatures than they are from each other. Part of that will be culture, is there anything else? Then, how did that happen? If it resulted in some kinds of excellence, does that process have something to it we’d like to know about, that we could apply to ourselves? Look what happened when we tried to apply natural selection to ourselves— eugenics and Hitler. Can we do better than that?”
He looked over at me. “Henry, does this mean anything to you?”
“Yes,” I said. “It means new forms of dramatic action. We can always use those. For a while we got that from Freud, all those ‘Your mother made you do it’ movies, then that fizzled out. We’re always looking for new themes for drama. Sometimes I think we should go back to old-fashioned melodrama, villains twirling handlebar moustaches, girls in danger, windfall inheritances, hidden identities, that sort of thing.”
I looked from one to the other for some twinkle of happy memories.
“Thanks for pointing that out,” said Sung-Tin, smiling. “We could be even worse off than we are.”
Kelly laughed and patted me on the shoulder. “I have to leave,” he said to Sung-Tin. “Can I phone you for some quotes?” Sung-Tin nodded. He heaved himself up from the sofa. “I’ll be going, then,” he said. We shook hands and Sung-Tin showed him out.
Sung-Tin turned from the door, sashayed up to me and gave me the groupie look. “My hero!” she said, fake-adoringly. Dropping the look and un-sashaying herself she made herself all business. “What did he tell you before I arrived?” she asked. I told her about Darwin’s three points.
She strolled over to the couch—my casting couch—and sat down. She crossed her legs and stretched her arms out along the back. I wondered if she knew how many young starlets had done exactly that, exactly there. To show what they’d got.
“Does this mean anything to you, Henry?” she asked.
I was taken aback. Did she mean the chest she was sticking out at me? As if reading my mind she brought her hands down and rested them on the cushions next to her, like I was two people both being invited to sit next to her.
It was the couch of course. Pale leather. It sucks the sensuality deep out of a woman and leaves it glistening on her skin to trap unwary passers-by. My marriage had started on that couch. Come to think of it, so had my divorce. It was there primarily to lure and display female flesh, and it was now working its occult arts on Sung-Tin.
She drew her arms in and folded them. “When Kelly talked about the fading of traditional values, and about looking to evolution for new values, did that mean anything to you?”
Oh. Evolution. That again!
“Yes, I don’t understand why he wastes his time fighting a losing battle,” I said. “We’re just our genes, that’s what drives us? So what! Get over it. Move on.”
“Is that where you think your values come from, your genes?” she asked.
“I prefer not to look too closely at where my values come from,” I said. “There might be tax to pay on them, tolls, freight charges, that sort of thing. I pick them up as I find them and hope no one notices.”
She looked at me for a while, not coolly, but not exactly warmly. Just stared at me.
God, she was looking good on that couch. I wanted to hold her attention. I shifted my weight and struck an ‘attitude’.
“Genes, sure. You must know that, you’re writing about evolution. We do what they tell us.” Just now something was telling me she was a hell of a looker. My genes. And that couch.
She brought her right hand up to her chin in a gesture of thoughtfulness. “Henry Lazaard!” she said eventually. “What goes on behind that mask of cynicism you like to adopt? Just genes? I wonder. As you get drawn into this controversy, will exposure to evolution lead the wicked Henry Lazaard, victim of his genes, to mend his ways and become a good citizen?”
So she had my number already. Who had she been talking to?
What she meant—she made no bones about it—was that I was as good a guinea pig as any for detecting the redeeming power of evolution. Maybe in me she would see, close up, the effect her programs were having on the rest of America’s as-yet unredeemed children.
The redeeming of Henry Lazaard was to be made a project