Monday, December 08, 2008
A Factual History of Fictional Natures
Somewhere between growing up in farm country and leaving it, I watched my eight-year-old brother fall into a pile of afterbirth. One minute, we were poking the afterbirth with sticks—we couldn’t help ourselves, it was so strange, that pool of black milk, the recent discard of twin lambs—and the next minute, my brother was twitching in the grass, his sneaker anointed with the oddest of glues. He twitched for awhile, and when he stopped twitching he was initiated into the strange nature of hospitals, and after much in the way of cat-scan and examination, he was declared epileptic and released with a small vial of pills. At the time, no one could have convinced me—though I was old enough to know better—that those pills weren’t intended for the sole purpose of preventing my brother from turning into a lamb, as I’d seen him touched, comic-book style, by a substance capable of altering his genetic makeup. Whether I entertained this delusion because I would have preferred my brother as part-sheep—docile, wooly, and scarcely capable of competing for my parent’s affection—or because I believed the animal life to be more inviting than the human variety, remains up for debate.
Emerson claimed that every word was once an animal, and when one is drawn to both words and animals with a frightening amount of affection, there is a temptation to elaborate on this system and transform the rules of grammar so that they might join another kingdom. What results is a cacophony of alphabet and heartbeat, furry vowels, clawed consonants. Sometimes nouns are horses and verbs are monkeys. On any given day, the fluctuations of adjectives are extreme, unpredictable, scampering from moth to snake to hamster. A school of fish is less institution, more living thesaurus, providing synonyms for what it might mean to be endangered or sublime.
Words can be herded, animals, less so. I’ve attempted to blame my obsession on some crazed gene, an unavoidable blip in the familial blood. As children, we were surrounded by aunts and uncles capable of training possums and leading wild horses to makeshift pastures. But the origins of this gift were solely with my grandmother, Estelle, a high-haired little woman who once wore the bite-marks of a weaning kitten on her hand like strange jewelry. When she died in the living room after a long illness, the animals of the house were brought to her side, so that they could understand Our Loss. We watched them sniff her stillness curiously, obsessively, and the precise moment when grief occurred to them was obvious to us, and violently so. Howls went up, tongues came out, my grandmother’s cheek was licked with an alarming intensity, and shortly after, she was buried in her best dress with the ashes of her Great Dane, who’d once stood as the taller of the two while on tiptoe. At the reception that followed, my sister and I let the parrot do all the talking, and examined a beetle crushed at the curb by a mourner’s foot. Our familial tradition is pity for the roadside lost, our inheritance a moral conscience that has swapped the cartoonish hover of devil and angel with the perch of the warm-blooded, and the cold.
A question: what hovered over George R. Price, American population geneticist, a man vital to conversations surrounding the selfish gene? His thoughts on the animal world, beyond science, are not documented—there is no diary detailing the more personal attachments with the subjects of his inquiry—and so I can only think far-fetched thoughts about the hesitation he might have had in baiting a mousetrap, or speculate about dogs he could have stooped to pet on his way to the library
Price had been discouraged by W.D. Hamilton’s theories on kinship and altruism, having held fast to the hope that an innate goodness was something that couldn’t be analyzed mathematically. Pressed to prove that the impulse to help others couldn’t be contained, he approached Hamilton’s math, only to arrive at his own, unexpected conclusions in the process. Not only could Hamilton’s models be used to study altruism, but they were also useful in studying spiteful behaviors, and this was Price’s catalyst for a covariance equation that organizes concepts about the survival of goodness. While Price liked to believe that this was a discovery gifted to him from the divine, I can’t help but hope that he was led by a more earthly guide.
Previous to this advancement, Price had been a militant atheist. His disdain for religion had been a great cause of conflict with his wife, and their divorce, in conjunction with a bout of thyroid cancer and the insurance settlement from a surgery gone wrong, had led him to leave his family behind and pursue a new life of studies in England. But after lighting on the equation, his attentions shifted, and he moved through a period of intense engagement with Biblical texts before taking on a more personal spirituality, chiefly composed of self-denial and the assistance of North London’s homeless, addicted, and abused. His scientific achievements all but abandoned, he dispensed of his possessions, lived in a series of squats, and invited vagrants to share his quarters. Malnutrition wasn’t the only cost of his obsession, as he eventually found himself unable to perform his research at Galton Labs, being overwhelmed not just by people seeking his assistance, but by others who were unhappy with his interference. Or, to be more specific, physical confrontations and vandalism were a constant threat, as demonstrated by one man, angered by the protection of his ex-wife, who retaliated by urinating at the entrance of the genetics building.
In reading about Price, I can’t help but wonder how I can exploit a propensity for animal-love so that it might lead to a more urgent human-love, or at least, to certain reserves of energy that can be devoted to the tricky business of doing well by others without praising myself for the effort.
There is a habit I will to admit to, a weakness really, for replacing the tiny unmanageables of life, those things completely out of my control, with an attention to the stranger facts of fauna.
One fact, important to remember in futile moments: a duck’s quack is incapable of producing an echo.
Another fact, for loneliness: arctic inhabitants will slow their hearts to survive a winter.
And more, for the general application of a hopeful feeling: dogs believe in adoption, vampire bats have a buddy system, dolphins support the sick and injured underwater, and gibbons are not above sharing a meal or two.
Unavoidably, there’s also this: after parsing altruism into an equation, George Price would eventually commit suicide in a squatter’s tenement by taking a pair of nail scissors to his throat. Still, elephants have been known to remain standing after death.
What follows is a conversation I imagine Price having, not with myself, but perhaps with someone like me, someone who would dare to approach the fact that for all of his humanitarian interests, his relationship with his two daughters was largely absentee. Both voices are low, as the two are waiting for a movie (a showing of Blonde Venus, in which Marlene Dietrich assumes a simian husk). Price hesitates after being asked about his familial background, before responding to Not-Me’s audacity.
Price: Do you know anything about the social tendencies of the hymenoptera?”
Not-Me: You mean ants?
Price: Ants. Bees. Wasps. The old genetic systems of the hymenoptera makes them predisposed to high degrees of altruism. Female ants, bees, and wasps follow the typical mammalian genetic trajectory in that they develop from eggs that are fertilized by sperm. You follow? Good. As such, females have the typical two sets of chromosomes, one from mother, and one from father.
Price: Male hymenoptera, though, develop from unfertilized eggs, and so they inherit only one set of chromosomes and that comes from their mother.
Price: Males then, have no father. Sometimes fathers are unnecessary.
Not-Me: This is your way of answering a personal question?
Price: Ants. Bees. Wasps.
(And that’s the end of the conversation because the film insists on starting, plunging straightaway into a story of chemists and night clubs and attempts to obtain costly cures through song.)
My brother doesn’t remember the seizure in the pasture any more than he does the later seizures, episodes where his lips were gripped with white, and we gathered around in an attempt to save his tongue from his teeth. As an older sister who always functioned as the younger—easily bossed, often behind in the development of social skills—his recollections are the one area in which I’ve assumed authority, and he’s been surprisingly receptive to my embellishments. Not only do I remember this incident on his behalf, but I’ve also taken the liberty of constructing a neural diorama of sorts, a peek into what might have been afloat on his brainwaves as he shook. I’m not sure if he likes it or not—he’s too generous to say anything negative—but in this conjured tableau our grandmother claps as her Great Dane walks on its hind legs, George Price receives a cracker from the beak of parrot, and Not-Me directs a movie that imagines a world we haven’t seen yet, but know to be possible, and good.
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