Deus Ex Serendip: A "Heavenly" New Perspective On Some Familiar Issues

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 The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories

5/1/2011

Krishnan Raghavan

 

Deus Ex Serendip: A “Heavenly” New Perspective on Some Familiar Issues

 

Introduction

I’d like to start off by apologizing to Professors Dalke and Grobstein. I’ve been a student in your class all semester, but I haven’t actually participated (directly) in your class, and I haven’t gotten around to doing ANY of my weekly postings on Serendip. Mea culpa. In my defense, I’ve had a lot on my plate this semester. I’ve been dealing with multiple revolutions around the world, a slew of natural disasters, not to mention the usual stuff on my plate like ending world hunger, picking lottery winners, and finding lost cats. But I digress. I know we have a terrible habit in the Tri-Co about complaining constantly about how much work we have. I’m going to try and make it up to you, Professors, and the rest of the class, by doing as many posts as possible tonight so you guys (hopefully) get a chance to respond (I can’t make any promises about handing in that portfolio though). I guess I’ll start by introducing myself. I can’t really tell you my name since I have so many, but I’m a freshman, sophomore, senior and junior triple majoring in the humanities, the sciences, and the social science at Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, and pretty much every other college or university out there. My hobbies include knitting, reading, working out, smiting, blessing, inspiring others, and Chipotle runs. I joined this class hoping for an easy science credit, but what I got out of it was surprisingly a lot more. I’m hoping to be able to share my perspectives on some of the issues we’ve touched upon this semester in class via my posts tonight, and I hope to leave you guys with as much to think about as you’ve left me with over the course of this semester. I guess I should probably get started now.

Credit Where Credit’s Due

I’d like to clear up one egregious misconception you all seem to have been laboring under right off the bat. My dear friend Charles Darwin, while he certainly has many laudable qualities, was certainly not the first person to come up with the idea of evolution, descend with modification, “survival of the fittest”, whatever you’d like to cal it. I was. I know some of you might find that idea a little hard to swallow, given the many ways in which “Darwin’s” theory of evolution has been misused to argue that I don’t exist (more on that later, that’s right, I’m coming for you Dicky Dawkins and Danny Dennett!). I’ve tried to leave you people clues for millennia, but nobody picked up on what I was putting down until good old Charlie came along and figured out what was what (using, of all my good creatures, pigeons, which even I consider to be rats with wings).

Does Evolution Undermine Me?

You might be thinking it’s a bit ridiculous for me to be taking credit for a theory that “disproves” my existence or “undermines” my omnipotence by suggesting that I didn’t create each and every creeping, crawling thing with my own ten thousand hands. But what would you do in my position? Would you really take the time to craft trillions of different organisms when you could just outsource all that work, then sit back and enjoy watching the fruits of your labor unfold? Apart from how much work that would be, would you really want a billion different creatures complaining to you about why you didn’t give them wings like you did to others or why you made them live underwater instead of on land? Honestly, that sort of thing would be completely exhausting, particularly at my age; after all, it’s not like I’m still a spry couple of billion years old. I like to think of myself as a “hands-off” sort of parent. All the same, I did get a bit bored watching the same old cells divide over and over again. Not exactly a National Geographic special. It finally dawned on me one day to reach in and mix up what was going on in inside those cells just to see what would happen (actually, I already knew what would happen) and the rest, as they say, was history and it saved me a good deal of micromanagement. And to all those naysayers out there who might argue that evolution disproves the idea that I could have created anything, I’d like to see you try and make a universe. Go on. I dare you.

Does Evolution Undermine You? 

As I mentioned earlier, I spent a good deal of time throwing subtle hints around hoping one of you would finally “develop” the theory of evolution. You might be asking yourself why I wanted you guys to discover evolution so badly, particularly since the notion that I didn’t individually create you might seem to somewhat undermine my omnipotence. That’s at least what a lot of you (I don’t mean you in the class per se, but your species as a whole) claimed after Darwin released his work on the theory of evolution, and that’s what a lot of you “Creationists” continue to maintain today. Frankly, I think that’s a crock of so and so. The notion of evolution is disturbing to so many of you because it problematizes your “specialness”; to think that you emerged by chance and “random” processes rather than from the work of a careful designer seems to rather dangerously suggest that human beings might not be perfect. To those of you out there that this worries, I’d like you to think about the last time you met someone you would consider to be perfect and please, send me their names. I probably know them better than you do and I’d be only too happy to disabuse you. By the time Darwin released “The Origin of the Species”, I felt it was high time you stopped looking up for guidance and started looking to one another.

The Library of Babel

As it just so happens, I do just happen to have what you (or rather, Jorge Luis Borges) might call a “Library of Babel”. Many of you found the notion of the Library of Babel to be a restrictive one insofar as it suggested that all possible stories were contained within the library, which therefore implied that the authorial act of “creation” was reframed as an act of “finding” a story that already existed. My own library does in fact contain at any given moment all possible stories that could exist; however, this quantity is constantly changing based on the potential storytellers (that’s all of you) coming into and out of existence at any given moment. My library is in and of itself a story that is constantly changing, not a fixed or fatalistic structure. Does this make a difference to any of you? Do you find this model of a “Library of Babel” any more or less acceptable or troubling that the one proposed by Borges/Dennett?

Memes, Cranes, and Skyhooks

You might be surprised to learn that I don’t hate Danny Dennett nearly as much as he seems to dislike or at least mistrust me. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t actually offend me terribly when someone professes disbelief in me or “proves that I don’t exist” (ha!). It can actually be (don’t tell anyone) a bit of relief; it’s the ones who believe that I find often need the most attention, and having an infinite amount of time to process requests for my intervention doesn’t make it less exhausting! I quite admire him in fact for having the courage of his convictions, such courage, in fact, that I gather many of you were rubbed in the wrong way by his convictions. One class discussion I found particularly interesting was the question of whether “memes” are really driven by Dennett’s algorithmic “cranes” or by the “skyhooks” of some intelligent design. I can tell you right now that I’m certainly not responsible for the “memes” that make it. Please. If it were up to me, none of you would have had to live through that velour sweatsuit period so endemic during the early 2000s. I do think, however, that you do have your very own homegrown skyhooks. Ever had boeuf bourguignon? You can thank Julia Child. Do you think those Converse All-Stars would still be on your feet if it wasn’t for basketball star Chuck Taylor? In my experience, “memes” are hardly ever as organic as Dennett would have you believe; you can almost always trace their generation back to a single influential person or group of people.

The “Canon”

As you are may or may not know, the word “canon” was originally used to describe those stories that were popularly accepted to be about, well, me. Let me tell you something: I hated the concept even when it referred to stories about me, and I hate it even more now. Conferring “canonical” status upon certain stories certainly doesn’t serve to make those stories any more “authoritative” or even “better” than any others; rather, it works towards the exclusion and othering of those works that are somehow “non-canonical”. I even find canons based on linguistic or cultural commonalities quite distasteful. Suggesting that the reading of works that stem from a similar socialcultural framework could not be enriched by readings from a different cultural tradition is absolutely absurd. That might have worked back in the days when travel was far less simple or when communication was much less effective, but in a day and age when you can communicate instantaneously with each other from opposite sides of the globe, it is all the more vital that what one reads on a daily basis reflect the sum total of the human experience rather than just a tiny fraction thereof. You’d also find that you’re all sometimes almost boringly similar in your interests around the world; you wouldn’t believe how exhausting it is having to hear the words “love”, “sex”, and “money” in thousands of languages on a daily basis.

The Myth of Sisyphus

I hate to tell you guys this, but Albert Camus was almost 100% accurate when he described the human condition as analogous to that of Sisyphus; all of you are, more or less, destined to spend the rest of your lives pushing metaphorical boulders up hills only to have them roll back down again. What you don’t know, however, is that you’re much happier this way than if you had the alternative. Don’t get me wrong, I tried once upon a time to make sure you had lives that were literally as perfect as they could possibly be. The problem with that was how completely unhappy it made you. If there is any sort of ultimate “purpose” to your existence, and even mine, it completely and totally eludes me. When I made sure that you lived in an earthly paradise with absolutely no obstacles, having to feel this lack of purpose made you listless and depressed. It finally dawned on me that you might simply be happier if you were allowed to work towards an unattainable end, that chimera you call “happiness”, for the duration of your lives. Retirement, as they say, is the number one cause of death among the elderly and the perpetual retirements you once lived through made all of you long for death rather than flying from it as you do now. The Greeks thought Sisyphus lived in Hell, but he actually lies just down the cloud from me.

Science, Literature, and Stories

I think I’ve just about run out of time to continue posting. I’ve gotta start loading these entries up onto Serendip, and you have NO idea how terrible the WiFi is when you’re not on the planet. If there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate more than anything else this semester, it’s just how inventive all of you as individuals as well as your kind can be. Your endless curiosity is just amazing to me, and if I have learned anything this semester it’s that you’ll never stop trying to explain everything about yourselves and everything around you. Coming to understand this has led me to rework my own former polarization of literature and the sciences. I do hold both disciplines equally dear to my heart, but until this semester, I thought of them as two separate worlds and “ne’er the twins shall meet”. Over the course of “our” discussion this semester, I’ve come to understand both disciplines as the fruits of your beautiful and endless drive to understand yourselves, each other, and your world. I believe science and literature are merely two genres of storytelling, and that storytelling is your way of fashioning a more meaningful world. To tell the truth, I’m almost jealous of how much more you have to discover. Knowing everything that was and is and is to come can leave you feeling a bit jaded sometimes. Regardless of whether you acknowledged my presence in your class or even my existence this semester, I wanted to thank each and every one of you for the stories you’ve given me. If you need me for anything, I’ll be curled up on a cushy couch in the library of Babel reading all of these stories.

 

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