An Unlikely Conversation
An Unlikely Conversation
Sarah and Honey are sitting together one day, bored and awkward in a forced conversation punctuated by unwanted silences. Sarah has just recently been dumped by her most recent boyfriend, and refuses to believe that any beauty can still exist in such a horrible, unfair universe. She stretches out on her narrow bed and stares blankly up at the ceiling fan, watching as it spins lazily and utterly fails to reduce the temperature of her sweltering dorm room. Honey pats Sarah’s shoulder and tries to ignore the theatrical sobs issuing from Sarah’s mouth as she mourns the termination of the deep, indelible, three-day connection she and the boyfriend had possessed.
“He was perfect for me,” Sarah laments. “Perfect! And now he is gone, torn out of my very arms… Am I never to know true happiness?”
Honey pats Sarah’s shoulder again. She is anxious to comfort her dearest friend in her moment of greatest, melodramatic need, but isn’t exactly skilled in the art of compassionate demonstrations. “There, there,” she says. The patting motion has been repeated so frequently that it begins to feel strange, and Honey fancies that she can no longer feel her hand, but of course testing that hypothesis is inappropriate under the circumstances.
“Perfect!” Sarah ignores Honey’s clumsy attempts at comfort.
Honey suffers an attack of inspiration. “Perfection is an empty ideal. There will be other, more suitable men.”
Sarah rolls over and gazes at Honey, an expression of vague confusion on her blotchy face. The cheap sheets wrinkle with her movement, and the cheaper plastic mattress issues several noisy squeaks. Honey looks back at Sarah blankly.
“What?” Sarah asks. “Of course perfection exists. He was perfection.”
Honey mistakes Sarah’s question for one of rapt fascination, and assumes that its follow-up statement was a fledgling attempt at debate. Finally, the madness of grief has passed! Honey seizes the opportunity to extrapolate on her life philosophy and forget about the Perfect Menace.
“It doesn’t,” Honey insists. “To say that something is perfect assumes that, in every instance, its characteristics are flawlessly suitable, and that every being measures perfection on the same scale.”
Sarah wrinkles her nose and frowns at her. Honey flushes with the pride of an audience well enraptured. Her argument has been so brilliantly reasoned and conveyed, how can Sarah fail to appreciate the genius that is Honey?
A moment passes, and Sarah snickers. “That’s stupid.”
Honey flushes more deeply, for a different reason. “It isn’t.”
“It is. Perfect is perfect. Maybe everyone doesn’t know what it would be, when they’re just thinking about it, but when they see perfect, they know it.”
“Give me an example,” Honey demands, eager to catch Sarah in her fallacy, but instantly regrets it. Sarah’s lower lip wobbles and her eyes lower.
“H – he was perfect, and everyone knew it, and – “
“Never mind that,” Honey says quickly. “I don’t need an example, after all. Anyway, you wouldn’t have been able to find one; any example you thought of would rely solely on your own definition of perfection, and I could easily find someone else who disagrees with it.”
Sarah rolls over again, presumably in deference to Honey’s flawless rebuttal. “I don’t get it,” she whines, and Honey recognizes this as a desperate plea for more information. She readily obliges.
“All right. Think about a shark, for instance. It’s fast and powerful and has teeth that can rip its food to pieces. All of the other fish are scared of sharks, because sharks are the top predator in the ocean. Would you say that the shark is the perfect predator?”
“Yeah,” Sarah says.
Sarah frowns and buries her face in the blankets. “You just told me it was. Is this a trick question, or something?”
Honey finds herself annoyed with her audience, but consoles herself with the thought that Sarah is merely venting her intellectual frustrations, and is indeed every bit as receptive to Honey’s message as Honey would like to think she is. She sighs. “Kind of. I guess. Anyway, if you think that the shark is the perfect predator, you’re wrong. What happens when you stick a shark in freshwater, or even on land? He’ll completely lose mobility, suffocate and die in only a few minutes – plus, if he’s big enough, his body might collapse in on itself. A lion would have no problem defeating a shark on land.”
“Fine, whatever,” Sarah says. “The lion is the perfect predator. You’re gross.”
Honey smiles, excited by this energetic rejoinder. “No, that isn’t it, at all. What if the lion were in the ocean with the shark, instead? The shark would probably win, then, so the lion can’t possibly be perfect, either. Do you understand?”
Sarah looks vaguely irritated now – no, Honey corrects herself. She looks troubled, but academically engaged. She is frustrated with her own lack of understanding, not with Honey’s fabulous conversation. The boyfriend has clearly been forgotten now, at least, and the thrill of the debate has overtaken Sarah’s mind.
“Yeah, I understand. To be perfect, a predator would need to be able to win any fight on land or in the ocean. Since this animal doesn’t exist, neither does perfection. You’ve proven your point.”
“But that isn’t my point at all! Maybe an animal like that would be most skilled at predation, maybe not – I can’t say with certainty – but what about an herbivore? If the animal doesn’t eat meat at all, how can we judge it in the same way as we judge hunters? What if it isn’t an animal at all? Is a rock any less skilled at being a rock because it can’t defeat sharks or other bigger, tougher rocks? If we call something perfect, we are also calling everything else less perfect – flawed, in a word – and is a tiger any less than a bear? Is a fish any less than a worm? We rank them according to our own ideals, but in the absence of those ideals, how can there be any hierarchy of perfection? You and I may say that dangerousness or physical strength is the ultimate sign of perfection in a hunter, but would we seek those qualities in a flower? In ourselves? And what gives us the right to impose our own values on other beings, and where did we get those values, anyway? They vary with as cultures vary, so they can’t possibly be absolute. Perfection can’t exist because it is nothing but an ideal, and the very ideal changes depending on who you ask.”
Sarah sits up and stares at her friend. Honey is panting slightly, having only just now remembered to breathe, and jittery with anticipation of her friend’s retort. Nothing pleases Honey more than a spirited exchange of ideas – except, perhaps, for the spirited exchange of ideas in which her partner is actually paying attention.
“Okay,” Sarah says slowly. “What?”
Honey crumples. “What do you mean, what? I just told you.”
“I mean… One, why do you sound as though you have been obsession over this for years, and, two, how can you possibly compare a rock to a shark? A rock is inanimate; it just sits there, without a life and without consciousness, while a shark prowls the ocean and inspires fear in hearts everywhere and stars in classic movies and whatnot. They’re completely different. Of course a shark is better than rock; there isn’t any comparison.”
Honey draws her legs upward from where they have been dangling over the edge of the bed and crosses them in front of her, her hands resting on her ankles. “No, there isn’t a comparison, because we have no business comparing them in the first place. That’s what I was saying.”
“Oh. So you agree, then?”
“Of course not. You don’t think they should be compared because you think that the shark is inherently superior to the rock, but I think that you’re so deeply invested in this idea of perfection, you’re unable to recognize that only by imposing constructs on an unconstructed world can you call one thing superior to another. If you accept the world as it is – a place free of perfection – then you could easily see that a shark and a rock are, relatively speaking, the same.”
Sarah tilts her head, and appears to be considering the idea even as she forms a counter-argument. Honey decides to push her luck.
“In fact, if you follow that idea to the logical extreme, then we humans are no better than the rock, either – sure, we’re better at being humans, but what use is being human to a rock? It’s doing just fine in the realm of rocks, and we only think we’re better because we’re, you know, us. If you think about it, humans are no more perfect than rocks.”
“Bullshit,” Sarah says instantly. Honey has lost her.
“It isn’t,” Honey protests. She feels that this debate is going around in circles.
“It’s complete bullshit. In fact, I think you’re just messing with my head, now. How can you seriously claim that rocks are as great as we are? Rocks are rocks now, and have always been rocks. We, on the other hand, have evolved – and we’ve evolved further than the sharks or the lions or any other of your stupid examples, so we’re better than them, too. Evolution proves it.”
Honey sits up straighter, her eyes wider, and that spark of excitement rekindled within her with a single word. Her voice is far too bright for someone who has just, in short, been called stupid and a liar. “Evolution?”
“Yes, Honey, evolution. As in, you and I came from less-advanced humanoids who came from less-advanced monkeys who came from less-advanced single-celled whatever, because we evolved to be the way that we are now. The rocks didn’t evolve, and the animals didn’t evolve as far, so we are superior. We’re the pinnacle of evolution.”
“So you’re saying that evolution has just been this long process striving toward an ultimate goal, which is us?”
“Yes.” Sarah’s tone is flat, as though to imply that Honey must be deaf to have missed this point in Sarah’s little speech. The contempt would be unbearable, except that Honey has regrouped, now, and knows exactly what she wants to say.
“We are the pinnacle of evolution?”
“Yes. That’s what I just said. We are advanced in ways nothing else is – we have language, and culture, and we have essentially dominated our planet. How could anything else be the pinnacle of evolution? If you don’t mind the term, we’re perfect.”
Honey nods. “Yes, all right. We’re perfect. But what if we get thrown into the water with the shark?”
Sarah shakes her head. “Honey, don’t.”
“Fine. No more sharks. But tell me; if we’re so perfect, what happens when we change? Or should I say, when we change enough for the differences to be recognizable – even now, we’re changing; we just can’t see it because we’re living it. The pinnacle of evolution is hardly going to change.”
“What do you mean, we’re changing? We’re not changing – okay, yeah, maybe we’ve gotten taller since two thousand years ago or something like that, but those are micro-changes. We’re still the same species, and you can’t tell me that a little genetic variation means we’re not the same as we were then.”
“Maybe not,” Honey accedes. “But a few thousand more years, who knows? I doubt that homo erectus noticed they were changing, either, but here we are now, as homo sapiens. In retrospect, maybe the people who live many, many generations from now will be able to declare themselves a new species, distinct from us. And if there’s a new species, years in the future, you’d declare them the pinnacle of evolution, wouldn’t you? But after that, there might be another, and another, or perhaps they’d all die out and our branch on the evolutionary tree would taper and end – and, still, you’d be measuring them with your own standards, and finding all other species lacking, so even the dead homo whatever would seem the most advanced to you, even if it died.”
“Don’t get so excited. You talk too much,” Sarah says, but Honey can see that her friend is listening, now. Sarah offers no other commentary.
“I’ll get as excited as I like. For another thing, you’re defining evolution as a large-scale, drastic change; the formation of a new species, or the extinction of another. But I think that evolution is just change – any change – in any direction. When two people get together and have a child who holds a different combination of genes than they do, that is evolution; and when one person changes even slightly – say they learn something new – that’s evolution, too. You could even take it beyond humans and other living things, and apply it to plants or the Earth or anything out there in the universe. If anything changes, even slightly, then it’s evolving. And, since everything’s evolving, all the time, there can be no pinnacle of evolution, and perfection cannot possibly exist.”
Sarah shifts, kicking her feet idly. “All right. Say that I accept that – that evolution is just change, and that change is constantly occurring. So what? Everything can be constantly evolving, but some things will always have evolved further, so those things will be higher up on the evolutionary hierarchy, so to speak. I don’t see how you can possibly argue with that, and I think you’re nuts if you even try.”
“Explain what you mean by ‘some things evolved further’,” Honey demands.
“Well, it’s like I explained earlier. Humans are smarter, and we have language and societies and culture, and we’re vastly complicated organisms. We came from something composed of a single cell all the way to the advanced beings that we are today; compare us to, say, a bacterium which hasn’t changed much at all in all these years. We have evolved further, so we are more advanced.”
“You’re still imposing your own values on the universe, I see – you won’t get far until you accept that your ideals are as meaningless as anything else. All right. Since you’re so focused on this idea of us having evolved further, tell me, how do you suppose evolution works?”
“Don’t talk down to me, Honey. I’m not dumb. This is basic high school biology; creatures evolve because of natural selection. Survival of the fittest, that sort of thing. When a species isn’t good enough, it either adapts or it dies.”
“What is the species adapting to, then?”
“Its environment. See, that’s why we’re the best; we’ve conquered pretty much the entire world, so we’ve adapted the best to our environment – I swear, if you bring up the sharks again, I will leave.
Honey smiles, but nods. “No sharks. I promise. So, we’ve established that species change in response to their environments. What happens, then, if the environment itself changes?”
“The species changes again,” Sarah answers promptly, almost lazily. She fans at her face with one hand.
“And if the environment changes again?”
“The species changes again, too. Look, you already said that the environment and the species are always changing – I don’t see what your point it.”
“Well, what causes the change?”
“Of the environment or the species?
“Other changes, I guess. And before you ask, those changes are caused by other changes, too. I don’t see how it matters.”
“It matters because I want to know how you would characterize all these changes. If each, in turn, is caused by another change – which would be caused by any combination of changes, until even the slightest changes might cause the most massive ones – would you say that something is driving the changes?”
Sarah bites at her lip. “Um, I guess? I mean, it’s all natural selection, so I guess survival of the fittest drives all of it.”
“I thought we agreed that what is ‘fit’ in one environment might not be suited to another environment, though? And that what is well-suited to its environment will find that it has to adapt as its environment inevitably changes.”
“Okay, so survival of the fittest may not be the best model. Natural selection, then. Whatever.”
“If it’s natural selection, what is doing the selecting?”
“The changes, I guess.”
“The changes that are caused by natural selection cause natural selection? That seems a little circular. How about this, instead; because the changes are, in effect, caused at random, then the driving force behind the entire model of evolution is randomness.”
“Okay. Well… okay, yeah, I follow that. I guess I see what you’ve been saying; I can’t say that one thing is superior to another because it is only superior because of random changes, right?”
Honey is enjoying herself thoroughly at this point; Sarah has become receptive to her ideas, and has challenged her to defend herself in ever more creative ways. She nods encouragingly even as she denies Sarah’s conviction.
“Not quite. Take it one step further, okay? If the evolution is constant but driven by randomness, then evolution itself is random – it isn’t moving in any specific direction. It’s moving in all directions, I guess you could say, even those that we cannot hope to think of or comprehend. You defended your ideal of perfection on the basis of evolution, but evolution leaves no room for perfection, because perfection is a destination, and evolution is a journey that lasts forever with no aim in place. Evolution can’t end, and evolution has no end in mind, because evolution is mindless and purposeless. Now follow that to the logical extreme. Evolution is the driving force of our world; evolution is pointless. What conclusion does that lead you to?”
“You’re a depressing Nihilist?”
“The world is purposeless, as well. Your constructs can give you a sense of meaning, yes, but it is false; the reality is that there is no greater purpose, no meaning of life. You can, of course, create your own meaning, and lead a very fulfilling life based upon it, but try not to get too upset when the universe fails to measure up.”
“I call bullshit,” Sarah says, and Honey sighs, finally realizing that despite her carefully, lovingly crafted arguments, Sarah will not allow Honey to win the debate. She sighs again, for good measure. If nothing else, it was fun while it lasted.
“You already did that,” Honey notes.
“Well, you’ve been spewing a lot of it. You honestly expect me to believe that evolution is random and going nowhere? And then you want me to accept that the universe has no higher purpose? Everyone knows that evolution is progress; we learn about it in middle school and then high school, and the message is always the same. Sure, maybe we aren’t perfect – I’ll accept that, since you’re so insistent about it – but someday, something perfect will be created, and it will survive all the craziness the environment throws at it. This was a fun debate, Honey, but it isn’t practical or even applicable to our world. I’m not going to go back on years of education based on one conversation.”
“No, of course not,” Honey admits, a little sadly. “One conversation isn’t nearly enough to explore such a topic – you’d need dozens of them, I think, and open exchange. And maybe, even then, your intuition would struggle with such an idea, and you’d want to pursue it long after the conversations had ended.”
Sarah shakes her head and laughs a little. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Honey. But, hey, at least you’re good at cheering me up. I barely even remember What’s-His-Face now, so I guess he wasn’t perfect, after all.”