Decorations, Displays, and Forms of Resistance
Christmas decorations are going up along the street. Unlike other animals, who mostly seek to practice unobserved lives, humans call attention to themselves. When other animals do show themselves, their displays are fantastic and extravagant, but usually brief. The cost to benefit comparison must be kept low. A puffed prairie cock can attract not only a mate but a bobcat. The unit of measurement for this comparison is generally taken to be progeny. Failure to replace the adults with progeny is usually considered low marks in the survival game.
Another measuring unit, however, is benefit to habitat, with pass-through benefit to your species. Unplanned as they are, animals’ interactions with their habitat contribute to overall stability, as Darwin described in the famous study of earthworms and soil. Many other interactions have been studied, such as the microtubular communication system of trees and fungi. Even unattractive species like Emerald borers, locusts, tapeworms, bot flies, mosquitoes, and black flies in both adult and larval forms are often control elements within food webs, acting as stabilizers in different ways. Population biologists speak of the “strategies” of plants, animals, and microbes. The prairie cock’s strategy in an epideictic display is to attract mates. The fungal strategy is to take up the nutrients from the tree’s roots, but the tree’s strategy is to use the absorptive and communicative potential of fungal mycelia. The oyster’s strategy of producing thousands of eggs is to bet that a few will survive, but the cat’s strategy is to produce a litter and take care of them so well that most of them will survive. Such strategies are the evolved solutions to the problems faced in the survival game. Unless you’re a microbe, hundreds to thousands of years are required for even minor strategies to evolve. Oyster-like strategies, based on having surplus progeny, depend on a high reproductive rate. They are called “r-strategies.”
An oak tree, producing an abundance of acorns in one year and only a few in the next, is following a different strategy. Many plants can afford to wait to reproduce. They can survive through vegetative reproduction. Bamboo may flower only every thirty years. They can afford to wait. Meanwhile, the squirrels who preyed on the oak and grew fat in the year of abundance die off in the years of shortfall. They cannot afford to wait. The oak quietly controls the interaction, following a long-haul strategy, called the “K-strategy.” This brings me back to the contrast between decorations and displays.
Perhaps craftsmen and animals have this in common: they do not decorate. They do display—at their own peril—both in the service of their kind and, unknowingly, in service of their habitat. When a craftsman like Toni Morrison constructs an elaborate story like Solomon’s Leap, she does not decorate. She takes a perilous risk to display something central to human survival—and to the survival of human habitat: so also with Stephen King, writing The Green Mile. These writers do not waste material; as mortise and tenon do not show joints, their writing does not explain when it can show.Whether craft is employed in making stories, furniture, or cathedrals, the strategy is to make something useful, reliable, and durable for other humans playing the survival game—which is the only game in town. The works that best follow a K-strategy are those providing reflexive ways to improve human interactions with other humans and with the habitat.
A good example is the exponential growth curve of the current pandemic. The exponential function embodied in this curve is governed by variables that humans can affect, particularly in the early stage. When we “flatten the curve,” we are using the mathematical tool reflexively, not passively observing it. Given an ideal period of two weeks to a month of total quarantine, the virus, having nowhere to go, would die out. While this ideal is impossible to achieve, it is quite possible to approach. Unfortunately, having a well-crafted tool to use or work of art to learn from does not guarantee that it will be appreciated. Displays of Italian masterpieces inside the vaults of Saudi princes do not touch the heart. Humans have a long history of failing to study, understand, and use the works that sustain the survival of caring, the survival of habitat, and the survival of the human project.
Things are always flying apart—buildings, languages, beliefs, cultures. Physical and social erosion, along with occasional catastrophes, do their entropic best to demolish our efforts. The current pandemic reveals the cracks in infrastructure, institutions, and ideas. Work is needed; new structures are needed. Most of this work will not turn out masterpieces but small, incremental actions of fashioning, caring, structuring, and display. And this is the human project—our unique contribution: the cognitive path.
Unlike the many natural migrations and shifts of other species, such as the wanderings of monarch butterflies and wooly-bear caterpillars, the cognitive paths of humans become a grand procession of learning, errors, and countless leaps of consciousness—or frame-shifts. These frame-shifting leaps transpose us to systems with different coordinates, as in math when one goes from rectangular to polar coordinates. Such shifts include inventions, insights, and acts of moral courage. They are mostly unobserved, but like the long-haul K-strategies of forest giants, they preserve habitat, both biotic and social. Such shifts of frame and regard do not call attention to themselves or decorate the scene: they build, save, preserve, protect, and care for community, communication, communion, and the other commons—the rest of the living world.
The frame-shifts of the human project include resistance, confrontations, and sacrifices. Understanding comes after the fact as the consequences become clear. The procession of the human project continually shifts toward more humane behavior and institutions across cultures and continually resists challenges, such as the hatred of outsiders so characteristic of our primate back-up system.
To keep the procession going, I pray.
Prayer is not a twist inward but a turn outward. It is sustained attention and creative engagement, both personal and collaborative, leading to a cognitive procession from fate to will, ignorance to understanding, greed to acceptance, waste to salvage, fear to hope, opportunism to compassion, exclusion to inclusion, and partial work to whole-hearted soul-work in the vocations that suit you. To pray is to remind yourself that fate is an illusion; that ignorance, greed, and waste have mortal costs; that fear is false evidence appearing real, and that no secretive or mercenary theft can gain as much for the community as widening the circle of compassion. To pray is to engage creatively and skillfully, sometimes collaboratively, in building community.
In this aspirational system, I defy the satisfactions of ignorance and the comforts of denial and withdrawal. I defy the reduction of humanity or the living world to any kind of bottom-line calculation. I defy the insistence on beliefs, proofs of loyalty, and decorations of status. There is much to resist, externally and within, in order to advance the human project. Resistance takes on many forms—confrontations, poems, laws, quiet actions.
The few square inches of cortical ensembles which have set us on a different path than our closest animal cousins have given us aspirations. Our best aspirations are easily identified in all cultures, and also corrupted in all cultures. Aligning ourselves with these aspirations is our human project. Luckily, we can usually do it unobserved, in the same way that animals go about their lives with only an occasional need to risk a display like this.