Ripples: “Water, water, everywhere nor any drop to drink.”
(The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge).
One of my earliest memories: splashing water. I know it is an early recollection because of the decontextualized nature of the memory and the lack of color constancy. Let me explain. I recall that yesterday I met with some friends for dinner at True Foods Kitchen. I know how I got there. I know why I went there. I know what I had for dinner. We met the manager. We had a great conversation and so on. I know we stopped on the way back to visit my mother-in-law. In other words, any particular memory of the sights, smells, tastes, and so on is put into a temporal and spatial context. Granted, this is a much more recent memory, but this kind of contextualization is present in my memories after starting school. I recall falling down the steps in first grade. I know why I was at school, where the steps were, that someone pushed me, and so on. But my memory of splashing is simply splashing. In my memory, it is not even splashing really so much as “painting” (in effect) with the water. As an adult, if I recall splashing in the water, I would know where I was, whom I was splashing and so on. I also see the water in the swimming pool at Gindra’s as being blue. Of course, light on the water would appear different colors depending on what was nearby. I recall “chicken fights” in which we teenage boys would put girls on our shoulders and each team would try to get the other team to fall apart. It was a fun game that required balance and strength for the “horses” below, and complete body strength and balance for the “rider” above, but the main thrill for a young teen boy was being that close to a girl!
That early vision of splashing though is of causing the water to appear in patterns and colors by smashing my hands into the water. I was, in effect, conducting an orchestra of color, shape, and noise. Later, there were other adventures in water such as dropping a stone in and watching the ripples go out to the sides of a sink, tub, bucket or pond and watching them reflect off the edges. On and on the ripples went.
I conducted other, larger scale childhood experiments. For example, I discovered in the bathtub that if I swayed my body in time to my own waves, I could make the waves go higher and higher with each body swing eventually causing the water to reach and then breach the edge of the tub and slosh out onto the floor. Amazing! Making these “tidal waves” did not require great strength. The timing was critical though. I could “stop” the waves by going out of synch. Or, I could make them larger and larger by careful timing. The “ripples” were no longer passive but adding energy at the right time, grew them ever larger. Then, when the water slopped out onto the floor and seeped through the floor, it caused another kind of “ripple.”
Those ripples might be called “behavioral ripples.” While I was concerned with the vital work of trying to understand the basic physical phenomena of the universe my parents seemed far more concerned with the structural and aesthetic integrity of our house. They made these priorities quite clear. Alas, my tub experiments had to be limited to creating waves that went up to the edge of the tub but not beyond.
Rain-soaked storm gutters provided a similar challenge. All the kids in my neighborhood wanted to find the deepest possible streams that would pool water up to the very top edge of our black rubber four-buckled boots. Naturally, there is a fine line, often crossed, between water coming up to the very edge of the boot tops and going ever so slightly over the edge. Once the water started going over the edge, however, that water seemed to invite more water to follow along. This foot soaking provided more “behavioral ripples”; namely, finding a way to sneak into the house and not have my mom notice that my shoes, socks, and feet were soaked. Sometimes I succeeded…but most times, I failed. Looking back, it does seem I found water to be a much less “invasive” substance than did my parents. I probably should have been more careful. On the other hand, even looking back, it seems they really exaggerated the damage done to socks, shoes, feet, and floors by a few drops of water. It seems almost as though they were afraid any amount of water in the house where it didn’t belong could slide down some slippery slope toward flooding or having our house carried away like a little stick raft on a creek.
Water fascinates people around the world, not only because it’s essential for life, but also because of its strange properties. As a liquid, we become familiar with its cohesion, waves, and ripples. We marvel at its power to destroy as well as to build. Beyond that, we learn that it changes state. Ice is frozen water. Ice itself exists in many forms such as snowflakes, icebergs, the solid ice of frozen winter ponds, the deceptive nature of candle ice. (As it turns out, under laboratory conditions of extreme pressure, ice can exist in scores of additional crystalline structures). But even in our natural lives, we see liquid water and frozen water quite often and the transitions between them. Moreover, we also see water vapor, mist, clouds, and steam. There are actually very few substances that we see in two, let alone three phases: solid, liquid and gaseous. Yes, we have seen demonstrations of frozen nitrogen and we may know that mercury freezes at close to -40 degrees Celsius and Fahrenheit. But for most substances, it is rare that we are privileged to see it change phase.
Water not only makes up most of the surface of the earth and most of the substance of our own bodies; not only do we drink it and swim in it and dive into it and skate on it as ice; we use it to clean; we use it to mix with other things in industry as well as our own kitchen.
The amount of water that falls in a region makes a huge difference in the flora and fauna that populate that area. As we all know, cacti dot the sands of hot deserts, while the rain forests favor a wider variety of trees, shrubs, moss, ferns and even plants that live on other plants. Naturally, animals that actually live in the water have adapted to living, loving, and dying in that water. We typically think of the animal species as being subject to the laws of natural selection that eventually result in that species changing to adapt to that watery environment (or going extinct). But, I believe evolution is a two way street that also involves choice.
Imagine a species of animal that lives on the edge of a pond in an arid region. Initially, they are all one species and, by definition, can mate with each other. Let’s call them “tortles.” In the same way that some people prefer the seashore while others like forests and still others like desert, we would expect that some of these tortles really enjoy hanging out in the water. Others prefer the nearby desert and only come to the pond in order to drink. Over many eons, those who spend a lot of time in the water are likely to mate with other like-minded tortles. Those that love the desert will tend to find their mates from that population. There will be a natural variation in bodies of these tortles with some having stronger shorter legs, for example, while others are born with longer legs with webbing between their toes. When times are tough, the web-toed tortles who like water will be able to swim better and have better luck finding food, escaping predators and hooking up with their mates. The web-toed variety on land, however, will not be so lucky. They will tend to get tiny pebbles stuck between their toes and have a harder time “racing”, if I may use that word for tortles, to beat out rivals to a mate or to escape predators. Meanwhile, the stocky legged tortles who live on land will have advantages while if they choose to spend most of their time in the water, they will be at a disadvantage. After many generations, the tortles will actually drift into two completely different species. The land tortles will no longer be able to mate with water-based tortles. Indeed, they may find the prospect very off-putting in their tortlely way. Similarly, the water tortles will no longer be able to mate with land tortles (and, yech, who would want to?). Eventually, though many similarities might remain, the water tortles would come to be what we now know as turtles and the land tortles would evolve into tortoises. What started as the pebble of desire and preference, would over many millennia, ripple into wave after wave of evolutionary pressure eventually resulting in two different species.
The reason I bring this up is that we often think of evolution as something that happens to a species in response to the environment and that is certainly valid. In some cases, the environment changes for various reasons and having a diverse population is a kind of “insurance” that some of the population will be adapted to that new environment. If the change is too sudden or too drastic, the entire species will die. If the pond and the nearby desert were both to be suddenly covered in hot lava from a volcanic eruption, both the turtles and the tortoises would perish. However, if the pond spread suddenly because of unusual flooding, only the turtles would survive. On the other hand, if the pond dried up for months at a time, only the tortoises would likely survive.
Equally important however, is that over a long period of time, conscious choices of the tortles plays an important part in natural selection. The same thing has been true for the entire 4.75 billion years of evolutionary history of life on earth. What we humans have become today is partly a response to environmental pressures, but it is also partly because of the “choices” our living ancestors made over the course of life’s 4.75 billion years on earth.
There are two other important “levels” of choice and adaptation. Within the life of an individual animal, much is learned via a variety of mechanism. For example, if your dog goes for a walk and you train him properly, he will not yank your arm but walk with the lead comfortably loose. A really well-trained dog might even keep beside you under the extreme provocation of a squirrel running by. If the dog continues to pull hard on the leash despite your attempts to train him, you will eventually find it too much work to take him for walks and he will suffer physically from the lack of exercise. Over longer periods of time, people as a whole will tend to breed dogs so as to make them be more trainable rather than less trainable. Eventually, the ability of the individual dogs to learn to adapt to their situations will impact the evolution of the species. A dog whose body is adapted so that many walks are necessary for health will be subject to a greater degree of evolutionary pressure toward learning how to walk socially than will a dog whose body allows a greater amount of sedentary life. Further, to the extent that dogs keep choosing to go for walks, those choices will impact both their learning and eventually their evolution.
There is yet another level of choice-evolution interaction. If a human society “choses” (via laws, customs, regulations, etc.) to reward one kind of behavior and punish another, the first will tend to be learned and the second not learned within the lifetime of an individual. Eventually, there will even be evolutionary pressure toward one kind of behavior (and body) and away from the other. For example, imagine a society that idealizes and rewards athletic excellence over artistic excellence. Athletes might make more money and have higher social status. They will tend to mate more often and eventually the whole species will tend to be more athletic. This might seem a tremendously good thing. In addition, if there is a huge population of athletes in a society, they may learn from each other and challenge each other toward ever greater feats of athletic prowess. Their bodies will tend to be evolve in various ways to support athletic activity. However, there is a down side too. In order to be a more successful athlete, the individual will have to take greater risks, spend a lot of time in athletic endeavors, and consume more food and water. If resources are scarce in a society, having everyone being athletic could be problematic. Other things being equal, there would tend to be less time spent in building shelters, caring for children, finding food, etc.
On the other hand, we can imagine a society that rewards artistic achievement over everything else. In this case, those who have a natural proclivity toward art will be rewarded in various ways, learn to be great artists. Typically, those who love art will spend more time doing it and improve their skill. They will also develop communities of practice and learn from each other. We can imagine a society eventually developing rules and regulations as well as customs that favor artistic expression. In such a monoculture society, a person of unusual athletic ability might not be much noticed while a person of unusual artistic ability would be. While it would certainly be nice to be surrounded by beautiful artwork all one’s life, there are some potential down-side risks to a society that concentrated all its efforts toward art. People might make shelters that looked beautiful but did not work very well. They might favor crops with beautiful flowers even if the resulting fruit was inedible or poisonous.
While the examples above describe athletics and artistic endeavors, the same principles would apply toward any physical characteristic (being tall or short, being very strong or less so) or mental characteristic (being extremely curious, loving greatly, being cold-hearted). There are some situations and some aspects of various situations that favor any one mental or physical characteristic over another. And eventually the choices that the species makes about those characteristics that we most favor will come to be more prevalent in the population. Just as you were partly shaped by the choices made by every single one of your ancestors, so too do your choices today impact what kind of world your descendants will live in and therefore, eventually also determine what they are, how they look, and how they are prone to behave. And, because our modern society is so tightly interconnected in so many ways, your choices will not only impact what becomes your descendants but also those of your neighbors and quite possibly what becomes of everyone on the planet. That is an awesome responsibility. In the same way, the choices that your neighbors make will impact the world that your descendants will live in. That is an awesome pain. Because you personally would not make some of those choices that your neighbors make.
For example, I personally love nature. I have always loved going out into the woods or fields, and I feel better and more alive when I am outdoors. I would love it if we make the wild world livable forever. I would very much like to see people, a thousand generations from now, be able to experience trees, flowers, birds, and so on. I hate the idea that everything will end up as one giant city of plastic and metal. What kind of life would that be? Not one I would like and not one I would like for others. But not everyone agrees with my vision of the future. Some would see the endless world-filling mega-super-city-state as a great culmination.
It seems to me that in our current state of confusion about where civilization and our environment is headed, the very best we can do is to encourage the maximum amount of diversity. There certainly is no world-wide shared vision of who we are and where we are headed. If there were, we could debate about the best way to get there, but we don’t have any consensus on what that “there” should be.
Here is just a small sample of the various visions people seem to have about humanity’s future. 1) We don’t have to do anything. God has a plan and it will happen. 2) We need to grab all the resources for our country by whatever means necessary because the resources are limited and time is running out. 3) The government is out to get our guns but they won’t. 4) In a decade or two, AI will surpass human intelligence and tell us how to get out of the mess we’re in. 5) All sovereign nations will work together toward peace and prosperity for all. 6) It’s a dog eat dog world. Always was. Always will be. 7) We are evolving to a higher plane of existence.
I didn’t pick these particular set to make fun of anyone. The point is that these are just seven out of thousands that could be listed. We humans clearly have extremely different ideas of where we want to go! The fact that you have a vision shared by lots of other people and you’re convinced it’s the right one doesn’t change the fact that not everyone has the same vision. Let’s just take those specific ones. What do these various visions imply about what we should do in the real world of today? Who should we vote for? Where should we live? Should we recycle? How should we raise our children? What should we eat?
The thing is this. Let’s face it. We humans have never been here before. We lived in little tribes of people who had over a thousand square miles to roam around in and do with what they please. The human population of the entire earth may have been a million for the vast majority of our time as a species. Now, earth has 7 billion people! If we had to hunt and gather for our food, the vast majority of us would die, full stop. We have technologies and speeds and greeds that were literally unimaginable to most of our ancestors. We’ve been following many scripts for most of our individual lives and for most of our life as a species. Guess what? Now, the play is over, but we are still on stage! We have to improvise. We don’t know where we are headed or where we should be headed. This is completely new ground! Don’t be terrified because we don’t know. Don’t hold on tightly to a teeny corner. Grab the challenge. If we pull this off, it will be the greatest come-from-behind victory in the history of, well, anything.
(The story above and many cousins like it are compiled now in a book available on Amazon: Tales from an American Childhood: Recollection and Revelation. I recount early experiences and then related them to contemporary issues and challenges in society).