The Painted-Steel God



Three men sit around a circular conference room table, staring up at a whiteboard.  To call this whiteboard white doesn't do it justice.  It is a glistening pearl, marked with the freshly-cleaned scent of formaldehyde.  It carries the look of fallen snow on a sunny day.  The quality of this painted-steel product is impeccable.

The board beckons to the three men, calling out for their strokes, but it must wait.  Two more guests are on the way.

It doesn't matter when the other two men arrive, because it doesn't matter when they leave.  The only progress they are concerned with making is the passage of time.  One commutes three hours each way, the others less.  They all have strategically chosen distant homes, so that they can enjoy a healthy commute.  Hours upon hours are spent in their cars, listening to books on tape, arguing with talk radio hosts, sucking in car exhaust and smiling all the way.  Two have wives, who enjoy their money but not their company.  One has children, a boy and a girl, though he has more of a connection with his mouse and keyboard.

The only people who matter in their lives are the ones just like them.  The other Road Warriors.  The other Afternoon Coffee Drinkers.  The other Dress Shirts & Slacks.  The other I'll Be Home Late Tonights.

When the other two men arrive, fashionably, amusingly late, the whiteboard is still left untouched.  It would be uncouth to start without them.  Eventually, someone stands up from the table and approaches the board.  It is a holy gesture, like approaching a cross or a dead body, and a pen is selected -- a blue Expo Dry-Erase marker, which magically adheres to the whiteboard without binding with or absorbing into it.  The noxious scent it produces, now uncapped, is potpourri to their eager nostrils.  In the hands of one of these men, that Expo is a weapon, one that unravels time itself.

It starts simply enough.  A scribble, a doodle.  Nothing too serious.  The marker needs to warm up.  As do the whiteboard worshipers.  But no one here is in a rush.  The whiteboard represents endless possibilities, and these men will ensure that all of those ends are explored.  The dry-erase will flow.

And so it does!

Soon, lines are scribbled over other lines.  Legible words become unrecognizable in their original tongue.  The whiteboard transforms into a battleground.  Emphatic dots rain down on the repellent surface like mortar-fire.  Underlines and circles stab and slash, hacking apart what was whole.  But it is not all so violent, so destructive.  Vague shapes begin to form across the board.  A new layer of artistry emerges through the rubble, revealing a language all its own, a language that only these men can decipher.  It is nothing.  The language of nothing.  They do not care what's on the board, only what's not.  Empty space is anxiety.  It's a challenge.  And it must be met head on with multi-colored markers.

Another man stands up, grabs his own foul-smelling sword, and starts a counter-attack over the last snowy oasis on the board.  These men argue and bicker over options they will never use.  More is added to the board, and then more, until the entire white sheet is sparkling with the still-wet remains of the dry-erase war.  The men grunt and gesticulate before the great white monolith like furious chimpanzees.  Bowing before their painted-steel god.

In another hour or two, one of these men will return from a bathroom break with a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey.  Though he doesn't drink, he knows his counterparts do, and the sign of friendship and camaraderie  he has offered will keep them all locked in that conference room until the well is dry.  No one minds.  With the meeting winding down and the whiteboard filling up, the reasons for being there -- however thin those may have been -- are dwindling.  If they don't do something soon, they will have to leave.

They use phrases like, "On the other hand" and "Have we considered" to extend the zombie meeting, to puff new life into its cadaverous chest.  But it isn't sustainable.  The meeting eventually passes on, and the men must head out into the smog and fog, back to their books on tape and idiot talk show hosts, and, eventually, home.  Home to their wives, their pets, home to the emptiness that consumes them while they are away from their beloved whiteboard.  Unsurprisingly, these men have installed whiteboards at home, too, lest they be without one on the weekends or a holiday.  For Christmas one year, the one with kids gave each of his children a small whiteboard as a stocking stuffer.  They're well on their way.

One of these men is lucky, however.  He doesn't have to go home.  He sleeps right in his office, on a red futon he purchased from IKEA.  They keep the building HVAC running just for him.  Above his office bed: Two whiteboards, mounted side-by-side into the drywall.

It is a simple cycle: Years of nothing, followed by retirement, followed by years of nothing.

And they wouldn't have it any other way.

The Reproductive Habits of Amazonian Moths



Note: I don't know what this is. It's not really a short story. It's not an essay. It's not intended as a persuasive argument. I'm not sure if it's catharsis, or boredom manifest. I can't explain what prompted such a whirling tour through the well-explored realm of evolutionary biology. But here it is. A couple thousand words on being wrong, biology, and the way people think.

"I think you're wrong, Doctor Conway," a confident voice said, approaching my table in a neighborhood coffee shop.  It was mostly students and teachers in this shop, plus the occasional drifter trying to blend in.

As a biologist, I was not uncomfortable hearing those words.  Evolution is basically nature's way of saying, over and over again, that what we thought we knew was wrong.  The duck-billed platypus, everlasting jellyfish, metamorphosis.  Just a few examples of human thought being wrong, wrong, wrong.  Every day of a biologist's life is devoted to being uniquely wrong.  But I'm still a human, too, despite what people might say about biologists, and no matter how long you study biology or physics or chemistry, no matter how much a scientist tries to distance himself from the sensitivities of the human brain, hearing 'you're wrong' still perks the ears.

"Hmm?" I said, feigning disinterest over a cup of coffee.

"About intelligent design," a young Indian man sat down across from me as though I'd invited him to do so.  He was quite forward, this one.  "I think you're wrong."

Oh boy, I thought, another indoctrinated nut come to sell me on his savior.

I'd given a lecture the night before at the University of Washington on evolutionary biology, specifically the reproductive habits of Amazonian moths.  Naturally, with every discussion involving science, I unavoidably pressed the buttons of those who do not subscribe to fact and logic.  Be it Christian or Muslim or Hindi or Satanist, at every stop on the lecture tour, there was always one.  One little prick who'd attended a semester of college and discovered that he was, in fact, The Smartest Person In The World.

"And why's that ...?" I said, leaving the sentence open so he would give me his name.

"Rajesh.  You're wrong about intelligent design, because nature is creative.  You said it yourself ... when confronted with an evolutionary challenge, nature always finds a way around the challenge.  That's creativity.  That's intelligence."

I laughed and shook my head.  At least he wasn't a religious nut.  They were rarely amusing.  "No, you're wrong," I said.  "You're anthropomorphizing.  Nature doesn't apply creativity the way you do.  It doesn't even understand creativity, because creativity is purely a human invention.  Nature very simply, very efficiently, rewards the most-effective solution to genetic death.  That's it.  It doesn't know it's doing it, it's merely a product of the system.  A plant doesn't know its being creative.  A tree-climbing vine isn't thinking, 'You know, it would really help me get more sunlight by wrapping around this larger tree and climbing up to the canopy.'  It does so because others before it did so, because others before it didn't and went extinct, leaving only its kind to scale the treetops and bask in nourishing sunlight."

"I'm not talking about individual organisms, Doctor Conway.  I'm talking about that system.  The architecture of nature."

"So, physics."

"Yes."

"The universe doesn't know it's being creative either, Rajesh."

Rajesh smiled, absorbing the jab better than I'd expected.

"How can you be so sure?"

"Because an explosion of matter is not aware it is an explosion of matter.  A collection of gases is very precisely a collection of gases.  A person, like me or you, is nothing more than a bundle of atoms in a familiar shape.  We are our own creation, Rajesh.  Humanity is its own intelligent designer, thanks to the evolution of our dense, wrinkly brains and the evolutionary prompt for our species to 'design.'  But our existence is completely meaningless to the rest of the universe."

"And yet we know that about ourselves.  We know that about the universe, too."

"Yes, because we detached ourselves from the sinking ship of 'intelligent design' and swam to the life-raft of 'science.'"

"I wasn't aware that life-rafts had names."

"They do when you're on them long enough."

Rajesh laughed, "Do you have a lot of experience with life-rafts, Doctor Conway?"

I smiled, "More than you'll ever know, Rajesh."

"Okay, but what does it say about the universe that we are capable of understanding it?"

"It says nothing at all!  Humanity got lucky, depending on your definition of luck."

"So the evolution of our brains was luck?" he said, his mind-chops chomping.  "That's it?"

"No, not really.  Luck actually has very little to do with it.  Evolution is a series of course corrections.  Little nudges here and there from a genetic line to survive.  Whether environmental or mutagenic, our brains are a result of billions of years of those little nudges.  But there's nothing intelligent about the design of our brains, other than the result ... once again, depending on your definition of intelligence."

"I read a quote once," Rajesh said, his confidence slowly returning, "it went something like this: 'Perhaps creativity is just intelligence having fun.'"

"That's a good quote," I replied.

It was a good quote.

"Well, what if evolution is just physics having fun?  What if physics itself is trying to survive, with its own little nudges?  With its own version of intelligence?  What if physics has to come up with creative solutions to its own obstacles so that the universal ecosystem may survive?"

"Because physics can't have fun.  It can't emote.  It can't experience feelings or thoughts.  Physics is a collection of laws that give order and structure to the universe.  It isn't fluid like evolution, although evolution is contained within its laws, as is everything else that we currently understand.  You don't have mutations in physics that suddenly change the properties of the known universe.  If such a thing were to occur ... say, if the nature of gravity suddenly changed, we'd know about it.  And then we'd probably be dead as a result, because we are not immune to the laws of physics."

"But if creativity and intelligence are real things, and they are contained within the laws and structure of evolution, which are then contained within the laws and structure of physics, doesn't that make creativity and intelligence real?  And therefore, can't they be applied beyond humanity to physics itself?"

"No, you're wrong," I took a drink of coffee.  It was already lukewarm, but I didn't mind.  "You're missing the point.  Creativity and intelligence are not 'real things,' not like you want them to be.  They only exist because we think they do.  They only exist because we named them 'creativity' and 'intelligence.'  You've come back to the same misconception you started with.  Outside of us, there is only the raw constructive power of evolution, and beyond that, physics, and beyond that, quantum physics, and beyond that ...  Do you understand?"

Rajesh slumped down in his chair, "I think so."

"How old are you, Rajesh?"

"19," he said.

"Do you go to school here?"

"Biology," he replied sheepishly, forcing me to smile.

"You know, when I was 19 years old," I said, drifting back far too many decades for comfort, "I wasn't even enrolled in school.  Not like yours, anyway."

"Really?"

"I was in England, stuck in a seminary, training to become an ordained priest."

Rajesh raised a brow in disbelief, "Wow, what happened?"

"I started asking questions," I paused, laughing nostalgically, if not a little painfully.  "It was not heartily encouraged in the seminary.  The more questions I asked, the more my faith began to dwindle, and the more trouble I created -- for myself, my friends, and the poor teachers who didn't know how to handle a young man as confusing and incorrigible as me.  Subsequently, the path that had been laid out before me by my parents, and their parents before them, and so on, fractured and disappeared.  It was the most terrifying time of my life.  I thought about running back to the shelter, where it was warm and safe, where I thought I knew everything and was accepted because of it.  I had always believed that I, me, Herman James Conway, was the center of the universe, because there was no other explanation for god's apparent interest in me!  Science said otherwise.  Science said I wasn't special.  But I had been trained to feel different, unique, despite learning that I was no more novel than the other billion people who were told to feel the exact same thing.  I couldn't connect those disparaging feelings."

"I'm not religious, Doctor Conway," Rajesh said proudly.

"Oh?  And why not?"

Rajesh hesitated, "Because science is the truth."

"Do you know that, or were you told to believe that?"

"I ..."

"It's all right, Rajesh," I chuckled.  "I'm just pulling your leg.  This isn't an exam."

"So you're saying that creativity isn't real," he said quietly, coming to terms with the universe.  The poor kid.  "Intelligence isn't real."

"It's real within our system, but not the system of the universe.  Not even the sub-system of evolutionary biology.  But within our system, we still need to be creative.  We still need to have fun.  So many scientific discoveries came from that very thing.  That's really what science is!  It's about having fun.  It's about facing these supposed 'unsolvable mysteries' and solving them.  That takes a lot of creativity, that takes a lot of intelligent design.  When I left the seminary and enrolled in university, I had to come to grips with the fact that I didn't know anything.  I went from knowing everything, to nothing, with a few years of little nudges.  It was my own personal mental evolution."

Rajesh was a patient kid, listening to me prattle on like this.  I'd forgotten why he was even sitting at my table.

"So our thoughts evolve, too?" he asked.

"Of course!  That's essentially what thought is, Rajesh.  What did you know when you were born?"

"Nothing?"

"No, you're wrong," I replied.  "You knew a lot of things.  Genetics made sure of that, otherwise you and the rest of the species would go extinct.  Can you imagine an infant that didn't know how to nurse, or breathe, or cry?  No, you didn't know as much as you knew now, but you knew enough to survive.  Assuming you continue asking questions and being open to old men like me telling you you're wrong, you're going to know a lot more in the future, too, and that will continue to help you survive.  You're going to keep learning, keep evolving.  And that will help you find a wife, or a husband ..."

"A wife," he said.

"All right, a wife.  As a biologist, you know, it's unreasonable for me to make any assumptions about that sort of thing.  As I was saying, that knowledge will help you find a wife, and you may choose to have children, and if so, simply by the evolution of your thoughts, you will pass the genetic test and extend the lineage of your genes.  And your children will benefit from those genes, too, which will hopefully help them learn and evolve and continue passing genes from one generation to the next.  Creativity and intelligence don't have to be approached from a universal height.  We don't have to compare them to or try to force them into physics.  They can survive on their own ... as an evolutionary trait that helps certain organisms pass along their genes.  Whether we're talking about ancient humans learning to use tools or build fires, or modern humans painting beautiful art or writing prose, creativity and intelligence can help our species achieve the same end: Procreation.  Survival.  Evolution!"

"That's the only purpose for them?" Rajesh asked.

"Well, purpose is a vague concept.  If you want to talk about purpose from a philosophical standpoint, maybe you should go find a philosopher instead of a moth-loving biologist like me.  But to a moth-loving biologist like me, the purpose is in the procreation.  That doesn't mean we can't find joy in creativity, or pleasure, or whatever else is part of the human constitution, but the functional purpose is not complicated."

"You know, you can be quite depressing, Doctor Conway," Rajesh said.

"Ah, Rajesh, there's nothing depressing about science.  There's nothing depressing about physics, about understanding the universe, about understanding why we are the way we are.  Depression comes from ignorance, not the other way around.  Tell me, are you afraid of getting sick?"

"What do you mean?"

"Cancer.  Heart disease.  Malaria."

"Sure," Rajesh replied, sportingly.

"Perhaps, somewhere along the way, a mutation occurs and causes one string of humanity to be more resilient to disease.  As a result, that genetic trait will select itself, copy itself, over and over again into normalcy over thousands, millions of years.  The disease-prone will disappear, and the disease-resilient will prosper.  And whatever ceiling we thought we'd reached as a species will need to be raised.  If that's not the most exciting prospect, I don't know what is.  We are always changing, Rajesh.  Always.  Mentally and physically.  We can go from fish to human, from sick to healthy, and, of course, we can go from the seminary to the laboratory, too."

"Do you have a wife, Doctor Conway?" Rajesh asked.  "Or a husband?" he quickly added.

I laughed, "Unfortunately, I've yet to find a partner willing to join me in the rainforest to stare at moths."

"You will," Rajesh said.

"No," I replied with a smile, "I think you're wrong on that one, too."