12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (5 page)

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High serotonin/low octopamine characterizes the victor. The opposite neurochemical configuration, a high ratio of octopamine to serotonin, produces a defeated-looking, scrunched-up, inhibited, drooping, skulking sort of lobster, very likely to hang around street corners, and to vanish at the first hint of trouble. Serotonin and octopamine also regulate the tail-flick reflex, which serves to propel a lobster rapidly backwards when it needs to escape. Less provocation is necessary to trigger that reflex in a defeated lobster. You can see an
echo of that in the heightened startle reflex characteristic of the soldier or battered child with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Principle of Unequal Distribution

When a defeated lobster regains its courage and dares to fight again it is more likely to lose again than you would predict, statistically, from a tally of its previous fights. Its victorious opponent, on the other hand, is more likely to win. It’s winner-take-all in the lobster world, just as it is in human societies, where the top 1 percent have as much loot as the bottom 50 percent
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—and where the richest eighty-five people have as much as the bottom three and a half billion.

That same brutal principle of unequal distribution applies outside the financial domain—indeed, anywhere that creative production is required. The majority of scientific papers are published by a very small group of scientists. A tiny proportion of musicians produces almost all the recorded commercial music. Just a handful of authors sell all the books. A million and a half separately titled books (!) sell each year in the US. However, only five hundred of these sell more than a hundred thousand copies.
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Similarly, just four classical composers (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky) wrote almost all the music played by modern orchestras. Bach, for his part, composed so prolifically that it would take decades of work merely to hand-copy his scores, yet only a small fraction of this prodigious output is commonly performed. The same thing applies to the output of the other three members of this group of hyper-dominant composers: only a small fraction of their work is still widely played. Thus, a small fraction of the music composed by a small fraction of all the classical composers who have ever composed makes up almost all the classical music that the world knows and loves.

This principle is sometimes known as Price’s law, after Derek J. de Solla Price,
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the researcher who discovered its application in science in 1963. It can be modelled using an approximately L-shaped graph, with number of people on the vertical axis, and productivity or resources on the horizontal. The basic principle had been discovered
much earlier. Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923), an Italian polymath, noticed its applicability to wealth distribution in the early twentieth century, and it appears true for every society ever studied, regardless of governmental form. It also applies to the population of cities (a very small number have almost all the people), the mass of heavenly bodies (a very small number hoard all the matter), and the frequency of words in a language (90 percent of communication occurs using just 500 words), among many other things. Sometimes it is known as the Matthew Principle (Matthew 25:29), derived from what might be the harshest statement ever attributed to Christ: “to those who have everything, more will be given; from those who have nothing, everything will be taken.”

You truly know you are the Son of God when your dicta apply even to crustaceans.

Back to the fractious shellfish: it doesn’t take that long before lobsters, testing each other out, learn who can be messed with and who should be given a wide berth—and once they have learned, the resultant hierarchy is exceedingly stable. All a victor needs to do, once he has won, is to wiggle his antennae in a threatening manner, and a previous opponent will vanish in a puff of sand before him. A weaker lobster will quit trying, accept his lowly status, and keep his legs attached to his body. The top lobster, by contrast—occupying the best shelter, getting some good rest, finishing a good meal—parades his dominance around his territory, rousting subordinate lobsters from their shelters at night, just to remind them who’s their daddy.

All the Girls

The female lobsters (who also fight hard for territory during the explicitly maternal stages of their existence
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) identify the top guy quickly, and become irresistibly attracted to him. This is brilliant strategy, in my estimation. It’s also one used by females of many different species, including humans. Instead of undertaking the computationally difficult task of identifying the best man, the females outsource the problem to the machine-like calculations of the dominance hierarchy.
They let the males fight it out and peel their paramours from the top. This is very much what happens with stock-market pricing, where the value of any particular enterprise is determined through the competition of all.

When the females are ready to shed their shells and soften up a bit, they become interested in mating. They start hanging around the dominant lobster’s pad, spraying attractive scents and aphrodisiacs towards him, trying to seduce him. His aggression has made him successful, so he’s likely to react in a dominant, irritable manner. Furthermore, he’s large, healthy and powerful. It’s no easy task to switch his attention from fighting to mating. (If properly charmed, however, he will change his behaviour towards the female. This is the lobster equivalent of
Fifty Shades of Grey
, the fastest-selling paperback of all time, and the eternal Beauty-and-the-Beast plot of archetypal romance. This is the pattern of behaviour continually represented in the sexually explicit literary fantasies that are as popular among women as provocative images of naked women are among men.)

It should be pointed out, however, that sheer physical power is an unstable basis on which to found lasting dominance, as the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal
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has taken pains to demonstrate. Among the chimp troupes he studied, males who were successful in the longer term had to buttress their physical prowess with more sophisticated attributes. Even the most brutal chimp despot can be taken down, after all, by two opponents, each three-quarters as mean. In consequence, males who stay on top longer are those who form reciprocal coalitions with their lower-status compatriots, and who pay careful attention to the troupe’s females and their infants. The political ploy of baby-kissing is literally millions of years old. But lobsters are still comparatively primitive, so the bare plot elements of Beast and Beauty suffice for them.

Once the Beast has been successfully charmed, the successful female (lobster) will disrobe, shedding her shell, making herself dangerously soft, vulnerable, and ready to mate. At the right moment, the male, now converted into a careful lover, deposits a packet of sperm into the appropriate receptacle. Afterward, the female hangs around,
and hardens up for a couple of weeks (another phenomenon not entirely unknown among human beings). At her leisure, she returns to her own domicile, laden with fertilized eggs. At this point another female will attempt the same thing—and so on. The dominant male, with his upright and confident posture, not only gets the prime real estate and easiest access to the best hunting grounds. He also gets all the girls. It is exponentially more worthwhile to be successful, if you are a lobster, and male.

Why is all this relevant? For an amazing number of reasons, apart from those that are comically obvious. First, we know that lobsters have been around, in one form or another, for more than 350 million years.
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This is a very long time. Sixty-five million years ago, there were still dinosaurs. That is the unimaginably distant past to us. To the lobsters, however, dinosaurs were the
nouveau riche
, who appeared and disappeared in the flow of near-eternal time. This means that dominance hierarchies have been an essentially permanent feature of the environment to which all complex life has adapted. A third of a billion years ago, brains and nervous systems were comparatively simple. Nonetheless, they already had the structure and neurochemistry necessary to process information about status and society. The importance of this fact can hardly be overstated.

The Nature of Nature

It is a truism of biology that evolution is conservative. When something evolves, it must build upon what nature has already produced. New features may be added, and old features may undergo some alteration, but most things remain the same. It is for this reason that the wings of bats, the hands of human beings, and the fins of whales look astonishingly alike in their skeletal form. They even have the same number of bones. Evolution laid down the cornerstones for basic physiology long ago.

Now evolution works, in large part, through variation and natural selection. Variation exists for many reasons, including gene-shuffling (to put it simply) and random mutation. Individuals vary within a
species for such reasons. Nature chooses from among them, across time. That theory, as stated, appears to account for the continual alteration of life-forms over the eons. But there’s an additional question lurking under the surface: what exactly is the “nature” in “natural selection”? What exactly is “the environment” to which animals adapt? We make many assumptions about nature—about the environment—and these have consequences. Mark Twain once said, “It’s not what we don’t know that gets us in trouble. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

First, it is easy to assume that “nature” is something with a nature—something static. But it’s not: at least not in any simple sense. It’s static and dynamic, at the same time. The environment—the nature that selects—itself transforms. The famous yin and yang symbols of the Taoists capture this beautifully. Being, for the Taoists—reality itself—is composed of two opposing principles, often translated as feminine and masculine, or even more narrowly as female and male. However, yin and yang are more accurately understood as chaos and order. The Taoist symbol is a circle enclosing twin serpents, head to tail. The black serpent, chaos, has a white dot in its head. The white serpent, order, has a black dot in its head. This is because chaos and order are interchangeable, as well as eternally juxtaposed. There is nothing so certain that it cannot vary. Even the sun itself has its cycles of instability. Likewise, there is nothing so mutable that it cannot be fixed. Every revolution produces a new order. Every death is, simultaneously, a metamorphosis.

Considering nature as purely static produces serious errors of apprehension. Nature “selects.” The idea of
selects
contains implicitly nested within it the idea of
fitness
. It is “fitness” that is “selected.” Fitness, roughly speaking, is the probability that a given organism will leave offspring (will propagate its genes through time). The “fit” in “fitness” is therefore the matching of organismal attribute to environmental demand. If that demand is conceptualized as static—if nature is conceptualized as eternal and unchanging—then evolution is a never-ending series of linear improvements, and fitness is something that can be ever more closely approximated across time. The
still-powerful Victorian idea of evolutionary progress, with man at the pinnacle, is a partial consequence of this model of nature. It produces the erroneous notion that there is a destination of natural selection (increasing fitness to the environment), and that it can be conceptualized as a fixed point.

But nature, the selecting agent, is not a static selector—not in any simple sense. Nature dresses differently for each occasion. Nature varies like a musical score—and that, in part, explains why music produces its deep intimations of meaning. As the environment supporting a species transforms and changes, the features that make a given individual successful in surviving and reproducing also transform and change. Thus, the theory of natural selection does not posit creatures matching themselves ever more precisely to a template specified by the world. It is more that creatures are in a dance with nature, albeit one that is deadly. “In my kingdom,” as the Red Queen tells Alice in Wonderland, “you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place.” No one standing still can triumph, no matter how well constituted.

Nature is not simply dynamic, either. Some things change quickly, but they are nested within other things that change less quickly (music frequently models this, too). Leaves change more quickly than trees, and trees more quickly than forests. Weather changes faster than climate. If it wasn’t this way, then the conservatism of evolution would not work, as the basic morphology of arms and hands would have to change as fast as the length of arm bones and the function of fingers. It’s chaos, within order, within chaos, within higher order. The order that is most real is the order that is most unchanging—and that is not necessarily the order that is most easily seen. The leaf, when perceived, might blind the observer to the tree. The tree can blind him to the forest. And some things that are most real (such as the ever-present dominance hierarchy) cannot be “seen” at all.

It is also a mistake to conceptualize nature romantically. Rich, modern city-dwellers, surrounded by hot, baking concrete, imagine the environment as something pristine and paradisal, like a French impressionist landscape. Eco-activists, even more idealistic in their
viewpoint, envision nature as harmoniously balanced and perfect, absent the disruptions and depredations of mankind. Unfortunately, “the environment” is also elephantiasis and guinea worms (don’t ask), anopheles mosquitoes and malaria, starvation-level droughts, AIDS and the Black Plague. We don’t fantasize about the beauty of these aspects of nature, although they are just as real as their Edenic counterparts. It is because of the existence of such things, of course, that we attempt to modify our surroundings, protecting our children, building cities and transportation systems and growing food and generating power. If Mother Nature wasn’t so hell-bent on our destruction, it would be easier for us to exist in simple harmony with her dictates.