Sunday, January 23, 2005

"this octopus was not in good mental health"

A huge octopus emerges from the ocean, wraps an oversized tentacle around the waist of a young woman, and proceeds to drag her into the sea. This memorable episode from Thomas Pynchon's vast and surreal novel, Gravity's Rainbow, has a happy ending, however, owing to the intervention of Mr. Tyrone Slothrop, who first unavailingly beats the molluscan monster over the head with an empty wine bottle. Then, in a stroke of zoologically informed genius, he offers the briny behemoth something even more alluring than a fair maiden: a crab. It works, suggesting that this particular octopus conforms, at least in its dietary preference, to the norm for its species. We learn, nonetheless, that "In their brief time together, Slothrop formed the impression that this octopus was not in good mental health."

It isn't entirely clear where the creature's mental derangement lies. After all, it behaved with a reasonable degree of healthy, enlightened self-interest in seeking first to consume the young lady, and then forgoing her for the even more delectable crab. Yet nature writer David Quammen may have been onto something when he pointed out that octopi generally - not just Pynchon's fictional creation - might be especially vulnerable to mental disequilibrium, if only because one of their distinguishing characteristics is having immense brains. Mental strain is probably not unknown among animals, but there seems little doubt that it is particularly well-developed in the species Homo sapiens, whose brains - like Pynchon's octopus - are especially large, and whose strain, is correspondingly (and regrettably) great.

This essay will argue that one of the major themes of evolutionary biology - the conflict between individual selfishness and group altruism - is paralleled by a comparable theme in literature, and that each usefully illuminates the other.

The tension between individual and group may also shed light on another longstanding evolutionary conundrum: Why do people have such big brains, bigger even than our hungry octopus? There has been no shortage of possible answers, including the possibility that humanity's oversized intellect has evolved as a means of facilitating communication, tool use, making war on our enemies and/or defending our friends, attracting and keeping mates, or dealing with predators as well as prey. There is even the prospect that the human intellect might be a by-product of sexual selection, comparable to the peacock's flamboyant tail feathers. Here is yet another possibility, suggested by the self/group tension: Maybe human beings owe their mental adroitness to the peculiar pressures of keeping a very complex social life in adaptive equilibrium. This possibly hare-brained schema for explaining our human-brained selves has at least one virtue: It speaks to a long-standing question in ethics, which is also illuminated - at least in part - by evolutionary biology: How to navigate the conflicting demands of personal selfishness and social obligation?

Moreover, the question of individual versus group generates a useful way of looking at one of the most pervasive yet elusive themes in literature: the dilemma of self-assertion in a world that often calls for precisely the personal abnegation that our genes are generally primed to reject. This conflict between self and others, selfishness and altruism, the needs of the individual and those of society, has a long pedigree in the world of stories, as well as an equally potent basis in the world of life. Homo sapiens is a social creature. So, when people battle to make their way, as individuals, within a larger social group, they are doing something that all social species do (often in remarkably similar ways). Human beings are simply more aware of it than is the average prairie dog or pumpkinseed sunfish. And so, people not only live through these dilemmas, they write about them.

This essay, accordingly, suggests that when writers explore one of their favorite themes - the ever-present struggle between the individual and the larger group - they are recreating a parallel, and fundamental theme of biology.

As difficult as it must be for any creature to balance its various competing demands (to eat or sleep, attack or retreat, eat a damsel or a crab, etc.) such choices are probably most confusing in the social domain. For as hard as it may be to predict the vagaries of weather, for example, the vagaries of one's fellow creatures have to be even more complex, confusing, and stressful. And when it comes to negotiating a complicated and difficult social life, human beings are in a class by themselves. Clearly, our remarkably over-sized brains do not satisfy themselves with simply meeting the contingencies of daily life. Human neurons are obsessed with confronting all sorts of difficult issues, mostly of their own making. Small wonder that so many people, like Pynchon's octopus, are stressed.

And small wonder, as well, that so much fiction revolves around the conflicting demands of self versus group, selfishness versus altruism, callow youth versus responsible adulthood, individual needs versus society's expectation: it is a conflict that may well reside, literally, in our genes.... it all: Biology Lurks Beneath: Bioliterary Explorations of the Individual versus Society by David P. Barash, Department of Psychology, University of Washington.