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It's Nelly's World

The Answer, Part XXVIV

alec vanderboom

Why did I not realize, like in high school, how utterly fantastic, mind-blowing, and richly consuming biology, evolution, behavior, were? To me, it was a lot of . . . science. Science had charts, and numbers, and lines on graphs. Real flowing blood: that was in novels, stories, poems (though I confess at least to getting the appeal of bunsen burners). Science was dry. Science had none of the electric charge of Shakespeare, of Faulkner.

I persisted in this gross misapprehension for a significant piece of my life. But then came the revelations of science, and suddenly it bloomed open for me, sang operas, wove tapestries from threads in colors that made my eyes vibrate. The truth of what we are made of. Before, I had tried for the big picture by jumping dot to dot in the words of poems' lines, listening to the meaning of silence in the caesuras. I thought this was big stuff; Eliot and Stevens making my head hurt in a very pleasant way.

But what I mistook for the big picture was merely brushstrokes in it, and evolution, ethology, and biology revealed themselves as All Ye Need to Know. Every motet, cathedral, sculpture, ballet, is captive to the all-encompassing work called Survival of the Fittest. It is so complete, so magisterial, so intricate that I cannot imagine a god more staggering to contemplate than one single aspect of this wonderment that is us (and the rest of animal creation): pheromones, or the muscles in the face that telegraph our emotions, or the broken-wing display of the piping plover. Put it all together, all the billions of tiny gears and bolts, and you are standing under one overarching organizational principle to the whole--the symphonic theme--and that is what works. What works for our cells will cause those cells and not these to survive; what works for organisms will survive (thanks, Darwin); what works to the aims of language will survive as words; what works in behavior, gets us the cookies, will survive (thanks, Skinner). Art-making is a subset of language--that which can be expressed no other way than this--and is subject to the laws of its own evolution. But laws nonetheless: that which defines science.

Survival of the Fittest. Not a musical title, certainly, but the single reason why. The reason we are here (which is, um, to be here), the reason at the bottom of everything we do. Art written by science.

Perhaps I may be excused my teenage excursions in the wrong direction, anyway. My dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, the seat of wise decisions, was as yet not completely developed. But how was I to know?