Standing between mirrors facing each other is always a trip down the rabbit hole. I suppose if they faced one another perfectly parallel, it would be impossible to catch a glimpse of infinity. As I reflect on the reflections around me, I see evidence of other times hidden inside, like secret diaries, chronicling back to the beginning of beginnings, and hinting at the future. Everything in the universe shows its age.
For example, sex stereotypes spin on dusty victrolas in mono. Some heterosexual men may feign helplessness not only to get served, to cash in on a labor balance exchange, or because they're lazy, but to evaluate their mate's nurturing capacity, her ability to respond to a self-centered infant bundle of need. This needn't be conscious; it hardly matters. Some men can't cook, can't clean, overgrown infants crying for mama, robots with intentionally obsolete parts. Good way to see if she'll lose it with a baby.
Baby talk among couples may signal more than simple fun.
Ladies may signal helplessness to test a man's know-how and protective abilities. Getting men to hook up the av equipment may be a kind of analogue to prehistoric chores. Problem solver in the realm of the foreign, the public, the cool technology without domestic warmth and familiarity. Test his fortitude, test his limits to see if he'll leave you in the lurch with a child. Be demanding, pout and fuss, evaluate his boundaries of provisioning and stamina. Don't be satisfied ever, because a man who senses satisfaction may think he can start a new adventure. Keep the poker hot. Be watchful for signs of betrayal. See if he'll take care of business and bring back the goods.
So we look into the faces of our prehistoric selves, ancient strategies still being played, ancient deals still honored that were brokered ages ago. And we're still playing the same way, but on a different field, like someone with a baseball bat swinging at a puck on ice. Or are we? We should make the effort to decide consciously, to make up our own minds. Maybe there are better ways, maybe not.
Of course there are boundaries to the comfort of our choices. Any dieter will tell you, conscious decisions can be overpowered with some ease, depending on the strength of the competing signals. In regards to gender, romance, and parenting, for some people change is more difficult. There is some apparent variation on general behavioral flexibility as well as with traits associated with sexual interests that are very real, whatever their causes.
It seems that one cause is the stress quotient associated with intimacy during our life experiences as witness to the adult relationships around us; the greater the stress and fear associated with intimacy, the more conditioned one would be by it, as the nervous system registers the stakes of experiences, sometimes in red ink with triple underscore.
There's one way that abused children become abusers that's superficially contradictory. To vow to never "take it again" is to see it sometimes when it's really not happening; and in responding defensively to stop it, one ends up mirroring the bad behavior one had received. Trying to consciously manage such psychological branding requires an exhumation and recapitulation process to try to build new associations and bring some signals under greater conscious regulation, or relieve their tension. Such is one way the brain digests.
And what we are conscious or unconscious about forms patterns among us, sometimes exquisite, sometimes like a b-movie horror flick with zombies, lumbering superorganisms of the undead.
I remember asking my father what he thought the meaning of life was as he was close to his death. He said "for your children." I sighed. Immediately I realized that even my children's purpose would be to have more children, whose purpose was to have more... It seemed the explanation never touched the ground, like a loop of Fred Flintstone's whirring feet blurred beneath his rockmobile, far from Bedrock.
My father was smarter than that, of course, and added "to give your children a better life than your own." I was still unsatisfied, but it sounded better, nobler -- at least it involved progress. But why should progress matter? In some ways, it begged more questions than it answered.
But when you consider the nature of life and inheritance, his answer was an apt description of what's really happening, at least on some level. Is a chicken just a way to make another egg, as they say? Are we just vehicles for immortal entities, for genes, as Dawkins famously wrote in the 1970s?
We seem to know about it without reflecting much. People talk about living on in their children all the time. We stare into our children's faces and see ourselves extending into the future, on some level identifying with what survives us. We identify as individual mortals with the immortal genes, those replicating structures that persist at least in part through generations, imperfectly and incompletely, yet still persist in a meaningful way.
Reproduction is a bottleneck through which we stuff some of ourselves, a kind of SOS we toss into the ocean of the future from the isolated island of our lifetime. It makes sense just from the simple algebra of replication that any being who did a better job of moving replication along would persist better, especially as it requires limited resources. What better sign of loyalty than identification, like the double helix ladder-climbing manager who represents the owner's interests while she's on vacation?
But what of the other species of immortal? The meme? Most of us long to be remembered. To leave a mark, to write that book, make that film, achieve that goal that will extend beyond our lifetimes. Statues, monuments, names etched in stone. And some people promise to remember us after we die, or take care of our family, and then ask us to sacrifice ourselves. And sometimes we do.
So here we are, with dreams of immortality, myths about it, delusions about it, and I wonder whose interests it really serves. Because we are obviously not immortal. Could it be that in part our fantasies of immortality and identification with genes and memes are shaped by the logic of replication, and not our own individual lived interests? Could it be possible that acknowledging mortality is what's in our best living interests? Knowledge of mortality can be among the greatest of gifts, pushing us to be authentic and make every moment count.
But wait. If I do that, then my team of immortals will leave me in the dust and ashes... Am I really willing to say goodbye to them?
And then there's always the possibility that they're actually not immortal, after all.
Coalitions of simpler units forming different organizational layers is a phenomenon that has occurred at multiple levels again and again in the history of both life, as well as among other forms of matter. Organisms themselves are commonly comprised of multiple communities of flora, ancient cooperative and sometimes competitive cell communities, systems upon systems reflecting ancient brokered deals. Margulis's controversial theory that mitochondria themselves were once independent organisms before joining forces with other structures to become the first cell-like organisms is now orthodoxy. They still have their own DNA that's passed down through eggs in many creatures, a matryoshka doll hidden in every cell in our body.
Such geometries are so common that we see a fractal funhouse everywhere we look. One of the ways to account for the common feeling among humans of being so unique on our planet is that we are looking out from a visible precipice of organization as a species; a new dimension has evolved. Our traits of representation, imitation, coupled with our ability to model and manipulate with fine motor movements all form a constellation that has become a different level of complexity.
We should not be overly surprised then to see organisms themselves also form coalitions of competing organizations, coordinated structures that end up throwing their lot together, at least for a time. It's a calculated risk -- or an unconscious one, since once you become aware of it, you hear ancient echoes of humans forming iron-clad group identifications all the time. Religion is an obvious example, as a locus where humans form the closest of group ties. The presentation of martyrs is encouragement for altruism, propaganda of generalized and reflexive self-sacrifice. The lesson of Jesus snowballs just as it seemed to add layers with each gospel from Mark through John, a public service announcement that sacrifice for the group is honorable, and the sacrifice of Son to Father is the noblest of all: a good story to refer to for fathers sending sons to die during wartime.
The requirement of faith itself is most often a transparent strategy to form efficiently synchronized groupings. The prototype alpha male, the watcher, the listener, always everywhere, the sky computer that tracks all our missteps and tallies them for what they were worth to the group. This is an obvious rallying orchestration. And it's very evident it has worked very well, and many people have benefited.
Our only predators are invisible creatures and other humans (though as a reminder, thousands of people are eaten by other animals every year.) It's likely that groups of other humans (and for a time, perhaps our Neandertal cousins) represented the greatest threat we could face. Sports at the highest imaginable stakes, replete with instances of cannibalism and rape and infanticide and slavery. Nature doesn't care about what's right. Nature doesn't care about anything.
But nature does make beings that care about things, most obviously because if you care, you're liable to make the efforts that help you stick around more and reproduce. Morality is a public modulator of behavioral expectations, but people actually do what they can get away with a fair amount of the time. But what they can get away with is exactly what keeps changing, as arms races ramp up in every direction, layers upon layers of signals, like carrier waves riding in noise. But let's not get too cynical here. People create marvelous blossoms of cooperation daily, of course.
As anyone familiar with evolutionary psychology knows, a common basis for hypotheses we derive from our knowledge of how adaptation works is that there's a lagtime between the maneuverability of adaptation as constrained by development and what variation is available and the shifting sands of environment. This is obviously a big deal with humans, where the difference between the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs is... Epic. That means we're adapted in some ways to conditions that are no longer present. Sound familiar? And that means that questioning whether what we do is really in our best interests is a necessary process to create genuinely adaptive behavior in the modern world. And we sometimes will decide that it's the modern world that's not working for us and requires change.
Keith Stanovich's program for creating meaning in life in The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning the Age of Darwin is to examine your motivations and behavior as potential vehicles for genetic and memetic replication, and to assess rationally whether you want to continue doing them; to identify with your own organismic interests, your individual interests. Proper selfishness arises from a wise recognition of interdependency and how we are all intertwined. Long-term selfishness is kind, most of the time, in most situations and shouldn't be ruled out on a pretense of purity.
We may still want to identify with groups, and we may even rationally decide that religion or other forms of tribalist identifications are still useful to us, with modifications, of course. We may still want them; the key is to decide their format and structure consciously. Stanovich recommends that we never install a meme whose system requirements include non-scrunity -- a sensible rule. So much of our brains are non-conscious, it only makes sense to form social structures that require checks and balances and open dialogue and information, for better discovery of poorly selected choices heavily influenced by ancient adaptations; this includes personal adaptations from earlier in each of our lives that may not provide protection or wise counsel in the present.
So, there is a momentum that must be struggled against. And there's a rising throng of people waking up from ill-fitted adaptations from the past and making their own decisions using logic -- a mirror to the behavior of matter -- and friends to figure out what's best.
So let's keep talking!