Us Hairless Apes

First rule of making an android’s brain: don’t tell it how it works.

Way, way back when I started trying to take writing seriously (hahahahahah ha ha ha hahaha, sigh) I decided it was time to write a book, so I came up with something I would really enjoy writing about, crudely formed it into a story outline of biblical proportions, and regurgitated my excessive imaginations into a word processor. This was my first inkling of what writing a book was supposed to be. But like a virgin entering into his first attempt at making love, I was full of awkward bumbles, nervous inhibitions, and over-calculated form.

However, despite the fact that I was a novice, I did finish the job. My bucket of idea vomit, stretched over a plot spine that could barely hold itself together, was a complete novel: a science fiction yarn called An Epoch of Uncertainty. It was an early work for me. It’s said (I thought by Vonnegut, I’ve since seen Raymond Chandler credited with the quote, but nowhere have I seen a real citation yet) that one must write a million words of crap before producing good fiction. If this is true, for me Epoch was that first twelve inches of butt chocolate that leads the charge for a huge dump.

One of the book’s central characters is Mark, an android. He is the first machine that was made not only to emulate the human form but also to approximate the human mind. His designer describes the process of building Mark’s mind as following three steps:

  1. Build a mind that is powerful but also limited in the ways human minds are.
  2. Obscure it from itself.
  3. Expose it to the world and teach it step by step, building on knowledge as you go.

Essentially, to make a human machine, the designer creates a computer that will think like a child, puts it in a humanlike body, and raises it like a son, forcing it to learn about itself and its world the same way its human counterparts did. This, I reasoned, was an interesting way to approach the well-mined territory of machine-become-man. A choice nugget in the bucket of idea vomit. Of the many nuggets it resides with, this one has resurfaced in my mind often.

As humans, we are amazingly ignorant of our own inner workings. Have you noticed? And it’s the most effective type of ignorance too: the kind you think isn’t there. We really think we know how we work. But we don’t. We have no idea why we feel the way we do, why we think the way we do, and why we act the way we do. Just look at the fuzzy edges of the science of psychology. Ever used it to try to understand something about why you think or feel some particular way? If you haven’t, you’re in for a ride. Discovering that volition, the very meaning of our drive, isn’t always in the driver’s seat, was a terrifying experience for me.

Without getting into the actual science, let me just sum up what I’m trying to say: we are biological creatures, and our psychology is a part of that. A dog doesn’t know why it farts, and a man doesn’t know why he chews his nails, why he is lazy when he doesn’t want to be, or why he marries someone who is wrong for him. He can go back and try to understand it, he can study the science and work with a therapist, but no matter what he does or how astutely he does it, he will only be laying contrived conceptual framework over something that was there already, in action and working without and beneath his knowledge.

Even today, we are only beginning to use the context of our evolution to understand why we do the things we do. You have probably read/heard something like this already—like the idea that the reason we desire to eat so much salty, fatty, sugary, high calorie foods is that we are programmed to. Until only very recently, foods rich in these things were a rare treat for us. We sought after them constantly. No wonder we go nuts over their availability now.

This same principle can be applied to so many other things. How about gender roles? The tendencies for either sex to be better or worse at certain things? The way we respond to emotional trauma? Our need to believe in the supernatural, gods, luck, etc.? The bonding patterns that draw us into romantic relationships? I mean really, isn’t it weird that just about everybody finds someone they could marry? As picky, fickle and difficult as we are? How about the way we fill and regard the space in our homes? The way we respond to authority? The way we get complacent with what we accomplish and keep looking for the next best thing?

Great mysteries? Not really. None of these are hard to explain if you use the context of our species’ infancy. Never studied anthropology? Skip it, just go read Clan of the Cave Bear (clearly the Cliff’s Notes version of a college anthropology course). Then every time you wonder why people are the way they are, imagine Ayla’s clan and why the quirk you were wondering about might be useful to them.

Bam! Mind blown.

Like Mark the android, we are creatures with extensive, detailed programming that we are unaware of. We operate using it every day. We think it facilitates us, gives our lives bounds to bounce around inside of, but the very idea of what constitutes our lives is part of that programming, and the bouncing is too. We facilitate it. If it were any other way, our species would not have survived and reached such a height of success.

With that idea in place, one can really start to ask some heavy questions about us hairless apes. The sort of questions that rub shoulders with the limits of our concepts of who we are. The sort of questions that, if answered, compel us to either change deeply or choose to blank out what we have just learned. They are a short road that dead-ends at existential crisis.

I’m going to end this blog entry now and proceed directly to ice cream and cartoons. I’m not going to ask why I’m doing it. Can’t go down that road.

If I did, I might not ever make it back.

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