Thursday, November 12, 2009

Creations & Conflicts

When I was a teen, I spent a number of Saturday evenings watching campy Frankenstein movies on TV. Strangely enough, I’d never actually read Mary Shelley’s classic book. I can now report that I’ve corrected that oversight and, in addition to having seen many (but certainly not all) of the Frankenstein movies, I've read the book that spawned the films. As I read Frankenstein, I was struck by some parallels and contrasts I saw between that story and the Genesis account of creation. As I sat down to write this post, I was also struck by a connection I perceived between Frankenstein, Genesis and the Conflict Model of family relationships (also often specified as a model of parent-child relationships), as elucidated by Steven Pinker.

I’ll begin by considering Frankenstein and Genesis. Obviously, Victor Frankenstein, the fictitious creator, is analogous to God, and the monster, the created being is analogous to humankind. Another analog exists between the relative appeal of Frankenstein/God and the created beings. Frankenstein is brilliant and well-loved, and God, of course, is perfect and lacks nothing. In contrast, Adam, Eve and the monster are all flawed beings who unwittingly offend their creators. As the Genesis story goes, Adam and Eve offend their creator when they disobey him; up to that point, the threesome got along just swell. Unfortunately, Adam and Eve learned, after the fact, that the only way to retain their creator’s favor was to obey him without fail. Victor Frankenstein’s monster offends his maker the moment his eyes blink open. The poor sod never had a chance to win his creator’s favor – Frankenstein was repelled by his creation at the instant he gave it life, a revulsion that he nursed and carried with him for the rest of his life. Yet another analog exists between the responses of the creators to their creations: God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, cursing them to fend for themselves in a world that suddenly has been rendered harsh, and Frankenstein abandons the being he created to fend for himself in a strange world populated by people who treat him harshly.

There are, of course, some points at which the similarities break down. For example, Frankenstein never felt any affection for his creation; from the moment the monster opened his eyes and drew breath, Frankenstein sought to destroy him. At several points in the story, the monster begs Frankenstein to make some provisions for him. Finally, he begs for a mate, so that he will not have to spend his entire life alone. Having learned from his brutal experiences that no human being will ever accept him, the monster seeks a companion like himself with whom he can spend his life (similarly, after Adam fails to find a suitable companion in the animal kingdom, God creates Eve to be his companion). Frankenstein breaks down and promises to provide a female companion for the creature. Shortly afterwards, partway through the completion of the task he finds deeply repulsive, he reneges on his promise and destroys the female creature. Consequently, the monster is doomed to live in isolation until the day he dies. In the Frankenstein story, creator and creature will never be reconciled. In contrast, the Genesis story holds that God and humankind can be reconciled, but only at tremendous costs. The humans have to offer repeated animal sacrifices to atone for their wrongdoing and/or appease God’s wrath. (Jumping ahead several centuries - God eventually takes the pressure off the humans and offers the ultimate perfect sacrifice to himself.)

If you google “Frankenstein as cautionary tale,” you’ll find some interesting applications of Shelley’s tale. Some say that humans are cautioned not to “play God” by delving too deeply into scientific inquiries. Others say that it cautions people against judging others on the basis of appearances. Still others say that it’s a cautionary tale against bad parenting. On this view, Victor Frankenstein is, to say the least, a dead-beat dad. This last caution brings me to my final point of discussion, the Conflict Model of family relationships. Steven Pinker has popularized this view in some of his books. One writer summarizes this view thus:

Pinker points out that since a parent shares 50% of his or her genes with each offspring, in evolutionary terms the investment in each should be equal (all other things being equal). But if I am one of those offspring, I share only 50% of my genes with each sibling, but 100% of my genes with myself, so it is in my best interest to suppress parental investment in my siblings and to promote parental investment in myself. Pinker hypothesizes that this may lead to a child’s behavior that, indirectly, helps prevent or delay the parents having another child.

According to Pinker, this behavior is unconscious; it’s just something that’s built into animals’ genetic makeup. Thus, parents and children, and siblings, are always in conflict over the distribution of finite family resources. That being the case, they don’t always share the same goals. In fact, their goals often conflict.

It’s intriguing to look at the Frankenstein and Genesis stories in light of this theory. Victor Frankenstein’s goal was to avoid, then later destroy, his creature. He pursued his goals of glory and scientific accomplishment without giving any thought to the responsibilities that his success in creating a new life, indeed, a new form of life - a species - would entail. When confronted with his responsibility, he fled from it. The creature’s interest, initially, was to get Frankenstein to care for him, or to at least make some minimal provision for his comfort. When Frankenstein failed to do even that much, the creature then shifted his goal toward revenge. It goes without saying that when both parties in a conflict are hell-bent on destroying each other, there is little to no possibility that the parties will live happily ever after. (Spoiler alert: Frankenstein does not have a happy ending). Similarly, the Genesis story tells us that God created human beings for his glory, but humans are inclined to pursue interests of their own devising. Assuming that the creator/creature relationship is analogous to the parent/child relationship (the process by which parents create children is one of nature's wonders), Pinker's Conflict Model fits both the Frankenstein and the Genesis stories. Frankenstein and his monster pursue obvious cross-purposes throughout Shelley's book. Similarly, God and humans aim at contradictory ends in Genesis: God wants humans to be obedient; humans want to be independent. I'll push the theory's application a step farther and note that Cain's murder of Abel (recorded in Genesis) is sibling rivalry writ large, a tendency that is often seen in nature when stronger offspring kill their weaker siblings. All of this is in keeping with a scientific model positing that living beings, even humans in close relationships genetically and affectionately, act in their own self-interests far more often than not.

Genesis, one of the best-known pieces of religious literature in the world, has been around for millennia. Frankenstein, one of the best-known pieces of English literature in the world, has been around for a couple of centuries (it was published in 1818). The Conflict Model of family relationships is the literary and theoretical newcomer; its existence can be measured in decades. I find it fascinating that a contemporary scientific theory can be used to examine the interpersonal complexities portrayed in two pieces of literature rooted in vastly different cultures. I also find it interesting that longstanding literary insights into human nature comport well with contemporary scientific theories. Such reciprocity speaks well for the utility of both science and literature as methods of exploring our humanity and our world.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Comment: The Jungle

Upton Sinclair's aim in writing The Jungle was to call attention to the terrible plight of laborers in early 20th century America. His accomplishment was to call attention to the disgusting processes employed by an unregulated food industry to acquire livestock, slaughter it, can it and ship it to dinner tables across America. While Sinclair's initial readers didn't seem to grok the human costs of industrialization, they certainly understood the health risks posed by an unregulated food industry and demanded that the government take action to reduce, if not eliminate entirely, those risks. Sinclair's book did a lot of good, it just wasn't the good that he intended it to do. Sinclair summed up the situation well when he said, “I aimed for America’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

The story (like Mario Puzo's The Godfather (was Puzo inspired by Sinclair?)) opens with a wedding reception. Sinclair uses this scene to introduce the reader to his characters and their culture. The bride and groom, their family members and various other attendees are Lithuanian immigrants who have arrived at the Chicago stockyards in pursuit of the American Dream. After the wedding feast, Sinclair follows his characters as they find jobs in the stockyards, purchase a home, have children, endure work slowdowns and unemployment, lose their home, health and loved ones, and slowly accept that the American Dream that drew them to this country was not going to be realized in their lives. Jurgis, the newlywed husband, begins the story with confidence and vigor, endures tragedy and hardship, leaves the stockyards to take up migrant farming, gets involved in petty crime and beggary, and only finds renewed hope when, at the end of the tale, he accepts and preaches the gospel of Communist socialism. Marija, a family member who emigrated with Jurgis, begins as a proud, hard-working woman and ends as a morphine-addicted prostitute. She doesn't find salvation in any ideology; like many other characters throughout the story, she simply resigns herself to her tragic fate. In Sinclair's capitalist jungle, there is only one way to redemption - and it's not Jesus Christ.

The Jungle, having inspired the reform and regulation of the American food industry, was a significant book in American history. Looking at what has transpired since its publication in 1906 (and recollecting that Sinclair's primary concern was to uplift the poor) and observing the plight of the American poor today, one can only wish that he had accomplished his primary mission more successfully. To cite just one example of how America's poor continue to suffer, nearly 48,000,000 (roughly 16%) of 303,824,640 people living in the USA in 2008 had no health insurance. This, in my view, is outrageous. I'm not convinced that the wealthiest country on the planet cannot do any better than this to promote the health of its citizens. I believe we have just lacked the political will and compassion to do so. Lack of decent health care services is not the only issue that matters to the poor (homelessness and absurdly low wages are just two of many others one can cite) but it is a critical one. Left unaddressed, particularly as baby boomers age, the human and financial costs of a dysfunctional health care system could cripple the American economy within 20 years (perhaps far less).

Speaking more broadly, it's time for us to recognize that the plight of the poor in America is not "their" problem or "someone else's" problem; it's our problem. It doesn't matter whether the issue is health care, education, obscene wage gaps or something else. Living in a society committed to equity entails sharing burdens as well as benefits. Upton Sinclair's jungle didn't disappear with the rotten cattle and swine of the past century; it's still with us. Our task is to tame it.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Book Comment: Starship Troopers

I recently read Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein. When I closed the book, I thought, "Meh. It was okay. I probably wouldn't have read it had it not been recommended by a friend, but it was a fair to middling read for me."

Given that response, I was rather surprised to learn this morning, as I prepared to write this post, that this book (initially published in 1959) has had a significant impact on technological developments in the US military, and

is on the reading lists of the United States Army, the United States Marine Corps, and the United States Navy. It is the only science fiction novel on the reading list at four of the five United States military academies.

Moreover, the book has influenced subsequent books, movies and even video games. Not bad for a tale that is, in my view, dry as a work of literature.

The things I found uninteresting about the book are a) the characters are too bland to describe, and b) the plot is dull. Call me plebeian, if you wish, but, when I read a novel, I expect to encounter characters that inspire emotional responses (they can be either negative or positive, but they should make me feel something) and a plot that drives ahead towards a resolution of some sort. I did not find either of those features in this book.

The things I found interesting about the book were the forays (and there were many of them) into political philosophy. To take one example, in the society of Starship Troopers, the right to vote is restricted to those citizens who completed at least two years of service in the military (active soldiers cannot vote). This restriction is based on the presumption that those who have so served will have been conditioned to consider the interests of society at large in making decisions that will affect the society. Is this philosophy elitist - only those who have proven themselves worthy can vote? Or is it fascist - only those who demonstrated their willingness to put the state before themselves can vote? I'm having some difficulty pinning this down, but that probably doesn't matter, as it's a view with which I disagree either way.

I haven't served in the military, but I can still see that my community's interests and my personal interests are not always at odds, nor can they always be neatly disentangled. Sometimes, in order to help myself and to reach my personal goals, I need to help my community meet its goals. If I were to vote in a purely selfish (and, ultimately, short-sighted) manner on taxes, for example, I would always vote for lower taxes, against bonds to fund schools and parks, etc., so that I could keep more of my money for myself. If I want to vote by taking a long-range view of my own interests (as well as my community's), however, I will vote to fund schools and parks (even though I will have to surrender more of my money to do so) because my community (and, ultimately, I too) will benefit by having higher quality facilities and services to offer its citizens. Moreover, there are times when I ought to be willing to sacrifice something for the good of others just because that's the right thing to do. So, even though I would not be allowed to vote in Starship Troopers Land, I'm pretty sure that I would be as capable of balancing my personal desires and my responsibilities to my community as any of the ex-soldiers in that land. Are all voters willing to find this balance? I doubt it. Still, I prefer to accept the risks involved in making the franchise more inclusive rather than accept the risks involved in restricting the franchise.

A more inclusive franchise will undoubtedly allow more voters who are selfish and uninformed have a say in communal matters, and the effects of their involvement will sometimes (perhaps often) be detrimental to both my community and me (the Bush era is all the proof I need of that). But, a more exclusive franchise based on the presumption that an elite group will act in the best interests of society at large frightens me even more (can anyone say AIG, or the Great Financial Meltdown of 2008?). A broad franchise may lead to societal ruin, but it may also contain within itself a self-correcting mechanism forced by the sheer range and multiplicity of interests that are always active in the process. In contrast, a narrow, elite franchise may lead to utopia, but, given the realities of human nature, it would just as (or more?) likely lead to oppression of the majority by an oligarchy. That's not a society in which I care to live. That old-time fascist elitism may have been good enough for Heinlein, but it's not good enough for me.

In closing, I'll note that many people revere Heinlein's works. I'll just say that, having read Starship Troopers, I'll have to agree to disagree agreeably with them about that.