With the coronavirus pandemic having brought normal life to a halt, this seems like an appropriate time to post this excerpt from my book Artificial Evolution, published in December.
For a species as complex as ours, evolution should take about a million years. But in just the past 200 years we’ve hacked the process so that even the slowest and stupidest among us can now move faster than a cheetah, fly higher than an eagle, and routinely perform miracles of science that would have dazzled Einstein.
And once you’ve had a taste of that, you want more. Technology overcomes obstacles. It makes life easy.
Until the computer, the car, or the plane crashes. Then we’re rudely reminded that we’re no more advanced, on an evolutionary scale, than the Pilgrims on the Mayflower were. In fact, in a Darwinian sense, we might be worse off than Myles Standish & Co. With little technology to speak of, the Pilgrims managed to start a new society in a strange, hostile environment with no infrastructure or support systems.
How many of us could do the same?
And yet we regard our deteriorating self-sufficiency with First World smugness. We don’t worry about elemental survival skills because we don’t need them anymore. It’s as if each incremental gain in comfort, convenience, and security has not only made our lives better—but it has also made us better.
In 2016 DIRECTV ran an ad campaign called “The Settlers” that perfectly captured this glib sense of superiority. This was the premise: Anybody who settled for mere cable service, instead of DIRECTV, was as hopelessly behind the times as 19th century homesteaders. Might as well make your own clothes or hunt your own food—as if the ability to do those things is worthy of ridicule. Settlers, as portrayed by DIRECTV, were just the butt end of the yardstick we use to measure how much better life is in the 21st century than it was in the 19th.
Yeah—it’s just a joke. I get it. The premise is a clever play on words, and the commercials are well executed, with sophisticated production values. Still, the underlying attitude betrays “a form of bigotry directed at the past,” to steal a phrase from the writer Bill James.
It is also a form of bigotry directed at a certain class of people in the present. Not everyone can keep up with the latest technology—financially or otherwise. And not everyone wants to. But it’s increasingly obvious that technological proficiency is the primary thing that separates the haves from the have-nots in 21st century America.
Brink Lindsey, a senior fellow at a libertarian think tank in Washington, explores this idea in a book called Human Capitalism. “The less adept you are at coping with complexity,” Lindsey writes, “the humbler your position in the social hierarchy is likely to be.” He concludes that “fluency in abstraction” is the primary determinant of success in modern America.
I agree with Lindsey’s point—to a point. I understand the need to embrace new technology as the demands of your life and your career change. Still, I fear that we face a terrible reckoning for surrendering so thoroughly to the lure of every technological innovation that comes along, whether we need it or not.
The world’s population has more than doubled in my lifetime, from about three billion to 7.6 billion, and is expected to hit 10 billion around the middle of this century. That’s also right around the time that many scientists believe global warming will reach a dangerous tipping point. If both projections come to pass, then by 2050 there will be a lot more people competing for fewer and fewer resources on an increasingly toxic, unstable planet.
I have little faith that we can prepare for this eventuality simply by stepping up the pace of artificial evolution and developing still more technology. That’s where I part ways with Brink Lindsey and others who conclude that the key to survival in the coming years is to simply ride the wave of innovation, push the envelope, and stay ahead of the curve. “If you want to raise a middle-class, college-educated knowledge worker,” Lindsey writes, “you need to get started as soon as possible, and you need to keep at it unrelentingly.”
Good advice for now, I suppose. But when the social fabric starts to tear, when food and water shortages and massive exoduses of refugees become widespread, when mutant viruses and antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria create unchecked pandemics, I’m not sure how much help a middle-class, college-educated knowledge worker raised unrelentingly to attain fluency in abstraction will be. It probably wouldn’t hurt to make friends with a few families like the Settlers, just in case.
Instant Replay, by Jerry Kramer (as told to Dick Schaap)
When I started following sports, so much of the coverage was either just-the-facts-ma’am newspaper reporting or NFL Films-style glorification. This book gave me a sense of what playing pro football was actually like. When I first read it, at age twelve, I thought I wanted to be Jerry Kramer. Turns out I really wanted to be Dick Schaap.
On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
This is a work of fiction—but just barely. All the characters were easily identifiable as actual people in Kerouac’s freewheeling postwar life. On the Road inspired me to read other Beat Generation writing. What I soon found was that I was more interested in reading about the Beats than in reading their work. That was a key step in my transition from an aspiring novelist to a journalist. I realized that I wanted to read about events that had actually happened—not made-up stories.
Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut
Yes, I know: another work of fiction. But I liked this because the “plot,” such as it was, was really just a framework for Vonnegut’s scathing observations about modern American life, such as the grade-school notion that Columbus “discovered” America in 1492: “Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.” Part of a writer’s job is to be a skeptic.
Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon
This book inspired me to spend two months bicycling across the country, from Cape Cod to California. So, yeah, I’d say that counts as a significant influence. My plan was to document my journey of self-discovery. Unfortunately, all I really discovered about myself was that A) I’d rather write about other people than about me and B) I lacked the capacity to record insightful observations while biking 140 miles across the Mojave Desert on a 96-degree day.
The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
Another book that provided an Aha moment. “History” didn’t have to be either a dry chronology or a disconnected collection of bet-you-didn’t- know-this facts. With sufficient research and discipline, you can tell a story that’s as compelling as a novel—but that has far greater power because it’s true.
The Great Shark Hunt, by Hunter S. Thompson
Fear in Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson’s best-known work, was highly entertaining. But I’m guessing its success left Thompson feeling trapped. From then on he had to live up to his reputation as a Gonzo journalist. The Great Shark Hunt, a collection of his work from both before and after Vegas, has greater depth and breadth. It reveals that, for all his stylistic indulgences, Thompson was a great reporter first. It was instructive for me, when I first read this book in my early twenties, to realize that a “voice” is not contrived. It’s something that a writer arrives at slowly, and through years of work.