New Yorker on Biology and the Mother of Invention

In last week’s New Yorker Adam Gopnik wrote and incredibly wide-ranging and ultimately soothing article that, crudely, goes something like this: Don’t worry if these hard times haven’t stimulated your imagination. Necessity is not the mother of invention; leisure is. In fatter times we have the excess energy and resources to sit around inventing. In lean times, it’s enough just to get by.

It’s a win-win situation as he sets it up. The expectations for our salad days are lessened (comforting for those of us disappointed that all that paucity failed to produce the requisite bursts of genius), and the fear of lethargy in our more abundant middle age dispelled. Personally, it works out beautifully. When Gopnik veers scientifically, things get shaky.

Among a handful of evolutionary biologists, Gopnik sites Joan Roughgarden’s new book, The Genial Gene, as his musings turn scientific. He mentions in passing Roughgarden’s main thesis that some sexual selection is social, not selfish; mates don’t necessarily prefer the most exotic looking lover, but eye-catching traits may make an animal well respected among a clique of peers, and mates do like their partners to have friends. But he doesn’t make much of it, dismissing it as a kind of west coast communalism. It’s just a step on the way to one the other findings in Roughgarden’s book: that beautiful and outlandish traits in animals may not have evolved from homeliness, as commonly thought. Quite the opposite, some animals, like peacocks and peahens, have evolved to be more drab. Or, more specifically, the peahens have become drabber, a trait that seems to serve them as camouflage from predators when they are in the tough times of raising their young. Bright feathers might win friends when times are good, but when survival is on the line basic colorlessness is the best way to stay alive.

Gopnik uses this, a little snidely, to support his idea that hard times bring out the drab in us. They are the times we should, naturally, get back to basics. The leap he makes here is a funny one. He assumes what is true for the genome is true for the imagination. If feathers get drabber in hard times, so must ideas. This goes far beyond the mind/body connections, all the way to the mind/bird connection. It’s an especially risky leap of logic since Roughgarden herself states that evolutionary biology does not now, and may never, explain human behavior (for a great synopsis of her position, scroll down a bit to the podcast interview with her). Just because the peacocks are doing it, doesn’t mean we have to follow.

Professor Roughgarden has a great quote in the interview about scientific theories: “The logic is sound, but that doesn’t mean that it’s true.” What’s true, scientifically, is the world as it is, not as we imagine it to be, no matter how soothing or logical our imaginings. Gopnik’s piece, however, underscored another kind of truth: that which feels true. Perhaps we don’t need evolutionary biology just yet to explain our complicated human motivations. Perhaps ornately imagined writing, streams of consciousness, free association, and the poetry of a rambling New Yorker article are perfectly good modes of exploring ourselves, in good times or bad.