Archive for August 19th, 2018

The Orwell Watch #28: Taking on “who I really am” and “evolve”

Sunday, August 19th, 2018

We owe you a great debt, sir.

The Orwell Watch is not dead, though it hath slept… and here’s what woke it up again: Regularly on the social media and on the internet more generally, I see people advertising some particular activity or predilection because “that is who I really am.”

What? Are they facing death or exile for holding to a long-cherished principle or loyalty? Or, more in the spirit of vanitas, they are bragging about a virtue (“I gave $5 to a down-and-outer, because that’s who I really am“)? Not generally. More often they are talking about selecting a outfit for a party or justifying some aggressive behavior on Twitter. From what I can tell, it takes them years to discover “who I really am.” It involves naval-gazing, apparently, distancing ourselves from the others who challenge our notion of self. Often it’s an attempt to sway how others see us. (Maybe it would help if we simply think about ourselves less.)

“Who I really am” is neither that trivial nor that hard to discern. Here’s how you go about it.

Keep doing what you regularly do. Look at the history of your choices – because our “values” aren’t something we decide in our heads. They are formed by the choices that we make over time. We are what we do. Think about your decisions and actions over the last year, especially the important forks in the road. Which way did you veer?

Bingo! That’s who you really are. See? There’s no big reveal. It’s not something you need an extensive course in therapy or a Facebook group to figure out. It’s more fundamental than the sum of the items we pick on a restaurant menu or whether we wear Jimmy Choo shoes. (Are they still in fashion?)

If you are anxious to tell people what you prefer do in bed because that’s who you “really are,” please reconsider. We really don’t want to know that you are into leather or flesh-colored underwear. If such a thing were of interest to us, we would go to bed with you. (To borrow a thought from the inimitable Fran Lebowitz,“If your sexual fantasies were truly of interest to others, they would no longer be fantasies.” Or this one, on clock/radios: “If I wished to be awakened by Stevie Wonder, I would sleep with Stevie Wonder.”)

If you want to come to my dinner party dressed in your sweats or beach shorts, because that’s who you “really are,” please think again. Take a shower, comb your hair, and put on a pair of long pants. I am no more who I “really am” when I tumble out of bed than I am when I’m in dressed to the nines. In fact, I like to imagine that a little discipline and grooming is who I am really am – but hey, I could be kidding myself.

Fran is right. (Photo: Christopher Macsurak)

I know, I know… you’ll “evolve” your thinking on this. That’s another one.

People who claim to believe in “science” (don’t get us going) seem not to know what “evolve” means. It does not mean “getting better and better.” This is wrong in two ways: From a UC-Berkeley science website:

MISCONCEPTION: Evolution results in progress; organisms are always getting better through evolution.

CORRECTION: One important mechanism of evolution, natural selection, does result in the evolution of improved abilities to survive and reproduce; however, this does not mean that evolution is progressive — for several reasons. First, as described in a misconception below (link to “Natural selection produces organisms perfectly suited to their environments”), natural selection does not produce organisms perfectly suited to their environments. It often allows the survival of individuals with a range of traits — individuals that are “good enough” to survive. Hence, evolutionary change is not always necessary for species to persist. Many taxa (like some mosses, fungi, sharks, opossums, and crayfish) have changed little physically over great expanses of time. Second, there are other mechanisms of evolution that don’t cause adaptive change. Mutation, migration, and genetic drift may cause populations to evolve in ways that are actually harmful overall or make them less suitable for their environments. For example, the Afrikaner population of South Africa has an unusually high frequency of the gene responsible for Huntington’s disease because the gene version drifted to high frequency as the population grew from a small starting population. Finally, the whole idea of “progress” doesn’t make sense when it comes to evolution. Climates change, rivers shift course, new competitors invade — and an organism with traits that are beneficial in one situation may be poorly equipped for survival when the environment changes. And even if we focus on a single environment and habitat, the idea of how to measure “progress” is skewed by the perspective of the observer. From a plant’s perspective, the best measure of progress might be photosynthetic ability; from a spider’s it might be the efficiency of a venom delivery system; from a human’s, cognitive ability. It is tempting to see evolution as a grand progressive ladder with Homo sapiens emerging at the top. But evolution produces a tree, not a ladder — and we are just one of many twigs on the tree.

MISCONCEPTION: Individual organisms can evolve during a single lifespan.

CORRECTION: Evolutionary change is based on changes in the genetic makeup of populations over time. Populations, not individual organisms, evolve. Changes in an individual over the course of its lifetime may be developmental (e.g., a male bird growing more colorful plumage as it reaches sexual maturity) or may be caused by how the environment affects an organism (e.g., a bird losing feathers because it is infected with many parasites); however, these shifts are not caused by changes in its genes. While it would be handy if there were a way for environmental changes to cause adaptive changes in our genes — who wouldn’t want a gene for malaria resistance to come along with a vacation to Mozambique? — evolution just doesn’t work that way. New gene variants (i.e., alleles) are produced by random mutation, and over the course of many generations, natural selection may favor advantageous variants, causing them to become more common in the population.

What we mean when we say a politician has “evolved” on an point of view is closer to “conform to the herd,” usually to attract votes.  A better synonym would be “saving myself” or “looking out for Number One.” They had an opinion that was problematic or controversial, but nevertheless their own, and now they see there will be a price tag if they continue to hold it, so they “evolve” towards their own safety and reelection. It’s sort of an adaption to local coloration…

On the other hand, maybe that is a kind of evolution…