So a friend of mine was telling me about a bit of behaviorist evolutionary theory and I found it very appealing. I have generally found most behaviorism as unscientific as any religion–drawing conclusions from insignificant or incomplete data and thence supposing whole worldviews. Thus the activities of ants might become a modus for human action or the pre-calculated terms of conduct of lab animals in a closed system become rules of human political order.
But all behaviorists are not so insane or inane. Their foundational methods are actually scientific and their discoveries can be enlightening. It is usually when they begin to extrapolate from mice to men that they go terribly wrong. Such pseudo-scientific theory is so 20th Century!
So I listened to my friend and found his proposition very appealing and immediately began to self-consciously wonder why. Why?
The idea was this: people are predisposed to religion. Imagining a god comes naturally. During human evolution, it was the creature who could look at the ripple of the tall grass and imagine it was a tiger who more often survived. The other creature, the one who dismissed the ripple of the grass as simply the play of the wind, more often became lunch for a hungry feline. Thus, the creature who could imagine monsters in the dark more likely lived long enough to procreate while the one who decided to go out and get more firewood because it was getting chilly added himself to some other creature’s menu. Thence, apparently, the proto-human who imagined Thor in the lightening laid low while the fool who tried to finish gathering his mushrooms got zapped.
Why would this be appealing to me? It is because of my prejudices as a writer. I like to imagine things. I wonder about tigers in the grass–if not ticks. I will see ships in the clouds before I will worry about rain. Not being religious, I must consider this tit-bit of behaviorism for what it’s worth.
I do believe in evolution–whether divinely inspired or not. If it was God who gave me this brain and these five senses, I imagine he expected me to make good use of them. I am bored by ideas of predestination, behaviorist or otherwise. They assume a great deal of patience on the part of any god who must wait for the inevitable outcome. Or they might assume a static universe, but such a place would have no use for living matter, human or not. Hard-wired creatures would quickly be reduced to their carbon-based elements.
I am excited and thrilled to observe the minor evolutions which occur before my very eyes. I have witnessed a little egg and flour become a pancake worthy of any god. And I have imagined the wonder of Beethoven’s neighbor as he listened to that mad deaf man trick the Fifth Concerto from his badly tuned piano. Behaviorism is as silly as most politics because it assumes the most banal conclusion from the most proscribed evidence.
I have long engaged the idea that small things can be the most revealing of larger circumstances. That is, after all, the nature and progress of a single human life. Few of us have the opportunity to grab the pole beneath the flag as it rises on Mt. Suribachi or sit at the table and place our signature on Mr. Jefferson’s folly.
The importance of small things for a writer is that there are more of them and thus more to choose from. An imagined story needs the fuel of imagined fact. Readers must believe that such facts might be true, or else loose interest. If every matter is historically momentous, the weight of it might be endured if the purpose is large enough, but it will more often be read as shear fantasy. Why? Because our lives are more often tossed by the weather than a nuclear holocaust. Fiction must engage the reader’s mind by establishing the reality of a lie.
Because I imagine a Jefferson might arise from any quarter, I do not ignore such larger purpose in fiction, but I am more engaged by the circumstance from which a Jefferson might come, than by the supposing of a Jefferson himself. I am prone to wonder at the talent of the slave who fashioned Jefferson’s writing box as much as I am the mind of the inventor himself. Why? Because I imagine that slave’s skill as a carpenter might have inspired Mr. Jefferson to conjure the outlandish supposition that all men are created equal. And also because human history is much more about the slave who survived than it is about the master–slavery being the common place of most human beings until our own time, after all.
How did that human slave muster the spirit to get up in the morning and apply his talent to Mr. Jefferson’s toy? Was it merely because of the prospect of a better meal than the field hand? I suspect not. And I imagine the creature who went out to find the firewood at night did not freeze to death but did find some addition company to join him by his fire. And the fool who finished gathering his mushrooms had something to entice a potential mate with–a dinner for two, by fire light no less.
Obviously I don’t read many comic books. The saving of the earth by super-human powers is no more enjoyable to me than any theatrical deus ex machina. If a god can save us he will, or else what’s a god for? And I imagine that the matters that matter most are those which we might know in our lives rather than what we can only imagine. This is not a circular thought. It is a road through the tall grass. It is a forge on which a sword might be fashioned which makes the tiger shy away.
But I do see the god in the machine. I see the machine made by the same human imagination that feared tigers in the tall grass. The behaviorist might conjure his own circumstance in the lab for that ancient human being who once saw the slag in the fire pit and supposed a use for the metal that became the sword that killed the tiger in the grass. That ancient might have thanked his god for the vision he saw in the fire-pit. Or he might have declared himself the village chief.
I don’t know.