The Darwinian Nation and Me


The flames leapt into the blackness. All along the roadside great clouds of smoke billowed up as tongues of fire licked into the dark fir trees. Twisting orange columns chewed into the tall grass and began attacking the underbrush. We pulled the van over to the side of the road. In the back seat one of our kids started to complain. The fire was making him nervous. He wanted to go.

That was over a week ago before the spring rains came. Everything was too dry. Even so, the folks out here kept burning the fields, it’s a New Brunswick tradition, I guess. I don’t get it. Maybe the burnt grass adds nitrogen to the soil. At any rate there was a government blurb on the radio news yesterday morning warning people to be careful when burning the grass.

These are signs of spring, as regular as the arrival of robins, who seem to come with the arrival of newly thawed lawns and earthworms. Life is wrestling itself back into action after the winter dormancy. I like these cycles and wonder what it would be like to be a migrating bird, leaving in the fall and returning in spring, always living in the perfect environment, always on the move.

It struck me that there has to be a tremendous energy cost to doing that. Without a car I couldn’t imagine doing an annual 4000-mile walking trek with my family. Nor, I guess, could our forebears. The personal energy costs were too great. They simply stayed put and learned to hunt and farm, and make tools and all the rest.

Gasoline has insulated us from the actual energy we animals have to expend to stay alive. We’re the new aristocracy—all of us. I’m reading Robert Massie’s big book, Nicholas and Alexandra, which gives a marvelous portrait of the old aristocracy. Nicholas, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias (or whichever of the 100 or so titles he enjoyed), lived very modestly inside a gilded bubble—until it burst in the revolution and he and his family were assassinated in Siberia. Apparently, the Tsar was a pretty nice guy. He had a fairy tale love affair-marriage with his wife, had four beautiful daughters and a son, Alexis, who sadly was a hemophiliac. To make a long story short, it was Alexis’ illness that caused his mother to reach out to the mad priest, Rasputin, who unduly commandeered the family’s beliefs when they should have been paying attention to their emerging political realities.

In short, the last of the Romanov aristocracy was just too gentle for its place in history and time. Tyrants like Alexander III, the last Tsar’s father, fared much better I’m afraid. It rather proves the Darwinian notion of the survival of the fittest.

This animal-versus-animal-versus-environment struggle is repugnant to us moderns (even though, ironically, we’re addicted to watching full-body-contact sports and the most violent movies ever made). Yet the struggle is always with us. We want our kids to do better than the rest. We look for the most beautiful, virile, powerful, wealthiest partners. We buy the sexiest cars and the biggest houses. Not intentionally. It just sorta happens.

The animal dominance and submission is nearly invisible but pervasive. Language is a good example. Now that we’re a politically correct society we don’t call people “niggers” for example. But as John Lennon famously said before he was murdered, “woman is the nigger of the world.” And our slang gives us away. Our swearing, tellingly, very often puts the recipient in the female position. When we’re being cheated, we’re getting “fucked”. When something’s going wrong with a tool or machine, it’s a “bitch,” and so on. Pick a term for some part of the female anatomy and its being used as a pejorative.

The dance of dominance and submission between animals is ancient. Another tidbit I picked up on the radio this week referenced this. It was a piece on cats as predators. What caught me was a statement about the famous African explorer, David Livingston, who was actually caught and about to be eaten by a lion. Afterward, he remembered feeling no pain at all, but simply the experience of entering a calm dreamlike state. It reminds one of the cat letting the mouse go and the mouse allowing itself to be caught over and over again until it’s eaten.

Submission and dominance are large features on the human sexual landscape, as much as in the business and political landscapes. And to be a figure on such a landscape means having to choose a position, either of dominance or submission. It’s not a nice, gauzy, liberal concept. Collectively we’re not nice animals. Some of us like to dominate, and some to submit, sometimes to the point of willing humiliation.

And I think to myself, “I’m probably not a nice person either.” On reflection in the mirror, I can plainly see that I’m not how I perceive myself to be. I’m not as kind, generous, attractive or powerful as I’d like to be.

But that’s just on the outside. Inside I’m much prettier than Rob Pattison. Inside I’m more talented than Michael Ondaatje, wealthier and luckier than Paul McCartney, more famous than Andy Warhol and more altruistic than Gandhi. Inside I’m cooler than Bono and more appealing to both sexes than Sean Connery was in his prime. Inside I’m more important than several of the world’s leading political figures combined. And as a good a driver as Michael Schumacher was. Alas, I get it. But my delusions help to keep me going on this uncaring planet we call home.

But who am I in the middle of all of this? And by all of this I mean our current civilization. Am I a fully formed, independent individual? Or am I an amalgam of projections from the society around me? Or am I a separate spiritual being of some sort, trapped in this meat puppet body, caught in this meat locker with everyone else?

The honest half-answer is, “I’m too young to be this old, and too old to be this young...

Fortunately, we’ve invented a very useful construct—which has been highly successful in preventing us from exterminating each other—called civilization to get us out of the personal conundrum (which is being neither individual nor collective, neither physical nor spiritual). Civilization puts a valuable framework in place to protect the group and the individual. Somehow, with these thoughts in mind, I stumbled across this on

Dead Librarian Mistress Grimm's Guide to a Life of Beauty and Art

1. Don't chase happiness. Don't seek pleasure and easy comfort. Chase what sustains you when all else fades away. Don't feel pressure to feign joy beneath a fauvist sun. Don't deny melancholia when others laugh. Feeling doesn't kill you. Emotions pass. Purpose is eternal.

2. Don't be a shit succubus; be a sacred sponge. If you eat and drink shit, if you watch and listen to shit, you are another shit-head in the masses.

3. Shhh. Listen.

4. Don't spend time with energy incubi. Are your peeps, family or colleagues caustic and cynical? Do you hear their Greek chorus in your head like a bitter symphony? Nastiness and negativity are creative vampires. There is no art in cynicism and self-pity.

5. Spend time with idols every day. We are who we spend time with, living or dead. Choose wisely.

6. Tabula Rasa. You are not your past. You are not your shame. You are not the voices in your head. You are not your family's disappointment. You Are Now.

7. Stop Competing. You are not the Next. You are the Only. If you wish to compete, be a sprinter or an agent.

8. Don't wait for permission. Permission is not coming.

9. The Power of three. When you are a forlorn, lost waif, always remember the power of three:
What are the three highest duties of the day?
Who are three souls who inspire me?
What three tangos must I dance before I die?

10. Don't worry. Work. Work keeps phantoms at bay.

It’s a kind of Desiderata for today (although Max Ehrmann’s 1926 poem remains enduringly current), though probably not as all-encompassing. What I like about Mistress Grimm’s guide is the idea of applied action. “Nourish yourself, clear your head, play your own game, and take action,” it seems to say.

Still, there’s a lot of pressure on us NOT to follow the guide. Making and spending money depend on desire, and lusting is as unhealthy as fear. Our grand consumer society is by necessity fuelled by all the wrong notions. In the end, you can always get what you want, but you don’t always want what you get.

Meanwhile the fire rages on…


  1. I enjoy the full rant better now that it is NOT in the paper. These belong in mens magazines ( gq...esquire...etc),a mans perspective on his life, and the world around him. These need to be shopped around. Pullitzer Prize winning humourist Dave Barry couldn't get a column anywhere....newspaper editors just didn't get him. He submitted a story to a carpentry magazine on "How To Build A Board", and the rest is history!


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