Sunday, 6 December 2015

Evening lesson

Every night, The Girl and I do lessons together – she goes to regular Catholic school in the village, but in the evenings I tell her about things she’s not likely to learn elsewhere. Some nights we do systems theory, some nights we discuss Ancient Greece or Rome, some nights what’s growing in the garden, or just how she’s coping with growing up.

While I write out lessons on the bus in preparation, our conversation inevitably jumps from one subject to the next, taking us places we didn’t expect. Sometimes I try to get us back on track, but often I let the lesson wander – it shows her, and me, the connections that a conventional education, with its cleanly demarcated subjects, might overlook. And now that she's becoming an adolescent, inevitably exposed to the mass media, she's asking deeper questions.

The other night we started talking about how all living things are made of cells, but almost everything falls victim to viruses and other diseases. Viruses, I told her, infect living things, by slipping inside a cell, “hacking” its DNA and changing its programming – from a human blood cell doing its job, say, into a factory for more viruses. It’s a positive feedback loop, but it doesn’t go on forever; your body has antibodies and reactions that create negative feedback, and slow it down. We know it works most of the time, or we wouldn’t all be here.

Plus, not everyone gets a virus, or with the same intensity -- everyone’s DNA is different, and a particular virus will be able to infect one person’s DNA but not another’s. If one person is immune to that virus, they are likely to survive, and pass on their immunity to their children. So people keep adapting to be immune to the latest round of viruses, and viruses keep adapting to infect new people.
“Is it a Red Queen?” she asked.

Very good, I said – like predators and prey, each group keeps adapting to outpace the other, and they end up in the same place.

Of course, I said, it’s more complicated than that, because the viruses are not just adapting to infect people, but to not kill us off – a virus that quickly killed its host wouldn’t leave behind many descendants, either. That’s why viruses start off deadly when they first appear among humans – say, by crossing over from another kind of animal – and get milder as time goes on. And most things don’t die completely from disease, only partly.

“They only partly die?” she asked.

That’s only partly the cause, I said. Deer in a forest rarely just drop dead of some disease. But if they are sick, the disease weakens them, and they are too slow running from the wolf. An oak tree remains withstands storms for centuries, but once weakened by disease, a storm blows it down. Then she said something I didn’t expect.

“You said the same thing about human societies once,” she said. “Are they living things?”

That’s brilliant, I said – yes, they are complex systems, and they use energy, create waste, feed and grow, age and die, and sometimes even reproduce – like an animal, plant, mycellium colony or beehive. Complex systems rarely die because of any one thing; the Roman Empire saw a long stretch of plagues and internal conflicts, and only then fell to the Visigoths that they used to defeat. Same thing with the Incas and Spaniards, and any number of other examples.

“But human societies are different than all those other examples,” she said.

How so?

“Well, a liver cell can’t survive by itself, or a leaf, or even a bee. But humans can survive without a society.”

Ahhh, excellent point, I said. In our case, the components can survive without the whole, if they have the right mind-set and skills. Now, the next question – how do humans live without a civilisation?

“Like the people of the World Gone By,” she said. “In the wild.”

Exactly, I said – foraging, hunting, and generally the way we were for our first 100,000 years. That’s our species natural baseline, what our instincts pull us toward, and what we go back to under stress. Only when you have leftover energy, like from agriculture or a new resource, do tribes coalesce into nations, and some people have the extra time for things like technology or writing.

“My history books talk about people getting more civilised over time,” she said. “I don’t usually think about people going the other direction.”

But that happens all the time, I said – all over the world there are monuments from civilisations that no longer exist. Tribes in Europe took up farming for hundreds of years in the Bronze Age, then went back to foraging, then adopted farming again under the Romans, then were part of a giant organised empire, then fell back to being farmers and nomads again. You can see that here in Ireland –Celts, monks, Normans, and Victorians all ruled here, weakened and fell, and left behind their own giant stone monuments. Now it’s starting to look more and more like the USA. In fifty years it might look like something else.

You know how some living things can exist in more than one form – like slime moulds can exist as a disorganised film of cells, and then suddenly coalesce into a complex living animal, and then go back again? That’s how I think of humans – only our behaviour has a moral dimension that a slime mould’s doesn’t.

“I know our civilisation hasn’t been good for much of the world,” The Girl said. “We have oceans full of our plastic, places with poison air or water. People in tribes didn’t do those things.” It wasn’t necessarily that they were better, though, I said – just that they had less power. You wish you could live like that? I asked.

“Maybe,” she said. “I just see how much damage we’re doing with technology.”

If you lived like a Stone Age tribe, though, you’d have no books to read, I told her. War with your neighbours would be common, many marriages would start with a kidnapping, and death would often be violent. We evolved to live in tribes, so we act that way instinctively -- protective of our family, suspicious of outsiders, easily distracted, prone to violence, and inclined to follow strong leaders, for better or worse.

On the other hand, when people live at the height of a civilisation, as we do now, we get comfortable living alongside lots of strangers, we have specialised training in using technology, and we work lots of boring jobs to keep the system running. We have schools and libraries that primitive people didn’t have, and have all kinds of food and conveniences whenever we want -- but we also risk becoming completely dependent on the system, separated from Nature and unable to do anything for ourselves. It's better in some ways, worse in others. What I try to do – and encourage you to do – is to cultivate the best of both worlds.

“Can you be really tribal in certain ways and really civilised in others?” she asked.

Absolutely, I said – all these traits can exist in different combinations. People can use advanced technology and be violent to outsiders, for example. Or they can live close to Nature and be self-reliant, and still be very cultured.

"Is the latter the best of both worlds?” The Girl asked.

 When people live in small and self-sufficient groups where everyone helps each other out, I said, their communities can often sustain a learned culture on very little energy and through some difficult times. Monks in the Dark Ages or Irish villages in the war years saw empires collapse around them and went on like nothing happened – civilised, educated, independent, and close-knit. They kept their culture and their faith, and stress just made them stronger.

But if a culture breaks down – if people lose any sense that they are responsible for each other, or they lose the rituals or values that kept them together – then they become more tribal in all the worst ways. They stop helping each other, and so are less able to get through tough times. Instead, people start fighting each other.

Then she said something I didn’t see coming. “Is that what’s happening in the USA?” she asked. How do you mean? I asked.

The Girl knows the USA through visits and reputation; she’s proud of being American by birth, and when we visited this summer, she loved seeing her first baseball game or seeing the sights. At the same time, she knows about last year’s riots in Ferguson, near where I grew up, and she’s heard news of the almost daily mass shootings. When we drove through St. Louis she saw the many green and pleasant neighbourhoods, of families that go back generations and neighbours who look out for each other. But she also saw neighbourhoods where the houses lacked windows, and were decorated with bullet-holes and graffiti. In my hometown, you can cross a few blocks and be in a different world.

In some of my articles on Ferguson, I pointed out that riots and unrest were growing across the country, and not relegated to poor or troubled neighbourhoods. Surveys show Americans spending less and less time with family or neighbours and more and more time in front of screens, listening to media that caters to their own pet conspiracy theories. Americans are growing more paranoid and polarised, less willing to engage in public life. In most traditional societies, and in the USA a few decades ago, public safety and decency were once monitored by neighbours, enforced by social pressure and shame; today people rely on heavily armed police, or stockpile weapons themselves.

Yes, I told her – my native country is still a great place in many ways, with many wonderful people in it – but its culture is quite troubled these days. When people are riled up like Americans are right now, when their society is weakened by some kind of cultural stress, a single act can blow things up. It doesn’t have to mean some kind of total collapse, but it can be a step in that direction.

“It’s like a reaction,” she said “A what-do-you-call-it…” Catalyst? I said “No, like a something reaction,” she said.

 A chain reaction, I replied – you’re right. And the thing that sets it off is called a catalyst – it’s what starts the reaction in chemistry. When people know and can trust each other, they can weather a lot of storms – but when everyone is already on edge, a violent act can set people off against each other.

Remember that Twilight Zone episode I showed you, called “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street?” The aliens started rumours to make people afraid, then made strange things happen to make everyone panic. Then they didn’t need to invade – the neighbours just attacked each other. That can happen when a society, or any complex system, is under stress – they can collapse from something they would have ordinarily shaken off.

Keep in mind, I added, that it's nowhere near that bad there right now, and most people there are too good to let that happen. There are always tensions in every time and place, and most of the time they amount to nothing.

Then she said something else unexpected. “That chain reaction -- is that like what happened in Paris?” she asked. She had heard about the terrorist shootings, and had been asking about it.

That’s what someone was trying to do, I said – first, tell me what you know about the attacks. I asked her what she knew about the attacks first, and she knew the basics -- Muslim terrorists, the shootings, and the worldwide outpouring of grief.

“Do they know who did it, or why?” she asked.

Yes, they believe it was that group called ISIS, or Daesh, I said – but most terrorists work in about the same way, by trying to terrorise. I understand there is tension between most French and the Muslim minority, and it sounds like the terrorists were trying to scare people there, too, and turn them against each other.

“What do they gain from this?” she asked.

If you're thinking about that, I said, that means you’re already ahead of most people talking about this. Most people just drop words like “hate,” and stop there. But everyone, even people you don’t like, has a strategy and motivations.

“What do you think they want?” She said.

Well, I don’t have any way of knowing for sure, but I can hazard a guess. Let’s say there are ten thousand people in ISIS, and a billion Muslims in the world – that means that 99.999% of all Muslims aren’t part of ISIS. And there are two billion Christians, some of them living peacefully alongside Muslims. Got it so far?

“I understand,” she said, getting out her pencil and paper.

Well, let’s say a Muslim group wants to do something like what those aliens did on “Maple Street.” Let’s say they set off a bomb, or start a panic, and get people scared and angry. Let’s say a few people overreact and hurt Muslims – just a few, like 1 per cent. And of the Muslims that get hurt, 99 per cent forgive or deal with it, but one per cent join a terrorist group.

 “Right,” she said, trying to work out the numbers.

Well, I said, the terrorists have just increased their ranks tenfold.

“And they can scare other people, and it’s a positive feedback loop,” she said.

Exactly. It’s just a hypothesis, of course.

 “What a cold, dark game,” my daughter said, and then looked up in a moment of inspiration. “They’re being a virus – trying to turn people from helping their neighbours to helping the terrorists.”

I know, I said. But most people avoid such traps. 


Well, I said, they realise that their risk of being killed by terrorists is basically zero. If you were in Paris, on that day, it would still be basically zero. They have no power over you, unless you let yourself get scared.

The other good news is that there have always been people doing things like this somewhere, trying to scare people – but it never works very much for long, or we wouldn’t be here. Reasoning people in healthy communities are less likely to panic or turn on each other – they can think for themselves, realise there’s nothing to be scared of, talk to others, negotiate alliances and so on.

“They create negative feedback,” she observed. “They’re like antibodies.”

Yep, I said -- our better angels. And it works most of the time, or otherwise we wouldn’t still be here. How do you feel about that?

“How can I help?” she asked, and I smiled.

Set an example for your friends, I said, and keep learning. And relax -- you’re doing fine.

We’re doing fine,” she said. “We're lucky.”

Yes, we are. Now into bed.

“Love you, Daddy.”

Top photo: Carbury Castle, near our home.

Bottom photo: Our house at night. 

All conversations with The Girl transcribed with her permission. 


Anonymous said...

Beautiful stuff, Brian. That Girl is the luckiest girl in the world, to have such a teacher.

Brian Kaller said...

Thank you, Food! I think I'm the luckier one.

Joan said...

I love hearing about your conversations with The Girl. She's amazing and thoughtful. Then again. so are all the grown ups in her home. :)