Tag Archives: intelligence

Is Fiction Important? (Or, a Fate Worse Than Death)

In a recent discussion of scary experiences (in which poisonous snakes, large spiders, and things that go bump in the night played a major part), I realized that one of the most horrifying moments of my life happened in a conference room in Tempe, AZ.

In jungles, deserts, and mountains all over the world, I have shared the trail with many creatures. A pair of coyotes on the Ozark Trail were beautiful and not scary at all. Rattlesnakes and a mountain lion in the Sonoran Desert were a little scarier. Neon-colored centipedes and giant woodlice fascinated my five-year-old mind in the highlands of Malaysia, along with forest sprites and machine gun-toting great apes (but that is another story). All these encounters were exciting at the time; long afterwards, they make pleasant memories. But the business meeting that day in Tempe was truly horrifying. (Describe the VP)

Back then, I was employed in a middle management position at a national corporation. Most of my colleagues were normal guys like myself. Maybe a little more normal. We were all nervous before this meeting; the corporate VP himself had called it. The VP was a man who, once a month, would fire whichever regional manager had the misfortune of generating the lowest sales numbers. This practice was supposed to motivate the rest of the regional managers to do their best in fear of losing their jobs; the real result was a corporate culture of dog-eat-dog, backstabbing struggle for survival.

The VP was tall and lean, around sixty, with graying black hair and a face deeply wrinkled and creased into a perpetual scowl, as if all the world had to offer him was disappointment and disgust. You couldn’t imagine him giving a lollipop to a child or blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. Tossing a lollipop down a storm drain, possibly. Extinguishing a birthday cake with a snow shovel, probably. He was the kind of boss whose idea of fun was watching the unlucky manager of the month try to walk away from his career with dignity. He would have made a good Scrooge in a production of A Christmas Carol, except that he would not have understood the joke.

I sat there like everyone else in the crowd, wondering if I would be the one fired for the edification and relief of my colleagues (and perhaps the entertainment of the VP). I watched him stalk to the front of the conference room and fix us all with his grim stare. Then it came, the moment of horror I will never forget as long as I live. The VP seemed to look straight at me as, in a voice like a glacier grinding the mountainside, he spoke the terrible words.

“I am proud to say that I have never, not once in my life, wasted my time reading a work of fiction.”

My brain recoiled from the dreadful cruelty of that sentence. Even today, twenty years later, I am struck by what C.S. Lewis would have called the banality of evil I saw in the VP.

Am I a better man than he? It is not for me to judge. But I tell you this: I love the smile on a little child’s face (whether from being given a lollipop or seeing something new and lovely). I like birthday cakes, even though they have stopped adding candles to mine, and I love reading – and writing – fiction. I cut my teeth on Dr. Seuss, who taught me the delight of words. Bradbury, Wells, and Verne taught me to dream; Lewis taught me to think. Logic, muttered the Professor; whatever do they teach children in these schools? I learned about chivalry from Howard Pyle (and from my own father, who would have been at home in Camelot or in Sherwood Forest). Grendel haunted my childhood nightmares, but Beowulf was there to wrestle him. Tolkien made me fall in love with beauty. Hemingway and Orwell showed me despair, and the courage to go down fighting, before I found them in my own life. Since then, Vinge and Tepper and Eco and Pears and Wolfe have challenged me to grow beyond myself.

If the greatest writer of all spoke true, and my life is but a stage, then fiction is the score. Without all those faithful companions, those wondrous stories, my walk would have been poorer, more lonely, and sadder by far. That is why the memory of that business meeting in Tempe bears such horror: the VP had lived his entire life without ever knowing the thrill, the joy, the agony and the ecstasy, the terror, the relief, the hopes and fears and defeats and triumphs, the good and the evil, the love and the hate, the life, the world reflected in the world that is fiction. He was hard, bitter, unimaginative, and aging. There, but for the grace of God – and the wisdom of good parents – go I. And that is the scariest thought I think I have ever had.


Will Apes Take Over the World?

The short, easy answer is that (as we humans are, biologically, part of the ape family) we already have! But that wasn’t really the question; readers want to know if any of the situations portrayed in the “Planet of the Apes” movies could become reality!

In the original movie from 1968, starring Charlton Heston, the “planet of the apes” turns out to be Earth in the far future; the idea is (aptly enough for a Cold War-era movie) that human civilization was destroyed by war, allowing apes to take our place. Whether the war was nuclear, and whether the “civilized” apes were a product of mutation from radioactive fallout, is not directly addressed, although it would make sense in the context.

The 2001 remake of the movie (with Mark Wahlberg in the lead role) takes a different tack. In this version, the planet is not Earth but really a new planet; the humans and apes living there are survivors of a space station crash. The apes had rebelled against their human handlers after the crash and developed an ape civilization over the next 5000 years, while the humans became primitive.

The newest installation (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, 2011) takes place on Earth, where a scientist researching a cure for Alzheimer’s accidentally gives a chimpanzee the intelligence of a human genius. The chimp suffers prejudice and mistreatment by humans, and ends up escaping to the redwood forest with a tribe of apes after dosing them with the same drug that boosted his own intelligence. Thus, it can not be a prequel to the 2001 movie but could rather be a prequel to the original 1968 version.

Most movie buffs – at least those as old as I am – will have seen all three movies; each has its fans who declare it superior to the rest. My purpose here is not to take a side in that dispute! The relevant point for us here is that each movie gives a different explanation for how the apes took over. So far, we have humans destroying themselves by warfare; ape revolt; and medical science gone awry. But there is another scenario, less familiar to the average “Planet of the Apes” aficionado.

The 1968 movie was itself an adaptation of a French sci-fi novel written five years earlier by Pierre Boulle. In the book, the planet of the apes is not Earth but a distant planet similar to Earth, populated by both humans and apes. The humans enslaved the apes, but grew lazy and dependent upon their slaves. Over millennia, the apes grew smarter and stronger, learning to use the humans’ technology and language; the humans degenerated until they lost both intelligence and the faculty of speech.

And that brings us back around to the question: could it happen?

Fact: Most people today do not know how to read a map, light a fire by striking flint and steel, navigate by the stars, recognize wild edible plants, or even sharpen a knife. We have robots that sweep the floor and cars that drive themselves. Functional illiteracy is on the rise; compare a handwritten letter from 100 years ago to the average text message on a cellphone. The former will be eloquent, thoughtful, and personal; the latter, a mass of inarticulate, garbled nonsense.

Fact: Koko the gorilla understands 1,000 signed words and 2,000 words of spoken English; she has demonstrated ability to form coherent sentences and has used known words to form a new compound word to describe a new object (source: Koko.org). Koko’s vocabulary is equal to that of a large portion of the human population.

Fact: Researchers have documented at least 22 cases of wild chimpanzees sharpening sticks into spears which they use to hunt and kill smaller primates (source: National Geographic).

While it is true that large numbers of humans are becoming illiterate, inarticulate, and helplessly dependent upon technology, there are very many who do not fall into that category. Technology can be a powerful tool as well as a crutch. Apes are learning new skills (some of them from us humans); did we expect them not to? We are learning too. We have learned how to change our environment to the point of destroying it; as long as we can learn to heal the harm we have done to each other and to our planet, we need not worry about our simian cousins overthrowing us. An ape takeover might be a possibility in some distant future where most things have gone wrong for humanity, but the odds are against it.

I still like the movies!

Einstein and da Vinci

This morning on the way to school, my son asked me, “Dad, was Einstein the new da Vinci?” Mind you, this is at about ten to seven in the morning and my second cup of coffee is still in the travel mug. But the boy wants to know; what can I do?

“OK, let’s see: Einstein and da Vinci, each one a transcendental genius, each a household name. Both names are used ad nauseam by marketers of educational products.”

“What’s ad nauseam?”

“”With disgusting persistence. They were both intensely curious men; Einstein said so himself on numerous occasions, and Leonardo’s notes and sketches are proof that he was interested in pretty much everything. They were both mathematicians. So much for similarities. Einstein was much more famous in his own time than Leonardo was, probably because of communications technology like newspapers and radio. Einstein’s theory of relativity had an immediate, major, and permanent effect on the world: it was the beginning of the Nuclear Age. Leonardo had plenty of great ideas for inventions – the helicopter, the battle tank, solar power – but the technology to make them real was centuries in the future. He was too far ahead of his time. In the end, he changed the world of art, but not science, really.”

“What if Leonardo had been born at the same time as Einstein?”

“You know, that’s a really smart question. I don’t know. No doubt da Vinci was into everything while Einstein was pretty focused on math and science – the math part of science, anyway. But his education and da Vinci’s were very different. Einstein did well in school, in spite of what people think, but he thought schools were too much like student factories when they should be places where learning is fun. Leonardo probably had more fun with his education because he didn’t go to school at all; he learned whatever caught his interest from people around him. Later he studied painting from a really great painter named Verrocchio. If da Vinci had been born in Einstein’s day, he might not have been allowed to study art, or he might have been punished for getting distracted in class or doodling during a lecture. There would be no Mona Lisa. On the other hand, if Einstein had been born in the 15th century, the math he ended up using to work out his own ideas – Newton’s math – would still have been in the future, so somebody else would have probably become famous in the 20th century for relativity.”

“I’m glad Einstein and da Vinci were born when they were.”

“Me too.”