14. Why Grasshoppers Don’t Have A Problem

If you think of the human men­tal sys­tem in terms com­pa­ra­ble to the oper­at­ing sys­tem of a com­puter, then there is a curi­ous incom­plete­ness about it. Of course the house­keep­ing func­tions, the bits that tell your body to breath and your heart to pump are under excel­lent auto­nomic con­trol. Just as well too. If my breath­ing stopped as often as I for­get to take the ket­tle off the stove, there’d be real trou­ble…

But if any­thing marks us out in the ani­mal king­dom, it is the drive to pur­sue agen­das that wildly exceed look­ing for the next morsel to eat, or screw­ing the hand­somest male or female that scent can find. That is, it is the drive of some of us to do other things is out of pro­por­tion to imme­di­ate sur­vival needs. 

Feed­ing and breed­ing do remain the dom­i­nant obses­sions of all but a small minor­ity. Yet even feed­ing and breed­ing for humans usu­ally requires a mean­der­ing tra­jec­tory of plans, strate­gies and manip­u­la­tion. All of these can eas­ily go astray, and the abil­ity to retrack, rein­te­grate and pur­sue a dis­tant goal varies greatly both amongst indi­vid­u­als and in dif­fer­ent cul­tural groups. Some­times whole pop­u­la­tions enter a down­ward spi­ral of lethargy, neglect and fail­ure, so that by the min­i­mal cri­te­ria of main­tain­ing a mere ani­mal pop­u­la­tion they begin to fall by the wayside. Grasshop­pers and, say, fun­gal viruses, seem to have no such prob­lem. What do humans need that grasshop­pers don’t in order to remain ener­getic, goal directed and pro­duc­tive?

The magic con­stituent goes by many names. If we’re still talk­ing about com­puter oper­at­ing sys­tems, you could say that the crit­i­cal unit was a “don­gle” (an elec­tronic key, often tak­ing the form of an exter­nal plug-in mod­ule, which com­pletes a crit­i­cal cir­cuit in the com­puter pro­gram). If you are reli­giously inclined you would prob­a­bly say that the don­gle was god, a con­vo­ca­tion of gods, or a pop­u­la­tion of involved spir­its (e.g. ghosts of the dead). If you are an ide­o­logue, then the don­gle will be man­i­fested in some dogma — Marx­ism, Mao­ism, Con­fu­cian­ism, the Bible, the Koran, Mein Kampf and so on. Tex­tu­al­ized dog­mas of this kind are often defended and pro­moted vio­lently (for rea­sons that are beyond our scope here). If you are a psy­chol­o­gist in the Amer­i­can mould, then you will prob­a­bly talk about a dom­i­nant moti­va­tion …

Although the magic don­gle in the human men­tal sys­tem goes by many names, its func­tion is uni­ver­sal and unam­bigu­ous. The don­gle offers an answer to the ques­tion, WHY. Why am I here? Why should I do this or that? Why should I love my neigh­bour? Why should I kill my neigh­bour? Why should I tol­er­ate cul­tural dif­fer­ences? Why shouldn’t I tol­er­ate cul­tural dif­fer­ences ? Why should I delay imme­di­ate grat­i­fi­ca­tion? Why should I seek out new inno­va­tions? Why should I resist change? … etc. These are the “big WHYs” which have a deci­sive influ­ence on the per­for­mance of a thou­sand “lit­tle HOWs”.

If suc­cess is per­for­mance, then the actual reper­toire of big-WHYs, and the con­tent give to their answers by some dogma, is less impor­tant than the con­vic­tion with which they are believed. If god/gods/spirits/nature/the “laws” of cap­i­tal­ism … favoured one group of human believ­ers above another, or one rite of wor­ship before another, then all the humans who were not Hin­dus, or Shin­toists, or Chris­tians, or Mus­lims, or Wall Street stock­bro­kers … or what­ever, would be con­demned to fail­ure at best, and a fiery here­after at worst. By some intrigu­ing mech­a­nism of men­tal com­pu­ta­tion, all of these diverse believ­ers have no trou­ble in accept­ing that the non-believ­ers out­side of their par­tic­u­lar sect do indeed suf­fer some debil­i­tat­ing fate.

This warp­ing mech­a­nism is absent from my own brain: sim­ple obser­va­tion per­suades me that no group of believ­ers has the ear of any god for favours. On the other hand, obser­va­tion also leads me to admit that those who are sure of their don­gle, what­ever its colour, have an impres­sive tool for action. They have inserted a key into their men­tal sys­tem which allows it to go from WHY to HOW. Once given a clear­ance to pro­ceed, the human brain is a superb mech­a­nism for devis­ing answers to HOW.

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