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July 25, 2003

"Envy," Immortality and Genes


Have you heard of an essay titled “Envy” that’s causing some buzz in the literary world? Appearing in the U.K. magazine Granta, it is the work of Kathryn Chetkovich, who apparently for several years was the girlfriend of Jonathan Franzen. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit I don’t read Granta, and I learned of all this from a story in the L.A. Times, which you can read here.)

The envy in question occurred when Mr. Franzen’s book, “The Corrections,” became a big success and Mr. Franzen’s writing career came to greatly outshine that of Ms. Chetkovich. Which is not to slight Ms. Chetkovich’s own career; she was the recipient of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award in 1998 and has published several well-regarded works. But one of Ms. Chetkovich’s comments quoted in the story caught my attention:

I was 40, then 41, then 42 years old. I had no children, the husband I had thought I would be with forever was gone, the father I had always assumed would one day really want to know me was dead, and I had no career to speak of.

A few years ago I read an essay on the topic of immortality. Its point was that while humankind’s hopes in this regard have historically rested on having children or on religion, today a new strategy—fame—is making a strong showing in the immortality sweepstakes. Ms. Chetkovich’s essay would certainly seem to be exhibit #1 for this theory. If you think I am distorting her motives, check out this passage:

…as sections [of Mr. Franzen’s novel] were finished they flew almost immediately into print, and just as immediately, the phone would begin to ring with congratulatory messages, comparisons to dead writers and to living writers whose reputations were so established they might as well be dead.[emphasis added]

I think there’s not much doubt Ms. Chetkovich has at least literary immortality in her gunsights. (Actually, what’s kind of amusing, given the flap this piece has caused in the U.K., is that by writing it she has successfully leveraged her envy into more fame and notoriety than she had previously achieved by writing fiction! Oh, well, any port in a storm.)

Pondering over this little comedy, however, I found myself thinking about evo-bio. As you are well aware, I’ve been coming up to speed on the whole topic for the last year or so. It certainly gives fairly elegant explanations for a number of issues in history, politics, culture, etc.

However, in some ways it is a very odd field, intellectually. It starts from the hard-to-argue-with Darwinian notion that genes that promote behavior encouraging their own successful reproduction stick around and spread through populations, while those that don’t, er, don’t.

However, having put forth this notion, evo-bio goes on to spend a great deal of time attempting to explain situations that—on their face, anyway—seem to contradict this overarching observation. (One example from many: the persistence of homosexuality in the population, which one might think would be such an obstacle to reproductive fitness that should have been “bred out of” the population countless generations ago.)

Let me be clear: intellectually I admire this aspect of evo-bio—far too many theories are content to ignore data that tends to undercut their premises. Hear! Hear! for a field that at least puts its vexed issues front and center. But I also think that the issues raised by Ms. Chetkovich’s choice to pursue literary immortality instead of the genetic kind—a choice that does appear to be getting more common in today’s world—is going to take some explaining by evo-bio.

Moreover, there is an odd element the timing of evo-bio’s rise to intellectual prominence: it has happened over the last 30-40 years. That means that this theory (which stresses the centrality of the pursuit of genetic immortality in our lives) has prospered at the very moment in history when human reproduction (in advanced societies, anyhow) has reached a historical low! Childbearing throughout the “rich” world is below population replacement rates--in some cases, far below replacement rates—a phenomenon that in the past has been seen only in times of war, famine, epidemic, etc.

And the tendency isn’t limited to people having fewer children. No, for an increasing number of people, it means never reproducing at all. Culturally, the social acceptability of non-reproductive lifestyles is also at a peak. (Let me make something clear: I am not in any way criticizing or second-guessing people’s choices here.)

But it has led me to wonder, from time to time, if the theory of evo-bio may be a sort of unconscious reaction to the train of humanity having left its “natural” tracks in the past half-century or so. It’s as though Darwinian evolution, having bred humans with giant brains (which have in turn created conditions throughout the “rich” world which are more or less perfect for reproduction), now finds that these very brains have found other things to do than devote themselves to reproducing. Is evo-bio a sort of intellectual rear-guard action in the face of this unexpected flank attack on “nature”?

I’d be very interested to know what you think.



posted by Friedrich at July 25, 2003


It's an interesting question. I've been wandering around for a few years asking myself if we're all suddenly living at a level of abstraction one or two steps up from where we used to live. Everything's neat and clean "liberal" and web'd and rational, but at the same time it all feels cut off from any sense of roots at all. And if we are, maybe that helps explain a few things -- the assertive girls who seem to have no inner life, the boys who have no idea how to be boys. And maybe a general sense of detachment from your organic-emotional self, except if conceived of as a bunch of buttons to click on. (I keep wondering what's going to become of these sleek new button-pushing kids once they start crashing into disease, frustration, etc. They seem wonderfully well prepared to be cyber-cannon-fodder, but woefully underprepared to be people.)

And maybe that overlaps or corresponds with what you're noticing -- maybe it takes getting to this level of abstraction in order to be able to notice evo-bio-type patterns, or to be able to come up with evo-bio-type explanations. Or maybe it's the organic being striving to be heard. Or soemthing.

Funny in any case, ain't it? I sometimes feel like the country took a big, deep breath in about 1965, willed itself into some new and different state, and only recently let that breath out. We're still in gasping-for-air mode, but some weird kind of transformation has occurred, and much that used to seem obligatory now seems optionial. And once it seems optional ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 25, 2003 5:32 PM

How wonderful that a theoretical framework which questions every action for hidden genetic motives should itself fall prey to this intellectual onslaught. The revolution always eats its children. (Don't get me wrong, I love evo-bio.)

Posted by: Stefan on July 27, 2003 7:09 AM

In all seriousness---how does evo-bio explain selfishness and irresponsibility, also longstanding human traits?? Because I think that not only has lack of reproduction become more socially acceptable, but the consequences of continuing to reproduce if one is not willing to really pay the freight (and not just monetarily) of devoting the effort to rearing children have become far more clear and inescapable in the last 20-30 years, along with the rise of psychology and the greater and greater empowerment of children. Therefore, if people think they really aren't going to be willing to do the work, they shy away, which in its own way can be argued to actually be responsible, not irresponsible (contradicting myself). But in earlier generations, where children's rights and health and happiness were hardly considered beyond preventing diaper rash, people could selfishly reproduce, do a crappy job, and skate. So why not??? So,today, when people are making the choice and believing there might really be some accountability beyond their own "immortality" they go another way. Evo-bio (it seems, based on what you've said, I'm not up to speed, I admit) seems to stop at immortality-through-kids and where does it address responsibility-through-kids??

This does make me think of a quote from Woody Allen: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality by living forever!!!"

Posted by: cindyincidentally on July 27, 2003 5:16 PM

Evo-bio does not assert a direct connection between reproduction and behavior. Evolution has programmed us toward behaviors which historically led to greater reproduction, not necessarily toward reproduction itself. (Animals copulate without knowing that it will produce young.) With intelligence and civilization, we can sever the behaviors from their natural consequences, but the drives remain.

It's easy to understand if one looks at food preferences. We like sweets because fruit was good for our ancestors. That preference leads us now to vitamin-free candy and diet sweeteners. And if we don't take care to 'eat right' we can die of scurvy, even as we gorge on foods that taste like vitamin-C bearing fruit.

So with sex and reproduction: we are directed toward behaviors that taste like reproduction. But actual reproduction is often missing, so the community is declining from this hidden 'vitamin deficiency'.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on July 29, 2003 4:44 PM

The drop in the birth-rate over the last 30-40 years fits in easily with evolutionary biology. For most of life's history, sex was the way to reproduce. If being healthy and having lots of sex didn't produce children, there wasn't much else you or your genes could do about it. So we were selected for genes to have sex and to be healthy, not to have kids.

Now contraception means we can have sex and not have kids. Presumably in a few generations the birth rate will start coming back up again because the proportion of people in the population with genetic or cultural inheritance that is in favour of reproducing, not just having sex, will be increasing.

And the increase in scientific thought patterns and public funding for research that brought us reliable contraceptives, has also brought us evolutionary psychology.

Posted by: Tracy on July 29, 2003 8:05 PM

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