Sunday, February 15, 2009

Evolution and the Ideomorph

What better forum than the Catacombs of St. James to discuss the niceties of Darwinian theory. Margaret Wente seemed to stir up a more potent than usual wasps’ nest this past week with her commentary on evolutionary psychology and the ongoing debate of whether we’ve pretty much arrived (the ‘as good as it gets’ view) – or are still not only continuing to evolve, but at an accelerated rate. Responses, mostly rather unflattering (but then her skin has also ‘evolved’ to lizarderm status, as it were), populated the op-ed pages of the Globe this weekend. Briefly, evolutionary psychology applies C.D.’s main thesis – that, pairing of stronger, more viable, and hence sustainable matches, over time produce a more dominant genetic line that will survive and thrive, while weaker, more ‘flawed’ pairs will gradually drop out of the mix – to social selection. Smart, accomplished folk who pair up with others of similar endowment and drive are in effect propagating that ‘line’; and you can fill in the other half of the equation.

This exchange of view was perched atop an equally ‘stimulating’ piece citing this same theory as an element underpinning the gender-wage gap in our culture. Feminists are fond of pointing rather exclusively to the ‘glass ceiling’ that exists for women. The ‘enlightened’, young (female) psychologist / columnist was suggesting that accomplished women actually select themselves out of the wage market (taking with them their significant incomes and abilities, thereby dragging down not only the ‘female average earnings’ but also removing a particularly promising group of employed and employable folk) by choosing as partners, males like unto themselves: bright, upwardly mobile, high achieving, etc., etc… In short, this process of modified ‘natural selection’ (to attach the usual Darwinian terminology) skews the number of top female candidates, leaving the males in play.

To illustrate her point, she cites the case of Michelle and Barack Obama. A mere three years before his election, Michelle was reportedly earning in the $300,000 (USD) range annually. Expected 2009 income: $0. The implication of course is that the Obama’s are representative of a significant group of similar couples, all studiously engaged in the process of pulling the female earning potential out of the market, leaving their male counterparts to boost the average male numbers. Maybe yes; maybe no. Unfortunately the theory is, how shall I put this, yet to be tested. While not a devil’s ‘advocate’ per se, I’m at least a promising protégé.

An occurrence that old Charles D seemed to struggle to account for was not only the appearance of but the apparent thriving of anomalies – those quirky right turns in the methodical, relentless march of evolution from which sprang, quite suddenly, spontaneously, and without apparent genetic forebears, completely new (and sometimes desirable) directions, homo erectus being a prime example. The fossil record, after several millennia of plod along one, well worn trail, seemed to lurch (in evolutionary terms) rather abruptly along a new path. I would maintain that the Obama ‘match’ might better be viewed as one of those desirable hiccups and far from sufficiently representative to account for anything as far reaching and ubiquitous as the wage gap across genders. I’d put Mr. Obama himself (perhaps prematurely – hopefully not) in the category of the Winston Churchill’s, the Lester B. Pearson’s, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s, the JFK’s – politicians to be sure; but certainly not leaders born out of the existing genetic political pool, nor the ‘expected’ progeny of the existing ‘political parentage’. I’m not sure if the term in the title is original (I highly doubt it) – but it certainly works in just these situations. The aforementioned are ideomorphs, one-offs as it were, unique forms (to consider the etymology of my makey-uppy term) that pop out of centre field (if the metaphors may be mixed) and not from the predominant, primordial ooze of the political landscape.

Nicola and I got to discussing, at the same breakfast time ‘round table’, just such anomalies in the slightly lowered profiles of our own families; triggered in no small measure by content of an extended family history, provided Nicola some ten years ago and detailing three centuries of paternal genealogy and more particularly some of the extended writings of a grandfather. Her mother is fond of saying: “just where did you come from?” – reference the values, style, integrity, attention to detail, and so on that not only characterize her daughter (and make her, I believe in mother’s view, something of a rebellious handful) , but set her at some considerable distance from the value systems detailed in a family history of high-achieving, but decidedly ethically challenged progenitors.

I, like most borne out of a scientific training, subscribe quite heartily to Darwinian ideas. Creationist science is not only deemed bunkum, but is positively oxymoronic – with the emphasis on the final three syllables. I am left, nonetheless, in some awe of individuals that strike a unique path, that eschew the proscribed direction – whether it be swinging from trees with a penchant for walking on one’s knuckles or simply donning the party (be it political or familial) colours and espousing the expected and predictable rhetoric. In a tradition within our household, certain festivals and other ‘Hallmark days’ are marked with homage paid each other, most often in form of a haiku. Following is a variation on just such an acknowledgment of the ‘ideomorph’ I am honoured to be partnered with:

Culvert cultivar;
One’s weed, one’s wonder –
Uncommonly principled.


1 comment:

mackie100 said...

Mr. Psyguy, I cannot seem to find my link to your blog anywhere on the St James site. Has it moved or has it been deleted? Is this an evolution or a revolution? Inquiring minds need to know. It seems rather sad if I am about to miss my regular dose of thinking. I guess I will just have to devolve back to my former state as a docile parish member with no eReligious interaction. I gather that the opportunity presented by this blog is not as supported as it could or should be. It is rather unfortunate as it could give all of us; clergy, parishioners and potential parishioners a whole new venue for discussion and interaction. PITY.