On the Invalidity of One-Word Answers

I actually posted this piece exactly one year ago.  I was still happy with my resolution (made mid-year) to waste no more of my remaining time playing solitaire.  I have still not played a single game of solitaire since that decision although some days I do wrestle through six or seven crosswords when my other projects have me blocked.  But I did not then, nor do I usually make year end resolutions.  Resolutions need to be made when crises demand them and then stick to them.  Perfunctory resolutions, like one-word answers, serve no purpose.  So… here’s the piece:


I don’t know how long I can hold out without resorting to solitaire. I just seem to get into trouble. Like this afternoon I got looking at what I wrote back in the interval between good dogs. The article was published in ‘Gift of Fire’, issue 160, 20-22 (January 2006). Needless to say, it had not been peer reviewed since I was the editor of that nondescript journal at the time. Naturally, some may not find this to their liking. So be it.

Is Evolution the Answer?

By Fred Vaughan

One hears it said that “Jesus is the answer!” Well, I’ve never thought “Jesus!” was much of an answer to any question worth asking. I don’t think he has much to do with the outcome of football games, for example, and that He might be able to keep a failing marriage or business off the ropes always seemed ludicrous to me. In the first place, if one has found oneself in such an unhappy situation in life as to require supernatural powers to perpetuate that unhappy state, then why would one want to? Let it go – just let it go! And if Jesus actually lived (with or without a navel, which had been debated ad nauseum with no resolution that I’m aware of) and was crucified preemptively for my telling you this two thousand years later, I’m sorry Virginia but it’s high time someone clued you in.

I think all one-word answers are like that. They’re too damned simple. If one were to ask (and it’s a truly dumb question), “Who is the personage portrayed in a manger who was later alleged to have been responsible for all the hullabaloo about Christianity?” well then, sure, “Jesus” is the winning answer to that question. But let’s put off such childish games and rhetorical questions that obscure rather than reveal Truth.

We all also know the narrow spectrum of questions to which “Evolution” is the ordained answer, and the thought processes that led Charles Darwin to so succinctly denominate his conclusion with regard to an associated genetic process. But if hundreds of years later one is still invoking that one-word answer to questions of larger scope and worshiping it so to speak, it’s somewhat like trying to save a failed marriage by invoking Jesus just for the sake of the great great grandchildren.

No, I’m not talking about the yellow brick road to education in the State of Kansas in these disparate ‘United’ States where attempts to ban evolution from schools is in the works. That’s stupidity of a totally different color and charm as we were informed in the last issue of this illustrious journal. I’m talking about questions that deal with advanced cerebral behavior in various situations from ethical and altruistic endeavors to our quests to understand the cosmos for which ‘evolution’ is too frequently given as answer. It is my – however humble you may consider it – opinion that ‘evolution’, nor yet its adjective form ‘evolutionary’ in conjunction with ‘psychology’ or ‘universe’, does not provide an adequate answer to questions in such domains.

The fact – and please accept it as fact – that one is able to use logic in pursuit of this or that intellectual objective has very little to do with either the meaningfulness of the goal, or of one’s ancestors of how ever many removes having sought or avoided one aspect or another of dinnerhood via vestigial forms of that same trickery. One ought to recognize a red herring whether it has your favorite red tag special attached to its dorsal fin or not. We have evolved so as to be minimally capable of performing basic logical operations. So let’s do just that.

Silicon circuits have been intelligently(?) designed that could equally well have been implemented with tubes, relays, gray matter, or quantum logic to do fairly complex operations, so I am comfortable – and at times right down enamored – with the facts of the capabilities of logic. That with such logic and the raw data of experience we can deduce that man resides on a globe in the middle of billions of stars in a galaxy which is in the midst of billions of such galaxies, and seems to be in the ‘middle’ only because our resolution-limited view is essentially the same for billions of light years in all directions around us, and on a smaller scale that we have co-evolved with other species, and are under the leadership of a few idiots currently destroying our mutual habitat, etc. is elementary. Some, who should know better, contend that logic itself is some universally significant Platonic construct quite apart from the imperfect processes and mechanisms that perform it. I don’t. But I will leave that debate to another time despite an admitted compulsion to remonstrance. I’ll just proceed with the main thesis here, i. e., that there are endeavors that are undertaken by evolved life forms such as ourselves that give rise to questions for which neither ‘Jesus’ nor ‘evolution’ is a very inspired answer. And yet, one or the other seems always to impose itself as the top spot on a short list of such answers here in the Western world with very similar analogies Eastward.

At this behavioral juncture of our genotype there seems to be unilateral acceptance of ‘survival of the fittest’ as the ultimate criterion of quality whether in the production of synthetic materials or ethical decisions. From this we get ‘Greed is good’ and other such pithy libertarian phrases that assure the right wing that it is on the right path in much the same way that Attila the Hun would have soothed an undocumented nascent conscience should he have been so afflicted.

Does Walmart’s or McDonald’s overwhelming success mean anything other than their own unconscionable survival and that there are dangerously destructive and highly contagious selfish memes on the loose? Dow Chemical, Enron, DynCorp, Philip Morris, Chevron, Apple, Haliburton, Monsanto, Boeing, Pfizer, Suez-Lyonnaise Des Eaux, Microsoft, Unocal, Amazon. Ring any bells? Laissez faire! Ain’t it wonderful? These corporations epitomize a next echelon of evolutionary progress in which we as individual specimen are mere genetic ciphers with selfish memes – like the ‘selfish genes’ before them – winning! Is that to be esteemed? Don’t mere aspirations without biological or monetary compulsion have moral standing anymore? Maybe ‘Jesus’ was a better – however ineffectual – answer after all.

Meanwhile there’s a ruby- throated hummingbird quaffing the sweet sucrose that we just set out again this morning to keep the jug from freezing solid overnight in the mid-twenties temperature here in the Northwest in late December. What does he think he’s doing here at this time of year?  Did he confuse global warming and climate change? Who knows, but he needs nourishment, so we give it to him. Chickadees, nuthatches, sparrows, house finches, and bluejays gobble sunflower seeds in the birdfeeder above him, and ten or twelve gray squirrels as well as a few fir squirrels nibble peanuts on the patio below with sparrows, juncos, towhees, Stella’s jays and variegated thrushes darting in to grab a morsel and then flying off. The two dog dishes are empty out on the stoop now, meaning that the raccoons finished a last feeding last night. We had conversed with them as we sat around the breakfast nook table enjoying our midnight tea and refilled their dishes before we went off to bed. We counted ten of them the other night – all from litters we have nurtured. The koi and goldfish in the upper pond cling to the bottom in their dormant winter stupor, but the trout in the lower pond still respond when feed is proffered.

This is stupid you say! Yes, of course it is. These wild(?) critters here in the city limits of a city of 100,000 people and within a mile of the city limits of the second largest city in the state would surely not survive without us. When we decide (or fate decides for us) that we will not feed them anymore, they will perish – well… all but the fittest and most adaptable among them, I guess. But perishing is not the ultimate tragedy – that is a biological necessity. And it is not as though we protect them from the Coopers hawks, merlins, spotted owls, and great blue herons that also survive on the largesse of this fenced acre. Many times a hawk has swooped down across the patio and snatched a bird right out of the air, and the ever-watchful owl determines by some synchronicity that one particular squirrel is in its destiny, persisting until that predetermination becomes reality. The overhead fish lines that I used to pretend protected the fish from the blue heron are all gone now since a blue heron and spotted owl got tangled up in them only for me to remorsefully free and release them, after which we decided to just live and let live… and let kill as necessary.

There is a pair of happy coyotes that trot up and down our driveway each day so that egress to this acre of Eden is not without its hazards. They seem particularly pleased when trotting back down the drive with a reddened squirrel corpse dangling from their jaws. A feral cat who adopted us some time back has ceased coming so that we can now no longer pretend to buy cat food for our cat. We suspect that the coyotes got her too.  But other than a few rather macabre caveats, it’s a very happy environ here within the confines of the fenced yard – however unnatural and unrealistic.

It isn’t as though we have not given considerable thought to the unnaturalness of this situation. I think about it a lot. And I think about having grown up in a temperate climate in a mid-income Caucasian family in mid twentieth century non-war-torn North America. It wasn’t a bad place to grow up – however protected and unnatural. There are these – however localized and brief – respites where the tooth and claw of evolution and the fervor of over enthusiastic evangelical jealousy, but they are not a concern to us. I have lived in the best times and places of all; so what if that thwarts an indisputable law.

Be kind to one another; it is the best way to survive a harsh environment. And every environment is harsh – we each must die. If being kind to one another is what you mean by ‘Jesus’, then sure, Jesus is the answer.

One response to “On the Invalidity of One-Word Answers”

  1. Patrick Finney says:

    Delightful essay!
    Best regards,

    Ps. And I really love the presentation of all your drawings.

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