The Age of Biology
See the slug with the throbbing antenna. It climbs up a tall piece of grass, the tallest it can find. The slug’s weight is lopsided, one brown-green antenna throbbing red. It climbs and climbs, up towards the sun, its arch nemesis. It can feel itself drying out, its protective slime starting to stiffen. It cannot stop. It inches up and up and until it’s as high as it can go. We don’t know if the slug is conscious of its action. We don’t know if the slug is fighting itself, if it knows its journey is a slow creep toward death. All we know is it keeps climbing. We know it will keep climbing. It cannot stop. Its antenna pulses and thrums. Now it is visible to predators. Now, a bird will eat the slug. The bird will not be affected by the parasite throbbing in the slug’s antenna. The parasite will breed in the bird’s gut. It will produce a new generation of parasites that will fall from the bird’s bowels, infect a new generation of slugs.
See the smoker standing outside in the heat wave. It’s 106. She chokes on the wet air, lungs contracting, her body heaving. From her mouth springs a wad of white phlegm. She takes a drag off her cigarette, sits down because she’s light headed. She smokes almost the whole thing, struggling to inhale the burning chemicals in the thick air. She coughs. She sweats. We do know that she knows this simple act is killing her. She’s only thirty-three.
Watch the mouse follow the cat. The mouse is attracted to the smell of the cat’s urine. It walks in loops around the litter box. It cannot leave. It walks in circles, perhaps wondering what it’s doing there. It cannot tear itself away. It sees the cat coming. It doesn’t run. It can’t. We don’t know what the mouse knows. We don’t know if the mouse wants to flee but can’t, if the mouse understands peril the way a human might. We don’t know if it was only biology before telling it to run, if now that instinctual code has been rewritten, if the mouse feels no fear, or if it only appears to feel nothing but is deeply terrified, knowing what will come, willing itself to move, to vanish, but it cannot. We only know what we know, and we know what the mouse will do. It will stay. It cannot override the commands to stay near the urine. The cat will catch the mouse. The mouse will die. The cat will be unaffected by the parasite that makes mice love cat urine. The parasites will breed in the cat’s stomach, a new generation will be born in the cat’s feces.
See the obese person eat her breakfast. She’s not hungry, nor does she get full. She eats because she’s supposed to. She eats dreading the knowledge that once she starts, she may not be able to stop. After breakfast, she feels a little sick. Her stomach feels queasy, unpleasant. She imagines this is what it means to be full. After breakfast, she goes back to work, but for some reason, she can’t stop thinking about chocolate, about starch. She thinks about cereal in milk, peanut butter and jelly. Her stomach still feels ill. She tries to focus on the task at hand, but now she’s thinking of pastries, pies, tarts. Packed with peanuts, a Snickers would really satisfy. Eventually, she gives up, pushing her chair back. She slinks to the kitchen. She mixes peanut butter and jelly in a small dish, eats it with a spoon. Her stomach is still sick, but the tip of her tongue appreciates the gesture while the back of her tongue starts to gag on the sticky sweet goo. Her brain is not satisfied, she can sense this terrible fact, but tries to escape. She retreats to work. The nagging is still there. Pop Tarts, key lime pie, cheesecake, Mr. Pibb, bread, bread, bread. She cannot focus. She gives up, goes back to the kitchen, gets the bowl and spoon, chooses a high fiber cereal, at least she has this choice. At least she can pick shredded wheat over Froot Loops or Cocoa Puffs. She shovels the cereal into her mouth. The dull pain in her stomach turns sharp. She eats as fast as she can, hardly tasting a thing, until the bowl is gone. She leaves it on the counter, the sides stuck with bits of soggy wheat. Her brain shuts up about food. She puts on her shoes and goes outside to smoke a cigarette.
Take a picture of a broken vase. Show it to every person you meet, young and old, smart and not, show them the picture. Ask them what happened to the vase. They can tell you. They will tell you. They’ll be thrilled to tell you. They can come up with guesses as to how and why. The most eager will even throw in whos—the kids, the dog, an angry husband. Cause and effect is our god. We know how to create meaning from nothing.
See the way facts or false facts are equally effective at controlling how we perceive ourselves. Athena sprung from Zeus’ head, yes, but many Greeks believed that thinking took place in the heart, that the gray goop glimpsed in the broken skull was nothing of import, was perhaps only to keep the skull from caving in.
Now think really hard about Athena not springing from Zeus’s heart, what false notions we had of this goddess based on our own facts, ignorant of the Greeks’ ignorance. Feel yourself think about it. Focus on your thinking. Where do you feel yourself think? In your heart or in your head? Where is the tug, the throb of thought? Now imagine yourself back in time, twenty-four hundred years, imagine you’re a disciple of Aristotle, who claims all thinking is done with the heart. Imagine your thinking body then. Would you feel your thoughts in your brain, or would thinking produce the gentlest tugging in your chest?
Aristotle is the reason we memorize things by heart. It’s hard to announce you know something by heart without touching your chest, or at least imagining touching it. It’s hard to announce you know something by heart without feeling an extra little thump on the left side of your chest, where we know our hearts to reside.
We have convinced ourselves that we are gods, that we control all things in relation to ourselves. Cause and effect in our minds always relates to individual choices, resulting in individual praise and blame. We leave out any and all factors that involve chance, which is so much of life, and we don’t quite believe in our own biology, that it might say more about us than our conscious brains. We focus our attention only on how an individual’s choice resulted in something good or bad, so that the individual can be praised or blamed.
See the grad student buried under a stack of papers to grade. Watch her attempt a dissertation chapter. See the sugared coffee at her elbow. Watch her distract herself with Facebook—calls to action and pictures of cute cats. See her check the job listings. Watch her face crumple into despair and a bag of candy. See her cortisol levels rise. Watch her smoke the cigarettes and eat the cake. Watch her disappear in the blue light of her computer screen. Watch the debt pile silently in a series of zeros and ones.
She has made bad choices. We know this. How foolish of her to believe that a college degree would produce wealth, that even more school would be even more wealth, would create security. We were all there. We all heard the same contract being offered, a contract of smoke and air. Now she is trapped, circling and circling, stroking her cat, attracted to the smell of its urine.
See the red headed woodpecker on the evergreen tree. He pecks and pecks, searching for bugs. We do not know what he thinks, but we are pretty sure what he does not think. He is probably not second-guessing his tree choice. He is probably not worrying that if he’d picked a different tree, there’d be more bugs or better bugs. He will peck his tree. He will find bugs or he won’t. He will be hungry or full. He will fly to a new tree. He will try to attract a mate. His blood will not pump cortisol. He will not eat the leftover pineapple cake thrown into the yard by the obese smoker. He will not blame himself for anything. He doesn’t know how to question what he does, what he is. He will peck the wood, looking for bugs. This is how he will live until he dies.
Harmony Neal is the 2011-2013 fiction fellow at Emory University. Her work is forthcoming or has recently been published in Grist, Yemassee, New Letters, Ninth Letter, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Cold Mountain Review. She spends her spare time playing with her dog, Milkshake, and growing poets in her home.
All rights reserved to Harmony Neal.
Illustrations by Max Mose.