Bookmark and Share

Song of the evolving menagerie

Eldest is an animal freak, always has been and, I suspect, always will be.

While Middle Child loves her baby dolls, toy cradles and blankies, her Barbies and Bratz; although she has her plushies and stuffed kitties, her preferences for imaginary playmates tend towards anthropomorphized participants in the fantastic tableaux she’s invented.

Eldest, on the other hand, prefers animals by far. Two walls of her bedroom are lined, three and four deep, with every manner of stuffed animal, real or imaginary (pegusi — yes, it’s the plural of pegasus — and unicorns grabbing inordinate representation in the menagerie) staring approvingly on the piles of dirty laundry and shredded issues of “Tiger Beat” that fill the rest of her room.

On the cusp of adolescence — we’ve had the discussion about the fact that the monthly visit from Aunt Flo is imminent, taking her to the store to choose her pads — she still clings to her animals with passion and fidelity. When I took her in for the second shot of her HPV inoculation series, I made sure “Baby Simba” came along for comfort and security. Too often I find that same filthy and mangy animal in her school backpack.

Her affection for animals is something I nurture (despite having to raid her backpack) and our video collection includes a number of Animal Planet, Science Channel, Discovery and NatGeo DVDs devoted to nature. Of course, Daddy has made numerous mixes of animal songs for her (“Rockin’ Robin,” “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” “Ant Music,” “Teddy Bear,” “Crocodile Rock” — literally dozens of animal song mixes are possible). Although she has lately relegated my old mixes to the bottom of the stack in favor of Twilight soundtracks (she has discovered a taste for Animal Collective, Band of Horses and Gizzly Bear, however), she still breaks them out from time to time, singing along to the songs with a perfect recollection of the lyrics.

On a more mercenary level, Daddy leverages her love of animals to advocate for raising her math and science grades.

“You’re not going to be a veterinarian (or wildlife biologist or zoo keeper or whatever) if you don’t have good grades.”

Unfortunately, that strategy has had little effect and I need to have a serious conversation with her math and science teachers this week.

Not throwing up my hands, I’ve restricted Eldest’s Internet and television access (a veritable blackout unless I approve a show or reason for going online), but continue to encourage her love of the animal kingdom.

Most kids are enamored with animals, of course, viewing them as extensions of themselves. Endowing them with little souls, innocence, intrinsic goodness, children identify deeply with animals as beings in need of protection and security — precisely what is expected from a parent.

As adults, we nurture that relationship, decorating our nurseries and playrooms with stylized versions of animals, usually with a fantastical version of the animal kingdom that rejects the more unseemly characters (i.e. rats or banana slugs) and troubling characteristics (predation).

We expose our children to a world that only exists in fairy tales or Disney cartoons. I’m not saying that’s wrong (and I don’t pretend to understand the psychology of childish affection for animals), it’s just something that all cultures do as we cradle our children through the first years of their lives.

While Middle Child still clings to her stuffed Bush Baby and Mister sleeps with a Colorado Buffalo, they’ve largely moved on to other playthings, Star Wars figures, tiny teenagers and the like. Eldest, however, continues to line up her stuffed animals for the purpose of instructing them on proper behavior in her animal kingdom.

No predator/prey fisticuffs or territorial disputes, thank you very much.

Despite Eldest’s idealized view of her animals (and somewhat on the real critters her animals represent), she has watched enough “Planet Earth,” “Life” and countless other nature documentaries to know that her version of the “Circle of Life” is a narrative that wholly belongs to her and exists only in her bedroom.

She’s also aware (as are all my children) that while her animals were fabricated in some far away factory, the real animals they represent did not appear in a single day but the products of billions of years of slow change.

Darwin holds an esteemed place in our household, needless to say.

Two things happened last week to get me started on this topic.

The first was my front page article in The SUN (regarding sales tax revenues in the county) when I wrote, “A specialized economy faces a greater potential for failure due to its dependency on a relatively narrow set of factors that determine its success.”

When I wrote that, I was aware that I was stating a simple principle of evolution: a specialized species stands much less chance of survival than a species that is more adaptable. Although I was writing about economics, the theory of evolution was no less applicable: like an animal species, an economy that lacks diversity stands little chance of surviving. By putting all our economic eggs into one basket (as the county did last century with timber and has done in more recent times with tourism and construction), we doom ourselves to extinction as a community.

When I was writing that, it also occurred to me what a thing of beauty the theory of evolution is (if one can conceive of ideas as being beautiful). Elegant and parsimonious, it is everything a scientific theory should be, especially in its value to explain the world around us.

Darwin’s theory was about biology, of course, but it can be applied to so many other things outside of nature: economics, sociology (E.O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology” holds a prominent place in my family’s library), complex systems, etc.

I have to stop here for a moment to say that I’ve never understood why some people (fundamentalist believers aside) resist the theory of evolution with such stridence, thinking that it detracts from the existence of a God (Guiding Force, Great Spirit, Higher Power or whatever). Quite the contrary, I think that if one insists on believing in a supreme being, the theory of evolution gives so much more credit to that force.

A process with such explanatory power, so elegant (and yet, so complex), continuously unfolding and providing opportunities for further discovery — to me, it gives so much more credit to God than a simplistic Abracadabra sleight of hand over a period of six days (which really suggests some temporal limitation on God’s part, after all, especially the part about needing an additional day to rest) that pretty much defies 99 percent of available data regarding the world around us.

If I was going to choose a God, it would be the one that made adaptation a ruling principle rather than the one who, apparently out of loneliness or boredom or what have you, got busy for a week.

Theological disputes aside, the second thing that happened last week to bring me here had more to do with this column than any random (or economic) thought: specifically, it was a couple of readers who took issue with my choice for Kanye West’s “My Dark Twisted Fantasy” as the best release of the past decade.

The first opposing voice just doesn’t get rap and we ended that conversation with a prosaic “different strokes” dispensation. The second, while sort of getting hip-hop/rap (although he admitted, “It’s not a favorite of mine.”) still didn’t understand why I’d put West’s album at the top of my list.

And it had to do with evolution.

Yes, I conceded to him, you don’t have to like the man, but you have to respect his work. His last few albums (especially since “Late Registration”) have exhibited an evolution of the form — not just rap but pop music in general — in a way that no other band has remotely accomplished.

The achievement of “My Dark Twisted Fantasy” was that evolution was expanded and accelerated in a way that far surpasses his previous work. Not only is there no filler on the album, no weak cuts to indicate that he’d run short on ideas, but every cut surprises and brings a new level freshness. It’s music that is subversive, celebratory and never stale.

That, my friend (I said), is the formula for a classic album or a great band.

Take “London Calling” by the Clash, one of the albums I’d take to a Desert Island. Rather than cashing in on the punk cred they’d built (arguably the greatest punk band ever), they released a double album of music that drew on numerous influences: jazz, ska, reggae, straight-ahead rock, rockabilly, soul and R&B, even disco and unabashedly pop music (only “Death or Glory” could be regarded as a true punk song).

I remember picking up the album for the first time — I was unable to listen to it all the way through, continuously setting the tone arm back on the previous cut to make sure I’d really heard what I thought I’d just heard.

I didn’t leave my apartment for days and did nothing else but play the album over and over again.

Look at the Beatles, I said to him. Evolving from being the greatest pop band of all time (their pop music itself an evolution of anything Top-40 at the time), their output in a single year (from late 1966 to 1967), releasing “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” represents such a landmark in rock and roll history that it continues to astound critics and musicians.

They didn’t stop there. The evolution continued unabated on “The Beatles” (known as the White Album), “Abbey Road,” and “Let It Be,” making one wonder where they — and music — would have gone had they not broken up in 1970.

After dozens more examples of bands and albums I regarded as hallmarks of evolution in music (I wonder if I ended up convincing him of West’s value), I argued that rock and roll itself was the result of years of evolution, a culmination of various music styles aided by advances in technology, a place in history where things came together in an almost mystical crossroads of synchronicity.

White youth not just embracing black music but emulating it; the evolution of jump jazz and blues into R&B, assimilating sounds to take advantage of that emerging market; country music moving from the hills of Appalachia to the fields of the Mississippi delta; and the introduction of the transistor (to replace the vacuum tube), making equipment affordable to the market that craved the new music.

And where does the evolutionary principle of adaptation come in? In each case (Kanye, the Clash, the Beatles, Rock and Roll), music responded to the environment; rather than face stasis and inevitable extinction, each mutated, became more successful and broke out of the specialization that doomed it or them to a forgotten cladistic corner of history.

Just one more example of meme theory (introduced in Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene”), rock and roll (and the players described herein) it is instructive to see how ideas and cultural phenomena are no less subject to adaptation.

While Eldest knows why some animals behave in certain ways, responding to instincts that have evolved in response to environmental conditions, she has yet to comprehend the mechanisms that determine those responses.

That’s fine. I’m content to watch her line up her stuffed animals and determine the processes and behaviors appropriate to her fantasy world. Time awaits her and, as she discovers her own path, evolves in her own way, and experiences the growing pains that come with adaptation on a microcosmic scale, the beauty in that process will be revealed.

To refute that is to remain trapped in a fairy tale of predestination. To reject the principle of adaptation is to deny the possibility of growth — and to deny oneself the opportunity to evolve.

jim@pagosasun.com