Themes in The Road: Where Fiction and Science Meet
You know that Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for literature, but you may not know that he also has an interest in mathematics and science, which he engages as a research fellow at the Santa Fe Institute. Now you can join McCarthy's colleagues from SFI as they explore themes and issues raised in The Road.
- The End of the World: Extinction and Reemergence of Life
- The Struggle for Survival: Conflict and Creativity
- The Golden Rule: Selfishness and Altruism
- Nothing But the Truth: Honesty and Deception in a Complex World
- Like Father, Like Son: Genetic Conflict, Negotiation and Shared Fate
- Man vs. Nature: Co-evolution of Social and Ecological Networks
The End of the World: Extinction and Reemergence of Life
If Cormac McCarthy knows what caused the cataclysm in The Road, he's not telling, and we're all left to speculate. Was it a nuclear exchange? A massive volcanic eruption? The impact of an extraterrestrial object? We don't know, and in some sense, it does not really matter. But we do know a good deal about what happens after such events. Geologists and paleontologists (who study fossils) have studied how plants and animals responded to the six great mass extinctions of the past 600 million years, as well as smaller events such as massive volcanic eruptions. The first organisms to reappear are often ferns and weedy flowering plants that reproduce and spread rapidly. In the sea, many microbes and some algae spread rapidly.
The deforestation described in The Road would release nutrients from the land into rivers, lakes and the ocean, encouraging further growth. Eventually, slower-growing species would begin to reemerge. Understanding these events is a great scientific challenge, because new ecological communities would most likely operate with different rules than communities that exist before such catastrophes. Why this should happen is not clear, but it emphasizes that the aftermath of such catastrophes may not be a rebuilding of previous relationships but the construction of an entirely new world.
About the Author
Doug Erwin is the author or editor of six books, including Extinction: How Life Nearly Died 250 Million Years Ago, published in December 2005 by Princeton University Press. His latest project is a book on evolutionary innovation through the history of life, which will also explore the similarities and differences between economic and biological innovation. Various field projects have taken Doug repeatedly to China, South Africa and Namibia, and he has done geological field work in various other regions as well. His tombstone will probably read, unfortunately, "He ran a good meeting."
The struggle for survival and other themes from The Road
The Struggle for Survival: Conflict and Creativity
Conflict is a prominent theme in The Road. It is evident in the ashen landscape, in the bands of marauding men, in the disagreement between father and son about whether to help fellow survivors. Whether conflict—in human societies or in other types of biological systems—is a wholly destructive force or plays an important role in driving the evolution of social and biological complexity is a much-discussed topic of conversation among Cormac McCarthy and his colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute.
The Road provides a lens through which we can examine what the world might be like if conflict were allowed to escalate unchecked or if our attempts to control it failed. The potential for destruction on the scale described in The Road often results from what in evolutionary biology is called (borrowing from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass) the Red Queen effect—essentially an "arms race" between competing organisms, in which each competitor builds up a comparable arsenal (think of horns, stings and teeth) such that neither one gets the upper hand. If the cataclysm described in The Road was caused by human conflict (the possibility that it resulted from nuclear war immediately comes to mind), it is likely that the severity of the conflict was a product of a Red Queen process.
The conflict and the ensuing arms race should not be seen as solely destructive conditions—they are also sources of creativity and invention in the sense that the organisms are required to constantly evolve new strategies to keep themselves in the game. What this suggests is that conflict can be both destructive and constructive.
If conflict can have constructive consequences, then wholesale suppression of it might not be the best idea. The potential costs, however, make it critical to get the balance right. A fitting example of the dual costs and benefits of conflict and the ethical complexity it gives rise to can be seen in the history of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. Spearheaded by the United States during World War II, the Manhattan Project assembled a team of scientists to develop a nuclear weapon in advance of similar objectives being pursued by the Axis powers. Although the development and use of nuclear weapons resulted in an accelerated end to World War II, it did so at great cost to humanity and irreversibly changed the nature and scope of war. However, the science and scientists driving the Manhattan Project made many important discoveries, including the development of the Monte Carlo algorithm for simulating chain reactions and vastly improving our understanding of computation. Both of these tools are of fundamental importance in the new sciences of complexity pursued by the Santa Fe Institute in peaceful applications, an institute that grew from the ashes of what we might think of as destructive creativity.
About the Author
Jessica Flack is broadly interested in whether there are architectural principles governing the evolution of structure in biological and social systems. Jessica is pursuing the possibility that, if such principles exist, they will be found by comparing construction processes—the processes by which ordered states arise and persist—in a diverse set of systems that includes single-celled organisms, multicellular organisms, and complex, coordinated aggregates like animal societies. Single-celled and multicellular organisms are relatively well studied from this perspective compared to coordinated aggregates. In recognition of this deficit, Jessica's research is devoted to the study of construction processes at the social level, largely using as model systems animal societies characterized by triadic and higher-order interactions.
The Golden Rule, selfishness, altruism and other themes from The Road
The Golden Rule: Selfishness and Altruism in The Road
"Yes. But in the stories we're always helping people and we dont help people" (p. 280).The starkness of the human interactions described in Cormac McCarthy's The Road illuminates one of the most fundamental questions that arises about human nature: Are we fundamentally selfish or altruistic? The answer to this question has perplexed scientists for centuries, including Cormac and his scientific colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute.
True altruism requires not only that we are nice to one another, but that we also do so at a real cost to ourselves without any expectation of any possible gain. Consider that while a honey bee may sacrifice itself by stinging an attacker to save the hive, its hivemates are so closely related genetically that the act provides some benefit to the sacrificial bee (or, at least to its genetic material). The biologist J.B.S. Haldane nicely summarized such a situation when he was asked whether he would give his life to save his brother and answered, "No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins." Being nice to someone with an expectation that they will be nice back to you in return also doesn't qualify as true altruism. Leaving a large tip at a restaurant you frequent is a far different act than doing so at a roadside diner that you will never return to again.
In recent years, social scientists have begun to do experiments designed to highlight human altruism. For example, suppose that you are given a pile of 20 one-dollar bills, and in private you are allowed to pocket whatever portion of the pile you would like and place the remaining money (if any) into an envelope that will be given anonymously to someone else. How much money would you give away? Would your choice change if, say, for every dollar you gave away the other person received twice (or half) that amount?
It turns out that the vast majority of the subjects participating in such experiments behave in a manner that reflects very thoughtful decision-making behavior. Moreover, while about half the subjects do tend to be fairly selfish, the remaining subjects often pass substantial amounts of money to others. We are just beginning to understand the limits of such behavior. For example, if you give subjects a bit of "moral wiggle room'' (by perhaps letting an initial coin flip—that can be easily overturned—determine their choice) or reframe the problem as taking money away versus giving money, very different patterns of giving behavior emerge.
About the Author
John H. Miller splits his time between the Santa Fe Institute and the department of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. He recently co-authored a book, Complex Adaptive Social Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life (Princeton University Press, 2007), that explores how ideas from economics, political science, biology, physics and computer science can be combined to illuminate topics in organization, adaptation, decentralization and robustness. His research ranges from understanding the behavior of critical economic and political systems to the fundamentals of human cooperation and altruism. He was born and raised in Colorado—the fourth generation of a family of ranchers.
Honesty, deception and other themes from The Road
Nothing But the Truth: Honesty and Deception in a Complex World
Can we justify being less than fully truthful to a spouse, child or aging parent to avoid causing them pain? Even this seemingly simple question demonstrates that intentions and motives add immense complexity and depth to the roles honesty and deception play in human interactions. Attempting to understand phenomena such as honesty and deception in their broadest social, biological and physical science contexts is a central research strategy of Cormac McCarthy and his colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute.
"You dont believe me.
I believe you.
I always believe you.
I dont think so.
Yes I do. I have to" (p. 156).
That interchange between father and son in The Road exemplifies the patchwork of truths, part-truths,"white lies" and deliberate deception that permeates our interactions with each other. The moral and ethical values many societies place on telling the truth may compete with other important motives. Differences among cultures in those roles complicate the picture even further. The oath our judicial system requires of witnesses—"to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth"—acknowledges that truth and falsehood are not a simple binary distinction and emphasizes there are numerous ways, in addition to outright lies, we can cheat the truth.
While we usually think of honesty and deception in the context of human communication, it has long been known that animals use elaborate means of deception. Some nonpoisonous butterflies, for example, have evolved wing patterns similar to those of poisonous species as a means of deceiving and avoiding predators. Animal communication was initially thought to have evolved as a means of facilitating social interactions by the interchange of reliable information. In the competitive world of natural selection, however, deceptive communication becomes as important as reliable communication in achieving competitive advantage. If senders could benefit by deceiving receivers, then the frequency of deception would increase. Receivers would, in turn, evolve means of disregarding deceptive signals, creating what John Maynard Smith has called an "arms race" in which honest and deceptive strategies are "at war" to enable greater fitness. A branch of mathematics known as game theory, originally developed in economics, has become widely used in evolutionary biology for understanding interactions among such competing strategies.
The complex interplay of honesty and deception in the evolutionary context becomes dramatically richer and more nuanced when we consider the intentions of human senders and receivers. (The nature and extent of intentions and other mental states in nonhumans is an important focus of current philosophical and scientific inquiry.) Scientists and philosophers have suggested that the selective advantage of the ability to evaluate the mental states and intentions of others may be one of the important forces driving brain evolution in higher primates and humans. The concept "theory of mind" is now widely used to refer to this ability to attribute mental states (such as beliefs, desires and intentions) to others. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the size of our neocortex (the region of the brain that has enlarged most extensively in humans compared to other primates) has been reported to correlate with the rate of deception in primate species.
About the Author
Chris Wood became vice president of the Santa Fe Institute in 2005, following faculty positions at Yale University (1976–1989) and as group leader of the Biophysics Group at Los Alamos National Laboratory (1989–2005). From 2000 to 2001, he was interim director of the National Foundation for Functional Brain Imaging, a collaboration involving Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital, University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, and a number of academic, private and government research institutions in New Mexico. The mission of the foundation was the development and application of advanced brain imaging techniques to mental disorders. Chris is a neuroscientist, whose research interests include imaging and modeling the brain, computational neuroscience and neural computation.
Conflict, negotiation and other themes from The Road
Like Father, Like Son: Conflict, Negotiation and Shared Fate
Cormac McCarthy and his colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute often use metaphors to explain complex scientific phenomena because researchers from different disciplines may lack a common vocabulary. Genetic imprinting is a phenomenon that is not easy to grasp but can be explained using examples from our experiences or stories. The vivid experiences of the father and son in The Road can help us explain this science.
In The Road, the father and son must negotiate many decisions. When will they stop for the night? Should they open that door? Eat something questionable? Offer help to another traveler? They are two individuals with separate wills, but their paths and their fates are inseparable. In this wasteland, father and son going their separate ways—each trusting his own judgment—is simply not an option. Every conflict must be resolved into a joint action, one way or another.
Geneticists have discovered that the genes in our bodies are in a similar situation. Of course, the individual organism is the one who takes this or that action, survives or does not, reproduces or does not. Like the father and son, the fates of the genes in each individual are inextricably linked. However, natural selection can favor genes that take on different strategies depending on where the gene came from. These strategies can come into conflict with each other, even for sets of genes that are present within the same individual.
For about 1 percent of our genes, the gene copy that we inherit from our mothers behaves differently from the copy we inherit from our fathers. These genes, known as imprinted genes, have evolved in cases where a gene's optimal behavior differs depending on its parent of origin. Many of these imprinted genes influence our early growth and development, when a paternally derived gene favors more aggressive growth (resulting in a greater drain on maternal resources) than does a maternally derived gene. Because we have one maternally derived and one paternally derived copy of each gene, this leads to an evolutionary conflict between the genes within our own bodies.
In addition to early growth effects, many imprinted genes are expressed in the brain and influence certain aspects of cognition and behavior. We have all felt conflicted over tough decisions. Sometimes we feel as if we were literally of two minds. And of course, we are all familiar with the convention of the little angel and the little devil sitting on our shoulders, whispering in our ears, urging us to do different things. The discovery of these imprinted genes suggests that this feeling may, in fact, have a basis in the genetic conflicts being played out in our brains.
When our genes disagree, it is difficult to predict how the conflict will be resolved. The genes may effectively reach some compromise, or one set of genes may prevail over the other. In some cases, the dynamics of the conflict produce dramatic changes, where each set of genes is worse off than they would have been if they had simply abandoned the conflict; sometimes, the compromise solution is worse than losing the conflict outright.
About the Author
Jon Wilkins is an evolutionary biologist working on genetic imprinting, or understanding how genetic traits evolve or die across and within generations. Jon grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and received his PhD from Harvard University. Before joining the Santa Fe Institute in 2004, Jon started his academic career at Harvard as one of only a handful of members of the Harvard Society of Fellows.
Man vs. nature in The Road
Man vs. Nature: Coevolution of Social and Ecological Networks
Since the Industrial Revolution, we've come to think of nature as the stage on which the human drama unfolds, separate from humanity. Cormac McCarthy's book brings us back to reality and opens the conversation at the Santa Fe Institute about the impact of humans on the environment.
As early as 1820, one observer wrote that truly "external" nature—nature apart from humanity—"exists nowhere except perhaps on a few isolated Australian coral atolls." Not only do humans directly alter many ecosystems through development and agriculture, we impact apparently untouched habitats in remote regions of the earth through pollution and climate change. Yet we depend on nature for "ecosystem services" such as water purification, pollination, fisheries and climate regulation. For better and for worse, humans are constantly coevolving with species and the environment. Many traditional societies have found creative ways to remind themselves of the critical interdependence of the human and natural worlds—consider the water temples of Bali, for example. Claude Lévi-Strauss, perhaps the greatest anthropologist of our time, believed that this interdependence is fundamental to human thought.
According to Lévi-Strauss, when we think about nature we are always already thinking about ourselves.
In the past decade, scientific journals and the media have been filling up with reports of our changing relationship to nature. The most prominent example is climate change, but there are many others: the destruction of the world's tropical forests and reefs, the eutrophication of lakes and coastal zones, the beginning of a new age of mass extinction. In The Road, Cormac does not dwell on the scientific details of these catastrophes. Instead, he imagines a world that represents their logical outcome and asks us to imagine what that might feel like. What if there was a near-complete breakdown of the complex networks joining humans with one another and with other species? It's a question that stirs and troubles our sense of who we are.
"There was yet a lingering odor of cows in the barn and he stood there thinking about cows and he realized they were extinct. Was that true? There could be a cow somewhere being fed and cared for. Could there? Fed what? Saved for what? Beyond the open door the dead grass rasped dryly in the wind" (p. 120).
About the Author
J. Stephen Lansing is a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, with a joint appointment in ecology and evolutionary biology. He is also a professor at the Santa Fe Institute and director of Yayasan Somia Pretiwi, an Indonesian foundation promoting collaborative research on environmental problems in the tropics. Stephen chaired the anthropology department at the University of Southern California for five years and later became a professor in the School of Natural Resources & Environment and the department of anthropology at the University of Michigan. He has been a Fulbright fellow, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, a lecturer at Udayana University and a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
Where fiction and science meet
More About the Santa Fe Institute (SFI)
More of a think tank than an "ivory tower," SFI is committed to improving science literacy and educating the next generation of scientists so they are comfortable thinking across different disciplines and conceptualizing the world around them in new ways. One of SFI's founders and distinguished scientist, George Cowan, describes scientific inquiry as simply "perpetual curiosity." It is this curiosity that bonds researchers at SFI, regardless of background or profession.
The collection of minds that comprises SFI's distributed network is diverse and the problem-solving techniques multifaceted. The founding institution of what is now known as "Complexity Science," SFI has become a world leader in multidisciplinary research, whose impact on the physical, biological and social sciences is profound and transformative.
Learn more at SantaFe.edu.
Read an excerpt from Cormac McCarthy's The Road.