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Salon: Why are we here? Evolution’s dirty secrets


Sagan_Cosmic coverWhy are we here? Might this all just be a big fluke? Even if evolution is, as Arthur Koestler said, like an “epic recited by a stutterer,” what is the plot? It seemed like God had a good idea, but then he got sidetracked. Where is he going with this thing?

I believe the writer Kurt Vonnegut touched on the heart of this question. Before a full house of mostly women at Smith College, he first drew a chart that graphed stories. On the X axis he drew time, on the Y happiness. By making a line, he showed, he could map any human story. Goldilocks and the Three Bears started off with a jump when she found the house in the woods, it moved higher like a stock as she saw the table place set for her, then higher again as she found her warm bed, before plummeting when the bears came home. The Garden of Eden started off very high, plummeted down, and then flatlined. Vonnegut used a big sheet of paper to mock scientific reductionism and social science in particular. Most stories weren’t so clear-cut or geometric; they were more squiggly.

Then he told about his own days. They often started, he said, despite protests from his wife, who thought he could use his time more wisely, in taking a leisurely walk to the post office to mail a single letter. At the post office he bought a single stamp from the pretty teller. They smiled and he slid her the envelope. Nothing would ever happen, he admitted. But still, that was not his point.

What was it?


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