Portrait of the Artist as a Graying Adolescent
with apologies to Ogden Nash
It was my father who first told me, when I was a boy as yet unschooled
biology, but curious about why the bee
buzzes and the bird sings
That they all seek for one of three things.
First of course is the propensity to look out for numero uno, which
biologists dignify by calling self-preservation,
And under this guise is much behavior excused, even if it doesn't earn
(We may not be moved to tears by the heartfelt political entreaties of
Perot and Steven Forbes,
But at least we recognize that motives like theirs are what make the world
'round and keep the planets in their orbs.)
Second is the desire to send copies of oneself into the world, which,
phrased thusly, seems hardly less egotistical,
and yet is separately
classed as the instinct for procreation.
And this we deem more worthy, perhaps because it supports such virtues
nurturance and education.
(You may wonder why parents thus moved to care for their children are
often seen beating them,
Until the famished behavior of fish and rodents reminds you to be grateful
human parents are so rarely found eating
Still, it is only the third motive to which we are likely to respond with
praise that is wholly sincere and not facetious
And that is the good of the whole, wide specius.
Now, the greedy pursuit of selfish pleasure has been around a long time
has led to travesty and injustice, which
has inspired every religion
and every moral code to counsel its eschewing;
Yet it is the yen to multiply that may be our collective undoing.
Despite the bill of goods about perpetual growth, (which we really knew
better all along than to believe when they
It would be an unpleasant experience for us all if we should cross into
regime where the great, bountiful earth
can no longer hold us.
And the very fact of our success in the evolutionary competition, in which,
after four million years, we have emerged
Is evidence that we are better reproducers than knowers when-to-stop.
Now, given this dire situation, you and I and other quite reasonable people
might be forgiven if we are sometimes tempted
to try countering
motivation number two with appeals to number
Presuming, of course, that the collective consequences of individual actions
are something that everyone should be able
But when we do, we come up smack against the moral relativism which, after
all, our liberal mentors of a generation
ago were the ones to foster
And we find ourselves regarded by our own intellectual kin as some kind
It seems that much of our species's accumulated wisdom concerning fertility,
compiled, as it was, over the eons during
which our survival was a
question more pressing than running out
Now only compounds the greatest peril of our race.
For since the time that individuals first joined together in civilizations,
the act of reproduction has been regarded
not just as a right but as an
And reversing a cultural fixture with such deep roots may not be accomplished
by the modest force of logic, or even our
most ardent exhortation.
While moralizing, grandstanding, invoking fire and brimstone and the horsemen
of the apocalypse may seem like lots of
We're most effective when we appeal to number one.
All our sermons about saving the planet are received, in a pluralistic
society, as just one more moral perspective,
which puts us in direct
competition with the Pope.
Harnessing self-interest may be our best hope.
Surely we can find ways to reward the bachelor and the spinster, adoptive
parents, lesbians and gays,
Adapting the rules so that their behavior pays.
Even if we're just a wee bit disappointed that all our admonitions and
principles, expressed in panel discussions
and editorials, disseminated
through phone calls, emails, digital media
and fax mode,
Are reduced to suggestions about the tax code.
Still, we can hardly complain when it is objected that our hortatory
deportment makes us sound like jerks,
So long as we find something else that works.
Whatever we do, we must make sure
That our policies reward moderate family size and motivate parental
responsibility, but don't punish children
by making them poor.
This sort of thinking has led me finally to conclude that humanity's deepest
problems can only be fixed
By exploiting motivations that are mixed.
I've descended from ethereal discussions in realms both rarefied and exalted,
To a very un-sexy idea with which the population race might actually be
- Josh Mitteldorf, 4/00