When I transferred from UC Santa Barbara to UC Berkeley, I somehow didn't have the official “Schedule of Classes” that described exactly what each class was. In fact, I didn’t know this document existed, and when I filled out the application, I was in the back of a car on some road trip. So for my first semester at Cal, I chose classes more or less at random, which is how I came to be enrolled in Rhetoric 1A, a class that was an alternative to a bonehead English class I’d tested out of in high school. As a junior, I was in a classroom with a bunch of freshmen. (From the standpoint of credits towards graduation, the class was worthless, but I have no regrets—I learned a lot.)
Emboldened by the notion that I couldn’t fail, I was highly experimental and unorthodox with my rhetoric papers, jettisoning all the standards and guidelines the professor had laid out. (He loved this.) The following stage play was my final paper for the class and represents the culmination of my wacko trajectory.
December 10, 1990 – College rhetoric paper
THE STRUGGLE TO EXPLAIN EXISTENCE
A Play in One Act
NICCOLO MACHIAVELLI, author of “The Qualities of the Prince” (an excerpt from The Prince)
RICHARD DAWKINS, author of The Selfish Gene
CHARLES DARWIN, author of The Origin of Species
JEAN JACQUES ROUSSEAU, author of “The Origin of Civil Society” (an excerpt from his oeuvre)
An APPARITION, who holds the answer to everything
SCENE: Geneva, Switzerland
Four writers, all alike in dignity,
In fair Geneva, where we hold our talk,
Speak each at length about reality,
Explaining what is true and what is not.
One speaks of man as though he were exempt
From traits which hinder states, and folly cause.
Another, once this man’s oration’s spent,
Agrees with it, ascribing newer laws.
A third man, till now quiet, takes the floor,
And harshly gives the second one reproach,
Until the fourth claims every man before
Has missed the truth he claims to have approached.
While each the flaws in others tends to show,
The final truth’s not any man’s to know.
Enter MACHIAVELLI, DAWKINS, DARWIN, and ROUSSEAU.
MACHIAVELLI. All decorum aside, I have no other object but to begin this discussion with a minimum of wasted time, so I take the liberty of opening our discourse. Though you may hate me for it, I will not tolerate interruptions. You will all respect me more, ultimately, if I speak my piece without hearing opposing views, for such action would imply hesitation in expounding my ideas, for which you would despise me.
DAWKINS. I think I can speak for Darwin in saying your behavior does not suit this open forum environment, so the gene dictating your one-sidedness will not be perpetuated in your children.
DARWIN. Dawkins, your application of my views could only be considered ridiculous. The treatment of human behavior such as formal debate is not to be found in my abstract, for I have not accumulated sufficient documentation to assert any such thing.
MACHIAVELLI. This quibbling does not befit my command of this discussion, and while I desire to appear merciful, I warn you that cruelty on my part may soon be necessary to restore order to this discussion if you continue in your dissent.
ROUSSEAU. As long as we are forced to obey you, you are unjustified in violating our liberty as free men. Hence you really ought to—
MACHIAVELLI. Silence! As I said in my book, “There is such a gap between how one lives and how one ought to live that anyone who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation” (p. 40). And preservation is exactly what I intend to discuss now, without further interruption. My ideas actually relate to Darwin’s, for I believe that one’s success is dependent largely on how well he knows his surroundings. In my book I explain how in doing this, “One learns to know one’s own country and can better understand how to defend it” (p. 38‑9). This adaptation is a prince’s most important quality, just as Darwin’s idea of natural selection is based on how well any species can adapt to its environment. Perhaps even more applicable is Darwin’s notion that the behavior of organisms is entirely that which will perpetuate its numbers, and that no organism would ever act in such a way as to solely benefit another. This would be like generosity, which as I have said in my book, is unwise, for it requires a prince to “burden the people with excessive taxes . . . and becoming impoverished, he will not be much esteemed by anyone” (p. 41). Hence what is effective in nature is effective in politics—namely, whatever works, regardless of “moral” considerations which, in practice, are their own undoing. Darwin, although you shake your head, I will be consistent by continuing to use your book to justify my controversial views; and Rousseau, I will disregard your grumbling, for a prince must often accept being despised. Since you, Dawkins, look as though you agree with my ideas, I will allow you to speak now.
DAWKINS. I do agree with you, Machiavelli, because what you are really driving at is what I cite in my book: what Maynard Smith calls “an evolutionarily stable strategy.” This I define as “a strategy which, if most members of a population adopt it, cannot be bettered by an alternative strategy” (p. 74). I demonstrate this idea by illustrating that if two types of fighting strategies—those of Hawk and Dove—exist, the number of adopters of each strategy depends on what ultimately becomes the most stable balance. In this model, hawks always attack and doves always retreat. I see that Darwin is cringing over there; I should acknowledge that doves are in real life aggressive birds, but not in my model. The strategy of hawks will gain popularity only as long as there are enough doves to attack; once hawks must attack other hawks, injury and fatality result, so that the doves who escape injury will grow in numbers. Eventually a balance is reached between the two. Machiavelli, this concurs with your ideas because the strategy depends entirely on what will work, instead of which strategy is morally correct.
ROUSSEAU grumbles, gnashes his teeth.
DAWKINS. But before anybody accosts me, I should make some careful stipulations. First, the survival of a kingdom is not really the underlying goal here; all organisms are actually only “survival machines” for genes. Genes are the real life force, whose purpose is to replicate themselves from here to eternity. These genes “swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots” and manipulate the world “by remote control” (p. 21). Thus any organism, man included, acts only to perpetuate the selfish gene controlling it, which accounts for altruism within a family, since family members carry the same gene. Any other survival machine, be it of the same or another species, is expendable. Animals only refrain from killing off members of their own species because they have common rivals which would benefit from this. In Machiavelli’s kingdom, a prince will seek to perpetuate his kingdom because his offspring will inherit it, and the chance for survival of this offspring—and hence the common gene—will be greater if his assets are great.
ROUSSEAU. This is all very well, but can you really refute that man, by creating a social pact in which he willfully surrenders certain freedoms, has separated himself from other species?
DAWKINS. Actually, man is unique because he has culture, which is just like genetic transmission in that it evolves, and outlives the organism—in this case, man alone—who is its survival machine. Culture, which encompasses literature, religion, and even fashion, replicates itself just like genes do; I call it a meme. Memes compete just like genes, but for “radio and television time, billboard space, newspaper column-inches, and library shelf-space” (p. 212).
DARWIN drops the flower he had been studying, turns pale.
DAWKINS. Man, through his memes, can even transcend his genes; for example, while a “gene for celibacy is doomed to failure in the gene pool,” it “can be successful in the meme pool” (p. 213). As I brilliantly concluded in my book, “We have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” (p. 215).
DARWIN. Dawkins, I believe that sufficient documentation in my favor has now been established to demonstrate that you possess stupidity, the selection of I cannot account for. My book represents a thoroughness and attention to accuracy; for as I state in the introduction, “No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references, on which my conclusions have been grounded” (p. 66). Your book, on the other hand, comes completely from your own imagination, yet attempts to draw authority from my painstaking work in order to justify its claims. The beginning of your book is marked by strict adherence, even reverence, for my work; on page one, you state, “It was Darwin who first put together a coherent and tenable account of why we exist.” The reader is hence led to believe that you are a follower of mine and that my ideas back yours. I find it preposterous that you ultimately conclude that “Darwinism is too big a theory to be confined to the narrow context of the gene. The gene will enter my thesis as an analogy, nothing more” (p. 205). Here, you both discard my backing and reduce ninety percent of your book to “an analogy.” It can easily be found, I believe, that the final chapter of your book is marked by brazen anthropomorphism which I carefully avoided; hence you have no backing from me of your theories—only the “analogy” you explain in most of your book!
DAWKINS. Certainly your views on natural selection must, at least, justify my “selfish gene” thesis.
DARWIN. They do, but only in a very limited sense. If a certain variation tends to preserve an organism, it will be selected and inherited by that organism’s offspring. In that regard you seem to understand my ideas. But to act in a way that consciously perpetuates a gene implies a sense of purpose which is entirely missing in the animal and plant world. Species simply survive, as I detailed in an entire chapter of my book. The idea of living with a purpose in mind is anthropomorphic; I very intentionally avoid this, as human considerations of morality and purpose are beyond the realm of scientific study. Treating your preposterous notions as science leaves your work completely vulnerable to the unfounded, slippery-slope miscomprehensions which reduce your book to a mockery of itself, and to those as irresponsible as yourself, a mockery of me as well.
DAWKINS turns bright red, covers his face with his hands.
DARWIN. Machiavelli, I believe you will recognize the inconsistent nature of this man’s thinking. Earlier, he validated your claims by tying them into his work; then, he similarly embraced Rousseau’s ideals which are in direct contrast to yours. Anything could fit his thesis.
MACHIAVELLI. Indeed, I would never trust him as a subject, for any man having such malleable beliefs would be prone to conspiracy. Exterminating such a subject, while necessary and practical, could nonetheless be unpleasant.
ROUSSEAU. Before you become too smug, gentlemen, I believe your own arguments to be incomplete. You have successfully described a primitive society in which man, or organisms, follow the law of self-preservation. But is man really unaccountable for his actions? Machiavelli, I challenge your totally pragmatic approach, for it is based upon the fallacy that political power is “exercised in the interests of the governed” (Rousseau, p. 57). Slavery is a perfect example of both this fallacy about power, and of the distinction between man and nature. Regardless of whether enslaving its own kind is a trait unique to man, the tendency to justify slavery, or anything else, is uniquely human. Much of my essay is given to refuting erroneous claims about the “right” of slavery. Animals lack not only the means, but the instinct to make arguments like this one: “Since the victor has a right to kill his defeated enemy, the latter may, if he so wish, ransom his life at the expense of his liberty” (p. 62). Machiavelli, even if you are logically pragmatic, you obviously recognize the idea of “right” in seeking the greatest good for a ruled people. And Darwin, your scientific analysis of the behavior of organisms does not address this element of human behavior. While Dawkins’ argument is obviously flawed, it nonetheless attempts to explain man’s unique behavior. No more scientific is my argument, yet it is not lacking in a treatment of human behavior. Machiavelli, you need to recognize the “vast difference between subduing a mob and governing a social group” (p. 64). And both you and Darwin must admit that man has made “the passage from the state of nature to the civil state” and “substitutes justice for instinct in his behavior, and gives to his actions a moral basis which formerly was lacking” (p. 68). These social constructs are unique to man; instead of “might making right” or “survival of the fittest,” all men “become equal in the eyes of the law” (p. 72).
DARWIN. Yes, but I believe adequate factual documentation of your ideas to be lacking in your thesis.
MACHIAVELLI. How dare you refute my ideas! I will not tolerate your dissent!
DAWKINS. Wait, if you won’t accept my ideas, and his lack scientific backing, and I myself have supposedly confounded my theories about behavior, then what is the right answer?
APPARITION. You wacky kids. You all have your ideas, but nobody has found the answer. Machiavelli, how do you respond to Rousseau’s point about morality?
MACHIAVELLI. I should kill him.
APPARITION. That’s not the point of this convention. Dawkins and Rousseau, how can you give factual verification to your ideas?
ROUSSEAU. Were I a mathematician, I would construct a proof; were I a scientist, I would conduct experiments. As a writer, I can only speculate on my own experience, and whatever history can teach.
DAWKINS. As an avid follower of Rousseau, I refer you to his authority.
APPARITION. Darwin, how do you account for uniquely human behavior?
DARWIN. It is my firm belief that an undertaking of such a nature has never been, and never will be, an endeavor of my studies.
APPARITION. Ah, the convention is a failure. None of you has found the answer alone, and together you only demonstrate each other’s flaws. I’m afraid it’s time for you all to leave.
ALL: Wait, what is the answer?
APPARITION. I could tell you, but that wouldn’t be any fun at all. We’d never again have brilliant minds like yours, not to mention those of Skinner, Freud, Jung (well . . . Jung), and de Beauvoir, engaged in fervent analysis. Besides, what would future Rhetoric 1A students write about?
Since each, in thought, is limited in scope
And gaps reduce the power of each view,
We must continue thinking, while we hope
To someday find a theory which holds true.
Until then we console ourselves with this:
That all our careful thought is virtuous,
That all mistakes or thoughts that run amiss
Are certainly quite far from meaningless.
Perhaps it’s almost better we don’t know
What makes us move, what actions we’re allowed,
Or why we’re here, or where we else should go,
Or just to what brave thoughts to be avowed.
For in the lack of knowledge, we’re all sure
That in our heads, intelligence will stir.
Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1985.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. “The Qualities of the Prince.” A World of Ideas. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
Rousseau, Jean Jacques. “The Origin of Civil Society.” A World of Ideas. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1990.