Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Thinking About Singapore
An associate who recently was required to spend a day in Singapore on a business trip became so irritated by the smug attitude of the island republic's officials, taxi drivers and others that it gave rise to this rumination.
In 1985, the satirical novelist Kurt Vonnegut published an odd novel, Galápagos, the story of band of humans on a nature cruise who are shipwrecked on a remote fictional island in the Galápagos chain after a financial crisis has wrecked the global economy. They arrive on the island of Santa Rosalia just in time to become the last remnants of mankind when a virus attacks the ovaries of all the world's women, making them infertile. The Santa kilometers of open South Pacific water and still able to breed, become the last people on earth. It was on the 19-island Galápagos chain, of course, where the naturalist Charles Darwin formulated his 1859 theory, On the Origin of Species by watching and recording the way finches' bills changed shape as the weather in lean or fat years made food more or less abundant. Some Galápagos birds even cease flying but become superb swimmers because fish forms their diet.
In Vonnegut's fable, over the next million years Darwin's theory of natural selection favors those who can swim the fastest. The descendants of the Santa Rosalians thus devolve gradually into a species resembling seals, with flippers and rudimentary fingers. Their snouts evolve into beaks with teeth adapted to catching fish. Since a streamlined head means they can swim faster, their brains eventually shrink as their heads change shape. Hisako Hiroguchi, an ikebana teacher, ultimately gives birth to Akiko Hiroguchi, a child born with fur covering her entire body.
Evolution is on the way. The species has evolved – devolved in fact – into one that has little need for thought as long as its constituent members can swim fast and catch fish. Throughout the novel, Vonnegut blames the human brain for the existence of the crisis that has wrecked the global financial system. According to an analysis of the book, Vonnegut, who died in 2007 just before the current financial crisis began to take on an uncanny resemblance to his book, believes that "only a complex brain such as ours can change its opinion of the value of a currency so rapidly and let these opinions control our actions, which have real-life consequences."
Vonnegut, an astonishingly inventive but famously slapdash novelist, produced a considerable flock of books as strange as Galápagos, but many of his fabulist concoctions came dangerously close to a later reality. What if today there existed a hermetically sealed tropical island whose citizens, fed only what their leaders, a dynasty of Chinese mandarins, want them to hear? The English language, taught only by natives who learn it from others on the island, starts to evolve into a strange crackle. As their leaders become more distrustful of the outside world – surrounded by a Muslim sea – they evolve newer and better ways of keeping outsiders out and controlling the way the insiders think. They lose their ability to cope not only with Asia but anywhere else in the world. In places where people chew gum, argue with the government, take risks, misbehave and occasionally display rule-breaking creativity, the aversion to the unruly would be a major disadvantage. No taxi driver lets his passengers out in defiance of the double yellow line, nor, when the howls of drivers behind him grow to a deafening roar, does he step out of the car and scream, "Aw, go **** yourself!"
The island's leader first tries to control population through mass sterilization programs, causing the birth rate to fall precipitously as 30 percent of child-bearing women are sterilized in an attempt to "raise the quality of the population." His efforts go too far, with the result that the island's birthrate refuses to rise back to replacement levels. The leadership brings in hundreds of thousands of mainland Chinese – fortunately already trained in obedience by the Communist Party.
Then scientists at the island's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology help to collect tissue and DNA samples from 10,000 species of animals. They begin to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the human and other vertebrate genomes and soon discover that they can change the direction of human development. Because smaller humans take up less space, birth rates no longer need be cut drastically. But nonetheless, the island can grow geographically – by a third, through dramatic environmental intervention. An increasingly uneasy society begins to worry more and more about outsiders, frisking and X-raying passengers on the way into the island, becoming the first society in Asia to do so. Erroneously given to believing their leader's eugenics theories have made them smarter than any other society, they approach education as a technological tool rather than as a means of enlightenment. Subsequent attempts to legislate innovation into the society go nowhere. The population go about their lives seeking merely to get as comfortable as possible.
Countless attempts to foster creativity meet with frustration.
Paralleling Vonnegut, there is a global financial crisis. The rest, as they say, is history. It doesn't take a million years. They may even be able to catch fish in Orchard Road.