20 March 2013

DNA and Glengarry Glen Ross

I first saw Glengarry Glen Ross about twenty years ago. It made a big impression on me, not least for its excoriation of capitalism, scouring away the epidermis to reveal the unbridled self-interest that lies beneath. Self-interest is the source of the beneficent “invisible hand” revealed in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and I have to say that I have always regarded self-interest as the prime motivator of all living things.

This view was fostered by my training in biology. Even before the publication of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene it had dawned on me that the promotion and replication of one’s own genetic material was the basic driving force in human affairs. My thinking went further: it was the DNA itself (and to an extent, the RNA) that was so ruthless, and our bodies were mere vehicles to be cast aside when we had served our purpose.

Consider human courtship and mating. Generally speaking, we are most attractive to potential mates between the ages of fifteen and thirty, and nature lavishes herself without stint on making young people attractive. She blinds us to the responsibilities and sheer hard work of parenthood; we are suckered by our psychology into the business of passing on our genes. Since human offspring take such a long time to mature, we are encouraged by an elaborate bonding process to stay together until such time as they are independent, after which we are tolerated because we have resources or experience that they may find helpful (in producing their own young); and then, once our usefulness is over, we die.

There are many exceptions to this general pattern, of course. Some males adopt a strategy of spreading their genetic material more widely, and are denounced, especially by females, as “love rats”. Females choose a mate primarily for his genes, but, almost as importantly, also for his likelihood to stick around and help raise the brood. From the male perspective, each of these strategies has its advantages, since the presence of a father is conducive to the successful rearing of children.

And in order to survive to breed and to preserve and promote his young, the individual must selfishly preserve and promote his own health and wellbeing.

What, then, is the biology of altruism? At the university we studied the altruistic – or seemingly altruistic – behaviour of flocks and herds, and of mammals (such as cetaceans) that tend to their sick and disabled. However complex the mathematics, in all such cases there appears to be a benefit to the individual, whether through “paying it forward” or through the establishment of a system that benefits every individual in the group. For example, emperor penguins congregate in autumn on their Antarctic breeding grounds. The females perforce absent themselves to feed during the worst of the polar winter, leaving an all-male crowd behind to carry on the task of incubation. The male balances his egg on his feet and keeps it warm using a special brood-patch. If the temperature of the egg drops below a critical point, even briefly, the embryo will die. The males must survive horrendously low temperatures and storm-force winds. Individually, none of them could make it; but the penguins huddle together in a single, remarkable mass that is constantly circulating. Each bird spends some time on the freezing periphery before his place is taken by another from the blood-warmed centre. Those birds on the periphery are behaving altruistically, even if only for twenty minutes at a time, as are the ones making their way outwards from the centre. Without such co-operation, the whole flock would die.

This behaviour puts one in mind of the extreme courage of parents when their young are threatened. A mother linnet will remain with the nest during a heath fire, and be consumed by it; a number of bird species have evolved so-called distraction displays in which the parent pretends to be injured, gradually luring a predator away from the nest and so exposing itself to danger. A human parent will risk or expend everything to save his or her child from death.

We applaud such bravery, and are moved by the penguins’ stoicism, precisely because we have been programmed by evolution to do so. In analysing our thoughts and reactions, we should never forget that we are animals too. But we are more than mere animals: we have the power of ratiocination, and this is where I come back to Glengarry Glen Ross.

Its author, David Mamet, is rightly celebrated as one of the finest modern playwrights. Glengarry Glen Ross first appeared in 1984, as a play, at a time when Mamet espoused left-wing – what nowadays are termed “liberal” – views. Since then he has made something of a political journey to the right:

For the early-1990s film version of Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet wrote an additional, absolutely electrifying, monologue, delivered by Alec Baldwin:

(NB contains extreme profanity – not safe for work)

Those emperor penguins, in permanent darkness at eighty below, cowering before hundred-mile-an-hour winds, are always closing.

Surely, David Mamet could not have written Baldwin’s speech before he met his new neighbour and started exchanging books. For a brilliant exposition of the monologue, see this piece by David Wong. Thanks are due to Mike Cane for putting me onto it and for starting this train of thought.


mikecane said...

>>>precisely because we have been programmed by evolution to do so

And that is the bane of my existence. Being jerked around by such "programming." I always return to Philip K. Dick's story, "The Electric Ant." Which might be located *cough* here:

LP said...

Can't seem to access the story. Is there another link?

Richard Herley said...

I've checked all the links and they're working OK for me.

LP said...

Tried again... Mikecane's link still not working for me. O well. Thanks for checking. L