“What are we looking at, professor?”
“An animated simulation of evolution in the form of a circular phylogenetic tree. The common ancestor of all living things is represented by the hub of the circular shape. The ever-expanding branches radiating outward from that hub, with their multitude of twigs on each branch, represent species-splitting events, such as when populations of the same species become vicariant.”
The circular phylogenetic tree displayed on the computer monitor in the lab was growing and branching in real time, the snail’s pace of actual evolution speeded by factors of hundreds of millions in this simulation.
The reporter was tapping into her laptop, blogging the interview. She stopped at the word “vicariant” and lifted her eyebrows in inquiry.
“Vicariant — sorry, technical nerd term. It occurs when subpopulations of a single species become widely separated from one another over a significant length of time, during which they have no genetic interchange. In cases like that, should the populations meet again at some later time, it may be that each population has undergone genetic change so significant that they can no longer successfully interbreed; or if they do, they produce sterile offspring. This is a speciation event.”
Tap-tap-tap. “I see. And the purpose of the simulation is?” Tap-tap-tap.
Professor Marcus Multis removed his thick-framed glasses and gazed down with bemusement at the slim fingers tap-dancing across the keyboard. “You’re live-blogging our interview? To whom? Does anyone care?”
The reporter broke off typing and looked earnestly at the professor.
“There are plenty of nerds out there, Professor Multis. I’m a science reporter. My specialty is writing about science for nerds. There really are blogs devoted to biology and other sciency stuff. I have one myself. It’s what I’m blogging to.”
Multis realized that in granting the interview, he had neglected to look into the reporter’s background, her blog or anything else. In fact, he couldn’t even remember her name. He could barely recall his own wife’s name — which was perhaps why they were now separated, with she in the process filing for divorce. On the other hand, like a high-speed computer with a capacious memory but no personality, he could almost effortlessly retrieve the kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species of almost any organism still extant and many extinct. It was a talent that made him a good biologist but not necessarily a good husband or father. Last year his only offspring, Brad, had inventively committed suicide by plunging his head into a vat of formaldehyde in the professor’s own lab. Multis still wondered whether his son was trying to send him some message by this act. At the time, all he could think to say was: “The Multis line, which recedes backward 3.8 billion years and is distantly related to everything else, including bananas and slime molds, shall no longer continue.” In retrospect, it seemed that this one comment had precipitated the downward spiral with his estranged wife, Chrissie (if that was really her name), but the professor couldn’t figure out why. It was just a statement of fact, and of the vagaries of evolution in a probabilistic sense: While the odds of any single unique individual being alive were astronomically remote, the odds of vast numbers of particular individuals being alive in a non-extinct species were 1:1 — unity. The professor now pondered the equivocations of probability and statistics and woolgathered.
“Unity,” he muttered, restoring his glasses to his face.
“Unity. It’s a shame we can’t have … uh, unity. Instead we get multiplication, fragmentation, dispersal, conflict and violence. It is the way of the evolutionary world: nature is red in tooth in claw. Or maybe I should say ‘read’ in tooth and claw.”
The reporter looked puzzled.
“Red, R-E-D, vs. read, R-E-A-D, past tense. Pun.” She was pretty. He wondered if it was politically incorrect to think so.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “What’s your name again?”
“Nanette. Nanette Angeliafóros.”
“Exotic,” the professor responded, already mentally losing the thread of that labyrinthine last name. He strove to commit it to memory by use of a mnemonic device: Angel for us, he thought. Angel for us.
“I dislike Greek food.”
The reporter frowned.
“Sorry.” But he wasn’t sorry. It was just a plain statement of fact. Why, he wondered with ill-disguised irritation, are people so offended by facts? They ought to be offended, he thought, by non-facts — by lies.
“What’s wrong, Professor Multis?”
“Let’s get back to this,” the reporter said, nodding at the simulation. What’s it for?”
“It’s for demonstrating the contingent nature of the world — a world in which, if initial or later conditions had been slightly tweaked, dinosaurs might never have evolved, or might still be around other than as birds, or Hitler might have won World War II.”
“We’re running multiple simulations with arbitrarily tweaked initial conditions and also tweaked later conditions. The goal is to discover, via multiple simulations, using Artificial Life software, whether — if you reset the tape of life and then reran it from the start, as Gould discussed — you’d get similar outcomes. Convergent evolution suggests that you might. Different species, even those wildly unrelated, often converge on similar phenotypic solutions to similar environmental problems. Eyes, of course, evolved independently many times. But there are also many similarities in body plans between distantly related populations. Dolphins, for example, are not fish, but they share a body plan similar to fish.”
“A different school of thought holds that a little change here or there produces what’s called the butterfly effect: Massive changes across the tree of life that produce radically different phenotypic outcomes from seemingly insignificant initial changes. Ask yourself, for instance, whether the evolution of vertebrae was somehow inevitable. Was it inevitable, no matter what environmental conditions prevailed, because it is so useful? Or is it utterly contingent? If vertebrae had never evolved, life on earth would be radically different.”
“Us, of course. Whether narcissistic, greedy, self-aggrandizing and bloodthirsty us was in some sense inevitable, regardless of tweaked conditions in evolutionary history. Think of the history of life as an enigmatic labyrinth, with an almost endless number of paths. Does there nonetheless exist a privileged path that leads to an optimal solution, such that no matter how many times you prowled the labyrinth, no matter how many different paths you explored, inevitably you would have to find the single path that leads to the only exit? Just as in a real maze, like a game printed in a newspaper.”
“The only exit. Somehow that sounds … bleak.”
“You make it sound like Man is somehow … an Exit.”
Angel for Us had briefly stopped blogging and she now looked contemplative. Snapping out of it, she posed the obvious question: “And what are the results of your simulations?”
“Oh … interesting.”
“Care to elaborate?”
“We haven’t run enough simulations yet. We don’t have enough data.”
“But after all they are just simulations, right? They aren’t real.”
“I mean, a map isn’t the territory, is it?”?
He politely bid her goodbye and ushered her out of his lab. She promised to text him the address of her blog, so he could see what she had written about their meeting. He went back to the evolutionary simulation growing on his monitor: A circular world, just like a two-dimensional representation of a planet, getting bigger and bigger, branching out, branches growing from limbs, twigs from branches, more twigs from previous twigs — there was a fractal beauty to the simulation that held the professor’s rapt attention. He decided to get drunk.
He worked at the university and this was a college town. It didn’t take long to find a collegiate bar, one that he had never been in before. He liked that. For some reason he suddenly craved anonymity. He did not want to be seen, noticed, or touched — by anyone.
Professor Multis sometimes wondered whether he might be insane.
He often had bad dreams about the evolutionary biology class that he taught. Here was one: a certain pest of a student, a self-declared young-earth creationist, periodically disrupted class to pester the professor with questions about the alleged insufficiency of evolution to explain the diversity of the earth’s life forms. What about the flagellum? What about blood-clotting cascades? What about irreducible complexity? What about Michael Behe? What about Jesus? Where did Jesus fit into evolutionary theory? The professor dreamed of attacking the student with a scalpel and gutting him like Darwin’s fish. He would then lay him out on a table and dissect him while the other students watched, big-eyed with terror. He would produce, for his students’ inspection and edification, guts, viscera, offal; he’d tear out the heart as if he were some Maya chieftain, holding it out for his students to see and the heart would beat and beat in his hands, its blood streaming down through his fingers … and then he would cut open and head and hack through the skull and discover that inside, nothing was there. At this point the professor’s terrified students would break into screams and bolt out of the lab. And then the professor would wake up screaming in a bed cold and empty, the form of his estranged wife still somehow imprinted upon the sheets: those voluptuous hips, the long, elegant legs … And he’d hear a grandfather clock ticking in the stillness and aloneness and otherwise otherworldly silence of his dark, dark room … and the sounds of those ticks would grow louder and louder — tap-tap-tap — until they sounded like the raps of a chisel on granite, knocking away the flakes of his life and slowly reducing him to a pile of rubble. Like his father at his father’s death: a squiggle of shriveled pus on a hospital gurney, mind eaten away be dementia and flesh devoured by systemic internal failure. Whee! That’s life!
At the bar he ordered a pint of an imperial India pale ale, guaranteed to zone him out quickly.
The professor sipped his pint and savored the sharp tang of the alcohol mingled with the hoppy flavor. He unknotted his tie, and took another sip. He looked up, and saw that a ceiling fan was slowly turning.
Only a few people were at the bar, all students. Off in a corner of the spacious, rustic bar, some other students were playing beer pong and laughing. An Internet jukebox erupted in effusions of loud, offensive rap music that gave Multis an instant headache. He took another sip — no, a gulp — and reveled in the warmth spreading through his chest. He unbuttoned his jacket and then grabbed his unknotted tie and stripped it off. Up above, a flat-screen TV, volume off, was showing the image of the president making a speech.
He looked to his left and his gaze strayed on a dart board that had been pierced by feathery darts. But no one was playing.
He looked in another direction and saw, hanging from a wall, the original Old Glory with its ring of thirteen stars.
He saw, with his mind’s eye, the simulation of the circular phylogenetic tree, growing, growing …
He snapped out of some trance. That voice.
He looked to his right and slightly downward and there was a pretty elfin lady of Japanese descent smiling up at him.
“It’s Eaku, professor. “Eaku.” Persistent smile.
The professor blinked. “Do I … know you?”
“I’m one of your grad students, professor. Don’t you remember me?”
“Eaku, of course. Eaku! How are you, Eaku? You’ll forgive me. I’m a bit … distracted.”
Eaku beamed anew.
He beamed back.
“You have no clue who I am, do you, professor?” Eaku said, still displaying her polite, brittle smile, a ritualized kabuki smile.
“I’m the grad student who has been helping you on the phylogenetic simulation. Well, I haven’t just been helping you. I’ve been running the whole goddamned show, while you spend your waking hours getting shit-faced drunk.” Her smile was gone, and her dark eyes were stone-hard. “And I’ve been having an affair with you. Don’t you remember?”
“Get away from me.”
She unbuttoned her blouse and spread it athwart. Her perky tits, unsheathed by a bra, popped out. Areolae like roses. On her chest, above her cleavage, was a henna tattoo of a mandala. It looked like the simulation on his computer monitor.
Mandalas. Henna. Both impermanent artistry. Designs designed not to last. Just like species. Ninety-nine percent of species that had ever lived had perished. He knew that. We’re next.
Eaku buttoned her blouse and stormed out of the bar in a huff. The professor called tipsily after her: “Hey, nothing lasts forever.” He sniggered and drank.
Cigarette smoke wafted in front of him. He hailed the bartender.
“Someone is smoking,” he pointed out.
“Smoking is illegal indoors.”
“Not on this planet, buddy.” The bartender went away. The professor looked around.
Everyone was smoking. The air was blue with smoke.
He checked his cellphone and got the text from Angel for Us, with the link to her blog. But before surfing there, he Googled her actual name. He discovered that it was Greek for messenger.
How curious. Like messenger RNA, maybe?
He surfed to her blog and read this:
“Professor Multis’s simulation experiment is a striking verification of Intelligent Design. A message from God. The hardware and software is intelligently designed; the seemingly arbitrary tweaks of initial and later conditions were put in hand by intelligence; the entire setup is impossible without intelligence lurking behind it. Without even knowing that he has done so, Professor Multis, an atheist materialist, has proved the existence of God!” Some happy face smilies followed.
Multis was dumfounded.
An overhead bell rang as the door to the bar opened. Multis looked to observe who was coming in, feeling weirdly like Tony Soprano in the final moments of The Sopranos TV show just before the screen went black.
It was Angel for Us, with friends.
She and her friends navigated through a growing happy-hour crowd of college students and approached a table. Something was off kilter again, and then the professor realized with a start: nobody was smoking.
He weaved his way through a pack of idiots wearing baseball caps backward and compulsively consulting their cellphones. He intercepted Angel for Us as she was sitting down.
“Professor! What a pleasant —”
He grabbed her elbow and cut her off. “I ought to dissect you,” he hissed. Her smile collapsed. He dug his fingers into her.
“Let go! You’re hurting me.” She managed to break free of him. He glowered down at her as she sat. She looked terrified. “What the hell is wrong with you?” she blurted, near tears. Her friends, mixed gender, gathered round, poised to defend her.
The professor fumbled with his glasses and they fell from his nose and hit the floor and broke and everything became a blur.
He wagged a finger at the blurred Angel for Us and lectured: “You wrote that my simulation proves intelligent design. That’s insane!”
“I did not write that.”
“You did! I just read your blog!”
Angel for Us produced her cellphone and thumb-typed up her blog. Multis leaned forward and squinted at it. What followed was an accurate, professional summation of their conversation, with no conclusions drawn. It was perfect.
Once more, the air was blue with smoke.
“Fake news!” The voice bellowed from the TV.
Multis looked up. The TV showed the president. Only, incredibly, he seemed to be surrounded by a retinue of thugs, goons, and miscreants. The president ranted and raved and Multis thought, who is this guy? This isn’t the president. Where did he come from?
He thought: I must be drunk. It’s the only possible explanation.
He weaved through a growing crowd toward the john.
Inside he threw up, cleaned up and went back out — where he encountered a tapestry of eyes.
Eyes. So many eyes. All peering at him.
Catlike eyes, slanted and gleaming. All those gleams resembled candles glowing in a darkened room. Multis squinted at those eyes, bringing their bearers into temporary focus.
They were cats — all of them. No, not cats, but catlike. But not cats. One such prowled on the ceiling of an interior quite different from what it had been earlier. It had a catlike face but it walked upside down on ten stilt-like legs with suction cups for feet and it had feathers. Its long tail curled around an upright goblet with fluid inside. Multis ran back into the john and locked the door. After a while fists pounded on it, but he would not come out. He was seated on the toilet rocking back and forth and hugging himself. He now had his data.
In his lab, the simulation that he had named Eaku grew and grew until its feathery twigs reached the periphery of the monitor screen. The screen splintered and cracked and blew apart. The iron-black egg of Eaku, that Yggdrasil, now not just a circular but a spherical phylogenetic tree, rolled out and crashed through the floor. It burrowed down to the center of the earth and then out the other side, on the antipode of the lab. Then, obeying the law of gravity, it retraced its path and returned to the lab and then it again fell back through the center of the earth and out the other side and then again it retraced its path. During these oscillations it grew bigger and bigger as it feasted on the flesh of the world, and within an hour the earth no longer existed. There was only Eaku.