LIFE 101
Everything We Wish We Had Learned About Life In School -- But Didn't


Which Is More Important--Heredity or Eliot?

My cousin has
great changes coming:
One day he'll
wake up with wings.


Remember the old question: "Which is more important--heredity or environment?" I say old question when, perhaps, I should say obsolete question. The question has been answered and, in time, will be asked about as often as "Is the world flat or round?" "Is sex possible after forty?" "Does McDonald's `do it all for you,' or do they do it all for money?"

The answers to these questions (in order) are: heredity, round, I don't remember, and money.

An elaborate study tracked down identical twins separated at birth. Each twin had grown up in a different environment, but had the same genetics. In some cases, the environments were very different--one twin grew up in poverty, the other in luxury; one with stern parents, the other with permissive parents; one in a devoutly religious family, the other in a devoutly indifferent family; one in a "broken" home, the other in a "happy" home. Some were even raised in other cultures and grew up speaking different native languages.

The twins were given tests that measured more than one hundred variables of personality. What the study found was that the identical twins were, in a word, identical--they were, essentially, the same person.

Yes, of course, each had individual distinctions--just as there is something that distinguishes one seagull from another--but, when compared to other people (like comparing seagulls to skylarks), identical twins were far more the same than different.

With me,
it's just a genetic
dissatisfaction with everything.

Woody Allen

A seagull is a seagull is a seagull, a rose is a rose is a rose, you are you are you. This study merely supports numerous other studies that have gradually, gradually, gradually traced the "roots" of who we are to younger and younger ages. Studies indicated the basic personality was formed before puberty, then before age five, then before two, then sometime between the first Lamaze class and the father's yelling: "I can't take any more of this! I need something for the pain!"

In one human trait after another, what was once considered a "choice" now is seen as the result of the birth-parents' tossing the old genetic dice. Such characteristics as body weight, sexual preference, and shopping at K-Mart seem to be as genetically based as eye color, height, and intelligence. Yes, we can "choose" to go against genetics but usually with great difficulty. K-Mart shoppers are simply never going to be happy shopping exclusively at Neiman Marcus--and vice versa. (Especially vice versa. More vice versa than verse vica.)

Yes, severe extremes in the environment will override genetics--extended malnutrition in childhood, for example, can stunt growth, just as extreme societal prejudice can make those with more than the "normal" number of fat cells near-anorexic or make homosexuals mimic heterosexuality.

(The latter two examples have much to do with the individuals' need for approval and their willingness to conform as they do with social pressures. There are, after all, any number of happy people and gay homosexuals. The nned for approval and willingness to conform, however, are most likely, yes, genetic.)

"But studies prove that troubled youths come from troubled homes." Yes, troubled youths are more likely to come from troubled homes just as chickens tend to come from chicken coops, but that doesn't mean troubled homes create troubled youths any more than chicken coops create chickens. Troubled youths come from troubled homes because they inherited troubled genes from the troubled homemakers.

What more felicity
can fall to creaturE,
Than to enjoy delight
with liberty.


Frankly, the common belief that environment is more important than heredity--or even that the two are equally important--is but another example of our habit, as humans, of setting ourselves above nature. We are a part of nature. We grow from it; we're not placed in it. Consequently, the laws of nature apply to us as much as they apply to snowflakes, water buffalo, and Spam. And one of nature's most fundamental laws is that of genetics. Plant a radish seed; get a radish.

If you're an orange blossom, don't look forward to being an apple. If you're a rose, you come with thorns.

All of this came home--literally--when I ordered a see-the- miracle- of-nature- and-grow- your-own -butterflies kit. A week later the UPS driver delivered a plastic cup with some green gunk on the bottom and on top of the green gunk were five black, half-inch-long pipe-cleaners. The pipe cleaners, I discovered, were caterpillars. These things were going to become butterflies? Yeah, right.

The black pipe cleaners moved around and ate the green gunk and got bigger. I was still quite certain I had been sent the grow-your-own-pipe-cleaners kit by mistake.

After about ten days--as if someone had rung a bell--all the caterpillars climbed to the top of the cup, attached themselves to the lid, and promptly turned into chrysalises. On each chrysalis was gold--iridescent, reflective, shiny gold! How on earth did black pipe-cleaners eating green gunk make gold?

No time to marvel, because B-Day was on its way, and I had to put together the supplied butterfly house "which any child can assemble in less than thirty minutes." Of course, it took me half a day, and even then I had to accept the fact that my butterflies were going to be raised in substandard housing. (I never did find tab "C" which was supposed to go into slot "K.")

The butterfly glow
in the narrow flute from which
the morning-glory opens
blue and cool on a hot morning.


Into their new slum housing went the chrysalises, out of which, after another ten days and another inaudible (to me) alarm bell--came butterflies . Painted lady butterflies. On the wings were every color of the rainbow. How on earth did every color of the rainbow come from black caterpillars eating green gunk?

The answer to "how on earth?" is that they are of the earth. That's just what painted lady caterpillars do. It's in their genetic code. It's determined the moment the egg is fertilized. It's not just when and how to turn from black pipe-cleaner to iridescent gold chrysalis to multicolored butterfly; the code also includes what to eat, how to eat, how to mate, when to mate, and when and where to migrate.

My gracious--migration. Painted lady butterflies gather by the millions--again at a time determined by one of those inaudible bells--and fly south together--often more than two thousand miles! In the spring, they gather again and fly back home.

All the painted lady butterfly needs to know--from eating to migrating to making other painted lady butterflies--is contained within the fertilized egg. It's run by the law of genetics--as is almost every other portion of the living world. Even us.

Perhaps I should say especially us. Imagine all the painted lady butterfly "knows" before it even hatches itself; then imagine how much more we must "know" with our more intricate and elaborate genetic make-up. Yes, we are different from butterflies--not because we chose to be different, but because we are different.

Are human beings superior to butterflies? It depends on your criteria. When it comes to eating three hot dogs in less than five minutes, humans are far superior to butterflies. But when it comes to flying...*

*(The pipe cleaners and green gunk--along with build- it-yourself- substandard- butterfly housing--are available from Insect Lore Products, P.O. Box 1535, Shafter, CA 93263. I do not get a royalty. I will not be making an infomercial for them. I'll leave that to Cher.)

I do not know whether
I was then a man dreaming
I was a butterfly,
or whether I am now a butterfly
dreaming I am a man.

369-286 B.C.

The only reasonable course of action seems to be acceptance.

Yes, we can make change, but change is very expensive and our resources are limited. Choose wisely what to change; accept the rest.

Eat the green gunk, hang in there, listen for the alarm bells, and there will be golden, fluttering, soaring surprises.

PAINTED LADY LESSON #4: It is easier to wear and improve the genes you already have than to go to the Gap and try to get another pair.

Does this mean be complacent? Not at all. There is so much not inherited; so much to be learned . All the great thoughts of those who went before, for example. T. S. Eliot wrote that tradition "cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor" (Some of that "great labor" might include deciphering the works of T. S. Eliot. He is, by his own admission, "Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse." Like all good learning, however, understanding Eliot is worth the effort).

Poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult . The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into its meaning.

But, Eliot continues: "Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood." That's a relief. Capturing the poem is not:

Each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.

One cannot write poetry for fame, and certainly not for money . (What are the odds Andrew Lloyd Webber will take your poetry and turn it into Cats?)

As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career, but a mug's game. No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.

Poetry is not an assertion of truth,
but the making of that truth
more real to us.


Well, let's take a glimpse at this mug's game. (Each paragraph is an excerpt from an Eliot poem--my apologies to Eliot for their selection and arrangement.)

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight
between birth and dying.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The readers of the Boston Evening Transcript
Sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.

What is hell?
Hell is oneself,
Hell is alone, the other figures in it
Merely projections.

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.

Between the conception and the creation
Between the emotion and the response
Falls the Shadow.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

Stand on the highest pavement of the stair--
Lean on a garden urn--
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.

O hidden under the dove's wing,
hidden in the turtle's breast,
Under the palmtree at noon,
under the running water
At the still point of the turning world.
O hidden.

Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance,
and there is only the dance.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Note how this chapter metamorphosed?

'Tis but a gift of butterflies.

Are Human Beings Fundamentally Good or Fundamentally Evil?

My answer: good.

My proof? I could quote philosophers, psychologists, and poets, but then those who believe humans are fundamentally evil can quote just as many philosophers, psychologists, and poets.

My proof, such as it is, is a simple one. It returns to the source of human life: an infant.

The only good is knowledge
and the only evil
is ignorance.


When you look into the eyes of an infant, what do you see? I've looked into a few, and I have yet to see fundamental evil radiating from a baby's eyes. There seems to be purity, joy, brightness, splendor, sparkle, marvel, happiness--you know: good.

And yet, if we are fundamentally good, why is it when we relax and listen to our thoughts or feel our emotions or sense our bodies, we often find so much rubbish? Here's my explanation for that, in the form of a diagram.

When choosing
between two evils,
I always like to try
the one I've never tried before.


Babies are like sponges; they absorb everything. By the time they are two years old, they have observed more than 8,000 hours of life: the good, the bad, the ugly--plus whatever was on TV.

As they begin to act out this array of observations, they are informed--sometimes in no uncertain terms--that some behavior is "good," some is "bad," and "around here we don't do the bad, we only do the good."

What do I mean by "evil?" Evil is unnecessary life experience. Whatever we need to do to learn a lesson is life --even if it's "not fun." When the not-fun continues after the lesson is learned--or the job is done--that's evil. To cut off a dog's tail (when necessary) is life. To do it an inch at a time is evil.

At first, the child has trouble understanding why some things are "right" while others are "wrong." (This stage is often referred to as the Terrible Twos.) But, eventually the child learns--with varying degrees of success--to cover the bad with the good, the wrong with the right.

We are taught to pretend to be good, and when we let the pretense slip, we find evil lurking just below the surface. It's little wonder, then, that most people think their inner self is bad. The struggle to keep up the "good act" is a "never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American Way."

When people have the patience (and courage) to go beneath the "inner evil," they find, invariably, a sea of peace, calm, and joy. They have reached the inner good that is their true nature.

Ironically, this inner good is often remarkably similar to the "good shell" that was fabricated for them by the Parental Construction Company. The difference here is that, coming from this center, people do good because good is the thing to do, not because they're "supposed to" do good, or because they might get punished if they don't.

Good people are good
because they've come
to wisdom through failure.


Your friends may think you're, say, a happy person. You might think, "What do they know? If only they knew how unhappy I am inside. I only pretend to be happy, and they fall for it. What kind of friends are these?" The truth may be that beneath the unhappiness is a genuine happiness--and perhaps the happiness your friends see is the genuine happiness, not the pretense of happiness you use as a cover.

This is true of any "good" emotion, thought, or behavior: love, joy, gratitude, enthusiasm, compassion, generosity, tenderness, bravery, cleanliness, reverence, and all the rest.

If you think you're fooling people with your act of goodness, and you think you aren't all that good, maybe the one you're fooling is yourself.

Man's main task in life
is to give birth
to himself,
to become what he
potentially is.



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