Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Lost World and the Mating Mind . . . Warning, Plot Spoilers

Maple White Land (The Lost World)

As many of you know, when I was young, I had an all-consuming passion for dinosaurs, possibly bordering on the pathological.  And, at some point during my dinosaur period I convinced my father and several older brothers to read to me in turns the original dinosaur novel:  Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.  Notwithstanding my childhood fixation, however, I find that I now recall more about the romance in the tale than the dinosaurs themselves.

So, with some plot spoilers, here is how this Edwardian tale of the heart unfolds.  As the story opens, we are witnessing young Edward Malone, an earnest enough Irish reporter for a London newspaper, just as he is proposing marriage to the girl of his dreams, Gladys Hungerton.

Almost before the proposal is out of his mouth, however, she flat-out rejects him.  She explains that, though he’s a good-looking chap, he possesses a defect in character.  When he presses her on the character issue, she spells out to him her ideal, which, sadly, he does not meet.

[A]bove all, he must be a man who could do, who could act, who could look Death in the face and have no fear of him, a man of great deeds and strange experiences. It is never a man that I should love, but always the glories he had won; for they would be reflected upon me.

When Malone asks her if he has any hope, she leaves the door open just a bit:  “Some day, perhaps, when you have won your place in the world, we shall talk it over again.”

Malone seizes onto this slender reed, and the next day goes straight to his editor and asks for the most dangerous assignment available.  Although his editor is concerned that Malone harbors some kind of hidden death wish, he eventually gives in and sends Malone to interview a certain Professor George Challenger.  Challenger had recently returned from a trip to South America, where he claims to have made astounding discoveries.  The only danger here, however – at least as far as the editor is concerned – is that Challenger has already assaulted several journalists asking for interviews.

Sure enough, he confronts Malone as well, but Malone, not without his own resources, is able to win him over, and Challenger reveals his discovery of dinosaurs in the Brazilian jungle.  Malone so charms the professor that Challenger invites him along on his next trip as a member of the press to verify his claims.

This is Malone’s dream come true.  He cares not one whit for prehistoric creatures, scientific discoveries or global exploration – but here’s his chance to make himself worthy of Gladys in a spectacular fashion.

So, as is chronicled elsewhere, Malone accompanies Challenger to South America along with two others: Professor Summerlee, a scientist sufficiently qualified to confirm or deny the genuineness of Challenger’s claims, and Lord John Roxton, an adventurer who knows the Amazon basin and several years earlier helped end slavery by robber barons in South America.

As we now know, Malone in the course of this expedition, encounters strange beasts, has harrowing adventures and from time to time even distinguishes himself.  But the point here is that Malone never would have gone on this trip and never would have written the book (under the alias of Doyle, of course) had Gladys not insisted that he prove himself.

Malone, as it happens, returns home safe and sound, but during the whole time he was away he never heard from Gladys.  Indeed, no message even awaits him when he arrives at Southampton.

Undeterred, Malone goes straight away to see his love, looking forward with anticipation to “the open arms, the smiling face, the words of praise for her man who had risked his life to humor her whim.”  But, he’s stopped dead in his tracks when they meet and he is in short order introduced to Mr. Potts, Gladys’ new husband:

How absurd life is! I found myself mechanically bowing and shaking hands with a little ginger-haired man who was coiled up in the deep arm-chair which had once been sacred to my own use.

Gladys apologizes for abandoning Malone, but then delivers the deepest cut,  “But it [Malone’s feeling for her] couldn't have been so very deep, could it, if you could go off to the other end of the world and leave me here alone?”

Malone turns to leave in despair but before he goes he confronts this Potts fellow:
"Will you answer a question?" I asked.

"Well, within reason," said he.

"How did you do it? Have you searched for hidden treasure, or discovered a pole, or done time on a pirate, or flown the Channel, or what? Where is the glamour of romance? How did you get it?"

He stared at me with a hopeless expression upon his vacuous, good-natured, scrubby little face.

"Don't you think all this is a little too personal?" he said.

"Well, just one question," I cried. "What are you? What is your profession?"

"I am a solicitor's clerk," said he. "Second man at Johnson and Merivale's, 41 Chancery Lane."

"Good-night!" said I, and vanished, like all disconsolate and broken-hearted heroes, into the darkness, with grief and rage and laughter all simmering within me like a boiling pot.

But the story does not end quite yet.  There is one last scene.  A few days later, Lord Roxton invites his three fellow travelers to dinner, where he reveals that the sample of blue clay he collected on the dinosaur plateau and had so carefully preserved contained diamonds –- as he suspected.    He had said nothing, however, until he was certain of his find.  Of course, he would split the gems four ways equally, and they were now all fabulously wealthy.

The discussion turns to what they might now do with their newly acquired wealth.  Challenger thinks he will establish a museum; Summerlee would leave teaching and devote all his time to research.  Roxton, who has already given the matter some thought, wants to mount another expedition to the Brazilian jungle and the lost world.  Roxton then turns to Malone.

“As to you, young fellah, you, of course, will spend yours in gettin' married."

"Not just yet," said I, with a rueful smile. "I think, if you will have me, that I would rather go with you."

And then the final line of the book:  “Lord Roxton said nothing, but a brown hand was stretched out to me across the table.”

*  *  *

You might chalk up these last scenes as some kind of endorsement of the male club or a comment on the general unreliability and flightiness of women. These days, however, I can’t think about Doyle’s book without also thinking of Geoffrey Millers’ The Mating Mind.  I prefer to look at it this way:  men do all kinds of things to woo women, and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.  But, in any event, the achievement remains, and we find that the entire species benefits. 

As we know, the human brain is much more powerful than it needs to be for us to survive.  The human species would have managed without Einstein's science, Shakespeare’s plays or Beethoven's symphonies. On the other hand, these are precisely the kind of things that the human brain does so well, and much better than other animal brains.  As Miller suggests, most of human culture – arts, morality, sports, science, music, scholarship – have no real evolutionary advantage, but may have arisen as an unintended consequence from men’s competition for women, and from women generally selecting the best, brightest and most interesting among their suitors.  According to Miller, if women hadn’t been selecting the cleverest young men for thousands of years, we’d be still small-brained bi-pedaled primates roaming the African savannahs.

Of course, Gladys did not select Malone despite all his efforts.  But Malone should not be too downhearted. Gladys, as we know, was not quite the woman Malone imagined her to be and was certainly not worthy of his ardor.  Beyond that, he’s now headed down a road that she would never recognize, let alone follow.  He’s a decent enough fellow (and even Gladys conceded that he was good-looking) and may yet find the right woman, a Jane Goodall of the dinosaurs, perhaps.  In any event, his story is sort of humankind’s history in miniature.  We started off just trying to impress women and ended up distinguishing ourselves in all sorts of amazing ways.

The one and only KD Lang pretty much sums it up right here:                          

Friday, September 12, 2014

Printing Money

Nothing reminds me more of printing money in your basement than an iPhone launch. Of course, it would need to be a basement the size of the Pentagon with thousands of intricate plans, parts, and paints coming from all over the world at the same time.

Oh, and perhaps you would need to book every cargo flight out of the country for the next 2 weeks.