Saturday, August 08, 2015

Holothuria, and the human condition as a two-legged paradox

You, dear reader, perhaps are not stumped by the word "holothuria."  I was.  In fact, the chances are high that a couple of days later I will not remember what holothuria means.  Because, that word and what it means is not a part of my every day life.  That is perhaps how somebody in a small town in the Dakotas might feel about the Mahabharata, eh. ;)

John Steinbeck casually writes about the holothurians, and even gives the Latin name of the marine dweller he and the expedition people observed: Holothuria lubrica.  He does because he was a marine biologist, too.  There is a chance you know about those creatures by their other name; but even that doesn't stir any image in my mind.  Steinbeck writes:
The dominant species on this beach was a sulphury cucumber, a dark, almost black-green holothurian which looks as though it were dusted with sulphur.  
Steinbeck uses words and uses them with a purpose.  He notes the "dominant species" because that provides him with the context to write about how certain species dominate in certain areas.  And then there is that species that seems to dominate everywhere: homo sapiens.

How wonderfully he weaves this in, with the holothuria lubrica practically serving as a MacGuffin!

Steinbeck's expedition was in 1940, and the book itself was published in 1941.  What a clarity in understanding the dynamic of fewer children over the generations, which we--who protect ourselves with "robes, emblems and degrees"--now refer to as demographic transition!  Whether or not the hungry wanderer will dominate over us in the future has been covered well by the dystopian science fiction and even by a C-grade movie with a wonderful title of Idiocracy.

But then, don't you wonder why humans can't seem to understand these dynamics and, therefore, why we don't seem to get our act together?  Do you feel like I am setting you up for more from Steinbeck?  Yes, I am ;)  He sums up man as a two-legged paradox:
There is a strange duality in the human which makes for an ethical paradox. We have definitions of good qualities and of bad; not changing things, but generally considered good and bad throughout the ages and throughout the species. Of the good, we think always of wisdom, tolerance, kindliness, generosity, humility; and the qualities of cruelty, greed, self-interest, graspingness, and rapacity are universally considered undesirable. And yet in our structure of society, the so-called and considered good qualities are invariable concomitants of failure, while the bad ones are the cornerstones of success… In an animal other than man we would replace the term "good" with "weak survival quotient" and the term "bad" with "strong survival quotient." Thus, man in his thinking or reverie status admires the progression toward extinction,, but in the unthinking stimulus which really activates him he tends toward survival. Perhaps no other animal is so torn between alternatives. Man might be described fairly adequately, if simply, as a two-legged paradox.
A paradox, indeed!


Ramesh said...

Holothuria, MacGuffin , Idiocracy ........ I need a dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopaedia, Google, and every other tool known to man to figure out your posts.

I can't wait for your summertime reading to end :)

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, the summer deep reads will soon come to an end ... and I won't make you think about our existence ;)
I wonder what is in store for me for the summer of 2016. Because I don't plan it out and let it happen, I won't know until late spring of 2016. I can't wait to find out ;)

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