Monday, March 7, 2016

Why is English - and biology - so Complicated?

On the evening his sixtieth birthday, Kelly Sutton lay on the floor of his living room, barely alive and gasping for air. On the other side of town, his friends had planned a surprise party and they crouched in the darkness of their office space; in cubicles, behind desks and chairs, gripping confetti and streamers. They anxiously awaited Kelly’s arrival to celebrate his milestone. Earlier in the day, Kelly begrudgingly agreed to come back to the office to fix a computer. But Kelly did not return that evening. His friends would never get the chance to surprise him. As the night pressed on, Kelly’s friend Angus stared off into the darkened spaces of the office and began to put the pieces of a puzzle together. Not long before, Kelly had given Angus a prized possession, Kelly’s trusted pool cue. Angus hadn’t thought much about it at the time, but this was a clue. This was a cry for help.
Angus rushed to Kelly’s apartment. He burst out of the elevator across from Kelly’s door, only to find it locked and dead-bolted shut. Angus smelled the distinctly putrid odor of mercaptan, found in blood and brains, and excreted in animal feces. But because humans can detect it very easily, mercaptan is also added to natural gas so that we can quickly detect a leak of an otherwise colorless, odorless gas. Although his his tight acid washed jeans made bending difficult, Angus kneeled down, and quickly traced the odor to the crack under Kelly’s apartment door. Angus knew immediately he had to act quickly. He knew his friend was in grave, grave danger.
Angus spied a glass cabinet with a fire hose in the wall just next to Kelly’s apartment. He opened the cabinet door and hastily unravelled the hose, stringing the nozzle through Kelly’s door handle and tying the hose quickly but securely. Angus yanked a length of hose and pulled a Swiss Army knife from his pocket to cut the hose from the cabinet. Just then, the elevator door opened spontaneously, and Angus pulled the freshly cut hose into the back of the elevator, and tied it to the metal railing. He pushed the round plastic “1” button before jumping back out into the hall outside Kelly’s apartment. Then Angus flattened the hose on the floor, just as the elevator door closed above it. As the elevator went down, the slack came out of the hose, and pressure built on the door handle before the wood gave way with a smashing sound. Triumphant horns blared, reminiscent of the movie soundtrack of Back to the Future on a tight budget. Angus reached through the newly breached gap to open the door and find Kelly passed out on the floor. Angus fought through the stench, holding the front of his grey blazer over his face, while keeping its sleeves pushed up to his elbows. He closed the nozzle of the gas fireplace, before rushing to open a nearby window. Angus returned for his friend, hoisting Kelly’s limp body off the ground to the window for fresh air. After a pregnant pause, Kelly finally let out a cough. Angus’ shoulders dropped in relief and he put his hand on his friend’s shoulder as Kelly looked up at him sheepishly. “Happy Birthday”, was all Angus could say.
Kelly’s suicide attempt, prompted by his getting hustled out of his life’s savings, would alter the course of history by leaving an indelible mark on the English language. Once Kelly’s friends knew the reason for the attempted suicide, they brought an important visitor to the office by the name of Joanne Remmings (she happened to have just written a major research paper on bunko scams). Remmings was bookish and undeniably beautiful, with fine features beneath pulled-back blonde hair and behind impossibly large, impossibly round, and impossibly red, plastic-framed glasses. She was unashamedly excited to meet Angus and it was precisely that moment when history was made. She reached out to shake Angus’ hand.
“Hi, Joanne Remmings”, she said.
“MacGyver”, Angus replied, shaking her hand.
“Oh I’ve heard about you”, her eyes widening, “you’re the guy that does the ‘whatchamacallits’, you know, ‘macgyverisms’.”

“Macgyverisms?”, Mac asked, with a touch of smugness.

And so a word was born. And so too did the English language increase - if ever so slightly - in complexity. A neologism - a new word - was born of and on the 1980’s television show MacGyver as one of many quixotic eponyms to enter the English language. From that point forward, macgyver came to mean using materials at hand to quickly engineer an ad hoc solution to a problem.

Some thirty years later, on Thanksgiving in 2014, sixty-seven year old fisherman Ron Ingraham was convinced he was going to die. He left Kaunakakai in his sailboat that day, aiming for the nearby port of Manele Bay, a short jaunt from one Hawaiian Island to another. This was not the sort of trip Ingraham, a seasoned seaman, would think twice about. But history tells us that the seas must be respected. After a rogue wave slammed into his 25-foot sailboat Malia, Ingraham was in trouble. Both Malia’s masts were broken, and she was taking on water. Ingraham got off a distress call that set into action a Coast Guard search. But after two days’ time and thousands of square miles searched, the rescue attempt was called off.
People have survived at sea for extended periods of time. Although he doesn’t remember details, a fisherman from Mexico is thought to have survived 13 months at sea, before he was rescued some 6500 miles away in the Marshall Islands. In another incident, three teenagers from the tiny remote Pacific Islands of Tokelau once got drunk and mischievously stole a dinghy and tried to drive it to the next island. But they ran out of fuel and drifted for 41 days before a tuna-fishing boat happened to discover them, naked, blistered, and barely alive. The biggest challenge to surviving at sea is staying hydrated. Even though castaways are floating on an ocean, drinking sea water is like drinking poison. The Mexican fisherman says he ate small fish and drank birds’ blood. The Tokalauan boys collected just enough rain water on a tarp in their boat. But had the tuna-boat not seen them, they probably would have perished - mainly from dehydration - within a few days of when they were rescued.
Ron Ingraham’s ordeal was a 12-day drift, comfortable compared to the Tokalauan boys’ plight, yet it easily could have been much longer. Ingraham lives on his boat, so he had some supplies, including fishing gear. After his rescue, he told reporters he hydrated with fish. There is just enough hydration in fish eyes and fish bones for a person to survive. But Ingraham’s real break is the point of this story. According to his son’s interview, the elder Ingraham “managed to macgyver a way to make that last call.” Ron Ingraham’s radio had taken water and stopped working after the second day. When the Coast Guard could not find him, and did not hear any more signals, they gave up the search. But using material at hand (Angus MacGyver himself often used duct tape or a Swiss Army knife), Ingraham was able to fix his radio just enough to get off a mayday signal that saved his life. Some thirty years after the character Joanne Remmings first uttered the word ‘macgyverisms’ on network television, Ron Ingraham’s son found ‘macgyver’ to be the perfect word to describe his father’s life-saving improvisation.

The Ingraham story has some irony. To describe his father’s nautical improvisation, Ingraham’s son actually eschewed a synonym with nautical origins: jury rig. The elder Ingraham not only macgyvered a fix for his radio, one might have said he jury rigged one. And here lies the irony: ‘jury rig’ originated as a term for a makeshift, often improvised mast, after the original mast of a ship breaks. This term is at least as old as 1616, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And although originally a nautical term describing an improvised mast, it later came to mean any improvised solution, not only a nautical one. In fact, Ron Ingraham did lose both masts on his sailboat, but it was not a jury rig - in the original sense of the word at least - that saved him, it was a macgyvered radio that carried his cry for help to the Coast Guard. In the thirty years since Joanne Remmings, the word macgyverism and its variants (macgyver and macgyvered) had become enough of a part of the English language that Ingraham’s son had no qualms about using it in a formal interview with the press.

So then, why is language so complicated? For that matter, why did organs like eyes evolve to be so complex? And why are most human systems - like governments, companies, computer programs, and sports leagues - so filled with complicated rules, traditions, and procedures?

All of these entities are so complicated because they are evolved. Because they have history. Above all, these entities are complicated because they are governed by compromises, in many different ways. Language, biology, and human systems are giant collections of macgyverisms - one-off solutions to immediate needs: patches and retrofits that use whatever is at hand to meet a need. Once patches and retrofits become useful and integrated, they cannot be easily erased. Just as it would be ludicrous to ban new words like macgyver in the first place (even though a group called ‘The Immortals’ try to do just this for French), it would be impractical, even impossible to go back and erase “jury rig” from peoples’ consciousness and from literary history, just because the new word “macgyver” came along. And so the new solutions stay, often alongside the old. Jury rig remains alongside macgyver (and MacGyver), and remains alongside bricolage and kluge. If people use these words, they are useful. Biology is not much different. Mutations cause new combinations of parts, jury rigged and macgyvered together. If they are useful, an organism will pass the new combination along to its offspring. Once useful and integrated, these biological traits will not easily be erased. The complexity of human systems provide many other examples to illustrate the same principles. Rules, laws, and ways of doing things become institutionalized. Complexity increases as complexity evolves.

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