Monday, June 29, 2015

Weakness Is the Mother of Invention

Sacchi Green

What do you do when you have to come down out of the trees because the climate has changed and the trees become scarce and now you’re living in a savannah environment where the grasses are tall and most other creatures, both those that want to catch and eat you and those you want to catch and eat, can run faster than you can?

Right away I’ll back off my choice of title and admit that evolving to stand erect so that you can see farther across the savannah is a form of survival of the fittest that has nothing to do with invention. But consider what happens when you can see the prey or the predator from far away, but the predator is stronger and has bigger teeth and claws than you do, and the prey is still too fast to catch easily. How do you compensate for your weaknesses?

You invent weapons for protection, and for hunting. You figure out how to use fire to scare the sabre-tooth tiger away from your cave, and incidentally to cook your food and keep warm, and you invent snares to catch small prey and throwing devices to kill prey at a distance. If you had been the biggest strongest species around, there would have been no need to invent weapons, or tools, or much in the way of strategy and tactics.

This is not to deny that necessity is also the mother of invention. Invention has two mothers. Probably more. Necessity is also the mother of evolution; when we lived in trees, it was necessary to be able to hold on to the branches, so those who survived were those who evolved to have opposable thumbs, and without opposable thumbs we would have had a much harder time inventing weapons, or much of anything else. Once supplied with an erect posture and opposable thumbs, we were able to invent work-arounds to compensate for our many weaknesses.

Farther along the human timeline, when population pressures or changing climate or just the curiosity that goes along with inventive minds drove us from the warm regions of our origin to colder, harsher environments, we figured out how to compensate for the weakness of our bodies when it came to keeping warm by wrapping ourselves in the skins of animals we’d killed, and later with woven fibers from plants. If we hadn’t compensated like this evolution might have eventually restored our ability to grow enough warm fur of our own, but then again it might not.

Of course the more we compensated for our weaknesses the stronger we became, in terms of survival. We learned to grow and breed our food, to irrigate our crops, to produce and save enough food and other resources to be able to diversify our work, so that some people didn’t have to produce their own food but could trade their crafted goods or various skills for what they needed. Some people needed physical strength for farming, hunting, protecting the resources their communities had amassed, but other people could make their living in ways that depended more on mental strength than on physical. Eventually some people could be weak in every way, but survive due to the resources of their families. Survival of the fittest wasn’t what it used to be, but neither was the environment one needed to survive in.

These days strength of one sort or another is still valued, and weakness despised, but oddly valued at the same time if it makes the despiser feel more powerful. Let’s not get into the labyrinth of gender relationships in this regard, except to note that men who seem to appear weak get the most disrespect. Women who seem to appear stronger than culturally approved get disrespect, too, and resentment, but at least in recent times they’ve been able to get away with wearing clothing similar to men’s in ways that men can’t manage the other way around.

The more complex our society gets, though, and the more important technology becomes, the more valuable inventiveness becomes, and the less necessary physical strength turns out to be. That ninety pound weakling on the beach might get sand kicked in his face by the muscular brute eyeing his girlfriend, but he may well own a tech start-up that pays him enough to buy lawyers who can flatten the muscle man. (Sorry, youngsters, for using a metaphor from old magazine ads that was already passé before you were born.) And that rich techie may well have his youthful nerdiness to thank for motivating him to study and create and compensate for his own perceived weakness. Strength gets redefined, and so does the fitness to survive.

Am I grasping at straws to handle this time’s theme of “weakness?” You bet. Just be glad you avoided my real thoughts on the subject, all of which have been focused lately on the weaknesses that come with aging. Not my own, except by unavoidable extrapolation, but those of my once strong, handsome, intelligent, and compassionate father, who, at ninety-five, is still compassionate, but needing more and more help, and feeling guilty to be needing it, however much my brothers and I assure him, truthfully, that he’s earned every bit as much help as we (mostly me, for valid reasons) can give him.

So you can see why I chose to take the long, long view of weakness as a benefit in the development of our species, rather than get up close and personal. Also, social media addiction and general procrastination have already been covered pretty well, so there’s no need for me to go there. Thank goodness.        


  1. I'm really glad you took this tack, Sacchi.

    Another example. I am horrifically myopic. My vision in my worse eye is something like 20:2000. To my uncorrected vision, the world is a blur. In a time before corrective lenses--let's say medieval period, for instance--I might very well not have survived, because I wouldn't have been able to see and avoid all the dangers life throws at you (some as subtle as a discontinuity in the ground, which might have led to broken bones). Certainly I would have had difficulty making a living or becoming a productive member of society (like the erotica author I am now LOL.) Technology (invention) has allowed me to compensate for a serious physical weakness, and to thrive.

  2. Yes! I meant to include eyeglasses, which I've worn since I was three years old. And advances in childbirth technology. And all sorts of medical advances, especially those allowing more children to survive. So many work-arounds to weaknesses, susceptibilities, deprivations. Without them our world would be a very different place, with a much smaller population of humans (if any,) which might not be such a bad thing for the world as a whole, but still. On further reflection, the weaponry situation is way out of hand, on both national and individual levels. We'd be better off without both weapons of mass destruction and personal arsenals. When I think of weak-minded, out-of-shape defenders-of-second-amendment-rights strutting around fast-food restaurants flaunting their open-carry rights to brandish semi-automatic rifles, I lose much of my enthusiasm for compensation for weakness.

  3. Hi sacchi

    Trying to get plugged back in now that my little drama is mostly over. Taking care of the elderly and weak among us is one of the survival skills that makes us special. It enables older generations to pass information on to us. I heard an interesting theory as to why wehave no fur. It is to enhance our ability to experience interpersonal touch which we need more than any other species.

    1. Interesting theory! Stroking fur on a dog or a cat seems very personal in its way, but I suppose that comes more under the category of interspecies communication (if there is such a category.) I remember a Tarzan book (don't recall
      the title, and have never been able to find it again) where Tarzan encounters a species of humans with sleek, velvety fur, and the descriptions of the central female character are exceedingly erotic.

  4. The thread that winds through all this is the fact that as much as we value the American independent, the human race still operates best on a cooperative basis. Sorry to hear of the trials with your Dad, Sacchi. Age will get the best of all of us.

    1. The tendency toward cooperation and care for the weak, especially the elderly, does seem to be a vital attribute of humans. And not just homo sapiens; this was shown by the discovery of a Neanderthal burial site where a old man who had clearly been disabled for many years before death had been interred with care and a token of flowers.

  5. "Strength gets redefined, and so does the fitness to survive."

    To me, this is one of the key insights of personal evolution (as well as, I suppose, species-wide evolution). Traits that once helped me become obstacles, and new things become strengths. The example of the jock and the nerd illustrates that one really well.

    And I feel for what you say about your dad. I understand the impulse to avoid writing too much about that, but it definitely resonates for me.

  6. What you say seems counter-intuitive, Sacchi (or at least it prob. would to most men I know who believe in survival of the fittest) but it makes perfect sense. I will have to try this evolutionary argument on one of my stepsons, heh.