In the boom years, it seemed, everyone collected something. Cohiba cigars or Koons’s inflatable flowers, vintage claret or worthless stock. In an economy of excess, money was free to flow into artifacts, cultural bullion. Bill Gates collected Leonardo codices, and Ronald Lauder collected old Eastern European synagogues. I collected razors.
It was an inadvertent collection, like Mrs. Madoff ’s collection of real estate, a collection cued absent-mindedly by abundance. But many men I’ve spoken to seem to have done the same thing, waking up after fifteen years and finding themselves to be Fricks or Morgans of the two- and three- and four- and five-blade shaver. It was a collection made in increments at the Duane Reades that sprang up on every block in those years, rather than at Sotheby’s. Or else it got made at the inner, post-security pharmacies of airports, where one went to buy the razor one had forgotten, or been too frightened (were they banned or not?) to pack.
But it was the golden age of razors, as it was the golden age of bottled tea. We had two-blade razors and three-blade razors, razors with microfins and razors that buzzed and razors that beeped and razors that glowed in the dark. One could take advantage of the growth of the disposable razor, ten to a bag, hollow as a whistle; or one could invest instead in the multi-bladed, fifteen-dollar dreadnoughts of the shaving world. The Gillette Mach3 Turbo and the Gillette M3 Power; the Gillette Mach3 Turbo Champion and the Schick Quattro Chrome; the Gillette Sensor Excel and the Schick Xtreme3 and even (hidden away behind the moisturizer in the medicine cabinet) the Schick Xtreme3 SubZero. They were all there to be gotten, and I got them all.
Not long ago, I lined them up soberly in front of me, like Nixon saying farewell to his staff. All the era’s collections are now being disassembled, and this one had to be, too. The razors looked oddly like the modern images of small dinosaurs seen in children’s books, the newer, smarter kind of dinosaur—sleek Brancusi-like bodies, and a tightly wound pattern of scales and colors, streamlined trunks and strange hammer-headed faces. Some of them have their charm; I particularly like the Gillette M3 Power, which, as its devotees know, has a green-and-silver skin, with three blades on a swivel—and, touching detail, a triple-A battery inside, which makes it vibrate delicately to no particular purpose, like an old electric football game, or a woman of a certain age listening to Linda Ronstadt records.
Charming these razors might be; cool they were not. No status, no possible prestige, ever derived from the damn things, or radiates from them now. The only motive for buying the next was to buy the next; the only purpose in possession was to possess. Our generation bought them because, really, they were there, and we were drawn to their seeming ingenuity. Reading the Wall Street Journal recently, I found a new note of pathos to overhang the grouping. It seems that the Gillette Company, in an increasingly desperate attempt to support its newly minted five-blade razor, the Fusion, is creating ads that run down its previously minted three-blade razor. In an ad campaign that Veblen would have rejected as too improbable, Gillette, having sold the Mach3, must now unsell it: a Fusion ad (internally called “Nudging the Disciples”) argues, “You see, five is better than three.” In the spot, Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, and Roger Federer literally knock Mach3 razors out of men’s hands with a golf ball, a baseball, and a tennis ball.
What makes Gillette’s panic so touching is that we should have seen it coming. We did see it coming: the three-blade razor may be the first known instance in the history of capitalism of a product mocked long in advance of its invention. “Saturday Night Live,” on its very first program, thirty-odd years ago, not long after the two-blade razor appeared, actually did a parody commercial mocking the imagined advantages of the still imaginary three-blade razor: “Because you’ll believe anything,” the slogan went. And we did. We believed. Pity the capitalist, who, having made belief, must now unmake it, for fear of not being believed again.
Brooding on the old razors in the back of the medicine cabinet, I realized that Gillette, in its new ad campaign, was, in a deeper sense, giving away the game. For the truth is that the new razors, from the time of their invention, all worked about the same way, and each one about as well as all the others. The five-blade is no better or worse than the three; the three no better or worse than the two, buzzing or immobile. Ever since the Wilkinson Sword company started mass-producing stainless-steel blades, in 1961, every man with whiskers to cut has had no trouble cutting off his whiskers without cutting himself. The old ritual of nicks and cuts and styptic pencils, which our fathers knew, ended long ago.
Nevertheless, every possible variation was unleashed, pointing toward a strange but basic truth of life and marketing alike: that it is after a problem has already been solved that ever more varied and splendid solutions to it start to appear. I have come to think of this as the Devil’s Theory of Innovation; cutthroat (or scrape-cheek) competition tends to produce mere stasis. Only complacency drives change. A baseline of comfort, not a sudden stress of desperation, is what lets innovation happen. When man or nature or Gillette has not yet found a good solution to a problem, we tend to stick closely to whatever looks even marginally plausible—the process that gives us centuries of the straight razor and styptic pencil, and now Mayor Bloomberg for three terms. Only a default level of adequacy assures an above-the-line profit of ingenuity.
Emerson’s famous thought was that if you built a better mousetrap the world would beat a path to your door, but hidden in this was the belief that what made the mousetrap was an abundance of mice. You might suppose that where there are many mice—as in medieval societies, where it is man against rodent—there would be a corresponding variety of traps, and that the stress of necessity would force invention. Mice would immolate, and mice would hang; some would be dispatched by drowning and others trapped in vats of boiling oil. Medieval man would have found as many ways to kill medieval mouse as medieval man did to kill medieval man. In fact, the medieval mousetrap, when it appears at all, in painting and archives, is a singular, almost fantastical and overelaborate device, like the death machine employed by the villain in a Bond film. The only famous image of a mousetrap in medieval art is the one that Joseph is making in the Mérode Altarpiece, by the fifteenth-century Master of Flémalle—and there is a charged scholarly debate about whether it is a mousetrap, and what it symbolizes, and another body of scholarship explaining why, if it is, it almost certainly wouldn’t work.
We make a better mousetrap only in the increasing absence of mice. The first mousetrap patent, for the snap trap, didn’t appear until 1894, when the rodent was already in retreat, a victim of improved sewer systems and more stringent public-health measures. The abundance of mouse-murder devices—glue traps and have-a-heart traps; sonic scare-sirens and battery-powered electrocution units—is a peculiarity of our time. When mice are on the run, we have time to think of how to kill them better; when we are overrun by mice, we turn to cats, prayers, and hope.
What is true of mousetraps may at times be true even of medicine: only since the birth of scientific medicine has there been much a doctor could really do. But did doctors before that day try everything? Not a bit. What they did was narrowly stereotyped and routine. They bled. They purged. They applied leeches. The principle is true of politics. Though for millennia men were badly ruled by hereditary monarchs, no one said, “This business of expecting the chief among the warriors to be our absolute leader, and then expecting his kids to have the same skills that he did—that’s not working out too well, is it?” Only after its abolition could we consider its reformation. Only then did we invent constitutional monarchies and relaxed Scandinavian ones, have kings on bikes and kings with divorced wives in rehab. Scarcity encourages people to hold the rites of scarcity sacred. What encourages novelty is the confidence that the new things—like the inventory of a “novelty” store—aren’t really necessary. Frivolity is the real mother of invention.
I might have left the line of thought to trail off at that dead end where three-thirty-in-the-morning thoughts repose had I not found myself reading, in that insomniac bed, several of the newer theorists of natural selection and its discontents. The Devil’s Theory of Innovation, I found, may be not just a fact of culture but a principle of nature, central to a whole new picture of biological evolution.
Evolution, we have always been told, is driven by stress, by the struggle for existence. The old Darwinian view was that competition for resources made animals evolve or go extinct; the more competitive the landscape, the harder the creatures had to work for a living, the more specialized jobs they found to do, and the more change you got. In dull periods of plenty, in unchanging oceans and unalterable plains, stasis ruled. Pain made change.
The new idea is almost the opposite. Terrence Deacon, for instance, a professor of biological anthropology and linguistics at Berkeley, has argued that animals’ appearance alters and their behavior changes—birds brighten and their songs grow elaborate—not in conditions of scarcity, where bird fights bird for every seed, but in landscapes of plenitude. In environments where it takes a lot of effort to make a living, genes have to work hard and each can do only one job: molars crunch, claws kill, larynxes cry; the genome is as segmented and task-defined as the working day was on a Detroit assembly line way back when. But once “selection pressure” lifts—once it doesn’t matter so much if every claw kills, if every molar crunches—then the animal can do its own thing and find its own pleasures. This pattern makes for what Deacon calls “relaxed selection,” like relaxed-fit jeans. Once the pressure to survive is eased, the genome can chill, worry less that each chromosome is doing its bit, and devote itself to elaboration. Deacon’s idea of relaxed selection, he says, “allows mutations to modify certain genes and inactivate others so they don’t have such a specific function.”
When an animal’s genes become “dedifferentiated,” to use the science journalist Christine Kenneally’s word, unstressed enough to slouch in casual pleasure, rather than standing at anxious attention, the traits associated with those genes get “dedifferentiated,” too. “There’s going to be more flexibility,” Deacon says. “Or, to put it the other way around, there’s going to be less specificity.” The bottleneck of selection widens, and traits that might have been ruled out before by the dim struggle for existence are allowed to flourish in the bright sunlight of abundance. The early bird races to the worm and, worn out, croaks the same few flat notes as his fathers; the songbird that wakes at ten and ambles to the worm of his choice in a land where worms are cheap has time and energy to get up on a branch and improvise a new song.
Relaxed evolution favors the Ronald Firbanks over the Cotton Mathers, the playful dandy over the sober saver. Relaxed selection explains creativity in language and literature: once we no longer have to pressure our bodies to chew and hunt, the big heads behind them, having nothing to do, start doing what they please. It isn’t the struggle for existence but the serenity of entertainment that explains our lives. The brain starts thinking as the jaw relaxes. We human beings are all three-blade razors, Gillette Mach3 Turbos and Schick Xtreme3s, with needless cutting surfaces and useless batteries, buzzing away, wasting energy and looking sexy, forged in plenty and thriving in abundance.
Now, Darwin, I knew from long years of night reading, had seen something like this, too: what he called “sexual selection” is the natural overcharge of the economy of abundance. Darwin realized, while writing “On the Origin of Species,” that adaptive fitness seemed to reign when it came to those features which were obviously helpful to an animal making a living in a hard world: long beaks to get at hidden insects; long necks to eat hidden leaves; long infancies to learn hidden cultural secrets. But what about those features—the peacock’s tail, the elk’s antlers, the fantastic colorings and intricate scales of tropical fish—which seemed merely ornamental? They were there not to help a creature make a living but to help him get a mate. The male peacock has time to grow his tail, and the female peacock time to look at it and say, Cute. The peacock’s tail; the antlers of the Irish elk, which grew longer and longer until at last the animal was all antler; the song of the nightingale—all these superfluities evolved to make one animal, usually male, look sexier to potential mates. The male animals march up and down in what biologists call leks, natural runways, showing off their excesses.
Some of Darwin’s modern admirers insist that something deeper is going on—that the peahen’s preference for the peacock’s tail is not aesthetic but prudent, fitness in disguise. She knows by instinct that a bird that can grow such a tail has fitness to waste, and is therefore going to be a better father, with more resources to spend on his kids. That wasn’t Darwin’s view. Darwin believed that animals chose better-looking animals to mate with because, well, they were better-looking—he thought that the process showed merely that animals had taste and an inborn sense of beauty.
Yet even Darwin’s view, as it has been elaborated particularly by Richard Dawkins, may have been too narrow. The Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden, in her new book, “The Genial Gene,” argues that the entire notion of sexual selection as a form of self-seeking improvement on the part of each beast is a myth, a make-believe, and that the true state of nature is one of frivolous variation and bisexual flirtation. There’s no evidence that peahens actually prefer the peacock with the most splendid tail, she tells us: the evidence is that peahens choose their mates more or less at random.
Perhaps, she suggests, the peacock struts his tail to impress other peacocks—to get entrée to a social clique. What the peacock’s tail might really signal is not his strongly selfish genes but his serenely social nature. His alliances with other males might even reassure the female that he’s hooked up—that there will be gay uncles and neighborhood handymen, benevolent cousins and helpful hoarders, all to support the kids. Our need to care for our young produces not competition but coöperation. The mystery of sex has been seen from the wrong direction. In truth, it takes a child to make a village.
What changes under the stress of adaptation is not the peacock but the peahen; predators, wolves and foxes, eat bright-colored peahens. Under that stress, peahens get ever drabber and plainer. It is the peahen’s plainness, not the peacock’s splendor, that demonstrates adaptive pressures. The peacock’s tail is the default state, the natural state, of bounty. In Eden, the peahen would dress in Versace, too. For Roughgarden, superfluity is the sign of the natural world at its most natural, the path of descent when nothing interferes with it. Why invest in long tails and razors? The answer is: why not? We are, in this view, born to be inherently frivolous aesthetes, who like change for change’s sake, oddity for oddity’s, amusement for amusement’s, art for art’s. And, if there is a deeper reason for our liking, it is that such likings help make communities; we find our social selves by participating in the lek.
The values that nature reveals for Deacon, at Berkeley, and Roughgarden, at Stanford, sound very Northern California—creativity, community, shared parenting, and sexual toleration. Just as selfish selection is the kind of idea you would expect mid-Victorian patriarchs to dream up, social selection is the obvious child of the West Coast. Yet I would have remained content with this new line of thought—essentially cheerful in its promotion of the idea that we are born beautiful, made drab by pressures—had I not stopped to realize what, exactly, I was reading with. I was doing what I do every night, which is trying, and mostly failing, to read with a book light. The kind of book light I mean is the kind you buy so that you can continue reading books about evolution in the middle of the night while your spouse sleeps the restless sleep of those with children to raise and tuitions to pay. Such lights come in hundreds of varieties, sold everywhere from Barnes & Noble to Duane Reade.
I have tried them all, without much success. The business of shining a small bright light on a printed page in such a way that it does not also shine into the eyes of a nearby sleeping person is fiendishly difficult—so difficult that it produces a proliferation of failed solutions. I realized that I had made a second inadvertent collection, of these things, too. They look like the alien technology in “Independence Day,” some mixture of long-necked flexibility and creepy extendability—they look like aliens themselves, for that matter, long and segmented and misshapen and repellent, with sharp, short heads that shine. Some hang around your neck, some sit on your stomach; some clip onto the edge of the book, where they shake and waver, and some bend around the book’s binding to shine creepily on the pages. None of them quite do the trick. Some are too narrow, some too bright, most are too fragile, and all too short-lived; you have to change their little lithium batteries every few weeks, and you can never find the right kind to replace them with. Failure, it seems, generates variety, too, but it is the variety of futility, the small changes made in a lost cause, like G.M. fiddling with the metalwork on the grilles of its cars. The difference between the relaxed and the genial and the despairing and the fretful was smaller than I’d realized. It takes the eye of God to see, in the acts of man, which are the children of delight and which the dead ends of despair.
Then, the other night, shaking and grumbling, trying to find a working night-light, I stumbled on a line from Dr. Johnson. No one who worries in the middle of the night, he says, should stay up worrying; the thing to do is light the light by your bed at once, and read. Visualizing the thing as the Doctor might have done it, I went into the dining room, snatched a candle from the closet, lighted it, and took it to bed.
It does all the work a reading light can: it casts a gentle, even glow on the page; it doesn’t need to be adjusted on the binding as you turn the pages, and your spouse goes right on sleeping in its amber twilight. And when your reading is over, the chapter finished, there are no clicks, no sudden darkness, just a light blown out with a breath.
The solution had been there all along. The ideal technology was very old, and the proliferation of alternatives was not Darwinian but almost Freudian, a set of alibis and excuses designed to repress the old and primal truth. Whatever the West Coast evolutionists might tell us, abundance obscures the possibility of old elegant solutions even as it propagates new and varied ones.
Consider, as Rod Serling would say, the starfish. It makes a cameo appearance in the new evolution books. First emerging more than four hundred million years ago, starfish are as populous today as they have ever been. Though you often hear about the extinction of the frogs and the disappearance of the bees, nobody likes to point out the parallel starfish explosion that quietly takes place on coral reefs around the world.
They reproduce not by strutting leks and courtship, insertion and exhaustion, but by getting near enough to each other to spray a cloud of gametes and hope that they mingle and adhere, reproducing, as Brad and Angelina seem to, by mere proximity: the offspring just keep appearing. The creature’s ideal reproductive strategy—mating with other starfish, releasing a million eggs, of which a handful survive the oceans, and then moving on—was arrived at ages ago: in the long indifferent view of nature, the starfish is more successful than all the antler-heavy elks and tail-proud peacocks and self-shaving mammals that we celebrate. The variations of abundance die at the moment of crisis, and the old stable dull solutions come to life again. The peacock years are over, and the starfish years begin. The grand lek is over and the big empty is here. The peacock with its tail and buzzing batteries is dying. The starfish, by candlelight, inherits the earth.
Hope, though, does have feathers, and, like the heedless songbird, still sings its song, struts its tail. My fourteen-year-old son shaved for the first time the other day. A faint mustache, the classic adolescent “Purple Rain”-era Prince-style smudge, had grown, and he wanted it gone. Like old man Frick, like the elder Morgan, I thought of passing on to him an item from the past, from the Collection: See, son, once the world was full of ornaments, abundance, the relaxed selection and mindless sociability of plenty. . . . But instead I bought him a bag of three disposable Bics, to get him through the years to come. He seems happy with the gift. Nature is the world we know. ♦
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competitive, fierce, ruthless, relentless
murderous, violent, bloody, cruel
murderer, killer, butcher, thug
More Synonyms of cut-throat