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Of Cicadas and Cockroaches: Thoughts on the 15th Anniversary of My 21st Birthday.

February 20, 2009

Lately, I’ve been thinking about cicadas.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with these little wonders of nature, allow me to offer up a brief description. There are different varieties with a variety of gestation periods. The cicada blight that hits the Greater Cincinnati area comes once every 17 years. These large brown bugs crawl out of the ground, grow wings, and take off with one purpose: to create other cicadas. They mate. They die. Until they die, however, they make a horrible sound and have a bad habit of flying into everything because they are essentially blind. In addition to being blind, they are (because even in the insect hierarchy, they aren’t that bright) stupid. I have watched a legion of cicadas fly against window glass until they die. (Imagine the battle scene from Braveheart, where the Brits march in straight formations knowing that the first two or three rows are simply shields for the people behind them.)

I think of cicadas often when I’m teaching because they are the perfect metaphor to describe the Thing I Am Fighting Against – namely, the onslaught of stupidity. I suppose I could be polite and political; but these times don’t call for politeness. A disproportionate amount of the human race is stupid. This is the only explanation for global warming, the national and global economic crisis, every war since the invention of gunpowder, and Larry the Cable Guy. Our schools are failing and pushing out students who don’t know the year the U.S. Constitution was ratified, can’t tell you when World War II started, what the Iran-Contra scandal was, or the basic science behind the theory of evolution. (Happy birthday Charles Darwin; the yearly awards named after you tell us more about who we are than any number of dissected fetal pigs.) Many of them can’t identify the verb in a simple sentence, and don’t know to capitalize proper nouns. It’s easy to point fingers at apathetic underpaid teachers, shoe string education budgets, and the degradation of the language brought on by email and text messaging. The truth, however, is something else entirely. It’s not as complex as an individual’s professional motivations or our tendency to abbreviate even the simplest terms. Ok? Okay. Alright? All right. Lol.

Stupidity, rather than being an evolutionary hindrance, is actually preferred. Evolutionary theory posits that those tendencies which are best attuned to the environment will survive and those tendencies that are not optimal will die out over time. Darwin called this “natural selection.” For example, birds with larger stronger beaks tend to survive in an area where the seeds are bigger and tougher to crack, and so is able to pass that trait on to its offspring. Also consider: the guy who can crush beer cans on his forehead and is an avid fan of the WWE is typically able to out drink the intellectual non-smoking, non-drinking NPR listener. This means, of course, that while the drunken women out looking for fun and potential baby daddys may SAY they want the smart sensitive guy, in the end they’ll take home the can crusher because he’s the only one left standing at the end of the night.

Moreover, consider the cicada, and for that matter the cockroach. They are born, they eat, they procreate, and they die. The life of a cicada is short and usually ends with being squished under foot or against a window. Cockroaches usually die from mass extermination or get stepped on by can crushers whose girlfriends are terrified whenever they see a cockroach scurrying for a dark corner. Their lives are simple. They live. They eat. They hatch new creepy crawlies. They die. None of these things require higher brain function.

Those attributes that don’t aid in survival are, over time and through the process of natural selection, wiped out. Let me suggest that the higher brain functions that we think separates us from insects is one such attribute. Intelligence doesn’t make it easier for us to survive; it only makes it easier for us to come up with viable explanations for the way we are gradually making ourselves extinct. We might be smarter – but we are out numbered by little critters that eat, shit, fuck, and die. The smarter we seem to become, the closer we come to exterminating ourselves. On the rare occasion when I cross a cockroach or cicada, I try to imagine that maybe there was some time in their evolutionary development when they were different. Maybe before sometime between the end of the dinosaurs and the appearance of homo erectus, the bugs ran things. Maybe they built great bug cities and sent brave bugs off into space. Maybe they built the canals on Mars. We’ll never know, though, because they have forgotten it, if it ever happened at all.

While this may seem tragic, consider the outcome; the cockroaches outnumber us 10,000 to 1. Cicada numbers aren’t solid, but they have clearly managed to survive over the eons, even with the recent(?) invention of glass to thwart their forward progress. But, given their level of intelligence, I’m willing to bet that cicadas will give cockroaches a run for their money.

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