by Will Schreiber

Picky Eaters, Philanderers, and Hamlet

Yesterday on Twitter, Andrew Wilkinson asked why anyone would optimize for something other than personal and family happiness.1

Leah Culver responded that she at least wants to make an impact and contribute to society. And then, in an Internet rarity, she said “Maybe it’s really good for society to have both viewpoints!”2

Her comment reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about lately: it was good for humans to have both picky and adventurous eaters.

I was a lightly-fried-chicken-tenders, crust-off-my-PB&J, only-cheese-pizza-please picky eater. I marveled at my friends who could pick up whole pickles and bite into them.

Perhaps I’m justifying my childhood. But humans needed people who’d eat those new berries and also people who wouldn’t.

We don’t appreciate how the differences between us are features instead of bugs. We crave to know what’s The Right Thing To Do and what’s The Wrong Thing To Do.

There’s rarely Right or Wrong, though.

Richard Dawkins has run models to find out if philandering is a more successful male mating strategy than being faithful. The steady state always ends up being a mixture of Hugh Hefners and Carl Fredricksens. Usually more Carl Fredricksens, but a mixture.3

Is that good or bad? Wrong question.

Almost every story - whether it’s a “Man In A Hole” story or a “Boy Meets Girl” story or a “Cinderella” story - involves good people facing bad situations who eventually triumph.4

Like Liam Neeson fighting and shooting and punching his way through terrorists to get his kidnapped daughter home.

Or Rachel Chu getting rejected by her boyfriend’s family, only to overcome their doubts and marry him in the end.

There’s a clear line separating good from evil, right from wrong, good guy from bad guy.

And then there’s Hamlet.

Hamlet’s father dies. His mother remarries his Uncle. Fine. He goes to see a ghost of his father. Is the ghost real? Who knows. He stages a re-enactment of his father’s murder. The re-enactment flops. As he talks to his mother, he sees curtains blowing in the wind and he accidentally stabs Polonius. Nothing happens. Then he dies in a duel. Is he going to go to heaven or hell? Maybe.5

“We are so seldom told the truth. And Hamlet tells us we don’t know enough about life to know what the good news is or bad news is. Thank you Bill.” -Kurt Vonnegut

The truth is “Yes.”

  1. It's truly insane to me that people optimize their life for anything but lifestyle/personal/familial happiness.

    What else is there?

    — Andrew Wilkinson (@awilkinson) June 15, 2020

  2. Maybe it’s really good for society to have both viewpoints!

    — Leah Culver (@leahculver) June 16, 2020

  3. The ‘philanderer’ strategy was postulated, not as the way males behave, but as one of two hypothetical alternatives, the other being the ‘faithful’ strategy. The purpose of this very simple model was to illustrate the kinds of conditions under which philandering might be favoured by natural selection, and the kinds of conditions under which faithfulness might be favoured. There was no presumption that philandering was more likely in males than faithfulness. Indeed, the particular run of the simulation that I published culminated in a mixed male population in which faithfulness slightly predominated (Dawkins 1976a, p. 165, although see Schuster & Sigmund 1981).

  4. This is a condensed version of Vonnegut’s wording. I haven’t read Hamlet since middle school and I struggle to read Shakespeare. To me, the ambiguity of Vonnegut’s stories are what make Vonnegut brilliant. I like that he feels the same way about Shakespeare.