March 31st, 2022
We all remember where we were the day President Trump didn’t blow up the world. It was one year ago. My wife had holed up in a makeshift fallout shelter we had started digging when his re-election seemed certain. But I had decided to sit on my roof eating a croissant in solidarity with the #itsjustcroissantsyouidiot global movement. Naturally, croissants were sold out. So, I ate a bagel instead, feeling that it was at least in keeping with the spirit of the thing. I sat there watching for the first mushroom cloud, which never came.
How could it be that the man who was so certain of himself suddenly paused with his finger literally poised over the button?
Thanks to the release of a recording from inside Situation Room South at Mar-a-Lago©, we have now pieced together those final minutes when civilization nearly winked out of existence.
“Sir, please reconsider,” the General said in a modest panic.
“What was that?!” Trump bellowed back, “Those frogs must pay!” He ripped off his shirt and spun it over his head in his patented “cyclone” move. He stormed over to press the button. Along the way he grabbed a glass of water from a golden tray and huffed it down with gusto.
“Sir, I beseech you to consider that you may be wrong.” the General insisted in what has now become the ubiquitous t-shirt slogan.
And then the miraculous happened. Trump stopped. There was an unusual silence. Then he spoke in a strange soft way, “Tell me more.” And then, so we are told, he looked once again at the satellite photos. All we hear on the recording is a gentle, “Oh, my…” coming from Trump.
A moment later, Steve Bannon can be heard screaming, “The logic of history cannot be stopped” as he races across the room in a desperate attempt to launch the nuclear strike by himself. This is followed by the sound of a scuffle and a tremendous WHUMP. Reports have it that Trump himself wrestled Bannon to the ground before he could push the button.
Shortly after that, the President was back in bed and the world learned to breathe a collective sigh of existential relief.
A few months later, I received a curious e-mail from “a big fan of my work.” The man said he had read all of my articles, which he took to be good guesses about what was going on in the Trump White House after the complete prohibition of all but “friendly and true” news outlets.
“I can explain it all,” he wrote, “the change in social media habits, the formation of the #policygeek phenomenon, and of course the new Trump…the man now described as ‘the great listener.’ I know why the federal register now garners more internet traffic than pornhub. We are all behaving differently and I am the reason why.”
He said he would like to be called Dr. Bronowski. He offered me the inside scoop. At first I refused, assuming he was a crank. But then he sent me hundreds of files — documents that linked his “little genetic uplift experiment” with news stories over the past few years. The dots started to connect in my head. He was only a short drive away, living, as he said, “off the grid in the mountains.” So, I spent a day with him listening to his story. I have come to believe that what he says is true: we have all been unwitting subjects in a massive research trial…for our own good…maybe.
“Reason dances, pleasure calls the tune.” So read a (poorly) hand-carved sign above Bronowski’s one-room log cabin. We sat along the south wall in a patch of sunlight. Bronowski told me his story in a jolting cadence, switching between near-maniacal titters and monotone pontifications. As we spoke, he stroked his cats: a fat one named Epimetheus and a skinny one named Pandora. I was not offered anything to drink, which suited me, because the bathroom (I would later learn) was the third Ponderosa on the left.
“Man’s basic problem is a mismatch between the pace of cultural and biological evolution, hmm.” (He said hmm frequently). “As a result, we are not well adapted to the technological world we have made.”
I said hmm, but in a more quizzical way and shifted in my uncomfortable wooden chair, which had been carved in what I might call an eco-brutalist style.
“Monkey brains,” he said pointing to his cranium, “in a very post-monkey world,” he added as he stood up (still stroking Pandora) looking out over the vast city sprawled at the foot of the mountain.
Eventually, I gleaned that he had been a young neuroscientist at an internet start-up in the mid-90s.
“NOT Yahoo!” he insisted.
“Ask Jeeves?” I asked.
“Screw you,” he replied.
“Why did they hire a neuroscientist?’ I asked.
“They thought I would know how to sell stuff, hmm.”
He remembers the utopian dreams coming out of Silicon Valley that a new global citizenry would emerge. Bronowski laughed in their faces, “Because we are not cosmopolitans. We are tribal.”
Bronowski watched the following years as the internet Balkanized and people hived themselves off into bubbles that would confirm their pre-existing beliefs. Alternate realities took shape. At this point in his story, he pulled a vial from his breast pocket. It was full of a clear liquid. “Dopamine,” he said and peered into my eyes. “Hmm” we both said. I tried sitting on my hands as a makeshift cushion. “Why dopamine?” I asked.
He tittered, “You think we are the rational creature?”
“We?” I asked, “you and I?”
“Humans,” he clarified.
“Oh, sure,” I said.
“Wrong!” the cats bolted at this exclamation and Bronowski stood upright with his vial of dopamine thrust overhead. “We may be clever but we are not rational. We are not scientists…not even the scientists are scientists.” He spat on the floor.
Then he sat down again and held forth in a much calmer tone as if he were reciting a paper at an academic conference. Rationality, he argued, is an adaptation to our social behavior. Groups are a double-edged sword, however, when it comes to the selfish genes who are really running the show. The genes favor groups insofar as they help the individual to survive and pass down copies of genes to the next generation. The genes don’t like groups, however, insofar as they allow freeloaders to get all the rewards of safety without doing any of the risky work. A gene for bravery might only serve the function of getting yourself killed to save the genetic neck of a loafer.
So, what rationality is really all about, from an evolutionary standpoint, is making sure we don’t get screwed over. Bronowski claims that he discovered the physiological mechanism behind this. We get a little burst of pleasure from defending our own actions and beliefs and sticking to our guns. It feels good to pick apart someone else’s position (who, after all, might be trying to pull a fast one on us), but it feels bad to pick apart our own position.
“Thus, the dopamine?” I speculated.
“Bingo,” he said with a devious look, “this little chemical pulls our strings. It makes us feel oh-so-comfortable in our beliefs, even when contradictory evidence should force us to change our minds or at least stop and think. There is no pleasure reward for that…er, I mean, there was no pleasure reward for that.” He tittered nervously as he excused himself to use the Ponderosa.
“Did you build this cabin by yourself?” I asked upon his return. I was standing now, working out the kink in my lower back.
Bronowski answered proudly in the affirmative, rubbing his hands along the slanted and misshapen beams. “It is my greatest achievement!” Hmm.
“So, can you explain what happened to Trump in the situation room?” I asked hoping to cut to the chase. But Bronowski was feeling contemplative as he continued to walk slowly around the room, petting his log cabin. He circumambulated me as he talked.
There are two kinds of pleasure, he said, “meaning pleasure and feeling pleasure.” The cabin was a kind of meaning pleasure. It comes from a skillful (more or less) engagement with the world. There used to be apprentices and masters. There used to be vocations that oriented human lives. They were wainwrights or carpenters or blacksmiths, and they built intelligible worlds around them.
Meaning pleasure is, thus, deeply satisfying and all pervasive. But it is also inextricably linked to feelings of pain and burden and confinement. Long days at work in a simple world offer much hardship and only the occasional reward in the hearty meal or seasonal celebration. They offer little by way of feeling pleasures. Those are more ephemeral and scattershot. They come in short bursts and are not tied up with a whole way of being in the world. They are ultimately less satisfying, but because they can be had more or less on demand, they are more alluring.
Our world, he continued as he peered at his handiwork, represents the triumph of feeling pleasures and the decay of meaning pleasures. All of our mythologies – just look at Disney! – are about breaking the stifling bonds of family and tradition to strike out on your own. But out on your own you are not immersed in a matrix of meaning. Rather, you are a little island – a node on a network that can feed you feeling pleasures in proportion to the amount of money you make. Or how many opioids you can get a hold of. Either way, you are dependent on mysterious systems and don’t really exercise any sovereignty.
“We have traded freedom for comfort, hmm.”
“And this relates to Trump how…?” I interjected. He paused momentarily, crawling now on the floor. He knocked on a beam as if to test its soundness and replied, “ah, the internet, yes…”
He continued crawling and telling his story. The internet, he said, permits us to have such constant affirmation in our beliefs that we are bombarded with a ubiquitous dose of feeling pleasures. This sheen of good vibes starts to behave for us like the anchoring presence of meaning pleasures. We stare into our phones first thing in the morning to see ourselves reflected in the world, to feel that sense of orientation we crave but can no longer get through traditional vocations. We build little virtual log cabins of our identities. We get all snuggled down in our beliefs. To really challenge them would not just feel horrible, but would cause our world to come crashing down.
“You may have noticed I don’t have a toilet or indoor plumbing, hmm” he glared up at me from his intensifying floorboard inspection.
“Oh, is that so…”
“That’s because I don’t understand how they work!” he said with a certain pride in his ignorance that we have all noticed more of lately.
We think we know more about the world than we really do. “My old friends in cognitive science called it the illusion of explanatory depth,” Bronowski said, now feeding the cats a bowl of what appeared to be giblets. Epimetheus boxed Pandora out and wolfed most of the food down. “Everyone is an expert, hmm.”
“We need different doxastic norms,” Bronowski mused, picking up Pandora just as she was finally about to get a bite of the scraps. “Come, look at this.” I followed him and the cat to a small bench where he was working on another carving. It was nearly complete and read:
“It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient e”
“EVIDENCE!” he shouted out the last word and began scratching away at the “v” as he continued to speak. Everyone has an opinion, he said, a conviction about even the most complex things: TPP, Obamacare, infrastructure, the tax code, new source review, on and on. But none of us jokers has a clue what we are talking about. Dopamine, that’s why. Because what we want is not to be rational but to be right. We want that ping of feeling pleasure to fill those dark spaces of ignorance rapidly growing in a world so complex we cannot possibly understand it or genuinely be at home in it.
Suddenly, Pandora clawed her way free, causing Bronowski to make an errant gauge in his wood carving making the ‘d’ look more like an ‘L’. He pondered it for a long while, then slowly set it in the fireplace. He grabbed a new piece of wood and started all over, carving “It”…
I think he forgot I was there until I cleared my throat, now feeling about in the growing dark for my uncomfortable chair.
“The key part was the water,” he said from behind me in the gathering gloom, “no one thinks of that.”
“What water?” I asked.
“In the situation room, hmm.”
“Oh.” I suddenly realized he had a wood carving knife in his hand somewhere in the dark. I decided to go.
“Democracy!” he growled loudly in disgust. “Rule by morons, hmm. Death by low information voters.” He lit an oil lantern and came to sit down next to me again. I was about to leave, but what he said next transfixed me.
“The sun of the new enlightenment rose in the west, hmm.”
We had noticed that things first changed in California and crept slowly eastward. We had assumed that was just the way this social movement arose and progressed. First Ted Cruz in Texas, then Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, then Marco Rubio in Florida. One by one they started asking real questions of Trump. They started craving independent sources of news. They started hosting town hall meetings that went long into the night with detailed policy discussions instead of slogans and equivocations. Like dominoes, a new wave of political discourse swept eastward. It was symbolized in Paul Ryan’s late night town hall remark: “Wow, isn’t this fascinatingly complex?!”
“It wasn’t a social movement!” Bronowski tittered, rocking on his chair, “It was a biological movement! No, a physics movement! Simple diffusion. Just the natural flow of the jet stream, hmm.”
Like other early members of the resistance, Bronowski started wearing t-shirts in 2016 that said “Science is Real.” If only the scientists were allowed to speak…if only the experts could be in charge, he figured, then things would be alright. But by 2018 he became disillusioned by his fellow scientists.
“Not even scientists care about the truth anymore. Money money money! They want publications. They want their name in headlines. They want steady jobs with good benefits. Most of what is published now is crap. It cannot be replicated. It does no good in the world.”
Bronowski claimed the biggest threat to science was not Trump’s budget cuts, but, rather, the opposite. It’s all the money that flowed to science after World War II with no strings attached. That allowed for a huge cohort of mediocre intellectuals to churn out un-reproduceable garbage studies. “Not even scientists care about the evidence, about being earnest in the search for truth! They too just want that little rush of feeling right that comes when one of the umpteen million journals out there publishes their papers. Science is fake news, hmm.”
Bronowski spat in disgust. In 2018, he started wearing t-shirts that said “Science is a Joke” in protest of his colleagues’ craven behavior. Trump supporters naturally ate it up and Bronowski made a small fortune selling his t-shirts to them. By 2019, as the re-election campaign geared up, Bronowski was in a deep depression. Trump’s slogan, we all recall, was: “Nobody, and I mean NOBODY understands ____ better than I do.” Just fill in the blank with anything. It was the “blank slogan,” which political scientists argued (in reams of peer-reviewed publications) would long be studied as sheer brilliance. Those in the resistance still debated whether his selfishness and greed were the worst things about him or whether it was his racism and sexism. But for Bronowski, the worst thing about him, and about all of us, was arrogance.
“Hubris!” He bellowed. “To pretend to know. To reach further than one’s understanding will permit. That is how high-tech democracies will perish, hmm.” Some moron will claim to have it all figured out and, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, he’ll unleash Armageddon. “That is, until the Sorcerer himself comes back as the savior,” Bronowski gave his most effusive titter, so violent that it devolved into a coughing fit.
Bronowski was radicalized when the Parisian Ivanka scandal went viral. In the absence of a terrorist attack, he could see that Trump was using this trifling affair to scare and control the populace and win re-election. I can still remember when Trump tweeted his first threat to the French President: “You will wear Ivanka’s anklets. Or else. Believe me…OR. ELSE.” The French President apologetically tried to explain there simply were no anklets in his size or style. That was the last straw for Trump. We all remember how he exploded in an orange hurricane of fury. He waved his shirt bombastically for hours until his rotator cuff finally gave out, which led to the cast he then used to bonk his “advisors” on the head when they gave answers he didn’t like.
Not long afterwards came the first briefings with national security advisors warning us that Paris was stockpiling nuclear weapons. Satellite photos, we were told, confirmed a steady stream of enriched uranium pouring directly into the French capital. Trump’s re-election campaigns were now awash with chants of “Bomb the Frogs, Bomb the Frogs!” Zealous mobs burned berets, shoved baguettes into unsightly places, and poured French wines into the sewers. Trump gleefully launched a trade war, which in turn sparked an underground railroad of real French goods, most symbolically: croissants. Trump tweeted: “Maybe anyone eating a croissant doesn’t deserve to be called an American?” He was gobbling up the spectacle of it all, especially the wrestling matches between Captain Patriot and Pepe Le Pew. He sailed to victory on the promise to “eliminate the French scourge.” “Nasty country,” he smirked at his rallies, “just nasty.”
“The only way to save us at that point,” Bronowski mused with his face lit from below by the lantern on the floor, “was to change the pleasure principle at the bottom of it all, hmm.”
And so that is what he did. He used the CRISPR gene editing kits that were by then available off the shelf for less than $100. He rigged up a waterborne biovector that would deliver the new genetic sequence to any human host that swallows it. The edit, he claimed, was simple. And quite necessary to correct for our new sociological conditions. First, the vector snipped out the sequence that gave us pleasure from having our beliefs affirmed. Then, in the same spot along the seventh chromosome, it inserted a genetic sequence that would trigger a rush of dopamine anytime our beliefs were challenged.
“People would now get high on thinking twice, hmm!” he practically giggled. “They’d be stoned on facts! They’d be junkies for hard evidence!” He squealed.
The vector was ready just before the election in 2020. Knowing there was no time to spare, Bronowski decided the fastest way to get maximal spread of this upgraded bit of human genome would be through cloud-seeding.
“Come with me,” Bronowski grabbed his lantern and led me outside and down the hill. Under a makeshift canopy of branches the light showed something large hidden under a tarp, which he pulled aside to reveal what looked like a cannon from Star Wars. He flipped a switch and the contraption started to whir. Then he pushed a button and the cannon fired several shots high into the night sky. This, he explained, was how he spread the vector. He had spent several months pumping the California and Oregon skies full of a powder designed to create clouds and, thus, rain his “truth serum” on the land below.
What we hadn’t noticed was that the NSA agent who first leaked the satellite photos had recently traveled to Nevada, where he presumably drank the water. When he got back to D.C. he noticed something that now seemed obvious. Those weren’t trucks full of uranium. They were croissant delivery trucks. As more and more people, including high ranking Republicans, started demanding to see the photos for themselves, the NSA agent sent them to wonkyleaks, which had just formed.
“By February of 2020,” Bronowski, continued as we walked back into his cabin, “it was sleeting Socrates all over the heartland. People fell in love with aporia – that sensation of paralysis by uncertainty. They yearned to know more, and the more they knew the more they realized they did not know. What joy it suddenly gave them to profess ignorance! And to change their minds when the evidence warranted it.”
I asked him why he thought philosophy was suddenly the hottest major on nearly every college campus.
“Because sometimes just getting the facts straight actually led to convergence of beliefs. Like, you know, a croissant truck is a croissant truck. But often disagreements still persisted. Take school vouchers, for example, people realized that underneath that debate were different conceptions of the human self and no amount or evidence or facts could seem to clarify which was right. Are we best understood in terms of a logic of internal or external relations? My little genetic edit gave us a powerful thirst for metaphysics…I hadn’t seen that coming, hmm.” He laughed at the way research dollars were hemorrhaging out of science into philosophy.
So that was why that drink of water saved the world. Some people required a higher dose of the vector to achieve enlightened humility. Trump was nearly the last to feel the effects. Fortunately in what seemed to be the final seconds he was just one dose away. Bannon, of course, still hasn’t succumbed. He still swears those are toxic symbols on the sides of the trucks rather than pictures of croissants. That’s why he has become the poster child of what is now listed in the DSM 6 as an official psychological disorder: The Hegel Hallucination – an insistence, despite all experience, that history tells a Grand Narrative and is marching to some culmination.
“But why the economic recession?” I asked Bronowski. “Is that just a coincidence or is that related to the rains of humility?”
“No coincidence, I’m afraid,” he now replied in an unusually sober tone. “It turns out that a certain recklessness is required for economic growth. Now every CEO is endlessly pondering whether what they do – the next innovation, say – is really for the better or not. Madison Avenue has lost its swagger…bitten by an ironic bug of self-doubt. Do people really need all this stuff? They ask themselves, hmm.”
My head was swimming with the implications of this one-man experiment in our evolutionary history, I had to ask one last question: “Are you a hero or a villain?”
Bronowski took a drink of water and thought a long time, stroking Epimetheus whose purr was the only sound.
“I was positive that I had to do it,” he replied at long last, “but now I’m not so sure.”