Stars, if you leave them for long enough, will eventually come up with the Mona Lisa.
And not in a hypothetical way, like those non-existent, proverbial monkeys who are always typing up MacBeth by accident.
What I’m talking about has already happened.
We trick ourselves into believing it doesn’t work like that, but it’s true. Star systems can and do eventually produce great works of art, and we’ve observed this. The great Alan Watts makes this interesting property of the universe clear using a simple analogy.
In his example, an apple tree produces apples every summer. As a botanist might say, at a certain time of year the tree fruits. An apple tree, more specifically, apples.
Imagine that aliens cruised by earth a few billion years ago. They checked for signs of intelligence, found only rocks and oceans, and they left.
Then they came back last week sometime, and found that there was a lot more going on. There were people, and a lot of other unfamiliar stuff that doesn’t look like rocks. Earlier they had seen that it was just a bunch of rocks. But in the mean time, the rocks peopled.
You leave rocks for a few billion years and they just might people. Evidently. As Watts puts it, we grow out of this world in exactly the same way as apples grow out of that tree.
But we’re usually a little prudish about saying it that way. We gloss over the fact that a dead earth became a living one, because that would imply that somehow intelligence does indeed arise from rocks, and something about that offends our normal way of thinking. We like to compartmentalize nature’s phenomena as if they work cleanly, like billiard balls – they can strike each other in the most complex ways, yet always be ultimately separate.
At worst, we apply a supernatural explanation to the whole show, because otherwise we’d have to recognize intelligence as a natural extension of the things that happen on a barren, unattended planet. For some reason we often insist nature couldn’t be that interesting or potent on its own. There has to be a super nature, to keep nature in its rightful, humble place.
It makes us feel special I guess, maybe that’s why we don’t give nature the credit. We’re special either way, but we don’t need special rules to explain how we’re here. For that matter, we don’t necessarily need to explain ourselves to ourselves at all. Whatever happened, we got intelligent at some point, and that’s great. It’s okay to wonder aloud exactly how it happened, but clearly it did.
In any case, once a rock begins to people like that, you can check on it again in a few thousand years and you’ll notice an unstoppable profusion of buildings everywhere.
People, evidently, will begin to building if left for some time. They’ll building all over the place. And they have — look outside. In two weeks I’m going to be exploring the most buildinged place in the world. Nothing can stop people from their natural propensity for building once it gets started.
The people growing from this rock have indeed buildinged all over the place, maybe a little too much. Roading too. We’ve roaded the hell out of a lot of the landscape. This doesn’t make us distinctly special though. Spiders do something very similar with their silk road networks. They silk all over the place if nothing stops them. Check your attic. It just happens.
I don’t mean to make us sound so one-dimensional. People do much more than building. We wonder. We language. We family. We love.
And as it turns out, people eventually begin to art, and that certainly makes us special, if anything does. If there’s anything that redeems us from our propensity for violence and small-mindedness, that’s it — an inexplicable appetite for the deliberate creation of beauty and meaning.
At first it’s probably only the eccentric person that arts. Cave paintings. Eventually, though, nature takes its inevitable course, and people begin to art as profusely as they building. They art in public, and in private. They art on their desks at school, they art on retaining walls along the railroads, they even art their buildings. They celebrate art and those who art. They just can’t help arting. Try and stop them.
It may not always happen that way. There are people out there that don’t art. There are certainly rocks that don’t people. But clearly nature allows it to happen, and clearly there are places where nothing can stop it from happening. It’s not some violation of the rules. It’s fair game for certain corners of nature to art.
And again, it would be arrogant to assume that nature is not self-directed here. Many people just can’t stand that notion. They insist that nature must have an owner — someone commanding it to produce Guernica or The Beatles — but I don’t see any reason to believe that. Besides, whatever intelligent hierarchy there might be behind nature, there’s no reason not to call it nature too.
Whatever part of nature it is that allows Sgt Pepper to occasionally develop from cooling planets is exactly the part that allows trees to apple profusely, and rocks to people profusely. If evolution means anything, it can’t be only an isolated part of that process.
Evolution can only be the endless network of phenomena creating phenomena — and every conceivable part of life is its product. Using the generous amount of time they were given, the seas produced Old Man and the Sea, and the stars produced Starry Night.
We make a divide between man-made and natural constructs as if it really is two different systems, as if one doesn’t play by the rules of the other. We exalt ourselves by imagining we’re isolated from the system that created us and comprises us.
So it’s encouraging to realize that nature does produce the odd Guernica or Guangzhou Opera House now and then, and that your species is apparently the way it does it. But first some rocks had to do a lot of peopleing to get that level of arting to happen.
On that note, it gets a bit impersonal. Nature churns out people by the millions, and the odd masterpiece gets arted into existence. Most of those people weren’t necessary for that. It’s just part of a the same shotgun approach nature uses when it has mosquitoes give birth to 200,000 babies to give you a chance of getting bitten once or twice.
Think about your role for a moment. You are one of millions, and though it’s rude to say so, the universe doesn’t particularly need you in order to do its thing. But as of right now you certainly do have an extraordinary opportunity. Nothing is stopping you from being a conduit for some of the finest forms the universe ever created. Really. You may not be interested in anything people normally describe as art. That doesn’t matter. Speaking can be an art. Parenting can be an art. Sport can be art.
You don’t need to make masterpieces, but who better to do it? Masterpieces do come from the ingredients you have in you at this moment — the buzz in your bones that won’t let you sit for too long, a mind that can’t stop making inquiries, the desperate need to finally be understood, and whatever capacity for intrigue it took for you read this far into such a bizarre article. These qualities appear to be some of the universe’s rarest and most potent elements, and you’re riddled with them.
These are thoroughly human traits, and they grow in people like seeds grow in apples. Some people can’t bear not to put them to serious use, and would even court poverty to do it. But many people do manage to get right through to their grave without employing them, riding distractions and fleeting pleasures the whole way. It’s easier than ever to do that.
And from nature’s perspective, that’s fine. There are lots of people, and some pretty amazing things will get created no matter what any given individual chooses to spend their time on. But I suspect the human drive to create is more forceful and urgent than we typically give it credit for. The urge for a human to art isn’t a fringe thing or an alternative-lifestyle thing. It’s as vital and fundamental to us as socializing. It’s for everybody. Repressing it may be what’s bothering you all the time.
You have it in heaps. It may be nature’s greatest gift to you. One day that same benefactor will snuff you out like a candle. What a shame it would be if your gift was still in the box.
Yet we all experience a lot of resistance to exploring it, and that resistance comes from many angles. We worry that our work sucks. We makes excuses about talent levels. We see artists who we think suck and we don’t want to be looked at like we look at them. We worry our mothers will shake their heads. We wonder if there really is anything in our own heads worth saying. Throughout life we’re warned by unimaginitive people that it’s not useful to make art, that it doesn’t pay bills or help anyone.
So it’s easy to justify avoiding it, even though some part of you will never stop nagging you to get those seeds out of you and into the ground.