Six Interesting Ways That Cars Are Like People

Cars are a favorite metaphor and mirror for us humans, from their vroom for the young to the creaks and breakdowns for the aging. The comparisons would seem to have been exhausted, but I keep running into new ones. Here are a few.



Years ago I heard about a biology assignment that required students to prove that cars are not alive. I imagine that the students enjoyed this, running through the attributes of living things— energy in, waste out, and so forth—and finally snickering that two cars parked next to each other all night will never produce a baby car. Good teaching dramatizes the basics this way.

Some car comparisons occur to us because we can say that under certain circumstances, cars “die.” Atul Gawande discusses one aspect of how they do that in his current book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, although he mentions cars only once. He is writing about human longevity and why genetics has little to do with how long we will live.

The classical wear-and-tear model may explain more than we know. Leonid Gavrilov, a researcher at the University of Chicago, argues that human beings fail the way all complex systems fail: randomly and gradually. As engineers have long recognized, simple devices typically do not age. They function reliably until a critical component fails, and the whole thing dies in an instant. [But complex systems with thousands of parts are engineered with layers of backup systems. And so are we.] We have an extra kidney, an extra lung, an extra gonad, extra teeth. [Our cells can repair DNA, and other cells can replace dying ones.]

Nonetheless, as the defects in a complex system increase, the time comes when just one more defect is enough to impair the whole, resulting in the condition known as frailty. It happens to power plants, cars, and large organizations. And it happens to us: eventually, one too many joints are damaged, one too many arteries calcify. There are no more backups. We wear down until we can’t wear down anymore.

There’s also oxidation. Here’s an excerpt from a booklet, Circumin: The 21st Century Cure, Jan McBarron, MD, about the health benefits of a component of the spice turmeric:

Think about the rust on the bumper of a car. Rust is caused by oxidation or damaging oxygen molecules that corrode and eventually destroy the structure of metal. These same corrosive oxygen molecules…are found inside the human body…and contribute to the deterioration of cells.

The idea of a living car is cute Disney but unappealing otherwise, since it is the human driver who brings it to life.  (

The idea of a living car is cute Disney but unappealing otherwise, since the attraction of the car is that it is us who bring it to life.

Comparison #4. I read somewhere that cars are like people in that cars too are the product of a natural selection of sorts. For cars, the selector is not nature but the equally competitive automotive marketplace. Unlike genetic variation, the variations among new car models are not random, of course, but they are equally dependent on success and “reproduction” from year to year if they are to survive.

The evolutionary view of cars touches on another similarity. Cars are made to move. For humans too, motion has played a central role in our distinctive development. We pride ourselves on our brains, but our oldest claim to organic uniqueness is walking on only two legs without a tail or feathers for support. Around six million years ago, our ancestors clumsily rose up from four feet to two in order to get a better look around the African savannah. The change triggered the evolution of much of our anatomy, from hips, legs, and feet that enabled us to walk and run smoothly, to hands that took on new functions, to a brain that coordinated new skills and communication. We, like cars, are made to move, and moving, in turn, made us.

Force and focus behind the wheel (

At the controls

Finally, cars echo the way that people experience themselves as the duality of a mind inside a body. We like cars because, at a certain level, they give us the chance to be a heightened version of ourselves. Most of the time we’re just a vulnerable body and a mishmash of awareness and dialogue running through our heads. But put us in the driver’s seat and we’re a bigger, sleaker body and a laser-like self.

The parallel between the mind in our body and our selves in our cars applies to many things that we construct and get into or put on. These include not only planes, trains, and ships but also clothes, buildings, novels, and even gods. In each of these, we position ourselves to be both protected and enhanced and in turn we bring the thing “to life” as we use it for our purposes. We put on clothes to protect us and make us look good, and we make the clothes look good (sometimes) in the process. We build and live in our protective houses and decorate them as we do so. We read novels, become absorbed by them (sometimes), and in turn bring the characters to life. And most strangely, we build gods and heroes as we animate them with thoughts we wish we had. All cars, of sorts, to transport and intensify us.

Does Being Virtuous Require Adversity?

I was thinking recently that I’ve never taken stock of which virtues I believe are the most important ones. There are, after all, a lot of virtues out there, as a quick search shows. (I especially like the descriptions in Wikipedia’s “Seven virtues”.)

But for the moment at least, here are five that have been important to me at some time: courage, patience, persistence, honesty, and kindness.

A multitude of virtues (

A multitude of virtues

These five have in common one characteristic that surprised me. They are virtues for difficult times. They are actions that are advantageous in circumstances when it would be all too easy—and less effective—to be fearful, impatient, discouraged, false, or nasty or indifferent. I wondered, are virtues in general things that you need during hard times? Are they simply unnecessary in  easy times? Do virtues depend on adversity?

This line of thinking alarmed me. Aren’t there virtues for easy times? There’s generosity, perhaps, which usually assumes good times for the donor. Appreciation? Thankfulness? Gratitude over the Thanksgiving bounty? Well, yes, better to be appreciative than ungrateful or spoiled. But these virtues seem to be very easy to do or think or feel. Hardly worthy of the name “virtue.” It’s not a big deal to be thankful in good times compared to being persistent in tough times. The “easy-time virtues” sound like themes for greeting cards.

Something else struck me about three of my five “difficult-time” virtues. They apply to physical situations as well as to social ones. It takes courage to face a storm at sea, patience to wait for a game animal to pass by, persistence to climb a mountain. Honesty is primitive in a different way: it’s the pivot of our social relationships, which revolve around perceptions of people’s truthfulness or deceptiveness. As for kindness, it goes to the core of human community in a different way.

Virtues often evoke physical struggles. (

Virtues often evoke physical struggles.

Because the virtues touch on such human fundamentals, I see them now as a kind of translucent screen beyond which we can glimpse the struggles of our ancestors over millions of years. Over the centuries, the virtues have been a shifting set of labels—badges of sorts, quickly recognized, widely respected—for the behaviors that have worked well if not perfectly over the long history of community. They are the community’s protocol for preferred survival strategies. (Perhaps vices, by contrast, are survival protocols for the isolated individual.)

But what about that uncomfortable possibility that for those of us fortunate enough to be healthy, secure, and cheerful, life may be too easy to require us to summon up virtues? Perhaps that scenario is simply never the case; perhaps life is never that easy. Perhaps the virtues have just moved indoors, become domesticated, as civilization has gone modern. Even in suburbia, after all, it remains challenging to call up the honesty and courage to tell a supervisor something that s/he doesn’t want to hear, to be patient and persistent with cranky children, to be kind to an unpleasant neighbor or coworker. The virtues still do get us through the difficult conversations. We might not classify them as “Virtues” anymore, though; we’re more likely to call them “coping skills.” They lose their grandeur when they aren’t so urgent.

A Biologist Looks at Religion, the Humanities, and Our Compulsive Sociability

At age 85, the naturalist and evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson has a new book out, ambitiously titled The Meaning of Human Existence, a philosophical weaving of Wilson’s themes of human and animal sociality and its consequences for humanity. Here and in earlier books, I value Wilson’s reaching out from solid science to the many implications of that science for how we understand our world.

In his field, Wilson remains at the center of the controversy over whether natural selection creates change not only in individuals but also in groups (Wilson’s position) or in an individual’s kin. Although Wilson describes that complex debate in the book, I’ll leave it aside here and try instead to piece together, in his words, some sense of his big picture of sociality, religion, and the humanities.


Wilson: We’re addicted to anthropocentricity, bound to a bottomless fascination with ourselves and others of our kind. (

Sociality. We underestimate the degree to which sociality, our tendency to form organized groups, is a distinguishing trait of our species. It is, Wilson argues, our virtue and our curse, the source of our unity and our bigotry, a trait that relies on our communication via our eyes and ears, distancing us from the world of smells and tastes in which other animals and even plants live.

In Africa roughly two million years ago, one species of the primarily vegetarian australopithecines evidently began to shift its diet to include a much higher reliance on meat. For a group to harvest such a high-energy, widely dispersed source of food, it did not pay to roam about as a loosely organized pack of adults and young….It was more efficient to occupy a campsite and send out hunters….Mental growth began with hunting and campsites. A premium was placed on personal relationships geared to both competition and cooperation.…The social intelligence of the campsite-anchored prehumans evolved as a kind of nonstop game of chess.…[This intense sociality, which we share with only about 20 other species, mostly insects,] allows us to evaluate the prospects and consequences of alliances, bonding, sexual contact, rivalries, domination, deception, loyalty, and betrayal. (pages 20-22)

[Humans have inherited] the overpowering instinctual urge to belong to groups.…A person’s membership in his group—his tribe…confers upon him to some degree or other a sense of superiority. When psychologists selected teams at random from a population of volunteers to compete in simple games, members of each team soon came to think of members of other teams as less able and trustworthy, even when the participants knew they had been selected at random. (31)

Religion is an extension of our social intelligence, reflecting our need to be both part of and protected by a group. Like our sociality, religion has served us both well and badly. There are no gods; we are alone and we don’t understand ourselves as well as we will need to in order to assure our future.

The brain was made for religion and religion for the brain….The great religions…perform services invaluable to civilization. Their priests bring solemnity to the rites of passage through the cycle of life and death. They sacralize the basic tenets of civil and moral law, comfort the afflicted, and take care of the desperately poor. Inspired by their example, followers strive to be righteous in the sight of man and God….



The great religions are also, and tragically, sources of ceaseless and unnecessary suffering. They are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world. Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism. The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality. People deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular….It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things. (149)

It is a mistake to classify believers of particular religious and dogmatic religionlike ideologies into two groups, moderate versus extremist. The true cause of hatred and violence is [not a matter of extremism but the conflict of] faith versus faith. (154)

The Humanities. Understanding ourselves better requires both science and the humanities. Science takes the broadest view of nature, but scientists will unveil fewer big discoveries in the future. The humanities are open-ended but are limited in their own way.

So, what is the meaning of human existence? I’ve suggested that it is the epic of the species, begun in biological evolution and prehistory, passed into recorded history, and urgently now, day by day, faster and faster into the indefinite future, it is also what we will choose to become. (173)



To speak of human existence is to bring into better focus the difference between the humanities and science. The humanities address in fine detail all the ways human beings relate to one another and to the environment, the latter including plants and animals of aesthetic and practical importance. Science addresses everything else. The self-contained worldview of the humanities describes the human condition—but not why it is the one thing and not another. The scientific worldview is vastly larger. It encompasses the meaning of human existence—the general principles of the human condition, where the species fits in the Universe, and why it exists in the first place. (174)

We have become the mind of the planet and perhaps our entire corner of the galaxy as well. …. [But] we are hampered by the Paleolithic curse: genetic adaptations that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gatherer existence but are increasingly a hindrance in a globally urban and technoscientific society. We seem unable to stabilize either economic policies or the means of governance higher than the level of the village.…People find it hard to care about other people beyond their own tribe or country, and even then past one or two generations. It is harder still to be concerned about animal species…. [Our inner conflict, spawned by evolution, between cooperation and selfishness] is not a personal irregularity but a timeless human quality. (178-179)

If our species can be said to have a soul, it lives in the humanities.

Yet this great branch of learning is still hampered by the severe and widely unappreciated limitations of the sensory world in which the human mind exists.…Creative artists and humanities scholars by and large have little grasp of the otherwise immense continuum of space-time on Earth, and still less in the Solar System and the Universe beyond. They have the correct perception of Homo sapiens as a very distinctive species, but spend little time wondering what that means or why it is so. (185-186)

I’m not sure that the humanities will ever take on topics much beyond the complexities of the human experience, but I agree that people want enlightening information about their place in the universe. Perhaps in the past, traditional religion met that need; perhaps in the future a more naturalistic spirituality will do so.