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.
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.
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.