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.
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 book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, although he mentions cars only once. He is explaining 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.
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.
And then there’s oxidation. Here’s an excerpt from a booklet, Circumin: The 21st Century Cure, by Jan McBarron, MD, about anti-oxidants and 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.
Number three: Biologist Ursula Goodenough brings up car engines to make the point that while some random changes in the genes of organisms may work to the species’ benefit, those genes that set up the basic processes of cell assembly and maintenance have been humming along in all living things for billions of years. So organisms keep these efficient housekeeping genes, as she calls them, just as they are. “Changing them is like randomly modifying a carburetor or a timing belt after it’s already in synch with the rest of the engine: the usual outcome is that the car fails to run properly and often, as we say, the engine ‘dies’.”
I don’t remember where I read the idea behind number four: cars are like people in that both result from gradual processes of selection. For cars, the selector is not nature but the competition of the automotive marketplace. Any particular trait of a car will endure only if the models that carry it succeed sufficiently to be widely reproduced.
Another evolutionary similarity. Cars are made to move. For humans too, motion has shaped us. Our oldest claim to organic uniqueness is that we walk on only two legs without a tail or feathers for support. Six million years ago, our ancestors clumsily rose up from four feet to two in order to get a better look as they walked across the savannah. The change helped trigger changes in our eyes, hands, legs, and brains. We, like cars, are made to move, and moving, in turn, made us.
Finally and more philosophically, the driving experience echoes the way that we experience ourselves as a mind inside a body. Cars give us the chance to be a heightened version of our brain-in-a-body selves. Most of the time we might feel like just a mishmash of thoughts inside a squishy physique. But put us in the driver’s seat and we’re a bigger, sleeker animal and a laser-like self.
The comparison goes further. We construct many entities besides cars that we can get into or put on—and in some sense “bring to life.” They include not only planes, trains, and ships but also clothes, buildings, novels, and even gods. In each of these, we position ourselves to be protected and enhanced and can readily identify with or personify the thing itself. We build and live in our protective houses and decorate them in the process to make them reflections of ourselves. We “live” in the novels we read (or write) and imagine the living characters. And most strangely, we build gods and heroes by animating them with feeling and thoughts that we wish we had. All cars, of sorts, to transport and intensify us.