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.

(thehiat.blogspot.com)

(thehiat.blogspot.com)

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.

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

The idea of a living car is cute but unappealing otherwise, since the attraction of a car is that it is we ourselves who bring it to life.
(johnwarrand.com)

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 our 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 or an organism will endure only if the versions that carry the trait 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.

Force and focus behind the wheel (www.zco.com)

At the controls
(www.zco.com)

Finally and more philosophically, the driving experience echoes the way that we experience ourselves as a mind inside a body. Cars give us an opportunity 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 humans 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 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 powers, passions, and virtues that we wish we had. All of these are cars of sorts, to transport and intensify us.

Forgiveness and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

The Second Law of Thermodynamics has always seemed depressing to me. It states that anything left to itself, without new energy to sustain its structure, will become continually more disordered. Molecules of different gasses in a container will move around until they all become thoroughly intermixed. Ice cubes in a glass of water will melt. And as the sayings go, “You can’t unscramble an egg” and “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.”

This tendency towards disorder, this inability of things to remain what they are unless  energy sustains them, is entropy. The Second Law asserts that entropy in the universe always increases. Sustainability is always in doubt. And in human affairs, entropy implies that nothing worthwhile—relationships, art, satisfying work, better communities—can remain finished and stable on its own. Ugh.

But Steven Pinker takes a more generous view in a short piece written for Edge and reprinted in the Wall Street Journal in 2016.

The Second Law also implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The human mind naturally thinks that when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone must have wanted them to happen….[But] not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail.

entropy (keelynet.wordpress.com)

keelynet.wordpress.com

And, Pinker adds, without a flow of economic energy, people go hungry. “Matter doesn’t spontaneously arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things don’t jump onto our plates to become our food. What needs to be explained is not poverty but wealth.”

I found myself thinking about entropy in connection with conspiracy theories. For some, it may feel satisfying to account fully for a disaster by tracing the stealthy plots and actions of human enemies. But entropy and its agents— coincidence, irrational human impulse, materials and systems gone awry, among others—are all on stage as well, more difficult to identify, and much less satisfying to blame.

Pinker’s perspective also cast a new light for me on the familiar serenity prayer: that we should try to accept what we cannot change, find the courage to change what we can, and hope that we can tell the difference between the two. The Second Law puts a foundation under that difficult first step, the acceptance of things that we cannot change. It’s easier to do that when we understand that conditions don’t easily stay as they are in the first place–and often no one is at fault. We do out best to stay healthy, for example, so we’re reluctant to accept that our body will fail eventually for reasons beyond our control. Committees and governments may bring the benefits of social order for a period of time, but we can recognize how such social efforts will fall into stagnation or conflict eventually without anyone being a villain.

Entropy is sometimes described as a re-organizing and re-forming force, rather than as a dis-ordering one. An organized thing will if left to itself take on new forms, occupy more or less space, detach and reattach. If it’s the original thing that you are focused on, then indeed that thing will have “broken down.” Ice cubes melt and disappear. But a friendship may rearrange itself into a marriage, then into a divorce, then into a business partnership. Stars explode, their atoms of metals fly out into the cosmos and come together again in the Earth and in us. Entropy, transformation, Buddhist impermanence.

Still, for Pinker, it’s the disruptive aspect of the Second Law that we underestimate. In fact it “defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind and striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.” Appreciating the Second Law means pursuing such purposes more consciously while understanding that, without blame, the tide always comes back in.