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.

Feeling Old? Envy the Lobster

Death may be difficult to accept, but it is a clear state of affairs: when an organism no longer lives, it has died. Aging, however—wrinkling, weakening, deteriorating and the rest of the assault—seems less self-explanatory. Why does it take place? Do all living things go through it?

lobster (anvilcloud.blogspot.com)

(anvilcloud.blogspot)

Not all species do. The paths that organisms follow after maturity vary enormously. Some plants live for one year only, others come back every season. Bacteria clone themselves and don’t die from age at all but from hostile organisms or conditions in their environment. Seabirds age very slowly; as long as they can fly, they can stay ahead of most predators.  Lobsters don’t age; they can continue to grow and remain fertile for 45 years or more in the wild, dying only when they can no longer molt and grow a larger shell.

How and why the declines of aging are included in the final phases of some species’ lives is complex. Wikipedia’s “Senescence” introduces the range of theories and uncertainties. Here are three insights from the evolutionary perspective that make sense to me.

One is that certain harmful genetic mutations switch on later in life after the end of an organism’s reproductive period. Many cancers in humans do, for example. Because they don’t impact the number or health of the offspring, such genes do no harm to the persistence of the species and so they are unlikely to be lost over the generations. The diseases of the elderly get passed along by the young.

Even more unfortunately, some mechanisms in our bodies boost our health when we’re young and then come back to bite us when we get older. Digesting calcium, for instance, builds strong bones early on but helps clog and stiffen arteries decades later. As long as such a function improves our fitness to make and raise babies, whatever damage it does later on doesn’t matter much in the very long run.

A third way in which selection seems indifferent to the pains of aging is statistical: even if natural selection did reduce the ravages of aging and prolong the fertile period, the population of such organisms would still decline with age as accidents and predators took their inevitable toll. The body invests its resources where they are the most effective for the future, in youth and early reproduction, not in a comfortable old age.

In these ways and others, aging is linked to the importance of reproduction and the dangers of predators and other external forces. For primates, including me, we reproduce early because the big cats—leopards, jaguars, cougars, tigers—stalked us for millions of years in the forests and grass lands. And for most other species as well, the safest bet for continuity is simple: reproduce early. Still, the exceptions are fascinating. Lobsters in their suit of armor run little risk from ancient predators, so they can reproduce throughout their lives without ever aging into genetic irrelevance.

So, armed with such insights, do I experience my weakening muscles, declining sexuality, distracted thinking,  and dulled senses with any less resentment? Yes, a little. Knowing that the decline has its place, even though it’s a melancholy one, in the evolution that brought me to being in the first place is some consolation.