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.

Walk, Run, Eat: The Evolution of Our Body

Visualizing the evolution of our bodies from our chimp ancestors to what we see in the mirror does not come easily. But Daniel E. Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease is a fine time machine. It took me back six million years to changes in our feet, legs, arms, head and torso, all molded as our ancestors searched for food.

Reconstruction of sahelanthropus tchadens, who lived six to seven million years ago. (smithsonianscience.org)

Reconstruction of Sahelanthropus tchadensis, who lived six to seven million years ago. Not your average chimp. (smithsonianscience.org)

Human evolution can be said to have begun when one of our ancestors developed a feature that is still unique to us: We walk on two legs. That ability separated us from our cousin chimps between six and seven million years ago. We remain the only two-footed walking animal that doesn’t carry the feathers of a bird or the tail of a kangaroo.

Why walk? We began walking when the fruit that we ate became sparser. The African continent was cooling and the forests were shrinking. (I’ve conflated the species that Lieberman names to “us.”) Those who could stand upright and walk distances on two feet found not only more fruit but also edible stems and leaves. We were chimp-size, but as bi-pedal walkers our arms and hands became free for new uses.

intermediate human

A reconstruction of Australopithecus bosei, “Nutcracker Man,” who lived two million years ago, discovered by Mary and Louis Leakey in 1959. Our intermediate stage. (Wikipedia)

The transition continued. By four million years ago, our anatomy had changed again. Foraging over distances fostered “more habitual and efficient long-distance walking.” Our feet acquired an arch that put a spring in our step and pushed the body forward. For stronger chewing, molars and jaws became much larger than ours today. These ancestors are nicknamed “Nutcracker Man.” We were still small but more upright, still with relatively long arms and short legs.

Next was the Ice Age, two and a half million years ago. Foraging over larger areas required more calories, calories that meat could provide. Our ability to throw accurately brought down animals. Sharp stone tools cut up their flesh to make chewable and digestible. We grew taller, with arms and legs close to today’s proportions. We developed external noses that humidify the air we inhaled during long walks. We began to run—far—with Achilles tendons for more spring and unique sweat glands and finer fur to stay cool.  As teeth and snouts shrank and brains grew, heads became rounder. Organized hunting and gathering became necessities. Generally, females gathered while males hunted. Unlike chimps, we shared food readily with extended families. Cooperation, coordination, and communication were means of survival. We—Homo erectus—became “significantly human.” 

homo erectus

Homo erectus reconstructed.
“Significantly human,” writes Lieberman. (Wikipedia)

Lieberman continues the story of our evolution into the present and discusses its relevance to disease. After millions of years of seeking food and storing its energy in our bodies whenever we could find it, today we eat more calories than we need while we burn off fewer calories than ever before. As a result we suffer from “mismatch diseases” like diabetes and conditions like hardening of the arteries that our ancestors never worried about. We may treat the symptoms successfully, but given evolution’s slow clock, we won’t be adapting to resist them any time soon.

But we are always walking. We walked our way into becoming human, we walked our way around the world and into history, we speak of journeys, progress, protest marches. There is little else we do that is more essentially us.

march of progress

The original version of the “March of Progress,” from Time magazine in 1965. The details are out of date now but the image remains indelible.
(Wikipedia)