The time: sometime last summer. The place: Estacada, Oregon.
Over the summer of 2008, I had a goal to visit as many of the suburban
towns around Portland
as I could. At times, that was just as boring as it might sounds, and at other times, it was fairly interesting. This particular Saturday afternoon, it was about exactly where it could be expected, in the middle. I could present a little checklist
of what I had seen: a mennonite
girl, riding a bicycle in a long dress. An empty can of Sparks Caffeinated Malt Liquor
sitting on a rock on the banks of the reservoir
. Some interesting murals
on the sides of buildings, exhibiting Estacada's role in the ginseng
industry, as well as a very stylized drawing of the phylogenetic tree of life
. But perhaps the most important episode would come later, after realizing that my marginal utility
on this dwindling Saturday afternoon was diminishing, and that it was time to return home.
It would be a while before a bus came, so I waited by the bus shelter, which was right on the grassy lawn of an old brick building. I wasn't quite sure about the time, so I asked a group of kids what time it was. They looked about late adolescence: last two years of high school, most probably. They didn't know the time, but one of the girls said she needed money to get back to Milwaukie, Oregon. It seems like a likely enough story, so I go and break two dollars at a local gas station. I give her the change and make a comment that it seems like it would be the type of thing that would happen in a fetch quest for an old Nintendo RPG, a statement that earns me a quizzical look. I go to sit by myself and wait, with the thoughts of a sign saying "Welcome to the Mountain Town of Estacada" to amuse me.
Soon enough, some more teenagers join the waiting game. And this is where the script comes out. There are two girls waiting, along with about five boys. Before long, the boys are laughing just a little bit too loudly, and insulting each other jocularly. Some light slapping and hitting as well, of the non-violent kind. None of this, I think, was even enough to make me open my eyes. One of the guys even takes to pushing or intruding on the girl just a little bit, but again in a non-offensive manner. But, that is a little bit of a dangerous game, so before long, the boys are arguing over who can outjump each other. And before long, they do it. With a few light insults added in, but not the type of insults that would at all disrupt the group harmony. Before long, they are jumping over hedges, in a feat that even I am impressed at. All this time, while the boys are showing off, the girls are standing still, showing perhaps some faint annoyance, but also appraising the performances. Thus, the displays of athleticism, but also the display of social standing and slight aggression that also manage to display a good natured ability to keep friends and use humor. I wonder if the boys realize they are performing, and that jumping over things is not really their own greatest desire. I wonder if the girls realize that under their annoyance and boredom, that they are still in the role of appraiser, evaluator and judge.
I usually don't believe in evolutionary psychology. But I do have to admit this type of script seems awfully familiar to me. I imagine that many people reading this will recognize the situation exactly, although with their own substitutions for age and culture. But there is a reason that this script is familiar: it has been this way for a long long time. Without having too much megalomania about the matter, consider your ancestors. Since the Cambrian explosion, when eukaryotes started realizing that many cells were better than one, your ancestors have been reproducing sexually. Think about it: for about half a billion years, every one of your ancestors has managed to survive until sexual maturity, and then somehow find and impress a mate, and (if female) survive the process of gestation. You are at the end of a very long winning streak. Everyone of your male ancestors had to convince a female that he was worth the possibility of dying during gestation over. And each one of your female ancestors had to be able to judge if that was a case. Now, of course I am being somewhat fanciful here---I doubt your lancelet ancestors went out with her girlfriends for whatever passed for martinis in the Cambrian seas, and discussed potential mates dreamy eyes versus their fear of commitment, but still, their were decisions being made successfully for many millions of generations.
Which is why, to return to things, the script seems so familiar. Everyone knows exactly how it goes, even when they don't know their role in it. Are the girls, bored and annoyed, still unaware, after all these millions of years, that they are the prime mover of the boy's antics. Are the boys unaware that as good as the jumping feels, it isn't what is really making them feel good? And as for me, sitting on the grass with my own feelings of amusement and annoyance, what right do I have to judge the whole set-up? These questions would only occur to me later, but at the time, I just waited for the bus to show up, and then forgot about the whole thing.