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233. Treading (II)

I once knew a plumber who said that the ultimate answer to life’s riddle could be found in pipes: “What is a bloke? A bloke is a pipe. When he goes to the lav he forces out another pipe, and that pipe was in a pipe. When I’m with my misuss I put my pipe in her pipe and one time we made another bundle of pipes, that’s ma boy. The Tube? It’s a pipe. The sewers? Pipes. Internet? Pipes. Arteries? Very small pipes. Electricity? It’s a pipe.” “But what about the electricity in the pipe? Surely electricity itself is not a pipe?” I said. “Of course it’s a pipe; just think of those waves on a ping-ping machine at a hospital. Those waves are little pipes, aren’t they?” “True,” I said.

“Look, think about aeroplanes,” he continued, “those are pipes in the sky, right? It’s no use arguing, mate, it’s pipes all the way down. And when they finally bury me, they’ll put me in a coffin—a type of pipe—and they’ll bury me in a kind of pipe that’s six feet deep and those little worms, little pink pipes, will eat me. Life is a pipe: everything in life is a question of how one pipe connects to the other and what goes through that pipe, water or shit.”

Life is a pipe; yet, at the same time, the plumber really demonstrated that men build their philosophies—perhaps more accurately their metaphors for life—from the material they have to hand, the material they work with every day. The plumber sees a world of pipes, pressure, and waterflow: God is a pipe for him, the great plumber in the sky—hence Noah and the flood; if pipes are abused, they burst. This does not seem like a sophisticated philosophy, and the plumber has no great desire to convert other people to his worldview; but men like Richard Dawkins do just the same: they say that everything in life is about gene flows. Genes and gene flows exist, just like the pipes in my house exist; yet as someone who does not work with genes every day—or pipes, either—I struggle to think that life is all about genes or all about pipes, though perhaps all my actions are entirely determined by my plumbing, both internal and external.

Men make their worlds from their interests and obsessions. How can you deny that all is evolution by natural selection? The evidence is all around you to see—open your eyes. Just as the plumber’s apprentice will eventually come to see the world as a question of pipes and water velocity, so the apprentice geneticist comes to see the world as an example of genetics.

There is nothing ridiculous in the proposition that my actions are determined by my plumbing: I am a wet robot made of various liquids that move through pipes under pressure. It would be irrational to deny that pipes are vital to everything we do; and doubtless all my behaviour could be explained by a pipe-based computer model. “He’s very depressed, you know.” “Ah, well, it’s probably a problem with his pipes.” We do not say this, although we do say: “Oh, it must be genetic.” The only reason we assert that our problems are “genetic”—without any scientific evidence, usually—is that genetics is a high-status pursuit, whereas plumbing, though highly remunerative, is not.

I once told a relative that I liked to listen to the sound of rain outside my window. “Oh, you must get that from me, genetics,” he said. But why say this? Because this is how people are trained to think; yet there is no science to this assertion—perhaps the heritability of this trait has been studied, perhaps not. Why not say, “It came from the blood of the ancestors, and the gods.”? That is more romantic, and it is also a higher way to live—higher and quite as true as pipes and genes.


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