Do I Like Giraffes?
“DNA reveals that giraffes are four species — not one” announced a recent article in Nature emailed to me by my mom. “NOW you have to pick your favorite species…you can’t just say ‘I like giraffes,’” she wrote in her attached note.
The backstory: when I was four or five year old, I decided as kids do that my favorite animal was the giraffe. When I played “20 Questions,” I would almost always choose “giraffe” as my to-be-guessed word, and my family invariably guessed it within two questions. But as it happens, liking giraffes isn’t a commitment that presents regular opportunities to actively demonstrate (there being few wild ones in the United States), so most of the instantiations of this preference take the form of possessing giraffe-inflected objects. Actually, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the amount of time I spend actually thinking that I like giraffes and how many giraffe objects I have accrued. In college, I hardly ever thought about real giraffes but I bought a giraffe pillow cover, and my mom mailed me giraffe shorts and a giraffe-shaped bookend.
One of the most impactful pieces of advice I remember getting in elementary school was that you shouldn’t try to be special, which I took to mean something like don’t absorb inessential things as essential parts of your personality. So this giraffe preference is not what you’d consider a “deep” belief or something constitutive of the core of my personality. I never became the “the giraffe guy.”
But maybe having such preferences isn’t the worst thing in the world. At a party if you spend a few minutes acrobating your wit in demonstrating to Harambatics the superiority of giraffes over gorillas, at least that’s more enjoyable than mere small talk or silence. And when you walk into a zoo with a group of friends you can play the giraffe card and insist on seeing one in order to give a wee bit of structure to a perhaps otherwise aimless wandering.
And perhaps if you keep digging at superficial incidental things they accrue enough meaning that maybe your face really will light up for real when you see a giraffe. Because it’s familiar, because it’s become habit, because of your personal history associated with the object. And you might find a measure of wonder at the way this random, inessential thing has blossomed into something beautiful or at least very different from what it started as.
Anyway, that’s at least what Nabokov did with butterflies. Look with what sorcery he turned them into an intimation of something Important and Essential, when really they started out just like my giraffe preference, or like yours for toads: as a stupid thing we did when we were kids that somehow stuck with us. Mind that in these mind games of Nab’s he isn’t simply making things up from nowhere; all of the games he plays with the flutterbies are to some extent contained within them as potential jokes. There’s at least some “respect for the material,” some sense of co-conspiracy with the supposed objects of his inventions.
Yet all justifications attached to the sublimity of lepidoptera are retroactive; it would be inaccurate to say all the grand things he would later tease out about butterflutters were somehow what attracted him to them when he was a little runt. New meanings sprout up in the meantime. I guess I might now identify somewhat with giraffes now because they’re tall and gangly and have sore necks but I couldn’t have known these would apply to me later when I was the wee-bitty child doing the species selection.
Why did I choose giraffes? Accurate scholarship can help me unearth the whole architecture of society that schemed to present me with the opportunity to for the first time declare my giraffection and set me down this path. I might consider: What led to the deterioration of fixed heraldic animal meanings (e.g. lion=bravery, bat =fear) that so long set norms for children in the Western world? When did the word “favorite” come into ubiquity? Why does American society demand from its kids that they must have “favorites” of things? Who set the cannon of animals from which most American school kids choose? Why are their no blobfishes or markhors typically offered? What market forces have resulted in the production of easily available giraffe doo-dads, knick-knacks, tchotchkes, and whop-a-doodles?
And I could plow onward from the moment of decision and imagine any number of counterfactuals that could have severed my love for the long-neckers (i.e. a giraffe could have stole my ice cream or eaten my beloved cat) and consider why I avoided those fates.
But eventually you run into a stopping point — no amount of excavation can connect the two and in the end explain the first magic moment: what was I thinking the first time I chose a giraffe. It is wholly inaccessible. We’ll leave it to the philosophers to define for us what that magic moment means, but we just have to accept that it happened and treat that as a given.
Now we have again reached a moment of decision in which this time we must chose not from the whole elementary school animal kingdom but from merely four apparently new species of giraffe: northern, southern, reticulated, and Masai. Unlike when we are children there’s the added twist of this decision being made as a self-consciously rational being. We make it and know we must accept full responsibility now for our decision. We will be haunted by whatever we choose for as long as we live.
You might be thinking: of course we could just deny this choice. Would I lose anything from the decision to say now I no longer like giraffes? I believe that to deny one’s past is to deny a part of one’s life which is to deny life which is to be life-denying which is undeniably an undesirable way to live one’s life. And besides, if I rejected giraffes then my books wouldn’t stand up straight. My mom wouldn’t be able to email me about giraffes. I would lose some mystery when I went to the zoo.
But what standards do I have to look to now? Are there any resources that I have from my past giraffe experience that will help me? I think not. My initial preference for giraffes is based on magic not accessible by reason, so I can’t rationally conjure it for the present moment. I have to look for other criteria: perhaps which one of the four looks the coolest, which has the longest neck, which is the underdog. Or I could conduct an experiment and have the four “giraffes” duke it out in front of me in a battle royal for who ought to be the rightful heir to the throne. Giraffe fights are spectacular spectacles.
But if looking at the past gives us no ready-made resources to come to a decision, was the whole exercise of historical excavation worthless? I think not, because we’ve at least suggested to ourselves in the process how we can better cultivate a decision once it has been made.
Now you might be thinking, it makes no practical difference which giraffe we choose. But it does, since if we were, say, the people in charge of allocating endangered species funding, then deciding which giraffes warranted more protections and whatnot would have serious consequences for the greater giraffe community.
And I think there are many of other ways in which this form of thinking that we’ve tried to exhibit can be relevant. Imagine you’ve been chatting up a person you’ve met over the internet for many years and it’s going quite well, and you agree to meet in person, except that the “other person” suddenly reveals they’re actually four different people using the same online account. How now would you choose which of the four to start seeing? You would have to return through the history of your chats and consider for yourself what things it was that drew you to “them” in successive steps and then see how those impulses will be best fulfilled with the various contenders you now have.
And this giraffe exercise hasn’t been a waste of time because it a helpful model for thinking about other kinds of decision-making, about the genesis of other more important preferences (a word I’ve heard umpteen times in the last week and never want to again). If our giraffinity rests in the end on a magic inaccessible moment, what might the consequences of that be for other things we think we hold dear like our views on culture, politics, love, life, and sports? We’ve seen path dependency is a powerful force.
It is relatively easy for me to reconstruct my giraffe history because the data points are few and all of its important mileposts are contained within my memory and can be corroborated by friends or family. If we wanted to attempt a rational reconstruction of more important topics, though, it would require more difficult research maneuvers. However, I believe the inquiry would follow a similar form:
Step 0: you go about your regular business of life (this would correspond to “normal giraffing” in the Kuhnian terminology)
Step 1: something happens in the world that forces you to make a decision you didn’t have to make before (scientists discover giraffes are manifold and your mom demands you chose one type)
Step 2: this crisis forces you to unearth your background commitments (why do you like giraffes in the first place?)
Step 3: you use tools of research to try to reconstruct how those background commitments got formed (think through your life and through social structures to consider what may have contributed to the formation or growth of your belief)
Step 4: you sort through which of those constituative reasons now apply to your current moment
Step 4: evaluate your contemporary options and see which one might be most fertile for you continuing your commitment
In so applying this method to the present situation, I am now prepared to answer the original question: Team Reticulated.