The Darwinian fate of dreams

Scott Cooper responded to my Unbearable lightness of being a potter post by stating “I’m OK, I think, with a Darwinian process in the society that kills off the dreams that are more flaky, dumb or unsuitably naive in favor of those that are more fit to survive.”

And as usual Dr Cooper provides the spoon that swirls my mental soup and allows me to savor its tasty morsels. He gives me the oar that paddles my little boat off the curve of the horizon and into uncharted seas and distant lands. He’s not feeding me what to think, or telling me where to go. He’s giving me the opportunity to dig deeper, to exercise harder. And the map he gives me is riddled with devil’s advocacy, and false turns, and dubious warnings. Its a map that drives me further out into the untamed seas. Without his prodding I’d be lamely treading water in the shallow end of the pond, I’d be sipping the thin layer of watery broth that had settled out close to the surface. How fortunate I am that Dr Cooper’s office is open for business and that he’s willing to suffer a chronic patient like me!

Anyway, here’s what I had to say in response:

Dreaming, like any other ability or talent, needs nurturing and training. And sometimes we have to give up one dream to pursue another. So even failed dreams can be the compost for new dreams to find nourishment. And sometimes the plant is made healthier by cutting away dead or failing branches. And sometimes it just takes too much water to sustain a plant that was damaged from birth, and never will survive. Sometimes its best to cut life support. Sometimes a dream is just not fit for our world….

But then sometimes its also important to let a dream have its day in the sun despite all that. Sometimes its important to feed that dream despite knowing that it won’t go anywhere. Sometimes the point of a dream isn’t how much it leads us into the future, but what it is right here and right now. Sometimes a dream needs to be respected just for having been dreamed. “This is MY soul speaking” says the artist. And who is right to tell her that the dream she is dreaming is wrong?

If the world is not set up to support that dream is there something necessarily wrong with the dream? Maybe instead there is something wrong with the world that does not support it. Isn’t the point of dreams that they are not the world? That they are something different? Something new? Aren’t dreams born into this world as a sometimes violent tear in the fabric of reality? By their very nature, dreams are not of this world. So how can the world’s support ever be a measure of the ‘fitness’ of the dream?

But we can also make the world more like our dream. Isn’t the point of dreams that we can sometimes follow them and change the world? That we CAN make it different? Isn’t following a dream this magical opportunity to imagine something different? And if it is simply being measured against the status quo, what dream would ever pass muster? Don’t dreams succeed precisely because they DO change things? That the world now IS a different place? Isn’t it also right to dream the seemingly impossible? To challenge ourselves beyond our known limits? To find new limits in previously undiscovered territory? Don’t we have to deny playing it safe just to have these dreams? Is that wrong? Are only the easy births worth supporting?

If we make it a Darwinian scenario aren’t we just saying that only the easy dreams get to survive? That its the luck of the draw that there are are doctors and a support team to gentle the newborn infant into its swaddling clothes? And that dreams born into a war zone, or born into poverty, are just out of luck? That they are right to die off? That their fitness for the world was that they were born into poverty and strife?

That just seems wrong to me. And if that is the case, then we can’t afford to measure our dreams simply by which of them survive long into this world. That makes it an accident of history whether something makes it or fails. Do we truly wish to measure dreams on those terms? If Michael Simon’s pots had never reached an audience, if YOU and I had never gotten to see them, would his dreams of beauty and function have been wrong? Would they have been unfit simply because there was no one at that time and place who could appreciate them? Are we saying that the tree never made a noise because it fell in a forest where no one could hear it? And how much beauty is still out there languishing for lack of opportunity? For lack of an appreciative audience? How many dreams get squashed simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time? The validity of a dream simply cannot be measured by the contingent circumstances of how well it survives in the world.

Sure, some dreams can make a bigger difference, and some dreams don’t make any ripples at all. We tend to notice the ones that DO survive and change things. But do we only celebrate the dreams that shake mountains? Do we only praise the dreams that get born in fancy hospitals to wealthy parents? Is that the real test? The dreams that through worldly Darwinian contingency DO have an effect on the world at large? Are the dreams of the quiet hermit on the lonely mountain top any less worth dreaming? It is the ability to make dreams real that ends up getting celebrated instead, if we put all our marbles in a Darwinian sorting matrix. Do we want to only recognize dreams of the people in positions of worldly power, where its simply easier to make dreams come true? Isn’t a dream its own integral value no matter who is dreaming it? No matter where its born and into what circumstances?

Isn’t predicting the potential efficacy of a dream in the world in a sense like trying to measure how well a car will run based on the color it was painted? Don’t all sorts of other things have to line up for one dream to survive and for another not to? And yet, the fitness of the dream is in question, not the fitness of the circumstances it was born into. Does that make sense? A child born into poverty starts out with incredible disadvantages, and if that child gets pulled down how can we in good conscience put all the blame on that child? Is the way the world actually is the best sorter for which dreams make it and which do not? 

And isn’t THAT the point of dreaming in the first place? That there is more to value than simply what is? That we can escape the inequity of our circumstances? If only we dream big enough. And if only the hand of Darwinism isn’t there to slap us down.

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Darwinian fate of dreams

  1. More than just the easy dreams should have a chance to survive, but it’s up to the dreamer to keep them alive.

    • Actually, the point I was making was that we can sometimes all help each other’s dreams survive, and that its not wrong to try. It can be (and almost always really is) a collective effort. We can build a society that makes up the difference in inequality and disadvantages so many of us start out with. We can craft a world that makes the difficult dreams and the dreams of the disadvantaged more possible. Isn’t it right that we all share some of the burden? Isn’t that what living in a society should entail?

      Do we want to say that everyone is just on their own? That your dreams only matter to you? That if we live in an unjust society the people who are being oppressed are entirely on their own? Maybe they need to have the hope that things will change. Maybe they need to be responsible for keeping the dream alive. But are we not responsible too?

      If I’m only responsible for my own dreams, what of my children’s dreams? What of my grandchildren’s dreams? What of my neighbors’ and friends’ dreams? What of my community’s dreams? Are we really only islands untouched by the rest of the world?

      Maybe we can’t always do very much. Maybe its not always our place to try. But sometimes it does matter. Sometimes we can make a difference in other people’s lives. Do we sit back and watch avoidable tragedy unfold as long as we get what we want? Don’t we want other people to believe in our dreams as well?

      Just what kind of world do we want to be living in? Do we even really understand that there are people whose dreams are severely compromised? For no other reason than the accidents of circumstance and history? Not just artistic flights of fancy, but dreams for a better future. Do we even understand that we can sometimes make a difference? Do we even understand that if we sit back in self absorption for too long we may be missing out on potential wonders of the world? Isn’t it true that the whole is sometimes greater than the sum of its parts?

      As a kid I lived in Holland. The house I stayed in was the home where collaborators had lived when the Germans had occupied Holland in WWII. And right next door was a house, with the mother and grandmother still living there, where 3 Jews had been hidden for over two years of the occupation. Is there a point to that story?

      Have you ever made a difference in someone else’s life? Whether it was up to you or not, wasn’t making a difference important? Isn’t even simple courtesy sometimes lacking in our daily lives? Sometimes it doesn’t matter who is ‘responsible’. Its what we can do about a situation. Doesn’t this make us better human beings? Doesn’t this make the world a better place? And maybe that actually IS our responsibility.

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    Disclaimer: I am not a real doctor; I just play one on the Internet. Also, I’m more of a “tell me about your mother”, soft-sciences guy than the kind that can cut you open to take out the bad stuff.

    While I gladly accept my role as mental-soup-stirrer, oar fabricationist, and nihilist cartographer to the OKG blog, I’m more dubious than you as to the value any of that creates. At least you haven’t banned me yet!

    I’m really interested in this dreams conversation, but am still looking for a graceful way to back away from my embarrassing pro-Gladwell stance back on your Four Seasons post. Depending on how that goes, I’ll try to get back here to add something before this thread is six months old.


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