Friday, July 3, 2009

This Conquest May Be Hazardous to Your Culture

Flet victus, victor interiit. The conquered mourns, the conqueror’s undone.
[Roman proverb]
When this old saw is carefully unpacked, a task historians routinely accomplish long after each major upheaval, it turns out that conquerors are transformed by their victories and the culture of the conquered ultimately triumphs. We speak of a Graeco-Roman culture because Rome conquered Greece in a contest that extended over fifty-five years and ended in 146 BC. In the wake of that conquest wave after wave of Hellenistic culture transformed Rome permanently. And we, mostly descendants of the barbarians who, in the late and morbid stages of the Roman Imperium, invaded and conquered Italy, absorbed its superior culture and became its inheritors by a kind of osmosis.

Remembering this sort of thing is unavoidable for folks like me who grew up head down over big thick books—and our minds filled with the nightmare from which James Joyce tried to awaken—when we note the preparations for withdrawal from Shiite Iraq just as we step up our efforts to crush the Taliban in Afghanistan.

A while back now I read a book entitled What Is Life? written by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan in which the authors present the fascinating hypothesis that evolution proceeded in part by creature eating creature, thus by conquest, as it were. To be sure, this was not the only mechanism of change, but it is thought to be one. Ingested creatures, if small enough, may find a new home inside their eater and sink anchor into the alien soil and turn into symbionts. My own earlier excursions into the nightmare of biology (echoing Joyce) had prepared me to accept this. The presence in the cell of mitochondria, little structures with their own DNA and reproductive cycles, little oxygen-generating power plants that supply the cell’s energy, seemed to say that cells have immigrants who came from elsewhere.

Other examples from a larger scale aren’t hard to find. In the New York Times the other day (June 30, 2009) is a brief story headlined When a Hybrid Takes Hold, The Outcome Can be Bad. Hybridization. The story deals with a new hybrid salamander produced in Salinas Valley in California when barred tiger salamanders, brought to the region from Texas by bait dealers, escaped and began to mate with the native California tiger salamanders. The resulting larvae, which are the food of the California newt and the Pacific chorus frog, were radically different and nearly did in all the frogs. New hybrids are sometimes indigestible, and not just in this case.

This, in turn, reminds me of “as above, so below”—which might be extended to say, “and in the middle too.” If we don’t want our culture to change, therefore, we must avoid both conquest and absorption—and we mustn’t mate with folks our parents don’t approve of. Good luck…

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