Of the millions of organisms estimated to be alive today, most occur in the tropics. In describing this diversity, biologists often use such words as “staggering,” “incredible,” and “outta sight!” I wonder, though, how many of them have ever had to venture alone into the urban jungle to purchase a new toaster oven.
Within the world’s city centers can be found another kind of diversity—a diversity composed not of exotic orchids and tree frogs but of people and their artifacts, and the complex, interrelated systems of structures and urban spaces where we go to buy such artifacts. These systems—otherwise known as malls or shopping centers—present a dizzying array of products and services, and are as diverse in their own way as any tropical rainforest.
So, needing to buy a new toaster oven one day, it was off to the mall I went. Simple enough, but for someone like me who has not bought a new toaster oven in decades, it was a daunting task. Just choosing a store took me the better part of the morning. Sears, Wal-Mart, Target, Filene’s, JC Penney, Best Buy, Home Depot, Nordstrom’s, and scores more: none gave the slightest clue as to where the best toaster oven might be found.
Finally, I did manage to locate a store having a good selection of models and prices—or rather, a “staggering” selection. Indeed, one whole wall of the store was given over to various toaster ovens in every possible size, shape, and price. I think it was then that I began thinking about toaster ovens in Darwinian terms.
I must have stood there in the aisle for a full hour, staring in wonder at this assemblage of toaster ovens. So this is what the forces of a free market system have bestowed upon us, I thought. I suppose I should feel thankful for having all these varieties to choose from. In other less fortunate parts of the world, I would be standing in line for weeks—assuming that I could obtain one at all—or would be playing the black market for one of those coveted American models. But here was the opposite side of the coin. How exactly does one choose?
All I wanted was your basic, every day, dependable, and of course cheap toaster oven. Yet, even though there was a considerable range in price, most of the models on display were, on closer inspection, remarkably similar in outward appearance and purported function. And just as “nature is prodigal in variety, though niggard in innovation” (Darwin, The Origin of Species), so too did there seem to be little real change here evident since the last toaster oven I had purchased. Oh sure, there was this or that gizmo, or some new kind of coating, but all were just slight variations on a theme, displaying fewer real differences among them than did Darwin’s Galapagos finches.
I reflected a while about the mechanism at work that must have produced these variations, slight as they were. Gradually I came to the conclusion that each toaster oven is not independently created (as was commonly thought by most scientists, just a few generations ago), but is the end result of countless artificial selections made, over what seems like eons, by bewildered consumers like me. During this long evolutionary period of trial and error, there must have existed thousands, or even millions, of intermediate toaster oven types on the road to these more successful models. Perhaps they will be uncovered someday in the trash record of our past.
These selections are artificial because they are based not on any significant morphological differences in the ovens, but on the shiny contrivances of the merchandiser’s magic. A new knob here, a new temperature setting there and—Voila!—a “new variety” is born into this world. And for only $59.95. May Darwin forgive me, but I see a slow, inexorable “descent of man” in all this, at least in our dignity.
As for my own dignity, it suffered a descent of its own as I stood at the checkout counter with the model I had finally chosen. The woman behind me, having undergone the same ordeal, asked me how I had managed to choose from all those models, and why I had chosen my brand as opposed to hers. Resisting the wave of maniacal laughter that rose within me, I shrugged and replied, “Because this is the brand I bought last time.” ©Gene Twaronite 2013
Originally published in 5enses Magazine, March 2013. http://www.5ensesmag.com