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Stories

Natural Selection

With no prospects for a girlfriend and his level of physical fitness plummeting, Matt Evans reads Darwin in hope of personal evolution, and then embarks upon a journey of cardiovascular and self-improvement. With unexpected results.

I. Struggle for Existence

I don’t normally hit on people while they’re at work, but “Jessica” (or so her Barnes & Noble nametag says) is the hot new stuff behind the register. Something in me says give it a whirl.

“Did you know that scientists recently discovered the gene that programs a fruit fly’s mating behavior? It’s called the fruitless gene. The male fruit fly taps the female, and in a courtly, expansive manner, slowly extends a trembling wing. Then he sings to her.” I wiggle my arm in the air and ask her to go out with me.

Jessica looks perplexed, and then appears to have trouble swallowing.

“Mmmpph…”

“Oh come on,” I say, sliding my purchases across the counter toward her. “It’s just a question.”

“Eeew,” she says, turning her attention to my books. “Maxim and Origin of Species? That’s an interesting combo,” she says, running them through the scanner. She points to Origin’s cover, a graphic Noah’s Ark scene wherein a few sharp-toothed animals are chomping on the milder of their fellows. “Eeew again,” she says.

“Hey, have a little respect. Those are our ancestors.” I intend this as a joke, or an apology, but my voice is too strident, my hands too sweaty—I hate my fruitless gene.

“Oh, so this must be you,” she says, pointing again to the Origin cover, picking out a sad-eyed elephant from the back of the crowd. “But this is me,” she says, taking up the Maxim, pointing at the hot girl on the cover. “See? We’re not even on the same cover, let alone the same species.”

In other words, when it comes down to survival of the fittest, Jessica’s buff and I’m not.

The solution, therefore, is simple: If at first you don’t succeed, adapt.

Tomorrow I shall start running five miles every morning.

II. Laws of Variation

As planned, I begin my exercise routine and am now facing the lower species’ punishment for daring to change—shin splints. I pound aspirin, because whiskey has too many carbs.

Two days later I switch over to bicycling, and am now wheeling with ease along my once-arduous (and only once-attempted) running route. Rounding the grocery store corner, I notice a “LOST PET” sign affixed to a telephone pole. Under a pixilated photo of a duck is a message: “If this is your duck…then he is safe! CALL STEVE: 801-555-1577.”

I study the duck’s photo. He’s leaning a bit to the viewer’s right, photographed mid-waddle, as it were. Jaunty little beggar. I consider what it would be like to have a pet. I live alone. I’ve got nobody special to spend time with, and the landlord would never even know. I remove the sign and pedal home.

When I call Steve that evening to ask if the duck is housebroken, he answers, “If I have to spend five more minutes with that quacking shit-box, I’m gonna rip out every goddamn one of its feathers and make a nice down coat.”

“Don’t you dare,” I hiss.

Riding home, steering with one hand and holding the warmish waterfowl in the other, I realize that this poor little pond duck is considerably more evolved than its predatory captor. I decide to name him Charles, after the great Darwin himself. Safe, indeed!

III. Variation Under Nature

According to the vet, Charles is a mallard, the smartest and friendliest of the duck family, Anatidae. The kicker, however, is that “Charles” is really a “Charlene”—the plumage gives her away. Charlene has lustrous plumage.

On the way home, Char and I stop by Salem Pond to watch the other ducks. I marvel at how they mingle with each other, flying and landing, quacking happily. There are even a few duck pairs coupling in the grass on the bank. It all seems so natural and easy. So unlike human relationships.

Back at the apartment, I attempt to fashion my abode into something more reminiscent of a duck’s environs. I draw a bath, thinking that Charlene might enjoy splashing about for a spell. But it’s a small tub, lacking in fish and bugs, and she soon grows listless, her webbed feet dangling like puppet limbs as she drifts near the shampoo. She avoids my eyes.

After dinner, I cart Charlene off to her bed, which is a bundle of blankets next to the bathtub. As an afterthought, I rush outside and pluck fistfuls of grass from the yard. When I return, I find she’s already fast asleep, her little webbed feet twitching as she paddles in her dreams.

Back in my own bed, I think about how for the first time in recent memory my house doesn’t feel lonely. I have a pet in the other room! A pet! A pet! But then my thoughts take a precipitous turn to poor, sad Charlene, whose feet used to negotiate pond waters at night, whose new home is with me…but where is it she thinks of as her true home?

IV. Variation Under Domestication

The next day we ride to Salem Pond. Charlene splashes around eagerly after I set her down in the water. As I naturally assumed she would, she soon spies the smallish group of ducks congregated on the far side of the pond and happily paddles toward them.

My life is no match for this, I know. Let her be happy, with her own species, in her natural environment. Let her have a duck-friend, not a guy who struggles with shin splints. Let her have an expansive pond, not a plug-stoppered bathtub.

After a last look at happy Charlene, I turn my bike around and pedal away.

At Barnes & Noble, where I’ve ducked in to purchase the latest issue of Maxim (itself a pet of sorts), Jessica points mutely at the digital readout when I ask for the total. Worse still, my sarcastic rejoinder—”Thank you, Jessica”—actually seems to confuse her. When I hand her my money, she makes a big show of avoiding even the brush of my touch, taking the bills with careful pincher fingers.

At home, I read a little in Origin, hoping to find comfort in Darwin’s ordered world, a refuge where one animal regards another only as concerns the propagating of its own kind. If that’s true, then why does the thought of being bereft of Charlene’s company depress me far more than the realization that Jessica and I will never, ever in a million years of evolution, find ourselves making small talk across a small table in a bar?

In fact, the only similarity between a woman like Jessica and a sweet pond duck like Charlene is that they both get pretty worked up when I approach them eagerly, a little bread in hand.

Charlene, though, could have made me happy.

V. Instinct

The sun rises and I don’t.

Starting with Jack Daniels, I spend the day attending to my sorrows. If it serves only to illuminate the myriad ways in which I am alone in this world, then my pre-frontal cortex is a fruitless burden. Are millions of worker bees bothered that only one of them will fertilize the queen? Does the Black Widow male quail from his post-coital death?

When six o’clock arrives, I’m still on the sauce and sitting in my recliner, watching this movie, Incredible Journey, about two dogs and a cat traveling across the country to reunite with the owners who have inadvertently abandoned them. I marvel at the animals’ devotion. Something much greater than instinct underlies such an amazing trek. At movie’s end, I am a blubbering mess, which soon gives way to a stupefied torpor.

When someone raps loudly on the door, my first instinct is to ignore it. Which I do.

Again it comes, the peremptory rap, rap, rap.

I stagger to the door, swing it wide, and find…nobody! As I’m about to shut the door, a soft quack at my feet directs my gaze downward.

It’s Charlene! Standing on my doorstep! Carrying in her bill a walnut that she undoubtedly used as a tool to amplify her rapping. Oh my brilliant, beautiful darling has returned and I should probably say something about how clever—

She takes a tentative step inside, and rubs her bill on my pants leg. The walnut clatters to the ground.

VI. Morphology

I cover the bathroom in mud sprinkled with perennials and grass seed.

The kitchen floor I replace with flagstone and, over in the nook, put in our own little pond. I buy myself a snorkel and fins.

The bed of blankets I move from tubside to bedside.

Charlene and I decide that henceforth I shall never again eat the meat of poultry, fowl, or mammal. It’s the principle of the thing. We are, however, in accord that fish is fine, very fine.

VII. Hybridism

After making careful alterations to the “LOST DUCK” sign that brought us together, I surprise Char one night with a memento of our love. The caption now reads, “If this is your duck…then I’m in love.” And even though a duck is not a fruit fly, Char treats me to a miracle—she raises one trembling wing and quacks softly. I sing her the best tune I know.

A little Chardonnay, some Manilow on the stereo. Char and I nuzzle on the bear rug in front of the fire, and not until dawn’s gentle light comes creeping do we allow ourselves to drift away into sleep.

VIII. Natural Selection

I ride over to Barnes & Noble, stride past Jessica at the counter, and head to the magazine rack. I grab the latest issue of the Audubon Magazine, pay at the register, and leave. Jessica means as little to me as water sliding off Char’s beautiful back.