Greetings U Chicago Want-To-Be’s. Welcome to a look at the University of Chicago application essays for 2016-2017. Our topic today:
Essay Option 5.
Vestigiality refers to genetically determined structures or attributes that have apparently lost most or all of their ancestral function, but have been retained during the process of evolution. In humans, for instance, the appendix is thought to be a vestigial structure. Describe something vestigial (real or imagined) and provide an explanation for its existence.
—Inspired by Tiffany Kim, Class of 2020
So there are plenty of vestigial artifacts in the world. Take the internal combustion engine for example, or pull back to look at how we generate energy, and you will realize that we haven’t made all that many changes since James Watt perfected the steam engine in the 18th Century. Seriously: what is a nuclear reactor but a giant tea kettle? So looking at technologies we really should be replacing is one way to go at this prompt.
On the other hand, I would point out that our ideas about vestigiality are often wrongheaded. Do we not call many things useless because maybe we just don’t get it? A short history of science shows that–and the most up to date science suggests that even your appendix still has a reason to be. (More on that in a moment.)
To me this question says more about our idea that the latest and greatest is always the best than it does about the usefulness of our appendix. So to turn this prompt against itself, which is often the best way to approach a UChi prompt, I would use the question to explore how we define vestigiality. Most interesting of all is how each age has all the answers until the next age comes along to mock it, failing simultaneously to recognize its own blindness about other things.
Tiffany Kim may be a member of the class of 2020, which means that she graduated from high school with the latest and greatest that an uber-achieving youth could learn in AP Biology, but her question is pretty 20th Century when it comes to her example: the appendix. Those of us keeping the pulse of the newest and best in science learned recently that the appendix does indeed retain an important function, to wit: it appears that it is a refuge for all the good bacteria we need when our guts get disrupted and flushed by illnesses (think Montezuma’s revenge). It is to your body as a country estate was to somebody in early Renaissance Italy who retreated and closed the gates to wait out the plague, after which they would safely go out into the world again. One pictures bacteria telling stories and engaging in libertine pursuits while they wait out whatever ailment is purging one’s guts. (That’s a Decameron allusion, for those who want to know).
To justify my claims, I quote one of only many sources for the new view on the appendix, here: Dartmouth says au contraire on the appendix. Of course, we can lose the appendix and go on, though armed with modern science we might want to grab some probiotics any time we have an intestinal bug, but we can lose a lot of things it would be better to have and go on. Like our legs. I don’t find any of my body parts vestigial, even using my tailbone when I sit.
So much for vestigiality. That’s your first lesson on how to look at a U Chi prompt from another point of view.
On the Other Hand
On he other hand, keep the idea of the prompt; instead of arguing that vestigiality itself is outdated, you could look at many contemporary and seemingly cutting-edge ideas as out-of-date. In particular I think of all those ideas that are memes bouncing around in everyday speech, used by people who want to seem techno-hip and tres moderne. Let’s face it: once a cutting-edge idea filters out into the world of talking heads, you know it’s already a cliche. In keeping with that spirit, let me offer my own short list of cutting-edge pop-tech concepts that are already vestigial ideas:
Humans uploading their brains into computers to live forever
While I deeply admire the thought experiments about this concept from science fiction writers, (check out Solar Lottery by Philip K Dick, in which a man’s consciousness becomes trapped in a rapidly decaying robot-and that’s just a subplot), I think that the current guru peddling this idea, Ray Kurzweil, has painted himself into a corner, philsophically speaking, because he views the brain itself as a kind of computational device, which it isn’t. It produces its results in a way that relates only to computers in certain outcomes, but the processes are not alike: No one’s and zero’s are being manipulated in circuits in the brain, and the brain in fact has no circuits. We are using and analogy or a metaphor when we say the brain has circuits.
Before even wondering what a human being’s memories would be as data stored in a computer (hint: not human memories) Just ask these questions to check on how silly this idea is: What does it mean to have a human mind without a human body, anyway? And when computers do “think” will it look anything like what we do? (No). Can a computer can think about sex, hamburgers, how to catch the perfect break on a wave and wonder why its ankle itches? Does a computer fear death? Does it like kittens? Does a computer have any emotions or need them? And conversely, is human thought in any way separable from emotion? (Last one has an easy answer: Nope. ) That’s just a short list. For more reading, start here: Your Brain is not a Computer and vice-versa.) The real deal here is that people like Kurzweil and Peter Thiel fear death and are in the midst of creating their own techno-religion in which really smart rich guys can buy eternal life while they meanwhile tinker with how to construct AI systems that would not so much replace us as render us redundant.
The Humanities Don’t Matter
Speaking of A.I., when the robots take all our jobs, the only thing left for humans will be the humanities. And appreciating beauty and food and sex and looking at the stars and telling stories and painting. Oh, wait, that all is or is tied into the humanities. Poetry, anyone?
Tech will save us
It is necessary but not sufficient. Tech has changed many industries, but the fundamental social arrangments are still the same, and its the social agreements, like money, how it is made and who controls it that are the real deal. Even with 24-7 online connectivity, the United States is still a capitalistic, commerce-driven representative democracy that provides most of the electricity keeping the internet real by burning fossil fuel, with all the externalities that comes with, like climate change and ocean acidification. We are all connected all the time, but look at something like food: even with drone delivery of food boxes, you’d still be dealing with a largely centralized industrialized agricultural system with farmers or corporate farms shipping product to markets largely through middlemen, while all those personalized, home-centered high-tech hydroponic wallgardens are pretty much what my old Italian neighbors used to have in their backyard (but used les energy to grow the stuff in the garden, which was in the ground, soaking up free solar energy from above, no constant water pumping needed). Also notice how any technology with the power to transform and redeem also has the power to destroy. So you could say it’s all about politics and activism, supplemented by tech, kids.
A supplemental vestigial idea is that all these transformative technologies are totally powerful and totally safe, simultaneously. For an amusing example of this, consult any interview in which Craig Ventner, he of human genome fame, talks about Frankenstein and by doing so shows that he has never read the book, while he explains how his bacteria will save the world by creating diesel fuel that recycles carbon out of the atmosphere. Of course it is not actually getting rid of any carbon, and it’s not doing anything about the energy inefficiency of having most of us in 1-2 ton vehicles that waste most of the energy that drives them, but at least it feels like some smart guy is going to save us. To which I add one more thing: Whole lotta water needed for that project, Craig. Whole. Lotta. Water. And land.
That college is unnecessary for smart kids
Seriously? It is totally fascinating to me to see all these Silicon-Libertarians who went to elite schools trashing college. Take Peter Thiel and his foundation and fellowship. Thiel has two Stanford degrees but advocates against college for smart kids and to promote his idea has created his own little tech incubator on the cheap via his foundation. Yes, that is what it looks like to me. Gather the smartest kids you can interested enough to apply and go through the process, get them to present an idea they want to develop, and then give a small number of them money and support. That’s a tech incubator, right? Or is it the Ivy League?
And of course any tech incubator will have some slice of the pie that is baked in it. That Thiel foundation does not look so altruistic anymore, does it? As a comparison with the Ivy League, the admit rate for the Thiel Foundation’s first Thiel Fellowship class was 6%. Not a good admit rate, a bit better than Harvard and Princeton, but not by much. Of course, the kids who got in get 100 grand and access to all kinds of Silicon Valley mentoring and venture capital, but so far they do stuff like make caffeine spray and marginal apps. It’s probably a good experience for these kids, but it’s a totally skewed take on not going to college–how many people does Thiel want to hand 110k and mentoring to? How many can shape a life without formal training?
If you want an unbiased and one-stop place to see if college is worth it in the terms most people [Especially those aging hipsters who all went to elite colleges hanging out with young hackers whom they tell not to go to college—Hmm, I really need a word for old parasites feeding on idealistic young tech kids–Tech vampires? Sugar mommas and daddies? Somebody help me out here]. Have a look here for more: College and Income from People You Can Trust [The Pew Center].
So that’s a few ideas, and the kind of thinking that you need to show in a U Chi essay. Your mantra: Don’t follow the herd.
And here’s my final tip: make your own list then start clicking to find ideas for you to build a case in your essay for U Chicago.
All the best until my next post on, um, I’ll get back to you on that. OR get in touch and let me know what you need a post on—I follow the wisdom of the crowd for some new topics. Vote early and vote often . . .at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also contact me for editing assistance. ASAP actually, as sometime before Thanksgiving my calendar will likely be booked through January 1 (though the occasional spot will open up even then when a client misses a deadline).