Male bowerbirds are like little avian architects. They build decorative structures as a display of genetic fitness or sexual desirability, then festoon them with whatever brightly colored bits they can scavenge up and deem visually pleasing. Sometimes they hunt down beetles and use them as artwork instead of eating them. The guy with the biggest, prettiest tower gets the most ladies, that then go off to hatch and raise the chicks on their own. They are nature's confirmed bachelors. Bonobos have sex for fun. They've been known to use their tongues when they kiss. Female bonobos have sex with other females and males have sex with other males. They have been documented having orgies that look suspiciously like what you'd imagine goes on inside a swingers' club but with slightly more body hair. They bang because they're stressed and they bang because they're bored. I'm simplifying for comedic effect, and if you want to know more, I recommend you read Geoffrey Miller's The Mating Mind.
Humans are by no means the only animal that engage in behaviors which do nothing to directly contribute to the survival of the individual or species as a whole. However, we do seem to do it harder than any other creature. See, at some point humans figured out things like farming and ended up with a bunch of free time and extra resources. We took advantage of these things and used them to breed like rabbits, cover the earth, and pick fights with other tribes. We built villages and then cities. We developed technology, starting with simple tools and eventually building to things like computers and space ships.
We now have fashion, coffee, moral codes, pornography, mansions, and comedy. We've turned our displays of excess resources (what else is a five-bedroom house for a single man or a $14,000 dress that you can barely sit in?) into whole industries. We invented money and then banking. I'm not sure where capitalism comes into the equation, but (at least in the developed world) our lives are dominated by this set of rituals and laws surrounding pieces of paper and chunks of metal that only have value because we agree that they do… and the pieces of paper and chunks of metal are now secondary to intangible bank-account balances and debit card transactions.
We also have Las Vegas, which is the sparkliest money-sucking pit of debauchery I've ever set foot in. Gambling is a thrilling way to hand your money over to a casino in exchange for an all natural and completely legal norepinephrine high. Sure, sometimes you might win a game here or there but at the end of the day the house always gets the better half of the deal. The "What Happens In Vegas Stays In Vegas" slogan tells visitors to let their ids off the leash. It says there's a whole city that encourages the average person to indulge all their impulses until their money runs out. Vegas casinos are fueled by capitalism and excess of all types, and that is precisely why I'd argue that they are one half of the pinnacle of human achievement to date.
Photo by Jeff Koga (That's not really a nun).
During this January's Adult Entertainment Expo, I sat in a club at the Hard Rock while Taio Cruz's "Hangover" played. The song celebrates habitually drinking too much and is incredibly catchy. I perched on the back of a velvet couch with a glass of prosecco in hand and entertained myself by trying to guess which of the women tottering by in barely functional shoes were bachelorette parties and which were fellow sex workers. Aside from the near-uniform garments that did virtually nothing to protect their bodies from the elements, both ends of this spectrum seemed to have the common aim of making people feel good. Humans tend to like doing things that make us feel good. Some of us like to feel good by having sex for fun, getting drunk, or dancing around to physically palpable bass. Some of us like to feel good by eating things that are a delightful combination of sugar, salt, and fat or educating ourselves and using our intellect to do things that we think are for the betterment of humanity. Others enjoy feeling morally superior through abstinence and sobriety.
That last group tends to congregate in these places called churches. Less than 15 miles away from the Hard Rock Hotel are a number of megachurches. They have flashy websites and usually have video screens and lights behind the pastor or preacher that are reminiscent of a large venue during a rock show or a big club with a well-known DJ. They attract thousands of worshippers every week to large campuses. Attending a service in one of these places has been described as addicting. The congregation hands over money to the church as a tithe in exchange for feeling like they're contributing to their community and following the word of God. In a way that feels very similar to playing the slot machines: they are paying for the intangible ability to feel good. As much as I adamantly disagree with most of their messages, this is the other half of that pinnacle of human achievement.
When I look at Las Vegas, I see a concrete and flashing neon message to the universe that humanity won't settle for caves and foraging. Both the churches and casinos are decadent monuments in the desert saying we are so highly evolved that we can afford to devote large amounts of time to indulging ourselves or morally policing those who do. Our beliefs and the specifics of our rituals may differ, but at the end of the day, the instincts that drive us are very much alike.
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