Once reports came in that a misanthrope had been spotted on the outskirts of town. The news caused quite a stir, what with concerns over the future of biodiversity, but serious doubts about the sighting were raised almost at once. Of most dispute was whether the creature in question belonged to the species of true misanthropes or was, on the contrary, an example of that rarely seen relative, the mock-misanthrope. This second species, having diverged in its development at some point in the misty past, was known to compete for the same habitat but had been steadily losing ground to its more adaptive cousin when it came to the survival of the fittest among misanthropes. Simply stated, the mock-misanthrope just wasn’t equipped to adjust to a changing environment with the speed necessary. Instead, it suffered from a fatally primitive approach to life’s challenges: relying entirely upon the contents of its own braincase to make its way in the world. In fact, to trust in anything other than its species’ innate abilities to make it from one day to the next struck the mock-misanthrope as an abject lack of faith in its own kind. Any abandonment by others of these inborn strengths in favor of some makeshift survival ploy would send it into an exasperated howl. “What are we,” it might shout, “an evolutionary dead end? A waste of good gray matter?” Rather than encouraging others to make better use of what gray matter they did in fact possess, however, these sarcastic barbs only drew attention to the mock-misanthrope itself, with the negative consequences to be expected. Its outbursts typically met with sullen, embarrassed silence or else outright dismissal, often in the form of angry threats. Little wonder, then, the mock-misanthrope was in trouble and was sighted with increasing rarity. There was even talk of the need to place it on the endangered species list. By contrast, the survival strategy of the other branch on the evolutionary tree, the true misanthrope, had demonstrated clear advantages time and again. The true misanthrope decided at an early date that relying on one’s own strengths alone could be suicidal. They might fall so far short of what was required to advance one’s individual prospects and those of the species as a whole that distancing oneself from them as quickly and as fully as possible seemed the wisest course. With the stakes so high, no alternative to risky self-reliance should be overlooked. The most common tactic, resorted to generation after generation, was the ruse of playing dead whenever danger arose while hoping for some miraculous deliverance to occur. Lacking confidence in its own power when faced with any threat to its welfare, the true misanthrope perfected the art of making itself appear exceedingly small, helpless, insignificant, and therefore not worth the trouble of putting an end to. Curling up into a tight ball, it might be heard to plead, “O, what a worthless thing am I before your power and glory! Have mercy on me! You’re so grand and I’m so weak! I promise never to offend or cross you again if you’ll just have mercy!” After repeating this trusted formula until it was hoarse, the true misanthrope would slowly open one eye and squint anxiously about. If nothing had happened and no great foot had come down to squash its world flat, the true misanthrope would take this as a sign it must be doing something right and resolve to make itself appear even smaller and confess its weaknesses even more plaintively the next time, if that’s what it took. Counting too much on your own abilities to meet life’s challenges simply wasn’t a safe calculation and might even land you in deeper trouble for your pains. Better to make much of your shortcomings instead and turn your fate over to some force much greater than your own to do for you what you feared you couldn’t manage yourself. An alternative dodge highly favored by the true misanthrope was to veer to the opposite extreme, claiming one was too important not to leave a gaping hole at the top of creation if summarily dismissed from it. To support such a boast, this species of misanthrope would set up an idealized, god-like version of itself and then worship the thing’s vaunted perfections as proof of a gift for transcending all limitations of nature and time. If the former tactic of self-denigration sought to arouse pity as a way of deflecting any threat, real or imagined, this one aimed to stir, through intimidating self-glorification, an awe that would have the same effect. To both of these survival strategies, the mock-misanthrope would invariably rejoin, “Why not just be who you are? That should count for enough!” Over time, however, the evolutionary benefits of the more flexible approach came to characterize larger and larger misanthrope populations. As natural selection took its course, those possessing this adaptive trait of pretending to be far less or far more than they by nature were multiplied rapidly and spread across the globe. Eventually, they could be found everywhere, enjoying the considerable fruits of alternately deflating and puffing themselves up, of masquerading as whining wretch or strutting demigod in two halves of the same survival strategy, one that forced the purely self-reliant but outnumbered mock-misanthrope ever closer and closer to extinction. In light of this fact, it was the ultimate consensus among experts that the particular misanthrope reportedly seen near the city limits on the occasion in question was almost certainly not of the mock variety. It must instead have been one of the much more common and favored true misanthropes.
Copyright © 2007, revised 2008, by Geoffrey Grosshans