The Circle of Existence: Chapter 7 – The Background Trend

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by DCH Park

monarchy-153404_1280“Reality is not a function of the event as event, but of the relationship of that event to past, and future, events.”
– Robert Penn Warren

“The frame, the definition, is a type of context. And context, as we said before, determines the meaning of things. There is no such thing as the view from nowhere, or from everywhere for that matter. Our point of view biases our observation, consciously and unconsciously. You cannot understand the view without the point of view.”
– Noam Shpancer

I read Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There when I was in eighth or ninth grade. I remember taking it with me when my class went on a field trip into the city to see a play. I have no memory of the play but I have an image of the lot of us standing outside the theater. I took the book with me to pass the time when we were waiting on line. I remember because some of my classmates saw it and teased me for reading what they knew as a children’s story. I smiled at their teasing and returned to my reading. I had picked it up because I read somewhere that Lewis Carroll’s stories were an excellent exercise in logic.

In it, the Red Queen is initially cordial to Alice, explaining the rules of chess. The narrative at one point says, “Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” (Carroll, Lewis, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Chapter 2,, retrieved 15 JUL 14.)

The Red Queen’s Race, as it has come to be called, has been used to illustrate competitive adaptation in evolutionary biology, the “Treadmill of Production” in environmental sociology, and other concepts. In engineering and physics it can be likened to a DC offset, though the Red Queen’s Race, which is run as fast as you can, is probably overstating the matter a bit.

A DC offset is a background level that affects everything the same way so that relative differences between one point and another are unaffected because both the beginning and end points are affected by the same amounts and in the same direction. It is expressed mathematically by adding a constant to both inputs and outputs. The offset can even change over time. If it does, of course, the offset becomes a more complex function than adding a simple constant, but relative differences will be unaffected as long as both end points are affected the same way.

I have always been puzzled by Dodgson’s (Lewis Carroll’s “real” name) inclusion of the Red Queen’s Race in his novella. For one thing, it would seem that you only have to “run at least twice as fast” to make progress if you’re going in the same direction as the offset. If your goal is in the other direction, the offset brings you closer to it. If the offset is increasing over time, even if the increase is imperceptibly small over the course of a day or a week, then you may not have to run at all. You may be able to reach your goal by simply standing still. The background trend will bring you and your goal together.

Nevertheless, the race itself is an intriguing concept with vast implications but it doesn’t seem to impact the rest of the book or characters at all. The characters all walk about normally and the landscape stays put afterward. Is it possible that Dodgson was alluding to a background trend in the real world and not a fictional trend at all? Arguably, all of the fantastical things that Alice encounters in Wonderland are rooted in real world experiences. Their outrageous appearances serve to distract and disarm you but those outrageous elements begin in truth. The next question then would seem to be, “What is the truth? What, if anything, is true about the Red Queen’s Race?”

It surely isn’t literally true. We would probably notice if the landscape moved relative to our places in it. We would probably end up saying something very much like what the Red Queen says. Instead, we think it strange.

Is there a background trend that we don’t notice but that very powerfully affects us? Even something intangible can nevertheless be real. A moment’s reflection finds that even non-physical things can be felt through their effects. (This is not to say that everything that is intangible is real. Rather, those things that exert real effects are real, even if we can’t see them directly. We can ignore them but we do so at the risk of also ignoring their effects. Those effects may be small, but taken over a whole lifetime or several generations, their cumulative effect can be decisive.)

We can measure and feel their effects even when we can’t perceive them directly. This has been demonstrated even with physical things, for example, with things that are very small, like a bacterium or virus and things that are very big, like in plate tectonics. Perhaps the effect is very small. Perhaps the effect is only readily apparent over generations. Perhaps we are taught to simply take it for granted or not to notice it. Perhaps something else is going on or a combination of things is happening.

Certainly if the effect was very slow, it could be taken for background noise. It might not even be noticed but its cumulative impact could be very powerful. For example, a tree grows so slowly that its growth is imperceptible. It appears to be immobile, like a stone. However, over decades and even centuries the impact of a tree can be enormous.

How much more potent might a social bias be? Such a bias might be small and only noticeable over many generations but its cumulative impact on history might be huge. Even if there were a bias, one can imagine that it would still be possible for notable individuals to do remarkable things. They could “run … twice as fast” and achieve something remarkable. However, in a situation in which there were a background bias, the tendency would be for individuals and institutions in general to conform with the bias, especially over time. For example, once the founder died, you’d expect the institution(s) left behind would tend to fall more and more in line with the background trend.

Regardless of why the offset hasn’t been widely noticed, the question remains, is there one? Is there a general tendency in one direction? For example, are there corporations which are widely vilified and hated today, that have a long history of being consistently hated and vilified, that were nevertheless loved and embraced in their communities in their early years? Corporations that had a founder who was charitable and devoted to good works in the community but that changed after the founder died?

Alternatively, are there corporations that went the other way? Companies that had founders who were hated and vilified but whose influence was limited to the early years of the corporation? Companies that became widely loved and lauded after the influence of the founder waned?

If there is a background tendency, what is it? Is the tendency consistent or universal? How does the tendency affect your life and the decisions you make? Such a tendency would be like swimming across a river. Your aim may be to reach the other side and you may picture some point directly opposite your starting point. The relative motion between you and the water might put you on that heading. However the motion of the water itself means that you actually end up much farther downstream. The motion of the water is like a background trend. In order to reach the point that you envisioned, it may be necessary to swim much farther and harder and to swim at a different angle than the one you originally had in mind.

What is your experience? Is there a background trend? If so, which direction is the bias in? Where is the current going?


More of the book, The Circle of Existence can be found at

© 2015, David Park. All Rights Reserved.

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”The Circle of Existence: Chapter 7 – The Background Trend” by DCH Park is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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