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The Lawnmower Man

Why is the world full of supposedly inanimate objects that are out to get us? We shout "You useless piece of junk!", in various shades of rage, at whatever sprite-haunted household appliance is currently ruining our lives.
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Co-Written by Ken Grimes

56-year-old Keith Walendowski of Wisconsin isn't, unfortunately, the first midwestern American man to greet a loved one's perceived betrayal with the business-end of a sawn-off shotgun. Nor will he be the last. What is unusual about the July incident is that Walendowski's "victim" -- found among the household garbage when the police came to arrest him -- was, in fact, a lawnmower, whose "betrayal" was refusing to start once too often.

So what? Another quaint anecdote about small-town middle-America eccentricity: nothing of relevance here for us "normal" folk. We would never dream of shooting our lawnmower. Or, say, slapping a recalcitrant Xerox machine. Or getting out of a stalled car and kicking it. Or shouting "You useless piece of junk!", in various shades of rage, at whatever sprite-haunted household appliance was currently ruining our day, our week, our life.

So our question is: Why is the world full of supposedly inanimate objects that are out to get us? Take that uniquely malicious gremlin that resides in your laptop (and now you can stop even pretending that you don't know what we're talking about). It's never driven you, for instance, to be standing on your balcony with $1,000 worth of state-of-art IT equipment clutched above your head, and the intensely vivid image in your mind of the cursed thing hitting the concrete four stories below and shattering into a thousand pieces -- gremlin and all. No? Just us?

Conjuring the image of smashing your computer was therapeutic. The same flashbulb-therapy that apparently most parents (and some press-ganged babysitter friends) experience when they briefly imagine throwing interminably-mewling babies down stairs. But why household appliances?

There's a two-fold answer. First, we have the relatively conventional idea that, "Mind-reading has created a spirit-haunted world." In our evolutionary past, it was adaptive to "take the intentional stance" -- to "mind-read", or impute motives -- to various elements in our environment. The ability to imagine that, say, a glimpsed saber-tooth was planning to eat you; or a seemingly broken-winged bird was faking so as to divert you from her brood; or a pair of jackals were plotting to raid your kill, would have enhanced our ancestors' survival chances.

The ability to imagine that, say, the capricious River Spirit required thanks in the form of a libation of fish, or that the wrathful Volcano Spirit demanded an animal (or human) sacrifice, would not. As "selfish gene machines", we really shouldn't be squandering our valuable resources on placating non-existent nature spirits. Or indeed shooting our own lawnmowers.

But here's the thing. Human cognitive-behavioral systems are the belated end-products of a billion-year process characterized by the repeated, thrifty and opportunistic re-jigging of old designs for new and approximate purposes. The modern human-mind-as-palimpsest is the eventual result of on-the-fly evolutionary processes continually "over-writing" new functions onto old. The resultant systems (like mind-reading) prove flexible and robust, but also somewhat fuzzy.

Take another such cognitive-behavioral system: THOMAS ('The Human Oxytocin-Mediated Attachment System'). An ancient mammal hormone that promotes social bonding, oxytocin recently hit the news again due to a radical research revelation about its role in human maternal care. Simply put: the higher a mother's oxytocin levels at birth, the stronger the resultant mother-child bond.

THOMAS traces its mammalian evolutionary roots from rodents, where it promotes pair-bonding, up through primates, where the hormone supports various sophisticated social behaviors, such as friendship coalitions. By the time it emerges full-blown in humans, THOMAS promotes bonding to lovers, relatives and friends; colleagues, neighbors and pets; and, more "fuzzily", to gardens, cars, and household appliances.

THOMAS is powerfully motivating: a "hungry" system as well as a "fuzzy" one. This combination makes it likely to occasionally target "inappropriate" objects. Our ancestors might, for example, have "fuzzily" come to regard a favorite fruit tree or watering-pool as a "friend". Unconvinced? Try persuading your young daughter to give up her comfort blanket before she's ready. Or ask daddy (again) why he won't throw out his filthy ancient one-eyed teddy bear.

THOMAS is more likely to do inappropriate "hungry-fuzzy targeting" when natural objects of affection are scarce. A 56-year-old single man still living at home with his mother is a prime candidate for a THOMAS mis-attachment. Because, of course, Walendowski didn't hate his lawnmower. He loved it. Until it betrayed him once to often, and he expressed his newfound love-hatred with both barrels.

Meanwhile, we're off to copyright our idea for a reality TV show in which furious contestants beg for revenge upon their gremlin-possessed appliances, while viewers vote for which one gets hurled from a four-story balcony, or "wasted" with a sawn-off.