Tuesday, January 17, 2012

CultureLab - The rationality and repercussions of Instinct

Calla Cofield, contributor
(Image: Matthew Maguire)

Four scientists, forced to come together to stop a deadly viral outbreak, find their personal lives put in jeopardy in Matthew Maguire’s new play, Instinct, which opened at the Lion Theatre in New York City on January 13.
“The common misconception, in my mind, of scientists is that they are completely rational beings, which I think is absurd,” said Maguire, in an interview. “And the non-science audience seems to be pleasantly surprised that these are full-blooded people.”
Instinct’s four scientists certainly aren’t stereotypically nerdy, robotic or cold. Mara and Daniel, two epidemiologists, watch as their marriage begins to unravel over the issue of whether or not to have a child. Mara swims naked in rivers, embraces her maternal instincts, and craves the experience of pregnancy. Daniel sees instinct as something modern humans can overcome, and won’t agree to bring a child into a world full of so much cruelty. When the epidemic breaks out in his hometown, Daniel confronts his Evangelical upbringing and the ways it has altered his own instincts. Even though his scientific mind tells him otherwise, a childhood experience causes him to associate what his parents told him was an act of God, with his brother’s cerebral palsy.
Forced to come together with Mara and Daniel are Fermina and Lydia, vaccinologists who have lived together for 16 years. As the outbreak unfolds, Lydia confronts the rejection she suffered from her parents for her sexuality. Her instincts tell her to act rationally in the face of emotions she can’t control, and she finds conviction in this logical approach. Not long into the play Lydia lashes out at Mara, who attends Catholic mass, berating her for joining an institution that sees homosexuality as an abomination, and for believing in a “sky God.”
Ironically, Lydia’s worship of science and its institutions is essentially religious. At the heart of her devotion is a desire to push science forward and make the world a better place, but she prioritises that devotion above all else, closing herself off to Fermina and putting her own health in jeopardy. In an argument with Fermina from which she attempts to remove all emotion, Lydia grimly quotes Emmanuel Levinas: “Faith is not about the existence of God; faith is believing that love without reward is valuable.”
The four need to find a vaccine for the virus, and pressure mounts as the fatalities rise. Prior to creating a test vaccine they discuss whether or not they should give a placebo to a control group, ultimately leaving those people untreated. But the details of the science and the situation going on outside their living quarters play second fiddle to the personal struggles of the group. In the first five days, the tense moments pile up: Fermina and Daniel are caught flirting, Lydia confesses that she heard of her mother's death but did not tell Fermina, Daniel accuses Mara of lying about taking her birth control and threatens to get a vasectomy without her consent.
The tension set, the play then skips ahead to day 28, when no resolutions have been reached. Ultimately, Daniel must decide if he will accept change or lose his marriage, Fermina must lose herself in her work or open herself up to emotional vulnerability, and the group, now armed with a vaccine, must decide if they should create a control group, or distribute it to the entire population.
Maguire was given a special commission by a program called the Wild Project, to attend a meeting on evolution, talk with a scientist, and produce a play. He worked closely with molecular biologist Leslie Real, who led an effort to save populations of African Great Apes from being wiped out by the Ebola virus.
“[The meeting] was in celebration of Darwin, so everybody was tying in their work to the key concept of evolution. And I began to look for the dramatic analogue to change, but I also wanted to know what was happening personally with these scientists,” said Maguire. “I began to be really interested in these ideas of instinct, and the enormous powers of the unconscious.”
Maguire skillfully addresses ethical questions, be they specific topics, such as the pros and cons of genetic testing, or broader philosophy, such as how much science can hope to control nature.
The risk Maguire takes is in trying to use the play to discuss conflicts that arise in science, without turning his characters into mouthpieces for those debates. With so much going on, his success in walking such a fine line varies, and there are times when the larger issues at hand become louder than the individual characters. But over the course of the play, the complexity and depth of the characters becomes apparent, and Maguire throws in a few curve balls to keep them from being predictable.
He might have created his characters in order to discuss larger issues, but Maguire’s finished product does something better: it illustrates those issues with believable human stories. This is what makes the play engrossing and valuable. Scientific studies have shown, and every good writer knows, it is in our human make-up to remember things and empathise with people when we are told a story, more so than when we are given a list of facts. With Mara, Daniel, Lydia and Fermina, Maguire takes advantage of that instinct. 


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