Science is everywhere, but I feel like I spend most of my life ignoring it, or trying to figure it out and taking a nap instead, or pretending I know what I’m talking about when I don’t.
Like photosynthesis or the double helix, or the chaos theory or pi — it’s helpful to act as though you know everything about them and refuse to discuss them at all, moving on to other topics like sports or shoes. Otherwise, you’ll get into a conversation with someone who does know something, and two minutes into it, you’ll have to pretend your cell phone is ringing and tell them it’s your mom, who needs a ride to the hospital, and so — darn it — you’ll have to take a rain check on the dialogue on fractals, thereby not only becoming an ignorant person but a liar as well. And you don’t want to be an ignorant liar. Trust me.
That said, what makes us human? What distinguishes you and me and even my Uncle Merle who lives in Morehead City from every other living thing on earth? I’ll give you three guesses, and yes, you’re wrong on all counts. It’s not six-inch heels, layaway programs, or Twitter. These same things exist in the animal kingdom, especially Twitter, which we stole from cicadas.
The concept of dessert is unique to humans. Check it out: No other animal eats something else after it eats everything it was supposed to eat. Lions don’t eat a gazelle and then think: A sorbet would be perfect right about now. A chimpanzee doesn’t fill up on grubs and then think: Tiramisu sure would hit the spot. It’s not that they wouldn’t eat a dessert if you put one in front of them; it’s just, left to their own devices, they wouldn’t invent dessert. Animals don’t have the bad sense to do that. Only humans.
Dessert is sometimes the best thing that happens during a meal, but it is always the worst thing. Another significant human invention — rationalization — allows us to pretend that dessert is an important part of every meal, as long as you eat it in moderation. But food is supposed to be good for you; it’s one of the things — like oxygen — that keeps us alive. Without food, people die.
Dessert, although treated as such, is not really food. You can’t live on dessert anymore than you can breathe underwater, even though a lot of the same molecules are down there.
Desserts have been around for a long time, but in the beginning, they were good for you — fruits and nuts rolled in honey — and for a thousand years or so, no one complained. But then in the Middle Ages, someone started making sugar, and everything changed. And people started making desserts like gulab jamun, quindim, and hokey pokey ice cream.
Sugar is bad for you. It just is: I’m not making that up. Sugar causes wrinkles; dry, brittle hair; and other, even more serious, health problems. Everyone knows about sugar’s reputation, but we can’t quit it. We can’t quit it for the same reason women date bad boys and men love crazy women. Whatever that reason might be. Ask your shrink.
I don’t know what we’d do without desserts, though. What would happen if at the end of the meal, we couldn’t have a nice, long piece of maple taffy? We’d feel like something was missing, and we’d pine for it. We’d be sad and incomplete. And even this thesis may be way off target. Maybe it’s not dessert that sets us apart. Who knows what animals really want? That hippo may be craving a light meringue after eating a stomach full of grass; that marmoset probably yearns for cream-cheese-marshmallow fudge after a light lunch of tree sap. My dog eats tinfoil and coffee grounds. Vive la différence.
Daniel Wallace is a novelist and the director of the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow him on Twitter, @DHWallace, or visit danielwallace.org for more drawing, writing, and news.