On the evolution of skin color.

On the evolution of skin color.

Our criminal justice system ensnares people from all walks of life.  Occasionally we’ll hear about the arrest of a wealthy sociopath with a penchant for child abuse, like Jared Fogel or Jeffrey Epstein.

But, let’s face it.  Justice in this country isn’t applied fairly.  If you’re wealthy, your behavior has to be a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a poor person.  If you look white, your behavior has to a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a black person.

There’s abundant statistical evidence to back up these claims.  But the Supreme Court won’t allow any particular individual to petition for reduced punishment based on the statistical evidence.  After all, prosecutors, judges, and juries ostensibly came to their decisions based on the unique details of each individual case.  Just because people who resemble you are often treated unfairly doesn’t mean that you were treated unfairly, too. 

Or so ruled our Supreme Court.

Because we apply punishment so inequitably, our jails and prisons are full of people who’ve been treated poorly by the world.  Compared to the average citizen, people in prison grew up with less money, received less education, experienced more trauma.  And, no matter what people’s earlier lives were like, if they’re in prison, they’re not being treated well now.

So they have a lot of justifiable grievances against the dominant political, cultural, and religious beliefs of our country.  Punished unfairly by their fellow Christians, people sour on Christianity.  Inside walls where the demographics make it blatantly obvious that our laws are enforced in a malignantly racist way, racial tensions boil.

At Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people inside, we get requests for stuff about Norse mythology, Odinism, and Asatru.  Lots of folks ask for material to learn foreign languages – people want to feel like they’ve accomplished something during their time in prison – but I always feel skeptical when somebody wants help learning Icelandic.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Icelandic.  And Norse mythology is cool!  Unfortunately, a gaggle of violent white supremacists decided that Norse mythology should be the basis for their religion.  Starting in the 1970s, a right-wing racist from Florida began sending “Odinist” publications into prisons.

A photograph showing a book page in Icelandic.

During the thirteenth century, Christian scholars transcribed many of the old Norse myths so that they could better understand the literary allusions of old Icelandic poetry.  But they didn’t record anything about ancient religious practice.  We barely have any information about most ancient pagan beliefs.  Anyone who wants to adopt a pre-Christian European religion now – whether it’s Wicca, Druidism, Odinism, or Celtic polytheism – is basically forced to make things up.

I have nothing against religious invention.  All religions were made by human beings – there’s no a priori reason why a religion created long ago, by people who understood much less about the world than we do now, would be better than something you invent today.  Sure, ancient religions have been tested by time, suggesting that they possess virtues that their practitioners found helpful over the years, but most ancient religions have their problems, too.  Inaccurate cosmologies, scattered hateful passages in their texts, that sort of thing.

So I like the idea of neo-paganism.  You want to find a clearing in the woods and do some moonlit dancing?  You’d rather worship a feminine generative force than a norm-enforcing patriarchal deity?  You want to exalt nature as a hearth to be protected rather than a resource to be exploited?  Go right ahead!  All of that sounds pretty great to me.

A Wiccan-style gathering of artifacts including a statue of a seated green goddess, her pregnant belly painted as the earth; mums; a chalice; a string of green beads; a stoppered rectangular prism bottle; and a candleholder appearing to be carved of wood, again of a pregnant woman with hands holding her belly.

Unfortunately, neo-paganism as it’s currently practiced in prison tends to be pretty hateful.

That’s why I’ve been working on a set of anti-racist pamphlets about Norse mythology.  Currently, when people ask for The Poetic Edda or whatever, we send a friendly letter saying that we don’t have it, and also that we generally don’t stock that sort of thing because it runs afoul of our anti-hate policy. 

But the Norse myths are certainly no more hateful than Biblical myths, and we send plenty of those.  The main difference is that centuries of continued Christian practice have created a scaffolding of gentler beliefs around the stories in the Bible. 

The text of Psalm 137 states that “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”  But the text is a tool, not the entirety of the religion.  The practice of Christianity frowns upon the murder of any human infant.  Whether you like the kid’s parents or not.

A sun-dappled photograph of a page of the Bible.

We’d be better off if Pages to Prisoners could send warm-hearted material about Norse mythology to people.  Sure, you can interpret the Norse myths as endorsing a war-mongering death cult.  You can interpret the Old Testament that way, too.  But you can also interpret the Norse myths as environmentalist.  Feminist.  Supporting the pursuit of knowledge.  Judging strangers based upon their merits, not their appearance.

Because contemporary Odinism is so entangled with white supremacy, though, our pamphlet will have to address skin color and genetic heritage directly.  It’s a fraught topic.  Lots of people in the U.S. don’t like any discussion of evolution.  Some people feel squigged out when they learn that contemporary birds evolved from the same set of common ancestors as the dinosaurs.  And that’s far less emotionally charged than a description of human evolution. 

A photograph of a model dinosaur, complete with feathers.

Plus, skin color still has huge implications for how people are treated in the United States.  Consider, um, those prison demographics I cited above. And so discussions about the evolution of epidermal melanin concentrations are especially tense.  Although the underlying biology is simple – some places have more sunlight than others! – because people think it matters, it does.

I’ve found that these conversations are actually a decent way to get people interested in the study of archeology and biology, though.  After we’ve discussed this in jail, people have asked me to bring research papers and textbooks so that they could learn more.

Whenever two groups of an organism stop mating with each other, they’ll slowly drift apart.  This rift might occur because the groups became physically separated from each other.  Maybe one group migrated to an island.  In contemporary times, maybe the groups were separated when humans built a new highway bisecting a habitat. Maybe two sets of similar-looking insects mate apart because they’re eating fruits that ripen at different times.

Or the groups might stop mating with each other because a chance mutation caused members of one group to want their sexual partners to smell a certain way.  Various species of stickleback are able to interbreed – they identify other members of their kind based on smell.  But water pollution has overwhelmed the fishes’s senses, leading the fish to mate indiscriminately.

A photograph of a three-spined stickleback fish.

If humans hadn’t polluted their waters, though, these sticklebacks would have drifted farther and farther apart until it became impossible for them to interbreed.  No matter how many sense-suppressing chemicals we dumped.

We don’t know what caused the initial rift between our ancestors and the ancestors of contemporary chimpanzees.  About 4 million years ago, though, these groups stopped having children together.  By 2 millions years ago (at least 100,000 generations later), these groups looked quite different from each other.  Although it’s possible that these organisms could have still mated with each other and raised viable progeny, they rarely did.

One group of these creatures, which included our ancestors, had a tucked pelvis and mostly upright posture.  This allowed for a good vantage while scavenging and, eventually, hunting.  The other group, which includes chimpanzees’ ancestors, mostly moved on all fours.  This body plan results in fewer mothers dying during childbirth.  As ever, there are trade-offs to be made.

Image shows the upright skeletal postures of gibbons, humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans.

Up until about 2 million years ago, all our ancestors lived in Africa.  But then they began to migrate.  Over the next million years, they explored much of the globe.  By about 500,000 years ago, half a dozen different types of humans lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia.  The difference between one population to the next was not like the racial differences among contemporary humans, but more like the difference between lions and tigers, or between polar bears and brown bears.  Scientists describe them as distinct species.  Although they were similar enough that they could have sex and raise children together, they rarely did – they lived in distinct parts of the world and had begun to evolve adaptations to their specific environments.

Evolution isn’t easy.  Nor is it quick.  Just because a certain trait would be advantageous doesn’t mean that creatures will acquire it.  In the desert, it would help to have adaptations for water retention like camels, or long ears like jackrabbits to cool the blood.  But a trait can only spread after a random mutation creates it.  And, even if a trait is very helpful, if only one individual is born with the adaptation, there’s no guarantee that it will have enough children for the benefit to spread through the population. 

Once a beneficial trait has a good toe-hold – present in perhaps 1% to 10% of the population – then we can expect it to flourish.  But below that amount, even great adaptations might die off due to bad luck.  That’s why it takes so many generations – tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands – before you see organisms become drastically better suited for the environment.  Even when scientists do directed evolution experiments in the lab, it takes about this many generations for a population of bacteria to evolve ways to consume a new food source, for instance.

By 500,000 years ago, the various species of humans were recognizably different.  Denisovans lived in the mountains, and their hemoglobin genes allowed them to avoid altitude sickness.  Their blood was less likely to clot and cause strokes, and they could extract more oxygen from the thin air.  These are incredibly beneficial traits.  Even though the Denisovans went extinct about 40,000 years ago, about 40% of people currently living in Tibet have copies of the Denisovan hemoglobin gene.

Our ancestors migrated east to the Denisovans’ homeland just before the Denisovans went extinct.  To be perfectly honest, we probably killed them.  But before or during this genocide, a few of our ancestors must have had sex with the locals.  And then the bi-racial children of these Homo sapiens / Denisovan couplings must have been significantly better off for the gene to spread so widely.

The Neanderthal lived at high latitude.  Over many generations, their average skin color became paler.  In part, this was probably due to the lack of selective pressure.  Think about a dodo – there was no advantage for these birds to lose their fear of humans.  But, because the dodos were living on an island that no humans traveled to, there was also no harm in the birds becoming fearless.

A sculpture of a dodo.

Dodos lost a beneficial trait – fear – because their fear wasn’t actively needed.  It’s kind of like the airbags in an old car.  If your car’s engine goes bad, you’ll notice right away.  Turn the key, hear it sputter.  You use the engine every time you drive.  But your airbags could get worse without you noticing … and then, in the moment when they’re needed, they won’t deploy.

Humans living near the equator need epidermal melanin.  If you don’t have enough melanin, you’ll get sunburns, which exacerbate the risk of infection and dehydration; you’ll suffer radiation-induced DNA damage, which leads to skin cancer; and you’ll lose folate, which means that pregnant women will have more birth defects.

The most recent ancestors that humans and chimpanzees shared in common had pale skin.  Contemporary chimpanzees are still pale.  They can afford to be – their fur protects them from the sun.  But our ancestors lost their fur, probably so that they didn’t overheat while running, and this led to the evolution of dark skin.

High concentrations of epidermal melanin distinguished humans from the other apes.

As humans migrated to higher latitudes, though, they gradually lost this indicator of their humanity.  Because the sunlight was less intense, there was less selective pressure.  Humans could lose their epidermal melanin in the same way that dodos lost their fear – not because it was helpful to go without it, but because the trait went untested in their day to day lives.  They had no way to “realize” how important it was. 

Your airbags aren’t helpful until you crash.  And then they’ll either deploy and save you, or they won’t.

Now, it’s possible that the Neanderthal also experienced some positive selective pressure on their skin color as they migrated north.  Over thousands of generations, the Neanderthals may have benefited from paler skin because it increased their production of vitamin D.  We don’t know for certain that the Neanderthal felt any evolutionary pressure to have more vitamin D – after all, contemporary Inuit people live at very high latitudes but still have a lot of epidermal melanin – but it’s true that vitamin D deficiency is a big risk among people with crummy diets.

In the past, hunter / gatherers typically ate much healthier, more varied diets than farmers.  When humans began to farm, they would mostly eat the one type of plant that they cultivated, rather than the wide mix of plants that could be found growing wild.  And when Homo sapiens farmers migrated to northern Europe, their diets were so poor that they even developed loss-of-function mutations in a cholesterol synthesis gene, probably so that they’d have higher concentrations of vitamin D precursors.  Among these people, pale skin was probably a big advantage.  They’d be ready for the cloudless days when their homeland’s feeble sunlight was enough to make some vitamin D.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters.

Around 40,000 years ago, our planet’s most recent ice age ended.  The world began to warm, and glaciers retreated from Europe.  By then, a group of humans living in Africa were recognizably Homo sapiens.  These were our ancestors.  Every human alive today – no matter what you look like or where your family is from – is descended from this group of people from Africa.  They lived in tribes of twenty to a hundred people, had darkly pigmented skin, made art, and spoke complex languages.

As the world warmed, some of these Homo sapiens began to migrate.  These journeys occurred over many generations.  Some tribes stayed in Africa; some tribes ventured north into Europe; others moved east toward Asia.  As they traveled, they encountered the humans who already lived in those places.  As I’ve mentioned, the newcomers occasionally had sex and raised children with the natives.  They probably also killed a lot of them.  Unfortunately, we Homo sapiens don’t have the best reputation for treating strangers well. 

Interbreeding happened rarely enough that most people living today have about 99% Homo sapiens DNA.  Some people, especially if their families are from Africa, have essentially 100% Homo sapiens DNA.  At other extreme, even people whose families are from Europe have 96% or more Homo sapiens DNA.

Among people living in Tibet, the Denisovan hemoglobin gene is common, but most other Denisovan genes are gone.

Everyone living today is human.  We are all Homo sapiens, all the same species.  But some of us do carry vestiges of the other human populations whom our ancestors killed.

Like the Neanderthal before them, the Homo sapiens who ventured north into Europe began to lose their epidermal melanin.  People who hunted and fished probably became paler simply because there was less risk of sun damage.  Remember, this didn’t happen all at once.  Average skin color would change only over the course of hundreds or even thousands of generations, not during the course of a single journeying Homo sapiens’s lifetime. 

Our ancestors spent almost all their time outdoors, which is why even dark-skinned people could probably synthesize plenty of vitamin D.  Among contemporary humans, vitamin D deficiency is such a big problem because we spend too much time inside.  As I type this, I’m sitting at a table in the YMCA snack room, lit up by flickering fluorescent bulbs.  This low-quality light won’t help me make vitamin D.

Instead, I take a daily supplement.  But that doesn’t come near matching the health and psychological benefits of time outdoors.

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that people in jail – places not known for providing a rich, high-quality, varied diet – typically get to go outside no more often than once a week.  At our local jail, their hour of “outdoor rec” occurs in a little courtyard at the top of the jail, a cement space covered with a chain-linked fence.  Outdoor rec often happened at night – a friend who was recently released told me that “This was still nice.  You could see some stars.  And there’s that restaurant, Little Zagrib, down the street?  Sometimes we’d smell foods from their kitchen.”

Treating people that way is unlikely to help them get better.

Blue sky and white cirrus clouds as viewed through coiled razor wire atop a barbed-wire fence.

But back to our migrants!  Descendants of these pale-skinned Homo sapiens continued to explore new territories.  Some reached North America about 12,000 years ago, and some of their descendants continued farther, all the way to South America. 

As people traveled – journeys that lasted many generations – they continued to evolve.  Indeed, skin color was a trait that came repeatedly under selective pressure.  As people migrated south into the Americas, they were living progressively closer and closer to the equator.  Compared to their grandparents, they were bombarded by more intense sunlight.  They needed more epidermal melanin.

This is a process that takes a long time.  A family might have six kids; maybe the two palest kids get sunburned, which makes it more likely that they’ll develop skin infections and die before they have children of their own.  If this happens again and again, among many different families, then eventually the whole population will wind up with slightly darker skin.

A prediction for the distribution of human skin colors based on the intensity of ultraviolet light present at each latitude. Figure from Nina Jablonski & George Chaplin, “The Evolution of Human Skin Color,” in Journal of Human Evolution, 2000.
This figure depicts the (limited) data we have on the distribution of human skin colors before the modern era’s horrific set of forced migrations. In this image, white-colored regions indicate an absence of data, not low concentrations of epidermal melanin among a region’s prehistoric population. Figure from Nina Jablonski & George Chaplin, “The Evolution of Human Skin Color,” in Journal of Human Evolution, 2000.

Because human skin color has changed during each of the many prehistoric migrations, it isn’t correlated with other traits.  As we entered the modern era, people’s skin color was lighter or darker based on how close to the equator their recent ancestors lived.  But human populations migrated so often that there were many different groups, each with unique cultural and genetic heritages, living at every latitude.  Because skin color is so closely linked to latitude, this means many different groups shared similar concentrations of epidermal melanin.  And there’s no evolutionary pressure linking a trait that protects skin to brain size or intelligence.

As it happens, there are major events known to have caused a decrease in human brain size (and probably intelligence).  After all, human brains are costly.  Even though there’s a benefit to being clever, there’s also been constant evolutionary pressure against large brains.

Large brains kill mothers.  Because humans walk upright, childbirth is riskier for human mothers than for other primates.  Our posture constrains the width of our hips – both male and female – but a baby’s whole head has to pass through that narrow passageway.

Having children is so risky that we evolved to give birth about 3 months prematurely.  Human gestation takes about a year, but most mothers give birth after only 9 months.  This allows a baby’s head to continue to grow outside the mother’s body, but human babies are totally helpless at birth.  We have to be very devoted parents to keep them alive.

Also, our brains require a lot of fuel.  Human evolution occurred over such a long, long time that our ancestors lived through many droughts and calamities.  During the hard years, our ancestors would struggle to get enough to eat, and a large brain makes that struggle harder. 

A person with a smaller brain requires fewer calories, making that person less likely to starve in lean times.  And, again, it’s worth remembering that evolution happens over so many generations, among so many families, that even small changes can add up.  If mothers who have small-headed children can survive a dozen pregnancies, but mothers with large-headed children die after only a few, then the trend will be to have people with smaller brains.  Intelligence has to be extremely beneficial to overcome this sort of evolutionary pressure.

Similarly, if people with small brains are more likely to survive and raise children during droughts, then, after hundreds of generations of people who have survived dozens of extended droughts, you’d expect to see more people with small brains.

Many of us have the bad habit of reflexively thinking about evolution as the gradual development of more and more complexity.  But that’s not what it is.  Evolution is the process by which things that are better suited for their environment become more abundant.  If the environment is a hard place to live in, then evolution tends to push for more and more simplicity.  When it’s hard to get enough calories, why waste calories on anything that you don’t really need?

Starfish are descended from organisms that had brains.  But starfish are brainless.  The ancestral starfish that weren’t wasting energy thinking were more likely to survive.

Which should make you feel pretty good about your own brain, actually.  Your ability to think is so fabulous that your ancestors evolved larger and larger brains … even though these brains were sometimes causing us to starve to death, or kill our mothers.

That’s a valuable thing you’ve got inside your skull.  It cost our ancestors so much for you to be able to have it.

But, right.  Because the cost was so high, human brains did shrink sometimes.  Like when we first domesticated dogs.  Our ancestors began living with dogs about 30,000 years ago.  Dogs were willing to do some thinking for us – they’d sniff out prey and listen for predators at night.  Based on the behavior of my family’s dogs, I bet that they licked the faces of screaming children.  Maybe that doesn’t seem essential for survival, but I certainly appreciate every time our dogs calm the kids down.

Because we could slough off a few mental tasks – I don’t need to be so observant if the dog will help me hunt – our brains could shrink, making childbirth less deadly and reducing the caloric cost of maintaining our minds each day.

Pottery shard depicting a boar hunt in ancient Greece.

When humans switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, our brains shrunk further.  A hunter / gatherer has to know so much about every plant and animal living nearby; the work asks more of a person’s brain than farming.  This evolutionary trend was exacerbated by the fact that people’s diets became way worse when they began to farm.  Instead of getting nutrition from a wide variety of different plants and animals, a farmer might eat meals consisting mostly of a single type of grain. 

There’s nothing we can do now about these evolutionary trends.  Dogs and farming swayed our ancestors’ evolution toward smaller brains, but it’s not as though you can get those neurons back by deciding to take up hunting, or never living with a pet.

But, honestly, our brains are so plastic that our genetic heritage matters less than how we choose to spend our time.  By nature, neither gorillas nor parrots will speak human language.  But individuals from both these species have been able to learn to communicate with us after we taught them.

Nobody is born with an innate understanding of mythology, religion, science, or mathematics.  None of that can be encoded in your genes.  If you want to understand this stuff, you’ll have to make an effort to learn it.

Neuron count only suggests a brain’s potential.  You could do incredible things with a low number – consider, by ways of analogy, the feats that 1960s NASA accomplished using computers much smaller than a contemporary telephone.  And, conversely, sensory deprivation will make it much harder to get things done, no matter what your innate potential.

That’s why I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners.  Our brains are capable of wonders.  At any age, we can learn and grow.  And yet, we lock people into prisons that seem designed to make them worse.

On the moon landing, and who benefits if you believe it was faked.

On the moon landing, and who benefits if you believe it was faked.

If you’re worried that you don’t feel enough stress and anxiety, there’s an easy chemical fix for that.  Habitual methamphetamine use will instill intense paranoia. 

In our poetry classes in jail, I’ve talked with a lot of guys who stayed up for days watching UFO shows on TV.  A few were also stockpiling military grade weaponry. One man used strings and pulleys to link his shotgun’s trigger to a doorknob, ensuring that anyone who tried to enter the house would be rudely greeted. 

They’ve dismantled dozens of computers and phones: sometimes out of suspicion, sometimes because there are valuable components. Although they were rarely organized enough to hawk the proceeds of their dissections.

Suffice it to say that, deprived of sleep and dosed with powerful stimulants, their brains became tumultuous places.

Which is why we spend so much time talking about conspiracy theories.

I’ve written several previous essays about conspiracy theories – that the Santa myth teaches people to doubt expertise (children learn that a cabal of adults really was conspiring to delude them); that oil company executives have been conspiring to destroy the world; that, for all the ways Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow probes at the undercurrents of truth beneath government conspiracy, the text blithely incorporates metaphors from a Disney-promulgated nature conspiracy.

But, with the fiftieth anniversary coming up, the men in my class have been talking more about whether the moon landing was faked.

There’s only so much I can say.  After all, I, personally, have never been to the moon. 

One of my colleagues from Stanford recently conducted molecular biology experiments on the International Space Station, but that’s only zero point one percent of the way to the moon … and she and I were never close enough for me to feel absolutely certain that she wouldn’t lie to me.

Visiting the moon does seem much easier than faking it, though.  Our government has tried to keep a lot of secrets, over the years.  Eventually, they were leaked.

But that line of reasoning is never going to sway somebody. The big leak might be coming soon.

Instead, the strategy that’s worked for me is to get people worried about another layer of conspiracy.

“Let’s just say, hypothetically,” I say, “that we did send people to the moon.  Why would somebody want to convince you, now, that we didn’t?”

When NASA’s project was announced, a lot of people were upset.  Civil rights activist Whitney Young said, “It will cost $35 billion to put two men on the moon.  It would take $10 billion to lift every poor person in this country above the official poverty standard this year.  Something is wrong somewhere.”  (I learned about this and the following quote from Jill Lepore’s excellent review of several new books about the moon landing.)

During John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, he argued that we needed to do it anyway.  Despite the challenge, despite the costs.  “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.

We did reach the moon. But, did we use that knowledge to benefit the rights and progress of all people?  Not so much.

A lot of the guys in jail went to crummy schools.  They grew up surrounded by violence and trauma.  They didn’t eat enough as kids. They’ve never had good medical care.  They’ve struggled to gain traction in their dealings with government bureaucracies … we’ve spent years underfunding post offices, schools, the IRS, the DMV, and, surprise, surprise!, find that it’s arduous interacting with these skeletal agencies.

To keep these men complacent, the people in power would rather have them believe that we didn’t visit the moon.  “Eh, our government has never accomplished much, we faked that shit to hoodwink the Russians, no wonder this is a horrible place to live.”

The fact that people in power are maliciously undermining our country’s basic infrastructure would seem way worse if you realized that, 50 years ago, with comically slapdash technologies and computers more rudimentary than we now put into children’s toys, this same government sent people to the moon. 

Ronald Reagan said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”  And he was in a position to make his words true – he was the government, so all he had to do was be incompetent.  And then people would hate the government even more, and become even more distrustful of anyone who claimed that good governance could improve the world.

Needless to say, 45 has taken strategic incompetence to a whole new stratosphere.  Beyond the stories of corruption that pepper the news, there’s also the fact that many appointments were never made; there are agencies that, as of July 2019, still don’t have anybody running them.  These agencies will perform worse.

If people knew how good our government used to be, they might revolt.  Better they believe the moon landing was a sham, that the faked photographs are as good as anybody ever got.

Our one and only.

On power and species.

On power and species.

At track practice, a pair of high school runners were arguing.  Knowing that I’ve completed twenty-two years of schooling, they figured I could resolve their debate.

“Coach Brown, who would win in a fight, Superman or The Hulk?”

I stared at them blankly.  I knew a bit about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which helps to understand The Hulk, but I’d never read a Superman comic.  Superman didn’t sound like an interesting hero: he seemed too powerful.  Even The Hulk is more interesting within the context of a complex campaign, when he might become enraged and wreck his own plans, than in a single fight.

I failed to provide an answer, and the kids went back to arguing.  (“Superman could just turn back time to before The Hulk got enraged, then smash him!”) 

And I resolved to read a Superman book, to shore up this gap in my education.  Astounding, isn’t it, that Stanford would allow me to graduate without knowing anything about the paragon of the DC universe?

I chose Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman.  And was pleasantly surprised – although Superman is indeed too powerful for the risk of danger to provide narrative tension, he’s still sad.  He doesn’t get the recognition that he feels he’s due; his powers leave him feeling isolated and alone; during the 24-hours when his girlfriend becomes his equal due to a magic serum, she spends her time flirting with other heroes. 

Doing great work can feel hollow if nobody appreciates it.

Midway through the series, Superman meets two other survivors from his native Krypton.  He expects that they’ll congratulate him on how well he’s kept his adopted planet safe.  Instead, they’re disgusted by his complacency.

Superman, in turn, feels disappointed by his brethren.  Within the world of comic books, characters who view their powers as conferring a responsibility are heroes; those who think that power gives them the right to do whatever they want are villains.

Homo sapiens are not as intelligent as the new arrivals from Krypton.  We are smaller, slower, and weaker.  Our tools are less technologically advanced.  If they chose to cull our kind, we could do nothing to resist.

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I recently had the opportunity to read Luke Dittrich’s New York Times Magazine article on the Puerto Rican macaque colony that was traumatized by Hurricane Maria.  (I’ve written previously about Dittrich’s investigation into the history of “Patient H.M.” and unethical behavior among MIT memory researchers.)

This particular colony of macaques has been studied closely for years.  Researchers have voluminous observational data from both before and after the hurricane; they’ve stored many tissue samples as well.  The hope is that this dataset could unveil the biochemical consequences of trauma, and elucidate traits that allow some people to weather trauma more effectively than others.

With clear insights into the specific pathways affected by trauma, we might even be able to develop drugs that would allow humans to stave off PTSD.  Or cure it.

Macaques have long been used as subjects for medical research.  We’ve developed several vaccines that prevent AIDS in macaques, but unfortunately the differences between SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) and HIV meant that some of these vaccines increased human susceptibility to the disease.  Whoops.

An image attributed to the Primate Research Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and disseminated in 1992.

Macaques are highly intelligent, social animals with approximately 93% the same DNA sequences as us humans.  For immunology research, they’re kept in wire cages.  They can’t touch, don’t really get to move around.  But that’s not so bad compared to the nightmarish psychological studies that have been conducted on macaques in the past.  Dittrich’s article summarizes a few of Dr. Harry Harlow’s experiments.  Harlow named several pieces of his research equipment, such as “The Pit of Despair,” a small box devoid of light or sound in which children could be trapped for months on end, or “The Rape Rack,” which shouldn’t be described.

“[Harlow] found that the females who had endured the trauma of both the Pit of Despair and the Rape Rack tended to become neglectful or even severely abusive mothers.

#

We’ve conducted studies on humans who have been traumatized.  By surveying hurricane survivors, we’ve found that many suffer from PTSD.  But one drawback of these investigations, Dittrich writes, is that “the humans in these studies almost never become experimental subjects until after the traumatic events in question, which makes it hard to gauge how the events actually changed them.

If a researcher interested in how trauma affects individuals or societies were to dream up an ideal natural laboratory, she might imagine a discrete landmass populated by a multigenerational community that has been extensively and meticulously studied for many decades before the traumatizing event.  Even better, it would be a population to which researchers would have unfettered access – not only to their minds, but also to their bodies, and even their brains.”

We are to macaques as Superman is to us.  We are stronger, smarter, technologically superior.  We can fly into space; macaques have done so only at our whims.

In “St. Francis Visits the Research Macaques of Modern Science” by John-Michael Bloomquist, we eavesdrop on a conversation between the saint and Miss Able, the first primate to leave our planet.  St. Francis asks about her experience of the voyage; she tells him “The Gods did not let me see anything, the damn cone didn’t have a window.

The capsule and couch used by one of America’s first spacefarers, a rhesus monkey named Able, is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum. Able and a companion squirrel monkey named Miss Baker were placed inside a Jupiter missile nose cone and launched on a test flight in May 1959.

We are indeed like gods among macaques, but we have not elected to be heroes.  Instead, we’ve ravaged their ancestral lands.  We’ve wracked their children with twisted nightmares that they could not wake from. 

Even the Puerto Rican macaque colony that Dittrich writes about – some individuals are permitted to live out their days in relative peace, but this is a breeding center.  If you’re developing an HIV vaccine, your lab’s macaques will die; for a few thousand dollars each, this colony will furnish replacements.  According to their website, they maintain “an available pool of rhesus macaques in optimal condition for research.

We humans are like gods, but, unlike Superman, we’ve chosen to be villains.

On drugs and drug laws.

On drugs and drug laws.

Humans have been ingesting dimethyltryptamine, a potent psychedelic, for over a thousand years.  We’ve been using cocaine even longer.  Marijuana was used medicinally in China thousands of years ago; soon after, celebrants in India began to ingest it as a psychedelic to potentiate religious experience.  Mind-altering experiences were so prized in ancient Greece that prophets huffed narcotic vapors.

The Oracle of Delphi.

Our ancestors began intentionally brewing alcohol nearly 10,000 years ago.  We’ve been using opium as a sacrament – not just a painkiller – for perhaps 3,000 years.

Drugs are very important to our species. 

Not all drug use is good, obviously.  Narcotics like opium, heroin, oxycontin, et al., can latch onto a person’s mind and compel continued use at any cost.  Somebody told me recently, “I knew I was gonna get caught.  I’m on probation, they drug test me all the time.  I mean, I was thinking about it while I was cutting it up: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me.  I was thinking about it while I was loading the syringe: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me. I thought I’d only have to do a week, though, and that seemed okay. Which is insane! I know it’s insane, but that’s what I was thinking.  I guess I was wrong. I’ve been here three weeks and I still haven’t had my court date.”

Even fish, if they get hooked, will risk their lives for another dose.  When human parents are snared by addiction, they endanger their children. The man whom I quoted above? He’d managed to stay sober for almost seven months, but relapsed the night of his son’s second birthday. His wife had to break down the bathroom door. After the ER, they brought him straight to jail.

In class together, we read Josh Rathkamp’s “Single Father,” in which the narrator fears that his diabetes will cause him to fall out and be unable to help his daughter.  Several parents recognized their own dread. Then we read “Daddy Wake Up” by local poet Travis Combs. Combs loves his son, but, like a diabetic, a person suffering from opiate addiction might find himself paralyzed, “a mass of mess.”

DADDY WAKE UP

Travis Combs

I hear the sound of his little feet running

down the hall, I look to make sure the door

is locked, I pull the plunger back, I hear

his joy as he yells, I’m superman.

       I do the shot

                      thinking What if?

       What if I fall out, what if he finds

me here, what if his little fingers have to

press 911, something we all teach them to do.

The fear in his voice when he says Daddy

won’t get up.  The pain in his heart when

he shakes me, yelling daddy wake up, daddy

wake up.

              Then I do wake, the needle

still in my arm, I feel his tears on my chest

as he lays there hugging me, crying, daddy

wake up.

Psychedelic drugs are safer.  They tend to be non-addictive. Most are relatively non-toxic. And a single dose can initiate self-discovery that buoys a person’s spirits for six months or more.

But psychedelic drugs are tightly controlled.  Despite thousands of research findings to the contrary, they’re classified by the U.S. government as having no accepted medical treatment use.  Possession is a felony.

Perhaps this shouldn’t seem surprising.  Spiritual drug use has been prized by our ancestors for thousands of years, but most cultures closely regulated which people would be privileged with access to those sacraments.  Depending on the time and place, only wealthy people would be allowed to use drugs, or only people born to a certain caste, or only men.

In the United States, cocaine was rightfully recognized as a wonder drug for decades, but then a cadre of white supremacist politicians claimed that cocaine would turn black men into monsters.  Prohibition was mediated through racism.

It’s true that cocaine is dangerous – both psychologically and physiologically – if you’re ingesting the purified compound.  But coca tea is no more dangerous than earl grey.  Indeed, if you decided to purify caffeine from tea leaves and snort it, you might die.

Marijuana was also legal in the United States until the racist propaganda machine started spinning stories about what would happen when people from Mexico smoked it.

And even now, wealthy people throughout the Bay Area blithely use psychedelic drugs.  Authors like Ayelet Waldman and Michael Pollan openly publicize their experiences flaunting the law.

Yet when people in Denver supported a ballot initiative that reduces the legal risk of possessing psilocybin-containing mushrooms, Pollan wrote an editorial denouncing the initiative.  Yes, there is some nuance; Pollan states that

No one should ever be arrested or go to jail for the possession or cultivation of any kind of mushroom – it would be disingenuous for me to say otherwise, since I have possessed, used and grown psilocybin myself.

And he claims, oddly, that the ballot initiative would be merely symbolic, citing as evidence the fact that only 11 psilocybin cases have been prosecuted in the last three years, out of approximately 150 arrests.  I personally have never been prosecuted for a crime, nor even arrested, but I’ve been told that it’s a very traumatic experience.  I’ve heard this from very reliable sources, men who have been through all sorts of horrific trauma in addition to their arrests. 

For all the people subject to this trauma – not to mention everyone more deterred than Pollan himself by the current legal status of this medicine – the initiative would have very meaningful consequences.

Michael Pollan. Photograph by Sage Ross on Wikipedia.

Instead, Pollan centers his cautionary argument on the idea that psilocybin “is not for everyone.

That idea is true enough, as far as things go.  Some people probably shouldn’t use psilocybin.  Some people feel traumatized by the bad experiences they go through while under its influence.  But I would argue that arrest is more traumatizing, and that the very illegality of the substance increases the likelihood that someone will go through a bad trip.

And the regulations seem absurd compared to how we treat other drugs.  For instance, someone with a predisposition to develop schizophrenia could be pushed closer to this condition by ingesting psilocybin.  The drug can hurt someone who uses it.  But alcohol, which is totally legal for most U.S. citizens over 21 years of age to purchase and consume, causes a huge amount of harm even to people who abstain.  Alcohol is the psychoactive drug that causes the most harm to others. 

Graph made by Tesseract2 on Wikimedia.

It’s unlikely that our sitting Supreme Court justices would have sexually assaulted anyone while using psilocybin for a meditative journey of self-discovery.  Indeed, that sort of experience might have led someone to develop much more empathetic political views. 

Because alcohol consumption is so likely to lead to poor decision-making and violence, it’s illegal for people on probation to drink.  Many have to check in at “blow & go” breathalyzer stations once or twice a day, which is really tough for people whose drivers’ licenses are suspended.  But, still, we passed this law to keep other people safe.

Or consider antibiotics.  Every time you use antibiotics, you make the world a little worse.  With every dose, there’s a risk that the bacteria you’re hoping to kill off will instead evolve to resist them.

And yet, even though using antibiotics hurts everybody else, they’re regulated much less than other drugs.  If you take psilocybin, it’s not going to hurt me at all.  But if you take an antibiotic – or, worse, if you decide to manufacture huge quantities of antibiotics and them inject 80% of them into cows, pigs, and chickens, all of whom are being raised in fetid conditions – you’re making it much more likely that I will die.

In the past, somebody might get scratched by a cat … and die.  Any infection could turn septic and kill you.

In the future, a currently-treatable infection might kill me.  Or kill my children.

Because we’ve allowed people to be so cavalier with antibiotics, medical professionals expect that within a generation, more people will die from bacterial infections than from cancer.

Obviously, this terrifies me.

But we’re not stopping the meat industry from using them.  We’re not using our legal system to protect all of humanity from their misuse.  Instead we’ve outlawed psilocybin, a compound that could usher you through a spiritual experience that helps you become a kinder, happier person.

Is that reasonable?

On octopus art.

On octopus art.

When we were in college, my roommate and I spent a train ride debating the merits of Andy Warhol’s art (she was a fan, I was not).  In the end, we not only failed to change each other’s opinions, but realized that we didn’t even agree what art was.  She double majored in Biomedical Engineering and Art Theory & Practice, and her view was much more expansive than my own.

In retrospect, I can admit that she was right.  My view of art was narrow-minded.  If I had to proffer a definition of “art” today, I might go with something like:

Art is an intentionally-created module that is designed to reshape the audience’s neural architecture.

By this standard, the big images of soup qualify.  So do the happenings.

Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” 1962. Image by Wally Gobetz on Flickr.

I recently read a book that analyzed board games using the tools of art criticism and narratology.  Obviously, I now think that board games can be art.  They’re carefully designed; their creators often seem to have a goal for how each game should make players feel; the combined effects of text, visual components, and even rules can all work toward conveying those feelings.

One drawback to my newfound open-mindedness, though, is that I could probably be convinced that almost any designed object qualifies as art.

For a piece of art to “fail” to change your neural architecture, it would have to be mnemonically invisible – immediately after seeing it, you could look at it again and it would be as though it were the first time.  You’d never be able to recall its content or meaning.

Actually, I have read some esoteric, convoluted poetry like that.  Words that skimmed over my mind as though each synapse were coated with teflon. 

I wasn’t keen on the experience.  Minutes had passed, but, because I couldn’t remember anything that I’d read, I’d accomplished nothing.  I don’t need to actually understand a poem, I just want for it to make me feel somehow different after I’ve read it.  Like Will Alexander’s “The Optic Wraith,” which triggers a mysterious sense of unease even though its meaning squirms away from me:

The Optic Wraith

Her eyes

like a swarm of dense volcano spiders

woven from cold inferno spools

contradictory

consuming

clinging to my palette

like the code from a bleak inventive ruse

now

my understanding of her scent

is condoned as general waking insomnia

as void

as a cataleptic prairie

frayed at the core

by brushstrokes of vertigo

then mazes

As Alexander’s words lure me along, I lose my grasp.  But although I might not recall any specific lines, if you asked me at the end of its six pages, “So, what did you feel?”, I’d certainly know that something inside my brain was different from who I’d been five minutes before.

When I was in college, I felt strongly that art needed to be beautiful.  I was wrong.  But I still believe that art works better when it’s aesthetically pleasing, because this allows it to more readily infiltrate someone’s mind.  If two paintings are both intended to convey the same ideas, but one is more pleasurable to look at, then we can assume that it will be looked at more, and thereby convey the idea more.  A charming form helps the piece achieve its function of spreading the creator’s intended message.

And, in terms of judging the quality of art, I obviously still think that the quality of message is important.

For instance, a chair.  Every chair you’ve ever sat in was designed by somebody.  If you wanted to argue that the chair is a piece of art, I suppose I’d agree with you.  And maybe it’s a very good chair: comfortable to sit in, perfectly balanced, pleasing to see when the rising sun illuminates it in the morning.  But that doesn’t mean it’s good art.

Joseph Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs,” 1965. Photo by Kenneth Lu on Flickr.

Indeed, a chair that is bad at being a chair is more likely to be a good artwork.  A chair that’s too small or too large, conveying the discomfort of trying to make your way in a world that is primarily concerned with the comfort of bodies unlike your own.  Or a gigantic bronze throne that affords you the chance to perch in Baphomet’s lap; it would be an unpleasant place to sit, but perhaps you’d reflect more on Lucifer’s ethic of “speaking truth to power, even at great personal cost.

When we humans make art, we try to engage the emotions of our audience.  Emotionally-charged situations are more memorable; while feeling awe, or anger, or joy, human minds are most likely to change.

And human art is almost always made for a human audience.  Our brains evolved both from and for gossip; our prodigious intellect began as a tool to track convoluted social relationships.  We’re driven to seek narrative explanations, both because a coherent story makes gossip easier to understand, and because our consciousness spins stories to rationalize our actions after we perform them.

If we considered the world’s most intelligent animal species – like humans, dolphins, crows, elephants, chimpanzees – most have evolved to gossip.  Large brains gave our ancestors a selective advantage because they were able to track and manipulate their societies complex social relationships in a way that bolstered survival and breeding opportunities.  Indeed, the average elephant probably has more emotional intelligence than the average human, judging from neuron counts in the relevant areas of each species’ brains.

Elephants at a sanctuary. Image by Gilda on Flickr.

And so, if an elephant were given the freedom to paint (without a trainer tugging on her ears!), I imagine that she’d create art with the intention that another elephant would be the audience.  When a chimpanzee starts drumming, any aesthetic message is probably intended for other chimpanzees.

But what about octopus art?

Octopuses and humans haven’t had any ancestors in common for half a billion years.  Octopuses are extremely intelligent, but their intelligence arose through a very different pathway from most other animals.  Unlike the world’s brilliant birds and mammals, octopuses do not gossip.

Octopuses tend to be antisocial unless it’s mating season (or they’ve been dosed with ecstasy / MDMA).  Most of the time, they just use their prodigious intellect to solve puzzles, like how best to escape cages, or find food, or keep from being killed.

Octopus hiding in two shells. Image by Nick Hobgood on Wikipedia.

Humans have something termed “theory of mind”: we think a lot about what others are thinking.  Many types of animals do this.  For instance, if a crow knows that another crow watched it hide food, it will then come back and move the food to a new hiding spot as soon as the second crow isn’t looking.

When we make art, we’re indirectly demonstrating a theory of mind – if we want an audience to appreciate the things we make, we have to anticipate what they’ll think.

Octopuses also seem to have a “theory of mind,” but they’re not deeply invested in the thoughts of other octopuses.  They care more about the thoughts of animals that might eat them.  And they know how to be deceptive; that’s why an octopus might collect coconut shells and use one to cover itself as it slinks across the ocean floor.

A coconut octopus. Image by Christian Gloor on Wikimedia.

Human art is for humans, and bird art for birds, but octopus art is probably intended for a non-octopus audience.  Which might require even more intelligence to create; it’s easy for me to write something that a reader like me would enjoy.  Whereas an octopus artist would be empathizing with creatures radically different from itself.

If octopuses weren’t stuck with such short lifespans, living in the nightmarishly dangerous ocean depths, I bet their outward focus would lead them to become better people than we are.  The more we struggle to empathize with others different from ourselves, the better our world will be.

On happiness and mind control.

On happiness and mind control.

Many of us would like to feel happier.

In the United States, people are having sex less often.  And between alcohol, marijuana, recreational painkillers – not to mention anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication – we take a lot of drugs. 

Many of us work long hours at jobs we dislike so that we can afford to buy things that promise to fill some of the emptiness inside.  The most lucrative businesses are advertising companies … one of which, Facebook, is designed to make you feel worse so that you’ll be more susceptible to its ads.

The suicide rate has been rising.

From Dan Diamond’s Forbes blog post
Stopping The Growing Risk Of Suicide: How You Can Help.”

It might seem as though we don’t know how to make people happier.  But, actually, we do.

Now, I know that I’ve written previously with bad medical advice, such as the suggestion that intentionally infecting yourself with the brain parasite Toxoplasma gondii could make you happier.  This parasite boosts dopamine levels in your brain (dopamine is a neurotransmitter that conveys feelings of pleasure and mirth) and makes you feel bolder (in controlled laboratory experiments, infected mice show less stress when making risky decisions, and observational data suggests the same to be true for infected humans).  You also might become more attractive (infected rodents have more sex, and portrait photographs of infected human men are perceived as more dominant and masculine).

There are drawbacks to Toxoplasma infection, of course.  Infected rodents are more likely to be killed by cats.  Infected humans may become slower as well, both physically and intellectuallyToxoplasma forms cysts in your brain.  It might increase the chance of developing schizophrenia.  It can kill you if you’re immunocompromised.  And the surest way to contract toxoplasmosis, if incidental exposure hasn’t already done it for you, is by eating cat excrement.

My advice today is different.  No feces required! 

And I’m not suggesting anything illegal.  I mentioned, above, that people in the United States take a lot of drugs.  Several of these boost dopamine levels in your brain.  Cocaine, for instance, is a “dopamine re-uptake inhibitor,” ensuring that any momentary sensation of pleasure will linger, allowing you to feel happy longer.

But cocaine has a nasty side effect of leading to incarceration, especially if the local law enforcement officers decide that your epidermal melanin concentration is too high.  And jail is not a happy place.

Instead, you could make yourself happier with a bit of at-home trepanation, followed by the insertion of an electrode into the nucleus accumbens of your brain.  Now, I know that sounds risky, what with the nucleus accumbens being way down near the base of your brain.  But your brain is rather squishy – although you’ll sheer some cells as you cram a length of conductive wire into your cranium, the hope is that many neurons will be pushed out of the way.

The nucleus accumbens tends to show high activity during pleasure.  For instance, cocaine stimulates activity in this part of your brain.  So does money — tell research subjects that they’ve won a prize and you’ll see this region light up.  If rats are implanted with an electrode that lets them jolt their own nucleus accumbens by pushing a lever, they’ll do it over and over.  Pressing that lever makes them happier than eating, or drinking water, or having sex.  They’ll blissfully self-stimulate until they collapse.  From James Olds’s Science paper, “Self-Stimulation of the Brain”:

If animals with electrodes in the hypothalamus were run for 24 hours or 48 hours consecutively, they continued to respond as long as physiological endurance permitted.

Setup for Olds’s experiment.

Perhaps I should have warned you – amateur brain modification would carry some risks.  Even if you have the tools needed to drill into your own skull without contracting a horrible infection, you don’t want to boost your mood just to die of dehydration.

After all, happiness might have some purpose.  There might be reasons why certain activities – like eating, drinking water, having sex … to say nothing of strolling outdoors, or volunteering to help others – make us feel happy.  After discussing several case studies in their research article “How Happy Is Too Happy,” Matthis Synofzik, Thomas Schlaepfer, and Joseph Fins write that using deep brain stimulation for the “induction of chronic euphoria could also impair the person’s cognitive capacity to respond to reasons about which volitions and preferences are in his or her best interests.

When an activity makes us feel happy, we’re likely to do it again.  That’s how people manage to dedicate their lives to service.  Or get addicted to drugs.

And it’s how brain stimulation could be used for mind control.

If you show me a syringe, I’ll feel nervous.  I don’t particularly like needles.  But if you display that same syringe to an intravenous drug user, you’ll trigger some of the rush of actually shooting up.  The men in my poetry classes have said that they feel all tingly if they even see the word “needle” written in a poem.

For months or years, needles presaged a sudden flush of pleasure.  That linkage was enough for their brains to develop a fondness for the needles themselves.

If you wanted to develop a taste for an unpalatable food, you could do the same thing.  Like bittermelon – I enjoy bittermelons, which have a flavor that’s totally different from anything else I’ve ever eaten, but lots of people loathe them.

Still, if you used deep brain stimulation to trigger pleasure every time a person ate bittermelon, that person would soon enjoy it.

Bittermelon. Image by [cipher] in Tokyo, Japan on Wikimedia.

Or you could make someone fall in love. 

Far more effective than any witch’s potion, that.  Each time your quarry encounters the future beloved, crank up the voltage.  The beloved’s presence will soon be associated with a sense of comfort and pleasure.  And that sensation – stretched out for long enough that the pair can build a set of shared memories – is much of what love is.

Of course, it probably sounds like I’m joking.  You wouldn’t really send jolts of electricity into the core of somebody’s brain so that he’d fall in love with somebody new … right?

Fifty years passed between the discovery of pleasure-inducing deep brain stimulation and its current use as a treatment for depression … precisely because one of the pioneering researchers decided that it was reasonable to use the electrodes as a love potion.

In 1972, Charles Moan and Robert Heath published a scientific paper titled “Septal stimulation for the initiation of heterosexual behavior in a homosexual male.”  Their study subject was a 24-year-old man who had been discharged from the military for homosexuality.  Moan and Heath postulated that the right regimen of electrode stimulation – jolted while watching pornography, or while straddled by a female prostitute whom Moan and Heath hired to visit their lab – might lead this young man to desire physical intimacy with women.

Moan and Heath’s paper is surprisingly salacious:

After about 20 min of such interaction she begun [sic] to mount him, and though he was somewhat reticent he did achieve penetration.  Active intercourse followed during which she had an orgasm that he was apparently able to sense.  He became very excited at this and suggested that they turn over in order that he might assume the initiative.  In this position he often paused to delay orgasm and to increase the duration of the pleasurable experience.  Then, despite the milieu [inside a lab, romping under the appraising eyes of multiple fully-clothed scientists] and the encumbrance of the electrode wires, he successfully ejaculated.  Subsequently, he expressed how much he had enjoyed her and how he hoped that he would have sex with her again in the near future.

The science writer Lone Frank recently published The Pleasure Shock, a meticulously researched book in which she concludes that Heath was unfairly maligned because most people in the 1970s were reticent to believe that consciousness arose from the interaction of perfectly ordinary matter inside our skulls.  Changing a person’s mood with electricity sounds creepy, especially if you think that a mind is an ethereal, inviolable thing.

But it isn’t.

The mind, that is. The mind isn’t an ethereal, inviolable thing.

Zapping new thoughts into somebody’s brain, though, is definitely still understood (by me, at least) to be creepy.

Discussing the contemporary resurgence of electrical brain modification, Frank writes that:

In 2013, economist Ernst Fehr of Zurich University experimented with transcranial direct current stimulation, which sends a weak current through the cranium and is able to influence activity in areas of the brain that lie closest to the skull. 

Fehr had sixty-three research subjects available.  They played a money game in which they each were given a sum and had to take a position on how much they wanted to give an anonymous partner.  In the first round, there were no sanctions from the partner, but in the second series of experiments, the person in question could protest and punish the subject. 

There were two opposing forces at play.  A cultural norm for sharing fairly – that is, equally – and a selfish interest in getting as much as possible for oneself.  Fehr and his people found that the tug of war could be influenced by the right lateral prefrontal cortex.  When the stimulation increased the brain activity, the subjects followed the fairness norm to a higher degree, while they were more inclined to act selfishly when the activity was diminished.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking thing was that the research subjects did not themselves feel any difference.  When they were asked about it, they said their idea of fairness had not changed, while the selfishness of their behavior had changed. 

Apparently, you can fiddle with subtle moral parameters in a person without the person who is manipulated being any the wiser.

The human brain evolved to create elaborate narratives that rationalize our own actions.  As far as our consciousness is concerned, there’s no difference between telling a just so story about a decision we made un-aided, versus explaining a “choice” that we were guided toward by external current.

Frank believes that Heath was a brilliant doctor who sincerely wanted to help patients. 

When bioethicist Carl Elliott reviewed The Pleasure Shock for the New York Review of Books, however, he pointed out that even – perhaps especially – brilliant doctors who sincerely want to help patients can stumble into rampantly unethical behavior.

The problem isn’t just that Heath pulsed electricity into the brain of a homosexual man so that he could ejaculate while fooling around with a woman.  Many of Heath’s patients – who, it’s worth acknowledging, had previously been confined to nightmarish asylums – developed infections from their electrode implantations and died.  Also, Heath knowingly promoted fraudulent research findings because he’d staked his reputation on a particular theory and was loathe to admit that he’d been wrong (not that Heath has been the only professor to perpetuate falsehoods this way).

Elliott concludes that:

Heath was a physician in love with his ideas. 

Psychiatry has seen many men like this.  Heath’s contemporaries include Ewen Cameron, the CIA-funded psychiatrist behind the infamous “psychic driving” studies at McGill University, in which patients were drugged into comas and subjected to repetitive messages or sounds for long periods, and Walter Freeman, the inventor of the icepick lobotomy and its most fervent evangelist.

These men may well have started with the best of intentions.  But in medical research, good intentions can lead to the embalming table.  All it takes is a powerful researcher with a surplus of self-confidence, a supportive institution, and a ready supply of vulnerable subjects.

Heath had them all.

It’s true that using an electrode to stimulate the nucleus accumbens inside your brain can probably make you feel happier.  By way of contrast, reading essays like this one make most people feel less happy.

Sometimes it’s good to feel bad, though.

As Elliott reminds us, a lot of vulnerable people were abused in this research.  A lot of vulnerable people are still treated with cavalier disregard, especially when folks with psychiatric issues are snared by our country’s criminal justice system.  And the torments that we dole upon non-human animals are even worse.

Consider this passage from Frans De Waal’s Mama’s Last Hug, discussing empathy:

[University of Chicago researcher Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal] placed one rat in an enclosure, where it encountered a small transparent container, a bit like a jelly jar.  Squeezed inside it was another rat, locked up, wriggling in distress. 

Not only did the free rat learn how to open a little door to liberate the other, but she was remarkably eager to do so.  Never trained on it, she did so spontaneously. 

Then Bartal challenged her motivation by giving her a choice between two containers, one with chocolate chips – a favorite food that they could easily smell – and another with a trapped companion.  The free rat often rescued her companion first, suggesting that reducing her distress counted more than delicious food.

Is it possible that these rats liberated their companions for companionship?  While one rat is locked up, the other has no chance to play, mate, or groom.  Do they just want to make contact?  While the original study failed to address this question, a different study created a situation where rats could rescue each other without any chance of further interaction.  That they still did so confirmed that the driving force is not a desire to be social. 

Bartal believes it is emotional contagion: rats become distressed when noticing the other’s distress, which spurs them into action. 

Conversely, when Bartal gave her rats an anxiety-reducing drug, turning them into happy hippies, they still knew how to open the little door to reach the chocolate chips, but in their tranquil state, they had no interest in the trapped rat.  They couldn’t care less, showing the sort of emotional blunting of people on Prozac or pain-killers. 

The rats became insensitive to the other’s agony and ceased helping. 

You could feel happier.  We know enough to be able to reach into your mind and change it.  A miniscule flow of electrons is enough to trigger bliss.

But should we do it?  Or use our unhappiness as fuel to change the world instead?

On suboptimal optimization.

On suboptimal optimization.

I’ve been helping a friend learn the math behind optimization so that she can pass a graduation-requirement course in linear algebra. 

Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool.  Biochemists love it – progression toward an energy minimum directs protein folding, among other physical phenomena.  Economists love it – whenever you’re trying to make money, you’re solving for a constrained maximum.  Philosophers love it – how can we provide the most happiness for a population?  Computer scientists love it – self-taught translation algorithms use this same methodology (I still believe that you could mostly replace Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations with this New York Times Magazine article on machine learning and a primer on principal component analysis).

But, even though optimization problems are useful, the math behind them can be tricky.  I’m skeptical that this mathematical technique is essential for everyone who wants a B.A. to grasp – my friend, for example, is a wonderful preschool teacher who hopes to finally finish a degree in child psychology.  She would have graduated two years ago except that she’s failed this math class three times.

I could understand if the university wanted her to take statistics, as that would help her understand psychology research papers … and the science underlying contemporary political debates … and value-added models for education … and more.  A basic understanding of statistics might make people better citizens.

Whereas … linear algebra?  This is a beautiful but counterintuitive field of mathematics.  If you’re interested in certain subjects – if you want to become a physicist, for example – you really should learn this math.  A deep understanding of linear algebra can enliven your study of quantum mechanics.

The summary of quantum mechanics: animation by Templaton.

Then again, Werner Heisenberg, who was a brilliant physicist, had a limited grasp on linear algebra.  He made huge contributions to our understanding of quantum mechanics, but his lack of mathematical expertise occasionally held him back.  He never quite understood the implications of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and he failed to provide Adolph Hitler with an atomic bomb.

In retrospect, maybe it’s good that Heisenberg didn’t know more linear algebra.

While I doubt that Heisenberg would have made a great preschool teacher, I don’t think that deficits in linear algebra were deterring him from that profession.  After each evening that I spend working with my friend, I do feel that she understands matrices a little better … but her ability to nurture children isn’t improving.

And yet.  Somebody in an office decided that all university students here need to pass this class.  I don’t think this rule optimizes the educational outcomes for their students, but perhaps they are maximizing something else, like the registration fees that can be extracted.

Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool, but it’s easy to misuse.  Numbers will always do what they’re supposed to, but each such problem begins with a choice.  What exactly do you hope to optimize?

Choose the wrong thing and you’ll make the world worse.

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Figure 1 from Eykholt et al., 2018.

Most automobile companies are researching self-driving cars.  They’re the way of the future!  In a previous essay, I included links to studies showing that unremarkable-looking graffiti could confound self-driving cars … but the issue I want to discuss today is both more mundane and more perfidious.

After all, using graffiti to make a self-driving car interpret a stop sign as “Speed Limit 45” is a design flaw.  A car that accelerates instead of braking in that situation is not operating as intended.

But passenger-less self-driving cars that roam the city all day, intentionally creating as many traffic jams as possible?  That’s a feature.  That’s what self-driving cars are designed to do.

A machine designed to create traffic jams?

Despite my wariness about automation and algorithms run amok, I hadn’t considered this problem until I read Adam Millard-Ball’s recent research paper, “The Autonomous Vehicle Parking Problem.” Millard-Ball begins with a simple assumption: what if a self-driving car is designed to maximize utility for its owner?

This assumption seems reasonable.  After all, the AI piloting a self-driving car must include an explicit response to the trolley problem.  Should the car intentionally crash and kill its passenger in order to save the lives of a group of pedestrians?  This ethical quandary is notoriously tricky to answer … but a computer scientist designing a self-driving car will probably answer, “no.” 

Otherwise, the manufacturers won’t sell cars.  Would you ride in a vehicle that was programmed to sacrifice you?

Luckily, the AI will not have to make that sort of life and death decision often.  But here’s a question that will arise daily: if you commute in a self-driving car, what should the car do while you’re working?

If the car was designed to maximize public utility, perhaps it would spend those hours serving as a low-cost taxi.  If demand for transportation happened to be lower than the quantity of available, unoccupied self-driving cars, it might use its elaborate array of sensors to squeeze into as small a space as possible inside a parking garage.

But what if the car is designed to benefit its owner?

Perhaps the owner would still want for the car to work as a taxi, just as an extra source of income.  But some people – especially the people wealthy enough to afford to purchase the first wave of self-driving cars – don’t like the idea of strangers mucking around in their vehicles.  Some self-driving cars would spend those hours unoccupied.

But they won’t park.  In most cities, parking costs between $2 and $10 per hour, depending on whether it’s street or garage parking, whether you purchase a long-term contract, etc. 

The cost to just keep driving is generally going to be lower than $2 per hour.  Worse, this cost is a function of the car’s speed.  If the car is idling at a dead stop, it will use approximately 0.1 gallon per hour, costing 25 cents per hour at today’s prices.  If the car is traveling at 30 mph without breaks, it will use approximately 1 gallon per hour, costing $2.50 per hour.

To save money, the car wants to stay on the road … but it wants for traffic to be as close to a standstill as possible.

Luckily for the car, this is an easy optimization problem.  It can consult its onboard GPS to find nearby areas where traffic is slow, then drive over there.  As more and more self-driving cars converge on the same jammed streets, they’ll slow traffic more and more, allowing them to consume the workday with as little motion as possible.

Photo by walidhassanein on Flickr.

Pity the person sitting behind the wheel of an occupied car on those streets.  All the self-driving cars will be having a great time stuck in that traffic jam: we’re saving money!, they get to think.  Meanwhile the human is stuck swearing at empty shells, cursing a bevy of computer programmers who made their choices months or years ago.

And all those idling engines exhale carbon dioxide.  But it doesn’t cost money to pollute, because one political party’s worth of politicians willfully ignore the fact that capitalism, by philosophical design, requires we set prices for scarce resources … like clean air, or habitable planets.