Every living thing needs
energy. But our world is finite. Energy has to come from somewhere.
Luckily, there’s a lot of potential energy out there in the universe. For instance, mass can be converted into energy. Our sun showers us with energy drawn from the cascade of nuclear explosions that transpire in its core. A tiny difference in mass between merging hydrogen atoms and the resultant helium atom allows our sun to shine.
Our sun radiates about 10^26 joules per second (which is 100,000 times more than the combined yearly energy usage from everyone on Earth), but only a fraction of that reaches our planet. Photons radiate outward from our sun in all directions, so our planet intercepts only a small sliver of the beam. Everything living here is fueled by those photons.
When living things use the sun’s energy, we create order – a tree converts disordered air into rigid trunk, a mouse converts a pile of seeds into more mouse, a human might convert mud and straw into a house. As we create order, we give off heat. Warming the air, we radiate infrared photons. That’s what night vision goggles are designed to see. The net effect is that the Earth absorbs high-energy photons that were traveling in a straight beam outward from the sun … and we convert those photons into a larger number of low-energy photons that fly off every which way.
We the living are chaos machines. We make the universe messier. Indeed, that’s the only way anything can live. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the only processes that are sufficiently probable so as to occur are those that make the world more random.
We’re lucky that the universe started out as such a bland, orderly place – otherwise we might not even be able to tell “before” from “later,” let alone extract enough energy to live.
The earliest living things took energy from the sun indirectly – they used heat, and so they were fueled by each photon’s delivery of warmth to the Earth. (Please allow me this little hedge – although it’s true that the earliest life was fueled only by warmth, that warmth might not have come from the sun. Even today, some thermophilic bacteria live in deep sea vents and bask in the energy that leaks from our Earth’s molten core. The earliest life might have lived in similar nooks far from the surface of the Earth. But early life that resided near the surface of the seas seems more likely. Complicated chemical reactions were necessary to form molecules like RNA. Nucleic acids were probably first found in shallow, murky pools pulsed with lightning or ultraviolet radiation.)
Over time, life changed. Organisms create copies of themselves through chemical processes that have imperfect fidelity, after all. Each copy is slightly different than the original. Most differences make an organism worse than its forebears, but, sometimes, through sheer chance, an organism might be better at surviving or at creating new copies of itself.
When that happens, the new
version will become more common.
Over many, many generations, this process can make organisms very different from their forebears. When a genome is copied prior to cell division, sometimes the polymerase will slip up and duplicate a stretch of code. These duplication events are incredibly important for evolution – usually, the instructions for proteins can’t drift too far because any change might eliminate essential functions for that cell. If there’s a second copy, though, the duplicate can mutate and eventually gain some new function.
About two billion years ago, some organisms developed a rudimentary form of photosynthesis. They could turn sunlight into self! The energy from our sun’s photons was used to combine carbon dioxide and water into sugar. And sugar can be used to store energy, and to build new types of structures.
Photosynthesis also releases oxygen as a biproduct. From the perspective of the organisms living then, photosynthesis poisoned the entire atmosphere – a sudden rise in our atmosphere’s oxygen concentration caused many species to go extinct. But we humans never could have come about without all that oxygen.
Perhaps that’s a small consolation, given that major corporations are currently poisoning our atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Huge numbers of species might go extinct – including, possibly, ourselves – but something else would have a chance to live here after we have passed.
In addition to poisoning the atmosphere, photosynthesis introduced a new form of competition. Warmth spreads diffusely – on the early Earth, it was often sheer chance whether one organism would have an advantage over any other. If you can photosynthesize, though, you want to be the highest organism around. If you’re closer to the sun, you get the first chance to nab incoming photons.
That’s the evolutionary pressure that induced plants to evolve. Plants combined sugars into rigid structures so that they could grow upwards. Height helps when your main goal in life is to snatch sunlight.
Nothing can live without
curtailing the chances of other living things.
Whenever a plant absorbs a photon, it reduces the energy available for
other plants growing below.
Plants created the soil by
trapping dirt and dust, and soil lets them store water for later use. But there is only so much desalinated
water. Roots reach outward: “I drink your
milkshake!”, each could exclaim.
For a heterotroph, the
brutality of our world is even more clear.
Our kind – including amoebas, fungi, and all animals – can only survive
by eating others. We are carbon
recyclers. Sugar and protein
refurbishers. We take the molecular
machines made by photosynthesizing organisms … chop them apart … and use the
pieces to create ourselves.
Some heterotrophs are
saprophages – eaters of the dead. But
most survive only by destroying the lives of others.
For the earliest heterotrophs, to eat was to kill. But, why worry? Why, after all, is life special? Each photosynthesizing organism was already churning through our universe’s finite quantity of order in its attempt to grow. They took in material from their environment and rearranged it. So did the heterotrophs – they ingested and rearranged. Like all living things, they consumed order and excreted chaos.
The heterotrophs were
extinguishing life, but life is just a pattern that repeats itself. A living thing is a metabolic machine that
self-copies. From a thermodynamic
perspective, only the energetics of the process distinguish life from a
crystal. Both are patterns that grow,
but when a crystal grows, it makes matter more stable than its environment –
life makes matter less stable as it’s incorporated into the pattern.
Your ability to read this
essay is a legacy of the heterotrophs’ more violent descendants. The earliest multicellular heterotrophs were
filter feeders – they passively consumed whatever came near.
But then, between 500 and 600 million years ago, animals began to hunt and kill. They would actively seek life to extinguish. To do this, they needed to think – neurons first arose among these hunters.
Not coincidentally, this is also the time that animals first developed hard shells, sharp spines, armored plates – defenses to stop others from eating them.
The rigid molecules that allow plants to grow tall, like cellulose, are hard to digest. So the earliest hunters probably began by killing other animals.
With every meal, you join
the long legacy of animals that survived only by extinguishing the lives of
others. With every thought, you
draw upon the legacy of our forebear’s ruthless hunt.
Even if you’re vegan, your meals kill. Like us, plants have goals. It’s a matter of controversy whether they can perceive – perhaps they don’t know that they have goals – but plants will constantly strive to grow, to collect sunlight and water while they can, and many will actively resist being eaten.
But it makes no sense to value the world if you don’t value yourself. Maybe you feel sad that you can’t photosynthesize … maybe you’d search out a patch of barren, rocky ground so that you’d absorb only photons that would otherwise be “wasted” … but, in this lifetime, you have to eat. Otherwise you’d die. And I personally think that any moral philosophy that advocates suicide is untenable. That’s a major flaw with utilitarianism – rigid devotion to the idea of maximizing happiness for all would suggest that you, as another organism that’s taking up space, constantly killing, and sapping our universe’s limited supply of order, simply shouldn’t be here.
At its illogical extreme, utilitarianism suggests that either you conquer the world (if you’re the best at feeling happy) or kill yourself (if you’re not).
We humans are descended from carnivores. Our ancestors were able to maintain such large brains only by cooking and eating meat. Our bodies lack an herbivore’s compliment of enzymes that would allow us to convert grass and leaves into the full compliment of proteins that we need.
And we owe the very existence of our brains to the hunts carried out by even more ancient ancestors. If they hadn’t killed, we couldn’t think.
Just because we were blessed by a legacy of violence, though, doesn’t mean we have to perpetuate that violence. We can benefit from past harms and resolve to harm less in the present and future.
Writing was first developed by professional scribes. Scientific progress was the province of wealthy artisans. None of the progress of our culture would have been possible if huge numbers of people weren’t oppressed – food that those people grew was taken from them and distributed by kings to a small number of privileged scribes, artisans, philosophers, and layabouts.
When humans lived as hunters and gatherers, their societies were generally equitable. People might die young from bacterial infections, dehydration, or starvation, but their lives were probably much better than the lives of the earliest farmers. After we discovered agriculture, our diets became less varied and our lives less interesting. Plus, it’s easier to oppress a land-bound farmer than a nomadic hunter. Stationary people paid tribute to self-appointed kings.
This misery befell the vast majority of our world’s population, and persisted for thousands of years. But the world we have now couldn’t have come about any other way. It’s horrific, but, for humans to reach our current technologies, we needed oppression. Food was taken from those who toiled and given to those who hadn’t.
Mostly those others
created nothing of value … but some of them made writing, and mathematics, and
Although the development
of writing required oppression, it’s wrong to oppress people now. It was wrong then, too … but we can’t go back
and fix things.
Although the origin of
your brain required violence, I likewise think we ought to minimize the
violence we enact today. We can’t help
all the animals who were hurt in the long journey that made our world the place
it is now. And we can’t stop killing –
there’s no other way for heterotrophs like us to live.
To be vegan, though, is to reckon with those costs. To feel a sense of wonder at all the world pays for us to be here. And, in gratitude, to refrain from asking that it pay more than we need.
Among worms, there is equality. When worms entwine, each could become a
mother, a father, or both. Neither worm
has grounds to bemoan the fundamental unfairness of our universe – not while
fooling around, at least.
Later, the worms might drown, or be eaten by birds, or be mutilated and held captive by a mole. That all must feel horrible. But while mating, each worm should feel as though it’s been given a fair deal.
Among emperor penguins, both parents
make huge sacrifices for their young.
Each parent will huddle over the egg for months without food, staving
off the Antarctic chill. When it’s time
to trade places, the parents must pass the egg using only their webbed feet –
if they make even a small mistake, the egg will roll away and freeze, killing
the chick inside.
Because each parent puts forth such a
huge amount of effort to raise a chick, each must feel quite choosy during the
mating season. When a pair of penguins
flirt, neither seems to have the upper hand.
Most animals’ reproduction is more
asymmetric. For them – for us –
differing roles can feel unfair.
Often, one partner gets to be pickier
than the other.
Among smooth guardian frogs, fathers are deeply invested in raising their young; mothers hop away after mating, providing no help. Female smooth guardian frogs seem as though they’d be perfectly happy to make babies with anyone. They can always have another fling while a past paramour is protecting the last batch of eggs.
For a male, mating is a serious commitment. He’ll carefully consider his options. And so each female sings to woo him. A common strategy: knowing that males are choosier when it comes to sex, she’ll sing her heart out, hoping to sway his decision.
Among many other species of frogs, males’ songs serve the same purpose. Hoping to woo womenfolk, male bowerbirds build.
Female ducks raise their young. They have the freedom to choose their
mates. Male ducks would have more
leverage during courtship if they planned to contribute as parents. But they don’t.
Male ducks are the natural world’s equivalent of violent incels. Aggrieved by their lack of choice, they rape. This has been going on so long that female ducks’ anatomy has evolved – they can trap unwanted sperm with labyrinth passageways inside their bodies, and are able to straighten the path to fertilization during consensual sex – allowing them to maintain mate choice despite the constant threat of assault.
From an evolutionary perspective,
animals that put forth an effort as parents have earned their
choices. They generally get to indulge
their desires … and, even more importantly, should be safe from those whom they
do not desire.
Among many species, we can see evidence
of this push and pull between devoted parents and the absentees who loudly
sing, “Choose me! Choose me!”
For instance, we can learn a lot about the sex lives of our closest relatives by comparing the males’ genitalia. No, not your uncle – that’d be weird. I mean the great apes. A traditional comparison of gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans is shown below.
Male gorillas claim a territory, and
then the dominant male within each territory feels reasonably certain that
every female living there will mate with him and only him. Although he makes minimal contributions
toward parenting – which means the females should feel free to shop
around for sexual partners – he sways their decision through physical
violence. Mostly he’ll direct aggression
at other males, hoping to stave off their competition, but he’s occasionally
rough with “his” females as well.
For male gorillas to control female sexuality without helping as parents, they had to become huge. As it happens, this evolutionary pressure caused their brains to shrink. They have almost 90% fewer neurons than we’d expect for a primate of that size. If gorillas were egalitarian, they would’ve been more intelligent than humans. But there simply weren’t enough calories for gorillas to have large brains and sufficient brawn to indulge in violent sexual coercion.
There’s less difference in size between
male and female chimpanzees, but male chimpanzees also use violence to sway
mate choice. A male chimpanzee might
attack and kill a mother’s babies in order to impregnate her … but he won’t if
he thinks that they might be his own children.
The safest plan for a mother, then, is
to distribute her sexual favors widely.
Her children will safe from everyone with whom she shared a
dalliance. Maybe she’d like to be choosier,
but each male will only last a few seconds, so the cost must not seem like too
much to bear.
From an evolutionary perspective, then,
male chimpanzees are not competing to be the most beautiful. Nor to be the greatest artists. They don’t sing. They do battle, but they tend to
battle in cooperative gangs, with the outcome being that each male among the
upper echelon will have the chance to get it on. A friendless, low-ranking male might be
chased off every time he attempts to mate, but many others will have an
That’s why male chimpanzees produce so
much sperm. The chance to fertilize a
mother’s egg comes down to probability.
If a chimp ejaculates prodigiously, he’s more likely to sire offspring.
Several human cultures believed that babies are formed from sperm, and that mothers required repeated infusions during pregnancy in order for the child to form correctly. Among the Bari of Venezuela, each man who contributed sperm was treated as a biological father – the child was presumed to inherit virtues from each.
Under these beliefs, polyamory was the best strategy for raising a capable child. A mother needed to consider which qualities would help her children most in life, then spend time astride the men who possessed each. The best singer, the most nimble climber, the most astute tracker – each trait was an evening’s lay away.
And her strategy surely worked. Fooling around with the best singer would probably lead to singing lessons. If the best hunter also shared an orgasm with this child’s mother, he’d make an effort to explain the sights and sounds and rhythms of the forest. Honestly, it makes no difference whether talents come from nature or nurture if fathers are willing to teach every child that their sperm might’ve helped create.
The Bari culture, like that of most other human hunter gatherers, was quite egalitarian compared to our own. But even among hunter gatherers, human fathers were typically shabbier parents than mothers. For instance, fathers who hunted typically claimed to be the ones feeding their families, even in places where the “women’s work” of gathering fruits, nuts and seeds provided more nutrition than meat. But an occasional dead deer confers more bragging rights than a sackful of nuts each day, and human males have long loved to brag.
As humans began to practice agriculture, our societies became less equitable. More and more of the childrearing was done by women.
According to the basic principles of
evolution, this means that women should have had more and more leverage during
courtship. More and more control over
their sexuality. In cultures where
mothers do basically everything – feeding the family, teaching children,
cuddling them through the night – women should have had close to free reign in
choosing their partners.
And there’s biological evidence that human women used to be in control. For instance, many women’s sexual preferences seem to cycle rhythmically. Relatively effeminate, helpful partners are favored most of the time, but ultra-masculine brutes suddenly seem sexy during temporary bursts of hormones. In the past, human women probably made out with multiple different men each year.
That’s why human males – unlike gorillas or chimpanzees – have a strong incentive to provide a rollicking good time in bed. Or in the back of a cave, on the forest floor, alongside the riverbank, wherever. Although there’s been intense debate about the degree of correlation between male penis size and female sexual pleasure, most people seem willing to admit that there’s a link.
When women buy sex toys … well, usually they buy external vibrators. These don’t always resemble the genitalia of any biological organism. Many are designed to look like lipstick tubes or other innocuous objects, for modesty’s sake.
But toys that are designed for penetration? These tend to be much longer and thicker than either a gorilla’s inch-long erection or a chimpanzee’s three-inch, slender shaft. Human males tend to be well endowed because it’s a way to sway women’s choices. By giving her a good time, a man might have the chance to fool around again.
But in addition to huge cocks (relative to other primates – as Jeffrey Yang wrote in his poetry collection An Aquarium: The barnacle has the longest penis / of any animal in proportion / to its body size. Happiness / and proportion: / never be ashamed of evolution), humans also have huge brains. Instead of evolving better and better ways to deliver consensual pleasure, human males invented stories to subvert female mate choice.
males aren’t as horrible as ducks, but we’re close.
the world, human males have used religion as a tool to constrain female
choice. We teach that the natural
inclination toward polyamory is evil. A
woman needs to devote herself to one man.
In many cultures, women are not even allowed to choose who that man will
Even in contemporary experiments on U.S. college students, the presence of sexual competitors leads people to espouse more strident religious experiments. If you can’t win with your looks, or with your charming personality, why not tell her that it’d be immoral to make eyes at that other guy?
men could have made art like bowerbirds.
We could’ve sung like frogs.
Hell, we could’ve capitalized on the promise of our large genitalia to
deliver such sweating shaking shuddering good fun that our sexual partners
would remain dazzled forever.
If emperor penguins learned about our sex lives, they’d be appalled. “Dude,” a penguin father might say, “you don’t need to coerce her with a sky ghost! Just be a good parent. Then you’ll get to choose, too.”
That’s sound advice, Mr. Penguin. I am trying to be a good parent. Even when the kids are fussing, I try.
In the beginning,
subatomic particles careened too quickly to connect. The universe was “hot.” (Temperature is a measure of average speed as
objects jiggle. When physics people say
that our universe was “hot,” they mean that everything was moving just shy of
the speed of light.)
In the beginning, our universe wasn’t very interesting. But then the homogeneous cloud of fast-moving particles cooled as it expanded. Speeds slowed. Soon, particles dawdled long enough in each others’ vicinity that they could interact. Hydrogen atoms formed, then hydrogen gas, then stars.
Stars are interesting – when a cloud of gas is big enough, its net gravity can pull everything inward until the density becomes so high that nuclear fusion begins. This raging cascade of explosions counteracts the force of gravity and the star reaches an unsteady equilibrium until, eventually, it runs out of fuel and collapses or explodes.
An exploding star scatters
heavier atoms across the sky. When these
are incorporated into a new star, they can participate in nuclear fusion events
in turn, producing even heavier atoms.
Then that star might
Eventually, there were enough heavy atoms floating about the universe that a condensing cloud could form both a star and a set of orbiting satellites. On these satellites – planets – atoms combine in more interesting ways than inside the bellies of stars.
After all, the infernal
core of a star is pretty hot, too.
Inside that blazing oven, particles can form atoms, and atoms can
combine to form heavier atoms, but these are too frantic to form molecules
– long strings of atoms bonded together.
The chemical bonds that hold a molecule together are much weaker than the electrostatic and nuclear forces that maintain an atom. But planets – even broiling, meteor-bombarded ones – are peaceful places compared to stars. On the primordial earth, lightning strikes or UV radiation probably catalyzed the formation of complex molecules like amino acids and nucleic acids.
These molecules are just
big amalgams of subatomic particles. The
underlying stuff is the same … but there’s more of it.
More is different.
Consider the behaviors of a single amino acid. An amino acid is complex compared to a quark or electron. It can do acid-base chemistry! Its mix of charged and neutral surfaces lets it interact in neat ways with various solvents.
But if you compare that
single amino acid to a protein – and a protein is just more amino acids
joined together – you’ll realize that the single amino acid is total
Proteins, though …
wow! They can fold into fantastical
shapes. They can function as molecular machines,
their parts churning and twisting and flipping as they shuttle other molecules
from place to place, or even create whole new molecules.
When you glom more and
more and more subatomic particles together, eventually you create things
that are complex enough to imprint patterns on the world. They create more things like themselves. Proteins and RNA make new proteins and RNA.
And then, a cell! A cell is an amalgam of molecules all dissolved inside a bubble of fat. If you thought proteins were cool, check this out! Cells can swim, they can eat, they can live and die.
Or, what if there were more
cells? Then you can make us! With many cells, you can make brains,
which makes consciousness, which can give all those subatomic particles the
ability to work together and realize that they are subatomic particles.
Well, no. One single human animal, in isolation, probably wouldn’t figure that out. Each human, as an individual, can be pretty great – but to form a culture complex enough to study particle physics, you’ll need more people. Contemporary physics papers list hundreds of authors, and that doesn’t even credit everybody who worked to build the equipment, and or worked to grow the food, and took care for the children, or taught the physicists, when they were young, allowing them to one day become physicists …
And each of those
physicists, and engineers, and farmers, and caregivers, and teachers … each is
a collection of cells, which are collections of molecules, which are
collections of atoms, which are collections of subatomic particles. As we transition between scales, we see
qualitative differences in behavior from adding more.
This essay is made from a
set of just 26 letters, but these can be combined to form a few hundred
thousand different words, and those can be combined to convey an
infinite number of different ideas.
We blink many thousands of times each day. Our eyes close, pause, and then open again. We need to blink. Staring at screens – as I’m doing now, typing this essay, and as are you, reading it – causes us to blink less frequently, and that can lead to headaches. But the quality of each blink doesn’t affect us much. Most blinks pass by without our even noticing.
Meditation is just a long blink. Close your eyes and let more time elapse before you open them again.
But more is
different. A blink doesn’t disrupt your
thoughts. Meditation, however, can be a
Many religions praise the value of meditation, especially in their origin stories. Before he began his ministry, Jesus meditated in the Judaean Desert – he saw all the world’s kingdoms before him, but rejected that vision of power in order to spread a philosophy of love and charity. Before he began his ministry, Buddha meditated beneath the Bodhi tree – he saw a path unfurl, a journey that would let travelers escape our world’s cycle of suffering. Buddha decided to share that vision with others.
Before teaching his fellows to reshape the world with words, Odin meditated from a tree branch – he felt that he had died, transcended life, and could see the secret language of the universe shimmering before him.
I’ve been preparing anti-racist material about paganism and spirituality so that we have more things to send to people who contact Pages to Prisoners. As part of this project, I’d like to include information about meditation. After all, neo-paganism is invented – typically quite recently – and, as above, many religions have preserved stories suggesting that their founders’ meditation inspired their faith. These religions don’t always prioritize meditation as a contemporary practice, but many do: Christian monks repeat prayers in a way that’s strikingly similar to mantra meditation, Hindu adherents are advised to sit and experience a simulacrum of Shiva’s asceticism, and even warrior cultures have prized pre-battle stillness as a way to focus attention and more fully inhabit the present.
The scientific literature is also replete with papers about meditation — but most of these are junk. It’s fairly easy to find published studies claiming that mindfulness training can confer disease resistance, immunity to aging, or even paranormal abilities like extra-sensory perception. Scientific papers aren’t inherently more trustworthy than the internet.
But it’s true that your mind is plastic, and your moods can dramatically alter the way you perceive the world. Conditions that affect our nervous system – like depression, insomnia, and even chronic pain – can be treated through meditation. The experiments that scientists use to assess things like “creativity” or “attentiveness” are often open to interpretation, but it’s not unreasonable to imagine that meditation would help.
All people are
creative. Our problem, often, is that
our ideas can flit away before we fully grasp them. Like dreams, they fade, and we’re left with
the irksome sensation that “I feel like I just had a good idea, but …”
Meditation can clear the
turbid waters of your mind. Like gazing
into a pellucid lake, it could become easier to spot your good ideas when they
I’ve never been inside a
prison, so I’ll have to collaborate with friends who have spent time there as I
make the pamphlets. But everything I’ve
read suggests that most prisons are loud, chaotic, stressful, and
dangerous. Which has obvious
implications for how easily people can meditate. If you live near a beautiful glen, you could
probably do well by your brain by simply taking some time each day to sit
peacefully beside some flowing water.
Instead, I’ve been learning about mantra meditation. By silently intoning the same phrase over and over – even if it’s just a nonsense word – you can overcome a fair bit of external distraction. To test, I’ve tried meditating at the YMCA. This place is very calm compared to our county jail, which I’ve heard is itself calmer than a prison, but where I sit, people are usually conversing, and there are a variety of rattling exercise machines.
Several of the guide books I’ve read recommend that you pay somebody a bunch of money to teach you transcendental meditation. During your training, you’ll be given a secret Sanskrit word or phrase. People who’ve taken these training courses have posted a bunch of the words online, and apparently a mantra is selected based upon your age and gender.
That seems silly to me –
although it’s possible that different people’s minds would respond best to
different mantras, my gender isn’t a big component of my identity, nor is my
I did pick out a Sanskrit phrase, which is perhaps a silly choice in and of itself. After all, I can’t speak Sanskrit. But I thought it might be nice to have a set of sounds that didn’t carry a lot of semantic meaning in the rest of my daily life. Although Sanskrit mantras would have held meaning to the original practitioners of this style of meditation, Sanskrit is generally considered a formal, ritual language, not something that people speak at home with their families. Even for native speakers, the chance of crossed wires, in which people were inadvertently saying their special mantras at other times of day, was probably pretty low.
While meditating, there are times when I’m pretty oblivious to my environs, even though I’m sitting in a crowded, noisy place. I assume that I should recommend, for people meditating in prison, that they use a buddy system. Unless somebody you trust immensely was sitting nearby, I assume it would feel too unsafe to allow yourself to completely let go in the way that deep meditation requires.
In case you’re interested
in trying, I can tell you what’s worked so far for me. I’ve been thinking the phrase “sat nam.” I liked the translation when I looked it up
online, and it’s felt convenient to have two discrete sounds – I think the
“sat” while breathing in, and “nam” while breathing out. I’ve read that people aim to spend about six
seconds each on inhalation and exhalation, but I breath much more rapidly than
If nothing too distracting is going on nearby – maybe just some clanking from the ellipticals, treadmills, and stairmasters – I breath in and out once every four to eight seconds. But when people are having a conversation right next to me, I take a breath every one or two seconds, which means I’m intoning my little mantra more often and can do a better job of isolating myself from what’s going on around me.
As far as I can tell, that isolation is the goal of meditation. Our minds evolved to expect constant stimulus during our waking lives. If you reduce the degree of outside stimulation, like with a sensory deprivation chamber, you invite your mind to conjure strange thoughts, visions, and sounds to replace the inputs that it expects. But you have to keep at it long enough.
When particle physicist Richard Feynman described his experience with sensory deprivation tanks, he wrote:
Ordinarily it would take me about fifteen minutes to get a hallucination going, but on a few occasions, when I smoked some marijuana beforehand, it came very quickly. But fifteen minutes was fast enough for me.
Mr. Lilly had a number of
different tanks, and we tried a number of different experiments. It didn’t seem to make much difference as far
as hallucinations were concerned, and I became convinced that the tank was
unnecessary. Now that I saw what to do,
I realized that all you have to do is sit quietly.
I would like to
have done it at home, and I don’t doubt that you could meditate and do
it if you practice, but I didn’t practice.
I’ve only had a bit of
practice, but when I sit still with my eyes closed and block out the outside
world with a repeated phrase, my mind will sometimes drift. I’ve been trying to sit for twenty minutes,
although I often inadvertently rouse myself after about fifteen – which hasn’t
seemed to be quite enough, for either me or Dr. Feynman. But I get the feeling that it has to be
continuous. Once I’ve opened my eyes and
glanced at the clock, I stop for the day.
Even if nothing much has happened.
On these days, I console myself with a quote from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that I learned from Bob Roth’s Strength in Stillness: “Even in a shallow dive, you still get wet.”
I begin by stretching –
although I’m practicing in a relatively distracting environment, it seems
reasonable to minimize the distractions of my own body. I try not to move while meditating, and it’d
be harder to maintain a single posture if I could feel my body ache.
After I close my eyes, the
first few minutes typically feel like a waste of time. I’m sitting there repeating a nonsense phrase
and I can’t help but think of the myriad other things that I ought to be doing.
As long as I can force
myself to keep at it, though, the experience changes. More becomes different. Undulating phosphenes blossom in the umber
field of my closed eyes. Sometimes I
slip into reverie; if I catch myself daydreaming, I’ll resume intoning my bit
of Sanskrit, which helps me set aside whatever vein of thought led me astray.
Nobody is totally sure why we need sleep, but recent results have suggested that nitrogenous waste and other metabolic toxins can only be cleared from brain cells while we’re snoozing. If you stay awake too long, trash piles up along the roadways of your mind, and all that junk prevents learning, memory formation, and attentiveness.
During my classes in jail, I often work with men who have stayed awake for weeks at a time by taking methamphetamine – they’ve experienced a wide variety of hallucinations, paranoia, and mental turmoil. Amphetamines aren’t very toxic, but loss of sleep can seriously damage a person’s brain.
One day without sleep
won’t kill you. Luckily so – since
having kids, there have been many nights when a little one wakes up screaming
and I never get to rest. But more is
different. After three days without
sleep, the shadow people start talking.
After eight days, my students have started talking back: “I knew they
weren’t real … but I still didn’t want to be rude. But we got into all these arguments.”
Sleep washes away the
argumentative shadow people.
When meditation goes well, I sometimes imagine my mind being cleansed – I’ll sit there thinking sat nam, sat nam and envision a cascade of water flowing over me like Heracles used to clean King Augeas’s stables. But meditation might not help with keeping a brain tidy – those experiments on the waste-clearing function of sleep were done with mice, and (to the best of my knowledge) nobody has taught mice to meditate.
If you trust my spouse’s
subjective evaluation, though, meditation seems to help. I’ve apparently been more pleasant to live
with since I started practicing.
If you’re going to try, aim for at least twenty minutes, maybe once or twice a day for a few weeks. My apologies if it seems pointless at first. I’d recommend you keep at it – just like a single minute won’t give you the same benefit as twenty, it seems reasonable to expect that a single day wouldn’t have the same benefit as a month’s daily practice.
Recently, my hometown of Bloomington’s farmers market has been covered Fox News and The New York Times. Not because the vegetables sold here are particularly deserving of national attention. The market was deemed newsworthy because one of the farm stands is run by outspoken white supremacists.
Although Bloomington is a fairly liberal college town, this region has a sordid history of hate. The national Klan headquarters is less than 30 minutes away – when I was in college, the campus diversity coordinators warned students not to stop in that town, not even to buy gas. Even right here in Bloomington, there was a fracas at the local high school recently because some students decided to honor a friend who’d died by using cremation ashes to print bumper stickers – but they printed stickers of the Confederate flag.
Teaching poetry in the
local jail has made me much better at recognizing supremacist imagery. Most people know that the Confederate flag is
bad news, but I’ve gotten to see a wider range of hateful symbols tattooed onto
COs bring twelve people to
each week’s class – often two to four will be Black (in a town where the total
population is approximately 4% Black or African-American), and the rest are
usually white guys. It’s pretty common
for one or two of the white guys to have visible supremacist
tattoos. Which doesn’t even include
questionable stuff like the dude who got an poke and stick of the words “White
Trash” in elaborate two-in-tall cursive letters during his time there. Tattooing runs afoul of the jail’s “no self
mutilation” policy, but most COs studiously overlook the guys’ rashy red skin
and burgeoning designs.
When I’m there, we often
read poetry that directly addresses racial injustice. I’ve brought stuff by Reginald Dwayne Betts,
Ross Gay, Terrance Hayes, Adrian Matejka, and Tracy Smith. Sometimes these lead to good
discussions. Sometimes our class gets
In one of the poems titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” Hayes pulls off a stunning trick. The same line is included twice, but the word “haunted” changes from a verb into an adjective after the language slides into a less formal diction. It’s a beautiful moment. The first time I brought this poem, we talked about the clinginess of the past, the way not only our own histories but also the histories of our forebears can stalk us through time.
The next time I brought
this poem, several guys reacted by saying that Black people don’t talk right. Then they went off about sagging pants. All this from southern-accented white guys
whose missing-toothed, meth-mouthed mumbles and guffaws I could barely
We had to quickly move on.
Or there was the time when
we read Betts’ “Elegy with a City in It,” a fantastic poem that uses a spare,
stark set of words and sounds to simultaneously evoke both the deprivations of
the inner city and the epic grandeur of The Iliad, which uses a
similarly constrained lexicon.
Many gone to the grave:
by blood, lost in the
of all that is awful:
think crack and
what time steals,
or steals time: black
nights when men offed in
the streets awed
If you read the poem
aloud, you’re chanting the same phonemes over and over, but their meanings
twist and turn as they spill from your tongue.
That’s what I wanted to discuss.
Instead, a few guys
latched onto lines like
Mario, Charles, they all
the inside of a coffin …
and this offended them because “white people have it bad, too!” As though Betts could not describe Black pain without trivializing their own. Soon somebody was saying “All lives matter” and that he’d voted for our current president. This guy was in jail because he’d been caught selling heroin to support his own habit. The president he’d voted for had recently recommended executing drug dealers.
Somebody else shook his
head and muttered, “y’all are fucking [stupid].”
We moved on.
In my classes, I work with a wide range of ages – sometimes guys as young as seventeen, sometimes men in their sixties. My spouse, as a high school teacher, works with younger people – anywhere from fourteen to eighteen years old. But ideology can set in early. My spouse has had students whose families were prominent in the Klan.
At the beginning of the
year, she asks each student to fill in the paper silhouette of a head with
words and pictures of what inspires them to succeed. She then posts these along the ceiling of her
classroom. Several times, she’s had to
ask kids to erase supremacist imagery.
So it isn’t terribly
surprising that some farmers at our local market have hateful beliefs. Right-wing supremacist movements are major
terrorist organizations in this country, and they do a lot of recruiting. As our nation has become slightly less
horrible, though, many of these people learned to be circumspect. They maintain a divide between their private
and public language.
People who rely upon
public, liberal venues like our farmers market can’t be too outspoken with
Indeed, the white supremacist farmers who were recently outed tried to be circumspect. But they must have felt lonely, and they grew too careless. Under a pseudonym, they posted on the Identity Evropa message board. This is a website devoted to the ideologies that have inspired the vast majority of terrorism in the United States. Theoretically, this is a venue where people get to cultivate their hatred anonymously. But one of their compatriots was caught painting swastikas on a synagogue (see image below) and blew their cover. Sort of. The vandal was interrogated by the FBI, and his remark unveiling the farmers’ pseudonym was buried deep in a 200-page sentencing document.
Through assiduous work, a
team of activists was able to prove that these farmers were white supremacists.
The activists who had
worked so hard to gather evidence were obviously against hate. They wanted to take action. But the plan they favored wasn’t very
flashy. They would organize a boycott of
that farm stand. They also proposed that
the city use the sellers’ farmers market fees to fund grants for people of
color, with the understanding that our nation’s long history of racism has
inequitably skewed the demographics of agricultural land holdings.
To stay at the farmers
market, the supremacists would have had to support a cause they loathed … and
they were making less and less money here.
I was told that, during the boycott, the farmers had begun padding their
bins, bringing fewer vegetables each week so that they could still appear to be
selling out their stock.
Unfortunately, the tropes
of social media have changed public discourse in our country. I assume it’s relatively uncontroversial to
claim that social media prizes style over substance. Quiet, careful plans are at a disadvantage in
the attention economy.
As word spread that these
farmers were white supremacists, patrons demanded that they be banned from our
market. People of color now felt unsafe
in that space, for obvious reasons.
There’s a difference between the perceived threat level felt by a
pale-skinned activist and by somebody who is recognizably a member of a racial
The mayor, whose spouse is
a constitutional law professor, rightly argued that the farmers would be able
to sue the city on a First Amendment case.
Still, people felt that we
had to do something more visible. Passively
allowing outspoken white supremacists to hawk their tomatoes at our market would
seem to be tacitly endorsing their political stance.
Everybody has a right to
believe whatever garbage they want. Do
you sincerely believe that people of northern European descent have a genetic
inclination toward greater intelligence?
You’re wrong, and you’re a jerk, but you’re allowed to believe that.
The problem is that white
supremacist organizations like Identity Evropa use terrorism to back their
asinine beliefs. Implicit threats of
violence, delivered by people known to stockpile military-grade weaponry, are
different from “mere” hate.
If these farmers couldn’t
be banned, then we’d hold signs in front of their booth. Eventually, a protester was arrested – the
police had asked her to stand in a designated “announcements” area instead of
in the middle of the market – and, as always happens following an arrest, her
home address was published online.
She was soon inundated
with death threats.
As coverage of the dispute increased, right-wing militia types were also drawn to our town. Three percenters, unaffiliated gun nuts, other supremacists – they began to support that farm, undermining the boycott. And these radical Protestant faux-constitutional terrorists made sufficiently credible threats of mass violence that our mayor had to shut down the entire market for two weeks at the height of the growing season. Other farmers were suffering.
Calm, careful behavior
from the original activists – assiduously combing through those lengthy, dull
documents, not to mention their efforts to infiltrate local supremacists’
in-person social circles – had undoubtably helped. Hateful ideologies were exposed, and efforts
were made to impose consequences.
But then our visible
protests made matters worse. We’ve
helped the proponents of hate to make more money.
And, now that we’ve drawn attention to them, we’ve inadvertently connected these white supremacists with their allies. They will no longer need to post on public forums, which was the only reason that activists were able to prove that they supported these ideologies in the first place. Now these supremacist farmers are invited speakers at right-wing events.
Our audience clapped for
the poems and stared aghast during our banter, which is probably as it should
We closed our set with a
piece from M.G. This poem was written in
February, before the public turmoil regarding our farmers market began. At a moment when so many of us were warily watching
that space, it seemed important to remind people that there have always been
watchful eyes gazing at the market.
The farmers market is just
down the street from our five-story county jail.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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
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
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.
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
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.
At a library booksale, I purchased a copy of The Magus intending only to read the racy bits. At a comic shop in California, I bought a bundle of Playboy magazines from the 1970s. After reading an interview with the Erika Lust, my spouse & I watched some of her company’s short films. While traveling in India with friends, we visited a health center and each purchased an Ayurvedic massage.
massage, each of us was taken to private rooms and told to change into rather skimpy
thong underwear. Then a trained
professional – a man for the males in our group, a woman for the females –
rubbed our bodies with a blend of oil and spices, carefully kneading our
muscles. There wasn’t the sort of
rhythmic, focused attention that I imagine to be a component of “happy
endings,” but midway through I began to fret about what I would say if that was
the sort of massage that I’d inadvertently purchased.
Worrying left me even more tense after the massage than before it started. Whoops.
after we had all showered and reconvened in the lobby, my friend who’d
convinced us to try ayurvedic massage regaled us with a story from his
childhood. His parents were Indian, and
massage was a totally normal part of their culture. And so, during a family vacation to Mexico
when my friend was fourteen, his mother purchased a massage for him at one of
the tents near their beach.
through, the masseuse wrapped her fingers around his oiled penis and rapidly
pumped back and forth. My friend was
alarmed but, as a naive adolescent, didn’t know how to make it stop. So he assumed that the easiest way to get
through the experience was to close his eyes and think of things sultrier than
masseuse cleaned off his belly. He
sheepishly exited the tent. His mother
asked, “Was it a good massage, beta?”
averted his eyes and mumbled, “yup.”
Most teenagers act embarrassed and cagey around their parents all the
time, so she didn’t realize anything was wrong.
would have been outraged to realize that she had hired a sex worker.
is a slippery concept, though. In the
process of writing this essay, I tried to come up with a definition; I
failed. You could reasonably argue that all
massage therapists are sex workers.
Patrons are nearly naked; there’s a whole lot of lubricated skin-to-skin
contact; a body is used as conduit to satiation.
A number of other professions fit most of the definitions of “sex work” that I came up with. In strip clubs, lap dancers rub against a patron’s body in order to produce orgasm. After pregnancy, many women visit physical therapists who help them regain bladder control; a worker rhythmically curls her gloved fingers inside the patron’s vulva. A model might pose for Playboy – or even the Victoria’s Secret catalog – knowing that young men will climax while gazing at her image. An actor in a pornographic film engages in sexual contact for money; so do police officers.
who drafts an erotic story is arguably a sex worker, too. The experience is enjoyed asynchronously, but
the exchange of titillating words can be a form of sexuality, and a patron can
certainly reach orgasm.
practice, these people are unlikely to face legal consequences for their sex
work. Because the term “prostitution” is
so nebulously defined, prosecutors and judges get to decide what counts.
Even for full-fledged, both-parties-shuck-their-clothes, somebody’s-parts-enveloping-somebody-else’s-parts types of sex work, certain people slide right past the law. Many clients look like prosecutors and judges – wealthy, white, and male – so it’s easy to feel sympathy for them. Hasn’t the bad press already hurt this man enough? And, he’s a pillar of his community! We’d cause too much collateral damage by locking him up!
we punish people who are already marginalized.
Poor people, Black people, brazen women, LGBTQ folks, undocumented
immigrants, drug addicts … they elicit little sympathy from our
prosecutors. Go ahead and lock them
up. Fine them. Deport them.
Juno Mac and Molly Smith have written an excellent book, Revolting Prostitutes, documenting the actual results of our laws against sex work. On the topic of nebulous definitions, Mac and Smith write that, in England (where sex work itself has been decriminalized, but every measure that would allow sex workers to keep themselves safe is illegal):
The definition of brothel-keeping is so capacious as to easily facilitate the criminalization of sex workers: a brothel can be any place where ‘more than one woman offers sexual intercourse, whether for payment or not’ or that is ‘resorted to for the purposes of lewd homosexual practices’. In other words, a flat-share where both housemates regularly have casual non-commercial sex could theoretically count as a brothel under British law.
and misogynistic, this is exactly the sort of language that leads to injustice. Police officers haven’t been raiding the
apartments of college kids who choose to fool around with their classmates;
instead, they use this law as another tool to oppress undocumented immigrants.
should be no surprise that carceral feminists and sex-working feminists have
such difficulty even discussing this topic.
We disagree not only on the solution but on the problem: for
carceral feminists, the problem is commercial sex, which produces trafficking;
for us, the problem is borders, which produces people who have few to no rights
as they travel and work.
solutions we propose are equally divergent.
Carceral feminists want to tackle commercial sex through criminal law,
giving more power to the police. For sex
workers, the solution includes dismantling immigration enforcement and the
militarized border regimes that push undocumented people into the shadows and
shut off their access to safety or justice – in other words, taking power away
from the police and giving it to migrants and to workers.
Smith acknowledge that there are valid reasons to dislike the existence of sex
work. But there is a danger – if we are
too focused on the risk that society might view women’s bodies as objects to be
bought and sold, we might lose sight of the real problem.
workers don’t like their jobs. They sell
sex because they need money.
When we devote resources to the criminal justice system instead of the social services that people need, we make the problem worse.
not here to uplift the figure of the ‘sympathetic’ client, nor the idea that
any client has a ‘right’ to sex. We are
not here to prioritize discussion on whether the sex industry, or even sex
itself, is intrinsically good or bad.
Nor – as we will unpack over the course of this book – are we uncritical
of what work means in a context of insatiable global capitalism and
looming environmental catastrophe.
sense that we wish to see an end to all work, particularly the gendered and
exploitative nature of prostitution, many sex worker activists are in fact ‘sex
industry abolitionists’. As the English
Collection of Prostitutes have said, ‘Ultimately we are organizing for an end
to prostitution … When women are able to claim back the wealth we helped produce,
the economic conditions which have forced millions of people everywhere to sell
their mind, body, time, and skills in order to survive or improve their
standard of living, prostitution will no longer be there.’
feminists] position work in general as something that the worker
should find fulfilling, non-exploitative, and enjoyable. Deviation from this supposed norm is treated
as evidence that something cannot be work.
work, it’s exploitation’ is a refrain you hear again and again. One feminist policymaker in Sweden told a
reporter, ‘Don’t say sex work, it’s far too awful to be work.’ Awfulness and work are positioned as
antithetical: if prostitution is awful, it cannot be work.
feminists and even policymakers often ask sex workers whether we would have sex
with our clients if we weren’t being paid.
Work is thus constantly being re-inscribed as something so personally
fulfilling you would pursue it for free.
this understanding is in some ways embedded in anti-prostitution advocacy
through the prevalence of unpaid internships in such organizations. … The
result of these unpaid and underpaid internships is that the women who are most
able to build careers in the women’s sector – campaigning and setting policy
agendas around prostitution – are women who can afford to do unpaid full-time
work in New York and London. In this
context, it is hardly a surprise that the anti-prostitution movement as a whole
has a somewhat abstracted view of the relationship between work and money.
be mostly positive for those who can largely set the parameters of the
conversation, like high-profile journalists.
However, this does not describe reality for most women workers or
workers in general (or even many journalists).
Most workers suffer some unfair conditions in the workplace and would not, as a rule, do their jobs for free. Work is pretty awful, especially when it’s low paid and unprestigious. This is not to say that this state of affairs is good, or that we should accept it because it is normal, but nor is it useful to pretend that work is generally wonderful and exclude from our analysis the demands of workers whose experience does not meet this standard.
Smith would love to live in a world where no one felt the need to sell
sex. Barring that, they would like to
see sex work become less exploitative, and they offer concrete policy
suggestions that would help. Their
proposals are reasonable – and very different from the laws that our predominantly
wealthy, white, male legislatures have been passing.
Even in Sweden – where we first saw the “Nordic model,” which ostensibly decriminalizes the act of selling sex while punishing buyers – sex workers are harassed by the police. There has been no amnesty for women who sell sex because they are barred from other forms of employment by their immigration status.
if the police chose to pursue only buyers, these laws would still harm sex
workers. If any person involved in a
transaction is considered a criminal, the transaction will be dangerous. Sex workers subject to the Nordic model are
unable to take basic safety precautions, and so they are hurt by these laws.
U.S. bills that were ostensibly passed to protect women have instead caused
worldwide harm. Mac and Smith write
SESTA-FOSTA [which shut down websites like Backpage for trafficking concerns] censored a huge number of advertising platforms at once in spring 2018, rendering sex workers in the US and beyond more precarious, broke, and desperate almost overnight as their source of income vanished. SESTA-FOSTA increased the power of clients and would-be managers, as sex workers scrambled to find work in any way they could.
One client wrote, ‘I definitely think this will end up being a win for hobbyists [habitual clients] … prices will drop because providers [sex workers] will not be able to pull in new customers and have to take whoever they can get. Specials [such as sex without a condom] will become more prevalent … They will have to act friendlier and not have the luxury of turning away clients any longer.’
clarifications for terms like “hobbyists” and “specials” were provided by Mac
seem paradoxical that these laws, which ostensibly aim to fight exploitation,
instead make exploitation easier and more prevalent. But ultimately it is not a paradox: reducing
sex workers’ ability to connect with clients always increases scarcity and
makes workers more vulnerable.
When we try to suppress demand by passing laws that punish people who buy sex, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous. When we try to suppress demand by shutting down advertising platforms, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous.
doing the wrong things.
are targeting the wrong sort of demand.
In economic terms, the demand for sex work is relatively elastic. Fooling around is fun; it isn’t necessary. When the price goes up – because sex workers raise their rates, because there’s an outbreak of STIs, because the transaction is criminalized, because there’s a cultural norm that people share their sexuality only within the confines of a church-sanctioned marriage – most people will have less sex.
of contrast, the demand for a safe place to live, food for your children, or
medicine are all inelastic. When
you’re fleeing the ravages of climate change or militarized gang violence, it
doesn’t matter how much it costs. That’s
why our immigration policies have been failing – by policing our borders, we’ve
raised the price of migration, but we haven’t addressed substandard living
conditions in people’s home countries.
Instead, we are making people’s homes less safe. Both the colonial legacy and ongoing carbon pollution of places like the United States and wealthy European countries have led to droughts, government corruption, and drug-sale-funded violence around the world. We have a moral obligation to help the people whose homes we’ve ruined; instead, we’re treating them like criminals.
I’ve written previously that a global wealth tax used to fund a guaranteed basic income would be the best solution to many of our world’s problems; Mac and Smith also conclude that:
sex work unnecessary, there is much work to do: winning rights for
freedom of movement, labor rights, access to services and to work without
threat of deportation, employment alternatives, better welfare provisions,
cheaper housing, support services for single mothers, and so on. If everybody had the resources they needed,
nobody would need to sell sex.
Revolting Prostitutes is an incredibly well-written, deeply researched, important book. It deserves to be widely read – certainly by everyone who purports to care about feminism, immigration, or human rights.
I worry, though, that some readers might be turned away by an ad hominem attack. Many authors have careers that inform their writing; I’ve never seen these mentioned in our local university’s library listings before. Wouldn’t it be enough to list “Author: Smith, Molly” with no clarification?
At high doses, psilocybin mushrooms trigger transcendent, mystical experiences. Many researchers are incorporating these into treatments for PTSD, depression, and other maladies that stem from a crisis of meaning or identity.
There are challenges inherent in using medicines that disrupt the workings of a person’s consciousness. William Richards, who conducts psychedelic therapy at Johns Hopkins, writes in Sacred Knowledgethat participants in his studies have felt their sense of self temporarily dissolve after a dose of psilocybin.
commonly, the term “death” is employed as the ego (everyday self) feels that it
quite literally is dying.
Though one may have read that others have reported subsequent immersion in the eternal and experiences of being reborn and returning to everyday existence afterward, in the moment imminence of death may feel acutely – and for some terrifyingly – real.
this sensation is so frightening, most researchers recommend a trip-sitter – in
Richards’s words, “having someone present who one honestly can choose to
trust without reservation. The attitude
‘I can manage on my own and don’t really need anyone else’ clearly can be very
counterproductive in some high-dose sessions when the ‘I’ needs to totally
At times, an arrogant attitude of self-reliance is unhelpful. It is also, unsurprisingly, the attitude with which I approached nearly all aspects of my life. I’m an athlete, an academic, usually in full command of my own mind and body. I mostly work alone (although I’m very grateful that my spouse helps me run this website).
Why wouldn’t I do my own psychotherapy?
I tried psilocybin mushrooms during graduate school. Shortly after we met, the person who is now my spouse asked if we could visit her sibling in Portland for her birthday. We left Stanford at 7 p.m. on a Friday, then drove north through the night. We arrived at about dawn on Saturday morning, collapsed, and slept until noon.
We were visiting a punk house, it seemed, where the bulk of the rent was paid by one person’s trust fund, with others occasionally chipping in money from various odd jobs (there was a nearby sporting event during the second day of our visit, and one of the housemates put on an official-looking reflective vest and charged people to illegally park in an abandoned lot down the street). A dozen misshapen mattresses were strewn about the skunky-smelling attic; I picked the second-least stained to sleep on.
On Saturday night, for the birthday celebration, our hosts threw a party. Several bands played – it was the sort of event where the scrawny white weed dealer’s terrible hip-hop group (bass, drums, and the dealer on the mic) was allowed to play a set. The others were mostly metal bands.
One of the housemates (the faux-parking attendant, as it happens) brewed a large mason jar of psilocybin tea. As he was gamboling about the house, we crossed paths and he proffered the nearly empty jar: “Hey, man, you want these dregs?”
shrugged and drank it.
“Whoa,” he said.
“Just, that was a lot of dregs.”
Which, honestly, was not the best moment to be warned. I’d already drank it. I obviously couldn’t do anything about it then.
Richards and other medical professionals involved in psychedelics research would find it unsurprising that the tenor of the evening turned intensely spiritual for me. Ken Kesey and other psychonauts would find it unsurprising that the goings on seemed exceedingly trippy, as well. I sat on a couch in front of the bands’ performance area and watched as a singer seemed to smear her face across the microphone; soon I saw her with three mouths, the two in her neck relegated to singing harmony.
I felt intense paranoia; as I waited in line for a bathroom, people nearby seemed to be snickering at me. Of course, snickers often follow in my wake at parties – my behavior can be outlandish – and I might’ve been making goofy facial expressions.
I understood only snippets of conversation. A squinty-eyed Thor-looking blonde man named Hyacinth was saying, “I always wanted to get with a Gemini, and then, bam, last winter, I met this older lady with these, like, enormous eyes, and I was like, whoa, and wouldn’t you know it, bam, she’s a Gemini!”
(I later learned that he worked as an, ahem, “intimate massage therapist,” or “hired companion,” that sort of thing. He also cornered me and spent thirty minutes explaining his take on quantum mechanics. His version involved a lot of positive energy radiating from crystals. The abundance of positive energy in his own life is part of what brought him together with that Gemini, it seems. The waning disorientation from psilocybin left me totally unable to extricate myself from the conversation.)
And, as per Richards’s expectations, I felt myself losing a fundamental component of my identity. I temporarily forgot how to speak. Then felt as though I was losing all ability to translate my thoughts into external action.
Perhaps I should’ve noticed that I was still passively influencing my surroundings – nobody else could stand where I was standing, and Hyacinth wouldn’t have stood there simply lecturing the air – but the flickering of my short term memory caused these examples to slip away from me. I felt like a ghost, and the sensation terrified me.
But I was lucky. Even at parties (to be perfectly honest, especially at loud parties), I carry a pencil and paper. That way, I can draw horrible cartoons. Sometimes I try to use these to communicate.
It should come as no surprise that I make few friends at parties.
I found a secluded corner of the party and began to write. And then, minutes later, when I felt another wave of loss of self pass over me, I was able look at the sheet of paper in my hand and see. I wrote that. I did change the world. I am changing it.
I was able to regain a sense of object permanence, despite the ego-erasing effects of psilocybin. If I were a ghost, my marks would wisp from the page like so much abluvion. But here they are.
I can still communicate with the outside world, I still am.
In all, the experience was probably good for me. Someday I could write about why. But for now, I’d simply like to stress that, in that moment, writing saved me. Writing kept me anchored and tamped down the terror sufficiently that I could accept whatever was happening inside my brain. (Indeed, one of the things I wrote that night was, “Without this paper, I’d wander the streets, wake tomorrow in a gutter with a rat gnawing on my eyeball.”)
And I’ve seen the way that writing has saved other people, too. When people fear that they’re turning into ghosts – cut off from the outside world, unable to reach their friends and families – even severely dyslexic men will start sending letters.
held in jail can dissolve a person’s sense of self just as surely as psilocybin
Each week, I bring in another dozen pencils. I occasionally wondered what was happening to the pencils, whether they accumulated like Lincoln Logs in the block. But I kept bringing more because we need a way to write during our class. And I’d let the guys keep them. So much has been taken from these men that I couldn’t bear to ask for the pencils back.
somebody told me. “Oh, yeah, my bunkie,
he writes a lot at night, he always sharpens like a dozen pencils before
in jail aren’t allowed to have pens.
They can’t have mechanical pencils.
And they don’t have sharpeners in their cells.
At night … or if there’s a disciplinary infraction … or if the jail is understaffed … the men are locked into their little cells. Unless they sharpen pencils beforehand, they cannot write. Each broken tip brings an inmate that much closer to enforced silence, unable to communicate with the outside world.
Recently, people have been forming a big line at the pencil sharpener whenever I teach class. I slowly pass out the poems that we’ll read that week, then pass out pencils, then pass out paper, then sit and wait. The waiting takes a while. Guys come with twenty or thirty pencils bristling from the shirt pocket of their orange scrubs, then stand and sharpen all of them. A dozen men, sharpening perhaps twenty pencils each.
At the table, they mention trades they’ve made. Losses, due to theft: “At the beginning of the week I had fifteen pencils; now I’m down to three.” They exhort me to bring more. I say I’ll do my best.
“There’s only one pencil sharpener in the block, and it’s been broken for three months. It’s like that one, a wall mount. The gears are all screwed up. The handle was broken off, but you could sort of still use it then. But now, anybody who doesn’t get to come to your class can’t sharpen any.”
sharpening some for my bunkie,” yells the guy currently cranking the handle. A few of the others nod; they’ll also sharpen
some for charity.
Twenty … thirty … maybe forty sharpened graphite tips. While those last, the guys will be able to write. Time will pass, but they’ll be able to prove to themselves, and to the outside world, that they really do exist.
luck, those sharpened pencils will last all week.