On ‘Babel,’ ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once,’ and violence.

On ‘Babel,’ ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once,’ and violence.

In the beginning, the world was quiet. There was no language.

According to The Popul Vuh, as translated by Michael Bazzett,

Then came the word.

The gods arrived “in the dark of the only night.

The gods broke the silence.

They talked together then. They pondered and wondered.

And, together, the gods decided to make new creatures to join their conversation. A motivation we well understand – we’ve pored so much effort into the design of chatbots, and even though most language-generating A.I. will be used to inundate the internet with new venues for advertising, sometimes we just want to talk to someone. The first chatbot, ELIZA from the 1960s, rephrased an interlocutor’s statements as questions. But even people who fully understood the inner workings of ELIZA were often comforted when they conversed with her.

The gods made the first people, “human in form, speaking human tongues.”

But the first people displeased the gods. They did not worship their creators correctly. “They held no memory of who had made them.”

And so the gods decided to murder their creations with a flood.

The face of the earth went black:

a black rain fell all day, all night,

and animals both large and small

began to slink into their homes –

their faces were crushed

by trees and stones –

So the first people were undone.

They were demolished, overthrown.

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Yahweh, too, spoke the world into being. He said, “Let there be light: and there was light.

Yahweh, too, made creatures after his own image: humans who could talk. He conversed with his creations. When he was alone, he called out to his creations, “Where art thou?”

And Yahweh, too, grew disappointed. He “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

And he said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.

Of the creatures who could speak, only Noah and his family would be spared; Yahweh had judged Noah to be the best of his (terrible!) generation. Noah was instructed to build a boat. After it was built, the rains began to fall.

Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered. And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man.

Noah watched his god murder everyone he had known. And Noah was traumatized. Noah planted a vineyard, fermented the grapes, and drank himself to sleep at night. Otherwise the dreams would come.

While Noah lay insensate, his son crept into his tent.

This scene is based upon an old Babylonian folktale. A son believes that his father has sired too many children, and so the son, fearing that his inheritance will shrink further as it is divided between ever more heirs, castrates his father. No new children will stake claims upon the father’s holdings. But when the father wakes in his bloodied bed, he curses his son: “You have done this evil to preserve your inheritance, so you will inherit nothing!”

And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.”

Noah yanked away the son’s inheritance, and more: his son’s heirs would not only fail to inherit the lands, they would become slaves.

Noah’s curse was the beginning of human inequality. When self-professed Christians living in the American regime of abduction & torture (roughly 1600 to 1900, although the era by no means ended crisply) wanted to offer a biblical justification for their abhorrent practices, they claimed that the people whom they’d abducted & tortured were descended from Noah’s cursed son.

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Yahweh had claimed that he would not murder the people with another flood, but the humans felt that Yahweh had broken promises before. The people did not believe themselves to be safe. In the first flood, even mountains were covered. (Fifteen cubits would make for a very small mountain – about as tall as a two-story house – but most ancient myths were created over centuries, so we needn’t quibble over a little math.)

To be safe, the people would have to create their own high ground. An even higher ground. They would build a tower into the sky. Not from hubris, but from fear, “lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

High above the earth, they would be safe from divine violence.

Without the power to wrench away their lives, Yahweh’s power over them would wane.

This was unacceptable. And so Yahweh inflicted upon them the very calamity that they feared. He “scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth.”

And Yahweh ensured that his creations could not attempt again to build their own high ground, their own realm of safety away from his violence. He had noticed that his creations “have all one language” and so “nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” To maintain their subservience, he said “let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

Yahweh spoke this curse in the Edenic language. Yahweh cursed his creations to make them weaker. And yet, he made them better. Before, they were all of one mind. There was a single culture, a single mode of thought for all, a single set of words to describe the world.

After Babel, there were many.

A cursing, a blessing: our diversity of languages is both.

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In the scientific telling, our diversity of languages – a blessing – came from separation. In the beginning, all humans lived within a small region of the globe. Fossils representing the first four million years of human evolution have been found only in east Africa. Only in the last two hundred thousand years did small populations of human ancestors begin to live elsewhere: in Europe, Asia, and the Polynesian Islands.

The mass migrations of Homo sapiens that led directly to our diversity of languages did not begin until about forty thousand years ago.

This was long before anyone told stories like the Popul Vuh or Genesis, which are rooted in agricultural traditions. But this was when our languages were “confounded,” when our ancestors developed a diversity of ways to think of and describe the world.

Yet our separation also wrought a curse. After our ancestors dispersed, creating millions of ways to speak, they also began to foster select pockets of disease. Each isolated community experienced their own zoogenic epidemics; time and time again, their civilizations nearly collapsed, but survivors gained immunity.

Local immunity. After centuries in which influenza had spread through European communities, this virus could typically kill only the very young and old. But when European travelers brought influenza to the Americas, the virus obliterated immunologically naive communities. Upwards of ninety percent of people died. Imagine: a pandemic 300 times more deadly than Covid-19. Influenza was (and still is!) a nightmarish virus.

Our separation also led to our diversity of appearances. And these small differences – lighter or darker skin; straighter or curlier hair; broader or pointier noses – were enough to spur hatred and bigotry.

Guided by these trivial differences in appearance, our ancestors made real Noah’s curse of inequality. Those who happened to have more ancestral exposure to disease and more ancestral access to nutritious foodstuffs were able to conquer their fellow humans. People were enslaved. Resources were plundered. Our diversity of languages has dwindled. Is dwindling now.

Separation – which let our ancestors develop distinct languages, distinct ways of seeing and speaking about the world – also led to hierarchy.

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In the fantasy novel Babel, R. F. Kuang reimagines history to consider opposition to Noah’s curse. How might we topple the hierarchies? How might we create a world in which all children are born equal and free?

Babel is a lovely book, but it’s vision is pessimistic and bleak. Babel is subtitled The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution. This is the protagonists’ conclusion: violence is their only option. Only violence will stop the empire.

Like gods, they will murder and destroy.

Yet even in Babel – with its anticolonial, anticapitalist leanings – the heroes oppress. In their moral framework, only human life has value. Our species can speak. The other creatures – who either have no verbal language, or whose spoken words we’ve failed to comprehend – are ours to enslave, kill, and devour.

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In the film The Matrix, only violence can set people free.** With a plethora of armaments, the heroes assault government offices and murder the hapless rule-followers who stand in their way.

Everything Everywhere All at Once reimagines The Matrix without its preponderance of violence. Everything Everywhere All at Once is based upon a similar premise – the world that we experience is an illusion, and huge quantities of information exist just outside our perception – but asks what it would mean to find a peaceful way to set things right.

Hugs instead of handguns: could such a revolution ever succeed?

Midway through the film, Everything Everywhere All at Once re-enacts Genesis 22. The hero is handed a knife and commanded by a father figure to sacrifice her child for reasons that she cannot understand. But where Abraham would have said yes – abetting the sort of god who preferred Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s, celebrating the first murder and thereby setting into motion a long chain of suffering – in Everything Everywhere All at Once the hero rejects violence and sets her child free.

In Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, the knight of infinite resignation should have been described as more heroic than the knight of faith – to know that there is suffering, to confront a mystery that your mind cannot possibly comprehend, and to reject the demands of a murderous authority.

For a 1963 psychology experiment conducted at Yale University, Stanley Milgram tested how often people would attempt murder when commanded by an authority figure. 40 men were tested; 26 made the same choice as Abraham. “Take now thy son and offer him there for a burnt offering.

Abraham raised a knife to slay his son.

Abraham lived within a world of hierarchies and violence. A world of gods who have no respect for the fruits of the ground, preferring instead slain creatures and the fat thereof.

In Babel, the heroes seek to overturn that world, but cannot imagine any means other than by perpetuating its violence.

In Everything Everywhere All at Once, the heroes consider love.

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** Also, a friend recently shared with me their belief that The Matrix would be a better film if Trinity’s prophecy — that she’d love the hero who saved human-kind — meant Trinity learning to love herself before assuming the savior’s mantle. But there’s no way the Wachowski sisters could have made a movie like that in 1999, given their (very reasonable!) reluctance to publicly display their real identities.

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Image of a person chatting with ELIZA by Kevin Trotman on flickr.

Painting of the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel, 1563.

On ‘The Dawn of Everything’ and the Future.

On ‘The Dawn of Everything’ and the Future.

Farmers conquered the world.

Not that many of us farm. Modern technologies allow us all to be fed even though less than 1% of the population still does the actual work of farming. But the food we eat comes from farms. Without farms, we couldn’t live as we do.

Indeed, the material luxuries of the modern world would make this place seem like a paradise to our ancestors. So much food, so easily procured! Soft warm clothes – you can buy great digs at Goodwill for a few dollars. Oracular pocket computers – my telephone can prophesize way better than ancient gods. I know when it’s going to rain. I know if the rain will be stopping in 35 minutes.

We have indoor plumbing, hot showers, scented candles – that’s awesome! Think about it: Victorian cities smelled so bad!

I mean, sure – with climate change and rising sea levels, sewers in places like New York City will back up more frequently, and I’ll get to that. But first, let’s take a moment to be grateful: the stuff we have access to is pretty incredible. All our technologies and toys.

Wow.

Farmers really nailed it, didn’t they?

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But before we reached our fabulous present (please continue to suspend your disbelief for a little longer; I understand that the present moment in history feels decidedly less than fabulous for many people), something strange had to happen.

Hunter-gatherers lived pretty well. They ate good food. They spent ample time socializing and relaxing. As best we can tell, their lives had a lot of potential for happiness.

By way of contrast, it was the pits to be an early farmer! You’d work all day; eat crummy food that left you gassy and bloated; die young. Also, you’d feel small – instead of believing that you were probably just as good as anyone else, you’d know that there were kings and such who lived way better than you.

Every now and then, their ruffians might come calling and haul away your food.

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Just like the recently deposed leader of the United States, ancient kings were big on building walls. But there’s a difference. Because it was so miserable to be an early farmer – a cog in the gearworks of a glorious civilization! – early walls may have been built to keep people in.

In Against the Grain, James Scott writes of early states that, “Do what they might to discourage and punish flight – and the earliest legal codes are filled with such injunctions – archaic states lacked the means to prevent a certain degree of [population loss] under normal circumstances. For China’s Mongol frontier, Owen Lattimore has made the case most forcefully that the purpose of the Great Wall(s) was as much to keep the Chinese taxpayers inside as to block barbarian incursions. … Precisely because this practice of going over to the barbarians flies directly in the face of civilization’s “just so” story, it is not a story one will find in the court chronicles and official histories. It is subversive in the most profound sense.

The hunter gatherers had been happy, though! So how did we get from there to here? If early farming was so miserable, why did people do it?

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In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that a select few prehistoric farming communities were less miserable than the rest. Their arguments are based on sparse archaeological data – in the essay “Digging for Utopia,” Kwame Anthony Appiah presents several examples in which Graeber & Wengrow’s interpretations extend beyond the evidence – and yet, their central conclusion is almost certainly correct.

Many, many groups of humans formed distinct communities over the past ten thousand years. That’s a long time. These people didn’t have access to all the historical knowledge that we have, but they were no less intelligent or imaginative than we are. It would be naive to imagine that every single community followed the exact same political system.

Although Appiah’s review ends with a great line – “Never mind the dawn, Rousseau was urging: we will not find our future in our past” – I agree with Graeber & Wengrow that there’s benefit from showing that cooperation and mutual aid were the underpinnings of successful civilizations in the past. We needn’t be shackled by the choices of our ancestors, but it’s still nice to feel inspired by them. Even one single example of a stable ancient civilization organized around mutual aid would give credence to the idea that a radical reworking of contemporary civilization isn’t doomed to failure.

If prehistoric people did have a variety of political systems, though – some happy, some oppressive – why did we end up with a bad version?

Graeber & Wengrow write:

When people talk about ‘early civilizations’ they are mostly referring to [societies like] Pharaonic Egypt, Inca Peru, Aztec Mexico, Han China, Imperial Rome, ancient Greece, or others of a certain scale and monumentality.

All these were deeply stratified societies, held together mostly by authoritarian government, violence, and the radical subordination of women. Sacrifice, as we’ve seen, is the shadow lurking behind this concept of civilization: the sacrifice of our three basic freedoms, and of life itself, for the sake of something always out of reach – whether that be an ideal or world order, the Mandate of Heaven or blessings from insatiable gods.

Is it any wonder that in some circles the very idea of ‘civilization’ has fallen into disrepute? Something very basic has gone wrong here.

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Presumably, some ancient cultures prioritized happiness (cooperation, sharing, art), while others prioritized growth (acquisition, extraction, war, and work).

I would rather live in the former sort; I assume most people, if given the chance to experience both, would make a similar choice. (Graeber & Wengrow include several examples of well-educated people who experienced both self-interested European-style capitalism and cooperative “savagery” preferring the latter. “By far the most common reasonshad to do with the intensity of social bonds they experienced in Native American communities: qualities of mutual care, love and above all happiness, which they found impossible to replicate once back in European settings. ‘Security’ takes many forms. There is the security of knowing one has a statistically smaller chance of getting shot with an arrow. And then there’s the security of knowing that there are people in the world who will care deeply if one is.”)

But the borders of a political system that prioritizes growth will steadily expand if able. Whenever there’s a meeting between a growth-valuing and a happiness-valuing society, the former is likely to attempt to commandeer the land and resources that had been used to support the latter.

North America was populated before Europeans arrived. The land was intensely managed: Graeber and Wengrow write that “What to a settler’s eye seemed savage, untouched wilderness usually turns out to be landscapes actively managed by indigenous populations for thousands of years through controlled burning, weeding, coppicing, fertilizing and pruning, terracing estuarine plots to extend the habitat of particular wild flora, building clam gardens in intertidal zones to enhance the reproduction of shellfish, creating weirs to catch salmon, bass and sturgeon, and so on. Such procedures were often labour-intensive, and regulated by indigenous laws governing who could access groves, swamps, root beds, grasslands and fishing grounds, and who was entitled to exploit what species at any given time of year.

But the land was being managed according to ideals other than maximum short-term agricultural extraction and population growth. The original human inhabitants of this continent believed that it would be both morally and ethically wrong to extract everything possible from their surroundings – future generations and other animals also held valid claims to the land – and so their civilizations sought to thrive sustainably amid natural abundance.

When Europeans first arrived in North America, as Matt Siegel relates in The Secret History of Food, people “described great migrations of birds so numerous they were forced to roost on top of each other, downing giant oaks from their weight and covering the forest in four inches of droppings. John Audubon later described flocks so dense they eclipsed the sun, and estimated seeing more than a billion pigeons in a three-hour span.

Despite this well-managed abundance, many Europeans still starved to death when they first arrived on this continent. They starved “not because of a lack of food, but because of a lack of skill and acquiring it. In unwillingness to heed the advice of the Natives, whom they saw as ‘uncivilized savages.’ Pilgrim John Smith recounts, for example, coming across waters so thick with fish that their heads stuck out above the water, but being unable to catch any for want of nets. ‘We attempted to catch them with a frying pan,’ he writes, ‘but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with.’ ”

This sort of extravagant abundance is now gone, because the encroaching civilization prioritized extraction. Enough of the Europeans survived to gain a foothold on this continent, after which natural resources would not be managed, but consumed.

The rivers were sullied; the great flocks of birds were killed.

(The other day, my family was driving near a highway where a flock of perhaps a thousand starlings swelled and tumbled through the air – it looked magical. I cannot imagine what a flock of a billion birds would be like.)

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The standard measure of our economy – the single magical number cited by politicians and talking heads to let us regular TV-watching folks know how our country is doing – is “growth.”

This magic number doesn’t assess how much we have – although politicians occasionally mention “per capita income” or “per capita output,” which could be rough proxies for that, as long as you neglect our slight (ha!) disparities in distribution – nor how happy we are. Instead, we boast or fret over the rate of increase.

But there’s a limit to growth. I loved the game Universal Paperclip, which I’ve discussed previously, because it elegantly depicts what goes wrong when we attempt ceaseless expansion.

We could prioritize something else – happiness, perhaps – but that would require a massive cultural shift. The ideals of growth are ingrained on both sides of our current political spectrum.

In On Freedom, Maggie Nelson discusses climate change and the conflict it presents: the freedom to do what we want now (chop down forests; extract & burn fossil fuels) versus our descendants having the freedom to do what they want later (visit old-growth forests; encounter wild animals; have a stable climate; survive). We now know that we can’t both have these untrammeled freedoms. Someone – either us or our descendants – has to make sacrifices.

Nelson discusses Naomi Klein’s interactions with people who are unwilling to change their current lifestyle: those who demand the freedom to eat lots of meat, crank their air conditioning, purchase & dispose of whatever plastic products they want.

Those people “are right, Klein says, when they say that climate change isn’t really an ‘issue.’ Rather, she says, ‘climate change is a message, one that is telling us that many of our culture’s most cherished ideals are no longer viable.’

These ideals – shared by people on both the right and left, Klein explains – involve a paradigm of civilization based on progress and expansion rather than one based on an apprehension of and respect for natural limits, including the limits of human intelligence, and the material, planetary parameters that make human life possible.

But it does no good for you to personally refrain from extracting & burning fossil fuels if someone else goes ahead and does it. Our planet is interconnected: the politics of Brazil will affect us all. Clever people are prioritizing growth and expansion.

In The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch argues that the Earth was already a poor habitat for humanity; if climate change makes our planet less habitable, so be it. He believes that there’s no limit to the growth of knowledge – or, therefore, to the economic growth possible for a knowledge-bearing civilization – so why should we slow down now?

(Despite his background in physics, Deutsch ignores the hard limit imposed by entropy – all processes in our universe consume order and excrete chaos, There will be no possibility for further action – not even thought – once the initial order has been consumed. Believe me, I’m all for scientific research: if the lifespan of our sun is compressed into a twenty-four hour day, the current time is about 10:58 a.m., humans have been around since about 10:57 a.m., and the sun will become too hot and evaporate all our water by 7:36 p.m. For humanity to carry on, our descendants will have to find a way to leave this planet by then – but humanity won’t carry on infinitely. And we’ll be unlikely to carry on at all if we recklessly wreck the planet before 11 a.m. instead of giving ourselves the full day to work on solutions!)

If a subset of our population agrees with Nelson & Klein, and another subset agrees with Deutsch, those who agree with Deutsch will win – win, that is, in the sense of having done what they want to the world. Sprinting ahead during the first minute of what’s likely to be an eight-hour long marathon, overheating, and expiring at the side of the road.

As a running coach, that’s something I generally counsel people not to do.

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Europeans arrived on North America. They prioritized growth. They took land from the previous inhabitants.

The vast flocks of pigeons are gone.

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In The Dawn of Everything, Graeber & Wengrow make a persuasive case that many cultures intentionally avoided the emergence of severe inequality or permanent bureaucracy. “Sometimes indigenous property systems formed the basis for differential access to resources, with the result that something like social classes emerged. Usually, though, this did not happen, because people made sure that it didn’t, much as they made sure chiefs did not develop coercive power.”

Mutual aid and cooperation were intentional goals around which societies were structured.

Unfortunately, although this sort of political structure might be good at producing happiness, it’s inefficient. I volunteer with several organizations that operate on the principle of consensus decision-making; these deliberations can be quite arduous!

Over time, the cultures with more efficient political systems are likely to grow faster – even if they’re less happy – and gradually displace the others. This is the same logic of invasive species: the plants labeled as “invasive” in any habitat tend to begin their growing season earlier and spread more easily, allowing them to replace whatever had been there before.

Capitalism has a lot of flaws, and unfettered capitalism can certainly get stuck with massive inefficiencies through monopoly power or the like, but capitalism is typically more efficient than mutual aid.

Graeber and Wengrow write that:

Both money and administration are based on similar principles of interpersonal equivalence. What we wish to emphasize is how frequently the most violent inequalities seem to arise from such fictions of legal equality.

This equality could be viewed as making people (as well as things) interchangeable, which in turn allowed rulers to make impersonal demands that took no consideration of their subjects’ unique situations.

As anyone knows who has spent time in a rural community, or serving on a municipal or parish council, resolving inequities might require many hours, possibly days of tedious discussion, but almost always a solution will be arrived at that no one finds entirely unfair.

It’s the addition of sovereign power, and the resulting ability of the local enforcer to say, ‘Rules are rules; I don’t want to hear about it’ that allows bureaucratic mechanisms to become genuinely monstrous.

As money is to promises, we might say, state bureaucracy is to the principle of care: in each case we find one of the most fundamental building blocks of social life corrupted by a confluence of maths and violence.

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I would have preferred for Graeber and Wengrow to continue this discussion of efficiency, which helps explain why we inherited a political system that produces less happiness than the cultures of many of our ancestors.

Hunting and gathering yielded ample calories for ancient humans to build stable, complex societies. But in these societies, little would have been interchangeable; people might engage in different activities each day, each season, each year. The food they ate might vary considerably from one day to the next.

(In Against the Grain, Scott writes “Evidence for the relative restriction and impoverishment of early farmers’ diets comes largely from comparisons of skeletal remains of farmers with those of hunter-gatherers living nearby at the same time. The hunter-gatherers were several inches taller on average. This presumably reflected their more varied and abundant diet. It would be hard to exaggerate that variety. Not only might it span several food webs – marine, wetland, forest, savanna, arid – each with its seasonal variation, but even when it came to plant foods, the diversity was, by agricultural standards, staggering. The archaeological site of Abu Hureyra, for example, in its hunter-gatherer phase, yielded remains from 192 different plants, of which 142 could be identified, and of which 118 are known to be consumed by contemporary hunter-gatherers.”)

Farming produces equivalence. A farmer can specialize in a small set of actions, raising a small set of plants and animals. Bushels of wheat can be easily measured. There are definite losses in terms of health, happiness, and leisure time, but farming makes political organization more efficient.

Indiana’s forests are filling up with garlic mustard, not because it’s the best plant, but because it grows efficiently.

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Among the superpowers of the modern world, some have vaguely democratic political systems (although perhaps it’s foolish to lump plutocratic representational systems like the U.S. into this category), and some use dictatorship (like China).

I’ve read a lot of opinion pieces suggesting that the Chinese political system can’t succeed over the long run because it stifles creativity; for instance, an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Why China Can’t Innovate” claims that Ph.D. students in China receive an inadequate training because “the governance structures of China’s state-owned universities still leaves too many decisions to too few people.”

In the long-run, yes, free societies can produce more creative solutions to their problems. Graeber and Wengrow present compelling evidence that the indigenous free peoples of North America created a much greater variety of political systems than the oppressed peoples of Europe.

In the short run, however, dictatorships can be more efficient. (With the obvious possibility that a dictator might decide to do something counterproductive, as Vladimir Putin is demonstrating.)

Civilizations collapse – or devour each other – in the short run.

On Lev Grossman’s ‘The Magicians,’ the incel ‘Harry Potter.’

On Lev Grossman’s ‘The Magicians,’ the incel ‘Harry Potter.’

In fantasy novels, those blessed with magical power often chose to become heroes.

In Ursula Vernon’s Castle Hangnail (suitable for children as young as four and at least as old as forty — our family read it aloud together and we all loved it), the protagonist is a child with prodigious magical gifts but limited training. She’s always trying to make the world a better place. The villain is a weaker mage who attempts to siphon off the hero’s power for her own nefarious ends.

Even when fantasy authors are kind of awful – perhaps using their outsize cultural influence to oppress other people – their wizards mostly strive to do good.

But not in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.

A more accurate reflection of our current world, The Magicians shows wizards making the same sorts of choices as Ivy League graduates – greed and status prioritized over service. Characters celebrate their own brilliance by grabbing as much as they can from the world around them. With great power comes the chance to make money in finance.

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I love having read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, but the experience of reading it was often cringe-inducing. The characters are awful, particularly the main protagonist. It’s compelling in the way of Bojack Horseman, a steady desire to see what happens, even while knowing that it won’t be good.

The protagonist, Quentin, is a single-minded young man out for glory. He’d planned to jaunt off to Princeton, in recognition of his stellar performance at New York City magnet schools, but he enrolls at a wizards’ academy instead. There, he steadily accrues magical prowess; he also maintains the selfish ethical nihilism of an embittered teenager.

At times, it’s clear that Grossman has knowingly made his protagonist despicable; at other moments, it wasn’t quite clear whether the author was aware. Quentin revels in the incel attitude that love is owed to him by the world in recognition of his determination and intellect. Quentin puts no effort into building relationships – instead, the author rewards him with the desire of flatly-portrayed women, just another trophy to be won.

Though Quentin begins the book bemoaning that a certain lady friend isn’t interested in having sex with him, he doesn’t remain celibate forever. But his same twisted worldview persists.

In Entitled, Kate Manne writes that

It’s a mistake to think that incels are primarily motivated by sex. Not only are some incels also interested in love (or some outward simulacrum thereof), but their interest in having sex with “Staceys” is at least partly a means to an end – the end being to beat the “Chads” at their own game. Sex thus promises to sooth these men’s inferiority complexes, at least as must as to satisfy their libidos.

Yet another mistake is to think that sex would provide a solution to an incel’s supposed problem. If an incel does start having sex, or gets into a relationship, who will he turn into?

A once-single incel may well become a female partner’s tormentor. Anyone can feel lonely. But a wrongheaded sense of entitlement to a woman’s sexual, material, reproductive, and emotional labor may result in incel tendencies prior to the relationship and intimate partner violence afterward, if he feels thwarted, resentful, or jealous.

In other words, an incel is an abuser waiting to happen.

In The Magicians, women are depicted as having personalities only insofar as they relate to Quentin. When Quentin’s ex-girlfriend sleeps with someone – a man who is kinder, more studious, a better wizard, and has spent weeks working closely on a project with her – it’s soon revealed that she had sex with him only to hurt Quentin.

And when Quentin feels lonely and adrift in the final pages of the novel, the author has a new romantic interest fly through his window – the woman whom Quentin had pined for in high school, whom he refused to help when she was herself distraught, who is now a powerful self-taught wizard and hopes only to serve as a queen alongside Quentin as king in a magical fairyland.

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Quentin hates his parents – he dismisses their paltry hopes and dreams in a few short paragraphs, and never considers using his newfound powers to help them in any way.

Quentin is indifferent to the world – he uses his magic to score drugs and make money. What else would be worth doing? Other people haven’t worked as hard as he has, Quentin believes, or else they would have been successful, too.

And those few people who are better at magic than Quentin – blessed with more prodigious intellects or greater work ethics – are derided as either sexual deviants or friendless wimps, “so autistically focused that even direct mockery bounced right off him.” As in the novels of Ayn Rand, there can only be one greatest man, and the best women will inevitably fawn over him.

Which is why The Magicians works so well. There’s a persistent meanness throughout. The characters are crude and cruel. Through the lens of fantasy tropes, The Magicians reflects our world.

If Wall Street’s “masters of the universe” could cast spells, what do you think they’d do?

On bad penis puns.

On bad penis puns.

Modern English is built on a foundation of The King James Bible and William Shakespeare – the former, plagiarized from a person we burned on the stake for his efforts; the latter, Lord Regent of Bad Penis Puns, as though his very name compelled him: Willy-I-Am Shake-Spear, Billy Wagcock, old I am a dick now brandishing said dick.

English: a hodgepodge tongue, its literature begun with a bloody tale of dragon baiting, vernacular eschewed until Chaucer made his fame from crude jokes and sex slang, the modern form a mongrel mix of guttural Germanic old and ornate Norman new.

And the modern modern era began in Year 1 p.s.U – the first year “post scriptum Ulysses,” which was, according to T.S. Eliott, “the most important expression which the present age has found,” and perched at the apex of the Harvard committee’s 92% male twentieth century centenary a year otherwise known as 1922, since few aside from antisemitic fascist Ezra Pound felt that Joyce’s tome compelled a novel calendar.

Ulysses: supposedly in conversation with the past, but the conversation only flows one way. Knowing the Greco-Roman myth changes how a reader reads Joyce, but Joyce doesn’t alter our perception of the past, unless to cast undeserved disparagement upon Penelope, privileging post-agrarian men’s fear of wicked women’s wanton sexuality.

Quite the contrast with Barbara Hamby’s poem “Penelope’s Lament,” in conversation with the past as though conversation requires both speaking and listening:

PENELOPE’S LAMENT

Barbara Hamby

No sex for twenty years except with my handmaidens

and myself, so when you turned up like a beggar man,

O I recognized you but needed time to trade in

my poor-widow persona for something more Charlie Chan,

you know, a razor hiding behind a cream puff mask,

irritated by my number-one-and-only son,

ranting about food and money, hiding sheep and casks

of wine in caves, so the suitors would be forced to run

away. As if they would. A more ratty shiftless bunch

of creatures would be hard to rustle up. My bad luck,

they wanted to be king. I’d thought of giving them a lunch

of strychnine. Then you showed up, a geriatric Huck

Finn. So be my guest, finish them off, then I mean

to poison you. O Ithaka is mine. I am queen.

Or there’s Emily Wilson’s recent translation of The Odyssey, also actually in conversation with the past, respectfully acknowledging words that were there already, gracefully responding with what they’re now seen to mean.

After Odysseus returned and the suitors were slain, his son resolved to murder the women whom the dead suitors had coerced into sex … or raped. In Wilson’s words,

Showing initiative, Telemachus

insisted,

“I refuse to grant these girls

a clean death, since they poured down shame on me

and Mother, when they lay beside the suitors.”

At that, he wound a piece of sailor’s rope

round the rotunda and round the mighty pillar,

stretched up so high no foot could touch the ground.

As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly

home to their nests, but somebody sets a trap –

they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime;

just so the girls, their heads all in a row,

were strung up with the noose around their necks

to make their death an agony. They gasped,

feet twitching for a while, but not for long.

Joyce’s Ulysses – the unidirectional address – is in conversation with the past the way a bloviating mansplainer is in conversation with his victim.

Mansplaining, better explained not by me (a man) but by Kate Manne, from Entitled (excerpted with a few additional paragraph breaks for internet readability):

On other occasions, manifestations of epistemic entitlement may result in a less privileged speaker deciding not to make her intended or fitting contribution to the conversation. This will then often constitute what the philosopher Kristie Dotson calls “testimonial smothering,” where a speaker self-silences.

A mansplainer may be nigh on uninterruptable.

The point is epitomized by an incident recounted by Rebecca Solnit, in her classic and galvanizing essay “Men Explain Things to Me.”

Solnit had attended a dinner party with a female friend, where she’d been prevailed upon by the older, “distinguished” male host to linger after dinner to talk about her writing.

I hear you’ve written a couple of books,” he offered genially.

Several, actually,” she ventured.

And what are they about?” he inquired, in a patronizing tone – much “the way you encourage your friend’s seven-year-old to describe flute practice,” as Solnit puts it.

She nevertheless obliged and began to describe her most recent book at the time, which was about Eadweard Muybridge, an English American photographer and pioneer of motion pictures.

She didn’t get far, however.

Solnit recalls: “He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. ‘And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?’ So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingenue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I’d somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book – with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.”

The very important book, Solnit’s female friend soon realized, was Solnit’s.

The friend tried to interject this point three or four times. But the mansplainer failed, somehow, to hear her.

When he finally registered this news, his face fell; he turned “ashen.”

Solnit writes: “That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn’t read, just read about in the The New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless – for a moment, before he began holding forth again.”

Of the many insights that Solnit offers us here into the nature of mansplaining, one of the most striking is the way both speakers in this exchange are assigned roles, which are then difficult to break from.

Solnit’s host was the authority, of course; and she was cast as the naive one – “an empty vessel to be filled with [his] wisdom and knowledge” she writes, “in some sort of obscene impregnation metaphor.”

Because of the social dynamics in play here, it then became very difficult to change the course of the conversation.

But the skewed sense of epistemic entitlement that structured the exchange left her host’s face “ashen” when he finally registered his error. She was in danger of humiliating him.

Still, he was only momentarily deterred: he proceeded to explain other things when unceremoniously deprived of that fledgling site of epistemic domination.

Joyce is out to impress and overwhelm – “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” As though only speaking, not listening – not the relationships that outlast us – could save someone from death.

Joyce’s Penelope: a woman, a wife, sexually voracious, not to be trusted. Joyce’s hero, Odysseus: masturbating in public at the sight of a schoolgirl’s underclothes.

As though the original myth were insufficiently misogynistic. As though the myth needed more than the misogyny made clear with Wilson’s words, more than the misogyny marked in Christopher Logue’s War Music, a modern epic in (two-way) conversation with the past, in which Odysseus’s ally Achilles pouts to his mermaid mother:

The Greeks have let their King take my prize she.

And now they aim to privatise that wrong.

Make it Achilles’ brain-ache, fireside, thing.

So go to God.

Press him. Yourself against Him. Kiss his knees.

Then beg Him this:

Till they come running to your actual son,

Let the Greeks burn, let them taste pain,

Asphyxiate their hope, so as their blood soaks down into the sand,

Or as they sink like coins into the sea,

They learn.”

And yet, within Ulysses, there is an absolutely gorgeous scene, some thirty-four pages long in my edition, “Scylla & Charybdis,” in which Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s Telemachus, lectures lyrically on William Shakespeare.

As expected for an English text, sex jokes abound.

Twenty years he lived in London and, during part of that time, he drew a salary equal to that of the lord chancellor of Ireland. His life was rich. His art, more than the art of feudalism, as Walt Whitman called it, is the art of surfeit. Hot herringpies, green mugs of sack, honeysauces, sugar of roses, marchpane, gooseberried pigeons, ringocandies.

Sir Walter Raleigh, when they arrested him, had half a million francs on his back including a pair of fancy stays. The gombeen woman Eliza Tudor had underlinen enough to vie with her of Sheba. Twenty years he dallied there between conjugal love and its chaste delights and scortatory love and its foul pleasures.

You know Manningham’s story of the burgher’s wife who bade Dick Burbage to her bed after she had seen him in Richard III and how Shakespeare, overhearing, without more ado about nothing, took the cow by the horns and, when Burbage came knocking at the gate, answered from the capon’s blankets: William the conqueror came before Richard III.

Sexuality, per his post-agrarian mind, described as dirty – “scortatory,” a word for sultry goings on that lacks the playful good-humor of “fescennine” or the simple celebration of “sensuous.” In the local university library’s Oxford English Dictionary, the only citation for the word “scortatory” came from this scene, although later editions of the OED include a precedent from 1794 and a nineteenth century denunciation of “scortatory religions.”

Past usage for “capon” is rather more lively, although Joyce’s particular employment is as childishly petty as the Reddit wasteland’s proto-incel overuse of the word “cuck” to describe any unwanted situation – in 1398, Trevisa writes that “the capon is a cocke made as it were female by keruynge away of his gendringe stones.”

Consensual sex as though castrating an uninvited party – not that the encounter between Shakespeare and the woman is described as clearly consensual, but the person supposedly castrated by Willy’s (which would have been Dick’s) dalliance was the burgher, apparently uninvolved in either pairing.

Sex as competition – which perhaps seemed sensible to Joyce since his very eloquence is intended to be competitive, a thunderous plaint demanding that we recognize his exclusive triumph, with this scene a fractal microcosm of the whole, Dedalus’s competitive banter seeking victory for his own (& thereby Joyce’s) prodigious intellect.

Loving or laying or writing to win. Within a world where, without behavior like this, neither sex nor intellect would be mistaken as finite goods.

Throughout the marvelous X+Y: A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender, Eugenia Cheng encourages us to avoid needless competitive thinking:

In No Contest, Alfie Kohn characterizes competition as coming from situations where resources are scarce.

But education involves a resource that can never be scarce: one person having knowledge and wisdom does not prevent someone else from having it. It might be scarce in the sense that not many people have it, especially when it comes to very specialized knowledge, but the whole point of education should be to share knowledge and wisdom with the next generation and thus ensure that it keeps growing.

So the fact that we make education competitive is at worst contradictory and at best a choice that we should acknowledge and question.

It’s not a competition, but men’s attempts at female sex wit have at times been less than winning, travesties like the Bond-ean “Pussy Galore” or even our Latinate word for internal parts that means etymologically not “birthing channel” or “wayfare of life,” but rather “sheath.” A place to put your sword. With the whole shebang described by medical men too squeamish to undertake actual inspection – the second century Roman scientist Galen instructed his readers (men) to “Think first of the man’s turned in and extending inward.”

It seemed obvious to Galen – despite his likely inability to birth a child – that you could “Turn outward the woman’s” … or “turn inward the man’s” and “you will find the same in both in every respect.”

“The same in every respect.” Except that men also believed that a uterus was a living creature, mischievous and untrustworthy inside a woman’s body – “hysterical,” from the Greek word for “womb,” a castigation that someone’s excess of feeling or rage against patriarchal oppression was due not to circumstance but to her wandering organ. The genitalia that crept up inside her and latched onto her brain.

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English is for alliteration (which sounds better if you slur the initial vowel sounds into sameness); romance for rhyming. Neither English nor true romance languages have great words for sex, but our latinate word is better.

The term “fornicate” comes from heat and warmth. Although not in the good, true way, that love can both spiritually and corporeally warm us like fresh baked bread. Instead, we have the word because sex is what goes on in brothels, and a traditional set of brothels had vaulted chambers, and these rooms vaguely resembled the shape of baker’s brick ovens, and these hot warm ovens were where bread was made.

Etymologically, fornication leaves something to be desired. And yet, it’s the best we have.

“Fuck” comes from farming and violence – the possible root words mean “to plow” or “to punch”. As though sex is something that a person with a penis does to another.

Not something shared – as with the Maori word “hika,” which can mean either making fire or making love – but something taken. Predisposing English speakers to see men’s genitals as pushy, greedy things. The English language can betray us as we try to build a better world.

Although at times there’s truth. The violence and the greed – at times, tragically often times, men can be such dicks.

On self-importance.

On self-importance.

We only have one life to live. We only have so much time.

How will we use it?

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There’s a trade-off that many privileged people face – should we focus on family or our career? This choice is especially stark for women, who are often expected to be the primary caretakers for their families, no matter how stellar their career prospects.

Everyone has different priorities, and nearly everyone will end up feeling a wistful sense of regret someday.

Would we be happier if we’d chosen differently? If we’d had children younger? Or if we’d postponed children, spent a few more years building a name for ourselves?

We’ll never know for sure.

In Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, though, the protagonist finds his answer.

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NOTE: Dark Matter is a scary science fiction thriller. I enjoyed reading it. Crouch is an excellent storyteller, and he handles almost all the science really well. If you like thrillers, you’d probably enjoy it.

If you’re thinking about reading it, you might not want to read the rest of this essay now, because it’ll spoil some of the plot for you.

Maybe you should navigate away from this page to check the catalog at your local library! Don’t worry – this essay will still be here next month, after you’ve finished the book.

Or maybe you feel like you can’t handle scary thrillers right now, what with regular life being so inordinately stressful. In which case you’re welcome to carry on reading this essay.

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The protagonist of Dark Matter, Jason, is a brilliant scientist who chose to put his family first – his career has floundered, but his home life is content.

Jason wonders what might have been. A friend from graduate school is winning accolades — fancy grants, publications, and awards.

I could’ve had all that, he thinks wistfully.

In Joseph Heller’s Good As Gold, professor Bruce Gold thinks, “There is no disappointment so numbing as someone no better than you achieving more.” After helping his friend celebrate yet another award, Jason trudges home feeling a similar sentiment.

But then he meets another Jason – a version of himself who, years ago, chose to prioritize his career instead. That Jason has no family. That Jason invented a machine to jump between realities, to enter timelines in which different choices had been made.

That Jason – who chose personal glory over caretaking – is even less happy. And so he kidnaps the initial protagonist, stealing his family and launching him through the machine back into a world where everyone adores his utter brilliance.

And that’s when the first Jason, who’s had a chance to experience both worlds, realizes: love matters more. Money, sex, adulation – none of it can replace his family. He wants to be back with his spouse and child. He’s willing to do anything to get there.

Even murder the myriad copies of himself who all want the same thing.

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Despite the horrific violence, it’s actually a beautiful way to depict priorities – Crouch shows the value of caretaking by giving his protagonist a choice. Suddenly, Jason is freed from his past. He could be anywhere. He could live in a world where he’d used his earlier time in any possible way.

He wants to be in the place where he chose to love.

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A strange quirk of storytelling is the ease with which we, the audience, transfer our empathy and compassion to a protagonist. Even a wretched protagonist – if Bojack Horseman were a peripheral character in someone else’s show, he’d obviously be a villain. And yet, in his own show, I cared about him. I wanted him to succeed, even though he’d done nothing to deserve it.

Quentin Tarantino toys with this idea in Pulp Fiction – when John Travolta is the protagonist, sipping an expensive milkshake or reviving his boss’s spouse, I felt deeply invested. But when Bruce Willis is the protagonist and kills Travolta, I don’t care at all – at that moment, I’m only interested in Willis’s experience.

Than Travolta comes back – and behaves horribly – and, somehow, I find myself caring about him again. His impending pointless death is suddenly irrelevant. He jokes that Samuel Jackson wants to be a bum and I laugh along.

We make the same mistake in our own lives – we see ourselves as more important than we really are.

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A friend’s daughter recently landed in jail, busted over heroin and Xanax. My friend feels conflicted about her daughter’s arrest – being in jail is awful, “But the way she was going, she would’ve died if she didn’t end up there.”

“The problem is, she worries too much. Worries so much about what other people think of her.”

“But she’s starting to get it now. To realize that she doesn’t have to worry, because other people aren’t thinking of her at all.”

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In Dark Matter – as in Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics – with every decoherence, the universe splits. Every outcome is real and propagates through time.

(If you like stories set within this framework, I highly recommend Ted Chiang’s “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom,” published in the collection Exhalation.)

And so there are infinitely many copies of Jason who all want to return to his family – every choice that he’s made since the kidnapping has created another world, another Jason hoping to return.

They will all stop at nothing to rescue their spouse and child. And so they begin to kill each other. Infinitely many Jasons are converging on the world they left.

This convergence seems almost plausible while reading, based on the physics of Dark Matter. The problem being, of course, our lapse into self-importance. Our quirk of prioritizing the experiences of a central character.

Within that world, there would be infinitely many Jasons … but there would also be infinitely many copies of the “stolen” spouse and child. Just as many quantum decoherence events would have occurred in their lives as in his.

Comparing the magnitude of infinite numbers can feel puzzling. For example, it might seem like there should be twice as many numbers as there are even numbers … only every other number is even, after all!

But these infinite quantities are the same. If you write every number on a ball, and then you write even numbers on buckets, there are no balls that can’t be put into a bucket. Each ball labeled “N” goes into a bucket labeled “2 * N”.

Infinitely many balls, infinitely many buckets, and the infinities match.

In Dark Matter, there would be infinitely many Jasons, but also infinitely many worlds that he had left behind, so the likelihood of reaching a world with more than two of himself – the protagonist and the original villain – would be vanishingly small.

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In World of Wonders, Aimee Nezhukumatathil describes a vacation to Kerela, India, with her new spouse. They were eating dinner on a houseboat when they heard noises from the roof.

A troop of macaques were up there eating fruit. Then a wildcat came and chased the macaques off the roof, but the macaques still stayed nearby, watching.

Nezhukumathil and her spouse felt worried – would the macaques attack? Steal their food? They tried to convey their worries to a local resident, who laughed at them. And the monkeys seemed to laugh at them, too.

Nezhukumathil and her spouse finished their dinner quickly and then went inside the houseboat. That night, for the first time that trip, they locked the door to their cabin – “as if these macaques would know how to turn a doorknob and latch.”

“The last thing I remember hearing that night was a distant meowing and chatter-like laughter, and I swear, somewhere in the back waters of Kerala, those bonnet macaques are still having a good laugh over us.”

It’s an easy fallacy to slip into. An experience that’s rare for me – taking a vacation, visiting a doctor, buying a wedding ring – takes on outsize importance precisely for its rarity.

But the salesperson at Goldcasters helps giddy young couples every day. I have a clear memory of the E.R. nurse who gave me a rabies vaccine at 3 a.m., but there’s almost no chance she remembers me – she’s been doing that sort of thing for years.

The macaques spook tourists – and perhaps steal their food, purses, or loose necklaces – every day.

Macaques have their own conscious experience of the world. In their stories, they’re the protagonists. We humans merely dot the periphery. Nameless and forgettable, we fade into the background.

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As we choose how to live, it helps to maintain a sense of humility about our importance to the greater world.

In time, our money will be gone. Our personal glory, too.

Helping others – choosing caretaking over our careers, at times – can connect our stories to something bigger than an individual.

Of course, eventually all of that will disappear, too. The whole world is terminal – our sun will fade, our species will go extinct, our universe’s entropy will increase until there’s no more heat, no more warmth for anything to happen.

So we also need to prioritize personal happiness while we’re here.

Luckily, loving others tends to make us happy.

On the theory of mind.

On the theory of mind.

In Donnie Darko, kids call a woman in town “Grandma Death.” She’s a feature of the landscape. An object. Interesting to watch sometimes – there she is, hobbling across the street to check the mail – or talk about at dinner.

I didn’t realize she was still alive until we almost hit her with the car.

They say she’s rich.

Donnie Darko’s life changes when he realizes that “Grandma Death” isn’t an object, but a person. She wrote a book. She has hopes and dreams. Donnie writes her a letter, hoping to start a conversation.

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My family lives in a small town. There are two high schools – my spouse teaches (excellently!) at one of them.

And yet, even though this is a small town, her students often look surprised the first time we cross paths with them outside of school.

“Amazing, right?” my spouse will say. “Teachers don’t just sleep upside-down in their rooms like bats in a cave!”

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Cognitive scientists discuss “theory of mind,” the understanding that other people have thoughts and feelings. Young children don’t seem to have this. If a child knows something, why wouldn’t everyone else know it, too? If a child doesn’t know something, then how would you?

A common test for “theory of mind” is to have a child watch the following scene: a puppet sees a treat hidden under a cup. The puppet leaves the room. The treat is moved. The puppet comes back, and you ask the child, “Where will the puppet look?”

A young child will point to the place where the treat is. An older child will point to the cup.

Once upon a time, we humans thought that we were the only animals with a “theory of mind.” We aren’t. You can run variations of this experiment with crows, with octopuses. They pass. They know that other creatures know things.

At a fairly young age, most human children learn that other people possess information. They have brains that know.

It takes longer before we learn that others have brains that feel.

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In Brian Phillips’s essay “But Not Like Your Typical Love Story,” he sketches a biography of the elderly woman who haunted his home town. For Phillips, she was part of the landscape. An object.

By the time he was in high school, Phillips understood that this woman had a story. She’d been fabulously wealthy, once – perhaps the wealthiest person in the world. She’d married her stepfather. Much later, lovelorn and lonely, she found herself giving money to a grifter, following him fruitlessly across the country. She returned to her home town and wore outdated clothes.

Phillips had lost his grandparents. They’d died tragically – alcohol, a boat on the lake, perhaps a heart attack. “The coroner’s best guess was that he had fallen out of the rowboat and my grandmother had drowned trying to save him.

Phillips, growing up, wished he could feel something. He knew his grandparents wouldn’t be coming over anymore. He was nine. He understood what death meant.

But not how it felt.

By high school, Phillips understood so much more about the world. But, even then, did he understand how the world felt?

His favorite place was the museum devoted to the old woman’s life – the Marland Mansion, where she had lived when she was wealthy. Inside was a statue of her at twenty-seven, the year she married her fifty-three year-old stepfather.

Later in life, she’d ordered this statue smashed and buried. “Smash the face first, she’d said.

Later still, after she’d died, secrets were told. That’s where I buried the statue. A curator went and dug it up. The pieces were reassembled. Phillips would stare at the reconstructed statue.

I came close enough to see the pale lines crisscrossing [her] white stone face where the sledgehammer struck it. I tried not to notice them.

You see I was still so young that I thought I should be looking at the statue. I should have been looking at the cracks.

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As we grow up, we all learn that other people know. Typically, we become kinder in consequence.

If we’re lucky, we learn also that other people feel.

This will break our hearts.

But it’s also like cracking free from inside a shell. Our hearts break. And we can become good.

On grammar in Latin and English.

On grammar in Latin and English.

I spent most of my time during high school doodling in notebooks – during an entire year of biology, the only thing I learned was that the word for several fish of a single type is “fish,” but the word for several fish of different species is “fishes.” 

For dissections – earthworms, giant crickets, pig hearts, and frogs – we were partnered with whomever sat at the table with us.  My partner always brought the newspaper and ostentatiously checked stock prices during class.  The kid in front of me spent a few weeks reading A Confederacy of Dunces. 

My eyesight wasn’t good enough to read over her shoulder.

At least the distinction between fish and fishes turned out to be correct.  My statistics teacher was a baseball coach – he didn’t know calculus, so the only explanation he gave for the workings of a Gaussian distribution was that the numbers were printed on a chart. 

The baseball team had a winning record, though. 

Even in English class, my brain was filled with junk.  We were taught not to split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions.  These are sensible rules in Latin.  An infinitive – like “to read” – is a single word in Latin, so it would be quite strange to put another word in the middle.  Latin also has strict rules about word order — a sentence would be garbled if the preposition was in the wrong place.

But we weren’t learning Latin!  We were learning English, and – lo and behold! – the grammar rules of English are different.  In English, word order is flexible.  A lot of nuance comes from the arrangement of our sentences.  English doesn’t have as many tenses as other languages – there’s no subjunctive – so we English speakers need to scrape out nuance where we can.

In my high school English class, we were also taught not to use “their” as a singular possessive.  Even now, I rarely do – I don’t write “Each student brought their book,” I instead sacrifice the meaning of my sentences and write things like “Students brought their books.”

I was hoodwinked!  Instead of using the word “their” as a singular pronoun – which it is, in English – I trusted my teachers when they claimed that this word was exclusively plural.

Hogwash!  The equivalent claim would be to say that it’s incorrect to write:

You are reading this essay.

After all, “you” is a plural pronoun.  And “are” is the plural conjugation of the verb “to be,” which I used only to match the expected conjugation of the pronoun “you.”  The correct thing to write is:

Thou is reading this essay.

See?  There’s only one person reading, so I need a singular pronoun, “thou,” and a singular conjugation, “is.”

From What’s Your Pronoun? by Dennis Baron, I learned that the pronoun “they” has been used as a singular since the 1300s.

In a sense, singular you is even more of a newcomer on the pronoun scene.  The plural you was applied as a singular pronoun to address royalty as early as the thirteenth century and was used in other situations demanding deference and formality – call the monarch thy majesty instead of your majesty and it could mean off with your head.

But you doesn’t appear as a singular in all contexts until the 1600s, when it slowly, slowly starts pushing out thou, thee, thy, and thine, second-person singulars that English speakers had been using since the days of Beowulf.  The th- singulars persist even now in some English dialects, and nineteenth-century grammar books regularly demanded singular thou and thee, along with thy and thine, even though these pronouns were no longer considered standard English.

It consoled me somewhat to read that students have long been taught outdated, inaccurate information.  It’s not just my brain that was filled with rubbish.

When a cabal of misogynistic grammarians worked to replace singular they with he in English textbooks, people tried to protest. 

In 1885, in an article titled “The New Pronoun,” the Atlanta Constitution printed:

There is nothing awkward or ungrammatical in [singular they] so far as the construction of English is concerned.  It is ungrammatical when measured by the Latin method – but what has Latin grammar to do with the English tongue?

If you wanted, you could even make a scientific argument for the validity of singular they – in quantum mechanics, the state of each single particle is described by a superposition of states.  Immediately after a measurement, wavefunctions can “collapse” to be composed primarily of a unique form – after a photon passes through a polarizer, it’s fluctuation will be parallel to the polarizer’s axis.  But even this “up and down” state can be expressed as an equal superposition of two perpendicular polarizations tilted forty-five degrees.  Indeed, the latter expression is the only useful way to describe this photon if it’s about to pass through a second polarizer tilted forty-five degrees from the first.

We are not monolithic.  Each and all of us can be described as an amalgam of many different traits.

But we don’t need any scientific justification for the use of singular they in English.  This grammatical usage is deeply enshrined in our language, and the singular pronoun “they” can best convey the plenitude of many individual humans’ identity & experience.

It’s still difficult for me to use the word “they” as a singular pronoun in formal sentences – my crummy education was pernicious.  The proscriptions are deeply ingrained in my brain.  But I’d like to think that I’m not totally calcified in my ways.  And I’m quite grateful that Denis Baron prepared such an erudite history of English pronoun usage.  What’s Your Pronoun​? is a lovely little book.

I hope that my kids’ brains will be less muddled than my own.  When we read stories aloud, we typically correct unnecessarily gendered language.  Girls and boys become kids.  An actress is an actor, too.  Our Curious George lives in a world of fire fighters and police officers.

I was reading Rob Harrell’s gorgeous Monster on the Hill to our kids when our three-year-old interrupted me.  At first, I couldn’t understand what she was saying.  I asked her to repeat herself.

“You should say spouse.”

from Rob Harrell’s Monster on the Hill

She was right, of course.  I’d unthinkingly read the text as written.  So I felt embarrassed … for a moment.  Then I remembered to feel proud.

On domestication and Sue Burke’s ‘Semiosis’

On domestication and Sue Burke’s ‘Semiosis’

In Sue Burke’s Semiosis, humans reach an alien world with intelligent plants.

The settlers find themselves afflicted by inexplicable infertility.  Most women are able to bear children, but many men are sterile.  The settlement develops a culture in which women continue to marry based on the vagaries of affection, but from time to time, a woman will kiss her spouse goodnight before venturing off for an evening’s energetic tussle with a fertile man.

The human settlement has established itself at the base of a single plant.  This plant has ocular patches and can recognize individual humans.  The plant provides fruit that seems exquisitely tailored to each person’s nutritional needs.  In return, the humans carefully tend the plant – irrigating its groves, clearing away competitors, and fertilizing new growth.

The plant manipulates its human caretakers.  By tweaking the composition of their food, it controls the humans’ health.  Selectively instilling infertility or fecundity allows the plant to direct human evolution.  Among the fourth generation of human settlers, more than half of all children were sired by a placid man who was so contemplative and empathetic that he learned to communicate with the host plant.

The plant domesticated its human caretakers.

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Here on Earth, flowering plants also co-evolved with animals. 

Plants could very well consider themselves the dominant species in these relationships – after all, plants use animals to do their bidding.  Plants offer tiny drips of nectar to conscript insects to fertilize their flowers.  Plants offer small fruits to conscript mammals to spread their seeds.  And plants far outlive their servants – thousands of generations of animals might flit by during the lifetime of a single tree.

Some plants directed the evolution of their helpers so well that the species are inextricably linked – some insects feed on only a single species of plant, and the plant might rely on this single species of insect to fertilize its flowers.  If either the plant or insect disappeared, the other would go extinct.

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In Semiosis, the alien plant changes its attitude toward humans over the generations.  At first it was concerned only with control and utility.  The motile beasts were a tool that it could manipulate with pleasing colors and psychoactive fruits. 

Eventually, though, the plant develops an affection for its human wards.  Of course, these humans are markedly different from the people who first arrived on this planet.

The plant’s affections changed in the same way that our own attitude toward wolves softened as we manipulated the species.  Many humans are still reflexively afraid of wolves.  We tell children stories about Little Red Riding Hood; when I’m walking in the woods, sometimes I find myself humming the refrain from “Peter and the Wolf.”  The ecosystem of Yellowstone Park was devastated when we murdered all the wolves during the 1920s; willow and beaver populations have rebounded since wolves were reintroduced in the 1990s (most likely because wolves mitigate the damage done by uncontrolled elk populations); now that Yellowstone’s wolf population isn’t critically endangered, states surrounding the park are letting human hunters shoot wolves again.

And yet, we giggle at the antics of domesticated dogs.

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Among wild animals, the most aggressive individuals are often the most fecund.  Wolves who can fight for and hold the alpha rank get to breed; the others don’t.

During domestication, breeding patterns are altered.  To create dogs, we selected for the most docile individuals.  If you could expand your temporal horizons wide enough, all populations might seem as mutable as clay.  A species flows through time, ever changing, evolving such that the traits that best lead to viable children become more common.  In the wild, a speedy rabbit might have the most children, because it might survive for more breeding seasons than others.  On a farm, the most docile rabbit might have the most children, because its human handlers might give a docile male more time among the females.

Domestication seems to change animals in stereotyped ways.  Zoologist Dmitry Belyayev designed an experiment with wild foxes.  Only the foxes that were least fearful of humans were allowed to breed; over the course of some dozen generations, this single criterion resulted in a large number of behavioral and morphological changes.  The domesticated foxes produce less adrenaline; they have narrower faces; they have floppier ears.  This suite of traits seems to be present in almost all domesticated species.

Cats still have pointy ears.  As it happens, cats are barely domesticated.

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Humans seem to be self-domesticated. A few hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors lived in very small groups, maybe one or two dozen individuals.  After humans diverged from the last common ancestor that we shared with bonobos and chimpanzees, most human species still lived in groups of about this size.  Neanderthals may have lived in groups as small as six.

Eventually, Homo sapiens drove all other human species to extinction.  A major competitive advantage was that Homo sapiens lived and worked in groups as large as a hundred.  With so many people cooperating, they could hunt much more efficiently.  A violent conflict between six Neanderthals and a clan of a hundred Homo sapiens would not go well for the Neanderthals.

In the modern world, the population densities of urban areas force humans to be even more docile than our recent ancestors.  But even with our whole evolutionary history promoting cooperation, many people struggle to be calm and kind within the crowded confines of a city.  Some can do it; others feel too aggressive.

When a person’s disposition is ill-suited to the strange environment we’ve made, we punish.  We shunt people to high school detention, or jail.

In Semiosis, the plant overlord reacts by limiting fertility.

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As in Richard Powers’s Overstory, the perspective of a long-lived, immobile plant would be markedly different from ours.  Human generations flit by as a plant continues to grow.

The bamboo forest/grove in Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan. Photograph by Daniel Walker on Flickr.

Domestication takes generations – in Belyayev’s fox experiment, twenty generations passed before a third of the population was tame – but an intelligent plant could wait.  By selecting which individuals get to pass on their genes, huge changes can be made.  From wolves, we created Great Danes and Chihuahuas.  From a scruffy grass we evoked buxom ears of corn, as though by glacial magic.

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In particularly dark eras of our past, humans have tried to direct our own evolution.  Social Darwinists in the United States forcibly sterilized people whom they disliked.  Politicians in Nazi Germany copied the legal language of the United States when they sought philosophical justification for the murder of entire religious and ethnic groups.

By putting the motivation inside the mind of a plant, Burke is able to explore the ramifications of directed human evolution without alluding to these evil regimes.

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In jail, somebody said to me, “I heard that humans were evolving to have really long fingers, so we could type real fast, and big-headed hairless bodies.”

“Yeah, yeah,” somebody added, “I saw this thing on the Discovery channel, it was like, you know the way they show all those aliens on the X-Files?  That humans were gonna be like that, like the aliens were just us coming back to visit from the future.”

Illustration of “future humans” by Futurilla on Flickr.

I murmured in disagreement. 

“Humans are definitely still evolving.  But evolution doesn’t have a goal.  It just selects for whichever properties of a creature are best for making copies of itself.”

“With modern medical care, we don’t die so easily.  So the main driver of evolution is the number of kids you have.  If you have more kids than I do, then you’re more fit than I am.  Future humans will look more like you than me.”

“There’s not much data yet, because evolution happens over such a long time, but the one study I’ve seen recently showed that humans in the United States are evolving to be shorter.”

“But it’s not like we’re getting shorter so that we’ll fit better inside spaceships.  It’s just that shorter people have been having more kids.”

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Plants have directed the evolution of bees.  Of bats – there’s a bat species that fertilizes agave, another that fertilizes mangoes, and so on. 

Photo by Marlon Machado on Flickr.

Plants directed our evolution, too.  We owe our color vision to our history as fruit eaters – we needed to see the difference between ripe reds and green buds.

And, like all populations, we are changing.  Evolution isn’t done.

What might a clever plant want us to become?

On translation and quantum mechanics.

On translation and quantum mechanics.

We have many ways to express ideas.  In this essay, I’ll attempt to convey my thoughts with English words.  Although this is the only metaphoric language that I know well, humans employ several thousand others – among these there may be several that could convey my ideas more clearly.

The distinct features of a language can change the way ideas feel

Perry Link writes that,

In teaching Chinese-language courses to American students, which I have done about thirty times, perhaps the most anguishing question I get is “Professor Link, what is the Chinese word for ______?”  I am always tempted to say the question makes no sense.

Anyone who knows two languages well knows that it is rare for words to match up perfectly, and for languages as far apart as Chinese and English, in which even grammatical categories are conceived differently, strict equivalence is not possible.

Book is not shu, because shu, like all Chinese nouns, is conceived as an abstraction, more like “bookness,” and to say “a book” you have to say, “one volume of bookness.”  Moreover shu, but not book, can mean “writing,” “letter,” or “calligraphy.”  On the other hand, you can “book a room” in English; you can’t shu one in Chinese.

There is no perfect way to translate an idea from Chinese words into English words, nor the other way around.  In Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, Eliot Weinberger reviews several English reconstructions of a short, seductively simple Chinese poem.  The English variants feel very different from one another – each accentuates certain virtues of the original; by necessity, each also neglects others.

Visual appearances can’t be perfectly described with any metaphoric language.  I could write about a photograph, and maybe my impression would be interesting – the boy’s arms are turned outward, such that his hands would convey a gesture of welcome if not for his grenade, grimace, and fingers curled into a claw – but you’d probably rather see the picture.

Here’s Diane Arbus’s “Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C.” 

This isn’t to say that an image can’t be translated.  The version posted above is a translation.  The original image, created by light striking a photosensitive film, has been translated into a matrix of numbers.  Your computer reads these numbers and translates them back into an image.  If you enlarge this translation, your eyes will detect its numerical pixelation.

For this image, a matrix of numbers is a more useful translation than a paragraph of my words would be. 

From a tutorial on computer vision prepared by Amy Jin & Vivian Chiang at Stanford.

Different forms of communication – words, pictures, numbers, gestures, sounds – are better suited to convey different ideas.  The easiest way to teach organic chemistry is through the use of pictures – simple diagrams often suffice.  But I sometimes worked with students who weren’t very visual learners, and then I’d have to think of words or mathematical descriptions that could represent the same ideas.

Science magazine sponsors an annual contest called “Dance Your Ph.D.,” and although it might sound silly – can someone understand your research after watching human bodies move? – the contest evokes an important idea about translation.  There are many ways to convey any idea.  Research journals now incorporate a combination of words, equations, images, and video. 

Plant-soil feedbacks after severe tornado damage: Dance Your PhD 2014 from atinytornado on Vimeo.

A kinetic, three-dimensional dance might be better than words to explain a particular research topic.  When I talked about my graduate research in membrane trafficking, I always gesticulated profusely.

My spouse coached our local high school’s Science Olympiad team, preparing students for the “Write It Do It” contest.  In this competition, teams of two students collaborate – one student looks at an object and describes it, the other student reads that description and attempts to recreate the original object.  Crucially, the rules prohibit students from incorporating diagrams into their instructions.  The mandate to use words – and only words – makes “Write It Do It” devilishly tricky.

I love words, but they’re not the tools best suited for all ideas. 

If you’re curious about quantum mechanics, Beyond Weird by Philip Ball is a nice book.  Ball describes a wide variety of scientific principles in a very precise way – Ball’s language is more nuanced and exact than most researchers’.  Feynman would talk about what photons want, and when I worked in a laboratory that studied the electronic structure of laser-aligned gas clouds, buckyballs, and DNA, we’d sometimes anthropomorphize the behavior of electrons to get our thoughts across.  Ball broaches no such sloppiness.

Unfortunately, Ball combines linguistic exactitude with a dismissal of other ways of conveying information.  Ball claims that any scientific idea that doesn’t translate well into English is an insufficient description of the world:

When physicists exhort us to not get hung up on all-too-human words, we have a right to resist.  Language is the only vehicle we have for constructing and conveying meaning: for talking about our universe.  Relationships between numbers are no substitute.  Science deserves more than that.

By way of example, Ball gives a translation of Hugh Everette’s “many worlds” theory, points out the flaws in his own translated version, and then argues that these flaws undermine the theory.

To be fair, I think the “many worlds” theory is no good.  This is the belief that each “observation” – which means any event that links the states of various components of a system such that each component will evolve with restrictions on its future behavior (e.g. if you shine a light on a small object, photons will either pass by or hit it, which restricts where the object may be later) – causes a bifurcation of our universe.  A world would exist where a photon gets absorbed by an atom; another world exists where the atom is localized slightly to the side and the photon speeds blithely by.

The benefit of the “many worlds” interpretation is that physics can be seen as deterministic, not random.  Events only seem random because the consciousness that our present mind evolves into can inhabit only one of the many future worlds.

The drawback of the “many worlds” interpretation is that it presupposes granularity in our universe – physical space would have to be pixelated like computer images. Otherwise every interaction between two air molecules would presage the creation of infinite worlds.

If our world was granular, every interaction between two air molecules would still summon an absurd quantity of independent worlds, but mere absurdity doesn’t invalidate a theory.  There’s no reason why our universe should be structured in a way that’s easy for human brains to comprehend.  Without granularity, though, the “many worlds” theory is impossible, and we have no reason to think that granularity is a reasonable assumption.

It’s more parsimonious to assume that sometimes random things happen.  To believe that our God, although He doesn’t exist, rolls marbles.

(This is a bad joke, wrought by my own persnickety exactitude with words.  Stephen Hawking said, “God does play dice with the universe.  All the evidence points to him being an inveterate gambler, who throws the dice on every possible equation.”  But dice are granular.  With a D20, you can’t roll pi.  So the only way for God to avoid inadvertently pixelating His creation is to use infinite-sided dice, i.e. marbles.)

Image of dice by Diacritica on Wikimedia images.

Some physicists have argued that, although our words clearly fail when we attempt to describe the innermost workings of the universe, numbers should suffice.  Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “Math is the language of the universe.  So the more equations you know, the more you can converse with the cosmos.

Indeed, equations often seem to provide accurate descriptions of the way the world works.  But something’s wrong with our numbers.  Even mathematics falls short when we try to converse with the cosmos.

Our numbers are granular.  The universe doesn’t seem to be.

Irrational numbers didn’t bother me much when I was first studying mathematics.  Irrational numbers are things like the square root of two, which can only be expressed in decimal notation by using an infinite patternless series of digits.  Our numbers can’t even express the square root of two!

Similarly, our numbers can’t quite express the electronic structure of oxygen.  We can solve “two body problems,” but we typically can’t give a solution for “three body problems” – we have to rely on approximations when we analyze any circumstance in which there are three or more objects, like several planets orbiting a star, or several electrons surrounding a nucleus.

Oxygen is.  These molecules exist.  They move through our world and interact with their surroundings.  They behave precisely.  But we can’t express their precise behavior with numbers.  The problem isn’t due to any technical shortcoming in our computers – it’s that, if our universe isn’t granular, each oxygen behaves with infinite precision, and our numbers can only be used to express a finite degree of detail.

Using numbers, we can provide a very good translation, but never an exact replica.  So what hope do our words have?

The idea that we should be able to express all the workings of our universe in English – or even with numbers – reminds me of that old quote: “If English was good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.”  We humans exist through an unlikely quirk, a strange series of events.  And that’s wonderful!  You can feel pleasure.  You can walk out into the sunshine.  Isn’t it marvelous?  Evolution could have produced self-replicating objects that were just as successful as us without those objects ever feeling anything.  Rapacious hunger beasts could have been sufficient.  (Indeed, that’s how many of us act at times.)

But you can feel joy, and love, and happiness.  Capitalize on that!

And, yes, it’s thrilling to delve into the secrets of our universe.  But there’s no a priori reason to expect that these secrets should be expressible in the languages we’ve invented.

On Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘We Are the Weather.’

On Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘We Are the Weather.’

The choices we’re making might cause everyone to die.

That’s kind of sad.  I like being alive, and I like the thought that other humans might be alive even after I am gone. 

Some people – the original Millennials, for instance – prefer to imagine that the world would end when their world ends.  But for those of us who feel that helping others adds to the meaning of our lives, it’s more satisfying to imagine humanity’s continued existence.  Each good deed is like a wave, rippling outward, causing people to be a little kinder to others in turn. 

These waves of kindness can’t last forever – our universe began with a finite quantity of order, which we use up in order to live – but they could persist for a very long time.  Humans could have many billions of years with which to colonize the stars.

Unless we go extinct sooner.  Which we might.  We’re destabilizing the climate of the only habitable planet we know.

Venus used to be habitable.  We humans could’ve flown there and set up a colony.  But a blip of excess greenhouse gas triggered runaway climate change.  Now Venus has no liquid water.  Instead, the planet is covered in thick smog.  Sulfuric acid rains from the sky.

I would rather we not doom Earth to the same fate.

There are things you can do to help.  In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer lists the (abundant!) evidence that animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change.

You should still turn off the lights when you leave a room.  If you can walk to the park instead of driving, do it!  Every effort you make to waste less energy is worthwhile!

But it helps to take stock of the numbers.  If everyone with a conventional automobile could suddenly exchange it for a hybrid vehicle, we’d still be emitting 96% as much greenhouse gas.  If everyone decided to eliminate animal products from their diet, we’d be emitting 50% as much.

Switching to hybrid vehicles wouldn’t save us.  Deciding to eat plant-based foods would.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to make this switch.  Not least because the peril we’ve placed ourselves in doesn’t feel compelling.  It’s like the difference between venus flytraps and pitcher plants.  With a venus flytrap, you can see the exact moment that a bug is doomed.  Those spikey mandibles close and that’s the end!  When a bug lands on a pitcher plant, though, its fate is sealed well before the moment when it finally topples into the digestive water.  The lip of a pitcher plant is sloped and slippery; the actual boundary between life and death is unnoticeable.

Because climate change will be exacerbated by so many feedback loops, by the time we see the precipice it’ll be too late.

In Foer’s words,

The chief threat to human life – the overlapping emergencies of ever-stronger superstorms and rising seas, more severe droughts and declining water supplies, increasingly large ocean dead zones, massive noxious-insect outbreaks, and the daily disappearance of forests and species – is, for most people, not a good story. 

When the planetary crisis matters to us at all, it has the quality of a war being fought over there.  We are aware of the existential stakes and the urgency, but even when we know that a war for our survival is raging, we don’t feel immersed in it.  That distance between awareness and feeling can make it very difficult for even thoughtful and politically engaged people – people who want to act – to act.

History not only makes a good story in retrospect; good stories become history.  With regard to the fate of our planet – which is also the fate of our species – that is a profound problem.  As the marine biologist and filmmaker Randy Olson put it, “Climate is quite possibly the most boring subject the science world has ever had to present to the public.”

I like that Foer tries to wring empathy from this dull story.  He writes about his personal struggles to be good.  If it were necessary to blow hot air from a hairdryer into a small child’s face each time we bought a cheeseburger, few people would buy them.  But it’s more difficult to restrain ourselves when we instead know vaguely – rationally, unemotionally – that each cheeseburger we buy will exacerbate the hot air – and floods, and droughts, and malaria – that children will one day have to bear.

Our brains are good at understanding cause and effect when they are closely linked in time and space.  Push a button, hear a sound!  Even babies understand how to work a toy piano.  Even my ill behaved dogs know better than to misbehave in front of me (chew the pillow, get shut in bathroom).

My dogs struggle when an effect comes long after the initial cause.  Furtively chew a pillow, get shut in bathroom several days later, once the human finally discovers evidence?  That’s not compelling for my dogs.  The punishment is too long delayed to dissuade them from mastication.

Buy a cheeseburger today – make our children’s children’s children go hungry from global crop failure.  That’s not compelling.  Our brains can’t easily process that story.

We can understand it, but we can’t feel it.

And that’s the message of Foer’s book.  How can we – collaboratively – create a world in which it’s easy to do the right thing?  How can we make cheeseburgers feel bad?

An intellectual understanding – cheeseburgers requires farms with cows, cows emit methane, cows take space, farmers destroy forests to make space, cheeseburgers cause climate change – isn’t enough to create that feeling.  Climate change is too dull a story.

Even worse, climate change isn’t even the most boring story to tell about our extinction.  In We Are the Weather – an entire book in which Foer castigates himself for contributing to harms that will befall his descendants some 100 to 200 years in the future (because that’s when climate change will get really bad) – Foer doesn’t even mention that he’s also causing harms that will befall his descendants 30 to 60 years in the future.

Even though these nearer term harms are equally calamitous.  Even though these nearer term harms are just as definitively known to be caused by cheeseburgers.

Climate change is dull.  Antibiotic resistance is even more dull.

It’s pretty bad when something is more boring than talking about the weather.

Most farmed animals are constantly given low doses of antibiotics. As it happens, this is exactly the protocol you’d use for a directed evolution experiment if you were trying to make antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

There’s an old story about a king, Mithridates, whose father was assassinated with poison.  Mithridates trained his body with exposure to low doses of poison so that he would be able to survive higher doses. 

It was a clever strategy.  We’re helping bacteria do the same thing.

Our world will be nightmarishly different once antibiotics stop working.  My own children are three and five years old.  They’ve gotten infections that we needed to treat with antibiotics about a dozen times.  Two weeks of taking the pink stuff and my kids got better.

In a world with antibiotic resistant bacteria – which we are creating through animal agriculture – any of those dozen infections could have killed my kids. 

You should watch the New York Times video about antibiotic resistance.  By 2050, it’s likely that more people will die from antibiotic resistant bacterial infections than from cancer.

Click the image to head to the NYT movie — well worth it.

Huge quantities of money are being spent to develop new anti-cancer drugs – new ways for elderly people to stave off time.  Meanwhile, it’s not just that we spend so little developing antibiotics.  We are actively making these drugs worse.

Antibiotic resistance isn’t a compelling story, though.  To feel a connection between a cheeseburger and your someday grandkid dying in bed, feverish and septic, you’d have to understand the biochemistry of lateral gene transfer, DNA replication, mutation, drug metabolism.  You’d need to be able to see in your mind’s eye the conditions that farmed animals are raised in.

And, honestly?  People who can vividly picture a concentrated animal feeding operation or slaughterhouse probably aren’t the ones buying cheeseburgers.

But if the world doesn’t change, their grandkids will die too.

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Featured image: Everglades National Park by B. Call.