On dangerous air & the damnation of cyanobacteria.

On dangerous air & the damnation of cyanobacteria.

During the acute phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, I kept thinking of Margarita Engle’s poem “More Dangerous Air.” The title seemed particularly resonant, and its a beautiful poem about growing up in an atmosphere of fear.

Newsmen call it the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Teachers say it’s the end of the world.

Engle documents the way we might flail, attempting to protect ourselves & our loved ones. We know enough to be afraid; we don’t yet know enough to be safe.

Early in the pandemic, people left their groceries on the front steps for days before bringing the bags inside. A year in, we were still needlessly scrubbing surfaces with toxic chemicals.

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During the missile crisis, school children practiced fire drills, earthquake drills, tornado drills, air raid drills. (They didn’t yet need the contemporary era’s most awful: the active shooter drills.)

Hide under a desk.

Pretend that furniture is enough

to protect us against perilous flames.

Radiation. Contamination. Toxic breath.

The blasts are dangerous. But warfare with atomic weapons is different from other forms of violence. A bomb might kill you, suddenly; the poisoned air might kill you, slowly; the poisoned ground might maim generations yet unborn.

Each air-raid drill is sheer terror,

but some kids giggle.

They don’t believe that death

is real.

Radiation is invisible. Marie Curie didn’t know that it would kill her. Rosalind Franklin didn’t know that it would kill her.

We know, now. At least, some of us do.

Others – including a perilously large cadre of politicians – still think we ought to stockpile a behemoth nuclear arsenal.

Nuclear bomb: photograph by Kelly Michals on flickr.

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Viruses are invisible. And they act slowly. Breathe in an invisible virus; a week later, you might begin to cough; three weeks later, your cough might worsen; a month after that seemingly innocuous breath in which you sucked a microscopic package of genetic code into your lungs, you might be in the hospital, or worse.

Connecting an eventual death to that first dangerous breath is actually a tricky cognitive feat! The time lag confuses us. It’s much easier for human minds to draw conclusions about closely consecutive events – a vaccine followed within hours or days by fever or heart problems.

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Greenhouse gases are also invisible. If we drive past a power plant, we might see plumes rising from the towers, but we can’t see poison spilling from our cars, our refrigerators, our air conditioners, our meals. This is just good food on a plate! It doesn’t look like danger.

But we are changing the air, dramatically, in ways that might poison us all. Or – which is perhaps worse – in ways that might not affect us so much, but might make this planet inhospitable to our unborn grandchildren. Perhaps we will be fine. It’s humans born twenty years from now, or fifty years from now, who will suffer more.

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Each individual can take action. You, as an individual, could fly less, buy less, eat plants.

And yet.

You, as an individual, can only do so much.

When I hide under my frail school desk,

my heart grows as rough and brittle

as the slab of wood

that fails to protect me

from reality’s

gloom.

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We aren’t the first. Go outside and look around – the vibrant bursts of summer green are delightfully entrancing.

Our minds are plastic things – we make ourselves through the ways we live – but certain scripts were sculpted by our ancestry. Over hundreds of millions of years, the bearers of certain types of brains were more likely to be successful in life.

Creatures like us – who need air to breath, water to drink, shelter from sun and cold – often feel an innate love for the way summer light plays over a heady mix of blue and green.

We need all that green. The plants, the trees, the algae: for humans to survive the climate crisis we’ve been making, we’re depending on them. We need them to eat carbon dioxide from the air, and drink in hydrogen atoms from water, and toss back oxygen for us to breathe.

We’ve been poisoning the air, and they might save us.

Which is ironic, in a way. Because all that green – they wrought our planet’s first global devastation.

Saving us all this time would be like a form of penance.

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Early in our planet’s history, there was very little oxygen in the air. Which was a good thing for the organisms living then! Oxygen is a very dangerous molecule. When we fall apart with age, it’s largely because “oxidative damage” accumulates in our cells. When grocery stores market a new type of berry as a “superfood,” they often extol its abundance of “antioxidants,” small molecules that might protect us from the ravages of oxygen.

The first living organisms were anaerobic: they did not need, and could not tolerate, oxygen. They obtained energy from sulfur vents or various other chemicals.

But then a particular type of bacteria – cyanobacteria – evolved a way to eat air, pulling energy from sunlight. This was the precursor to modern photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria began to fill the air with (poisonous!) oxygen as waste.

Many years passed safely, though. There was abundant iron then, on land and in the seas – iron drew down oxygen to rust.

Approximately two billion years passed without incident. All that iron buffered our planet’s atmosphere! It must have seemed as though the cyanobacteria could excrete a nearly infinite amount!

But then they reached a tipping point. The iron had all become iron oxides. The concentration of oxygen in the air rose dramatically. This hyper-reactive poison killed almost everything alive.

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Perhaps cyanobacteria were punished for what they’d done. By filling the world with oxygen, they enabled the evolution of organisms with higher metabolisms. Creatures who lived faster, shorter lives, turbocharged by all that dangerous air. And these creatures – our forebears – nearly grazed their enablers out of existence.

Cyanobacteria were once masters of the universe. Then they were food.

And they were imprisoned within the cells of plants. Look up at a tree – each green leaf is a holding cell, brimming with cyanobacteria who are no longer free to live on their own. Grasses, ferns, flowers – every photosynthetic cell home to perhaps dozens of chloroplasts, the descendants of those who caused our planet’s first mass extinction.

A few outlaws linger in the ocean. Some cyanobactera still pumping oxygen into the air, the lethal poison that’s gulped so greedily by human lungs. Their lethal poison now enables our growth, our flourishing, our reckless abasement of the world.

And we are poisoning the air in turn, albeit in a very different way. In our quest to use many years’ stored sunlight each year, we dig up & burn the subterranean remnants of long-dead plants. The prison cells in which cyanobacteria once lived and died, entombed for millions of years within the earth, now the fuel for our own self-imposed damnation. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the air is slowly rising. Our atmosphere is buffered; for a while, our world will seem unchanged. Until, suddenly, it doesn’t.

Some species, surely, will survive. Will thrive in the hotter, swingier, stormier world we’re making.

It likely won’t be us.

On cicadas and perception.

On cicadas and perception.

Here in Bloomington, the time of cicadas is drawing to a close.

Some trees are still fairly loud, with pulses of sound that pour down, compressing & rarefacting the air like the thrum of an alien turbine. But two weeks ago, the loudest trees were excruciating, with sound levels that could dispel all thought, inducing headaches & nausea as we walked beneath.

More & more often now, I’m able to pick out the plaintive kreeee of individual singers, their voices divorced from any chorus: males who arrived late to the party and are wondering whether any nearby females might be similarly tardy.

Molted exoskeletons still litter the ground, or cling to flowerstems & the lower bark of trees. But my kids are finding few fresh ones. Nearly all the cicadas who are going to emerge in our town this year have already done so.

My kids (like most kids) collected the shed exoskeletons. And each morning before school, they would search our carport for newly emerged adults – although it does feel strange to refer to cicada nymphs as somehow youthful when they’re a decade older than my eldest child. She cradled the bugs like babies; they were more than twice her age.

My kids would move the newcomers – bodies & wings still soft from metamorphosis – to a safe sunny spot in our yard. They’d be able to fly sooner, & our car wouldn’t squish them.

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In the afternoon, we would go on walks – again stepping carefully to avoid squishing anyone – and we’d stop every few feet to inspect the cicadas whom we found.

And it was alarming. Most of the insects we encountered then were oddly shaped, with twisted legs or crumpled wings; or exceptionally small; or otherwise malformed. We found some who had only partially emerged from their exoskeletons and then stopped, trapped within their own old skin.

Which I can’t chide them for too severely. At times, we humans also have difficulty sloughing off our past selves.

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Now that the cicadas’ brief orgy is ending, they will expire. Many have already died: not just the cicadas who were eaten by birds, chipmunks, squirrels, pet cats & dogs, but also the cicadas who simply plummet from the sky, collapsing from the various internal depredations of old age.

They decompose. The air reeks now of an acrid ammonia tang. On certain sidewalks – beneath especially popular trees, those that a few days ago had been deafeningly loud – we walk through a bevy of corpses. Viscous goo spills from their split sides where other people have stepped on them.

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And it’s interesting, the perspective that my children and I have had upon the cicadas’ lives.

For all those years, they were invisible to us, burrowing rootward through the soil and sipping the delectable sap of trees.

After the cicadas emerged, we still rarely saw the cicadas who were feeling actualized. Who were up high in the trees, singing, seducing, laying eggs, living their best cicada lives. Those who lingered on the sidewalks where we might find them had often suffered some mishap or misfortune. Cicadas whose heads had been bitten off by birds. Cicadas who were bamboozled by the sky’s reflection in a puddle or pool of water and plunged in to drown. Cicadas whose developmental differences left them unable to fly.

I felt really happy that my children, even after interacting with thousands of cicadas, still felt compelled to help each and every one. My children never stopped searching the carport to ensure that nobody would be squished. If any cicadas fell into nearby water, my children would splash in to the rescue.

But it felt strange for me, knowing the limits of our perception. As though some insects had visited a human hospital and drew all their conclusions about our way of being based on what they saw there.

On cooperation and cons: Our theft from young people.

On cooperation and cons: Our theft from young people.

As a society, we’ve made enormous sacrifices during the Covid-19 pandemic. We’re wearing masks; we’re staying home; children are missing school.

We’re all cooperating to protect the people who are most at risk.

The risk profile for Covid-19 is opposite the risk from climate change. Covid-19 is more dangerous for the old. Climate change is more dangerous for the young, and for generations not yet born.

There’s another way to phrase this – Covid-19 is more dangerous for the wealthy, and climate change is more dangerous for those who currently have little or nothing. This is true both temporally and geographically.

(Wealth obviously protect individuals from Covid-19. Despite all his buffoonish posturing, when Donald Trump was infected, he received higher quality, more expensive medical care than almost anyone else. But on a population level, increased wealth is correlated with increased risk. Wealthy people are privileged to live longer, and in our capitalist society, people often accumulate wealth as they age.)

People with low risk from Covid-19 are making enormous sacrifices to protect others from it. But those with low risk from climate change are, in general, making no efforts to stop it.

Which conveys a clear message:

Younger people, you must solve this problem on your own. Despite your willingness to make sacrifices to protect us, we will not make sacrifices to protect you.

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If we knew in March 2020 what we know now, we wouldn’t have closed schools. If you’re interested in some of the reasoning behind this, you should read this February 24, 2021 New York Times editorial from Nicholas Kristof.

Or, if you’re more scientifically inclined, you could read this February 23, 2021 review article in The BMJ:Closing schools is not evidence based and harms children.

We are hurting kids under the guise of protecting older people. But we’re not even succeeding. Schools have such low rates of Covid-19 transmission that we’re hurting kids without accomplishing anything.

People from “my” political party have orchestrated this harm, which makes it feel all the worse.

The New York Times recently printed an editorial from someone at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute chiding us for our totally un-scientific school closures. Members of the Republican party are positioning themselves as the defenders of public education.

The Republican party has been trying to undermine public schools ever since the Supreme Court decided that maybe Black kids deserve an equal chance to learn. And we’re letting them posture as the defenders of education?

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During the vaccine roll-out, the New York Times set the stage for a big reveal – younger people were never in huge amounts of danger from Covid-19.

I don’t want to sound cavalier about this – Covid-19 is dangerous to people of all ages. It’s very similar to influenza.

Many people have a misconception that influenza is relatively harmless – sniffles & a runny nose – unless you’re elderly.

That’s not true.

Although the majority of cases of seasonal influenza are mild, it’s a deadly disease. Young healthy people die of influenza every year.

Most influenza deaths are recorded as “pneumonia” during post-mortem reports. To compare the dangers of Covid-19 to influenza, we’d want to measure how many more pneumonia deaths we’ve seen recently.

In a typical year, there are about 130,000 pneumonia deaths in the United States – these might be caused by influenza, coronaviruses, rhinoviruses, etc.

Many if not most of these deaths are caused by influenza – the column of numbers reporting verified influenza deaths is so low because we don’t always test for it, and when we do we typically use a low-quality antigen test.

Last year, though, was much worse – between January 1, 2020 and February 24, 2021, there were 670,000 pneumonia deaths in the United States. During those 14 months, five-fold more people died from this set of symptoms than we’d expect during a normal year.

We’ve also had about five times as many infections. Usually, about 30 million people contract seasonal influenza each year. The CDC estimates that perhaps 100 million people contracted Covid-19 during the ten months from February 2020 to December 2020.

That’s why the CDC’s rough estimates for the “infection fatality ratio” of Covid-19 are about the same as for influenza.

Last year, more people died from Covid-19 than would be expected from a typical year’s burden of seasonal influenza, but that’s because there were many more infections.

Seasonal influenza and Covid-19 are both deadly diseases. And it’s worth comparing them because the pandemic might be declared “over” once Covid-19 deaths fall to influenza-like levels.

That’s what most public health experts said when they were interviewed by Alexis Madrigal for an article in The Atlantic – that a reasonable goal is for Covid-19 “to mirror the typical mortality of influenza in the U.S. over a typical year.

Which seems like a bit of a cop out. You’re going to call it “over” while people are still dying?

But we have to. Covid-19 will probably be with us forever. Like the coronavirus OC43, which we picked up from cows and which probably killed over a million people during the 1890 pandemic, Covid-19 will continue to make humans sick indefinitely.

Elderly people – especially those who weren’t exposed to Covid-19 as children – will always be particularly susceptible.

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Early on during the pandemic – when we already had a good sense that younger people weren’t in much personal danger but also knew that we could only slow the spread of Covid-19 if younger people made sacrifices – we concocted a narrative that healthy young people were at high risk, too.

In March 2020, the New York Times printed an editorial from Fiona Lowenstein, a 26 year old who became tragically ill, saying “Millennials: if you can’t stay at home for others, do it for yourselves.

In May 2020, the New York Times printed an editorial from Mara Gay, a 33 year old who became tragically ill, saying “I want Americans to understand that this virus is making otherwise young, healthy people very, very sick. I want them to know, this is no flu.

During a “mild” flu season, about 1,000 people aged 25-34 die of pneumonia.

This year, healthy young people have gotten very sick and even died of Covid-19 – which is tragic, but not unusual. Every year, healthy young people get very sick and die from influenza. This past year, with about five-fold more infections of an equivalently deadly disease, we’ve seen about five-fold more of these tragic young people’s deaths.

Now that a vaccine is available, though, the narrative has shifted.

In the February 28, 2021 New York Times Magazine, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Ethicist” column says that “Health care workers who are in their 20s and don’t have certain medical conditions aren’t at high risk if they contract Covid-19. Perhaps we could save more lives if we left them [to be vaccinated] until later.

Now that we have a limited supply of vaccines, older, wealthier people benefit if young people are less afraid of Covid-19.

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By delaying Covid-19 infection, young people increased their personal risk. Early during the pandemic, the virus was not particularly dangerous for young people. By now, though, there have now been millions of transmission events – millions of opportunities for mutant variants to arise.

And indeed, in February 2021 the New York Times reports that “it is likely that the [new Covid-19 virus] variant is linked to an increased risk of hospitalization and death.”

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Currently, we’re rationing the limited supply of Covid-19 vaccines based on age.

This is hypocritical, and potentially misguided.

When people develop such severe complications from Covid-19 that they require ventilation in order to have a chance of surviving, a younger person is more likely to benefit from the treatment. This holds both in terms of absolute number of lives saved, and is even more dramatic if you consider the years of life saved.

With a limited supply of ventilators, you can accomplish most by reserving them for the young – and we said that would be horrible.

In a March 2020 article for the New York Times, Sheri Fink wrote that the health department’s civil rights office would ensure “that states did not allow medical providers to discriminate on the basis of … age … when deciding who would receive lifesaving medical care.

In April 2020, Joel Zivot wrote for Medpage that “Rationing ventilators by age is wrong.

Although we declared that it would be unethical to ration healthcare (ventilators) by age, we’re now rationing healthcare (vaccines) by age. The difference is that a different group of people – older, on average wealthier – benefits.

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Rationing vaccines by age doesn’t even save the most lives.

Based on the CDC data, if both a 50-year-old and a 70-year-old are infected with Covid-19, the 70-year-old is about ten times more likely to die. That’s scary!

The major benefit of the vaccine is that it reduces the chance of severe illness if you are exposed to Covid-19. But we also know other ways to reduce the odds of exposure – a person can stay home, wear a mask near others, minimize the number of unique individuals they come into contact with.

If the 70-year-old has retired, they should be able to reduce the number of unique individuals they see each week to ten or fewer. But a 50-year-old grocery store clerk might see a thousand or more unique individuals each week, and have to spend time in fairly close proximity to each.

If the 50-year-old is at least ten-fold more likely to be exposed to Covid-19, then you’ll save more lives by giving the vaccine to them instead of to the 70-year-old.

Not only did we declare that rationing healthcare by age was wrong when it benefited younger people, but now we’re doing it even though it doesn’t save the most lives.

The unfairness is even more dramatic if we consider the risk of hospitalization. According to the CDC chart above, if both a 20-year-old and a 70-year-old are infected with Covid-19, the 70-year-old is about five times as likely to be hospitalized. But Medicare will pay the hospital bill. If a 20-year-old is hospitalized, they might face ruinous medical debt.

It’s quite likely that the obligations of most 20-year-olds – going to school, going to work, taking care of family – make them at least five times as likely to be exposed to Covid-19. We could stop lives from being ruined by medical debt if we vaccinated 20-year-olds first.

A friend of mine works in a take-out & delivery pizza restaurant in Chicago. For other people to be able to stay home and order food, he had to go in to work. His risk of exposure to Covid-19 was much higher than other people’s. As a healthy athlete in his late twenties, he wasn’t at high risk, but he was unlucky – when he got sick, he was so ill that he spent weeks in the hospital. He’s still recovering from his ruptured lung. He has no idea how to pay the $200,000 medical bill.

Because we’re rationing care by age, we’re not protecting people like him. Even though his risk – interacting with customers all day – made it possible for others to stay safe.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has been awful, but I was pleased that people took fewer plane flights. Our carbon emissions briefly dropped.

Now that older people have received vaccines, though, they’ll resume flying.

For a February 17, 2021 article in the New York Times, Debra Kamin writes that “When the coronavirus hit, Jim and Cheryl Drayer, 69 and 72, canceled all their planned travel and hunkered down in their home in Dallas, Texas. But earlier this month, the Drayers both received the second dose of their Covid-19 vaccinations. And in March, armed with their new antibodies, they are heading to Maui for a long overdue vacation.

Americans over 65, who have had priority access to inoculations, are now newly emboldened to travel – often while their children and grandchildren continue to wait for a vaccine.

Newly protected against Covid-19, they’ll increase their contributions to climate change.

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Climate change has the opposite risk profile from Covid-19. Covid-19 is most dangerous for the old; climate change is most dangerous for the young, and for generations not yet born.

In some sense, it’s trivializing to even compare these. The risk from climate change is so much more severe.

If we make our planet inhospitable – if our crops fail due to storms or heat waves – the carrying capacity of Earth could easily fall by half.

We will see billions, not millions, of deaths.

Someone who is elderly today is unlikely to survive long enough to experience the worst effects of climate change – although it’s true that in severe weather events like Chicago’s fluke summer heat waves or Texas’s fluke winter storms, elderly people who live alone are exceptionally vulnerable.

Still, younger adults will have to endure worse calamities. They’ll live through more years of severe weather, crop failures, dangerous heat, lingering smog. And, since society will be forced to spend more money each year to maintain humanity’s precarious place on this planet – rebuilding after fires or floods – younger adults will face an increasingly inhospitable world with less wealth at their disposal.

Today’s children will encounter even worse. They’ll experience every disaster that today’s young adults will survive to see, and then some.

Generations not yet born may inherit a nightmare.

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When people who currently have wealth were in danger, we created a narrative that everyone needed to make sacrifices. The largest sacrifices came from those who benefited least.

We’re still keeping children out of school – for almost no benefit in terms of Covid-19 transmission – in order to protect older, wealthier people.

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Climate change is and has been caused primarily by those with the most wealth. If you can buy more meat, if you can take more plane flights, if you can purchase a bigger home, then you’re able to cause more climate change.

To stop climate change, we need wealthy people to make sacrifices. Buy less, fly less, eat plants.

But why would they?

Currently wealthy people aren’t in danger.

And – worse – currently wealthy people often became wealthy by treating the world as a competitive place. Now we’re asking them to cooperate? To make sacrifices for the sake of others?

Meat tastes good. Flying to Maui is fun. Doesn’t a person who worked hard deserve an enormous home?

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A curious thought about the Gamestop stock trading phenomenon: Many small investors – often younger people – were convinced through emotional arguments to buy a few shares of stock and hold them with “diamond hands.”

Don’t sell, even if the price dips!

There was a strange cooperative / competitive system going on. The cooperative portion would have been illegal had it not been done in public – people were colluding to make the shares hard to get, which forced the hedge fund to pay more in order to cover their short sales.

Short sales: a hedge fund had borrowed many shares of the stock and sold them, hoping the price would fall and that new shares could be purchased more cheaply when it was time to return them. So the hedge fund had basically announced, “On such & such a date, I must have this stock, no matter the price!” If other people all cooperate and say, “On that day, don’t sell it for less than $420.00,” then the hedge fund has to pay $420.00 per share, even if the company that the stock represents is worthless.

But here’s the competitive portion – the company, Gamestop, is probably going out of business eventually. Driving to a strip mall to buy a video game cartridge instead of downloading it? The stock isn’t worth much money. So people wanted to cooperate to hurt the hedge fund, but people were also forced to compete because nobody wanted to be holding the stock at the end of the day.

Everyone would like to sell it for a bunch of money, but not everyone will get to sell it.

Even if more than a hundred percent of shares are short sold, not everyone will get to sell it – the hedge fund can satisfy all their contracts by buying a share, returning it to someone, buying the same share back from that person, returning it to someone else, and so on.

So if you know that everybody else has put in a “sell order” at $420.00, because they think it’s a funny number, you benefit by putting in a sell order at $419. That way you get almost as much money as anyone else, but you’re guaranteed to sell yours, whereas only a fraction of the people with $420 sell orders get to trade their (worthless) stock for money.

But then, if you know that other people are going to plug in a sell order at $419, you benefit from selling yours at $418. Because what if too many people sell their shares at $419?? You might still be left out!

So there was an incentive for savvy investors – wealthy people who might have thousands of dollars on the line – to convince other people to hold onto the stock no matter what … even while selling their own.

Billions of dollars changed hands. Some people “made” a lot of money. And it wouldn’t have happened without cooperation – lots of people colluding against the hedge fund.

But the particular people who benefited were determined by a con. By selling shares while promoting a narrative that “if we all hold with diamond hands, this is going to the moon!”

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In some ways, our response to Covid-19 encourages me.

So many people – especially younger people – have shown themselves to be willing to cooperate.

A cloth mask traps your exhalations. Wearing a cloth mask makes your life worse, but it protects other people. Almost everybody in my home town wears a mask. Every young person at school wears a mask.

And yet.

Young people are willing to make sacrifices to protect older people. But therein lies the con.

We’re not making sacrifices to protect them.

Our carbon emissions are no different from pulling off this face mask and intentionally coughing in a young child’s face. We ought to feel ashamed.

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header image from Socialist Appeal on flickr

On octopuses and family gatherings.

On octopuses and family gatherings.

Recently, a dear friend sent me an article from Scientific American about the blanket octopus.

She and I had been discussing unusual animal mating, because that’s what you do, right? Global pandemic hits and you share freaky trivia with your friends.

Miniscule male anglerfish will merge with the body of a female if they find her, feeding off her blood. Deadbeat male clinginess at its worst.

Blanket octopuses also have extreme sexual dimorphism – a female’s tentacles can span seven feet wide, whereas the males are smaller than an inch.

But, wait, there’s more! In a 1963 article for Science magazine, marine biologist Everet Jones speculated that blanket octopuses might use jellyfish stingers as weapons.

While on a research cruise, Jones installed a night-light station to investigate the local fish.

Among the frequent visitors to the submerged light were a number of immature female blanket octopuses. I dip-netted one of these from the water and lifted it by hand out of the net. I experienced sudden and severe pain and involuntarily threw the octopus back into the water.

To determine the mechanism responsible for this sensation, 10 or 12 small octopuses were captured and I purposely placed each one on the tender areas of my hands. The severe pain occurred each time, but careful observation indicated that I was not being bitten.

The pain and resulting inflammation, which lasted several days, resembled the stings of the Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish, which was quite abundant in the area.

tl;dr – “It really hurt! So I did it again.”

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My spouse teaches high school biology. An important part of her class is addressing misconceptions about what science is.

Every so often, newspapers will send a reporter to interview my father about his research. Each time, they ask him to put on a lab coat and pipette something:

I mean, look at that – clearly, SCIENCE is happening here.

But it’s important to realize that this isn’t always what science looks like. Most of the time, academic researchers aren’t wearing lab coats. And most of the time, science isn’t done in a laboratory.

Careful observation of the natural world. Repeated tests to discover, if I do this, what will happen next? There are important parts of science, and these were practiced by our ancestors for thousands of years, long before anyone had laboratories. Indigenous people around the world have known so much about their local varieties of medicinal plants, and that’s knowledge that can only be acquired through scientific practice.

A nine month old who keeps pushing blocks off the edge of the high chair tray to see, will this block fall down, too? That’s science!

And this octopus article, published in the world’s most prestigious research journal? The experiment was to scoop up octopuses by hand and see how much it hurt.

It hurt a lot.

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The article that I linked to earlier, the Scientific American blog post that my friend had sent me, includes a video clip at the bottom. Here’s a direct link to the video:

I should warn, you, though. The first section of the video shows a blanket octopus streaming gracefully through the ocean. She’s beautiful. But then the clip continues with footage of a huge school of fish.

Obviously, I was hoping that they’d show the octopus lurch forward, wielding those jellyfish stingers like electrified nun-chucks to incapacitate the fish. I mean, yes, I’m vegan. I don’t want the fish to die. But an octopus has to eat. And, if the octopus is going to practice wicked cool tool-using martial arts, then I obviously want to see it.

But I can’t. Our oceans are big, and deep, and dark. We’re still making new discoveries when we send cameras down there. So far, nobody has ever filmed a blanket octopus catching fish this way.

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Every time I learn something new about octopuses, I think about family reunions.

About twenty years ago, I attended a family reunion in upstate New York. My grandparents were celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Many people were there whom I’d never met before, and whom I haven’t seen since. But most of us shared ancestors, often four or five or even six generations back.

And we all shared ancestors at some point, even the people who’d married in. From the beginning of life on Earth until 150,000 years ago, you could draw a single lineage – _____ begat ______ who begat ______ – that leads up to every single human alive today. We have an ancestor in common who lived 150,000 years ago, and so every lineage that leads to her will be shared by us all.

There’s also an ancestor that all humans alive today share with all octopuses alive today. So we could host a family reunion for all of her descendants – we humans would be invited, and blanket octopuses would be, too.

I would love to meet a blanket octopus. They’re brilliant creatures. If we could find a way to communicate, I’m sure there’d be lots to talk about.

But there’s a problem. You see, not everyone invited to this family reunion would be a scintillating conversationalist.

That ancestor we share? Here’s a drawing of her from Jian Han et al.’s Nature article.

She was about the size of a grain of rice.

And, yes, some of her descendants are brilliant. Octopuses. Dolphins. Crows. Chimpanzees. Us.

But this family reunion would also include a bunch of worms, moles, snails, and bugs. A lot of bugs. Almost every animals would’ve been invited, excluding only jellyfish and sponges. Many of the guests would want to lay eggs in the potato salad.

So, sure, it’d be cool to get to meet up with the octopuses, our long-lost undersea cousins. But we might end up seated next to an earthworm instead.

I’m sure that worms are very nice. Charles Darwin was fascinated by the intelligence of earthworms. Still, it’s hard to have a conversation with somebody when you don’t have a lot of common interests.

On hubris and climate change.

On hubris and climate change.

Recently, a local science teacher sent me an essay written by a climate change skeptic.

Well, okay. I figured that I could skim the essay, look over the data, and briefly explain what the author’s errors were. After all, it’s really important to help teachers understand this topic, because they’re training our next generation of citizens.

And I thought to myself, how hard can this be? After all, I’m a scientist. I felt unconcerned that I’ve never read research papers about climate science before, and that it’s been years since I’ve worked through the sort of differential equations you need for even basic fluid mechanics calculations, and that I’ve never run any simulations on oceanic heat transfer or glacier melting.

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Since then, I’ve read a fair bit about climate science. I’ll be honest: I didn’t go through the math. All I did was read the papers and look over the processed data.

This is lazy, I know. I’m sorry. But my kids are at home. At the moment, this is the best I’ve got.

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Prominent climate change skeptic Richard Lindzen, an emeritus professor of meteorology, recently delivered a lecture to the Global Warming Policy Foundation. I wholeheartedly agreed with Lindzen when he stressed that the science behind climate change is really, really complicated.

Former senator and Secretary of State John F. Kerry is typical when he stated, with reference to greenhouse warming, ‘I know sometimes I can remember from when I was in high school and college, some aspects of chemistry or physics can be tough. But this is not tough. This is simple. Kids at the earliest age can understand this.’

As you have seen, the greenhouse effect is not all that simple. Only remarkably brilliant kids would understand it. Given Kerry’s subsequent description of climate and its underlying physics, it was clear that he was not up to the task.

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Climate science is tricky. In a moment, I’ll try to explain why it’s so tricky.

When people make predictions about what’s going to happen if the average global temperature rises by half a degree – or one degree, or two – their predictions are probably incorrect.

My assumption that I could skim through somebody’s essay and breezily explain away the errors was incredibly arrogant. I was a fool, I tell you! A fool!

But my arrogance pales in comparison to the hubris of climate change skeptics. Once I started learning about climate science, I realized how maddeningly difficult it is.

Lindzen, who should know better, has instead made brash claims:

So there you have it. An implausible conjecture backed by false evidence and repeated incessantly has become politically correct ‘knowledge,’ and is used to promote the overturn of industrial civilization. What we will be leaving our grandchildren is not a planet damaged by industrial progress, but a record of unfathomable silliness as well as a landscape degraded by rusting wind farms and decaying solar panel arrays.

There is at least one positive aspect to the present situation. None of the proposed policies will have much impact on greenhouse gases. Thus we will continue to benefit from the one thing that can be clearly attributed to elevated carbon dioxide: namely, its effective role as a plant fertilizer, and reducer of the drought vulnerability of plants.

Meanwhile, the IPCC is claiming that we need to prevent another 0.5ºC of warming, although the 1ºC that has occurred so far has been accompanied by the greatest increase in human welfare in history.

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So. What aspects of climate science can we understand, and what’s too hard?

Let’s start with the easy stuff. Our planet gets energy from the sun. The sun is a giant ball of thermonuclear fire, spewing electromagnetic radiation. When these photons reach Earth, they’re relatively high energy – with wavelengths mostly in the visible spectrum – and they’re all traveling in the same direction.

What we do – “we” here referring to all the inhabitants of our planet, including the rocks and plants and other animals and us – is absorb a small number of well-organized, high-energy photons, and then release a larger number of ill-organized, low-energy photons. This is favorable according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. We’re making chaos.

And here’s the greenhouse effect: if the high-energy photons from the sun can pass through our atmosphere, but then the low-energy photons that we release get absorbed, we (as a planet) will retain more of the sun’s energy. Our planet heats up.

Easy!

And, in defense of former senator John Kerry, this is something that a kid can understand. My children are four and six, and this summer we’re going to build a solar oven out of a pane of glass and a cardboard box. (After all, we need stuff to do while all the camps are closed.)

If we fill our air with more carbon dioxide, which lets the sun’s high-energy photons in but then won’t let our low-energy photons out, the planet should heat up, right? What’s the hard part?

Well, the problem – the reason why climate science is too difficult for humans to predict, even with the most powerful computers at our command – is that there are many feedback loops involved.

Some of these are “negative feedback loops” – although atmospheric carbon dioxide causes us to absorb more energy from the sun, various mechanisms can buffer us from a rise in temperature. For example, warm air can hold more water vapor, leading to more cloud formation, which will reflect more sunlight back into space. If the sun’s high-energy photons can’t reach us, the warming stops.

And some are “positive feedback loops” – as we absorb extra energy from the sun, which causes the planet to heat up a little, various mechanisms can cause us to absorb even more energy in the future, and then the planet will heat up a lot. This may be what happened on Venus. The planet Venus may have been habitable, a long long time ago, but then runaway climate change led to the formation of a thick layer of smog, and now it’s broiling, with sulfuric acid drizzling from the sky.

On Earth, an example of a positive feedback loop would be the melting of polar ice caps. As polar ice melts, it reflects less light, so our planet absorbs more of the sun’s energy. Heat made the ice melt in the first place, but then, once the ice has melted, we heat up even more.

And it turns out that there are a huge number of different positive and negative feedback loops. After all, our planet is really big!

For instance, the essay I was sent included graphs of ice core data suggesting that, in the ancient past, changes in average global temperatures may have preceded changes in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Frank Brown Cloud holding demo ice core.
Holding a demo ice core like my spouse uses in her classroom. The real ones drilled from glaciers are several miles long! I haven’t spent enough time at the gym to lift those.

But this is just another feedback loop. In the past, there was no mechanism for carbon dioxide to pour into our atmosphere before temperatures rose – dinosaurs didn’t invent internal combustion engines. This is the first time on Earth when carbon dioxide levels could rise before temperatures, and we don’t know yet what the effect will be.

Extra carbon dioxide will probably cause an increase in temperature, but a planet’s climate is really complicated. We have huge quantities of poorly mixed water (otherwise known as oceans). Our topography is jagged, interspersed with valleys and mountains. There are huge forests (only some of which are on fire). The air is turbulent.

We might find that temperatures are buffered more than we thought. The ocean might act like a giant heat sink.

Or then again, the ocean might warm up, accelerate polar ice loss by lapping at the undersides of glaciers, and magnify the changes.

The mathematics underlying fluid mechanics and heat transfer within an enormous, inhomogeneous system are so complex that it’s almost impossible to say. Nobody knows how much detail you’d need to put into a simulation to get accurate results – all we know for sure is that we can’t simulate the world with as much detail as actually exists. All our models are approximations. Some of them contradict each other.

With my admittedly limited understanding, I don’t think anybody knows enough to assert with confidence whether our climate will exhibit either buffered or switch-like behavior. Maybe we can muck about without hurting much. Or we might bring about our own doom with a tiny mistake.

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Our planet’s climate is so complex that you could make a similar argument – we really don’t know whether we’re going to be buffered from future changes, or whether we’re at the precipice of doom – no matter what evidence we obtain.

Maybe sea levels start rising – well, perhaps that will somehow reduce the further heating of our planet. Maybe we get more horrible tropical storms – well, perhaps they’re linked to a greater density of sunlight-reflecting clouds.

Maybe things seem to be changing fast for a little while, but then we enter another stable state.

Or, insidiously, maybe it will seem like we’re in a well-buffered system – pumping large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere without seeing much harm – until, suddenly, we tip over the edge. We often see that sort of behavior from positive feedback loops. Nothing seems to happen, for a while, then everything changes at once. That’s how cooperative binding of oxygen to hemoglobin works in your body.

Another problem is that climate change will probably happen on a very different rhythm from our lives. Weather happens on timescales that we can understand. A decade of droughts. Two years of tropical storms. A few hard winters, or hot summers. But climate happens over hundreds or thousands of years. Most of the time, it changes more slowly than we’d notice.

A two degree shift in average global temperatures, spread out over a few decades? That’s bad, but it’s boring. Which was the main focus of Jonathan Safran Foer’s We Are the Weather.

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.”

Climate science doesn’t fit our culture. Especially not now, when the pressures of surveillance capitalism have forced even the New York Times to run like an advertising company. They earn more from news that gets clicks. Stories need to be sensational. Yes, they run stories about climate change. For these, the polar bears need to be dying, now, and there needs to be an evil villain like Exon lurking in the shadows.

Nobody wants to click on a story explaining that we, collectively, have made and are making a whole lot of small shabby decisions that will cause grizzly bears and polar bears to re-mix and de-speciate.

I got bored even typing that sentence.

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Life is incredibly robust.

Our planet has swung through many extremes of temperature. At times, it’s been much hotter than it is now. At times, it was much colder. And life has marched on.

The human species is much less robust than life itself, though. Our kind has flourished for only a brief twinkling of time, during which our climate has been quite stable and mild. A small change could drive us to extinction. An even smaller change could cause our nations to collapse.

Disrupt our food supply – which could happen with just a few years of bad weather, let alone climate change – and there will be war.

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So. I tried to learn about climate change, focusing on the work of skeptics. And in the end, I partly agreed with the skeptics:

I agree that climate science is too complicated for anyone to understand.

I appreciate that people are trying. I had fun learning about ice cores, atmospheric modeling, energy absorption, and the like. Well, sometimes I was having fun. I also gave myself several headaches along the way. But also, my kids were being wild. They’ve been home from school for three months now! I was probably on the precipice of headaches before I even began.

Here’s where I disagree with the skeptics, though: given that climate science is too complicated for us to understand – and given that we know that small changes in average temperature can make the world a much worse place to live – why would be blithely continue to perturb our climate in an unprecedented way?

Maybe things will be fine. Yay buffers! Or maybe we’ll reduce the carrying capacity of the planet Earth from a few billion humans to a few million, dooming most of our kind.

I know, I know – eventually our universe will dwindle into heat death, so our species is terminal anyway. We will go extinct. It’s guaranteed.

I still think it would be neat if our great-great-grandchilden were out there among the stars. At least for a little while.

Or even, if they stay here on Earth, it’s nice to imagine them living on a comfortable planet with lots of beautiful trees, and interesting animals to see.

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Also, I’m biased.

After all, what are the things that you’re supposed to do if you want to reduce your carbon emissions?

Eat fewer animal products. Live in a smaller home. Drive less. Fly less. Buy less stuff.

Those are all things that I’d recommend to most Americans, for ethical and philosophical reasons, even if we weren’t concerned about climate change. So for me, personally, I don’t need to see much proof that we’ll ruin our climate unless we do these things. I think we should be doing them anyway.

Instead, I think the burden of proof should fall to the people hawking Big Macs. I’d want them to show that a world full of CAFO-raised cows won’t cause climate change, won’t propagate antibiotic resistant bacteria, won’t condemn billions of conscious beings to a torturous existence.

The world is complex. We’re going to err.

I’d rather err on the side of kindness.

On noticing.

On noticing.

Midway through dinner, I thought I heard a strange sound.  A faint bleating, maybe, that seemed to be coming from our backyard.  Many musicians studying at the Jacobs School live in the apartment complex behind our house – we can often hear them practicing – but this didn’t sound like a conventional instrument.

I stood up, walked over to the window, and opened it, looking around our yard.  It’s currently grackle mating season – watching a male grackle inflate his plumage to double his size is pretty incredible – and they make a variety of noises.  So I suspected an ardent bird.  I lingered there a moment, looking and listening, trying to determine where the sound had come from.

Those few seconds were too long.

I heard it again, and, with the window open, recognized the distress cry of a young rabbit.

I pulled off my socks, ran outside.  Sprinted around our house to the small fenced enclosure where we have our air conditioning unit.

A large rabbit fled from the HVAC enclosure when it saw me.  It bolted across the yard and slipped through the back fence.

Yes.  Our yard has a lot of fences.  We have dogs.  The back fence keeps them inside the yard.  The fence around the HVAC unit keeps our dogs from crashing into the various wires and tubing and ripping them from the wall (which our younger dog did last year, necessitating expensive repairs).

The distress call had stopped, but now I knew where to look.  And there, sprawled on the mulch, was a juvenile rabbit, about as big as my hand.  His fur had been ripped from his face, leaving his nose raw and bleeding; he was also bleeding from gaping wounds down his back, and his hind legs were broken.  (I’m assuming gender here because I think that’s what triggered the attack – probably a territorial adult male felt that this juvenile was impinging on his territory.)

The mutilated juvenile sat watching me for a moment, then tried to hop away.  He couldn’t.  His legs kicked back slowly and he toppled.

Prostrate on his side, the wounds looked even worse.  He was breathing heavily, watching me.

My children, still inside the house, called through the window to ask what was happening.  I shook my head.

“There’s a baby rabbit, and he’s very, very hurt.  He’s going to die.”

The kids wanted to come see.  I didn’t really want them to – they are only four and six years old – but we all have to learn about death.  Our elder child visited her grandfather in hospice while he was dying after a stroke, and she understands that her grandmother died after somebody hurt her.  Our younger child is at an age where many of the stories she tells involve death, but I’m not sure she understands the permanence yet.

And the thing I really didn’t want to talk about – but would have to, for them to understand – is the brutality of territorial violence.  I hadn’t known that it was so horrific in rabbits.  This baby bunny had been murdered by an irate elder.

And the violence that we humans use to claim and protect territory is one of the worst aspects of our species.  We are a brilliantly inventive species.  Many – perhaps most – of our inventions sprang from the desire to make better weapons.

The world was here before us, but we pound sticks into the ground and say “This part of the world is mine.”

We’re far too fond of building walls. 

And fences.

I sighed.

The kids joined me outside.  My spouse came out; as soon as she saw the poor rabbit, she cried.  I tried, as gently and non-pedantically as I was able, to explain what had happened.

My younger child clasped her hands in front of her chin.  “I’m sad the baby bunny is going to die.”

The rabbit’s breathing was clearly labored.  I wonder how well he understood that this was the end.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m sad, too.”

The sun was setting, and the air was starting to grow chilly.  My spouse went back inside and cut up one of my old socks (I typically wear socks until they disintegrate, and my spouse thinks that any sock missing both the heel and toes is fair game to destroy, so we always have spare fabric on hand) to make a small blanket.

The dying rabbit probably felt scared – I’d asked the kids to keep a respectful distance, but we humans are quite large.  Still, I tried to make myself as small as possible as I reached out to cover the rabbit’s torso with the blanket.  I left my hand there, gently resting over his chest, for warmth.  I could feel his panting breaths rise and fall beneath my palm.

I quietly offered my apologies and said a prayer.  The rabbit watched me.  I tried to smile with no teeth.  I stayed crouching, immobile, until the rabbit’s breathing stopped five minutes later.

Then I went inside and finished eating dinner.

At times, being vegan is a comfort.  All of us, in living, impose harms upon the world – that’s the unfortunate nature of existence.  To grow food crops, we till the soil.  Spray pesticides.  And kill all those plants.

Our lives matter, too.  If we don’t take care of ourselves, and strive to enjoy our time alive – if we don’t place value on our own lives – then how could we value others?

Still, my family tries to minimize the harm we wreck by being here.  We live well, but try to be cognizant of the costs.

I was glad that the meal I returned to was made from only plants.

After I finished eating, I went and sat on our front porch with my children.  We spread a blanket over our laps.  We watched birds flit between the trees.  A chipmunk dashed across the lawn.  Two squirrels chased each other through a neighbors yard.

Our elder child clutched me tightly.  I hugged her back.  We sat silently.  I didn’t know what to say.

Then it was time for the kids to go to bed.

It was my spouse’s turn to read the bedtime stories that night, and our dogs wanted to go outside, so I took them to the back yard. 

I don’t think our dogs would hurt a rabbit – when my father-in-law died, the dwarf rabbit he’d purchased as a love token for his twenty-year-old ladyfriend came to live with us (they’d broken up a few days before his stroke, which is why she didn’t want to adopt the rabbit), and when our dogs dug up a rabbit’s nest two years ago, they gently carried a newborn bunny around the yard (we returned it to the nest and it survived until it was old enough to hop away).

I didn’t want for the dogs to carry the dead rabbit around our yard, though.  Or hide it somewhere for the kids to find.

So I walked over to the HVAC unit, ready to explain to the dogs not to bother it.  But the rabbit was gone.  The sock blanket was still there, but no corpse.

We don’t live in a particularly rural area – we’re in Bloomington, about half a mile south of the Indiana University campus.  Our backyard is shared with a sixty-unit apartment complex.  And yet.  Even here, the natural world is bustling enough that a dead thing can disappear within twenty minutes.  I’ve seen hawks, vultures, crows, raccoons, possums, skunks.  Many deer, and a groundhog, although they wouldn’t eat a rabbit.  One semi-feral cat.  I’ve seen foxes down the street from us, in fields a half mile away, but never in our yard.

And, it’s strange.  The dead rabbit lay in our yard for less than twenty minutes.  If we had been listening to music over dinner – which we often do – I wouldn’t have heard his cries through the glass windowpane.

Scientists often pride ourselves on our powers of observations.  But noticing, this time, only made me sad.  If I hadn’t heard that faint sound, I never would have realized that anything untoward had happened in our yard.  And I could have remained blissfully ignorant of the ruthless violence that rabbits apparently inflict upon young children.

The natural world is not a peaceful place.

Still.  I would rather know.  Understanding the pervasive violence that surrounds us helps me to remember how important it is – since we have a choice – to choose to do better.

On worms.

On worms.

My spouse is a high school teacher, and because her students are no longer attending class, they have more time to make TikTok videos.

I’m not quite sure what a TikTok video is.  I think it’s something like a Vine video, but longer.  Or perhaps something like a YouTube video, but shorter.  Or perhaps something like a Music Video, but not introduced by Kurt Loder.

Last year I was volunteering with a local sixth grader once a week, working mostly on music theory and game design, and every so often he’d eye me as though I were a Homo erectus freshly emerged from a block of glacial ice.  My gaffes weren’t even that egregious!  I just don’t know about TikTok!

So it goes.

While working on a TikTok video, one of my spouse’s students messaged her to ask, “Would you still teach me if I was a worm?”

My spouse wrote back, “I don’t know. One of my kids had ringworm last year and it was awful!”

Ask a silly question, you get a silly answer.

And that’s where it should end, right?  But the student persisted – after all, my spouse’s answer was insufficient basis for a good TikTok video.

“No, I mean like a regular earthworm.”

So, here’s the deal.  If you ask a silly question – once – you get a silly answer.  But the second time?

That’s when we unleash the trolls.

And by “trolls,” I mean me.

Image by Thomas Brown on Flickr.

If I were working with a student interested in the educational capabilities of earthworms, I’d first mention Charles Darwin’s experiments on earthworm intelligence.  Worms dig little burrows in the dirt, and they often plug the entrances of these with leaves. 

So Darwin gave the worms novel building materials – not space-age polymer fabrics or anything, just different types of leaves – and let the worms choose which to use to plug up their burrows.  In his estimation, the worms made sensible choices.  You can read a lovely description of this experiment in Eileen Crist’s “The Inner Life of Earthworms.”

Then I might slide into a discussion of equality among worms, perhaps citing the recent children’s picture book, Worm Loves Worm.  I imagine that, like the other characters of that story, our worm’s schoolmates would benefit by having more diversity in class.

And then, because my thoughts tend to careen suddenly to darkness, I might mention my unfinished horror novel, “Our Heroic Annelid Makes a Daring Escape.” 

You see, moles often capture worms and save them for later.  The doomed worms are stored inside the mole’s burrow. 

The mole doesn’t kill the worms – then they’d rot.  But worms can’t just be left inside a mud-lined burrow – then they’d dig their way out. 

So moles mutilate their captives.  An injured worm is unable to dig free, and, because worms rely largely on their sematosensory system to construct a mental image of the world, the worm is partially blinded.

But worms can regenerate.  So the tension of the story becomes, will the worm heal before the mole returns to eat it?

So spooky!

By Kenneth Catania, Vanderbilt University, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8923296

All told, I would be willing to teach an earthworm.  It seems that worms have the cognitive capacity to learn at least a little.  But it would be heartbreaking to have one of my students captured by a mole.

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 birds watching.

On birds watching.

In jail recently, we were talking about birds.

“Yeah, my grandfather had something like a thousand chickens, had them running all through the yard,” somebody said.  “And there was this one chicken, he was a mean one.  I was kind of afraid of it, strutting around like he owned the place.  So my grandfather, he told me to kick it.”

“Well, I did, but that only made things worse.  I didn’t make him scared, I just made that chicken hate me.  So after that, anytime we went to visit my grandfather’s place, that chicken would be there, waiting for me.”

“My parents, my brothers and sisters, everybody would get out of the car, but the chicken wouldn’t bother them.  He’d be sitting there, staring, just waiting for me.  And when I finally got out I had to run, every time, sprinting to my grandfather’s front door before that chicken got me.”

“They live a long time, too!  I had, like, five or six years of that!  And still to this day, anytime my mom sees a video or a picture of somebody running from a chicken on Facebook, she’ll tag me in it.  Like, ha ha ha, remember that?”

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“Maybe you didn’t kick him hard enough,” somebody suggested.  “Cause we used to have chickens, and I had to go into the coop sometimes, and the roof of it was real low to the ground, so I had to crouch in there like this, and one chicken would always strut up to me like it was going to start something.”

“Well, it did that every time for a few months, till one day it got in my face and I just went BOOM, and I wrestled that little fucker to the ground.  And that chicken never messed with me again.”

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Birds can recognize individual humans. 

Biologist John Marzluff noticed that crows became wary of particular researchers after the crows had been captured and tagged.  In an experiment where researchers captured a half dozen crows while wearing a caveman mask, they found that the whole flock learned to respond to that mask as a threat.  Several years later, even crows who hadn’t seen the caveman’s initial misbehavior would shriek a warning when they saw that mask.  They’d been trained by their flockmates.

The caveman mask is on the left. On the right: a control mask.

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Between their intelligence and acute eyesight, birds can serve as passable oncologists.  Pigeons were trained with a set of slides from biopsies – a pigeon had to inspect each image and then choose a button for “cancer” or “not cancer”.  If the pigeon chose correctly, the computer would dispense a pellet of food.

(Human medical students are often mistreated during their training, forced to work grueling hours with few breaks.  The pigeon trainees were also mistreated – to ensure that they valued each food pellet, the pigeons were starved during the experiment.  I’m 6 feet tall and about 150 pounds, but if I were participating in this study, I’d be kept at 127 pounds – eighty-five percent of my “free feeding” weight.)

Pigeons learned to diagnose biopsies with 80% accuracy.  A team of eight pigeons voting together could diagnose biopsies with 99% accuracy

The team of pigeons was just as good as a human oncologist, and far better than computerized image analysis.

You can buy 50 pounds of pigeon pellets for under $10.  That’d give you enough rewards for a flock of half-starved pigeons to diagnose thousands of patients.

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We used to think that an entire class of vertebrates had gone extinct – the dinosaurs.  But we now know that birds are dinosaurs. 

Several species of dinosaurs/birds are gone – millions of years have passed since tyrannosaurs or velociraptors roamed the earth.  But their lineage has continued.

When I was growing up, people often remarked that dinosaurs were clearly dim-witted creatures because they have such small cranial cavities.  There was not much room for brains in their skulls! 

But contemporary dinosaurs/birds have small brains, too, and many are extremely intelligent.  They can chase kids who’ve crossed them.  They can diagnose cancer.  They can make tools, solve logic puzzles, and guess what other animals are thinking.

All with minuscule brains!

When biologist Suzana Herculano-Houzel investigated the brains of various species, she found that the number of neurons in a brain typically correlates with cognitive capacity.  More neurons makes for a smarter critter!

The physical size of a brain doesn’t tell you how many neurons will be in a brain, though.  A bigger brain might just have bigger neurons

As it happens, birds’ brains are constructed better than our own.  Crows and parrots pack neurons into a brain more densely than we do, like the difference between old IBM mainframes and modern telephones.  Pigeon brains are better than ours at parallel computing, like the difference between a hypothetical quantum computer and your current laptop.

We can outsmart crows, parrots, and pigeons, but only because our raw neuron counts are so high that we’ve not been surpassed by their superior designs.

We don’t know when dinosaurs/birds evolved their high neuron densities – well-designed brains might be recent innovations, or they might be millions of years old.  Ancient dinosaurs may have been far more intelligent than we thought.

Yes, they still went extinct, but you can’t blame them for succumbing to climate change.  And it’s not like they caused the climate change that killed them.

Future archaeologists might judge humans to be more foolish than any stegosaurus.

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We humans have huge numbers of neurons in our cerebral cortex.  We are blisteringly clever.  We’ve made all variety of tools, languages, and complex social structures.  Yes, crows also have tools, language, and complex social structures, but in each category, human achievements are even more complex.

A crow tool is typically a hooked piece of stick.  We built telephones.

Well, humans collectively built telephones.  I couldn’t sit down and build one from scratch.  If I were to make a tool while out hiking, it’d probably be a hooked piece of stick.

Still, our best achievements are pretty incredible. 

But we’ve also brought our species to the brink of extinction.  Through overpopulation and excessive exploitation of the planet’s trapped resources, we’re making our world less habitable. 

Tyrannosaurus ruled this planet for a few million years.  Humans have been a dominant species for only a hundred thousand years – a few percent of T-Rex’s reign.  With the current pace of climate change, scientists soberly discuss the possibility that we’ll reap apocalypse within a hundred more years.

Measured by reign, we might prove 20-fold less successful than those giant birds.

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.