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.”
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.
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.
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 Naturearticle.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But worms can regenerate. So the tension of the story becomes, will the worm heal before the mole returns to eat it?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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.
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.)
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!
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.
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.
The choices we’re making might cause everyone to die.
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.
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.
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.
to hybrid vehicles wouldn’t save us.
Deciding to eat plant-based foods would.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
understand it, but we can’t feel it.
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
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.
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.
change is dull. Antibiotic resistance is
even more dull.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
assume that you, personally, have never clear-cut and burned a patch of the
Amazon rain forest. Neither have I. The number of people who have done the actual
cutting is vanishingly small compared to the world’s population.
I also assume that you enjoy living in a world where the Amazon rain forest exists — certainly more than you’d enjoy living in a world where it had all been slashed and burned. If we lose the Amazon rain forest, climate change might spiral out of control, flooding coastal cities worldwide and causing desertification in much of the interior United States. If we lose the Amazon rain forest, huge numbers of species will go extinct, including a wide variety of medicinal plants that we’ve only begun to investigate.
the rain forest is beautiful. Future
generations would feel an ache of want – likely compounded with a mix of
jealousy and anger – if they saw photographs of the Amazon rain forest after it
I was in elementary school, my third grade class sponsored a patch of the
Amazon rain forest. In retrospect, I’m
not sure what this entailed. We raised
money and sent it off in an envelope. I
don’t remember whether we ever saw photographs of “our” forest, whether the
arrangement was supposedly akin to a rental or purchase of those trees.
have no idea who received our sponsorship money, but the general idea that
money should be sent from the U.S. to Brazil is actually correct. Many of the world’s problems would be easier
to address if we used a global wealth tax to fund a guaranteed basic income for
everyone. At the very least, if there
are natural resources that benefit all of humanity, then countries that are
currently wealthy because they ravaged their environments should pay to encourage
other nations not to accrue wealth through extractive industries.
Some people in Brazil would be wealthier if the Amazon rain forest were destroyed. Everyone in the world would suffer as a result. If we – everyone outside Brazil – would prefer that the rain forest not be destroyed, we should compensate Brazilians for the foregone short-term economic benefits.
you are fantastically wealthy, you personally will be unable to enact this
policy on your own. If I decided to
split my family’s entire annual income among the people of Brazil, each would
get 2% of a penny … and my family would be left with nothing.
guaranteed basic income is the right policy, but it’s not something that I can
accomplish as an individual.
In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer discusses how each one of us can help preserve the Amazon rain forest today. We as a people should strive for political solutions to the world’s problems, but we as individuals shouldn’t make choices that exacerbate those very problems. It would seem hypocritical to lobby for fines against littering if we continued to blithely toss candy bar wrappers onto the ground.
describes how painful it feels to recognize this hypocrisy in himself. This sensation grows more intense as he
watches his children grow in a world that is becoming increasingly dangerous.
what kind of father prioritizes feeling good over doing good?”
knows that he could choose to help. Each
day, he could act in a way that makes his children’s world safer.
is a far more pernicious form of science denial than Trump’s: the form that
parades as acceptance. Those of us who
know what is happening but do far too little about it are more deserving of the
anger. We should be terrified of
ourselves. We are the ones we have to
defy. … I am the person
endangering my children.”
if the meat or cheese you eat was not imported from Brazil, by choosing to eat
it, you are reinforcing the social norm that is causing the Amazon rain forest
to be destroyed.
Eating meat is pleasurable. A good cheese pizza can be divine. Humans evolved as omnivores, and the tastes of meat and cheese are particularly delicious. Choosing not to eat these foods would be a sacrifice.
Foer has tried to be a vegetarian for decades. He has previously written about the animal welfare arguments against eating meat; now he’s written about the environmental arguments. He knows that eating meat is immoral – the cow suffered to produce it, and Foer’s own children will suffer a worse climate as a consequence.
this knowledge isn’t enough. He still
surreptitiously buys cheeseburgers.
why hasn’t vegetarianism become any easier after thirty years? Why has it become harder? I crave meat more now than I have at any
point since I became a vegetarian.”
wishes that there were a social norm to eat only foods made from plants.
meat is pleasurable. Eating cheese is
heroin is pleasurable too. Driving a car
while drunk is pleasurable. Heck, even
cruising down the road while everybody else pulls aside for the ambulance
behind you would be pleasurable.
In our culture, there’s a social norm to pull aside for ambulances. Even though it would be more pleasurable to keep driving, most people don’t.
and cheeses are responsible for somewhere between 20% and 50% of all
(There’s a wide range in that estimate because, although it’s incontestable that it takes more land to produce meats and cheeses than it does to make equivalent foods from plants, it’s debatable what would be done with all that extra land if people changed their diets. If the extra space would be used to restore forests, then animal agriculture is responsible for 50% of climate change. If the extra space would be kept as grass – setting aside the curious question of why – then animal agriculture causes only 20% of climate change. Only 20%. By way of comparison, all the world’s cars, trucks, and airplanes together cause less than 15% of climate change. You can look at the appendix to We Are the Weather for an explanation of these numbers, or even glance at Donald Trump’s EPA website for some pie charts with identical information.)
If every gasoline-powered car was replaced with a hybrid vehicle – instantly, world-wide – greenhouse gas emissions would be about 96% of what they are currently. If that was the only change we made, our planet would be toast.
we all followed a social norm to eat food made from plants, greenhouse gas
emissions could be 50% of what they are currently. With no other changes, humanity would
survive. Our planet would remain
habitable for our children, and our grandchildren.
matters. I’m an atheist, and I’m well
aware that the eventual heat death of the universe means humanity will
go extinct eventually. I don’t believe
you can make a viable philosophical argument for existence based on helpfulness
or social connections alone – your life needs to be pleasurable, too.
life can be pleasurable without meat or cheese.
I support responsible hedonism.
Good food is a joy, but you can eat well while making only choices that
protect our planet. Most people think
that sex is great fun, but we have a social norm that you should enjoy your
sexuality only with other consenting adults.
Groping a beautiful stranger might be more fun than eating cheese – in
our culture, a social norm restrains us.
wishes that we, as a people, could choose better. He’s been struggling to eat food made from
plants. But he doesn’t struggle to
restrain himself from murder, or theft, or groping his students. In those instances, our social norms make it
easy to do the right thing.
And you can still be a hedonist while eating plants! If you’re ever in Chicago, you should stop by my dear friend Auntie Ferret’s vegan deep-dish pizza restaurant, or use Happy Cow to find a decadent plant-based restaurant near you.
Every living thing needs
energy. But our world is finite. Energy has to come from somewhere.
Luckily, there’s a lot of potential energy out there in the universe. For instance, mass can be converted into energy. Our sun showers us with energy drawn from the cascade of nuclear explosions that transpire in its core. A tiny difference in mass between merging hydrogen atoms and the resultant helium atom allows our sun to shine.
Our sun radiates about 10^26 joules per second (which is 100,000 times more than the combined yearly energy usage from everyone on Earth), but only a fraction of that reaches our planet. Photons radiate outward from our sun in all directions, so our planet intercepts only a small sliver of the beam. Everything living here is fueled by those photons.
When living things use the sun’s energy, we create order – a tree converts disordered air into rigid trunk, a mouse converts a pile of seeds into more mouse, a human might convert mud and straw into a house. As we create order, we give off heat. Warming the air, we radiate infrared photons. That’s what night vision goggles are designed to see. The net effect is that the Earth absorbs high-energy photons that were traveling in a straight beam outward from the sun … and we convert those photons into a larger number of low-energy photons that fly off every which way.
We the living are chaos machines. We make the universe messier. Indeed, that’s the only way anything can live. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the only processes that are sufficiently probable so as to occur are those that make the world more random.
We’re lucky that the universe started out as such a bland, orderly place – otherwise we might not even be able to tell “before” from “later,” let alone extract enough energy to live.
The earliest living things took energy from the sun indirectly – they used heat, and so they were fueled by each photon’s delivery of warmth to the Earth. (Please allow me this little hedge – although it’s true that the earliest life was fueled only by warmth, that warmth might not have come from the sun. Even today, some thermophilic bacteria live in deep sea vents and bask in the energy that leaks from our Earth’s molten core. The earliest life might have lived in similar nooks far from the surface of the Earth. But early life that resided near the surface of the seas seems more likely. Complicated chemical reactions were necessary to form molecules like RNA. Nucleic acids were probably first found in shallow, murky pools pulsed with lightning or ultraviolet radiation.)
Over time, life changed. Organisms create copies of themselves through chemical processes that have imperfect fidelity, after all. Each copy is slightly different than the original. Most differences make an organism worse than its forebears, but, sometimes, through sheer chance, an organism might be better at surviving or at creating new copies of itself.
When that happens, the new
version will become more common.
Over many, many generations, this process can make organisms very different from their forebears. When a genome is copied prior to cell division, sometimes the polymerase will slip up and duplicate a stretch of code. These duplication events are incredibly important for evolution – usually, the instructions for proteins can’t drift too far because any change might eliminate essential functions for that cell. If there’s a second copy, though, the duplicate can mutate and eventually gain some new function.
About two billion years ago, some organisms developed a rudimentary form of photosynthesis. They could turn sunlight into self! The energy from our sun’s photons was used to combine carbon dioxide and water into sugar. And sugar can be used to store energy, and to build new types of structures.
Photosynthesis also releases oxygen as a biproduct. From the perspective of the organisms living then, photosynthesis poisoned the entire atmosphere – a sudden rise in our atmosphere’s oxygen concentration caused many species to go extinct. But we humans never could have come about without all that oxygen.
Perhaps that’s a small consolation, given that major corporations are currently poisoning our atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Huge numbers of species might go extinct – including, possibly, ourselves – but something else would have a chance to live here after we have passed.
In addition to poisoning the atmosphere, photosynthesis introduced a new form of competition. Warmth spreads diffusely – on the early Earth, it was often sheer chance whether one organism would have an advantage over any other. If you can photosynthesize, though, you want to be the highest organism around. If you’re closer to the sun, you get the first chance to nab incoming photons.
That’s the evolutionary pressure that induced plants to evolve. Plants combined sugars into rigid structures so that they could grow upwards. Height helps when your main goal in life is to snatch sunlight.
Nothing can live without
curtailing the chances of other living things.
Whenever a plant absorbs a photon, it reduces the energy available for
other plants growing below.
Plants created the soil by
trapping dirt and dust, and soil lets them store water for later use. But there is only so much desalinated
water. Roots reach outward: “I drink your
milkshake!”, each could exclaim.
For a heterotroph, the
brutality of our world is even more clear.
Our kind – including amoebas, fungi, and all animals – can only survive
by eating others. We are carbon
recyclers. Sugar and protein
refurbishers. We take the molecular
machines made by photosynthesizing organisms … chop them apart … and use the
pieces to create ourselves.
Some heterotrophs are
saprophages – eaters of the dead. But
most survive only by destroying the lives of others.
For the earliest heterotrophs, to eat was to kill. But, why worry? Why, after all, is life special? Each photosynthesizing organism was already churning through our universe’s finite quantity of order in its attempt to grow. They took in material from their environment and rearranged it. So did the heterotrophs – they ingested and rearranged. Like all living things, they consumed order and excreted chaos.
The heterotrophs were
extinguishing life, but life is just a pattern that repeats itself. A living thing is a metabolic machine that
self-copies. From a thermodynamic
perspective, only the energetics of the process distinguish life from a
crystal. Both are patterns that grow,
but when a crystal grows, it makes matter more stable than its environment –
life makes matter less stable as it’s incorporated into the pattern.
Your ability to read this
essay is a legacy of the heterotrophs’ more violent descendants. The earliest multicellular heterotrophs were
filter feeders – they passively consumed whatever came near.
But then, between 500 and 600 million years ago, animals began to hunt and kill. They would actively seek life to extinguish. To do this, they needed to think – neurons first arose among these hunters.
Not coincidentally, this is also the time that animals first developed hard shells, sharp spines, armored plates – defenses to stop others from eating them.
The rigid molecules that allow plants to grow tall, like cellulose, are hard to digest. So the earliest hunters probably began by killing other animals.
With every meal, you join
the long legacy of animals that survived only by extinguishing the lives of
others. With every thought, you
draw upon the legacy of our forebear’s ruthless hunt.
Even if you’re vegan, your meals kill. Like us, plants have goals. It’s a matter of controversy whether they can perceive – perhaps they don’t know that they have goals – but plants will constantly strive to grow, to collect sunlight and water while they can, and many will actively resist being eaten.
But it makes no sense to value the world if you don’t value yourself. Maybe you feel sad that you can’t photosynthesize … maybe you’d search out a patch of barren, rocky ground so that you’d absorb only photons that would otherwise be “wasted” … but, in this lifetime, you have to eat. Otherwise you’d die. And I personally think that any moral philosophy that advocates suicide is untenable. That’s a major flaw with utilitarianism – rigid devotion to the idea of maximizing happiness for all would suggest that you, as another organism that’s taking up space, constantly killing, and sapping our universe’s limited supply of order, simply shouldn’t be here.
At its illogical extreme, utilitarianism suggests that either you conquer the world (if you’re the best at feeling happy) or kill yourself (if you’re not).
We humans are descended from carnivores. Our ancestors were able to maintain such large brains only by cooking and eating meat. Our bodies lack an herbivore’s compliment of enzymes that would allow us to convert grass and leaves into the full compliment of proteins that we need.
And we owe the very existence of our brains to the hunts carried out by even more ancient ancestors. If they hadn’t killed, we couldn’t think.
Just because we were blessed by a legacy of violence, though, doesn’t mean we have to perpetuate that violence. We can benefit from past harms and resolve to harm less in the present and future.
Writing was first developed by professional scribes. Scientific progress was the province of wealthy artisans. None of the progress of our culture would have been possible if huge numbers of people weren’t oppressed – food that those people grew was taken from them and distributed by kings to a small number of privileged scribes, artisans, philosophers, and layabouts.
When humans lived as hunters and gatherers, their societies were generally equitable. People might die young from bacterial infections, dehydration, or starvation, but their lives were probably much better than the lives of the earliest farmers. After we discovered agriculture, our diets became less varied and our lives less interesting. Plus, it’s easier to oppress a land-bound farmer than a nomadic hunter. Stationary people paid tribute to self-appointed kings.
This misery befell the vast majority of our world’s population, and persisted for thousands of years. But the world we have now couldn’t have come about any other way. It’s horrific, but, for humans to reach our current technologies, we needed oppression. Food was taken from those who toiled and given to those who hadn’t.
Mostly those others
created nothing of value … but some of them made writing, and mathematics, and
Although the development
of writing required oppression, it’s wrong to oppress people now. It was wrong then, too … but we can’t go back
and fix things.
Although the origin of
your brain required violence, I likewise think we ought to minimize the
violence we enact today. We can’t help
all the animals who were hurt in the long journey that made our world the place
it is now. And we can’t stop killing –
there’s no other way for heterotrophs like us to live.
To be vegan, though, is to reckon with those costs. To feel a sense of wonder at all the world pays for us to be here. And, in gratitude, to refrain from asking that it pay more than we need.
Among worms, there is equality. When worms entwine, each could become a
mother, a father, or both. Neither worm
has grounds to bemoan the fundamental unfairness of our universe – not while
fooling around, at least.
Later, the worms might drown, or be eaten by birds, or be mutilated and held captive by a mole. That all must feel horrible. But while mating, each worm should feel as though it’s been given a fair deal.
Among emperor penguins, both parents
make huge sacrifices for their young.
Each parent will huddle over the egg for months without food, staving
off the Antarctic chill. When it’s time
to trade places, the parents must pass the egg using only their webbed feet –
if they make even a small mistake, the egg will roll away and freeze, killing
the chick inside.
Because each parent puts forth such a
huge amount of effort to raise a chick, each must feel quite choosy during the
mating season. When a pair of penguins
flirt, neither seems to have the upper hand.
Most animals’ reproduction is more
asymmetric. For them – for us –
differing roles can feel unfair.
Often, one partner gets to be pickier
than the other.
Among smooth guardian frogs, fathers are deeply invested in raising their young; mothers hop away after mating, providing no help. Female smooth guardian frogs seem as though they’d be perfectly happy to make babies with anyone. They can always have another fling while a past paramour is protecting the last batch of eggs.
For a male, mating is a serious commitment. He’ll carefully consider his options. And so each female sings to woo him. A common strategy: knowing that males are choosier when it comes to sex, she’ll sing her heart out, hoping to sway his decision.
Among many other species of frogs, males’ songs serve the same purpose. Hoping to woo womenfolk, male bowerbirds build.
Female ducks raise their young. They have the freedom to choose their
mates. Male ducks would have more
leverage during courtship if they planned to contribute as parents. But they don’t.
Male ducks are the natural world’s equivalent of violent incels. Aggrieved by their lack of choice, they rape. This has been going on so long that female ducks’ anatomy has evolved – they can trap unwanted sperm with labyrinth passageways inside their bodies, and are able to straighten the path to fertilization during consensual sex – allowing them to maintain mate choice despite the constant threat of assault.
From an evolutionary perspective,
animals that put forth an effort as parents have earned their
choices. They generally get to indulge
their desires … and, even more importantly, should be safe from those whom they
do not desire.
Among many species, we can see evidence
of this push and pull between devoted parents and the absentees who loudly
sing, “Choose me! Choose me!”
For instance, we can learn a lot about the sex lives of our closest relatives by comparing the males’ genitalia. No, not your uncle – that’d be weird. I mean the great apes. A traditional comparison of gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans is shown below.
Male gorillas claim a territory, and
then the dominant male within each territory feels reasonably certain that
every female living there will mate with him and only him. Although he makes minimal contributions
toward parenting – which means the females should feel free to shop
around for sexual partners – he sways their decision through physical
violence. Mostly he’ll direct aggression
at other males, hoping to stave off their competition, but he’s occasionally
rough with “his” females as well.
For male gorillas to control female sexuality without helping as parents, they had to become huge. As it happens, this evolutionary pressure caused their brains to shrink. They have almost 90% fewer neurons than we’d expect for a primate of that size. If gorillas were egalitarian, they would’ve been more intelligent than humans. But there simply weren’t enough calories for gorillas to have large brains and sufficient brawn to indulge in violent sexual coercion.
There’s less difference in size between
male and female chimpanzees, but male chimpanzees also use violence to sway
mate choice. A male chimpanzee might
attack and kill a mother’s babies in order to impregnate her … but he won’t if
he thinks that they might be his own children.
The safest plan for a mother, then, is
to distribute her sexual favors widely.
Her children will safe from everyone with whom she shared a
dalliance. Maybe she’d like to be choosier,
but each male will only last a few seconds, so the cost must not seem like too
much to bear.
From an evolutionary perspective, then,
male chimpanzees are not competing to be the most beautiful. Nor to be the greatest artists. They don’t sing. They do battle, but they tend to
battle in cooperative gangs, with the outcome being that each male among the
upper echelon will have the chance to get it on. A friendless, low-ranking male might be
chased off every time he attempts to mate, but many others will have an
That’s why male chimpanzees produce so
much sperm. The chance to fertilize a
mother’s egg comes down to probability.
If a chimp ejaculates prodigiously, he’s more likely to sire offspring.
Several human cultures believed that babies are formed from sperm, and that mothers required repeated infusions during pregnancy in order for the child to form correctly. Among the Bari of Venezuela, each man who contributed sperm was treated as a biological father – the child was presumed to inherit virtues from each.
Under these beliefs, polyamory was the best strategy for raising a capable child. A mother needed to consider which qualities would help her children most in life, then spend time astride the men who possessed each. The best singer, the most nimble climber, the most astute tracker – each trait was an evening’s lay away.
And her strategy surely worked. Fooling around with the best singer would probably lead to singing lessons. If the best hunter also shared an orgasm with this child’s mother, he’d make an effort to explain the sights and sounds and rhythms of the forest. Honestly, it makes no difference whether talents come from nature or nurture if fathers are willing to teach every child that their sperm might’ve helped create.
The Bari culture, like that of most other human hunter gatherers, was quite egalitarian compared to our own. But even among hunter gatherers, human fathers were typically shabbier parents than mothers. For instance, fathers who hunted typically claimed to be the ones feeding their families, even in places where the “women’s work” of gathering fruits, nuts and seeds provided more nutrition than meat. But an occasional dead deer confers more bragging rights than a sackful of nuts each day, and human males have long loved to brag.
As humans began to practice agriculture, our societies became less equitable. More and more of the childrearing was done by women.
According to the basic principles of
evolution, this means that women should have had more and more leverage during
courtship. More and more control over
their sexuality. In cultures where
mothers do basically everything – feeding the family, teaching children,
cuddling them through the night – women should have had close to free reign in
choosing their partners.
And there’s biological evidence that human women used to be in control. For instance, many women’s sexual preferences seem to cycle rhythmically. Relatively effeminate, helpful partners are favored most of the time, but ultra-masculine brutes suddenly seem sexy during temporary bursts of hormones. In the past, human women probably made out with multiple different men each year.
That’s why human males – unlike gorillas or chimpanzees – have a strong incentive to provide a rollicking good time in bed. Or in the back of a cave, on the forest floor, alongside the riverbank, wherever. Although there’s been intense debate about the degree of correlation between male penis size and female sexual pleasure, most people seem willing to admit that there’s a link.
When women buy sex toys … well, usually they buy external vibrators. These don’t always resemble the genitalia of any biological organism. Many are designed to look like lipstick tubes or other innocuous objects, for modesty’s sake.
But toys that are designed for penetration? These tend to be much longer and thicker than either a gorilla’s inch-long erection or a chimpanzee’s three-inch, slender shaft. Human males tend to be well endowed because it’s a way to sway women’s choices. By giving her a good time, a man might have the chance to fool around again.
But in addition to huge cocks (relative to other primates – as Jeffrey Yang wrote in his poetry collection An Aquarium: The barnacle has the longest penis / of any animal in proportion / to its body size. Happiness / and proportion: / never be ashamed of evolution), humans also have huge brains. Instead of evolving better and better ways to deliver consensual pleasure, human males invented stories to subvert female mate choice.
males aren’t as horrible as ducks, but we’re close.
the world, human males have used religion as a tool to constrain female
choice. We teach that the natural
inclination toward polyamory is evil. A
woman needs to devote herself to one man.
In many cultures, women are not even allowed to choose who that man will
Even in contemporary experiments on U.S. college students, the presence of sexual competitors leads people to espouse more strident religious beliefs. If you can’t win with your looks, or with your charming personality, why not tell her that it’d be immoral to make eyes at that other guy?
men could have made art like bowerbirds.
We could’ve sung like frogs.
Hell, we could’ve capitalized on the promise of our large genitalia to
deliver such sweating shaking shuddering good fun that our sexual partners
would remain dazzled forever.
If emperor penguins learned about our sex lives, they’d be appalled. “Dude,” a penguin father might say, “you don’t need to coerce her with a sky ghost! Just be a good parent. Then you’ll get to choose, too.”
That’s sound advice, Mr. Penguin. I am trying to be a good parent. Even when the kids are fussing, I try.