On Darwin and free love.

On Darwin and free love.

For the moment, let’s set aside the question of why I was reading a review titled “Plants Neither Possess nor Require Consciousness.”  Instead, I’d like to share a passage from the end of the article:

Plant neurobiologists are hardly the first biologists to ascribe consciousness, feelings, and intentionality to plants.

Erasmus Darwin, [Charles] Darwin’s grandfather and a believer in free love, was so taken with the Linnaean sexual system of classification that he wrote an epic poem, The Loves of Plants, in which he personified stamens and pistils as ‘swains’ and ‘virgins’ cavorting on their flower beds in various polygamous and polyandrous relationships.

Maybe you were startled, just now, to learn about the existence of risqué plant poetry.  Do some people log onto Literotica to read about daffodils or ferns?

But what caught my attention was Erasmus Darwin’s designation as a believer in free love. 

In a flash, an entire essay composed itself in my mind.  Charles Darwin’s grandfather was a polyamorist!  Suddenly, the origin of The Origin of the Species made so much more sense!  After all, exposure to polyamory could help someone notice evolution by natural selection.  An essential component of polyamory is freedom of choice – during the 1800s, when nobody had access to effective birth control, people might wind up having children with any of their partners, not just the one with whom they were bound in a legally-recognized and church-sanctioned marriage. 

Evolution occurs because some individuals produce more offspring than others, and then their offspring produce more offspring, and so on.  Each lineage is constantly tested by nature – those that are less fit, or less fecund, will dwindle to a smaller and smaller portion of the total population.

Similarly, in relationships where choice is not confined by religious proscription, the partners are under constant selective pressure if they hope to breed.  When people have options, they must stay in each other’s good graces.  They must practice constant kindness, rather than treating physical affection as their just desserts.

I felt proud of this analogy.  To my mind, Erasmus Darwin’s belief in free love had striking parallels with his grandson’s theory.

And it’s such a pleasure when essays basically write themselves.  All I’d need to do was skim a few biographies.  Maybe collect some spicy quotes from Erasmus himself.  And I’d try to think of a clever way to explain evolution to a lay audience.  So that my readers could understand why, once I’d learned this juicy tidbit about Erasmus, his connection to Charles Darwin’s theory seemed, in retrospect, so obvious.


My essay failed.

I wish it hadn’t, obviously.  It was going to be so fun to write!  I was ready to compose some sultry plant poetry of my own.

And I feel happy every time there’s another chance to explain evolution.  Because I live in a part of the United States where so many people deny basic findings from science, I talk about this stuff in casual conversations often.  We regularly discuss evolutionary biology during my poetry classes in jail.

But my essay wasn’t going to work out.  Because the underlying claim – Erasmus Darwin believed in free love! – simply isn’t true.


Maybe you have lofty ideals about the practice of science.  On the children’s record Science Is for Me, Emmy Brockman sings:

I am a scientist

I explore high and low

I question what I know

Emmy is great. Find her at emmybrockman.com.

That’s the goal.  A good scientist considers all the possibilities.  It’s hard work, making sure that confirmation bias doesn’t cause you to overlook alternative explanations.

But scientists are human.  Just like anybody else, we sometimes repeat things we’ve heard without considering whether any evidence ever justified it.

In The Human Advantage, neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel describes how baffled she felt when she began reading scientific papers about the composition of our brains. 

Although the literature held many studies on the volume and surface area of the brain of different species, and various papers on the densities of neurons in the cerebral cortex, estimates of numbers of neurons were scant.  In particular, I could find no original source to the much-repeated “100 billion neurons in the human brain.”

I later ran into Eric Kandel himself, whose textbook Principles of Neural Science, a veritable bible in the field, proffered that number, along with the complement “and 10-50 times more glial cells.”  When I asked Eric where he got those numbers, he blamed it on his coauthor Tom Jessel, who had been responsible for the chapter in which they appeared, but I was never able to ask Jessel himself.

It was 2004, and no one really knew how many neurons could be found on average in the human brain.

Unsatisfied with the oft-repeated numbers, Herculano-Houzel liquified whole brains in order to actually count the cells.  As it happens, human brains have about 86 billion neurons and an equal number of glial cells.

Or, consider the psychology experiments on behavioral priming.  When researchers “prime” a subject, they inoculate a concept into that person’s mind.

The basic idea here is relatively uncontroversial.  It’s the principle behind advertising and paid product placement – our brains remember exposure while forgetting context.  That’s why political advertisements try to minimize the use of opponents’ names.  When people hear or see a candidate’s name often, they’re more likely to vote for that candidate.

Facebook has also demonstrated again and again that minor tweaks to the inputs that your brain receives can alter your behavior.  One shade of blue makes you more likely to click a button; there’s a size threshold below which people are unlikely to notice advertisements; the emotional tenor of information you’re exposed to will alter your mood.

When research psychologists use priming, though, they’re interested in more tenuous mental links.  Study subjects might be primed with ideas about economic scarcity, then assessed to see how racist they seem.

The first study of this sort tested whether subconsciously thinking about elderlies could make you behave more like an elderly person.  The researchers required thirty undergraduate psychology students to look at lists of five words and then use four of these words to construct a simple sentence.  For fifteen of these students, the extra word was (loosely) associated with elderly people, like “Florida,” “worried,” “rigid,” or “gullible.”  For the other fifteen, the words were deemed unrelated to elderlies, like “thirsty,” “clean,” or “private.”

(Is a stereotypical elderly person more gullible than private? After reading dozens of Mr. Putter and Tabby books — in which the elderly characters live alone — I’d assume that “private” was the priming word if I had to choose between these two.)

After completing this quiz, students were directed toward an elevator.  The students were timed while walking down the hallway, and the study’s authors claimed that students who saw the elderly-associated words walked more slowly.

There’s even a graph!

This conclusion is almost certainly false.  The graph is terrible – there are no error bars, and the y axis spans a tiny range in order to make the differences look bigger than they are.  Even aside from the visual misrepresentation, the data aren’t real.  I believe that a researcher probably did use a stopwatch to time those thirty students and obtain those numbers.  Researchers probably also timed many more students whose data weren’t included because they didn’t agree with this result.  Selective publication allows you to manipulate data sets in ways that many scientists foolishly believe to be ethical.

If you were to conduct this study again, it’s very unlikely that you’d see this result.

Some scientists are unconcerned that the original result might not be true.   After all, who really cares whether subconscious exposure to words vaguely associated with old people can make undergraduates walk slowly?

UCLA psychology professor Matthew Lieberman wrote,

What we care about is whether priming-induced automatic behavior in general is a real phenomenon.  Does priming a concept verbally cause us to act as if we embody the concept within ourselves?  The answer is a resounding yes.  This was a shocking finding when first discoveredin 1996.

Lieberman bases this conclusion on the fact that “Hundreds of studies followed showing that people primed with a stereotype embodied it themselves.”  Continued success with the technique is assumed to validate the initial finding.

Unfortunately, many if not most of those subsequent studies are flawed in the same way as the original.  Publication biases and lax journal standards allow you to design studies that prove that certain music unwinds time (whose authors were proving a point) or that future studying will improve your performance on tests today (whose author was apparently sincere).

Twenty years of mistaken belief has given the walking speed study – and its general methodology – an undeserved veneer of truth.


Erasmus Darwin didn’t believe in free love.  But he did have some “radical” political beliefs that people were unhappy about.  And so, to undermine his reputation, his enemies claimed that he believed in free love.

Other people repeated this slander so often that Erasmus Darwin is now blithely described as a polyamorist in scientific review articles.


So, why did conservative writers feel the need to slander Erasmus Darwin?  What exactly were his “radical” beliefs?

Erasmus Darwin thought that the abject mistreatment of black people was wrong.  He seems to have thought it acceptable for black people to be mistreated – nowhere in his writings did he advocate for equality – but he was opposed to the most ruthless forms of torture. 

Somewhat.  His opposition didn’t run so deep that he’d deny himself the sugar that was procured through black people’s forced labor.

And, when Erasmus Darwin sired children out of wedlock – which many upper-class British men did – he scandalously provided for his children.

In British society, plenty of people had affairs.  Not because they believed in free love, but because they viewed marriage as a fundamentally economic transaction and couldn’t get a divorce.  But good British men were supposed to keep up appearances.  If a servant’s child happened to look a great deal like you, you were supposed to feign ignorance. 

Even worse, the illegitimate children that Erasmus Darwin provided for were female.  Not only did Darwin allow them to become educated – which was already pretty bad, because education made women less malleable spouses – but he also helped them to establish a boarding school for girls.  The contagion of educated women would spread even further!

This was all too much for Britain’s social conservatives.  After all, look at what happened in France.  The French were unduly tolerant of liberal beliefs, and then, all of a sudden, there was murderous revolution!

And so Erasmus Darwin had to be stopped.  Not that Darwin had done terribly much.  He was nationally known because he’d written some (mediocre) poetry.  The poetry was described as pornographic.  It isn’t.  Certain passages anthropomorphize flowers in which there are unequal numbers of pistils and stamens.  It’s not very titillating, unless you get all hot and bothered by the thought of forced rhymes, clunky couplets, and grandiloquent diction.  For hundreds of pages.


While reading about Erasmus Darwin, I learned that some people also believe that he was the actual originator of his grandson’s evolutionary theories.  In a stray sentence, Erasmus Darwin did write that “The final course of this contest between males seems to be, that the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species which should thus be improved.”  This does sound rather like evolution by natural selection.  But not quite – that word “improved” hints at his actual beliefs.

Erasmus Darwin did believe all life had originated only once and that the beautiful variety of creatures extant today developed over time.  But he thought that life changed from simple to complex out of a teleological impulse.  In his conception, creatures were not becoming better suited to their environment (which is natural selection), but objectively better (which isn’t).

I’m not arguing that Charles Darwin had to be some kind of super genius to write The Origin of the Species.  But when Charles Darwin described evolution, he included an actual mechanism to rationalize why creatures exist in their current forms.  Things that are best able to persist and make copies of themselves eventually become more abundant. 

That’s it.  Kind of trivial, but there’s a concrete theory backed up by observation.

Erasmus Darwin’s belief that life continually changed for the better was not unique, nor did it have much explanatory power. 

In the biography Erasmus Darwin, Patricia Fara writes that,

By the end of the eighteenth century, the notion of change was no longer in itself especially scandalous.  For several decades, the word ‘evolution’ had been in use for living beings, and there were several strands of evidence arguing against a literal interpretation of the Bible.  Giant fossils – such as mammoths and giant elks – suggested that the world had once been inhabited by distant relatives, now extinct, of familiar creatures. 

Animal breeders reinforced particular traits to induce changes carried down through the generations – stalwart bulldogs, athletic greyhounds, ladies’ lapdogs.  Geological data was also accumulating: seashells on mountain peaks, earthquakes, strata lacking fossil remains – and the most sensible resolution for such puzzles was to stretch out the age of the Earth and assume that it is constantly altering.

Charles Darwin thought deeply about why populations of animals changed in the particular way that they did.  Erasmus Darwin did not.  He declaimed “Everything from shells!” and resumed writing terrible poetry.  Like:

IMMORTAL LOVE! who ere the morn of Time,

On wings outstretch’d, o’er Chaos hung sublime;

Warm’d into life the bursting egg of Night,

And gave young Nature to admiring Light!

*

Erasmus Darwin didn’t develop the theory of evolution.  You could call him an abolitionist, maybe, but he was a pretty half-hearted one, if that.  By the standards of his time, he was a feminist.  By our standards, he was not.

He seems like a nice enough fellow, though.  As a doctor, he treated his patients well.  And he constantly celebrated the achievements of his friends.

Patricia Fara writes that,

After several years of immersion in [Erasmus] Darwin’s writing, I still have a low opinion of his poetic skills.  On the other hand, I have come to admire his passionate commitment to making the world a better place.


And, who knows?  If Erasmus Darwin was alive today, maybe he would be a polyamorist.  Who’s to say what secret desires lay hidden in a long-dead person’s soul?

But did Darwin, during his own lifetime, advocate for free love?  Nope.  He did not.  No matter what his political opponents – or our own era’s oblivious scientists – would have you believe.

Header image from the Melbourne Museum. Taken by Ruth Ellison on Flickr.

On the ethics of eating.

On the ethics of eating.

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.

Dog!

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.

Animation by At09kg on Wikipedia.

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 rocket ships.

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.

On sexuality and freedom of choice.

On sexuality and freedom of choice.

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.

Image by Ryan Poplin on Flickr.

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 occasional opportunity.

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.

Human males aren’t as horrible as ducks, but we’re close.

Around 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 be.

Even in contemporary experiments on U.S. college students, the presence of sexual competitors leads people to espouse more strident religious experiments.  If you can’t win with your looks, or with your charming personality, why not tell her that it’d be immoral to make eyes at that other guy?

Human 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.

Instead, we invented deities, spirits, and purity laws.  We taught that women who dallied should be stigmatized, or stoned, or murdered by God with a rain of burning sulfur.

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.

Featured image by Property#1 on Flickr.

On the evolution of skin color.

On the evolution of skin color.

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

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

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

Or so ruled our Supreme Court.

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

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

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

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

A photograph showing a book page in Icelandic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A photograph of a model dinosaur, complete with feathers.

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

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

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

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

A photograph of a three-spined stickleback fish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sculpture of a dodo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pottery shard depicting a boar hunt in ancient Greece.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

We recently read Donika Kelly’s “Bower” in jail. 

I love this poem.  There’s a undercurrent of darkness as the bird constructs his pleasure dome. “Here, the iron smell of blood.”  But he is undeterred.  “And there, the bowerbird.  Watch as he manicures his lawn.”

This bowerbird has themed his edifice around sparkling bits of blue.  Bower birds incorporate all manner of found objects: berries, beetles (which must be repeatedly returned to their places as they attempt to crawl away), plastic scraps.  A bowerbird has a clear vision, a dream of which colors will go where, and scours the forest to find the treasures he needs.

Will high-contrast white in front of the brown bower bedazzle guests? Our artist can only hope. Image by davidfntau on Flickr.

Female bowerbirds raise children alone, so she doesn’t need a helpful partner..  Instead, she’ll choose someone who can show her a good time.  And her pleasure will be enhanced by a beautiful dome, a splendid arch beneath which several seconds of intercourse can transpire.

A mother-to-be typically visit several bowers before choosing her favorite.  During each inspection, the male will hop and flutter during her evaluation … and then slump, dejected, if she flies away.

Kelly closes her poem with the experience of a crestfallen artist: “And then, / how the female finds him, / lacking.  All that blue for nothing.

I especially love the wry irony of that final sentence.  We create art hoping to be fawned over; it’d feel nice to know that readers enjoyed a poem so much that they responded with a flush of desire for the author. 

But this is rare.  No piece of writing will appeal to all readers; an author is lucky if it appeals to any.  The same holds true for painting, music, and bowers.  A bowerbird hopes that his magnificent edifice will soon be the site of his acrobatic, if brief, bouts of copulation.  But his life will miserable if he can’t also take pleasure in the sheer act of creation. 

Female tropical birds are free to select whichever male they want.  Their flirtations are unlikely to be turned down.  And because each intimate encounter is vanishingly brief, a single male might service every female in an area.  The other males, having assembled less glorious bowers, will die without ever experiencing erotic delights.

And so a bowerbird needs to enjoy his own arch.  To endure, to thole, even if no one wants to fool around with him.  Even if no one looks.  He needs to feel pleasure as he assembles those beautiful hues.  Every visiting female might quickly fly away, but all that blue will have served a purpose.

I love the poem “Bower,” but I also hope that Kelly enjoyed writing her poem enough that my opinion doesn’t matter.

After reading “Bower,” our class got sidetracked into a wide-ranging conversation about birds.  At first, we did talk about bowerbirds.  Most of the guys had no idea that birds like that existed – that an animal might make art – but one guy had seen a television show about them years ago, and the program made such a deep impression on him that he still remembered much of it.  “They really do,” he said.  “I’ve seen it.  And they showed the people nearby, somebody who was eating breakfast cereal with like a plastic spoon, and this bird flew right over and took it.  Later they found bits of it all broken up, in this weird ring around the bird’s nest.”

And then this man started talking about crows.

He gesticulated profusely as he talked, which was rather distracting.  One of his hands had about 1.3 fingers; his ring finger was missing entirely, and the others, including his thumb, ended after the first knuckle.  I wouldn’t have felt so puzzled – stuff happens, after all – except that one of his stories involved chasing somebody with a steak knife, and this was the hand he brandished.

Many of the people in jail have suffered severe physical injuries.  When we were discussing personality manipulation and mind control, someone told me that he’d been hit by a truck and that everything in his life had felt flat and emotionless ever since.  He showed me the thick scar at the top of his head: “When it happened, I guess I was out for almost a week, and it took another month before I really remembered my name.  Even then, for that first year I felt like I was back in eighth grade again.”  He was twenty-something when it happened.

Another time, I asked a man if he wanted to read the next poem and he said he couldn’t, that he was disabled, then thumped his leg onto the table.  He had a rounded stump where most people’s foot would be.  I didn’t quite see the connection between his injury and the poem, and it’s not as though we ever force people to read.  We have a lot of guys with dyslexia, and I go in with the goal of making their Fridays a little more pleasant; no reason for somebody to suffer unnecessarily.

“I was working in a saw mill,” he said.  “Planer caught me and, zzooomp.  Didn’t even feel anything, at first.”

He got a legal settlement – a few guys muttered that they’d trade a foot for that kind of money – but his pain script led to more opiates and eventually the money was gone and he was in jail and the only help he was getting was from a PD.

But, right, back to the man gesticulating wildly as he talked about birds.  “Real smart animals,” he said.  “Especially crows.”

I nodded.  Crows can use tools – they’ll craft hooks out of wire, cut twigs into the length they need for various tasks.  Their brains are structured differently from primates’, which lets them cram just as many neurons into a much smaller volume

Photo by Natalie Uomini on Flickr.

The guy went on: “See, I was living in a tent, and cops kept coming by, harassing me.  Cause there’d always be all this trash on the ground.  They’d say, ‘look, we know that you’re sleeping here, but you can’t just leave all this shit everywhere.’  And they’d make me clean it up.  I’d do it, but then a day or two later, there’d be trash scattered everywhere again.  I thought it must be some homeless guys or something that was doing it.”

“But it turned out these crows – they knew I was drinking, that I’d never be up before about noon – and they were raiding the dumpster out behind McDonalds.  I only found out because I actually woke up one morning to piss.  And I looked up and these crows in the tree above me, they carried tied-off garbage bags way up into that tree and were tearing them apart, looking for things to eat.  And that’s how all that trash was getting everywhere.  I’d thought it was homeless guys, and it was crows!”

Male bowerbirds can afford to be such terrible parents because they live in tropical forests where there’s an abundance of food to eat.  Crows, though, need ingenuity to survive.  Sometimes they pick apart the leavings of hairless apes below.

Because crows raise their young in much harsher environs than bowerbirds, males contribute more than just DNA.  While a mother roosts, the father will gather food.  And so he’ll try to impress a potential mate, beforehand, with his gathering prowess.  He won’t build, paint, or compose poetry, but he’ll scour the land below for tasty treats and shiny things, then leave these gifts at his beloved’s feet.

As with bowerbirds, some crows are helpful without reaping the benefits of a dalliance.  When a female crow begins to build a nest, five other crows might bring sticks and twigs.  These five won’t all be rewarded with the chance to sire her young.

With luck, the crows enjoy the sheer act of helping. 

Neither birds nor humans will be lauded for everything we do.  If we measure success based solely upon the rewards we reap, many of our lives will feel bleak.  In a world full of pyramids – bowerbird mating, corporate finance, the attention economy of social media – not everyone can be at the top.

No matter the outcome, we can all feel fulfilled if we focus on the process of what we’re doing. 

Admittedly, it’s hard to find the zen in a lot of the shitty jobs out there in the world.  But I did enjoy typing this essay.  And I will try to enjoy the irritating parts of parenting today.  Someday, my children will learn to ask for cereal politely.

On the celebration of Neanderthals.

On the celebration of Neanderthals.

I am descended from the oppressors.  My ancestors ventured from their homeland with colonial aspirations and genocidal results.

It wasn’t my fault.  I wasn’t born yet!  But, having inherited vast privilege, some measure of responsibility from the misdeeds of my people surely falls upon my shoulders.

A hundred thousand years ago, several species of humans shared our planet.  My ancestors, who would give rise to contemporary Homo sapiens, mostly lived in Africa.  They differed from other primates in that their brains were larger, their posture more upright, their epidermis darker in hue, their verbal communication more nuanced.

During a period of climate change, my ancestors left their home.  The planet was warming; glaciers receded; Homo sapiens ventured north. 

One still-popular model for how Homo sapiens spread. Image by Altaileopard on Wikimedia Commons.

Europe was already populated by humans, people who had weathered the bitter cold through the waning ice age.  But my ancestors were undeterred.  They did not respect the old territorial boundaries.  Soon they supplanted the native peoples.  Every last one of the natives died.  Their people disappeared from the face of the earth, extinct.

Every time my ancestors ventured to a new land, the old inhabitants were killed.  Nearly all of our planet’s large animals are gone now; megafauna extinction is directly correlated with human migration

Image by Uweka on Wikimedia Commons.

If it’s any consolation, Homo sapiens were not the only perpetrators of these atrocities.  Every other human species – including those whom my ancestors harried to extinction – wrought similar devastation on their environments.

In this case, no reparations are possible.  The victims are dead; their families curtailed.  My ancestors’ misdeeds against them ceased, but only because there was no one left to harm.

But I can atone through remembrance.

And so, as a descendant of the oppressors, I felt a special sympathy toward the Neanderthal.  When I was in school, these humans were consistently described as brutish, uncouth, and unintelligent.  But I recognized that sort of language.  My people have almost always maligned supposed “others” – until we took the time to learn how smart they are, all non-human animals were imagined to be unthinking automata.  Pale-skinned Europeans claimed that intelligence – or even humanity itself – was inversely correlated with epidermal melanin concentration (by which measure Pan troglodytes would be more human than any Englishman). 

Forty years ago, medical doctors implied that men who felt a sexual attraction to men differed from their peers on a cellular level, as though the human immunodeficiency virus was sensitive to a psychological preference.  Even now, many medical doctors believe that people with higher amounts of epidermal melanin experience pain differently.

My people’s negative assessment of the Neanderthal, I figured, was probably not true.  Indeed, in recent years we’ve discovered that Neanderthals made art, that they probably had spoken languages … that they were like us.  Enough so that many humans living today carry Neanderthal DNA sequences in their genomes.

A Neanderthal model at Zagros Paleolithic Museum, Kermanshah.
Photograph by ICHTO on Wikimedia Commons.

Inspired by Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a first-person perspective of the apocalypse wrought upon 11th century England, I began working on a story narrated by the last of the Neanderthal.

Stray scientific findings have revealed surprising details about Neanderthal life.  Young women often left their family tribe.  All people collaborated on hunts, regardless of gender.  Homo sapiens males would fool around with either Homo sapiens or Neanderthals; Neanderthal males rarely sired children with Homo sapiens.  After Homo sapiens arrived in Europe, they ate a lot of squirrels, but the Neanderthal declined to eat rodents.

These details seemed sufficient to evoke a world.

I was still working on this story during the 2016 presidential election.  But with our 45th openly praising white supremacists, I felt suddenly less inspired to celebrate the Neanderthal.  Many of the hate mongers were extolling the virtues of humans descended from northern Europeans, and, as it happens, these are the people who have the most abundant remnants of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes.

Genetics isn’t destiny.  And there haven’t been any correlations between Neanderthal DNA and intelligence; indeed, most of the genetic sequences that have been proposed to modulate intelligence are probably false.  Neanderthal DNA has been found to correlate only with an increased risk of depression and an increased susceptibility to allergies.

I began working on my Neanderthal story as an apology to the dispossessed, but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it in an environment where some individuals might tout their Neanderthal heritage as a mark of superiority.  As though their blood conferred the right to mistreat people from other backgrounds, or the right to so thoroughly ravage our planet’s atmosphere that other people’s homes are scorched or submerged beneath the sea.

Which seems shocking to me.  Quite recently, the Neanderthal were thoroughly impugned.  As though we could declare their kind to be undeserving of existence and thereby spare ourselves a reckoning for having killed them.

Now the contemporary oppressors herald the Neanderthal as a source of greatness.  Light-skinned warrior folk, beset by dark-skinned immigrants from the south.

Who would have thought?

Then again, I would not have expected Odin or Thor to become patron deities of U.S. white supremacists.  Nor that they might switch from beer to chugging milk as a display of inner fortitude.

Hate works in mysterious ways.

Someday, perhaps, in a kinder, gentler world, I’ll feel safe to write more stories featuring the Neanderthal. For now, I’ve set my draft aside.

Image by Chapendra on Flickr.

Featured image: the National Museum of Natural History. Image by Eden, Janine and Jim on Flickr.

On octopus art.

On octopus art.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Optic Wraith

Her eyes

like a swarm of dense volcano spiders

woven from cold inferno spools

contradictory

consuming

clinging to my palette

like the code from a bleak inventive ruse

now

my understanding of her scent

is condoned as general waking insomnia

as void

as a cataleptic prairie

frayed at the core

by brushstrokes of vertigo

then mazes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elephants at a sanctuary. Image by Gilda on Flickr.

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

But what about octopus art?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A coconut octopus. Image by Christian Gloor on Wikimedia.

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

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