On the apparent rarity of human-like intelligence.

On the apparent rarity of human-like intelligence.

Like many people, I have a weak grasp on long times. My family often visits a nearby pioneer reenactment village where the buildings and wooden gearworks of its water-powered corn mill are about two hundred years old; I feel awed. In Europe, some buildings are a thousand years old, which sounds incredible to me.

These are such small sips of evolutionary time.

Humans have roamed our world for hundreds of thousands of years. Large dinosaurs ruled our planet for hundreds of millions of years. Animals whom we’d recognize as Tyrannosaurus rex prowled for the final 2.5 million years of that, with their last descendants dying about 66 million years ago.

My mind struggles to comprehend these numbers.

I found myself reflecting on this after a stray remark in Oded Galor’s The Journey of Humanity: The Origins of Wealth and Inequality: Why is such a powerful brain so rare in nature, despite its apparent advantages?

Galor’s question seems reasonable from the vantage of the present. We live on a planet where 96% of the mammalian biomass is either our own species or prey animals we’ve raised to eat. The total mass of all surviving wild dinosaurs – otherwise known as “birds” – is less than a thirtieth the mass of humans. We’ve clearly conquered this world. Our dominance is due to our brains.

And this moment – right now! – feels special because we’re living through it. From a geological or evolutionary perspective, though, the present is a time much like any other. If we represent the total lifespan of our sun as a 24-hour day (which is much more sensible than representations with the present moment at the end of the day), the current time would be 10:58 a.m., and our sun will become so hot that it boils away all our planet’s liquid water at 7:26 p.m. Between now and then, though, we have a whole workday’s time for life to continue its beautiful, chaotic evolutionary dance. Perhaps quite soon – maybe just a million years from now, or 10 million, which is less than two minutes of our total day – the descendants of contemporary parrots, crows, or octopuses could become as intelligent as contemporary Homo sapiens.

As a human, I’m biased toward thinking that parrots and crows would have a better chance than octopuses – after all, these birds face a similar evolutionary landscape to my own ancestors. They’re long-lived, social species that invest heavily in childcare, are anatomically well-suited for tool use, and face few risks from predators.

Or rather, parrots would face few risks if humans weren’t around. Unfortunately them, a voracious species of terrestrial ape is commandeering their homeland and kidnaps their young to raise as pets. But crows can thrive in a human-dominated landscape – some crows even use our cars as tools, cracking nuts by placing them in urban crosswalks then retrieving their snack after the light turns red.

Octopuses, however, are short-lived and antisocial. They’re negligent parents. Their brief lives are haunted by nightmarish predators. And yet. Some octopuses are already quite intelligent; their intelligence appears to confer a reproductive advantage (if only by virtue of survival); their bodies are well-suited for tool use. Certain types of tools, like flaked stone, would be more difficult to create underwater, but many octopuses are capable of brief sojourns into open air. So I wouldn’t rule them out. Sometimes evolution surprises us – after all, the world has a lot of time to wait.

Which means that powerful brains like ours might not be rare in the future. Especially if our species does something stupid – like engaging in nuclear war, succumbing to global pandemic, or ruining crop yields with climate change – and the animal kingdom’s future intelligentsia don’t have to compete with 8 billion Homo sapiens for space and resources.

Also, it’s surprisingly difficult to assess whether powerful brains like ours were rare in the past. Intelligent, tool-crafting, fire-wielding, language-using species have gone extinct before – consider the Neanderthal. Our own ancestors nearly went extinct during past episodes of climate change, like after a volcanic eruption 70,000 years ago. And even if some species during the age of dinosaurs had been as intelligent as modern humans, we might not recover much evidence of their brilliance.

Please note that I’m not arguing that Tyrannosaurus rex wove baskets, wielded fire, or built the Egyptian pyramids. For starters, the body morph of T-Rex is ill-suited for tool use (as depicted in Hugh Murphy’s T-Rex Trying comics). But simply as a thought experiment, I find it interesting to imagine what we’d see today if T-Rex had reached the same level of technological and cultural sophistication as humans had from 100,000 to 10,000 years ago.

If T-Rex made art, we wouldn’t find it. The Lascaux paintings persisted for about 20,000 years because they were in a protected cave, but as soon as we found them, our humid exhalations began to destroy them. Millions of years would crush clay figurines, would cause engraved bone to decompose.

If T-Rex crafted tools from wood or plant fibers, we wouldn’t find them. We can tell that ancient humans in the Pacific Northwest of North America caught an annual salmon harvest by analyzing radioactive isotopes, but we’ve never found evidence of the boats or nets these ancient people used. After a few more radioactive half-lives passed – much sooner than a million years – this would have become invisible to us.

If T-Rex crafted tools from stone, we’d find remnants, but they’d be difficult to recognize. Evidence for human tool use often comes in three types – sharp flakes (usually 1-3 inch blades used as knives or spear tips), a hammer (often just a big round stone), and a core (a hunk of good rock that will be hit with the hammer to knock knife-like flakes off its surface). We’re most likely to realize that a particular rock was a human tool if it’s near a human settlement or if it’s made from a type of sediment rare in the location where contemporary archaeologists found it (which is why we think that an ancient primate took particular interest in the Makapansgat pebble).

Still, time is a powerful force. 66,000,000 years can dull the edges of a flake, or produce sharp rocks through mindless geological processes. It’s been difficult for archaeologists studying submerged sites in ancient Beringiaa mere 30,000 years old! – to know for certain whether any particular rock was shaped by human hands or natural forces. Other stone tools used by ancient humans look a lot like regular rocks to me, for example this 7,000-year-old mortar from Australia or these 9,000-year-old obsidian knives from North America. Ten million more years of twisting, compressing, and chipping might deceive even a professional.

And then there’s the rarity of finding anything from that long ago. Several billion T-Rex have tromped across the land, but we’ve only found as much as a single bone from a hundred of them. 99.999996% of all T-Rex vanished without a trace.

From those rare fossils, we do know that T-Rex brains were rather small. But not all neurons are the same. Work from Suzana Herculano-Houzel’s research group has shown that the number of neurons in a brain is a much better proxy for intelligence than the brain’s total size – sometimes a bigger brain is just made from bigger neurons, with no additional processing power. And the brains of our world’s surviving dinosaurs are made quite efficiently – “Birds have primate-like numbers of neurons in the forebrain.” **

We humans are certainly intelligent. And with all the technologies we’ve made in the past 200 years – a mere millisecond of our sun’s twenty-four hour day – our presence will be quite visible to any future archaeologists, even if we were to vanish tomorrow. But we do ourselves no favors by posturing as more exceptional than we are.

Animals much like us could have come and gone; animals much like us could certainly evolve again. Our continued presence here has never been guaranteed.

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** A NOTE ON NEURON COUNTS: many contemporary dinosaurs have brains with approximately 200 million neurons per gram of brain mass, compared to human brains with approximately 50 million neurons per gram of brain mass. A human brain has a much higher total neuron count, at about 80 billion neurons, than dinosaurs like African Gray Parrots or Ravens, which have about 2 billion neurons, but only because our brains are so much more massive. If the brain of a T-Rex had a similar composition to contemporary dinosaurs, it might have twice as many neurons as our own.

Of course, elephant brains also have three times as many neurons as our own — in this case, researchers then compare neuron counts in particular brain regions, finding that elephant brains have about a third as many neurons specifically in the cerebral cortex compared to human brains. For extinct species of dinosaurs, though, we can only measure the total size of the cranial cavity and guess how massive their brains would have been, with no indication of how these brains may have been partitioned into cerebellum, cerebral cortex, etc.

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Header image: a photograph of Sue at Chicago’s Natural History Museum by Evolutionnumber9 on Wikipedia.

On scientific beliefs, Indigenous knowledge, and paternity.

On scientific beliefs, Indigenous knowledge, and paternity.

Recently my spouse & I reviewed Jennifer Raff’s Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas for the American Biology Teacher magazine (in brief: Raff’s book is lovely, you should read it! I’ll include a link to our review once it’s published!), which deftly balances twin goals of disseminating scientific findings and honoring traditional knowledge.

By the time European immigrants reached the Americas, many of the people living here told stories suggesting that their ancestors had always inhabited these lands. This is not literally true. We have very good evidence that all human species – including Homo sapiens, Homo neaderthalensis, and Homo denisovans among possible others – first lived in Africa. Their descendants then migrated around the globe over a period of a few hundred thousand years.

As best we know, no lasting population of humans reached the Americas until about twenty thousand years ago (by which time most human species had gone extinct – only Homo sapiens remained).

During the most recent ice age, a few thousand humans lived in an isolated, Texas-sized grassland called Beringia for perhaps a few thousand years. They were cut off from other humans to the west and an entire continent to the east by glacial ice sheets. By about twenty thousand years ago, though, some members of this group ventured south by boat and established new homes along the shoreline.

By about ten thousand years ago, and perhaps earlier, descendants of these travelers reached the southern tip of South America, the eastern seaboard of North America, and everywhere between. This spread was likely quite rapid (from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist) based on the diversity of local languages that had developed by the time Europeans arrived, about five hundred years ago.

So, by the time Europeans arrived, some groups of people had probably been living in place for nearly 10,000 years. This is not “always” from a scientific perspective, which judges our planet to be over 4,000,000,000 years old. But this is “always” when in conversation with an immigrant who believes the planet to be about 4,000 years old. Compared with Isaac Newton’s interpretation of Genesis, the First People had been living here long before God created Adam and Eve.

If “In the beginning …” marks the beginning of time, then, yes, their people had always lived here.

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I found myself reflecting on the balance between scientific & traditional knowledge while reading Gabriel Andrade’s essay, “How ‘Indigenous Ways of Knowing’ Works in Venezuela.” Andrade describes his interactions with students who hold the traditional belief in partible paternity: that semen is the stuff of life from which human babies are formed, and so every cis-man who ejaculates during penetrative sex with a pregnant person becomes a father to the child.

Such beliefs might have been common among ancient humans – from their behavior, it appears that contemporary chimpanzees might also hold similar beliefs – and were almost certainly widespread among the First Peoples of South America.

I appreciate partible paternity because, although this belief is often framed in misogynistic language – inaccurately grandiose claims about the role of semen in fetal development, often while ignoring the huge contribution of a pregnant person’s body – the belief makes the world better. People who are or might become pregnant are given more freedom. Other parents, typically men, are encouraged to help many children.

Replacing belief in partible paternity with a scientifically “correct” understanding of reproduction would probably make the world worse – people who might become pregnant would be permitted less freedom, and potential parents might cease to aid children whom they didn’t know to be their own genetic offspring.

Also, the traditional knowledge – belief in partible paternity – might be correct.

Obviously, there’s a question of relationships – what makes someone a parent? But I also mean something more biological — a human child actually can have three or more genetic contributors among their parents.

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Presumably you know the scientific version of human reproduction. To wit: a single sperm cell merges with a single egg cell. This egg rapidly changes to exclude all the other sperm cells surrounding it, then implants in the uterine lining. Over the next nine months, this pluripotent cell divides repeatedly to form the entire body of a child. The resulting child has exactly two parents. Every cell in the child’s body has the same 3 billion base pair long genome.

No scientist believes in this simplified version. For instance, every time a cell divides, the entire genome must be copied – each time, this process will create a few mistakes. By the time a human child is ready to be born, their cells will have divided so many times that the genome of a cell in the hand is different from the genome of a cell in the liver or in the brain.

In Unique, David Linden writes that:

Until recently, reading someone’s DNA required a goodly amount of it: you’d take a blood draw or a cheek swab and pool the DNA from many cells before loading it into the sequencing machine.

However, in recent years it has become possible to read the complete sequence of DNA, all three billion or so nucleotides, from individual cells, such as a single skin cell or neuron. With this technique in hand, Christopher Walsh and his coworkers at Boston Children’s Hopsital and Harvard Medical School isolated thirty-six individual neurons from three healthy postmortem human brains and then determined the complete genetic sequence for each of them.

This revealed that no two neurons had exactly the same DNA sequence. In fact, each neuron harbored, on average, about 1,500 single-nucleotide mutations. That’s 1,500 nucleotides out of a total of three billion in the entire genome – a very low rate, but those mutations can have important consequences. For example, one was in a gene that instructs the production of an ion channel protein that’s crucial for electrical signaling in neurons. If this mutation were present in a group of neurons, instead of just one, it could cause epilepsy.

No human has a genome: we are composite creatures.

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Most scientists do believe that all these unique individual genomes inside your cells were composed by combining genetic information from your two parents and then layering on novel mutations. But we don’t know how often this is false.

Pluripotent (“able to form many things”) cells from a developing human embryo / fetus / baby can travel throughout a pregnant person’s body. This is quite common – most people with XX chromosomes who have given birth to people with XY chromosomes will have cells with Y chromosomes in their brains. During the gestation of twins, the twins often swap cells (and therefore genomes).

At the time of birth, most humans aren’t twins, but many of us do start that way. There’s only a one in fifty chance of twin birth following a dizygotic pregnancy (the fertilization of two or more eggs cells released during a single ovulation). Usually what happens next is a merger or absorption of one set of these cells by another, resulting in a single child. When this occurs, different regions of a person’s body end up with distinct genetic lineages, but it’s difficult to identify. Before the advent of genetic sequencing, you might notice only if there was a difference in eye, skin, or hair color from one part of a person’s body to the next. Even now, you’ll only notice if you sequence full genomes from several regions of a person’s body and find that they’re distinct.

For a person to have more than two genetic contributors, there would have to be a dizygotic pregnancy in which sperm cells from unique individuals merged with the two eggs.

In the United States, where the dominant culture is such that people who are trying to get pregnant are exhorted not to mate with multiple individuals, studies conducted in the 1990s found that at least one set of every few hundred twins had separate fathers (termed “heteropaternal superfecundication”). In these cases, the children almost certainly had genomes derived from the genetic contributions of three separate people (although each individual cell in the children’s bodies would have a genome derived from only two genetic contributors).

So, we actually know that partible paternity is real. Because it’s so difficult to notice, our current estimates are probably lower bounds. If 1:400 were the rate among live twins, probably that many dizygotic pregnancies in the United States also result from three or more genetic contributors. Probably this frequency is higher in cultures that celebrate rather than castigate this practice.

Honestly, I could be persuaded that estimates ranging anywhere from 1:20 to 1:4,000 were reasonable for the frequency that individuals from these cultures have three or more genetic contributors.** We just don’t know.

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I agree with Gabriel Andrade that we’d like for medical students who grew up believing in partible paternity to benefit from our scientific understanding of genetics and inheritance – this scientific knowledge will help them help their patients. But I also believe that, even in this extreme case, the traditional knowledge should be respected. It’s not as inaccurate as we might reflexively believe!

The scientific uncertainty I’ve described above doesn’t quite match the traditional knowledge, though. A person can only receive genetic inheritance from, ahem, mating events that happen during ovulation, whereas partible paternity belief systems also treat everyone who has sex with the pregnant person over the next few months as a parent, too.

But there’s a big difference between contributing genes and being a parent. In Our Transgenic Future: Spider Goats, Genetic Modification, and the Will to Change Nature, Lisa Jean Moore discusses the many parents who have helped raise the three children she conceived through artificial insemination. Even after Moore’s romantic relationships with some of these people ended, they remained parents to her children. The parental bond, like all human relationships, is created by the relationship itself.

This should go without saying, but: foster families are families. Adopted families are families. Families are families.

Partible paternity is a belief that makes itself real.

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** A note on the math: Dizygotic fertilization appears to account for 1:10 human births, and in each of these cases there is probably at least some degree of chimerism in the resulting child. My upper estimate for the frequency that individuals have three or more genetic contributors, 1:20, would be if sperm from multiple individuals had exactly equal probabilities of fertilizing each of the two egg cells. My lower estimate of 1:4,000 would be if dizygotic fertilization from multiple individuals had the same odds as the 1:400 that fraternal twin pairs in the U.S. have distinct primary genetic contributors. Presumably a culture that actively pursues partible paternity would have a higher rate than this, but we don’t know for sure. And in any case, these are large numbers! Up to 5% of people from these cultures might actually have three or more genetic contributors, which is both biologically relevant and something that we’d be likely to overlook if we ignored the traditional Indigenous knowledge about partible paternity.

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header image from Zappy’s Technology Solution on flickr

On dangerous air & the damnation of cyanobacteria.

On dangerous air & the damnation of cyanobacteria.

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

Newsmen call it the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Teachers say it’s the end of the world.

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

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

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

Hide under a desk.

Pretend that furniture is enough

to protect us against perilous flames.

Radiation. Contamination. Toxic breath.

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

Each air-raid drill is sheer terror,

but some kids giggle.

They don’t believe that death

is real.

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

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

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

Nuclear bomb: photograph by Kelly Michals on flickr.

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

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

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

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

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

And yet.

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

When I hide under my frail school desk,

my heart grows as rough and brittle

as the slab of wood

that fails to protect me

from reality’s

gloom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It likely won’t be us.

On magic.

On magic.

There’s broad scientific consensus that school closures hurt children, probably making a significant contribution to future increases in premature death.

There’s also broad scientific consensus that school closures – particularly elementary school closures – aren’t helpful in slowing the spread of Covid-19. Children aren’t major vectors for this virus. Adults just have to remember not to congregate in the teachers’ lounge.

Worldwide, a vanishingly small percentage of viral transmissions have occurred inside schools.

And … our district just closed in-person school for all children.

In-person indoor dining at restaurants is still allowed. Bars are still open.

Older people are sending a clear message to kids: “Your lives matter less than ours.”

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For at-risk children, school closures are devastating. A disruption in social-emotional learning; lifelong education gaps; skipped meals.

But for my (privileged!) family, the closure will be pretty nice. I was recently feeling nostalgic about the weeks in August when my eldest and I spent each morning together.

Our youngest attends pre-K at a private school. Her school, like most private schools around the country, (sensibly) re-opened on time and is following its regular academic calendar.

My eldest and I will do two weeks of home schooling before winter break. And it’ll be fun. I like spending time with my kids, and my eldest loves school so much that she often uses up most of her energy during the day – teachers tell us what a calm, lovely, hard-working kid she is. And then she comes home and yells, all her resilience dissipated.

Which is normal! Totally normal. But it’s a little crummy, as a parent, to know you’ve got a great kid but that you don’t get to see her at her best.

Right now she’s sad about not going to school – on Monday, she came home crying, “There was an announcement that we all have to switch to online only!” – but I’m lucky that I can be here with her. Writing stories together, doing math puzzles, cooking lunch.

Maybe we’ll practice magic tricks. She loves magic.

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Last month, I was getting ready to drive the kids to school. T. (4 years old) and I were in the bathroom. I’d just handed T. her toothbrush.

N. (6 years old) walked over holding a gallon-sized plastic bag.

“Father, do you want to see a magic trick?” she asked.

“Okay, but I have to brush my teeth while you’re doing it.”

“Okay,” she said, and opened the bag. She took out a multi-colored lump of clay. It was vaguely spherical. Globs of red, white, and blue poked up from random patches across the surface, as though three colors of clay had been haphazardly moshed together.

“So you think this is just this,” she said, but then …”

She took out a little wooden knife and began sawing at the lump. “This is just this?”, I wondered. It’s an interesting phrase.

Her sawing had little effect. The knife appeared useless. I’m pretty sure this wooden knife is part of the play food set she received as a hand-me-down when she was 9 months old. “Safe for babies” is generally correlated with “Useless for cutting.”

She was having trouble breaking the surface of her lump.

I spat out my toothpaste.

She kept sawing. She set down the knife and stared at the clay intently. A worthy adversary.

I stood there, watching.

She grabbed the knife again and resumed sawing. More vigorously, this time. She started stabbing, whacking. This was enough to make a tiny furrow. She tossed aside the knife and pulled with her fingertips, managing to pry two lobes of the strange lump away from each other.

“Okay,” she said, “it’s hard to see, but there’s some green in there.”

T. and I crouched down and peered closely. Indeed, there was a small bit of round green clay at the center of the lump.

“Wow!” exclaimed T. “I thought it was just a red, and, uh, blue, and white ball! But then, on the inside, there’s some green!”

“I know!” said N., happy that at least one member of her audience understood the significance of her trick. “And look, I might even get it back together!”

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N. started performing magic when she was four. T. was asleep for her afternoon nap.

“Okay,” she said, “you sit there, and I’ll put on a magic show. Watch, I’ll make, um … this cup! See this cup? I’ll make it disappear.”

“Okay,” I said, curious. We’d just read a book that explained how to make a penny disappear from a glass cup – the trick is to start with the cup sitting on top of the penny, so that the coin looks like it’s inside the cup but actually isn’t.

I had no idea how she planned to make the cup itself disappear.

“Okay, so, um, now you’re ready, and …” she looked at the cup in her hands. Suddenly, she whisked it behind her back. And stood there, looking at me somberly, with her hands behind her back.

“I don’t have it,” she said.

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Magic – convincing an audience to believe in an illusion.

This is just this.

I don’t have the cup – it’s gone.

Much of our Covid-19 response has been magic-based. We repeat illusory beliefs – schools are dangerous, reinfections are rare, death at any age is a tragedy – and maybe our audience is swayed.

But that doesn’t change the underlying reality.

The cup still exists – it was behind her back.

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Everyone will die. Mortality is inescapable.

Our species is blessed with prodigious longevity, probably because so many grandmothers among our ancestors worked hard to help their grandchildren survive.

(The long lives of men are probably an accidental evolutionary byproduct, like male nipples or female orgasms. Elderly men, with their propensity to commandeer resources and start conflicts, probably reduced the fitness of their families and tribes.)

After we reach our seventies, though – when our ancestors’ grandchildren had probably passed their most risky developmental years – our bodies fail. We undergo immunosenescence – our immune systems become worse at suppressing cancer and infections.

We will die. Expensive interventions can stave off death for longer – we can now vaccinate 90-year-olds against Covid-19 – but we will still die.

Dying at the end of a long, full life shouldn’t feel sad, though. Everybody dies. Stories end. That’s the natural arc of the world.

What’s sad is when people die young.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to unnecessary school closures.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to unmitigated climate change.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to antibiotic resistant bacteria.

These are urgent threats facing our world. And we’re not addressing them.

The cup is still there.

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For my daughter, of course, I played along. I smiled, and laughed. She stood there beaming, holding the cup behind her back.

“Magic!” I said.

N. nodded proudly, then asked, “Do you want me to bring it back?”

It’ll take the same measure of magic to bring back schools.

On childcare.

On childcare.

After my eldest was born, I spent the first autumn as her sole daytime caretaker. She spent a lot of time strapped to my chest, either sleeping or wiggling her head about to look at things I gestured to as I chittered at her.

We walked around our home town, visiting museums and the library. I stacked a chair on top of my desk to make a standing workspace and sometimes swayed from side to side while I typed. At times, she reached up and wrapped her little hands around my neck; I gently tucked them back down at my sternum so that I could breath.

She seemed happy, but it felt unsustainable for me. Actually getting my work done while parenting was nigh impossible.

And so our family bought a membership at the YMCA. They offer two hour blocks of child care for children between six weeks and six years old.

The people who work in our YMCA’s child care space are wonderful. Most seem to be “overqualified” for the work, which is a strange thing to write. Childhood development has huge ramifications for both the child’s and their family’s whole lifetime, and child psychology is an incredibly rich, complex subject. Helping to raise children is important, fulfilling work. No one is overqualified to do it.

Yet we often judge value based on salary. Childcare, because it was traditionally seen by European society as “women’s work,” is poorly remunerated. The wages are low, there’s little prestige – many people working in childcare have been excluded from other occupations because of a lack of degrees, language barriers, or immigration status.

I like to think that I appreciate the value of caretaking – I’m voting with my feet – but even I insufficiently valued the work being done at our YMCA’s childcare space.

Each time I dropped my children off – at which point I’d sit and type at one of the small tables in the snack room, which were invariably sticky with spilled juice or the like – I viewed it as a trade-off. I thought that I was being a worse parent for those two hours, but by giving myself time to do my work, I could be a fuller human, and maybe would compensate for those lapsed hours by doing better parenting later in the day.

I mistakenly thought that time away from their primary parent would be detrimental for my children.

Recently, I’ve been reading Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s marvelous Mothers and Others, about the evolutionary roots of human childhood development, and learned my mistake.

Time spent in our YMCA’s childcare space was, in and of itself, almost surely beneficial for my children. My kids formed strong attachments to the workers there; each time my children visited, they were showered with love. And, most importantly, they were showered with love by someone who wasn’t me.

Hrdy explains:

A team headed by the Israeli psychologist Abraham Sagi and his Dutch collaborator Marinus van IJzendoorn undertook an ambitious series of studies in Israel and the Netherlands to compare children cared for primarily by mothers with those cared for by both mothers and other adults.

Overall, children seemed to do best when they have three secure relationships – that is, three relationships that send the clear message “You will be cared for no matter what.”

Such findings led van IJzendoorn and Sagi to conclude that “the most powerful predictor of later socioemotional development involves the quality of the entire attachment network.”

In the United States, we celebrate self-sufficient nuclear families, but these are a strange development for our species. In the past, most humans lived in groups of close family and friends; children would be cared for by several trusted people in addition to their parents.

Kids couldn’t be tucked away in a suburban house with their mother all day. They’d spend some time with her; they’d spend time with their father; they’d spend time with their grandparents; they’d spend time with aunties and uncles, and with friends whom they called auntie or uncle. Each week, children would be cared for by many different people.

The world was a harsh place for our ancestors to live in. There was always a risk of death – by starvation, injury, or disease. Everyone in the group had an incentive to help each child learn, because everyone would someday depend upon that child’s contributions.

And here I was – beneficiary of some million years of human evolution – thinking that I’d done so well by unlearning the American propaganda that caretaking is unimportant work.

And yet, I still mistakenly believed that my kids needed it to be done by me.

Being showered with love by parents is important. Love from primary caretakers is essential for a child to feel secure with their place in the world. But love from others is crucial, too.

I am so grateful that our YMCA provided that for my kids.

And, now that they’re old enough, my kids receive that love from school. Each day when they go in, they’re with teachers who let them know: You will be cared for no matter what.

On apocalypse clocks.

On apocalypse clocks.

The world is complicated. There’s so much information out there, so much to know. And our brains are not made well for knowing much of it.

I can understand numbers like a dozen, a hundred. I can make a guess at the meaning of a thousand. Show me a big gumball machine and ask me to guess how many gumballs are in it, maybe I’ll guess a thousand, a few thousand.

But numbers like a million? A billion? A trillion? These numbers are important, I know. These numbers might be the population of cities, or of planets, or of solar systems. These numbers might be the ages of species or planets. These numbers might be how many stars are in the sky, or how many stars in the sky might harbor life.

These numbers don’t mean much to me.

I don’t think the problem is just my brain. I’m fairly good with numbers, relative to the average human. It’s been years since I’ve sat in a math class, but I can still do basic integrals and derivatives in my head.

Yet I can’t understand those big numbers. They don’t feel like anything to me.

So we make graphs. Charts. We try to represent information in ways that our meager human brains can grasp.

A good chart can be a revelation. Something that seemed senseless before is now made clear.

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An apocalypse is a revelation. The word “apocalypse” means lifting the veil – apo, off; kalyptein, conceal. To whisk away the cover and experience a sudden insight.

An illustration that depicts information well allows numbers to be felt.

Often, though, we illustrate information and we do it poorly.

The scientific method is gorgeous. Through guesswork, repetition, and analysis, we can learn about our world.

But science is never neutral. We impart our values by the questions we choose to ask, by the ways we choose to interpret the world’s ever-oblique answers.

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Geological time is often depicted as a clock. A huge quantity of time, compressed down into a 24-hour day. Often, this is done with the ostensible goal of showing the relative unimportance of humans.

Our planet has been here for a day, and humans appear only during the final two minutes!

Unfortunately, this way of depicting time actually overemphasizes the present. Why, after all, should the present moment in time seem so special that it resides at midnight on our clock?

The present feels special to us because we’re living in it. From a geological perspective, it’s just another moment.

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In Timefulness, geologist Marcia Bjornerud writes:

Geologic textbooks invariably point out (almost gleefully) that if the 4.5-billion-year story of the Earth is scaled to a 24-hour day, all of human history would transpire in the last fraction of a second before midnight.

But this is a wrongheaded, and even irresponsible, way to understand our place in Time. For one thing, it suggests a degree of insignificance and disempowerment that not only is psychologically alienating but also allows us to ignore the magnitude of our effects on the planet in that quarter second.

And it denies our deep roots and permanent entanglement with Earth’s history; our specific clan may not have shown up until just before the clock struck 12:00, but our extended family of living organisms has been around since at least 6 a.m.

Finally, the analogy implies, apocalyptically, that there is no future – what happens after midnight?

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Timefulness is a lovely book, but Bjornerud does not present a corrected clock.

And so I lay in bed, thinking. How could these numbers be shown in a way that helped me to understand our moment in time?

I wanted to fix the clock.

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The first midnight is easy – the birth of our sun. A swirling cloud of gas condenses, heating as gravity tugs the molecules into more and more collisions. Nuclear fusion begins.

Gravity tugs molecules inward, nuclear explosions push them outward. When these are balanced, our sun exists. Twelve o’clock.

Two minutes later, our planet is born. Metal and water and dust become a big rock that keeps swirling, turning, as it orbits the sun. It’s warmed, weakly, by light from the sun – our star shone dimly then, but shines brighter and brighter every day.

Our sun earns low interest – 0.9% each hundred million years, hotter, brighter. But wait long enough, and a low interest is enough.

Someday, shortly before it runs out of fuel, our sun will be blinding.

By 12:18 a.m., there is life on Earth. We’ve found fossils that many billions of years old.

And at 7:26 p.m., there will be no more life. Our sun will have become so bright that its blinding light evaporates all the oceans. The water will boil so hot that it will be flung into space. The Earth will be a rocky desert, coated perhaps in thick clouds of noxious gas.

Currently, it’s 10:58 a.m.

The dinosaurs appeared 35 minutes ago. 9.5 minutes ago, all of them died (except the ancestors of our birds).

Humans appeared 1 minute ago.

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So, we have 3.5 billion years remaining – another 8.5 hours on our clock – before we have to migrate to the stars.

Humans certainly can’t persist forever. Empty space is stretching. Eventually, the whole universe will be dark and cold, which each speck of matter impossibly far from every other.

But our kind could endure for a good, long while. Scaled to the 24-hour day representing the lifespan of our sun, we still have another 300 years before the universe goes dark.

So many stories could fit into that span of time.

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It’s 10:58 a.m., and life on Earth has until 7:26 p.m.

Humans crept down from trees, harnessed fire, invented writing, and built rockets all within a single minute. Life moves fast.

Quite likely, life from Earth will reach the stars.

But it needn’t be us.

The dinosaurs were cool. They didn’t make it.

We naked apes are pretty cool, too. I love our cave drawings, art museums, psychedelic street art. Our libraries. But we’ve also made prodigious mounds of trash. We’re pouring plumes of exhaust into the sky as we ship giant flatscreen televisions from place to place.

We burn a lot of fuel for the servers that host our websites.

We humans aren’t the first organisms to risk our own demise by pumping exhaust into the atmosphere. The industrial revolution was fueled by ancient plants – our engines burn old sunlight. But many microbes are happy to eat old sunlight, too. These microbes also pump carbon dioxide into the air. They’ve warmed our planet many times before – each time the permafrost thawed, microbes went to town, eating ancient carbon that had been locked up in the ice.

Foolish microbes. They made the Earth too hot and cooked themselves.

Then again, the microbes may have more modest goals than us humans. We’ve found no fossils suggesting that the microbes tried to build spaceships.

For our endeavors, we’ve benefited from a few thousand years of extremely stable, mild climate.

We still have 8.5 hours left to build some spaceships, but a thirty second hot squall at 10:59 a.m. would doom the entire project.

So much time stretches out in front of us. We could have a great day. We, in continuation of the minute of humans who preceded us, and continued by the seconds or minutes or hours of humans who will be born next.

We shouldn’t let our myopic focus on present growth fuck up the entire day.

Honestly? My children are four and six. I’d be so disappointed if I took them for a hike and they guzzled all their water, devoured all their snacks, within the first minute after we left our house.

On octopuses and family gatherings.

On octopuses and family gatherings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It hurt a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was about the size of a grain of rice.

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

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

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

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

On empathy and the color red.

On empathy and the color red.

I can’t fly.

I try to feed my children every night, but I never vomit blood into their mouths.

When I try to hang upside down – like from monkey bars at a playground – I have to clench my muscles, and pretty soon I get dizzy. I couldn’t spend a whole day like that.

And, yes, sometimes I shout. Too often during the pandemic, I’ve shouted at my kids. But when I shout, I’m trying to make them stop hitting each other – I’m not trying to figure out where they are.

It’s pretty clear that I’m not a bat.

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Photograph by Anne Brooke, USFWS

Because I haven’t had these experiences, philosopher Thomas Nagel would argue that I can’t know how it feels to be a bat.

In so far as I can imagine [flitting through the dark, catching moths in my mouth], it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves.

But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.

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Perhaps I can’t know what it feels like for a bat to be a bat. And yet, I can empathize with a bat. I can imagine how it might feel to be trapped in a small room while a gamboling, wiry-limbed orc-thing tried to swat me with a broom.

It would be terrifying!

And that act of imagination – of empathy – is enough for me to want to protect bats’ habitats. To make space for them in our world. Sure, you could argue that bats are helpful for us – they’re pollinators, they eat pesky bugs – but empathy lets us care about the well-being of bats for their own sake.

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Literature exercises our minds: when we read, invent, and share stories, we build our capacity for empathy, becoming more generally aware of the world outside our own skulls.

Writing can be a radical act of love. Especially when we write from a perspective that differs from our own. The poet Ai said that “Whoever wants to speak in my poems is allowed to speak, regardless of sex, race, creed, or color.” Her poems often unfurl from the perspective of violent men, and yet she treats her protagonists with respect and kindness. Ai gives them more than they deserve: “I don’t know if I embrace them, but I love them.

Ai

That capacity for love, for empathy, will let us save the world. Although many of us haven’t personally experienced a lifetime of racist microaggressions or conflict with systemic oppression, we all need to understand how rotten it would feel. We need to understand that the pervasive stress seeps into a person’s bones, causing all manner of health problems. We need understand the urgency of building a world where all children feel safe.

And if we don’t understand – yet – maybe we need to read more.

Experiments suggest that reading any engaging literary fiction boosts our ability to empathize with others. Practice makes better: get outside your head for a while, it’ll be easier to do it again next time.

Of course, we’ll still need to make an effort to learn what others are going through. Thomas Nagel was able to ruminate so extensively about what it would feel like to live as a bat because we’ve learned about echolocation, about their feeding habits, about their family lives. If we want to be effective anti-racists, we need to learn about Black experiences in addition to developing our empathy more generally.

Luckily, there’s great literature with protagonists facing these struggles – maybe you could try How We Fight for Our Lives, Americanah, or The Sellout.

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As a bookish White person, it’s easy for me to empathize with the experiences of other bookish White people. In Search of Lost Time doesn’t tax my brain. Nor does White Noise. The characters in these books are a lot like me.

The cognitive distance between me and the protagonists of Americanah is bigger. Which is sad in and of itself – as high schoolers, these characters were playful, bookish, and trusting, no different from my friends or me. But then they were forced to endure hard times that I was sufficiently privileged to avoid. And so when I read about their lives, perched as I was atop my mountain of privilege, it was painful to watch Ifemelu and Obinze develop their self-protective emotional carapaces, armoring themselves against the injustice that ceaselessly buffets them.

Another reader might nod and think, I’ve been there. I had to exercise my imagination.

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In Being a Beast, Charles Foster describes his attempts to understand the lives of other animals. He spent time mimicking their behaviors – crawling naked across the dirt, eating worms, sleeping in an earthen burrow. He wanted a badger’s-eye view of the world.

Foster concluded that his project was a failure – other animals’ lives are just so different from ours.

And yet, as a direct consequence of his attempt at understanding, Foster changed his life. He began treating other animals with more kindness and respect. To me, this makes his project a success.

White people might never understand exactly how it feels to be Black in America. I’m sure I don’t. But we can all change the way we live. We can, for instance, resolve to spend more money on Black communities, and spend it on more services than just policing.

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Empathy is working when it forces us to act. After all, what we do matters more than what we purport to think.

It’s interesting to speculate what it would feel like to share another’s thoughts – in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Shorefall, the protagonists find a way to temporarily join minds. This overwhelming rush of empathy and love transforms them: “Every human being should feel obliged to try this once.

In the real world, we might never know exactly how the world feels to someone else. But Nagel wants to prove, with words, that he has understood another’s experience.

One might try, for example, to develop concepts that could be used to explain to a person blind from birth what it was like to see. One would reach a blank wall eventually, but it should be possible to devise a method of expressing in objective terms much more than we can at present, and with much greater precision.

The loose intermodal analogies – for example, “Red is like the sound of a trumpet” – which crop up in discussions of this subject are of little use. That should be clear to anyone who has both heard a trumpet and seen red.

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We associate red with many of our strongest emotions: anger, violence, love.

And we could tell many different “just so” stories to explain why we have these associations.

Like:

Red is an angry color because people’s faces flush red when they’re mad. Red blood flows when we’re hurt, or when we hurt another.

Or:

Red represents love because a red glow spreads over our partners’ necks and chests and earlobes as we kiss and caress and fumble together.

Or:

Red is mysterious because a red hue fills the sky at dawn and dusk, the liminal hours when we are closest to the spirit world.

These are all emergent associations – they’re unrelated to the original evolutionary incentive that let us see red. Each contributes to how we see red now, but none explains the underlying why.

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We humans are blue-green-red trichromatic – we can distinguish thousands of colors, but our brains do this by comparing the relative intensities of just three.

And we use the phrase “color blind” to describe the people and other animals who can’t distinguish red from green. But all humans are color blind – there are colors we can’t see. To us, a warm body looks identical to a cold wax replica. But their colors are different, as any bullfrog could tell you.

Photograph by Tim Mosenfelder, Getty Images

Our eyes lack the receptors – cone cells with a particular fold of opsin – that could distinguish infrared light from other wavelengths. We mistakenly assume these two singers have the same color skin.

When we look at flowers, we often fail to see the beautiful patterns that decorate their petals. These decorations are obvious to any bee, but we’re oblivious. Again, we’re missing the type of cone cells that would let us see. To fully appreciate flowers, we’d need receptors that distinguish ultraviolet light from blue.

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Most humans can see the color red because we’re descended from fruit eaters. To our bellies, a red berry is very different from a green berry. And so, over many generations, our ancestors who could see the difference were able to gather more nutritious berries than their neighbors. Because they had genes that let them see red, they were better able to survive, have children, and keep their children fed.

The genes for seeing red spread.

Now, several hundred thousand years later, this wavelength of light blares at us like a trumpet. Even though the our ancestors learned to cook food with fire, and switched from fruit gathering to hunting, and then built big grocery stores where the bright flashes of color are just advertisements for a new type of high-fructose-corn-syrup-flavored cereal, red still blares at us.

Once upon a time, we really needed to see ripe fruit. The color red became striking to us, wherever we saw it. And so we invented new associations – rage, or love – even though these are totally unrelated to the evolutionary pressures that gave us our red vision.

Similarly, empathy wasn’t “supposed” to let us build a better world. Evolution doesn’t care about fairness.

And yet. Even though I might never know exactly how it feels when you see the color red, I can still care how you’re treated. Maybe that’s enough.

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Header image: a greater short-nosed fruit bat, photograph by Anton 17.

On meditation and the birth of the universe.

On meditation and the birth of the universe.

This is part of a series of essays prepared to discuss in jail.

Our bodies are chaos engines. 

In our nearby environment, we produce order.  We form new memories.  We build things.  We might have sex and create new life.  From chaos, structure.

As we create local order, though, we radiate disorder into the universe. 

The laws of physics work equally well whether time is moving forward or backward.  The only reason we experience time as flowing forward is that the universe is progressing from order into chaos.

In the beginning, everything was homogeneous.  The same stuff was present everywhere.  Now, some regions of the universe are different from others.  One location contains our star; another location, our planet.  Each of our bodies is very different from the space around us.

This current arrangement is more disorderly than the early universe, but less so than what our universe will one day become.  Life is only possible during this intermediate time, when we are able to eat structure and excrete chaos. 

Hubble peers into a stellar nursery. Image courtesy of NASA Marshall Space Flight on Flickr.

Sunlight shines on our planet – a steady stream of high-energy photons all pointed in the same direction.  Sunshine is orderly.  But then plants eat sunshine and carbon dioxide to grow.  Animals eat the plants.  As we live, we radiate heat – low-energy photons that spill from our bodies in all directions.

The planet Earth, with all its life, acts like one big chaos engine.  We absorb photons from the sun, lower their energy, increase their number, and scatter them.

We’ll continue until we can’t.

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Our universe is mostly filled with empty space. 

But empty space does not stay empty.  Einstein’s famous equation, E equals M C squared, describes the chance that stuff will suddenly pop into existence.  This happens whenever a region of space gathers too much energy.

Empty space typically has a “vacuum energy” of one billionth of a joule per cubic meter.  An empty void the size of our planet would have about as much energy as a teaspoon of sugar.  Which doesn’t seem like much.  But even a billionth of a joule is thousands of times higher than the energy needed to summon electrons into being.

And there are times when a particular patch of vacuum has even more energy than that.

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According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, time and energy can’t be defined simultaneously.  Precision in time causes energy to spread – the energy becomes both lower and higher than you expected.

In practice, the vacuum energy of a particular region of space will seem to waver.  Energy is blurry, shimmering over time.

There are moments when even the smallest spaces have more than enough energy to create new particles.

Objects usually appear in pairs: a particle and its anti-particle.  Anti-matter is exactly like regular matter except that each particle has an opposite charge.  In our world, protons are positive and electrons are negative, but an anti-proton is negative and an anti-electron is positive.

If a particle and its anti-particle find each other, they explode.

When pairs of particles appear, they suck up energy.  Vacuum energy is stored inside them.  Then the particles waffle through space until they find and destroy each other.  Energy is returned to the void.

This constant exchange is like the universe breathing.  Inhale: the universe dims, a particle and anti-particle appear.  Exhale: they explode.

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Our universe is expanding.  Not only are stars and galaxies flying away from each other in space, but also empty space itself is growing.  The larger a patch of nothingness, the faster it will grow.  In a stroke of blandness, astronomers named the force powering this growth “dark energy.”

Long ago, our universe grew even faster than it does today.  Within each small fraction of a second, our universe doubled in size.  Tiny regions of space careened apart billions of times faster than the speed of light.

This sudden growth was extremely improbable.  For this process to begin, the energy of a small space had to be very, very large.  But the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle claims that – if we wait long enough – energy can take on any possible value.  Before the big bang, our universe had a nearly infinite time to wait.

After that blip, our universe expanded so quickly because the vacuum of space was perched temporarily in a high-energy “metastable” state.  Technically balanced, but warily.  Like a pencil standing on its tip.  Left alone, it might stay there forever, but the smallest breath of air would cause this pencil to teeter and fall.

Similarly, a tiny nudge caused our universe to tumble back to its expected energy.  A truly stable vacuum.  The world we know today was born – still growing, but slowly.

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During the time of rapid expansion, empty vacuum had so much energy that particles stampeded into existence.  The world churned with particles, all so hot that they zipped through space at nearly the speed of light. 

For some inexplicable reason, for every billion pairs of matter and anti-matter, one extra particle of matter appeared.  When matter and anti-matter began to find each other and explode, this billionth extra bit remained.

This small surplus formed all of stars in the sky.  The planets.  Ourselves.

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Meditation is like blinking.  You close your eyes, time passes, then you open your eyes again.  Meditation is like a blink where more time passes.

But more is different.

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Our early universe was filled with the smallest possible particles.  Quarks, electrons, and photons.  Because their energy was so high, they moved too fast to join together.  Their brilliant glow filled the sky, obscuring our view of anything that had happened before.

As our universe expanded, it cooled.  Particles slowed down.  Three quarks and an electron can join to form an atom of hydrogen.  Two hydrogen atoms can join to form hydrogen gas.  And as you combine more and more particles together, your creations can be very different from a hot glowing gas.  You can form molecules, cells, animals, societies.

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When a cloud of gas is big enough, its own gravity can pull everything inward.  The cloud becomes more and more dense until nuclear fusion begins, releasing energy just like a nuclear bomb.  These explosions keep the cloud from shrinking further.

The cloud has become a star.

Nuclear fusion occurs because atoms in the center of the cloud are squooshed too close together.  They merge: a few small atoms become one big atom.  If you compared their weights – four hydrogens at the start, one helium at the finish – you’d find that a tiny speck of matter had disappeared.  And so, according to E equals M C squared, it released a blinding burst of energy.

The largest hydrogen bomb detonated on Earth was 50 megatons – the Kuz’kina Mat tested in Russia in October, 1961.  It produced a mushroom cloud ten times the height of Mount Everest.  This test explosion destroyed houses hundreds of miles away.

The fireball of Tsar Bomba, the Kuz’kina Mat.

Every second, our sun produces twenty billion times more energy than this largest Earth-side blast.

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Eventually, our sun will run out of fuel.  Our sun shines because it turns hydrogen into helium, but it is too light to compress helium into any heavier atoms.  Our sun has burned for about four billion years, and it will probably survive for another five billion more.  Then the steady inferno of nuclear explosions will end.

When a star exhausts its fuel, gravity finally overcomes the resistance of the internal explosions.  The star shrinks.  It might crumple into nothingness, becoming a black hole.  Or it might go supernova – recoiling like a compressed spring that slips from your hand – and scatter its heavy atoms across the universe.

Planets are formed from the stray viscera of early stars.

Supernova remains. Image by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton.

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Our universe began with only hydrogen gas.  Every type of heavier atom – carbon, oxygen, iron, plutonium – was made by nuclear explosions inside the early stars.

When a condensing cloud contains both hydrogen gas and particulates of heavy atoms, the heavy atoms create clumps that sweep through the cloud far from its center.  Satellites, orbiting the star.  Planets.

Nothing more complicated than atoms can form inside stars.  It’s too hot – the belly of our sun is over twenty million degrees.  Molecules would be instantly torn apart.  But planets – even broiling, meteor-bombarded planets – are peaceful places compared to stars.

Molecules are long chains of atoms.  Like atoms, molecules are made from combinations of quarks and electrons.  The material is the same – but there’s more of it.

More is different.

Some atoms have an effect on our bodies.  If you inhale high concentrations of oxygen – an atom with eight protons – you’ll feel euphoric and dizzy.  If you drink water laced with lithium – an atom with three protons – your brain might become more stable.

But the physiological effects of atoms are crude compared to molecules.  String fifty-three atoms together in just the right shape – a combination of two oxygens, twenty-one carbons, and thirty hydrogens – and you’ll have tetrahydrocannibol.  String forty-nine atoms together in just the right shape – one oxygen, three nitrogens, twenty carbons, and twenty-five hydrogens – and you’ll have lysergic acid diethylamide.

The effects of these molecules are very different from the effects of their constituent parts.  You’d never predict what THC feels like after inhaling a mix of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen gas.

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An amino acid is comparable in scale to THC or LSD, but our bodies aren’t really made of amino acids.  We’re built from proteins – anywhere from a few dozen to tens of thousands of amino acids linked together.  Proteins are so large that they fold into complex three-dimensional shapes.  THC has its effect because some proteins in your brain are shaped like catcher’s mitts, and the cannibinoid nestles snuggly in the pocket of the glove.

Molecules the size of proteins can make copies of themselves.  The first life-like molecules on Earth were long strands of ribonucleic acid – RNA.  A strand of RNA can replicate as it floats through water.  RNA acts as a catalyst – it speeds up the reactions that form other molecules, including more RNA.

Eventually, some strands of RNA isolated themselves inside bubbles of soap.  Then the RNA could horde – when a particular sequence of RNA catalyzed reactions, no other RNA would benefit from the molecules it made.  The earliest cells were bubbles that could make more bubbles.

Cells can swim.  They eat.  They live and die.  Even single-celled bacteria have sex: they glom together, build small channels linking their insides to each other, and swap DNA.

But with more cells, you can make creatures like us.

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Consciousness is an emergent property.  With a sufficient number of neuron cells connected to each other, a brain is able to think and plan and feel.  In humans, 90 billion neuron cells direct the movements of a 30-trillion-cell meat machine.

Humans are such dexterous clever creatures that we were able to discover the origin of our universe.  We’ve dissected ourselves so thoroughly that we’ve seen the workings of cells, molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles.

But a single human animal, in isolation, never could have learned that much.

Individual humans are clever, but to form a culture complex enough to study particle physics, you need more humans.  Grouped together, we are qualitatively different.  The wooden technologies of Robinson Crusoe, trapped on a desert island, bear little resemblance to the vaulted core of a particle accelerator.

English writing uses just 26 letters, but these can be combined to form several hundred thousand different words, and these can be combined to form an infinite number of different ideas.

More is different.  The alphabet alone couldn’t give anyone insight into the story of your life.

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Meditation is like a blink where more time passes, but the effect is very different.

Many religions praise the value of meditation, especially in their origin stories.  Before Jesus began his ministry, he meditated for 40 days in the Judaean Desert – his mind’s eye saw all the world’s kingdoms prostrate before him, but he rejected that power in order to spread a philosophy of love and charity. 

Before Buddha began his ministry, he meditated for 49 days beneath the Bodhi tree – he saw a path unfurl, a journey that would let travelers escape our world’s cycle of suffering. 

Before Odin began his ministry, he meditated for 9 days while hanging from a branch of Yggdrasil, the world tree – Odin felt that he died, was reborn, and could see the secret language of the universe shimmering beneath him. 

The god Shiva meditated in graveyards, smearing himself with crematory ash.

At its extreme, meditation is purportedly psychedelic.  Meditation can induce brain states that are indistinguishable from LSD trips when visualized by MRI.  Meditation isolates the brain from its surroundings, and isolation can trigger hallucination.

Researchers have found that meditation can boost our moods, attentiveness, cognitive flexibility, and creativity.  Our brains are plastic – changeable.  We can alter the way we experience the world.  Many of our thoughts are the result of habit.  Meditation helps us change those habits.  Any condition that is rooted in our brain – like depression, insomnia, chronic pain, or addiction – can be helped with meditation.

To meditate, we have to sit, close our eyes, and attempt not to think.  This is strikingly difficult.  Our brains want to be engaged.  After a few minutes, most people experience a nagging sense that we’re wasting time.

But meditation gives our minds a chance to re-organize.  To structure ourselves.  And structure is the property that allows more of something to become different.  Squirrels don’t form complex societies – a population of a hundred squirrels will behave similarly to a population of a million or a billion.  Humans form complex webs of social interactions – as our numbers grew through history, societies changed in dramatic ways.

Before there was structure, our entire universe was a hot soup of quarks and electrons, screaming through the sky.  Here on Earth, these same particles can be organized into rocks, or chemicals, or squirrels, or us.  How we compose ourselves is everything.

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The easiest form of meditation uses mantras – this is sometimes called “transcendental meditation” by self-appointed gurus who charge people thousands of dollars to participate in retreats.  Each attendee is given a “personalized” mantra, a short word or phrase to intone silently with every breath.  The instructors dole mantras based on a chart, and each is Sanskrit.  They’re meaningless syllables to anyone who doesn’t speak the language.

Any two-syllable word or phrase should work equally well, but you’re best off carving something uplifting into your brain.  “Make peace” or “all one” sound trite but are probably more beneficial than “more hate.”  The Sanskrit phrase “sat nam” is a popular choice, which translates as “truth name” or more colloquially as “to know the true nature of things.”

The particular mantra you choose matters less than the habit – whichever phrase you choose, you should use it for every practice.  Because meditation involves sitting motionless for longer than we’re typically accustomed, most people begin by briefly stretching.  Then sit comfortably.  Close your eyes.  As you breathe in, silently think the first syllable of your chosen phrase.  As you breathe out, think the second.

Repeating a mantra helps to crowd out other thoughts, as well as distractions from your environment.  Your mind might wander – if you catch yourself, just try to get back to repeating your chosen phrase.  No one does it perfectly, but practice makes better.  When a meditation instructor’s students worried that their practice wasn’t good enough, he told them that “even on a shallow dive, you still get wet.”

In a quiet space, you might take a breath every three to six seconds.  In a noisy room, you might need to breathe every second, thinking the mantra faster to block out external sound.  The phrase is a tool to temporarily isolate your mind from the world.

Most scientific studies recommend you meditate for twenty minutes at a time, once or twice a day, each and every day.  It’s not easy to carve out this much time from our daily routines.  Still, some is better than nothing.  Glance at a clock before you close your eyes, and again after you open them.  Eventually, your mind will begin to recognize the passage of time.  After a few weeks of practice, your body might adopt the approximate rhythm of twenty minutes.

Although meditation often feels pointless during the first week of practice, there’s a difference between dabbling and a habit.  Routine meditation leads to benefits that a single experience won’t.

More is different.

On domestication and Sue Burke’s ‘Semiosis’

On domestication and Sue Burke’s ‘Semiosis’

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

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

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

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

The plant domesticated its human caretakers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Semiosis, the plant overlord reacts by limiting fertility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration of “future humans” by Futurilla on Flickr.

I murmured in disagreement. 

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Marlon Machado on Flickr.

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

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

What might a clever plant want us to become?