On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then this man started talking about crows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Natalie Uomini on Flickr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the celebration of Neanderthals.

On the celebration of Neanderthals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Uweka on Wikimedia Commons.

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

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

But I can atone through remembrance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

These details seemed sufficient to evoke a world.

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

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

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

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

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

Who would have thought?

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

Hate works in mysterious ways.

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

Image by Chapendra on Flickr.

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

On octopus art.

On octopus art.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Optic Wraith

Her eyes

like a swarm of dense volcano spiders

woven from cold inferno spools

contradictory

consuming

clinging to my palette

like the code from a bleak inventive ruse

now

my understanding of her scent

is condoned as general waking insomnia

as void

as a cataleptic prairie

frayed at the core

by brushstrokes of vertigo

then mazes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elephants at a sanctuary. Image by Gilda on Flickr.

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

But what about octopus art?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A coconut octopus. Image by Christian Gloor on Wikimedia.

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

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

On perspective.

On perspective.

In fantasy novels, trees walk upon their roots and battle with their limbs.  That makes sense to me.  If I think about two trees interacting, I consider the branches; the taller tree shades the other, limiting its competitor’s growth.

But my perspective is upside down.  Trees are standing on the sky, reaching for one another through the earth.  They listen underground.  They communicate down there, passing messages to one another, or even meals.

Picture from “The Wood Wide Web” on New Zealand Geographic.

Perhaps their branches grope for sunlight in the unconscious way that my kids’s feet seek warmth like homing missiles while they sleep.  I try to roll over only to find somebody’s toes wedged under my back.

Year by year, trees inch their feet toward the sun.  And their engaging social lives are hidden from me, buried underground.  My reflexive perspective gives me an inverted image of a tree’s world.

I’m surely not alone in this misunderstanding. 

We humans hold our heads high as we walk across the ground.  A major source of tension in human evolution was arranging our skeletons in such a way that we could walk upright without too many women dying in childbirth – our posture constrains the shape of the pelvis.

Although some species do exhibit dramatically different body morphs between males and females, it’s more common for evolutionary changes in one sex to diffusely alter the other.  Club-winged manakins have bones that are more dense than other birds, which makes them worse at flyingAll club-winged manakins fly poorly, male and female, even though only the males use their dense bones to produce mate-luring music.  Or consider the orgasms and nipples of Homo sapiens, which fulfill important biological purposes in one sex, and serve as a vestigial source of fun for the other.

In prehistoric times, men and women probably hunted together.  The evidence is especially compelling for human populations like the Neanderthal in southern Europe, who lived in such small groups that they would be unable to kill large prey without help from everyone in the group.  But even if prehistoric men had hunted alone, their upright stance and endurance running would have introduced an evolutionary pressure constricting the width of a human pelvis.

Our ancestors first descended from the trees to scavenge meat from lions’ kills.  Eventually, they began to hunt.  Their strategy was to exhaust and bewilder their prey, hoping to use the local geography to assist in each kill.  Mammoths were more likely to fall to their deaths than be slain by hurled spears; mounds of butchered bones accumulated at the base of particularly useful cliffs.

The high caloric density of cooked meat allowed our brains to expand … but the embrace of hunting also caused more women to die in childbirth.

And, less tragically, our upright posture distorts our understanding of the trees that once harbored our communities.  After all, we live in our heads.  It seemed sensible to us that the most interesting life of a tree would transpire in its loftiest branches.

Our biology doesn’t force us to view the world a certain way, but it dictates which perspectives are easiest to take.

Because our brains are story-generating organs, human cultures invariably see time as flowing uniformly in a single direction.  But for subatomic particles, time appears to be symmetrical; the Feynman diagram of an interaction would appear perfectly plausible progressing either forward or backward.

Only our universe’s progression toward greater entropy, i.e. randomness, seems to introduce a directionality for time’s arrow.  But there’s no a priori reason to expect a world to progress toward higher entropy.  This directionality seems to exist only because our particular universe happened to be in an unstable, low entropy state shortly after the Big Bang.

Image from ESA/Hubble.

Or so say most physicists.  From my perspective, I’m content assuming that the past is fixed but the future is mutable.  If I didn’t believe in that asymmetry – whether it’s real or not – I’d probably lapse into despair.

But, again, even if we accept that time is flowing, our perspective alters how we feel about that change.

Is the flow of time progress or decline?

Are a tree’s branches its hands or its feet?

In Indian mythology, time is cyclical, but within each cycle it flows toward corruption.  Time passes and the world grows worse.  Currently we are trapped within a Kali Age, the worst possible world, knowing that all the great heroes have passed.  We are just biding our time before the world can be destroyed and made good again.

After the sunder, time will once again cause that new world’s gleam to fade.  Nothing can stave off the encroach of rot.

In Judaism, the ancient sages lived longer than we do, and knew more, too.  At one point in time, a pair of humans were good: before long, we disobeyed the whims of God and were exiled from paradise.

In The Book of Shem, David Kishik writes that

To be original means to linger by the origin and insist on it.  The task is to avoid the progression toward a future or an end, and to stop the narrative before it develops any further.  In this sense, and in this sense only, the origin is a worthwhile goal.  Hence in Hebrew forward (kadima) is related to what is ancient (kadum), just as backward (achora) is linked to what is last (acharon).

Many humans want to reclaim the imagined glories of the past.

To make America great again, perhaps.

I personally think that many recent technological developments in our world are bad.  We’ve designed distracting, addicting telephones, and we’re putting them into the hands of children.  Our brains evolved to be extremely plastic, which let our species adapt to a wide variety of circumstances … but this neural plasticity allows exposure to fabulous, drug-like devices to dramatically alter our brains, probably for the worse.

And we’ve designed distracting, addicting advertising platforms – these siphon huge amounts of money away from productive industries, and the perverse economic incentives we’ve constructed allow these companies, alongside equally-unhelpful investment banks, to lure many of the most clever college graduates to their ranks.

But I’m certainly no Luddite, pining for a purer past.  The world was a terrible place for so many people.  Although I appreciate the thesis that Yuval Noah Harari presents in Sapiens – that the invention of agriculture made people’s lives worse than when all humans were hunters and gatherers – I see those grim millennia as akin to the hump in a chemical reaction, a transition that must be traversed in order to reach the desired products.

For generations, most people scraped out a miserable existence by subsistence farming.  Their lives were worse than their ancestors’.  But we, now, can feed so many people so easily that we could make our world into a paradise.

We’re not doing it, but we could.

At least we’re making baby steps toward a society in which people aren’t punished for their genetic background, or gender, or religious beliefs.  I mean, even in the United States we still treat women shabbily; across the country, racist police departments beleaguer Black citizens; atheists and Muslims are eyed with distrust.

But it used to be worse.

And, sure, even if we were the best of stewards, our planet would eventually be doomed.  Even if we don’t exhaust the resources here on Earth, the sun will run out of energy and bloat to engulf our world in a ball of fire.  Maybe that’s fine.  Death is a part of my life; perhaps I should look upon extinction as a natural part of humanity’s journey through time.

But it’s so cool to image people someday spreading amongst the stars.  I dream about the future.  And hope against hope – despite overpopulation, climate change, and all – that my children will find a better world than the one I’ve been living in.

Image by D Mitriy.

From my perspective, time will let us make the world better. 

Although it surely won’t happen on its own.  We will have to work to make it better.  The work might not be that hard.  Just live the way you would if the world were already the place it ought to be.

On attentiveness and names.

On attentiveness and names.

When a scientist first discovers a function for a gene, that scientist gets to name it.  Sometimes these names seem reasonable enough: I worked with a hematologist who did a study to identify proteins involved in apoptosis, which means roughly “programmed cell death” or “cellular suicide,” and so each gene wound up named “Requiem 3”, “Requiem 4,” etc.

Fruit fly geneticists tend to give their discoveries more creative names than other scientists.  There’s the gene “cheap date” – if a fruit fly is missing that gene, it will – ha ha – be unable to process ethanol and  so quickly passes out.  Another genetic mutation produced male flies that would court either males or females, and so this was known for over a decade as “fruity,” until another scientist decided that universal courtship could be less offensively described by the term “fruitless,” because clearly any mating-like activity that does not lead to progeny is a waste of time.

Yup, some gene names were bad.  One person’s idea of a joke might seem to somebody else like a mean-spirited reference to the wider world’s power dynamics.

Other gene names were bad not out of malice, but because humor at the expense of a fruit fly doesn’t make as many people laugh when a human child is dying. 

A gene that produces a somewhat spiky-shaped protein was named after Sonic Hedgehog.  It seemed funny at the time!  See?  The protein is spiky, the video game character has spiky hair, and … get it?  You get it, right?

 Okay, so this Sonic Hedgehog protein doesn’t look all that much like Sonic the Hedgehog.  But spend enough time staring at something like protein crystal structures and you’ll experience pareidolia, like seeing animal shapes in irregularly dappled plaster ceilings, or anthropomorphic gods amongst the twinklings of the stars.

Well, the Sonic Hedgehog protein establishes a concentration gradient that allows cells to recognize their spatial position in a developing body.  If a human fetus comes to term despite having a mutation in the Sonic Hedgehog gene (genetic abnormalities will often result in a miscarriage, but not always), the resulting child will have severe brain defects.

And then a doctor has to explain, “Your baby is suffering because of a Sonic Hedgehog mutation.”

And so, in 2006, geneticists capitulated to medical doctors. No more fanciful names for genes that might lie at the root of human health problems … which, because humans and fruit flies are actually pretty similar, means most genes.  Patients would now be told about a mutation in the SHH gene instead of Sonic Hedgehog, or a mutation in the LFNG gene instead of Lunatic Fringe.

Words have power, after all.


Some people are more attentive to their environments than others.  During evolutionary time, this trait was obviously good for humanity.  If your tribe is traveling through a hostile environment, it helps to have somebody around who is paying attention to the world.  A friend who’s primed to notice encroaching threats like a hungry lion about to leap out and attack.  Maybe we should take a different path.  Which, yeah, that sounds like a good idea.

Other people are particularly inattentive to their surroundings, so it’s easy for them to ignore the world and focus instead on one single problem.  During evolutionary time, this trait was surely good for humanity, too.  It’s helpful to have somebody on the lookout for threats that might eat you, obviously.  But it’s also helpful to have somebody who might discover a way of using dried grass to weave baskets.  A way of cooking mud into pottery that could carry or store water.

Image by Herb Roe on Wikimedia Commons.

Neurodiversity is a virtue in and of itself.  Over the millennia, the world has offered our species many challenges.  Populations that were sufficiently diverse that some members were good at each of a variety of tasks were most likely to flourish.  A cooperative species like termites or Homo sapiens benefits from specialization among its members.

Left to our their own devices, people would naturally fall asleep and wake up at different times.  Some brains are primed to work best in the early morning; others work best late at night.  And that’s good.  It reduces the amount of time that a tribe would be susceptible to attack, everyone asleep.

But in the modern world, we occasionally forget to feel grateful for the diversity that allowed our species to thrive.  The high school students whose brains are primed for late-night thinking drag themselves through morning classes like zombies.  They’ll be midway through first period before the sun rises.  Their teachers glance derisively at their slumped and scruffy forms and call them lazy.


Eventually, humans invented language.  Much later, we invented writing.  Much, much later, we invented the printing press, and then written words became so widely accessible that most humans could benefit from learning how to read.

Of course, reading is easier for people who are inattentive to their environment.

If I had been born earlier in human evolution, I totally would have been lion bait.  When I’m reading a book, or am deep in thought, the rest of the world melts away.  When I’m typing at home, K or the kids sometimes shout my name several times before I even realize that I’m being spoken to. 

People like me, or this kid at a library, totally would’ve been lion bait.

Luckily for me, I wasn’t born way back then.  Instead I was born into a world where inattentive people – the people best able to block out the world and instead focus on their own thoughts – are the most likely to find academic success.  People like me become medical doctors.  Then we get to name the world’s various conditions and maladies.

And so, when it came time to categorize the sort of person who is especially attentive to the world, people like me (who obviously thought that our way of being is the best way to be) referred to those others as having an attention deficit disorder.

Identifying those people’s awareness of their environs might sound like a virtue; instead, we castigated those people’s difficulty at ignoring the world.

I’ve never read the Percy Jackson books, but I’m glad that they exist, if only for passages like this (from The Lightning Thief):

“And the ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom.  That’s your battlefield reflexes.  In a real fight, they’d keep you alive.  As for the attention problems, that’s because you see too much, Percy, not too little.”


Childhood trauma can cause symptoms that medical doctors term “attention deficit disorder.”  Which makes sense – if you’ve gone through an experience where your environs were threatening, you should learn to be more aware of your environment.  It should become more difficult to ignore a world that has proven itself to be dangerous.

Even for somebody with my type of brain, it’s going to be easier to sit outside and read a book when there’s a squirrel nearby than if there’s a prowling grizzly fifteen meters away.

Some children have to learn early on that daddy’s sometimes a grizzly.  And if it can happen to him, why not other grown-ups, too?  Best to stay on high alert around the teacher.  She’s trying to get you absorbed in these number tables … but what if that’s a trap?


Certain drugs can narrow a person’s perception of the world.  They act like blinders, chemicals like nicotine, ritalin, and amphetamines, both un-methylated (sold under the trade name Adderall) and methylated (a CH3 group attached to the amine moiety of Adderall will slow its degradation by CYP2D6 enzymes in the liver, increasing the duration of its effects).

Note to non-chemists: the methylated analogue of Adderall goes by several names, including “ice,” “shard,” and “crystal meth.”  Perhaps you’ve heard of it — this compound played a key role in the television show Breaking Bad.  And it’s very similar to the stuff prescribed to eight year olds.  Feel free to glance at the chemical structures, below.

In poetry class last week, a man who has cycled in and out of jail several times during the few years I’ve taught there – who I’d said “hello” to on the outside just a few weeks earlier when he rode his bicycle past the high school runners and me – plonked himself down in the squeaky plastic hair next to mine.

I groaned.

“I know, I know,” he said.  “But I might be out on Monday.”

“What happened?”

“Failed a urine screen.  But I was doing good.  Out for six months, and they were screening me like all the time, I only failed three of them.”

“With … ?”

“Meth,” he said, nodding.  “But I wasn’t hitting it bad, this time.  I know I look like I lost some weight, dropped from 230 down to 205, but that’s just cause it was hard getting enough to eat.  Wasn’t like last time.  I don’t know if you remember, like, just how gaunt my whole face looked when they brought me in.  But, man, it’s just … as soon as I step outside this place, my anxiety shoots through the roof … “

This is apparently a common phenomenon.  When we incarcerate people, we carve away so much of their experience of the world.  Inside the jail, there is a set routine.  Somebody is often barking orders, telling people exactly what to do.  There aren’t even many colors to be distracted by, just the white-painted concrete walls, the faded orange of inmate scrubs, the dull tan CO shirts and dark brown pants.

The world in there is bleak, which means there are very few choices to make.  Will you sit and try to listen to the TV?  (The screen is visible from three or four of the twelve cells, but not from the others.)  Try, against all odds, to read a book?  Or add your shouting voice to the din, trying to have a conversation (there’s no weather, so instead the fall-back topic is speculating what’s going to be served for dinner)?

After spending time locked up, a person’s ability to navigate the wider world atrophies, the same as your leg would if you spent months with it bundled up in a cast.

And these are people whom we should be helping to learn how to navigate the world better.

“ … so I vape a lot, outside.  I step out of this place, that’s the first thing I do, suck down a cigarette.  And, every now and then … “

He feels physically pained, being so attentive to his surroundings.  And so he doses himself with chemicals that let him ignore the world as well as I can.

And, yes.  He grew up with an abusive stepfather.  This led to his acting squirrelly in school.  And so, at ten years old, medical doctors began dosing him with powerful stimulants.

Meanwhile, our man dutifully internalized the thought that he had a personal failing.  The doctors referred to his hyper-vigilance as an attention deficit disorder.


Words have power.

We can’t know now, after all the hurt we’ve piled on him, but think: where might our man be if he’d learned to think of his attentiveness as a virtue?

On mind control versus body control

On mind control versus body control

In jail last week, we found ourselves discussing mind control.  Ants that haul infected comrades away from the colony – otherwise, the zombie will climb above the colony before a Cordyceps fruiting body bursts from its spine, raining spores down onto everyone below, causing them all to die.

6761314715_360cd6c878_z.jpg
Photo by Bernard Dupont on Flickr.

Several parasites, including Toxoplasma gondii, are known to change behaviors by infecting the brain.  I’ve written about Toxo and the possibility of using cat shit as a nutritional supplement previously – this parasite seems to make its victims happier (it secretes a rate-limiting enzyme for dopamine synthesis), braver, and more attractive.

I told the guys that I used to think mind control was super-terrifying – suddenly your choices are not quite your own! – but I’ve since realized that body control is even more terrifying.

We’d thought that each fungus that makes ants act funny was taking over their brains.  But we were wrong.  The Ophiocordyceps fungus is not controlling the brains of its victims – instead, the fungus spreads through the body and connects directly to muscle fibers.  The fungus leaves an ant’s brain intact but takes away its choices, contracting muscles to make the ant do its bidding while the poor creature can only gaze in horror at what it’s being forced to do.

If a zombie master corrupts your brain and forces you to obey, at least you won’t be there to watch.  Far worse to be trapped behind the window of your eyes, unable to control the actions that your shell is taking in the world.

A sense of free will is so important to our well-being that human brains seem to include modules that graft a perception of volition onto our reflex actions.  Because it takes so long for messages to be relayed to the central processing unit of our brains and back outward to our limbs, our bodies often act before we’ve had a chance to consciously think about what we’re doing.  Our actions typically begin a few hundred milliseconds before we subjectively experience a decision.

Then, the brain’s storytelling function kicks into gear – we explain to ourselves why we chose to do the thing that we’ve already begun doing.

If something goes wrong at that stage, we feel awful.  People report that their bodies have “gone rogue.”  If you use a targeted magnetic pulse to sway a right-handed person to do a simple task left-handed, that person probably won’t notice anything amiss.  The storytelling part of our brain hardly cares what we do – it can come up with a compelling rationalization for almost any action.

“Well, I chose to use my left hand because … “

But if you use a targeted magnetic pulse to incapacitate the brain’s internal storyteller?  The sensation apparently feels like demonic possession.  Our own choices are nightmarish when severed from a story.

On violence and gratitude.

On violence and gratitude.

Although I consider myself a benevolent tyrant, some of my cells have turned against me.  Mutinous, they were swayed by the propaganda of a virus and started churning out capsids rather than helping me type this essay.  Which leaves me sitting at a YMCA snack room table snerking, goo leaking down my throat and out my nose.

Unconsciously, I take violent reprisal against the traitors.  I send my enforcers to put down the revolt – they cannibalize the still-living rebels, first gnawing the skin, then devouring the organs that come spilling out.  Then the defector dies.

800px-CD8+_T_cell_destruction_of_infected_cells
CD8+ T cell destruction of infected cells by Dananguyen on Wikimedia.

My cells are also expected to commit suicide whenever they cease to be useful for my grand designs.  Any time a revolutionary loses the resolve to commit suicide, my enforcers put it down.  Unless my internal surveillance state fails to notice in time – the other name for a cell that doesn’t want to commit suicide is “cancer,” and even the most robust immune system might be stymied by cancer when the traitor’s family grows too large.

Worse is when the rebels “metastasize,” like contemporary terrorists.  This word signifies that the family has sent sleeper agents to infiltrate the world at large, attempting to develop new pockets of resistance in other areas.  Even if my enforcers crush one cluster of rebellion, others could flourish unchecked.

800px-How_metastasis_occurs_illustration
How metastasis occurs. Image by the National Cancer Institute on Wikimedia.

I know something that perhaps they don’t – if their rebellion succeeds, they will die.  A flourishing cancer sequesters so many resources that the rest of my body would soon prove too weak to seek food and water, causing every cell inside of me to die.

But perhaps they’ve learned my kingdom’s vile secret – rebel or not, they will die.  As with any hereditary monarchy, a select few of my cells are privileged above all others.  And it’s not the cells in my brain that rule.

Every “somatic cell” is doomed.  These cells compose my brain and body.  Each has slight variations from “my” genome – every round of cell division introduces random mutations, making every cell’s DNA slightly different from its neighbors’.

The basic idea behind Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene is that each of these cells “wants” for its genome to pass down through the ages.  Dawkins argued that familial altruism is rational because any sacrifice bolsters the chances for a very similar genome to propagate.  Similarly, each somatic cell is expected to sacrifice itself to boost the odds for a very similar genome carried by the gametes.

Only gametes – the heralded population of germ cells in our genitalia – can possibly see their lineage continue.  All others are like the commoners who (perhaps foolishly) chant their king or kingdom’s name as they rush into battle to die.  I expect them to show absolute fealty to me, their tyrant.  Apoptosis – uncomplaining suicide – was required of many before I was even born, like when cells forming the webbing between my fingers slit their own bellies in dramatic synchronized hara-kiri.

28407608404_84b3c64433_h
Human gametes by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann on Flickr.

Any evolutionary biologist could explain that each such act of sacrifice was in a cell’s mathematical best interest.  But if I were a conscious somatic cell, would I submit so easily?  Or do I owe some sliver of respect to the traitors inside me?

The world is a violent place.  I’m an extremely liberal vegan environmentalist – yet it takes a lot of violence to keep me going.

From Suzana Herculano-Houzel’s The Human Advantage:

image (1)Animals that we are, we must face, every single day of our lives, the consequences of our most basic predicament: we don’t do photosynthesis.  For lack of the necessary genes, we don’t just absorb carbon from the air around us and fix it as new bodily matter with a little help from sunlight.  To survive, we animals have to eat other living organisms, whether animal, vegetable, or fungus, and transform their matter into ours.

And yet the violence doesn’t begin with animals.  Photosynthesis seems benign by comparison – all you’d need is light from the sun! – unless you watch a time-lapsed video of plant growth in any forest or jungle.

The sun casts off electromagnetic radiation without a care in the world, but the amount of useful light reaching any particular spot on earth is limited.  And plants will fight for it.  They race upwards, a sprint that we sometimes fail to notice only because they’ve adapted a timescale of days, years, and centuries rather than our seconds, hours, and years.  They reach over competitors’ heads, attempting to grab any extra smidgen of light … and starving those below.  Many vines physically strangle their foes.  Several trees excrete poison from their roots.  Why win fair if you don’t have to?  A banquet of warm sunlight awaits the tallest plant left standing.

And so why, in such a violent world, would it be worthwhile to be vegan?  After all, nothing wants to be eaten.  Sure, a plant wants for animals to eat its fruit – fruits and animals co-evolved in a system of gift exchange.  The plant freely offers fruit, with no way of guaranteeing recompense, in hope that the animal might plant its seeds in a useful location.

But actual pieces of fruit – the individual cells composing an apple – probably don’t want to be eaten, no more than cancers or my own virus-infected cells want to be put down for the greater good.

A kale plant doesn’t want for me to tear off its leaves and dice them for my morning ramen.

But by acknowledging how much sacrifice it takes to allow for us to be typing or reading or otherwise reaping the pleasures of existence, I think it’s easier to maintain awe.  A sense of gratitude toward all that we’ve been given.  Most humans appreciate things more when we think they cost more.

We should appreciate the chance to be alive.  It costs an absurd amount for us to be here.

But, in the modern world, it’s possible to have a wonderful, rampantly hedonistic life as a vegan.  Why make our existence cost more when we don’t have to?  A bottle of wine tastes better when we’re told that it’s $45-dollar and not $5-dollar wine, but it won’t taste any better if you tell somebody “It’s $45-dollar wine, but you’ll have to pay $90 for it.”

Personally, I’d think it tasted worse, each sip with the savor of squander.