On food and willing sacrifice.

On food and willing sacrifice.

Agni_devaIn ancient Indian mythology, fire was a god.  The word for fire is agni, and Agni the god who ate oblations.  Agni served as mouth and gullet for the entire pantheon – when sacrifices were offered to any god, Agni would eat them, ferrying goods from our world to the spirit realm.

When the gods were cursed such that they could not sire children with their wives, Agni, who’d once consumed Shiva’s semen, was asked to stray.  From Robert Goldman’s translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana:

(note, in terms of safety for reading at work, that the following passage is decidedly less circumspect than you might expect based on a familiarity with other sacred texts, e.g. the King James rendering of Genesis 38:9)

[A]ll the gods proceeded to Mount Kailasa, adorned with metallic ores, and charged Agni, the god of fire, with the task of begetting a son.  ‘You are a god, eater of oblations, and should carry out this task of the gods.  Great is your splendor.  You must release the semen into the Ganges, the daughter of the mountain.’

Agni, the purifier, promised the gods he would do this and so, approaching the Ganges, he said, ‘Bear this embryo, goddess, as a favor to the gods.’

Shantanu_Meets_Goddess_Ganga_by_Warivick_GobleHearing these words, she assumed her divine form, and he, seeing her extraordinary beauty, scattered the semen all over.  Agni, the purifier, showered it all over the goddess, so that all the channels of the Ganges were filled with it. 

In ancient Indian mythology, the semen of powerful males will sprout children wherever it lands, no female gamete required.  Numerous heroes were engendered when males chanced across beautiful women bathing and shortly thereafter just happened to ejaculate – their children might be born from baskets, butter jars, or someone’s mouth.

A fetus soon formed from the material sprinkled over Ganges’s body, but although she’d consented willingly to bear the child, she soon declared it to be too powerful, that the embryo was burning her body.  She tucked it into the base of the Himalayas to finish gestation.

Later in the Ramayana, Sita attempts to sacrifice herself – but Agni will not take her.  Sita was kidnapped and so her husband Rama comes to rescue her.  With the help of a monkey army, Rama destroys a South Indian kingdom and slays his wife’s captor.  But he assumes that Sita has been tarnished by rape.  He tells her (in the Robert Goldman and Sally Sutherland Goldman translation):

I have recovered my reputation, and that is the purpose for which I won you back.  I do not love you anymore.  Go hence wherever you like.”

Heartbroken, Sita decides to jump into a fire – she’d rather die than lose her husband.  But the fire doesn’t burn her.  Instead, her presence is said to burn the fire itself.  Agni lifts her from the bonfire and tells her husband that she is beyond reproach.  The man agrees, briefly, to take her back.

Agni_pariksha

More often, Agni simply burns things.  Objects from our world disappear, leaving nothing but ash.

And we are also like fire.   In David Shulman’s essay for the New York Review of Books, he writes:

Fire_from_brazierFor Vedic thinkers, all that lives survives by consuming other living beings.  Humans, too, have a hungry fire burning in their bellies; they have to sacrifice other creatures to that fire every day if they are going to stay alive.

We are heterotrophs.  Unlike plants, we can’t create ourselves by drinking in water, air, and sunlight.  We have to eat – sacrificing something – to survive.

Much of the time, the sacrifices that allow our lives are violent.  Humans evolved as meat eaters – scavengers, likely, then hunters.  We stalked, killed, and butchered mammoths.  On contemporary industrial farms, plants are culled by nightmarish threshers, ripped from the ground and shaken clean by machines.

We are heterotrophs.  It’s either us or them.

But sometimes we’re fueled by willing sacrifice.

apple-1122537_1280Fruit-bearing plants co-evolved with animals.  Fruit is a gift.  When a plant bears fruit, it hopes for reciprocity, but in a generalized way.  The plant isn’t trading – it can’t guarantee that any one offering will procure a service.  But over time, many hungry animals have willingly spread the plants’ seeds – that’s the gift we offer in return.

(This is true of all fruit.  I’d say it’s foolish to trust our Supreme Court justices’ opinions on just about anything – I definitely wouldn’t expect them to correctly identify the parts of a plant.  In addition to bananas, grapes, and apples, things like tomatoes, squash, zucchini, and peppers are fruit.  It’s thought that each type of fruit co-evolved with a specific animal that was originally responsible for spreading its seeds.)

Even if a plant gives fruit to us willingly, though, you could wonder whether the fruit agrees with the sacrifice.  No matter what the tree might want, perhaps an apple would rather not be eaten.

Any one cell might prefer not to die.

1024px-Mucinous_lmp_ovarian_tumour_intermed_magCancer is a rough equivalent to libertarian philosophy.  Cancer is the ultimate freedom.  In a multicellular organism, most individual cells will voluntarily cease to grow when their industry infringes upon their neighbors.  They experience “contact inhibition.”  As soon as a cell touches another, it respects the established boundaries as inviolable.

If a cell’s usefulness has waned, it undergoes apoptosis – voluntary suicide.

In a multicellular organism that practices sexual reproduction – even unilateral reproduction like Agni showering sperm over Ganges’s prostrate body – every cell that isn’t part of the germ line is doomed to die.  From the perspective of evolution, your body is like a disposable rocket ship, built only to ferry the lineage of cells in your genitalia forward through time.  Those cells matter – their descendants might survive forever.

The cells in your hand?  They might have children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – but their line will come to an abrupt end.  Maybe you were bitten by a radioactive super-power-granting DNA-altering spider and the cells in your hand became amazing.  Doesn’t matter.  Their glorious kind will go extinct.

And if the cells in your hand decide that this isn’t fair, and instead liberate themselves from the shackles of self-restraint and suicide, growing as much as possible – well, that’s cancer.  The host organism will die.  And those renegade cells, the ones who adopted the mantra look out for number one, will inevitably also die, starving fruitlessly, progeny-less.

It’s the same old tragedy of the commons, the same reason why there are now so few fish in the sea, and why Easter Island has no trees.  Sometimes personal persistence dooms you more completely than would sacrifice toward a common cause.

On loneliness.

On loneliness.

Most laboratory animals live in bleak environs.  With mice, each cage typically contains a single animal.  There is bedding, food, and water.  There is very little space.

A lab mouse will be illuminated for many hours each day – sometimes twenty-four, sometimes slightly fewer – by fluorescent lights.  It will hear the constant thrum of ventilation fans and refrigerator compressors.  At least once a week, an apex predator – wafting stress-inducing smells, especially if it’s male – will reach into its home and grab it.

Chances are, it will see other mice.  A rotating cadre will fill adjacent cages during its tenure in the lab.  They will never touch.

Our cruelty makes for bad science, too.

When social animals are stored in isolation, their bodies and brains decay.  Neuron growth slows, which impedes learning.  Lifespan is curtailed.  Obesity rates increase.

Lab_animal_careIf we stop mistreating laboratory animals, though, new research might be inconsistent with past results.  When describing mice, scientists don’t say that deprivation stunts brain development.  Instead we write things like, “If a lab is studying the impact of stress on the growth of new neurons, for example, and then it lets mice exercise on a running wheel – which has been shown to spark neuron growth – the study could be jeopardized” (from David Grimm’s recent news article for Science magazine).

4117496025_8024f879d6_zWe give ourselves a very skewed view of neurology if we let ourselves think that a creature’s normal habits are stimulating neuron growth, rather than admitting that deprivation stops it.  For decades, most researchers thought that neuron growth ceased in adults.  Even in the 2005 paper demonstrating structural plasticity, the authors wrote that “such changes are only seen in response to external perturbation,” because brain development is sluggish in lab mice housed in normal conditions, i.e. those little cages.

Of course, some scientists do care about the well-being of their furry test tubes.  For instance, biologist Daniel Weary, who told Grimm “Our dream is that our animals live a better life with us than if they had never been born.”  Animals in Weary’s lab get to touch actual dirt.

Maybe not the highest bar, but the lives of most animals on our planet are worse than if they’d never been born.

Vivek_Murthy_nomination_hearing_February_4,_2014Most social animals – like mice, rabbits, and humans – aren’t going to be very happy when they’re housed in isolation.  Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy considers loneliness to be a public health crisis, leading to health risks as bad as smoking or obesity.

Unfortunately, most biomedical research is done with research animals amongst whom pervasive loneliness is standard.  And our political system gives outsize influence to wealthy corporations that earn more money when people feel lonely.

We shunt humans into jail when we feel that their behaviors are unacceptable for the world at large.  Incarceration sends a message: don’t beat your family; don’t steal; don’t sell drugs; don’t take drugs; don’t be late for an appointment with your parole officer; don’t be too poor to pay your court fees.  To my mind, some of these offenses are worse than others.

The hope is that either the threat of incarceration deters people from these things, or that the experience of being incarceration cures them of the inclination.  (Or a third rationale – that seeing offenders punished will pacify others’ sense of fairness – which seems to encourage the evolution of cooperation, but, like many other evolved behaviors, seems unnecessarily vicious for the modern world.)

We’ve known for years that punishment doesn’t work well as a criminal deterrent.  And the experience of incarceration seems to make most people worse, not better.

Instead, we’re imposing loneliness on people who most need the help of friends and neighbors to turn their lives around.  Somebody screws up?  We store that person like a lab mouse.

10490113913_e3a697bdca_zI was recently chatting with somebody who’s done nine months so far for a parole violation – and is still waiting for his court date, which keeps being rescheduled.  (He’s already told the judge that he’ll plead guilty, and the prosecutor wanted to send him to rehab, but his PO nixed the deal.)

“It’s a lot better now, in J block.  Everybody said, you don’t wanna move from A block, you’ll get no bingo, you’ll get no … I don’t care about any of that.  We can look out the window, see people walking on the street.

“I spent almost an hour, the other day, watching this leaf blowing back and forth in the wind.  I was staring, thinking I’d say to the judge, ‘you can pile on whatever other charges you want, I’ll still plead guilty, I’ll plead guilty to all of it if you just let me out there to look at that leaf blowing around up close.  Just five minutes, just lemme see something!

“In D block, that was the worst.  All we could see was the parking garage.  On weekends, we’d see nothing, not even cars.  So I was starting fights every day.  I’d be like, hey, turn the TV to, I don’t know, some channel I don’t even like, just so I can start something with somebody.  Cause a fight would at least be something to do.”

John-Michael Bloomquist’s poem “The Prodigal’s Return,” about teaching poetry in jail, ends:

                                      Each day that I visit

the jail full of men, who hug me the way

their families cannot, write poems about childhoods

I couldn’t imagine, I feel the love of my father.

After nine months inside – un-touched, un-hugged, un-loved, under-slept – perhaps our man will finally be released.  Surely his time there will have cured him of his addiction!

On genetic inheritance and sexual assault.

On genetic inheritance and sexual assault.

How does evolution work?

Each child receives genetic information from its parents.  Some of this information conveys distinct traits.  And some of these traits increase the chance that an individual will have children of his or her own.  If those children are also good at having kids, the underlying genetic information will spread.

The DNA sequences that evolution enriches don’t necessarily make a creature better – in fact, they often accomplish the opposite.  A gene that made its bearer 10% happier would not spread through the population.  Happy people are less fearful and more likely to be die in tragic accidents.

800px-JH_Dolph_Cat_Mouse(Infection with Toxoplasma gondii seems to make mice happier.  The parasite produces a rate-limiting enzyme for dopamine synthesis to increase the chance that Toxoplasma-infected mice blithely stroll along and get eaten by a cat.)

All that evolution “wants” is for a gene’s bearer to have children who have children who have children, and so on.  This necessitates survival, yes – you can’t have kids if you’re dead, and in many species, orphaned children are less likely to ever have kids of their own.  But evolution doesn’t need a gene’s bearer to be clever – brainless starfish evolved from a bilaterally symmetric forebear that did have a brain.  Evolution doesn’t need a gene’s bearer to be nice – bullies seem to have plenty of children, and sexual assault is an instinctual mating strategy in many species, including ducks and orangutans.  Maybe humans, too.

So, who controls which genes are passed on?

In most species, whichever parent puts the most effort into raising children gets to choose.

prumIn The Evolution of Beauty, Richard Prum describes the experience of tropical birds, like manakins, who live in regions where food is plentiful.  The female parent raises children entirely on her own – males reside elsewhere in fraternal performance troupes.  And so the female birds have absolute say in deciding who will and will not fool around.  The females visit large numbers of males and decline most of their overtures.  Why should she settle for anything less than the absolute sexiest gentleman in the forest?  She’ll find him eventually, and since he never helps any of his children’s mothers with child-rearing, she knows he’ll be available.

Male smooth guardian frogs protect their fertilized eggs and young tadpoles.  Large choruses of females will surround and serenade each available male, hoping to sway his desire.  Since males do all the parenting, they are very selective.

That’s the usual system – you do the work, you get to choose.

It’s a nice idea.  After all, choice means the ensuing activity is consensual, and the opportunity to consent is sexy.

Unfortunately, in many species, others attempt to subvert mate choice.  You know – those ducks.  Orangutans.  Humans.

meanMyriam Gurba’s Mean is alternately comic and horrifying.  In a chapter titled “Omnipresence” (after the trauma, danger seems to be everywhere), Gurba writes:

A stranger chose me to rape.

There was no nepotism involved.

Basically, I got raped for real. (I’m being cheeky here.)

Stranger rape is like the Mona Lisa.

It’s exquisite, timeless, and archetypal.

It’s classic.  I can’t help but think of it as the Coca-Cola of sex crimes.

 

You never predict that rapists are lurking in the sun, sky, and trees.

 

In The Evolution of Beauty, Prum writes:

prumOf course, it has long been clear that sexual coercion and sexual violence are directly harmful to the well-being of female animals.  But the aesthetic perspective allows us to understand that sexual coercion also infringes upon their individual freedom of choice.  Once we recognize that coercion undermines individual sexual autonomy, we are led, inexorably, to the discovery that freedom of choice matters to animals. 

Sexual autonomy is not a mythical and poorly conceived legal concept invented by feminists and liberals.  Rather, sexual autonomy is an evolved feature of the societies of many sexual species.  As we have learned from ducks and other birds, when sexual autonomy is abridged or disrupted by coercion or violence, mate choice itself can provide the evolutionary leverage to assert and expand the freedom of choice.

Many of the trappings of human civilization exist solely to subvert mate choice.  Powerful males did not want human females to exercise sexual autonomy, because what if she picks someone else?  And so men made marriage, Biblical commandments against both adultery and thinking about adultery, and a propensity to murder (or, on contemporary U.S. playgrounds, heckle) loose women.

Human males wanted to control the flow of genetic information without doing the work of parenting.  Just like ducks, whose females evolved corkscrew-shaped vaginas because only those individuals with complicated genitalia could exercise free mate choice amidst generations of rape culture.

Rape culture isn’t specific to Homo sapiens, after all.  It’s a disease of any species in which those who don’t put in the work decide they ought to make choices for others – and nobody stops them.

(Humans do perpetrate more sexual violence than other species, especially violence against non-humans.  Interspecies sexual assault strikes most people as outlandish, unless it’s being done on our behalf.  Farms, puppy mills, and zoos are major assault factories.  We assent to forcible fertilization because it produces large-breasted chickens, cute puppies, and caged “wild” animals for our screaming children to ogle.)

Not all species rape.  In some, coalitions of females defend each other.  In others, males enforce fairness.  Those who believe in justice can punish interlopers, providing females with the right to choose.  Feminism isn’t the exclusive provenance of females.  Injustice hurts everyone, and anyone can feel aggrieved by it.

On apocalypse-preppers, technology, and oppression.

On apocalypse-preppers, technology, and oppression.

33572350._UY700_SS700_In Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling, the protagonist is preparing for apocalypse.  At a parent-teacher conference, her dad rants that our world is falling apart – we’re polluting the oceans, growing monocultures of a select few (vulnerable) food crops across all arable land, disrupting the climate, overpopulating the planet – and that it’s ridiculous for his daughter to take spelling quizzes in the face of such calamity.  At home, he has her cleaning guns instead of studying for school.

It’s an iconic image – the grizzled, isolate, male prepper.

On dating sites specifically catering to preppers and survivalists, men far outnumber women.  On the banner image for the C.U.M.A. Survival School (which teaches combat techniques, animal trapping, how to build fires, and the like), there are three women out of seventeen visible people.

survival school.JPG

Journalist Nicky Woolf interviewed attendees at a 2015 Preppers and Survivalists Expo in Florida.  One of the men Woolf spoke with was sitting beside a handwritten recruitment sign, looking for someone with medical training to join his team.  Woolf asks the man whether his wife came to the Expo.

He suddenly looks tired.  “No.”  I ask if this is a point of contention between the two of them.  “I bought equipment for my son,” he says.  “I bought three of everything, one for me, one for my wife, one for my son.  My son is too possessed, and my wife is totally mind-controlled by the programs on the TV, the fluoride she’s drinking – because fluoride…”  Bingo!  He begins another rant.

I interrupt him to get more details about his wife.  “She won’t look at anything,” he says sadly.  “She won’t look at any of the literature, she won’t look at any of the DVDs.”

For some reason, I find this unbearably sad.

“How does that make you feel?” I ask.

“What can I do about it?” he says.  “I love her.  Been with her 27 years.  But when the shit hits the fan, I’m going.”

#

While I was researching a story about a hands-on retreat teaching the history of technology – under the auspices of recreating our world after a disaster – I realized there was a strong feminist argument for preserving this knowledge.

710v76v5doLLewis Dartnell distills some of this information in The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch.  Dartnell focuses on contemporary technologies, especially methods to jump-start food production and long-distance communication from the detritus of our current civilization.  The book is focused on the future – Dartnell convincingly argues that technological development after our civilization’s collapse would progress very differently than it did in the past, both because contemporary artifacts would remain to be learned from … and because we’ve already depleted the easily-accessible fuel sources that powered our own industrial revolution.

If we were starting again, we would have to make green technologies.

The history of technology still matters, though.  Contemporary gender inequality sprung from that history.

763220016_3ed7cdeb06_bAmong most primate species, gender inequality is correlated with sexual dimorphism – when males are a lot bigger, they behave badly.  In bonobos and chimpanzees, males and females are relatively close in size … and they have relatively equal status.  In gorillas or orangutans, males are much larger than females … and females can have pretty rotten lives.

And humans?  We actually have pretty low sexual dimorphism.  The average male is bigger than the average female, but only by about 15%.  Based on the behaviors of other primates, we ought to be fairly egalitarian.  Through most of our evolutionary history, we probably were … as were many of the hunter-gatherer societies that persisted until recent eras.

But you wouldn’t know it by looking at contemporary U.S. news.  And we’re doing better now than we have been for the past several centuries.

What went wrong?

PSM_V18_D469_Wheeled_plough_from_the_roman_empireIn our current world, being 15% bigger provides very little benefit.  Gasoline-powered machines do our heavy lifting.  But the importance of human sexual dimorphism was accentuated by early technologies. Our size differences mattered more once we developed agriculture … and seemed crucial after the invention of the plow.

Being 15% bigger does matter if you’re plowing a field.  Suddenly, men were more important for food production than women.  The status of women in these cultures plummeted.  And – lucky us – our culture derived from theirs.

sapiens book.jpgIn Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, vegan historian Yuval Noah Harari depicts the development of agriculture as a kind of “original sin.”  After agriculture, the average person experienced a much lower quality of life.  Agriculture made progress possible, but only because it made oppression possible.  Serfs could be taxed to feed the idle rich.  After agriculture, most people worked harder and ate worse.  Inequality soared.

Certain patches of land were better than others before agriculture.  Even among hunter-gatherers, there are skirmishes.  Tribes fight; people die.  But agriculture made war worthwhile.

And agrarians thought it reasonable to spin myths about the weakness of women.  15% more body mass meant the world to them … and we still celebrate their stories.

Let’s hope we never go through that again.

On smell.

On smell.

Page three of Dogs and Puppies by Funfax (the dog-shaped book below) reads, in its entirety, “Sniffing around.  Sniff, sniff!  Dogs have a better sense of smell than you or I. [sic] They can easily pick up the trail of an animal.

11072728_10101406514300885_5233531920012613941_o
With a summertime haul from Indy Reads Books.

Ill-written … and not even true.

Not that I blame the good people at Funfax for the factual inaccuracy.  Humans have long imagined stark barriers separating ourselves from other animal species.  For political reasons, both neuroanatomist Paul Broca and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud claimed that the human sense of smell atrophied in order for us to have free will.  These claims were untested.  John P. McGann wrote in his recent Science review article that:

Freud and Broca thus provided a pseudoscientific gloss on the idea that smell operates in opposition to a disembodied rationality that makes humans civilized and distinct from other mammals.

Indeed, humans have approximately the same number of brain cells devoted to smell as other mammals.  And, when researchers actually measured the concentrations of various chemicals that can be detected, they found that different species are best at recognizing each smell.  Humans included: we’re better at smelling certain odors than mice or dogs are. (We’re very good at smelling human blood.)

When humans crouch to the ground, we too can “sniff, sniff!” – researchers found that most people can “easily pick up the trail of an animal.”   Smell is also a major component of our non-verbal communication: odors can be powerful signals of trauma, stress, or aggression.

#

People are generally in dire emotional straights when they’re locked up.  And incarceration makes shakes them further.  Inside a jail, they’re surrounded by stress-inducing odors.

Our local jail often smells bad.  Which is distinct from – but might exacerbate – the way certain odors can trigger negative emotional states.  While being ushered into class, we’ve watched the bescumbered glass of the drunk tank being hosed off, foul discolored water seeping from beneath the door.  We’ve coughed through the hall after a topless, raving woman was pepper-sprayed and tackled (one of our students reported, “She was all covered in shit, but those were the first tits I’ve seen in eighteen years.  Guards know she shouldn’t be here, she should be in a fucking hospital.”)  And even in the best of circumstances, we’re breathing recycled air inhabited by hundreds of suffering men and women cut off from their usual routines.  Bob Barker’s (complimentary, unless someone puts money on your books, at which point you’re retroactively billed) soap isn’t enough.

62101

#

Before teaching in jail, each week John-Michael would spritz himself with a different perfume.  John-Michael is a highly empathetic poet – I’d been teaching in that space for a year without considering how much the guys might appreciate the chance to smell something nice.

There are people who probably shouldn’t be out on the streets.  But most who spend time in jail will eventually be released.  We should want them to heal while they are inside.  A whiff of perfume might be enough for somebody to relax.  To breath easy again, just for a moment, and think about what needs to be done.

Midwives recommend that a birthing room be spritzed with calming scents.  Lavender, perhaps.  John-Michael’s assortment of perfumes helped the men feel that our class was a safe place.

Eventually, the jail commander noticed.  He has now requested that volunteers not wear perfume of any kind.

On animals that speak, including humans.

On animals that speak, including humans.

Prairie-DogsWhen prairie dogs speak, they seem to use nouns – hawk, human, wooden cut-out – adjectives – red, blue – and adverbs – moving quickly, slowly.  They might use other parts of speech as well.  Prairie dogs chitter at each other constantly, making many sounds that no humans have yet decoded.

Ever wonder about the evolutionary origin of human intelligence?  The leading theory is that, over many generations, our ancestors became brilliant … in order to gossip better.  It takes a lot of working memory to keep track of the plot of a good soap opera, and our ancestors’ lives were soap operas.  But Carl knows that Shelly doesn’t know that Terrance and Uma are sleeping together, so …

Tool use is pretty cool.  So’s a symbolic understanding of the world – who doesn’t love cave art?  But gossip probably made us who we are.  All those juicy stories begged for a language to be shared.

Many types of birds, such as parrots and crows, spend their lives gossiping.  These busybodies also happen to be some of the smartest species (according to human metrics).  Each seems to have a unique name – through speech, the birds can reference particular individuals.  They clearly remember and can probably describe past events.  Crows can learn about dangerous humans from their fellows.

When I walk around town, squirrels sometimes tsk angrily at me.  But I’ve definitively observed only a single species using its capacity for speech to denounce all other animals.  From Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech:

9780316404624_custom-3522b1f2a1f684ab94261905a4d4c9ddf86ca882-s400-c85There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech.

Without speech the human beast couldn’t have created any other artifacts, not the crudest club or the simplest hoe, not the wheel or the Atlas rocket, not dance, not music, not even hummed tunes, in fact not tunes at all, not even drumbeats, not rhythm of any kind, not even keeping time with his hands.

This claim is obviously false.  Several different species do create artifacts – either speech is unnecessary for this task, or else other species of animals can speak.  Or both.  In any case, this claim is so easily rebutted – all you’d need is an example of chimpanzees drumming, let along cooking – that it seems a strange conclusion for Wolfe to make.

Don’t get me wrong: humans are pretty great at thinking.  I’m more impressed by mathematical than emotional intelligence, which makes it easy for me to think that the average human is way brighter than the average elephant.

In all likelihood, though, humans have been pretty great at thinking for hundreds of thousands of years.  The cultural evolution that produced the Atlas rocket and skyscrapers was a very sudden development.  For most of the time that humans have been on the planet, our behavior probably didn’t look so different from the behavior of orcas, chimps, or parrots.

Throughout The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe mocks the various theories about human language presented by Noam Chomsky.  (I’m ignoring Wolfe’s claims about evolution, which he says can’t be tested, replicated, or used to elucidate otherwise inexplicable phenomena – in his words, “sincere, but sheer, literature.”  Here and here are two of many recent experiments tracking evolution in progress.)

tom-wolfe-400I often found myself nodding in agreement with Wolfe.  For instance, I’d hope that a linguist making broad claims about human language would learn as many languages as possible.  I think that contradictory evidence from the real world holds more weight than pretty theories.  From Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech:

In the heading of the [2007 New Yorker] article [“The Interpreter: Has a Remote Amazonian Tribe Upended Our Understanding of Language?”] was a photograph, reprinted many times since, of [Dan] Everett submerged up to his neck in the Maici River.  Only his smiling face is visible.  Right near him but above him is a thirty-five-or-so-year-old Piraha sitting in a canoe in his gym shorts.  It became the image that distinguished Everett from Chomsky.  Immersed! – up to his very neck, Everett is … immersed in the lives of a tribe of hitherto unknown na – er – indigenous peoples in the Amazon’s uncivilized northwest.  No linguist could help but contrast that with everybody’s mental picture of Chomsky sitting up high, very high, in an armchair in an air-conditioned office at MIT, spic-and-span … he never looks down, only inward.  He never leaves the building except to go to the airport to fly to other campuses to receive honorary degrees … more than forty at last count … and remain unmuddied by the Maici or any of the other muck of life down below.

But Chomsky being wrong doesn’t make Wolfe right.

9780262533492In Why Only Us, authors Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky make some suspicious claims.  They argue that human language stems from an innate neurological process that they’ve dubbed “merge,” akin to the combination of two sets to produce a single, indivisible result.  {A} merged to {B} yields {C}, where {C} contains all the elements of {A} and {B}.

This sounds pretty abstract, so an example might help.  Berwick & Chomsky think that a verb and a direct object would be combined into a single “verb phrase” that is treated as a single unit by our brain.  Or, even more complexly, the word “that” leading into a subordinate clause would produce a whole slew of words that is treated as a single unit by our brain.  (In the preceding sentence, the phrase “that is treated as a single unit by our brain” would be one object.)

Robert C. Berwick and Noam ChomskyBerwick & Chomsky’s idea is that complex sentences can be built either by listing the final units in a row or using that hierarchical “merge” operation again, i.e. putting a verb phrase inside a subordinate clause, or one subordinate clause inside another.  Leading eventually to the tangled, twisty syntax of Marcel Proust.

But as far as I could tell (their book has a lot of jargon, and I read it while walking laps of the YMCA track with a sleeping baby strapped to my chest, so it’s possible I missed something), they don’t discuss the difference between two ideas being placed at the same level of interpretation, such as two independent clauses joined by an “and” or “or,” versus a dependent clause adjoined to an independent clause with “but,” “which,” “that,” or what have you.  I couldn’t identify a feature of their argument that suggested why some adjacent words would be processed by a human brain is this special way but others would not.  I could certainly address the way this happens in English, but an evolutionary argument ought to apply to all human language, and I know so little about most others that my opinions seem unhelpful here.

Some of Berwick & Chomsky’s ideas don’t seem to hold even in English, though.  For instance, they claim that:

there is no room in this picture for any precursors to language – say a language-like system with only short sentences.  There is no rationale for positing such a system: to go from seven-word sentences to the discrete infinity of human language requires emergence of the same recursive procedure as to go from zero to infinity, and there is of course no direct evidence for such “protolanguages.”  Similar observations hold for language acquisition, despite appearances, a matter that we put to the side here.

But we’re very confidant that spoken language arose long before written language, and the process they describe isn’t how many humans interact with spoken language.  There are definite limits to how many clauses most people can keep in mind at any one time – indeed, much of Why Only Us would sound incomprehensible if read aloud.

Is it reasonable to compare human written language with the spoken language of other animals?  The former is decidedly more complex.  Sure.  But the language actually used by most humans, most of the time, seems much simpler.

When I write, I can strangle syntax as well as any other pedant.  But when I actually talk with people, most of what I say is pretty straightforward.  I get confused if somebody says something to me with too many embedded clauses, or if words intended to operate together on a “structural” level aren’t in close proximity – Berwick & Chomsky spend a while writing about the phrase “instinctively birds that fly swim,” which sounds like gibberish to me.  Just say either “birds that fly instinctively can swim” or “birds that fly can swim instinctively” and you won’t get as many funny looks.  Except for the fact that I don’t think this is true, in either phrasing.  Syntactically, though, you’d be all set!

Colorful_Parrots_CoupleIn any case, all you’d need to show to demonstrate a linguistically equivalent behavior in other animals would be two parrots discussing the beliefs of a third.  This would be the same recursion that Berwick & Chomsky claim produces the “infinity of human language.”

Given that other social animals understand the (false) beliefs of their compatriots, I’d be shocked if they didn’t talk about it.  We just haven’t learned how to listen.

Humans are great.  We’ve accomplished a lot, especially in these last few thousand years (which is incredibly fast compared to evolutionary timescales).  The world has changed even in the short time that I’ve been alive.  But the unfounded claims in both The Kingdom of Speech and Why Only Us made me feel sad: with so much to be proud of, why should we humans also strive to distinguish ourselves with supremacist arrogance?

On Edward Dolnick’s ‘The Seeds of Life’ and artificial wombs.

On Edward Dolnick’s ‘The Seeds of Life’ and artificial wombs.

Juvenile_Smooth_Guarding_Frog_(Limnonectes_palavanensis)_maybe-_(6967250574)Among the smooth guardian frogs of Borneo, females croon to the males, attempting to woo a mate.  This is abnormal for frogs: usually females are serenaded.  But males of this species are the most devoted parents – they guard the fertilized eggs and carry tadpoles from pond to pond after they hatch.  Whereas the females simply lay eggs and leave.

Because male smooth guardian frogs contribute most to the next generation, they are more discerning than females when choosing a mate.  Unclaimed males might be surrounded by strident singers, each striving to win his affection.

Do smooth guardian frogs tell myths?  If their myths are anything like ours, they probably exalt female creator gods whose eggs – sans any contribution from the males – burst forth with heroes.  Or even entire worlds.

Human myths purposefully invert the workings of the world.

*

Among humans, females contribute most to survival of the species.  Females undergo nine months of gestation and perhaps years of breastfeeding for every child.  From the first, they pour huge amounts of energy into their offspring.

But human males – especially after the switch to agrarian lifestyles, at which point our minor sexual dimorphism made a large difference in how many calories each individual could procure – fancied themselves to be more important than females.  So we told stories in which men were the stewards of existence.

From Edward Dolnick’s The Seeds of Life:

9780465082957In ancient Egypt, the creation of new life – indeed, the creation of the entire universe – was emphatically the province of males.  Females played a subsidiary role or (in the case of the gods) no role at all.  Creation myths told of male gods who, as one historian writes, “gave birth to their spouses, their children, other humans, animals, cities, sanctuaries, shrines, perpetual offerings, earth, and the planets themselves.”

One papyrus manuscript records the boasts of the Sun God, who first created himself out of nothing – we are not told how – and then took matters into his own capable hands, masturbating the universe into existence.  “I created on my own every being … my fist became my spouse.  I copulated with my hand.”

In human myths from around the world, male gods act as solitary progenitors.  Yahweh creates the world alone.  Then Adam gives birth: a rib is taken from his body to make Eve.

The male leader of the Greek pantheon births a child: Athena springs forth from Zeus’s head.  In some variants of the Ramayana, Ravana creates Sita with a sneeze.

(Did the originator of this myth know anything about reproduction?  How could you imagine birthing a child through a nostril?)

Even among mortals, human males often imagined themselves to be the more important parents.  Obviously female bodies could carry new life, and male bodies could not.  So the men created myths in which female bodies were replaceable – in their telling, sperm was essential.  Women were not.

From Wendy Doniger’s Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts:

51W-viAy4OL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In Hindu mythology the instances of unilateral female creation are by far outnumbered by unilateral male creation.  The male seed is fertile in itself, particularly the seed of a great ascetic who has kept it within him for a long time and is therefore “one whose seed is never shed in vain” (amogharetas); that is, he engenders a child every time he sheds his seed, no matter where he sheds it.  Even an ordinary man’s seed is basically the source of life, as is evident from the Upanisadic tradition; in Dharmasastra, too, the seed remains more important than the womb.  The seed shed by a powerful male may fall into any of a number of womb substitutes (a pot, the earth, a river, or somebody’s mouth) and produce an embryo.

*

In The Seeds of Life, Dolnick describes the experiments that finally led Europeans to understand that both parents produce essential gametes.  In the late 1700s, Lazzaro Spallanzani sewed silk pants for male frogs as a form of full-body contraceptive device.  When frogs ejaculated inside their sperm-retaining pants, eggs would not become embryos.  After the pants were turned inside out and rubbed across the jellied clumps of eggs, tadpoles grew.

Spallanzani also performed the first artificial insemination of a dog.  He was a Catholic priest.  Priesthood was different in those days.

rogersShortly after I finished reading The Seeds of Life, we discussed Pattiann Rogers’s “The Rites of Passage” in jail.  This poem opens with the initial cleavage of a fertilized frog egg, followed by its development into a blastula and the formation of organs until

that one definite moment

When a fold of cells quivers suddenly for the first time

And someone says loudly “heart,” born, beating steadily,

Bearing now in the white water of the moon

The instantaneous distinction of being liable to death.

We talked about the almost magical border between nothingness and life – J. said, “When I had my son, I didn’t even want to tell anybody for months, I was worried they’d laugh, they’d say, like, you, you’re just gonna fuck it up.”  And S. said, “I dunno, man, my kid was born, and I was just like, damn.  I made that!”

The thing that hurts these men most is that they’re not there for their kids.

Then we talked about embryology.  I told the men, briefly, about Spallanzani’s experiments.  Then told them that, although I’ve never touched the genitalia of any non-human animal, I used to work next to a man who collected sperm from horseshoe crabs.  He wore gloves.  The supine crabs scrabbled for his arm with their little claws.

*

Although early European doctors thought human females contributed nothing to a child other than a fertile field for growth, they were concerned that feminine misbehavior could corrupt poison the filed and corrupt a fetus.  From Rebecca Kukla’s Mass Hysteria:

419Nh3Un2WL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The seventeenth-century textbooks are particularly concerned about and often organized around the possibility of deformed births, with a special focus on the dangers of the impure, permeated womb.  Sadler’s book, for instance, is organized primarily as a list of ways in which the womb can fail to maintain its purity and its integrity–the womb here leaks and ‘weeps,’ and various ‘corrupt humours’ flow in and out of it, making nothing more ‘perilous’ to the body than the ‘ill-affected womb.’ 

Many of the works go into elaborate detail, describing and often visually representing famous cases of monstrous births.  Monstrous births could be the product of weak seed or impure blood, of conception during menstruation, of the woman fertilizing herself with her own seed (!), or, most importantly and consistently, of maternal ingestions of sights and substances that could pollute or deform the womb.  In justifying the need for careful knowledge and monitoring of the maternal body, in the preface of his book, Sadler warns us: “From the womb come convulsions, epilepsies, apoplexies, palseys, hecticke fevers, dropsies, malignant ulcers, and to bee short, there is no disease so ill but may proceed from the evil quality of it.”

They thought that if a pregnant female gazed upon an impure sight, or had an impure thought, the child inside her would be irrevocably damaged.  Which implied the converse.  If a baby was born wrong – mentally or physically disabled – it was proof that the mother’s mind was foul.  Kukla reports that “lascivious thoughts could produce hermaphrodism and other obscene monstrosities.

Children needed to be protected from their mothers.  Otherwise women’s lascivious thoughts would cause a decline in the human race.

For years, doctors recommended that women not breastfeed their children – mothers could exert a harmful influence through their milk as well.  A mother who was good and pure would produce healthful milk, they thought, but most were not.  After all, sex itself was sin.  And children were rarely engendered without sex.  To minimize risk, mothers should feed their babies with commercially prepared substitutes instead.

These doctors would have been thrilled to read in the news, as I did the other day, that modern researchers have come closer to developing an artificial womb.  Children can be kept safe from the perfidies of maternal imagination!  And though it’s not quite unilateral male creation, this “fluid-filled biobag” is akin to the womb-replacing baskets and jars of ghee of Hindu myth.

lamb

*

And yet.  A belief that men convey the stuff of life, with women serving solely as a fertile patch of earth, need not lead to misogynistic behavior.  Some cultures have used the same mistaken mythologies to create more egalitarian worlds.

Again from Dolnick’s The Seeds of Life:

Common across many cultures, too, even today, is a belief that it takes many acts of sex to create a baby.  “Many of my New Guinea friends feel obliged to have regular sex right up to the end of pregnancy,” writes the scientist Jared Diamond, “because they believe that repeated infusions of semen furnish the material to build the fetus’s body.”

. . .

Many South American tribes go a step further: not only is the developing baby built up from new batches of semen, but it is best if several different men make a contribution.  All those men are considered the child’s father.  Among the Bari people in Venezuela, for instance, “a good mother will make a point of having sex with several different men, especially when she is pregnant,” one historian writes, “so that her child will enjoy the qualities (and paternal care) not merely of the best hunter, but also of the best storyteller, the strongest warrior, and the most considerate lover.”

*

Biology isn’t destiny.  Not even our beliefs about mythology force us to behave any particular way.  A world that is good and fair would be compatible with many myths.

 

******

post-script: Shortly after this essay went up, the O.E.D. online’s “word of the day” was “murk,” which includes a misogynistic quote from the early 1400s that fits these themes perfectly.

From Prick of Conscience (1425): Man … was consyved synfully With-in his awen moder body … Par duellid man in a myrk dungeon And in a foul sted of corupcion.

As best I can tell, this would be rendered in modern English as “Man was conceived sinfully within his own mother’s body, and then he dwelled in a murky dungeon (her womb) in a foul state of corruption.”

Male writers have long seemed to channel their jealousy at women’s ability to create life into a hatred of women.  If men have no wombs, we’ll call wombs corrupt!  Although, did you look at that picture of the womb-replacing “bio-bag”?  Less murky, sure.  Totally exposed to the light.  But it also looks nightmarish.