On scientific beliefs, Indigenous knowledge, and paternity.

On scientific beliefs, Indigenous knowledge, and paternity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Unique, David Linden writes that:

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

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

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

No human has a genome: we are composite creatures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Partible paternity is a belief that makes itself real.

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

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header image from Zappy’s Technology Solution on flickr

On Long Covid, minds, and bodies.

On Long Covid, minds, and bodies.

After “recovering” from Covid-19, many people have suffered lingering malaise: labored breathing, foggy thoughts, chronic fatigue.

It’s awful, and it’s ill-understood. Trials are ongoing to try to help people, but, honestly, medical doctors don’t know what to do. Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale, has been investigating Long Covid since late 2020 and has a long list of experimental therapies that her team would like to test.

In an interview with Jennifer Couzin-Frankel for Science magazine, Iwasaki said “As a basic scientist, of course I’d like to have all the pieces of the puzzle” before giving people untested therapies, “but the patients, they cannot wait.

Unfortunately, longstanding prejudice in the medical community about what counts as a “real” disease has meant that a promising medication, Prazosin, apparently isn’t even on the list of therapies to try.

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Full recovery from an upper respiratory infection like influenza or Covid-19 often takes months. This timeline is very noticeable among athletes, whose performance is exquisitely sensitive to any disturbances in breathing. Even though young people recover from many illnesses much more quickly than others, an elite high school athlete who catches a bad respiratory infection will often suffer for an entire sports season.

This is after the acute phase of coughing and viral production has passed: bodies can take a long time to heal.

Diabetes, heart damage, and a wide range of autoimmune conditions can also be triggered by viral infections (or, often, a body’s immune response to viral infection). Even after a virus has been cleared from a person’s body, the collateral damage caused by the infection or the person’s immune response can result in lingering maladies.

We shouldn’t be surprised that a wide range of persistent problems would appear after the vast majority of the world’s population just had their first encounter (and second, and third …) with a novel coronavirus.

Also, common symptoms of Long Covid – sleep disturbances, muddled thoughts, chronic fatigue, unexpectedly low cortisol, “odd” immune responses, gastrointestinal distress – match common symptoms of PTSD. For many people, Long Covid probably is PTSD.

Please note that I’m not saying that Long Covid isn’t real!

PTSD is real. PTSD causes real physical effects. But for some reason – perhaps because PTSD has a partly psychological origin – PTSD is often considered a less meaningful condition by both the professional medical community and our society at large.

In an opinion essay for the New York Times – “If You’re Suffering After Being Sick with Covid, It’s Not Just in Your Head” – sociologist Zeynep Tufekci inadvertently perpetuates this prejudice, the idea that conditions that have mental causes aren’t as important. I don’t believe that this was Tufekci’s intent – after all, she does an excellent job listing many conditions that the medical community incorrectly discounted in the past.

But conditions that target the brain matter, too! Honestly, it shouldn’t be a hard sell to convince people that brains are at least as important to the human experience as kidneys, lungs, livers, or arteries.

And yet, here we are, living in a world where migraines, depression, or PTSD are considered less “real” than other conditions.

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Most likely, what we’ve been calling Long Covid will turn out to be a variety of different conditions. Some people have suffered inflammation or damage to their hearts or lungs that will last a long while after viral clearance. Some people are experiencing the opportunistic reactivation of other latent viruses.

But many cases of Long Covid are probably PTSD. Which is a real condition, with real physiological effects, and there are real medications – like the blood pressure medication Prazosin – that can help in recovery.

We shouldn’t let prejudice about which conditions count keep people from the treatments they need.

On AI-generated art.

On AI-generated art.

Recently, an image generated by an artificial intelligence algorithm won an art competition.

As far as I can tell, this submission violates no rules. Pixel by pixel, the image was freshly generated – it was not “plagarized” in the human sense of copying portions of another’s work wholesale. Indeed, if the AI were able to speak (which it can’t, because it’s particular design does not incorporate any means to generate language), it might describe its initial training as having “inspired” its current work.

The word “training” elides a lot of detail.

Most contemporary AI algorithms are not wholly scripted – a human programmer doesn’t write code that says, “When given the input ‘opera,’ include anthropomorphic shapes bedecked in luxurious fabrics.”

Instead, the programmer curates a large collection of images, some of which are given the descriptor “opera,” all others being, by default, “not opera.” Then the algorithm analyzes the images – treating the images as a grid of pixels, each with a particular hue and brightness, and also higher-order mathematical calculations on that grid, such as if there is a red pixel in a location, what are the odds that other nearby pixels are also red, and what shape will that red cluster take? From this analysis, the algorithm finds mathematical descriptors that separate the “opera” images from “not opera.”

An image designated “opera” is more likely to have patches with vivid hues that include bright and dark vertical stripes. A human viewer will interpret these as the shadowed folds of fabric draping an upright figure. The algorithm doesn’t need to interpret these features, though – the algorithm works only with a matrix of numbers that denote pixel colors.

In general, human programmers understand the principles by which AI algorithms work. After all, human programmers made them!

And human programmers know what sort of information was provided in the algorithm’s training set. For instance, if none of the images labeled “opera” within a particular training set showed performers sitting down, then the algorithm should not produce an opera image with alternating dark and light stripes arrayed horizontally – the algorithm will not have been exposed to horizontal folds in fabric, at least not within the context of opera.

But the particular details of how these algorithms work are often inscrutable to their creators. The algorithms are like children this way – you might know the life experiences that your child has been exposed to, and yet still have no idea why your kid is claiming that Bigfoot dips french fries into ice cream.

Every now and again, an algorithm sorts data by criteria that we humans find ridiculous. Or, rather: the algorithm sorts data by criteria that we would find ridiculous, if we could understand its criteria. But, in general, we can’t. It’s difficult to plumb the workings of these algorithms.

Because the algorithm’s knowledge is stored in multidimensional matrices that most human brains can’t grasp, we can’t compare the algorithm’s understanding of opera with our own. Instead, we can only evaluate whether or not the algorithm seems to work. Whether the algorithm’s images of “opera” look like opera to us, or whether an AI criminal justice algorithm recommends the longest prison sentences to people whom we also assume to be the most dangerous offenders.

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So, about that art contest. I’m inclined to think that, for a category of “digitally created artwork,” submitting a piece that was created by an AI is fair. A human user still plays a curatorial role, perhaps requesting many images using the exact same prompt and then choosing the best, each generated from random seeds.

It’s a little weird, because in many ways the result would be a collaborative project – somebody’s work went into scripting the AI, and a huge amount of work went into curating and tagging the training set of images – but you could argue that anytime an artist uses a tool or filter on Photoshop, they’re collaborating with the programmers.

An artist might paint a background and then click on a button labeled “whirlpool effect,” but somebody had to design and script the mathematical function that converts the original array of pixel colors into something that we humans would then believe had been sucked into a whirlpool.

In some ways, this collaboration is acknowledged (in a half-hearted, transactional, capitalist way) – the named artist has paid licensing fees to use Photoshop or an AI algorithm. Instead of recognition, the co-creators receive money.

But there’s another wrinkle: we do not create art alone.

Even the Lascaux cave paintings – although no other paintings from that era survived until the present day, many probably existed (in places that were less protected from the elements and so were destroyed by wind & rain & mold & time). The Lascaux artist(s) presumably saw themselves as part of an artistic community or tradition.

In the development of a human artist, that person will see, hear, & otherwise experience many artistic creations by others. Over the course of our lives, we visit museums, read books, watch television, hear music, eat at restaurants – we’re constantly learning from the world around us, in ways that would be impossible to fully acknowledge. A painter might include a flourish that was inspired by a picture they saw in childhood and no longer consciously remember.

This collaborative debt is more obvious among AI algorithms. These algorithms need fuel: their meticulously-tagged sets of training images. The algorithms generate new images of only the sort that they’ve been fed.

It’s the story of a worker being simultaneously laid off and asked to train their replacement.

Unfortunately for human artists, our world is already awash in beautiful images. Obviously, I’m not saying that we need no more art! I’m a writer, in a world that’s already so full of books! The problem, instead, is that the AI algorithms have ample training sets. Even if, hypothetically, these algorithms instantly drove every other artist out of business, or made all working artists so nervous that human artists refused for any more of their work to be digitized, there’s still an enormous library of existing art for the AI algorithms to train on.

After hundreds of years of collecting beautiful paintings in museums, it would take a hefty dollop of hubris to imagine immediate stagnation if the algorithms lacked access to new human-generated paintings.

Also, it wouldn’t be insurmountable to program something akin to “creativity” in the algorithms – an element of randomness to allow the algorithm to deviate from trends in its training set. This would put more emphasis on a user’s curatorial judgment, but also lets the algorithms innovate. Presumably most of the random deviations would look bad to me, but that’s often the way with innovation – impressionism, cubism, and other movements looked bad to many people at the beginning. (Honestly, I still don’t like much impressionism.)

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There’s no reason to expect a brain made of salty fat to have incomparable powers. Our thoughts don’t come from anything spooky like quantum mechanics – neurons are much too big to persist in superpositions. Instead, we humans are so clever because we have a huge number of neurons interconnected in complex ways. We’re pretty special, but we’re not magical.

Eventually, a brain made of circuits could do anything that we humans can.

That’s a crucial long-run flaw of capitalism – eventually, the labor efforts of all biological organisms will be replaceable, so all available income could be allocated to capital owners instead of labor producers.

In a world of physician-bots, instead of ten medical doctors each earning a salary, the owner of ten RoboMD units would keep all the money.

We’re still a ways off from RoboMD entering the market, but this is a matter of engineering. AI algorithms can already write legal contracts, do sports journalism, drive cars & trucks, create award-winning visual images – there’s no reason to believe that an AI could never treat illnesses as well as a human doctor, clean floors as well as a human janitor, write code as well as a human programmer.

In the long run, all our work could be done by machines. Human work will be unnecessary. Within the logic of capitalism, our income should drop to zero.

Within the logic of capitalism, only the owners of algorithms should earn any money in the long-run. (And in the very long run, only the single owner of the best algorithms should earn any money, with all other entities left with nothing.)

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Admittedly, it seems sad for visual artists – many of whom might not have nuanced economics backgrounds – to be among the people who experience the real-world demonstration of this principle first.

It probably feels like a very minor consolation to them, knowing that AI algorithms will eventually be able to do your job, too. When kids play HORSE, nobody wants to be out first.

But also, we have a choice. Kids choose whether or not to play HORSE, and they choose what rules they’ll play by. We (collectively) get to choose whether our world will be like this.

I’m not even that creative, and I can certainly imagine worlds in which, even after the advent of AI, human artists still get to do their work, and eat.

On perspective and heroes.

On perspective and heroes.

We are the heroes of our own stories, which makes it easy to think that anyone who opposes us is a villain. To think, perhaps, that the libs are out to destroy the United States. Or, conversely, that right-wingers are undermining the social contracts of our country.

But to those people’s perspective, they’re the heroes. We might not be happy about their choices – I know I’m often not! – but other people are trying their best, too.

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In a grocery store checkout lane in Chicago, I found myself talking to a cashier about their tattoos. They’d recently finished a tableau from Greek mythology across their back, a project that had taken years.

Because I’m both a mythology fan and an excessively earnest person, I asked this person about their favorite characters from Greek mythology.

“Well,” they said, “I’m really happy with the Medusa on my back.”

“Oh, cool!” I exclaimed. “Medusa is one of my favorites, too! Medusa and Arachne.”

“Well,” they said, momentarily abashed, “my tattoo has Perseus holding Medusa’s head.”

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Medusa and Arachne are heroes who oppose the abuses of privilege & power. In a world of harmful traditions – deities who treat mortals as their playthings, who would never dream of asking for consent because human autonomy matters so little compared to the desires of a god – Medusa and Arachne fought back. Their cause appeared doomed from the beginning; nevertheless, they persisted.

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Medusa was a beautiful young woman who worked in Athena’s temple, up until Athena’s uncle Poseidon broke into the temple and assaulted Medusa. Then Athena was angry that her temple had been defiled, and so she cursed Medusa to be so hideous that she’d turn onlookers to stone.

Athena, in her cruelty, wanted only to punish the victim, but even gods make mistakes: Medusa brandished her curse as though it were a gift, suddenly dangerous even to the gods.

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Because Arachne was proud of her achievements as an artist, Athena challenged her to a competition. Although Arachne had no hope of wining a subjective contest against a god, judged by gods, she used the contest as an opportunity to convey a heretical message: that the lives of a lesser species are as inherently meaningful to them as the lives of gods are to gods. Her artwork depicted transgressions and wanton cruelty committed against us human animals by the divine.

Athena was enraged. How dare a mere nothing creature question her kind’s treatment at the hands of her superiors? The offending artwork was promptly destroyed; Arachne was cursed to live on in an even more loathesome form.

We humans would be just as irked if a cow or a lab rat began protesting the ways we’ve treated them.

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In their interactions with Athena, both Medusa and Arachne are tragic heroes, victims who are punished further for having been victimized. As characters in their own right, they’re my favorites, clear champions of the powerless.

And yet, they exist within a whole universe of overlapping stories. As symbols, they can be interpreted in myriad ways.

In a subsequent myth, a wealthy aristocrat tried to rid himself of a nettlesome young man named Perseus by demanding that Perseus bring him a gift of Medusa’s severed head. But then Athena helped Perseus find & kill Medusa. And so Medusa as a symbol can represent almost any adversity. In her interaction with Perseus, she is simply an obstacle to be overcome. To Perseus, Medusa represents a troubled past, a looming calamity.

Symbols twist & shift as our perspective changes.

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In Pulp Fiction (which I haven’t seen in almost two decades, worried that I’d now like it less), John Travolta spends much of the film as the hero. He charms viewers, saying “I gotta know what a five dollar shake tastes like” before taking a sip using Uma Thurman’s straw.

But in the scene when John Travolta dies, he’s irrelevant. Just a background prop. A villain. A symbol. At that moment, Bruce Willis is the hero, and we’re wrapped up in his perspective.

And then, because the episodes in Pulp Fiction are presented out of order, John Travolta is alive again. As soon as he returns to the screen, he’s the hero. His ignominious impending demise is irrelevant to our perception of his antics.

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Medusa is not a monster; she is a victim.

Medusa is a monster; she has the power to stave off even gods.

Medusa is a monster; Perseus shows us that with faith and pluck, we too might triumph over adversity.

In stories, all can be true at once.

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header image by Victoria Borodinova

photograph of marble statue of Perseus with Medusa’s head (carved by Antonio Canova) by Mary Harrsch

Medusa miniature sculpted collaboratively with my five-year-old on a day she had to stay home from school, following advice from Dinko Tilov in “Sculpting Mythical Creatures Out of Polymer Clay.”

On urgency and gender-affirming medical care.

On urgency and gender-affirming medical care.

In the New York Times Magazine article “The Battle Over Gender Therapy,” journalist Emily Bazelon describes the conflicting views of several medical doctors and psychologists. They disagree over timing and access: who should decide whether a young person receives gender-affirming medical care, and how long should this decision-making process take?

In general, waiting before finalizing a decision is best. This is true whether they are big decisions – like getting married or buying a house – or relatively small decisions – like buying a new couch, posting an irate Twitter message, or drinking another beer. If you can give yourself time to mull it over, you’ll probably be happier with your resulting decision, even if you end up doing the same thing.

In the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, a chess instructor attempts to teach this patience to his student:

“So what’s your best move?”

“Rook to d.”

“What about taking on e?”

“What about it?”

“You didn’t consider it. You’re still not considering it.”

“I’m right. Rook to d is the best move.”

“You didn’t study the board!”

Even when the answer seems clear, it’s still often better to take time to think. To plan, to weigh options.

But we don’t always have this luxury. Sometimes, when considering whether to buy a house, people feel forced to make a decision immediately – otherwise, someone else might buy it! These snap decisions, like the home purchases that many people made during the pandemic, are more likely to lead to regret.

For a person seeking gender-affirming medical care, deciding to begin hormone therapy might be an even bigger decision than getting married or buying a house. Hormone therapy can cause irreversible physical changes. For a person who was assigned female at birth, taking testosterone often results in a permanently deeper voice; reshaping of the face to appear more angular; changes in the shape and size of genitals.

Similarly, when a person who was assigned male at birth uses hormone therapy to help their appearance and physiology better match the gender of their brain, an analogous set of changes may linger even if this person decides to stop taking the medications.

And, yes, some people will decide to stop taking the medications. As with any medical treatment, hormone therapy has both benefits and side-effects, and it’s hard to know how these will balance out for a particular individual’s brain & body before they try.

So, it’s a big decision. There are irreversible changes. Obviously, taking a lot of time to wait and evaluate would be best, right?

But sometimes, competing urgency makes waiting impractical. As an example, consider surgical removal of an organ. This is a drastic measure: you’d like to wait and mull things over. Unfortunately, time pressure from the septic shock of an advanced bacterial infection might force a quick decision. My friend was barely conscious during this decision-making process after collapsing in the lobby of our local hospital.

When deciding whether or not to initiate gender-affirming hormone therapy, there’s a bit more wiggle room. But for a young person who’s mustered up enough self-knowledge and courage to talk to their parents or healthcare provider about wanting medication, there is still looming time pressure.

During puberty, bodies can change very drastically within a matter of months. Many of these changes are lifelong and irreversible. Waiting to evaluate isn’t just a default, low-impact choice. Hormone therapy is a big deal, but waiting will also bring dramatic, permanent physiological changes. Not to mention continued psychological turmoil, which might be compounded by the knowledge that, for all of your bravery in speaking up, you’re still not getting the help you need.

My main qualm with Bazelon’s article? For all the nuance devoted to the medical doctors’ and psychologists’ opinions, we hear very little from young people. Bazelon interviewed over 60 clinicians, researchers, activists, and historians, but only half that many of the young people whose brains, bodies, & lives are at stake. As a parent, I’m aware that children can do or say a lot of irksome, irrational things; as someone who works with elementary and high-school students, I also know that we have to recognize young people as valid knowers and thinkers.

I want to hear about the sense of urgency from young people themselves. Instead, this central issue was only passingly mentioned in a single sentence, a quote from child psychologist Laura Edwards-Leeper about the process of evaluating young people for gender-affirming treatment: “If a child was on the cusp of puberty, and anxious about how their body was about to change, we tried to squeeze them in faster, which I still think is really important.”

Young people have a stake in our world. And yet – with our inaction on climate change; our mass production & sale of military-grade weaponry to anybody who wants it; our treating schools as a lower priority than bars or restaurants during the pandemic, and then keeping schools closed or disrupted even after we had data showing that these disruptions were causing children even greater harm than Covid-19 infection; our age- and wealth-based prejudices that give retirees a far greater say in the future of our country & planet than the young people who will inherit the mess – we are not only disenfranchising young people, but abjectly failing them.

Young people have not been silent. We ought to listen.

On pandemic-era incarceration.

On pandemic-era incarceration.

During the first year and a half of the Covid-19 pandemic, the local county jail wouldn’t admit volunteers. Incarceration in the United States sounds crummy most of the time, but most of the people I’ve communicated with have said that things were even worse during the pandemic: more fear, more tension, fewer opportunities to do much of anything either than sit & worry.

Around that time, the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project – an organization that sends free books to people who are incarcerated – received many letters like this:

The prison I am at has us on 23 hour a day lockdown due to the coronavirus threat. We also lost access to most jobs around the prison, visits, library, and a lot of other things that help relieve stress, like sports, walking track, weight-lifting, church, etc.

So books will be a huge help, we are three-deep to a cell and I can’t say I always enjoy the company.

And also –a la Baudelaire’s “oasis of horror in a desert of boredom” – we received some terrifying stories from people who got very sick:

On Sept 1st I was Covid-positive, on Sept 4 shortly after 6 a.m. I was rushed to the hospital. I was on a ventilator & in paralytic coma for 6 ½ days. Both lungs free of pneumonia, I have now been diagnosed with stress-induced cardiomyopathy due to Covid. I am back at the prison. My voice sounds like a man (LOL).

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There are almost always communicable diseases circulating through the jails and prisons. That’s certainly still been true during the Covid-19 pandemic: in southern Indiana, vaccine uptake is relatively low, especially among the population of people usually targeted for incarceration. Still, volunteers began visiting the jail again as soon as we were allowed – during stressful times, people need more support and kindness than usual, not less.

For the past few months, the administration has been letting us bring equipment to record people reading books for their kids. Then librarians at our excellent local library send the video and a paper copy of the book to the person’s kids.

After a Sunday morning recording session, someone was telling me a bit about her recent experience:

We’ve got three levels of security in the women’s block right now, so we’re on lockdown about 22 hours a day. They only let us out to the common area one level at a time.”

Breakfast at 4:30, why I was feeling a sleepy. They do have coffee at commissary, instant coffee. Commissary’s a little tough, the prices of everything have gone up but they didn’t raise the weekly cap, so you can get a little less each week. My parents have been putting money in my commissary, but you can’t do more than the cap.

My parents have been taking good care of me, thank God, not that I deserve it.

Which always breaks my heart to hear somebody say. She deserves help. We all do.

I doubt there’s anyone among us who would be pleased to have people always associate us with the worst things we’d ever done. Or have our worst moments mulled over by judges and prosecutors and public defenders, then written up in someone else’s words and stored in a permanent file.

I’ve certainly done bad things & broken laws: I had the good fortune to not be caught. (Good fortune, plus pale skin, masculine frame, upper-class accent, apartments in wealthy, less-policed areas …) I drove with drugs in my car. And I definitely hurt people – started petty arguments, callously trampled feelings – in ways that aren’t illegal, but I’d still feel awful having those moments replayed again and again, discussed in a courtroom, treated as though those smallest, meanest moments were the essence of me, the most important thing for somebody to know about me.

In Just Mercy, lawyer Bryan Stevenson writes that:

I thought of the victims of violent crime and the survivors of murdered loved ones, and how we’ve pressured them to recycle their pain and anguish and give it back to the offenders we prosecute. I thought of the many ways we’ve legalized vengeful and cruel punishments, how we’ve allowed our victimization to justify the victimization of others.”

But simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.

I frequently had difficult conversations with clients who were struggling and despairing over their situations – over the things they’d done, or had been done to them, that had led them to painful moments. Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst things we’ve ever done.

I told them that if someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief.

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In jail that day, I tried to say something vaguely similar. But at the end of our recording session, I got to return to my loving family. I got to read a book to my children while hugging them.

She went back to the block, waiting for us to mail a DVD of her reading & a copy of the book to her kids. Which isn’t the same, and isn’t enough.

On the apparent rise in transgender and non-binary identities.

On the apparent rise in transgender and non-binary identities.

Many more people in the United States now identify as transgender and/or non-binary than in the recent past. This increase is most dramatic among younger generations.

There are two major causes of this change, and for political reasons it’s essential that we acknowledge both.

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My spouse was recently speaking to a colleague and (cheerfully) described the increase as being due to our nation’s changing culture. In my opinion, we still have a long way to go, but many people are much more accepting than in the recent past. As the perceived risk decreases, people will be more likely to reveal their true identities.

But that isn’t the whole story.

The chemical make-up of our world is radically different than in the recent past. As a (lapsed) organic chemist, I’m quite proud of human ingenuity and our ability to synthesize so many wondrous medicines, small molecules, and industrial materials. The technologies we have access to are amazing! We can live so much longer, and our quality of life during that time is pretty awesome.

We’ve dramatically altered the environment, though. Industrial run-off and medicinal metabolites are present at high concentrations in our water supply, including lots of “endocrine disrupting chemicals.”

Endocrine disrupting chemicals often resemble naturally-occurring hormones and signaling molecules. Many of these chemicals are known to induce non-binary sexual development among other animals – in recent years, there’s been a dramatic increase in the proportion of wild animals born with intersex characteristics.

We humans are also susceptible to this altered chemical milieu. The environment in which human brains and bodies develop during gestation is chemically different now from in our recent past.

As epidemiologist Shanna Swan writes in Countdown: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, “The changes in sexual development taking place all over the world appear to have been accompanied by an apparent rise in gender fluidity …”

Intersex is different from transgender or nonbinary. “Intersex” describes physical morphology and can be assessed for non-human animals; “transgender” and “nonbinary” describe what’s going on inside a person’s brain. But brains are a product of biological development. It’s reasonable to assume – although it would obviously be unethical to test or prove – that endocrine disrupting chemicals capable of changing external sexual morphology also impact developing brains.

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Children are more likely to self-identify as transgender or non-binary now than in the recent past, partly because they are growing up in a different culture, partly because their brains and bodies developed in a different chemical environment.

We don’t yet know how much of the shift has been caused by which factor: maybe the explanation is 10% cultural, 90% biological; maybe both contribute equally; maybe the shift is more due to culture than biology.

But it’s essential for us to acknowledge both contributions – especially because a large portion of our nation’s population espouses conservative or traditional values that decry the cultural change.

Yes, the Democratic party’s policies celebrating diversity have shifted the culture; the Republican party’s policies promoting business and minimizing environmental regulation have shifted the chemical environment.

Whether or not we are happy that gender fluidity is on the rise, it’s important to note that both major political parties in this country have contributed.

I’m no biological determinist – from my perspective as a masculine autistic person who’s chosen to focus on caretaking, I like to imagine that I’m transcending my biological inclinations – but those of us who celebrate liberal values and diversity do ourselves a political disservice if we fail to acknowledge the impact of our shifting environment on gender.

Children will be safer when we make clear that these aspects of their identities aren’t a choice. This is who they are. Personally, I think that’s great. But some people don’t. And so we need to convey that political policies that those people supported helped make children’s lives today different from the way the world used to be.

The way we speak about these issues matters. If we want to include as many people as possible in these conversations – which we must, if we’re going to move forward as a nation – we have to include the whole complex breadth of the world.

Even when it feels uncomfortable.

. . . .

Header image by Ted Eytan.

Frog image by John P Clare — although I should acknowledge that not only is this frog living in Ireland, not the U.S., but I’m also not a herpetologist and can’t tell you this frog’s biological sex. But it’s a good looking frog!

On ‘The Dawn of Everything’ and the Future.

On ‘The Dawn of Everything’ and the Future.

Farmers conquered the world.

Not that many of us farm. Modern technologies allow us all to be fed even though less than 1% of the population still does the actual work of farming. But the food we eat comes from farms. Without farms, we couldn’t live as we do.

Indeed, the material luxuries of the modern world would make this place seem like a paradise to our ancestors. So much food, so easily procured! Soft warm clothes – you can buy great digs at Goodwill for a few dollars. Oracular pocket computers – my telephone can prophesize way better than ancient gods. I know when it’s going to rain. I know if the rain will be stopping in 35 minutes.

We have indoor plumbing, hot showers, scented candles – that’s awesome! Think about it: Victorian cities smelled so bad!

I mean, sure – with climate change and rising sea levels, sewers in places like New York City will back up more frequently, and I’ll get to that. But first, let’s take a moment to be grateful: the stuff we have access to is pretty incredible. All our technologies and toys.

Wow.

Farmers really nailed it, didn’t they?

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But before we reached our fabulous present (please continue to suspend your disbelief for a little longer; I understand that the present moment in history feels decidedly less than fabulous for many people), something strange had to happen.

Hunter-gatherers lived pretty well. They ate good food. They spent ample time socializing and relaxing. As best we can tell, their lives had a lot of potential for happiness.

By way of contrast, it was the pits to be an early farmer! You’d work all day; eat crummy food that left you gassy and bloated; die young. Also, you’d feel small – instead of believing that you were probably just as good as anyone else, you’d know that there were kings and such who lived way better than you.

Every now and then, their ruffians might come calling and haul away your food.

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Just like the recently deposed leader of the United States, ancient kings were big on building walls. But there’s a difference. Because it was so miserable to be an early farmer – a cog in the gearworks of a glorious civilization! – early walls may have been built to keep people in.

In Against the Grain, James Scott writes of early states that, “Do what they might to discourage and punish flight – and the earliest legal codes are filled with such injunctions – archaic states lacked the means to prevent a certain degree of [population loss] under normal circumstances. For China’s Mongol frontier, Owen Lattimore has made the case most forcefully that the purpose of the Great Wall(s) was as much to keep the Chinese taxpayers inside as to block barbarian incursions. … Precisely because this practice of going over to the barbarians flies directly in the face of civilization’s “just so” story, it is not a story one will find in the court chronicles and official histories. It is subversive in the most profound sense.

The hunter gatherers had been happy, though! So how did we get from there to here? If early farming was so miserable, why did people do it?

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In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that a select few prehistoric farming communities were less miserable than the rest. Their arguments are based on sparse archaeological data – in the essay “Digging for Utopia,” Kwame Anthony Appiah presents several examples in which Graeber & Wengrow’s interpretations extend beyond the evidence – and yet, their central conclusion is almost certainly correct.

Many, many groups of humans formed distinct communities over the past ten thousand years. That’s a long time. These people didn’t have access to all the historical knowledge that we have, but they were no less intelligent or imaginative than we are. It would be naive to imagine that every single community followed the exact same political system.

Although Appiah’s review ends with a great line – “Never mind the dawn, Rousseau was urging: we will not find our future in our past” – I agree with Graeber & Wengrow that there’s benefit from showing that cooperation and mutual aid were the underpinnings of successful civilizations in the past. We needn’t be shackled by the choices of our ancestors, but it’s still nice to feel inspired by them. Even one single example of a stable ancient civilization organized around mutual aid would give credence to the idea that a radical reworking of contemporary civilization isn’t doomed to failure.

If prehistoric people did have a variety of political systems, though – some happy, some oppressive – why did we end up with a bad version?

Graeber & Wengrow write:

When people talk about ‘early civilizations’ they are mostly referring to [societies like] Pharaonic Egypt, Inca Peru, Aztec Mexico, Han China, Imperial Rome, ancient Greece, or others of a certain scale and monumentality.

All these were deeply stratified societies, held together mostly by authoritarian government, violence, and the radical subordination of women. Sacrifice, as we’ve seen, is the shadow lurking behind this concept of civilization: the sacrifice of our three basic freedoms, and of life itself, for the sake of something always out of reach – whether that be an ideal or world order, the Mandate of Heaven or blessings from insatiable gods.

Is it any wonder that in some circles the very idea of ‘civilization’ has fallen into disrepute? Something very basic has gone wrong here.

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Presumably, some ancient cultures prioritized happiness (cooperation, sharing, art), while others prioritized growth (acquisition, extraction, war, and work).

I would rather live in the former sort; I assume most people, if given the chance to experience both, would make a similar choice. (Graeber & Wengrow include several examples of well-educated people who experienced both self-interested European-style capitalism and cooperative “savagery” preferring the latter. “By far the most common reasonshad to do with the intensity of social bonds they experienced in Native American communities: qualities of mutual care, love and above all happiness, which they found impossible to replicate once back in European settings. ‘Security’ takes many forms. There is the security of knowing one has a statistically smaller chance of getting shot with an arrow. And then there’s the security of knowing that there are people in the world who will care deeply if one is.”)

But the borders of a political system that prioritizes growth will steadily expand if able. Whenever there’s a meeting between a growth-valuing and a happiness-valuing society, the former is likely to attempt to commandeer the land and resources that had been used to support the latter.

North America was populated before Europeans arrived. The land was intensely managed: Graeber and Wengrow write that “What to a settler’s eye seemed savage, untouched wilderness usually turns out to be landscapes actively managed by indigenous populations for thousands of years through controlled burning, weeding, coppicing, fertilizing and pruning, terracing estuarine plots to extend the habitat of particular wild flora, building clam gardens in intertidal zones to enhance the reproduction of shellfish, creating weirs to catch salmon, bass and sturgeon, and so on. Such procedures were often labour-intensive, and regulated by indigenous laws governing who could access groves, swamps, root beds, grasslands and fishing grounds, and who was entitled to exploit what species at any given time of year.

But the land was being managed according to ideals other than maximum short-term agricultural extraction and population growth. The original human inhabitants of this continent believed that it would be both morally and ethically wrong to extract everything possible from their surroundings – future generations and other animals also held valid claims to the land – and so their civilizations sought to thrive sustainably amid natural abundance.

When Europeans first arrived in North America, as Matt Siegel relates in The Secret History of Food, people “described great migrations of birds so numerous they were forced to roost on top of each other, downing giant oaks from their weight and covering the forest in four inches of droppings. John Audubon later described flocks so dense they eclipsed the sun, and estimated seeing more than a billion pigeons in a three-hour span.

Despite this well-managed abundance, many Europeans still starved to death when they first arrived on this continent. They starved “not because of a lack of food, but because of a lack of skill and acquiring it. In unwillingness to heed the advice of the Natives, whom they saw as ‘uncivilized savages.’ Pilgrim John Smith recounts, for example, coming across waters so thick with fish that their heads stuck out above the water, but being unable to catch any for want of nets. ‘We attempted to catch them with a frying pan,’ he writes, ‘but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with.’ ”

This sort of extravagant abundance is now gone, because the encroaching civilization prioritized extraction. Enough of the Europeans survived to gain a foothold on this continent, after which natural resources would not be managed, but consumed.

The rivers were sullied; the great flocks of birds were killed.

(The other day, my family was driving near a highway where a flock of perhaps a thousand starlings swelled and tumbled through the air – it looked magical. I cannot imagine what a flock of a billion birds would be like.)

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The standard measure of our economy – the single magical number cited by politicians and talking heads to let us regular TV-watching folks know how our country is doing – is “growth.”

This magic number doesn’t assess how much we have – although politicians occasionally mention “per capita income” or “per capita output,” which could be rough proxies for that, as long as you neglect our slight (ha!) disparities in distribution – nor how happy we are. Instead, we boast or fret over the rate of increase.

But there’s a limit to growth. I loved the game Universal Paperclip, which I’ve discussed previously, because it elegantly depicts what goes wrong when we attempt ceaseless expansion.

We could prioritize something else – happiness, perhaps – but that would require a massive cultural shift. The ideals of growth are ingrained on both sides of our current political spectrum.

In On Freedom, Maggie Nelson discusses climate change and the conflict it presents: the freedom to do what we want now (chop down forests; extract & burn fossil fuels) versus our descendants having the freedom to do what they want later (visit old-growth forests; encounter wild animals; have a stable climate; survive). We now know that we can’t both have these untrammeled freedoms. Someone – either us or our descendants – has to make sacrifices.

Nelson discusses Naomi Klein’s interactions with people who are unwilling to change their current lifestyle: those who demand the freedom to eat lots of meat, crank their air conditioning, purchase & dispose of whatever plastic products they want.

Those people “are right, Klein says, when they say that climate change isn’t really an ‘issue.’ Rather, she says, ‘climate change is a message, one that is telling us that many of our culture’s most cherished ideals are no longer viable.’

These ideals – shared by people on both the right and left, Klein explains – involve a paradigm of civilization based on progress and expansion rather than one based on an apprehension of and respect for natural limits, including the limits of human intelligence, and the material, planetary parameters that make human life possible.

But it does no good for you to personally refrain from extracting & burning fossil fuels if someone else goes ahead and does it. Our planet is interconnected: the politics of Brazil will affect us all. Clever people are prioritizing growth and expansion.

In The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch argues that the Earth was already a poor habitat for humanity; if climate change makes our planet less habitable, so be it. He believes that there’s no limit to the growth of knowledge – or, therefore, to the economic growth possible for a knowledge-bearing civilization – so why should we slow down now?

(Despite his background in physics, Deutsch ignores the hard limit imposed by entropy – all processes in our universe consume order and excrete chaos, There will be no possibility for further action – not even thought – once the initial order has been consumed. Believe me, I’m all for scientific research: if the lifespan of our sun is compressed into a twenty-four hour day, the current time is about 10:58 a.m., humans have been around since about 10:57 a.m., and the sun will become too hot and evaporate all our water by 7:36 p.m. For humanity to carry on, our descendants will have to find a way to leave this planet by then – but humanity won’t carry on infinitely. And we’ll be unlikely to carry on at all if we recklessly wreck the planet before 11 a.m. instead of giving ourselves the full day to work on solutions!)

If a subset of our population agrees with Nelson & Klein, and another subset agrees with Deutsch, those who agree with Deutsch will win – win, that is, in the sense of having done what they want to the world. Sprinting ahead during the first minute of what’s likely to be an eight-hour long marathon, overheating, and expiring at the side of the road.

As a running coach, that’s something I generally counsel people not to do.

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Europeans arrived on North America. They prioritized growth. They took land from the previous inhabitants.

The vast flocks of pigeons are gone.

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In The Dawn of Everything, Graeber & Wengrow make a persuasive case that many cultures intentionally avoided the emergence of severe inequality or permanent bureaucracy. “Sometimes indigenous property systems formed the basis for differential access to resources, with the result that something like social classes emerged. Usually, though, this did not happen, because people made sure that it didn’t, much as they made sure chiefs did not develop coercive power.”

Mutual aid and cooperation were intentional goals around which societies were structured.

Unfortunately, although this sort of political structure might be good at producing happiness, it’s inefficient. I volunteer with several organizations that operate on the principle of consensus decision-making; these deliberations can be quite arduous!

Over time, the cultures with more efficient political systems are likely to grow faster – even if they’re less happy – and gradually displace the others. This is the same logic of invasive species: the plants labeled as “invasive” in any habitat tend to begin their growing season earlier and spread more easily, allowing them to replace whatever had been there before.

Capitalism has a lot of flaws, and unfettered capitalism can certainly get stuck with massive inefficiencies through monopoly power or the like, but capitalism is typically more efficient than mutual aid.

Graeber and Wengrow write that:

Both money and administration are based on similar principles of interpersonal equivalence. What we wish to emphasize is how frequently the most violent inequalities seem to arise from such fictions of legal equality.

This equality could be viewed as making people (as well as things) interchangeable, which in turn allowed rulers to make impersonal demands that took no consideration of their subjects’ unique situations.

As anyone knows who has spent time in a rural community, or serving on a municipal or parish council, resolving inequities might require many hours, possibly days of tedious discussion, but almost always a solution will be arrived at that no one finds entirely unfair.

It’s the addition of sovereign power, and the resulting ability of the local enforcer to say, ‘Rules are rules; I don’t want to hear about it’ that allows bureaucratic mechanisms to become genuinely monstrous.

As money is to promises, we might say, state bureaucracy is to the principle of care: in each case we find one of the most fundamental building blocks of social life corrupted by a confluence of maths and violence.

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I would have preferred for Graeber and Wengrow to continue this discussion of efficiency, which helps explain why we inherited a political system that produces less happiness than the cultures of many of our ancestors.

Hunting and gathering yielded ample calories for ancient humans to build stable, complex societies. But in these societies, little would have been interchangeable; people might engage in different activities each day, each season, each year. The food they ate might vary considerably from one day to the next.

(In Against the Grain, Scott writes “Evidence for the relative restriction and impoverishment of early farmers’ diets comes largely from comparisons of skeletal remains of farmers with those of hunter-gatherers living nearby at the same time. The hunter-gatherers were several inches taller on average. This presumably reflected their more varied and abundant diet. It would be hard to exaggerate that variety. Not only might it span several food webs – marine, wetland, forest, savanna, arid – each with its seasonal variation, but even when it came to plant foods, the diversity was, by agricultural standards, staggering. The archaeological site of Abu Hureyra, for example, in its hunter-gatherer phase, yielded remains from 192 different plants, of which 142 could be identified, and of which 118 are known to be consumed by contemporary hunter-gatherers.”)

Farming produces equivalence. A farmer can specialize in a small set of actions, raising a small set of plants and animals. Bushels of wheat can be easily measured. There are definite losses in terms of health, happiness, and leisure time, but farming makes political organization more efficient.

Indiana’s forests are filling up with garlic mustard, not because it’s the best plant, but because it grows efficiently.

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Among the superpowers of the modern world, some have vaguely democratic political systems (although perhaps it’s foolish to lump plutocratic representational systems like the U.S. into this category), and some use dictatorship (like China).

I’ve read a lot of opinion pieces suggesting that the Chinese political system can’t succeed over the long run because it stifles creativity; for instance, an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Why China Can’t Innovate” claims that Ph.D. students in China receive an inadequate training because “the governance structures of China’s state-owned universities still leaves too many decisions to too few people.”

In the long-run, yes, free societies can produce more creative solutions to their problems. Graeber and Wengrow present compelling evidence that the indigenous free peoples of North America created a much greater variety of political systems than the oppressed peoples of Europe.

In the short run, however, dictatorships can be more efficient. (With the obvious possibility that a dictator might decide to do something counterproductive, as Vladimir Putin is demonstrating.)

Civilizations collapse – or devour each other – in the short run.

On Roe v. Wade

On Roe v. Wade

The Supreme Court is considering whether to overturn the standing decisions from Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). The majority opinions in those cases guaranteed … um, actually, quite little?

Soon, those opinions might guarantee even less!

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Justice Sonia Sotomayor is worried that the Supreme Court might lose its aura of legitimacy.

Justice Sotomayor said, “Will this institution survive the stench that [overturning Roe v. Wade would create] in the public perception that the Constitution and its readings are just political acts? I don’t see how it is possible.

This is actually a major reason why Roe v. Wade wasn’t overturned previously. In a recent essay on Planned Parenthood v. Casey, ACLU legal director David Cole writes that “As the three then-recently Republican-appointed justiceswarned in 1992, overruling Roe would do ‘profound and unnecessary damage to the Court’s legitimacy and to the Nation’s commitment to the rule of law.’ That is only more true today.

And, look: I’m pro-choice. I would prefer for anti-abortion laws like those recently enacted in Texas and Mississippi to be revoked.

But also: the idea that our Supreme Court might lose some of its power makes me quite pleased!

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In our country, there are ostensibly three equal branches of government to balance each other.

Which sounds like a nifty design! Barstools often have three legs because any three points define a plane (unless they’re all on the same line), so three-legged stools are rarely tippy. Quite helpful when the sitter might be tipsy!

But something’s gone wrong with our government.

The recently-ritualized filibusterer system of our legislative branch that allows any proposal to be passively smothered, often by senators who represent fewer people than live in single neighborhoods of major cities. The post-9/11 domestic spying and drone strike assassinations from our executive branch. These are strange aberrations!

The worst offender, though, is probably our judiciary. Over many years, our Supreme Court justices have steadily commandeered more power, and the system is untenable.

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Unfortunately, our Supreme Court justices are incompetent.

This isn’t really their fault!

And I happen to think that several of them are clever, kind-hearted people. I really liked when Justice Sotomayor’s minority opinion for Utah v. Strieff included a reading list to help people who hadn’t noticed the lingering ramifications of institutional racism in our country.

That was grand!

But for our Supreme Court justices to form meaningful opinions about the whole range of cases that come before them, they should understand computers, artificial intelligence, psychology, sociology, economics, biology, medicine … and, they don’t.

To be nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court, a person instead needs to have specialized in our country’s adversarial system of law. Which means, due to time constraints, that they probably won’t have an adequate understanding of many vital subjects.

Worse, the one subject that they did specialize in – adversarial law – isn’t even helpful! Immersion in this style of thought probably makes people less suited to serve on the Supreme Court. As law professor Sarah A. Seo wrote in a recent essay on public defenders, “Adversarialism is not inherent to justice – it’s simply one way of administering it.

Even if the adversarial arguments mattered – if, for instance, we lived in an alternate universe where the judges were such flexibly-minded people that they allowed themselves to be persuaded in court, that we couldn’t predict how they were going to vote well before any arguments had been presented – the idea of “justice” arising from competition instead of justice by collaboration is a foolish way to run a country.

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Often, people refer to Roe v. Wade in shorthand, suggesting that the decision guarantees a right to privacy, perhaps, or more specifically a right to abortion.

It doesn’t.

Instead, the majority opinion for Roe v. Wade says that “Though the State cannot override [the right to privacy, including a woman’s qualified right to terminate her pregnancy], it has legitimate interests in protecting both the pregnant woman’s health and the potentiality of human life, each of which interests grows and reaches a ‘compelling’ point at various stages of the woman’s approach to term.

There are two conflicting rights, and the majority opinion is proposing a guideline for their balance. This is quite common. We balance people’s privacy against the state’s interest in preventing crime. We balance manufacturers’ desire to pollute with other people’s desire to breathe clean air or drink clean water.

In Roe v. Wade, the justices were balancing women’s bodily autonomy against the state’s interest in protecting the health of possible future citizens.

The justices concluded that: “For the stage subsequent to [fetal] viability the State, in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life, may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.

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When conservative commentators describe Roe v. Wade as a terrible ruling, I’m inclined to agree with them.

Yes, the three new Supreme Court justices – the stolen seat, the attempted rapist, & the hypocritical election’s-eve appointment – would like to overturn Roe v. Wade. But they hardly even need to! The existing opinion already does so little to protect women’s rights!

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A large section of the ruling for Roe v. Wade discusses ancient attitudes toward abortion.

This discussion is markedly incomplete. Supreme Court justices simply don’t know enough to make their rulings! And there’s not a great solution to this, since very few possible groupings of nine people would include enough expertise to handle all the cases on a year’s Supreme Court docket.

Abortion has long been a common practice – healers and midwives in many cultures knew which local plants were arbotifacients. And any discussion of ancient attitudes toward abortion should also discuss infanticide.

Infanticide was common during recorded history. Based on studies of surviving hunter-gatherer cultures, we also have reason to suspect that infanticide was even more common in our species’s prehistory. In relatively recent times, if a baby was carried to term and then given up for adoption – perhaps left upon the doorstep or a church or monastery – there was significant risk of death. Amid high childhood mortality, a baby separated from the mother would face especially grim odds.

Compared to other primates, human mothers form emotional bonds to a child relatively late in development. Among our evolutionary cousins, it’s rare for a mother to allow any individual (not the baby’s father, not her own mother, not her other children) to even touch her baby. A full year might pass before the mother could bear the sight of her baby in another caregiver’s arms.

There are huge benefits that human mothers are less protective – shared child-rearing cements trust between adults, allows for our babies to be born earlier in biological development (essential given the size of our brains!), and leads to more attentive lifetime care.

Plus, this evolutionary history has made human babies so cute! Our offspring wouldn’t giggle and coo – behaviors that delight a potential caregiver – if they relied only upon irrevocable maternal love in order to survive. Chimpanzees are born cute – in their first few moments, they need to delight their mothers – but their tendency to giggle or mirror facial expressions fades within the first week or so. Unlike human babies, they aren’t constantly prepared to woo a new adult.

But human delay in attachment also made abortion and infanticide more acceptable to our species. In many hunter-gatherer societies, any child who could not be cared for would be abandoned. Other great apes are actually far more likely to care for a developmentally-disabled child than are human hunter gatherers.

In many societies, personhood wasn’t attained until age five or six, at which time a naming ceremony would be held. It was considered bad luck to name a child sooner, or to feel too attached before that date.

Of course, most families probably still did feel attached. There can be a stark difference between private affection and public nonchalance, a play act to ward off bad luck.

In terms of the rights at stake in Roe v. Wade, though, all these historical considerations are mostly irrelevant. Yes, that’s the science – findings from nature. But nature isn’t good or bad. Nature isn’t ethical. The natural world simply is, whereas ethics demands that we think about how the world should be. Reading the majority opinion for Roe v. Wade, it seems like these topics were introduced only to make the conclusion seem scientific or better reasoned.

In the end, the majority opinion is based solely on medical technology: the State can ban abortion at the age when a baby could survive outside a woman’s body.

Could survive.

Not would. And certainly not will.

Could survive.

For the stage subsequent to viability the Statemay proscribe abortion … “

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In Sex Robots and Vegan Meat, journalist Jenny Kleeman investigates several efforts to construct an artificial womb.

In an age when being a good parent means being as attentive as possible even before birth, we want better access to the babies growing inside pregnant women, better ways of measuring them and putting them under surveillance, so we can do the best for them even before they enter the world. Women’s bodies are almost getting in the way.

Ultrasound images show how much female bodies are already seen as vestigial in reproductive medicine.

I’ve been arguing for years, don’t show pictures of fucking developing fetuses unless you show the entire woman’s body,” [says Soraya Chemaly.]

I understand people getting pregnant and being excited, but I’m the terrible feminist killjoy; I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s nice, why don’t we just make it bigger?’ Ultrasound was very deliberately developed to show the fetus as though it were a planet in a void, in a vacuum, in a container, in a jar. A wallpaper of blackness around it. It completely erases the woman whose body is generative.”

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For a human baby to be born, a parent must make an enormous gift. Feeding and protecting and creating the gestating fetus over many months.

Currently, there’s no other way.

Currently, it’s impossible to combine a sperm cell and an egg cell in the laboratory, create an embryo, then provide the necessary nutrients and environment for that embryo to develop into a fetus, a baby, a child.

Currently.

This would be a challenging project!

But not impossible.

Researchers will eventually be able to create a viable human child this way.

An act that would, per Roe v. Wade, instantly erase women’s rights.

Maybe this experiment would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. So what? For Supreme Court rulings, cost is irrelevant. They’ve made this clear in their decisions for many recent cases.

Our Supreme Court decided that anonymously-chartered corporations have as much right to free speech as individuals – as though they weren’t already privileged with more speech, since wealth can be used to purchase expensive advertisements, think tanks, unscrupulous academics.

Our Supreme Court decided that the police can legitimately spy on you with any technologies that are publicly available, even if these technologies – like infrared cameras to visualize your body through the walls of your home, or telescoping lenses to peer into your windows from a distance, or a steady helicopter to linger overhead and watch you from unexpected angles – are far outside the budgets (and therefore expectations) of most private citizens.

It’s quite convenient that the justices so often fail to notice people’s wealth! (Or lack thereof.) Abortion laws were never really intended to target wealthy people, anyway. Wealthy people could either travel out of state or pay off a doctor to certify that an abortion met “appropriate medical judgment for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.

If researchers spent hundreds of millions of dollars to nurture one embryo into a viable human baby – in a laboratory anywhere around the world – then the principle of fetal viability cited in Roe v. Wade would allow states to outlaw all abortion. Even though the material facts of women’s lives would be unchanged.

This is, after all, the problem with trying to slap scientific justifications onto a philosophical argument. Whether or not women should have bodily autonomy is a philosophical question. I think that they should. Our steadily increasing technological prowess shouldn’t change that.

Image by Charles Edward Miller on flickr.

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Header image by Dwain Currier.

On work.

On work.

If you’re living in a capitalist society, having money is great! Money gets you space to live! Money gets you food to eat! And if you ever think of something else you want, money lets you buy it! Right now! Wham!

Hooray for money!

Except that the actual process of getting money can be pretty miserable.

Most people get money by finding a job. At the job, somebody will tell them what to do. They do it, they get paid.

The pay, in the United States, tends to be quite low. Working forty hours a week for fifty two weeks a year, the US minimum wage would net you less than twenty thousand dollars. Even if the US minimum wage were lavishly raised to $15 an hour, you’d still only get about thirty thousand dollars a year.

To keep the US economy going, we’ve relied on desperation. If people had other options, they wouldn’t do dangerous, difficult, or demeaning work for so little pay.

Until recently, though, most people felt like they didn’t have other options. And so they took terrible jobs, hoping to scrape by.

Now, things are looking different.

In the US, lots of people chose not to re-enter the post-pandemic labor force. Among people who did return to work, huge numbers have been quitting.

In China, many young people are advocating for cheaper ways of living. Instead of working long hours at an odious job in order to have enough money to buy fancy things, maybe it’d be better to work less and take joy in simpler pleasures. Of course, this is a rather anti-progress sentiment, so references to the “tang ping” or “lie flat” movement have been deleted from the Chinese internet to quell the ideology.

Even among people who are lucky enough to be paid for doing something fun – and, honestly, among the professional classes, a lot of work is fun, lots of tricksy little puzzles to solve – there’s often an imbalance between how much time we spend working and how much time we spend on family or other sources of lasting joy. This is, roughly, the main argument in the essay by New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo, “Even With a Dream Job, You Can Still Be Anti-Work.

There are lots of ways to find fulfillment in life. And, yes, work can definitely provide that satisfying sensation of having done something worthwhile with your time! Especially if you’re lucky enough to be paid for doing something you love. My spouse loves to teach. Manjoo loves to research big ideas. I love to write!

But the work that many people find themselves doing – trading away their time so that they’ll have enough money to meet their needs – doesn’t feel rewarding. And even a good job can suck up too much time. Caretaking, conversation, art, travel, philosophy, religious practice – these are also excellent avenues to a fulfilling life, except that they don’t draw a salary. Most people aren’t lucky enough to be able to use their time in those ways.

So: work can feel lousy for the people doing the work.

Boo!

And it gets worse. Because there’s another big problem with work: in a capitalist society, much work makes the world worse.

In the US, for instance, our recent economic miracles are advertising companies: Google and Facebook. Their founders have become absurdly rich; a huge number of people have found well-paying, intellectually-stimulating jobs working for these companies. But their money comes from hurting people! Our world would be better off if all those people’s work wasn’t being done.

Very occasionally, advertising benefits a person. An ad might make you aware of something that improves your life! Maybe you’ve always wanted a little automated rake that cleans your cat’s litter box. (I saw an ad for one of those on the YMCA television while I was lifting weights.)

Or maybe you’d like to go out for Indian food, but hadn’t realized there was an Indian restaurant in your home town. Good thing you saw their ad!

But more often, advertising harms us. An effective advertisement instills a sense of absence that some company’s product can supposedly fill. Huge amounts of money are spent creating and distributing ads for beer, for cruise ships, for fast food.

Which people, exactly, do we suppose are unaware of the existence of beer? And would the newfound knowledge help them?

Especially in the face of climate change, our society will have to change. In some fields – manufacturing, advertising, drilling – we need for people to work less. We need for less stuff to be made, used briefly, and shunted off to landfills. The work makes our planet less hospitable.

I used to do biomedical research. I stopped; it seemed that if I did my job well, I too would help wreck our planet. New discoveries are much more likely to yield slight, expensive extensions to the ends of wealthy people’s lives, rather than any additional happiness for the majority of our population.

We already spend inordinate amounts of money on frantic efforts to extend the end of life, even though studies have shown that “the less money spent in this time period, the better the death experience is for the patient.

This sort of work is good for the economy. But it’s bad for people. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where everyone thought that the latter mattered more?