I was driving away from the elementary school when I got a call from my kid’s teacher.
“I just noticed, she doesn’t have her glasses. She says she doesn’t need them, but …”
“Oh, man,” I said, ever the bumbling parent. My kid totally needs her glasses. When we took her in for an eye exam, the optometrists were pretty sure she didn’t know her letters. She was reading 400-page chapter books by then. “I’ll run them right over.”
Sometimes I wish that I was the sort of parent who’d notice whether his kid was wearing glasses. To be able to close my eyes and picture my children’s faces.
My kids have been research subjects for several studies conducted by Indiana University’s developmental psychology program. For one – conducted when my eldest was between nine months and two years old – my kid and I sat at opposite sides of a little table and played with some toys. We were wearing eye-tracking cameras. We were told, “Just play together the way you would at home.”
For two of the sessions, I brought my kid to the psychology lab. For one, my spouse brought her. The researchers said, “Yeah, no problem, data from both parents would be good.”
After the study was finished, they gave us a flash drive with the videos of us playing.
When I was playing with our kid, I only looked at the toys. There’s the little truck, front and center in my field of vision!
When my spouse was playing, she only looked at our child.
At least our kid was normal, looking back and forth as we played. Sometimes focusing on her parent, sometimes on the toy, while we said things like, “See the truck? The truck is driving toward the edge of the table, vroom vroom. Oh no, the truck is going to fall off the cliff! What a calamity!”
Actually, only one of her parents said things like this. The other parent asked whether she wanted to hold the blue truck.
We learned later that they had to throw out all our family’s data.
My children are lucky that my spouse and I have such dissimilar brains.
“Assortative mating” – when animals raise children with partners who closely resemble themselves in some way – probably explains the recent rise in autism rates. Many traits that are beneficial in small doses – creativity, analytical thinking, malaria resistance – make life harder for people who have a larger dose – schizophrenia, autism, sickle cell anemia.
Compared to prior generations, humans travel more now, and we choose romantic partners from a wider selection of people. So it’s easier to find someone who resembles us. Someone who is easy to live with. Easy to love. “We have so many similar interests!”
But children benefit from having dissimilar parents. My kids are being raised by an exceptional empath … and by me. I give them, um, their love of monsters? Lego-building prowess?
And the parents benefit, too. Love is a journey – romance helps us grow because we learn how to love a partner. We become richer, deeper people by welcoming someone who is dissimilar from us into our lives. When everything is easy, we don’t become stronger.
Which is, perhaps, a downside of the artificial-intelligence-based dating programs. These typically match people who are similar. And if things feel hard, well … there’s always another match out there. Instead of putting in the effort to build a life that fits everyone, you could just spin the wheel again.
My spouse and I have a good relationship. We also had years that were not easy.
We’re better people for it now.
And hopefully our kids will benefit from that, too. Even if they sometimes go to school without their glasses.
At the end of “Just Use Your Thinking Pump!”, a lovely essay that discusses the evolution (and perhaps undue elevation) of a particular set of practices now known as the scientific method, Jessica Riskin writes:
Covid-19 has presented the world with a couple of powerful ultimatums that are also strikingly relevant to our subject here. The virus has said, essentially, Halt your economies, reconnect science to a whole understanding of yourself and the world, or die.
With much economic activity slowed or stopped to save lives, let us hope governments find means to sustain their people through the crisis.
Meanwhile, with the din of “innovation” partially silenced, perhaps we can also use the time to think our way past science’s branding, to see science once again as integral to a whole, evolving understanding of ourselves and the world.
True, the world has presented us with an ultimatum. We must halt our economies, reconnect science to a whole understanding of ourselves and our world, or die.
Riskin is a professor at Stanford. Her skies are blackened with soot. In the words of Greta Thunberg, “Our house is on fire.”
For many years, we’ve measured the success of our economy in terms of growth. The idea that we can maintain perpetual growth is a delusion. It’s simple mathematics. If the amount of stuff we manufacture – telephones, televisions, air conditioners – rises by 3% each and every year, we’ll eventually reach stratospheric, absurd levels.
In the game “Universal Paperclips,” you’re put in control of a capitalist system that seeks perpetual growth. If you succeed, you’ll make a lot of paperclips! And you will destroy the planet.
Here in the real world, our reckless pursuit of growth has (as yet) wrought less harm, but we’ve driven many species to extinction, destroyed ancient forests, and are teetering at the precipice of cataclysmic climate change. All while producing rampant inequality with its attendant abundance of human misery.
We must reconnect science to a whole understanding of ourselves and the world, or die.
We are in danger. But Covid-19 isn’t the major threat we’re facing.
I consider myself to be more cautious than average – I would never ride a bicycle without a helmet – and I’m especially cautious as regards global pandemic. Antibiotic resistance is about to be a horrific problem for us. Zoogenic diseases like Covid-19 will become much more common due to climate change and increased human population.
I’m flabbergasted that these impending calamities haven’t caused more people to choose to be vegan. It seems trivial – it’s just food – but a vegan diet is one of our best hopes for staving off antibiotic resistant plagues.
A vegan diet would have prevented Covid-19. Not that eating plants will somehow turbocharge your immune system – it won’t – but this pandemic originated from a meat market.
And a vegan diet will mitigate your contribution to climate change, which has the potential to cause the full extinction of the human race.
Make our planet uninhabitable? We all die. Make our planet even a little less habitable, which leads to violent unrest, culminating in warring nations that decide to use nukes? Yup, that’s another situation where we all die.
By way of contrast, if we had made no changes in our lives during the Covid-19 pandemic – no shutdown, no masks, no social distancing, no PCR tests, no contact tracing, no quarantines – 99.8% of our population would have survived.
Indeed, we often discuss the Covid-19 crisis in a very imprecise way. We say that Covid-19 is causing disruptions to learning, that it’s causing domestic violence or evictions. On the front page of Sunday’s New York Times business section, the headline reads, “The Other Way that Covid Kills: Hunger.”
Covid-19 is a serious disease. We need to do our best to avoid exposing high-risk people to this virus, and we should feel ashamed that we didn’t prioritize the development of coronavirus vaccines years ago.
But there’s a clear distinction between the harms caused by Covid-19 (hallucinogenic fevers, cardiac inflammation, lungs filling up with liquid until a person drowns, death) and the harms caused by our response to Covid-19 (domestic violence, educational disruption, starvation, reduced vaccination, delayed hospital visits, death).
Indeed, if the harms caused by our response to Covid-19 are worse than the harms caused by Covid-19 itself, we’re doing the wrong thing.
In that New York Timesbusiness article, Satbir Singh Jatain, a third-generation farmer in northern India, is quoted: “The lockdowns have destroyed farmers. Now, we have no money to buy seeds or pay for fuel. …. soon they will come for my land. There is nothing left for us.”
Covid-19 is awful. It’s a nasty disease. I’m fairly confident that I contracted it in February (before PCR tests were available in the United States), and my spouse says it’s the sickest she’s ever seen me.
Yes, I’d done something foolish – I was feeling a little ill but still ran a kilometer repeat workout with the high school varsity track team that I volunteer with. High intensity workouts are known to cause temporary immunosuppression, usually lasting from 3 to 72 hours.
My whole family got sick, but I fared far worse than the others.
It was horrible. I could barely breathe. Having been through that, it’s easy to understand how Covid-19 could kill so many people. I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone.
And I have very low risk. I don’t smoke. I don’t have diabetes. I’m thirty-seven.
I wish it were possible to protect people from this.
Obviously, we should have quarantined all international travelers beginning in December 2019. Actually, ten days probably would have been enough. We needed to diecitine all international travelers.
By February, we had probably allowed Covid-19 to spread too much to stop it.
By February, there were probably enough cases that there will always be a reservoir of this virus among the human species. 80% of people with Covid-19 feel totally fine and don’t realize they might be spreading it. By talking and breathing, they put viral particles into the air.
By the end of March, we were much, much too late. If you look at the numbers from New York City, it’s pretty clear that the preventative measures, once enacted, did little. Given that the case fatality rate is around 0.4%, there were probably about 6 million cases in New York City – most of the population.
Yes, it’s possible that New York City had a somewhat higher case fatality rate. The case fatality rate depends on population demographics and standard of care – the state of New York had an idiotic policy of shunting Covid-19 patients into nursing homes, while banning nursing homes from using Covid-19 PCR tests for these patients, and many New York doctors were prescribing hydroxychloroquine during these months, which increases mortality – but even if the case fatality rate in New York City was as high as 0.6%, a majority of residents have already cleared the virus by now.
The belated public health measures probably didn’t help. And these health measures have caused harm – kids’ schooling was disrupted. Wealthy people got to work from home; poor people lost their jobs. Or were deemed “essential” and had to work anyway, which is why the toll of Covid-19 has been so heavily concentrated among poor communities.
The pandemic won’t end until about half of all people have immunity, but a shutdown in which rich people get to isolate themselves while poor people go to work is a pretty shitty way to select which half of the population bears the burden of disease.
I am very liberal. And it’s painful to see that “my” political party has been advocating for policies that hurt poor people and children during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Because we did not act soon enough, Covid-19 won’t end until an appreciable portion of the population has immunity – at the same time.
As predicted, immunity to Covid-19 lasts for a few months. Because our public health measures have caused the pandemic to last longer than individual immunity, there will be more infections than if we’d done nothing.
The shutdowns, in addition to causing harm on their own, will increase the total death toll of Covid-19.
Unless – yes, there is a small glimmer of hope here – unless we soon have a safe, effective vaccine that most people choose to get.
Yes, there are clear positive externalities to vaccination, but I think this sounds like a terrible idea. Ethically, it’s grim – the Covid-19 vaccines being tested now are a novel type, so they’re inherently more risky than other vaccines. By paying people to get vaccinated, we shift this burden of uncertainty onto poor communities.
We already do this, of course. Drug trials use paid “volunteers.” Especially phase 1 trials – in which drugs are given to people with no chance of medical benefit, only to see how severe the side effects are – the only enrollees are people so poor that the piddling amounts of money offered seem reasonable in exchange for scarfing an unknown, possibly poisonous medication.
Just because we already do an awful thing doesn’t mean we should make the problem worse.
And, as a practical matter, paying people to do the right thing often backfires.
To illustrate, consider the recent introduction, in many Indian states, of schemes of cash incentives to curb sex-selective abortion. The schemes typically involve cash rewards for the registered birth of a girl child, and further rewards if the girl is vaccinated, sent to school, and so on, as she gets older.
These schemes can undoubtedly tilt economic incentives in favor of girl children. But a cash reward for the birth of a girl could also reinforce people’s tendency to think about family planning in economic terms, and also their perception, in the economic calculus of family planning, that girls are a burden (for which cash rewards are supposed to compensate).
Further, cash rewards are likely to affect people’s non-economic motives. For instance, they could reduce the social stigma attached to sex-selective abortion, by making it look like some sort of ‘fair deal’ — no girl, no cash.
What happens if it takes a few years before there are sufficient doses of an effective vaccine that people trust enough to actually get?
Well, by then the pandemic will have run its course anyway. Masks reduce viral transmission, but they don’t cut transmission to zero. Even in places where everyone wears masks, Covid-19 is spreading, just slower.
I’ve been wearing one – I always liked the Mortal Kombat aesthetic. But I’ve been wearing one with the unfortunate knowledge that masks, by prolonging the pandemic, are increasing the death toll of Covid-19. Which is crummy. I’ve chosen to behave in a way that makes people feel better, even though the science doesn’t support it.
We, as a people, are in an awful situation right now. Many of us are confronting the risk of death in ways that we have not previously.
More than 37 percent of deaths in 1900 were caused by infectious diseases, but by 1955, this had declined to less than 5 percent and to only 2 percent by 2009.
Of course, this trend will still hold true in 2020. In the United States, there have been about 200,000 Covid-19 deaths so far, out of 2,000,000 deaths total this year. Even during this pandemic, less than 1% of deaths are caused by Covid-19.
And I’m afraid. Poverty is a major risk factor for death of all causes in this country. Low educational attainment is another risk factor.
My kids am lucky to live in a school district that has mostly re-opened. But many children are not so fortunate. If we shutter schools, we will cause many more deaths – not this year, but down the road – than we could possibly prevent from Covid-19.
Indeed, school closures, by prolonging the pandemic (allowing people to be infected twice and spread the infection further), will increase the death toll from Covid-19.
School closures wouldn’t just cause harm for no benefit. School closures would increase the harm caused by Covid-19 and by everything else.
The world is complicated. There’s so much information out there, so much to know. And our brains are not made well for knowing much of it.
I can understand numbers like a dozen, a hundred. I can make a guess at the meaning of a thousand. Show me a big gumball machine and ask me to guess how many gumballs are in it, maybe I’ll guess a thousand, a few thousand.
But numbers like a million? A billion? A trillion? These numbers are important, I know. These numbers might be the population of cities, or of planets, or of solar systems. These numbers might be the ages of species or planets. These numbers might be how many stars are in the sky, or how many stars in the sky might harbor life.
These numbers don’t mean much to me.
I don’t think the problem is just my brain. I’m fairly good with numbers, relative to the average human. It’s been years since I’ve sat in a math class, but I can still do basic integrals and derivatives in my head.
Yet I can’t understand those big numbers. They don’t feel like anything to me.
So we make graphs. Charts. We try to represent information in ways that our meager human brains can grasp.
A good chart can be a revelation. Something that seemed senseless before is now made clear.
An apocalypse is a revelation. The word “apocalypse” means lifting the veil – apo, off; kalyptein, conceal. To whisk away the cover and experience a sudden insight.
An illustration that depicts information well allows numbers to be felt.
Often, though, we illustrate information and we do it poorly.
The scientific method is gorgeous. Through guesswork, repetition, and analysis, we can learn about our world.
But science is never neutral. We impart our values by the questions we choose to ask, by the ways we choose to interpret the world’s ever-oblique answers.
Geological time is often depicted as a clock. A huge quantity of time, compressed down into a 24-hour day. Often, this is done with the ostensible goal of showing the relative unimportance of humans.
Our planet has been here for a day, and humans appear only during the final two minutes!
Unfortunately, this way of depicting time actually overemphasizes the present. Why, after all, should the present moment in time seem so special that it resides at midnight on our clock?
The present feels special to us because we’re living in it. From a geological perspective, it’s just another moment.
Geologic textbooks invariably point out (almost gleefully) that if the 4.5-billion-year story of the Earth is scaled to a 24-hour day, all of human history would transpire in the last fraction of a second before midnight.
But this is a wrongheaded, and even irresponsible, way to understand our place in Time. For one thing, it suggests a degree of insignificance and disempowerment that not only is psychologically alienating but also allows us to ignore the magnitude of our effects on the planet in that quarter second.
And it denies our deep roots and permanent entanglement with Earth’s history; our specific clan may not have shown up until just before the clock struck 12:00, but our extended family of living organisms has been around since at least 6 a.m.
Finally, the analogy implies, apocalyptically, that there is no future – what happens after midnight?
Timefulness is a lovely book, but Bjornerud does not present a corrected clock.
And so I lay in bed, thinking. How could these numbers be shown in a way that helped me to understand our moment in time?
I wanted to fix the clock.
The first midnight is easy – the birth of our sun. A swirling cloud of gas condenses, heating as gravity tugs the molecules into more and more collisions. Nuclear fusion begins.
Gravity tugs molecules inward, nuclear explosions push them outward. When these are balanced, our sun exists. Twelve o’clock.
Two minutes later, our planet is born. Metal and water and dust become a big rock that keeps swirling, turning, as it orbits the sun. It’s warmed, weakly, by light from the sun – our star shone dimly then, but shines brighter and brighter every day.
Our sun earns low interest – 0.9% each hundred million years, hotter, brighter. But wait long enough, and a low interest is enough.
Someday, shortly before it runs out of fuel, our sun will be blinding.
By 12:18 a.m., there is life on Earth. We’ve found fossils that many billions of years old.
And at 7:26 p.m., there will be no more life. Our sun will have become so bright that its blinding light evaporates all the oceans. The water will boil so hot that it will be flung into space. The Earth will be a rocky desert, coated perhaps in thick clouds of noxious gas.
Currently, it’s 10:58 a.m.
The dinosaurs appeared 35 minutes ago. 9.5 minutes ago, all of them died (except the ancestors of our birds).
Humans appeared 1 minute ago.
So, we have 3.5 billion years remaining – another 8.5 hours on our clock – before we have to migrate to the stars.
Humans certainly can’t persist forever. Empty space is stretching. Eventually, the whole universe will be dark and cold, which each speck of matter impossibly far from every other.
But our kind could endure for a good, long while. Scaled to the 24-hour day representing the lifespan of our sun, we still have another 300 years before the universe goes dark.
So many stories could fit into that span of time.
It’s 10:58 a.m., and life on Earth has until 7:26 p.m.
Humans crept down from trees, harnessed fire, invented writing, and built rockets all within a single minute. Life moves fast.
Quite likely, life from Earth will reach the stars.
But it needn’t be us.
The dinosaurs were cool. They didn’t make it.
We naked apes are pretty cool, too. I love our cave drawings, art museums, psychedelic street art. Our libraries. But we’ve also made prodigious mounds of trash. We’re pouring plumes of exhaust into the sky as we ship giant flatscreen televisions from place to place.
We burn a lot of fuel for the servers that host our websites.
We humans aren’t the first organisms to risk our own demise by pumping exhaust into the atmosphere. The industrial revolution was fueled by ancient plants – our engines burn old sunlight. But many microbes are happy to eat old sunlight, too. These microbes also pump carbon dioxide into the air. They’ve warmed our planet many times before – each time the permafrost thawed, microbes went to town, eating ancient carbon that had been locked up in the ice.
Foolish microbes. They made the Earth too hot and cooked themselves.
Then again, the microbes may have more modest goals than us humans. We’ve found no fossils suggesting that the microbes tried to build spaceships.
For our endeavors, we’ve benefited from a few thousand years of extremely stable, mild climate.
We still have 8.5 hours left to build some spaceships, but a thirty second hot squall at 10:59 a.m. would doom the entire project.
So much time stretches out in front of us. We could have a great day. We, in continuation of the minute of humans who preceded us, and continued by the seconds or minutes or hours of humans who will be born next.
We shouldn’t let our myopic focus on present growth fuck up the entire day.
Honestly? My children are four and six. I’d be so disappointed if I took them for a hike and they guzzled all their water, devoured all their snacks, within the first minute after we left our house.
We are wearing masks. At school, at work, at the grocery store. I jog with a bandanna tied loosely around my neck, politely lifting it over my face before I pass near other people.
Slowing the spread of a virus from which we have short-duration immunity is dangerous, as I’ve described at length previously, but one consequence of universal mask orders is unambiguously good – the herd immunity threshold to end the pandemic is lower in a world where people always wear masks around strangers.
We all want to get through this while causing as little harm as possible.
Covid-19 is real, and dangerous. Some of the data are complicated, but this much is not: to date, ~200,000 people have died from Covid-19.
Covid-19 is extremely easy to transmit. Because our behaviors so readily affect the health of others right now, we must decide collectively how to respond. My county has decided that we should wear masks. And so I do.
Only those with whom we are closest will see us smile in person. Family. If we’re lucky, a close group of friends.
We share the same air.
During the pandemic, those we love most are our conspirators.
Our conspirators are the select few whom we breathe (spirare) with (com).
I live in a college town. Last week, students returned.
Yesterday’s paper explains that dire punishment awaits the students who attended a Wednesday night party. In bold letters atop the front page, “IU plans to suspend students over party.”
In the decade that I’ve lived here, many parties have led to sexual assaults, racist hate speech, and violence. The offending students were rarely punished. But this party was egregious because “there were about 100 people there.”
IU officials “have seen a photo … that shows a large group of young people standing close together outside a house at night, many of them not wearing masks.”
I’ve seen the images – someone filmed a video while driving by. There they are – a group of young people, standing outside.
Science magazine recently interviewed biologist Dana Hawley about social distancing in the animal kingdom.
When spiny lobsters are sick, their urine smells different. Healthy lobsters will flee the shared den. Leaving is dangerous, since the lobsters will be exposed to predators until they find a new home, but staying would be dangerous, too – they might get sick. To survive, lobsters have to balance all the risks they face.
My favorite example of social distancing in the animal kingdom wasn’t discussed. When an ant is infected with the cordyceps fungus, it becomes a sleeper agent. Jennifer Lu writes in National Geographic that “as in zombie lore, there’s an incubation period where infected ants appear perfectly normal and go about their business undetected by the rest of the colony.”
Then the fungus spreads through the ants body, secreting mind control chemicals. Eventually, the fungus will command the infected ant to climb to a high place. A fruiting body bursts from the ant’s head and rains spores over the colony.
Infection is almost always lethal.
If an ant notices that a colony member has been infected, the healthy ant will carry the infected ant away from the colony and hurl it from a cliff.
The herd immunity threshold isn’t an inherent property of a virus – it depends upon our environment and behaviors. In prisons, we’ve seen Covid-19 spread until nearly 90% of people were infected. In parts of New York City where many essential workers live in crowded housing, Covid-19 spread until 50% of people were infected.
In a culture where everyone kissed a sacred statue in the center of town each morning, the herd immunity threshold would be higher. If people wear masks while interacting with strangers, the herd immunity threshold will be lower.
In a world that maintains a reservoir of the virus, though, someone who hasn’t yet been exposed will always be at risk.
The New York Times recently discussed some of the challenges that colleges face when trying to reopen during the epidemic.
Most schools ban … socializing outside “social pods” – the small groups of students that some colleges are assigning students to, usually based on their dorms.
Most administrators seem to believe that a rule banning sex is unrealistic, and are quietly hoping that students will use common sense and refrain from, say, having it with people outside their pod.
In 2012, The Huffington Post published a list of the “Top 10 sex tips for college freshmen.” Their fourth piece of advice (#1 and #2 were condoms, #3 was not having sex while drunk) is to avoid having sex with people who live too close to you. “Students in other dorms = fair game. Students in same dorm = proceed with caution.”
I had a big group of friends for my first two years of college. After a breakup, I lost most of those friends.
This is crummy, but it would be much worse if I’d lost my friendships with the only people whom the administrators allowed me to spend time with.
We can slow the spread of Covid-19, but slowing the spread won’t prevent deaths, not unless we can stave off infection until there is a highly effective vaccine. That might take years. We might never have a highly effective vaccine – our influenza vaccines range in efficacy from about 20% to 80%, and we have much more experience making these.
Our only way to reduce the eventual number of deaths is to shift the demographics of exposure. If we reach the herd immunity threshold without many vulnerable people being exposed, we’ll save lives.
A college would best protect vulnerable students and faculty by allowing the students who are going to socialize to host dense parties for a few weeks before mingling with others. This would allow the virus to spread and be cleared before there was a risk of transferring infections to vulnerable people.
I’d draft a waiver. Are you planning to socialize this semester? If so, come do it now! By doing so, you will increase your risk of contracting Covid-19. This is a serious disease – it’s possible for young, healthy people to die from it. But, look, if you’re gonna socialize eventually, please just get it over with so that you don’t endanger other people.
With this plan, some young people might die of Covid-19. But some young people will die of Covid-19 even if everyone practices social distancing – slowing the spread of infections doesn’t save lives, it delays deaths. And fewer young people would die of Covid-19 than die of influenza each year.
When confronting cordyceps, which is almost always fatal, ants throw sick colony members off cliffs.
When ants confront less lethal fungal infections, they protect the colony by shifting the demographics of exposure and by ramping up to the herd immunity threshold as quickly as possible.
Malagocka et al. discuss demographics in their review article, “Social immunity behavior among ants infected by specialist and generalist fungi.”
Outside-nest foragers, who have the highest risks of acquiring pathogens from the environment, have limited access to the brood area with the most valuable groups, and are recruited from older individuals, who are less valuable from the colony survival perspective.
Konrad et al. discuss intentional exposure in their research article, “Social transfer of pathogenic fungus promotes active immunization in ant colonies.”
When worker ants encounter an infected colony member, they intentionally inoculate themselves. “Social immunization leads to faster elimination of the disease and lower death rates.”
It feels disquieting for me to defend the behavior of frat guys. Personally, I’d like to see the whole fraternity system abolished. And in March, when we knew less about Covid-19, I was appalled that people went out partying over spring break. But I was wrong. Perhaps inadvertently, those young people were behaving in the way that would save most lives.
the nurse called back and told us to use bleach on anything we touch, she said wash everything in hot water, insisted we won’t treat you if you’re asymptomatic, we won’t, and made us an appointment anyway. so we waited and waited with the dog-eared magazines and recall posters
It’s horrible to face the end. It’s almost worse to know that the things you fear are harmless to others. All the asymptomatic cases are like a slap in the face to those whose friends and family have died.
Braun et al. recently published a study in Nature showing that a large number of people who’ve never encountered Covid-19 may already have significant immunity. Parts of the Covid-19 virus are similar to the viruses that cause common colds, and exposure to those viruses might provide the immunity that lets people recover without ever feeling sick.
I believe we should be doing more to protect young people. Gun control, ending farm subsidies, fighting climate change. Enacting privacy laws to reign in the surveillance capitalists. Breaking up monopolies. Providing good careers despite automation. Making sure that everyone has clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. Getting nutritious food into our nation’s many food deserts. Providing equitable access to health care.
But, punishing young people for socializing?
We’re not making them safer. And we’re not making ourselves safer, either.
Seriously, I know we humans are selfish, but we have to be able to handle an epidemic better than ants.
Blanket octopuses also have extreme sexual dimorphism – a female’s tentacles can span seven feet wide, whereas the males are smaller than an inch.
But, wait, there’s more! In a 1963 article for Science magazine, marine biologist Everet Jones speculated that blanket octopuses might use jellyfish stingers as weapons.
While on a research cruise, Jones installed a night-light station to investigate the local fish.
“Among the frequent visitors to the submerged light were a number of immature female blanket octopuses. I dip-netted one of these from the water and lifted it by hand out of the net. I experienced sudden and severe pain and involuntarily threw the octopus back into the water.”
“To determine the mechanism responsible for this sensation, 10 or 12 small octopuses were captured and I purposely placed each one on the tender areas of my hands. The severe pain occurred each time, but careful observation indicated that I was not being bitten.
“The pain and resulting inflammation, which lasted several days, resembled the stings of the Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish, which was quite abundant in the area.”
tl;dr – “It really hurt! So I did it again.”
My spouse teaches high school biology. An important part of her class is addressing misconceptions about what science is.
Every so often, newspapers will send a reporter to interview my father about his research. Each time, they ask him to put on a lab coat and pipette something:
I mean, look at that – clearly, SCIENCE is happening here.
But it’s important to realize that this isn’t always what science looks like. Most of the time, academic researchers aren’t wearing lab coats. And most of the time, science isn’t done in a laboratory.
Careful observation of the natural world. Repeated tests to discover, if I do this, what will happen next? There are important parts of science, and these were practiced by our ancestors for thousands of years, long before anyone had laboratories. Indigenous people around the world have known so much about their local varieties of medicinal plants, and that’s knowledge that can only be acquired through scientific practice.
A nine month old who keeps pushing blocks off the edge of the high chair tray to see, will this block fall down, too? That’s science!
And this octopus article, published in the world’s most prestigious research journal? The experiment was to scoop up octopuses by hand and see how much it hurt.
It hurt a lot.
The article that I linked to earlier, the Scientific American blog post that my friend had sent me, includes a video clip at the bottom. Here’s a direct link to the video:
I should warn, you, though. The first section of the video shows a blanket octopus streaming gracefully through the ocean. She’s beautiful. But then the clip continues with footage of a huge school of fish.
Obviously, I was hoping that they’d show the octopus lurch forward, wielding those jellyfish stingers like electrified nun-chucks to incapacitate the fish. I mean, yes, I’m vegan. I don’t want the fish to die. But an octopus has to eat. And, if the octopus is going to practice wicked cool tool-using martial arts, then I obviously want to see it.
But I can’t. Our oceans are big, and deep, and dark. We’re still making new discoveries when we send cameras down there. So far, nobody has ever filmed a blanket octopus catching fish this way.
Every time I learn something new about octopuses, I think about family reunions.
About twenty years ago, I attended a family reunion in upstate New York. My grandparents were celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Many people were there whom I’d never met before, and whom I haven’t seen since. But most of us shared ancestors, often four or five or even six generations back.
And we all shared ancestors at some point, even the people who’d married in. From the beginning of life on Earth until 150,000 years ago, you could draw a single lineage – _____ begat ______ who begat ______ – that leads up to every single human alive today. We have an ancestor in common who lived 150,000 years ago, and so every lineage that leads to her will be shared by us all.
There’s also an ancestor that all humans alive today share with all octopuses alive today. So we could host a family reunion for all of her descendants – we humans would be invited, and blanket octopuses would be, too.
I would love to meet a blanket octopus. They’re brilliant creatures. If we could find a way to communicate, I’m sure there’d be lots to talk about.
But there’s a problem. You see, not everyone invited to this family reunion would be a scintillating conversationalist.
That ancestor we share? Here’s a drawing of her from Jian Han et al.’s Naturearticle.
She was about the size of a grain of rice.
And, yes, some of her descendants are brilliant. Octopuses. Dolphins. Crows. Chimpanzees. Us.
But this family reunion would also include a bunch of worms, moles, snails, and bugs. A lot of bugs. Almost every animals would’ve been invited, excluding only jellyfish and sponges. Many of the guests would want to lay eggs in the potato salad.
So, sure, it’d be cool to get to meet up with the octopuses, our long-lost undersea cousins. But we might end up seated next to an earthworm instead.
I’m sure that worms are very nice. Charles Darwin was fascinated by the intelligence of earthworms. Still, it’s hard to have a conversation with somebody when you don’t have a lot of common interests.
In Donnie Darko, kids call a woman in town “Grandma Death.” She’s a feature of the landscape. An object. Interesting to watch sometimes – there she is, hobbling across the street to check the mail – or talk about at dinner.
I didn’t realize she was still alive until we almost hit her with the car.
They say she’s rich.
Donnie Darko’s life changes when he realizes that “Grandma Death” isn’t an object, but a person. She wrote a book. She has hopes and dreams. Donnie writes her a letter, hoping to start a conversation.
My family lives in a small town. There are two high schools – my spouse teaches (excellently!) at one of them.
And yet, even though this is a small town, her students often look surprised the first time we cross paths with them outside of school.
“Amazing, right?” my spouse will say. “Teachers don’t just sleep upside-down in their rooms like bats in a cave!”
Cognitive scientists discuss “theory of mind,” the understanding that other people have thoughts and feelings. Young children don’t seem to have this. If a child knows something, why wouldn’t everyone else know it, too? If a child doesn’t know something, then how would you?
A common test for “theory of mind” is to have a child watch the following scene: a puppet sees a treat hidden under a cup. The puppet leaves the room. The treat is moved. The puppet comes back, and you ask the child, “Where will the puppet look?”
A young child will point to the place where the treat is. An older child will point to the cup.
Once upon a time, we humans thought that we were the only animals with a “theory of mind.” We aren’t. You can run variations of this experiment with crows, with octopuses. They pass. They know that other creatures know things.
At a fairly young age, most human children learn that other people possess information. They have brains that know.
It takes longer before we learn that others have brains that feel.
In Brian Phillips’s essay “But Not Like Your Typical Love Story,” he sketches a biography of the elderly woman who haunted his home town. For Phillips, she was part of the landscape. An object.
By the time he was in high school, Phillips understood that this woman had a story. She’d been fabulously wealthy, once – perhaps the wealthiest person in the world. She’d married her stepfather. Much later, lovelorn and lonely, she found herself giving money to a grifter, following him fruitlessly across the country. She returned to her home town and wore outdated clothes.
Phillips had lost his grandparents. They’d died tragically – alcohol, a boat on the lake, perhaps a heart attack. “The coroner’s best guess was that he had fallen out of the rowboat and my grandmother had drowned trying to save him.”
Phillips, growing up, wished he could feel something. He knew his grandparents wouldn’t be coming over anymore. He was nine. He understood what death meant.
But not how it felt.
By high school, Phillips understood so much more about the world. But, even then, did he understand how the world felt?
His favorite place was the museum devoted to the old woman’s life – the Marland Mansion, where she had lived when she was wealthy. Inside was a statue of her at twenty-seven, the year she married her fifty-three year-old stepfather.
Later in life, she’d ordered this statue smashed and buried. “Smash the face first, she’d said.”
Later still, after she’d died, secrets were told. That’s where I buried the statue. A curator went and dug it up. The pieces were reassembled. Phillips would stare at the reconstructed statue.
“I came close enough to see the pale lines crisscrossing [her] white stone face where the sledgehammer struck it. I tried not to notice them.”
“You see I was still so young that I thought I should be looking at the statue. I should have been looking at the cracks.”
As we grow up, we all learn that other people know. Typically, we become kinder in consequence.
If we’re lucky, we learn also that other people feel.
This will break our hearts.
But it’s also like cracking free from inside a shell. Our hearts break. And we can become good.
Recently, a friend who works in the ER wrote to ask me about hydroxychloroquine.
Yes, I know. I was shocked, too. But my friend was sincere. Although most reputable news outlets have publicized that hydroxychloroquine doesn’t work against Covid-19, my friend read an article from Harvey Risch in Newsweek that seemed really compelling.
Risch has impeccable credentials – he’s an M.D. Ph.D. and a professor of epidemiology at Yale’s School of Public Health. And a lot of what he wrote for his July 23rd article is quite sensible:
Why has hydroxychloroquine been disregarded?
First, as all know, the medication has become highly politicized. For many, it is viewed as a marker of political identity, on both sides of the political spectrum. Nobody needs me to remind them that this is not how medicine should proceed.
Medical data isn’t perfect, and confirmation bias is very real. So there’s a chance that medical doctors really could hoodwink themselves into discounting a helpful medication, the same way that so many medical doctors get suckered into overprescribing drugs after pharmaceutical companies bribe them with gifts. Yup, medical doctors are human, too.
I know that I’m so dismayed by our current president that I’m inclined to distrust hydroxychloroquine just because he says the drug is great.
So it was a shock for me to read Risch’s article. He wrote that there was data showing that hydroxychloroquine, when used in a combination therapy early during a high-risk person’s Covid-19 infection, could dramatically reduce the risk of serious complications. If more people took hydroxychloroquine, he wrote, fewer would die.
Risch acknowledges that hydroxychloroquine is dangerous – it might kill 1 out of each 10,000 people who take it – but Covid-19 is obviously dangerous, too – it kills 3 out of each 1,000 people who contract it:
In the future, I believe this misbegotten episode regarding hydroxychloroquine will be studied by sociologists of medicine as a classic example of how extra-scientific factors overrode clear-cut medical evidence.
But for now, reality demands a clear, scientific eye of the evidence and where it points. For the sake of high-risk patients, for the same of our parents and grandparents, for the sake of the unemployed, for our economy and for our polity, especially those disproportionately affected, we must start treating immediately.
Those are strong words. And, really, the Newsweek article felt persuasive to me. And so I looked up Risch’s research in the American Journal of Epidemiology, hoping to see the actual data in support of his claims.
I’m lucky, that way. I’m a scientist, so I don’t have to trust the words of a supposed expert. I’m an expert. I get to look at the data.
The data are much less compelling than Risch’s words.
Risch discusses the results of an uncontrolled study by Vladimir Zelenko, a medical doctor in Monroe, New York: “For example, among Connecticut cases 60 years of age or older, at present the mortality is 20%. Thus it would be ballpark to estimate that some 20% of the 1466 treated high-risk patients in the Zelenko cohort would have died without outpatient hydroxychloroquine plus antibiotic.”
This is an egregiously inaccurate statement. The high death rate cited – 20 – is for older patients who test positive for Covid-19 and have such severe symptoms that they need to be hospitalized.
As described in the short statement released by Zelenko, he treated 405 people who visited his office complaining of mild cough, fever, headache, sore throat, or diarrhea. His patients were not given a Covid-19 test. Presumably, many were never infected with Covid-19.
It is not a surprise to see that a 60-year-old patient who takes hydroxychloroquine after developing a sore throat from seasonal allergies is less likely to die than a 60-year-old patient who is diagnosed with Covid-19 in the hospital.
Of Zelenko’s 405 patients, at least two 2 died. This is lower than the expected 1% mortality rate of high-risk patients who contract Covid-19. But this set of 405 patients included low-risk patients experiencing shortness of breath and high-risk patients experiencing mild headache, many of whom never had Covid-19.
Zelenko’s report is two pages long and written in extremely lucid prose. Risch either totally misread it, which is galling, or intentionally mis-described it, which is worse.
So, why was Zelenko giving people hydroxychloroquine in the first place?
Well, I’d heard that an in vitro study – which means “inside a test tube or petri dish, not a person” – showed that hydroxychloroquine reduced Covid-19 viral replication. But I hadn’t read the original paper. So I looked it up.
It should have taken me less than a minute to find this paper. Unfortunately, people have been pretty sloppy with their references. I get it. Covid-19 is scary, and it’s urgent, so people are publishing faster than usual.
I assumed that I could pull up almost any paper on hydroxychloroquine and Covid-19 and quickly find the citation for the original study. Indeed, most purport to be citing it. But in this, the citation that ought to have pointed to that study instead sent me to a paper on the differentiation of lung stem cells, and in this, the relevant citation incorrectly points to a paper on the drug lopinavir.
Ugh. I mean, these bungled citations aren’t that big a deal for me, personally – just means I had to give up on piggybacking and instead search Pubmed. But it undermines trust when you can’t get the little things right.
Liu et al. used Vero cells – a cell line derived from a kidney cancer in African green monkeys – and for Figure 1, they measured both how much hydroxychloroquine it takes to kill cells (about 200 micromolar is a cytotoxic dose) and how much hydroxychloroquine it takes to inhibit viral infection (about a 10 micromolar dose).
Okay. To me, that’s already sounding a little spooky. The bigger the difference between an effective dose and a lethal dose, the safer you are.
That’s why a bunch of hippies died after The Teachings of Don Juan was published. That book touted jimsomweed as a psychedelic. Indeed, the plant contains a high concentration of scopolamine, which can give people nightmarish visions of flying. It’s a powerful hallucinogen. But the effective dose is quite close to the lethal dose – when curious kids try to get high off it, they’re flirting with death.
Everyone’s body is a little different from everyone else’s. Maybe a dose that’s safe for you would kill me. The odds of disaster are worse when the effective dose and lethal dose are similar.
So, Liu et al. saw cytotoxicity kick in at around 100 micromolar hydroxychloroquine, getting pretty high by 200 micromolar. And for their visual assay of viral infection, they bathed their Vero cells in 50 micromolar hydroxychloroquine.
To block viral entry, they were coming pretty close to just killing these cells with the drug.
And the problem is even worse inside a human body. You take a drug and it gets into your bloodstream. It’ll reach some concentration there. This is the concentration that matters most for toxicity.
But the drug will only be effective against Covid-19 when it reaches your lungs. When Marzolini et al. used mass spectrometry to measure how much of hydroxychloroquine was actually getting from a patient’s blood to their lungs, they found that it wasn’t at a high enough concentration to reproduce any effects seen in vitro.
Indeed, a randomized clinical study showed that hydroxychloroquine fails as a post-exposure prophylaxis. The drug was given to people who were worried about exposure because they’d spent time with someone who tested positive for Covid-19. The drug didn’t help – these people contracted the infection at the same rate as people who were given a placebo.
A randomized clinical study also showed that hydroxychloroquine fails as a cure. People who visited a hospital and tested positive for Covid-19 but had mild symptoms were given the drug. Their disease was just as likely to progress as people who received a placebo.
Hydroxychloroquine doesn’t work, and it’s toxic.
I was left wondering: why would Risch write these things? Why would he write that article for Newsweek? He’s clearly intelligent, and, from the tone of his writing, I feel confident that he wants to help people.
He might even believe wholeheartedly in the conclusion he’s presenting.
That’s generally true among scientists. Confirmation bias is insidious.
That paper from the team at Harvard? They did some modeling and argued that, if Covid-19 is seasonal, we will save most lives by periodically shutting down. But their model left out the waning immunity that would cause Covid-19 to be seasonal! Whoops. That’s why they reached the wrong conclusion.
Or the recent New York Times editorial from Iwasaki and Medzhitov, both professors of immunobiology at Yale, reassuring readers that they won’t get Covid-19 twice. Well, that’s not correct.
Some antigens confer immunity that lasts about as long as our lives. Most don’t. Influenza immunity lasts months, not years. The paper that Iwasaki and Medzhitov cited in their article, a study in which people were intentionally infected with a less dangerous coronavirus, found that immunity to that virus lasted months, not years.
Covid-19 immunity will not last forever. The relevant question isn’t whether you can be infected again, it’s how soon you can be re-infected. With the data we have so far, it’s reasonable to expect that the answer will be measured in months, not years.
There’s some good news – the second time you contract Covid-19, it’ll probably be less severe than the first. In addition to antibodies, your immune system has “T cell memory” to help you fight off subsequent infections. But, as is also described in the paper cited by Iwasaki and Medzhitov, even people who felt fine were shedding virus again the second time they were infected.
During the second infection, the research subjects were shedding viral particles for a shorter period of time. But, especially with Covid-19 – a virus that can be transmitted simply by talking – a person who sheds virus for a short time while feeling fine is probably more likely to transmit the disease than somebody who sheds virus for a whole week while feeling like garbage.
The person who feels like garbage will stay home. The person who feels fine won’t.
Still, though, I was left wondering – what underlying beliefs would sway Risch enough that he’d make these blunders?
Eventually, I decided to lump his motivation in with mine. Maybe that’s fair, maybe it’s not. Really, I have no idea what he was thinking, so this is just my best guess.
But I imagine that many of these people – Risch, Iwasaki, Medzhitov, John Ioannidis, David Katz, all of whom are very smart, and all of whom mean well – understand that the strategies we’re using against Covid-19 are both ineffectual and are causing harm.
No shutdown will eliminate Covid-19 – the best we can do is to delay it. And we can delay it only as long as we maintain the shutdown. Maybe that seems fine if you’re an older, wealthy person brimming with optimism about vaccine development, like Anthony Fauci who thinks we’ll have a working vaccine early next year, but it’s unconscionable if you think a working vaccine might be five or more years away.
I don’t think we should try to pause children’s development for five years.
Still, there’s no mathematical or logical way to prove what we should do. School closures definitely slow the spread of Covid-19. How do you balance the good of delaying an elderly person’s infection by three months (which is equivalent to a drug that extends a patient’s life by three months) with the harms we’re causing?
I know what I’d do, but other people have different priorities than me. And that’s okay!
I’d like to think, though, that I’m not trying to hoodwink anybody about the science in order to deceptively get them to do the thing I think is right.
Like, yes, I think schools should be open. I think we owe it to children. Right now, children are suffering, but this is our fault, the fault of grown-ups.
We have known for over a decade that we ought to make coronavirus vaccines – we didn’t devote enough resources to it, and now we don’t have one. We’ve known for decades that eating animals – both those sold in meat markets like in Wuhan and the ones raised in “concentrated animal feeding operations” throughout the U.S. – will create more zoogenic diseases, and we kept doing it. We know that a guaranteed basic income would’ve given people the resources they needed to self-isolate during an epidemic – we don’t have one. We know that guaranteed access to health care would keep our death rate down.
Climate change will make pandemics more frequent, in addition to making our world unliveable for future generations. And we haven’t taken action to stop it.
None of these failings are children’s fault. We, older people, have failed. We fucked up. And now we’re asking children to make sacrifices to dampen the impact of our mistake (although, again, it won’t work – it’ll just delay the eventual repercussions).
I think today’s children deserve a fair shot at a good life, and I think that school is an essential part of that.
But don’t let anybody try to convince you that it’s safe to re-open schools because hydroxychloroquine will stop Covid-19.
The phoenix falls into fire, burns, and dies. Then rises again, reborn.
The phoenix triumphs over adversity. Life gets hard, excruciatingly hard. Everything falls to shit. But the phoenix rises again.
Or so we hope.
Sometimes, the fire burns too hot. And then the phoenix dies and stays dead. Sometimes ash isn’t a phoenix egg.
Sometimes ash is only ash.
Here’s a poem by my friend Satish:
COULD I BE
– a peacock, so vibrant
& bright, but vulnerable
for lack of flight, a
turkey that flutters
searching for height.
A dove that flies so
high, so pure & clean.
I’m none of these.
Just searching for a
balance – in between.
Maybe a phoenix, mystical,
reborn from fire &
Satish wrote this poem while he was living inside the dormitory on the ground floor of the Monroe County Jail. This is an awful little space. It’s about the size of my living room. Twelve men lived there. They slept on bunk beds. The fluorescent lights were turned off only from midnight until four a.m. The single window, a tiny rectangle of wire-reinforced glass inside the steel door, faced the subterranean booking desk – no glimpse of the outdoors. There were two steel tables bolted to the floor, and each table had six steel stools curving out from beneath it, like a pair of silver-skinned twice-amputated octopuses where the men could sit to eat their meals.
The jail dorm shared a wall with soft booking – “the drunk tank.” Much of the time, someone with mental health issues would be in there, hollering. If someone in the tank decides to stand there rhythmically kicking the steel door, the noise resounds through your skull like the repeated cocking of a shotgun inside your brain. All thoughts disappear but hate. At least, that was my experience, and I never spent more than two hours at a time inside that space.
Satish was there for months.
But he stayed chipper. It was always a pleasure to go in there with a stack of poems and have the chance to talk with him. On his good days, his enthusiasm was infectious, leaning in close to ask questions or banter about religion, his huge eyes gleaming like polished fishbowls.
The saddest poem he wrote was about cheating on his girlfriend with an old man – “old man” is slang for heroin.
The other men in the dorm loved having him around. In such a small space, where people are going through the worst time of their lives and yet are expected to endure the constant presence of a roomful of other men who’re also going through the worst time of their lives, emotions fray easily. Twice when I came in there, my buddy Max had ugly blue bruises covering his face.
“We had a little disagreement,” Max would tell me. And he’d mention the name of somebody who’d been in the dorm the week before, but had since been moved to a different block.
But nobody had trouble with Satish.
Nobody except the judge.
Max told me, “Judge ______ gave him this deal, Satish was on this drug court thing, and she was going to pretend to care. She said, ‘write me a letter, write me a letter and convince me why I should go easy on you.’ But if she’s going to go easy, why would she need that letter? So Satish wrote this letter, he basically wrote to her, ‘Fuck you, just do what you’re going to do.’ “
The thing is, we all thought he would walk. The case, as far as I knew it, was pretty weak. He had come home, he’d lost his keys, and he was high. He thought he could sleep it off, go look for his keys in the morning, and so he tried to get in through the window.
Except he picked the wrong window. He was climbing in the neighbors’, and they freaked and called the police. The cops came. By then they figured out who he was, everybody was confused, but mistakes happen. Mistakes happen more when people are on drugs, but, regardless, mistakes happen.
The neighbors didn’t want to press charges. They weren’t going to cooperate with a case.
In the United States, prosecutors have a lot of leeway, though. Doesn’t matter what the police report says, doesn’t matter what the witnesses say, the prosecutor gets to decide what charges to file. They get to pile charges on as leverage for plea bargaining. They don’t have to justify which people get dog piled and which people walk free.
The prosecutor’s decisions are yet another place in our criminal justice system where racial injustice creeps in. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that, in the eyes of the state, Satish was Black.
So, a phoenix. Maybe they’d send him away. But he could overcome adversity.
We thought he would walk. We expected that he’d go to court, then get sent home for time served.
Instead, they gave him seven years.
He was shipped off to the “Reception & Diagnostics Center.” This is where they do psychological evaluations, figure out which prison you’ll be sent to. While at reception & diagnostics, nobody can get a hold of you.
He’d been there two days when his girlfriend – mother of his two children, pregnant with their third – overdosed and died. She’d been clean a while. But after something like that – you think he’s coming out, instead they give him seven years – it’s easy to relapse.
Heroin killed her. But the courts killed her too.
He took it hard.
We volleyed letters for a while – he’d send me folded bundles, six or seven sheets that he’d written over the course of a week, and he stamped the envelopes low to dodge the postmark – but he always said that it was hard to find time to write. He was doing as many programs as he could, trying to get level-headed, trying to get out. Most programs will give you a time cut.
They’d given him seven years, but he was out after another two. Lots of guys have tried to explain the math of criminal justice time to me; I have never understood.
Max said, “He was in a pretty good place, at first. I mean, he had a handle on it, what’d happened with Chelsea, everything that happened. But when he started using …”
He was trying to rise. Twenty-nine, and rebuilding his life.
But sometimes the fire burns too hot. Sometimes it burns and burns and the ash stops being an egg. Sometimes ash is only ash.
I try to feed my children every night, but I never vomit blood into their mouths.
When I try to hang upside down – like from monkey bars at a playground – I have to clench my muscles, and pretty soon I get dizzy. I couldn’t spend a whole day like that.
And, yes, sometimes I shout. Too often during the pandemic, I’ve shouted at my kids. But when I shout, I’m trying to make them stop hitting each other – I’m not trying to figure out where they are.
It’s pretty clear that I’m not a bat.
Because I haven’t had these experiences, philosopher Thomas Nagel would argue that I can’t know how it feels to be a bat.
In so far as I can imagine [flitting through the dark, catching moths in my mouth], it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves.
But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.
Perhaps I can’t know what it feels like for a bat to be a bat. And yet, I can empathize with a bat. I can imagine how it might feel to be trapped in a small room while a gamboling, wiry-limbed orc-thing tried to swat me with a broom.
It would be terrifying!
And that act of imagination – of empathy – is enough for me to want to protect bats’ habitats. To make space for them in our world. Sure, you could argue that bats are helpful for us – they’re pollinators, they eat pesky bugs – but empathy lets us care about the well-being of bats for their own sake.
Literature exercises our minds: when we read, invent, and share stories, we build our capacity for empathy, becoming more generally aware of the world outside our own skulls.
Writing can be a radical act of love. Especially when we write from a perspective that differs from our own. The poet Ai said that “Whoever wants to speak in my poems is allowed to speak, regardless of sex, race, creed, or color.” Her poems often unfurl from the perspective of violent men, and yet she treats her protagonists with respect and kindness. Ai gives them more than they deserve: “I don’t know if I embrace them, but I love them.”
That capacity for love, for empathy, will let us save the world. Although many of us haven’t personally experienced a lifetime of racist microaggressions or conflict with systemic oppression, we all need to understand how rotten it would feel. We need to understand that the pervasive stress seeps into a person’s bones, causing all manner of health problems. We need understand the urgency of building a world where all children feel safe.
And if we don’t understand – yet – maybe we need to read more.
Experiments suggest that reading any engaging literary fiction boosts our ability to empathize with others. Practice makes better: get outside your head for a while, it’ll be easier to do it again next time.
Of course, we’ll still need to make an effort to learn what others are going through. Thomas Nagel was able to ruminate so extensively about what it would feel like to live as a bat because we’ve learned about echolocation, about their feeding habits, about their family lives. If we want to be effective anti-racists, we need to learn about Black experiences in addition to developing our empathy more generally.
As a bookish White person, it’s easy for me to empathize with the experiences of other bookish White people. In Search of Lost Time doesn’t tax my brain. Nor does White Noise. The characters in these books are a lot like me.
The cognitive distance between me and the protagonists of Americanah is bigger. Which is sad in and of itself – as high schoolers, these characters were playful, bookish, and trusting, no different from my friends or me. But then they were forced to endure hard times that I was sufficiently privileged to avoid. And so when I read about their lives, perched as I was atop my mountain of privilege, it was painful to watch Ifemelu and Obinze develop their self-protective emotional carapaces, armoring themselves against the injustice that ceaselessly buffets them.
Another reader might nod and think, I’ve been there. I had to exercise my imagination.
In Being a Beast, Charles Foster describes his attempts to understand the lives of other animals. He spent time mimicking their behaviors – crawling naked across the dirt, eating worms, sleeping in an earthen burrow. He wanted a badger’s-eye view of the world.
Foster concluded that his project was a failure – other animals’ lives are just so different from ours.
And yet, as a direct consequence of his attempt at understanding, Foster changed his life. He began treating other animals with more kindness and respect. To me, this makes his project a success.
White people might never understand exactly how it feels to be Black in America. I’m sure I don’t. But we can all change the way we live. We can, for instance, resolve to spend more money on Black communities, and spend it on more services than just policing.
Empathy is working when it forces us to act. After all, what we do matters more than what we purport to think.
It’s interesting to speculate what it would feel like to share another’s thoughts – in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Shorefall, the protagonists find a way to temporarily join minds. This overwhelming rush of empathy and love transforms them: “Every human being should feel obliged to try this once.”
In the real world, we might never know exactly how the world feels to someone else. But Nagel wants to prove, with words, that he has understood another’s experience.
One might try, for example, to develop concepts that could be used to explain to a person blind from birth what it was like to see. One would reach a blank wall eventually, but it should be possible to devise a method of expressing in objective terms much more than we can at present, and with much greater precision.
The loose intermodal analogies – for example, “Red is like the sound of a trumpet” – which crop up in discussions of this subject are of little use. That should be clear to anyone who has both heard a trumpet and seen red.
We associate red with many of our strongest emotions: anger, violence, love.
And we could tell many different “just so” stories to explain why we have these associations.
Red is an angry color because people’s faces flush red when they’re mad. Red blood flows when we’re hurt, or when we hurt another.
Red represents love because a red glow spreads over our partners’ necks and chests and earlobes as we kiss and caress and fumble together.
Red is mysterious because a red hue fills the sky at dawn and dusk, the liminal hours when we are closest to the spirit world.
These are all emergent associations – they’re unrelated to the original evolutionary incentive that let us see red. Each contributes to how we see red now, but none explains the underlying why.
We humans are blue-green-red trichromatic – we can distinguish thousands of colors, but our brains do this by comparing the relative intensities of just three.
And we use the phrase “color blind” to describe the people and other animals who can’t distinguish red from green. But all humans are color blind – there are colors we can’t see. To us, a warm body looks identical to a cold wax replica. But their colors are different, as any bullfrog could tell you.
Our eyes lack the receptors – cone cells with a particular fold of opsin – that could distinguish infrared light from other wavelengths. We mistakenly assume these two singers have the same color skin.
When we look at flowers, we often fail to see the beautiful patterns that decorate their petals. These decorations are obvious to any bee, but we’re oblivious. Again, we’re missing the type of cone cells that would let us see. To fully appreciate flowers, we’d need receptors that distinguish ultraviolet light from blue.
Most humans can see the color red because we’re descended from fruit eaters. To our bellies, a red berry is very different from a green berry. And so, over many generations, our ancestors who could see the difference were able to gather more nutritious berries than their neighbors. Because they had genes that let them see red, they were better able to survive, have children, and keep their children fed.
The genes for seeing red spread.
Now, several hundred thousand years later, this wavelength of light blares at us like a trumpet. Even though the our ancestors learned to cook food with fire, and switched from fruit gathering to hunting, and then built big grocery stores where the bright flashes of color are just advertisements for a new type of high-fructose-corn-syrup-flavored cereal, red still blares at us.
Once upon a time, we really needed to see ripe fruit. The color red became striking to us, wherever we saw it. And so we invented new associations – rage, or love – even though these are totally unrelated to the evolutionary pressures that gave us our red vision.
Similarly, empathy wasn’t “supposed” to let us build a better world. Evolution doesn’t care about fairness.
And yet. Even though I might never know exactly how it feels when you see the color red, I can still care how you’re treated. Maybe that’s enough.
Header image: a greater short-nosed fruit bat, photograph by Anton 17.