On worms.

On worms.

My spouse is a high school teacher, and because her students are no longer attending class, they have more time to make TikTok videos.

I’m not quite sure what a TikTok video is.  I think it’s something like a Vine video, but longer.  Or perhaps something like a YouTube video, but shorter.  Or perhaps something like a Music Video, but not introduced by Kurt Loder.

Last year I was volunteering with a local sixth grader once a week, working mostly on music theory and game design, and every so often he’d eye me as though I were a Homo erectus freshly emerged from a block of glacial ice.  My gaffes weren’t even that egregious!  I just don’t know about TikTok!

So it goes.

While working on a TikTok video, one of my spouse’s students messaged her to ask, “Would you still teach me if I was a worm?”

My spouse wrote back, “I don’t know. One of my kids had ringworm last year and it was awful!”

Ask a silly question, you get a silly answer.

And that’s where it should end, right?  But the student persisted – after all, my spouse’s answer was insufficient basis for a good TikTok video.

“No, I mean like a regular earthworm.”

So, here’s the deal.  If you ask a silly question – once – you get a silly answer.  But the second time?

That’s when we unleash the trolls.

And by “trolls,” I mean me.

Image by Thomas Brown on Flickr.

If I were working with a student interested in the educational capabilities of earthworms, I’d first mention Charles Darwin’s experiments on earthworm intelligence.  Worms dig little burrows in the dirt, and they often plug the entrances of these with leaves. 

So Darwin gave the worms novel building materials – not space-age polymer fabrics or anything, just different types of leaves – and let the worms choose which to use to plug up their burrows.  In his estimation, the worms made sensible choices.  You can read a lovely description of this experiment in Eileen Crist’s “The Inner Life of Earthworms.”

Then I might slide into a discussion of equality among worms, perhaps citing the recent children’s picture book, Worm Loves Worm.  I imagine that, like the other characters of that story, our worm’s schoolmates would benefit by having more diversity in class.

And then, because my thoughts tend to careen suddenly to darkness, I might mention my unfinished horror novel, “Our Heroic Annelid Makes a Daring Escape.” 

You see, moles often capture worms and save them for later.  The doomed worms are stored inside the mole’s burrow. 

The mole doesn’t kill the worms – then they’d rot.  But worms can’t just be left inside a mud-lined burrow – then they’d dig their way out. 

So moles mutilate their captives.  An injured worm is unable to dig free, and, because worms rely largely on their sematosensory system to construct a mental image of the world, the worm is partially blinded.

But worms can regenerate.  So the tension of the story becomes, will the worm heal before the mole returns to eat it?

So spooky!

By Kenneth Catania, Vanderbilt University, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8923296

All told, I would be willing to teach an earthworm.  It seems that worms have the cognitive capacity to learn at least a little.  But it would be heartbreaking to have one of my students captured by a mole.

On birds watching.

On birds watching.

In jail recently, we were talking about birds.

“Yeah, my grandfather had something like a thousand chickens, had them running all through the yard,” somebody said.  “And there was this one chicken, he was a mean one.  I was kind of afraid of it, strutting around like he owned the place.  So my grandfather, he told me to kick it.”

“Well, I did, but that only made things worse.  I didn’t make him scared, I just made that chicken hate me.  So after that, anytime we went to visit my grandfather’s place, that chicken would be there, waiting for me.”

“My parents, my brothers and sisters, everybody would get out of the car, but the chicken wouldn’t bother them.  He’d be sitting there, staring, just waiting for me.  And when I finally got out I had to run, every time, sprinting to my grandfather’s front door before that chicken got me.”

“They live a long time, too!  I had, like, five or six years of that!  And still to this day, anytime my mom sees a video or a picture of somebody running from a chicken on Facebook, she’ll tag me in it.  Like, ha ha ha, remember that?”

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“Maybe you didn’t kick him hard enough,” somebody suggested.  “Cause we used to have chickens, and I had to go into the coop sometimes, and the roof of it was real low to the ground, so I had to crouch in there like this, and one chicken would always strut up to me like it was going to start something.”

“Well, it did that every time for a few months, till one day it got in my face and I just went BOOM, and I wrestled that little fucker to the ground.  And that chicken never messed with me again.”

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Birds can recognize individual humans. 

Biologist John Marzluff noticed that crows became wary of particular researchers after the crows had been captured and tagged.  In an experiment where researchers captured a half dozen crows while wearing a caveman mask, they found that the whole flock learned to respond to that mask as a threat.  Several years later, even crows who hadn’t seen the caveman’s initial misbehavior would shriek a warning when they saw that mask.  They’d been trained by their flockmates.

The caveman mask is on the left. On the right: a control mask.

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Between their intelligence and acute eyesight, birds can serve as passable oncologists.  Pigeons were trained with a set of slides from biopsies – a pigeon had to inspect each image and then choose a button for “cancer” or “not cancer”.  If the pigeon chose correctly, the computer would dispense a pellet of food.

(Human medical students are often mistreated during their training, forced to work grueling hours with few breaks.  The pigeon trainees were also mistreated – to ensure that they valued each food pellet, the pigeons were starved during the experiment.  I’m 6 feet tall and about 150 pounds, but if I were participating in this study, I’d be kept at 127 pounds – eighty-five percent of my “free feeding” weight.)

Pigeons learned to diagnose biopsies with 80% accuracy.  A team of eight pigeons voting together could diagnose biopsies with 99% accuracy

The team of pigeons was just as good as a human oncologist, and far better than computerized image analysis.

You can buy 50 pounds of pigeon pellets for under $10.  That’d give you enough rewards for a flock of half-starved pigeons to diagnose thousands of patients.

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We used to think that an entire class of vertebrates had gone extinct – the dinosaurs.  But we now know that birds are dinosaurs. 

Several species of dinosaurs/birds are gone – millions of years have passed since tyrannosaurs or velociraptors roamed the earth.  But their lineage has continued.

When I was growing up, people often remarked that dinosaurs were clearly dim-witted creatures because they have such small cranial cavities.  There was not much room for brains in their skulls! 

But contemporary dinosaurs/birds have small brains, too, and many are extremely intelligent.  They can chase kids who’ve crossed them.  They can diagnose cancer.  They can make tools, solve logic puzzles, and guess what other animals are thinking.

All with minuscule brains!

When biologist Suzana Herculano-Houzel investigated the brains of various species, she found that the number of neurons in a brain typically correlates with cognitive capacity.  More neurons makes for a smarter critter!

The physical size of a brain doesn’t tell you how many neurons will be in a brain, though.  A bigger brain might just have bigger neurons

As it happens, birds’ brains are constructed better than our own.  Crows and parrots pack neurons into a brain more densely than we do, like the difference between old IBM mainframes and modern telephones.  Pigeon brains are better than ours at parallel computing, like the difference between a hypothetical quantum computer and your current laptop.

We can outsmart crows, parrots, and pigeons, but only because our raw neuron counts are so high that we’ve not been surpassed by their superior designs.

We don’t know when dinosaurs/birds evolved their high neuron densities – well-designed brains might be recent innovations, or they might be millions of years old.  Ancient dinosaurs may have been far more intelligent than we thought.

Yes, they still went extinct, but you can’t blame them for succumbing to climate change.  And it’s not like they caused the climate change that killed them.

Future archaeologists might judge humans to be more foolish than any stegosaurus.

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We humans have huge numbers of neurons in our cerebral cortex.  We are blisteringly clever.  We’ve made all variety of tools, languages, and complex social structures.  Yes, crows also have tools, language, and complex social structures, but in each category, human achievements are even more complex.

A crow tool is typically a hooked piece of stick.  We built telephones.

Well, humans collectively built telephones.  I couldn’t sit down and build one from scratch.  If I were to make a tool while out hiking, it’d probably be a hooked piece of stick.

Still, our best achievements are pretty incredible. 

But we’ve also brought our species to the brink of extinction.  Through overpopulation and excessive exploitation of the planet’s trapped resources, we’re making our world less habitable. 

Tyrannosaurus ruled this planet for a few million years.  Humans have been a dominant species for only a hundred thousand years – a few percent of T-Rex’s reign.  With the current pace of climate change, scientists soberly discuss the possibility that we’ll reap apocalypse within a hundred more years.

Measured by reign, we might prove 20-fold less successful than those giant birds.

On octopus art.

On octopus art.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Optic Wraith

Her eyes

like a swarm of dense volcano spiders

woven from cold inferno spools

contradictory

consuming

clinging to my palette

like the code from a bleak inventive ruse

now

my understanding of her scent

is condoned as general waking insomnia

as void

as a cataleptic prairie

frayed at the core

by brushstrokes of vertigo

then mazes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elephants at a sanctuary. Image by Gilda on Flickr.

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

But what about octopus art?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A coconut octopus. Image by Christian Gloor on Wikimedia.

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

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

On Ann Leckie’s ‘The Raven Tower.’

On Ann Leckie’s ‘The Raven Tower.’

At the beginning of Genesis, God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

“Creation” by Suus Wansink on Flickr.

In her magisterial new novel The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie continues with this simple premise: a god is an entity whose words are true.

A god might say, “The sky is green.”  Well, personally I remember it being blue, but I am not a god.  Within the world of The Raven Tower, after the god announces that the sky is green, the sky will become green.  If the god is sufficiently powerful, that is.  If the god is too weak, then the sky will stay blue, which means the statement is not true, which means that the thing who said “The sky is green” is not a god.  It was a god, sure, but now it’s dead.

Poof!

And so the deities learn to be very cautious with their language, enumerating cases and provisions with the precision of a contemporary lawyer drafting contractual agreements (like the many “individual arbitration” agreements that you’ve no doubt assented to, which allow corporations to strip away your legal rights as a citizen of this country.  But, hey, I’m not trying to judge – I have signed those lousy documents, too.  It’s difficult to navigate the modern world without stumbling across them).

A careless sentence could doom a god.

But if a god were sufficiently powerful, it could say anything, trusting that its words would reshape the fabric of the universe.  And so the gods yearn to become stronger — for their own safety in addition to all the other reasons that people seek power.

In The Raven Tower, the only way for gods to gain strength is through human faith.  When a human prays or conducts a ritual sacrifice, a deity grows stronger.  But human attention is finite (which is true in our own world, too, as demonstrated so painfully by our attention-sapping telephones and our attention-monopolizing president).

Image from svgsilh.com.

And so, like pre-monopoly corporations vying for market share, the gods battle.  By conquering vast kingdoms, a dominant god could receive the prayers of more people, allowing it to grow even stronger … and so be able to speak more freely, inured from the risk that it will not have enough power to make its statements true.

If you haven’t yet read The Raven Tower, you should.  The theological underpinnings are brilliant, the characters compelling, and the plot so craftily constructed that both my spouse and I stayed awake much, much too late while reading it.

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In The Raven Tower, only human faith feeds gods.  The rest of the natural world is both treated with reverence – after all, that bird, or rock, or snake might be a god – and yet also objectified.  There is little difference between a bird and a rock, either of which might provide a fitting receptacle for a god but neither of which can consciously pray to empower a god.

Image by Stephencdickson on Wikimedia Commons.

Although our own world hosts several species that communicate in ways that resemble human language, in The Raven Tower the boundary between human and non-human is absolute.  Within The Raven Tower, this distinction feels totally sensible – after all, that entire world was conjured through Ann Leckie’s assiduous use of human language.

But many people mistakenly believe that they are living in that fantasy world.

In the recent philosophical treatise Thinking and Being, for example, Irad Kimhi attempts to describe what is special about thought, particularly thoughts expressed in a metaphorical language like English, German, or Greek.  (Kimhi neglects mathematical languages, which is at times unfortunate.  I’ve written previously about how hard it is to translate certain concepts from mathematics into metaphorical languages like we speak with, and Kimhi fills many pages attempting to precisely the concept of “compliments” from set theory, which you could probably understand within moments by glancing at a Wikipedia page.)

Kimhi does use English assiduously, but I’m dubious that a metaphorical language was the optimal tool for the task he set himself.  And his approach was further undermined by flawed assumptions.  Kimhi begins with a “Law of Contradiction,” in which he asserts, following Aristotle, that it is impossible for a thing simultaneously to be and not to be, and that no one can simultaneously believe a thing to be and not to be.

Maybe these assumptions seemed reasonable during the time of Aristotle, but we now know that they are false.

Many research findings in quantum mechanics have shown that it is possible for a thing simultaneously to be and not to be.  An electron can have both up spin and down spin at the same moment, even though these two spin states are mutually exclusive (the states are “absolute compliments” in the terminology of set theory).  This seemingly contradictory state of both being and not being is what allows quantum computing to solve certain types of problems much faster than standard computers.

And, as a rebuttal for the psychological formulation, we have the case of free will.  Our brains, which generate consciousness, are composed of ordinary matter.  Ordinary matter evolves through time according to a set of known, predictable rules.  If the matter composing your brain was non-destructively scanned at sufficient resolution, your future behavior could be predicted.  Accurate prediction would demonstrate that you do not have free will.

And yet it feels impossible not to believe in the existence of free will.  After all, we make decisions.  I perceive myself to be choosing the words that I type.

I sincerely, simultaneously believe that humans both do and do not have free will.  And I assume that most other scientists who have pondered this question hold the same pair of seemingly contradictory beliefs.

The “Law of Contradiction” is not a great assumption to begin with.  Kimhi also objectifies nearly all conscious life upon our planet:

The consciousness of one’s thinking must involve the identification of its syncategorematic difference, and hence is essentially tied up with the use of language.

A human thinker is also a determinable being.  This book presents us with the task of trying to understand our being, the being of human beings, as that of determinable thinkers.

The Raven Tower is a fantasy novel.  Within that world, it was reasonable that there would be a sharp border separating humans from all other animals.  There are also warring gods, magical spells, and sacred objects like a spear that never misses or an amulet that makes people invisible.

But Kimhi purports to be writing about our world.

In Mama’s Last Hug, biologist Frans de Waal discusses many more instances of human thinkers brazenly touting their uniqueness.  If I jabbed a sharp piece of metal through your cheek, it would hurt.  But many humans claimed that this wouldn’t hurt a fish. 

The fish will bleed.  And writhe.  Its body will produce stress hormones.  But humans claimed that the fish was not actually in pain.

They were wrong.

Image by Catherine Matassa.

de Waal writes that:

The consensus view is now that fish do feel pain.

Readers may well ask why it has taken so long to reach this conclusion, but a parallel case is even more baffling.  For the longest time, science felt the same about human babies.  Infants were considered sub-human organisms that produced “random sounds,” smiles simply as a result of “gas,” and couldn’t feel pain. 

Serious scientists conducted torturous experiments on human infants with needle pricks, hot and cold water, and head restraints, to make the point that they feel nothing.  The babies’ reactions were considered emotion-free reflexes.  As a result, doctors routinely hurt infants (such as during circumcision or invasive surgery) without the benefit of pain-killing anesthesia.  They only gave them curare, a muscle relaxant, which conveniently kept the infants from resisting what was being done to them. 

Only in the 1980s did medical procedures change, when it was revealed that babies have a full-blown pain response with grimacing and crying.  Today we read about these experiments with disbelief.  One wonders if their pain response couldn’t have been noticed earlier!

Scientific skepticism about pain applies not just to animals, therefore, but to any organism that fails to talk.  It is as if science pays attention to feelings only if they come with an explicit verbal statement, such as “I felt a sharp pain when you did that!”  The importance we attach to language is just ridiculous.  It has given us more than a century of agnosticism with regard to wordless pain and consciousness.

As a parent, I found it extremely difficult to read the lecture de Waal cites, David Chamberlain’s “Babies Don’t Feel Pain: A Century of Denial in Medicine.”

From this lecture, I also learned that I was probably circumcised without anesthesia as a newborn.  Luckily, I don’t remember this procedure, but some people do.  Chamberlain describes several such patients, and, with my own kids, I too have been surprised by how commonly they’ve remembered and asked about things that happened before they had learned to talk.

Vaccination is painful, too, but there’s a difference – vaccination has a clear medical benefit, both for the individual and a community.  Our children have been fully vaccinated for their ages.  They cried for a moment, but we comforted them right away.

But we didn’t subject them to any elective surgical procedures, anesthesia or no.

In our world, even creatures that don’t speak with metaphorical language have feelings.

But Leckie does include a bridge between the world of The Raven Tower and our own.  Although language does not re-shape reality, words can create empathy.  We validate other lives as meaningful when we listen to their stories. 

The narrator of The Raven Tower chooses to speak in the second person to a character in the book, a man who was born with a body that did not match his mind.  Although human thinkers have not always recognized this truth, he too has a story worth sharing.

On animals that speak, including humans.

On animals that speak, including humans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Chomsky being wrong doesn’t make Wolfe right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On naked mole-rats.

On naked mole-rats.

When Radiohead first toured, their audiences just wanted to hear “Creep.”  They were invited to play a show in Israel – everyone just wanted to hear “Creep.”  They were invited to tour America – everyone just wanted to hear “Creep.”  At festivals, people walked away after they played it.  By then the song was several years old.  The dudes in Radiohead were sick of it.

To be fair, Pablo Honey was a pretty weak album.  “You” is a fine song, but the proffered singles – “Anyone Can Play Guitar” (more ironic in retrospect than it was at the time) and “Stop Whispering” – aren’t very compelling.  At the time, nobody knew their new material.

Now, of course, Radiohead is many people’s favorite band – mine too (tied with The Marshall Cloud and anything else my brother makes).

The essayist Eliot Weinberger has also toured on the strength of a hit single.  From Christopher Byrd’s 2016 profile in The New Yorker:

EliotWeinbergerBW350In person, Weinberger is genial and self-contained; he smiles frequently and is prone to wisecracks.  When I asked him about the essay [“Naked Mole-Rats,” from his 2001 collection, Karmic Traces], he said “In Germany, I’m sort of like one of those bands that had one hit record, and so I give readings and people ask me to read ‘Nacktmull,’ which is the naked mole-rat.  It’s their favorite one.  This pretty girl said, ‘Last night, I was in bed reading it to my boyfriend.’  And I said, ‘Don’t you have anything better to read?’”

Yet, like Radiohead, Weinberger has released new work every few years – he seems to have been writing constantly ever since he dropped out of college circa 1970 and began translating the poetry of Octavio Paz – and much of it is better than the hit everybody knows.  Over the past two months, I’ve had the pleasure of reading all his books – many are stunning.  The Ghosts of Birds discuses Adam & Eve, the dreams of ancient Chinese poets, and the authorial voice of George W. Bush’s “autobiography.”  I’ve written previously about What Happened Here, a collection of Weinberger’s essays about the Bush years.  And Weinberger has written extensively about the political value of poetry.  From “The T’ang” (in Oranges and Peanuts for Sale):

…[I]n the last years of the dynasty, warlords ravished the country.  One of them, Huang Ch’ao, a salt merchant who had failed the civil service exams, captured Ch’ang-an in 881.  A satiric poem was posted on the wall of a government building, criticizing the new regime.  (As, eleven hundred years later, the Democracy Movement would begin with the poems that Bei Dao and other young poets glued to the walls in their capital, Beijing.)  Huang Ch’ao issued orders that everyone capable of writing such a poem be put to death.  Three thousand were killed.

When dudes ask what we’re doing teaching a poetry class in jail, it’s great to have stories like this to relate … or to toss out a quote from Norman Dubie, my co-teacher’s advisor, who says, “If Stalin feared poetry, so should you.

And yet, I have to admit: Weinberger’s “Naked Mole-Rats” really is a lovely essay.

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During the 1970s, evolutionary biologist Richard Alexander gave a series of lectures describing conditions that might spawn eusocial vertebrates.  Alexander was a bug guy – the term “eusocial” refers to bees, ants, and termites, where individuals are extremely self-sacrificing for the good of the colony, including an abundance of non-breeding members helping with childcare.

Alexander proposed that a eusocial species of mammal could evolve if they lived in relatively safe underground burrows that could be expanded easily and defended by a small percentage of the colony.  The animals would need to be small compared to their food sources, so that a stroke of good luck by one worker could feed many.

thebioofnakedAn audience member at one of Alexander’s lectures mentioned that this “hypothetical eusocial mammal” sounded a lot like the naked mole-rat and connected Alexander with Jennifer Jarvis, who’d studied the biology of these critters but hadn’t yet investigated their their social structure.  The collaboration between Alexander and Jarvis led to the textbook The Biology of the Naked Mole-Rat.

Eliot Weinberger combed through this 500-plus page textbook to produce his 3-page essay.  In Weinberger’s words:

As many as three hundred inhabit a colony, moving a ton of dirt every month.  They have a caste system

The medium sized are the warriors, who try to fend off the rufous-beaked snaked, the file snakes, the white-lipped snakes, and the sand boas that sometimes find their way in.When, by chance, two colonies of naked mole-rats tunnel into each other, their warriors fight to the death.

Interbred for so long, they are virtually clones.  One dead-end branch of the tunnel is their toilet: they wallow there in the soaked earth so that all will smell alike.  They are nearly always touching each other, rubbing noses, pawing, nuzzling.

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Like us, naked mole-rats are both good and bad.  They are cooperative.  They are affectionate.  They are always touching.  Encountering outsiders, they fight to the death.  When a breeding female dies, many other females regain fertility and the colony erupts into civil war.

Naked mole-rats care for others.  Naked mole-rats are callous toward others.

[The breeding female, of which each colony has only one] has four or five litters a year of a dozen pups.  The babies have transparent skin through which their internal organs are clearly visible.  Only a few survive, and they live long lives, twenty years or more.  The dead babies are eaten, except for their heads.  At times the live ones are eaten too.

These details are drawn from innumerable experimental observations.  We humans have spent decades investigating the naked mole-rats.  But Weinberger ends his essay with the reverse.  Naked mole-rats observe us, too:

Sometimes a naked mole-rat will suddenly stop, stand on its hind-legs, and remain motionless, its head pressed against the roof of the tunnel.  Above its head is the civil war in Somalia.  Their hearing is acute.

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Naked mole-rats “are continually cruel in small ways.”  But they are outdone by naked apes.  After all, the cruelty of naked mole-rats is invariably directed to others of their own kind.  Our cruelty embraces ourselves as well as them.

For a research paper published in 2008, Park et al. discovered that being pinched by tweezers causes naked mole-rats pain, but the injection of caustic acid does not:

We tested naked mole-rats in standard behavioral models of acute pain including tests for mechanical (pinch), thermal, and chemical pain.  We found that for noxious pinch and heat, the mole-rats responded similarly to mice.

In contrast to the results using mechanical and thermal stimuli, there was a striking difference in responses to strong chemical irritants known to excite nociceptors [these are sensory receptors that detect noxious inputs, like pain].  Indeed, the two chemicals used – capsaicin and low-pH saline solution – normally evoke very intense pain in humans and other animals.  Injection of either irritant into the skin rapidly evoked intense licking and guarding behaviors in mice.

(In case you’re worried that acid-resistant naked mole-rats might conquer the world: a form of kryptonite exists.  Injection of an 11-amino-acid signaling peptide allows acid to hurt naked mole-rats just as much as it hurts mice.  Half a dozen animals were subjected to each treatment.)

So, naked mole-rats are selectively resistant to pain.  This has inspired some envy in human researchers – after all, chronic pain is miserable, and most of our strategies to dampen pain have a few unwanted side-effects.

But what really gets us humans jealous is that naked mole-rats seem not to age.

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Naked mole-rats almost never develop cancer.  They should get cancer.  After all, their cells, like ours, copy themselves.  Over time, each copy is a copy of a copy of a copy… any errors are compounded.  And some errors are particularly deadly.  Our cells are supposed to stop growing when they touch each other, and they are supposed to commit suicide when their usefulness has run its course.  But the instructions telling our cells when and how to kill themselves can be lost, just like any other information.  Too many rounds of cell division is like making photocopies of photocopies… eventually the letters melt into static and become unreadable.

So I don’t quite understand why naked mole-rats don’t get cancer … but, in my defense, no one else does either.  Tian et al. found that naked mole-rats fill the space between their cells with a particular sugar that acts as an anti-clumping agent.  This contributes to their cancer resistance, because cells that can’t clump can’t form tumors… but, although many types of deadly human cancers form tumors, others, like leukemia, do not.

Lung_cancer_cell_during_cell_division-NIH.jpgOf course, “cancer” cells – mutant versions of ourselves that would kill us if they could – appear all the time.  Usually, our immune system destroys them.  Most chemotherapy agents do not kill cancer.  Chemotherapy involves pumping the body full of general poisons that stop all cells from reproducing, with the hope being that, if the spread of cancer can be slowed, a patient’s immune system will sop up the bad cells already there.

In addition to anti-clumping sugars, naked mole-rats must have other (currently unknown) virtues that enable their remarkable tenacity.

And, although the little critters seem not to age – they have “no age-related increase in mortality” and remain fertile until death – they do die.  The oldest naked mole-rat lived for 27 years in captivity, and seems to have been at least a year old when first captured, based on his size.

He was rutting and eating normally until April, 2002… but then, seemingly without cause, he died.  Writing for Scientific American shortly after this duder’s death, David Stipp described him (and naked mole-rats in general) as “a little buck-toothed burrower [who] ages like a demigod.”

But it’s worth noting that he had aged.  He had accumulated extensive oxidative damage in his lipids, proteins, and, presumably, his DNA… which is to say, his cells were noticeably rusted and falling apart.  He just didn’t let it slow him down.  Not until he keeled over.

They live with gusto, the naked mole-rats.

For as long as they energy, that is.  Several researchers have proposed that naked mole-rats have all these powers because they starve often in the wild.

Caloric restriction – which means, roughly, intentional starvation – is known to extend lifespan in a wide variety of species.  It’s been tested in monkeys, mice, flies, and worms.  Between two- and ten-fold increases in lifespan have been observed.  There are some unpleasant side effects.  Hunger, for instance.  Caloric-restricted mice spend a lot of time staring at their empty food bowls.

Many humans who attempt caloric restriction on their own find it difficult.  Hunger hurts, especially when there’s food nearby.  Plus, it’s a rare diet that provides adequate nutrition while still limiting calories.  Malnutrition makes people die younger, which defeats the point… unless your goal is simply to make God uncomfortable.  Maybe you’ll get a wish!

But naked mole-rats have no choice.  Workers tunnel outward, searching for tuberous roots.  When they find one, they’ll gnaw it carefully, attempting to keep the plant alive as long as possible, but the colony invariably consumes roots faster than a plant can grow.  Although naked mole-rats try to be good stewards of their environment – they are compulsive recyclers, eating their own excrement to make sure no nutrients are lost – their colonies plunge repeatedly into famine.

And they sleep in mounds, hundreds of bodies respiring underground.  Anyone sleeping near the center probably runs out of oxygen.

But they survive.

We would not.  Most mammals, deprived of oxygen, can no longer fuel their brains.  Our brains are expensive.  Even at rest our brains demand a constant influx of energy or else the neurons “depolarize” – we fall apart.  This is apparently an unpleasant experience.  It’s brief, though.  At Stanford, my desk was adjacent to a well-trafficked gas chamber.  A mouse, or a Chinese-food takeout container with several mice, was dropped in; a valve for carbon dioxide was opened; within seconds, the mice inside lost consciousness; they shat; they died.

A naked mole-rat would live.  Unless a very determined researcher left the carbon dioxide flowing for half an hour.  Or so found Park et al. – a graph from their recent Science paper is shown below.  Somewhere between three and twelve animals were used for every time point; all the mice would’ve been dead within a minute, but perhaps as few as three naked mole-rats died in this experiment.

survival curves

Human brains are like hummingbirds – our brains drink up sugar and give us nothing but a fleeting bit of beauty in return.  And our brains are very persnickety in their taste for sugar.  We are fueled exclusively by glucose.

Naked mole-rats are less fussy than we are – their minds will slurp fructose to keep from dying.

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Naked mole-rats: the most cooperative of all mammals.  Resistant to cancer.  Unperturbed by acid.  Aging with the libidinous gracelessness of Hugh Hefner.  Able to withstand the horrors of a gas chamber.

And yet, for all those superpowers, quite easily tormented by human researchers.

On elephants.

On elephants.

During springtime each year, my spouse tells a lot of people that high school prom is a blast … as long as you’re not a high schooler. Many teachers attend, nominally as chaperones, and they don’t have to worry about who they’ll leave with or what they’ll be doing afterward. (Shucking earplugs and going to sleep.)

Prom_crowded_dancefloor

We go to the local high school prom most years. My spouse greets her students and compliments their attire: you clean up well! The boys on the cross country and track teams shake my hand and compliment my attire: you clean up well, coach!

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The most magical night of our lives … every year.

At times, briefly, I am allowed to dance. (My only formal dance training was in preparation for the South Asian Students’ Association spring show during college – I was part of a Dandiya Raas set to “Chale Chalo” from Lagaan – and my preferred style of dancing still involves a lot of leaping.)

raas
Yep.

Each year’s prom is themed, with decorations prepared by junior members of the student council. My favorite was 2012’s “prom-apocalypse,” with fake flames and wreckage. Coincidentally, I prepared the same style of decoration for a fundraiser when I was my high school’s National Honor Society president. The kids here were inspired by the end of the Mayan calendar; our dance was held in December, 1999, when the newspapers were rife with reports of people hoarding cans or turning blue-ish from ingesting too much anti-microbial silver.

I also convinced a d.j. buddy to put together some music for the event, like a track splicing Britney Spears’s “…Baby One More Time” with Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).”

Despite having hated being in high school, I love the corny tropes involved. Like, okay, film noir about drug deals gone bad? Eh, seen it. But set that same noir in high school, you get Brick, with charming lines like “She knows where I eat lunch.”

This year, though, prom is circus-themed.

“Oh, cool,” I said. “Like Cirque du Soleil?”

“No. Like, elephants in cages.”

We won’t attend. It seems an especially bizarre choice of theme now, when even Ringling Brothers, after 145 years of torturing elephants, has announced that they’ll stop. They will, of course, continue to torture other species.

Ringling_Bros_and_Barnum_&_Bailey_Circus_Gunther_Gebel-Williams_1969.jpg

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As humans have learned more about animal cognition, we have steadily revised our claims as to the features of our brains that make us special. Once upon a time, we claimed that our superiority came simply from our very large brains; we contrasted ourselves to dinosaurs, whom we claimed (erroneously) had brains no bigger than walnuts.

Elephants have the largest brains of any land animal.

Later, we realized that sheer brain bulk does not equate with intelligence – actual neuron counts would be far more informative.

Elephants have three times as many neurons as humans.

We once posited that “tool use” separated humans from other animals, until we learned that chimpanzees, crows, and others use tools too.

We claimed that only humans understand death. Touting that no other species buries their dead, we claimed that only Homo sapiens have the emotional intelligence necessary to understand narrative. Other animals are trapped inside an eternal now.

This, too, is false.

Three_elephant's_curly_kisses

In elephants, the hippocampus – the brain region implicated in processing narrative emotional memory – is enlarged relative to humans. They routinely visit sites where friends or relatives died. They caress the bones of their lost. After violent encounters with a brutal species of hairless ape, elephants can suffer post-traumatic stress disorder for years. Their children require the guidance of elders to learn behavioral norms.

Like human children, young elephant males who grow in broken communities run wild.

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We humans have treated elephants abysmally, not in spite of their magnificence, but because of it. When a small, flamboyantly-dressed circus tamer can break an elephant’s will so completely that the creature will perform in the center of a jeering crowd, we receive proof just how powerful humans are.

61m03HD3UQL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Elena Passarello writes of our dominance over nature in her essay “Jumbo II,” which interlaces two histories: that of elephants brought to the United States, and our ability to harness electricity.

From the beginning, the elephants were tortured: placed in small zoo enclosures (Passarello: They gave “Old Chief” to the Cincinnati Zoo, which shot him by the end of the decade. Two days after, Cincinnati’s Palace Restaurant added “elephant loin” to its dinner menu.), beaten by circus trainers until they learned to do “tricks,” condemned to death for unexpectedly dangerous behavior during musth.

As our technological prowess grew, electricity was put to ever new uses. Electricity could light our streets! It could power our factories! It could execute the condemned!

The histories of elephants and electricity in America merge in 1903. In Passarello’s words:

[Electrocuting an Elephant] is a minute-long, live short of the first elephant – and the second female of any species on the planet – to be condemned to electrocution for her crimes.

In the yards around Coney Island’s Luna Park, the condemned elephant places each foot onto a copper plate. Once ignited with over 6,000 volts of alternating current, they smoke beneath her planted feet. The smoke rises around her body, her trunk goes rigid, and all five tons of her list forward.

And, from Ciaran Berry’s poem, “Electrocuting an Elephant:”

…though it changes nothing,
I want to explain how, when the elephant falls, she falls
like a cropped elm. First the shudder, then the toppling
as the surge ripples through each nerve and vein,
and she drops in silence and a fit of steam to lie there
prone, one eye opened that I wish I could close.

I could not bring myself to watch the video footage to verify this description, but I am glad her eye was open. We humans behave better when we believe we are watched. And our behavior, in the past, was not good enough.

Even now, we make mistakes. If we want a world with elephants, the money from ecotourism is not enough. Those who have been born to wealthy nations – beneficiaries of a long history of exploitation and violence – should devote funds to repairing some of the damage we’ve inherited.

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