On power and species.

On power and species.

At track practice, a pair of high school runners were arguing.  Knowing that I’ve completed twenty-two years of schooling, they figured I could resolve their debate.

“Coach Brown, who would win in a fight, Superman or The Hulk?”

I stared at them blankly.  I knew a bit about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which helps to understand The Hulk, but I’d never read a Superman comic.  Superman didn’t sound like an interesting hero: he seemed too powerful.  Even The Hulk is more interesting within the context of a complex campaign, when he might become enraged and wreck his own plans, than in a single fight.

I failed to provide an answer, and the kids went back to arguing.  (“Superman could just turn back time to before The Hulk got enraged, then smash him!”) 

And I resolved to read a Superman book, to shore up this gap in my education.  Astounding, isn’t it, that Stanford would allow me to graduate without knowing anything about the paragon of the DC universe?

I chose Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman.  And was pleasantly surprised – although Superman is indeed too powerful for the risk of danger to provide narrative tension, he’s still sad.  He doesn’t get the recognition that he feels he’s due; his powers leave him feeling isolated and alone; during the 24-hours when his girlfriend becomes his equal due to a magic serum, she spends her time flirting with other heroes. 

Doing great work can feel hollow if nobody appreciates it.

Midway through the series, Superman meets two other survivors from his native Krypton.  He expects that they’ll congratulate him on how well he’s kept his adopted planet safe.  Instead, they’re disgusted by his complacency.

Superman, in turn, feels disappointed by his brethren.  Within the world of comic books, characters who view their powers as conferring a responsibility are heroes; those who think that power gives them the right to do whatever they want are villains.

Homo sapiens are not as intelligent as the new arrivals from Krypton.  We are smaller, slower, and weaker.  Our tools are less technologically advanced.  If they chose to cull our kind, we could do nothing to resist.

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I recently had the opportunity to read Luke Dittrich’s New York Times Magazine article on the Puerto Rican macaque colony that was traumatized by Hurricane Maria.  (I’ve written previously about Dittrich’s investigation into the history of “Patient H.M.” and unethical behavior among MIT memory researchers.)

This particular colony of macaques has been studied closely for years.  Researchers have voluminous observational data from both before and after the hurricane; they’ve stored many tissue samples as well.  The hope is that this dataset could unveil the biochemical consequences of trauma, and elucidate traits that allow some people to weather trauma more effectively than others.

With clear insights into the specific pathways affected by trauma, we might even be able to develop drugs that would allow humans to stave off PTSD.  Or cure it.

Macaques have long been used as subjects for medical research.  We’ve developed several vaccines that prevent AIDS in macaques, but unfortunately the differences between SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) and HIV meant that some of these vaccines increased human susceptibility to the disease.  Whoops.

An image attributed to the Primate Research Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and disseminated in 1992.

Macaques are highly intelligent, social animals with approximately 93% the same DNA sequences as us humans.  For immunology research, they’re kept in wire cages.  They can’t touch, don’t really get to move around.  But that’s not so bad compared to the nightmarish psychological studies that have been conducted on macaques in the past.  Dittrich’s article summarizes a few of Dr. Harry Harlow’s experiments.  Harlow named several pieces of his research equipment, such as “The Pit of Despair,” a small box devoid of light or sound in which children could be trapped for months on end, or “The Rape Rack,” which shouldn’t be described.

“[Harlow] found that the females who had endured the trauma of both the Pit of Despair and the Rape Rack tended to become neglectful or even severely abusive mothers.

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We’ve conducted studies on humans who have been traumatized.  By surveying hurricane survivors, we’ve found that many suffer from PTSD.  But one drawback of these investigations, Dittrich writes, is that “the humans in these studies almost never become experimental subjects until after the traumatic events in question, which makes it hard to gauge how the events actually changed them.

If a researcher interested in how trauma affects individuals or societies were to dream up an ideal natural laboratory, she might imagine a discrete landmass populated by a multigenerational community that has been extensively and meticulously studied for many decades before the traumatizing event.  Even better, it would be a population to which researchers would have unfettered access – not only to their minds, but also to their bodies, and even their brains.”

We are to macaques as Superman is to us.  We are stronger, smarter, technologically superior.  We can fly into space; macaques have done so only at our whims.

In “St. Francis Visits the Research Macaques of Modern Science” by John-Michael Bloomquist, we eavesdrop on a conversation between the saint and Miss Able, the first primate to leave our planet.  St. Francis asks about her experience of the voyage; she tells him “The Gods did not let me see anything, the damn cone didn’t have a window.

The capsule and couch used by one of America’s first spacefarers, a rhesus monkey named Able, is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum. Able and a companion squirrel monkey named Miss Baker were placed inside a Jupiter missile nose cone and launched on a test flight in May 1959.

We are indeed like gods among macaques, but we have not elected to be heroes.  Instead, we’ve ravaged their ancestral lands.  We’ve wracked their children with twisted nightmares that they could not wake from. 

Even the Puerto Rican macaque colony that Dittrich writes about – some individuals are permitted to live out their days in relative peace, but this is a breeding center.  If you’re developing an HIV vaccine, your lab’s macaques will die; for a few thousand dollars each, this colony will furnish replacements.  According to their website, they maintain “an available pool of rhesus macaques in optimal condition for research.

We humans are like gods, but, unlike Superman, we’ve chosen to be villains.

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 violence and gratitude.

On violence and gratitude.

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

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

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CD8+ T cell destruction of infected cells by Dananguyen on Wikimedia.

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

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

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How metastasis occurs. Image by the National Cancer Institute on Wikimedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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Human gametes by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann on Flickr.

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

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

From Suzana Herculano-Houzel’s The Human Advantage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On alternate truths.

On alternate truths.

Sometimes the alternatives are jarring – you look and count a certain number, another person proffers a radically different amount.

Surely one of you is mistaken.

In the United States, there’s a rift between those who overestimate certain values (size of inauguration crowds, number of crimes committed by immigrants, votes cast by non-citizens, rates of economic growth) and their fellows.

Henri_Tajfel.jpgIn the 1960s and 70s, psychologist Henri Tajfel designed experiments because he was curious: how is genocide possible?  What could sap people’s empathy so severely that they’d murder their thinking, perceiving, communicating neighbors?

Tajfel began with a seemingly irrelevant classification.  In the outside world, people have different concentrations of epidermal melanin, they worship different deities, they ascribe to different political philosophies.  But rather than investigate the gulf separating U.S. Democrats from Republicans, Tajfel recruited a homogeneous set of teenage schoolboys to participate in an experiment.

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 2.38.26 PMOne by one, the kids were shown a bunch of dots on a screen and asked to guess how many dots were there.  Entirely at random, the kids were told they’d consistently overestimated or underestimated the number of dots.  The numbers each kid guessed were not used for this classification.

Then the kids participated in a pretty standard psychology experiment – they had various amounts of money to split between other study subjects.  In each case, the kids were told that one of the recipients would be a fellow over-estimator (not themselves, though), and the other recipient would be an under-estimator.

An intuitive sense of “us vs. them” would pit study subjects against the researchers – kids should assign payoffs to siphon as much money as possible away from the university.  When every option has an equivalent total payoff, you might expect a fair distribution between the two recipients.  After all, the categorization was totally random, and the kids never had a chance to meet the other people in either their own or the other group.

Instead, over-estimators favored other over-estimators, even at the cost of lowering the total payout that the kids would receive from the researchers.  Oops.

We should expect our current over-estimators to favor each other irrationally, too.  These groups aren’t even randomly assigned.  And many of the alternate truths must seem reasonable.  Who among us doesn’t buy in to the occasional fiction?

For instance, there’s the idea of “free market capitalism.”  This is fictitious.  In the absence of a governing body that threatens violence against those who flaunt the rules, there can’t be a market.

Sometimes anarchists argue that you could have community members enforce cultural norms – but that is a government (albeit a more capricious one, since the “cultural norms” might not be written down and shared policing introduces a wide range of interpretations).  Sometimes libertarians argue that a government should only enforce property rights, but they purposefully misunderstand what property rights consist of.

garden-gardening-growth-2259If you paint a picture, then I spray it with a hose, you won’t have a picture anymore.  If you have a farm, then I buy the adjacent property and start dumping salt on my land, you won’t have a farm anymore.  I don’t have the physically take things out of your hands to eliminate their value.

If you own a house, then I buy the adjacent property and build a concentrated animal feeding operation, the value of your house will plummet.  You won’t have fresh air to breathe.

Or maybe I want to pump fracking chemicals into your aquifer.  You turn on your tap and poison spills out.

We have rules for which of these actions are acceptable and which are not.  The justifications are capricious and arbitrary – honestly, they have to be.  The world is complex, and there’s no pithy summary that solves all our quandaries.  Right to swing my arm, your nose, pffft, nonsense.  Why’d you put your nose there, anyway?

And our government enforces those rules.  The market is not free.  Corporations that denounce government intervention (e.g. dairy-industry-opposing tariffs, carbon tax, etc.) seek government interventions (now the dairy industry hopes that producers of soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, etc., will be forced to rename their products).

But this probably doesn’t feel like hypocrisy.  We humans are good at believing in alternate truths.

On loneliness.

On loneliness.

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

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

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

Our cruelty makes for bad science, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                      Each day that I visit

the jail full of men, who hug me the way

their families cannot, write poems about childhoods

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

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

On 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 fairness (and how we treat the utility monster).

On fairness (and how we treat the utility monster).

Life isn’t fair.

Why would it be?  It’s not as though the universe is a fair place.  Some stars get to chug along for years, placidly spewing forth radiation in a fiery inferno of nuclear fission… other stars explode, collapse, or die.

fittestAnd then, among the living?  There’s “survival of the fittest,” which may or may not be fair, exactly, but “survival of the fittest” doesn’t even apply most of the time.  This form of natural selection only works when there’s a large population of individuals bearing a new mutation.  If a new gene is beneficial, the carriers probably survive a little longer or raise a few extra children, and over many generations the gene spreads through the population.

That’s the ideal.  More often, mutations arise in one individual at a time.  Even if a mutation is very beneficial, like a squirrel gene that helps the little critter find and cache 20% more food for winter, there’s a good chance that with one chomp of a roving wolf’s jaws the beneficial mutation disappears.  Evolution relies on a hefty dollop of dumb luck before “survival of the fittest” kicks in.

And yet, most humans are interested in fairness.  Despite being born into a blatantly unfair universe, we strive for better.

defend_equality_poster_croppedBut it’s hard, not least because we have no examples showing us what fairness is.  Moral philosophers… and economists… and warlords, kings, peasants, and voters… have bickered for ages.  Would “fair” mean providing everyone with equal wealth?  Or equal opportunity?  Or equal treatment?

It’s quite clear that we’re not born equal.  We carry different genes.  Our mothers ate differently during pregnancy.  Would it be “fair” to recognize those inherent differences and provide more to those with the “best” genes, that they might flourish?  Or to provide more to those with the least biological advantages, that outcomes could be more equal?

Worse… it’s not clear, when we talk about making the world fair, who even counts.  Should we strive for fairness within our own families?  Our towns?  Our countries?  For all people who speak our language?  Or across the whole planet?

Not even species boundaries are definite things.  Biologists have no foolproof test for whether two creatures belong to the same species – you can’t be quite certain based on appearances, or genetic sequences, or the possibility of producing fertile offspring.  The latter (producing fertile offspring) is often taught in high school biology classes, but there are many instances of animals that biologists declare to be separate species mating and producing fertile offspring.

littleneck_clams_usda96c1862Sometimes you can be pretty confident.  If I walked into a room and saw you, dear reader, sitting beside a clam, I’d assume that you are more similar to me than the clam is.  But the boundaries are fuzzy.  Who is more similar to me, Barack Obama or 45?  Does the answer matter in terms of how each should be treated in a “fair” world?

Is a chimpanzee similar enough to me to deserve a little slice of fairness?  A macaque?  A cat?  A caterpillar?

The answer isn’t out there in the universe, waiting for us.  We have to decide for ourselves.

In economics – especially the conservative Milton-Friedman-esque strains – the goal is to make the world “Pareto optimal.”  This means no one could be made better off without making someone else worse off.  Of course, Pareto optimal distributions of wealth can be blatantly unfair – I’m not keen on the ideas of Milton Friedman.

481px-portrait_of_milton_friedman(One of my professors for graduate macroeconomics loved telling Friedman anecdotes, including a story about Friedman being asked his opinion on tax policy and simply rattling off the theorem “CE is PO.”  Where “CE” means “competitive equilibrium,” i.e. no tax policy at all.  He was joking, but barely.  Whereas all competent economists agree that people behave in wildly undesirable ways unless tax policy is used to balance the costs of negative externalities, i.e. you charge people for dumping pollution into the river.)

If a society has ten dollars and ten citizens, giving each citizen one dollar is Pareto optimal… but giving one person ten dollars and everyone else zero is also Pareto optimal.  The only distributions that aren’t Pareto optimal and the ones in which you forget to hand out all ten dollar bills.  If one person has nine dollars and no one else has any, that is not Pareto optimal.  Toss the last dollar bill at someone – anyone – and the distribution is.

So, okay, economists haven’t solved the fairness game.  Have moral philosophers done better?

One of the stronger (those still irreparably flawed) contenders for a “fair” way to run the world is “utilitarianism.”  This philosophy claims that we should act in a way that maximizes “utility,” i.e. happiness, for the population as a whole.  Which sounds good – who wouldn’t want to make everybody happy?

But… well, we can start simple.  Who should we include in our calculation?  All the presumed Homo sapiens currently living within a country?  Or do we include people living across the entire globe?  Or do we include people who have not yet been born (which makes a huge difference – should we churn through all our non-renewable resources to make everyone alive today as happy as can be, or do we save some happiness for the future)?  Or do we include other species?  Does the happiness of cows matter?  Or the happiness of people who feel sad when they see sad cows?

cow-farmsanctuary

To even get started on utilitarianism, you have to answer all those questions.

And then the real headache begins.  Because… how exactly do you calculate how happy someone is?  If I have one small cookie and two children, I can feel pretty confident that either child would be happy to eat it… at which point utilitarianism dictates that I give the cookie to the child who would enjoy it most.

Our capacity to experience joy, after all, is not equal.

This is the logic used for my favorite rebuttal of utilitarianism: the “utility monster” argument.

Utilitarianism imagines we should redistribute goods to make everyone as happy as possible.  Most people experience diminishing returns – a second bowl of ice cream does not make us as happy as the first – but it’s quite possible that my second cookie would bring me 9 units of utility, and your first cookie would bring only 6 units of utility (maybe you’re not fond of chocolate chips, or are diabetic), in which case, if we had two to share, I should get both.

monsterThe hypothetical Utility Monster is a creature so good at feeling happy that we should all sacrifice everything to satiate its desires, enslaving ourselves to its wants.  I might experience a “disutility” of 1,000 from being enslaved (actually, that seems low – would I really trade my freedom for a hundred cookies?), but if the Utility Monster gets a utility of 3,000 from having another slave, utilitarianism would chain me up.

(Worse, if the founding Americans knew that their slaves experienced a disutility of 1,000 from being enslaved, and a bigoted white “owner” gained only 300 from that ownership, utilitarianism would still say to do it if the founders felt that black emotions and experiences were only one fourth as meaningful as their own.  Or, in contemporary times: if a chicken receives a disutility of 1,000 from being treated as a food-production machine, and I receive a utility of only 30 from having eggs, utilitarianism says we should do it if the chicken is only one hundredth as important as a human being.  The weighted sum of utilities becomes my + 30 times 100 balanced by the chicken’s -1,000.  The world as a whole is better off!)

The Utility Monster is clearly an imaginary creature.  But there are people who are better at experiencing pleasure than others.  A human gene variant for nicotine receptors seems to make cigarettes more pleasurable, and the bearers have more trouble than average quitting smoking.  Several human gene variants seem correlated with enjoying food more, and the bearers are more likely to struggle with weight.

I don’t enjoy the taste of common desserts as much as my daughter.  If I had access to a cake and a bowl of hummus, I’d choose mostly chick peas.  Not out of any moral virtue – that’s simply the taste I enjoy more.  Whereas N would eat cake.

vicodinSimilarly, painkillers do not bring all humans the same pleasure.  Most people have been prescribed painkillers at one time or another; most college students have probably swallowed a few Vicodins recreationally.  Personally, I never enjoyed opiates much.  They made my mind feel slow, my skin cold, my movements underwater.  It was peaceful, but some people, like David Foster Wallace wigging out while pampered on a cruise ship, don’t enjoy that sense of peace as much as others.

The Utility Monster, however – a creature so good at feeling pleasure that we should all sacrifice ourselves to make it happy – would get hooked at the first taste.  My own failure to enjoy painkillers protected me from addiction.

In a society when most people try painkillers at one time or another – after wisdom teeth, or a broken arm, or a work-related back injury – those citizens who most resemble the mythical Utility Monster will wind up addicted.  After tasting that pleasure, they’ll do what they can to seek it out again.  Yes, there are costs.  Drugs are illegal.  Habitual drug use wrecks our minds and bodies.  We can’t properly communicate with our friends or families while blinkered on opiates.  But, if the pleasure is great enough (or the withdrawal pain of not using sufficiently severe), people will choose the drugs.

And so we can see what our society thinks of utilitarianism.  This philosophy advocates we sacrifice everything for those most capable of feeling pleasure.  In our world, we lock them in a box.

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