On meditation and the birth of the universe.

On meditation and the birth of the universe.

This is part of a series of essays prepared to discuss in jail.

Our bodies are chaos engines. 

In our nearby environment, we produce order.  We form new memories.  We build things.  We might have sex and create new life.  From chaos, structure.

As we create local order, though, we radiate disorder into the universe. 

The laws of physics work equally well whether time is moving forward or backward.  The only reason we experience time as flowing forward is that the universe is progressing from order into chaos.

In the beginning, everything was homogeneous.  The same stuff was present everywhere.  Now, some regions of the universe are different from others.  One location contains our star; another location, our planet.  Each of our bodies is very different from the space around us.

This current arrangement is more disorderly than the early universe, but less so than what our universe will one day become.  Life is only possible during this intermediate time, when we are able to eat structure and excrete chaos. 

Hubble peers into a stellar nursery. Image courtesy of NASA Marshall Space Flight on Flickr.

Sunlight shines on our planet – a steady stream of high-energy photons all pointed in the same direction.  Sunshine is orderly.  But then plants eat sunshine and carbon dioxide to grow.  Animals eat the plants.  As we live, we radiate heat – low-energy photons that spill from our bodies in all directions.

The planet Earth, with all its life, acts like one big chaos engine.  We absorb photons from the sun, lower their energy, increase their number, and scatter them.

We’ll continue until we can’t.

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Our universe is mostly filled with empty space. 

But empty space does not stay empty.  Einstein’s famous equation, E equals M C squared, describes the chance that stuff will suddenly pop into existence.  This happens whenever a region of space gathers too much energy.

Empty space typically has a “vacuum energy” of one billionth of a joule per cubic meter.  An empty void the size of our planet would have about as much energy as a teaspoon of sugar.  Which doesn’t seem like much.  But even a billionth of a joule is thousands of times higher than the energy needed to summon electrons into being.

And there are times when a particular patch of vacuum has even more energy than that.

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According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, time and energy can’t be defined simultaneously.  Precision in time causes energy to spread – the energy becomes both lower and higher than you expected.

In practice, the vacuum energy of a particular region of space will seem to waver.  Energy is blurry, shimmering over time.

There are moments when even the smallest spaces have more than enough energy to create new particles.

Objects usually appear in pairs: a particle and its anti-particle.  Anti-matter is exactly like regular matter except that each particle has an opposite charge.  In our world, protons are positive and electrons are negative, but an anti-proton is negative and an anti-electron is positive.

If a particle and its anti-particle find each other, they explode.

When pairs of particles appear, they suck up energy.  Vacuum energy is stored inside them.  Then the particles waffle through space until they find and destroy each other.  Energy is returned to the void.

This constant exchange is like the universe breathing.  Inhale: the universe dims, a particle and anti-particle appear.  Exhale: they explode.

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Our universe is expanding.  Not only are stars and galaxies flying away from each other in space, but also empty space itself is growing.  The larger a patch of nothingness, the faster it will grow.  In a stroke of blandness, astronomers named the force powering this growth “dark energy.”

Long ago, our universe grew even faster than it does today.  Within each small fraction of a second, our universe doubled in size.  Tiny regions of space careened apart billions of times faster than the speed of light.

This sudden growth was extremely improbable.  For this process to begin, the energy of a small space had to be very, very large.  But the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle claims that – if we wait long enough – energy can take on any possible value.  Before the big bang, our universe had a nearly infinite time to wait.

After that blip, our universe expanded so quickly because the vacuum of space was perched temporarily in a high-energy “metastable” state.  Technically balanced, but warily.  Like a pencil standing on its tip.  Left alone, it might stay there forever, but the smallest breath of air would cause this pencil to teeter and fall.

Similarly, a tiny nudge caused our universe to tumble back to its expected energy.  A truly stable vacuum.  The world we know today was born – still growing, but slowly.

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During the time of rapid expansion, empty vacuum had so much energy that particles stampeded into existence.  The world churned with particles, all so hot that they zipped through space at nearly the speed of light. 

For some inexplicable reason, for every billion pairs of matter and anti-matter, one extra particle of matter appeared.  When matter and anti-matter began to find each other and explode, this billionth extra bit remained.

This small surplus formed all of stars in the sky.  The planets.  Ourselves.

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Meditation is like blinking.  You close your eyes, time passes, then you open your eyes again.  Meditation is like a blink where more time passes.

But more is different.

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Our early universe was filled with the smallest possible particles.  Quarks, electrons, and photons.  Because their energy was so high, they moved too fast to join together.  Their brilliant glow filled the sky, obscuring our view of anything that had happened before.

As our universe expanded, it cooled.  Particles slowed down.  Three quarks and an electron can join to form an atom of hydrogen.  Two hydrogen atoms can join to form hydrogen gas.  And as you combine more and more particles together, your creations can be very different from a hot glowing gas.  You can form molecules, cells, animals, societies.

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When a cloud of gas is big enough, its own gravity can pull everything inward.  The cloud becomes more and more dense until nuclear fusion begins, releasing energy just like a nuclear bomb.  These explosions keep the cloud from shrinking further.

The cloud has become a star.

Nuclear fusion occurs because atoms in the center of the cloud are squooshed too close together.  They merge: a few small atoms become one big atom.  If you compared their weights – four hydrogens at the start, one helium at the finish – you’d find that a tiny speck of matter had disappeared.  And so, according to E equals M C squared, it released a blinding burst of energy.

The largest hydrogen bomb detonated on Earth was 50 megatons – the Kuz’kina Mat tested in Russia in October, 1961.  It produced a mushroom cloud ten times the height of Mount Everest.  This test explosion destroyed houses hundreds of miles away.

The fireball of Tsar Bomba, the Kuz’kina Mat.

Every second, our sun produces twenty billion times more energy than this largest Earth-side blast.

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Eventually, our sun will run out of fuel.  Our sun shines because it turns hydrogen into helium, but it is too light to compress helium into any heavier atoms.  Our sun has burned for about four billion years, and it will probably survive for another five billion more.  Then the steady inferno of nuclear explosions will end.

When a star exhausts its fuel, gravity finally overcomes the resistance of the internal explosions.  The star shrinks.  It might crumple into nothingness, becoming a black hole.  Or it might go supernova – recoiling like a compressed spring that slips from your hand – and scatter its heavy atoms across the universe.

Planets are formed from the stray viscera of early stars.

Supernova remains. Image by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton.

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Our universe began with only hydrogen gas.  Every type of heavier atom – carbon, oxygen, iron, plutonium – was made by nuclear explosions inside the early stars.

When a condensing cloud contains both hydrogen gas and particulates of heavy atoms, the heavy atoms create clumps that sweep through the cloud far from its center.  Satellites, orbiting the star.  Planets.

Nothing more complicated than atoms can form inside stars.  It’s too hot – the belly of our sun is over twenty million degrees.  Molecules would be instantly torn apart.  But planets – even broiling, meteor-bombarded planets – are peaceful places compared to stars.

Molecules are long chains of atoms.  Like atoms, molecules are made from combinations of quarks and electrons.  The material is the same – but there’s more of it.

More is different.

Some atoms have an effect on our bodies.  If you inhale high concentrations of oxygen – an atom with eight protons – you’ll feel euphoric and dizzy.  If you drink water laced with lithium – an atom with three protons – your brain might become more stable.

But the physiological effects of atoms are crude compared to molecules.  String fifty-three atoms together in just the right shape – a combination of two oxygens, twenty-one carbons, and thirty hydrogens – and you’ll have tetrahydrocannibol.  String forty-nine atoms together in just the right shape – one oxygen, three nitrogens, twenty carbons, and twenty-five hydrogens – and you’ll have lysergic acid diethylamide.

The effects of these molecules are very different from the effects of their constituent parts.  You’d never predict what THC feels like after inhaling a mix of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen gas.

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An amino acid is comparable in scale to THC or LSD, but our bodies aren’t really made of amino acids.  We’re built from proteins – anywhere from a few dozen to tens of thousands of amino acids linked together.  Proteins are so large that they fold into complex three-dimensional shapes.  THC has its effect because some proteins in your brain are shaped like catcher’s mitts, and the cannibinoid nestles snuggly in the pocket of the glove.

Molecules the size of proteins can make copies of themselves.  The first life-like molecules on Earth were long strands of ribonucleic acid – RNA.  A strand of RNA can replicate as it floats through water.  RNA acts as a catalyst – it speeds up the reactions that form other molecules, including more RNA.

Eventually, some strands of RNA isolated themselves inside bubbles of soap.  Then the RNA could horde – when a particular sequence of RNA catalyzed reactions, no other RNA would benefit from the molecules it made.  The earliest cells were bubbles that could make more bubbles.

Cells can swim.  They eat.  They live and die.  Even single-celled bacteria have sex: they glom together, build small channels linking their insides to each other, and swap DNA.

But with more cells, you can make creatures like us.

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Consciousness is an emergent property.  With a sufficient number of neuron cells connected to each other, a brain is able to think and plan and feel.  In humans, 90 billion neuron cells direct the movements of a 30-trillion-cell meat machine.

Humans are such dexterous clever creatures that we were able to discover the origin of our universe.  We’ve dissected ourselves so thoroughly that we’ve seen the workings of cells, molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles.

But a single human animal, in isolation, never could have learned that much.

Individual humans are clever, but to form a culture complex enough to study particle physics, you need more humans.  Grouped together, we are qualitatively different.  The wooden technologies of Robinson Crusoe, trapped on a desert island, bear little resemblance to the vaulted core of a particle accelerator.

English writing uses just 26 letters, but these can be combined to form several hundred thousand different words, and these can be combined to form an infinite number of different ideas.

More is different.  The alphabet alone couldn’t give anyone insight into the story of your life.

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Meditation is like a blink where more time passes, but the effect is very different.

Many religions praise the value of meditation, especially in their origin stories.  Before Jesus began his ministry, he meditated for 40 days in the Judaean Desert – his mind’s eye saw all the world’s kingdoms prostrate before him, but he rejected that power in order to spread a philosophy of love and charity. 

Before Buddha began his ministry, he meditated for 49 days beneath the Bodhi tree – he saw a path unfurl, a journey that would let travelers escape our world’s cycle of suffering. 

Before Odin began his ministry, he meditated for 9 days while hanging from a branch of Yggdrasil, the world tree – Odin felt that he died, was reborn, and could see the secret language of the universe shimmering beneath him. 

The god Shiva meditated in graveyards, smearing himself with crematory ash.

At its extreme, meditation is purportedly psychedelic.  Meditation can induce brain states that are indistinguishable from LSD trips when visualized by MRI.  Meditation isolates the brain from its surroundings, and isolation can trigger hallucination.

Researchers have found that meditation can boost our moods, attentiveness, cognitive flexibility, and creativity.  Our brains are plastic – changeable.  We can alter the way we experience the world.  Many of our thoughts are the result of habit.  Meditation helps us change those habits.  Any condition that is rooted in our brain – like depression, insomnia, chronic pain, or addiction – can be helped with meditation.

To meditate, we have to sit, close our eyes, and attempt not to think.  This is strikingly difficult.  Our brains want to be engaged.  After a few minutes, most people experience a nagging sense that we’re wasting time.

But meditation gives our minds a chance to re-organize.  To structure ourselves.  And structure is the property that allows more of something to become different.  Squirrels don’t form complex societies – a population of a hundred squirrels will behave similarly to a population of a million or a billion.  Humans form complex webs of social interactions – as our numbers grew through history, societies changed in dramatic ways.

Before there was structure, our entire universe was a hot soup of quarks and electrons, screaming through the sky.  Here on Earth, these same particles can be organized into rocks, or chemicals, or squirrels, or us.  How we compose ourselves is everything.

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The easiest form of meditation uses mantras – this is sometimes called “transcendental meditation” by self-appointed gurus who charge people thousands of dollars to participate in retreats.  Each attendee is given a “personalized” mantra, a short word or phrase to intone silently with every breath.  The instructors dole mantras based on a chart, and each is Sanskrit.  They’re meaningless syllables to anyone who doesn’t speak the language.

Any two-syllable word or phrase should work equally well, but you’re best off carving something uplifting into your brain.  “Make peace” or “all one” sound trite but are probably more beneficial than “more hate.”  The Sanskrit phrase “sat nam” is a popular choice, which translates as “truth name” or more colloquially as “to know the true nature of things.”

The particular mantra you choose matters less than the habit – whichever phrase you choose, you should use it for every practice.  Because meditation involves sitting motionless for longer than we’re typically accustomed, most people begin by briefly stretching.  Then sit comfortably.  Close your eyes.  As you breathe in, silently think the first syllable of your chosen phrase.  As you breathe out, think the second.

Repeating a mantra helps to crowd out other thoughts, as well as distractions from your environment.  Your mind might wander – if you catch yourself, just try to get back to repeating your chosen phrase.  No one does it perfectly, but practice makes better.  When a meditation instructor’s students worried that their practice wasn’t good enough, he told them that “even on a shallow dive, you still get wet.”

In a quiet space, you might take a breath every three to six seconds.  In a noisy room, you might need to breathe every second, thinking the mantra faster to block out external sound.  The phrase is a tool to temporarily isolate your mind from the world.

Most scientific studies recommend you meditate for twenty minutes at a time, once or twice a day, each and every day.  It’s not easy to carve out this much time from our daily routines.  Still, some is better than nothing.  Glance at a clock before you close your eyes, and again after you open them.  Eventually, your mind will begin to recognize the passage of time.  After a few weeks of practice, your body might adopt the approximate rhythm of twenty minutes.

Although meditation often feels pointless during the first week of practice, there’s a difference between dabbling and a habit.  Routine meditation leads to benefits that a single experience won’t.

More is different.

On the study of naked mole-rats.

On the study of naked mole-rats.

This is a riff on an essay from several years ago.

In 1974, evolutionary biologist Richard Alexander gave a lecture describing the conditions that might spawn eusocial vertebrates. 

Alexander was a bug guy – “eusocial” refers to extremely cooperative animals like bees, ants, and termites. Individuals sacrifice themselves for others.  Non-breeders help with childcare.  The colony seems more intelligent than its members.

Alexander proposed that a eusocial mammal could evolve if the animals were small compared to their food sources, and if they lived in underground burrows that could be expanded easily and defended by a small percentage of the colony.

After the lecture, an audience member mentioned that this “hypothetical eusocial mammal” sounded a lot like the naked mole-rat.  Alexander was introduced to Jennifer Jarvis, who had studied individual naked mole-rats but not their social lives.  Alexander and Jarvis collaborated to write The Biology of the Naked Mole-Rat.

Eliot Weinberger condensed this 500-page textbook into his 3-page essay, “Naked Mole-Rats.”

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

Weinberger wrote that naked mole-rats “are continually cruel in small ways.”  But they are outdone by naked apes. 

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For a research paper published in 2008, Thomas Park and colleagues found that being pinched by tweezers causes naked mole-rats pain, but injection with caustic acid does not.

“We tested naked mole-rats in standard behavioral models of acute pain including tests for mechanical, thermal, and chemical pain.  We found that after noxious pinch or 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.  Two chemicals were used – capsaicin from hot peppers and hydrochloric acid – which normally evoke very intense pain in humans and other animals.  Injection of either rapidly evoked intense licking and guarding behaviors in mice.”

“In contrast, naked mole-rats showed virtually no response.”

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Perhaps you worry that acid-resistant naked mole-rats could conquer the world.  Fear not.  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.  Or us.

Half a dozen animals were subjected to each treatment.

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Naked mole-rats don’t die from cancer. 

They should.  Their cells, like ours, are copied from copies of copies.  Errors compound.

Some errors are particularly deadly.  Our cells are supposed to stop growing when they touch.  They are supposed to commit suicide when old.  But the instructions telling a cell when and how to kill itself can be lost, just like any other information.

This is cancer.

In cancer, a single cell proliferates at the expense of others.  A cancer cell claims more than its fair share of space.  It commandeers nutrients.  This cell, and its progeny, and its progeny’s progeny, will flourish. 

Then the scaffolding creature dies.  Then the cancer cells die, too. 

But every cell that isn’t an egg or sperm is terminal anyway.  In the colony of our body, most cells are non-breeding members.  From a cancer cell’s perspective, it has nothing to lose.

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We develop cancer often.  With each passing day, we produce about 100 billion new cells.  Each time we produce a new cell, all 3 billion letters of our genome must be copied. 

The enzymes that copy our genome make one mistake every billion letters.  Each cell division: three new mutations.  Each day: three hundred billion new mutations.

Some mutants are trouble. 

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Our bodies kill cancer.  Your immune system – the same mess of mucous, inflammation, and goo that goes haywire during the flu – seeks and destroys renegade cells.  Your body is a fascist enterprise; white blood cells, its militarized police.

Chemotherapy does not kill cancer.  Chemotherapy means flooding the body with poisons that stop all cells from reproducing.  With luck, if the spread of cancer is slowed, your immune system can kill it before it kills you.

In naked mole-rats, cancers always grow as slowly as if the rodents were receiving chemo, allowing their immune systems to squelch cancers at a leisurely pace.  Their cancers are slowed by a heavy sugar called “hyaluronan,” which is packed so tightly into the space between cells that there is no room to grow.

In 2013, biologist Xiao Tian and colleagues wrote that “naked mole-rats may have evolved a higher concentration of hyaluronan to provide the skin elasticity needed for life in underground tunnels.  This trait may have then been co-opted to provide cancer resistance and longevity.”

They became impervious to cancer almost by mistake.

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The record lifespan for a naked mole-rat in captivity is 28 years, 4 months.  The record-holder was nicknamed James Bond.  He was senior consort to his queen and continued rutting – and siring pups – up until the day he died.

Bond was dissected.  His cells showed extensive oxidative damage in their lipids, proteins, and DNA.  Bond should have been hobbled by age.  But time did not slow him down.

Science writer David Stipp described him as “a little buck-toothed burrower who ages like a demigod.”

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Humans typically cease breeding long before we die.  From an evolutionary perspective, as soon as we stop having children, our fitness drops to zero.

And yet, we have long lifespans.  The dominant theory is an offshoot of “the grandmother hypothesis” – because we often care for grandchildren, there may have been evolutionary pressure to maintain good health until our grandchildren also reach reproductive age. 

With twenty-year generations, there’d be an incentive to survive until our sixties.

After that, perhaps our ancestors were no longer helpful.  And so we’ve inherited a propensity to decay.  Expensive medical interventions can preserve us longer, but once we pass our natural lifespans, brains and bodies weaken.

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When scientists starve animals in the lab, it’s called “caloric restriction.”  This protocol extends lifespan in a wide variety of species.  Monkeys, mice, flies, and worms.  Ten-fold increases in lifespan have been observed.

Caloric restriction should extend the lives of humans, too.

There are unpleasant side effects.  Caloric-restricted mice spend their time staring at empty food bowls.  They are listless: barely moving, barely sleeping.  They live longer, but worse – and if they are fed slightly less, they die of malnutrition.

Frequent starvation in the wild may have caused naked mole-rats to evolve their prodigious longevity.

Naked mole-rats expand their colonies outward, searching for edible roots.  When they find a good root, they gnaw it carefully, attempting to keep the plant alive as long as possible.  But a colony of naked mole-rats eats faster than any plant can grow.  When the plant dies, the colony plunges into famine. 

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Most eusocial animals carefully ventilate their homes.  Termites build giant pylons in the desert.  Although temperatures outside careen from 35 degrees at night to over 100 during the day, the interior of the mound remains a constant 87 degrees.  And the termites do not asphyxiate.  Their exhalations are swept away by circulating air.

Naked mole-rats burrow with less care.  They sleep in piles, hundreds of bodies lumped together underground.  Those near the center soon run out of oxygen.

We would die.

Most animals, deprived of oxygen, can’t fuel their brains.  Thoughts are expensive.  Even at rest, our brains demand a constant influx of energy or else the neurons “depolarize” – we fall apart.

Since the death penalty was reintroduced in the United States in 1976, we have killed eleven prisoners in gas chambers.  During the 1983 execution of Jimmy Lee Gray in Mississippi, officials cleared the observation room after eight minutes.  Gray was still alive, gasping for breath.  His attorney said, “Jimmy Lee Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while reporters counted his moans.”

Gas chambers are pumped full of cyanide gas, carbon monoxide, or carbon dioxide.  Carbon dioxide is cheapest. 

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With each breath, we inhale oxygen, burn sugar, and exhale carbon dioxide.  When we drive, our cars intake oxygen, burn gasoline, and exhaust carbon dioxide. 

In small amounts, carbon dioxide is beneficial.  Carbon dioxide allows plants to grow.  But when you put too much inside a chamber, somebody dies.  Put too much in the air worldwide and we all die.

The planet Venus was habitable, once.  Humans could have lived there.  Venus had a deep ocean and mild weather.

Through some fluke, Venus experienced a temporary bump in the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.  Carbon dioxide traps heat, which caused water to evaporate.  Clouds formed, which trapped more heat.  The cycle continued. 

Venus is now a fiery inferno.  The ground is bare rock.  Sulfuric acid rains from the sky.

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Lab mice die in gas chambers.  Sometimes one mouse is set inside the plexiglass box; sometimes several mice inside a Chinese-food takeout container are gassed together.  A valve for carbon dioxide is opened; the mice lose consciousness; they shit; they die.

A naked mole-rat would live.  Unless a very determined researcher left the gas flowing for half an hour.  Or so found Thomas Park and colleagues – the same team that discovered that naked mole-rats dislike being pinched.  As they reported in 2017:

Human brains drink sugar.  We are like hummingbirds that way.  And our brains are very fussy eaters.  We are fueled exclusively by glucose.

Naked mole-rats are less particular.  Their minds slurp fructose to keep from dying.

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Naked mole-rats are the most cooperative of mammals.  They are resistant to cancer.  Unperturbed by acid.  They age with the libidinous gracelessness of Hugh Hefner. 

They are able to withstand the horrors of a gas chamber.

And yet, for all these talents, naked mole-rats are easily tormented by human scientists.

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Featured image from Wikimedia Commons.

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 articulate 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 storytelling.

On storytelling.

Phagocytosis_--_amoebaWhen an amoeba needs to eat, it hugs food.  This process is called “phagocytosis.”  The amoeba reaches out and merges again behind its meal – creating a bubble of the outer world inside itself.  And here, enswathed, its food is digested.  Like ourselves, amoeba are soft machines converting food into heat, exhaled carbon dioxide, and excrement.

Indeed, our whole planet can be viewed as a whirling machine converting low numbers of inbound high-frequency, low-wavelength photons from the sun into a much larger number of low-frequency, high-wavelength photons.  Our Earth’s carpet of green sucks sunlight; roving animal life grazes and respires, sloughing infrared.

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Those animals come in two forms: tubes and bags.  Jellyfish have one opening, a mouth from which they also drool excrement.  Jellyfish are bags.  Most land animals have two openings, a mouth and an anus.  Tubes.

No matter the form, for animals to carry on, they must engulf other life.

But, sometimes, the engulfed live on.

The “power stations” of our cells are called “mitochondria.”  These look like small bacteria, but they have been tamed.  Mitochondria carry some DNA, a fraction of the genes they need, but the rest of their genes are inside our cells’ central nuclei.  Mitochondria were almost surely swimming freely once: now their ancestral selves can be known only by studying the organelles (little organs) inside our cells.

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Mitochondria from a mammalian cell.

Stories, too, swallow each other.  At times, we can learn our own history only from stray remnants that linger in the engulfing tales.

From the King James translation of Genesis,

God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.

And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

The Hebrew scholar Umberto Cassuto argued that these lines reveal the presence of another, older myth.  The phrase translated as “great whales” in King James, in the original, might be better rendered into English as “great sea-monsters” or “great sea dragons.”  Which is startling – that dragons, alongside humans and cows, would be one of only three types of animals specifically named in Genesis.  Humans told the story.  Cows were their wealth and livelihood.  Why do dragons merit such importance?

From Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch’s From Gods to God (translated by Valerie Zakovitch):

Cassuto argued that the particular identification of the sea dragons in the context of the Creation was polemical in nature.  It was meant, he proposed, to remind the reader that these enormous creatures were created beings like all others: they were not divine, nor were they mythical creatures with powers to challenge God, the Creator.

Marduk_and_the_DragonIn other myths that were widespread at the time Genesis was written, Earth began as a water planet.  Gods lived in the sky, and other gods lived beneath the waves, but there was no land for humans.  Only after an inverse gotterdammerung – a great war between sea & sky gods that marked an end to the deluge – did continents form.  The soil we walk upon is a perhaps a corpse (Marduk, god of heaven, slew Tiamat, goddess of the sea, and made our world by scattering her flesh over the surface of the deep), perhaps a demilitarized zone (after Baal, god of heaven, squelched the uprising of the Prince of the Sea and his dragons, the oceans retreated – shamed, waters allowed themselves to be confined by shores).

Elsewhere in the Bible, Yahweh himself is praised for creating the world by pushing back the waters, as in the Babylonian and Ugaritic myths: Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?  Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over?

This old myth has nearly faded away, but some fragment of it pulses on within the Bible… like the mitochondria preserved by our cells.

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Image by bies on Flickr.

In Islam, Jesus son of Mary is incorporated into the tale – he is a prophet, preparing the way for Muhammad.  He ascended bodily into heaven, but will return with armaments for the judgement.  If all Christian texts were lost, we would still have these traces with which to reconstruct the beliefs of Christians.  Although it’s not clear how close we’d come to the New Testament from lines like:

728px-The_Harrowing_of_HellAnd when Jesus, the son of Mary, said “O children of Israel, indeed I am the messenger of Allah to you confirming what came before me of the Torah and bringing good tidings of a messenger to come after me, whose name is Ahmad.”  But when he came to them with clear evidences, they said, “This is obvious magic.”

Jesus wrought miracles, and for these was persecuted – that much of the story would remain.

Even now, our stories strive to ingest one another.  It’s like watching a pair of amoeba battle, each struggling to form the outer bubble.  The theory of evolution is uncontroversial when applied to crystals or stars – the idea that what we see now will be those structures that simultaneously optimized persistence and replication in the environments they were presented with is simply thermodynamics and math.

But when applied to animals – to humans, especially – the theory of evolution is seen as an origin myth in competition with all the others: the slain dragons, the sculpted clay, Yahweh conjuring with words.  And so a Christian interpretation proffers that God created humans through evolution – a teleological misconception that’s often touted as “compromise.”

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Evolution is not a ‘tree’ growing upward toward ourselves… more like a shrubbery, with everything that has survived to the present on roughly equal footing.

(Teleological misconception: the idea that evolution has a purpose, that humans are “higher” life forms.  Evolution is a random drift, with success defined only by persistence.  Life forms have either made it to the present – in which case, bully for you – or they’ve gone extinct.  They were well-suited for the environs or not, but there isn’t an absolute metric to judge them by.  A variant form of humanity that was less innately bloodthirsty would be, to my eyes, superior to ourselves; if such creatures ever arose, they were surely slaughtered by our own forebears.  Many of our worst traits seem to have helped human ancestors survive and sire children, which is all evolution “wants.”)

And, similarly, scientists attempt to engulf the old
myths within their story.  Evolutionary psychologists pontificate as to the reasons why humans are compelled to invent gods and believe self-sacrificingly in them.  I’ve discussed some of these previously, such as the theory that a belief in watchful gods improves human behavior, boosting interpersonal trust.  People who trust one another can collaborate more easily, which might make a society more successful.

I’m a scientist, but I see no need for the theory of evolution to swallow our myth-making tendencies.  A major virtue of many religious stories is their insistence on behavior that goes against the directives of the natural world.

Though shalt not kill.

For a creature striving to pass along its genes at all costs, this is foolish advice.  Murder provides more to eat, more space to gather berries from, more resources of all kinds.  Many species kill their own kind, to say nothing of the murder of other species.  They have good reason to, from an evolutionary perspective.  Yet, many religions include a prohibition against killing.  In the Bible, humanity’s paradisaical form – to which we’ll return when we have returned the Earth to a state of grace – was vegetarian.

800px-Marten_van_Valckenborch_Tower_of_babel-large.jpgOr, the story of the Tower of Babel?  As a factual account, this is absurd – ancient builders would never reach heaven.  But as a way to communicate an moral precept – that our hubris can be deadly, and that because we can is insufficient rationale to attempt some goals – the story is beautiful.  With sufficient biomedical and / or computational understanding, some day we might be able to live forever… but should we?

To be good stewards of this Earth, at time we must restrain our grand designs.  We could gird the whole planet in steel and concrete.  We could hack down the few remaining forests for farmland.

Robert Bellah gives a lovely summary of these prohibitions in his Religion in Human Evolution:

          The gods had to dig out the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as well as the irrigation canals, and they found it all too much.  They decided to revolt against Enlil, and having burned their work tools they surrounded his house.  Enlil, frightened and barricaded at home, called on Anu and Enki for advice as to what to do.  He felt like abandoning earth altogether and joining his father in the sky.  But Enki, always the clever one, had a suggestion: why not create men to do the work the lesser gods found so tiresome?  He killed one of the lesser gods, We-e, perhaps the ringleader of the rebellion (could we call it a strike?), and, mixing his blood with clay, fashioned the first human beings.

          Enki’s plan worked almost too well: men took over the work of the gods, but greatly prospered in doing so.  Their growing population became so noisy (“the land bellowed like a bull”), that Enlil could get no sleep.  He sent a plague to wipe the people out, but the wise man Atrahasis consulted Enki who told him to keep the people quieter and give more offerings to the gods, and the plague ceased.  Again the people increased and the noise level rose.  This time Enlil sent a drought, but again Atrahasis persuaded Enki to intervene.  The third time was really too much and Enlil sent a great flood to kill every human being.  Enki, however, was one ahead of him and had Atrahasis construct an unsinkable boat, load it with every kind of animal, and last out the flood.  When Enlil discovered what Enki had done he was furious, but meantime the decimation of the people had left the gods with no offerings, and they were beginning to starve.  Enlil finally realized that humans were indispensable to the gods, and, having arranged several methods of birth control, allowed Atrahasis and his people to resettle the earth.

          One might think, says [Thorkild] Jacobsen, that Enlil cut a rather poor figure with his fear, impulsiveness, and insensitivity, but to the ancients the story illustrates Enlil’s ultimate power, his stunning capacity to create a flood that could potentially destroy every living thing.  Jacobsen concludes: “All the same it is clear that the myth views absolute power as selfish, ruthless, and unsubtle.  But what is, is.  Man’s existence is precarious, his usefulness to the gods will not protect him unless he takes care not to be a nuisance to them, however innocently.  There are, he should know, limits set for his self-expression.”