On ‘The Overstory.’

On ‘The Overstory.’

We delude ourselves into thinking that the pace of life has increased in recent years.  National news is made by the minute as politicians announce their plans via live-televised pronouncement or mass-audience short text message.  Office workers carry powerful computers into their bedrooms, continuing to work until moments before sleep.

But our frenzy doesn’t match the actual pace of the world.  There’s a universe of our own creation zipping by far faster than the reaction time of any organism that relies on voltage waves propagating along its ion channels.  Fortunes are made by shortening the length of fiberoptic cable between supercomputer clusters and the stock exchange, improving response times by fractions of a second.  “Practice makes perfect,” and one reason the new chess and Go algorithms are so much better than human players is that they’ve played lifetimes of games against themselves since their creation.

640px-IFA_2010_Internationale_Funkausstellung_Berlin_18We can frantically press buttons or swipe our fingers across touch screens, but humans will never keep up with the speed of the algorithms that recommend our entertainment, curate our news, eavesdrop on our conversations, guess at our sexual predilections, condemn us to prison

And then there’s the world.  The living things that have been inhabiting our planet for billions of years – the integrated ecosystems they create, the climates they shape.  The natural world continues to march at the same stately pace as ever.  Trees siphon carbon from the air as they grasp for the sun, then fall and rot and cause the Earth itself to grow.  A single tree might live for hundreds or thousands of years.  The forests in which they are enmeshed might develop a personality over millions.

Trees do not have a neural network.  But neither do neurons.  When simple components band together and communicate, the result can be striking.  And, as our own brains clearly show, conscious.  The bees clustering beneath a branch do not seem particularly clever by most of our metrics, but the hive as a whole responds intelligently to external pressures.  Although each individual has no idea what the others are doing, they function as a unit.

Your neurons probably don’t understand what they’re doing.  But they communicate to the others, and that wide network of communication is enough.

Root_of_a_TreeTrees talk.  Their roots intertwine – they send chemical communiques through symbiotic networks of fungal mycelia akin to telephones.

Trees talk slowly, by our standards.  But we’ve already proven to ourselves that intelligence could operate over many orders of temporal magnitude – silicon-based AI is much speedier than the chemical communiques sent from neuron to neuron within our own brains.  If a forest thought on a timescale of days, months, or years, would we humans even notice?  Our concerns were bound up in the minute by minute exigencies of hunting for food, finding mates, and trying not to be mauled by lions.  Now, they’re bound up in the exigencies of making money.  Selecting which TV show to stream.  Scoping the latest developments of a congressional race that will determine whether two more years pass without the slightest attempt made to avoid global famine.

In The Overstory, Richard Powers tries to frame this timescale conflict such that we Homo sapiens might finally understand.  Early on, he presents a summary of his own book; fractal-like, this single paragraph encapsulates the entire 500 pages (or rather, thousands of years) of heartbreak.

image (2)He still binges on old-school reading.  At night, he pores over mind-bending epics that reveal the true scandals of time and matter.  Sweeping tales of generational spaceship arks.  Domed cities like giant terrariums.  Histories that split and bifurcate into countless parallel quantum worlds.  There’s a story he’s waiting for, long before he comes across it.  When he finds it at last, it stays with him forever, although he’ll never be able to find it again, in any database.  Aliens land on Earth.  They’re little runts, as alien races go.  But they metabolize like there’s no tomorrow.  They zip around like swarms of gnats, too fast to see – so fast that Earth seconds seem to them like years.  To them, humans are nothing but sculptures of immobile meat.  The foreigners try to communicate, but there’s no reply.  Finding no signs of intelligent life, they tuck into the frozen statues and start curing them like so much jerky, for the long ride home.

Several times while reading The Overstory, I felt a flush of shame at the thought of how much I personally consume.  Which means, obviously, that Powers was doing his work well – I should feel ashamed.    We are alive, brilliantly beautifully alive, here on a magnificent, temperate planet.  But most of us spend too little time feeling awe and too much feeling want.  “What if there was more?” repeated so often that we’ve approached a clear precipice of forever having less.

In Fruitful Labor, Mike Madison (whose every word – including the rueful realization that young people today can’t reasonably expect to follow in his footsteps – seems to come from a place of earned wisdom and integrity, a distinct contrast from Thoreau’s Walden, in my opinion) asks us to:

image (3)Consider the case of a foolish youth who, at age 21, inherits a fortune that he spends so recklessly that, by the age of 30, the fortune is dissipated and he finds himself destitute.  This is more or less the situation of the human species.  We have inherited great wealth in several forms: historic solar energy, either recent sunlight stored as biomass, or ancient sunlight stored as fossil fuels; the great diversity of plants and animals, organized into robust ecosystems; ancient aquifers; and the earth’s soil, which is the basis for all terrestrial life.  We might mention a fifth form of inherited wealth – antibiotics, that magic against many diseases – which we are rendering ineffective through misuse.  Of these forms of wealth that we are spending so recklessly, fossil fuels are primary, because it is their energy that drives the destruction of the other assets.

What we have purchased with the expenditure of this inheritance is an increase in the human population of the planet far above what the carrying capacity would be without the use of fossil fuels.  This level of population cannot be sustained, and so must decline.  The decline could be gradual and relatively painless, as we see in Japan, where the death rate slightly exceeds the birth rate.  Or the decline could be sudden and catastrophic, with unimaginable grief and misery.

In this context, the value of increased energy efficiency is that it delays the inevitable reckoning; that is, it buys us time.  We could use this time wisely, to decrease our populations in the Japanese style, and to conserve our soil, water, and biological resources.  A slower pace of climate change could allow biological and ecological adaptations.  At the same time we could develop and enhance our uses of geothermal, nuclear, and solar energies, and change our habits to be less materialistic.  A darker option is to use the advantages of increased energy efficiency to increase the human population even further, ensuring increasing planetary poverty and an even more grievous demise.  History does not inspire optimism; nonetheless, the ethical imperative remains to farm as efficiently as one is able.

The tragic side of this situation is not so much the fate of the humans; we are a flawed species unable to make good use of the wisdom available to us, and we have earned our unhappy destiny by our foolishness.  It is the other species on the planet, whose destinies are tied to ours, that suffer a tragic outcome.

Any individual among us could protest that “It’s not my fault!”  The Koch brothers did not invent the internal combustion engine – for all their efforts to confine us to a track toward destitution and demise, they didn’t set us off in that direction.  And it’s not as though contemporary humans are unique in reshaping our environment into an inhospitable place, pushing ourselves toward extinction.

Heck, you could argue that trees brought this upon themselves.  Plants caused climate change long before there was a glimmer of a chance that animals like us might ever exist.  The atmosphere of the Earth was like a gas chamber, stifling hot and full of carbon dioxide.  But then plants grew and filled the air with oxygen.  Animals could evolve … leading one day to our own species, which now kills most types of plants to clear space for a select few monocultures.

As Homo sapiens spread across the globe, we rapidly caused the extinction of nearly all mega-fauna on every continent we reached.  On Easter Island, humans caused their own demise by killing every tree – in Collapse, Jared Diamond writes that our species’ inability to notice long-term, gradual change made the environmental devastation possible (indeed, the same phenomenon explains why people aren’t as upset as they should be about climate change today):

image (4)We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity. 

Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site.  Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. 

Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago.  Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important.  At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance.  That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. 

No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

512px-Richard_Powers_(author)Throughout The Overstory, Powers summarizes research demonstrating all the ways that a forest is different from – more than – a collection of trees.  It’s like comparing a functioning brain with neuronal cells grown in a petri dish.  But we have cut down nearly all our world’s forests.  We can console ourselves that we still allow some trees to grow – timber crops to ensure that we’ll still have lumber for all those homes we’re building – but we’re close to losing forests without ever knowing quite what they are.

Powers is furious, and wants for you to change your life.

You’re a psychologist,” Mimi says to the recruit.  “How do we convince people that we’re right?”

The newest Cascadian [a group of environmentalists-cum-ecoterrorists / freedom fighters] takes the bait.  “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind.  The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

On Charles Foster’s ‘Being a Beast’ and battling the empathy gap.

On Charles Foster’s ‘Being a Beast’ and battling the empathy gap.

At a February presidential rally, the crowd cheered when Donald Trump declared, “All lives matter,” using his microphone to drown out the protesters.

All lives matter: setting aside that, for some people’s lives, the world is already acting as though they matter, it’s hard to believe Trump meant what he said. Considering his policy proposals, it doesn’t seem like he values Black, Latino, or Muslim lives that much. It’s doublethink à la Animal Farm: “All lives matter. But some lives matter more than others.”


The world would be less terrible if we could understand why people believe this. Or, better yet, make them stop.

The root of this problem is that our brains are not designed for this world. Natural selection does not work like an engineer, but like a basement tinkerer, slapping together barely-functional prototypes from duct-tape, twine, and pre-existing parts.

Natural selection molded the human brain. And, sure, our brains are amazing. We can talk, we can think, we can rocket ourselves into space. But our brains are built using much the same genetic blueprints as other species’. The finished product features many of the same archaic modules.

But we’d best remember that our brains have flaws, especially within the context of the modern world: we’ve reshaped the planet so thoroughly that it looks nothing like the environment in which humans evolved. And so we make mistakes. Our intuitions about the world, about fairness or even basic logic, do not always match reality.

interlandiIn March of 2015, Jeneen Interlandi published a thought-provoking piece on the “empathy gap” in The New York Times Magazine. She was curious about the neurological underpinnings of empathy. What gives rise to our misguided sense of identity? Why are we moved by the plights of those whom we consider to be like us, but can stay callous and cold to the suffering of perceived “others”? For instance, civil forfeiture episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver featured exclusively white victims, as did the New York Times coverage of innocent people incarcerated due to faulty roadside drug tests, despite the fact that black drivers are the primary victims of these police abuses. Did the producers worry that an accurate depiction of these harms would lose their audience’s interest?

In “The Brain’s Empathy Gap,” Interlandi focuses on the treatment of the Roma in Hungary. Should the Hungarian masses care about poverty and educational failings among the Roma? Yes. Of course. But do they? Judging by most Hungarians’ actions, or by the limited political will to rectify injustice, no. Excepting a rare few bleeding hearts, it doesn’t seem so.

Should the masses in the United States (as in all people, including the melanin-deficient sinking middle classes shouting themselves red in the face at Trump rallies) care about poverty, educational failings, and the state-sponsored murder of black people? Yes. They should.

But this is not how our brains evolved to operate. For millions of years, reflexive callousness made sense. Among populations scraping out a subsistence living – scavenging other hunters’ kills, picking berries, and hoping not to be eaten by a predator in the night – there was only so much help to give. Waste it on a stranger, someone who appears not to share many of your genes, and your own children might die.

From a philosophical perspective, this is not a problem. Utilitarian ethicists from Jeremy Betham to Peter Singer have argued that our moral choices should not be so easily swayed by friendship, family relations, or proximity.

But from an evolutionary perspective? Helping an other as opposed to your own is disastrous. The genes that might trigger this type of self-sacrifice die out, leaving the world overrun with those that spell Family First in a chemical script of As and Cs and Gs and Ts. These narcissistic sequences were so successful that we nearly all have them. Though I like to think of myself as a rational, thoughtful individual, I too have a brain that would command me to trample all the other children on the playground if my daughter were in danger.

These genes helped my ancestors survive long enough that I might be here today.

It doesn’t work quite like this, but what a picture.  Picture by T. Michael Keesey on Flickr.

Today’s world is very different, of course. Modern agriculture is so productive that there should be plenty of food for all. Air travel and urban living means there is no longer any correlation between physical appearance and genetic similarity. And I would like to think that our thousands of years of philosophical inquiry – what we’ve done with the magnificent brains that natural selection bequeathed us – have accomplished something. We should know better now.

It’s hard, though. Practicing uniform kindness with our brains can be like running Photoshop on a Linux machine; even when it doesn’t hang and crash, the fans are working overtime. My former housemate competes in something called “power racing,” where she builds small vehicles propelled by lawnmower engines. She has to be careful when she drives: juice her machine too hard and the engine might melt. There are always complications when a tool designed for one task is repurposed for another.

An illustrative example.  Photo credit: the Vulture.

As for our brains, our chauvinism is innate. Psychology journals are full of evidence of this, especially in the older issues, back when rampantly unethical experimental design and the consent-less manipulation of children were seen as permissible in the name of science. A week-long camp with children partitioned into two animal-themed teams is enough to instill a powerful sense of jingoism. Even a classification as arbitrary as falsely purporting that a child over- or under-estimates the number of dots on a screen is enough to trigger a narrowing of moral concern to the child’s own kind.

9781627796330And yet: empathy can be learned. Charles Foster’s Being a Beast is a lively demonstration. Foster is a trained veterinarian and ethicist who sought an understanding of the inner lives of animals. In Being a Beast, he documents the months he spent scavenging urban trash like a fox, shivering in winter rivers like an otter, huddling alongside his middle-school-aged son in a hillside burrow like a badger, and chasing after migratory swifts.

Though living as a badger sounds ridiculous, the success or failure of Foster’s project has serious implications. If learning to empathize with someone whom we’ve been taught to view as other were extremely difficult, we might resign ourselves to a world in which no one who brandishes the slogan “all lives matter” could ever understand the fear of black parents that their children might be killed by officers sworn to protect them. Justice, though necessary, might never gain popular support.

No person is more other than an animal. If Foster can understand how it feels to be a beast, then we must all have it in us to offer justice to our fellow humans.

Alarmingly, Foster perceives his project as having failed. In a passage on river otters, Foster dismisses his efforts brusquely:

otterAnd, knowing that the cold, and that urgent calorific imperative, sends otters wandering even more widely, I’ve tramped and tramped the riverbanks and the watersheds, trying to feel in touch with them – or in touch with anything outside myself. I’ve failed.

But Foster, who suffers from depression, is not to be trusted as to the quality of his own work. Like all depressed people, he can malign himself cruelly where congratulations are due.

Foster’s project did not fail. For one, he created a compelling work of art. I laughed aloud at his description of otters as frenetic killing machines. And his experience of empathizing with swifts, a type of bird, is deeply poignant:

tachymarptis_melba_-barcelona_spain_-flying-8I’m best at being a swift when I’m on the ground. At least then I can see and smell the source of the air rivers the swifts are fishing, hear the thrum next to my ear of the wasp that will be broken three hundred yards up, and slap a fly on my arm at more or less the same speed as the swift’s stubby neck would turn and its mandibles close on it.

Most importantly, he was able to overcome all the years in which he’d trained his mind to see badgers, otters, and birds as inescapably other:

badger_odfw_2But species boundaries are, if not illusory, certainly vague and sometimes porous. Ask any evolutionary biologist or shaman.

It is a mere 30 million years – the blink of a lightly lidded eye on an earth whose life has been evolving for 3.4 thousand million years – since badgers and I shared a common ancestor. Go back just 40 million years before that, and I share my entire family album not only with badgers but with herring gulls.

All the animals in this book are pretty close family. That’s a fact. If it doesn’t seem like that, our feelings are biologically illiterate. They need reeducation.

Foster changed his life in a way that proves his project succeeded. He was an avid hunter through his youth and young adulthood but writes that, because of this experience, “I’ve put down my guns and taken up my tofu.” He was willing to give up his own pleasure once he convinced himself that the animals he hunted were unique individuals with their own wants and desires. He was willing to make personal sacrifices because others’ pain no longer seemed so different from his own.

We can overcome the reflexes of our minds.

neilLuckily, it seems to require fewer heroics to successfully empathize with another human than Charles Foster employed in his efforts to understand animals. We need not scuttle naked through the woods, defecate outdoors, ask someone to chase us with a pack of hunting dogs. If all you’re after is empathy for other humans, it seems that reading will do. Reading in general, and especially the reading of emotionally-engaging fiction, makes people more empathetic. In The View from the Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman speculates that this transformation occurs because “you get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”

It might take nothing more than great literature – including, perhaps, Charles Foster’s Being a Beast, alongside The Invisible Man, The Bluest Eye, A Naked Singularity, The Beast Side, and the works cited in Justice Sotomayor’s Strieff dissent – for Trump’s supporters to be pained by our nation’s shameful treatment of minorities. The incarceration crisis, the education crisis, the police-murdering-people-in-the-streets crisis. Perhaps books could engender the political will needed to overcome injustice.

(Lest I sound too blithely hopeful, I should probably mention that reading in this country, especially reading fiction, has been on a steady decline for years.)

On octopus literature, a reprise: what would books be like if we didn’t love gossip?

On octopus literature, a reprise: what would books be like if we didn’t love gossip?

A few months ago, I lost several days reading about the structure of octopus brains.  A fascinating subject — they are incredibly intelligent creatures despite sharing little evolutionary history with any other intelligent species.  And their minds are organized differently from our own.

Human minds are highly centralized — we can’t do much without our head being involved.  Whereas octopus minds seem to be distributed throughout their bodies.  It’s difficult to address how this might feel for an octopus, but researchers have studied the behavior of hacked-off octopus tentacles.  An octopus tentacle can behave intelligently even when it’s not connected to the rest of the body.  Each limb may have something akin to a mind of its own.

Which seems fascinating from the perspective of narrative.  The way human minds seem to work is, first our subconscious makes a decision, then a signal is sent to our muscles.  We speak, or press a button, or pull our hand away from something hot. And then, last, our conscious mind begins rationalizing why we made that choice.

The temporal sequencing is wacky, sure. But for the purpose of this essay, the important concept is that a centralized brain makes all the choices and constructs a coherent narrative for why each choice was made.

An octopus might find it more difficult to construct a single unifying narrative to explain its actions in a way that we humans would consider logical.  There are hints that octopus tentacles have characteristics akin to personalities — some behave as though shy, some as though bold, some aggressive, some curious.  If one tentacle is trying to hide while another is trying to attack, there might not be a single internal narrative that describes the creature’s self-sabotage.

And what might your personality be? Shy? Bold? Inquisitive? Photo by Jaula De Ardilla.

From our perspective, octopus consciousness might be like trying to explain in one sweep the behavior of an entire rambunctious dysfunctional family.  Sure, some calamities would affect them all together, but moment by moment each family member might have his or her own distinct interests.  A daughter who wants to stay out late, a mother who wants her daughter home by nine, a father who wants somebody to play catch in the yard, a son who just wants to be left alone…

It’s not that the collective is inexplicable, it’s just that we humans are unaccustomed to thinking of collectives like that as representing a single consciousness.  We look for logical motivations on a smaller scale — centralized minds — than an octopus might embrace as its worldview.

Anyway, I thought this might have a big impact on the way octopus literature would be structured.  Once, you know, they develop a language, start spinning myths, etc.

(To the best of my knowledge, there is no octopus language.  If they have one that’s chemical- or color-based, I’m not sure I would even notice.  Someone else probably would’ve, though.)

unnamed (1)While reading Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus, I learned that there would probably be another major difference between octopus literature and our own.  Their literature might seem chaotic to human readers, yes.  But also, our literature is often character-drivenOur brains evolved to gossip, and the books that most human readers love most feature charming, striking individuals.  I love The Idiot largely because of the dynamic between Myshkin and Rogozhin, In Search of Lost Time for the vicarious misery of watching Marcel’s crumbling relationship with Albertine.  Readers of Game of Thrones are immersed in a rich world of political intrigue, tracking everyone’s motives as they push against each other.

Octopus readers might not care about any of that.  From Montgomery’s book:

Belonging to a group is one of humankind’s deepest desires.  We’re a social species, like our primate ancestors.  Evolutionary biologists suggest that keeping track of our many social relationships over our long lives was one of the factors driving the evolution of the human brain.  In fact, intelligence itself is most often associated with similarly social and long-lived creatures, like chimps, elephants, parrots, and whales.

But octopuses represent the opposite end of this spectrum.  They are famously short-lived, and most do not appear to be social.  There are intriguing exceptions: Male and female lesser Pacific striped octopuses, for instance, sometimes cohabit in pairs, sharing a single den.  Groups of these octopuses may live in associations of forty or more animals — a fact so unexpected that it was disbelieved and unpublished for thirty years, until Richard Ross of the Steinhart Aquarium recently raised the long-forgotten species in his home lab.  But the giant Pacific, at least, is thought to seek company only at the end of its life, to mate.  And even that is an iffy proposition, as one known outcome is the literal dinner date, when one octopus eats the other.  If not to interact with fellow octopuses, what is their intelligence for?  If octopuses don’t interact with each other, why would they want to interact with us?

Jennifer, the octopus psychologist, says, “The same thing that got them their smarts isn’t the same thing that got us our smarts.”  Octopus and human intelligence evolved separately and for different reasons.  She believes the event driving the octopus toward intelligence was the loss of the ancestral shell.  Losing the shell freed the animal for mobility.  An octopus, unlike a clam, does not have to wait for food to find it; the octopus can hunt like a tiger.  And while most octopuses love crab best, a single octopus may hunt many dozens of different prey species, each of which demands a different hunting strategy, a different skill set, a different set of decisions to make and modify.  Will you camouflage yourself for a stalk-and-ambush attack?  Shoot through the sea with your siphon for a quick chase?  Crawl out of the water to capture escaping prey?

Come to think of it, the mammalian Auntie Ferret would also enjoy reading “The Loner’s Guide to Building Fabulous Underwater Contraptions”

All of which made me realize, an octopus reader would probably be indifferent to well-crafted characters with rich inner lives.  An octopus would probably care more far more about the plot than the characters.  My assumption is that an ideal octopus novel would be  a thriller, crammed full of facts, action-packed, and weave together numerous barely-integrated narratives.

Indeed, octopus readers might not like Montgomery’s book, since she devotes so much space to the tangled lives and interactions of the humans who love and study them.  The Soul of an Octopus is clearly intended for a human audience.

I’d be curious to read a book written specifically for an octopus someday… although it’s probable that, like music composed specifically for tamarin monkeys, octopus literature would seem awful to me.

On Mat Johnson’s Loving Day and wanting to fit in.

On Mat Johnson’s Loving Day and wanting to fit in.

My condolences to those who feel as though it’s their heritage never to fit in.

Growing up, I didn’t fit either.  But I had no expectation of fitting in.  I was an outlier by virtue of who I was, not who my parents were.  And presumably I could’ve learned to talk differently, to act differently, to dress differently, and then I would’ve been embraced by the fold.

9780812993455Whereas the protagonist of Mat Johnson’s Loving Day, like the protagonist of Viet Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, perhaps like countless biracial children throughout history, felt himself to be an outcast because he was too white for his mother’s people and too black for his father’s.  He was caught in a bind; in any circumstance he would be judged for attempting to pass himself off as something he wasn’t.  His genetic heritage loomed large in every social interaction, an oppressive weight from his parentage embodied concretely in the form of the shambling, decrepit mansion he inherited from his father and was burdened with the disposal of.

In the initial chapters of Loving Day, the protagonist self-identifies as black.  Yes, through a twist of genetics (I swear I’ll write & post that essay on the evolution of skin color soon!) he is very pale.  But appearance alone should not wipe away his connection to his mother, his family, the history that led to his existence.  His take on identify resembles Danzy Senna’s in the opening to her 1998 comic essay “The Mulatto Millennium.” Here’s an excerpt:

Before all of this radical ambiguity, I was a black girl.  I fear even saying this.  The political strong arm of the multiracial movement, affectionately known as the Mulatto Nation (just “the M.N.” for those in the know), decreed just yesterday that those who refuse to comply with orders to embrace their many heritages will be sent on the first plane to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where, the M.N.’s minister of defense said, “they might learn the true meaning of mestizo power.”

Portrait2But, with all due respect to the multiracial movement, I cannot tell a lie.  I was a black girl.  Not your ordinary black girl, if such a thing exists.  But rather, a black girl with a Wasp mother and a black-Mexican father, and a face that harkens to Andalusia, not Africa.  I was born in 1970, when “black” described a people bonded not by shared complexion or hair texture but by shared history.

Not only was I black (and here I go out on a limb), but I was an enemy of the people.  The mulatto people, that is.  I sneered at those byproducts of miscegenation who chose to identify as mixed, not black.  I thought it wishy-washy, an act of flagrant assimilation, treason, passing even.

The protagonist of Loving Day also does not conform to outsider’s anticipation of what a black man should look like, but throughout the book he struggles in the attempt to erase his father’s legacy.  This despite his “re-education” at a multicultural magnet school where he enrolls his daughter; at the school they first assess his self-identity…

My daughter is turning pages before I am, but I am exasperated before her.  The questions keep coming: What do you eat New Year’s Day?  What card games do you know?  What are your feelings about mayonnaise?  What do you do with these?–and a picture of dominoes.  With every question, with every answer, I become more inclined to grab
[my daughter]‘s hand again and walk out, nearly overwhelmed by this impulse.  I look up at [the love interest / test proctor], standing there in judgement.  I’m used to having my blackness questioned, but never on paper, and never by an Oreo who would damn me for it.  But my daughter is two desks over, just jotting away, unaware of this pretext of just uncaring.

CaptureBy the final question, Name your black friends [minimum three], I answer, Nat Turner, Warren G. Harding, and What T. Fuck? and then get up to hand it in.  All I get is a curt thank-you.

. . .

“You’re black identified,” [the love interest / test proctor / now exam grader] tells me.  She’s barely looked through my test.

“Really?  I could have told you that, but it took me thirty minutes to fill the thing out.  How did you–“

“The last question.  Most white-identified mixed people actually try to list names.  You expressed outrage at the question, a typical black-identified response.  I already saw a few more answers, I doubt the rest will indicate different.  Or you can wait here for the next ten minutes.”  I want to wait.  I want to wait and talk to her and tell her how silly this test is, this mixed-race posturing.  I want to do it in a way that shows her how witty I am.  I want her to be able to tell me why I’m wrong.  I want her to be right, even though I am.  I want to be on the same page in the same space and not feel alone but hinged to someone solid.  Someone just like me, so I can know what it feels like to not be different.

…then in a class assignment on parental histories force him to research his Irish ancestry.  But he rebels in the end.

Yes, he did find a clan that embraced him for the totality of his heritage.  But that didn’t provide the internal peace he’d hoped for.  To my mind, his final rebellion is against the idea of genetics as destiny — simply because he carries his father’s chromosomes, and, yes, his history of living with, being talked to, and being loved by the man, does not mean he cannot embrace, for instance, his seat at the “Urban” section of a comic convention.

The message I took away from Loving Day resonates with what I found so disquieting about Elinor Burkett’s New York Times opinion piece on transgender identity:

burkettI have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes.  Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.

That’s the kind of nonsense that was used to repress women for centuries.  But the desire to support people like Ms. Jenner and their journey toward their truest selves has strangely and unwittingly brought it back.

People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women, whether Ms. Jenner or [former Harvard president] Mr. Summers, shouldn’t get to define us.  That’s something men have been doing for much too long.  And as much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a women.

. . .

“You can’t pick up a brain and say ‘that’s a girl’s brain’ or ‘that’s a boy’s brain,’ ” Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist at Britain’s Aston University, told The Telegraph last year.  The differences between male and female brains are caused by the “drip, drip, drip” of the gendered environment, she said.

The drip, drip, drip of Ms. Jenner’s experience included a hefty dose of male privilege few women could possibly imagine.  While young “Bruiser,” as Bruce Jenner was called as a child, was being cheered on toward a university athletic scholarship, few female athletes could dare hope for such largess since universities offered little funding for women’s sports.  When Mr. Jenner looked for a job to support himself during his training for the 1976 Olympics, he didn’t have to turn to the meager “Help Wanted — Female” ads in the newspapers, and he could get by on the $9,000 he earned annually, unlike young women whose median pay was little more than half that of men.  Tall and strong, he never had to figure out how to walk streets safely at night.

Those are realities that shape women’s brains.

I understand why Burkett is upset.  As a passionate feminist, her editorial made me feel extremely conflicted.  But: there are differences between men & women’s brains.  There is significant statistical variation, sure, but the differences are real.  You could look at results like those from brain imaging of men & women as they smell things.  This particular study caught my attention when it was published because the researchers announced similarities between heterosexual women and homosexual men for this pathway.  But there are a variety of other results in this vein, many of which are referenced in this review.

(It’s worth mentioning a caveat, though — these studies were conducted with people from single populations.  To identify inherent biological differences, they would ideally use people from a mix of cultural backgrounds, including both matriarchal and patriarchal societies.  There are cultures in which the males traditionally perform childcare and related duties, and you’d need to show similar, i.e. not inverted, gender-specific brain structure in people from those cultures to rebut Burkett’s / Rippon’s claim.)

To my mind, feminism shouldn’t be about claiming that men & women are the same.  That their identities don’t matter.  It’s that, no matter your identity, your opportunities should not be circumscribed.  No matter who you are, you should get to pursue your dreams.  Your identity should not dictate how you will be treated by the world.

150601180629-vanity-fair-caitlyn-jenner-large-169Here’s the final paragraph from Burkett’s editorial:

Bruce Jenner told [an interviewer] that what he looked forward to most in his transition was the chance to wear nail polish, not for a furtive, fugitive instant, but until it chips off.  I want that for Bruce, now Caitlyn, too.  But I also want her to remember: Nail polish does not a woman make.

That’s obviously true.  I am a ultra-masculine gargantuan man beast (though perhaps less so now.  I’m my daughter’s primary daytime parent, and childcare seems to lower testosterone level), and I’ve worn nail polish for years.

My hands, circa 2006.
My hands, circa 2006.

But there is a major difference between my wearing nail polish — a self-identified male decorating his body in what many consider to be a feminine way — or Burkett — a born and raised woman — wearing nail polish, and Jenner wearing nail polish.  The latter case is a someone who was raised as a man and felt dread that someone might recognize that her personality did not match the shell in which it was encased.  Nail polish obviously would not make her a woman, but only after being recognized as a woman could she act without fear.

Similarly, the protagonist of Loving Day was always forced to prove his identity before being given the chance to relax and be himself.  Here’s another cutting passage, this from the comic convention at which the protagonist was shooed off to sit at the “Urban” booth:

“Who are you?” the man already sitting in the chair next to mine asks.  He’s around my age, with more gut to show for it.  There’s an eagle on his sweatshirt, its wings spread around his midriff as if it’s trying to fly off before his belly explodes.  The guy’s tone isn’t rude, but it isn’t a casual entrée into small talk either.  He really wants to know.  He looks down at my seat as if some invisible, insubstantial Afro-entity had already laid claim to it, and really wants to know why I’m motioning to sit there?  Why am I at the black table?

“I’m a local writer.  Just back in town, you know, peddling my wares,” I tell him, and then babble on a bit more, eventually getting to my name and the last book I worked on.  The words don’t really matter.  What I’m really doing is letting my black voice come out, to compensate for my ambiguous appearance.  Let the bass take over my tongue.  Let the South of Mom’s ancestry inform the rhythm of my words in a way few white men could pull off.  It’s conscious but not unnatural–I sometimes revert to this native tongue even when I have nothing to prove.  Often when I’ve been drinking.  I refer to my last graphic novel with the pronoun jawn.  I finish what I’m saying with “Know what I’m saying?”  He nods at me a little, slightly appeased, because he does know what I’m saying.  What I’m saying is, I’m black too.  What I’m saying is that he can relax around me, because I’m on his side.  That he doesn’t have to worry I’m going to make some random racist statement that will stab him when he’s unguarded, or be offended when he makes some racist comment of his own.  People aren’t social, they’re tribal.  Race doesn’t exist, but tribes are fucking real.

On mental architecture and octopus literature.

CaptureI might spend too much time thinking about how brains work.  Less than some people, sure — everybody working on digital replication of human thought must devote more energy than I do to the topic, and they’re doing it in a more rigorous way — but for a dude with no professional connection to cognitive science or neurobiology or what-have-you, I spend an unreasonable amount of time obsessing over ’em.

What can I say?  Brains are cool.  That they function at all is pretty amazing, and that they do it in a way that gives us either free will or at least the illusion of having it is even better.

Most of my “obsessing over brains” time is devoted to thinking about how humans work, but studies on animal cognition always floor me as well.  A major focus of these studies, though, is often how similar human minds are to those of other animals… for instance, my recent hamsters & poverty essay was about the common response of most mammalian species to unfair, unrectifiable circumstance, and I’m planning a piece on the (mild) similarities between prairie dog language and our own.

The only post I’ve slapped up lately on differences between human and animal cognition was about potential rattlesnake misconceptions, but even that piece hinged upon a difference in the way they see, not the way they think.

Today’s post, though, will be about octopi.

A baby octopus (graneledone verrucosa)  moves across the seafloor as ROV Deep Discoverer (D2) explores Veatch Canyon.

A study on octopus evolution was recently published in Nature (Albertin et al., “The octopus genome and the evolution of cephalopod neural and morphological novelties”), and the main thing I learned from that paper & some background reading is that octopus brains are wicked cool.

Honestly, if we asked Superman to spin our planet backward some twenty billion times in order to re-run evolution, I think cephalopods could give apes a run for their money on potential planetary dominance.  Cephalopods are quite intelligent, adept problem solvers, have tentacles sufficiently agile for tool use, and can communicate by changing colors (although with much less finesse than the octospiders in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series. The octospiders used a language based on shifting striations of color displayed on their skin).


The biggest obstacle holding octopi back from world domination is the difficulty for a water-dwelling species to harness fire or electricity.  But octopi can make brief sojourns onto dry land… and even land-dwelling apes took something like 20 million years to discover fire and some 22 million for electricity.

Sure, that’s faster than octopi — they’ve had a hundred million years already and still no fire — but once Superman spins the planet (first he fought crime!  Now he’ll muck up our timeline to investigate evolution!), there’ll be a chance for him to stop that asteroid and save the dinosaurs.  I imagine that living in constant terror of T-Rex & friends would slow the apes down a little.

I’ve never had to work under that kind of pressure, but it’s probably much more difficult to discover fire if you’re worried that a dinosaur will stomp by, demolish your laboratory, and eat you.

Octopi ingenuity might be similarly stymied by pervasive fear of giant monsters: sharks, dolphins, sea lions, seals, eels, and, yes, those ostensibly land-bound hairless apes.  Voracious, vicious predators all… especially those apes.


And yet.  Despite the fear, octopi are extremely clever.  They have a massive genome, too.  In itself, genome size is not a measure of complexity, in part because faulty cell division machinery sometimes results in the duplication of entire genomes — no matter how many copies of Fuzzy Bee & Friends you staple together, even if you create a 1,000+ page monstrosity, you won’t create a narrative with the complexity of The Odyssey.

That’s what researchers thought had happened with the octopus genome.  Sure, they have more genes than us, but they’re probably all duplicates!  Albertin et al. were the first to actually test that hypothesis, though… and it turns out to be wrong.  The octopus genome underwent massive expansion specifically for neural proteins & regulatory regions.  Which suggests that their huge genome is not dreck, that it is actually the product of intense selection for cognitive performance.  It isn’t proof, but it’s definitely consistent with selection for greater mental capacities.

There isn’t any octopus literature yet, but evolution isn’t done.  As long as octopus survival & mating success is bolstered by intelligence, there’s a chance the species will continue to slowly “improve.”

(I am biased in favor of smart creatures, but more brainpower is not necessarily better in an evolutionary sense.  For an example, here’s my essay on starfish zombies.)


But even if a species derived from contemporary octopi eventually gains cognitive capacities equivalent to our own, we may never grasp the way they perceive the world.  Their brains are organized very differently from our own.  Our minds are highly centralized — our actions result from decisions passed down from on high.

For most human actions, it seems that the mind subconsciously initiates movement, firing off instructions to the appropriate muscles, and then the conscious mind notices what’s going on and concocts a story to rationalize that action.  For instance, if you touch something hot, nociceptors (pain receptors) in your hand send an “Ouch!” signal to your brain, your brain relays back “Pull yer damn hand away!”, then the conscious mind types up a report, “I decided to pull my hand away because that was too hot.”

(Some people have argued that this sequence of timing indicates that we lack free will, by the way.  Which seems silly.  Our freedom doesn’t need to be at the level of conscious decision-making to be worthwhile.  Indeed, your subconscious is as much you as your consciousness.  Your subconscious reflexes reflect who you are, and with concerted effort you can modify most if not all of them.)

Octopi minds are different.  They seem to be much more decentralized.  Each tentacle has a significant neural network and can act independently.  Octopus tentacles can still move and make minor decisions even if cleaved away… like the zombie movie trope where a severed arm continues to strangle someone.

Since we have no good way to communicate with octopi, we don’t know whether their minds are wired for storytelling the way ours are.  Whether they also construct elaborate internal rationalizations for every action (does this help explain why I’m so fascinated by free will?  Even if our freedom is illusory, the ability to maintain that illusion underpins our ability to tell stories).

But if octopi do explain their world with stories, the types of stories they tell would presumably seem highly chaotic to us humans.  Our brains are building explanations for decisions made internally, whereas an octopus would be constructing a narrative from the actions of eight independently-acting entities.

Who knows?  Someday, many many years from now, if octopi undergo further selection for brain power & communication, we might find octopus literature to be exceptionally rambunctious.  Brimming with arbitrary twists & turns.  If their minds also tend toward narrative storytelling (and it’s worth mentioning that octopi also process time in a cascade of short-term and long-term memory the way mammals do), their stories would likely veer inexorably toward the inexplicable.

Toward, that is, actions & consequences that a human reader would perceive to be inexplicable.

Octopi might likewise condemn our own classics as overly regimented.  Lifeless, stilted, formulaic.  And it’d be devilishly hard to explain to an octopus why I think In Search of Lost Time is so good.



p.s. I should offer a brief mea culpa for having listed different lengths of time that apes & octopi have had with which to discover fire.  All known life uses the same genetic code, so it’s extremely likely that we all share a common ancestor.  Everything alive today — bacteria, birds, octopi, humans — have had the same length of time to evolve.

This is part of why it sounds so silly when people refer to contemporary bacteria as being “lower” life forms or somehow less evolved.  Current bacteria have had just as long to perfect themselves for their environments as we have, and they simply pursued a different strategy for survival than humans did.  (For more on this topic, feel free to read this previous post.)

I listed different numbers, though… mostly because it seemed funny to imagine a lineage of octopi racing the apes in that “decent of man” cartoon.  Who will conquer the planet first?!

I chose my times based on the divergence of great apes from their nearest common ancestor (gibbons, whom we’ve rudely declared to be “lesser apes”) and the divergence of octopi from theirs (squids, ca. 135 million years ago).  The numbers themselves are pretty accurate, but the choice of those particular numbers was arbitrary.  You could easily rationalize instead starting the clock for apes in their quest for fire as soon as the first primates appeared, ca. 65 million years ago… then octopi don’t look so bad.  Perhaps only two-fold slower than us.  Or you could start the apes’ clock at the appearance of the very first mammals… in which case octopi might beat us yet.

Excerpts from some other book: our heroic annelid makes a daring escape.

Image from Soil-Net.com at Cranfield University, UK, 2015.
Image from Soil-Net.com at Cranfield University, UK, 2015.

We were in Louisville over the weekend, visiting a pregnant friend.  She had given us many baby clothes before the birth of our daughter; we were returning them.  Her son is now nearly three years old, so we spent part of the afternoon standing in the yard watching him dig with a plastic shovel.  He found a worm, triumphantly showed it to us, then moved it to a safe spot near their sprouting peas.

That’s when my friend and I started talking about worms.

“Moles are their worst enemies,” she told me.  “They hunt worms and store them in their burrows.  But moles have to keep the worms fresh.  If they kill them, worms dry up.  So moles bite off their heads, which means they can’t dig out to escape.”

I grimaced slightly while slurping my pink strawberry smoothie through a straw.

“That doesn’t kill them.  And, actually, if you wait long enough, the worms can regenerate their heads.”

“Huh,” I said, nodding.  “So it’s a race?”

“Guess where this dirt goes, mommy.”

“In the pile?”

“Yes!  In the pile!”  And another plastic shovel’s worth of dirt was added to the small mound he’d made beside their flower bed.

I went on, imagining this could be the seed of a compelling suspense or horror story.  “Because once the mole leaves, the worm would be racing, frantically trying to regrow its head so that it could escape.  Seems way more intense than all those movies where a tied-up hostage is struggling with the ropes.”

“And this dirt?”

“In the pile?”

“It goes in the pile!”

“Except, wait… worms can think, right?” I asked her.  I wasn’t sure, being unaware, for instance, of Charles Darwin’s 1881 study to test whether worms could solve small puzzles, like choosing which objects could best be used to plug a burrow.  And the question felt important; it’d be hard to write a compelling story when working with the drab emotional palette and unreflective inner life of a jellyfish.  Jellyfish, see, have no brains.

“They do, I think,” she told me.  “But I don’t think they’re very cephalated.”

“Oh,” I said, thinking the idea of an in-between state, brain-bearing yet decentrilized-decision-making, sounded perfectly reasonable.  After all, that organizational scheme has led to considerable success for terrorist organizations like al Qaeda, if “success” means propagation despite environmental adversity, so why not believe that evolution could’ve stumbled into the same schema employed biologically?  “But then, what would the worm feel?”

“Worm!  Where is my worm?”

“You set it over there, honey?”

He scampered over to the peas and peered.  No worm, apparently, was found.

“Worm went away!”

“That’s what they do.  They dig.  Now the worm is underground.”

“Underground,” he mused.  And set a dirt-flecked hand upon his chin, philosophically.

At the time I worried that an uncephalated worm (i.e. cognitive function was never fully localized to the head, as opposed to our decephalated hero post encounter with the nemesis mole) would make a lousy protagonist.  Being a brain-in-head-type fellow, I am somewhat biased toward the emotional experiences of my own kind.  Now, though, I’m not so sure.  Because head-centered cognition might well result in a worse, emotionally flattened story; the most dramatic action occurs while our protagonist’s head is missing, after all.

And I’m still concerned about my original question, what would a worm feel?  If I’m going through all the bother of writing a story, I’d like for people to enjoy it.  And I’ve seen many reviews that criticize human male writers, say, for attempting to inhabit the inner voice of a woman in fiction, or an iphone.  Although those perspectives both seem easier to project myself into than that of a worm.  The life of an iPhone seems so similar to my own.  Talk to people; look up facts; draw maps; listen to snippets of music and try to guess the song; spend aggravatingly long periods of time thinking, thinking, thinking, with no apparent progress visible from the outside.  Or perhaps that last one is not what you think of when you contemplate such devices, but my younger brother has one and he also has a tendency toward dropping things, and of forgetting things in his pants’ pockets when he puts them in the wash (you may have read previously his très bourgeois tragicomedy, “Another Bagful of Rice”).  His phone spends as much time as I do staring idly into space, unresponsive.

But, a worm?  How would I write a worm?


Some of the information above as relayed by the narrator and his friend is not true.  Earthworms will not, for instance, regrow their heads.  An earthworm can regenerate some fraction of the lower half of its body, but not the top half.  It’s possible that the narrator’s friend was thinking of planaria, from which a fraction of tail can in fact be used to create an entire regenerated animal, and in which the nervous system has a concentrated mass of neurons in the head that seems brain-like, but doesn’t seem to have a true central nervous system.

Her slight error does not invalidate the story, however; according to A. C. Evans’ article “The Identity of Earthworms Stored by Moles,” it would seem that our heroic earthworm might not require a whole new head.  To quote Evans regarding the potential status of our hero, “The earthworms could not burrow their way out of the holes because the anterior three to five segments had been bitten off or at least mutilated.”

The worms whose heads were bitten off?  They are doomed.  They will not regenerate their heads and will eventually be eaten (unless some larger predator finds the mole, in which case they’ll die fruitlessly… although even then they’ll still be eaten, I suppose, as long as you’re willing to use the verb “eat” to describe decomposition effected by bacteria).  But if our hero was simply mutilated, then there is still a chance!  Come on, little buddy!  You can do it!  Escape, escape!

And, in case you’re curious about earthworm cognition, Eileen Crist wrote a lovely article describing Charles Darwin’s experiments; it was published in Bekoff, Allen, and Burghardt’s The Cognitive Animal and is very accessible (I even convinced K to have her high school biology class read it one year) and, to my mind, very fun.  Well worth a read, even if you don’t yet care about worm thoughts.  But you will!  Just you wait.