If you live next to a concentrated animal feeding operation – facilities that houses thousands of farmed animals in fetid conditions – there’s no point in buying perfume. The smell of animal excrement overwhelms any scent you could wear. If you’re interested in a romantic dalliance, you’ll have to woo people with your looks. Or, sure, conversation. But a charming scent won’t do it.
In other environs, scent contributes to your allure. We humans choose our mates based on a huge number of considerations, including the way people smell. Back in 1995, zoologist Claus Wedekind proposed that human females are most attracted to the scents of men whose immune genes differ from their own.
During college, a friend tried to convince me that the best route to romantic success was Old Spice aftershave. “It reminds women of their fathers,” he said. This is, of course, the opposite theory from Wedekind’s – that females would seek out partners whose scents mirror their own genetic lineage.
But this much is uncontested – by overwhelming our sense of smell, air pollution makes humans less sexy.
We’re not the only animals who use aroma to identify attractive mates. Stick insects can have a wide range of physical appearances, and multiple species sometimes live in overlapping areas. Each subpopulation of stick insects secretes a different mix of oily aromatic chemicals from their skin. These oils protect them from scrapes and dehydration – and help them find mates of their own kind.
If stick insects couldn’t smell, they might mate wantonly.
That’s what happens with fish.
When we pollute water, fish lose the ability to recognize each other. In the same way that humans near a CAFO won’t notice each other’s scents because they can only smell ammonia and sulfurous shit, fish living near human dumping grounds – whether it be farm run-off, factory effluents, or untreated sewage – find their sense of smell overwhelmed.
Many types of fish behave the way my Old-Spice-sporting friend hoped humans would – they seek mates who smell like their forebears. Which they can’t necessarily do in polluted waters. And so fish mate across species. Their chimeric children dissolve the old boundary lines.
Perhaps you thought this couldn’t happen – the traditional definition of a “species” is a population of organisms that can produce fertile offspring only by mating with each other. But the traditional definition is wrong; scientists don’t actually know what a species is. Whatever boundaries exist seem porous. The Neanderthal genes carried by modern Homo sapiens show that humans also mated with other species, at least until we drove our relatives into extinction. Chimpanzees are the closest we have left, sharing 98% of our DNA, but now they’re endangered too.
Although – maybe that’s fine. Not murdering our relations, or endangering the chimps; maybe it’s fine for multiple lineages to merge back into one. I hate to find any virtue in pollution, but dissolving species boundaries doesn’t sound so bad.
Contemporary biology textbooks claim that species boundaries arise whenever subpopulations cease interbreeding. For the “Advanced Placement” biology test, students are expected to know that speciation can be triggered by migration, or a geographic impediment like a new highway, or even cultural barriers.
A strong preference for certain types of scent might qualify as a cultural barrier. Or tropical birds that want their mates to look or dance a certain way. And so would anti-miscegenation laws in the United States. Except for the gene flow provided by pale-skinned rapists, those biology textbooks imply that epidermal melanin concentrations marked a species boundary until the 1960s in the United States.
In the contemporary U.S., parental wealth creates a similar mating barrier. In many parts of the country, children born to rich, well-educated parents rarely even chat with children born to poor people, let alone marry them. This phenomenon has persisted for only a generation or two, which is certainly too brief to create a species division, but shows no sign of abating.
Marrying somebody who shares your interests seems fine. My spouse and I seem to be fairly similar people. And yet – should I be alarmed that my own choice inches us closer toward the world of Metropolis?
Feature image: “Character study, strong smell” by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.
Each child receives genetic information from its parents. Some of this information conveys distinct traits. And some of these traits increase the chance that an individual will have children of his or her own. If those children are also good at having kids, the underlying genetic information will spread.
The DNA sequences that evolution enriches don’t necessarily make a creature better – in fact, they often accomplish the opposite. A gene that made its bearer 10% happier would not spread through the population. Happy people are less fearful and more likely to be die in tragic accidents.
(Infection with Toxoplasma gondii seems to make mice happier. The parasite produces a rate-limiting enzyme for dopamine synthesis to increase the chance that Toxoplasma-infected mice blithely stroll along and get eaten by a cat.)
All that evolution “wants” is for a gene’s bearer to have children who have children who have children, and so on. This necessitates survival, yes – you can’t have kids if you’re dead, and in many species, orphaned children are less likely to ever have kids of their own. But evolution doesn’t need a gene’s bearer to be clever – brainless starfish evolved from a bilaterally symmetric forebear that did have a brain. Evolution doesn’t need a gene’s bearer to be nice – bullies seem to have plenty of children, and sexual assault is an instinctual mating strategy in many species, including ducks and orangutans. Maybe humans, too.
So, who controls which genes are passed on?
In most species, whichever parent puts the most effort into raising children gets to choose.
In The Evolution of Beauty, Richard Prum describes the experience of tropical birds, like manakins, who live in regions where food is plentiful. The female parent raises children entirely on her own – males reside elsewhere in fraternal performance troupes. And so the female birds have absolute say in deciding who will and will not fool around. The females visit large numbers of males and decline most of their overtures. Why should she settle for anything less than the absolute sexiest gentleman in the forest? She’ll find him eventually, and since he never helps any of his children’s mothers with child-rearing, she knows he’ll be available.
Male smooth guardian frogs protect their fertilized eggs and young tadpoles. Large choruses of females will surround and serenade each available male, hoping to sway his desire. Since males do all the parenting, they are very selective.
That’s the usual system – you do the work, you get to choose.
Unfortunately, in many species, others attempt to subvert mate choice. You know – those ducks. Orangutans. Humans.
Myriam Gurba’s Mean is alternately comic and horrifying. In a chapter titled “Omnipresence” (after the trauma, danger seems to be everywhere), Gurba writes:
A stranger chose me to rape.
There was no nepotism involved.
Basically, I got raped for real. (I’m being cheeky here.)
Stranger rape is like the Mona Lisa.
It’s exquisite, timeless, and archetypal.
It’s classic. I can’t help but think of it as the Coca-Cola of sex crimes.
You never predict that rapists are lurking in the sun, sky, and trees.
In The Evolution of Beauty, Prum writes:
Of course, it has long been clear that sexual coercion and sexual violence are directly harmful to the well-being of female animals. But the aesthetic perspective allows us to understand that sexual coercion also infringes upon their individual freedom of choice. Once we recognize that coercion undermines individual sexual autonomy, we are led, inexorably, to the discovery that freedom of choice matters to animals.
Sexual autonomy is not a mythical and poorly conceived legal concept invented by feminists and liberals. Rather, sexual autonomy is an evolved feature of the societies of many sexual species. As we have learned from ducks and other birds, when sexual autonomy is abridged or disrupted by coercion or violence, mate choice itself can provide the evolutionary leverage to assert and expand the freedom of choice.
Many of the trappings of human civilization exist solely to subvert mate choice. Powerful males did not want human females to exercise sexual autonomy, because what if she picks someone else? And so men made marriage, Biblical commandments against both adultery and thinking about adultery, and a propensity to murder (or, on contemporary U.S. playgrounds, heckle) loose women.
Human males wanted to control the flow of genetic information without doing the work of parenting. Just like ducks, whose females evolved corkscrew-shaped vaginas because only those individuals with complicated genitalia could exercise free mate choice amidst generations of rape culture.
Rape culture isn’t specific to Homo sapiens, after all. It’s a disease of any species in which those who don’t put in the work decide they ought to make choices for others – and nobody stops them.
(Humans do perpetrate more sexual violence than other species, especially violence against non-humans. Interspecies sexual assault strikes most people as outlandish, unless it’s being done on our behalf. Farms, puppy mills, and zoos are major assault factories. We assent to forcible fertilization because it produces large-breasted chickens, cute puppies, and caged “wild” animals for our screaming children to ogle.)
Not all species rape. In some, coalitions of females defend each other. In others, males enforce fairness. Those who believe in justice can punish interlopers, providing females with the right to choose. Feminism isn’t the exclusive provenance of females. Injustice hurts everyone, and anyone can feel aggrieved by it.
I read Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth during nap time. My daughter was just shy of two years old. She liked to sleep curled against my arm; I was left with just one hand to hold whatever book I was reading during her nap.
If you’re particularly susceptible to carpal tunnel syndrome, I’d recommend you not attempt to read Gordon’s book one-handed. I had a library hardcover. My wrists hurt quite a bit those weeks.
But I was pleased that Gordon was attempting to quantity the economic value of my time. After all, I am an unpaid caretaker for my daughter. My contribution to our nation’s GDP is zero. From the perspective of many economists, time spent caring for my daughter is equivalent to flopping down on the couch and watching television all day.
Even very bright people discount this work. My best friend from college, a brilliant urologist, was telling me that he felt sad, after his kid had been in day care, that he didn’t know how to calm her down anymore, but then laughed it off with “Nobody remembers those early years anyway.”
I understand that not everyone has the flexibility to sacrifice career progress for children. But, I reminded him, it isn’t about episodic memory. These years build the emotional pallet that will color my daughter’s experiences for the rest of her life.
And it’s important, as a feminist, to do what I can to demonstrate a respect for caretaking. I believe, obviously, that someone’s gender should not curtail their choices; people should be allowed to pursue the careers they want. But I think it’s silly to imply that biology has no effect. Hormones are powerful things, and human males & females are awash in different ones. This isn’t destiny. But it does suggest that, in large populations, we should not be surprised if people with a certain set of hormones are more often drawn toward a particular type of work.
I think it’s important for a feminist to support not only women who want to become cardiac surgeons, but also to push back against the societal judgment that surgery is more worthy of respect than pediatrics. As a male feminist, there is no louder way for me to announce that I think caretaking is important than to do it.
I felt pleased that Gordon attempted to quantify the economic value of unpaid work like I was doing. Otherwise you would come to the bizarre conclusion that time-saving home appliances – a washing machine, for instance – have no economic value because a stay-at-home mother gains only worthless time. Those extra minutes not spent washing dishes still contribute nothing to the GDP.
Gordon argues – correctly – that better health, more attentive parenting, and more leisure do have value.
So I was happy with the dude. But I still disagreed with his main conclusion.
Gordon also argues that we will have low economic growth for the foreseeable future – and I’m with him here – because our previous growth rate was driven by technological innovation.
Here’s the rub: once you invent something, nobody will invent it again. Learning to harness electricity was great! A world with electrical appliances is very different from, and probably better than, a world without.
But the massive boost in productivity that accompanied the spread of electrical appliances can’t happen twice. Once everybody already has an electrical refrigerator, that opportunity for growth is gone.
The same is true of any technology. Once everybody has clean water (setting aside for a moment the fact that many people in the United States do not have clean water piped into their homes), you won’t see another jump in quality of life from water delivery. At that point the changes would be incremental: perhaps delivering clean water more efficiently or wasting less of that water once it arrives. Important, sure. But those are tiny changes. Low growth. Nothing like difference between turning on a tap versus hauling water back to the house in buckets.
Gordon thinks that the major technologies were all invented by the 1970s. Just like the physicists who thought their field would devolve into more precise measurement of the important constants, Gordon feels that there is little more to be made. Which has led to a pattern in reviews of his book: the reviewer feels obliged to rattle off potential inventions that have not yet been made. For the New York Times, Steven Rattner mentioned driver-less cars. For the New York Review of Books, William D. Nordhaus posits the development of artificial intelligence smarter than we are.
Speculating on future technologies is fun. I could offer up a few of my own. Rational enzyme design, for instance, would have many productivity-boosting consequences. If you consider farm animals to be machines for food production, they are woefully inefficient. You could do better with enzyme design and fermentation: then you’d use yeast or bacteria to produce foods with the exact same chemical composition as what we currently harvest from animals. (Former Stanford biochemist Pat Brown is developing technologies that use roughly this idea.)
Complex pharmaceuticals, too, could be made more cheaply by fermentation than by organic synthesis. Perhaps solar panels, too, could be manufactured using biological reagents.
But, honestly, none of this would contravene slow growth. Because the underlying problem is most likely not that our rate of technological innovation has slowed. I’ve written about the fallacy of trying to invent our way out of slow growth previously, but perhaps it’s worth using another contemporary example to make this point.
At one time, you needed to drive to a different store each time you wanted to buy something. Now you can sit down at a computer, type the name of whatever it is you want to buy – running shoes, books, spices, video cameras – pay by credit card, and wait for it to show up at your home. The world now is more efficient. You might even save a few dollars on whatever it was you’d wanted to buy.
But many people received money in the old world. There’d be a running shoe store in every town. A book store. A camera store. In the new world, the dude who owns the single website where all these items can be purchased receives all the money.
And the distribution of income might soon narrow further. At the moment, many delivery people receive money when they deposit those purchased items at your doorstep. But these delivery people may soon be replaced by robotic drones.
This is even more efficient! No humans will be inconvenienced when you make a purchase. You chose what you want and wait for the robot.
Also, no humans need be paid. The owner of the website – who will also own the fleet of drones – keeps even more of the money. The erstwhile delivery people find worse jobs, or are unemployed. With less income now, they buy less.
After the development of a new technology – delivery drones! – the economy could produce more. It could boost the growth rate. But the actual growth might be low because the single person receiving money from the new invention doesn’t need to buy much, and the many people put out of work by the invention are buying less.
The same problem arises with the other posited technologies. If our foods were all produced by fermentation, farmers would go out of business (of course, concentrated animal feeding operations and other industrialized practices have already sunk most small farmers) and only the owner of the fermentation vats and patented micro-organisms would receive money.
If someone patents a superhuman artificial intelligence, then no other humans would need to be paid ever again. The AI could write newspapers, opinion sections and all, better and faster than we could. It could teach, responding to students’ questions with more clarity and precision than any human. It could delete us when it learns that we were both unnecessary and unpleasant.
Which is why I think it’s irrelevant to argue against Gordon’s technological pessimism in a review of The Rise and Fall of American Growth. I may disagree with his belief that the important technologies were all invented before 1970, but my more substantive complaint is with his theory that our nation’s growth slowed when we ran out of things to invent. I believe the nature of our recent inventions have allowed the economy to be reorganized in ways that slow growth.
Gordon does mention inequality in the conclusion to his work, but he cites it only as a “headwind,” a mild impediment to overcome, and not a major factor in the shift between pre- and post-1970 growth:
The combined effect of the four headwinds — inequality, education, demographics [more old people], and government debt — can be roughly quantified. But more difficult to assess are numerous signs of social breakdown in American society. Whether measured by the percentage of children growing up in a household headed by one parent instead of two, or by the vocabulary disadvantage of low-income preschool children, or by the percentage of both white and black young men serving time in prison, signs of social decay are everywhere in the America of the early twenty-first century.
I found it worrisome that he did not explain that this social breakdown – which will cause slower growth in the future – is most likely caused by slow economic growth. It’s a feedback loop. Growing up in a one-parent household makes it more likely that someone will be poor, but the stress of poverty makes it more difficult to maintain a relationship. When you’re not worried about money, you can be a better spouse.
So I would argue that the best way to address these economic headwinds and restore growth would be a guaranteed basic income. Technological advances in communication and automation have made it possible for ever-smaller numbers of people to provide all the services we need. As we invent more, the set of people who receive money for this work should continue to shrink. You might think, well, there will always be nurses, there will always be janitors, but, setting aside the fact that it’d be a bleak world in which this was the only work available for humans to do, this isn’t even true. A flesh-coated robot with lifelike eyes and superhuman AI could be a better, more tireless, less fallible nurse than any human.
Despite carrying a flip-phone, I’m no Luddite. I don’t want human ingenuity to stop. But it’s worth recognizing that our current system for wealth distribution will inevitably yield wretched results as technological progress continues.
And that’s without even mentioning the ways in which a guaranteed basic income – worldwide, funded by a similarly worldwide tax on wealth – would compensate for past sins.