On naked mole-rats.

On naked mole-rats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6257373863_08b21a81b4_b

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They live with gusto, the naked mole-rats.

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

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

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

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

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

But they survive.

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

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

survival curves

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

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

#

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

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

On Don Delillo’s ‘Zero K’ and the dream of eternal life.

On Don Delillo’s ‘Zero K’ and the dream of eternal life.

During graduate school, I participated in a psychology study on aging. The premise behind the experiment was simple enough: young people, when given the choice, tend to spend their time with new acquaintances, whereas older people would often rather spend time with family. But what happens when we inoculate young people with a sense of their own mortality? Will they make the same choices as their elders?

At the beginning of the study, I was interviewed and asked to play a memory game: photographs of smiling faces, nature scenes, & car wrecks were displayed on a computer screen before then interview, then afterward more photos were shown and I was asked which were repeats from the initial set. Then I was asked to spend twenty minutes a day for the next two weeks listening to a speech about the inevitability of death. No matter what we think awaits us next, I heard each day, one thing is certain. All of us will die. The time we share now is our only time in this life.

That sort of thing.

After two weeks of this, they gave me another interview and a repeat of the memory game. Was I changed by two weeks’ worth of meditation on death?

Honestly, I doubt it. The data they collected from me was probably worthless. I was about to finish my doctorate and leave California, so there was already a sense of finality to most of my actions there. Plus, I’m the sort of depressed weirdo who always thinks about death, psych study or no. I don’t usually get paid $300 to do it. But it seems unlikely that I’d be altered by an experimental treatment so little removed from my everyday experience.

My laboratory baymate also participated in the study. He seemed to be affected more than I was. After two weeks of meditation on death, he started talking about lobsters.

Blue-lobster

I’ve written about the connection between lobsters and immortality previously, so all I’ll say now is that there has been a big push to understand the cellular and molecular consequences of aging in order to reverse them. For instance, our chromosomal telomeres shorten as we age. Can we lengthen them again?  Young blood has a different composition from the blood of older individuals. Can we make someone youthful by pumping young blood through their veins? Caloric restriction extends lifespan. Is there a way to reap the benefits without suffering through deprivation?

The meat machines we call our bodies evolved to live fast and die young, but we might be able to tweak and tune them to persist an extra hundred years.

Two hundred years is still a far cry from immortality, though.

Not, of course, that true immortality is possible. Over time, the entropy of the universe increases. Someday there will be no more life, no planets, no stars – nothing but a homogeneous smear filling all space. But many orders of magnitude separate our lifespans from the expected heat death of the universe. Humans could live much, much longer than we do now and still never need to worry about that cold, lonely end.

Human_brain_01Which brings us to the idea that a human mind could be preserved independent of this biodegradable shell. Conceptually this is not so strange. The workings of a mind are due to electrical currents pulsing through a particular configuration of synaptic connections. If different currents pulse through, you’re having different thoughts. If the synapses are connected in a different pattern, you have a different mind, a different personality, different memories.

If our mind is nothing but the pattern of our synapses, it should be possible to map all their connections and use this information to reproduce ourselves. Even if our mind is also molded by components other than the synapses (such as the myelin sheaths formed by glial cells), it should be possible (using a very powerful computer) to simulate the entire mess.

This is why some people want their heads lopped off and brains frozen after death. Not me. When I read about these people, I generally feel sad. I hate the idea of dying. It terrifies me. But I still believe it adds something to the human experience. And, although my particular brain seems to work well, I’m not sure the people of the future would want to expend the resources necessary to keep it around. They might decide to use their (very powerful!) computers for something else.

zero-k-9781501135392_lgStill, there is the dream. Maybe the people of the future will be able to bring us back to life. And maybe, just maybe, they will want to. This is the premise of Don Delillo’s Zero K. A few very wealthy individuals have funded an institution that will preserve their brains and bodies to be revived at some future time.

Any future resurrection, especially one mediated by computers, would be akin to the creation of an artificial intelligence. It will always be impossible to use nondestructive methods to perfectly map the components of a human brain. Given the quantum-mechanical fuzziness of reality, it’s hard to imagine what the concept of mapping “perfectly” would even mean. A future resurrection would be no more than an approximation of the original person.

Maybe this would be enough. After all, our brains change day by day and yet our personalities remain the same. Even severe brain injuries can leave our identities largely intact. Maybe the information inevitably lost when scanning a dead brain would prove to be irrelevant.

But we don’t know. And so one of the first experiments that anybody would suggest is: Can the resurrected mind pass a Turing test? If someone attempts to engage the resurrected mind in conversation, would the interlocutor walk away convinced that the mind was human?

CaptureUnfortunately, the characters Delillo sculpted to populate Zero K allow him to skirt this idea. It’s worth mentioning that Delillo’s White Noise is one of my all-time favorite books. I think he’s a great writer, and in his other books have loved the way he does dialogue. He beautifully depicts the interpersonal disconnect that permeates modern life. Consider this passage from White Noise in which two professors visit a tourist trap together:

Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove twenty-two miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides–pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.

“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said. “What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura. We’re here, we’re now.”

He seemed immensely pleased by this.

This is not a conversation. The speaker is unconcerned by the narrator’s lack of response. I think this is a beautiful, elegant commentary on modern life. You could read Martin Buber’s philosophical texts about the meaning of dialogue, or you could learn the same concepts while having a heckuva lot more fun by reading Delillo’s White Noise.

And yet. I think Delillo does a disservice to the ideas he’s exploring in Zero K to have the characters of his new novel also converse with each other in this disjointed way. Consider two fragments of dialogue, both from about a hundred pages into the novel (which just happens to be when I first realized that this style of dialogue, employed throughout, might be problematic here). In the first, a wealthy man is speaking to his son about his wife’s decision to be put down before she deteriorates farther:

“Yes, it will happen tomorrow,” he said casually.

“This is not some game that the doctors are playing with Artis.”

“Or that I’m playing with you.”

“Tomorrow.”

“You’ll be alerted early. Be here, this room, first thing, first light.”

He kept pacing and I sat watching.

“Is she really at the point where this has to be done now? I know she’s ready for it, eager to test the future. But she thinks, she speaks.”

“Tremors, spasms, migraines, lesions on the brain, nervous system in collapse.”

“Sense of humor intact.”

“There’s nothing left for her on this level. She believes that and so do I.”

In this next, a traveling monk is describing the facility to that same son – the wealthy man’s son is our window into this world.

“This is the safehold, the waiting place. They’re waiting to die. Everyone here dies here,” he said. “There is no arrangement to import the dead in shipping containers, one by one, from various parts of the world, and then place them in the chamber. The dead do not sign up beforehand and then die and then get sent here with all the means of preservation intact. They die here. They come here to die. This is their operational role.”

2000px-Turing_Test_Version_3.svg
A Turing test: Can we distinguish between an artificial intelligence and a human being?

If I were evaluating a Turing test and my conversational partner started speaking this way, I’d suspect my interlocutor was a robot. In my experience, most humans don’t talk this way.

By making the human characters more robotic, resurrection becomes an easier prospect. The more computer-like someone sounds – liable at any moment to spout off lists of facts instead of sentimental interpretations of the world – the easier it would be for a computer to encapsulate that person’s mind. The stakes seem artificially lowered.

I’m not trying to say that the resurrection of Elizabeth Bennett would dazzle me whereas bringing back Mr. Darcy would leave me yawning. But even Mr. Darcy, for all his aloof strangeness, feels far more viscerally engaged with human life than any of the characters in Zero K. Which, to me, undermines this particular exploration of the ideas.

Would you die happier knowing that a rigid automaton vaguely like you would someday be created, and maybe it would live forever? For me, the answer is “no.” I think my passions matter.