On empathy and the color red.

On empathy and the color red.

I can’t fly.

I try to feed my children every night, but I never vomit blood into their mouths.

When I try to hang upside down – like from monkey bars at a playground – I have to clench my muscles, and pretty soon I get dizzy. I couldn’t spend a whole day like that.

And, yes, sometimes I shout. Too often during the pandemic, I’ve shouted at my kids. But when I shout, I’m trying to make them stop hitting each other – I’m not trying to figure out where they are.

It’s pretty clear that I’m not a bat.


Photograph by Anne Brooke, USFWS

Because I haven’t had these experiences, philosopher Thomas Nagel would argue that I can’t know how it feels to be a bat.

In so far as I can imagine [flitting through the dark, catching moths in my mouth], it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves.

But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.


Perhaps I can’t know what it feels like for a bat to be a bat. And yet, I can empathize with a bat. I can imagine how it might feel to be trapped in a small room while a gamboling, wiry-limbed orc-thing tried to swat me with a broom.

It would be terrifying!

And that act of imagination – of empathy – is enough for me to want to protect bats’ habitats. To make space for them in our world. Sure, you could argue that bats are helpful for us – they’re pollinators, they eat pesky bugs – but empathy lets us care about the well-being of bats for their own sake.


Literature exercises our minds: when we read, invent, and share stories, we build our capacity for empathy, becoming more generally aware of the world outside our own skulls.

Writing can be a radical act of love. Especially when we write from a perspective that differs from our own. The poet Ai said that “Whoever wants to speak in my poems is allowed to speak, regardless of sex, race, creed, or color.” Her poems often unfurl from the perspective of violent men, and yet she treats her protagonists with respect and kindness. Ai gives them more than they deserve: “I don’t know if I embrace them, but I love them.


That capacity for love, for empathy, will let us save the world. Although many of us haven’t personally experienced a lifetime of racist microaggressions or conflict with systemic oppression, we all need to understand how rotten it would feel. We need to understand that the pervasive stress seeps into a person’s bones, causing all manner of health problems. We need understand the urgency of building a world where all children feel safe.

And if we don’t understand – yet – maybe we need to read more.

Experiments suggest that reading any engaging literary fiction boosts our ability to empathize with others. Practice makes better: get outside your head for a while, it’ll be easier to do it again next time.

Of course, we’ll still need to make an effort to learn what others are going through. Thomas Nagel was able to ruminate so extensively about what it would feel like to live as a bat because we’ve learned about echolocation, about their feeding habits, about their family lives. If we want to be effective anti-racists, we need to learn about Black experiences in addition to developing our empathy more generally.

Luckily, there’s great literature with protagonists facing these struggles – maybe you could try How We Fight for Our Lives, Americanah, or The Sellout.


As a bookish White person, it’s easy for me to empathize with the experiences of other bookish White people. In Search of Lost Time doesn’t tax my brain. Nor does White Noise. The characters in these books are a lot like me.

The cognitive distance between me and the protagonists of Americanah is bigger. Which is sad in and of itself – as high schoolers, these characters were playful, bookish, and trusting, no different from my friends or me. But then they were forced to endure hard times that I was sufficiently privileged to avoid. And so when I read about their lives, perched as I was atop my mountain of privilege, it was painful to watch Ifemelu and Obinze develop their self-protective emotional carapaces, armoring themselves against the injustice that ceaselessly buffets them.

Another reader might nod and think, I’ve been there. I had to exercise my imagination.


In Being a Beast, Charles Foster describes his attempts to understand the lives of other animals. He spent time mimicking their behaviors – crawling naked across the dirt, eating worms, sleeping in an earthen burrow. He wanted a badger’s-eye view of the world.

Foster concluded that his project was a failure – other animals’ lives are just so different from ours.

And yet, as a direct consequence of his attempt at understanding, Foster changed his life. He began treating other animals with more kindness and respect. To me, this makes his project a success.

White people might never understand exactly how it feels to be Black in America. I’m sure I don’t. But we can all change the way we live. We can, for instance, resolve to spend more money on Black communities, and spend it on more services than just policing.


Empathy is working when it forces us to act. After all, what we do matters more than what we purport to think.

It’s interesting to speculate what it would feel like to share another’s thoughts – in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Shorefall, the protagonists find a way to temporarily join minds. This overwhelming rush of empathy and love transforms them: “Every human being should feel obliged to try this once.

In the real world, we might never know exactly how the world feels to someone else. But Nagel wants to prove, with words, that he has understood another’s experience.

One might try, for example, to develop concepts that could be used to explain to a person blind from birth what it was like to see. One would reach a blank wall eventually, but it should be possible to devise a method of expressing in objective terms much more than we can at present, and with much greater precision.

The loose intermodal analogies – for example, “Red is like the sound of a trumpet” – which crop up in discussions of this subject are of little use. That should be clear to anyone who has both heard a trumpet and seen red.


We associate red with many of our strongest emotions: anger, violence, love.

And we could tell many different “just so” stories to explain why we have these associations.


Red is an angry color because people’s faces flush red when they’re mad. Red blood flows when we’re hurt, or when we hurt another.


Red represents love because a red glow spreads over our partners’ necks and chests and earlobes as we kiss and caress and fumble together.


Red is mysterious because a red hue fills the sky at dawn and dusk, the liminal hours when we are closest to the spirit world.

These are all emergent associations – they’re unrelated to the original evolutionary incentive that let us see red. Each contributes to how we see red now, but none explains the underlying why.


We humans are blue-green-red trichromatic – we can distinguish thousands of colors, but our brains do this by comparing the relative intensities of just three.

And we use the phrase “color blind” to describe the people and other animals who can’t distinguish red from green. But all humans are color blind – there are colors we can’t see. To us, a warm body looks identical to a cold wax replica. But their colors are different, as any bullfrog could tell you.

Photograph by Tim Mosenfelder, Getty Images

Our eyes lack the receptors – cone cells with a particular fold of opsin – that could distinguish infrared light from other wavelengths. We mistakenly assume these two singers have the same color skin.

When we look at flowers, we often fail to see the beautiful patterns that decorate their petals. These decorations are obvious to any bee, but we’re oblivious. Again, we’re missing the type of cone cells that would let us see. To fully appreciate flowers, we’d need receptors that distinguish ultraviolet light from blue.


Most humans can see the color red because we’re descended from fruit eaters. To our bellies, a red berry is very different from a green berry. And so, over many generations, our ancestors who could see the difference were able to gather more nutritious berries than their neighbors. Because they had genes that let them see red, they were better able to survive, have children, and keep their children fed.

The genes for seeing red spread.

Now, several hundred thousand years later, this wavelength of light blares at us like a trumpet. Even though the our ancestors learned to cook food with fire, and switched from fruit gathering to hunting, and then built big grocery stores where the bright flashes of color are just advertisements for a new type of high-fructose-corn-syrup-flavored cereal, red still blares at us.

Once upon a time, we really needed to see ripe fruit. The color red became striking to us, wherever we saw it. And so we invented new associations – rage, or love – even though these are totally unrelated to the evolutionary pressures that gave us our red vision.

Similarly, empathy wasn’t “supposed” to let us build a better world. Evolution doesn’t care about fairness.

And yet. Even though I might never know exactly how it feels when you see the color red, I can still care how you’re treated. Maybe that’s enough.


Header image: a greater short-nosed fruit bat, photograph by Anton 17.

On octopus art.

On octopus art.

When we were in college, my roommate and I spent a train ride debating the merits of Andy Warhol’s art (she was a fan, I was not).  In the end, we not only failed to change each other’s opinions, but realized that we didn’t even agree what art was.  She double majored in Biomedical Engineering and Art Theory & Practice, and her view was much more expansive than my own.

In retrospect, I can admit that she was right.  My view of art was narrow-minded.  If I had to proffer a definition of “art” today, I might go with something like:

Art is an intentionally-created module that is designed to reshape the audience’s neural architecture.

By this standard, the big images of soup qualify.  So do the happenings.

Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” 1962. Image by Wally Gobetz on Flickr.

I recently read a book that analyzed board games using the tools of art criticism and narratology.  Obviously, I now think that board games can be art.  They’re carefully designed; their creators often seem to have a goal for how each game should make players feel; the combined effects of text, visual components, and even rules can all work toward conveying those feelings.

One drawback to my newfound open-mindedness, though, is that I could probably be convinced that almost any designed object qualifies as art.

For a piece of art to “fail” to change your neural architecture, it would have to be mnemonically invisible – immediately after seeing it, you could look at it again and it would be as though it were the first time.  You’d never be able to recall its content or meaning.

Actually, I have read some esoteric, convoluted poetry like that.  Words that skimmed over my mind as though each synapse were coated with teflon. 

I wasn’t keen on the experience.  Minutes had passed, but, because I couldn’t remember anything that I’d read, I’d accomplished nothing.  I don’t need to actually understand a poem, I just want for it to make me feel somehow different after I’ve read it.  Like Will Alexander’s “The Optic Wraith,” which triggers a mysterious sense of unease even though its meaning squirms away from me:

The Optic Wraith

Her eyes

like a swarm of dense volcano spiders

woven from cold inferno spools



clinging to my palette

like the code from a bleak inventive ruse


my understanding of her scent

is condoned as general waking insomnia

as void

as a cataleptic prairie

frayed at the core

by brushstrokes of vertigo

then mazes

As Alexander’s words lure me along, I lose my grasp.  But although I might not recall any specific lines, if you asked me at the end of its six pages, “So, what did you feel?”, I’d certainly know that something inside my brain was different from who I’d been five minutes before.

When I was in college, I felt strongly that art needed to be beautiful.  I was wrong.  But I still believe that art works better when it’s aesthetically pleasing, because this allows it to more readily infiltrate someone’s mind.  If two paintings are both intended to convey the same ideas, but one is more pleasurable to look at, then we can assume that it will be looked at more, and thereby convey the idea more.  A charming form helps the piece achieve its function of spreading the creator’s intended message.

And, in terms of judging the quality of art, I obviously still think that the quality of message is important.

For instance, a chair.  Every chair you’ve ever sat in was designed by somebody.  If you wanted to argue that the chair is a piece of art, I suppose I’d agree with you.  And maybe it’s a very good chair: comfortable to sit in, perfectly balanced, pleasing to see when the rising sun illuminates it in the morning.  But that doesn’t mean it’s good art.

Joseph Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs,” 1965. Photo by Kenneth Lu on Flickr.

Indeed, a chair that is bad at being a chair is more likely to be a good artwork.  A chair that’s too small or too large, conveying the discomfort of trying to make your way in a world that is primarily concerned with the comfort of bodies unlike your own.  Or a gigantic bronze throne that affords you the chance to perch in Baphomet’s lap; it would be an unpleasant place to sit, but perhaps you’d reflect more on Lucifer’s ethic of “speaking truth to power, even at great personal cost.

When we humans make art, we try to engage the emotions of our audience.  Emotionally-charged situations are more memorable; while feeling awe, or anger, or joy, human minds are most likely to change.

And human art is almost always made for a human audience.  Our brains evolved both from and for gossip; our prodigious intellect began as a tool to track convoluted social relationships.  We’re driven to seek narrative explanations, both because a coherent story makes gossip easier to understand, and because our consciousness spins stories to rationalize our actions after we perform them.

If we considered the world’s most intelligent animal species – like humans, dolphins, crows, elephants, chimpanzees – most have evolved to gossip.  Large brains gave our ancestors a selective advantage because they were able to track and manipulate their societies complex social relationships in a way that bolstered survival and breeding opportunities.  Indeed, the average elephant probably has more emotional intelligence than the average human, judging from neuron counts in the relevant areas of each species’ brains.

Elephants at a sanctuary. Image by Gilda on Flickr.

And so, if an elephant were given the freedom to paint (without a trainer tugging on her ears!), I imagine that she’d create art with the intention that another elephant would be the audience.  When a chimpanzee starts drumming, any aesthetic message is probably intended for other chimpanzees.

But what about octopus art?

Octopuses and humans haven’t had any ancestors in common for half a billion years.  Octopuses are extremely intelligent, but their intelligence arose through a very different pathway from most other animals.  Unlike the world’s brilliant birds and mammals, octopuses do not gossip.

Octopuses tend to be antisocial unless it’s mating season (or they’ve been dosed with ecstasy / MDMA).  Most of the time, they just use their prodigious intellect to solve puzzles, like how best to escape cages, or find food, or keep from being killed.

Octopus hiding in two shells. Image by Nick Hobgood on Wikipedia.

Humans have something termed “theory of mind”: we think a lot about what others are thinking.  Many types of animals do this.  For instance, if a crow knows that another crow watched it hide food, it will then come back and move the food to a new hiding spot as soon as the second crow isn’t looking.

When we make art, we’re indirectly demonstrating a theory of mind – if we want an audience to appreciate the things we make, we have to anticipate what they’ll think.

Octopuses also seem to have a “theory of mind,” but they’re not deeply invested in the thoughts of other octopuses.  They care more about the thoughts of animals that might eat them.  And they know how to be deceptive; that’s why an octopus might collect coconut shells and use one to cover itself as it slinks across the ocean floor.

A coconut octopus. Image by Christian Gloor on Wikimedia.

Human art is for humans, and bird art for birds, but octopus art is probably intended for a non-octopus audience.  Which might require even more intelligence to create; it’s easy for me to write something that a reader like me would enjoy.  Whereas an octopus artist would be empathizing with creatures radically different from itself.

If octopuses weren’t stuck with such short lifespans, living in the nightmarishly dangerous ocean depths, I bet their outward focus would lead them to become better people than we are.  The more we struggle to empathize with others different from ourselves, the better our world will be.

On empathy.

On empathy.

Mark Salzman wrote a beautiful memoir about growing up as a nerdy, well-off, suburban white kid.  Lost in Place is charming, and I’d recommend it highly to anyone who likes memoirs and to parents raising children in the suburbs.

Salzman loves to write, and he was lucky enough to make a career out of it.  But, as a well-off white male, he does not have the lived experience to know intimately every sort of character who might populate his books.  Even while writing Lost in Place, he was forced to imagine the experiences of an other – Salzman the adult was writing the book, but he was attempting to recreate the world of Salzman the child.  He was forced to empathize with the (occasionally foolish) thoughts and experiences of the youth he once was; I’d argue, based on the emotional impact of the book, that he succeeded.

The experiential distance between Salzman the adult author and Salzman the youthful protagonist is probably much smaller than the distance between, say, Salzman and an epileptic female nun, or the distance between Salzman and a troubled Latino teen.

Salzman’s Lying Awake, a book about faith and the sacrifices we’re willing to make to maintain it, includes both such characters.  But when he sent a first draft to his editor, she was less than thrilled.  In Salzman’s words (from his memoir True Notebooks):

Carlos was a minor character in the story, a juvenile delinquent with a terminal illness.  Although I had given Carlos tattoos and a bald head, he failed to impress my editor.  She thought he needed a personality.  And “please please please,” she urged in one of her notes, “give him a different name.”

Los Angeles is the youth gang capital of the world, so I figured [my friend] Duane, [who writes for the Los Angeles Times,] must have had to write about them at some point.  I asked if he could recommend any good books about juvenile delinquents that I could use for research.  He thought about it, then answered, “Not really.”

I figured that was the end of that, but then he said, “But I volunteer down at juvenile hall twice a week.  I teach a writing class there.  If you’d like to come down and visit sometime, the guys could tell you more than any book.”

Salzman knew that he was too ignorant to properly empathize with the perceptions of his character, and so he opened himself to the world in order to learn more.  He visited the juvenile detention center.  Soon, he began to teach his own writing class there.  He became friends with several students; hoping to provide moral support, he attended every court date of a young black male who’d shot and killed another kid during a violent altercation in a movie theater.

All writing draws upon empathy.  Even to create nonfiction, a writer must empathize with the reader, puzzling out which words will best allow others to understand whatever it is that the writer hopes to convey.  And with fiction, unless we expect authors to populate each and every novel with clones of themselves, a writer must ponder the ways that a character – and people similar to that character – would perceive the world.

And then, after learning to empathize with characters, a writer must find ways to share that growth.  When it’s done well, understanding spills from the page, which is presumably why reading literary fiction has been experimentally shown to increase empathy.

The world benefits, for example, when the neurodiverse among us write about their lives, giving us firsthand insight into their experience of the world.  But we as a people also benefit when people without autism are allowed, or even encouraged, to consider what the world feels like for others

Imagining what it would be like to inhabit the hearts and minds of others compels us to fight injustice; without these experiences of empathy, we might be complacent to focus only on our own circumstances.

Obviously, there are times when a apparent attempts at empathy fall short.

But there’s a difference between recognizing that some artists don’t empathize enough, and the idea that artists shouldn’t attempt to empathize with others at all.  In the New York Times editorial “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation,” author Kenan Malik writes that:

In 1955, Emmett Till’s mother urged the publication of photographs of her son’s mutilated body as it lay in its coffin.  Till’s murder, and the photographs, played a major role in shaping the civil rights movement and have acquired an almost sacred quality.  It was from those photos that Ms. Schutz began her painting.

To suggest that she, as a white painter, should not depict images of black suffering is as troubling as the demand by some Muslims that Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses should be censored because of supposed blasphemies in its depiction of Islam.  In fact, it’s more troubling because, as the critic Adam Shatz has observed, the campaign against Ms. Schutz’s work contains an “implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines.”

Image by LA2 on Wikimedia Commons.

In order to convincingly include a troubled youth in his novel, Mark Salzman immersed himself in several young people’s lives.  He allowed his heart to grow.  And he, as a person, was changed.  When he first began teaching, he saw those kids as the sort of bullies who’d harassed him when he was growing up.  After a few years, he saw them as friends, many (if not all) of whom had been forced to endure more trauma as children than other people weather in a lifetime.

They weren’t monsters, they were people.  And he found a way to write about them such that readers, too, would recognize their shared humanity.

And perhaps, perhaps, feel outraged enough by his characters’ circumstances that readers, too, would work toward changing the world.  Because the world is clearly in need of change.  And empathy is the only force powerful enough to compel us to do it.

Header image from a letter sent to me by a former student, as featured in the essay “Asymmetry and the Hatred of Poetry.

On empathizing with machines.

On empathizing with machines.

When I turn on my computer, I don’t consider what my computer wants.  It seems relatively empty of desire.  I click on an icon to open a text document and begin to type: letters appear on the screen.

If anything, the computer seems completely servile.  It wants to be of service!  I type, and it rearranges little magnets to mirror my desires.


When our family travels and turns on the GPS, though, we discuss the system’s wants more readily.

“It wants you to turn left here,” K says.

“Pfft,” I say.  “That road looks bland.”  I keep driving straight and the machine starts flashing make the next available u-turn until eventually it gives in and calculates a new route to accommodate my whim.

The GPS wants our car to travel along the fastest available route.  I want to look at pretty leaves and avoid those hilly median-less highways where death seems imminent at every crest.  Sometimes the machine’s desires and mine align, sometimes they do not.

The GPS is relatively powerless, though.  It can only accomplish its goals by persuading me to follow its advice.  If it says turn left and I feel wary, we go straight.

facebook-257829_640Other machines get their way more often.  For instance, the program that chooses what to display on people’s Facebook pages.  This program wants to make money.  To do this, it must choose which advertisers receive screen time, and to curate an audience that will look at those screens often.  It wants for the people looking at advertisements to enjoy their experience.

Luckily for this program, it receives a huge amount of feedback on how well it’s doing.  When it makes a mistake, it will realize promptly and correct itself.  For instance, it gathers data on how much time the target audience spends looking at the site.  It knows how often advertisements are clicked on by someone curious to learn more about whatever is being shilled.  It knows how often those clicks lead to sales for the companies giving it money (which will make those companies more eager to give it money in the future).

Of course, this program’s desire for money doesn’t always coincide with my desires.  I want to live in a country with a broadly informed citizenry.  I want people to engage with nuanced political and philosophical discourse.  I want people to spend less time staring at their telephones and more time engaging with the world around them.  I want people to spend less money.

But we, as a people, have given this program more power than a GPS.  If you look at Facebook, it controls what you see – and few people seem upset enough to stop looking at Facebook.

With enough power, does a machine become a moral actor?  The program choosing what to display on Facebook doesn’t seem to consider the ethics of its decisions … but should it?

From Burt Helm’s recent New York Times Magazine article, “How Facebook’s Oracular Algorithm Determines the Fates of Start-Ups”:

Bad human actors don’t pose the only problem; a machine-learning algorithm, left unchecked, can misbehave and compound inequality on its own, no help from humans needed.  The same mechanism that decides that 30-something women who like yoga disproportionately buy Lululemon tights – and shows them ads for more yoga wear – would also show more junk-food ads to impoverished populations rife with diabetes and obesity.

If a machine designed to want money becomes sufficiently powerful, it will do things that we humans find unpleasant.  (This isn’t solely a problem with machines – consider the ethical decisions of the Koch brothers, for instance – but contemporary machines tend to be much more single-minded than any human.)

I would argue that even if a programmer tried to include ethical precepts into a machine’s goals, problems would arise.  If a sufficiently powerful machine had the mandate “end human suffering,” for instance, it might decide to simultaneously snuff all Homo sapiens from the planet.

Which is a problem that game designer Frank Lantz wanted to help us understand.

One virtue of video games over other art forms is how well games can create empathy.  It’s easy to read about Guantanamo prison guards torturing inmates and think, I would never do that.  The game Grand Theft Auto 5 does something more subtle.  It asks players – after they have sunk a significant time investment into the game – to torture.  You, the player, become like a prison guard, having put years of your life toward a career.  You’re asked to do something immoral.  Will you do it?

grand theft auto

Most players do.  Put into that position, we lapse.

In Frank Lantz’s game, Paperclips, players are helped to empathize with a machine.  Just like the program choosing what to display on people’s Facebook pages, players are given several controls to tweak in order to maximize a resource.  That program wanted money; you, in the game, want paperclips.  Click a button to cut some wire and, voila, you’ve made one!

But what if there were more?


A machine designed to make as many paperclips as possible (for which it needs money, which it gets by selling paperclips) would want more.  While playing the game (surprisingly compelling given that it’s a text-only window filled with flickering numbers), we become that machine.  And we slip into folly.  Oops.  Goodbye, Earth.

There are dangers inherent in giving too much power to anyone or anything with such clearly articulated wants.  A machine might destroy us.  But: we would probably do it, too.

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 Han Kang’s ‘The Vegetarian.’

More women than men are vegetarian — if you consider the word “vegetarian” to mean someone who eats no meat, milk, or eggs & wears no leather, as in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, something like 4 out of 5 vegetarians in the U.S. are female.

BeingaBeastcover_0If I were planning to write an essay about the moral or philosophical virtues of eating vegetables, I might approach this statistic with claims like Charles Foster’s from Being a Beast:

Women have more theory of mind than men, which makes them nicer people — less prone to start wars or engage in egocentric monologues at the dinner table.

Foster goes on to say that in his experience, empathy, trying to imagine what life must be like for individuals of other species, changed his diet. He knows, of course, that humans evolved to be carnivorous. This evolutionary history is readily apparent in our minds and bodies. We experience the thrill of the hunt (not the fear of the hunted), our intestines are short, our cells can’t synthesize all the nutrients they need. Foster carries genes that “want” him to be a hunter, and he writes:

I’ve put down my guns and taken up my tofu, but there was a time when I crept heavily armed through the woods and over the mountains.

By hunting, he could more fully embrace what it meant to be born a Homo sapiens. And yet. Once he made a serious effort to understand what his choices meant for other creatures, once he’d lived as a badger, and concluded that badgers, too, must have their sorrows and joys, their own reasons for wanting to be alive, he could no longer support their murder. And if not badgers, why cows?

River_Otter_with_Fish_(5711531594)Later in his project, Foster writes of a moment — while he was trying to live as an otter, swimming underwater and hunting raw fish with his hands — when a fish swam into his mouth. In that moment of truth, he chose not to eat it:

A disoriented stickleback, no doubt taking my open mouth for a cave, swam inside. Its fluttering spines grazed my palate like the probe of a Parkinsonian dentist. I should have crushed it between my fillings and swallowed it. I couldn’t, any more than I could stamp on a mouse. My failure is illogical: I pay good money for other people to winch cows bellowing to their deaths so that we can serve up buttock muscle for Sunday lunch. My illogicality isn’t original, of course, which perhaps makes it worse, and certainly makes it less interesting. It’s about distance; about vicarious guilt being less intense; about the little physiological details of death that speak more intimately to our moral intuitions than any amount of argument; about the fact that physical proximity connotes relationship, even with a very basic animal, and that almost any sort of relationship makes it harder to kill.

As Foster’s empathy developed during the project, he felt that he had developed a meaningful relationship with all animals. Their minds are all similar to his own. He could not support their murder for his sake.

But — importantly — Foster does not impugn the otters. An otter would crush and swallow the fish. They do so ceaselessly; otters sleep some eighteen hours a day, but for their waking six they are frenetic killing machines.

Otters, like humans, are heterotrophs. We must eat to survive. And empathy is a consideration that the feelings of others, like our own, have value. You can’t properly value someone else’s life without valuing your own.

Maybe otters would rather give up the hunt, laze about during the day and take a twice-weekly trip to the grocery to buy tofu. But they don’t get that choice.

And so, if I wanted to claim that the decision to be vegetarian, for most people, springs from well-reasoned philosophical or moral beliefs, that is how I would explain the gender split. I would claim that women are more able to empathize with other species than men. Foster does. So does the Huffington Post article I pulled the numbers from.

But more likely, I feel, is that women are more pressured to consider the food they put into their bodies. In Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth she writes that

beautymythSome women’s magazines report that 60 percent of American women have serious trouble eating. The majority of middle-class women in the United States, it appears, suffer a version of anorexia or bulimia; but if anorexia is defined as a compulsive fear of and fixation upon food, perhaps most Western women can be called, twenty years into the backlash, mental anorexics.

Dieting is the essence of contemporary femininity. Denying oneself food is seen as good in a woman, bad in a man. Where the feminine woman of the Feminine Mystique denied herself gratification in the world, the current successful and “mature” model of femininity submits to a life of self-denial in her body.

To eschew meat is a form of self-denial, and self-denial (in many contexts, but especially at the dinner table) is praised in women. A good woman, it was believed, gives up her dreams of a career for the sake of her family. A good woman, it is often still believed, gives up her dessert for the sake of her figure.

Not that dessert — or meat, for that matter — is a comparable sacrifice to a career. But all the abnegations add up. Women are routinely asked to do more with less. “Hunger hurts but starving works,” sings Fiona Apple.

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian speaks to the ways that a misogynistic society curtails the opportunities of women. The book uses the same structure as Knut Faldbakken’s Adam’s Diary: we examine a culture by observing the way three separate narrators relate to an unknowable woman. In The Vegetarian, the central woman has renounced meat as a step toward renouncing personhood. She reflects Yi Sang’s self-negating idea, “I believe that humans should be plants.”  She states that her decision was motivated by a nightmare, yet her dream closely mirrors a nightmare from William Burroughs’s Queer:

vegAnother dream I had a chlorophyll habit. Me and five other chlorophyll addicts are waiting to score. We turn green and we can’t kick the chlorophyll habit. One shot and you are hung for life. We are turning into plants.”

The central woman of Han’s The Vegetarian strives to become a tree. She experiences arousal only when her body is painted with flowers and leaves. She practices handstands and imagines how it would feel for her fingers to extend root-like into the soil, her legs the boughs of a tree. And she announces to her sister, who had brought her fruit to eat, “I don’t need this kind of food, sister. I need water.” Later, as she is dying of anorexia, she screams at the hospital staff, “I . . . don’t . . . like . . . eating!”

The story is less about a woman who wants to be vegetarian, than one who wants to be a vegetable. Which is perhaps a more important story to tell. We should not be proud of a culture in which people feel so trapped they no longer want to be human. Being alive should be a joy, and yet, as depicted in the final panels of Stuart McMillen’s Rat Park, we’ve created a world in which many feel their lives to be a cage.

On Gerry Alanguilan’s “ELMER,” his author bio, and animal cognition.

On Gerry Alanguilan’s “ELMER,” his author bio, and animal cognition.

I was talking to a runner about graphic novels, once again recommending Andy Hartzell’s Fox Bunny Funny (which I imagine would be exceptionally treasured by a young person questioning their gender identity or sexuality, but is still great for anybody who feels they don’t quite fit in), when he recommended Gerry Alanguilan’s ELMER.  An excellent recommendation — I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The comic’s premise is that chickens suddenly gain intelligence roughly equivalent to humans.  Then they fight against murder, oppression, and prejudice in ways reminiscent of the U.S. civil rights movement.  The beginning of the book is horrifying, first with scenes depicting chickens coming into awareness while hanging by their feet in a slaughter house, then the violent reprisal they affect against humans.

gerryAlanguilan is a great artist and clearly a very empathetic man.

But that’s why I thought it was so strange that two out of four sentences of his short bio on the back cover read, “Gerry really likes chicken adobo, Psych, Mr. Belvedere, Titanic, Doctor Who, dogs, video blogging and specially Century Gothic. Transformed.”  For a moment I thought the first clause might be ironic because his author photograph for ELMER was taken in front of a busy bulletin board & one sheet of paper was a diet guide that appeared to have the vegan “v” logo at the bottom — maybe Gerry is making a point about what he gave up! — but with some squinting I realized it was a “Diet Guide for High Cholesterol Patients,” the symbol at the bottom merely a checkmark.

Why, then, would Alanguilan want to punctuate his work with the statement that he eats chickens, as though that is a defining feature of his life?

It’s commonly assumed among people who study animal cognition that other species are less aware of the world than humans are.  That humans perceive more acutely, our immense brainpower ensuring that our feelings cut deep.

The differences are matters of degree, though. It’s also widely acknowledged that humans exists on the same continuum as other animals, with no clear boundaries — genetic, physiological, or cognitive — demarcating us from them.  I thought this was phrased well by Frans de Waal in his editorial on Homo naledi and teleological misconceptions about evolution:

capThe problem is that we keep assuming that there is a point at which we became human.  This is about as unlikely as there being a precise wavelength at which the color spectrum turns from orange into red.  The typical proposition of how this happened is that of a mental breakthrough — a miraculous spark — that made us radically different.  But if we have learned anything from more than 50 years of research on chimpanzees and other intelligent animals, it is that the wall between human and animal cognition is like a Swiss cheese.

This is why, after reading Alanguilan’s brief biography, I began to wonder what percentage of human-like awareness chickens would need to have for their treatment in slaughterhouses, or the conveyer belt & macerator (grinder) used to expunge male chicks, or their confinement in dismal laying operations, to seem acceptable?

In Elmer, Alanguilan makes clear that their treatment would be unacceptable if the average chicken had one hundred percent of the cognitive capacity of the average human.  But then, below what percentage cognition does their treatment become okay?  Eighty percent?  Ten?  One?  Point one?

I think that’s an important question to ask, especially of an artist capable of creating such powerful work.

(And I should make clear that my own moral decisions exist in the same grey zone that I find curious in Alanguilan’s author bio.  I support abortion rights, an implicit declaration that the fractional cognition of a fetus is insufficient to outweigh the interests of the mother.  It’s more complicated than that, but it’s worth making clear that I’m not purporting to be morally pure.)

It’s true that humans are heterotrophs.  It’s impossible for us to live without harming — it irks me when vegetarians claim, for instance, that plants have no feelings.  They clearly do, they have wants and desires, they have rudimentary means of communication.  You could argue that eating fruit is ethically simple because fruit represents a pact between flowering plants and animal life, which co-evolved.  A plant expends energy to create fruit as a gift to animals, and animals in accepting that gift spread the plant’s seeds.

ketchupsmoothieBut anyone who eats vegetables (where “vegetable” means something like kale or broccoli or carrots — Supreme Court justices are not scientists) harms other perceiving entities by eating.

Which is fine. I eat, too!  Our first concern, given that we are perceiving entities, is to take care of ourselves.  If you didn’t care for your own well-being, what would motivate you to care for someone else’s?  Beyond that, I don’t think there’s a simple way to identify what or whom else is sufficiently self-like to merit our concern.  Personally, I care much more about my family than I do other humans — I devote the majority of my time and energy to helping them.  And I care much more about the well-being of the average human than I do the average cow, say, or lion.

Moral philosophers like Peter Singer would describe this as “speciest.”  I think that’s a silly-sounding word for a silly concept.  I don’t care about other humans because we have similar sequences in our DNA, or even because they resemble what I see when I look into a mirror.  I care about their well-being because of their internal mental life — I can imagine what it might feel like to be another human and so their plights sadden me.

Sure, I can imagine what it might feel like to be a chicken… but less well.  Other animals don’t perceive the world the same way we do.  And they seem to think less well.  I’d rather they not suffer.  But if somebody has to suffer, I’d rather that somebody be a Gallus gallus than a Homo sapiens.  I’d rather many chickens suffer than one human — I weigh chickens’ interests at only a small fraction of my concern for other humans.

Humans can talk to me.  They can share their travails with words, or gestures, or interpretative dance, or facial expressions.  And that matters a lot to me.

But integrity matters, too.  For instance, it seemed strange to me that David Duchovny could both write the book Holy Cow, in which he depicts farmed animals attempting to escape their doom, and still announce that he is “a very lazy vegetarian, which means I will look for the vegetarian meal, but I will also give up.”

My main objection isn’t to people eating meat.  It isn’t even to people who understand that animals can think (with differences in degree from human cognition, not differences in kind) eating meat.  Not everyone lives where I do, within a short walk of several grocery stores that all offer excellent nutrition from plants alone.  It’d be extremely difficult (and expensive) for humans living near the arctic to stay healthy without eating fish.  Those people’s well-being matters to me far more than the well-being of fish they catch.

And, for people living in close proximity to large, dangerous carnivores? Yes, obviously it’s reasonable for them to kill the animals terrorizing their villages.  I wish humans bred a little more slowly so that there’d still be space in our world for those large carnivores, but given that the at-risk humans already exist, I’d rather they be safe.  I can imagine how they feel.  I wouldn’t want my own daughter to be in danger.  I ruthlessly smash any mosquitos that go near her, and they are far less deadly than lions.

I simply find it upsetting when people who seem to believe that animal thought matters won’t take minor steps toward hurting them less.  It’s when confronted with stories about people who understand the moral implications of animal cognition, and who live in a place where it’s easy to be healthy eating vegetables alone, but don’t, that I feel sad.

If you had the chance to make your life consistent with your values, why wouldn’t you?


On racism and the empathy gap (while sneakily building toward the idea that teaching kids to root for your favorite sports team might be kinda evil).

There is an unfortunately compelling evolutionary model to explain why humans are so predisposed to racism.  The rotten treatment of presumed outsiders may well be a corollary of our genetic inducements toward altruism.  Which is grimly ironic, the idea that the same evolutionary narrative could explain both the best & worst sides of human nature.

In brief: self-sacrificing altruism will be favored by natural selection if such behavior improves the outlook of a group of genetically-similar individuals.

Photo by Justin Lindsay (Flickr).
Vampire bat.  Portrait by Justin Lindsay (Flickr).

But there’s a problem.  Taking advantage of the goodwill of others without contributing anything in return is even more effective.  All the benefits of altruism (having others be nice to you) with none of the costs (having to be nice to others)!  Like choosing to live in a country with good roads, a functional education system, reasonable protections for property rights, etc., but then declining to pay taxes.  Or being willing, as a vampire bat, to scarf some donated blood from others on your bad days, but not returning the favor if a neighbor comes up dry on a night you scored.  Or partaking of scavenged feasts as a protohuman, but never volunteering to charge forward with arms flung wide and attempt to scare off the lions (which is apparently less suicidal than it sounds; there’s a modern re-enactment of this on BBC Earth’s Human Planet).

Which means that, for genes that nudge their bearers toward altruism to flourish, there needed to be a mechanism for defectors to be detected and excluded.

One component of this is good — it’s been proposed that our innate sense of justice resulted from the need to ensure cooperation in societies.  Even very young humans are likely to intercede when they observe unfair behavior.

But, ah!  That tricky word, “observe.”  We have to trust that our compatriots will act ethically even when we can’t see them.  And, sadly, numerous studies have revealed that people will, on average, behave more ethically when exposed to eye imagery.  As with any social psychology finding, there’s large interpersonal variation… these studies almost all have wide error bars.  This result is clearly not that you are worse when you think no one is watching, but that the average individual is inclined to be.

The All-Seeing Eyes by Caneles on Flickr.  CC 2.0 license.
The All-Seeing Eyes. By Caneles (Flickr).

The protohumans to whom we owe our genetic heritage didn’t think to plaster eye imagery all over their environs (not in a literal sense, anyway — it’s been postulated that belief in an all-seeing deity has a similar effect on people’s behavior, and that such beliefs were integral to the growth of large communities).  And, unlike us oh-so-clever modern humans, our ancestors also failed to install privacy-obliterating surveillance cameras throughout their campgrounds and hunting ranges.  There were numerous opportunities to lie or cheat or steal or otherwise defect from cooperative behavior without the risk of being caught.

The genes that nudge people toward altruistic behavior had to be selected for in an environment with large quantities of hidden information.  And altruism is only a good evolutionary strategy if you can be pretty sure that, when you help someone, it’s most likely another altruist you’re helping.

This may be why our brains are so good at dividing the world into us and them.  By reserving altruism for a small group of allies, our ancestors may have increased the odds that the recipients of their aid were genetically similar to themselves.  And then, because our mental architecture is so flexible, we can adapt this wiring to use a wide variety of cues to distinguish between self and other.  Species, skin color, political affiliation, clothing style, whether someone is presumed to over- or under-estimate the number of dots on a screen ...

Once the world is divided into us and them, it seems that we may be less altruistic to those outside our own group because we don’t even perceive them as needing help.  There’s been a lot of research done on the “empathy gap,” the way we discount the suffering of those we presume to be unlike ourselves.  I really like the paragraph in Paul Gazda’s article “I Was an Animal Experimenter” that reads,

See the NYT article here.

“One day, while programming an experiment, I accidentally touched the electrodes and got a jolting shock that numbed my entire arm.  I was amazed that, according to my professor, the shock level was the correct one to use for pigeons.  I told myself that pigeons must not feel pain as much as I did.”

Similarly, people often seem able to convince themselves that other humans with differing levels of melanin in their epidermis also feel less pain: observing someone who resembles us get hurt triggers an empathetic response, as though we were feeling the pain ourselves.  This empathetic mirroring is diminished when the individual in pain is one of them, however.

So far, this essay has just been a bleak recounting of information about humans & our failings.  And I could go on.  Really, our genetic heritage is ill suited to the way I think we ought to live.  But I’m not sure what the benefit of listing all our foibles would be if there were no findings relevant to how we might make the world a better place … like, yeah, sometimes I learn things just because I love feeling depressed, but it’s nice to stumble across a glimmer of hope every now and then.

Let’s look for some hope now, shall we?

I’ve been thinking about this ever since reading Jeneen Interlandi’s article “The Brain’s Empathy Gap.”  There is a section in her article where she discusses research conducted with Israeli and Arabic subjects who underwent magnetic resonance imaging while reading about the Middle East. Capture

[The researcher] had noticed that a common sticking point in regional dialogues was that each side found the other ignorant or irrational or both.  [He] wanted to see if those perceptions could be traced to a specific part of the theory-of-mind network.

For the most part, the results were as expected.  Israeli subjects were more likely to harbor anti-Arab biases and to rate Arab perspectives as unreasonable, and vice versa.  And in both groups, a small region of the brain, the medial precuneus, which may be associated with the theory-of-mind network, responded more strongly when the subject was written by members of the other group.  But for three subjects, the psychological and neurological tests contradicted each other.  The psychological and neurological tests contradicted each other.  The psychological tests indicated that they held the same types of anti-Arab biases as the other Israeli subjects, but their brain scans, and their reasonableness ratings, indicated that they were able to identify with the Arab perspective nonetheless.  All three of these outliers, it turned out, were Israeli peace activists.

Clearly there are people who treat presumed outsiders more kindly than the prevailing norm.  Not everyone, it seems, discounts the suffering of others equally.  And, lo and behold, there are numerous findings that indicate psychological correlates of that discounting.  From the abstract of Masten et al.’s “Children’s intergroup empathic processing,”

“… those with a stronger ingroup identity displayed more empathy bias favoring their ingroup.”

To eliminate that reflexive, neurological discounting of the suffering of others, it may be necessary to identify less strongly with our own exclusionary groups.  To not think of ourselves as members of a species (which isn’t a hard and fast distinction anyway), or an ethnicity, or nationality, or members of a particular fraternity, or fans of a particular sports team…

The 2009 US Air Force Thunderbirds fly over Superbowl XLIII in Tampa, Fla., Feb. 2.  (RELEASED)
Superbowl XLIII.

Not all of these have implications for social justice — I’ve seen no research, for instance, suggesting that fans of the White Sox are systematically oppressed — the issue is that the human mind is malleable and performs best at those tasks which it’s been trained on.  I suppose it would be reasonable to speculate whether sports fandom could provide a replacement outlet for exclusionary reflexes — the idea that someone could drain him- or herself of racist attitudes by channeling that into dislike of a favorite team’s competitors — but, sadly, that seems not to be what happens.  I think the Eric Simons article “What science can tell us about why we love sports” has some perspicacious analysis:

In a more collective way, we also know from psychology that people divided into groups behave differently toward, and even unconsciously think differently about, in-group and out-group; sports provide an easy and arbitrary group division.  It does not follow, though, that sport is sublimated war — even though one of the most popular narratives about fans is that they’re merely channeling that same my-people aggression, in a (slightly) more constructive manner.  Humans are competitive and oriented toward thinking about the world in groups, but there’s no evidence that sports are a way for us to slake our warlike natures.

Personally, I think there is a stronger conclusion that can be drawn (although, let’s face it, my conclusion won’t include a phrase as beautiful as “slake our warlike natures”).  I’d wager that exclusionary pride in one context trains the mind to be more exclusionary in other contexts as well.

I know there are people who really benefit from the thought that they are part of something larger than themselves… but if our goal is to create a less racist society, it might be counterproductive to expend so much energy trying to instill school pride in children, for instance.  My high school had numerous pride rallies throughout the year, and every university seems to raise a fair bit of money through the sale of pride sweatshirts and the like… and wouldn’t it be ironic if we were training students’ minds to be worse as adults?


p.s.  Quite possibly the above findings do not apply to you.  Maybe you read this and thought, “Hey, wait a second, I’m a huge sports fan, I’ve got loyalty to my team, and *I* am not a racist jerk!”

Image by Neil Owen.
Image by Neil Owen.

And, look, I agree.  You’re not a jerk, dear reader!  (Unless you are, in which case you’re both a jerk *and* a liar, but let’s not consider that possibility)

The thing about all these social psychology results is, there are huge interpersonal variations… often the variation from person to person is larger than the observed effects.  If you want to see for yourself, really, go ahead, pull up almost any of the papers I cited above and take a gander at the error bars… they’re huge!

I’ve seen several articles cite Avenanti et al.’s study showing that white subjects feel less empathy when black people’s hands are poked with needles, for instance.  Earlier in this post I also included a link to their paper implying that this is what they saw.  But what they really observed is a small shift in the average response amongst thirty-two young people in Italy.  Their actual data isn’t available in the supplemental material for the paper but judging from their bar graphs it seems pretty likely that a few of their thirty participants empathized just as much no matter the melanin content of the hand being poked.

Quite probably they would have had one more non-racist data point if they’d included you.

But, then again… if they included too many people like you, then their paper couldn’t have been published.  Because nobody wants to read a paper saying “humans feel empathy when they see another human being poked with a needle.”  Or, no, that’s not true.  I’d be pretty happy to see some results like that.  But most journals wouldn’t publish it.  That result isn’t interesting.  And so studies like all the ones I linked to above are enriched for jerkish participants, because otherwise the papers wouldn’t exist for me to link to.  Kind of a conundrum, inn’t it?

So, carry on… as long as you’re being nice, go ahead and root for your favorite sports team.  Celebrate your Native American or Irish or Taiwanese or mixed or unknown heritage.  Buy yourself one of those decalcomaniaed license-plate holders from your alma mater.  The results from all those papers might be totally bunk.

It’s just that, if they aren’t, it’s quite possible that, for the statistically-averaged hordes, that type of behavior makes our world worse.  If all these findings are meaningful, then the cheering and the school pride and all the rest of it might make subconscious racism more prevalent.

On perspective, and whether you, Dear Reader, are a chameleon.

CaptureOne major difficulty for me, in writing my book, was trying to inhabit perspectives that, due to an unfortunate spate of research reading, I don’t really sympathize with.  But I had to learn to do it — and do it with the understanding that almost everyone, within the context of their view of the world, is trying to do good.  Because otherwise I’d have a bunch of unlikeable characters on my hands… and that makes for (in my opinion) miserable reading.

Obviously, there are some exceptions.  Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World is a blast despite the protagonist being a monster.  But he’s a pleasant enough monster most of the way… and by the time he’s not, you’re done.

Vladimir_Nabokov_(statue)I assume this is why I failed to finish reading Nabokov’s Despair despite loving Lolita I read the first third while sitting on a rock beside Lake Michigan, but that was all.  In Nabokov’s own words,

“Hermann [the protagonist of Despair] and Humbert are alike only in the sense that two dragons painted by the same artist at different periods of his life resemble each other.  Both are neurotic scoundrels, yet there is a green lane in Paradise where Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year; but Hell shall never parole Hermann.”

I needed Humbert’s dash of grace, as a reader, in order to comfortably inhabit his perspective long enough to finish the book.

(In Despair’s defense, part of why I didn’t finish it may be that I picked it up during the semester of college when I’d accidentally enrolled in too many courses.  Scheduled time in laboratories and lecture halls added up to sixty-two hours per week.  If I was showing up for it all.  I wasn’t.  I couldn’t!  Some things fell through the cracks.  Like pleasure reading, fairly early on.  Like congeniality and general humanity, by the end.)

But, honestly, my recent favorite passage about perspective comes from a book on animal cognition.  It makes a striking point about how wrong we can be when we try to guess what someone else is thinking… especially if that person is a snake.  But I think the general point remains true when comparing human to human, even if our ways of seeing are superficially very similar (If you’re colorblind and don’t mind the idea of injecting recombinant virus into your own eyeball, you should check out the “Retinal gene therapy” section from that link).  Without further ado, here’s Jesus Rivas and Gordon Burghardt, from their article “Crotalomorphism: A Metaphor for Understanding Anthropomorphism by Omission.”

Consider another story, but one involving the study of other species, species in which, unlike our tendencies with primates and domestic animals, anthropomorphism is not usually considered a serious threat to the work of trained scientists.

A researcher is studying the behavior of a very colorful lizard.  When this lizard sees a person, it rapidly changes its color to match its background, just as octopuses are well known to do.  The researcher concludes that the change in color is a cryptic response to avoid predation.  Just at this time, however, a large female timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) that is quietly observing the researcher from some nearby brush is suddenly spotted by the researcher, who is both startled and scared.  Rattlesnakes, being pit vipers, can detect patterns of infrared radiation from mammals through the loreal pits situated between the eyes and nostrils.  Therefore, when the snake perceives the researcher, she detects it as a very warm animal moving in a much cooler background (not unlike the way the human sees the colorful lizard).  When the startled researcher saw the rattlesnake, adrenaline kicked in and the flow of blood to the arms and legs was reduced, along with all other peripheral circulation; this is a normal response to stress.  The researcher turned cooler and was therefore less visible to the infrared-detecting “eyes” of the snake.  Our clever rattlesnake concludes that the person is trying to escape by matching the cooler background.  The drop in peripheral temperature is a cryptic response to predators with heat-sensing organs.

Timber_rattlesnake_(Crotalus_horridus)This is an example of crotalomorphism by omission; for although there is evidence that predator stress can lower body temperature, the snake’s conclusion would probably be dismissed as erroneous by most human scientists.  However, is the snake’s conclusion different in any essential way from the conclusion of the human researcher studying lizards?

The message seems easily generalizable.  Just because something has important informational content the way we view the world doesn’t mean anyone else will see it that way.  And there are lots of concepts this can be applied to… I almost want to connect this “just because something’s there doesn’t mean it was intentional” message to array analysis of the Torah, since that also would be a good tie-in to the general flaws of significance testing.

But I think it might be more fun to extend the idea to Elisabeth Lloyd’s Case of the Female Orgasm.  An excellent book — I think hers is the best general-audience description of natural selection and evolution I’ve read, and you get that right in the first chapter.  The rest of the book analyzes different theories from evolutionary biology about why human females have orgasms (in effect, she concludes that they can occur for most females because they’re so strongly selected for in males; there’s no selective pressure against having them in females, so they occur primarily because both genders develop via similar pathways.  But she concludes that female orgasms were not actively selected for… similar to male nipples, that way.  Not that the absence of biological necessity in any way means something isn’t important or good), pointing out why so many of the theories have been wrong.  One of my favorite passages is where she really sticks it to the (often male) evolutionary biologists who came before her for assuming that female orgasms could only have utility if they occurred during sex with men:

Procreative focus involves the assumption that all evolutionarily significant sex is procreative sex.  This background assumption encourages looking at female sexuality exclusively by focusing on heterosexual intercourse.  It is easy to see how this basic approach complements an adaptationist approach: if female orgasm is an adaptation, it must be correlated somehow with increased reproductive success for the female who possesses it.  Reproductive success is naturally linked to reproductive sex (heterosexual intercourse); thus it seems natural to think that intercourse is the evolutionarily important kind of sex.  There are elements of androcentrism and heterosexual bias operating in procreative focus as it applies to female orgasm, because procreative focus concentrates only on the kind of sex that is reliably associated with male reproductive success: intercourse.  Thus both adaptationist and androcentric background assumptions contribute to a procreative focus.  But heterosexist bias makes procreative focus distinct from a simple adaptationist bias. 

Heterosexist bias may be particularly important in considering female orgasm.  Both the macaques and the bonobo females have a fair amount of homosexual sex (around half of all female bonobo sexual encounters involve sex with other females).  In the bonobos, this is considered to be a form of friendship or coalition building, which can have a profound effect on male behavior (Wrangham and Peterson 1996, pp. 208-210, 227).  Thus there may be a fitness advantage in having homosexual sex, and if so, that would make the heterosexist bias a particularly pernicious bias.

Just some things to think about.  Empathy is hard: we’ll never know exactly how the world looks through anyone else’s eyes.  But these passages definitely helped me in thinking about my own biases.  Plus, weren’t they fun?