The world is complicated. There’s so much information out there, so much to know. And our brains are not made well for knowing much of it.
I can understand numbers like a dozen, a hundred. I can make a guess at the meaning of a thousand. Show me a big gumball machine and ask me to guess how many gumballs are in it, maybe I’ll guess a thousand, a few thousand.
But numbers like a million? A billion? A trillion? These numbers are important, I know. These numbers might be the population of cities, or of planets, or of solar systems. These numbers might be the ages of species or planets. These numbers might be how many stars are in the sky, or how many stars in the sky might harbor life.
These numbers don’t mean much to me.
I don’t think the problem is just my brain. I’m fairly good with numbers, relative to the average human. It’s been years since I’ve sat in a math class, but I can still do basic integrals and derivatives in my head.
Yet I can’t understand those big numbers. They don’t feel like anything to me.
So we make graphs. Charts. We try to represent information in ways that our meager human brains can grasp.
A good chart can be a revelation. Something that seemed senseless before is now made clear.
An apocalypse is a revelation. The word “apocalypse” means lifting the veil – apo, off; kalyptein, conceal. To whisk away the cover and experience a sudden insight.
An illustration that depicts information well allows numbers to be felt.
Often, though, we illustrate information and we do it poorly.
The scientific method is gorgeous. Through guesswork, repetition, and analysis, we can learn about our world.
But science is never neutral. We impart our values by the questions we choose to ask, by the ways we choose to interpret the world’s ever-oblique answers.
Geological time is often depicted as a clock. A huge quantity of time, compressed down into a 24-hour day. Often, this is done with the ostensible goal of showing the relative unimportance of humans.
Our planet has been here for a day, and humans appear only during the final two minutes!
Unfortunately, this way of depicting time actually overemphasizes the present. Why, after all, should the present moment in time seem so special that it resides at midnight on our clock?
The present feels special to us because we’re living in it. From a geological perspective, it’s just another moment.
Geologic textbooks invariably point out (almost gleefully) that if the 4.5-billion-year story of the Earth is scaled to a 24-hour day, all of human history would transpire in the last fraction of a second before midnight.
But this is a wrongheaded, and even irresponsible, way to understand our place in Time. For one thing, it suggests a degree of insignificance and disempowerment that not only is psychologically alienating but also allows us to ignore the magnitude of our effects on the planet in that quarter second.
And it denies our deep roots and permanent entanglement with Earth’s history; our specific clan may not have shown up until just before the clock struck 12:00, but our extended family of living organisms has been around since at least 6 a.m.
Finally, the analogy implies, apocalyptically, that there is no future – what happens after midnight?
Timefulness is a lovely book, but Bjornerud does not present a corrected clock.
And so I lay in bed, thinking. How could these numbers be shown in a way that helped me to understand our moment in time?
I wanted to fix the clock.
The first midnight is easy – the birth of our sun. A swirling cloud of gas condenses, heating as gravity tugs the molecules into more and more collisions. Nuclear fusion begins.
Gravity tugs molecules inward, nuclear explosions push them outward. When these are balanced, our sun exists. Twelve o’clock.
Two minutes later, our planet is born. Metal and water and dust become a big rock that keeps swirling, turning, as it orbits the sun. It’s warmed, weakly, by light from the sun – our star shone dimly then, but shines brighter and brighter every day.
Our sun earns low interest – 0.9% each hundred million years, hotter, brighter. But wait long enough, and a low interest is enough.
Someday, shortly before it runs out of fuel, our sun will be blinding.
By 12:18 a.m., there is life on Earth. We’ve found fossils that many billions of years old.
And at 7:26 p.m., there will be no more life. Our sun will have become so bright that its blinding light evaporates all the oceans. The water will boil so hot that it will be flung into space. The Earth will be a rocky desert, coated perhaps in thick clouds of noxious gas.
Currently, it’s 10:58 a.m.
The dinosaurs appeared 35 minutes ago. 9.5 minutes ago, all of them died (except the ancestors of our birds).
Humans appeared 1 minute ago.
So, we have 3.5 billion years remaining – another 8.5 hours on our clock – before we have to migrate to the stars.
Humans certainly can’t persist forever. Empty space is stretching. Eventually, the whole universe will be dark and cold, which each speck of matter impossibly far from every other.
But our kind could endure for a good, long while. Scaled to the 24-hour day representing the lifespan of our sun, we still have another 300 years before the universe goes dark.
So many stories could fit into that span of time.
It’s 10:58 a.m., and life on Earth has until 7:26 p.m.
Humans crept down from trees, harnessed fire, invented writing, and built rockets all within a single minute. Life moves fast.
Quite likely, life from Earth will reach the stars.
But it needn’t be us.
The dinosaurs were cool. They didn’t make it.
We naked apes are pretty cool, too. I love our cave drawings, art museums, psychedelic street art. Our libraries. But we’ve also made prodigious mounds of trash. We’re pouring plumes of exhaust into the sky as we ship giant flatscreen televisions from place to place.
We burn a lot of fuel for the servers that host our websites.
We humans aren’t the first organisms to risk our own demise by pumping exhaust into the atmosphere. The industrial revolution was fueled by ancient plants – our engines burn old sunlight. But many microbes are happy to eat old sunlight, too. These microbes also pump carbon dioxide into the air. They’ve warmed our planet many times before – each time the permafrost thawed, microbes went to town, eating ancient carbon that had been locked up in the ice.
Foolish microbes. They made the Earth too hot and cooked themselves.
Then again, the microbes may have more modest goals than us humans. We’ve found no fossils suggesting that the microbes tried to build spaceships.
For our endeavors, we’ve benefited from a few thousand years of extremely stable, mild climate.
We still have 8.5 hours left to build some spaceships, but a thirty second hot squall at 10:59 a.m. would doom the entire project.
So much time stretches out in front of us. We could have a great day. We, in continuation of the minute of humans who preceded us, and continued by the seconds or minutes or hours of humans who will be born next.
We shouldn’t let our myopic focus on present growth fuck up the entire day.
Honestly? My children are four and six. I’d be so disappointed if I took them for a hike and they guzzled all their water, devoured all their snacks, within the first minute after we left our house.
In Sue Burke’s Semiosis, humans reach an alien world with intelligent plants.
The settlers find themselves afflicted by inexplicable infertility. Most women are able to bear children, but many men are sterile. The settlement develops a culture in which women continue to marry based on the vagaries of affection, but from time to time, a woman will kiss her spouse goodnight before venturing off for an evening’s energetic tussle with a fertile man.
The human settlement has established itself at the base of a single plant. This plant has ocular patches and can recognize individual humans. The plant provides fruit that seems exquisitely tailored to each person’s nutritional needs. In return, the humans carefully tend the plant – irrigating its groves, clearing away competitors, and fertilizing new growth.
The plant manipulates its human caretakers. By tweaking the composition of their food, it controls the humans’ health. Selectively instilling infertility or fecundity allows the plant to direct human evolution. Among the fourth generation of human settlers, more than half of all children were sired by a placid man who was so contemplative and empathetic that he learned to communicate with the host plant.
The plant domesticated its human caretakers.
Here on Earth, flowering plants also co-evolved with animals.
Plants could very well consider themselves the dominant species in these relationships – after all, plants use animals to do their bidding. Plants offer tiny drips of nectar to conscript insects to fertilize their flowers. Plants offer small fruits to conscript mammals to spread their seeds. And plants far outlive their servants – thousands of generations of animals might flit by during the lifetime of a single tree.
Some plants directed the evolution of their helpers so well that the species are inextricably linked – some insects feed on only a single species of plant, and the plant might rely on this single species of insect to fertilize its flowers. If either the plant or insect disappeared, the other would go extinct.
In Semiosis, the alien plant changes its attitude toward humans over the generations. At first it was concerned only with control and utility. The motile beasts were a tool that it could manipulate with pleasing colors and psychoactive fruits.
Eventually, though, the plant develops an affection for its human wards. Of course, these humans are markedly different from the people who first arrived on this planet.
The plant’s affections changed in the same way that our own attitude toward wolves softened as we manipulated the species. Many humans are still reflexively afraid of wolves. We tell children stories about Little Red Riding Hood; when I’m walking in the woods, sometimes I find myself humming the refrain from “Peter and the Wolf.” The ecosystem of Yellowstone Park was devastated when we murdered all the wolves during the 1920s; willow and beaver populations have rebounded since wolves were reintroduced in the 1990s (most likely because wolves mitigate the damage done by uncontrolled elk populations); now that Yellowstone’s wolf population isn’t critically endangered, states surrounding the park are letting human hunters shoot wolves again.
And yet, we giggle at the antics of domesticated dogs.
Among wild animals, the most aggressive individuals are often the most fecund. Wolves who can fight for and hold the alpha rank get to breed; the others don’t.
During domestication, breeding patterns are altered. To create dogs, we selected for the most docile individuals. If you could expand your temporal horizons wide enough, all populations might seem as mutable as clay. A species flows through time, ever changing, evolving such that the traits that best lead to viable children become more common. In the wild, a speedy rabbit might have the most children, because it might survive for more breeding seasons than others. On a farm, the most docile rabbit might have the most children, because its human handlers might give a docile male more time among the females.
Domestication seems to change animals in stereotyped ways. Zoologist Dmitry Belyayev designed an experiment with wild foxes. Only the foxes that were least fearful of humans were allowed to breed; over the course of some dozen generations, this single criterion resulted in a large number of behavioral and morphological changes. The domesticated foxes produce less adrenaline; they have narrower faces; they have floppier ears. This suite of traits seems to be present in almost all domesticated species.
Cats still have pointy ears. As it happens, cats are barely domesticated.
Humans seem to be self-domesticated. A few hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors lived in very small groups, maybe one or two dozen individuals. After humans diverged from the last common ancestor that we shared with bonobos and chimpanzees, most human species still lived in groups of about this size. Neanderthals may have lived in groups as small as six.
Eventually, Homo sapiens drove all other human species to extinction. A major competitive advantage was that Homo sapiens lived and worked in groups as large as a hundred. With so many people cooperating, they could hunt much more efficiently. A violent conflict between six Neanderthals and a clan of a hundred Homo sapiens would not go well for the Neanderthals.
In the modern world, the population densities of urban areas force humans to be even more docile than our recent ancestors. But even with our whole evolutionary history promoting cooperation, many people struggle to be calm and kind within the crowded confines of a city. Some can do it; others feel too aggressive.
When a person’s disposition is ill-suited to the strange environment we’ve made, we punish. We shunt people to high school detention, or jail.
In Semiosis, the plant overlord reacts by limiting fertility.
As in Richard Powers’s Overstory, the perspective of a long-lived, immobile plant would be markedly different from ours. Human generations flit by as a plant continues to grow.
Domestication takes generations – in Belyayev’s fox experiment, twenty generations passed before a third of the population was tame – but an intelligent plant could wait. By selecting which individuals get to pass on their genes, huge changes can be made. From wolves, we created Great Danes and Chihuahuas. From a scruffy grass we evoked buxom ears of corn, as though by glacial magic.
In particularly dark eras of our past, humans have tried to direct our own evolution. Social Darwinists in the United States forcibly sterilized people whom they disliked. Politicians in Nazi Germany copied the legal language of the United States when they sought philosophical justification for the murder of entire religious and ethnic groups.
By putting the motivation inside the mind of a plant, Burke is able to explore the ramifications of directed human evolution without alluding to these evil regimes.
In jail, somebody said to me, “I heard that humans were evolving to have really long fingers, so we could type real fast, and big-headed hairless bodies.”
“Yeah, yeah,” somebody added, “I saw this thing on the Discovery channel, it was like, you know the way they show all those aliens on the X-Files? That humans were gonna be like that, like the aliens were just us coming back to visit from the future.”
I murmured in disagreement.
“Humans are definitely still evolving. But evolution doesn’t have a goal. It just selects for whichever properties of a creature are best for making copies of itself.”
“With modern medical care, we don’t die so easily. So the main driver of evolution is the number of kids you have. If you have more kids than I do, then you’re more fit than I am. Future humans will look more like you than me.”
Our criminal justice system ensnares people from all walks of life. Occasionally we’ll hear about the arrest of a wealthy sociopath with a penchant for child abuse, like Jared Fogel or Jeffrey Epstein.
But, let’s face it. Justice in this country isn’t applied fairly. If you’re wealthy, your behavior has to be a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a poor person. If you look white, your behavior has to a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a black person.
There’s abundant statistical evidence to back up these claims. But the Supreme Court won’t allow any particular individual to petition for reduced punishment based on the statistical evidence. After all, prosecutors, judges, and juries ostensibly came to their decisions based on the unique details of each individual case. Just because people who resemble you are often treated unfairly doesn’t mean that you were treated unfairly, too.
Because we apply punishment so inequitably, our jails and prisons are full of people who’ve been treated poorly by the world. Compared to the average citizen, people in prison grew up with less money, received less education, experienced more trauma. And, no matter what people’s earlier lives were like, if they’re in prison, they’re not being treated well now.
So they have a lot of justifiable grievances against the dominant political, cultural, and religious beliefs of our country. Punished unfairly by their fellow Christians, people sour on Christianity. Inside walls where the demographics make it blatantly obvious that our laws are enforced in a malignantly racist way, racial tensions boil.
At Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people inside, we get requests for stuff about Norse mythology, Odinism, and Asatru. Lots of folks ask for material to learn foreign languages – people want to feel like they’ve accomplished something during their time in prison – but I always feel skeptical when somebody wants help learning Icelandic.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Icelandic. And Norse mythology is cool! Unfortunately, a gaggle of violent white supremacists decided that Norse mythology should be the basis for their religion. Starting in the 1970s, a right-wing racist from Florida began sending “Odinist” publications into prisons.
During the thirteenth century, Christian scholars transcribed many of the old Norse myths so that they could better understand the literary allusions of old Icelandic poetry. But they didn’t record anything about ancient religious practice. We barely have any information about most ancient pagan beliefs. Anyone who wants to adopt a pre-Christian European religion now – whether it’s Wicca, Druidism, Odinism, or Celtic polytheism – is basically forced to make things up.
I have nothing against religious invention. All religions were made by human beings – there’s no a priori reason why a religion created long ago, by people who understood much less about the world than we do now, would be better than something you invent today. Sure, ancient religions have been tested by time, suggesting that they possess virtues that their practitioners found helpful over the years, but most ancient religions have their problems, too. Inaccurate cosmologies, scattered hateful passages in their texts, that sort of thing.
So I like the idea of neo-paganism. You want to find a clearing in the woods and
do some moonlit dancing? You’d rather
worship a feminine generative force than a norm-enforcing patriarchal deity? You want to exalt nature as a hearth to be
protected rather than a resource to be exploited? Go right ahead! All of that sounds pretty great to me.
neo-paganism as it’s currently practiced in prison tends to be pretty hateful.
That’s why I’ve been
working on a set of anti-racist pamphlets about Norse mythology. Currently, when people ask for The Poetic
Edda or whatever, we send a friendly letter saying that we don’t have it,
and also that we generally don’t stock that sort of thing because it runs afoul
of our anti-hate policy.
But the Norse myths are
certainly no more hateful than Biblical myths, and we send plenty of
those. The main difference is that
centuries of continued Christian practice have created a scaffolding of gentler
beliefs around the stories in the Bible.
The text of Psalm 137
states that “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little
ones against the stones.” But the
text is a tool, not the entirety of the religion. The practice of Christianity frowns upon
the murder of any human infant. Whether
you like the kid’s parents or not.
We’d be better off if Pages to Prisoners could send warm-hearted material about Norse mythology to people. Sure, you can interpret the Norse myths as endorsing a war-mongering death cult. You can interpret the Old Testament that way, too. But you can also interpret the Norse myths as environmentalist. Feminist. Supporting the pursuit of knowledge. Judging strangers based upon their merits, not their appearance.
Odinism is so entangled with white supremacy, though, our pamphlet will have to
address skin color and genetic heritage directly. It’s a fraught topic. Lots of people in the U.S. don’t like any discussion
of evolution. Some people feel squigged
out when they learn that contemporary birds evolved from the same set of common
ancestors as the dinosaurs. And that’s far
less emotionally charged than a description of human evolution.
Plus, skin color still has huge implications for how people are treated in the United States. Consider, um, those prison demographics I cited above. And so discussions about the evolution of epidermal melanin concentrations are especially tense. Although the underlying biology is simple – some places have more sunlight than others! – because people think it matters, it does.
I’ve found that these conversations are actually a decent way to get people interested in the study of archeology and biology, though. After we’ve discussed this in jail, people have asked me to bring research papers and textbooks so that they could learn more.
Whenever two groups of an organism stop mating with each other, they’ll slowly drift apart. This rift might occur because the groups became physically separated from each other. Maybe one group migrated to an island. In contemporary times, maybe the groups were separated when humans built a new highway bisecting a habitat. Maybe two sets of similar-looking insects mate apart because they’re eating fruits that ripen at different times.
Or the groups might stop mating with each other because a chance mutation caused members of one group to want their sexual partners to smell a certain way. Various species of stickleback are able to interbreed – they identify other members of their kind based on smell. But water pollution has overwhelmed the fishes’s senses, leading the fish to mate indiscriminately.
If humans hadn’t
polluted their waters, though, these sticklebacks would have drifted farther
and farther apart until it became impossible for them to interbreed. No matter how many sense-suppressing
chemicals we dumped.
We don’t know what caused the initial rift between our ancestors and the ancestors of contemporary chimpanzees. About 4 million years ago, though, these groups stopped having children together. By 2 millions years ago (at least 100,000 generations later), these groups looked quite different from each other. Although it’s possible that these organisms could have still mated with each other and raised viable progeny, they rarely did.
One group of these
creatures, which included our ancestors, had a tucked pelvis and mostly upright
posture. This allowed for a good vantage
while scavenging and, eventually, hunting.
The other group, which includes chimpanzees’ ancestors, mostly moved on
all fours. This body plan results in
fewer mothers dying during childbirth.
As ever, there are trade-offs to be made.
Up until about 2 million
years ago, all our ancestors lived in Africa.
But then they began to migrate.
Over the next million years, they explored much of the globe. By about 500,000 years ago, half a dozen
different types of humans lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia. The difference between one population to the
next was not like the racial differences among contemporary humans, but more
like the difference between lions and tigers, or between polar bears and brown
bears. Scientists describe them as
distinct species. Although they were
similar enough that they could have sex and raise children together, they
rarely did – they lived in distinct parts of the world and had begun to evolve
adaptations to their specific environments.
Evolution isn’t easy. Nor is it quick. Just because a certain trait would be
advantageous doesn’t mean that creatures will acquire it. In the desert, it would help to have
adaptations for water retention like camels, or long ears like jackrabbits to
cool the blood. But a trait can only
spread after a random mutation creates it.
And, even if a trait is very helpful, if only one individual is born
with the adaptation, there’s no guarantee that it will have enough children for
the benefit to spread through the population.
Once a beneficial trait has a good toe-hold – present in perhaps 1% to 10% of the population – then we can expect it to flourish. But below that amount, even great adaptations might die off due to bad luck. That’s why it takes so many generations – tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands – before you see organisms become drastically better suited for the environment. Even when scientists do directed evolution experiments in the lab, it takes about this many generations for a population of bacteria to evolve ways to consume a new food source, for instance.
By 500,000 years ago, the various species of humans were recognizably different. Denisovans lived in the mountains, and their hemoglobin genes allowed them to avoid altitude sickness. Their blood was less likely to clot and cause strokes, and they could extract more oxygen from the thin air. These are incredibly beneficial traits. Even though the Denisovans went extinct about 40,000 years ago, about 40% of people currently living in Tibet have copies of the Denisovan hemoglobin gene.
Our ancestors migrated east to the Denisovans’ homeland just before the Denisovans went extinct. To be perfectly honest, we probably killed them. But before or during this genocide, a few of our ancestors must have had sex with the locals. And then the bi-racial children of these Homo sapiens / Denisovan couplings must have been significantly better off for the gene to spread so widely.
The Neanderthal lived at
high latitude. Over many generations,
their average skin color became paler.
In part, this was probably due to the lack of selective pressure. Think about a dodo – there was no advantage
for these birds to lose their fear of humans.
But, because the dodos were living on an island that no humans traveled
to, there was also no harm in the birds becoming fearless.
Dodos lost a beneficial
trait – fear – because their fear wasn’t actively needed. It’s kind of like the airbags in an old
car. If your car’s engine goes bad,
you’ll notice right away. Turn the key,
hear it sputter. You use the engine
every time you drive. But your airbags
could get worse without you noticing … and then, in the moment when they’re
needed, they won’t deploy.
Humans living near the equator need epidermal melanin. If you don’t have enough melanin, you’ll get sunburns, which exacerbate the risk of infection and dehydration; you’ll suffer radiation-induced DNA damage, which leads to skin cancer; and you’ll lose folate, which means that pregnant women will have more birth defects.
The most recent ancestors
that humans and chimpanzees shared in common had pale skin. Contemporary chimpanzees are still pale. They can afford to be – their fur protects
them from the sun. But our ancestors
lost their fur, probably so that they didn’t overheat while running, and this
led to the evolution of dark skin.
High concentrations of
epidermal melanin distinguished humans from the other apes.
As humans migrated to
higher latitudes, though, they gradually lost this indicator of their
humanity. Because the sunlight was less
intense, there was less selective pressure.
Humans could lose their epidermal melanin in the same way that dodos
lost their fear – not because it was helpful to go without it, but because the
trait went untested in their day to day lives.
They had no way to “realize” how important it was.
Your airbags aren’t
helpful until you crash. And then
they’ll either deploy and save you, or they won’t.
Now, it’s possible that the Neanderthal also experienced some positive selective pressure on their skin color as they migrated north. Over thousands of generations, the Neanderthals may have benefited from paler skin because it increased their production of vitamin D. We don’t know for certain that the Neanderthal felt any evolutionary pressure to have more vitamin D – after all, contemporary Inuit people live at very high latitudes but still have a lot of epidermal melanin – but it’s true that vitamin D deficiency is a big risk among people with crummy diets.
In the past, hunter / gatherers typically ate much healthier, more varied diets than farmers. When humans began to farm, they would mostly eat the one type of plant that they cultivated, rather than the wide mix of plants that could be found growing wild. And when Homo sapiens farmers migrated to northern Europe, their diets were so poor that they even developed loss-of-function mutations in a cholesterol synthesis gene, probably so that they’d have higher concentrations of vitamin D precursors. Among these people, pale skin was probably a big advantage. They’d be ready for the cloudless days when their homeland’s feeble sunlight was enough to make some vitamin D.
Around 40,000 years ago,
our planet’s most recent ice age ended.
The world began to warm, and glaciers retreated from Europe. By then, a group of humans living in Africa
were recognizably Homo sapiens.
These were our ancestors. Every
human alive today – no matter what you look like or where your family is from –
is descended from this group of people from Africa. They lived in tribes of twenty to a hundred
people, had darkly pigmented skin, made art, and spoke complex languages.
As the world warmed, some
of these Homo sapiens began to migrate.
These journeys occurred over many generations. Some tribes stayed in Africa; some tribes
ventured north into Europe; others moved east toward Asia. As they traveled, they encountered the humans
who already lived in those places. As
I’ve mentioned, the newcomers occasionally had sex and raised children with the
natives. They probably also killed a lot
of them. Unfortunately, we Homo
sapiens don’t have the best reputation for treating strangers well.
rarely enough that most people living today have about 99% Homo sapiens DNA. Some people, especially if their families are
from Africa, have essentially 100% Homo sapiens DNA. At other extreme, even people whose families
are from Europe have 96% or more Homo sapiens DNA.
Among people living in
Tibet, the Denisovan hemoglobin gene is common, but most other Denisovan genes
Like the Neanderthal
before them, the Homo sapiens who ventured north into Europe began to
lose their epidermal melanin. People who
hunted and fished probably became paler simply because there was less risk of
sun damage. Remember, this didn’t happen
all at once. Average skin color would
change only over the course of hundreds or even thousands of generations, not
during the course of a single journeying Homo sapiens’s lifetime.
Our ancestors spent almost
all their time outdoors, which is why even dark-skinned people could probably
synthesize plenty of vitamin D. Among
contemporary humans, vitamin D deficiency is such a big problem because we
spend too much time inside. As I type
this, I’m sitting at a table in the YMCA snack room, lit up by flickering
fluorescent bulbs. This low-quality
light won’t help me make vitamin D.
Instead, I take a daily
supplement. But that doesn’t come near
matching the health and psychological benefits of time outdoors.
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that people in jail – places not known for providing a rich, high-quality, varied diet – typically get to go outside no more often than once a week. At our local jail, their hour of “outdoor rec” occurs in a little courtyard at the top of the jail, a cement space covered with a chain-linked fence. Outdoor rec often happened at night – a friend who was recently released told me that “This was still nice. You could see some stars. And there’s that restaurant, Little Zagrib, down the street? Sometimes we’d smell foods from their kitchen.”
Treating people that way
is unlikely to help them get better.
But back to our migrants! Descendants of these pale-skinned Homo sapiens continued to explore new territories. Some reached North America about 12,000 years ago, and some of their descendants continued farther, all the way to South America.
As people traveled –
journeys that lasted many generations – they continued to evolve. Indeed, skin color was a trait that came
repeatedly under selective pressure. As
people migrated south into the Americas, they were living progressively closer
and closer to the equator. Compared to
their grandparents, they were bombarded by more intense sunlight. They needed more epidermal melanin.
This is a process that
takes a long time. A family might have
six kids; maybe the two palest kids get sunburned, which makes it more likely
that they’ll develop skin infections and die before they have children of their
own. If this happens again and again,
among many different families, then eventually the whole population will wind
up with slightly darker skin.
Because human skin color
has changed during each of the many prehistoric migrations, it isn’t correlated
with other traits. As we entered the
modern era, people’s skin color was lighter or darker based on how close to the
equator their recent ancestors lived.
But human populations migrated so often that there were many different
groups, each with unique cultural and genetic heritages, living at every
latitude. Because skin color is so
closely linked to latitude, this means many different groups shared similar
concentrations of epidermal melanin. And
there’s no evolutionary pressure linking a trait that protects skin to brain
size or intelligence.
As it happens, there are
major events known to have caused a decrease in human brain size (and probably
intelligence). After all, human brains
are costly. Even though there’s a
benefit to being clever, there’s also been constant evolutionary pressure against
Large brains kill
mothers. Because humans walk upright,
childbirth is riskier for human mothers than for other primates. Our posture constrains the width of our hips
– both male and female – but a baby’s whole head has to pass through that
Having children is so
risky that we evolved to give birth about 3 months prematurely. Human gestation takes about a year, but most
mothers give birth after only 9 months.
This allows a baby’s head to continue to grow outside the mother’s body,
but human babies are totally helpless at birth.
We have to be very devoted parents to keep them alive.
Also, our brains require a
lot of fuel. Human evolution occurred
over such a long, long time that our ancestors lived through many droughts and
calamities. During the hard years, our
ancestors would struggle to get enough to eat, and a large brain makes that
A person with a smaller
brain requires fewer calories, making that person less likely to starve in lean
times. And, again, it’s worth
remembering that evolution happens over so many generations, among so many
families, that even small changes can add up.
If mothers who have small-headed children can survive a dozen
pregnancies, but mothers with large-headed children die after only a few, then
the trend will be to have people with smaller brains. Intelligence has to be extremely
beneficial to overcome this sort of evolutionary pressure.
Similarly, if people with
small brains are more likely to survive and raise children during droughts,
then, after hundreds of generations of people who have survived dozens of
extended droughts, you’d expect to see more people with small brains.
Many of us have the bad
habit of reflexively thinking about evolution as the gradual development of
more and more complexity. But that’s not
what it is. Evolution is the process by
which things that are better suited for their environment become more
abundant. If the environment is a hard
place to live in, then evolution tends to push for more and more simplicity. When it’s hard to get enough calories, why
waste calories on anything that you don’t really need?
Starfish are descended
from organisms that had brains. But
starfish are brainless. The ancestral
starfish that weren’t wasting energy thinking were more likely to survive.
Which should make you feel
pretty good about your own brain, actually.
Your ability to think is so fabulous that your ancestors evolved larger
and larger brains … even though these brains were sometimes causing us to
starve to death, or kill our mothers.
That’s a valuable thing
you’ve got inside your skull. It cost
our ancestors so much for you to be able to have it.
But, right. Because the cost was so high, human brains did shrink sometimes. Like when we first domesticated dogs. Our ancestors began living with dogs about 30,000 years ago. Dogs were willing to do some thinking for us – they’d sniff out prey and listen for predators at night. Based on the behavior of my family’s dogs, I bet that they licked the faces of screaming children. Maybe that doesn’t seem essential for survival, but I certainly appreciate every time our dogs calm the kids down.
Because we could slough
off a few mental tasks – I don’t need to be so observant if the dog will
help me hunt – our brains could shrink, making childbirth less deadly and
reducing the caloric cost of maintaining our minds each day.
When humans switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, our brains shrunk further. A hunter / gatherer has to know so much about every plant and animal living nearby; the work asks more of a person’s brain than farming. This evolutionary trend was exacerbated by the fact that people’s diets became way worse when they began to farm. Instead of getting nutrition from a wide variety of different plants and animals, a farmer might eat meals consisting mostly of a single type of grain.
There’s nothing we can do now about these evolutionary trends. Dogs and farming swayed our ancestors’ evolution toward smaller brains, but it’s not as though you can get those neurons back by deciding to take up hunting, or never living with a pet.
But, honestly, our brains are so plastic that our genetic heritage matters less than how we choose to spend our time. By nature, neither gorillas nor parrots will speak human language. But individuals from both these species have been able to learn to communicate with us after we taught them.
Nobody is born with an
innate understanding of mythology, religion, science, or mathematics. None of that can be encoded in your
genes. If you want to understand this
stuff, you’ll have to make an effort to learn it.
Neuron count only suggests
a brain’s potential. You could do
incredible things with a low number – consider, by ways of analogy, the feats
that 1960s NASA accomplished using computers much smaller than a contemporary
telephone. And, conversely, sensory
deprivation will make it much harder to get things done, no matter what your
That’s why I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners. Our brains are capable of wonders. At any age, we can learn and grow. And yet, we lock people into prisons that seem designed to make them worse.
descended from the oppressors. My
ancestors ventured from their homeland with colonial aspirations and genocidal
It wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t born yet! But, having inherited vast privilege, some measure of responsibility from the misdeeds of my people surely falls upon my shoulders.
A hundred thousand years ago, several species of humans shared our planet. My ancestors, who would give rise to contemporary Homo sapiens, mostly lived in Africa. They differed from other primates in that their brains were larger, their posture more upright, their epidermis darker in hue, their verbal communication more nuanced.
During a period of climate change, my ancestors left their home. The planet was warming; glaciers receded; Homo sapiens ventured north.
Europe was already populated by humans, people who had weathered the bitter cold through the waning ice age. But my ancestors were undeterred. They did not respect the old territorial boundaries. Soon they supplanted the native peoples. Every last one of the natives died. Their people disappeared from the face of the earth, extinct.
Every time my ancestors ventured to a new land, the old inhabitants were killed. Nearly all of our planet’s large animals are gone now; megafauna extinction is directly correlated with human migration.
If it’s any consolation, Homo sapiens were not the only perpetrators of these atrocities. Every other human species – including those whom my ancestors harried to extinction – wrought similar devastation on their environments.
In this case, no reparations are possible. The victims are dead; their families curtailed. My ancestors’ misdeeds against them ceased, but only because there was no one left to harm.
But I can atone through remembrance.
And so, as a descendant of the oppressors, I felt a special sympathy toward the Neanderthal. When I was in school, these humans were consistently described as brutish, uncouth, and unintelligent. But I recognized that sort of language. My people have almost always maligned supposed “others” – until we took the time to learn how smart they are, all non-human animals were imagined to be unthinking automata. Pale-skinned Europeans claimed that intelligence – or even humanity itself – was inversely correlated with epidermal melanin concentration (by which measure Pan troglodytes would be more human than any Englishman).
Forty years ago, medical doctors implied that men who felt a sexual attraction to men differed from their peers on a cellular level, as though the human immunodeficiency virus was sensitive to a psychological preference. Even now, many medical doctors believe that people with higher amounts of epidermal melanin experience pain differently.
My people’s negative assessment of the Neanderthal, I figured, was probably not true. Indeed, in recent years we’ve discovered that Neanderthals made art, that they probably had spoken languages … that they were like us. Enough so that many humans living today carry Neanderthal DNA sequences in their genomes.
Inspired by Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a first-person perspective of the apocalypse wrought upon 11th century England, I began working on a story narrated by the last of the Neanderthal.
I was still working on this story during the 2016 presidential election. But with our 45th openly praising white supremacists, I felt suddenly less inspired to celebrate the Neanderthal. Many of the hate mongers were extolling the virtues of humans descended from northern Europeans, and, as it happens, these are the people who have the most abundant remnants of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes.
Genetics isn’t destiny. And there haven’t been any correlations between Neanderthal DNA and intelligence; indeed, most of the genetic sequences that have been proposed to modulate intelligence are probably false. Neanderthal DNA has been found to correlate only with an increased risk of depression and an increased susceptibility to allergies.
I began working on my Neanderthal story as an apology to the dispossessed, but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it in an environment where some individuals might tout their Neanderthal heritage as a mark of superiority. As though their blood conferred the right to mistreat people from other backgrounds, or the right to so thoroughly ravage our planet’s atmosphere that other people’s homes are scorched or submerged beneath the sea.
seems shocking to me. Quite recently,
the Neanderthal were thoroughly impugned.
As though we could declare their kind to be undeserving of existence and
thereby spare ourselves a reckoning for having killed them.
contemporary oppressors herald the Neanderthal as a source of greatness. Light-skinned warrior folk, beset by
dark-skinned immigrants from the south.
In fantasy novels, trees walk upon their roots and battle with their limbs. That makes sense to me. If I think about two trees interacting, I consider the branches; the taller tree shades the other, limiting its competitor’s growth.
But my perspective is upside down. Trees are standing on the sky, reaching for one another through the earth. They listen underground. They communicate down there, passing messages to one another, or even meals.
their branches grope for sunlight in the unconscious way that my kids’s feet
seek warmth like homing missiles while they sleep. I try to roll over only to find somebody’s
toes wedged under my back.
year, trees inch their feet toward the sun.
And their engaging social lives are hidden from me, buried
underground. My reflexive perspective gives
me an inverted image of a tree’s world.
not alone in this misunderstanding.
hold our heads high as we walk across the ground. A major source of tension in human evolution
was arranging our skeletons in such a way that we could walk upright without
too many women dying in childbirth – our posture constrains the shape of the
Although some species do exhibit dramatically different body morphs between males and females, it’s more common for evolutionary changes in one sex to diffusely alter the other. Club-winged manakins have bones that are more dense than other birds, which makes them worse at flying. All club-winged manakins fly poorly, male and female, even though only the males use their dense bones to produce mate-luring music. Or consider the orgasms and nipples of Homo sapiens, which fulfill important biological purposes in one sex, and serve as a vestigial source of fun for the other.
prehistoric times, men and women probably hunted together. The evidence is especially compelling for
human populations like the Neanderthal in southern Europe, who lived in such
small groups that they would be unable to kill large prey without help from everyone
in the group. But even if prehistoric
men had hunted alone, their upright stance and endurance running would have
introduced an evolutionary pressure constricting the width of a human pelvis.
ancestors first descended from the trees to scavenge meat from lions’
kills. Eventually, they began to
hunt. Their strategy was to exhaust and
bewilder their prey, hoping to use the local geography to assist in each
kill. Mammoths were more likely to fall
to their deaths than be slain by hurled spears; mounds of butchered bones
accumulated at the base of particularly useful cliffs.
caloric density of cooked meat allowed our brains to expand … but the embrace
of hunting also caused more women to die in childbirth.
tragically, our upright posture distorts our understanding of the trees that
once harbored our communities. After
all, we live in our heads. It seemed
sensible to us that the most interesting life of a tree would transpire in its
biology doesn’t force us to view the world a certain way, but it
dictates which perspectives are easiest to take.
Because our brains are story-generating organs, human cultures invariably see time as flowing uniformly in a single direction. But for subatomic particles, time appears to be symmetrical; the Feynman diagram of an interaction would appear perfectly plausible progressing either forward or backward.
universe’s progression toward greater entropy, i.e. randomness, seems to
introduce a directionality for time’s arrow.
But there’s no a priori reason to expect a world to progress
toward higher entropy. This
directionality seems to exist only because our particular universe happened to
be in an unstable, low entropy state shortly after the Big Bang.
say most physicists. From my
perspective, I’m content assuming that the past is fixed but the future is
mutable. If I didn’t believe in that
asymmetry – whether it’s real or not – I’d probably lapse into despair.
again, even if we accept that time is flowing, our perspective alters how we
feel about that change.
flow of time progress or decline?
tree’s branches its hands or its feet?
Indian mythology, time is cyclical, but within each cycle it flows toward
corruption. Time passes and the world
grows worse. Currently we are trapped
within a Kali Age, the worst possible world, knowing that all the great heroes
have passed. We are just biding our time
before the world can be destroyed and made good again.
the sunder, time will once again cause that new world’s gleam to fade. Nothing can stave off the encroach of rot.
Judaism, the ancient sages lived longer than we do, and knew more, too. At one point in time, a pair of humans were good:
before long, we disobeyed the whims of God and were exiled from paradise.
Book of Shem, David Kishik writes that
original means to linger by the origin and insist on it. The task is to avoid the progression toward a
future or an end, and to stop the narrative before it develops any
further. In this sense, and in this
sense only, the origin is a worthwhile goal.
Hence in Hebrew forward (kadima) is related to what is ancient (kadum),
just as backward (achora) is linked to what is last (acharon).
humans want to reclaim the imagined glories of the past.
America great again, perhaps.
personally think that many recent technological developments in our world are
bad. We’ve designed distracting,
addicting telephones, and we’re putting them into the hands of children. Our brains evolved to be extremely plastic,
which let our species adapt to a wide variety of circumstances … but this
neural plasticity allows exposure to fabulous, drug-like devices to
dramatically alter our brains, probably for the worse.
we’ve designed distracting, addicting advertising platforms – these siphon huge
amounts of money away from productive industries, and the perverse economic
incentives we’ve constructed allow these companies, alongside equally-unhelpful
investment banks, to lure many of the most clever college graduates to their
But I’m certainly no Luddite, pining for a purer past. The world was a terrible place for so many people. Although I appreciate the thesis that Yuval Noah Harari presents in Sapiens– that the invention of agriculture made people’s lives worse than when all humans were hunters and gatherers – I see those grim millennia as akin to the hump in a chemical reaction, a transition that must be traversed in order to reach the desired products.
generations, most people scraped out a miserable existence by subsistence
farming. Their lives were worse than
their ancestors’. But we, now,
can feed so many people so easily that we could make our world into a paradise.
not doing it, but we could.
At least we’re making baby steps toward a society in which people aren’t punished for their genetic background, or gender, or religious beliefs. I mean, even in the United States we still treat women shabbily; across the country, racist police departments beleaguer Black citizens; atheists and Muslims are eyed with distrust.
used to be worse.
And, sure, even if we were the best of stewards, our planet would eventually be doomed. Even if we don’t exhaust the resources here on Earth, the sun will run out of energy and bloat to engulf our world in a ball of fire. Maybe that’s fine. Death is a part of my life; perhaps I should look upon extinction as a natural part of humanity’s journey through time.
so cool to image people someday spreading amongst the stars. I dream about the future. And hope against hope – despite overpopulation,
climate change, and all – that my children will find a better world than the
one I’ve been living in.
perspective, time will let us make the world better.
it surely won’t happen on its own. We
will have to work to make it better. The
work might not be that hard. Just live
the way you would if the world were already the place it ought to be.
scientist first discovers a function for a gene, that scientist gets to name
it. Sometimes these names seem
reasonable enough: I worked with a hematologist who did a study to identify
proteins involved in apoptosis, which means roughly “programmed cell death” or
“cellular suicide,” and so each gene wound up named “Requiem 3”, “Requiem 4,”
fly geneticists tend to give their discoveries more creative names than other
scientists. There’s the gene “cheap
date” – if a fruit fly is missing that gene, it will – ha ha – be unable
to process ethanol and so quickly passes
out. Another genetic mutation produced
male flies that would court either males or females, and so this was known for
over a decade as “fruity,” until another scientist decided that universal
courtship could be less offensively described by the term “fruitless,”
because clearly any mating-like activity that does not lead to progeny is a waste of time.
Yup, some gene names were bad. One person’s idea of a joke might seem to somebody else like a mean-spirited reference to the wider world’s power dynamics.
gene names were bad not out of malice, but because humor at the expense of a
fruit fly doesn’t make as many people laugh when a human child is dying.
A gene that produces a somewhat spiky-shaped protein was named after Sonic Hedgehog. It seemed funny at the time! See? The protein is spiky, the video game character has spiky hair, and … get it? You get it, right?
Sonic Hedgehog protein establishes a concentration gradient that allows cells
to recognize their spatial position in a developing body. If a human fetus comes to term despite having
a mutation in the Sonic Hedgehog gene (genetic abnormalities will often result
in a miscarriage, but not always), the resulting child will have severe brain
a doctor has to explain, “Your baby is suffering because of a Sonic Hedgehog
And so, in 2006, geneticists capitulated to medical doctors. No more fanciful names for genes that might lie at the root of human health problems … which, because humans and fruit flies are actually pretty similar, means most genes. Patients would now be told about a mutation in the SHH gene instead of Sonic Hedgehog, or a mutation in the LFNG gene instead of Lunatic Fringe.
Words have power, after all.
people are more attentive to their environments than others. During evolutionary time, this trait was
obviously good for humanity. If your
tribe is traveling through a hostile environment, it helps to have somebody
around who is paying attention to the world.
A friend who’s primed to notice encroaching threats like a hungry lion
about to leap out and attack. Maybe
we should take a different path.
Which, yeah, that sounds like a good idea.
people are particularly inattentive to their surroundings, so it’s easy
for them to ignore the world and focus instead on one single problem. During evolutionary time, this trait was
surely good for humanity, too. It’s helpful
to have somebody on the lookout for threats that might eat you, obviously. But it’s also helpful to have somebody who
might discover a way of using dried grass to weave baskets. A way of cooking mud into pottery that could
carry or store water.
Neurodiversity is a virtue in and of itself. Over the millennia, the world has offered our species many challenges. Populations that were sufficiently diverse that some members were good at each of a variety of tasks were most likely to flourish. A cooperative species like termites or Homo sapiens benefits from specialization among its members.
our their own devices, people would naturally fall asleep and wake up at
different times. Some brains are primed
to work best in the early morning; others work best late at night. And that’s good. It reduces the amount of time that a tribe
would be susceptible to attack, everyone asleep.
the modern world, we occasionally forget to feel grateful for the diversity
that allowed our species to thrive. The
high school students whose brains are primed for late-night thinking drag
themselves through morning classes like zombies. They’ll be midway through first period before
the sun rises. Their teachers glance
derisively at their slumped and scruffy forms and call them lazy.
humans invented language. Much later, we
invented writing. Much, much later, we
invented the printing press, and then written words became so widely accessible
that most humans could benefit from learning how to read.
course, reading is easier for people who are inattentive to their environment.
If I had been born earlier in human evolution, I totally would have been lion bait. When I’m reading a book, or am deep in thought, the rest of the world melts away. When I’m typing at home, K or the kids sometimes shout my name several times before I even realize that I’m being spoken to.
Luckily for me, I wasn’t born way back then. Instead I was born into a world where inattentive people – the people best able to block out the world and instead focus on their own thoughts – are the most likely to find academic success. People like me become medical doctors. Then we get to name the world’s various conditions and maladies.
when it came time to categorize the sort of person who is especially attentive
to the world, people like me (who obviously thought that our way of
being is the best way to be) referred to those others as having an attention deficit
those people’s awareness of their environs might sound like a virtue; instead,
we castigated those people’s difficulty at ignoring the world.
never read the Percy Jackson books, but I’m glad that they exist, if only for
passages like this (from The Lightning Thief):
ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom. That’s your battlefield reflexes. In a real fight, they’d keep you alive. As for the attention problems, that’s because
you see too much, Percy, not too little.”
trauma can cause symptoms that medical doctors term “attention deficit
disorder.” Which makes sense – if you’ve
gone through an experience where your environs were threatening, you should
learn to be more aware of your environment.
It should become more difficult to ignore a world that has proven
itself to be dangerous.
somebody with my type of brain, it’s going to be easier to sit outside
and read a book when there’s a squirrel nearby than if there’s a prowling
grizzly fifteen meters away.
children have to learn early on that daddy’s sometimes a grizzly. And if it can happen to him, why not other
grown-ups, too? Best to stay on high
alert around the teacher. She’s trying
to get you absorbed in these number tables … but what if that’s a trap?
Certain drugs can narrow a person’s perception of the world. They act like blinders, chemicals like nicotine, ritalin, and amphetamines, both un-methylated (sold under the trade name Adderall) and methylated (a CH3 group attached to the amine moiety of Adderall will slow its degradation by CYP2D6 enzymes in the liver, increasing the duration of its effects).
Note to non-chemists: the methylated analogue of Adderall goes by several names, including “ice,” “shard,” and “crystal meth.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it — this compound played a key role in the television show Breaking Bad. And it’s very similar to the stuff prescribed to eight year olds. Feel free to glance at the chemical structures, below.
poetry class last week, a man who has cycled in and out of jail several times
during the few years I’ve taught there – who I’d said “hello” to on the outside
just a few weeks earlier when he rode his bicycle past the high school runners
and me – plonked himself down in the squeaky plastic hair next to mine.
I know,” he said. “But I might be out on
a urine screen. But I was doing
good. Out for six months, and they were
screening me like all the time, I only failed three of them.”
he said, nodding. “But I wasn’t hitting
it bad, this time. I know I look like I
lost some weight, dropped from 230 down to 205, but that’s just cause it was
hard getting enough to eat. Wasn’t like
last time. I don’t know if you remember,
like, just how gaunt my whole face looked when they brought me in. But, man, it’s just … as soon as I step
outside this place, my anxiety shoots through the roof … “
apparently a common phenomenon. When we
incarcerate people, we carve away so much of their experience of the
world. Inside the jail, there is a set
routine. Somebody is often barking
orders, telling people exactly what to do.
There aren’t even many colors to be distracted by, just the
white-painted concrete walls, the faded orange of inmate scrubs, the dull tan
CO shirts and dark brown pants.
world in there is bleak, which means there are very few choices to make. Will you sit and try to listen to the
TV? (The screen is visible from three or
four of the twelve cells, but not from the others.) Try, against all odds, to read a book? Or add your shouting voice to the din, trying
to have a conversation (there’s no weather, so instead the fall-back topic is
speculating what’s going to be served for dinner)?
spending time locked up, a person’s ability to navigate the wider world
atrophies, the same as your leg would if you spent months with it bundled up in
these are people whom we should be helping to learn how to navigate the world better.
“ … so I
vape a lot, outside. I step out of this
place, that’s the first thing I do, suck down a cigarette. And, every now and then … “
physically pained, being so attentive to his surroundings. And so he doses himself with chemicals that
let him ignore the world as well as I can.
yes. He grew up with an abusive
stepfather. This led to his acting
squirrelly in school. And so, at ten
years old, medical doctors began dosing him with powerful stimulants.
Meanwhile, our man dutifully internalized the thought that he had a personal failing. The doctors referred to his hyper-vigilance as an attention deficit disorder.
know now, after all the hurt we’ve piled on him, but think: where might our man
be if he’d learned to think of his attentiveness as a virtue?
The modern world is a stressful place – some medical doctors advocate “therapeutic” nature walks. Surround yourself with trees, wildlife, a babbling stream or waterfall, and your body will remember what it means to be alive.
For millions of years, our ancestors needed specific environments in order to survive. Almost every animal species experiences instinctual urges toward healthful habitats – it would be surprising if our own minds didn’t have a residual response toward landscapes that provide what our forebears needed. Running water, trees for shelter, grassy meadows to hunt, fecund animal life suggesting a thriving ecosystem.
But people who need to heal are cut off from these environs.
When somebody doesn’t fit in our world, they wind up in jail. Maybe this person has trouble holding down a job and so forged checks, or counterfeited money, or robbed a store. Maybe somebody is plagued by nightmares and takes methamphetamine to forgo sleep. Or shoots opiates to stave off the pain of withdrawal. Maybe somebody has so much tension and anger that he threw a television at his girlfriend.
These are people who’d probably benefit from a de-stressing stroll through the woods.
Instead, they’re surrounded by concrete, in a clanging, reverberating room with 25-foot-high ceilings, locked doors stacked atop each other, steel tables, boaters crowding the floor (with two tiers of 8 double-occupancy cells, the jail could hold 32 per block … but most have wobbled between 35 and 40 people all year, with the excess sleeping on plastic “boats” on the common area floor. Things were worst in July, when they were so many inmates that the jail ran out of boats – then people slept on a blanket spread directly over the concrete), toilets overflowing with the excreta of many men shitting their way through withdrawal.
In the classroom where I teach poetry, there’s a picture of a redwood forest. It’s shot from the ground, the trunks soaring up to the canopy overhead, and at the bottom of the poster there’s the word “GROW” above a corny quote from Ronald Reagan.
Stephen “Greazy” Sapp wrote the following poem at the end of class one day; he’d spent almost the whole hour staring at the picture of those trees:
I want to live to see things grow –
From the fury of a great storm, started from
A single drop –
To the ten foot tree from one tiny seed, one sheet
Of paper as from any other tree
Knocked down by a great storm –
The child who grew from a seed in the spouse
Of the man who held paper from the tree –
Maybe the seed buried in his mind could become
Greater in life than the tree that withstood
The storm, now given opportunity to transform
Into stories – of future, generations who dwell
In the single rain drop in
The forest of days to come –
Greazy told me that he loves plants.
(My inclination is to use people’s first names as a sign of respect, but he told me not to – “nobody calls me ‘Stephen’ unless they’re mad about something. You know, like, my grandma, if she was pissed, I might hear her yell, like, Stephen! Even the cops. They pulled up one day, they were like, ‘Greazy, come here, we want to talk to you,’ I knew everything was fine. They were like, ‘look, man, we know you’re selling pot … but stay up near 17th street or something. We don’t want you downtown, selling it to college kids.’ But then, another day, they came down, spotted me, said ‘Stephen, get over here!’ I was like, ‘man, I know they’re gonna haul me in.’ ”)
Greazy was in the jail all through autumn, waiting on his trial, and he told me that one day he was sitting in his cell on the fourth floor, watching a leaf blowing around on the sidewalk down below, and he found himself thinking, “Man, I’d sign whatever, I’d take whatever plea they wanted, if they’d just let me out there, get to look up close at that little leaf.”
Another man told me that he felt so starved for the world that he started gardening inside the jail. He didn’t want for me to include his name but graciously allowed me to share his story. Here’s a poem I wrote:
During most of human evolution, children died regularly. In some cultures, the risk was so high that children weren’t named until they’d survived their second birthday.
But the advent of modern medicine – vaccines, antibiotics, sterile technique – has dramatically reduced childhood mortality. Wealthy parents in the U.S. expect their children to survive. And yet, this expectation can increase anxiety. Families are smaller; children are less replaceable. Parents pour so much of themselves into children’s early years that we’d be devastated if something went wrong.
And so modern parents hover. Rather than letting children roam free, comforted by the thought that out of six kids, surely one will be fine, wealthy parents in the U.S. strive to control the development of their one or two offspring.
In the book On Immunity, Eula Biss describes how difficult it can be to relinquish that control.
I already practiced some intuitive toxicology before my pregnancy, but I became thoroughly immersed in it after my son was born. As long as a child takes only breast milk, I discovered, one can enjoy the illusion of a closed system, a body that is not yet in dialogue with the impurities of farm and factory. Caught up in the romance of the untainted body, I remember feeling agony when my son drank water for the first time. “Unclean! Unclean!” my mind screamed.
Because I didn’t breastfeed my child, I glossed over this passage when I first read it. Even early on, I sometimes used water to dilute the milk that my partner pumped at work – when my kid was thirsty, I needed to offer something.
But I found myself thinking about this passage recently, when our eldest learned to read. Our family loves books – we’ve probably read to our children for an hour or more each day, and they spend more time flipping through the pages on their own.
When I read to my kids, I reflexively alter texts. In our version of James Marshall’s Fox on the Job, Fox had a bicycle accident while showing off for “his friends,” not “the girls.” In Fox is Famous, a character bemoans the challenges of baton twirling by saying “I’m just not good at this yet,” that (unprinted) final word used to convey a growth mindset.
And our kids would probably be puzzled by Raquel D’Apice’s essay about Go Dog Go because the voices I’ve used while reading led them to assume that the pink poodle was a fashionable male asking a female friend for advice (“Well, maybe he doesn’t have a mirror at home,” I explained when N was curious, “Why does he keep asking that?”).
I could control the stereotypes that my children were fed.
But books are dangerous! At the beginning of summer, our eldest learned how to read. A week later, I hid all the Calvin and Hobbes. She loves these! So do I. But four is too young to really understand concepts like “irony” or “anti-hero” – her behavior promptly tanked in mimicry of Calvin.
About a week after that, I hid the Peanuts. And Garfield (“He shouldn’t kick Odie off the table, right? Just like you shouldn’t have hit your sibling”).
She loves comics, but the only books we kept out were good, wholesome Mutts by vegan artist Patrick McDonnell.
And I hid others, like James Howe’s Howliday Inn (too scary – she could hardly sleep that night). We look over the front-page headlines of our local newspaper before deciding whether it can be left on the table.
Like Viet Thanh Nguyen, I’ve felt a little sad to see my child venture off into the intellectual world of books without me. I still worry what she’s ready for.
For much of human history, the paternal impulse to restrict access to books was blatantly evil. The medieval Christian church was reticent to use local languages because then poor people could interpret religious precepts for themselves. And the written word was considered exceptionally dangerous in the U.S. It was illegal to teach literacy to the people who were being tortured on sweltering plantations.
I’d like to think that my motivation for wanting to sculpt my child’s library is more benign. More akin, perhaps, to the scientists dismayed when the untrained general public dabble with misleadingly curated excerpts from research journals.
On Immunity documents the efforts that Eula Biss made to learn about vaccination. She writes that:
Unvaccinated children, a 2004 analysis of CDC data reveals, are more likely to be white, to have an older married mother with a college education, and to live in a household with an income of $75,000 or more – like my child.
The mothers I knew began debating whether or not to vaccinate our children against the novel influenza virus long before any vaccine became available to us.
Another mother said that her child had screamed frighteningly all night following her first vaccination and she would not risk another vaccination of any kind.
Although many of these women have received extensive schooling in the humanities, and clearly care deeply for their offspring, they are putting lives at risk, including those of their own children.
It’s possible to remain ignorant even after extensive schooling.
When my son was six months old, at the peak of the H1N1 flu pandemic, another mother told me that she did not believe in herd immunity. It was only a theory, she said, and one that applied mainly to cows. That herd immunity was subject to belief had not yet occurred to me, though there is clearly something of the occult in the idea of an invisible cloak of protection cast over the entire population.
In Biss’s social circle, people doubted demonstrable principles. Herd immunity, like the theory of evolution, is not only correct, it is the mathematical implication of uncontroversial assumptions. In the case of herd immunity, that viral diseases are communicable and that severe symptoms tend to make a virus more contagious. In the case of evolution, that the DNA replication process producing gametes has a non-zero error rate, that heritable DNA gives rise to traits, and that individuals with different traits might have different numbers of offspring (perhaps because one critter was eaten as a child, whereas the other survived).
But the people making ignorant decisions in Biss’s social circle certainly don’t think of themselves as ignorant. After all, they’re trying their best to stay informed. They aren’t scientists, but they read. They look up information, ingest it as best they can, and try to make good decisions.
When people read (and spin) articles in scientific journals without putting forth the effort to understand what the data really mean, they create an incentive for scientists to hide their findings. Sometimes there are caveats to the truth. For instance, each year’s flu vaccine is often much less effective than other vaccinations. Some years, the flu vaccine is dramatically ineffective.
If people are using papers like this as propaganda, though – trying, for whatever reason, to convince people not to get vaccinated (you want an evil conspiracy theory? Vaccines are cheap, and they prevent deadly, expensive illnesses. Are wealthy imbeciles recommending you forgo vaccination simply so that you’ll need to pay for more medical care?) – it stifles scientific discourse.
Roald Dahl wrote an open letter urging parents to have their children vaccinated. He describes his own family’s tragedy – before a vaccine was developed, his seven-year-old daughter died of measles. He thought she was getting better; he was wrong.
“Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.
“I feel all sleepy,” she said.
In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours, she was dead.
Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was James and the Giant Peach. That was when she was still alive. The second was The BFG, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles. You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books. And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.
You’ll feel better about your life if you sit down and list the good things that happened to you each day. There’s only one reality, but countless ways to describe it.
Like most scientists, I love stories of discovery. These stories also reflect our values – many years passed before Rosalind Franklin’s role in the determining the structure of DNA was acknowledged. Frontal lobe lobotomy was considered so beneficial that it won the Nobel Prize – sane people didn’t have to tolerate as much wild behavior from others. Of course, those others were being erased when we ablated their brains.
Even equations convey an ideological slant. When a chemist writes about the combustion of gasoline, the energy change is negative. The chemicals are losing energy. When an engineer writes about the same reaction, the energy change is described as positive. Who cares about the chemicals? We humans are gaining energy. When octane reacts with oxygen, our cars go vrrrooom!
I’ve been reading a lot of mythology, which contains our oldest stories of discovery. The ways we tell stories haven’t changed much – recent events slide quickly into myth. Plenty of people think of either George W. Bush or Barrack Obama as Darth-Vader-esque villains, but they’re just regular people. They have myriad motivations, some good, some bad. Only in our stories can they be simplified into monsters.
In Ai’s poem, “The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” she writes that
I could say anything, couldn’t I?
Like a bed we make and unmake at whim,
the truth is always changing,
always shaped by the latest
collective urge to destroy.
Oppenheimer was a regular person, too. He was good with numbers, and his team of engineers accomplished what they set out to do.
My essay about the ways we mythologize discovery was recently published here, alongside surrealistically mythological art by Jury S. Judge.
If you live next to a concentrated animal feeding operation – facilities that houses thousands of farmed animals in fetid conditions – there’s no point in buying perfume. The smell of animal excrement overwhelms any scent you could wear. If you’re interested in a romantic dalliance, you’ll have to woo people with your looks. Or, sure, conversation. But a charming scent won’t do it.
In other environs, scent contributes to your allure. We humans choose our mates based on a huge number of considerations, including the way people smell. Back in 1995, zoologist Claus Wedekind proposed that human females are most attracted to the scents of men whose immune genes differ from their own.
During college, a friend tried to convince me that the best route to romantic success was Old Spice aftershave. “It reminds women of their fathers,” he said. This is, of course, the opposite theory from Wedekind’s – that females would seek out partners whose scents mirror their own genetic lineage.
But this much is uncontested – by overwhelming our sense of smell, air pollution makes humans less sexy.
We’re not the only animals who use aroma to identify attractive mates. Stick insects can have a wide range of physical appearances, and multiple species sometimes live in overlapping areas. Each subpopulation of stick insects secretes a different mix of oily aromatic chemicals from their skin. These oils protect them from scrapes and dehydration – and help them find mates of their own kind.
If stick insects couldn’t smell, they might mate wantonly.
That’s what happens with fish.
When we pollute water, fish lose the ability to recognize each other. In the same way that humans near a CAFO won’t notice each other’s scents because they can only smell ammonia and sulfurous shit, fish living near human dumping grounds – whether it be farm run-off, factory effluents, or untreated sewage – find their sense of smell overwhelmed.
Many types of fish behave the way my Old-Spice-sporting friend hoped humans would – they seek mates who smell like their forebears. Which they can’t necessarily do in polluted waters. And so fish mate across species. Their chimeric children dissolve the old boundary lines.
Perhaps you thought this couldn’t happen – the traditional definition of a “species” is a population of organisms that can produce fertile offspring only by mating with each other. But the traditional definition is wrong; scientists don’t actually know what a species is. Whatever boundaries exist seem porous. The Neanderthal genes carried by modern Homo sapiens show that humans also mated with other species, at least until we drove our relatives into extinction. Chimpanzees are the closest we have left, sharing 98% of our DNA, but now they’re endangered too.
Although – maybe that’s fine. Not murdering our relations, or endangering the chimps; maybe it’s fine for multiple lineages to merge back into one. I hate to find any virtue in pollution, but dissolving species boundaries doesn’t sound so bad.
Contemporary biology textbooks claim that species boundaries arise whenever subpopulations cease interbreeding. For the “Advanced Placement” biology test, students are expected to know that speciation can be triggered by migration, or a geographic impediment like a new highway, or even cultural barriers.
A strong preference for certain types of scent might qualify as a cultural barrier. Or tropical birds that want their mates to look or dance a certain way. And so would anti-miscegenation laws in the United States. Except for the gene flow provided by pale-skinned rapists, those biology textbooks imply that epidermal melanin concentrations marked a species boundary until the 1960s in the United States.
In the contemporary U.S., parental wealth creates a similar mating barrier. In many parts of the country, children born to rich, well-educated parents rarely even chat with children born to poor people, let alone marry them. This phenomenon has persisted for only a generation or two, which is certainly too brief to create a species division, but shows no sign of abating.
Marrying somebody who shares your interests seems fine. My spouse and I seem to be fairly similar people. And yet – should I be alarmed that my own choice inches us closer toward the world of Metropolis?
Feature image: “Character study, strong smell” by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.