At about eleven a.m. on my birthday, I buckled the kids into the car to drive to our local print shop. Taking the kids with me for a fifteen minute errand seemed like a good gift for my spouse: she’d have some time in our house alone, which is rare to come by right now.
The print shop is just across the street from the (currently closed) services center for people experiencing homelessness, just down the street from the services center for people recently released from incarceration, a few blocks from the hospital. There’s a popular bus stop on the sidewalk out front. Across the street, a truck rental company has a large, mostly empty parking lot.
Large crowds of people have been hanging out near the print shop. Day and night.
I pulled into a shaded parking spot. We had the windows down. “I’ll just be a minute, can you sit in the car?” I asked.
The kids nodded, not looking up. A friend recently gave us a stack of Ranger Rick magazines, and we’ve been doling them out gradually for car rides.
I had my wallet in my pocket with a twenty and a ten, and we’d already been sent the bill for our print order. $20.49 for a stack of postcards to send to my spouse’s future AP biology students, explaining their summer assignment.
Normally she’d give kids a slip of paper with their assignment sometime during finals week, but this year had no finals. For many kids, no school.
But don’t worry. The assignment isn’t too bad. Students choose from a set of things like “fill an old sock with trash, bury it, then dig it up six weeks later” or “take a walk and look for things that match each of these different colors.”
I looked in the center console of the car for a pair of quarter. We keep them in a little pouch, ready to pay for parking. Haven’t been using them recently – the meters are still on, but there’d be nowhere to go after parking the car.
I thought it would be a nice gesture to pay in cash with exact change. The credit card company wouldn’t be taking a cut of the profits, and exact change would minimize the length of our transaction.
As I was zipping the pouch closed, a man ambled over. I’d guess he was a little over six feet tall, a little over two hundred pounds, with light brown skin, a buzzed head, and a bristly beard. He leaned down to the open passenger-side window and said something to me, but I couldn’t parse it – his words sounded mushy, thick with saliva.
“Hang on,” I said, “I’m hopping out of the car, let me come around.”
I walked around the back of the car, stopping a few feet away from him. He said the same thing again. I shrugged and shook my head. My brain takes a while to process spoken words, even under the best of circumstances. I can’t listen to audiobooks – whole chapters wash over me without any understanding. I can’t listen to podcasts – when people recommend them, I’ll search for a transcript, then read it and pretend that I too listened while riding an exercise bike or something.
By the fourth time he repeated himself, I understood him better. I think part of the problem was that he was speaking too quickly – almost everybody gets nervous when approaching a stranger.
I can relate. I doubt I’d ever be able to flirt with strangers in a bar.
“I like your hair,” he said. “I grew up in Gary, came down fifteen years ago for Indiana University, but I caught that bipolar. Just got out of the hospital, today’s my birthday, five twenty-six, and I just got out.
He still had a white plastic bracelet on his arm, which seemed to be printed with his name and age. He didn’t gesture to it or anything, which felt nice. As though the two of us would need no evidence to trust each other.
“Your birthday? How old are you?”
“Thirty-seven,” he said, without hesitation.
Indeed, the bracelet was printed with the number 37 in a fairly large font. But it seemed like this was a nice thing to ask.
“No shit,” I said, “thirty-seven. Same as me. Today’s my birthday, I just turned thirty-seven.”
“Naw, man, you’re shitting me.”
“It’s true.” I turned to the car, shouted to the kids, “Whose birthday is it today?”
The kids said something, but neither the man nor I could hear them. The crowd across the street was loud.
The man reached into his pocket, pulled out a jumble of stuff. Dice, some black beaded necklaces, a keychain, a tiny flashlight, nail clippers, a tube of toothpaste. He put the toothpaste back into his pocket.
“Don’t need this yet,” he mumbled.
“You got a toothbrush?” I asked. We actually have some spare ones in the car to give to people.
“Yeah,” he said, pulling out the green plastic handle of a toothbrush, “but I used that already. See these, my teeth so fucking white.”
He smiled for me and I nodded approvingly, murmuring that his teeth were indeed very white. A full smile. Several teeth were stained dark near the edges, but I’ve met lots of men with worse teeth than that.
“Hey, you paint your nails, too,” he said, noticing. “See this, look at this.” He reached out, his hands still full of stuff, to show me his fingers. They had tiny remnants of polish, pink on several but a pointer finger with a mix of red and black, just like I use on mine. My nails were barely even chipped, because I’d painted them the week before. I usually do them about once a month these days. Hard to find time for the little things since having kids.
“I got … here, how about this,” he said, handing me the nail clippers. “They good, they good ones, I haven’t even used them yet, they’re clean.”
As he spoke, spittle flew from his mouth. Luckily, I’m not much of a germophobe. Luckier still, I think I already had the disease that’s going around right now. Between a pair of kids in preschool, a spouse at the high school, and me teaching in jail, I catch most of the viruses that come through town.
I turned the clippers over in my hand. A large pair, space-age iridescent top glimmering in loops of purple and blue, big letters “Made in China” etched into the metal.
“They’re beautiful,” I said. “I like the look of that metal. But we’ve got so much stuff already. Meeting you, that’s present enough today.”
I handed the clippers back. As he took them, one of his dice tumbled from his hand. I bent down to pick it up, gave that back to him, too.
“You play craps?” he asked.
“Hey, I’ll teach you. Come on, here, you gotta get a seven, eleven, don’t want snake eyes.” He bent down, blew on the dice, and rolled. A five and a six.
“Eleven, hey, that’s good,” he said. Then picked up the dice, blew on them again, and rolled. A two and a six.
“Eight. Now I got to roll an eight before I get a seven, see, that’s crap out.” And he rolled about four more times before he hit his seven.
“Now it’s your turn,” he said, and handed them to me.
I rolled, got a two and a four.
“That’s a six, that’s a hard one, got to roll a six again before you crap out.”
I rolled again, same two and a four. Maybe I didn’t shake the dice enough – they didn’t really tumble on the ground, they just sort of plopped down on the asphalt in front of me.
And I found myself thinking how strange it is that dice are a big thing for both the toughest and the wimpiest groups of people in town. Street people and folks in jail gamble with dice, and then there’s Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy buffs rolling 2d6 as they tell stories.
I’ve heard that Dungeons & Dragons is pretty big in some prisons, too. A few prisons have banned D&D or roleplaying books from being sent in – reputedly, people got killed over developments in their games. Somebody’s elf cleric was betrayed and a few days later guards found a body in the showers.
I don’t know how much truth there is to that. But, when people at those prisons ask for D&D books, I have to write an apology and send some fantasy novels instead.
I tried to give the dice back after rolling my second six, but he said I had to keep playing. “I got two, hey, you got to see where you go on this next roll.”
“Okay,” I said, “but then I got to pick up, my spouse is a high school teacher, she has this print order, some post cards to send to her students.” I gestured with my head toward the shop. And then I rolled.
An eight. Followed by a seven. I was done.
“Thanks for teaching me,” I said.
“And, hey, hey, I was thinking, for my birthday, you help me get something at Rally’s. I’m trying to get a pair of ice cones, for me and my girl.”
I gave a wan smile. Normally I don’t give money to people. It’s a tricky situation – people have things they need to buy, and even the chemical escape can seem necessary. My life is really good, and even I struggle with the sense of being trapped inside my head sometimes. And yet, I don’t really like the thought of my money being part of the whole cycle, keeping drugs in town. I’m even pro-drug, mostly, but meth and heroin typically do bad things to people’s lives.
A few days earlier, when I crossed paths with a friend from jail while my dog and I were out running, I’d asked if my friend was eating enough. He laughed at me and said, “Fuck, no!”
It’s true, I’m pretty bad at looking at people’s faces when I talk to them. When my friend started laughing, I finally met his eyes and realized how gaunt he looked.
“Is it a money problem, or …?”
“Oh, dude, don’t give me any money. I could eat, I think I can eat, I just don’t. You give me anything, I’d just spend it on meth.”
Instead of handing money to people on the street, we buy paper and pencils for folks in jail; we support our local food bank; we give time. Building human connection takes time, and there’s no shortcut.
Still, on my birthday, I was standing there in the print shop parking lot next to a man who’d just given me a present – nice nail clippers, even if I didn’t keep them. And we’d played craps. Maybe he’d won – I’m not sure what the rules are about draws. And I had a pair of quarters in my hand.
I’d hoped to have exact change. But I shrugged and gave him the quarters.
“Thanks, man,” he said, and I told him “Thanks for the game,” and walked over to ring the doorbell at the print shop, ready to pick up my order. The kids had been doing a great job of waiting patiently in the car.
At the beginning of our poetry class in jail, I walked around the room to give the printed poems to people. I noticed that somebody was working on an elaborate Valentine’s Day card. (The date was February 28th.)
“Oh, cool,” I said, “did you draw that?”
“Naw,” he said. “I commissioned it and all, though. Designed it. Cost me two Honey Buns. Check it out.”
He waved me in to see the card up close. The front had a red rose with marijuana leaves sprouting from its stem. The poem he’d written inside began:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
If you were a blunt
I’d smoke you too …
“Cost me two Honey Buns each time,” he said. “They shredded my first. I mailed it out, but they said I addressed it wrong, said I wasn’t, what’s that thing, no money on your books … ?”
“Indigent mail,” somebody told him.
“Yeah, said I wasn’t indigent, so they shredded it. Now I’ve gotta send another one.”
Another time, somebody explained the booms and busts of the economy in jail.
In the world at large, the business cycle typically lasts about five to seven years – the economy will rhythmically surge and then contract. This is bad news for the unlucky cohorts who begin their careers during the cyclical recessions – these people typically have lower earnings over their entire lifetimes – but because the cycles are so predictable, central banks are supposed mitigate the downswings.
In jail, the business cycle lasts a week.
“We get commissary on Friday, so every Friday, people have coffee again, we all drink too much. People pay off their debts … or you get an asshole who racked up a bunch of debt then goes to seg on Thursday, tells the guards he’s hearing voices.”
“But near the end of the week, Wednesday or something, people are running out, so coffee gets more expensive. You got to pay a bunch of interest if you’re trying to get coffee from somebody.”
“Worst is you get here near the end of a week. Cause even if somebody puts money on your books, it’ll take a while before they add your name to the list and you can get commissary. So you’re getting everything on credit, people bleed you dry.”
Many people are aware that the central bank has a mandate to “control inflation.” This is very important to political donors – low inflation benefits people who already have wealth, at the expense of current workers.
But most people – including professional economists – think that the central bank controls inflation by manipulating the money supply. This misconception might be a holdover from ancient history. Long ago, only sovereigns could create money. Kings and pretenders would mint coins as a way to flaunt their power. And they’d unleash their full wrath upon interlopers.
The central bank is a little different.
If there’s too much money, which would cause prices to rise, the central bank is supposed to yank money out of the economy by selling bonds. If there is too little money, the central bank is supposed to print more.
The central bank attempts to control the money supply this way.
At the same time, other banks are lending money. If you decide to buy a house, you won’t call up the federal reserve – you’ll probably visit a few banks around town and apply for a mortgage.
Because most money doesn’t exist – it’s just a tally of credits and debits maintained on a server somewhere – a bank that gives you a loan is creating money. Modern banks don’t actually check whether they have money before they lend it to you.
The theoretical support for deregulation was based on the unrealistic assumptions of neoclassical economics, in which banks are mere intermediaries. This does not recognize their pivotal role as creators of the money supply.
Since the 1980s, bank credit creation has expanded at a considerably faster rate than GDP, with an increasing amount of bank credit creation channeled into financial transactions. This is unsustainable and costly to society.
Inflation has stayed low, because the amount of money available for purchasing real things hasn’t grown much. Low inflation means that if people took on debt to go to college, that debt is often still hanging over them years later – inflation would make it easier to clear debt, because employers would respond to inflation by raising salaries. The amount of debt relative to a week’s pay would fall.
Instead, the money supply in only one corner of our economy has ballooned, producing a flurry of destructive activity in the financial sector.
This has been lucrative for people willing to work in finance, though.
Skidelsky explains that:
The economic collapse of 2008-2009 showed that monetary policy directed to the single aim of price stability was not enough either to maintain economic stability or to restore it. The economy collapsed, though the price level was stable.
Preventing a collapse in the money supply was to be achieved by what was euphemistically called ‘unconventional’ monetary policy: pump enough cash into the economy and the extra spending it produced would soon lift it out of the doldrums.
As it happens, the method that the central bank chose to inject money into the economy was perversely ineffectual. The central bank gave money to wealthy people.
One strategy was “quantitative easing.” The central bank paid people above-market-rate for low-quality financial assets.
This helped the people who owned these particular low-quality financial assets – typically foolish wealthy people. They should’ve lost a bunch of money. They’d bought junk! But they didn’t, because the central bank stepped in to save the day.
Our central bank also fulfilled a small set of private companies’ insurance policies. The corporations who bought absurd insurance from AIG should have lost all their money when AIG, unsurprisingly, was unable to fulfill their policies.
If you’re in a high school cafeteria and somebody says, “I bet you a million dollars that …”, you shouldn’t expect the kid to pay up for losing the bet. But our central bank intervened, giving huge amounts of money to destructive corporations like Goldman Sachs, because it wouldn’t be fair for them to win a bet and then not get the money (even though they’d been betting with a kid who obviously didn’t have a million dollars to pay).
And yet, these tactics didn’t stave off financial recession. Since the central bank only gave money to wealthy people, these recipients of our government’s largess had no incentive to actually spend the money.
The main effect of the central bank’s reliance on “portfolio rebalancing” to boost output was to boost the portfolios of the wealthy, with minimal effects on output. One doesn’t need headwinds to explain why.
“There’s a lot you can get in jail. There were a couple years when people had all this spice, but they cracked down on that. Still, you can get a blowjob for a couple Honey Buns, some guys will give you a stick for a soup … “
“What’s a stick?” I asked. My initial assumptions were that it was either something sexual or drug-related, both of which turned out to be wrong. A single soup would be pretty low to pay for drugs – soups are worth less than Honey Buns.
“Hey, ________, show him.”
A guy pulled down the front of his orange jumpsuit. In gothic letters arcing across his chest, he had the words “WHITE TRASH.” The skin around the letters was an agitated red.
“People think you need pens and ink for tats,” somebody said, “but most guys just use a staple and some burnt hair grease … “
The most popular black pigment for oil paints and acrylics is made of charred animal bones. The calcium phosphate from bones is pale – the deep black color comes from carbon. When you burn organic material, you’ll make buckyballs – small spheres of carbon like hollow soccer balls – as well as tubes of graphite. And these molecules have high absorption across the visible spectrum.
Whenever a photon of visible light hits one of these molecules, the light is absorbed. This causes an electronic transition. But then the physical shape of the molecule doesn’t match its electronic structure, so the molecule begins to vibrate.
By the time the molecule collapses back to its initial electronic structure – which ejects a photon – some of the energy that the molecule absorbed has been used up by vibrations. So the outgoing photon will have lower energy. It’ll be “infrared radiation,” which we can’t see. So, colored light goes in, and then invisible light comes out – to us, it looks black.
Still, I hadn’t considered that you could burn the gunk that gathers on unwashed hair in order to make tattoo ink. Despite the brutal efforts of our government, people find ways to live even while incarcerated.
As in the world at large, many transactions in jail are made with hard currency. If something costs a Honey Bun and two soups, you might be expected to hand over the food. Sometimes, currency actually exists.
But people can create money, too.
“Thanks, I owe you one.”
With those words, we gain the power of medieval kings.
As with most fictions, the story that we tell about money helps some people more than others.
Money, in and of itself, is useless. Gold, cowry shells, slips of paper with pictures of dead presidents. The story makes us want these things. We tell ourselves that these items can “hold value.” Instead of lumbering about with all the goods we want to barter, we can carry a small purse of coins. As long as everyone believes the same fiction, we can trade our apples for some coins, then later use those coins to pay someone to help us dig a well.
The story that money has value is most helpful for the people who already have money.
If everyone suddenly woke up from the story, and decided that coins were worthless, the people who grow apples would be okay. In some ways, it’s less practical to pay people with apples – coins don’t bruise or rot – but it can be done. Similarly, the people who dig wells would be okay.
But the people who owned coins would be worse off – previously, the things they owned could be traded for other, inherently useful goods. And people who had made loans would be much worse off – they would have given away money at a time when it could be used to buy things, and when they receive the coins back, they’ll be worthless. No recompense for past sacrifice – only loss.
So people with current wealth benefit most from the fiction that money has value.
This is, as far as I can tell, the only real virtue of Bitcoins. This form of currency is not anonymous – indeed, it works through the use of “blockchains,” a permanent ledger that records everyone who has ever owned a particular piece of money. Bitcoins are a little like dollar bills where you have to sign your name on it in order to spend it. And they’re excruciatingly bad for the environment – it takes energy to mint a real-world, metal coin, but nothing like the amount of energy that’s constantly wasted in order to verify the ledgers of who owns which Bitcoin. Ownership is determined by vote, and the system was designed to be intentionally inefficient so that it’s difficult for one person to overwhelm the system and claim ownership of everybody’s coins. And it’s unstable – it’s difficult for someone to outvote the system and take control, but not impossible.
Those all seem like bad features. But Bitcoins are now incredibly valuable – in the years since I explained all these flaws to a high school runner who’d begun investing in Bitcoins, his $500 investment has burgeoned to be worth $24,000.
The only “good” feature of Bitcoins is that the system is designed to reward past wealth. The total money supply approaches an asymptote – new Bitcoins are added to the system more slowly over time. If the currency is successful, this will impose a deflationary pressure on prices. Today, a certain amount of heroin might cost 0.1 Bitcoin – in the future, that same amount of heroin might cost 0.01 Bitcoin.
This deflationary pressure would cause the value of current holdings to increase. By simply buying Bitcoins and hoarding them, you’d gain wealth!
But this only works for as long as people keep believing the fiction that Bitcoins have value. And the more people who buy and hold Bitcoins, as opposed to actively using them as currency, the less believable the story will be. Anyone who “invests” in Bitcoins is wagering that other people will behave in a way that maintains the fiction, even though the person who is making the wager is actively undermining the story.
When we immerse ourselves in stories, we often need to temporarily suspend our disbelieve, but that particular set of mental gymnastics is too twisty for my mind.
Modern money barely exists. Before, we spun stories about the value of coins – now, the fiction lends value to certain strings of numbers. In addition to the Federal Reserve, any bank can create money by making a loan and claiming that a certain amount of currency has been added to one account or another.
This has allowed our fictions to become more intricate. In 2008, the banking crisis threatened to make wealthy people much less wealthy – they had purchased certain financial assets that seemed valuable, and then these assets turned out to be worthless.
It’s as though there was a certain new Magic card that everyone assumed was great, and a few rich kids bought all the copies of it, but then people finally read the card and realized it was terrible. Now these rich kids are holding hundreds of copies of a worthless piece of cardboard.
This would be sad for those rich kids. But, lo and behold, it was fixable! If everyone can be forced to believe, again, that the item has value, then it will. The story needs to be chanted more loudly. If I paid $50 for this card last week, then it’s still worth at least $50!
That’s what “quantitative easing” was – governments around the world agreed to buy worthless items in order to convince everyone that these items had value. This way, the wealthy people who had initially bought them wouldn’t have to suffer.
In the years since I’ve been teaching in our local county jail, I’ve struggled to comprehend the disparities between the way we treat poor people and wealthy people who made mistakes.
For instance, stock traders stole $60 billion from state governments across Europe – the trick was to have two people both temporarily own the stock around tax time, then they lie to the government and claim that they both had to pay taxes on it. Only one set of taxes were actually paid, but they lie and claim two rebates. Money from nothing!
From David Segal’s New York Times article:
A lawyer who worked at the firm Dr. Berger founded in 2010, and who under German law can’t be identified by the news media, described for the Bonn court a memorable meeting at the office.
Sensitive types, Dr. Berger told his underlings that day, should find other jobs.
“Whoever has a problem with the fact that because of our work there are fewer kindergartens being built,” Dr. Berger reportedly said, “here’s the door.”
They stole billions of dollars, and the question at stake isn’t whether they will be punished, but whether they can be forced to return any of the money.
By way of contrast, many of the guys in jail are there for stealing $10 or so. A guy did five months for attempting to use my HSA card to buy two sandwiches and a pack of cigarettes. Another violated probation when he stole a lemonade – “In my defense,” he told me, “I didn’t even mean to steal it, I was just really fucking high at the time.”
Two weeks ago, a dentist visited the jail during my class. I go in from 4:00 p.m. to 5:30 – at about 4:15, a guard came to the door and barked somebody’s name.
“Med call?” somebody asked.
“Shakedown?” asked another.
The guard looked at the sheet of paper in his hand, then said “Dentist.” And suddenly six guys started clamoring, “You got time for extras? I gotta get on that list!”
The man whose name had been called jumped out of his chair and sauntered to the door.
After he’d left, the guys explained the system. “You can get dental, like real dental, but you have to put your name on the list and they only come like every five, six months. So there’s no hope unless you’re gonna be here for a while. And it’s kinda expensive, you pay like fifty for the visit and another ten for each tooth they pull.”
Apparently that’s the only service – pulling teeth.
“They do good work,” said the older man next to me, “I got these bottom two done here.” And he tilted his head back and opened his mouth. But I grew up wealthy – it’s hard for me to assess quality by eyeballing the blank gap between somebody’s teeth.
About twenty minutes later, the guy came back.
“Which ones you have them do?” somebody asked him.
“I had ‘em get these bottom three,” he said, although his voice was slurry because they’d loaded his mouth with novacaine.
“You idiot! You didn’t have them get the top one?”
“No, man, that’s my smile! Gonna find a way to save that tooth.”
“Man, see, how come I couldn’t be on that list? I would’ve had ‘em pull a whole bunch of ‘em out. Wouldn’t give ‘em no that’s my smile bullshit.”
As it happens, I’d gone in for a cleaning at my dentist just the day before. And I’ve had braces. Invisalign. I suddenly felt rather self-conscious about my own perfectly clean, perfectly straight, perfectly intact teeth.
“So who was it, that lady doctor?”
“Naw, was the Black guy.”
“What? Fuck’s it matter that he’s Black?”
“Nobody said it matters, it’s just, there’s three dentists, there’s the lady doctor, the Black guy, and then that other guy. There’s just three, is all.”
Our man was out eighty dollars after the visit. Could’ve spent ninety, but he was holding out hope for that last one. And they didn’t let him keep the teeth.
I’m not sure the tooth fairy ever visits the county jail, anyway.
“Yeah, my grandfather had something like a thousand chickens, had them running all through the yard,” somebody said. “And there was this one chicken, he was a mean one. I was kind of afraid of it, strutting around like he owned the place. So my grandfather, he told me to kick it.”
“Well, I did, but that only made things worse. I didn’t make him scared, I just made that chicken hate me. So after that, anytime we went to visit my grandfather’s place, that chicken would be there, waiting for me.”
“My parents, my brothers and sisters, everybody would get out of the car, but the chicken wouldn’t bother them. He’d be sitting there, staring, just waiting for me. And when I finally got out I had to run, every time, sprinting to my grandfather’s front door before that chicken got me.”
“They live a long time, too! I had, like, five or six years of that! And still to this day, anytime my mom sees a video or a picture of somebody running from a chicken on Facebook, she’ll tag me in it. Like, ha ha ha, remember that?”
“Maybe you didn’t kick him hard enough,” somebody suggested. “Cause we used to have chickens, and I had to go into the coop sometimes, and the roof of it was real low to the ground, so I had to crouch in there like this, and one chicken would always strut up to me like it was going to start something.”
“Well, it did that every time for a few months, till one day it got in my face and I just went BOOM, and I wrestled that little fucker to the ground. And that chicken never messed with me again.”
Birds can recognize individual humans.
Biologist John Marzluff noticed that crows became wary of particular researchers after the crows had been captured and tagged. In an experiment where researchers captured a half dozen crows while wearing a caveman mask, they found that the whole flock learned to respond to that mask as a threat. Several years later, even crows who hadn’t seen the caveman’s initial misbehavior would shriek a warning when they saw that mask. They’d been trained by their flockmates.
Between their intelligence and acute eyesight, birds can serve as passable oncologists. Pigeons were trained with a set of slides from biopsies – a pigeon had to inspect each image and then choose a button for “cancer” or “not cancer”. If the pigeon chose correctly, the computer would dispense a pellet of food.
(Human medical students are often mistreated during their training, forced to work grueling hours with few breaks. The pigeon trainees were also mistreated – to ensure that they valued each food pellet, the pigeons were starved during the experiment. I’m 6 feet tall and about 150 pounds, but if I were participating in this study, I’d be kept at 127 pounds – eighty-five percent of my “free feeding” weight.)
When biologist Suzana Herculano-Houzel investigated the brains of various species, she found that the number of neurons in a brain typically correlates with cognitive capacity. More neurons makes for a smarter critter!
As it happens, birds’ brains are constructed better than our own. Crows and parrots pack neurons into a brain more densely than we do, like the difference between old IBM mainframes and modern telephones. Pigeon brains are better than ours at parallel computing, like the difference between a hypothetical quantum computer and your current laptop.
We can outsmart crows, parrots, and pigeons, but only because our raw neuron counts are so high that we’ve not been surpassed by their superior designs.
We don’t know when dinosaurs/birds evolved their high neuron densities – well-designed brains might be recent innovations, or they might be millions of years old. Ancient dinosaurs may have been far more intelligent than we thought.
Yes, they still went extinct, but you can’t blame them for succumbing to climate change. And it’s not like they caused the climate change that killed them.
Future archaeologists might judge humans to be more foolish than any stegosaurus.
We humans have huge numbers of neurons in our cerebral cortex. We are blisteringly clever. We’ve made all variety of tools, languages, and complex social structures. Yes, crows also have tools, language, and complex social structures, but in each category, human achievements are even more complex.
A crow tool is typically a hooked piece of stick. We built telephones.
Well, humans collectively built telephones. I couldn’t sit down and build one from scratch. If I were to make a tool while out hiking, it’d probably be a hooked piece of stick.
Still, our best achievements are pretty incredible.
But we’ve also brought our species to the brink of extinction. Through overpopulation and excessive exploitation of the planet’s trapped resources, we’re making our world less habitable.
Tyrannosaurus ruled this planet for a few million years. Humans have been a dominant species for only a hundred thousand years – a few percent of T-Rex’s reign. With the current pace of climate change, scientists soberly discuss the possibility that we’ll reap apocalypse within a hundred more years.
Measured by reign, we might prove 20-fold less successful than those giant birds.
In jail, we were discussing isolation when somebody mentioned the plummeting price of marijuana. We’d read a quote from quantum physicist Richard Feynman about sensory deprivation:
I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that. Ordinarily it would take me about fifteen minutes to get a hallucination going, but on a few occasions, when I smoked some marijuana beforehand, it came very quickly. But fifteen minutes was fast enough for me.
The guys asked me when these experiments had happened.
“Late 1950s, early 60s,” I told them.
“Man, marijuana must have been so expensive then! Just in the last few years, the prices fell so hard. Like now you can get five pounds for fifteen hundred bucks.”
I was shaking my head. “Five pounds? The most I ever bought at once was half an ounce, back when I lived in California. Even then, I think I paid two hundred for it.”
“Two hundred dollars? You got ripped off!”
I laughed. “Yeah, but I probably deserved it.”
“Let me tell you,” the guy sitting next to me said, “next time you see me on the streets, I could hook you up with some good stuff.”
I demurred. “I haven’t smoked in so long, you could probably sell me a baggie of oregano, I’d hardly know the difference.”
The guy’s face fell. The room grew silent. Until somebody shouted, “Oregano? He just called you a major asshole!”
I felt pretty bad. I’d really hurt his feelings.
As it happens, this guy – the one whose feelings I’d hurt – is in jail for robbing me.
Unsuccessfully. Possibly by accident. But still.
There was a dropped wallet. His attempt to use my family’s Health Savings Account debit card to buy two sandwiches and a pack of cigarettes. Some yelling at whomever was working the counter at Village Pantry when the card wouldn’t go through. Then an arrest.
That whole episode transpired almost three years ago. But I didn’t learn who it was until last month, when the prosecutor sent a letter to us asking for a victim statement.
The guy has been in my class several times before. I like him – he reminds me of an old friend of mine, enthusiastically participates in our classes, and always bikes over to say “hi” when I see him on the street. Apparently they’d put him on probation after the debit card incident, but now, after another slip up, they’re trying to slap him with all his backup time.
Everybody in class laughed when I told him he was there for robbing me. He said he hadn’t known whose card it was. I shrugged and asked him to write an apology to my spouse. Then we sent letters to his prosecutor and the judge, asking for leniency.
Money isn’t sacred.
I’ve heard guys tell stories about taking money from each other. The story might end with somebody getting punched in the face, but there aren’t hard feelings. Money comes and money goes. It’s just paper. Or less: numbers inside a machine.
That HSA account only has money in it through a fiction agreed upon by my family, the pharmacy, and the bank. We scan a card and the value of our account goes down. Nothing physically happens.
Financial trickery seems so hollow compared to sandwiches or cigarettes.
But passing off drugs as something they’re not? That violates something sacred. Inside the jail, people’s possessions are stripped away – all they have left are their reputations.
You don’t have to be honest all the time. You can embellish stories about cops you’ve evaded, people you’ve slept with, money that’s slipped through your fingers. That’s all harmless talk. Passing the time, shooting the shit.
If you’re there for hitting a girlfriend, you can say you failed a drug test. Or admit you’re in for domestic, but say that you didn’t do it. For the sake of your future, maybe it’s best you tell an alternate story often to believe it.
When you’re talking about drugs, though, people can get hurt. If you say it’s dope, it’d better be dope. Not pot dipped in embalming fluid. Not heroin spiked with fentanyl.
I won’t tell another joke about oregano.
Indeed, the guy who’s in jail for trying to use our HSA card isn’t too upset about most of his charges. But one really rankles him:
“Do you remember that time, summer of that ‘Occupy Bloomington’ thing, when all those people kept going to the hospital cause they were ODing on bad spice? The cops tried to pin that whole thing on me! They put my picture on Fox News. I was so fucking pissed! I’ve done some stuff, but I didn’t do none of that.”
Recently, my hometown of Bloomington’s farmers market has been covered Fox News and The New York Times. Not because the vegetables sold here are particularly deserving of national attention. The market was deemed newsworthy because one of the farm stands is run by outspoken white supremacists.
Although Bloomington is a fairly liberal college town, this region has a sordid history of hate. The national Klan headquarters is less than 30 minutes away – when I was in college, the campus diversity coordinators warned students not to stop in that town, not even to buy gas. Even right here in Bloomington, there was a fracas at the local high school recently because some students decided to honor a friend who’d died by using cremation ashes to print bumper stickers – but they printed stickers of the Confederate flag.
Teaching poetry in the
local jail has made me much better at recognizing supremacist imagery. Most people know that the Confederate flag is
bad news, but I’ve gotten to see a wider range of hateful symbols tattooed onto
COs bring twelve people to
each week’s class – often two to four will be Black (in a town where the total
population is approximately 4% Black or African-American), and the rest are
usually white guys. It’s pretty common
for one or two of the white guys to have visible supremacist
tattoos. Which doesn’t even include
questionable stuff like the dude who got an poke and stick of the words “White
Trash” in elaborate two-in-tall cursive letters during his time there. Tattooing runs afoul of the jail’s “no self
mutilation” policy, but most COs studiously overlook the guys’ rashy red skin
and burgeoning designs.
When I’m there, we often
read poetry that directly addresses racial injustice. I’ve brought stuff by Reginald Dwayne Betts,
Ross Gay, Terrance Hayes, Adrian Matejka, and Tracy Smith. Sometimes these lead to good
discussions. Sometimes our class gets
In one of the poems titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” Hayes pulls off a stunning trick. The same line is included twice, but the word “haunted” changes from a verb into an adjective after the language slides into a less formal diction. It’s a beautiful moment. The first time I brought this poem, we talked about the clinginess of the past, the way not only our own histories but also the histories of our forebears can stalk us through time.
The next time I brought
this poem, several guys reacted by saying that Black people don’t talk right. Then they went off about sagging pants. All this from southern-accented white guys
whose missing-toothed, meth-mouthed mumbles and guffaws I could barely
We had to quickly move on.
Or there was the time when
we read Betts’ “Elegy with a City in It,” a fantastic poem that uses a spare,
stark set of words and sounds to simultaneously evoke both the deprivations of
the inner city and the epic grandeur of The Iliad, which uses a
similarly constrained lexicon.
Many gone to the grave:
by blood, lost in the
of all that is awful:
think crack and
what time steals,
or steals time: black
nights when men offed in
the streets awed
If you read the poem
aloud, you’re chanting the same phonemes over and over, but their meanings
twist and turn as they spill from your tongue.
That’s what I wanted to discuss.
Instead, a few guys
latched onto lines like
Mario, Charles, they all
the inside of a coffin …
and this offended them because “white people have it bad, too!” As though Betts could not describe Black pain without trivializing their own. Soon somebody was saying “All lives matter” and that he’d voted for our current president. This guy was in jail because he’d been caught selling heroin to support his own habit. The president he’d voted for had recently recommended executing drug dealers.
Somebody else shook his
head and muttered, “y’all are fucking [stupid].”
We moved on.
In my classes, I work with a wide range of ages – sometimes guys as young as seventeen, sometimes men in their sixties. My spouse, as a high school teacher, works with younger people – anywhere from fourteen to eighteen years old. But ideology can set in early. My spouse has had students whose families were prominent in the Klan.
At the beginning of the
year, she asks each student to fill in the paper silhouette of a head with
words and pictures of what inspires them to succeed. She then posts these along the ceiling of her
classroom. Several times, she’s had to
ask kids to erase supremacist imagery.
So it isn’t terribly
surprising that some farmers at our local market have hateful beliefs. Right-wing supremacist movements are major
terrorist organizations in this country, and they do a lot of recruiting. As our nation has become slightly less
horrible, though, many of these people learned to be circumspect. They maintain a divide between their private
and public language.
People who rely upon
public, liberal venues like our farmers market can’t be too outspoken with
Indeed, the white supremacist farmers who were recently outed tried to be circumspect. But they must have felt lonely, and they grew too careless. Under a pseudonym, they posted on the Identity Evropa message board. This is a website devoted to the ideologies that have inspired the vast majority of terrorism in the United States. Theoretically, this is a venue where people get to cultivate their hatred anonymously. But one of their compatriots was caught painting swastikas on a synagogue (see image below) and blew their cover. Sort of. The vandal was interrogated by the FBI, and his remark unveiling the farmers’ pseudonym was buried deep in a 200-page sentencing document.
Through assiduous work, a
team of activists was able to prove that these farmers were white supremacists.
The activists who had
worked so hard to gather evidence were obviously against hate. They wanted to take action. But the plan they favored wasn’t very
flashy. They would organize a boycott of
that farm stand. They also proposed that
the city use the sellers’ farmers market fees to fund grants for people of
color, with the understanding that our nation’s long history of racism has
inequitably skewed the demographics of agricultural land holdings.
To stay at the farmers
market, the supremacists would have had to support a cause they loathed … and
they were making less and less money here.
I was told that, during the boycott, the farmers had begun padding their
bins, bringing fewer vegetables each week so that they could still appear to be
selling out their stock.
Unfortunately, the tropes
of social media have changed public discourse in our country. I assume it’s relatively uncontroversial to
claim that social media prizes style over substance. Quiet, careful plans are at a disadvantage in
the attention economy.
As word spread that these
farmers were white supremacists, patrons demanded that they be banned from our
market. People of color now felt unsafe
in that space, for obvious reasons.
There’s a difference between the perceived threat level felt by a
pale-skinned activist and by somebody who is recognizably a member of a racial
The mayor, whose spouse is
a constitutional law professor, rightly argued that the farmers would be able
to sue the city on a First Amendment case.
Still, people felt that we
had to do something more visible. Passively
allowing outspoken white supremacists to hawk their tomatoes at our market would
seem to be tacitly endorsing their political stance.
Everybody has a right to
believe whatever garbage they want. Do
you sincerely believe that people of northern European descent have a genetic
inclination toward greater intelligence?
You’re wrong, and you’re a jerk, but you’re allowed to believe that.
The problem is that white
supremacist organizations like Identity Evropa use terrorism to back their
asinine beliefs. Implicit threats of
violence, delivered by people known to stockpile military-grade weaponry, are
different from “mere” hate.
If these farmers couldn’t
be banned, then we’d hold signs in front of their booth. Eventually, a protester was arrested – the
police had asked her to stand in a designated “announcements” area instead of
in the middle of the market – and, as always happens following an arrest, her
home address was published online.
She was soon inundated
with death threats.
As coverage of the dispute increased, right-wing militia types were also drawn to our town. Three percenters, unaffiliated gun nuts, other supremacists – they began to support that farm, undermining the boycott. And these radical Protestant faux-constitutional terrorists made sufficiently credible threats of mass violence that our mayor had to shut down the entire market for two weeks at the height of the growing season. Other farmers were suffering.
Calm, careful behavior
from the original activists – assiduously combing through those lengthy, dull
documents, not to mention their efforts to infiltrate local supremacists’
in-person social circles – had undoubtably helped. Hateful ideologies were exposed, and efforts
were made to impose consequences.
But then our visible
protests made matters worse. We’ve
helped the proponents of hate to make more money.
And, now that we’ve drawn attention to them, we’ve inadvertently connected these white supremacists with their allies. They will no longer need to post on public forums, which was the only reason that activists were able to prove that they supported these ideologies in the first place. Now these supremacist farmers are invited speakers at right-wing events.
Our audience clapped for
the poems and stared aghast during our banter, which is probably as it should
We closed our set with a
piece from M.G. This poem was written in
February, before the public turmoil regarding our farmers market began. At a moment when so many of us were warily watching
that space, it seemed important to remind people that there have always been
watchful eyes gazing at the market.
The farmers market is just
down the street from our five-story county jail.
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.
this poem. There’s a undercurrent of
darkness as the bird constructs his pleasure dome. “Here, the iron smell of
blood.” But he is undeterred. “And there, the bowerbird. Watch as he manicures his lawn.”
bowerbird has themed his edifice around sparkling bits of blue. Bower birds incorporate all manner of found
objects: berries, beetles (which must be repeatedly returned to their places as
they attempt to crawl away), plastic scraps.
A bowerbird has a clear vision, a dream of which colors will go where,
and scours the forest to find the treasures he needs.
bowerbirds raise children alone, so she doesn’t need a helpful partner.. Instead, she’ll choose someone who can show
her a good time. And her pleasure will
be enhanced by a beautiful dome, a splendid arch beneath which several seconds
of intercourse can transpire.
mother-to-be typically visit several bowers before choosing her favorite. During each inspection, the male will hop and
flutter during her evaluation … and then slump, dejected, if she flies away.
closes her poem with the experience of a crestfallen artist: “And then, /
how the female finds him, / lacking.
All that blue for nothing.”
especially love the wry irony of that final sentence. We create art hoping to be fawned over; it’d
feel nice to know that readers enjoyed a poem so much that they responded with
a flush of desire for the author.
is rare. No piece of writing will appeal
to all readers; an author is lucky if it appeals to any. The same holds true for painting, music, and
bowers. A bowerbird hopes that his
magnificent edifice will soon be the site of his acrobatic, if brief, bouts of
copulation. But his life will miserable
if he can’t also take pleasure in the sheer act of creation.
tropical birds are free to select whichever male they want. Their flirtations are unlikely to be turned
down. And because each intimate
encounter is vanishingly brief, a single male might service every female in an
area. The other males, having assembled
less glorious bowers, will die without ever experiencing erotic delights.
And so a
bowerbird needs to enjoy his own arch.
To endure, to thole, even if no one wants to fool around with him. Even if no one looks. He needs to feel pleasure as he assembles
those beautiful hues. Every visiting
female might quickly fly away, but all that blue will have served a purpose.
the poem “Bower,” but I also hope that Kelly enjoyed writing her poem enough
that my opinion doesn’t matter.
reading “Bower,” our class got sidetracked into a wide-ranging conversation about
birds. At first, we did talk about
bowerbirds. Most of the guys had no idea
that birds like that existed – that an animal might make art – but one
guy had seen a television show about them years ago, and the program made such
a deep impression on him that he still remembered much of it. “They really do,” he said. “I’ve seen it. And they showed the people nearby, somebody
who was eating breakfast cereal with like a plastic spoon, and this bird flew
right over and took it. Later they found
bits of it all broken up, in this weird ring around the bird’s nest.”
this man started talking about crows.
gesticulated profusely as he talked, which was rather distracting. One of his hands had about 1.3 fingers; his
ring finger was missing entirely, and the others, including his thumb, ended
after the first knuckle. I wouldn’t have
felt so puzzled – stuff happens, after all – except that one of his stories
involved chasing somebody with a steak knife, and this was the hand he
Many of the people in jail have suffered severe physical injuries. When we were discussing personality manipulation and mind control, someone told me that he’d been hit by a truck and that everything in his life had felt flat and emotionless ever since. He showed me the thick scar at the top of his head: “When it happened, I guess I was out for almost a week, and it took another month before I really remembered my name. Even then, for that first year I felt like I was back in eighth grade again.” He was twenty-something when it happened.
time, I asked a man if he wanted to read the next poem and he said he couldn’t,
that he was disabled, then thumped his leg onto the table. He had a rounded stump where most people’s
foot would be. I didn’t quite see the
connection between his injury and the poem, and it’s not as though we ever
force people to read. We have a lot of
guys with dyslexia, and I go in with the goal of making their Fridays a little
more pleasant; no reason for somebody to suffer unnecessarily.
working in a saw mill,” he said. “Planer
caught me and, zzooomp. Didn’t even feel
anything, at first.”
He got a
legal settlement – a few guys muttered that they’d trade a foot for that kind
of money – but his pain script led to more opiates and eventually the money was
gone and he was in jail and the only help he was getting was from a PD.
right, back to the man gesticulating wildly as he talked about birds. “Real smart animals,” he said. “Especially crows.”
went on: “See, I was living in a tent, and cops kept coming by, harassing
me. Cause there’d always be all this trash
on the ground. They’d say, ‘look, we
know that you’re sleeping here, but you can’t just leave all this shit
everywhere.’ And they’d make me clean it
up. I’d do it, but then a day or two
later, there’d be trash scattered everywhere again. I thought it must be some homeless guys or
something that was doing it.”
turned out these crows – they knew I was drinking, that I’d never be up before
about noon – and they were raiding the dumpster out behind McDonalds. I only found out because I actually woke up
one morning to piss. And I looked up and
these crows in the tree above me, they carried tied-off garbage bags way up
into that tree and were tearing them apart, looking for things to eat. And that’s how all that trash was getting
everywhere. I’d thought it was homeless
guys, and it was crows!”
bowerbirds can afford to be such terrible parents because they live in tropical
forests where there’s an abundance of food to eat. Crows, though, need ingenuity to
survive. Sometimes they pick apart the
leavings of hairless apes below.
crows raise their young in much harsher environs than bowerbirds, males
contribute more than just DNA. While a
mother roosts, the father will gather food.
And so he’ll try to impress a potential mate, beforehand, with his
gathering prowess. He won’t build,
paint, or compose poetry, but he’ll scour the land below for tasty treats and
shiny things, then leave these gifts at his beloved’s feet.
As with bowerbirds, some crows are helpful without reaping the benefits of a dalliance. When a female crow begins to build a nest, five other crows might bring sticks and twigs. These five won’t all be rewarded with the chance to sire her young.
luck, the crows enjoy the sheer act of helping.
birds nor humans will be lauded for everything we do. If we measure success based solely upon the
rewards we reap, many of our lives will feel bleak. In a world full of pyramids – bowerbird
mating, corporate finance, the attention economy of social media – not everyone
can be at the top.
matter the outcome, we can all feel fulfilled if we focus on the process
of what we’re doing.
it’s hard to find the zen in a lot of the shitty jobs out there in the
world. But I did enjoy typing this
essay. And I will try to enjoy
the irritating parts of parenting today.
Someday, my children will learn to ask for cereal politely.
After William Burroughs experienced how
pitifully he could be held in thrall by a small molecule, he developed a
lifelong interest in telepathy and mind control.
His own brain had been upended. Suddenly, he found himself devoting the vast majority of his time and money toward a single cause: obtaining a day’s ration of opiate. If he was delinquent in this task, he grew sick. Agony would keep him focused.
If that drug was capable of re-sculpting a human personality, might there be other ways? In Queer, the protagonist speculates:
“I know telepathy to be a fact, since I
have experienced it myself. I have no
interest to prove it, or, in fact, to prove anything to anybody. What interests me is, how can I use it?
“In South America at the headwaters of
the Amazon grows a plant called Yage that is supposed to increase telepathic
sensitivity. Medicine men use it in
their work. A Colombian scientist, whose
name escapes me, isolated from Yage a drug he called Telepathine. I read all this in a magazine article.
“Later I see another article: the
Russians are using Yage in experiments on slave labor. It seems they want to induce states of
automatic obedience and ultimately, of course, ‘thought control.’ The basic con. No buildup, no spiel, no routine, just move
in on someone’s psyche and give orders.
“I have a theory that the Mayan priests
developed a form of one-way telepathy to con the peasants into doing all the
work. The deal is certain to backfire
eventually, because telepathy is not of its nature a one-way setup, nor a setup
of sender and receiver at all.”
As it happens, psychedelic drugs are quite poor tools for potentiating mind control. But there are other ways. A precisely-localized magnetic pulse can cause prompt, unnoticeable alterations in a person’s behavior – researchers were able to change how their human study subjects responded to unfairness, all without those subjects realizing that they were acting differently from usual.
Because repeated behaviors give rise to
our personality, it stands to reason that repeated transcranial magnetic
stimulation could rewire a person’s identity.
Invisibly, and, with the right interference patterns, at a
You could be made other.
The more common form of mind control
practiced in the United States is much less technologically advanced. Rather than using a magnetic pulse to
stimulate or suppress particular regions of the brain, we employ narrative
Here’s a simple story: a bell rings, then dinner is served. If this story is integrated inside the brain as universally true, then the sound of the bell will trigger salivation. This is the basic principle behind Pavlovian conditioning. You can train a dog to associate dinnertime to the sound of a bell, or to have an aversion to a particular smell.
Humans can be similarly conditioned. Companies like Facebook and Apple have incorporated a variety of sensory experiences into their designs, all intended to engender a sense of urgency about checking your telephone. The alerts, the updates, the little pings – these are pushed to the forefront of the design because they compel engagement. Likewise the little jingles of dropped loot in online fantasy games.
In a perfect world, corporations would not make their users’ brains worse in order to increase their own profits. If those companies’ designs were less malicious, the makers wouldn’t need to be so vigilant about making sure that their own children don’t engage with their creations.
But those are little stories. A few stray details added to the narrative of
your day: if you see the dot, click to see the update! More threatening is the prospect of mind
control that totally rewrites an internalized narrative. Take a person’s memories and supplant them.
In Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, the doctor Benway describes his interrogation techniques:
“While in general I avoid the use of
torture – torture locates the opponent and mobilizes resistance – the threat of
torture is useful to induce in the subject the appropriate feeling of
helplessness and gratitude to the interrogator for withholding it. And torture can be employed to advantage as a
penalty when the subject is far enough along with the treatment to accept
punishment as deserved.”
In an excellent article for Science magazine, journalist Douglas Starr describes research into false confessions, situations when people are subjected to such extreme narrative control that they temporarily lose grasp of their personal memories and accept instead an interrogator’s version of reality.
A variety of techniques are employed – the threat of torture, as above; a questioning regime that is in itself torturous, giving the subject an incentive to play along just to make it stop; sleep deprivation to muddle the brain; ardently repeated falsehoods to supplant the subject’s own stories; deceitful cajoling to persuade the subject that there would be minimal consequences to accepting an alternate version of reality (by saying things like “Anyone would have done the same thing”).
And it works. Innocent people can be made to believe that they’ve done horrible things. With a variety of laboratory experiments, psychologist Saul Kassin has shown that these techniques can induce almost anyone to confess to things they haven’t done.
Your stories can be wrested from you.
Indeed, our entire legal system is a battleground for narrative control. Two sides compete to determine what story will enter the legal record: this is typically set up as a test of wits between a well-trained, well-funded prosecutor and an indigent, incarcerated individual who might or might not receive a brief consultation with an overscheduled public defender.
Predictably, the prosecutor often wins. Because prosecutors have absolute, unchecked power to determine what charges to levy against a defendant, they can threaten people with the risk of outlandish punishment … and they can force a defendant to suffer in jail simply by delaying trials. So, eventually, when a prosecutor offers an alternative story that would allow the defendant’s torture to end, most people will renounce their own memories. They plead guilty. After all, you might spend another year in jail waiting for a trial, or you could just let the prosecutor re-write history and walk out today.
Of course, you might not walk out today. Even if you were told that you would. In this battle for narrative control, one side – the defendant – is required to be honest. The other is not.
And so people lose their stories, the very narratives that make us who we are.
If you’re worried that you don’t feel enough stress and anxiety, there’s an easy chemical fix for that. Habitual methamphetamine use will instill intense paranoia.
In our poetry classes in jail, I’ve talked with a lot of guys who stayed up for days watching UFO shows on TV. A few were also stockpiling military grade weaponry. One man used strings and pulleys to link his shotgun’s trigger to a doorknob, ensuring that anyone who tried to enter the house would be rudely greeted.
They’ve dismantled dozens of computers and phones: sometimes out of suspicion, sometimes because there are valuable components. Although they were rarely organized enough to hawk the proceeds of their dissections.
Suffice it to say that, deprived of sleep and dosed with powerful stimulants, their brains became tumultuous places.
Which is why we spend so much time
talking about conspiracy theories.
I’ve written several previous essays about conspiracy theories – that the Santa myth teaches people to doubt expertise (children learn that a cabal of adults really was conspiring to delude them); that oil company executives have been conspiring to destroy the world; that, for all the ways Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow probes at the undercurrents of truth beneath government conspiracy, the text blithely incorporates metaphors from a Disney-promulgated nature conspiracy.
But, with the fiftieth anniversary
coming up, the men in my class have been talking more about whether the moon
landing was faked.
There’s only so much I can say. After all, I, personally, have never been to
One of my colleagues from Stanford recently conducted molecular biology experiments on the International Space Station, but that’s only zero point one percent of the way to the moon … and she and I were never close enough for me to feel absolutely certain that she wouldn’t lie to me.
Visiting the moon does seem much easier than faking it, though. Our government has tried to keep a lot of secrets, over the years. Eventually, they were leaked.
But that line of reasoning is never going to sway somebody. The big leak might be coming soon.
Instead, the strategy that’s worked for
me is to get people worried about another layer of conspiracy.
“Let’s just say, hypothetically,” I say, “that we did send people to the moon. Why would somebody want to convince you, now, that we didn’t?”
When NASA’s project was announced, a lot of people were upset. Civil rights activist Whitney Young said, “It will cost $35 billion to put two men on the moon. It would take $10 billion to lift every poor person in this country above the official poverty standard this year. Something is wrong somewhere.” (I learned about this and the following quote from Jill Lepore’s excellent review of several new books about the moon landing.)
During John F. Kennedy’s presidential
campaign, he argued that we needed to do it anyway. Despite the challenge, despite the
costs. “We set sail on this new sea
because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they
must be won and used for the progress of all people.”
We did reach the moon. But, did we use that knowledge to benefit the rights and progress of all people? Not so much.
A lot of the guys in jail went to crummy schools. They grew up surrounded by violence and trauma. They didn’t eat enough as kids. They’ve never had good medical care. They’ve struggled to gain traction in their dealings with government bureaucracies … we’ve spent years underfunding post offices, schools, the IRS, the DMV, and, surprise, surprise!, find that it’s arduous interacting with these skeletal agencies.
To keep these men complacent, the people in power would rather have them believe that we didn’t visit the moon. “Eh, our government has never accomplished much, we faked that shit to hoodwink the Russians, no wonder this is a horrible place to live.”
The fact that people in power are maliciously undermining our country’s basic infrastructure would seem way worse if you realized that, 50 years ago, with comically slapdash technologies and computers more rudimentary than we now put into children’s toys, this same government sent people to the moon.
Ronald Reagan said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” And he was in a position to make his words true – he was the government, so all he had to do was be incompetent. And then people would hate the government even more, and become even more distrustful of anyone who claimed that good governance could improve the world.
Needless to say, 45 has taken strategic incompetence to a whole new stratosphere. Beyond the stories of corruption that pepper the news, there’s also the fact that many appointments were never made; there are agencies that, as of July 2019, stilldon’t have anybody running them. These agencies will perform worse.
If people knew how good our government used to be, they might revolt. Better they believe the moon landing was a sham, that the faked photographs are as good as anybody ever got.