On birds watching.

On birds watching.

In jail recently, we were talking about birds.

“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.

The caveman mask is on the left. On the right: a control mask.

#

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.)

Pigeons learned to diagnose biopsies with 80% accuracy.  A team of eight pigeons voting together could diagnose biopsies with 99% accuracy

The team of pigeons was just as good as a human oncologist, and far better than computerized image analysis.

You can buy 50 pounds of pigeon pellets for under $10.  That’d give you enough rewards for a flock of half-starved pigeons to diagnose thousands of patients.

#

We used to think that an entire class of vertebrates had gone extinct – the dinosaurs.  But we now know that birds are dinosaurs. 

Several species of dinosaurs/birds are gone – millions of years have passed since tyrannosaurs or velociraptors roamed the earth.  But their lineage has continued.

When I was growing up, people often remarked that dinosaurs were clearly dim-witted creatures because they have such small cranial cavities.  There was not much room for brains in their skulls! 

But contemporary dinosaurs/birds have small brains, too, and many are extremely intelligent.  They can chase kids who’ve crossed them.  They can diagnose cancer.  They can make tools, solve logic puzzles, and guess what other animals are thinking.

All with minuscule brains!

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!

The physical size of a brain doesn’t tell you how many neurons will be in a brain, though.  A bigger brain might just have bigger neurons

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.

On power and species.

On power and species.

At track practice, a pair of high school runners were arguing.  Knowing that I’ve completed twenty-two years of schooling, they figured I could resolve their debate.

“Coach Brown, who would win in a fight, Superman or The Hulk?”

I stared at them blankly.  I knew a bit about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which helps to understand The Hulk, but I’d never read a Superman comic.  Superman didn’t sound like an interesting hero: he seemed too powerful.  Even The Hulk is more interesting within the context of a complex campaign, when he might become enraged and wreck his own plans, than in a single fight.

I failed to provide an answer, and the kids went back to arguing.  (“Superman could just turn back time to before The Hulk got enraged, then smash him!”) 

And I resolved to read a Superman book, to shore up this gap in my education.  Astounding, isn’t it, that Stanford would allow me to graduate without knowing anything about the paragon of the DC universe?

I chose Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman.  And was pleasantly surprised – although Superman is indeed too powerful for the risk of danger to provide narrative tension, he’s still sad.  He doesn’t get the recognition that he feels he’s due; his powers leave him feeling isolated and alone; during the 24-hours when his girlfriend becomes his equal due to a magic serum, she spends her time flirting with other heroes. 

Doing great work can feel hollow if nobody appreciates it.

Midway through the series, Superman meets two other survivors from his native Krypton.  He expects that they’ll congratulate him on how well he’s kept his adopted planet safe.  Instead, they’re disgusted by his complacency.

Superman, in turn, feels disappointed by his brethren.  Within the world of comic books, characters who view their powers as conferring a responsibility are heroes; those who think that power gives them the right to do whatever they want are villains.

Homo sapiens are not as intelligent as the new arrivals from Krypton.  We are smaller, slower, and weaker.  Our tools are less technologically advanced.  If they chose to cull our kind, we could do nothing to resist.

#

I recently had the opportunity to read Luke Dittrich’s New York Times Magazine article on the Puerto Rican macaque colony that was traumatized by Hurricane Maria.  (I’ve written previously about Dittrich’s investigation into the history of “Patient H.M.” and unethical behavior among MIT memory researchers.)

This particular colony of macaques has been studied closely for years.  Researchers have voluminous observational data from both before and after the hurricane; they’ve stored many tissue samples as well.  The hope is that this dataset could unveil the biochemical consequences of trauma, and elucidate traits that allow some people to weather trauma more effectively than others.

With clear insights into the specific pathways affected by trauma, we might even be able to develop drugs that would allow humans to stave off PTSD.  Or cure it.

Macaques have long been used as subjects for medical research.  We’ve developed several vaccines that prevent AIDS in macaques, but unfortunately the differences between SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) and HIV meant that some of these vaccines increased human susceptibility to the disease.  Whoops.

An image attributed to the Primate Research Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and disseminated in 1992.

Macaques are highly intelligent, social animals with approximately 93% the same DNA sequences as us humans.  For immunology research, they’re kept in wire cages.  They can’t touch, don’t really get to move around.  But that’s not so bad compared to the nightmarish psychological studies that have been conducted on macaques in the past.  Dittrich’s article summarizes a few of Dr. Harry Harlow’s experiments.  Harlow named several pieces of his research equipment, such as “The Pit of Despair,” a small box devoid of light or sound in which children could be trapped for months on end, or “The Rape Rack,” which shouldn’t be described.

“[Harlow] found that the females who had endured the trauma of both the Pit of Despair and the Rape Rack tended to become neglectful or even severely abusive mothers.

#

We’ve conducted studies on humans who have been traumatized.  By surveying hurricane survivors, we’ve found that many suffer from PTSD.  But one drawback of these investigations, Dittrich writes, is that “the humans in these studies almost never become experimental subjects until after the traumatic events in question, which makes it hard to gauge how the events actually changed them.

If a researcher interested in how trauma affects individuals or societies were to dream up an ideal natural laboratory, she might imagine a discrete landmass populated by a multigenerational community that has been extensively and meticulously studied for many decades before the traumatizing event.  Even better, it would be a population to which researchers would have unfettered access – not only to their minds, but also to their bodies, and even their brains.”

We are to macaques as Superman is to us.  We are stronger, smarter, technologically superior.  We can fly into space; macaques have done so only at our whims.

In “St. Francis Visits the Research Macaques of Modern Science” by John-Michael Bloomquist, we eavesdrop on a conversation between the saint and Miss Able, the first primate to leave our planet.  St. Francis asks about her experience of the voyage; she tells him “The Gods did not let me see anything, the damn cone didn’t have a window.

The capsule and couch used by one of America’s first spacefarers, a rhesus monkey named Able, is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum. Able and a companion squirrel monkey named Miss Baker were placed inside a Jupiter missile nose cone and launched on a test flight in May 1959.

We are indeed like gods among macaques, but we have not elected to be heroes.  Instead, we’ve ravaged their ancestral lands.  We’ve wracked their children with twisted nightmares that they could not wake from. 

Even the Puerto Rican macaque colony that Dittrich writes about – some individuals are permitted to live out their days in relative peace, but this is a breeding center.  If you’re developing an HIV vaccine, your lab’s macaques will die; for a few thousand dollars each, this colony will furnish replacements.  According to their website, they maintain “an available pool of rhesus macaques in optimal condition for research.

We humans are like gods, but, unlike Superman, we’ve chosen to be villains.

On loneliness.

On loneliness.

Most laboratory animals live in bleak environs.  With mice, each cage typically contains a single animal.  There is bedding, food, and water.  There is very little space.

A lab mouse will be illuminated for many hours each day – sometimes twenty-four, sometimes slightly fewer – by fluorescent lights.  It will hear the constant thrum of ventilation fans and refrigerator compressors.  At least once a week, an apex predator – wafting stress-inducing smells, especially if it’s male – will reach into its home and grab it.

Chances are, it will see other mice.  A rotating cadre will fill adjacent cages during its tenure in the lab.  They will never touch.

Our cruelty makes for bad science, too.

When social animals are stored in isolation, their bodies and brains decay.  Neuron growth slows, which impedes learning.  Lifespan is curtailed.  Obesity rates increase.

Lab_animal_careIf we stop mistreating laboratory animals, though, new research might be inconsistent with past results.  When describing mice, scientists don’t say that deprivation stunts brain development.  Instead we write things like, “If a lab is studying the impact of stress on the growth of new neurons, for example, and then it lets mice exercise on a running wheel – which has been shown to spark neuron growth – the study could be jeopardized” (from David Grimm’s recent news article for Science magazine).

4117496025_8024f879d6_zWe give ourselves a very skewed view of neurology if we let ourselves think that a creature’s normal habits are stimulating neuron growth, rather than admitting that deprivation stops it.  For decades, most researchers thought that neuron growth ceased in adults.  Even in the 2005 paper demonstrating structural plasticity, the authors wrote that “such changes are only seen in response to external perturbation,” because brain development is sluggish in lab mice housed in normal conditions, i.e. those little cages.

Of course, some scientists do care about the well-being of their furry test tubes.  For instance, biologist Daniel Weary, who told Grimm “Our dream is that our animals live a better life with us than if they had never been born.”  Animals in Weary’s lab get to touch actual dirt.

Maybe not the highest bar, but the lives of most animals on our planet are worse than if they’d never been born.

Vivek_Murthy_nomination_hearing_February_4,_2014Most social animals – like mice, rabbits, and humans – aren’t going to be very happy when they’re housed in isolation.  Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy considers loneliness to be a public health crisis, leading to health risks as bad as smoking or obesity.

Unfortunately, most biomedical research is done with research animals amongst whom pervasive loneliness is standard.  And our political system gives outsize influence to wealthy corporations that earn more money when people feel lonely.

We shunt humans into jail when we feel that their behaviors are unacceptable for the world at large.  Incarceration sends a message: don’t beat your family; don’t steal; don’t sell drugs; don’t take drugs; don’t be late for an appointment with your parole officer; don’t be too poor to pay your court fees.  To my mind, some of these offenses are worse than others.

The hope is that either the threat of incarceration deters people from these things, or that the experience of being incarceration cures them of the inclination.  (Or a third rationale – that seeing offenders punished will pacify others’ sense of fairness – which seems to encourage the evolution of cooperation, but, like many other evolved behaviors, seems unnecessarily vicious for the modern world.)

We’ve known for years that punishment doesn’t work well as a criminal deterrent.  And the experience of incarceration seems to make most people worse, not better.

Instead, we’re imposing loneliness on people who most need the help of friends and neighbors to turn their lives around.  Somebody screws up?  We store that person like a lab mouse.

10490113913_e3a697bdca_zI was recently chatting with somebody who’s done nine months so far for a parole violation – and is still waiting for his court date, which keeps being rescheduled.  (He’s already told the judge that he’ll plead guilty, and the prosecutor wanted to send him to rehab, but his PO nixed the deal.)

“It’s a lot better now, in J block.  Everybody said, you don’t wanna move from A block, you’ll get no bingo, you’ll get no … I don’t care about any of that.  We can look out the window, see people walking on the street.

“I spent almost an hour, the other day, watching this leaf blowing back and forth in the wind.  I was staring, thinking I’d say to the judge, ‘you can pile on whatever other charges you want, I’ll still plead guilty, I’ll plead guilty to all of it if you just let me out there to look at that leaf blowing around up close.  Just five minutes, just lemme see something!

“In D block, that was the worst.  All we could see was the parking garage.  On weekends, we’d see nothing, not even cars.  So I was starting fights every day.  I’d be like, hey, turn the TV to, I don’t know, some channel I don’t even like, just so I can start something with somebody.  Cause a fight would at least be something to do.”

John-Michael Bloomquist’s poem “The Prodigal’s Return,” about teaching poetry in jail, ends:

                                      Each day that I visit

the jail full of men, who hug me the way

their families cannot, write poems about childhoods

I couldn’t imagine, I feel the love of my father.

After nine months inside – un-touched, un-hugged, un-loved, under-slept – perhaps our man will finally be released.  Surely his time there will have cured him of his addiction!