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?”

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 the study of naked mole-rats.

On the study of naked mole-rats.

This is a riff on an essay from several years ago.

In 1974, evolutionary biologist Richard Alexander gave a lecture describing the conditions that might spawn eusocial vertebrates. 

Alexander was a bug guy – “eusocial” refers to extremely cooperative animals like bees, ants, and termites. Individuals sacrifice themselves for others.  Non-breeders help with childcare.  The colony seems more intelligent than its members.

Alexander proposed that a eusocial mammal could evolve if the animals were small compared to their food sources, and if they lived in underground burrows that could be expanded easily and defended by a small percentage of the colony.

After the lecture, an audience member mentioned that this “hypothetical eusocial mammal” sounded a lot like the naked mole-rat.  Alexander was introduced to Jennifer Jarvis, who had studied individual naked mole-rats but not their social lives.  Alexander and Jarvis collaborated to write The Biology of the Naked Mole-Rat.

Eliot Weinberger condensed this 500-page textbook into his 3-page essay, “Naked Mole-Rats.”

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

Weinberger wrote that naked mole-rats “are continually cruel in small ways.”  But they are outdone by naked apes. 

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For a research paper published in 2008, Thomas Park and colleagues found that being pinched by tweezers causes naked mole-rats pain, but injection with caustic acid does not.

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

“In contrast to the results using mechanical and thermal stimuli, there was a striking difference in responses to strong chemical irritants.  Two chemicals were used – capsaicin from hot peppers and hydrochloric acid – which normally evoke very intense pain in humans and other animals.  Injection of either rapidly evoked intense licking and guarding behaviors in mice.”

“In contrast, naked mole-rats showed virtually no response.”

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Perhaps you worry that acid-resistant naked mole-rats could conquer the world.  Fear not.  A form of kryptonite exists.  Injection of an 11-amino-acid signaling peptide allows acid to hurt naked mole-rats just as much as it hurts mice.  Or us.

Half a dozen animals were subjected to each treatment.

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Naked mole-rats don’t die from cancer. 

They should.  Their cells, like ours, are copied from copies of copies.  Errors compound.

Some errors are particularly deadly.  Our cells are supposed to stop growing when they touch.  They are supposed to commit suicide when old.  But the instructions telling a cell when and how to kill itself can be lost, just like any other information.

This is cancer.

In cancer, a single cell proliferates at the expense of others.  A cancer cell claims more than its fair share of space.  It commandeers nutrients.  This cell, and its progeny, and its progeny’s progeny, will flourish. 

Then the scaffolding creature dies.  Then the cancer cells die, too. 

But every cell that isn’t an egg or sperm is terminal anyway.  In the colony of our body, most cells are non-breeding members.  From a cancer cell’s perspective, it has nothing to lose.

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We develop cancer often.  With each passing day, we produce about 100 billion new cells.  Each time we produce a new cell, all 3 billion letters of our genome must be copied. 

The enzymes that copy our genome make one mistake every billion letters.  Each cell division: three new mutations.  Each day: three hundred billion new mutations.

Some mutants are trouble. 

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Our bodies kill cancer.  Your immune system – the same mess of mucous, inflammation, and goo that goes haywire during the flu – seeks and destroys renegade cells.  Your body is a fascist enterprise; white blood cells, its militarized police.

Chemotherapy does not kill cancer.  Chemotherapy means flooding the body with poisons that stop all cells from reproducing.  With luck, if the spread of cancer is slowed, your immune system can kill it before it kills you.

In naked mole-rats, cancers always grow as slowly as if the rodents were receiving chemo, allowing their immune systems to squelch cancers at a leisurely pace.  Their cancers are slowed by a heavy sugar called “hyaluronan,” which is packed so tightly into the space between cells that there is no room to grow.

In 2013, biologist Xiao Tian and colleagues wrote that “naked mole-rats may have evolved a higher concentration of hyaluronan to provide the skin elasticity needed for life in underground tunnels.  This trait may have then been co-opted to provide cancer resistance and longevity.”

They became impervious to cancer almost by mistake.

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The record lifespan for a naked mole-rat in captivity is 28 years, 4 months.  The record-holder was nicknamed James Bond.  He was senior consort to his queen and continued rutting – and siring pups – up until the day he died.

Bond was dissected.  His cells showed extensive oxidative damage in their lipids, proteins, and DNA.  Bond should have been hobbled by age.  But time did not slow him down.

Science writer David Stipp described him as “a little buck-toothed burrower who ages like a demigod.”

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Humans typically cease breeding long before we die.  From an evolutionary perspective, as soon as we stop having children, our fitness drops to zero.

And yet, we have long lifespans.  The dominant theory is an offshoot of “the grandmother hypothesis” – because we often care for grandchildren, there may have been evolutionary pressure to maintain good health until our grandchildren also reach reproductive age. 

With twenty-year generations, there’d be an incentive to survive until our sixties.

After that, perhaps our ancestors were no longer helpful.  And so we’ve inherited a propensity to decay.  Expensive medical interventions can preserve us longer, but once we pass our natural lifespans, brains and bodies weaken.

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When scientists starve animals in the lab, it’s called “caloric restriction.”  This protocol extends lifespan in a wide variety of species.  Monkeys, mice, flies, and worms.  Ten-fold increases in lifespan have been observed.

Caloric restriction should extend the lives of humans, too.

There are unpleasant side effects.  Caloric-restricted mice spend their time staring at empty food bowls.  They are listless: barely moving, barely sleeping.  They live longer, but worse – and if they are fed slightly less, they die of malnutrition.

Frequent starvation in the wild may have caused naked mole-rats to evolve their prodigious longevity.

Naked mole-rats expand their colonies outward, searching for edible roots.  When they find a good root, they gnaw it carefully, attempting to keep the plant alive as long as possible.  But a colony of naked mole-rats eats faster than any plant can grow.  When the plant dies, the colony plunges into famine. 

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Most eusocial animals carefully ventilate their homes.  Termites build giant pylons in the desert.  Although temperatures outside careen from 35 degrees at night to over 100 during the day, the interior of the mound remains a constant 87 degrees.  And the termites do not asphyxiate.  Their exhalations are swept away by circulating air.

Naked mole-rats burrow with less care.  They sleep in piles, hundreds of bodies lumped together underground.  Those near the center soon run out of oxygen.

We would die.

Most animals, deprived of oxygen, can’t fuel their brains.  Thoughts are expensive.  Even at rest, our brains demand a constant influx of energy or else the neurons “depolarize” – we fall apart.

Since the death penalty was reintroduced in the United States in 1976, we have killed eleven prisoners in gas chambers.  During the 1983 execution of Jimmy Lee Gray in Mississippi, officials cleared the observation room after eight minutes.  Gray was still alive, gasping for breath.  His attorney said, “Jimmy Lee Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while reporters counted his moans.”

Gas chambers are pumped full of cyanide gas, carbon monoxide, or carbon dioxide.  Carbon dioxide is cheapest. 

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With each breath, we inhale oxygen, burn sugar, and exhale carbon dioxide.  When we drive, our cars intake oxygen, burn gasoline, and exhaust carbon dioxide. 

In small amounts, carbon dioxide is beneficial.  Carbon dioxide allows plants to grow.  But when you put too much inside a chamber, somebody dies.  Put too much in the air worldwide and we all die.

The planet Venus was habitable, once.  Humans could have lived there.  Venus had a deep ocean and mild weather.

Through some fluke, Venus experienced a temporary bump in the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.  Carbon dioxide traps heat, which caused water to evaporate.  Clouds formed, which trapped more heat.  The cycle continued. 

Venus is now a fiery inferno.  The ground is bare rock.  Sulfuric acid rains from the sky.

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Lab mice die in gas chambers.  Sometimes one mouse is set inside the plexiglass box; sometimes several mice inside a Chinese-food takeout container are gassed together.  A valve for carbon dioxide is opened; the mice lose consciousness; they shit; they die.

A naked mole-rat would live.  Unless a very determined researcher left the gas flowing for half an hour.  Or so found Thomas Park and colleagues – the same team that discovered that naked mole-rats dislike being pinched.  As they reported in 2017:

Human brains drink sugar.  We are like hummingbirds that way.  And our brains are very fussy eaters.  We are fueled exclusively by glucose.

Naked mole-rats are less particular.  Their minds slurp fructose to keep from dying.

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Naked mole-rats are the most cooperative of mammals.  They are resistant to cancer.  Unperturbed by acid.  They age with the libidinous gracelessness of Hugh Hefner. 

They are able to withstand the horrors of a gas chamber.

And yet, for all these talents, naked mole-rats are easily tormented by human scientists.

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Featured image from Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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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.

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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!

On naked mole-rats.

On naked mole-rats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They live with gusto, the naked mole-rats.

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

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

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

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

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

But they survive.

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

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

survival curves

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

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

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

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

On isolation.

On isolation.

Richard-feynmanThe physicist Richard Feynman was insatiably curious.  He was an enthusiastic artist, musician, teacher, biologist, philosopher, lockpicker, epistoler.  And he was puzzled by his own mind: it was made of inanimate matter, and yet there he was, thinking.  He decided to investigate himself:

I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that.

We now refer to these devices as “sensory deprivation tanks.”  Inside the dark, soundless chamber, a person floats effortlessly in densely-salinated, body-temperature water.  In theory, all external stimuli vanish: the mind is free to roam as it will.

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Within the tank, Feynman surmised, he would be left with only his mind and could reflect upon its workings.  He turned his attention toward the phenomenon of human memory, and one day felt he had a breakthrough: he could see clearly that memories were encoded by a long series of linkages, each episode encoded by references to other experiences we’ve had.

I felt pretty good about this discovery … [but] about forty-five minutes after I came out of the tank I suddenly realized I hadn’t the slightest idea of how memories are stored in the brain: all I had was a hallucination as to how memories are stored in the brain!

Deprived of the world, Feynman realized, our speculations become unhinged.

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The sensory deprivation tank was invented by neurologist John C. Lilly.

Lilly was a provocateur.  By now, most scientists are aware that experiments can be difficult to interpret if the researcher is on psychedelics, but Lilly dosed himself and captive dolphins with LSD to test whether the two species could thereby communicate.

For another experiment, Lilly confined a 23-year-old female volunteer in a small facility with a male bottle-nose dolphin.  The volunteer was isolated from other humans for a period of ten weeks.  In this way, she’d teach the dolphin to talk.

The dolphin did not learn to speak.  The dolphin did use non-verbal communication to request a sexual relationship with the human volunteer.  Eventually, she offered manual release.

In total isolation, we change.  Our brains atrophy.  Our inhibitions wane.  Kept constantly indoors, our eyesight goes.

The hand job she gave was reluctant, but, after weeks away from humanity, must have seemed reasonable enough.

Neither of these experiments – drop acid with cetaceans – confine a woman and dolphin for two and a half months together – would be approved by contemporary IRBs.  Applying for funding would be a nightmare – several members of a grant reading committee soberly considering a proposal that states in this way we’ll teach dolphins human speech, a goal ten or twenty years away.

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For scientific experiments, a wide variety of social animals are kept in isolated cages.  These housing conditions seem to affect their minds.  When Dr. Harry Harlow and colleagues took infant rhesus monkeys away from their mothers and housed them in isolation, the animals developed strong attachments to the blankets in their cages.  These blankets were their only friends; the babies became extremely agitated when the blankets were removed.

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Dr. Bruce Alexander and colleagues dosed rats with morphine and then housed them in either isolation or in social environs.  The animals who lived in open playgrounds with toys and other rats subsequently decreased their consumption of morphine-laced liquids.  The animals living alone, in cages, drank more.  From the research publication:

A possible explanation for the environmental effect is that for the isolated rats the reinforcement value of morphine ingestion was enhanced by relief of the discomfort of spatial confinement, social isolation, and stimulus deprivation.

Opiates are highly addictive.  But opiate use is also correlated with other troubles.  Our nation’s current opiate epidemic is linked to the economic crisis.

And among the rats?  These are social animals.  Isolation is painful for them.  They’ll attempt to numb that pain with drugs when given the chance.

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10490113913_e3a697bdca_zConfining social animals in isolation is a form of torture.  Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, has argued that prisoners should not be extradited to the United States, as the U.S. routinely holds prisoners in solitary confinement.

After 15 days in solitary confinement, much of the psychological damage caused by solitary confinement becomes irreversible.  Mendez argues that solitary confinement for over two weeks is clearly torture.

In the United States, attempts to change prison policy such that solitary confinement not be used for over 90 days have made little progress.  Throughout the country, many people have been held in solitary confinement for years at a time.  For some, decades.

Large protests have been held outside of prison walls.  Inside, inmates have refused to eat, hoping to draw attention to their plight.  Guards are authorized to pin these men to the ground, shove long lubricated tubes into their nostrils, and pump nutrients directly into their stomachs.

Many of the men in my classes have been held in solitary.  One, a teddy-bear-shaped guy whom the others invariably describe as “humble,” was put in for nine months.  “I get through it okay.  I got myself a system.  This much time I spend thinking, this much time I spend walking in place.  I get to the point, I don’t even want to go nowhere for the exercise.”

“But dude,” I said, “you need the sun!”

“Oh, yeah yeah yeah, if I’m out I go outside, I’m outside all the time.  But for rec time?  You can’t see the sun no how.  You just in a different box.”

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According to ex-CIA officer Ray McGovern, “You can’t get reliable information from torture.  But torture works beautifully if you want unreliable information.”

A young Muslim man named Syed Fahad Hashmi was held in solitary confinement by the United States for three years before his trial.  Per his constitutional rights – innocent until proven guilty – he was an innocent man.  He was decidedly un-dangerous.

From Jeanne Theoharis’s essay, “Torture of a Student,”

The charges against him stemmed from allowing a friend, Junaid Babar, to use his cell phone and to stay for two weeks in his London student apartment with luggage containing raincoats, ponchos, and waterproof socks (the “military gear”) that Babar later allegedly took to an Al Qaeda leader in Pakistan.  Subsequently picked up, Babar became a cooperating witness for the government in numerous terrorism cases in exchange for a reduced sentence, and is now a free man.

Torturing an innocent man before his trial seems ethically suspect.  Theoharis:

Citing extensive research on the health impacts of prolonged solitary confinement and the impact these conditions imposed on Fahad’s ability to participate in his defense, the defense requested a set of modest changes.  The judge was unmoved, stating for the record that the measures were “administrative not punitive” and therefore constitutional.

But the torture is often “successful,” if we define success by the number of people whom we are able to lock away:

These conditions of prolonged isolation are designed to induce acquiescence.  Because the government holds control over the defendant’s conditions and the courts have been loath to intervene, the SAMs [special administrative measures, which can include solitary confinement, censoring of mail & all reading materials, etc.] rig the contest, weakening a person’s ability to participate in his own defense.  The number of plea bargains in the Justice Department’s roster following years of prolonged pretrial solitary confinement suggest the success of these practices.

In this case as well, our government won.  Syed Fahad Hashmi was tortured before his trial on behalf of all United States citizens – which is to say, on my behalf – and he broke.  One day before his trial began… one day after his judge granted the government’s request that this man – who allegedly aided & abetted the transport of ponchos & raincoats! – be tried before an anonymous jury… he accepted a plea.

After three years of torture, during which time he constantly proclaimed his innocence – are we confident, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he knew there were ponchos in his friend’s luggage?  Are we confident, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he knew these ponchos were bound for Al Qaeda? – he “confessed” that he was guilty of “conspiracy to provide material support.”

He was sentenced to 15 years of solitary confinement in ADX.

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29supermax1-blog427-v2ADX – full name, “United State Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum” – is in Florence, Colorado.  Some four hundred men are held there, tortured by the most brutal isolation of any prison in the United States.

A former warden referred to ADX as “a clean version of hell.”

Jesse Wilson – who received a five year prison sentence at the age of 17 – is now at ADX.  This dude, shunted into a world of extreme violence while still a child, quickly conformed to the expectations of his environs.  He “misbehaved” and was moved from prison to prison until reaching the worst in the state of Mississippi, where he got into a fight and killed a man who was being held on death row.

That’s when Wilson received a life sentence and was transferred to ADX.  From his essay describing the place:

We as a country are blind to the reality of our prison system.

It has become normal.  And we the inmates are voiceless.  Our voices are not heard.  If they are heard, the things we say are thought of as lies.  I heard the head of the Bureau of Prisons testifying in Congress (on radio), saying they do not have insane inmates housed here.  This is what should be thought of as a lie.  I have not slept in weeks because of these nonexistent inmates beating on the walls and hollering all night.  And the most non-insane smearing feces in their cells.

This place is horrific with the solitary, and the lack of communication outside these walls.  I’ve been in prison without release for more than twelve years, and eight of them I’ve been in a cage walking around in circles.  So I am pretty in tune with the concept of solitary.  Prison.  Cages and craziness.

Out my window I see into a concrete yard surrounded by red brick walls.  There is a drain in the middle of it and out of it weeds are growing.  I thought they were weeds until a few blossomed into these beautiful yellow and brown flowers.

Every now and then a pair of owls roosts on the security lights.  This spring they had two babies.  We watched them grow up and fly away.  On any given day the sky here is breathtaking.  The beauty out my window stays in my mind.  I look around this cage at plain concrete walls and steel bars and a steel door, a steel toilet, and I endure its harshness because I am able to keep beauty in my mind.

The window helps greatly.

I’m in the hole so there is no TV.  Books help me escape better than my words could ever explain.  But most of all it’s the love of my family, the memories of beauty, and the knowledge of humanity.

Loneliness is a destroyer of humanity.

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hell_is_a_very_small_place_final.jpgThe essays by Theoharis and Wilson – and many others – appear in Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement, edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and Sarah Shourd.

You should read this book.

If you are human, you will cry.

If you are a citizen of the United States, you should know: we’re doing this for you.  The men and women whose essays appear in Hell Is a Very Small Place are being tortured on your behalf.

Mayhaps you should do something.