On the evolution of skin color.

On the evolution of skin color.

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. 

Or so ruled our Supreme Court.

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.

A photograph showing a book page in Icelandic.

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.

A Wiccan-style gathering of artifacts including a statue of a seated green goddess, her pregnant belly painted as the earth; mums; a chalice; a string of green beads; a stoppered rectangular prism bottle; and a candleholder appearing to be carved of wood, again of a pregnant woman with hands holding her belly.

Unfortunately, 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.

A sun-dappled photograph of a page of the Bible.

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.

Because contemporary 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. 

A photograph of a model dinosaur, complete with feathers.

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.

A photograph of a three-spined stickleback fish.

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.

Image shows the upright skeletal postures of gibbons, humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans.

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.

A sculpture of a dodo.

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.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters.

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. 

Interbreeding happened 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 are gone.

Everyone living today is human.  We are all Homo sapiens, all the same species.  But some of us do carry vestiges of the other human populations whom our ancestors killed.

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.

Blue sky and white cirrus clouds as viewed through coiled razor wire atop a barbed-wire fence.

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.

A prediction for the distribution of human skin colors based on the intensity of ultraviolet light present at each latitude. Figure from Nina Jablonski & George Chaplin, “The Evolution of Human Skin Color,” in Journal of Human Evolution, 2000.
This figure depicts the (limited) data we have on the distribution of human skin colors before the modern era’s horrific set of forced migrations. In this image, white-colored regions indicate an absence of data, not low concentrations of epidermal melanin among a region’s prehistoric population. Figure from Nina Jablonski & George Chaplin, “The Evolution of Human Skin Color,” in Journal of Human Evolution, 2000.

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.

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 narrow passageway.

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 struggle harder. 

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.

Pottery shard depicting a boar hunt in ancient Greece.

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 innate potential.

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.

On power and dignity in defeat.

On power and dignity in defeat.

Winning is pretty easy.  It takes effort to get there, but once we’ve done it, most people can act with grace.

It reveals more about a person’s character to see how they handle defeat.  In the Christian bible, Jesus is a more compelling character than Yahweh.  Jesus faces adversity, which sometimes he accepts calmly – he willingly submits to crucifixion despite knowing in advance that he has been betrayed – and sometimes heatedly – braiding a whip when he’s angered by commerce in the temple.

Luca_Giordano_-_Christ_Cleansing_the_Temple_-_WGA09000

So, sure, Jesus loses his temper.  Don’t we all?  It’s understandable to lash out when unconscionable behavior seems to be taking over the world.

Which is why, when Jesus rages, he still seems like a sympathetic character.  But when Yahweh does it, He seems small and petty.  After all, Yahweh is omniscient.  Omnipotent.  He always wins, and yet he’s still jealous and wrathful.

In Norse mythology, every champion is shown both at moments of glory and in defeat.  The latter episodes let us see the true depth of their strength.

In Laughing Shall I Die, Tom Shippey writes that:

image (7)Losing is a vital part of the Norse belief structure.  Ragnarok is like Armageddon, the battle at the end of the world.  In it the gods and their human allies will march out to fight against the frost giants and the fire giants, the trolls and the monsters.  And in that battle – and this is not at all like Armageddon – our side, the good guys, will lose.  Thor will kill the Midgard Serpent, the great snake that coils round the world, and then drop dead from its poison.  Odin will be swallowed by the wolf Fenrir.  Heimdal and the traitor god Loki, Tyr and the great hound Garm: both pairs will kill each other.  Frey, left swordless, will fall before the fire giant Surt, who will then set the world ablaze.

The gods know this is going to happen.  That is why Odin habitually betrays his own chosen heroes to death, and this is where the myth of Valhalla comes in.  Odin wants his best heroes dead so he can collect them in his own Halls of the Slain (Valhalla), where they will fight each other every day, for practice, and come back to life-in-death at the end of every day, to feast. 

The myths had a built-in answer for, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  The Norse imagined that gods betrayed their champions in life because they needed allies in death.

Odin knows Ragnarok is coming, but since he does not know when, he wants his team to be at all times as strong as possible, even though the result is foreordained.  Even the gods will die, and their side will lose as well, and they know they will.  But this does not make them want to negotiate, still less change sides.  Refusal to give in is what’s important.  It’s only in ultimate defeat that you can show what you’re really made of.

All this shows an attitude to winning and losing markedly different from ours.  To us, calling someone ‘a loser’ is seriously insulting.  This must be the result of 150 years of competitive sport.  All modern games start off by imposing fair conditions.  Same numbers on each side, level pitch, no ground advantage, toss a coin at the start for choice of ends in case there is some advantage, change ends halfway through to cancel any such advantage, umpires and referees to see fair play – all the rules are there to see that the better team wins.   So if you lose, you must have been inferior in some way, strength or speed or skill, and if you lose consistently, then there’s something wrong with you: no excuses.

Worse, our culture is so permeated with the ethos of sport that we mistakenly believe every victory reveals moral worth.  Ayn Rand argued that financial wealth revealed a person’s merit; many contemporary politicians have been suckered into the same beliefs.

Vikings were wiser.  They knew that in the real world, conditions aren’t fair.  Heroes may be outnumbered, betrayed, trapped, caught off guard or just plain run out of luck.  That doesn’t make you what we call ‘a loser.’  To their way of thinking, the only thing that would make you a loser would be giving up.  And there’s another factor, perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Viking mindset. 

The heroes of the Viking Age, both gods and men, fixated as they seemed to be on death and defeat, just did not seem able to take death and defeat seriously.  Unlike the ponderous heroes of the classical world, they kept on making jokes, coming out with wisecracks.  To them, the throwaway line was another artform.  They had no sense of their own dignity.  Or maybe, they had such a strong sense of their own dignity that they felt no need to stand on it.

Finally, and combining the attitude to losing with the attitude to joking, what was especially relished in story after story was the stroke that showed that the hero hadn’t given up, even in an impossible situation.  What was best was showing you could turn the tables, spoil your enemy’s victory, make a joke out of death, die laughing.

People who think like that, one may well conclude, can be beaten by superior force, but though they can be killed like anyone else, they are impossible to daunt.  If they’re alive they’ll come back at you, they’re not done until they’re stone dead; even if they’re dying or helpless they will try to think of some trick, and if you fall for it, then the joke’s on you.

Viking humor.  Their secret weapon.  Part of their mindset.  Take warning, though!  There’s a mean streak running through it.

The Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project receives many requests for material about Norse mythology, but unfortunately we rarely send any.  White supremacists decided that the Norse myths should underpin their religion, and so current publications of these materials are often laced through with racism and hate.  I’ve (slowly) been preparing my own anti-racist pamphlet about the Norse myths, though, because many are lovely stories.  And the above passage seems like it could be quite helpful for many of the people who get caught in our nation’s criminal justice system.

In jail, we often read Julien Poirier’s poem “Independently Blue,” which opens with the lines:

It’s easy to fly a flag when you live in a nice house

in a beautiful city.

Things have worked out nicely for you,

and you think everyone can agree

this is the greatest country on earth.

illustration

 The people who are “winning” in our country – the wealthy, the comfortable – rarely began on an even playing field with everyone else.  Their patriotism costs little.  Why wouldn’t you love your country if it provided you with everything?

deadpool_by_steelstrugglin-d9stlbzThere’s a chance that Deadpool’s current popularity is due to the fact that so many people feel like they are not winning at life right now.  After all, Deadpool’s superpower is the ability to suffer with a smile.  He’s a hero who embodies the ethos of Norse mythology, willing to joke about his own failures.

From Shippey:

A hero is defined not by victory but by defeat.  Only in defeat can you show what you’re really made of.  Only in final defeat can you show that you will never give in.  That’s why the gods have to die as well.  If they did not die, how could they show true courage?  If they were really immortal and invulnerable, who would respect them?

At a time when so many people feel as though the world is stacked against them, seeing Superman score yet another preordained victory isn’t so compelling.  Better to root for a loser, to see Deadpool grin through a mouthful of cracked teeth and make one more bad joke before he passes out.

Especially for people in prison and jail.  Many were born into crummy situations.  After they’re released, they’ll have to navigate the world with huge additional burdens impeding their efforts – if you haven’t read it, you should check out poet Reginald Dwayne Betts’s lovely essay about trying to become a lawyer despite having been convicted of a felony when he was a kid.

I hope the people we’ve incarcerated manage to carve out some form of success.  We should want that for everyone.  People can grow and change; why not do what we can to help others change for the better?

But maybe these people will not win.  Maybe they’ll submit dozens of job applications but receive no interviews.  Maybe nobody will want to give them a second chance.

That is, unfortunately, the way it often happens.

Would defeat hurt less if we celebrated myths in which our heroes suffer, too?  And not just the way Jesus suffered, undergoing a torturous death as a trial before his ultimate ascension.  What would our world be like if we venerated gods who died with no hope of rebirth or redemption?

George Patton said, quite accurately,

Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.

But people at the bottom are strong, too – often stronger than those whom fate allowed to start at the top and stay there.  Our world will be a better place once we learn to show kindness to those who actually need it.

On Matthew Walker’s ‘Why We Sleep.’

On Matthew Walker’s ‘Why We Sleep.’

poemsjaildormWilliam Booker’s poem “Communion of the Saints” opens with,

It’s 6 a.m. in the Monroe County Jail,

I’ve been awake since breakfast,

which was served at 4:21 a.m. …

It took 3 minutes 25 seconds

to eat a tray of eggs, sausage, hash brown,

biscuit and jelly.  Then I lay back down

on my steel bunk and closed my eyes.

His eyes are closed, the thin jail blanket covers his head, but with bright fluorescent lights shining just a few feet from his face, he can’t fall back asleep.  He begins to ruminate: “what have I done?”  His mind is tormented by “visions of the outside that I don’t see anymore.”  This will be another hard day.

2088296214_th.jpgIn Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker describes numerous research studies showing the ways that we’re impaired when our sleep is disrupted.  The vast majority of people need at least 7.5 hours of sleep each night.  When sleep deprived – either by missing an entire night’s sleep in one go, or sleeping six or fewer hours a night for several days in a row – people have difficulty regulating their emotions, miss social cues, and struggle to learn new information.

Prolonged sleep deprivation is widely recognized as torture.  All animals will die if sleep deprived for too long, typically done in by sepsis: otherwise innocuous bacteria proliferate uncontrollably and poison the blood.  Less acute forms of sleep loss – consistently getting fewer than 7.5 hours per night – will ravage a person’s immune system and increase the risk of cancer.

When interrogators deprive people of sleep (yup, the United States is a member of the illustrious group of nations that still tortures people this way, alongside regimes in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudia Arabia, and the like) it becomes very easy to elicit false confessions.

In the former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin’s memoir, White Nights: The Story of a Prisoner in Russia (which is quoted in Why We Sleep), he writes that when the KGB denied him and his fellow prisoners the opportunity to sleep,

DF-SC-85-11459I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what their interrogator promised them.  He did not promise them their liberty.  He promised them – if they signed – uninterrupted sleep.

Inside the jail, the overhead fluorescent lights are not turned off until midnight.  At that time, it becomes easier – not easy, but easier – to fall asleep.  But the inmates will be jarred awake four hours later for breakfast.

Despite their chronic sleep deprivation, people in jail are expected to learn new habits; people who have self-medicated for the entirety of their adult lives with opiates or amphetamines are expected to find all new ways of living.  Sometimes their behaviors really were undesirable – robbery, domestic violence, neglecting children while blinkered on drugs.

But people struggle to learn new skills – sober living among them, although this was not directly assessed in the studies Walker cites – if their brains don’t undergo a large number of electroencephalogram-visible waves called “sleep spindles” during the final hours of sleep.  If a person sleeps for six or fewer hours each night, the brain never reaches this stage of sleep.

Wake someone up too early day after day, you stifle learning.

Veave_in_jailWrest them into fluorescent wakefulness each morning for a four a.m. breakfast, keep them basically sedentary because a dozen people are packed into a small cement room and the facility is too understaffed to give them “rec time,” constantly elevate their stress hormones by surrounding them with angry, potentially dangerous compatriots, and you ensure that they won’t sleep well.  In addition, chemical withdrawal wrecks havoc on people’s sleep cycles.  They stagger bleary-eyed through months or years inside.  They chug “cocoffala” – commissary instant coffee stirred into Coca-cola – hoping to feel some semblance of normalcy.  Instead, they get the jitters.

And then, finally, they’re set free – usually to probation, expected to follow more rules than the average citizen.

“I’m gonna be out next week,” a dude told me.

“Congratulations!  You’ll get family Christmas after all.”

“Eh, it’s not so great.  I’ll be back before New Years.”

“Yeah?”

“They say I gotta do probation two yearsI slip, they’re sending me to prison.”

“Can you do it?”

“Two years?  I’m not gonna make it two weeks.  Way I see it, I get out, I gotta call up Judge Diekhoff, tell her it’s been real and all, but we gotta start seeing other people.”

He would’ve struggled to change his life in the best of circumstances.  But he certainly couldn’t do it sleep deprived.

On perception and learning.

On perception and learning.

Cuddly.

Fearful.

Monstrous.

Peering with the unwavering focus of a watchful overlord.

A cat could seem to be many different things, and Brendan Wenzel’s recent picture book They All Saw a Cat conveys these vagrancies of perception beautifully. Though we share the world, we all see and hear and taste it differently. Each creature’s mind filters a torrential influx of information into manageable experience; we all filter the world differently.

They All Saw a Cat ends with a composite image. We see the various components that were focused on by each of the other animals, amalgamated into something approaching “cat-ness.” A human child noticed the cat’s soft fur, a mouse noticed its sharp claws, a fox noticed its swift speed, a bird noticed that it can’t fly.

All these properties are essential descriptors, but so much is blurred away by our minds. When I look at a domesticated cat, I tend to forget about the sharp claws and teeth. I certainly don’t remark on its lack of flight – being landbound myself, this seems perfectly ordinary to me. To be ensnared by gravity only seems strange from the perspective of a bird.

theyallsawThere is another way of developing the concept of “cat-ness,” though. Instead of compiling many creatures’ perceptions of a single cat, we could consider a single perceptive entity’s response to many specimens. How, for instance, do our brains learn to recognize cats?

When a friend (who teaches upper-level philosophy) and I were talking about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, I mentioned that I felt many of the aims of that book could be accomplished with a description of principal component analysis paired with Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s lovely New York Times Magazine article on Google Translate.

My friend looked at me with a mix of puzzlement and pity and said, “No.” Then added, as regards Philosophical Investigations, “You read it too fast.”

wittgensteinOne of Wittgenstein’s aims is to show how humans can learn to use language… which is complicated by the fact that, in my friend’s words, “Any group of objects will share more than one commonality.” He posits that no matter how many red objects you point to, they’ll always share properties other than red-ness in common.

Or cats… when you’re teaching a child how to speak and point out many cats, will they have properties other than cat-ness in common?

In some ways, I agree. After all, I think the boundaries between species are porous. I don’t think there is a set of rules that could be used to determine whether a creature qualifies for personhood, so it’d be a bit silly if I also claimed that cat-ness could be clearly defined.

But when I point and say “That’s a cat!”, chances are that you’ll think so too. Even if no one had ever taught us what cats are, most people in the United States have seen enough of them to think “All those furry, four-legged, swivel-tailed, pointy-eared, pouncing things were probably the same type of creature!”

Even a computer can pick out these commonalities. When we learn about the world, we have a huge quantity of sensory data to draw upon – cats make those noises, they look like that when they find a sunny patch of grass to lie in, they look like that when they don’t want me to pet them – but a computer can learn to identify cat-ness using nothing more than grainy stills from Youtube.

Quoc Le et al. fed a few million images from Youtube videos to a computer algorithm that was searching for commonalities between the pictures. Even though the algorithm was given no hints as to the nature of the videos, it learned that many shared an emphasis on oblong shapes with triangles on top… cat faces. Indeed, when Le et al. made a visualization of the patterns that were causing their algorithm to cluster these particular videos together, we can recognize a cat in that blur of pixels.

The computer learns in a way vaguely analogous to the formation of social cliques in a middle school cafeteria. Each kid is a beautiful and unique snowflake, sure, but there are certain properties that cause them to cluster together: the sporty ones, the bookish ones, the D&D kids. For a neural network, each individual is only distinguished by voting “yes” or “no,” but you can cluster the individuals who tend to vote “yes” at the same time. For a small grid of black and white pixels, some individuals will be assigned to the pixels and vote “yes” only when their pixels are white… but others will watch the votes of those first responders and vote “yes” if they see a long line of “yes” votes in the top quadrants, perhaps… and others could watch those votes, allowing for layers upon layers of complexity in analysis.

three-body-problem-by-cixin-liu-616x975And I should mention that I feel indebted to Liu Cixin’s sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem for thinking to humanize a computer algorithm this way. Liu includes a lovely description of a human motherboard, with triads of trained soldiers hoisting red or green flags forming each logic gate.

In the end, the algorithm developed by Le et al. clustered only 75% of the frames from Youtube cat videos together – it could recognize many of these as being somehow similar, but it was worse at identifying cat-ness than the average human child. But it’s pretty easy to realize why: after all, Le et al. titled their paper “Building high-level features using large scale unsupervised learning.”

Proceedings of the International Conference on Machine Learning 2010
You might have to squint, but there’s a cat here. Or so says their algorithm.

When Wittgenstein writes about someone watching builders – one person calls out “Slab!”, the other brings a large flat rock – he is also considering unsupervised learning. And so it is easy for Wittgenstein to imagine that the watcher, even after exclaiming “Now I’ve got it!”, could be stymied by a situation that went beyond the training.

Many human cultures have utilized unsupervised learning as a major component of childrearing – kids are expected to watch their elders and puzzle out on their own how to do everything in life – but this potential inflexibility that Wittgenstein alludes to underlies David Lancy’s advice in The Anthropology of Childhood that children will fair best in our modern world when they have someone guiding their education and development.

Unsupervised learning may be sufficient to prepare children for life in an agrarian village. Unsupervised learning is sufficient for chimpanzees learning how to crack nuts. And unsupervised learning is sufficient to for a computer to develop an idea about what cats are.

But the best human learning employs the scientific method – purposefully seeking out “no.”

I assume most children reflexively follow the scientific method – my daughter started shortly after her first birthday. I was teaching her about animals, and we started with dogs. At first, she pointed primarily to creatures that looked like her Uncle Max. Big, brown, four-legged, slobbery.

IMG_5319.JPG
Good dog.

Eventually she started pointing to creatures that looked slightly different: white dogs, black dogs, small dogs, quiet dogs. And then the scientific method kicked in.

She’d point to a non-dog, emphatically claiming it to be a dog as well. And then I’d explain why her choice wasn’t a dog. What features cause an object to be excluded from the set of correct answers?

Eventually she caught on.

Many adults, sadly, are worse at this style of thinking than children. As we grow, it becomes more pressing to seem competent. We adults want our guesses to be right – we want to hear yes all the time – which makes it harder to learn.

The New York Times recently presented a clever demonstration of this. They showed a series of numbers that follow a rule, let readers type in new numbers to see if their guesses also followed the rule, and asked for readers to describe what the rule was.

A scientist would approach this type of puzzle by guessing a rule and then plugging in numbers that don’t follow it – nothing is ever really proven in science, but we validate theories by designing experiments that should tell us “no” if our theory is wrong. Only theories that all “falsifiable” fall under the purvey of science. And the best fields of science devote considerable resources to seeking out opportunities to prove ourselves wrong.

But many adults, wanting to seem smart all the time, fear mistakes. When that New York Times puzzle was made public, 80% of readers proposed a rule without ever hearing that a set of numbers didn’t follow it.

Wittgenstein’s watcher can’t really learn what “Slab!” means until perversely hauling over some other type of rock and being told, “no.”

We adults can’t fix the world until we learn from children that it’s okay to look ignorant sometimes. It’s okay to be wrong – just say “sorry” and “I’ll try to do better next time.”

Otherwise we’re stuck digging in our heels and arguing for things we should know to be ridiculous.

It doesn’t hurt so bad. Watch: nope, that one’s not a cat.

16785014164_0b8a71b191_z
Photo by John Mason on Flickr.

On psychedelic drugs as medicine.

On psychedelic drugs as medicine.

We are creatures of habit.

learning_to_walk_by_pushing_wheeled_toyLife would be excruciating if we were not.  Can you imagine: consciously remembering to breathe every few seconds?  Concentrating with the intensity of a toddler each time you stand and walk across a room?  Carefully considering the rules of grammar and conjugation when you stop to ask someone for directions?

Our brains zip through so much unconsciously.  Most of us can drift into reverie while driving and still go through all the motions correctly, stopping at red lights, making the appropriate turns, our mind set on autopilot.

We live, and we learn, and our brains constantly change – neurons reach out to form synaptic connections to one another.  Other connections wilt away.  The resultant network determines who we are.  More precisely, the pattern of connections determines which thoughts we are good at having.  Thoughts we’ve thunk before come easily.

But our propensity for habit can hijack our lives.  In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, viewers of the highly-addictive titular film are unable to think of anything but watching it again.  One taste and you’re hooked!

otto_wegener_vers_1895_2Or, in an example closer to most humans’ experience, Marcel Proust writes of the way our shared experience with a lost love causes the brain to ache each time a similar experience must be forded alone.  Over and over we hurt: going to sleep alongside her was a habit.  Chatting in the evening was a habit.  Walking to the store hand in hand was a habit.  The brain is still wired such that it could effortlessly zip through these tasks, but… she is gone.

In an example that is – unfortunately! – increasingly relevant today, William Burroughs writes that powerful opiates do not hook users right away.  It takes many recurrent episodes to rewire the brain.  In his (overly cavelier) words:

4306771895_1eda6d6e9d_z
Painting by Christiaan Tonnis.

The question is frequently asked: Why does a man become a drug addict?

The answer is that he usually does not intend to become an addict.  You don’t wake up one morning and decide to be a drug addict.  It takes at least three months’ shooting twice a day to get any habit at all.  And you don’t really know that junk sickness is until you have had several habits.  It took me almost six months to get my first habit, and then the withdrawal symptoms were mild.  I think it no exaggeration to say it takes about a year and several hundred injections to make an addict.

. . .

You don’t decide to be an addict.  One morning you wake up sick and you’re an addict.

And then, depression.  To perceive the world a shade darker than it ought to be comes easily… to someone who is depressed.  A depressed person’s brain has been rewired through perhaps a lifetime of rumination and pain.  Suicidal ideation gets easier and easier and easier… unless it goes too far, and then it becomes impossible.  Dead matter doesn’t think.

thenightmare
The Nightmare by John Henry Fuseli.

Cognitive behavioral therapy attempts to use the brain’s own habit-forming capabilities to battle depression.  Because today’s depressed thoughts enable tomorrow’s depression, a conscious effort to find joy and beauty today could ease tomorrow’s struggle.  Phrases like “virtuous cycle” are bandied about.

My wife, each evening, asks me to list four good things that happened during the day; if we forget the ritual through a harried week or two, it’s difficult to start again.  I lay in bed, pondering, “What was good about the day?”  Which should always be easy.  I have two loving children whom I am graced to spend time with.  I am not in jail.  I have a warm, safe place to sleep.  I have enough to eat.  I live near phenomenal libraries.

But the habit of depression digs the mind into a rut.

lsd-clinical-trial-bottleWhich has caused several researchers to wonder, “Would cognitive behavioral therapy work better if a patient could be jolted out of the rut first, then trained in a new virtuous cycle?”  We have access to several potent chemicals that wrest the brain out of its routines.  Psychedelic drugs like lysergic acid diethyl amide, dimethyl tryptamine, and psilocin are powerful beasts.

Which is not to say that, if you’re feeling sad, you should go find that raver dude you know and ask what he’s holding.  For one thing, most psychedelics are illegal in the United States.  This contributes to the dearth of high-quality clinical information about their uses – obtaining permission to run clinical trials with Schedule I compounds is difficult, and drugs can’t be downgraded from Schedule I status without reams of data from clinical trials.  Nonsensical bureaucracy at its best!

Plus, high-quality clinical trials must control for the placebo effect – neither patients nor doctors should know whether an individual is receiving the treatment or a control.  But I’m guessing most recipients recognize the difference between an injection of DMT or saline.  Did your visual field suddenly fragment into geometric patterns?  Did you feel an out-of-body sensation akin to alien abduction?  Did your memories begin to unfold like interlocking matryoshka-doll puzzle boxes?  Those are sensations I rarely experience from salt water.

LauretaAnd the sheer power of psychedelic drugs also makes them dangerous.  Dr. Lauretta Bender, whose least harmful contribution to science was the idea that emotional disturbances could be diagnosed by asking a child to reproduce pictures of geometric shapes, assumed that LSD would cure autism.  If she’d been right, this sort of baseless cognitive leap would’ve been heralded as brilliance.  She injected large doses into the muscles of children as young as five.  Daily.  When that “cure” proved insufficient, she combined it with electroconvulsive therapy: high currents to overwhelm their little brains.

Enforced acid trips in nightmarish environs of total control can ruin lives.

Especially since Dr. Bender was diagnosing autism in routinely-abused orphans based on symptoms like “avoids eye contacts” and “difficulty forming trusting relationships.”

5009548522_6701801dcb_oAcid trips can end lives, too.  At least one involuntary research subject ensnared in the CIA’s efforts to use LSD as mind-control reagent committed suicide.  And there are innumerable horror stories of murders committed by people mired in psychedelic trips.  Then again, most murders are committed by people who haven’t taken psychedelics.  In Ronald Siegel’s Intoxication he writes that:

Many bad trips are a function of personality; not everybody is a good subject for a mind-altering experience.  And even experienced users can have a bad day.  … Harold, a veteran of one thousand LSD trips, wanted to volunteer to be a psychonaut but he had a history of violence, both on and off the drug.  “Ever since I was small,” confessed Harold, “I go ape when I’m bothered.”

.. [a grim description of Harold murdering two hikers outside Santa Barbara in 1984 follows.  Yes, Harold had “drank some beer, smoked a little marijuana, and swallowed a few amphetamine tablets along with a full dose of LSD.”  But he’d also “been bothered by financial problems.  He was passing bad checks and had failed to make child-support payments to his ex-wife.”  So I’m not sure the drugs were at the root of his malaise.]

Cases like Harold’s tend to confuse the issue of intoxication and violence.  Violent people are often intoxicated but the violence is usually rooted in the personality, not the drug.  . . . What seems difficult for us to understand is that despite overt behaviors, the subjective experience can still be fun.  In other words, one’s inner feelings and sensations can be under the influence but such influence may not extend to outside acts in the real world that remain chillingly sober.  This is most difficult to accept if users are obviously intoxicated when they commit criminal acts.  The subjective intoxication can remain an enjoyable experience, despite our desire to blame the fires inside for the destruction outside.

Used incorrectly, psychedelic drugs are awful.  They disrupt habits, seeming to dissolve the mental filters that allow humans to function despite constant bombardment by thoughts and memories and myriad sensations from the world.  This newfound wonderment & reset can help, of course, but for someone in a bad place, it can be horrible.

mdma1Then again, for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder, the world might be horrible already – even if the chance that psychedelics could help were low, they’d be worth investigating.  Thankfully, the FDA finally granted permission for a trial to be run on the use of methylene dioxy methamphetamine (ecstasy – when I was a TA for undergraduate organic chemistry at Stanford, I wrote most of the quizes.  After they learned about acetal protection of ketones, all 200 or so pre-meds wrote out a partial synthesis for MDMA.  The reactants and products were unnamed, so I don’t think the students or the other TAs noticed) to treat PTSD .

In other experiments, LSD and psilocin seem to help terminal cancer patients overcome depression.  Ayahuasca is also being tested as a treatment for depression and those seeking to quit substance abuse (peyote has long been used for the latter), although these studies are far from the FDA clinical ideal.

Many people, as they live, drift into routine and no longer consider the implications of their actions.  I’m well aware that drugs can wreck lives, but sometimes we need a jolt.  I wish people weren’t shunted to jail for drug addiction – and obviously the dudes in there wish they were almost anywhere else – but a surprising number are grateful that something interrupted their habits.  Junkies don’t want to look back on a wasted life, either.

pills-750x400I’m not super keen on the rich & entitled using psychedelics for fun & games, and psychedelics certainly should not be used often.  But these molecules, treated respectfully, can heal damaged lives.

Even in the ostensibly healthy, psychedelics can do good.  Does the way you choose to spend your time benefit the world?