On literature as a weapon for social change.

On literature as a weapon for social change.

Every work of art is akin to a virus intended to change the architecture of the mind.  This is Richard Dawkins’s original concept of the meme: a unit of culture that, over time, will pass through a culling process like natural selection.  The evolutionary victors are the works best able to change our brains.

mementoAt the most basic level, this is obvious.  After all, good art is memorable, and in order to remember that we have seen a painting, heard a song, or read a book, the network of connections among our synapses must be different after experiencing the art than before.  Unless a changed self exists after experiencing the work, we will always feel ourselves Memento-style to be encountering it for the first time.

But, honestly, that whole preceding paragraph is just the idea “good art sticks with you” gussied up in some scientific language.

Art can change us in ways more meaningful than simply remembering that we have encountered it before.  A piece I always loved at the San Francisco MoMA is Gerhard Richter’s Two Candles.  There is a slight strangeness tied up in contemporary photorealistic painting – we can print actual photographs on a canvas that size, so why put forth the effort to paint it? – but each time I stood in front of Richter’s work it seemed a triumph of the human spirit.  Seen in person, it feels incredible how much warmth and motion is captured in the piece.  The painting helped me not give up on arduous tasks in my own life.

And I think that books – composed in the very language of thought – have a still greater potential to alter our minds.  In his memoirs, D. Watkins relates his own transformation after he encountered the writing of bell hooks.  For me, reading The Idiot shortly after I began freshman year of college taught me to be a nicer person.  Until The Idiot, I was a jerk.

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The author, reading.

My favorite authors – Dostoyevsky, Bolaño, Doctorow – all sought to create works of lasting beauty and change the way their readers lived.  Honestly, this is why these authors are my favorites.  Why bother choosing between style and substance if you can have both?

A Naked Singularity demonstrates that Sergio De La Pava aims to join these authors’ ranks.  The book is magnificent – the first 400 or more pages are among the best writing out there – and deeply meaningful.  De La Pava is deeply pained by injustice in our world.  Just reading his novel made me feel proud that we share a planet.  If you haven’t read A Naked Singularity yet, please, click the link & buy a copy, or browse away from here to your local library’s catalog and reserve it.  You’ll thank yourself later.

Would that every artwork were a weapon.

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Books not bombs. Handwritten words from Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity.

On octopus literature, a reprise: what would books be like if we didn’t love gossip?

On octopus literature, a reprise: what would books be like if we didn’t love gossip?

A few months ago, I lost several days reading about the structure of octopus brains.  A fascinating subject — they are incredibly intelligent creatures despite sharing little evolutionary history with any other intelligent species.  And their minds are organized differently from our own.

Human minds are highly centralized — we can’t do much without our head being involved.  Whereas octopus minds seem to be distributed throughout their bodies.  It’s difficult to address how this might feel for an octopus, but researchers have studied the behavior of hacked-off octopus tentacles.  An octopus tentacle can behave intelligently even when it’s not connected to the rest of the body.  Each limb may have something akin to a mind of its own.

Which seems fascinating from the perspective of narrative.  The way human minds seem to work is, first our subconscious makes a decision, then a signal is sent to our muscles.  We speak, or press a button, or pull our hand away from something hot. And then, last, our conscious mind begins rationalizing why we made that choice.

The temporal sequencing is wacky, sure. But for the purpose of this essay, the important concept is that a centralized brain makes all the choices and constructs a coherent narrative for why each choice was made.

An octopus might find it more difficult to construct a single unifying narrative to explain its actions in a way that we humans would consider logical.  There are hints that octopus tentacles have characteristics akin to personalities — some behave as though shy, some as though bold, some aggressive, some curious.  If one tentacle is trying to hide while another is trying to attack, there might not be a single internal narrative that describes the creature’s self-sabotage.

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And what might your personality be? Shy? Bold? Inquisitive? Photo by Jaula De Ardilla.

From our perspective, octopus consciousness might be like trying to explain in one sweep the behavior of an entire rambunctious dysfunctional family.  Sure, some calamities would affect them all together, but moment by moment each family member might have his or her own distinct interests.  A daughter who wants to stay out late, a mother who wants her daughter home by nine, a father who wants somebody to play catch in the yard, a son who just wants to be left alone…

It’s not that the collective is inexplicable, it’s just that we humans are unaccustomed to thinking of collectives like that as representing a single consciousness.  We look for logical motivations on a smaller scale — centralized minds — than an octopus might embrace as its worldview.

Anyway, I thought this might have a big impact on the way octopus literature would be structured.  Once, you know, they develop a language, start spinning myths, etc.

(To the best of my knowledge, there is no octopus language.  If they have one that’s chemical- or color-based, I’m not sure I would even notice.  Someone else probably would’ve, though.)

unnamed (1)While reading Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus, I learned that there would probably be another major difference between octopus literature and our own.  Their literature might seem chaotic to human readers, yes.  But also, our literature is often character-drivenOur brains evolved to gossip, and the books that most human readers love most feature charming, striking individuals.  I love The Idiot largely because of the dynamic between Myshkin and Rogozhin, In Search of Lost Time for the vicarious misery of watching Marcel’s crumbling relationship with Albertine.  Readers of Game of Thrones are immersed in a rich world of political intrigue, tracking everyone’s motives as they push against each other.

Octopus readers might not care about any of that.  From Montgomery’s book:

Belonging to a group is one of humankind’s deepest desires.  We’re a social species, like our primate ancestors.  Evolutionary biologists suggest that keeping track of our many social relationships over our long lives was one of the factors driving the evolution of the human brain.  In fact, intelligence itself is most often associated with similarly social and long-lived creatures, like chimps, elephants, parrots, and whales.

But octopuses represent the opposite end of this spectrum.  They are famously short-lived, and most do not appear to be social.  There are intriguing exceptions: Male and female lesser Pacific striped octopuses, for instance, sometimes cohabit in pairs, sharing a single den.  Groups of these octopuses may live in associations of forty or more animals — a fact so unexpected that it was disbelieved and unpublished for thirty years, until Richard Ross of the Steinhart Aquarium recently raised the long-forgotten species in his home lab.  But the giant Pacific, at least, is thought to seek company only at the end of its life, to mate.  And even that is an iffy proposition, as one known outcome is the literal dinner date, when one octopus eats the other.  If not to interact with fellow octopuses, what is their intelligence for?  If octopuses don’t interact with each other, why would they want to interact with us?

Jennifer, the octopus psychologist, says, “The same thing that got them their smarts isn’t the same thing that got us our smarts.”  Octopus and human intelligence evolved separately and for different reasons.  She believes the event driving the octopus toward intelligence was the loss of the ancestral shell.  Losing the shell freed the animal for mobility.  An octopus, unlike a clam, does not have to wait for food to find it; the octopus can hunt like a tiger.  And while most octopuses love crab best, a single octopus may hunt many dozens of different prey species, each of which demands a different hunting strategy, a different skill set, a different set of decisions to make and modify.  Will you camouflage yourself for a stalk-and-ambush attack?  Shoot through the sea with your siphon for a quick chase?  Crawl out of the water to capture escaping prey?

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Come to think of it, the mammalian Auntie Ferret would also enjoy reading “The Loner’s Guide to Building Fabulous Underwater Contraptions”

All of which made me realize, an octopus reader would probably be indifferent to well-crafted characters with rich inner lives.  An octopus would probably care more far more about the plot than the characters.  My assumption is that an ideal octopus novel would be  a thriller, crammed full of facts, action-packed, and weave together numerous barely-integrated narratives.

Indeed, octopus readers might not like Montgomery’s book, since she devotes so much space to the tangled lives and interactions of the humans who love and study them.  The Soul of an Octopus is clearly intended for a human audience.

I’d be curious to read a book written specifically for an octopus someday… although it’s probable that, like music composed specifically for tamarin monkeys, octopus literature would seem awful to me.

On chess as a window to the soul.

On chess as a window to the soul.

chessI loved chess growing up, enough that I always felt a shiver of pleasure when games appeared in novels.  Like the pre-felo de se game in Love in the Time of Cholera, the grim filial sacrifice in Vonnegut’s “All the King’s Horses,” the entirety of The Defense ...

ompchessIf you also are a fan of chess in art, you’ll definitely want to watch Andrew Bujalski’s brilliant mockumentary Computer Chess.  The film manages to be incredibly entertaining and humorous while addressing big ideas about artificial intelligence, the treatment of women in science, power structures between underlings and their professional superiors, and the difficulty of bridging cognitive gaps between people with different value systems.  With that list of themes, and the film being shot in black & white by shaky handheld cameras, it could’ve so easily been dull and dry… but it’s a blast.

One reason why chess has appeared so often in artistic works is the claim that people reveal their personalities through their playing styles.  I never agreed with this.  Sure, you can play aggressively, you can play cautiously.  The biggest distinction, though, is between playing well or poorly.  And even then, only a small set of moves are available each turn.  With only twenty moves to choose from for the first turn, and hardly ever more than fifty, many of them strategically bad, how much of your personality can you reveal?

goThat’s why I was so excited when I discovered Go.  It’s a rough cultural equivalent to chess, but on any turn there are a much wider range of options that seem to be strategically reasonable (I say “seem to be,” because, unlike with chess, computers still can’t beat the best Go players, so we don’t have a clear algorithmic understanding to identify the best moves).

At the beginning of a game of Go, there are hundreds of options to choose from for each move.  And, unlike with chess, there’s no certainty that a slightly more aggressive move, or a slightly more timid one — setting a piece down very near an opponent’s, or father away — is better or worse than the other options.  Toward the beginning of the game, at least, your personality is less likely to be squelched by strategic constraints.

I figured that this abundance of choices meant games of Go would be more effective literary devices than chess games.  So far, though, I haven’t come across literary Go games that I’ve enjoyed as much as those chess matches cited above.  I’ve only read a few, though; maybe ones that’ll floor me are out there somewhere.

But, right, this essay is supposed to be about chess, not Go.  Because I eventually realized that chess does reveal the players’ personalities… as long as they’re not following the rules.  Consider this monologue from Burroughs’s Queer (a bit of context that might help explain the speaker’s casual racism: Queer is, in my opinion, the best novel about unrequited love.  The speaker is trying, and failing, to get the man he loves to pay attention to him.  His aggrieved petulance and insobriety lead him to tell increasingly vicious, mean-spirited stories):

Art by Christiaan Tonnis.
Art by Christiaan Tonnis.

“I was reading up on chess.  Arabs invented it, and I’m not surprised.  Nobody can sit like an Arab.  The classical Arab chess game was simply a sitting contest.  When both contestants starved to death it was a stalemate.”  Lee paused and took a long drink.

“During the Baroque period of chess the practice of harrying your opponent with some annoying mannerism came into general use.  Some players used dental floss, others cracked their joints or blew saliva bubbles.  The method was constantly developed.  In the 1917 match at Baghdad, the Arab Arachnid Khayam defeated the German master Kurt Schlemiel by humming ‘I’ll Be Around When You’re Gone’ forty-thousand times, and each time reaching his hand towards the board as if he intended to make a move.  Schlemiel went into convulsions finally.

“Did you ever have the good fortune to see the Italian master Tetrazzini perform?”  Lee lit Mary’s cigarette.  “I say ‘perform’ advisedly, because he was a great showman, and like all showmen, not above charlatanism and at times downright trickery.  Sometimes he used smoke screens to hide his maneuvers from the opposition — I mean literal smoke screens, of course.  He had a corps of trained idiots who would rush in at a given signal and eat all the pieces.  With defeat staring him in the face — as it often did, because actually he knew nothing of chess but the rules and wasn’t too sure of those — he would leap up yelling, ‘You cheap bastard!  I saw you palm that queen!’ and ram a broken teacup into his opponent’s face.  In 1922 he was rid out of Prague on a rail.  The next time I saw Tetrazzini was in the Upper Ubangi.  A complete wreck.  Peddling unlicensed condoms.  That was the year of the rinderpest, when everything died, even the hyenas.”

Chess played that way clearly reveals the players’ personalities.  They’re no longer shackled by strategic constraints — the apparent lawlessness of the game resembles Calvinball more than traditional chess.

maThe chess game in Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City has a similar emphasis on personality over rules.  The Other City is a beautiful novel, and I think this passage is fairly representative of what I love about it.  Dream logic that is far enough removed from traditional reality that we expect weirdness, but not so weird as to be incomprehensible.  A real attention to detail in describing the oft-impossible physical surroundings.  And pervasive horror; this passage is followed by one describing a once-beautiful poet scarred by long use of a typewriter that struck him with poisonous quills each time he pressed the keys.  Even the description of the chess game has real nightmarish properties.  The stakes are high, but the rules are unclear.  Oh, and, many thanks to Gerald Turner for the translation; all translation seems difficult, but recreating this sort of surrealism in another language must’ve been particularly arduous.

The Book of Deserted Gardens speaks of this on the page with the greasy stain from noodle soup left by a scribe of long ago, who took fright when across the sun-drenched page there fell the horned shadow of a monster as it passed through the sleepy and desolate lanes of the city after defeating the aging king at a game of chess on the parched ramparts.  It was played with chessmen of sparkling ice; all that could be heard in the silence was the soft rattle of red and purple gemstones falling in the hour-glass alongside the chessboard; it was the monster’s vengeance for a bygone defeat in a contest beneath the high stone walls of the fortress, on which broke the waves of the nocturnal sea.  The stories do not tell the entire truth — monsters always return: one day, a familiar monster will ring your doorbell too, bearing a chessboard under its arm; it will persuade you to join it in a game of chess and you will be obliged to include in the game the carved figure of a tiger-headed spearman, a piece that moves in irregular, furtive spirals and can stray quite far from the chessboard — even out of the apartment. 

On mental architecture and octopus literature.

CaptureI might spend too much time thinking about how brains work.  Less than some people, sure — everybody working on digital replication of human thought must devote more energy than I do to the topic, and they’re doing it in a more rigorous way — but for a dude with no professional connection to cognitive science or neurobiology or what-have-you, I spend an unreasonable amount of time obsessing over ’em.

What can I say?  Brains are cool.  That they function at all is pretty amazing, and that they do it in a way that gives us either free will or at least the illusion of having it is even better.

Most of my “obsessing over brains” time is devoted to thinking about how humans work, but studies on animal cognition always floor me as well.  A major focus of these studies, though, is often how similar human minds are to those of other animals… for instance, my recent hamsters & poverty essay was about the common response of most mammalian species to unfair, unrectifiable circumstance, and I’m planning a piece on the (mild) similarities between prairie dog language and our own.

The only post I’ve slapped up lately on differences between human and animal cognition was about potential rattlesnake misconceptions, but even that piece hinged upon a difference in the way they see, not the way they think.

Today’s post, though, will be about octopi.

A baby octopus (graneledone verrucosa)  moves across the seafloor as ROV Deep Discoverer (D2) explores Veatch Canyon.

A study on octopus evolution was recently published in Nature (Albertin et al., “The octopus genome and the evolution of cephalopod neural and morphological novelties”), and the main thing I learned from that paper & some background reading is that octopus brains are wicked cool.

Honestly, if we asked Superman to spin our planet backward some twenty billion times in order to re-run evolution, I think cephalopods could give apes a run for their money on potential planetary dominance.  Cephalopods are quite intelligent, adept problem solvers, have tentacles sufficiently agile for tool use, and can communicate by changing colors (although with much less finesse than the octospiders in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series. The octospiders used a language based on shifting striations of color displayed on their skin).

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The biggest obstacle holding octopi back from world domination is the difficulty for a water-dwelling species to harness fire or electricity.  But octopi can make brief sojourns onto dry land… and even land-dwelling apes took something like 20 million years to discover fire and some 22 million for electricity.

Sure, that’s faster than octopi — they’ve had a hundred million years already and still no fire — but once Superman spins the planet (first he fought crime!  Now he’ll muck up our timeline to investigate evolution!), there’ll be a chance for him to stop that asteroid and save the dinosaurs.  I imagine that living in constant terror of T-Rex & friends would slow the apes down a little.

I’ve never had to work under that kind of pressure, but it’s probably much more difficult to discover fire if you’re worried that a dinosaur will stomp by, demolish your laboratory, and eat you.

Octopi ingenuity might be similarly stymied by pervasive fear of giant monsters: sharks, dolphins, sea lions, seals, eels, and, yes, those ostensibly land-bound hairless apes.  Voracious, vicious predators all… especially those apes.

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And yet.  Despite the fear, octopi are extremely clever.  They have a massive genome, too.  In itself, genome size is not a measure of complexity, in part because faulty cell division machinery sometimes results in the duplication of entire genomes — no matter how many copies of Fuzzy Bee & Friends you staple together, even if you create a 1,000+ page monstrosity, you won’t create a narrative with the complexity of The Odyssey.

That’s what researchers thought had happened with the octopus genome.  Sure, they have more genes than us, but they’re probably all duplicates!  Albertin et al. were the first to actually test that hypothesis, though… and it turns out to be wrong.  The octopus genome underwent massive expansion specifically for neural proteins & regulatory regions.  Which suggests that their huge genome is not dreck, that it is actually the product of intense selection for cognitive performance.  It isn’t proof, but it’s definitely consistent with selection for greater mental capacities.

There isn’t any octopus literature yet, but evolution isn’t done.  As long as octopus survival & mating success is bolstered by intelligence, there’s a chance the species will continue to slowly “improve.”

(I am biased in favor of smart creatures, but more brainpower is not necessarily better in an evolutionary sense.  For an example, here’s my essay on starfish zombies.)

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But even if a species derived from contemporary octopi eventually gains cognitive capacities equivalent to our own, we may never grasp the way they perceive the world.  Their brains are organized very differently from our own.  Our minds are highly centralized — our actions result from decisions passed down from on high.

For most human actions, it seems that the mind subconsciously initiates movement, firing off instructions to the appropriate muscles, and then the conscious mind notices what’s going on and concocts a story to rationalize that action.  For instance, if you touch something hot, nociceptors (pain receptors) in your hand send an “Ouch!” signal to your brain, your brain relays back “Pull yer damn hand away!”, then the conscious mind types up a report, “I decided to pull my hand away because that was too hot.”

(Some people have argued that this sequence of timing indicates that we lack free will, by the way.  Which seems silly.  Our freedom doesn’t need to be at the level of conscious decision-making to be worthwhile.  Indeed, your subconscious is as much you as your consciousness.  Your subconscious reflexes reflect who you are, and with concerted effort you can modify most if not all of them.)

Octopi minds are different.  They seem to be much more decentralized.  Each tentacle has a significant neural network and can act independently.  Octopus tentacles can still move and make minor decisions even if cleaved away… like the zombie movie trope where a severed arm continues to strangle someone.

Since we have no good way to communicate with octopi, we don’t know whether their minds are wired for storytelling the way ours are.  Whether they also construct elaborate internal rationalizations for every action (does this help explain why I’m so fascinated by free will?  Even if our freedom is illusory, the ability to maintain that illusion underpins our ability to tell stories).

But if octopi do explain their world with stories, the types of stories they tell would presumably seem highly chaotic to us humans.  Our brains are building explanations for decisions made internally, whereas an octopus would be constructing a narrative from the actions of eight independently-acting entities.

Who knows?  Someday, many many years from now, if octopi undergo further selection for brain power & communication, we might find octopus literature to be exceptionally rambunctious.  Brimming with arbitrary twists & turns.  If their minds also tend toward narrative storytelling (and it’s worth mentioning that octopi also process time in a cascade of short-term and long-term memory the way mammals do), their stories would likely veer inexorably toward the inexplicable.

Toward, that is, actions & consequences that a human reader would perceive to be inexplicable.

Octopi might likewise condemn our own classics as overly regimented.  Lifeless, stilted, formulaic.  And it’d be devilishly hard to explain to an octopus why I think In Search of Lost Time is so good.

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p.s. I should offer a brief mea culpa for having listed different lengths of time that apes & octopi have had with which to discover fire.  All known life uses the same genetic code, so it’s extremely likely that we all share a common ancestor.  Everything alive today — bacteria, birds, octopi, humans — have had the same length of time to evolve.

This is part of why it sounds so silly when people refer to contemporary bacteria as being “lower” life forms or somehow less evolved.  Current bacteria have had just as long to perfect themselves for their environments as we have, and they simply pursued a different strategy for survival than humans did.  (For more on this topic, feel free to read this previous post.)

I listed different numbers, though… mostly because it seemed funny to imagine a lineage of octopi racing the apes in that “decent of man” cartoon.  Who will conquer the planet first?!

I chose my times based on the divergence of great apes from their nearest common ancestor (gibbons, whom we’ve rudely declared to be “lesser apes”) and the divergence of octopi from theirs (squids, ca. 135 million years ago).  The numbers themselves are pretty accurate, but the choice of those particular numbers was arbitrary.  You could easily rationalize instead starting the clock for apes in their quest for fire as soon as the first primates appeared, ca. 65 million years ago… then octopi don’t look so bad.  Perhaps only two-fold slower than us.  Or you could start the apes’ clock at the appearance of the very first mammals… in which case octopi might beat us yet.