While I was working in a
research laboratory at Stanford, my advisor mentioned that she was waiting for
a package from ________.
“Oh, we got something from him,” said our technician
John, “but it was just an Invitrogen catalog.
Their rep brought us a newer copy last week, so I threw it out.”
“What!” my advisor shouted, causing him to jump. “Which trash can?!”
She and John rooted
through the garbage together. Luckily
the package had arrived that day. The
now-gooey catalog (I was smashing a lot of cow brains in those days, and the
bleached muck went into the trash) was still there.
We didn’t need another
Invitrogen catalog. But it’s illegal to
ship DNA through the mail, so researchers often smuggle it by dotting some onto
paper then circling the spot. When you
receive DNA this way, you cut out the circle, dip it in water, and then add
The bacteria make more copies of your DNA. Antibiotics kill off any bacteria that aren’t helping. And the U.S. post office is none the wiser.
you can throw out the useless catalog.
I’ve been volunteering with the Midwest Pages to Prisoners project for about a decade. We ship books to people who would be otherwise deprived. Occasionally, though, administrators at a prison will instruct their mailroom staff to return all our packages. Or, worse, quietly pitch them into the trash. Months might pass before people inside let us know that our books aren’t getting in.
administrators will relent and let us send books again, but it might take a few
years of phone calls. During one such
frustrating episode, I wrote a poem.
for the Devil
am a writer as in a vulture, plucking words from
pain. & sing penance, but never loud enough:
we feast upon this world of hurt we’ve made.
might salve even the poor, so we send free
to inmates. At one prison, packages never
We called & were told we impregnated
with suboxone. We lacked both will &
we have no budget; drugged pages wilt &
no one would read. Later I heard the state
shunting sex criminals there. Books were
a privilege, underhandedly revoked.
Aryan Brotherhood for whites, Gangland
for black men. We are free to believe in
America: in prison, meals might mean
stack of trays sloughed inside a then-locked door.
men take two. Others will go hungry. The
of want sends us seeking for what symbols
solidarity we find, hoping for allies against the
AB oft allies with the guards. Members reap
jobs, access to visitors, untrammelled mail.
the prison binning our books, gang & guards
very close, COs inked in crosses, runic letters,
& shamrocks. Yet AB, there, was weak. So
were fed sex criminals – easy, friendless kills.
guard outs the doomed man’s past – everyone
asked why he’s doing time – and members
him in the shower. They look tougher
than they are.
A dozen deaths. No indictments.
began to smuggle phones, hoping to
abuse. That’s when our packages ceased
to be received.
I’ve no deep love for these men –
of mine were abused. But if those who
be punished by death, let’s force judge & juries
say it. Not read a shadow sentence of 10 or 20 years.
We should say what we mean:
sentence you to a cruel and unusual death.
suddenly in a shower stall, faux-Odinist skin-
slamming your head against the tile until your
brain ruptures from repeated trauma.
will loosen from their sockets, your skull will
blood will whelm through your nostrils.
indignity, bowels relax. You will know
of hoping to live when you cannot. Your
will drop while the water runs, cascading over
corpse. Although news of your death will
those who sentenced you, they will know that
justice has been done.
Quite likely, drugs were being smuggled into that prison. I’ve been told that it’s easier to buy drugs in prison than out on the street. Which is rough – people who are recovering from addiction often relapse after being sent to prison. In those bleak environs, there aren’t a lot of other ways to occupy your time.
The drugs weren’t coming from Pages to Prisoners, though. We always embalm our packages in tape so that correctional officers can’t tamper with them (as easily) on their way in. And, seriously, our organization doesn’t have the budget for drugs – we’re shipping donated books wrapped in old grocery bags! I’ve never tried to buy opiates, but I assume they’re expensive. Guys in jail sometimes mention how many thousands they were spending on their habits each week, which helps explain why they’re broke.
I understand why prison administrators worry, though. Scientists use books to smuggle DNA; you could illicitly ship a variety of drugs that way.
Although our organization ships books to people incarcerated in twelve different states, local prisons are the only ones that ban us. Which is sad. From a community perspective, we’d like to help people locally. We can recruit volunteers by mentioning that the people inside will be coming back to our community.
From a health and safety
perspective, though, prison administrators would prefer that books come from
out of state. Then they can feel more
confident that packages are being sent by people who’ve never met the
The recipients would be
like my colleague John, evaluating each book based solely on its title: an
Invitrogen catalog? We don’t need that!
Or, after receiving one of the packages sent by Pages to Prisoners recently: sweet, advanced Dungeons & Dragons!
Prison administrators have
good reason to keep drugs out. People’s
tolerance wanes during their time in jail – somebody might take too much and
die. Whereas they’re unlikely to OD on
course, prisons don’t have to be so bleak & punitive, let alone violent
& PTSD-inducing. Prisons like we
have in the U.S. don’t need to exist at all. And then organizations like Pages to
Prisoners wouldn’t need to send books.
The poem opens with advice – we should keep in mind pleasures that we were privileged to experience.
remember not only how much you were loved,
the beds on which you lay,
A narrative of past joy can cast a rosy glow onto the present. Our gratitude should encompass more, though. We should instruct our body to remember not only the actualized embraces,
those desires for you
glowed plainly in the eyes,
trembled in the voice – and some
obstacle made futile.
In addition to our triumphs, we have almost triumphs. These could be many things. On some evenings, perhaps our body entwines with another’s; other nights, a wistful parting smile might suggest how close we came to sharing that dance. In another lifetime. Another world, perhaps.
But we have the potential for so many glories. In basketball, a last shot might come so close to winning the game. If you’re struggling with addiction, there could’ve been a day when you very nearly turned down that shot.
Maybe you’ll succeed, maybe you won’t. In the present, we try our best. But our present slides inexorably into the past. And then, although we can’t change what happened, the mutability of memory allows us to change how we feel.
all of them belong to the past,
almost seems as if you had yielded
desires – how they glowed,
in the eyes gazing at you;
trembled in the voice, for you, remember, body.
Consciousness is such a strange contraption. Our perception of the world exists only moment by moment. The universe constantly sheds order, evolving into states that are ever more probable than the past, which causes time to seem to flow in only one direction.
A sense of vertigo washes over me whenever I consider the “Boltzmann brain” hypothesis. This is the speculation that a cloud of dust in outer space, if the molecules were arranged just right, could perceive itself as being identical to your present mind. The dust cloud could imagine itself to be seeing the same sights as you see now, smelling the same smells, feeling the same textures of the world. It could perceive itself to possess the same narrative history, a delusion of childhood in the past and goals for its future.
then, with a wisp of solar wind, the molecules might be rearranged. The Boltzmann brain would vanish. The self-perceiving entity would end.
Within our minds, every moment’s now glides seamlessly into the now of the next moment, but it needn’t. A self-perceiving entity could exist within a single instant. And even for us humans – whose hippocampal projections allow us to re-experience the past or imagine the future – we would occasionally benefit by introducing intentional discontinuities to our recollection of the world.
Past success makes future success come easier. If you remember that people have desired you before – even if this memory is mistaken – you’ll carry yourself in a way that makes you seem more desirable in the future. If an addict remembers saying “no” to a shot – even if this memory is mistaken – it’ll be easier to say “no” next time.
triumphs belong to the same past as our regrets, and we may choose what to
remember. If our life will be improved
by the mistake, why not allow our minds the fantasy? “It almost seems as if you had yielded to
those desires.” The glow, the gaze:
In the short story “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” Ted Chiang contrasts situations in which the mutability of memory improves the world with situations in which this mutability makes the world worse. Memories that reinforce our empathy are the most important to preserve.
We all need to know that we are fallible. Our brains are made of squishy goo. The stuff isn’t special – if it spills from our skulls, it’ll stink of rancid fat. Only the patterns are important. Those patterns are made from the flow of salts and the gossamer tendrils of synapses; they’re not going to be perfect.
As long as we know that we’re fallible, though, it doesn’t help much to dwell on the details of each failure. We need to retain enough to learn from our mistakes, but not so much that we can’t slough off shame and regret once these emotions have served their purpose. As we live, we grow. A perfect remembrance of the past would constrict the person we’re meant to be.
imagine that Brett Kavanaugh ardently believes that he is not, and has never
been, the sort of person who would assault a woman. He surely believes that he would never thrust
his bare penis into an unconsenting woman’s hand. And I imagine that Brett Kavanaguh’s current
behavior is improved by this belief. In
his personal life, this is the memory of himself that he should preserve,
rather than the narrative that would probably be given by an immutable record
of consensus reality.
problem, in Kavanagh’s case, is his elevation to a position of power. In his personal life, he should preserve the
mutable memories that help him to be good.
No matter how inaccurate they might be.
The Supreme Court, in its current incarnation, is our nation’s final arbiter on many issues related to women’s rights. Kavanaugh’s narrative introduces a cloud of suspicion over any ruling he makes on these issues – especially since he has faced no public reckoning for his past actions.
someone with Kavanaugh’s history of substance abuse, it could be worthwhile to
preserve a lingering memory of past sins.
I still think that the specific details – pinning a struggling woman to
the bed, covering her mouth with his hand – would not be beneficial for him to
preserve. But I would hope that he
remembers enough to be cognizant of his own potential to hurt people while
memories of the specific times when he assaulted people at high school and
college parties probably aren’t necessary for him to be good, but he would
benefit from general knowledge about his behavior after consuming alcohol. When I discuss drug use with people in jail,
I always let them know that I am in favor of legalization. I think that people should be allowed to
manipulate their own minds.
certain people should not take certain drugs.
Like most people in this country, I’ve occasionally been prescribed Vicodin. And I was handed more at college parties. But I never enjoyed the sensation of taking painkillers.
people really like opiates, though.
Sadly, those are the people who shouldn’t take them.
though, his life would not be that much worse without it. Beer changes how your brain works in the now. For an hour or two, your perception of the
world is different. Then that sensation,
like any other, slides into the past.
whether you drink or don’t, you can still bask later in the rosy glow of
Our criminal justice system ensnares people from all walks of life. Occasionally we’ll hear about the arrest of a wealthy sociopath with a penchant for child abuse, like Jared Fogel or Jeffrey Epstein.
But, let’s face it. Justice in this country isn’t applied fairly. If you’re wealthy, your behavior has to be a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a poor person. If you look white, your behavior has to a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a black person.
There’s abundant statistical evidence to back up these claims. But the Supreme Court won’t allow any particular individual to petition for reduced punishment based on the statistical evidence. After all, prosecutors, judges, and juries ostensibly came to their decisions based on the unique details of each individual case. Just because people who resemble you are often treated unfairly doesn’t mean that you were treated unfairly, too.
Because we apply punishment so inequitably, our jails and prisons are full of people who’ve been treated poorly by the world. Compared to the average citizen, people in prison grew up with less money, received less education, experienced more trauma. And, no matter what people’s earlier lives were like, if they’re in prison, they’re not being treated well now.
So they have a lot of justifiable grievances against the dominant political, cultural, and religious beliefs of our country. Punished unfairly by their fellow Christians, people sour on Christianity. Inside walls where the demographics make it blatantly obvious that our laws are enforced in a malignantly racist way, racial tensions boil.
At Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people inside, we get requests for stuff about Norse mythology, Odinism, and Asatru. Lots of folks ask for material to learn foreign languages – people want to feel like they’ve accomplished something during their time in prison – but I always feel skeptical when somebody wants help learning Icelandic.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Icelandic. And Norse mythology is cool! Unfortunately, a gaggle of violent white supremacists decided that Norse mythology should be the basis for their religion. Starting in the 1970s, a right-wing racist from Florida began sending “Odinist” publications into prisons.
During the thirteenth century, Christian scholars transcribed many of the old Norse myths so that they could better understand the literary allusions of old Icelandic poetry. But they didn’t record anything about ancient religious practice. We barely have any information about most ancient pagan beliefs. Anyone who wants to adopt a pre-Christian European religion now – whether it’s Wicca, Druidism, Odinism, or Celtic polytheism – is basically forced to make things up.
I have nothing against religious invention. All religions were made by human beings – there’s no a priori reason why a religion created long ago, by people who understood much less about the world than we do now, would be better than something you invent today. Sure, ancient religions have been tested by time, suggesting that they possess virtues that their practitioners found helpful over the years, but most ancient religions have their problems, too. Inaccurate cosmologies, scattered hateful passages in their texts, that sort of thing.
So I like the idea of neo-paganism. You want to find a clearing in the woods and
do some moonlit dancing? You’d rather
worship a feminine generative force than a norm-enforcing patriarchal deity? You want to exalt nature as a hearth to be
protected rather than a resource to be exploited? Go right ahead! All of that sounds pretty great to me.
neo-paganism as it’s currently practiced in prison tends to be pretty hateful.
That’s why I’ve been
working on a set of anti-racist pamphlets about Norse mythology. Currently, when people ask for The Poetic
Edda or whatever, we send a friendly letter saying that we don’t have it,
and also that we generally don’t stock that sort of thing because it runs afoul
of our anti-hate policy.
But the Norse myths are
certainly no more hateful than Biblical myths, and we send plenty of
those. The main difference is that
centuries of continued Christian practice have created a scaffolding of gentler
beliefs around the stories in the Bible.
The text of Psalm 137
states that “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little
ones against the stones.” But the
text is a tool, not the entirety of the religion. The practice of Christianity frowns upon
the murder of any human infant. Whether
you like the kid’s parents or not.
We’d be better off if Pages to Prisoners could send warm-hearted material about Norse mythology to people. Sure, you can interpret the Norse myths as endorsing a war-mongering death cult. You can interpret the Old Testament that way, too. But you can also interpret the Norse myths as environmentalist. Feminist. Supporting the pursuit of knowledge. Judging strangers based upon their merits, not their appearance.
Odinism is so entangled with white supremacy, though, our pamphlet will have to
address skin color and genetic heritage directly. It’s a fraught topic. Lots of people in the U.S. don’t like any discussion
of evolution. Some people feel squigged
out when they learn that contemporary birds evolved from the same set of common
ancestors as the dinosaurs. And that’s far
less emotionally charged than a description of human evolution.
Plus, skin color still has huge implications for how people are treated in the United States. Consider, um, those prison demographics I cited above. And so discussions about the evolution of epidermal melanin concentrations are especially tense. Although the underlying biology is simple – some places have more sunlight than others! – because people think it matters, it does.
I’ve found that these conversations are actually a decent way to get people interested in the study of archeology and biology, though. After we’ve discussed this in jail, people have asked me to bring research papers and textbooks so that they could learn more.
Whenever two groups of an organism stop mating with each other, they’ll slowly drift apart. This rift might occur because the groups became physically separated from each other. Maybe one group migrated to an island. In contemporary times, maybe the groups were separated when humans built a new highway bisecting a habitat. Maybe two sets of similar-looking insects mate apart because they’re eating fruits that ripen at different times.
Or the groups might stop mating with each other because a chance mutation caused members of one group to want their sexual partners to smell a certain way. Various species of stickleback are able to interbreed – they identify other members of their kind based on smell. But water pollution has overwhelmed the fishes’s senses, leading the fish to mate indiscriminately.
If humans hadn’t
polluted their waters, though, these sticklebacks would have drifted farther
and farther apart until it became impossible for them to interbreed. No matter how many sense-suppressing
chemicals we dumped.
We don’t know what caused the initial rift between our ancestors and the ancestors of contemporary chimpanzees. About 4 million years ago, though, these groups stopped having children together. By 2 millions years ago (at least 100,000 generations later), these groups looked quite different from each other. Although it’s possible that these organisms could have still mated with each other and raised viable progeny, they rarely did.
One group of these
creatures, which included our ancestors, had a tucked pelvis and mostly upright
posture. This allowed for a good vantage
while scavenging and, eventually, hunting.
The other group, which includes chimpanzees’ ancestors, mostly moved on
all fours. This body plan results in
fewer mothers dying during childbirth.
As ever, there are trade-offs to be made.
Up until about 2 million
years ago, all our ancestors lived in Africa.
But then they began to migrate.
Over the next million years, they explored much of the globe. By about 500,000 years ago, half a dozen
different types of humans lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia. The difference between one population to the
next was not like the racial differences among contemporary humans, but more
like the difference between lions and tigers, or between polar bears and brown
bears. Scientists describe them as
distinct species. Although they were
similar enough that they could have sex and raise children together, they
rarely did – they lived in distinct parts of the world and had begun to evolve
adaptations to their specific environments.
Evolution isn’t easy. Nor is it quick. Just because a certain trait would be
advantageous doesn’t mean that creatures will acquire it. In the desert, it would help to have
adaptations for water retention like camels, or long ears like jackrabbits to
cool the blood. But a trait can only
spread after a random mutation creates it.
And, even if a trait is very helpful, if only one individual is born
with the adaptation, there’s no guarantee that it will have enough children for
the benefit to spread through the population.
Once a beneficial trait has a good toe-hold – present in perhaps 1% to 10% of the population – then we can expect it to flourish. But below that amount, even great adaptations might die off due to bad luck. That’s why it takes so many generations – tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands – before you see organisms become drastically better suited for the environment. Even when scientists do directed evolution experiments in the lab, it takes about this many generations for a population of bacteria to evolve ways to consume a new food source, for instance.
By 500,000 years ago, the various species of humans were recognizably different. Denisovans lived in the mountains, and their hemoglobin genes allowed them to avoid altitude sickness. Their blood was less likely to clot and cause strokes, and they could extract more oxygen from the thin air. These are incredibly beneficial traits. Even though the Denisovans went extinct about 40,000 years ago, about 40% of people currently living in Tibet have copies of the Denisovan hemoglobin gene.
Our ancestors migrated east to the Denisovans’ homeland just before the Denisovans went extinct. To be perfectly honest, we probably killed them. But before or during this genocide, a few of our ancestors must have had sex with the locals. And then the bi-racial children of these Homo sapiens / Denisovan couplings must have been significantly better off for the gene to spread so widely.
The Neanderthal lived at
high latitude. Over many generations,
their average skin color became paler.
In part, this was probably due to the lack of selective pressure. Think about a dodo – there was no advantage
for these birds to lose their fear of humans.
But, because the dodos were living on an island that no humans traveled
to, there was also no harm in the birds becoming fearless.
Dodos lost a beneficial
trait – fear – because their fear wasn’t actively needed. It’s kind of like the airbags in an old
car. If your car’s engine goes bad,
you’ll notice right away. Turn the key,
hear it sputter. You use the engine
every time you drive. But your airbags
could get worse without you noticing … and then, in the moment when they’re
needed, they won’t deploy.
Humans living near the equator need epidermal melanin. If you don’t have enough melanin, you’ll get sunburns, which exacerbate the risk of infection and dehydration; you’ll suffer radiation-induced DNA damage, which leads to skin cancer; and you’ll lose folate, which means that pregnant women will have more birth defects.
The most recent ancestors
that humans and chimpanzees shared in common had pale skin. Contemporary chimpanzees are still pale. They can afford to be – their fur protects
them from the sun. But our ancestors
lost their fur, probably so that they didn’t overheat while running, and this
led to the evolution of dark skin.
High concentrations of
epidermal melanin distinguished humans from the other apes.
As humans migrated to
higher latitudes, though, they gradually lost this indicator of their
humanity. Because the sunlight was less
intense, there was less selective pressure.
Humans could lose their epidermal melanin in the same way that dodos
lost their fear – not because it was helpful to go without it, but because the
trait went untested in their day to day lives.
They had no way to “realize” how important it was.
Your airbags aren’t
helpful until you crash. And then
they’ll either deploy and save you, or they won’t.
Now, it’s possible that the Neanderthal also experienced some positive selective pressure on their skin color as they migrated north. Over thousands of generations, the Neanderthals may have benefited from paler skin because it increased their production of vitamin D. We don’t know for certain that the Neanderthal felt any evolutionary pressure to have more vitamin D – after all, contemporary Inuit people live at very high latitudes but still have a lot of epidermal melanin – but it’s true that vitamin D deficiency is a big risk among people with crummy diets.
In the past, hunter / gatherers typically ate much healthier, more varied diets than farmers. When humans began to farm, they would mostly eat the one type of plant that they cultivated, rather than the wide mix of plants that could be found growing wild. And when Homo sapiens farmers migrated to northern Europe, their diets were so poor that they even developed loss-of-function mutations in a cholesterol synthesis gene, probably so that they’d have higher concentrations of vitamin D precursors. Among these people, pale skin was probably a big advantage. They’d be ready for the cloudless days when their homeland’s feeble sunlight was enough to make some vitamin D.
Around 40,000 years ago,
our planet’s most recent ice age ended.
The world began to warm, and glaciers retreated from Europe. By then, a group of humans living in Africa
were recognizably Homo sapiens.
These were our ancestors. Every
human alive today – no matter what you look like or where your family is from –
is descended from this group of people from Africa. They lived in tribes of twenty to a hundred
people, had darkly pigmented skin, made art, and spoke complex languages.
As the world warmed, some
of these Homo sapiens began to migrate.
These journeys occurred over many generations. Some tribes stayed in Africa; some tribes
ventured north into Europe; others moved east toward Asia. As they traveled, they encountered the humans
who already lived in those places. As
I’ve mentioned, the newcomers occasionally had sex and raised children with the
natives. They probably also killed a lot
of them. Unfortunately, we Homo
sapiens don’t have the best reputation for treating strangers well.
rarely enough that most people living today have about 99% Homo sapiens DNA. Some people, especially if their families are
from Africa, have essentially 100% Homo sapiens DNA. At other extreme, even people whose families
are from Europe have 96% or more Homo sapiens DNA.
Among people living in
Tibet, the Denisovan hemoglobin gene is common, but most other Denisovan genes
Like the Neanderthal
before them, the Homo sapiens who ventured north into Europe began to
lose their epidermal melanin. People who
hunted and fished probably became paler simply because there was less risk of
sun damage. Remember, this didn’t happen
all at once. Average skin color would
change only over the course of hundreds or even thousands of generations, not
during the course of a single journeying Homo sapiens’s lifetime.
Our ancestors spent almost
all their time outdoors, which is why even dark-skinned people could probably
synthesize plenty of vitamin D. Among
contemporary humans, vitamin D deficiency is such a big problem because we
spend too much time inside. As I type
this, I’m sitting at a table in the YMCA snack room, lit up by flickering
fluorescent bulbs. This low-quality
light won’t help me make vitamin D.
Instead, I take a daily
supplement. But that doesn’t come near
matching the health and psychological benefits of time outdoors.
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that people in jail – places not known for providing a rich, high-quality, varied diet – typically get to go outside no more often than once a week. At our local jail, their hour of “outdoor rec” occurs in a little courtyard at the top of the jail, a cement space covered with a chain-linked fence. Outdoor rec often happened at night – a friend who was recently released told me that “This was still nice. You could see some stars. And there’s that restaurant, Little Zagrib, down the street? Sometimes we’d smell foods from their kitchen.”
Treating people that way
is unlikely to help them get better.
But back to our migrants! Descendants of these pale-skinned Homo sapiens continued to explore new territories. Some reached North America about 12,000 years ago, and some of their descendants continued farther, all the way to South America.
As people traveled –
journeys that lasted many generations – they continued to evolve. Indeed, skin color was a trait that came
repeatedly under selective pressure. As
people migrated south into the Americas, they were living progressively closer
and closer to the equator. Compared to
their grandparents, they were bombarded by more intense sunlight. They needed more epidermal melanin.
This is a process that
takes a long time. A family might have
six kids; maybe the two palest kids get sunburned, which makes it more likely
that they’ll develop skin infections and die before they have children of their
own. If this happens again and again,
among many different families, then eventually the whole population will wind
up with slightly darker skin.
Because human skin color
has changed during each of the many prehistoric migrations, it isn’t correlated
with other traits. As we entered the
modern era, people’s skin color was lighter or darker based on how close to the
equator their recent ancestors lived.
But human populations migrated so often that there were many different
groups, each with unique cultural and genetic heritages, living at every
latitude. Because skin color is so
closely linked to latitude, this means many different groups shared similar
concentrations of epidermal melanin. And
there’s no evolutionary pressure linking a trait that protects skin to brain
size or intelligence.
As it happens, there are
major events known to have caused a decrease in human brain size (and probably
intelligence). After all, human brains
are costly. Even though there’s a
benefit to being clever, there’s also been constant evolutionary pressure against
Large brains kill
mothers. Because humans walk upright,
childbirth is riskier for human mothers than for other primates. Our posture constrains the width of our hips
– both male and female – but a baby’s whole head has to pass through that
Having children is so
risky that we evolved to give birth about 3 months prematurely. Human gestation takes about a year, but most
mothers give birth after only 9 months.
This allows a baby’s head to continue to grow outside the mother’s body,
but human babies are totally helpless at birth.
We have to be very devoted parents to keep them alive.
Also, our brains require a
lot of fuel. Human evolution occurred
over such a long, long time that our ancestors lived through many droughts and
calamities. During the hard years, our
ancestors would struggle to get enough to eat, and a large brain makes that
A person with a smaller
brain requires fewer calories, making that person less likely to starve in lean
times. And, again, it’s worth
remembering that evolution happens over so many generations, among so many
families, that even small changes can add up.
If mothers who have small-headed children can survive a dozen
pregnancies, but mothers with large-headed children die after only a few, then
the trend will be to have people with smaller brains. Intelligence has to be extremely
beneficial to overcome this sort of evolutionary pressure.
Similarly, if people with
small brains are more likely to survive and raise children during droughts,
then, after hundreds of generations of people who have survived dozens of
extended droughts, you’d expect to see more people with small brains.
Many of us have the bad
habit of reflexively thinking about evolution as the gradual development of
more and more complexity. But that’s not
what it is. Evolution is the process by
which things that are better suited for their environment become more
abundant. If the environment is a hard
place to live in, then evolution tends to push for more and more simplicity. When it’s hard to get enough calories, why
waste calories on anything that you don’t really need?
Starfish are descended
from organisms that had brains. But
starfish are brainless. The ancestral
starfish that weren’t wasting energy thinking were more likely to survive.
Which should make you feel
pretty good about your own brain, actually.
Your ability to think is so fabulous that your ancestors evolved larger
and larger brains … even though these brains were sometimes causing us to
starve to death, or kill our mothers.
That’s a valuable thing
you’ve got inside your skull. It cost
our ancestors so much for you to be able to have it.
But, right. Because the cost was so high, human brains did shrink sometimes. Like when we first domesticated dogs. Our ancestors began living with dogs about 30,000 years ago. Dogs were willing to do some thinking for us – they’d sniff out prey and listen for predators at night. Based on the behavior of my family’s dogs, I bet that they licked the faces of screaming children. Maybe that doesn’t seem essential for survival, but I certainly appreciate every time our dogs calm the kids down.
Because we could slough
off a few mental tasks – I don’t need to be so observant if the dog will
help me hunt – our brains could shrink, making childbirth less deadly and
reducing the caloric cost of maintaining our minds each day.
When humans switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, our brains shrunk further. A hunter / gatherer has to know so much about every plant and animal living nearby; the work asks more of a person’s brain than farming. This evolutionary trend was exacerbated by the fact that people’s diets became way worse when they began to farm. Instead of getting nutrition from a wide variety of different plants and animals, a farmer might eat meals consisting mostly of a single type of grain.
There’s nothing we can do now about these evolutionary trends. Dogs and farming swayed our ancestors’ evolution toward smaller brains, but it’s not as though you can get those neurons back by deciding to take up hunting, or never living with a pet.
But, honestly, our brains are so plastic that our genetic heritage matters less than how we choose to spend our time. By nature, neither gorillas nor parrots will speak human language. But individuals from both these species have been able to learn to communicate with us after we taught them.
Nobody is born with an
innate understanding of mythology, religion, science, or mathematics. None of that can be encoded in your
genes. If you want to understand this
stuff, you’ll have to make an effort to learn it.
Neuron count only suggests
a brain’s potential. You could do
incredible things with a low number – consider, by ways of analogy, the feats
that 1960s NASA accomplished using computers much smaller than a contemporary
telephone. And, conversely, sensory
deprivation will make it much harder to get things done, no matter what your
That’s why I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners. Our brains are capable of wonders. At any age, we can learn and grow. And yet, we lock people into prisons that seem designed to make them worse.
this poem. There’s a undercurrent of
darkness as the bird constructs his pleasure dome. “Here, the iron smell of
blood.” But he is undeterred. “And there, the bowerbird. Watch as he manicures his lawn.”
bowerbird has themed his edifice around sparkling bits of blue. Bower birds incorporate all manner of found
objects: berries, beetles (which must be repeatedly returned to their places as
they attempt to crawl away), plastic scraps.
A bowerbird has a clear vision, a dream of which colors will go where,
and scours the forest to find the treasures he needs.
bowerbirds raise children alone, so she doesn’t need a helpful partner.. Instead, she’ll choose someone who can show
her a good time. And her pleasure will
be enhanced by a beautiful dome, a splendid arch beneath which several seconds
of intercourse can transpire.
mother-to-be typically visit several bowers before choosing her favorite. During each inspection, the male will hop and
flutter during her evaluation … and then slump, dejected, if she flies away.
closes her poem with the experience of a crestfallen artist: “And then, /
how the female finds him, / lacking.
All that blue for nothing.”
especially love the wry irony of that final sentence. We create art hoping to be fawned over; it’d
feel nice to know that readers enjoyed a poem so much that they responded with
a flush of desire for the author.
is rare. No piece of writing will appeal
to all readers; an author is lucky if it appeals to any. The same holds true for painting, music, and
bowers. A bowerbird hopes that his
magnificent edifice will soon be the site of his acrobatic, if brief, bouts of
copulation. But his life will miserable
if he can’t also take pleasure in the sheer act of creation.
tropical birds are free to select whichever male they want. Their flirtations are unlikely to be turned
down. And because each intimate
encounter is vanishingly brief, a single male might service every female in an
area. The other males, having assembled
less glorious bowers, will die without ever experiencing erotic delights.
And so a
bowerbird needs to enjoy his own arch.
To endure, to thole, even if no one wants to fool around with him. Even if no one looks. He needs to feel pleasure as he assembles
those beautiful hues. Every visiting
female might quickly fly away, but all that blue will have served a purpose.
the poem “Bower,” but I also hope that Kelly enjoyed writing her poem enough
that my opinion doesn’t matter.
reading “Bower,” our class got sidetracked into a wide-ranging conversation about
birds. At first, we did talk about
bowerbirds. Most of the guys had no idea
that birds like that existed – that an animal might make art – but one
guy had seen a television show about them years ago, and the program made such
a deep impression on him that he still remembered much of it. “They really do,” he said. “I’ve seen it. And they showed the people nearby, somebody
who was eating breakfast cereal with like a plastic spoon, and this bird flew
right over and took it. Later they found
bits of it all broken up, in this weird ring around the bird’s nest.”
this man started talking about crows.
gesticulated profusely as he talked, which was rather distracting. One of his hands had about 1.3 fingers; his
ring finger was missing entirely, and the others, including his thumb, ended
after the first knuckle. I wouldn’t have
felt so puzzled – stuff happens, after all – except that one of his stories
involved chasing somebody with a steak knife, and this was the hand he
Many of the people in jail have suffered severe physical injuries. When we were discussing personality manipulation and mind control, someone told me that he’d been hit by a truck and that everything in his life had felt flat and emotionless ever since. He showed me the thick scar at the top of his head: “When it happened, I guess I was out for almost a week, and it took another month before I really remembered my name. Even then, for that first year I felt like I was back in eighth grade again.” He was twenty-something when it happened.
time, I asked a man if he wanted to read the next poem and he said he couldn’t,
that he was disabled, then thumped his leg onto the table. He had a rounded stump where most people’s
foot would be. I didn’t quite see the
connection between his injury and the poem, and it’s not as though we ever
force people to read. We have a lot of
guys with dyslexia, and I go in with the goal of making their Fridays a little
more pleasant; no reason for somebody to suffer unnecessarily.
working in a saw mill,” he said. “Planer
caught me and, zzooomp. Didn’t even feel
anything, at first.”
He got a
legal settlement – a few guys muttered that they’d trade a foot for that kind
of money – but his pain script led to more opiates and eventually the money was
gone and he was in jail and the only help he was getting was from a PD.
right, back to the man gesticulating wildly as he talked about birds. “Real smart animals,” he said. “Especially crows.”
went on: “See, I was living in a tent, and cops kept coming by, harassing
me. Cause there’d always be all this trash
on the ground. They’d say, ‘look, we
know that you’re sleeping here, but you can’t just leave all this shit
everywhere.’ And they’d make me clean it
up. I’d do it, but then a day or two
later, there’d be trash scattered everywhere again. I thought it must be some homeless guys or
something that was doing it.”
turned out these crows – they knew I was drinking, that I’d never be up before
about noon – and they were raiding the dumpster out behind McDonalds. I only found out because I actually woke up
one morning to piss. And I looked up and
these crows in the tree above me, they carried tied-off garbage bags way up
into that tree and were tearing them apart, looking for things to eat. And that’s how all that trash was getting
everywhere. I’d thought it was homeless
guys, and it was crows!”
bowerbirds can afford to be such terrible parents because they live in tropical
forests where there’s an abundance of food to eat. Crows, though, need ingenuity to
survive. Sometimes they pick apart the
leavings of hairless apes below.
crows raise their young in much harsher environs than bowerbirds, males
contribute more than just DNA. While a
mother roosts, the father will gather food.
And so he’ll try to impress a potential mate, beforehand, with his
gathering prowess. He won’t build,
paint, or compose poetry, but he’ll scour the land below for tasty treats and
shiny things, then leave these gifts at his beloved’s feet.
As with bowerbirds, some crows are helpful without reaping the benefits of a dalliance. When a female crow begins to build a nest, five other crows might bring sticks and twigs. These five won’t all be rewarded with the chance to sire her young.
luck, the crows enjoy the sheer act of helping.
birds nor humans will be lauded for everything we do. If we measure success based solely upon the
rewards we reap, many of our lives will feel bleak. In a world full of pyramids – bowerbird
mating, corporate finance, the attention economy of social media – not everyone
can be at the top.
matter the outcome, we can all feel fulfilled if we focus on the process
of what we’re doing.
it’s hard to find the zen in a lot of the shitty jobs out there in the
world. But I did enjoy typing this
essay. And I will try to enjoy
the irritating parts of parenting today.
Someday, my children will learn to ask for cereal politely.
After William Burroughs experienced how
pitifully he could be held in thrall by a small molecule, he developed a
lifelong interest in telepathy and mind control.
His own brain had been upended. Suddenly, he found himself devoting the vast majority of his time and money toward a single cause: obtaining a day’s ration of opiate. If he was delinquent in this task, he grew sick. Agony would keep him focused.
If that drug was capable of re-sculpting a human personality, might there be other ways? In Queer, the protagonist speculates:
“I know telepathy to be a fact, since I
have experienced it myself. I have no
interest to prove it, or, in fact, to prove anything to anybody. What interests me is, how can I use it?
“In South America at the headwaters of
the Amazon grows a plant called Yage that is supposed to increase telepathic
sensitivity. Medicine men use it in
their work. A Colombian scientist, whose
name escapes me, isolated from Yage a drug he called Telepathine. I read all this in a magazine article.
“Later I see another article: the
Russians are using Yage in experiments on slave labor. It seems they want to induce states of
automatic obedience and ultimately, of course, ‘thought control.’ The basic con. No buildup, no spiel, no routine, just move
in on someone’s psyche and give orders.
“I have a theory that the Mayan priests
developed a form of one-way telepathy to con the peasants into doing all the
work. The deal is certain to backfire
eventually, because telepathy is not of its nature a one-way setup, nor a setup
of sender and receiver at all.”
As it happens, psychedelic drugs are quite poor tools for potentiating mind control. But there are other ways. A precisely-localized magnetic pulse can cause prompt, unnoticeable alterations in a person’s behavior – researchers were able to change how their human study subjects responded to unfairness, all without those subjects realizing that they were acting differently from usual.
Because repeated behaviors give rise to
our personality, it stands to reason that repeated transcranial magnetic
stimulation could rewire a person’s identity.
Invisibly, and, with the right interference patterns, at a
You could be made other.
The more common form of mind control
practiced in the United States is much less technologically advanced. Rather than using a magnetic pulse to
stimulate or suppress particular regions of the brain, we employ narrative
Here’s a simple story: a bell rings, then dinner is served. If this story is integrated inside the brain as universally true, then the sound of the bell will trigger salivation. This is the basic principle behind Pavlovian conditioning. You can train a dog to associate dinnertime to the sound of a bell, or to have an aversion to a particular smell.
Humans can be similarly conditioned. Companies like Facebook and Apple have incorporated a variety of sensory experiences into their designs, all intended to engender a sense of urgency about checking your telephone. The alerts, the updates, the little pings – these are pushed to the forefront of the design because they compel engagement. Likewise the little jingles of dropped loot in online fantasy games.
In a perfect world, corporations would not make their users’ brains worse in order to increase their own profits. If those companies’ designs were less malicious, the makers wouldn’t need to be so vigilant about making sure that their own children don’t engage with their creations.
But those are little stories. A few stray details added to the narrative of
your day: if you see the dot, click to see the update! More threatening is the prospect of mind
control that totally rewrites an internalized narrative. Take a person’s memories and supplant them.
In Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, the doctor Benway describes his interrogation techniques:
“While in general I avoid the use of
torture – torture locates the opponent and mobilizes resistance – the threat of
torture is useful to induce in the subject the appropriate feeling of
helplessness and gratitude to the interrogator for withholding it. And torture can be employed to advantage as a
penalty when the subject is far enough along with the treatment to accept
punishment as deserved.”
In an excellent article for Science magazine, journalist Douglas Starr describes research into false confessions, situations when people are subjected to such extreme narrative control that they temporarily lose grasp of their personal memories and accept instead an interrogator’s version of reality.
A variety of techniques are employed – the threat of torture, as above; a questioning regime that is in itself torturous, giving the subject an incentive to play along just to make it stop; sleep deprivation to muddle the brain; ardently repeated falsehoods to supplant the subject’s own stories; deceitful cajoling to persuade the subject that there would be minimal consequences to accepting an alternate version of reality (by saying things like “Anyone would have done the same thing”).
And it works. Innocent people can be made to believe that they’ve done horrible things. With a variety of laboratory experiments, psychologist Saul Kassin has shown that these techniques can induce almost anyone to confess to things they haven’t done.
Your stories can be wrested from you.
Indeed, our entire legal system is a battleground for narrative control. Two sides compete to determine what story will enter the legal record: this is typically set up as a test of wits between a well-trained, well-funded prosecutor and an indigent, incarcerated individual who might or might not receive a brief consultation with an overscheduled public defender.
Predictably, the prosecutor often wins. Because prosecutors have absolute, unchecked power to determine what charges to levy against a defendant, they can threaten people with the risk of outlandish punishment … and they can force a defendant to suffer in jail simply by delaying trials. So, eventually, when a prosecutor offers an alternative story that would allow the defendant’s torture to end, most people will renounce their own memories. They plead guilty. After all, you might spend another year in jail waiting for a trial, or you could just let the prosecutor re-write history and walk out today.
Of course, you might not walk out today. Even if you were told that you would. In this battle for narrative control, one side – the defendant – is required to be honest. The other is not.
And so people lose their stories, the very narratives that make us who we are.
If you’re worried that you don’t feel enough stress and anxiety, there’s an easy chemical fix for that. Habitual methamphetamine use will instill intense paranoia.
In our poetry classes in jail, I’ve talked with a lot of guys who stayed up for days watching UFO shows on TV. A few were also stockpiling military grade weaponry. One man used strings and pulleys to link his shotgun’s trigger to a doorknob, ensuring that anyone who tried to enter the house would be rudely greeted.
They’ve dismantled dozens of computers and phones: sometimes out of suspicion, sometimes because there are valuable components. Although they were rarely organized enough to hawk the proceeds of their dissections.
Suffice it to say that, deprived of sleep and dosed with powerful stimulants, their brains became tumultuous places.
Which is why we spend so much time
talking about conspiracy theories.
I’ve written several previous essays about conspiracy theories – that the Santa myth teaches people to doubt expertise (children learn that a cabal of adults really was conspiring to delude them); that oil company executives have been conspiring to destroy the world; that, for all the ways Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow probes at the undercurrents of truth beneath government conspiracy, the text blithely incorporates metaphors from a Disney-promulgated nature conspiracy.
But, with the fiftieth anniversary
coming up, the men in my class have been talking more about whether the moon
landing was faked.
There’s only so much I can say. After all, I, personally, have never been to
One of my colleagues from Stanford recently conducted molecular biology experiments on the International Space Station, but that’s only zero point one percent of the way to the moon … and she and I were never close enough for me to feel absolutely certain that she wouldn’t lie to me.
Visiting the moon does seem much easier than faking it, though. Our government has tried to keep a lot of secrets, over the years. Eventually, they were leaked.
But that line of reasoning is never going to sway somebody. The big leak might be coming soon.
Instead, the strategy that’s worked for
me is to get people worried about another layer of conspiracy.
“Let’s just say, hypothetically,” I say, “that we did send people to the moon. Why would somebody want to convince you, now, that we didn’t?”
When NASA’s project was announced, a lot of people were upset. Civil rights activist Whitney Young said, “It will cost $35 billion to put two men on the moon. It would take $10 billion to lift every poor person in this country above the official poverty standard this year. Something is wrong somewhere.” (I learned about this and the following quote from Jill Lepore’s excellent review of several new books about the moon landing.)
During John F. Kennedy’s presidential
campaign, he argued that we needed to do it anyway. Despite the challenge, despite the
costs. “We set sail on this new sea
because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they
must be won and used for the progress of all people.”
We did reach the moon. But, did we use that knowledge to benefit the rights and progress of all people? Not so much.
A lot of the guys in jail went to crummy schools. They grew up surrounded by violence and trauma. They didn’t eat enough as kids. They’ve never had good medical care. They’ve struggled to gain traction in their dealings with government bureaucracies … we’ve spent years underfunding post offices, schools, the IRS, the DMV, and, surprise, surprise!, find that it’s arduous interacting with these skeletal agencies.
To keep these men complacent, the people in power would rather have them believe that we didn’t visit the moon. “Eh, our government has never accomplished much, we faked that shit to hoodwink the Russians, no wonder this is a horrible place to live.”
The fact that people in power are maliciously undermining our country’s basic infrastructure would seem way worse if you realized that, 50 years ago, with comically slapdash technologies and computers more rudimentary than we now put into children’s toys, this same government sent people to the moon.
Ronald Reagan said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” And he was in a position to make his words true – he was the government, so all he had to do was be incompetent. And then people would hate the government even more, and become even more distrustful of anyone who claimed that good governance could improve the world.
Needless to say, 45 has taken strategic incompetence to a whole new stratosphere. Beyond the stories of corruption that pepper the news, there’s also the fact that many appointments were never made; there are agencies that, as of July 2019, stilldon’t have anybody running them. These agencies will perform worse.
If people knew how good our government used to be, they might revolt. Better they believe the moon landing was a sham, that the faked photographs are as good as anybody ever got.
Humans have been ingesting dimethyltryptamine, a potent psychedelic, for over a thousand years. We’ve been using cocaine even longer. Marijuana was used medicinally in China thousands of years ago; soon after, celebrants in India began to ingest it as a psychedelic to potentiate religious experience. Mind-altering experiences were so prized in ancient Greece that prophets huffed narcotic vapors.
Not all drug use is good, obviously. Narcotics like opium, heroin, oxycontin, et al., can latch onto a person’s mind and compel continued use at any cost. Somebody told me recently, “I knew I was gonna get caught. I’m on probation, they drug test me all the time. I mean, I was thinking about it while I was cutting it up: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me. I was thinking about it while I was loading the syringe: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me. I thought I’d only have to do a week, though, and that seemed okay. Which is insane! I know it’s insane, but that’s what I was thinking. I guess I was wrong. I’ve been here three weeks and I still haven’t had my court date.”
Even fish, if they get hooked, will risk their lives for another dose. When human parents are snared by addiction, they endanger their children. The man whom I quoted above? He’d managed to stay sober for almost seven months, but relapsed the night of his son’s second birthday. His wife had to break down the bathroom door. After the ER, they brought him straight to jail.
In class together, we read Josh Rathkamp’s “Single Father,” in which the narrator fears that his diabetes will cause him to fall out and be unable to help his daughter. Several parents recognized their own dread. Then we read “Daddy Wake Up” by local poet Travis Combs. Combs loves his son, but, like a diabetic, a person suffering from opiate addiction might find himself paralyzed, “a mass of mess.”
But psychedelic drugs are tightly controlled. Despite thousands of research findings to the contrary, they’re classified by the U.S. government as having no accepted medical treatment use. Possession is a felony.
Perhaps this shouldn’t seem surprising. Spiritual drug use has been prized by our ancestors for thousands of years, but most cultures closely regulated which people would be privileged with access to those sacraments. Depending on the time and place, only wealthy people would be allowed to use drugs, or only people born to a certain caste, or only men.
In the United States, cocaine
was rightfully recognized as a wonder drug for decades, but then a cadre of
white supremacist politicians claimed that cocaine would turn black men into
monsters. Prohibition was mediated
It’s true that cocaine is
dangerous – both psychologically and physiologically – if you’re ingesting the
purified compound. But coca tea is no
more dangerous than earl grey. Indeed,
if you decided to purify caffeine from tea leaves and snort it, you might die.
Marijuana was also legal in
the United States until the racist propaganda machine started spinning stories
about what would happen when people from Mexico smoked it.
Yet when people in Denver supported a ballot initiative that reduces the legal risk of possessing psilocybin-containing mushrooms, Pollan wrote an editorial denouncing the initiative. Yes, there is some nuance; Pollan states that
No one should ever be arrested
or go to jail for the possession or cultivation of any kind of mushroom – it
would be disingenuous for me to say otherwise, since I have possessed, used and
grown psilocybin myself.
And he claims, oddly, that the ballot initiative would be merely symbolic, citing as evidence the fact that only 11 psilocybin cases have been prosecuted in the last three years, out of approximately 150 arrests. I personally have never been prosecuted for a crime, nor even arrested, but I’ve been told that it’s a very traumatic experience. I’ve heard this from very reliable sources, men who have been through all sorts of horrific trauma in addition to their arrests.
For all the people subject to
this trauma – not to mention everyone more deterred than Pollan himself by the
current legal status of this medicine – the initiative would have very
Instead, Pollan centers his
cautionary argument on the idea that psilocybin “is not for everyone.”
That idea is true enough, as
far as things go. Some people probably
shouldn’t use psilocybin. Some people
feel traumatized by the bad experiences they go through while under its
influence. But I would argue that arrest
is more traumatizing, and that the very illegality of the substance
increases the likelihood that someone will go through a bad trip.
And the regulations seem absurd compared to how we treat other drugs. For instance, someone with a predisposition to develop schizophrenia could be pushed closer to this condition by ingesting psilocybin. The drug can hurt someone who uses it. But alcohol, which is totally legal for most U.S. citizens over 21 years of age to purchase and consume, causes a huge amount of harm even to people who abstain. Alcohol is the psychoactive drug that causes the most harm to others.
It’s unlikely that our sitting Supreme Court justices would have sexually assaulted anyone while using psilocybin for a meditative journey of self-discovery. Indeed, that sort of experience might have led someone to develop much more empathetic political views.
Because alcohol consumption is so likely to lead to poor decision-making and violence, it’s illegal for people on probation to drink. Many have to check in at “blow & go” breathalyzer stations once or twice a day, which is really tough for people whose drivers’ licenses are suspended. But, still, we passed this law to keep other people safe.
Or consider antibiotics. Every time you use antibiotics, you make the world a little worse. With every dose, there’s a risk that the bacteria you’re hoping to kill off will instead evolve to resist them.
And yet, even though using antibiotics hurts everybody else, they’re regulated much less than other drugs. If you take psilocybin, it’s not going to hurt me at all. But if you take an antibiotic – or, worse, if you decide to manufacture huge quantities of antibiotics and them inject 80% of them into cows, pigs, and chickens, all of whom are being raised in fetid conditions – you’re making it much more likely that I will die.
In the past, somebody might
get scratched by a cat … and die.
Any infection could turn septic and kill you.
In the future, a
currently-treatable infection might kill me.
Or kill my children.
But we’re not stopping the
meat industry from using them. We’re not
using our legal system to protect all of humanity from their
misuse. Instead we’ve outlawed
psilocybin, a compound that could usher you through a spiritual experience that
helps you become a kinder, happier person.