On social norms.

On social norms.

I assume that you, personally, have never clear-cut and burned a patch of the Amazon rain forest.  Neither have I.  The number of people who have done the actual cutting is vanishingly small compared to the world’s population.

I also assume that you enjoy living in a world where the Amazon rain forest exists — certainly more than you’d enjoy living in a world where it had all been slashed and burned.  If we lose the Amazon rain forest, climate change might spiral out of control, flooding coastal cities worldwide and causing desertification in much of the interior United States.  If we lose the Amazon rain forest, huge numbers of species will go extinct, including a wide variety of medicinal plants that we’ve only begun to investigate.

And the rain forest is beautiful.  Future generations would feel an ache of want – likely compounded with a mix of jealousy and anger – if they saw photographs of the Amazon rain forest after it were gone.

When I was in elementary school, my third grade class sponsored a patch of the Amazon rain forest.  In retrospect, I’m not sure what this entailed.  We raised money and sent it off in an envelope.  I don’t remember whether we ever saw photographs of “our” forest, whether the arrangement was supposedly akin to a rental or purchase of those trees. 

I have no idea who received our sponsorship money, but the general idea that money should be sent from the U.S. to Brazil is actually correct.  Many of the world’s problems would be easier to address if we used a global wealth tax to fund a guaranteed basic income for everyone.  At the very least, if there are natural resources that benefit all of humanity, then countries that are currently wealthy because they ravaged their environments should pay to encourage other nations not to accrue wealth through extractive industries.

Some people in Brazil would be wealthier if the Amazon rain forest were destroyed.  Everyone in the world would suffer as a result.  If we – everyone outside Brazil – would prefer that the rain forest not be destroyed, we should compensate Brazilians for the foregone short-term economic benefits.

Unless you are fantastically wealthy, you personally will be unable to enact this policy on your own.  If I decided to split my family’s entire annual income among the people of Brazil, each would get 2% of a penny … and my family would be left with nothing.

A guaranteed basic income is the right policy, but it’s not something that I can accomplish as an individual.

In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer discusses how each one of us can help preserve the Amazon rain forest today.  We as a people should strive for political solutions to the world’s problems, but we as individuals shouldn’t make choices that exacerbate those very problems.  It would seem hypocritical to lobby for fines against littering if we continued to blithely toss candy bar wrappers onto the ground.

Foer describes how painful it feels to recognize this hypocrisy in himself.  This sensation grows more intense as he watches his children grow in a world that is becoming increasingly dangerous.

But what kind of father prioritizes feeling good over doing good?

Foer knows that he could choose to help.  Each day, he could act in a way that makes his children’s world safer.

He often doesn’t.

There is a far more pernicious form of science denial than Trump’s: the form that parades as acceptance.  Those of us who know what is happening but do far too little about it are more deserving of the anger.  We should be terrified of ourselves.  We are the ones we have to defy.  I am the person endangering my children.

As you read this, the Amazon rain forest is being destroyed.  Why?  To clear space for cows to graze.

Photo by Joelle Hernandez on Flickr, whose caption from this 2007 photograph reads, “On a few occasions Brazilians told me that ‘People thousands of miles away are contributing to our deforestation.'”

Even if the meat or cheese you eat was not imported from Brazil, by choosing to eat it, you are reinforcing the social norm that is causing the Amazon rain forest to be destroyed. 

Eating meat is pleasurable.  A good cheese pizza can be divine.  Humans evolved as omnivores, and the tastes of meat and cheese are particularly delicious.  Choosing not to eat these foods would be a sacrifice.

Foer has tried to be a vegetarian for decades.  He has previously written about the animal welfare arguments against eating meat; now he’s written about the environmental arguments.  He knows that eating meat is immoral – the cow suffered to produce it, and Foer’s own children will suffer a worse climate as a consequence.

But this knowledge isn’t enough.  He still surreptitiously buys cheeseburgers.

So why hasn’t vegetarianism become any easier after thirty years?  Why has it become harder?  I crave meat more now than I have at any point since I became a vegetarian.

Foer wishes that there were a social norm to eat only foods made from plants. 

Eating meat is pleasurable.  Eating cheese is pleasurable. 

Injecting heroin is pleasurable too.  Driving a car while drunk is pleasurable.  Heck, even cruising down the road while everybody else pulls aside for the ambulance behind you would be pleasurable.

In our culture, there’s a social norm to pull aside for ambulances.  Even though it would be more pleasurable to keep driving, most people don’t.

Meats and cheeses are responsible for somewhere between 20% and 50% of all climate-change-causing emissions. 

(There’s a wide range in that estimate because, although it’s incontestable that it takes more land to produce meats and cheeses than it does to make equivalent foods from plants, it’s debatable what would be done with all that extra land if people changed their diets.  If the extra space would be used to restore forests, then animal agriculture is responsible for 50% of climate change.  If the extra space would be kept as grass – setting aside the curious question of why – then animal agriculture causes only 20% of climate change.  Only 20%.  By way of comparison, all the world’s cars, trucks, and airplanes together cause less than 15% of climate change.  You can look at the appendix to We Are the Weather for an explanation of these numbers, or even glance at Donald Trump’s EPA website for some pie charts with identical information.)

The current administration has gutted the EPA, and compelled their staff scientists to restate their findings in the weakest ways possible … and these are the numbers still posted on their website.

If every gasoline-powered car was replaced with a hybrid vehicle – instantly, world-wide – greenhouse gas emissions would be about 96% of what they are currently.  If that was the only change we made, our planet would be toast.

If we all followed a social norm to eat food made from plants, greenhouse gas emissions could be 50% of what they are currently.  With no other changes, humanity would survive.  Our planet would remain habitable for our children, and our grandchildren.

Pleasure matters.  I’m an atheist, and I’m well aware that the eventual heat death of the universe means humanity will go extinct eventually.  I don’t believe you can make a viable philosophical argument for existence based on helpfulness or social connections alone – your life needs to be pleasurable, too.

Your life can be pleasurable without meat or cheese.  I support responsible hedonism.  Good food is a joy, but you can eat well while making only choices that protect our planet.  Most people think that sex is great fun, but we have a social norm that you should enjoy your sexuality only with other consenting adults.  Groping a beautiful stranger might be more fun than eating cheese – in our culture, a social norm restrains us. 

Well, most of us.

Foer wishes that we, as a people, could choose better.  He’s been struggling to eat food made from plants.  But he doesn’t struggle to restrain himself from murder, or theft, or groping his students.  In those instances, our social norms make it easy to do the right thing.

And you can still be a hedonist while eating plants!  If you’re ever in Chicago, you should stop by my dear friend Auntie Ferret’s vegan deep-dish pizza restaurant, or use Happy Cow to find a decadent plant-based restaurant near you.

Deep dish pizza, mac and cheese, nachos and more — all vegan at Kitchen 17.

Feature image by Neil Palmer / CIFOR on Flickr.

On re-watching The Matrix, twenty years later.

On re-watching The Matrix, twenty years later.

The Matrix is an incredible film.  The cinematography is gorgeous. The major themes – mind control, the nature of free will, and what it means to reject the system – are no less relevant today than when the Wachowski sisters first made their masterpiece.

The Matrix also features many, many guns.

Graffiti in a tunnel in London. Photograph by Duncan C. on Flickr.

I recently read many of Grant Morrison’s comics.  After The Invisibles, which was rumored to have a major impact on the visual style of The Matrix, I felt inspired to re-watch the film. 

For the most part, I still loved it.  But the action scenes were, for me, a person whose spouse is a school teacher, viscerally unpleasant.

On my spouse’s second day of student teaching in northern California, a child arrived at her school with an assortment of lethal weapons that included a chain saw and several pipe bombs.  The child was tackled; the bombs did not explode; nobody died.  Media coverage was minimal, even in the local news.

On multiple occasions, classes at her schools have been canceled due to credible threats of violence.  A few years ago, a student lingered after the bell, wanting to talk.  “I have a friend who I’m a little worried about …”  Later, after this kid had unspooled more details to a guidance counselor, police officers came.  The troubled student was sent away for treatment.  Once again, nobody died.  Media coverage was, to the best of my knowledge, nonexistent, even in the local paper.

Crisis averted, right?  No need to alarm everyone with a write-up, a terrifying enumeration of the arsenal retrieved from a student’s locker.  Although, in a town this small (population: one hundred thousand), plenty of people heard rumors through the whisper network.

Students today are growing up with far more stress than I experienced.  Among top students, more emphasis is placed on applying for college, and the process of getting accepted to the “best” schools is more arduous.  There are more AP classes, more clubs to join, more service projects to undertake, plus the pressure of having some uniquely-honed skill that marks the possessor as somehow deserving of a spot at schools like Harvard, Stanford, or Yale.

That’s rough. 

Only a subset of students are subject to those particular torments, though.

But also, simply existing has grown more stressful for kids.  For every single student inside the building.

Growing up in a house where the parents are seething with rage, slowly and arduously divorcing, is pretty hard on children.  That is now a burden that all students have to bear.  The political atmosphere of the United States is like a nation-wide divorce, with the two dominant political parties unwilling to agree on common norms, or even facts. 

When individual people argue, they often cloister their perceptions inside bubbles of internally-consistent narration.  It’s quite common for each parent to sincerely believe that the other is doing less than a fair share of the housework.  There obviously is an objective truth, and you could probably figure out what it is – by installing security cameras throughout their home, a couple could calculate exactly how many chores were being done by each person.  But in the moment, they just shout.  “Well, I unloaded the dishwasher five times this week, and I was cooking dinner!”

I have a pretty extreme political bias – I’m against regulating behaviors that don’t seem to hurt anyone else (which adult(s) a person marries, what drugs a person consumes), and I’m in favor of regulating behaviors that endanger a person’s neighbors (dumping pollutants, possessing weaponry).  But I also talk to a lot of different folks, and I live in the Midwest.  It’s pretty easy to see why a person with different religious beliefs than mine would find my political stance immoral, if not downright nonsensical.

The Republican Party – which by and large espouses political beliefs that I disagree with vehemently – is correct that the United States was originally founded as a Christian nation.  The underlying philosophy of our constitution draws upon the Bible.  And the Bible does not promote gendered or racial equality.  In the Old Testament, the Bible tells the story of a people who were chosen by God for greatness.  In the New Testament, the story is revised such that all people, by accepting Jesus as lord and savior, can join the elect; still, the New Testament draws a stark contrast between us and them.

From a Biblical point of view, it’s reasonable to subject outsiders to harm in order to improve the circumstances of your own people.  Indeed, it would be immoral to do otherwise. 

It’s like Alan Greenspan’s devotion to the concept of Pareto Optimality, in a way (“Pareto Optimality” is the idea that a distribution of goods and resources, no matter how unequal, is “optimal” if there is no way to improve anyone’s circumstances without making at least one other person worse off.  Even a situation in which one person owns the world and no one else has anything is Pareto Optimal, because you can’t help the masses without taking something from that singular world owner). 

Using an expensive jar of oil to anoint Jesus’s feet is fine: she was helping the elect.  It was be worse to sell that oil and use the money to aid non-Christians, because then your actions only reduce the well-being of God’s people.  (Within a New Testament worldview, the possibility for future conversion complicates things somewhat, but if you knew that someone would never embrace the Lord, then you’d be wrong to help that person at the expense of your fellow Christians.)

And so it’s perfectly reasonable that people who vote for the Republican Party support policies that I abhor.  I wouldn’t want to be married to those people … but, by virtue of the social contract that we were born into, we are constitutionally bound together.  And we’re bickering.  Endlessly, maliciously, in ways that are damaging our children.

Worse, kids at school are subject to the constant fear that they’ll be murdered at their desks.  Horrific stories are routinely broadcast on the national news … and, as I’ve realized from my spouse’s teaching career, the stories we’ve all heard about are only a fraction of the terrifying incidents that students live in dread of.

Student protest at the White House to protest gun laws. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not the fault of The Matrix.  But this film sculpted the initial style for school shootings.  The Matrix was released on March 31st, 1999.  Twenty days later, on the day celebrated both by potheads (based on the police code for marijuana) and white nationalists (because it’s Hitler’s birthday), a pair of students murdered many classmates at Colombine High School.

In The Matrix, a character named Morpheus explains:

The Matrix is a system, Neo.  That system is our enemy.  But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see?  Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters.  The very minds of the people we are trying to save.  But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemies.

The murderers saw their classmates as enemies.

You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged.  And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

Within the world of the film, this mutability is made explicit: any character who has not joined the heavily-armed heroes could blur and become an Agent.  The beautiful woman in red, an unhoused alcoholic man bundled in blankets – either might suddenly mutate into a threat. 

And so Neo kills.  He and Trinity acquire military-grade weaponry; they stroll into a government building and murder everyone inside.

Anyone willing to complacently work there is, after all, the enemy.

I teach poetry classes inside a jail.  Through Pages to Prisoners, I send free books to people throughout the country.  I think that the criminal justice system in the United States is pretty abhorrent.

But that doesn’t mean the people who work within that system as corrections officers are bad. They have families to feed.  And many are surely aware that if too few people worked as corrections officers, leading the facilities to be understaffed, the people incarcerated inside would be much less safe.

Experience lets me appreciate nuance.  I am an ethical vegan; good people choose to become butchers.  I don’t like our criminal justice system; good people work inside.

When I was a teenager, though, I felt moral certitude.  I didn’t like school.  And so, if you were the sort of drone who could sit contentedly at your desk, I didn’t like you.  And, yes, I too had notebooks where I’d written the sort of vitriolic short stories about leveling the place with a Golden-Eye-(the N64 game, not the movie)-style grenade launcher, an onscreen point counter tracking deaths.  Yes, my friends and I made short films with BB gun props full of senseless killings.

One of my old notebooks that I must have deemed sufficiently innocuous to save.

I remember one of the films we made as being pretty good.  But after Colombine, we destroyed the video tapes.  I threw my notebooks away.

And I was pissed to be called so often to the principal’s office.  I understand now why they were worried.  Moral certainty is dangerous; it lets you consider people who disagree as the enemy.

Twenty years later, my body stiffened and my heart sank when I watched The Matrix.  I loved that movie; I’m not sure I’ll ever see it again.

And, glory be, I am now blessed to live in a nation led by a president who feels nothing if not moral certainty.

On consent.

On consent.

When we were growing up, my sister accidentally signed up for a “record of the month” club.

It began with an innocent mistake. She saw an advertisement asking if she’d like a free copy of an album that she really wanted. So she sent in the little card and checked the box to say that, yes, she would like a free copy of that album!

But then the company kept sending more records … bad records … music that she didn’t want, and quite possibly that nobody wanted … and she had to return them or else get billed … but she had to pay shipping to return them … and, after agreeing to receive that first free album, it was excruciatingly difficult to take her name off their mailing list.

She did say “yes” … but the thing that my sister thought she was saying “yes” to, and the thing that the sleazy record company thought she was saying “yes” to, were very different.

#

In a recent New York Times editorial, Peggy Orenstein cited data from a study that asked college students what they’d “expect to happen next” if they went home with someone they’d just met and danced with at a party. In this scenario, someone is saying “yes” … in response to the question “Do you want to go back to my place.”

But many college students assume that the “yes” suggests impending consent to something other than a late-night stroll. Almost half the men surveyed thought that vaginal sex was likely in that scenario; only a third of women thought so. This disparity suggests that there are a whole lot of pairings out there where somebody thinks that a woman’s “yes” is consenting to a lot more physical intimacy than she desires.

Indeed, a third of the women surveyed had previously been pressured into unwanted sex because they’d wanted to do some fooling around – touching, groping, kissing – but a partner persistently tried to do more even after being told “no.”

Why keep going? Perhaps somebody thought that his partner was simply mercurial – having said “yes,” at first, then “no,” perhaps he figured that she’d soon say “yes” again. Without stopping to think that her original “yes” was consenting to less than he assumed.

And without stopping to think that, even if she had said “yes” to activities that they’d collaboratively, explicitly described, she’s still allowed to say “no” later. Refusing to respect her right to maintain bodily autonomy – even after previous consent – makes for assault.

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One flaw in Kate Harding’s otherwise lovely Asking For It is her repeated assertion that “you cannot prearrange consent.

This statement is obviously false, because all consent is prearranged. Asking precedes doing. Otherwise, there wasn’t consent when the doing began.

The phrasing from Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert’s More than Two is preferable: that all people “should have the right, without shame, blame, or guilt, to revoke consent to any form of intimacy at any time.

In Asking for It, Harding elaborates with the idea that:

A sleeping person cannot consent to sex. This should be the most obvious thing in the world, and yet it seems to be the place where a lot of folks get hung up.

In some cases, it’s because people don’t want to think of themselves or their lovers as rapists. Every time I’ve made this point online, commenters have rushed to tell me that they enjoy waking up their partners with penetration or vice versa, or even that they have a standing agreement that it’s okay to do so.

Personally, I would feel weird about fooling around with someone who was asleep. Active participation from all parties makes things more fun, and someone who was asleep would be passive to the extreme.

But “a standing agreement that it’s okay to do so” means that the parties involved did arrange consent. “Do you want to have sex with me right now?”, “Do you want to have sex with me in an hour?”, and “Do you want to have sex with me while you’re asleep?” are all valid questions. Strange, but valid. Someone might be interested in responding “yes” to any or all of those.

And of course, per Veaux and Rickert, that “yes” can be retracted. At any time, for any reason.

Although I enjoyed most of Harding’s book, this distinction is important. We are causing real harm when we equate strange but valid practices with assault – in doing so, we give people more opportunity to rationalize assault. If we incorrectly narrow the definition of consent, we empower others to incorrectly expand the definition.

And that – the ability to explain away crimes – is one reason why these assaults are so prevalent.

From Orenstein’s editorial:

When Nicole Bedera, a doctoral candidate in sociology, interviewed male college students, most endorsed the current “yes means yes” standard, which requires active, conscious, continuous, and freely given agreement by all parties engaging in sexual activity. Yet when asked to describe their own most recent encounters, even men who claimed to practice affirmative consent often had not.

When they realized that their actions conflicted with that benchmark, though, they expanded their definition of consent rather than question their conduct. Their ideas of “yes” were so elastic that for some they encompassed behavior that met the legal criteria for assault.

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In jail last week, we read Fatimah Asghar’s “When Tip Drill Comes on at the Frat Party,” alternately titled “When Refusing to Twerk Is a Radical Form of Self Love.” I’m a sucker for narrative poems that talk about consent, precisely because so many men end up in jail for violating consent.

And Asghar’s poem is excellent:

Sometimes it’s as simple as the boys, howling
under bright lights, who only see the dissected
parts of you –
nose, wrist, nape of neck, nipple –

that which can be held down, pinned back, cut open

Photo of Fatimah Asghar by S L O W K I N G.

Asghar writes about the way young women at collegiate parties must learn to enforce the boundaries of their “yes.” Although a woman has said that “yes,” she wants to dance, or to drink, she did not consent to the “sweaty nails pushing / gritty into your stomach, the weight of claws ripping / at the button on your jeans.

People in jail experience a dramatic loss of personal autonomy. Whenever the men walk to or from my class, they must stop, spread their legs, place their hands upon the wall, and wait for a guard to grope with gloved hands over every contour of their bodies.

Perhaps this sense of violation helped them to understand Asghar’s perspective:

Sometimes it’s as simple
as standing still amid all the moving & heat & card

& plastic & science & sway & say:
No.
Today, this body
is mine.

On empathizing with machines.

On empathizing with machines.

When I turn on my computer, I don’t consider what my computer wants.  It seems relatively empty of desire.  I click on an icon to open a text document and begin to type: letters appear on the screen.

If anything, the computer seems completely servile.  It wants to be of service!  I type, and it rearranges little magnets to mirror my desires.

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When our family travels and turns on the GPS, though, we discuss the system’s wants more readily.

“It wants you to turn left here,” K says.

“Pfft,” I say.  “That road looks bland.”  I keep driving straight and the machine starts flashing make the next available u-turn until eventually it gives in and calculates a new route to accommodate my whim.

The GPS wants our car to travel along the fastest available route.  I want to look at pretty leaves and avoid those hilly median-less highways where death seems imminent at every crest.  Sometimes the machine’s desires and mine align, sometimes they do not.

The GPS is relatively powerless, though.  It can only accomplish its goals by persuading me to follow its advice.  If it says turn left and I feel wary, we go straight.

facebook-257829_640Other machines get their way more often.  For instance, the program that chooses what to display on people’s Facebook pages.  This program wants to make money.  To do this, it must choose which advertisers receive screen time, and to curate an audience that will look at those screens often.  It wants for the people looking at advertisements to enjoy their experience.

Luckily for this program, it receives a huge amount of feedback on how well it’s doing.  When it makes a mistake, it will realize promptly and correct itself.  For instance, it gathers data on how much time the target audience spends looking at the site.  It knows how often advertisements are clicked on by someone curious to learn more about whatever is being shilled.  It knows how often those clicks lead to sales for the companies giving it money (which will make those companies more eager to give it money in the future).

Of course, this program’s desire for money doesn’t always coincide with my desires.  I want to live in a country with a broadly informed citizenry.  I want people to engage with nuanced political and philosophical discourse.  I want people to spend less time staring at their telephones and more time engaging with the world around them.  I want people to spend less money.

But we, as a people, have given this program more power than a GPS.  If you look at Facebook, it controls what you see – and few people seem upset enough to stop looking at Facebook.

With enough power, does a machine become a moral actor?  The program choosing what to display on Facebook doesn’t seem to consider the ethics of its decisions … but should it?

From Burt Helm’s recent New York Times Magazine article, “How Facebook’s Oracular Algorithm Determines the Fates of Start-Ups”:

Bad human actors don’t pose the only problem; a machine-learning algorithm, left unchecked, can misbehave and compound inequality on its own, no help from humans needed.  The same mechanism that decides that 30-something women who like yoga disproportionately buy Lululemon tights – and shows them ads for more yoga wear – would also show more junk-food ads to impoverished populations rife with diabetes and obesity.

If a machine designed to want money becomes sufficiently powerful, it will do things that we humans find unpleasant.  (This isn’t solely a problem with machines – consider the ethical decisions of the Koch brothers, for instance – but contemporary machines tend to be much more single-minded than any human.)

I would argue that even if a programmer tried to include ethical precepts into a machine’s goals, problems would arise.  If a sufficiently powerful machine had the mandate “end human suffering,” for instance, it might decide to simultaneously snuff all Homo sapiens from the planet.

Which is a problem that game designer Frank Lantz wanted to help us understand.

One virtue of video games over other art forms is how well games can create empathy.  It’s easy to read about Guantanamo prison guards torturing inmates and think, I would never do that.  The game Grand Theft Auto 5 does something more subtle.  It asks players – after they have sunk a significant time investment into the game – to torture.  You, the player, become like a prison guard, having put years of your life toward a career.  You’re asked to do something immoral.  Will you do it?

grand theft auto

Most players do.  Put into that position, we lapse.

In Frank Lantz’s game, Paperclips, players are helped to empathize with a machine.  Just like the program choosing what to display on people’s Facebook pages, players are given several controls to tweak in order to maximize a resource.  That program wanted money; you, in the game, want paperclips.  Click a button to cut some wire and, voila, you’ve made one!

But what if there were more?

Paperclip-01_(xndr)

A machine designed to make as many paperclips as possible (for which it needs money, which it gets by selling paperclips) would want more.  While playing the game (surprisingly compelling given that it’s a text-only window filled with flickering numbers), we become that machine.  And we slip into folly.  Oops.  Goodbye, Earth.

There are dangers inherent in giving too much power to anyone or anything with such clearly articulated wants.  A machine might destroy us.  But: we would probably do it, too.

On storytelling.

On storytelling.

Phagocytosis_--_amoebaWhen an amoeba needs to eat, it hugs food.  This process is called “phagocytosis.”  The amoeba reaches out and merges again behind its meal – creating a bubble of the outer world inside itself.  And here, enswathed, its food is digested.  Like ourselves, amoeba are soft machines converting food into heat, exhaled carbon dioxide, and excrement.

Indeed, our whole planet can be viewed as a whirling machine converting low numbers of inbound high-frequency, low-wavelength photons from the sun into a much larger number of low-frequency, high-wavelength photons.  Our Earth’s carpet of green sucks sunlight; roving animal life grazes and respires, sloughing infrared.

1280px-Jelly_Fish_in_Ocean_Park

Those animals come in two forms: tubes and bags.  Jellyfish have one opening, a mouth from which they also drool excrement.  Jellyfish are bags.  Most land animals have two openings, a mouth and an anus.  Tubes.

No matter the form, for animals to carry on, they must engulf other life.

But, sometimes, the engulfed live on.

The “power stations” of our cells are called “mitochondria.”  These look like small bacteria, but they have been tamed.  Mitochondria carry some DNA, a fraction of the genes they need, but the rest of their genes are inside our cells’ central nuclei.  Mitochondria were almost surely swimming freely once: now their ancestral selves can be known only by studying the organelles (little organs) inside our cells.

Mitochondria,_mammalian_lung_-_TEM_(2)
Mitochondria from a mammalian cell.

Stories, too, swallow each other.  At times, we can learn our own history only from stray remnants that linger in the engulfing tales.

From the King James translation of Genesis,

God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.

And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

The Hebrew scholar Umberto Cassuto argued that these lines reveal the presence of another, older myth.  The phrase translated as “great whales” in King James, in the original, might be better rendered into English as “great sea-monsters” or “great sea dragons.”  Which is startling – that dragons, alongside humans and cows, would be one of only three types of animals specifically named in Genesis.  Humans told the story.  Cows were their wealth and livelihood.  Why do dragons merit such importance?

From Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch’s From Gods to God (translated by Valerie Zakovitch):

Cassuto argued that the particular identification of the sea dragons in the context of the Creation was polemical in nature.  It was meant, he proposed, to remind the reader that these enormous creatures were created beings like all others: they were not divine, nor were they mythical creatures with powers to challenge God, the Creator.

Marduk_and_the_DragonIn other myths that were widespread at the time Genesis was written, Earth began as a water planet.  Gods lived in the sky, and other gods lived beneath the waves, but there was no land for humans.  Only after an inverse gotterdammerung – a great war between sea & sky gods that marked an end to the deluge – did continents form.  The soil we walk upon is a perhaps a corpse (Marduk, god of heaven, slew Tiamat, goddess of the sea, and made our world by scattering her flesh over the surface of the deep), perhaps a demilitarized zone (after Baal, god of heaven, squelched the uprising of the Prince of the Sea and his dragons, the oceans retreated – shamed, waters allowed themselves to be confined by shores).

Elsewhere in the Bible, Yahweh himself is praised for creating the world by pushing back the waters, as in the Babylonian and Ugaritic myths: Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?  Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over?

This old myth has nearly faded away, but some fragment of it pulses on within the Bible… like the mitochondria preserved by our cells.

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Image by bies on Flickr.

In Islam, Jesus son of Mary is incorporated into the tale – he is a prophet, preparing the way for Muhammad.  He ascended bodily into heaven, but will return with armaments for the judgement.  If all Christian texts were lost, we would still have these traces with which to reconstruct the beliefs of Christians.  Although it’s not clear how close we’d come to the New Testament from lines like:

728px-The_Harrowing_of_HellAnd when Jesus, the son of Mary, said “O children of Israel, indeed I am the messenger of Allah to you confirming what came before me of the Torah and bringing good tidings of a messenger to come after me, whose name is Ahmad.”  But when he came to them with clear evidences, they said, “This is obvious magic.”

Jesus wrought miracles, and for these was persecuted – that much of the story would remain.

Even now, our stories strive to ingest one another.  It’s like watching a pair of amoeba battle, each struggling to form the outer bubble.  The theory of evolution is uncontroversial when applied to crystals or stars – the idea that what we see now will be those structures that simultaneously optimized persistence and replication in the environments they were presented with is simply thermodynamics and math.

But when applied to animals – to humans, especially – the theory of evolution is seen as an origin myth in competition with all the others: the slain dragons, the sculpted clay, Yahweh conjuring with words.  And so a Christian interpretation proffers that God created humans through evolution – a teleological misconception that’s often touted as “compromise.”

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Evolution is not a ‘tree’ growing upward toward ourselves… more like a shrubbery, with everything that has survived to the present on roughly equal footing.

(Teleological misconception: the idea that evolution has a purpose, that humans are “higher” life forms.  Evolution is a random drift, with success defined only by persistence.  Life forms have either made it to the present – in which case, bully for you – or they’ve gone extinct.  They were well-suited for the environs or not, but there isn’t an absolute metric to judge them by.  A variant form of humanity that was less innately bloodthirsty would be, to my eyes, superior to ourselves; if such creatures ever arose, they were surely slaughtered by our own forebears.  Many of our worst traits seem to have helped human ancestors survive and sire children, which is all evolution “wants.”)

And, similarly, scientists attempt to engulf the old
myths within their story.  Evolutionary psychologists pontificate as to the reasons why humans are compelled to invent gods and believe self-sacrificingly in them.  I’ve discussed some of these previously, such as the theory that a belief in watchful gods improves human behavior, boosting interpersonal trust.  People who trust one another can collaborate more easily, which might make a society more successful.

I’m a scientist, but I see no need for the theory of evolution to swallow our myth-making tendencies.  A major virtue of many religious stories is their insistence on behavior that goes against the directives of the natural world.

Though shalt not kill.

For a creature striving to pass along its genes at all costs, this is foolish advice.  Murder provides more to eat, more space to gather berries from, more resources of all kinds.  Many species kill their own kind, to say nothing of the murder of other species.  They have good reason to, from an evolutionary perspective.  Yet, many religions include a prohibition against killing.  In the Bible, humanity’s paradisaical form – to which we’ll return when we have returned the Earth to a state of grace – was vegetarian.

800px-Marten_van_Valckenborch_Tower_of_babel-large.jpgOr, the story of the Tower of Babel?  As a factual account, this is absurd – ancient builders would never reach heaven.  But as a way to communicate an moral precept – that our hubris can be deadly, and that because we can is insufficient rationale to attempt some goals – the story is beautiful.  With sufficient biomedical and / or computational understanding, some day we might be able to live forever… but should we?

To be good stewards of this Earth, at time we must restrain our grand designs.  We could gird the whole planet in steel and concrete.  We could hack down the few remaining forests for farmland.

Robert Bellah gives a lovely summary of these prohibitions in his Religion in Human Evolution:

          The gods had to dig out the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as well as the irrigation canals, and they found it all too much.  They decided to revolt against Enlil, and having burned their work tools they surrounded his house.  Enlil, frightened and barricaded at home, called on Anu and Enki for advice as to what to do.  He felt like abandoning earth altogether and joining his father in the sky.  But Enki, always the clever one, had a suggestion: why not create men to do the work the lesser gods found so tiresome?  He killed one of the lesser gods, We-e, perhaps the ringleader of the rebellion (could we call it a strike?), and, mixing his blood with clay, fashioned the first human beings.

          Enki’s plan worked almost too well: men took over the work of the gods, but greatly prospered in doing so.  Their growing population became so noisy (“the land bellowed like a bull”), that Enlil could get no sleep.  He sent a plague to wipe the people out, but the wise man Atrahasis consulted Enki who told him to keep the people quieter and give more offerings to the gods, and the plague ceased.  Again the people increased and the noise level rose.  This time Enlil sent a drought, but again Atrahasis persuaded Enki to intervene.  The third time was really too much and Enlil sent a great flood to kill every human being.  Enki, however, was one ahead of him and had Atrahasis construct an unsinkable boat, load it with every kind of animal, and last out the flood.  When Enlil discovered what Enki had done he was furious, but meantime the decimation of the people had left the gods with no offerings, and they were beginning to starve.  Enlil finally realized that humans were indispensable to the gods, and, having arranged several methods of birth control, allowed Atrahasis and his people to resettle the earth.

          One might think, says [Thorkild] Jacobsen, that Enlil cut a rather poor figure with his fear, impulsiveness, and insensitivity, but to the ancients the story illustrates Enlil’s ultimate power, his stunning capacity to create a flood that could potentially destroy every living thing.  Jacobsen concludes: “All the same it is clear that the myth views absolute power as selfish, ruthless, and unsubtle.  But what is, is.  Man’s existence is precarious, his usefulness to the gods will not protect him unless he takes care not to be a nuisance to them, however innocently.  There are, he should know, limits set for his self-expression.”