On Darwin and free love.

On Darwin and free love.

For the moment, let’s set aside the question of why I was reading a review titled “Plants Neither Possess nor Require Consciousness.”  Instead, I’d like to share a passage from the end of the article:

Plant neurobiologists are hardly the first biologists to ascribe consciousness, feelings, and intentionality to plants.

Erasmus Darwin, [Charles] Darwin’s grandfather and a believer in free love, was so taken with the Linnaean sexual system of classification that he wrote an epic poem, The Loves of Plants, in which he personified stamens and pistils as ‘swains’ and ‘virgins’ cavorting on their flower beds in various polygamous and polyandrous relationships.

Maybe you were startled, just now, to learn about the existence of risqué plant poetry.  Do some people log onto Literotica to read about daffodils or ferns?

But what caught my attention was Erasmus Darwin’s designation as a believer in free love. 

In a flash, an entire essay composed itself in my mind.  Charles Darwin’s grandfather was a polyamorist!  Suddenly, the origin of The Origin of the Species made so much more sense!  After all, exposure to polyamory could help someone notice evolution by natural selection.  An essential component of polyamory is freedom of choice – during the 1800s, when nobody had access to effective birth control, people might wind up having children with any of their partners, not just the one with whom they were bound in a legally-recognized and church-sanctioned marriage. 

Evolution occurs because some individuals produce more offspring than others, and then their offspring produce more offspring, and so on.  Each lineage is constantly tested by nature – those that are less fit, or less fecund, will dwindle to a smaller and smaller portion of the total population.

Similarly, in relationships where choice is not confined by religious proscription, the partners are under constant selective pressure if they hope to breed.  When people have options, they must stay in each other’s good graces.  They must practice constant kindness, rather than treating physical affection as their just desserts.

I felt proud of this analogy.  To my mind, Erasmus Darwin’s belief in free love had striking parallels with his grandson’s theory.

And it’s such a pleasure when essays basically write themselves.  All I’d need to do was skim a few biographies.  Maybe collect some spicy quotes from Erasmus himself.  And I’d try to think of a clever way to explain evolution to a lay audience.  So that my readers could understand why, once I’d learned this juicy tidbit about Erasmus, his connection to Charles Darwin’s theory seemed, in retrospect, so obvious.


My essay failed.

I wish it hadn’t, obviously.  It was going to be so fun to write!  I was ready to compose some sultry plant poetry of my own.

And I feel happy every time there’s another chance to explain evolution.  Because I live in a part of the United States where so many people deny basic findings from science, I talk about this stuff in casual conversations often.  We regularly discuss evolutionary biology during my poetry classes in jail.

But my essay wasn’t going to work out.  Because the underlying claim – Erasmus Darwin believed in free love! – simply isn’t true.


Maybe you have lofty ideals about the practice of science.  On the children’s record Science Is for Me, Emmy Brockman sings:

I am a scientist

I explore high and low

I question what I know

Emmy is great. Find her at emmybrockman.com.

That’s the goal.  A good scientist considers all the possibilities.  It’s hard work, making sure that confirmation bias doesn’t cause you to overlook alternative explanations.

But scientists are human.  Just like anybody else, we sometimes repeat things we’ve heard without considering whether any evidence ever justified it.

In The Human Advantage, neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel describes how baffled she felt when she began reading scientific papers about the composition of our brains. 

Although the literature held many studies on the volume and surface area of the brain of different species, and various papers on the densities of neurons in the cerebral cortex, estimates of numbers of neurons were scant.  In particular, I could find no original source to the much-repeated “100 billion neurons in the human brain.”

I later ran into Eric Kandel himself, whose textbook Principles of Neural Science, a veritable bible in the field, proffered that number, along with the complement “and 10-50 times more glial cells.”  When I asked Eric where he got those numbers, he blamed it on his coauthor Tom Jessel, who had been responsible for the chapter in which they appeared, but I was never able to ask Jessel himself.

It was 2004, and no one really knew how many neurons could be found on average in the human brain.

Unsatisfied with the oft-repeated numbers, Herculano-Houzel liquified whole brains in order to actually count the cells.  As it happens, human brains have about 86 billion neurons and an equal number of glial cells.

Or, consider the psychology experiments on behavioral priming.  When researchers “prime” a subject, they inoculate a concept into that person’s mind.

The basic idea here is relatively uncontroversial.  It’s the principle behind advertising and paid product placement – our brains remember exposure while forgetting context.  That’s why political advertisements try to minimize the use of opponents’ names.  When people hear or see a candidate’s name often, they’re more likely to vote for that candidate.

Facebook has also demonstrated again and again that minor tweaks to the inputs that your brain receives can alter your behavior.  One shade of blue makes you more likely to click a button; there’s a size threshold below which people are unlikely to notice advertisements; the emotional tenor of information you’re exposed to will alter your mood.

When research psychologists use priming, though, they’re interested in more tenuous mental links.  Study subjects might be primed with ideas about economic scarcity, then assessed to see how racist they seem.

The first study of this sort tested whether subconsciously thinking about elderlies could make you behave more like an elderly person.  The researchers required thirty undergraduate psychology students to look at lists of five words and then use four of these words to construct a simple sentence.  For fifteen of these students, the extra word was (loosely) associated with elderly people, like “Florida,” “worried,” “rigid,” or “gullible.”  For the other fifteen, the words were deemed unrelated to elderlies, like “thirsty,” “clean,” or “private.”

(Is a stereotypical elderly person more gullible than private? After reading dozens of Mr. Putter and Tabby books — in which the elderly characters live alone — I’d assume that “private” was the priming word if I had to choose between these two.)

After completing this quiz, students were directed toward an elevator.  The students were timed while walking down the hallway, and the study’s authors claimed that students who saw the elderly-associated words walked more slowly.

There’s even a graph!

This conclusion is almost certainly false.  The graph is terrible – there are no error bars, and the y axis spans a tiny range in order to make the differences look bigger than they are.  Even aside from the visual misrepresentation, the data aren’t real.  I believe that a researcher probably did use a stopwatch to time those thirty students and obtain those numbers.  Researchers probably also timed many more students whose data weren’t included because they didn’t agree with this result.  Selective publication allows you to manipulate data sets in ways that many scientists foolishly believe to be ethical.

If you were to conduct this study again, it’s very unlikely that you’d see this result.

Some scientists are unconcerned that the original result might not be true.   After all, who really cares whether subconscious exposure to words vaguely associated with old people can make undergraduates walk slowly?

UCLA psychology professor Matthew Lieberman wrote,

What we care about is whether priming-induced automatic behavior in general is a real phenomenon.  Does priming a concept verbally cause us to act as if we embody the concept within ourselves?  The answer is a resounding yes.  This was a shocking finding when first discoveredin 1996.

Lieberman bases this conclusion on the fact that “Hundreds of studies followed showing that people primed with a stereotype embodied it themselves.”  Continued success with the technique is assumed to validate the initial finding.

Unfortunately, many if not most of those subsequent studies are flawed in the same way as the original.  Publication biases and lax journal standards allow you to design studies that prove that certain music unwinds time (whose authors were proving a point) or that future studying will improve your performance on tests today (whose author was apparently sincere).

Twenty years of mistaken belief has given the walking speed study – and its general methodology – an undeserved veneer of truth.


Erasmus Darwin didn’t believe in free love.  But he did have some “radical” political beliefs that people were unhappy about.  And so, to undermine his reputation, his enemies claimed that he believed in free love.

Other people repeated this slander so often that Erasmus Darwin is now blithely described as a polyamorist in scientific review articles.


So, why did conservative writers feel the need to slander Erasmus Darwin?  What exactly were his “radical” beliefs?

Erasmus Darwin thought that the abject mistreatment of black people was wrong.  He seems to have thought it acceptable for black people to be mistreated – nowhere in his writings did he advocate for equality – but he was opposed to the most ruthless forms of torture. 

Somewhat.  His opposition didn’t run so deep that he’d deny himself the sugar that was procured through black people’s forced labor.

And, when Erasmus Darwin sired children out of wedlock – which many upper-class British men did – he scandalously provided for his children.

In British society, plenty of people had affairs.  Not because they believed in free love, but because they viewed marriage as a fundamentally economic transaction and couldn’t get a divorce.  But good British men were supposed to keep up appearances.  If a servant’s child happened to look a great deal like you, you were supposed to feign ignorance. 

Even worse, the illegitimate children that Erasmus Darwin provided for were female.  Not only did Darwin allow them to become educated – which was already pretty bad, because education made women less malleable spouses – but he also helped them to establish a boarding school for girls.  The contagion of educated women would spread even further!

This was all too much for Britain’s social conservatives.  After all, look at what happened in France.  The French were unduly tolerant of liberal beliefs, and then, all of a sudden, there was murderous revolution!

And so Erasmus Darwin had to be stopped.  Not that Darwin had done terribly much.  He was nationally known because he’d written some (mediocre) poetry.  The poetry was described as pornographic.  It isn’t.  Certain passages anthropomorphize flowers in which there are unequal numbers of pistils and stamens.  It’s not very titillating, unless you get all hot and bothered by the thought of forced rhymes, clunky couplets, and grandiloquent diction.  For hundreds of pages.


While reading about Erasmus Darwin, I learned that some people also believe that he was the actual originator of his grandson’s evolutionary theories.  In a stray sentence, Erasmus Darwin did write that “The final course of this contest between males seems to be, that the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species which should thus be improved.”  This does sound rather like evolution by natural selection.  But not quite – that word “improved” hints at his actual beliefs.

Erasmus Darwin did believe all life had originated only once and that the beautiful variety of creatures extant today developed over time.  But he thought that life changed from simple to complex out of a teleological impulse.  In his conception, creatures were not becoming better suited to their environment (which is natural selection), but objectively better (which isn’t).

I’m not arguing that Charles Darwin had to be some kind of super genius to write The Origin of the Species.  But when Charles Darwin described evolution, he included an actual mechanism to rationalize why creatures exist in their current forms.  Things that are best able to persist and make copies of themselves eventually become more abundant. 

That’s it.  Kind of trivial, but there’s a concrete theory backed up by observation.

Erasmus Darwin’s belief that life continually changed for the better was not unique, nor did it have much explanatory power. 

In the biography Erasmus Darwin, Patricia Fara writes that,

By the end of the eighteenth century, the notion of change was no longer in itself especially scandalous.  For several decades, the word ‘evolution’ had been in use for living beings, and there were several strands of evidence arguing against a literal interpretation of the Bible.  Giant fossils – such as mammoths and giant elks – suggested that the world had once been inhabited by distant relatives, now extinct, of familiar creatures. 

Animal breeders reinforced particular traits to induce changes carried down through the generations – stalwart bulldogs, athletic greyhounds, ladies’ lapdogs.  Geological data was also accumulating: seashells on mountain peaks, earthquakes, strata lacking fossil remains – and the most sensible resolution for such puzzles was to stretch out the age of the Earth and assume that it is constantly altering.

Charles Darwin thought deeply about why populations of animals changed in the particular way that they did.  Erasmus Darwin did not.  He declaimed “Everything from shells!” and resumed writing terrible poetry.  Like:

IMMORTAL LOVE! who ere the morn of Time,

On wings outstretch’d, o’er Chaos hung sublime;

Warm’d into life the bursting egg of Night,

And gave young Nature to admiring Light!

*

Erasmus Darwin didn’t develop the theory of evolution.  You could call him an abolitionist, maybe, but he was a pretty half-hearted one, if that.  By the standards of his time, he was a feminist.  By our standards, he was not.

He seems like a nice enough fellow, though.  As a doctor, he treated his patients well.  And he constantly celebrated the achievements of his friends.

Patricia Fara writes that,

After several years of immersion in [Erasmus] Darwin’s writing, I still have a low opinion of his poetic skills.  On the other hand, I have come to admire his passionate commitment to making the world a better place.


And, who knows?  If Erasmus Darwin was alive today, maybe he would be a polyamorist.  Who’s to say what secret desires lay hidden in a long-dead person’s soul?

But did Darwin, during his own lifetime, advocate for free love?  Nope.  He did not.  No matter what his political opponents – or our own era’s oblivious scientists – would have you believe.

Header image from the Melbourne Museum. Taken by Ruth Ellison on Flickr.

On gene duplication and oppression, a reprise.

On gene duplication and oppression, a reprise.

Evolution depends upon the unnecessary.

Evolution is a process in which those organisms best suited to their environments – either because they persist longer than others or produce more progeny – become more abundant.  For a lineage to become better suited to an environment over time, the organisms have to change in a heritable way.

DNA polymerases aren’t perfect.  Whenever enzymes copy our genetic material, they make mistakes.  To be honest, these mistakes are rarely beneficial.  Sometimes they cause other enzymes to stop working.  Sometimes they turn a cell into cancer.  But that same imperfection – which changes genetic information from one generation to the next – gives rise to evolution.

The evolution of a particular species of bacteria has been carefully documented in biologist Richard Lenski’s laboratory.  These were allowed to compete inside a precisely-controlled environment over hundreds of thousands of generations, and some of the bacteria were frozen after every few hundred generations to keep track of all the genetic changes.

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Zachary Blount and Richard Lenski horsing around with some of the Petri dishes from Blount’s work on the evolution of citrate utilization in one . Image from Wikimedia.

In this experiment, a single subpopulation gained the ability to metabolize a new nutrient, which gave it a huge competitive advantage and allowed it to conquer its tiny world.  But how?  After all, most of a bacteria’s genes are already important for something, and, when mutations occur, the most common outcome is for functions to be lost.  If you give a radio and a screwdriver to a toddler, you probably shouldn’t expect crisper reception come evening.  Chances are that your radio won’t work at all.

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Gene duplication, as depicted by the National Human Genome Research Institute on Wikimedia Commons.

As it happens, a very rare event happened before this bacterial subpopulation “learned” to use the new energy source.  When the experiment was re-started with various frozen samples, most lineages never acquired this ability.  But in one set, there had been a “gene duplication event.”  During cell division, the enzyme that copies DNA had stuttered and accidentally included two copies of a gene that bacteria only need one copy of.  And these bacteria, recipients of that unnecessary second copy, would almost always gain the new metabolic function and swamp out the others.

Once there were two copies of the gene, the second copy was free to change.  A mutation in that copy wouldn’t cause the bacteria to grow weak or die, because they still had a fully-functional copy of the enzyme.  And eventually, through the rare happenstance of random error, bacteria would accumulate enough mutations in that second copy that it gained a new function.

In the beginning, this new function was pretty weak.  But once there was a faint glimmer, natural selection could refine it.  Without an unnecessary second copy of that gene, though, the bacteria never would’ve gained the new metabolic pathway.

You can look at human culture in a similar way.  Which isn’t to say that one culture is intrinsically better than another, and certainly doesn’t imply that we’re progressing toward some teleological goal.  Evolution is just a matter of statistics, after all.  The things that are, now, were probably descended from things that were good at being and producing.

A_textbook_on_mechanical_and_electrical_engineering_(1902)_(14585520259)
An image from a 1902 engineering textbook from Wikimedia Commons.

For instance, cars make human life easier.  And so the traits that allow a culture to have cars, like a basic understanding of mathematics and a willingness to follow rules on roadways, seem to spread pretty easily.  Car cultures have swamped out non-car cultures all over the planet.  Walking is pretty great, and so are bikes, but any culture that has access to mechanical engineering textbooks seems to have a pretty huge advantage over those that don’t.

But if you’d dropped a mechanical engineering textbook into the lap of a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer, it’d seem pretty useless.

It took a lot of waste to reach a state when the textbook could matter.  Over many generations, there was excess and dead weight.  Many centuries of an oppressor class stealing from the mouths of the poor, really.

Somebody who is struggling every day to procure food doesn’t have the luxury to fiddle with mathematics.  That’s why so many of the early European scientists were members of the aristocracy.  They didn’t need to work to eat because they had serfs to steal food from, levying taxes for the use of land that was “theirs” because their ancestors had done a bang-up job of murdering other people’s ancestors.

In the generations after humans developed agriculture, the average quality of life plummeted.  If you were told to pick any year and your soul would be suddenly re-incarnated (pre-incarnated?) into a randomly-chosen Homo sapiens alive at that time, you’d probably be happier 20,000 years ago than at most times during the last few millennia.  20,000 years ago, nobody lived terribly well – there was scant medicine and a constant risk of famine – but the suffering and servitude experienced by the majority of humans later on was worse.

After farming, people worked harder, for more hours a day, to produce a less varied, less healthful diet than the hunter-gatherers had eaten.  They had even less access to medicine, and still endured the constant risk of famine.  Oh, and envy.  Because farmers, who had to live in place, could be conquered.

640px-Maler_der_Grabkammer_des_Sennudem_001Those conquered farmers could be taxed, charged rent, etc., with the proceeds used to feed an idle class.  Most of the idlers produced nothing of value.  They ate others’ food and lived in un-earned luxury (although their “luxury” would seem pretty shabby to us).  But a few of them – a very few – produced the cultural innovations (like mathematics, medicine, poetry, astronomy) that gave us the modern world.

It feels more than a little disconcerting that a gruesome history of violence and oppression allows me to type this essay on a laptop computer.

In the past, though, oppression was the only way for our world to have “excess” people, those who could be free to devote their time and energy toward changing things.  Now, however, food production (and many other things) has been heavily automated.  We could have a much larger excess population, which could increase the rate of cultural evolution.  A luxurious lifestyle could be had by all using the essential (food- and shelter-producing) efforts of a smaller number of people than ever before.

With a guaranteed basic income – which could be funded by taxing wealth at a very low rate, maybe a percent or two – nearly all people could effectively become aristocracy.  People could follow their passions and curiosities.  Most, as ever, wouldn’t change the world. That’s how evolution works.  Chaotic tinkering with things that are pretty good rarely improves things.  But with billions of tinkerers, the odds that something works out are better.

It’s easily within reach.  Instead we’ve stuck with the same system of celebrating historical violence that was used to oppress people before.  Maybe it was necessary, all that cruelty, to get from our past to here.  But it certainly isn’t needed now.

Featured image: DNA duplication diagram by Madeline Price Ball on Wikipedia.

On fairness (and how we treat the utility monster).

On fairness (and how we treat the utility monster).

Life isn’t fair.

Why would it be?  It’s not as though the universe is a fair place.  Some stars get to chug along for years, placidly spewing forth radiation in a fiery inferno of nuclear fission… other stars explode, collapse, or die.

fittestAnd then, among the living?  There’s “survival of the fittest,” which may or may not be fair, exactly, but “survival of the fittest” doesn’t even apply most of the time.  This form of natural selection only works when there’s a large population of individuals bearing a new mutation.  If a new gene is beneficial, the carriers probably survive a little longer or raise a few extra children, and over many generations the gene spreads through the population.

That’s the ideal.  More often, mutations arise in one individual at a time.  Even if a mutation is very beneficial, like a squirrel gene that helps the little critter find and cache 20% more food for winter, there’s a good chance that with one chomp of a roving wolf’s jaws the beneficial mutation disappears.  Evolution relies on a hefty dollop of dumb luck before “survival of the fittest” kicks in.

And yet, most humans are interested in fairness.  Despite being born into a blatantly unfair universe, we strive for better.

defend_equality_poster_croppedBut it’s hard, not least because we have no examples showing us what fairness is.  Moral philosophers… and economists… and warlords, kings, peasants, and voters… have bickered for ages.  Would “fair” mean providing everyone with equal wealth?  Or equal opportunity?  Or equal treatment?

It’s quite clear that we’re not born equal.  We carry different genes.  Our mothers ate differently during pregnancy.  Would it be “fair” to recognize those inherent differences and provide more to those with the “best” genes, that they might flourish?  Or to provide more to those with the least biological advantages, that outcomes could be more equal?

Worse… it’s not clear, when we talk about making the world fair, who even counts.  Should we strive for fairness within our own families?  Our towns?  Our countries?  For all people who speak our language?  Or across the whole planet?

Not even species boundaries are definite things.  Biologists have no foolproof test for whether two creatures belong to the same species – you can’t be quite certain based on appearances, or genetic sequences, or the possibility of producing fertile offspring.  The latter (producing fertile offspring) is often taught in high school biology classes, but there are many instances of animals that biologists declare to be separate species mating and producing fertile offspring.

littleneck_clams_usda96c1862Sometimes you can be pretty confident.  If I walked into a room and saw you, dear reader, sitting beside a clam, I’d assume that you are more similar to me than the clam is.  But the boundaries are fuzzy.  Who is more similar to me, Barack Obama or 45?  Does the answer matter in terms of how each should be treated in a “fair” world?

Is a chimpanzee similar enough to me to deserve a little slice of fairness?  A macaque?  A cat?  A caterpillar?

The answer isn’t out there in the universe, waiting for us.  We have to decide for ourselves.

In economics – especially the conservative Milton-Friedman-esque strains – the goal is to make the world “Pareto optimal.”  This means no one could be made better off without making someone else worse off.  Of course, Pareto optimal distributions of wealth can be blatantly unfair – I’m not keen on the ideas of Milton Friedman.

481px-portrait_of_milton_friedman(One of my professors for graduate macroeconomics loved telling Friedman anecdotes, including a story about Friedman being asked his opinion on tax policy and simply rattling off the theorem “CE is PO.”  Where “CE” means “competitive equilibrium,” i.e. no tax policy at all.  He was joking, but barely.  Whereas all competent economists agree that people behave in wildly undesirable ways unless tax policy is used to balance the costs of negative externalities, i.e. you charge people for dumping pollution into the river.)

If a society has ten dollars and ten citizens, giving each citizen one dollar is Pareto optimal… but giving one person ten dollars and everyone else zero is also Pareto optimal.  The only distributions that aren’t Pareto optimal and the ones in which you forget to hand out all ten dollar bills.  If one person has nine dollars and no one else has any, that is not Pareto optimal.  Toss the last dollar bill at someone – anyone – and the distribution is.

So, okay, economists haven’t solved the fairness game.  Have moral philosophers done better?

One of the stronger (those still irreparably flawed) contenders for a “fair” way to run the world is “utilitarianism.”  This philosophy claims that we should act in a way that maximizes “utility,” i.e. happiness, for the population as a whole.  Which sounds good – who wouldn’t want to make everybody happy?

But… well, we can start simple.  Who should we include in our calculation?  All the presumed Homo sapiens currently living within a country?  Or do we include people living across the entire globe?  Or do we include people who have not yet been born (which makes a huge difference – should we churn through all our non-renewable resources to make everyone alive today as happy as can be, or do we save some happiness for the future)?  Or do we include other species?  Does the happiness of cows matter?  Or the happiness of people who feel sad when they see sad cows?

cow-farmsanctuary

To even get started on utilitarianism, you have to answer all those questions.

And then the real headache begins.  Because… how exactly do you calculate how happy someone is?  If I have one small cookie and two children, I can feel pretty confident that either child would be happy to eat it… at which point utilitarianism dictates that I give the cookie to the child who would enjoy it most.

Our capacity to experience joy, after all, is not equal.

This is the logic used for my favorite rebuttal of utilitarianism: the “utility monster” argument.

Utilitarianism imagines we should redistribute goods to make everyone as happy as possible.  Most people experience diminishing returns – a second bowl of ice cream does not make us as happy as the first – but it’s quite possible that my second cookie would bring me 9 units of utility, and your first cookie would bring only 6 units of utility (maybe you’re not fond of chocolate chips, or are diabetic), in which case, if we had two to share, I should get both.

monsterThe hypothetical Utility Monster is a creature so good at feeling happy that we should all sacrifice everything to satiate its desires, enslaving ourselves to its wants.  I might experience a “disutility” of 1,000 from being enslaved (actually, that seems low – would I really trade my freedom for a hundred cookies?), but if the Utility Monster gets a utility of 3,000 from having another slave, utilitarianism would chain me up.

(Worse, if the founding Americans knew that their slaves experienced a disutility of 1,000 from being enslaved, and a bigoted white “owner” gained only 300 from that ownership, utilitarianism would still say to do it if the founders felt that black emotions and experiences were only one fourth as meaningful as their own.  Or, in contemporary times: if a chicken receives a disutility of 1,000 from being treated as a food-production machine, and I receive a utility of only 30 from having eggs, utilitarianism says we should do it if the chicken is only one hundredth as important as a human being.  The weighted sum of utilities becomes my + 30 times 100 balanced by the chicken’s -1,000.  The world as a whole is better off!)

The Utility Monster is clearly an imaginary creature.  But there are people who are better at experiencing pleasure than others.  A human gene variant for nicotine receptors seems to make cigarettes more pleasurable, and the bearers have more trouble than average quitting smoking.  Several human gene variants seem correlated with enjoying food more, and the bearers are more likely to struggle with weight.

I don’t enjoy the taste of common desserts as much as my daughter.  If I had access to a cake and a bowl of hummus, I’d choose mostly chick peas.  Not out of any moral virtue – that’s simply the taste I enjoy more.  Whereas N would eat cake.

vicodinSimilarly, painkillers do not bring all humans the same pleasure.  Most people have been prescribed painkillers at one time or another; most college students have probably swallowed a few Vicodins recreationally.  Personally, I never enjoyed opiates much.  They made my mind feel slow, my skin cold, my movements underwater.  It was peaceful, but some people, like David Foster Wallace wigging out while pampered on a cruise ship, don’t enjoy that sense of peace as much as others.

The Utility Monster, however – a creature so good at feeling pleasure that we should all sacrifice ourselves to make it happy – would get hooked at the first taste.  My own failure to enjoy painkillers protected me from addiction.

In a society when most people try painkillers at one time or another – after wisdom teeth, or a broken arm, or a work-related back injury – those citizens who most resemble the mythical Utility Monster will wind up addicted.  After tasting that pleasure, they’ll do what they can to seek it out again.  Yes, there are costs.  Drugs are illegal.  Habitual drug use wrecks our minds and bodies.  We can’t properly communicate with our friends or families while blinkered on opiates.  But, if the pleasure is great enough (or the withdrawal pain of not using sufficiently severe), people will choose the drugs.

And so we can see what our society thinks of utilitarianism.  This philosophy advocates we sacrifice everything for those most capable of feeling pleasure.  In our world, we lock them in a box.

prison-553836_1920

On Charles Foster’s ‘Being a Beast’ and battling the empathy gap.

On Charles Foster’s ‘Being a Beast’ and battling the empathy gap.

At a February presidential rally, the crowd cheered when Donald Trump declared, “All lives matter,” using his microphone to drown out the protesters.

All lives matter: setting aside that, for some people’s lives, the world is already acting as though they matter, it’s hard to believe Trump meant what he said. Considering his policy proposals, it doesn’t seem like he values Black, Latino, or Muslim lives that much. It’s doublethink à la Animal Farm: “All lives matter. But some lives matter more than others.”

orwell.JPG

The world would be less terrible if we could understand why people believe this. Or, better yet, make them stop.

The root of this problem is that our brains are not designed for this world. Natural selection does not work like an engineer, but like a basement tinkerer, slapping together barely-functional prototypes from duct-tape, twine, and pre-existing parts.

Natural selection molded the human brain. And, sure, our brains are amazing. We can talk, we can think, we can rocket ourselves into space. But our brains are built using much the same genetic blueprints as other species’. The finished product features many of the same archaic modules.

But we’d best remember that our brains have flaws, especially within the context of the modern world: we’ve reshaped the planet so thoroughly that it looks nothing like the environment in which humans evolved. And so we make mistakes. Our intuitions about the world, about fairness or even basic logic, do not always match reality.

interlandiIn March of 2015, Jeneen Interlandi published a thought-provoking piece on the “empathy gap” in The New York Times Magazine. She was curious about the neurological underpinnings of empathy. What gives rise to our misguided sense of identity? Why are we moved by the plights of those whom we consider to be like us, but can stay callous and cold to the suffering of perceived “others”? For instance, civil forfeiture episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver featured exclusively white victims, as did the New York Times coverage of innocent people incarcerated due to faulty roadside drug tests, despite the fact that black drivers are the primary victims of these police abuses. Did the producers worry that an accurate depiction of these harms would lose their audience’s interest?

In “The Brain’s Empathy Gap,” Interlandi focuses on the treatment of the Roma in Hungary. Should the Hungarian masses care about poverty and educational failings among the Roma? Yes. Of course. But do they? Judging by most Hungarians’ actions, or by the limited political will to rectify injustice, no. Excepting a rare few bleeding hearts, it doesn’t seem so.

Should the masses in the United States (as in all people, including the melanin-deficient sinking middle classes shouting themselves red in the face at Trump rallies) care about poverty, educational failings, and the state-sponsored murder of black people? Yes. They should.

But this is not how our brains evolved to operate. For millions of years, reflexive callousness made sense. Among populations scraping out a subsistence living – scavenging other hunters’ kills, picking berries, and hoping not to be eaten by a predator in the night – there was only so much help to give. Waste it on a stranger, someone who appears not to share many of your genes, and your own children might die.

From a philosophical perspective, this is not a problem. Utilitarian ethicists from Jeremy Betham to Peter Singer have argued that our moral choices should not be so easily swayed by friendship, family relations, or proximity.

But from an evolutionary perspective? Helping an other as opposed to your own is disastrous. The genes that might trigger this type of self-sacrifice die out, leaving the world overrun with those that spell Family First in a chemical script of As and Cs and Gs and Ts. These narcissistic sequences were so successful that we nearly all have them. Though I like to think of myself as a rational, thoughtful individual, I too have a brain that would command me to trample all the other children on the playground if my daughter were in danger.

These genes helped my ancestors survive long enough that I might be here today.

evolution
It doesn’t work quite like this, but what a picture.  Picture by T. Michael Keesey on Flickr.

Today’s world is very different, of course. Modern agriculture is so productive that there should be plenty of food for all. Air travel and urban living means there is no longer any correlation between physical appearance and genetic similarity. And I would like to think that our thousands of years of philosophical inquiry – what we’ve done with the magnificent brains that natural selection bequeathed us – have accomplished something. We should know better now.

It’s hard, though. Practicing uniform kindness with our brains can be like running Photoshop on a Linux machine; even when it doesn’t hang and crash, the fans are working overtime. My former housemate competes in something called “power racing,” where she builds small vehicles propelled by lawnmower engines. She has to be careful when she drives: juice her machine too hard and the engine might melt. There are always complications when a tool designed for one task is repurposed for another.

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An illustrative example.  Photo credit: the Vulture.

As for our brains, our chauvinism is innate. Psychology journals are full of evidence of this, especially in the older issues, back when rampantly unethical experimental design and the consent-less manipulation of children were seen as permissible in the name of science. A week-long camp with children partitioned into two animal-themed teams is enough to instill a powerful sense of jingoism. Even a classification as arbitrary as falsely purporting that a child over- or under-estimates the number of dots on a screen is enough to trigger a narrowing of moral concern to the child’s own kind.

9781627796330And yet: empathy can be learned. Charles Foster’s Being a Beast is a lively demonstration. Foster is a trained veterinarian and ethicist who sought an understanding of the inner lives of animals. In Being a Beast, he documents the months he spent scavenging urban trash like a fox, shivering in winter rivers like an otter, huddling alongside his middle-school-aged son in a hillside burrow like a badger, and chasing after migratory swifts.

Though living as a badger sounds ridiculous, the success or failure of Foster’s project has serious implications. If learning to empathize with someone whom we’ve been taught to view as other were extremely difficult, we might resign ourselves to a world in which no one who brandishes the slogan “all lives matter” could ever understand the fear of black parents that their children might be killed by officers sworn to protect them. Justice, though necessary, might never gain popular support.

No person is more other than an animal. If Foster can understand how it feels to be a beast, then we must all have it in us to offer justice to our fellow humans.

Alarmingly, Foster perceives his project as having failed. In a passage on river otters, Foster dismisses his efforts brusquely:

otterAnd, knowing that the cold, and that urgent calorific imperative, sends otters wandering even more widely, I’ve tramped and tramped the riverbanks and the watersheds, trying to feel in touch with them – or in touch with anything outside myself. I’ve failed.

But Foster, who suffers from depression, is not to be trusted as to the quality of his own work. Like all depressed people, he can malign himself cruelly where congratulations are due.

Foster’s project did not fail. For one, he created a compelling work of art. I laughed aloud at his description of otters as frenetic killing machines. And his experience of empathizing with swifts, a type of bird, is deeply poignant:

tachymarptis_melba_-barcelona_spain_-flying-8I’m best at being a swift when I’m on the ground. At least then I can see and smell the source of the air rivers the swifts are fishing, hear the thrum next to my ear of the wasp that will be broken three hundred yards up, and slap a fly on my arm at more or less the same speed as the swift’s stubby neck would turn and its mandibles close on it.

Most importantly, he was able to overcome all the years in which he’d trained his mind to see badgers, otters, and birds as inescapably other:

badger_odfw_2But species boundaries are, if not illusory, certainly vague and sometimes porous. Ask any evolutionary biologist or shaman.

It is a mere 30 million years – the blink of a lightly lidded eye on an earth whose life has been evolving for 3.4 thousand million years – since badgers and I shared a common ancestor. Go back just 40 million years before that, and I share my entire family album not only with badgers but with herring gulls.

All the animals in this book are pretty close family. That’s a fact. If it doesn’t seem like that, our feelings are biologically illiterate. They need reeducation.

Foster changed his life in a way that proves his project succeeded. He was an avid hunter through his youth and young adulthood but writes that, because of this experience, “I’ve put down my guns and taken up my tofu.” He was willing to give up his own pleasure once he convinced himself that the animals he hunted were unique individuals with their own wants and desires. He was willing to make personal sacrifices because others’ pain no longer seemed so different from his own.

We can overcome the reflexes of our minds.

neilLuckily, it seems to require fewer heroics to successfully empathize with another human than Charles Foster employed in his efforts to understand animals. We need not scuttle naked through the woods, defecate outdoors, ask someone to chase us with a pack of hunting dogs. If all you’re after is empathy for other humans, it seems that reading will do. Reading in general, and especially the reading of emotionally-engaging fiction, makes people more empathetic. In The View from the Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman speculates that this transformation occurs because “you get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”

It might take nothing more than great literature – including, perhaps, Charles Foster’s Being a Beast, alongside The Invisible Man, The Bluest Eye, A Naked Singularity, The Beast Side, and the works cited in Justice Sotomayor’s Strieff dissent – for Trump’s supporters to be pained by our nation’s shameful treatment of minorities. The incarceration crisis, the education crisis, the police-murdering-people-in-the-streets crisis. Perhaps books could engender the political will needed to overcome injustice.

(Lest I sound too blithely hopeful, I should probably mention that reading in this country, especially reading fiction, has been on a steady decline for years.)