On naked mole-rats.

On naked mole-rats.

When Radiohead first toured, their audiences just wanted to hear “Creep.”  They were invited to play a show in Israel – everyone just wanted to hear “Creep.”  They were invited to tour America – everyone just wanted to hear “Creep.”  At festivals, people walked away after they played it.  By then the song was several years old.  The dudes in Radiohead were sick of it.

To be fair, Pablo Honey was a pretty weak album.  “You” is a fine song, but the proffered singles – “Anyone Can Play Guitar” (more ironic in retrospect than it was at the time) and “Stop Whispering” – aren’t very compelling.  At the time, nobody knew their new material.

Now, of course, Radiohead is many people’s favorite band – mine too (tied with The Marshall Cloud and anything else my brother makes).

The essayist Eliot Weinberger has also toured on the strength of a hit single.  From Christopher Byrd’s 2016 profile in The New Yorker:

EliotWeinbergerBW350In person, Weinberger is genial and self-contained; he smiles frequently and is prone to wisecracks.  When I asked him about the essay [“Naked Mole-Rats,” from his 2001 collection, Karmic Traces], he said “In Germany, I’m sort of like one of those bands that had one hit record, and so I give readings and people ask me to read ‘Nacktmull,’ which is the naked mole-rat.  It’s their favorite one.  This pretty girl said, ‘Last night, I was in bed reading it to my boyfriend.’  And I said, ‘Don’t you have anything better to read?’”

Yet, like Radiohead, Weinberger has released new work every few years – he seems to have been writing constantly ever since he dropped out of college circa 1970 and began translating the poetry of Octavio Paz – and much of it is better than the hit everybody knows.  Over the past two months, I’ve had the pleasure of reading all his books – many are stunning.  The Ghosts of Birds discuses Adam & Eve, the dreams of ancient Chinese poets, and the authorial voice of George W. Bush’s “autobiography.”  I’ve written previously about What Happened Here, a collection of Weinberger’s essays about the Bush years.  And Weinberger has written extensively about the political value of poetry.  From “The T’ang” (in Oranges and Peanuts for Sale):

…[I]n the last years of the dynasty, warlords ravished the country.  One of them, Huang Ch’ao, a salt merchant who had failed the civil service exams, captured Ch’ang-an in 881.  A satiric poem was posted on the wall of a government building, criticizing the new regime.  (As, eleven hundred years later, the Democracy Movement would begin with the poems that Bei Dao and other young poets glued to the walls in their capital, Beijing.)  Huang Ch’ao issued orders that everyone capable of writing such a poem be put to death.  Three thousand were killed.

When dudes ask what we’re doing teaching a poetry class in jail, it’s great to have stories like this to relate … or to toss out a quote from Norman Dubie, my co-teacher’s advisor, who says, “If Stalin feared poetry, so should you.

And yet, I have to admit: Weinberger’s “Naked Mole-Rats” really is a lovely essay.

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During the 1970s, evolutionary biologist Richard Alexander gave a series of lectures describing conditions that might spawn eusocial vertebrates.  Alexander was a bug guy – the term “eusocial” refers to bees, ants, and termites, where individuals are extremely self-sacrificing for the good of the colony, including an abundance of non-breeding members helping with childcare.

Alexander proposed that a eusocial species of mammal could evolve if they lived in relatively safe underground burrows that could be expanded easily and defended by a small percentage of the colony.  The animals would need to be small compared to their food sources, so that a stroke of good luck by one worker could feed many.

thebioofnakedAn audience member at one of Alexander’s lectures mentioned that this “hypothetical eusocial mammal” sounded a lot like the naked mole-rat and connected Alexander with Jennifer Jarvis, who’d studied the biology of these critters but hadn’t yet investigated their their social structure.  The collaboration between Alexander and Jarvis led to the textbook The Biology of the Naked Mole-Rat.

Eliot Weinberger combed through this 500-plus page textbook to produce his 3-page essay.  In Weinberger’s words:

As many as three hundred inhabit a colony, moving a ton of dirt every month.  They have a caste system

The medium sized are the warriors, who try to fend off the rufous-beaked snaked, the file snakes, the white-lipped snakes, and the sand boas that sometimes find their way in.When, by chance, two colonies of naked mole-rats tunnel into each other, their warriors fight to the death.

Interbred for so long, they are virtually clones.  One dead-end branch of the tunnel is their toilet: they wallow there in the soaked earth so that all will smell alike.  They are nearly always touching each other, rubbing noses, pawing, nuzzling.

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Like us, naked mole-rats are both good and bad.  They are cooperative.  They are affectionate.  They are always touching.  Encountering outsiders, they fight to the death.  When a breeding female dies, many other females regain fertility and the colony erupts into civil war.

Naked mole-rats care for others.  Naked mole-rats are callous toward others.

[The breeding female, of which each colony has only one] has four or five litters a year of a dozen pups.  The babies have transparent skin through which their internal organs are clearly visible.  Only a few survive, and they live long lives, twenty years or more.  The dead babies are eaten, except for their heads.  At times the live ones are eaten too.

These details are drawn from innumerable experimental observations.  We humans have spent decades investigating the naked mole-rats.  But Weinberger ends his essay with the reverse.  Naked mole-rats observe us, too:

Sometimes a naked mole-rat will suddenly stop, stand on its hind-legs, and remain motionless, its head pressed against the roof of the tunnel.  Above its head is the civil war in Somalia.  Their hearing is acute.

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Naked mole-rats “are continually cruel in small ways.”  But they are outdone by naked apes.  After all, the cruelty of naked mole-rats is invariably directed to others of their own kind.  Our cruelty embraces ourselves as well as them.

For a research paper published in 2008, Park et al. discovered that being pinched by tweezers causes naked mole-rats pain, but the injection of caustic acid does not:

We tested naked mole-rats in standard behavioral models of acute pain including tests for mechanical (pinch), thermal, and chemical pain.  We found that for noxious pinch and heat, the mole-rats responded similarly to mice.

In contrast to the results using mechanical and thermal stimuli, there was a striking difference in responses to strong chemical irritants known to excite nociceptors [these are sensory receptors that detect noxious inputs, like pain].  Indeed, the two chemicals used – capsaicin and low-pH saline solution – normally evoke very intense pain in humans and other animals.  Injection of either irritant into the skin rapidly evoked intense licking and guarding behaviors in mice.

(In case you’re worried that acid-resistant naked mole-rats might conquer the world: a form of kryptonite exists.  Injection of an 11-amino-acid signaling peptide allows acid to hurt naked mole-rats just as much as it hurts mice.  Half a dozen animals were subjected to each treatment.)

So, naked mole-rats are selectively resistant to pain.  This has inspired some envy in human researchers – after all, chronic pain is miserable, and most of our strategies to dampen pain have a few unwanted side-effects.

But what really gets us humans jealous is that naked mole-rats seem not to age.

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Naked mole-rats almost never develop cancer.  They should get cancer.  After all, their cells, like ours, copy themselves.  Over time, each copy is a copy of a copy of a copy… any errors are compounded.  And some errors are particularly deadly.  Our cells are supposed to stop growing when they touch each other, and they are supposed to commit suicide when their usefulness has run its course.  But the instructions telling our cells when and how to kill themselves can be lost, just like any other information.  Too many rounds of cell division is like making photocopies of photocopies… eventually the letters melt into static and become unreadable.

So I don’t quite understand why naked mole-rats don’t get cancer … but, in my defense, no one else does either.  Tian et al. found that naked mole-rats fill the space between their cells with a particular sugar that acts as an anti-clumping agent.  This contributes to their cancer resistance, because cells that can’t clump can’t form tumors… but, although many types of deadly human cancers form tumors, others, like leukemia, do not.

Lung_cancer_cell_during_cell_division-NIH.jpgOf course, “cancer” cells – mutant versions of ourselves that would kill us if they could – appear all the time.  Usually, our immune system destroys them.  Most chemotherapy agents do not kill cancer.  Chemotherapy involves pumping the body full of general poisons that stop all cells from reproducing, with the hope being that, if the spread of cancer can be slowed, a patient’s immune system will sop up the bad cells already there.

In addition to anti-clumping sugars, naked mole-rats must have other (currently unknown) virtues that enable their remarkable tenacity.

And, although the little critters seem not to age – they have “no age-related increase in mortality” and remain fertile until death – they do die.  The oldest naked mole-rat lived for 27 years in captivity, and seems to have been at least a year old when first captured, based on his size.

He was rutting and eating normally until April, 2002… but then, seemingly without cause, he died.  Writing for Scientific American shortly after this duder’s death, David Stipp described him (and naked mole-rats in general) as “a little buck-toothed burrower [who] ages like a demigod.”

But it’s worth noting that he had aged.  He had accumulated extensive oxidative damage in his lipids, proteins, and, presumably, his DNA… which is to say, his cells were noticeably rusted and falling apart.  He just didn’t let it slow him down.  Not until he keeled over.

They live with gusto, the naked mole-rats.

For as long as they energy, that is.  Several researchers have proposed that naked mole-rats have all these powers because they starve often in the wild.

Caloric restriction – which means, roughly, intentional starvation – is known to extend lifespan in a wide variety of species.  It’s been tested in monkeys, mice, flies, and worms.  Between two- and ten-fold increases in lifespan have been observed.  There are some unpleasant side effects.  Hunger, for instance.  Caloric-restricted mice spend a lot of time staring at their empty food bowls.

Many humans who attempt caloric restriction on their own find it difficult.  Hunger hurts, especially when there’s food nearby.  Plus, it’s a rare diet that provides adequate nutrition while still limiting calories.  Malnutrition makes people die younger, which defeats the point… unless your goal is simply to make God uncomfortable.  Maybe you’ll get a wish!

But naked mole-rats have no choice.  Workers tunnel outward, searching for tuberous roots.  When they find one, they’ll gnaw it carefully, attempting to keep the plant alive as long as possible, but the colony invariably consumes roots faster than a plant can grow.  Although naked mole-rats try to be good stewards of their environment – they are compulsive recyclers, eating their own excrement to make sure no nutrients are lost – their colonies plunge repeatedly into famine.

And they sleep in mounds, hundreds of bodies respiring underground.  Anyone sleeping near the center probably runs out of oxygen.

But they survive.

We would not.  Most mammals, deprived of oxygen, can no longer fuel their brains.  Our brains are expensive.  Even at rest our brains demand a constant influx of energy or else the neurons “depolarize” – we fall apart.  This is apparently an unpleasant experience.  It’s brief, though.  At Stanford, my desk was adjacent to a well-trafficked gas chamber.  A mouse, or a Chinese-food takeout container with several mice, was dropped in; a valve for carbon dioxide was opened; within seconds, the mice inside lost consciousness; they shat; they died.

A naked mole-rat would live.  Unless a very determined researcher left the carbon dioxide flowing for half an hour.  Or so found Park et al. – a graph from their recent Science paper is shown below.  Somewhere between three and twelve animals were used for every time point; all the mice would’ve been dead within a minute, but perhaps as few as three naked mole-rats died in this experiment.

survival curves

Human brains are like hummingbirds – our brains drink up sugar and give us nothing but a fleeting bit of beauty in return.  And our brains are very persnickety in their taste for sugar.  We are fueled exclusively by glucose.

Naked mole-rats are less fussy than we are – their minds will slurp fructose to keep from dying.

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Naked mole-rats: the most cooperative of all mammals.  Resistant to cancer.  Unperturbed by acid.  Aging with the libidinous gracelessness of Hugh Hefner.  Able to withstand the horrors of a gas chamber.

And yet, for all those superpowers, quite easily tormented by human researchers.

On preventing future crime.

On preventing future crime.

4557822128_5d9ba71628_zFeeling safe is great.

Ask anybody with PTSD – feeling unsafe is the pits. A perception of danger elevates cortisol, wears the body out, and makes it hard to sleep, hard to think, hard to remember anything.

And – properly wielded – state violence is the best way to keep people safe. Of course, the term “state violence” means different things to different people. I’m not talking about police officers murdering innocent people, which has led many to experience way more stress, their hearts racing whenever a patrol car is spotted down the street.

leviathanI’m only fond of state violence that protects. We Homo sapiens have a long evolutionary history as a violent species, and state violence at its best prevents violence from individuals. This is the basic idea behind Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan.

A good practical example is the state violence that facilitated the civil rights march from Selma. The town was full of murderous individuals. Only the presence of armed federal soldiers – a clear imposition of state violence – prevented the far worse, anarchic violence that would’ve been perpetrated by locals.

At its worst, though, state violence is horrific. You get wanton destruction of life and liberty on a massive scale. Which is grim to think about, given that my own country is now helmed by a fickle racist who celebrates his own acts of violence against women.

Violence from a bad state isn’t keeping anybody safe.

10490113913_e3a697bdca_zConsider mass incarceration as currently practiced by the United States. Forcibly locking someone inside a prison or jail is a clear exercise of violence. In some cases, this violence keeps us safe. For instance, my mother-in-law was murdered last year. The man who killed her should be kept away from society so that he doesn’t hurt anyone else until he’s better. The brutality of this incident leads me to suspect he has some serious emotional disturbances at the moment.

But this dude has been shut inside various prisons for over nine years already… after convictions for non-violent drug crimes. When the state locked him away for all those years, were we the people made safer?

In Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil proffers a reason for doubt:

weaponsofmathdestructionWhat’s more, for supposedly scientific systems, the recidivism models are logically flawed. The unquestioned assumption is that locking away “high-risk” prisoners for more time makes society safer. It is true, of course, that prisoners don’t commit crimes against society while behind bars. But is it possible that their time in prison has an effect on their behavior once they step out? Is there a chance that years in a brutal environment surrounded by felons might make them more likely, and not less, to commit another crime?

Yes, I’d say there’s a chance. I doubt many people would disagree. Even those responsible for locking dudes in prison sometimes acknowledge that they’re doing the wrong thing.

While C. J. Chivers was researching his New York Times Magazine article about Sam Siatta, a marine who returned from Afghanistan with severe PTSD and no support, Chivers met with Jason Chambers, the prosecuting attorney whose office sent Siatta to prison. (After returning from the war, Siatta tumbled into alcoholism, and one night broke down a stranger’s door while stumbling home drunk from a party.) Many thought Siatta should be offered treatment instead of prison, but the prosecutors were unyielding. Siatta was socked with a six-year sentence.

Until, that is, Chivers arrived. Once Chambers learned that a reporter was investigating the case, he promptly offered to vacate the conviction. Siatta was released that week.

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From Chivers’s article:

There was a question to explore: Why did Chambers propose exactly the resolution to the case that his office had resisted for two years?

Chambers described a criminal-justice system that resembled an overworked mill. His office handles almost 5,000 cases a year, he said, and it was not possible for him to follow each of them closely …

From his point of view, Chambers said, the plea deal in the works was not actually a large shift. Siatta had received the minimum sentence for a Class-X felony and would soon plead to more than the minimum sentence for a felony one class down. “From a practical standpoint, it is a big change,” he said, because Siatta was out of prison. “From a legal standpoint, it is a hair’s width apart.”

And for society, Chambers added, the new arrangement was probably safer. If Siatta were to behave well in Shawnee [prison], he would be eligible for release in less than three years and would return with virtually no counseling or care for his PTSD. Now Siatta would be under state supervision for several years, receiving care throughout. “The rationale for me became, ‘What makes people safer over the long term?’ “ he said. “Is it treatment or just getting him off the street?”

Chambers is almost certainly correct: we the people will be safer if Siatta is given treatment instead of more time in prison.

Of course, our jails and prisons are so flawed that the same is probably true of most everyone sent away.

There’s even data showing how much less safe incarceration makes us. Individual prosecutors and judges have an inordinate amount of discretion, and defendants are randomly distributed among them… which means we’ve inadvertently conducted something like a controlled study. When a dude is busted for possession, he might land the judge who’s hard on theft but soft on drug crimes, in which case he’ll walk. Or he might land the judge who comes down hard on drugs and get four years in prison.

It’s absurd that a coinflip decision – which judge you’re assigned to – is the only difference between four years and freedom. From the perspective of justice, this is a nightmare. But from the standpoint of science, it’s great! Who doesn’t love controlled studies? Equivalent people are being assigned to receive either prison time or freedom, basically at random, which lets us compare how they fare afterward.

When Michael Mueller-Smith combed through the data for over a million defendants, he found that locking people up increases the likelihood that people will need expensive government services after release and increases the likelihood that people will commit future crimes.

Oops.

It seems quite likely that the choices made by New York state prosecutors – locking a then-harmless poor dude away for a decade – led to my mother-in-law’s death.

jamestrentAnd yet. I’ve been trying not to end these essays on a dour note. I certainly don’t mean to imply that everyone who spends time in prison becomes somehow tainted. So I’d like to close with advice from James Trent, whose lovely personal essay “A Visit from an Outsider” recently appeared in The New Yorker.
Despite being labeled with scorn by our criminal justice system and shunted away for decades on end, Trent resolved that even in prison he would do and be his best. He knows he’s made a positive impact on people’s lives during his time there. And he advises we do the same:

when you have a bad situation occur in life you can choose to become bitter or better. Choose to be better!

On wasted ingenuity.

On wasted ingenuity.

You should read Demetrius Cunningham’s essay about learning to play the piano in prison.  He describes taping together flaps of cardboard trash and training his fingers by pressing the places where a piano’s keys would be.  It’s a beautiful piece of writing.

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And it hurts to consider what Cunningham might accomplish if he had access to more resources.

He’s not alone in striving to apply his intellect within a situation where most of his effort is – from the perspective of our modern world – simply wasted.  It’s incredible that he devised a system for learning to play piano with only cardboard at his disposal.  But we live in a world with such cheap plastics and electronics that perfectly functional keyboards can be purchased for three dollars or less at most pawn shops and thrift stores.

But Cunningham, in prison, is not allowed a three-dollar children’s toy.  He studies with cardboard.

Which is not to say that our world should be without punishment.  Those who murder need time away from society.  People should be kept safe from harm.  But I find it inconceivable that the best way to help someone who has murdered become a kinder, gentler, wiser human would be to lock him inside a world of violence, mistrust, and cement.

K’s mother, too, was murdered recently.  In her case, the man who murdered her had previously been held in New York prisons for some nine years on nonviolent drug charges.  The time he served in prison surely affected him.  Based on what little I know about life inside, that time probably affected him adversely.

So I’d argue that the state of New York’s efforts at “correction” contributed to K’s mother’s murder.  Would that man have killed her had we not shunted him into prison for nine years?  And, what of the childhood that led to his drug convictions in the first place?  Did we devote the resources necessary to ensure that he felt safe and loved as a child?  Did he have the opportunity to build a life around respected, well-compensated work?

Did Cunningham?

In my poetry classes, only one participant (that I know of) has served time for murder – in his case, 20 years thus far of a 50-year sentence.  He is an excellent writer, and very well-read, but, until our class, every time he wrote a poem or story he would crumple the pages and throw them away.

Why keep them?  The world had made very clear that no one cared what he might have to say.

Inventions are made over and over again inside: using only those spare materials allotted inside prison, how might men mimic some of the conveniences of the modern world?  In Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, a clear-eyed description of the 1971 Attica prison riot and its aftermath, she describes the jury-rigged water heaters many inmates built for their cells.

Or there’s her passage on the amenities:

bloodinthewaterThe men needed money at Attica because the state offered them only a few items gratis.  These included a thin gray coat, two gray work shirts, three pairs of gray pants, one pair of shoes, three pairs of underwear, six pairs of socks, and one comb.  Then, every month, prisoners would receive one bar of soap and one roll of toilet paper, which meant that men were forced to limit themselves “to one sheet per day.”  The state’s food budget allotment was also meager.  At a mere 63 cents per prisoner per day, it was insufficient to meet the minimum dietary standards as determined by federal guidelines.  The reality was that many men at Attica went to bed hungry.  For this reason jobs in the kitchen or the mess hall, while more arduous than others given their seven-day-a-week schedule, were some of the most coveted.  At least on those jobs a man could eat leftovers.

To get anything beyond the supplies given them – warmer clothes, more food, toiletries like toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, razors, and extra toilet paper – prisoners needed money.  Being able to buy deodorant was no luxury since these men were allowed only one shower a week and were given only two quarts of water a day.  With this water prisoners were expected to wash their socks and underwear, shave, brush their teeth, and clean the cell to a correction officer’s exacting standards.

Prisoners had to be clever to endure such conditions.  Likewise, it takes more cleverness to survive childhood poverty than is needed for a privileged middle class existence of soccer leagues at birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese and A’s stamped on the state achievement tests.

But our world doesn’t celebrate the former type of cleverness.  We prize instead earned wealth and good grades.  And yet, think: what if all that ingenuity weren’t wasted?  What if more of our nation’s childhood survivalists and prisonyard Edisons had been given a fair opportunity?

I love capitalism and the chance for people to profit from their discoveries.  But capitalism crumbles without opportunity.  Especially now, with automation at the forefront of technology, a system rewarding past capital ownership will waste more and more human ingenuity.  The class of those born into opportunity will keep shrinking.

Of course, those privileged few – armed with their intentional misunderstandings of economics and technology – will argue otherwise.  That’s how we got here in the first place.