On the ethics of eating.

On the ethics of eating.

Every living thing needs energy.  But our world is finite.  Energy has to come from somewhere.

Luckily, there’s a lot of potential energy out there in the universe.  For instance, mass can be converted into energy.  Our sun showers us with energy drawn from the cascade of nuclear explosions that transpire in its core. A tiny difference in mass between merging hydrogen atoms and the resultant helium atom allows our sun to shine.

Our sun radiates about 10^26 joules per second (which is 100,000 times more than the combined yearly energy usage from everyone on Earth), but only a fraction of that reaches our planet.  Photons radiate outward from our sun in all directions, so our planet intercepts only a small sliver of the beam.  Everything living here is fueled by those photons.

When living things use the sun’s energy, we create order – a tree converts disordered air into rigid trunk, a mouse converts a pile of seeds into more mouse, a human might convert mud and straw into a house.  As we create order, we give off heat.  Warming the air, we radiate infrared photons.  That’s what night vision goggles are designed to see.  The net effect is that the Earth absorbs high-energy photons that were traveling in a straight beam outward from the sun … and we convert those photons into a larger number of low-energy photons that fly off every which way.

We the living are chaos machines.  We make the universe messier.  Indeed, that’s the only way anything can live.  According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the only processes that are sufficiently probable so as to occur are those that make the world more random.

We’re lucky that the universe started out as such a bland, orderly place – otherwise we might not even be able to tell “before” from “later,” let alone extract enough energy to live.


The earliest living things took energy from the sun indirectly – they used heat, and so they were fueled by each photon’s delivery of warmth to the Earth.  (Please allow me this little hedge – although it’s true that the earliest life was fueled only by warmth, that warmth might not have come from the sun.  Even today, some thermophilic bacteria live in deep sea vents and bask in the energy that leaks from our Earth’s molten core.  The earliest life might have lived in similar nooks far from the surface of the Earth.  But early life that resided near the surface of the seas seems more likely. Complicated chemical reactions were necessary to form molecules like RNA.  Nucleic acids were probably first found in shallow, murky pools pulsed with lightning or ultraviolet radiation.)

Over time, life changed.  Organisms create copies of themselves through chemical processes that have imperfect fidelity, after all.  Each copy is slightly different than the original.  Most differences make an organism worse than its forebears, but, sometimes, through sheer chance, an organism might be better at surviving or at creating new copies of itself.

When that happens, the new version will become more common. 

Over many, many generations, this process can make organisms very different from their forebears.  When a genome is copied prior to cell division, sometimes the polymerase will slip up and duplicate a stretch of code.  These duplication events are incredibly important for evolution – usually, the instructions for proteins can’t drift too far because any change might eliminate essential functions for that cell.  If there’s a second copy, though, the duplicate can mutate and eventually gain some new function.

About two billion years ago, some organisms developed a rudimentary form of photosynthesis.  They could turn sunlight into self!  The energy from our sun’s photons was used to combine carbon dioxide and water into sugar. And sugar can be used to store energy, and to build new types of structures.

Photosynthesis also releases oxygen as a biproduct.  From the perspective of the organisms living then, photosynthesis poisoned the entire atmosphere – a sudden rise in our atmosphere’s oxygen concentration caused many species to go extinct.  But we humans never could have come about without all that oxygen.

Perhaps that’s a small consolation, given that major corporations are currently poisoning our atmosphere with carbon dioxide.  Huge numbers of species might go extinct – including, possibly, ourselves – but something else would have a chance to live here after we have passed.

In addition to poisoning the atmosphere, photosynthesis introduced a new form of competition.  Warmth spreads diffusely – on the early Earth, it was often sheer chance whether one organism would have an advantage over any other.  If you can photosynthesize, though, you want to be the highest organism around.  If you’re closer to the sun, you get the first chance to nab incoming photons.

That’s the evolutionary pressure that induced plants to evolve.  Plants combined sugars into rigid structures so that they could grow upwards.  Height helps when your main goal in life is to snatch sunlight.

Animation by At09kg on Wikipedia.

Nothing can live without curtailing the chances of other living things.  Whenever a plant absorbs a photon, it reduces the energy available for other plants growing below.

Plants created the soil by trapping dirt and dust, and soil lets them store water for later use.  But there is only so much desalinated water.  Roots reach outward: “I drink your milkshake!”, each could exclaim.

For a heterotroph, the brutality of our world is even more clear.  Our kind – including amoebas, fungi, and all animals – can only survive by eating others.  We are carbon recyclers.  Sugar and protein refurbishers.  We take the molecular machines made by photosynthesizing organisms … chop them apart … and use the pieces to create ourselves.

Some heterotrophs are saprophages – eaters of the dead.  But most survive only by destroying the lives of others.

For the earliest heterotrophs, to eat was to kill.  But, why worry?  Why, after all, is life special?  Each photosynthesizing organism was already churning through our universe’s finite quantity of order in its attempt to grow.  They took in material from their environment and rearranged it.  So did the heterotrophs – they ingested and rearranged. Like all living things, they consumed order and excreted chaos.

The heterotrophs were extinguishing life, but life is just a pattern that repeats itself.  A living thing is a metabolic machine that self-copies.  From a thermodynamic perspective, only the energetics of the process distinguish life from a crystal.  Both are patterns that grow, but when a crystal grows, it makes matter more stable than its environment – life makes matter less stable as it’s incorporated into the pattern.

Your ability to read this essay is a legacy of the heterotrophs’ more violent descendants.  The earliest multicellular heterotrophs were filter feeders – they passively consumed whatever came near.

But then, between 500 and 600 million years ago, animals began to hunt and kill.  They would actively seek life to extinguish.  To do this, they needed to think – neurons first arose among these hunters.

Not coincidentally, this is also the time that animals first developed hard shells, sharp spines, armored plates – defenses to stop others from eating them.

The rigid molecules that allow plants to grow tall, like cellulose, are hard to digest.  So the earliest hunters probably began by killing other animals.

With every meal, you join the long legacy of animals that survived only by extinguishing the lives of others.  With every thought, you draw upon the legacy of our forebear’s ruthless hunt.

Even if you’re vegan, your meals kill.  Like us, plants have goals.  It’s a matter of controversy whether they can perceive – perhaps they don’t know that they have goals – but plants will constantly strive to grow, to collect sunlight and water while they can, and many will actively resist being eaten.

But it makes no sense to value the world if you don’t value yourself.  Maybe you feel sad that you can’t photosynthesize … maybe you’d search out a patch of barren, rocky ground so that you’d absorb only photons that would otherwise be “wasted” … but, in this lifetime, you have to eat.  Otherwise you’d die.  And I personally think that any moral philosophy that advocates suicide is untenable.  That’s a major flaw with utilitarianism – rigid devotion to the idea of maximizing happiness for all would suggest that you, as another organism that’s taking up space, constantly killing, and sapping our universe’s limited supply of order, simply shouldn’t be here.

At its illogical extreme, utilitarianism suggests that either you conquer the world (if you’re the best at feeling happy) or kill yourself (if you’re not).

We humans are descended from carnivores.  Our ancestors were able to maintain such large brains only by cooking and eating meat.  Our bodies lack an herbivore’s compliment of enzymes that would allow us to convert grass and leaves into the full compliment of proteins that we need.

And we owe the very existence of our brains to the hunts carried out by even more ancient ancestors.  If they hadn’t killed, we couldn’t think.

Just because we were blessed by a legacy of violence, though, doesn’t mean we have to perpetuate that violence.  We can benefit from past harms and resolve to harm less in the present and future.

Writing was first developed by professional scribes.  Scientific progress was the province of wealthy artisans.  None of the progress of our culture would have been possible if huge numbers of people weren’t oppressed – food that those people grew was taken from them and distributed by kings to a small number of privileged scribes, artisans, philosophers, and layabouts. 

When humans lived as hunters and gatherers, their societies were generally equitable.  People might die young from bacterial infections, dehydration, or starvation, but their lives were probably much better than the lives of the earliest farmers.  After we discovered agriculture, our diets became less varied and our lives less interesting.  Plus, it’s easier to oppress a land-bound farmer than a nomadic hunter.  Stationary people paid tribute to self-appointed kings.

This misery befell the vast majority of our world’s population, and persisted for thousands of years.  But the world we have now couldn’t have come about any other way.  It’s horrific, but, for humans to reach our current technologies, we needed oppression.  Food was taken from those who toiled and given to those who hadn’t. 

Mostly those others created nothing of value … but some of them made writing, and mathematics, and rocket ships.

Although the development of writing required oppression, it’s wrong to oppress people now.  It was wrong then, too … but we can’t go back and fix things.

Although the origin of your brain required violence, I likewise think we ought to minimize the violence we enact today.  We can’t help all the animals who were hurt in the long journey that made our world the place it is now.  And we can’t stop killing – there’s no other way for heterotrophs like us to live.

To be vegan, though, is to reckon with those costs.  To feel a sense of wonder at all the world pays for us to be here.  And, in gratitude, to refrain from asking that it pay more than we need.

On ‘The Ravanayan’ and women traveling alone.

On ‘The Ravanayan’ and women traveling alone.

Most ancient stories, including several considered sacred by contemporary societies, are riddled with sex, violence, and gore.  In the Old Testament, Samson goes berserk and murders a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey.  In the Iliad, Achilles goes berserk and drags a corpse across the battlefield, hoping to defile the body of his foe.  In the Edda, Thor goes berserk and starts smashing skulls with his hammer. 

In the Ramayana, an army of monkeys and an army of demons meet murderously on the battlefield.  From Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, and Barend van Nooten’s translation of the Ramayana:

In that terrible darkness they slaughtered one another in battle: the monkeys crying, “Are you a demon?” and the demons crying, “Are you a monkey?”

Kill!”  “Rend!”  “Come on!”  “What, running away?”  Such were the tumultuous cries that were heard in that darkness.

A tremendous din could be heard as they roared and raced about in that tumultuous battle, though nothing at all could be seen.

In their towering fury, monkeys killed monkeys, while demons slaughtered demons in the darkness.

And as the monkeys and demons killed friend and foe alike, they drenched the earth with blood, making it slick with mud.


The weapons described in the Ramayana are so fantastical that some Hindu nationalists cite these passages as evidence that ancient Indians had access to advanced military technology, like atomic bombs.  Which, um, they didn’t.  These claims are equivalent to the Christian archaeologists who scour rocks for evidence of Yahweh’s genocidal flood in the Old Testament.

Ancient myths tend not to be literally true.

But, even to a generation raised on Mortal Kombat and action flicks, mythological battle scenes are pretty intense.  Especially in the Ramayana, what with those magical weapons, flying monkeys, and angry demons.  Luckily for us, Vijayendra Mohanty and Vivek Goel have collaborated to produce The Ravanayan, a gorgeous series of comic books depicting this story.

Divine arrows that explode on impact?  Yup.


The Ramayana is an intricate, expansive myth.  Whenever I attempt to summarize it to someone, I begin tentatively – the story includes deep meditations on fate, and its chains of causality often seem involuted and intertwined.  One action causes another, but the second action also caused the first. 

For instance, Rama kills Ravana because Ravana kidnapped Rama’s spouse.  But also, Rama was born for the express purpose of killing Ravana.  Their collision was pre-ordained.

In some tellings, Ravana is a demon.  A monstrous figure who, like Lucifer, initiates an assault on the gods and must be stopped.  Because Ravana is immune to harm from deities, though, Vishnu must be incarnated as a human to slay him.  During Vishnu’s tenure as a human, other characters intentionally waste his time because they are waiting for Rama / Vishnu’s divinity to fade sufficiently for him to be able to fight Ravana.

In other tellings, Ravana is an enlightened figure.  Ravana is vegetarian, whereas Rama’s vice-like passion for hunting is so strong that he abandons his spouse in order to pursue (and kill) a particularly beautiful deer.  By way of contrast, Ravana exemplifies asceticism, forebearance, and learning … but is doomed by love.  In the essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” A.K. Ramanujan writes that:

In the Jain texts … Ravana is a noble hero fated by his karma to fall for Sita and bring death upon himself.

And, in some Shaivite interpretations of the Ramayana, the supposed villain has orchestrated the entire affair for the good of the world.  In these tellings, Ravana is like Jesus, intentionally sacrificing himself to potentiate salvation for others.

Mohanty and Goel’s Ravanayan follows this tradition.  In addition to stunning illustrations (seriously, check out Goel’s pictures of Brahma, a creator who contains galaxies), their books offer deep psychological insight, especially in their explanations for Ravana’s seemingly irrational behavior.  In their telling, Ravana is perfectly aware of the pain that he is causing, but he believes that the only way to save the world is by sacrificing himself and those he loves.

Goel’s Brahma.

Goel often depicts Ravana alone, repulsed by the suffering that he himself must cause in pursuit of greater good.


Precisely because Mohanty and Goel do such an excellent job depicting other portions of the Ramayana, I was disappointed that their series skips the Shoorpanakha episode.  In this scene, an adventurous woman is traveling alone when she meets Rama and his brother.  The two are so gorgeous and charming that she feels smitten and begins to flirt.  The brothers tease her briefly … then mutilate her face by hacking off her nose and ears, a standard punishment for sexual impropriety.

As it happens, the woman whom Rama and his brother have abused is Ravana’s sister.  Shoorpanakha returns to her brother’s kingdom to show Ravana what was done to her.  Only then does Ravana decide to kidnap Rama’s spouse, hoping to punish the brothers for assaulting his sister.

In ancient India, it was unacceptable for a woman to travel alone.  Much worse, Shoorpanakha felt infatuated and attempted to act upon her desires.  Female desire was seen as inherently dangerous; Rama and his brother could been seen as exemplary men despite this assault because Shoorpanakha deserved to have her face sliced open.

Although Mohanty and Goel don’t show Rama and his brother disfiguring Shoorpanakha, her depiction in the first volume of their series is decidedly unsympathetic.  She is described as “wildness itself, chasing after anything that moved.”  When she and her siblings find an injured jungle cat, her younger brother says they should nurse it back to health; she wants to eat it. 

And then, as part of his plan to sacrifice himself for the sake of the story, Ravana murders Shoorpanakha’s husband in order to send her mad with grief. Because no sane woman would be so bold, possessed of such unnatural appetites, as to want to seduce the beautiful, charming, divine men she meets while traveling.


The Ramayana is thousands of years old.  It’s unreasonable to expect ancient stories to mirror contemporary sensibilities.  We know now, obviously, that many people whose cells contain two x chromosomes enjoy travel, adventure, and sex.  They shouldn’t be judged for their desire.  And certainly not assaulted in retribution for it, as Shoorpanakha was.

Except that … they are.  The New York Times recently ran an article on some of the women who have been attacked while (and quite possibly for) traveling alone.

Women are still punished for their appetites.  For perfectly acceptable behavior, things that would seem strange for men to fear.

If the world were different, I probably wouldn’t fault Mohanty and Goel for their depiction of Shoorpanakha.  After all, they’re working with ancient source material.  The original audience for the Ramayana would have shared a prejudice against adventuresome women.

But, until our world gets better, I feel wary of art that promotes those same prejudices.

A beautiful comic book could change the way kids think about the world.  In The Ravanayan, Mohanty and Goel push readers to feel empathy even for a story’s traditional villain.  I just wish they’d done more.  Our world still isn’t safe for women.  Shoorpanakha, too, has a story that deserves to be heard.

On the value of religious misinterpretation.

On the value of religious misinterpretation.

David Kishik begins his lovely theological meditation The Book of Shem by pondering the inverted grammar that opens Genesis.  Instead of a typical subject verb direct object construction, the first sentence of the original Hebrew text is arranged adverb verb subject direct object.

Wrote Kishik, “This is an odd grammatical construction, not only in English (compare ‘Yesterday walked Joseph’) but also in Hebrew.”  Odd, although not totally outlandish.

Kishik questions whether the grammar was actually strange, however.  What if the book of Genesis opens with a perfectly normal sentence that is intended to convey a bizarre idea, instead.  The first word, which everyone presumes to be an adverb, might instead refer to a power above even Yahweh himself (“Bereshit” in Hebrew, commonly rendered as “In the beginning” in English). 

We would have something like:

InTheBeginning created (a) god, the heavens and the earth.

It seems implausible that Kishik, or anyone, would consider this translation to be what the original authors of Genesis intended.  Even if the translation itself were more plausible, this interpretation is divorced from the actual religious practices that treat Genesis as a foundational text.  Religions use the book, but no religion is defined by a text alone.

It might seem bizarre for InTheBeginning, the mysterious pre-civilized force, to be mentioned only once, at the moment when he creates our Lord.  But Kishik pursues this idea through an entire arc of environmentally-conscious speculation.  If InTheBeginning created Yahweh, then Yahweh’s formidable jealousy becomes comprehensible.  We can understand why Yahweh might compulsively, almost tic-ishly, appraise the quality of his own creations: … and God saw that it was good.

Kishik begins by misinterpreting Genesis, but this allows him to make interesting discoveries along the way.  He concludes that, just as InTheBeginning was a pre-human, pre-lingual force able to create God, there must be a symmetrical post-human, post-textual void for the world to return to.  Although God made a covenant (Genesis 9:11) promising not to destroy the planet, He does not possess total control.

God will not kill us.  But he may not be able to save us.  We humans might destroy this world ourselves.

Indeed, we’re well on our way.


I was raised in a mostly secular household, and I’m still wary of mysticism (despite my own belief in free will).  I’m quite obviously an outsider to every religious tradition.  But religions shape the way most humans approach the world, so it behooves all people, myself included, to learn and think deeply about them.

Even outsiders must occasionally appropriate the right to critique these texts.

It’s important to understand their standard interpretations.  But, even from the perspective of an outsider, a lot of nuance can be revealed through assiduous misinterpretation.

Kishik’s The Book of Shem, although obviously nonstandard, is an enlightening, pleasurable read.

Or consider John-Michael Bloomquist’s “The Prodigal’s Return,” a poem about teaching in jail, which includes the line:

                  I think Christ died for us

to forgive his father, who until he became a man

and dwelt among us had no way of knowing

what it was like to be Job

In the standard interpretation, Jesus was sacrificed so that God would forgive us humans.  This is a very traditional myth, with variants told by many human cultures across the globe.  Wrathful deities must be appeased through the intentional, unwarranted sacrifice of something good. 

In The Iliad, the Acheans praise Zeus by slitting the throats of a whole row of young men kneeling in the sand.  Abraham bound his son on the mountaintop; the boy survived that day, but a lot of the story’s power comes from the original audience knowing that this sort of sacrifice was common.  They would have realized how close Abraham came to plunging down the knife.  There are numerous stories about the need to murder beautiful virgins to appease volcanoes, or to ensure good harvests, or to bring back rain.

Even though Jesus’s sacrifice makes sense within the framework of traditional mythology, it seems jarring within the context of Christianity, which purports to worship a kind, merciful god.

Within Christianity, it actually makes more sense for God to incarnate himself and suffer greatly so that we humans would forgive Him.  He created this world, and this world causes us to hurt.  Until He feels some of the hurt that He has subjected us to, his apologies would seem insincere.

Loneliness, hopelessness – God subjected Job to these in order to win a bet.  He subjects nearly all humans to these travails as a matter of universal design.  He needs to know the cost that we pay.

After hanging from the cross, He could look to Job and say, I understand how you might have felt.

This is not what the original authors wanted the Bible to convey.  But we’d have a better world if it were.

John-Michael soon learned that being inside a jail – even as a visitor, there to read poetry for ninety minutes and then leave – was miserable.  But he kept going for an entire year.  The people in jail are suffering on behalf of all U.S. citizens – which meant, on his behalf – so he needed to suffer too.

Psychiatry students were once encouraged to ingest many different medications, so that they would understand what the compounds they’d prescribe felt like.

Shared experience – especially painful experience – can bring us together.


The author(s) of the Ramayana intended for Rama to be the greatest possible man.  Within their philosophical framework, Rama is unambiguously good.  The story is a triumph of the hero.

But it’s helpful to look at the myth with modern eyes and willfully misinterpret it.  When we read the story now, Rama seems flawed because his world was flawed.

Near the end of Rama’s saga his path is blocked by the ocean.  His wife is held captive on an island kingdom; Rama feels helpless, trapped on the shore.  And so he threatens violence against the very waters:

Now, launching a powerful assault, I shall with my arrows dry up the ocean together with its fish and sea monsters and its masses of conch and oyster shells.

This lord of the ocean, abode of sea monsters, thinks that, because I am endowed with forbearance, I am weak.  To hell with forbearance for people like this!

Fetch my bow and my arrows, which are like venomous serpents, for now in my fury I shall convulse the imperturbable ocean.

This passage was translated collaboratively by Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, & Barend Nooten.  And it is troubling to see Rama, the ideal man, threaten physical violence to ensure that the world conforms to his desires.  Goldman and Goldman include the following footnote:

This episode, in its rendition by Tulsi Das, is the setting for his famous verse about how certain things and creatures, including sudras and women, only perform when beaten.  This verse has been the subject of critique and controversy among members of the women’s movement and Dalit advocacy groups in contemporary India.

If we castigate Rama for his words, we are clearly misinterpreting the text.  Rama is good within the text, because this behavior was good within his world.  A man, head of the household, was allowed to beat his wife or servants if they did not meet his expectations.  

Most people would find it difficult to read Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” with a straight face now.  But, in another revealing misinterpretation, proponents of the Dravidar Kazhagam movement have found parallels between the Ramayana itself and a Kipling-esque tale of colonial conquest and oppression.  In the Ramayana, light-skinned north Indians execute a south Indian king, subjugate the local populace, and install their own ruler.  (I’ve written about this interpretation previously, here.)

Hinduism itself, along with the oppressions of the caste system, seems to have reached south India in this way.  The original conquest probably occurred around the time that the Ramayana was composed, although the spread of Hinduism was not yet complete even many centuries of years later, when Kipling’s British white men arrived to make matters even worse.

In Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla writes that:

When I asked my mother and my uncle about our ancestors, they started with their grandparents’ generation, the earliest one they’d known.

Their grandfather and grandmother were born in the late 1800s in the Khammam district, within what later became the state of Andhra Pradesh, where they lived as part of a nomadic clan.  Their clan did not practice agriculture.  They subsisted on fruits, on roots, on honey, on whatever they could catch or snare.  They were not Hindus.  They worshiped their own tribal goddesses and had little to do with society outside the forest where they lived.

When the British cleared the forests for teak plantations, my great-grandparents’ clan was driven out onto the plains, where the civilized people, the settled ones, the ones who owned land and knew how to cultivate it – in a word, the Hindus – lived.  The little clan, wandering outside the forest, found a great lake and settled around it.  There was no sign of human life for miles and miles.  They took up farming.  The land around the lake was fertile and gave them more than they needed.  They called their new settlement Sankarapadu, after one of their gods.

But soon the civilized people took notice of them.  They were discovered by an agent of the local zamindar – the great landlord appointed by the British to collect revenue in that area – who saw the rice growing in their fields and levied taxes, keeping the bulk of what he extracted for himself.

But that was not enough for this agent.  He and his family and his caste people moved nearby and set about stealing the land by force and by cunning.  They loaned the clansmen trivial sums at usurious rates to buy small necessities such as salt, seeds, or new clothes for a wedding.  Unable to pay off these debts, the villagers gave up their land acre by acre.  My ancestors, who had cleared and settled the area, were reduced to working on their old fields as laborers.

This is what has happened to tribal peoples in India who try to settle down and cultivate land since time immemorial.  It still happens to this day.  What set Sankarapadu apart was that the Hindus who usurped all the fields around it did not settle there themselves.  That’s because the village is surrounded by fetid swamps filled with poisonous snakes, scorpions, and thick swarms of mosquitoes.  The landlords settled on safe and elevated ground several miles away in a village called Polukonda.

In the forest, my great-grandfather’s clan had had no caste.  But in Hindu society everyone is assigned a place in the caste system.  Certain castes traditionally own land, and others have to work for those who do.  For those who must work, the caste you are born into determines the kind of work you do.  There are priestly castes, carpenter castes, potter castes, barber castes.  The more impure a caste’s traditional occupation in terms of ritual law, the lower its status.

When the people of Sankarapadu entered Hindu society with no caste of their own and the most impure occupation of all, that of landless laborers, there was no question where their place would be: at the bottom, as despised outcastes.  Outcastes are also called untouchables because they are supposed to be so ritually unclean that the slightest contact with them will defile even low-caste Hindus.  Untouchables cannot share meals with others, much less intermarry with them, and are made to live apart from the rest of the village in a segregated colony on its outskirts.  Sankarapadu became the untouchable colony of Polukonda, albeit an unusually remote on.

The Ramayana was not meant to be a story of oppression.  But this misinterpretation has value, because it helps us understand the widespread biases of the author’s world — biases that persist to this day and still cause horrific suffering and violence.

Anachronistic critique will invariably lead us to misinterpret religious texts.  That shouldn’t stop us.  I’m curious to know what the old stories would mean if the world were as good as it could be.

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.

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.

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.

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 Syria, and the complexity of causality.

On Syria, and the complexity of causality.

Approximately one thousand years ago, the Syrian poet Abu Al-Ala Al-Ma’arri wrote:


God help us, we have sold our souls, all that was best,

To an enterprise in the hands of the Receiver.

We’ve no dividends, or rights, for the price we paid.

Yet should our wills choose between this corrupt business

And a paradise to come, rest assured they’d want


The world we have now.


birds(This was translated by Abdullah Al-Udhari and George Wightman for Birds through a Ceiling of Alabaster, a collection of ancient poetry from the Middle East.)

Many of our choices, moment to moment, are saddling us with a rotten deal.  We can often see how to make the world better.  “A paradise to come” might be heaven, but it could also be a more perfect world here on Earth.

If we were starting from scratch, it would be easy.


While wrapping packages at Pages to Prisoners recently, I told another volunteer about my essay on the link between misogyny and the plow.  Sexual dimorphism in Homo sapiens is minor enough that, if we were like other primate species, we shouldn’t have much gender inequality.  Many hunter-gatherer societies that survived until modern times were relatively egalitarian.  And women have been miserably oppressed in cultures that adopted the plow, a farming tool that magnifies the differences between human physiques.

But I had to admit, afterward, that, like all explanations that purport a single cause for something so complicated, my claim was wrong.  There seems to be a correlation between the introduction of the plow and myth-making that led to worlds like our own – but there were surely many other factors.

SphcowThe world is complex.  In physics and economics, the goal is often to propose a simplified model that captures something of the world – the difference between otherwise equivalent cultures that either adopted plowing or did not, the difference between otherwise equivalent societies where GDP growth is larger than the rate of return of investments, or smaller – and hope that most of the omitted detail really was expendable.

Which brings us to Syria.


syria_tmo_2011210Like many environmentalists, I’ve commented on the link between the horrors in Syria and climate change.  Human activities – primarily in nations that experienced a huge leap in living standards during the industrial revolution – have released long-trapped carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  This has caused a small increase in global temperatures, but can cause a large change in the climate of any particular region of the planet.  Areas that once supported many people become suddenly less habitable.

Like Syria.  The country plunged into drought, which led to widespread food insecurity, which made the violence worse.

That much seems true, but it’s certainly not the whole truth.  The violence was already there.

Al_Assad_familyWhile Syria was ruled by the Assads, there were constant human rights abuses.  Their punishment for a 19-year-old student who joined the Syrian Communist Party and expressed dissatisfaction with his country’s political regime?  The student was imprisoned for sixteen years.

After his release, the now middle-aged Yassin al-Haj Saleh still disliked his government.  Somehow those sixteen years did not convince him of the errors in his youthful ways.  He married a fellow political activist and continued to advocate for change.

Unfortunately, activism like theirs contributed to Syria’s descent into nightmare.  You should read Lindsey Hilsum’s “War of All Against All,” in which she reviews Saleh’s recent essay collection alongside three other books about the tragedy.

Saleh wrote that:

International_Mine_Action_Center_in_Syria_(Aleppo)_12It never occurred to us that there could be a more dangerous threat to their lives than the regime’s bombs.  What bestows a particularly tragic status on this abduction is that it was an outcome of our own struggle, and that we ourselves had made this horrible incident possible.

This sentiment is painfully elaborated by Hilsum:

The sentence bears rereading: so terrible is the situation in Syria that one of the region’s most long-standing and fervent critics, a man who has dedicated his whole life to fighting the Assads, father and son, is forced to wonder if it would have been better not to rebel at all.  The author’s head may have remained clear while his heart was breaking, but the carefully modulated prose of these essays does not provide the whole story.  How can we understand the Syrian revolution unless … we consider in … depth how it feels to blame yourself for your wife’s disappearance and probable death?

The writer’s personal tragedy reveals him as an authentic voice trying to understand how the genuine, progressive revolt he supported went so horribly wrong.

The regime was awful, imprisoning and torturing children for years at a time.  Student-led protests eventually led to a retreat by the regime, but then quasi-religious fanatics claimed vast swaths of the country.  They kept the old regime’s torture and arbitrary imprisonment, and added public execution.  U.S. intervention arrived late and couldn’t root out the deeply-infiltrated jihadists.

Hilsum writes that “An older woman we met might have been forgiven for cursing both sides: ISIS had expropriated her house, she said, and then the Americans had bombed it.


While reading Hilsum’s piece, I felt a twinge of guilt.  Yes, climate change exacerbated the tragedy, but the chaos in Syria was already a tragedy.  It’s heartlessly trivializing to imply that there could be a simple explanation for such a complex, horrible thing.  I was wrong to blithely write what I did.

Plows don’t oppress women, people did.  (Which sounds unfortunately reminiscent of “guns don’t kill people,” because guns do, they potentiate far more killing than would be possible without them.)

Climate change didn’t murder millions of Syrians.  But it made an awful situation worse.

On Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad.’

On Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad.’

Whenever one of her students finished, my graduate school advisor took everyone out to dinner and paid for the meal.  These were expensive meals, too – between San Francisco’s culinary culture and Silicon Valley’s sudden money, many restaurants near Stanford turned very pricey.

I wouldn’t eat.  I’d order a glass of water, no more.  If it were lunchtime, I’d say that I planned to go running early in the afternoon.  If it were dinner, I’d murmur that K & I had eaten already.  My advisor would frown, but after the first few times this happened, she stopped arguing.  She probably thought I was anorexic, or deranged.

Nope.  But I’d read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift.  In his words:

gift_us_newGift exchange must … be refused when there is a real threat in the connections that it offers.  In ancient tales the hero who must pass through hell is warned that charity is dangerous in the underworld; if he wishes to return to the land of the living, he should lend a hand to no one, nor accept the food offered by the dead.

Gifts from evil people must also be refused lest we be bound to evil.  In folk tales the hero is well advised to refuse the food and drink offered him by a witch.

We often refuse relationship, either from the simple desire to remain unentangled, or because we sense that the proffered connection is tainted, dangerous, or frankly evil.  And when we refuse relationship, we must refuse gift exchange as well.

If I’d nibbled an eight dollar plate of french fries, I probably wouldn’t have been trapped in California.  But it wasn’t worth the risk.  That was a world with which I hoped to maintain no ties.

urThe stakes for Cora, the hero of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, are higher.  I was miserable during graduate school, but Whitehead writes of a world in which innocent people are routinely tortured and murdered in all variety of grotesque, horrifying manner.

When Cora stumbles to the road after trekking for days through a secret subterranean tunnel, she sees several wagons trundling westward.  The first two wagons are driven by white men – she ignores the first, and, when pressed by the second, turns down his offer to help.

The third wagon was commanded by an older negro man.

You hungry?” the man asked.  He was from the south, from his voice.

I’m very hungry,” Cora said.

Despite her hunger, Cora could not accept aid from the whites.  Although her escape was facilitated by several white people (most of whom were then tortured and murdered for having aided her), she cannot trust strangers with pallid skin.

Indeed, a minor character, another survivor of the final massacre that Cora fled, gives a pithy summary of this distrust in her old age:

She lived on Long Island then, after roaming all over the country, in a small house with a Shinnecock sailor who doted on her to excess. She’d spent time in Louisiana and Virginia, where her father opened colored institutes of learning, and California.  A spell in Oklahoma … The conflict in Europe was terrible and violent, she told her sailor, but she took exception to the name.  The Great War had always been between the white and the black.  It always would be.

Several pages earlier, Whitehead proffers a speech from a character highly regarded for his intellectualism; this speech delineates the sides in this war:

Our ancestors came from all over the African continent.  It’s quite large. … They had different ways of subsistence, different customs, spoke a hundred different languages.  And that great mixture was brought to America in the holds of slave ships. … We are craftsmen and midwives and preachers and peddlers. … The word we.  We are not one people but many different people.  How can one person speak for this great, beautiful race – which is not one race but many, with a million desires and hopes and wishes for ourselves and our children?

For we are Africans in America.  Something new in the history of the world, without models for what we will become.

Color must suffice.  It has brought us to this night, this discussion, and it will take us into the future.  All I truly know is that we rise and fall as one, one colored family living next door to one white family.  We may not know the way through the forest, but we can pick each other up when we fall, and we will arrive together.”

The world in Whitehead’s novel is stark and brutal.  What’s worse, the most horrific elements of the story are real.

colson_whitehead_2014The Underground Railroad is a blend of historical fiction and Man-in-the-High-Castle-esque sci-fi.  The novel is set in a world that resembles the 1800s United States, but it is not our world.  Underground tunnels crisscross the country, secretly built by a coterie of technologically-advanced, presumably African-American citizens (when asked of the provenance of the tunnels, a character gnomically replies “Who builds anything in this country?”).  And a century’s worth of racial injustice has been condensed into the several years that Cora spends fleeing the torturers who claimed to own her.

Personally, I felt that this speculative re-imagining of America weakened the story.  By picking and choosing various injustices throughout history and shifting them into the past, Whitehead creates the illusion that these sins all pre-dated the Civil War.  After all, the passage about the “Great War” quoted above implies that Whitehead’s world experienced a similar abolition of slavery toward the turn of the century, else how could “colored institutes of learning” be opened in the south?

But the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, as with many of the abuses documented in Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, is so chilling because it transpired long after the Civil War – the syphilis study did not officially end until the 1970s.

And Whitehead imagines a region that has outlawed the presence of any human with too much melanin in his or her skin (perhaps even European immigrants living here stayed indoors, or routinely smeared themselves with thick swaths of titanium dioxide, lest they be mobbed & murdered for a tan).  But, within the context of a sci-fi alternate history, readers might believe that the violent enforcement of a “whites only” district ended long before it did in this country.

bloodattherootThese abuses were ongoing a mere thirty years ago.  From Carol Anderson’s New York Times review of Patrick Phillips’ Blood at the Root:

A few years later, in 1987, the civil rights legend Hosea Williams … took marchers … into Forsyth County [outside Atlanta].  It wasn’t a fair fight.  Men, women, children and Klansmen, proudly waving the Confederate flag and a noose, overwhelmed law enforcement and hurled stones, debris, and epithets as they surged at the nonviolent protesters.  “Keep Forsyth white!” scraped through the air like fingernails on a chalkboard.  The only thing that finally broke Forsyth County open was the pressure of Atlanta’s sprawl and the onslaught of economic development.

Especially at this moment in history, when millions of young black men are ensnared in our nation’s incarceration crisis, when dozens have recently been murdered by the law enforcement officers sworn to protect them, it feels strange to condense horrors into a small sliver of long-ago time.  Slavery itself in many ways continued into the 1940s, as documented in Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name.  If you read the Thirteenth Amendment, you’ll find that slavery is still constitutionally legal even today, as long as a mockery of justice is enacted first.  In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander documents how egregiously unfair these mockeries of justice often are in the present-day United States.

Some of the violence in Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is thankfully confined to the past.  The unpunished multi-day torture-cum-murder of re-captured fugitives, for instance.  And the Underground Railroad itself is an idea firmly rooted in the pre-Civil-War United States.

But I worry that, by linking these ideas to more recent examples of injustice, Whitehead’s novel won’t draw this violence into the present, but rather make contemporary injustice seem long past.  After all, we humans are adept at forgetting the suffering we cause.  After the slave catcher in Whitehead’s novel asks Cora whether she feels bad about having killed a boy during her escape, the slaver summarizes,

Of course not – it’s nothing.  Better weep for one of those burned cornfields, or this steer swimming in our soup.”


On witchcraft and mass psychogenic illness.

On witchcraft and mass psychogenic illness.


Because she is N’s best friend’s grandmother, I recently had the pleasure of meeting the researcher who first proposed that the Salem witchcraft trials were inspired by ergot poisoning of rye crops.  And that, of course, is one of the papers I read while researching mass psychogenic illness / conversion disorders / violence against women.

Does it seem controversial to throw that last categorization in there?

Here’s a quick summary: mass psychogenic illness is typically diagnosed when people exhibit strange behavior and those who are making the diagnosis do not know why.  If an episode involves more women than men, that’s considered an indication of mass psychogenic illness — even for contemporary diagnoses, actually, although we now know that women & men metabolize many small molecules differently, which means that equal ingested dosage will often result in higher blood levels for women.

Maybe you read about the recent episode in New York (if not, I’d recommend another lovely article by Susan Dominus, “What Happened to the Girls in Le Roy”).  Teenagers started twitching.  Mostly young women were affected, environmental analysis identified no known toxins, doctors decided it was mass psychogenic illness.

There are non-psychological reasons to believe that certain episodes of strange behavior, tics, convulsions, etc., would affect primarily women, but ever since the diagnosis of “hysteria” was first proposed (in which the womb forgets that it’s supposed to reside near a woman’s belly and begins to wander her body, eventually latching onto the brain and causing her to act strange) the medical community has assumed that most women’s problems are in their heads.

Which isn’t to say that strange behavior like tics, convulsions, etc., cannot have an exclusively neurological cause.  It can.  There are physiological problems that can be caused solely by the brain — usually the initial onset is accompanied by high stress — and, unfortunately, the symptoms also recursively change the brain.  It’s a little bit silly to try to distinguish between psychological and physiological problems, what with the brain also being part of the body, but with conversion disorders an ailment that began as thought will eventually become detectably imprinted in matter.

In case you’re interested, here’s a nice open-source reference by Ali et al. discussing this loop.

Despite my reflexive distaste for most of Malcolm Gladwell’s pithy summaries about how the world works — I’ve read enough social psychology papers to know that the findings are often much weaker than they seem when filtered through popular writing — that lovely phrase “the tipping point” seems very appropriate when thinking about mass psychogenic illness.  There are two stable equilibria that you could roughly designate “acting strange” and “acting normal,” and at some intermediate point they transition sharply from one to the other.

Here, I can draw a graph for you, using tarantism as a model case.  Tarantism, you ask?  People thought that spider bites would be fatal unless those bitten began to dance… so circa the 1380s, every summer there was wild, obscene dancing from Italians trying mightily to stave off death.


It’s the fact that the amount of dancing in turn contributes to the likelihood of more dancing, that lends the situation a tipping point.  All else being equal, a world in which not many people are dancing will result in little dancing in the future, a world full of revelry will produce more rambunctious behavior.

And there’s a point in the middle, when a small number of people have been affected, that could just as easily swing one way or the other… by next week the “danger” may have passed, or there might be a tremendous outbreak of tarantism.

(Also, my apologies to any math people out there … I realize that this is a nonstandard way to represent an ODE.  I’ve been working on a post about the uncertainty principle and trying to think of ways to use basic math to convey a decent “feel” for complicated equations.  Which is difficult, and is made even more so by the fact that I am so out of practice; since beginning my thesis research project, I’ve never had professional reasons to use anything more complicated than statistics.)

To reach a tipping point, though, there have to be many people experiencing similar levels of stress, along with whatever else might be needed to initiate a conversion disorder.  Which is why I think it’s reasonable to think that outbreaks of mass psychogenic illness are a symptom of pervasive violence against women.  They tend to occur primarily amongst people who have limited opportunities for self-expression: overworked schoolchildren, prisoners, convent residents, and women living in restrictive societies.

Salem_Witch_trial_engravingAnd it is of course possible for other factors to contribute.  That’s the main message I took away from Caporael’s ergotism study — for young women living in puritanical New England, who believed that witchcraft was a very real threat, it wouldn’t take much to push them over the edge.  Exposure to a psychedelic drug could potentially do it.

Which isn’t to say that lysergic acid makes people condemn their compatriots as witches.  Like most drugs, its effects are dictated largely by the mindset of whomever ingests it.  I think this passage from Ronald Siegel’s Intoxication (a somewhat strange book discussing drug use by a variety of animal species) phrases this well:

“Violent people are often intoxicated but the violence is usually rooted in the personality, not the drug.  People may panic under the influence of LSD or any other drug that makes them feel different. . .”

Caporael addressed this in her paper — the idea that neither ergot alone, nor a belief in witchcraft alone, would have resulted in the trials — and suggested that the paucity of similar accusations during that time period lends further credence to the ergotism hypothesis.

“The Puritans’ belief in witchcraft was a totally accepted part of their religious tenets.  The malicious workings of Satan and his cohorts was just as real to the early colonists as their belief in God.  Yet, the low incidence of witchcraft trials in New England prior to 1692 suggests that the Puritans did not always resort to accusations of black magic to deal with irreconcilable differences or inexplicable events.”

Altogether, it’s a nice little paper.  Plus — and this is something I didn’t realize when I first read it — it’s a single-author Science paper written by a twenty-something year-old graduate student based on research she’d done as an undergrad.  The only publication I have from my undergraduate research is an author contribution buried somewhere in the middle of a long list of researchers… for an article that landed in Blood.  Somewhat lower tier than Science.

Ergot growing on rye.

In fact, my only real objection to Caporael’s paper doesn’t address the underlying research.  It’s that I believe the ergotism hypothesis lets the perpetrators of the Salem witchcraft trials off too easily.  Hearing that the accusers might have inadvertently ingested psychedelic drugs (for months!) might make their actions sound less heinous.

And, look, we’ll never know for sure.  Salem’s inhabitants might’ve been under the influence of lysergic acid for that whole time period.

But I think it’s worth pointing out that similar abuses have occurred in the absence of any confounding psychedelics.  Outbreaks of a wide variety of diseases in Europe caused people to blame and murder their jewish neighbors.  Outbreaks of a wide variety of social strife in the United States caused people to blame and murder their black neighbors.  Even the Stanford Prison Experiment documents how easily an imposed worldview can bring forth evil.

If those Stanford students had been indoctrinated from birth to believe in witchcraft and an omnipresent Satan striving to destroy their society, they probably could’ve been convinced to start dunking their classmates in order to identify the witch.

My brother & me. Luckily no one accused us of witchcraft; given our garb, I doubt we coulda beat the rap.
My brother & me. Luckily no one accused us of witchcraft; given our garb, I doubt we coulda beat the rap.