Elizabeth Kolbert’s lovely essay in the New York Review of Books, “Chemical Warfare’s Home Front,” describes Fritz Haber’s contribution to the use of toxic gas in war.
Haber orchestrated the use of chlorine to suffocate all animal life – including soldiers – downwind of his nation’s troops. And his plan succeeded. After unleashing 300,000 pounds of chlorine gas, huge numbers of people died. Soldiers– some of whom suffocated, some whose lungs burned, some who committed suicide when enveloped by the gas – as well as horses, cows, chickens, wildlife.
Chemical warfare is horrible, but Haber’s battlefield “experiment” was considered a success. Military researchers then concocted more dangerous chemical agents, like DNA-crosslinking mustard gas and muscle-clenching Sarin nerve gas.
Fritz Haber’s other ideas were seemingly more beneficial for humanity. Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for making synthetic fertilizer.
Synthetic fertilizer let us grow more crops.
We could feed billions more people!
The global population soared.
If we hadn’t invented synthetic fertilizer, the global population would still be under four billion people.
Climate change would still be a huge problem – the most outrageous polluters haven’t been the most populous nations. Climate change was caused primarily by the United States and other wealthy nations, whereas overpopulation will first devastate equatorial nations.
A seemingly good idea – more fertilizer! – has greatly exacerbated the scale of suffering.
Kolbert discusses the invention of chlorofluorocarbons, which seemed like great coolants. With CFCs, Frigidaire could build cheaper refrigerators! Regular families could keep their ice cream cold without spending as much on electricity.
Unfortunately, CFCs also dissolve our ozone layer. More dangerous ultraviolet radiation began to reach us from the sun, causing horrible skin cancers.
CFCs seemed like a good idea — they do work great as coolants — but they caused awful problems as part of a bigger system.
Kolbert quotes the chemist F. Sherwood Rowland, who said, in reference to his studies of CFCs, “The work is going very well, but it looks like the end of the world.”
Anthropologist Joseph Tainter argued civilizations collapse when overwhelmed by complexity.
Like the children’s nursery rhyme about the old lady who swallowed a fly — then a spider to catch the fly, then a cat to catch the spider — our complicated solutions can create new, perhaps worse, problems.
This is the theme of Jenny Kleeman’s Sex Robots and Vegan Meat. Kleeman investigates several industries that purport to solve our world’s problems – You can eat meat without killing animals! You can make a baby without a mother’s body! – without addressing the fundamental causes of these problems.
Describing her travels, Kleeman writes:
I head back to my hotel as the reassuring cloak of darkness falls on Las Vegas. I’m exhausted. Music is thumping out of huge speakers mounted on the building’s exterior: throbbing, pounding beats that are supposed to entice gamblers into the hotel’s casino. I wipe my key card and flop down on the giant bed.
On the bedside table, there’s a metal dish full of individually wrapped pairs of earplugs: wax ones, foam ones, silicone ones – a profusion of solutions supplied by the management to the noise pollution problem caused by the management.
They could just switch the music off, of course, but they have provided a little piece of technology instead so they don’t have to.
My head is full of Eva, [a prototype interactive sex doll] who has the body of a real woman, but can be beaten without feeling a thing. Rather than dealing with the cause of a problem, we invent something to try to cancel it out.
Perhaps we should eat different foods. Perhaps our attitudes about sex or the importance of a sociable community are making our lives worse. Perhaps if we addressed these issues directly, we wouldn’t need sex robots or vegan meat.
Clean meat is one of many possible futures of food, so long as we continue to eat meat. We will always have the power to not want it anymore, or to want it much less.
That is where the real power lies: in harnessing our desires, rather than in mastering technology. Until we do, we will be even further removed from where our food comes from, and will feel even less responsible for it.
We will be perpetuating the kind of thinking that caused the meat mess in the first place.
In April 2020, I described two major drawbacks to our efforts to “slow the spread” of Covid-19 instead of providing targeted protection for the people at high risk of severe illness.
2.) Each infection encompasses some number of viral replications and thus genetic drift. If a population of 20 people transfers a virus between themselves one by one, rather than all catching it from the same initial carrier, the virus has 20-fold more generations to mutate and better evade our immune systems.
Admittedly, my April 2020 prediction about the timeline for vaccine development was quite wrong – I thought this might take three to five years. I’m thankful that I was wrong. I’m obviously grateful for the fantastic work done by vaccine developers so far.
For these vaccines to effectively staunch viral transmission, we’ll need to vaccinate large numbers of people – immunity from prior infections won’t necessarily help much because immunity to this particular virus lapses so quickly, and because people’s prior infections were staggered in time. (Indeed, we’ll probably need to vaccinate large numbers of people repeatedly, because some of our data suggests that vaccine-derived immunity to this also lapses on a timescale of months.)
Unfortunately, we live in a country where large numbers of people distrust the medical establishment. Even if we had sufficient doses of the vaccines available today, I don’t know what percentage of our population would choose to get them.
Masks definitely reduce viral transmission. It was obviously a good idea for everyone to wear masks anywhere that high risk and lower risk people share the same space.
Cooperation definitely makes for a better place to live. In places that enacted mask orders, it’s obviously a good idea to follow them.
It’s worth remembering, though, that any fix – even something as simple as this piece of cloth covering my nose and mouth – can have unintentional consequences. New virus variants – which our current vaccines may be less effective against – are a predictable result of our effort to “slow the spread” with masks.
I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people who are incarcerated. We’ve included a sheet of information about Covid-19 with each package recently, helping to explain that Covid-19 is not a hoax, that it’s a dangerous respiratory disease, that masks and social distancing can help people reduce their risk.
I’m currently revising this information sheet – it was put together months ago, when we understood less about this virus – and I’m still recommend that everyone wear masks.
Not just because prisons are places where many low risk and high risk people are confined together — although, they are. Outrageous sentencing practices have led to a large number of elderly people being stuck in prison.
But also, anecdotal evidence suggests that people are more likely to develop severe illness from Covid-19 when they are exposed to a large number of viral particles at once.
Viruses reproduce exponentially – you can get sick if you inhale even one capsid. But you’re more likely to get seriously ill if you inhale a whole bunch of viral particles. If you’re initially exposed to a small number of particles, your body will have more time to fight off the infection before it makes you feel sick.
Research studies from military bases have shown that Covid-19 will continue to spread even when everyone wears masks and tries to stay six feet away from each other. But we haven’t tested – an experiment like this would be totally unethical – whether we’re more likely to see asymptomatic or mild cases when people’s initial exposure is to a small number of viral particles.
It’s quite likely, though.
So, although I think our efforts to “slow the spread” weren’t the best plan last year, I’ll still be recommending masks.
How is the mobile game Among Us like Robert Greene’s The Art of Seduction?
I appreciate the premise of both. They’ll help you learn to get what you want.
But I doubt I’ll play again.
When people write to Pages to Prisoners, they request all kinds of books. Fantasy, thrillers, sci-fi, horror, romance. How to draw, how to start your own business, how to build a home. How to speak Spanish, or French, or Italian. The history of ancient Egypt. UFO books about aliens building the pyramids.
Most people write and tell us a few topics that they’re interested in, then we comb through our collection of donated books and put together a package that the person will (hopefully!) be happy to receive.
Are you interested in self-help and philosophy? Here’s a package with Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist! Are you interested in games and comics? Here’s a package with a Dungeons & Dragons manual and some freaky zombie books!
We try to give people what they want. Nobody should have their entire life defined by their single lowest moment.
When people write to us requesting a specific book, usually it’s the dictionary. Seriously, that’s our top request. Despite their miserable circumstances, a lot of people caught up in our criminal justice system are making a sincere effort to improve themselves. To read more, learn more, and be better.
If I had to guess what our second-most requested book is, though, I’d say Robert Greene’s The Art of Seduction.
Which seems less helpful than a dictionary if your goal is to become a better person.
I attempted to borrow The Art of Seduction from our local library. We only had an audio version, though, so I can’t quote from it directly. I listened to the first third, I believe.
And Greene made a remark that I appreciated: because so many of us feel unfulfilled in life – our work might be dull, our achievements might fall short of our ambitions – we would enjoy being seduced. After all, we spend buckets of money on booze, movies, and games. We like beautiful illusions.
Perhaps a seducer isn’t the person whom they’re pretending to be – so what? Greene suggests that we’d still enjoy an evening in which we take on a role in that person’s play – we can pretend to be loved by someone dazzling, someone who at least postures as rich, friendly, a scintillating conversationalist.
In my classes at the jail, I’ve met a fair few men who seem to have studied The Art of Seduction and other such pickup guides. Although their conversations are incredibly engaging at first, they quickly become repetitive – they have a few timeworn routines that they trot out again and again, the same slew each week. If you met this person at a party, he’d seem fascinating! Meet him at three parties in a row, you’d be hearing all the same skits.
As long as we anticipate this dissipation, maybe it’s okay. When we drink, we know that sobriety is going to catch up with us in the morning – sobriety, and a headache. We let a film transport us even though we know that the house lights are coming on two hours later.
If I were talking to someone who was playacting as a brilliant conversationalist, and we were both having fun, I don’t think I’d mind that their stories were invented. When guys in jail spin tales about their lives, I always take them at their word – even though I know that much of what people say in there is bullshit.
Sometimes we have to bifurcate our minds to get the most from life. Immerse ourselves fully in a role and enjoy it for what it is. Nobody playing Dungeons & Dragons believes that she’s really a level nine elf wizard, but she can still enjoy the thrill of saving the party with her powerful spells.
The major flaw with The Art of Seduction, from my perspective, is that it discusses the people being seduced as objects. The guide uses the language of battle and conquest, as though pleasure is something that the seducer takes from the seduced.
If, instead, the guide simply wrote about how best to entice others into joining you for mutually-pleasurable roleplay – in which pleasure is shared as you both pretend to be, and thereby become, scintillating lovers – well, then I’d salute Greene for doing his part to make the world a better place. Couldn’t we all use more love, pleasure, and excitement in our lives?
There are lots of ways to dance the dance. To play games. I simply prefer the honest ones – in which everyone is privy to, and pleased by, the illusions.
My brother recently gathered a group of ten of us to play the mobile game Among Us.
Among Us is a social deduction game, like Werewolf, Mafia, or Secret Hitler. Each player is assigned a hidden role at the beginning of the round – are you townsfolk or the werewolf? Are you a liberal or a fascist?
In Among Us, you’re an interstellar scientist or an alien.
The two teams have opposed goals. The scientists are trying to complete a set of mundane tasks – dumping the garbage, stabilizing the engines – so that they can return home. The aliens are trying to kill the scientists.
The graphics are charmingly reminiscent of early Nintendo games. And the pace of the game is excellent – at times your character wanders a map, trying to do chores, at other times play is interrupted by a meeting in which everyone tries to solve the mystery of who could’ve killed their teammate. Catch someone without an alibi and you can vote to fling them out the airlock, saving your crew from further tragedy.
Unless you were wrong and you accidentally ejected one of your helpful friends. Then the aliens are that much closer to victory.
I’m quite earnest.
Yes, I love the shared illusion of games, and I can appreciate that Among Us asks two players from each group of ten to playact as evil aliens. Those players are required to be deceptive, but it’s within the safe confines of a game that everyone in the group has chosen to play. There’s deceit, and there’s total consent.
But also, I’m terrible at this sort of game.
We played for several hours – a dozen, maybe two dozen rounds? I was given the role of the evil alien only once. And I attacked my second victim while standing right out in the open. Taylor walked past, saw me, and promptly called a meeting.
“Oh my God,” she said, “I just walked in and Frank totally killed him right in front of me.”
In retrospect, it’s clear what I should have said next. The scientists’ mundane tasks fill up the entire phone screen – I could’ve claimed to be working on one, that I’d been interrupted by this meeting halfway through it and hadn’t seen what happened, but then accurately described the place where I’d been standing. Yes, this would have seemed suspicious – I’d admit to standing right where the body was found – but the other players might think that Taylor had come into the room, killed someone without me noticing, and then tried to frame me.
We played with a team of two evil aliens, so this would’ve been quite helpful to say – even if the other players voted to eject me from the ship, they’d remain suspicious of Taylor and might eject her later, bolstering the chances of my alien ally.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t recall what the nearby chore was supposed to be. I learned that, if you haven’t played Among Us very often but are given the role of the alien, you should slay your victims near chores that you know well. So that you can convincingly describe what you were doing if someone stumbles across your misdeed.
Instead, I laughed and voted myself off the ship.
Among Us was fun, but the game has its flaws.
Each round is ten or twenty minutes, but a few people are eliminated right away. If you were playing, you’d definitely want a book nearby or a TV show to watch, just to have something to do during the times when your character gets eliminated first. Except that the players are still expected to complete their vaguely unpleasant chores – clicking a set of buttons at just the right times, or dragging illustrated leaves across the telephone screen to clean an air filter – even after they’re killed and can no longer participate in the discussions or votes.
I’d definitely prefer if a deceased player’s chores were automatically completed at steady rate.
For about a decade, Jonathan Blow, creator of the fantastic puzzle game Braid, has been an outspoken critic of unethical game design. In a 2007 lecture, Blow described his qualms about World of Warcraft – players are forced to complete mundane, unpleasant tasks in order to progress in the game. To balance this unpleasantness, the game keeps players engaged with tiny pulses of dopamine – even though it’s not particularly fun to slay each tiny goblin, the game rewards you with a jingle of dropped gold or a gambler’s rush of wondering whether this unidentified treasure will be a good one.
By forcing players to sink time into mundane tasks, World of Warcraft makes their lives worse. “The meaning of life in World of Warcraftis you’re some schmo that doesn’t have anything better to do than sit around pressing a button.”
The chores in Among Us need to be sufficiently challenging that they introduce a cognitive burden for most players, but there are ways to do that without making them tedious. Simple logic puzzles would accomplish the design requirements of Among Us and help players get more out of each game.
The more dire problem, from my perspective, are the ways that repeat play with the same group shifts your optimal playstyle.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a game in which two players choose either to cooperate or defect. Then they’re sent to jail for various lengths of time depending on both players’ choices.
The Prisoners’ Dilemma is a very different sort of “game” from Among Us – I assume nobody would want to download an app for it. Your team wins! You only go to jail for two years each!
If both players cooperate, the pair will be imprisoned for the least total time. But also, no matter what the other player chooses, you can reduce your own time in jail by defecting.
And so the “game theory optimal” play is to defect. When both players do, they both wind up spending more time in jail than if they’d both cooperated.
In Freedom Evolves, Daniel Dennett discusses ways in which human evolution – which bestowed upon us emotions, a tendency to blush or bluster while lying, and a willingness to endure personal suffering in order to punish non-cooperators – may have solved the Prisoner’s Dilemma.
When evolution gets around to creating agents that can learn, and reflect, and consider rationally what to do next, it confronts these agents with a new version of the commitment problem: how to commit to something and convince others you have done so.
Wearing a cap that says “I’m a cooperator” is not going to take you far in a world of other rational agents on the lookout for ploys.
According to Robert Frank, over evolutionary time we “learned” how to harness our emotions to keep us from being too rational, and – just as important – earning us a reputation for not being too rational.
It is our unwanted excess of myopic rationality, Frank claims, that makes us so vulnerable to temptations and threats, vulnerable to “offers we can’t refuse.” Part of being a good citizen is making oneself into a being that can be relied upon to be relatively impervious to such offers.
Emotions can solve the Prisoners’ Dilemma – cooperating because you’d feel bad about hurting the other person – and so can repeated play.
When you’re faced with the Prisoners’ Dilemma once, the “rational” choice is to betray your partner. But if you’re playing with the same person many times, or with groups of people who know your reputation, the optimal strategy is to be kind. To cooperate unless you have ample evidence that a particular partner will not.
The Prisoners’ Dilemma is a game where playing more makes you a better person.
By way of contrast, Among Us teaches you to behave worse the more you play.
This is a feature common to all social deception games. If you were playing Secret Hitler once – and only once – and were assigned to play as a liberal politician, your optimal strategy would be to be scrupulously earnest and honest. The players assigned to roleplay as fascists must lie to succeed, but the liberal team doesn’t need to.
However, if you plan to play Secret Hitler several times with the same group of friends, your optimal strategy includes a fair bit of caginess and trickery even when you’re playing the role of a liberal. Otherwise, the contrast between your behaviors would make the game impossible to win during the rounds when you’re assigned to roleplay as a fascist.
Similarly, Among Us rewards deception even when you’re assigned the role of a scientist. Otherwise, you won’t be able to win during the rounds when you’re assigned to play as an evil alien.
Although the optimal strategy for the team of scientists might seem to be extreme forthrightness, repeated play cultivates a basal level of dishonesty.
In The Biggest Bluff, Maria Konnikova describes her journey from poker novice to professional – the book jacket lauds her $300,000 in winnings.
She frames this journey as a quest to understand the whims of chance – how can an appreciation for randomness buoy her spirits during the hard times of life?
And the biggest bluff of all?
That skill can ever be enough.
That’s the hope that allows us to move forward in those moments when luck is most stacked against us, the useful delusion that lets us push on rather than give up.
We don’t know, we can’t ever know, if we’ll manage or not. But we must convince ourselves that we can. That, in the end, our skill will be enough to carry the day. Because it has to be.
It’s a beautiful message. We let ourselves believe that we’re in control, because if we lost that belief, we might give up.
And yet. Almost unmentioned in the text of The Biggest Bluff are the mechanics of where money comes from in poker. Poker doesn’t produce wealth – instead, a large number of people pay to enter a game, and a small number of people receive the money at the end.
Because Konnikova was fortunate enough to be instructed by experienced players, and wealthy enough to invest a lot of time and money on learning, she was eventually able to deceive and bully other people well enough that she could take their money.
Poker is consensual. Everyone entering a game knows that the other players are attempting to take their money. Some people must play with full understanding that they’ll lose – maybe they think the entry fee is a fair price for the enjoyment of the game. But most people, I’d assume, are hoping to win. And – because poker doesn’t produce anything, instead redistributing wealth from the many to the few – most don’t.
Playing many games of poker would teach you skills that can be used to get ahead in the world. An appreciation for chance. An ability to negotiate. An ability to tamp down or hide your emotional responses to adversity or triumph. An ability to manipulate those around you.
Some of that sounds good, some doesn’t. On the whole, I don’t think I want the traits that poker would help me develop.
Similarly, The Art of Seduction promised to teach valuable skills. I, too, like cuddles! My spouse bought me a cute little “polyamorous” pin to wear on my jacket label. But I wouldn’t want to follow any advice recommending that we deceive potential romantic interests, or treat them as objects.
And I don’t want the traits that Among Us would help me develop, either.
Deception is a valuable skill. More often, we’d get what we want. But at what cost?
When I played Among Us, I had fun. I was often laughing during the meetings when we discussed whether we should eject someone from our ship. Sometimes we did, and we felt so sure that we’d eliminated an alien because that person had seemed suspicious the whole game, but then we’d lose and realize that we’d doomed a fellow scientist.
Again, I’d laugh.
But the ability to enjoy Among Us comes from a wellspring of privilege.
My spouse can’t play social deduction games. She grew up with a paranoid schizophrenic mother – in order to stay safe as a child, she learned to lie. For many years, my spouse then lied compulsively. Pervasive lying came close to wrecking her life.
She resolved that she wouldn’t lie anymore. Recognizing that it would be an easy habit for herself to slip back into, she won’t lie even in a game.
Our children know that there’s no Santa Claus. That’s okay – I think that the Santa story is a starter conspiracy theory, and, even if Santa were real, our family would probably be against elf servitude.
Our children know that there’s no Tooth Fairy. My spouse and I dress up fabulously and dance through their bedroom when we replace their teeth with quarters – I wear a glittery skirt, angel wings, and a light-up tiara, all rescued at various times from neighborhood trash.
Another of my close friends joined us to play a single game of Among Us. She hated it. She, too, had a traumatic childhood. For someone who grew up around adults with mercurial swings of violence and rage, it feels awful to be lied to by your friends. Even within the consensual confines of a game.
After each game of Among Us, I wanted to play again. Despite the nuisance chores, despite my near-total inability to lie, despite knowing that I might be eliminated from the game within the first minute, I wanted to play again.
And yet, having written this essay, I doubt I ever will.
While I was working in a
research laboratory at Stanford, my advisor mentioned that she was waiting for
a package from ________.
“Oh, we got something from him,” said our technician
John, “but it was just an Invitrogen catalog.
Their rep brought us a newer copy last week, so I threw it out.”
“What!” my advisor shouted, causing him to jump. “Which trash can?!”
She and John rooted
through the garbage together. Luckily
the package had arrived that day. The
now-gooey catalog (I was smashing a lot of cow brains in those days, and the
bleached muck went into the trash) was still there.
We didn’t need another
Invitrogen catalog. But it’s illegal to
ship DNA through the mail, so researchers often smuggle it by dotting some onto
paper then circling the spot. When you
receive DNA this way, you cut out the circle, dip it in water, and then add
The bacteria make more copies of your DNA. Antibiotics kill off any bacteria that aren’t helping. And the U.S. post office is none the wiser.
you can throw out the useless catalog.
I’ve been volunteering with the Midwest Pages to Prisoners project for about a decade. We ship books to people who would be otherwise deprived. Occasionally, though, administrators at a prison will instruct their mailroom staff to return all our packages. Or, worse, quietly pitch them into the trash. Months might pass before people inside let us know that our books aren’t getting in.
administrators will relent and let us send books again, but it might take a few
years of phone calls. During one such
frustrating episode, I wrote a poem.
for the Devil
am a writer as in a vulture, plucking words from
pain. & sing penance, but never loud enough:
we feast upon this world of hurt we’ve made.
might salve even the poor, so we send free
to inmates. At one prison, packages never
We called & were told we impregnated
with suboxone. We lacked both will &
we have no budget; drugged pages wilt &
no one would read. Later I heard the state
shunting sex criminals there. Books were
a privilege, underhandedly revoked.
Aryan Brotherhood for whites, Gangland
for black men. We are free to believe in
America: in prison, meals might mean
stack of trays sloughed inside a then-locked door.
men take two. Others will go hungry. The
of want sends us seeking for what symbols
solidarity we find, hoping for allies against the
AB oft allies with the guards. Members reap
jobs, access to visitors, untrammelled mail.
the prison binning our books, gang & guards
very close, COs inked in crosses, runic letters,
& shamrocks. Yet AB, there, was weak. So
were fed sex criminals – easy, friendless kills.
guard outs the doomed man’s past – everyone
asked why he’s doing time – and members
him in the shower. They look tougher
than they are.
A dozen deaths. No indictments.
began to smuggle phones, hoping to
abuse. That’s when our packages ceased
to be received.
I’ve no deep love for these men –
of mine were abused. But if those who
be punished by death, let’s force judge & juries
say it. Not read a shadow sentence of 10 or 20 years.
We should say what we mean:
sentence you to a cruel and unusual death.
suddenly in a shower stall, faux-Odinist skin-
slamming your head against the tile until your
brain ruptures from repeated trauma.
will loosen from their sockets, your skull will
blood will whelm through your nostrils.
indignity, bowels relax. You will know
of hoping to live when you cannot. Your
will drop while the water runs, cascading over
corpse. Although news of your death will
those who sentenced you, they will know that
justice has been done.
Quite likely, drugs were being smuggled into that prison. I’ve been told that it’s easier to buy drugs in prison than out on the street. Which is rough – people who are recovering from addiction often relapse after being sent to prison. In those bleak environs, there aren’t a lot of other ways to occupy your time.
The drugs weren’t coming from Pages to Prisoners, though. We always embalm our packages in tape so that correctional officers can’t tamper with them (as easily) on their way in. And, seriously, our organization doesn’t have the budget for drugs – we’re shipping donated books wrapped in old grocery bags! I’ve never tried to buy opiates, but I assume they’re expensive. Guys in jail sometimes mention how many thousands they were spending on their habits each week, which helps explain why they’re broke.
I understand why prison administrators worry, though. Scientists use books to smuggle DNA; you could illicitly ship a variety of drugs that way.
Although our organization ships books to people incarcerated in twelve different states, local prisons are the only ones that ban us. Which is sad. From a community perspective, we’d like to help people locally. We can recruit volunteers by mentioning that the people inside will be coming back to our community.
From a health and safety
perspective, though, prison administrators would prefer that books come from
out of state. Then they can feel more
confident that packages are being sent by people who’ve never met the
The recipients would be
like my colleague John, evaluating each book based solely on its title: an
Invitrogen catalog? We don’t need that!
Or, after receiving one of the packages sent by Pages to Prisoners recently: sweet, advanced Dungeons & Dragons!
Prison administrators have
good reason to keep drugs out. People’s
tolerance wanes during their time in jail – somebody might take too much and
die. Whereas they’re unlikely to OD on
course, prisons don’t have to be so bleak & punitive, let alone violent
& PTSD-inducing. Prisons like we
have in the U.S. don’t need to exist at all. And then organizations like Pages to
Prisoners wouldn’t need to send books.
In the beginning,
subatomic particles careened too quickly to connect. The universe was “hot.” (Temperature is a measure of average speed as
objects jiggle. When physics people say
that our universe was “hot,” they mean that everything was moving just shy of
the speed of light.)
In the beginning, our universe wasn’t very interesting. But then the homogeneous cloud of fast-moving particles cooled as it expanded. Speeds slowed. Soon, particles dawdled long enough in each others’ vicinity that they could interact. Hydrogen atoms formed, then hydrogen gas, then stars.
Stars are interesting – when a cloud of gas is big enough, its net gravity can pull everything inward until the density becomes so high that nuclear fusion begins. This raging cascade of explosions counteracts the force of gravity and the star reaches an unsteady equilibrium until, eventually, it runs out of fuel and collapses or explodes.
An exploding star scatters
heavier atoms across the sky. When these
are incorporated into a new star, they can participate in nuclear fusion events
in turn, producing even heavier atoms.
Then that star might
Eventually, there were enough heavy atoms floating about the universe that a condensing cloud could form both a star and a set of orbiting satellites. On these satellites – planets – atoms combine in more interesting ways than inside the bellies of stars.
After all, the infernal
core of a star is pretty hot, too.
Inside that blazing oven, particles can form atoms, and atoms can
combine to form heavier atoms, but these are too frantic to form molecules
– long strings of atoms bonded together.
The chemical bonds that hold a molecule together are much weaker than the electrostatic and nuclear forces that maintain an atom. But planets – even broiling, meteor-bombarded ones – are peaceful places compared to stars. On the primordial earth, lightning strikes or UV radiation probably catalyzed the formation of complex molecules like amino acids and nucleic acids.
These molecules are just
big amalgams of subatomic particles. The
underlying stuff is the same … but there’s more of it.
More is different.
Consider the behaviors of a single amino acid. An amino acid is complex compared to a quark or electron. It can do acid-base chemistry! Its mix of charged and neutral surfaces lets it interact in neat ways with various solvents.
But if you compare that
single amino acid to a protein – and a protein is just more amino acids
joined together – you’ll realize that the single amino acid is total
Proteins, though …
wow! They can fold into fantastical
shapes. They can function as molecular machines,
their parts churning and twisting and flipping as they shuttle other molecules
from place to place, or even create whole new molecules.
When you glom more and
more and more subatomic particles together, eventually you create things
that are complex enough to imprint patterns on the world. They create more things like themselves. Proteins and RNA make new proteins and RNA.
And then, a cell! A cell is an amalgam of molecules all dissolved inside a bubble of fat. If you thought proteins were cool, check this out! Cells can swim, they can eat, they can live and die.
Or, what if there were more
cells? Then you can make us! With many cells, you can make brains,
which makes consciousness, which can give all those subatomic particles the
ability to work together and realize that they are subatomic particles.
Well, no. One single human animal, in isolation, probably wouldn’t figure that out. Each human, as an individual, can be pretty great – but to form a culture complex enough to study particle physics, you’ll need more people. Contemporary physics papers list hundreds of authors, and that doesn’t even credit everybody who worked to build the equipment, and or worked to grow the food, and took care for the children, or taught the physicists, when they were young, allowing them to one day become physicists …
And each of those
physicists, and engineers, and farmers, and caregivers, and teachers … each is
a collection of cells, which are collections of molecules, which are
collections of atoms, which are collections of subatomic particles. As we transition between scales, we see
qualitative differences in behavior from adding more.
This essay is made from a
set of just 26 letters, but these can be combined to form a few hundred
thousand different words, and those can be combined to convey an
infinite number of different ideas.
We blink many thousands of times each day. Our eyes close, pause, and then open again. We need to blink. Staring at screens – as I’m doing now, typing this essay, and as are you, reading it – causes us to blink less frequently, and that can lead to headaches. But the quality of each blink doesn’t affect us much. Most blinks pass by without our even noticing.
Meditation is just a long blink. Close your eyes and let more time elapse before you open them again.
But more is
different. A blink doesn’t disrupt your
thoughts. Meditation, however, can be a
Many religions praise the value of meditation, especially in their origin stories. Before he began his ministry, Jesus meditated in the Judaean Desert – he saw all the world’s kingdoms before him, but rejected that vision of power in order to spread a philosophy of love and charity. Before he began his ministry, Buddha meditated beneath the Bodhi tree – he saw a path unfurl, a journey that would let travelers escape our world’s cycle of suffering. Buddha decided to share that vision with others.
Before teaching his fellows to reshape the world with words, Odin meditated from a tree branch – he felt that he had died, transcended life, and could see the secret language of the universe shimmering before him.
I’ve been preparing anti-racist material about paganism and spirituality so that we have more things to send to people who contact Pages to Prisoners. As part of this project, I’d like to include information about meditation. After all, neo-paganism is invented – typically quite recently – and, as above, many religions have preserved stories suggesting that their founders’ meditation inspired their faith. These religions don’t always prioritize meditation as a contemporary practice, but many do: Christian monks repeat prayers in a way that’s strikingly similar to mantra meditation, Hindu adherents are advised to sit and experience a simulacrum of Shiva’s asceticism, and even warrior cultures have prized pre-battle stillness as a way to focus attention and more fully inhabit the present.
The scientific literature is also replete with papers about meditation — but most of these are junk. It’s fairly easy to find published studies claiming that mindfulness training can confer disease resistance, immunity to aging, or even paranormal abilities like extra-sensory perception. Scientific papers aren’t inherently more trustworthy than the internet.
But it’s true that your mind is plastic, and your moods can dramatically alter the way you perceive the world. Conditions that affect our nervous system – like depression, insomnia, and even chronic pain – can be treated through meditation. The experiments that scientists use to assess things like “creativity” or “attentiveness” are often open to interpretation, but it’s not unreasonable to imagine that meditation would help.
All people are
creative. Our problem, often, is that
our ideas can flit away before we fully grasp them. Like dreams, they fade, and we’re left with
the irksome sensation that “I feel like I just had a good idea, but …”
Meditation can clear the
turbid waters of your mind. Like gazing
into a pellucid lake, it could become easier to spot your good ideas when they
I’ve never been inside a
prison, so I’ll have to collaborate with friends who have spent time there as I
make the pamphlets. But everything I’ve
read suggests that most prisons are loud, chaotic, stressful, and
dangerous. Which has obvious
implications for how easily people can meditate. If you live near a beautiful glen, you could
probably do well by your brain by simply taking some time each day to sit
peacefully beside some flowing water.
Instead, I’ve been learning about mantra meditation. By silently intoning the same phrase over and over – even if it’s just a nonsense word – you can overcome a fair bit of external distraction. To test, I’ve tried meditating at the YMCA. This place is very calm compared to our county jail, which I’ve heard is itself calmer than a prison, but where I sit, people are usually conversing, and there are a variety of rattling exercise machines.
Several of the guide books I’ve read recommend that you pay somebody a bunch of money to teach you transcendental meditation. During your training, you’ll be given a secret Sanskrit word or phrase. People who’ve taken these training courses have posted a bunch of the words online, and apparently a mantra is selected based upon your age and gender.
That seems silly to me –
although it’s possible that different people’s minds would respond best to
different mantras, my gender isn’t a big component of my identity, nor is my
I did pick out a Sanskrit phrase, which is perhaps a silly choice in and of itself. After all, I can’t speak Sanskrit. But I thought it might be nice to have a set of sounds that didn’t carry a lot of semantic meaning in the rest of my daily life. Although Sanskrit mantras would have held meaning to the original practitioners of this style of meditation, Sanskrit is generally considered a formal, ritual language, not something that people speak at home with their families. Even for native speakers, the chance of crossed wires, in which people were inadvertently saying their special mantras at other times of day, was probably pretty low.
While meditating, there are times when I’m pretty oblivious to my environs, even though I’m sitting in a crowded, noisy place. I assume that I should recommend, for people meditating in prison, that they use a buddy system. Unless somebody you trust immensely was sitting nearby, I assume it would feel too unsafe to allow yourself to completely let go in the way that deep meditation requires.
In case you’re interested
in trying, I can tell you what’s worked so far for me. I’ve been thinking the phrase “sat nam.” I liked the translation when I looked it up
online, and it’s felt convenient to have two discrete sounds – I think the
“sat” while breathing in, and “nam” while breathing out. I’ve read that people aim to spend about six
seconds each on inhalation and exhalation, but I breath much more rapidly than
If nothing too distracting is going on nearby – maybe just some clanking from the ellipticals, treadmills, and stairmasters – I breath in and out once every four to eight seconds. But when people are having a conversation right next to me, I take a breath every one or two seconds, which means I’m intoning my little mantra more often and can do a better job of isolating myself from what’s going on around me.
As far as I can tell, that isolation is the goal of meditation. Our minds evolved to expect constant stimulus during our waking lives. If you reduce the degree of outside stimulation, like with a sensory deprivation chamber, you invite your mind to conjure strange thoughts, visions, and sounds to replace the inputs that it expects. But you have to keep at it long enough.
When particle physicist Richard Feynman described his experience with sensory deprivation tanks, he wrote:
Ordinarily it would take me about fifteen minutes to get a hallucination going, but on a few occasions, when I smoked some marijuana beforehand, it came very quickly. But fifteen minutes was fast enough for me.
Mr. Lilly had a number of
different tanks, and we tried a number of different experiments. It didn’t seem to make much difference as far
as hallucinations were concerned, and I became convinced that the tank was
unnecessary. Now that I saw what to do,
I realized that all you have to do is sit quietly.
I would like to
have done it at home, and I don’t doubt that you could meditate and do
it if you practice, but I didn’t practice.
I’ve only had a bit of
practice, but when I sit still with my eyes closed and block out the outside
world with a repeated phrase, my mind will sometimes drift. I’ve been trying to sit for twenty minutes,
although I often inadvertently rouse myself after about fifteen – which hasn’t
seemed to be quite enough, for either me or Dr. Feynman. But I get the feeling that it has to be
continuous. Once I’ve opened my eyes and
glanced at the clock, I stop for the day.
Even if nothing much has happened.
On these days, I console myself with a quote from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that I learned from Bob Roth’s Strength in Stillness: “Even in a shallow dive, you still get wet.”
I begin by stretching –
although I’m practicing in a relatively distracting environment, it seems
reasonable to minimize the distractions of my own body. I try not to move while meditating, and it’d
be harder to maintain a single posture if I could feel my body ache.
After I close my eyes, the
first few minutes typically feel like a waste of time. I’m sitting there repeating a nonsense phrase
and I can’t help but think of the myriad other things that I ought to be doing.
As long as I can force
myself to keep at it, though, the experience changes. More becomes different. Undulating phosphenes blossom in the umber
field of my closed eyes. Sometimes I
slip into reverie; if I catch myself daydreaming, I’ll resume intoning my bit
of Sanskrit, which helps me set aside whatever vein of thought led me astray.
Nobody is totally sure why we need sleep, but recent results have suggested that nitrogenous waste and other metabolic toxins can only be cleared from brain cells while we’re snoozing. If you stay awake too long, trash piles up along the roadways of your mind, and all that junk prevents learning, memory formation, and attentiveness.
During my classes in jail, I often work with men who have stayed awake for weeks at a time by taking methamphetamine – they’ve experienced a wide variety of hallucinations, paranoia, and mental turmoil. Amphetamines aren’t very toxic, but loss of sleep can seriously damage a person’s brain.
One day without sleep
won’t kill you. Luckily so – since
having kids, there have been many nights when a little one wakes up screaming
and I never get to rest. But more is
different. After three days without
sleep, the shadow people start talking.
After eight days, my students have started talking back: “I knew they
weren’t real … but I still didn’t want to be rude. But we got into all these arguments.”
Sleep washes away the
argumentative shadow people.
When meditation goes well, I sometimes imagine my mind being cleansed – I’ll sit there thinking sat nam, sat nam and envision a cascade of water flowing over me like Heracles used to clean King Augeas’s stables. But meditation might not help with keeping a brain tidy – those experiments on the waste-clearing function of sleep were done with mice, and (to the best of my knowledge) nobody has taught mice to meditate.
If you trust my spouse’s
subjective evaluation, though, meditation seems to help. I’ve apparently been more pleasant to live
with since I started practicing.
If you’re going to try, aim for at least twenty minutes, maybe once or twice a day for a few weeks. My apologies if it seems pointless at first. I’d recommend you keep at it – just like a single minute won’t give you the same benefit as twenty, it seems reasonable to expect that a single day wouldn’t have the same benefit as a month’s daily practice.
Our criminal justice system ensnares people from all walks of life. Occasionally we’ll hear about the arrest of a wealthy sociopath with a penchant for child abuse, like Jared Fogel or Jeffrey Epstein.
But, let’s face it. Justice in this country isn’t applied fairly. If you’re wealthy, your behavior has to be a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a poor person. If you look white, your behavior has to a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a black person.
There’s abundant statistical evidence to back up these claims. But the Supreme Court won’t allow any particular individual to petition for reduced punishment based on the statistical evidence. After all, prosecutors, judges, and juries ostensibly came to their decisions based on the unique details of each individual case. Just because people who resemble you are often treated unfairly doesn’t mean that you were treated unfairly, too.
Because we apply punishment so inequitably, our jails and prisons are full of people who’ve been treated poorly by the world. Compared to the average citizen, people in prison grew up with less money, received less education, experienced more trauma. And, no matter what people’s earlier lives were like, if they’re in prison, they’re not being treated well now.
So they have a lot of justifiable grievances against the dominant political, cultural, and religious beliefs of our country. Punished unfairly by their fellow Christians, people sour on Christianity. Inside walls where the demographics make it blatantly obvious that our laws are enforced in a malignantly racist way, racial tensions boil.
At Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people inside, we get requests for stuff about Norse mythology, Odinism, and Asatru. Lots of folks ask for material to learn foreign languages – people want to feel like they’ve accomplished something during their time in prison – but I always feel skeptical when somebody wants help learning Icelandic.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Icelandic. And Norse mythology is cool! Unfortunately, a gaggle of violent white supremacists decided that Norse mythology should be the basis for their religion. Starting in the 1970s, a right-wing racist from Florida began sending “Odinist” publications into prisons.
During the thirteenth century, Christian scholars transcribed many of the old Norse myths so that they could better understand the literary allusions of old Icelandic poetry. But they didn’t record anything about ancient religious practice. We barely have any information about most ancient pagan beliefs. Anyone who wants to adopt a pre-Christian European religion now – whether it’s Wicca, Druidism, Odinism, or Celtic polytheism – is basically forced to make things up.
I have nothing against religious invention. All religions were made by human beings – there’s no a priori reason why a religion created long ago, by people who understood much less about the world than we do now, would be better than something you invent today. Sure, ancient religions have been tested by time, suggesting that they possess virtues that their practitioners found helpful over the years, but most ancient religions have their problems, too. Inaccurate cosmologies, scattered hateful passages in their texts, that sort of thing.
So I like the idea of neo-paganism. You want to find a clearing in the woods and
do some moonlit dancing? You’d rather
worship a feminine generative force than a norm-enforcing patriarchal deity? You want to exalt nature as a hearth to be
protected rather than a resource to be exploited? Go right ahead! All of that sounds pretty great to me.
neo-paganism as it’s currently practiced in prison tends to be pretty hateful.
That’s why I’ve been
working on a set of anti-racist pamphlets about Norse mythology. Currently, when people ask for The Poetic
Edda or whatever, we send a friendly letter saying that we don’t have it,
and also that we generally don’t stock that sort of thing because it runs afoul
of our anti-hate policy.
But the Norse myths are
certainly no more hateful than Biblical myths, and we send plenty of
those. The main difference is that
centuries of continued Christian practice have created a scaffolding of gentler
beliefs around the stories in the Bible.
The text of Psalm 137
states that “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little
ones against the stones.” But the
text is a tool, not the entirety of the religion. The practice of Christianity frowns upon
the murder of any human infant. Whether
you like the kid’s parents or not.
We’d be better off if Pages to Prisoners could send warm-hearted material about Norse mythology to people. Sure, you can interpret the Norse myths as endorsing a war-mongering death cult. You can interpret the Old Testament that way, too. But you can also interpret the Norse myths as environmentalist. Feminist. Supporting the pursuit of knowledge. Judging strangers based upon their merits, not their appearance.
Odinism is so entangled with white supremacy, though, our pamphlet will have to
address skin color and genetic heritage directly. It’s a fraught topic. Lots of people in the U.S. don’t like any discussion
of evolution. Some people feel squigged
out when they learn that contemporary birds evolved from the same set of common
ancestors as the dinosaurs. And that’s far
less emotionally charged than a description of human evolution.
Plus, skin color still has huge implications for how people are treated in the United States. Consider, um, those prison demographics I cited above. And so discussions about the evolution of epidermal melanin concentrations are especially tense. Although the underlying biology is simple – some places have more sunlight than others! – because people think it matters, it does.
I’ve found that these conversations are actually a decent way to get people interested in the study of archeology and biology, though. After we’ve discussed this in jail, people have asked me to bring research papers and textbooks so that they could learn more.
Whenever two groups of an organism stop mating with each other, they’ll slowly drift apart. This rift might occur because the groups became physically separated from each other. Maybe one group migrated to an island. In contemporary times, maybe the groups were separated when humans built a new highway bisecting a habitat. Maybe two sets of similar-looking insects mate apart because they’re eating fruits that ripen at different times.
Or the groups might stop mating with each other because a chance mutation caused members of one group to want their sexual partners to smell a certain way. Various species of stickleback are able to interbreed – they identify other members of their kind based on smell. But water pollution has overwhelmed the fishes’s senses, leading the fish to mate indiscriminately.
If humans hadn’t
polluted their waters, though, these sticklebacks would have drifted farther
and farther apart until it became impossible for them to interbreed. No matter how many sense-suppressing
chemicals we dumped.
We don’t know what caused the initial rift between our ancestors and the ancestors of contemporary chimpanzees. About 4 million years ago, though, these groups stopped having children together. By 2 millions years ago (at least 100,000 generations later), these groups looked quite different from each other. Although it’s possible that these organisms could have still mated with each other and raised viable progeny, they rarely did.
One group of these
creatures, which included our ancestors, had a tucked pelvis and mostly upright
posture. This allowed for a good vantage
while scavenging and, eventually, hunting.
The other group, which includes chimpanzees’ ancestors, mostly moved on
all fours. This body plan results in
fewer mothers dying during childbirth.
As ever, there are trade-offs to be made.
Up until about 2 million
years ago, all our ancestors lived in Africa.
But then they began to migrate.
Over the next million years, they explored much of the globe. By about 500,000 years ago, half a dozen
different types of humans lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia. The difference between one population to the
next was not like the racial differences among contemporary humans, but more
like the difference between lions and tigers, or between polar bears and brown
bears. Scientists describe them as
distinct species. Although they were
similar enough that they could have sex and raise children together, they
rarely did – they lived in distinct parts of the world and had begun to evolve
adaptations to their specific environments.
Evolution isn’t easy. Nor is it quick. Just because a certain trait would be
advantageous doesn’t mean that creatures will acquire it. In the desert, it would help to have
adaptations for water retention like camels, or long ears like jackrabbits to
cool the blood. But a trait can only
spread after a random mutation creates it.
And, even if a trait is very helpful, if only one individual is born
with the adaptation, there’s no guarantee that it will have enough children for
the benefit to spread through the population.
Once a beneficial trait has a good toe-hold – present in perhaps 1% to 10% of the population – then we can expect it to flourish. But below that amount, even great adaptations might die off due to bad luck. That’s why it takes so many generations – tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands – before you see organisms become drastically better suited for the environment. Even when scientists do directed evolution experiments in the lab, it takes about this many generations for a population of bacteria to evolve ways to consume a new food source, for instance.
By 500,000 years ago, the various species of humans were recognizably different. Denisovans lived in the mountains, and their hemoglobin genes allowed them to avoid altitude sickness. Their blood was less likely to clot and cause strokes, and they could extract more oxygen from the thin air. These are incredibly beneficial traits. Even though the Denisovans went extinct about 40,000 years ago, about 40% of people currently living in Tibet have copies of the Denisovan hemoglobin gene.
Our ancestors migrated east to the Denisovans’ homeland just before the Denisovans went extinct. To be perfectly honest, we probably killed them. But before or during this genocide, a few of our ancestors must have had sex with the locals. And then the bi-racial children of these Homo sapiens / Denisovan couplings must have been significantly better off for the gene to spread so widely.
The Neanderthal lived at
high latitude. Over many generations,
their average skin color became paler.
In part, this was probably due to the lack of selective pressure. Think about a dodo – there was no advantage
for these birds to lose their fear of humans.
But, because the dodos were living on an island that no humans traveled
to, there was also no harm in the birds becoming fearless.
Dodos lost a beneficial
trait – fear – because their fear wasn’t actively needed. It’s kind of like the airbags in an old
car. If your car’s engine goes bad,
you’ll notice right away. Turn the key,
hear it sputter. You use the engine
every time you drive. But your airbags
could get worse without you noticing … and then, in the moment when they’re
needed, they won’t deploy.
Humans living near the equator need epidermal melanin. If you don’t have enough melanin, you’ll get sunburns, which exacerbate the risk of infection and dehydration; you’ll suffer radiation-induced DNA damage, which leads to skin cancer; and you’ll lose folate, which means that pregnant women will have more birth defects.
The most recent ancestors
that humans and chimpanzees shared in common had pale skin. Contemporary chimpanzees are still pale. They can afford to be – their fur protects
them from the sun. But our ancestors
lost their fur, probably so that they didn’t overheat while running, and this
led to the evolution of dark skin.
High concentrations of
epidermal melanin distinguished humans from the other apes.
As humans migrated to
higher latitudes, though, they gradually lost this indicator of their
humanity. Because the sunlight was less
intense, there was less selective pressure.
Humans could lose their epidermal melanin in the same way that dodos
lost their fear – not because it was helpful to go without it, but because the
trait went untested in their day to day lives.
They had no way to “realize” how important it was.
Your airbags aren’t
helpful until you crash. And then
they’ll either deploy and save you, or they won’t.
Now, it’s possible that the Neanderthal also experienced some positive selective pressure on their skin color as they migrated north. Over thousands of generations, the Neanderthals may have benefited from paler skin because it increased their production of vitamin D. We don’t know for certain that the Neanderthal felt any evolutionary pressure to have more vitamin D – after all, contemporary Inuit people live at very high latitudes but still have a lot of epidermal melanin – but it’s true that vitamin D deficiency is a big risk among people with crummy diets.
In the past, hunter / gatherers typically ate much healthier, more varied diets than farmers. When humans began to farm, they would mostly eat the one type of plant that they cultivated, rather than the wide mix of plants that could be found growing wild. And when Homo sapiens farmers migrated to northern Europe, their diets were so poor that they even developed loss-of-function mutations in a cholesterol synthesis gene, probably so that they’d have higher concentrations of vitamin D precursors. Among these people, pale skin was probably a big advantage. They’d be ready for the cloudless days when their homeland’s feeble sunlight was enough to make some vitamin D.
Around 40,000 years ago,
our planet’s most recent ice age ended.
The world began to warm, and glaciers retreated from Europe. By then, a group of humans living in Africa
were recognizably Homo sapiens.
These were our ancestors. Every
human alive today – no matter what you look like or where your family is from –
is descended from this group of people from Africa. They lived in tribes of twenty to a hundred
people, had darkly pigmented skin, made art, and spoke complex languages.
As the world warmed, some
of these Homo sapiens began to migrate.
These journeys occurred over many generations. Some tribes stayed in Africa; some tribes
ventured north into Europe; others moved east toward Asia. As they traveled, they encountered the humans
who already lived in those places. As
I’ve mentioned, the newcomers occasionally had sex and raised children with the
natives. They probably also killed a lot
of them. Unfortunately, we Homo
sapiens don’t have the best reputation for treating strangers well.
rarely enough that most people living today have about 99% Homo sapiens DNA. Some people, especially if their families are
from Africa, have essentially 100% Homo sapiens DNA. At other extreme, even people whose families
are from Europe have 96% or more Homo sapiens DNA.
Among people living in
Tibet, the Denisovan hemoglobin gene is common, but most other Denisovan genes
Like the Neanderthal
before them, the Homo sapiens who ventured north into Europe began to
lose their epidermal melanin. People who
hunted and fished probably became paler simply because there was less risk of
sun damage. Remember, this didn’t happen
all at once. Average skin color would
change only over the course of hundreds or even thousands of generations, not
during the course of a single journeying Homo sapiens’s lifetime.
Our ancestors spent almost
all their time outdoors, which is why even dark-skinned people could probably
synthesize plenty of vitamin D. Among
contemporary humans, vitamin D deficiency is such a big problem because we
spend too much time inside. As I type
this, I’m sitting at a table in the YMCA snack room, lit up by flickering
fluorescent bulbs. This low-quality
light won’t help me make vitamin D.
Instead, I take a daily
supplement. But that doesn’t come near
matching the health and psychological benefits of time outdoors.
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that people in jail – places not known for providing a rich, high-quality, varied diet – typically get to go outside no more often than once a week. At our local jail, their hour of “outdoor rec” occurs in a little courtyard at the top of the jail, a cement space covered with a chain-linked fence. Outdoor rec often happened at night – a friend who was recently released told me that “This was still nice. You could see some stars. And there’s that restaurant, Little Zagrib, down the street? Sometimes we’d smell foods from their kitchen.”
Treating people that way
is unlikely to help them get better.
But back to our migrants! Descendants of these pale-skinned Homo sapiens continued to explore new territories. Some reached North America about 12,000 years ago, and some of their descendants continued farther, all the way to South America.
As people traveled –
journeys that lasted many generations – they continued to evolve. Indeed, skin color was a trait that came
repeatedly under selective pressure. As
people migrated south into the Americas, they were living progressively closer
and closer to the equator. Compared to
their grandparents, they were bombarded by more intense sunlight. They needed more epidermal melanin.
This is a process that
takes a long time. A family might have
six kids; maybe the two palest kids get sunburned, which makes it more likely
that they’ll develop skin infections and die before they have children of their
own. If this happens again and again,
among many different families, then eventually the whole population will wind
up with slightly darker skin.
Because human skin color
has changed during each of the many prehistoric migrations, it isn’t correlated
with other traits. As we entered the
modern era, people’s skin color was lighter or darker based on how close to the
equator their recent ancestors lived.
But human populations migrated so often that there were many different
groups, each with unique cultural and genetic heritages, living at every
latitude. Because skin color is so
closely linked to latitude, this means many different groups shared similar
concentrations of epidermal melanin. And
there’s no evolutionary pressure linking a trait that protects skin to brain
size or intelligence.
As it happens, there are
major events known to have caused a decrease in human brain size (and probably
intelligence). After all, human brains
are costly. Even though there’s a
benefit to being clever, there’s also been constant evolutionary pressure against
Large brains kill
mothers. Because humans walk upright,
childbirth is riskier for human mothers than for other primates. Our posture constrains the width of our hips
– both male and female – but a baby’s whole head has to pass through that
Having children is so
risky that we evolved to give birth about 3 months prematurely. Human gestation takes about a year, but most
mothers give birth after only 9 months.
This allows a baby’s head to continue to grow outside the mother’s body,
but human babies are totally helpless at birth.
We have to be very devoted parents to keep them alive.
Also, our brains require a
lot of fuel. Human evolution occurred
over such a long, long time that our ancestors lived through many droughts and
calamities. During the hard years, our
ancestors would struggle to get enough to eat, and a large brain makes that
A person with a smaller
brain requires fewer calories, making that person less likely to starve in lean
times. And, again, it’s worth
remembering that evolution happens over so many generations, among so many
families, that even small changes can add up.
If mothers who have small-headed children can survive a dozen
pregnancies, but mothers with large-headed children die after only a few, then
the trend will be to have people with smaller brains. Intelligence has to be extremely
beneficial to overcome this sort of evolutionary pressure.
Similarly, if people with
small brains are more likely to survive and raise children during droughts,
then, after hundreds of generations of people who have survived dozens of
extended droughts, you’d expect to see more people with small brains.
Many of us have the bad
habit of reflexively thinking about evolution as the gradual development of
more and more complexity. But that’s not
what it is. Evolution is the process by
which things that are better suited for their environment become more
abundant. If the environment is a hard
place to live in, then evolution tends to push for more and more simplicity. When it’s hard to get enough calories, why
waste calories on anything that you don’t really need?
Starfish are descended
from organisms that had brains. But
starfish are brainless. The ancestral
starfish that weren’t wasting energy thinking were more likely to survive.
Which should make you feel
pretty good about your own brain, actually.
Your ability to think is so fabulous that your ancestors evolved larger
and larger brains … even though these brains were sometimes causing us to
starve to death, or kill our mothers.
That’s a valuable thing
you’ve got inside your skull. It cost
our ancestors so much for you to be able to have it.
But, right. Because the cost was so high, human brains did shrink sometimes. Like when we first domesticated dogs. Our ancestors began living with dogs about 30,000 years ago. Dogs were willing to do some thinking for us – they’d sniff out prey and listen for predators at night. Based on the behavior of my family’s dogs, I bet that they licked the faces of screaming children. Maybe that doesn’t seem essential for survival, but I certainly appreciate every time our dogs calm the kids down.
Because we could slough
off a few mental tasks – I don’t need to be so observant if the dog will
help me hunt – our brains could shrink, making childbirth less deadly and
reducing the caloric cost of maintaining our minds each day.
When humans switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, our brains shrunk further. A hunter / gatherer has to know so much about every plant and animal living nearby; the work asks more of a person’s brain than farming. This evolutionary trend was exacerbated by the fact that people’s diets became way worse when they began to farm. Instead of getting nutrition from a wide variety of different plants and animals, a farmer might eat meals consisting mostly of a single type of grain.
There’s nothing we can do now about these evolutionary trends. Dogs and farming swayed our ancestors’ evolution toward smaller brains, but it’s not as though you can get those neurons back by deciding to take up hunting, or never living with a pet.
But, honestly, our brains are so plastic that our genetic heritage matters less than how we choose to spend our time. By nature, neither gorillas nor parrots will speak human language. But individuals from both these species have been able to learn to communicate with us after we taught them.
Nobody is born with an
innate understanding of mythology, religion, science, or mathematics. None of that can be encoded in your
genes. If you want to understand this
stuff, you’ll have to make an effort to learn it.
Neuron count only suggests
a brain’s potential. You could do
incredible things with a low number – consider, by ways of analogy, the feats
that 1960s NASA accomplished using computers much smaller than a contemporary
telephone. And, conversely, sensory
deprivation will make it much harder to get things done, no matter what your
That’s why I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners. Our brains are capable of wonders. At any age, we can learn and grow. And yet, we lock people into prisons that seem designed to make them worse.
It reveals more about a person’s character to see how they handle defeat. In the Christian bible, Jesus is a more compelling character than Yahweh. Jesus faces adversity, which sometimes he accepts calmly – he willingly submits to crucifixion despite knowing in advance that he has been betrayed – and sometimes heatedly – braiding a whip when he’s angered by commerce in the temple.
So, sure, Jesus loses his temper. Don’t we all? It’s understandable to lash out when unconscionable behavior seems to be taking over the world.
Which is why, when Jesus rages, he still seems like a sympathetic character. But when Yahweh does it, He seems small and petty. After all, Yahweh is omniscient. Omnipotent. He always wins, and yet he’s still jealous and wrathful.
In Norse mythology, every champion is shown both at moments of glory and in defeat. The latter episodes let us see the true depth of their strength.
In Laughing Shall I Die, Tom Shippey writes that:
Losing is a vital part of the Norse belief structure.Ragnarok is like Armageddon, the battle at the end of the world. In it the gods and their human allies will march out to fight against the frost giants and the fire giants, the trolls and the monsters. And in that battle – and this is not at all like Armageddon – our side, the good guys, will lose. Thor will kill the Midgard Serpent, the great snake that coils round the world, and then drop dead from its poison. Odin will be swallowed by the wolf Fenrir. Heimdal and the traitor god Loki, Tyr and the great hound Garm: both pairs will kill each other. Frey, left swordless, will fall before the fire giant Surt, who will then set the world ablaze.
The gods know this is going to happen. That is why Odin habitually betrays his own chosen heroes to death, and this is where the myth of Valhalla comes in. Odin wants his best heroes dead so he can collect them in his own Halls of the Slain (Valhalla), where they will fight each other every day, for practice, and come back to life-in-death at the end of every day, to feast.
The myths had a built-in answer for, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The Norse imagined that gods betrayed their champions in life because they needed allies in death.
Odin knows Ragnarok is coming, but since he does not know when, he wants his team to be at all times as strong as possible, even though the result is foreordained. Even the gods will die, and their side will lose as well, and they know they will. But this does not make them want to negotiate, still less change sides. Refusal to give in is what’s important. It’s only in ultimate defeat that you can show what you’re really made of.
All this shows an attitude to winning and losing markedly different from ours. To us, calling someone ‘a loser’ is seriously insulting. This must be the result of 150 years of competitive sport. All modern games start off by imposing fair conditions. Same numbers on each side, level pitch, no ground advantage, toss a coin at the start for choice of ends in case there is some advantage, change ends halfway through to cancel any such advantage, umpires and referees to see fair play – all the rules are there to see that the better team wins. So if you lose, you must have been inferior in some way, strength or speed or skill, and if you lose consistently, then there’s something wrong with you: no excuses.
Worse, our culture is so permeated with the ethos of sport that we mistakenly believe every victory reveals moral worth. Ayn Rand argued that financial wealth revealed a person’s merit; many contemporary politicians have been suckered into the same beliefs.
Vikings were wiser. They knew that in the real world, conditions aren’t fair. Heroes may be outnumbered, betrayed, trapped, caught off guard or just plain run out of luck. That doesn’t make you what we call ‘a loser.’ To their way of thinking, the only thing that would make you a loser would be giving up. And there’s another factor, perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Viking mindset.
The heroes of the Viking Age, both gods and men, fixated as they seemed to be on death and defeat, just did not seem able to take death and defeat seriously. Unlike the ponderous heroes of the classical world, they kept on making jokes, coming out with wisecracks. To them, the throwaway line was another artform. They had no sense of their own dignity. Or maybe, they had such a strong sense of their own dignity that they felt no need to stand on it.
Finally, and combining the attitude to losing with the attitude to joking, what was especially relished in story after story was the stroke that showed that the hero hadn’t given up, even in an impossible situation. What was best was showing you could turn the tables, spoil your enemy’s victory, make a joke out of death, die laughing.
People who think like that, one may well conclude, can be beaten by superior force, but though they can be killed like anyone else, they are impossible to daunt. If they’re alive they’ll come back at you, they’re not done until they’re stone dead; even if they’re dying or helpless they will try to think of some trick, and if you fall for it, then the joke’s on you.
Viking humor. Their secret weapon. Part of their mindset. Take warning, though! There’s a mean streak running through it.
The Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project receives many requests for material about Norse mythology, but unfortunately we rarely send any. White supremacists decided that the Norse myths should underpin their religion, and so current publications of these materials are often laced through with racism and hate. I’ve (slowly) been preparing my own anti-racist pamphlet about the Norse myths, though, because many are lovely stories. And the above passage seems like it could be quite helpful for many of the people who get caught in our nation’s criminal justice system.
In jail, we often read Julien Poirier’s poem “Independently Blue,” which opens with the lines:
It’s easy to fly a flag when you live in a nice house
in a beautiful city.
Things have worked out nicely for you,
and you think everyone can agree
this is the greatest country on earth.
The people who are “winning” in our country – the wealthy, the comfortable – rarely began on an even playing field with everyone else. Their patriotism costs little. Why wouldn’t you love your country if it provided you with everything?
There’s a chance that Deadpool’s current popularity is due to the fact that so many people feel like they are not winning at life right now. After all, Deadpool’s superpower is the ability to suffer with a smile. He’s a hero who embodies the ethos of Norse mythology, willing to joke about his own failures.
A hero is defined not by victory but by defeat. Only in defeat can you show what you’re really made of. Only in final defeat can you show that you will never give in. That’s why the gods have to die as well. If they did not die, how could they show true courage? If they were really immortal and invulnerable, who would respect them?
At a time when so many people feel as though the world is stacked against them, seeing Superman score yet another preordained victory isn’t so compelling. Better to root for a loser, to see Deadpool grin through a mouthful of cracked teeth and make one more bad joke before he passes out.
I hope the people we’ve incarcerated manage to carve out some form of success. We should want that for everyone. People can grow and change; why not do what we can to help others change for the better?
But maybe these people will not win. Maybe they’ll submit dozens of job applications but receive no interviews. Maybe nobody will want to give them a second chance.
That is, unfortunately, the way it often happens.
Would defeat hurt less if we celebrated myths in which our heroes suffer, too? And not just the way Jesus suffered, undergoing a torturous death as a trial before his ultimate ascension. What would our world be like if we venerated gods who died with no hope of rebirth or redemption?
George Patton said, quite accurately,
“Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.”
But people at the bottom are strong, too – often stronger than those whom fate allowed to start at the top and stay there. Our world will be a better place once we learn to show kindness to those who actually need it.
I recently borrowed my local library’s copy of Tao Lin’s Trip. I read ten pages before a business card fell out. I didn’t find the other until about a hundred pages later. The cards were really crammed in there – I often read at nap- and bedtime, lying on my back, with little feet kicking my books, belly, neck, etc. I’m surprised the second card wasn’t ejected earlier.
In Trip, Lin writes about drugs and some of the people who frequently ingest them. For instance, Lin spent several months reading the oeuvre of Terrance McKenna, a passionate advocate for the legalization of psychedelic drugs (which I support) who argued that his chemical-induced visions (language elves, fractal time) represent tangible features of our universe (which I think is asinine). At other times, McKenna self-described as a “psychonaut,” which I think is a better term – compounds that perturb the workings of a mind do reveal truths about that mind.
That’s the essence of the scientific method, after all. First, formulate a predictive model about how something works. Then, perturb your system. If your prediction holds up, try to think of a different test you could make to try to prove yourself wrong. If your prediction is off, try to think of a new model. Repeat ad infinitum (physicus usque ad mortem).
In an undergrad-designed psychology experiment, the perturbation might be to compel a study subject to think about death by mixing a lot of photographs of car wrecks into a slide show. Does a person exposed to these images seem more inclined to spend time with close family members (based on the results of a 30-question survey) than equivalent study subjects who were instead shown photographs of puppies?
(A man who has been attending my poetry class for the past few months also self-describes as a Buddhist psychonaut – his favorite psychedelic is LSD, but he also struggles with a nagging impulse to shoot heroin. He’s a vegetarian and has been writing poetry for twenty years, ever since his first friend died of overdose. The only way for him to avoid prison time is to enroll at a court-mandated Christian-faith-based rehabilitation clinic where everyone works daily at the Perdue Meats slaughterhouse. He’s just waiting on a bed before they ship him out there. Personally, I think that having a recovering addict decapitate hundreds of turkeys daily would be an unhealthy perturbation of the mind.)
As Lin researched pharmacology, he realized that he’d made the same error in thinking about his body that our society has made in thinking about our environment, especially the oceans. He’d assumed that his body was so large, and each drug molecule so small, that he’d be relatively unchanged as the pills he swallowed were metabolized away. But he was wrong. He’d turned his own body into a degraded environment that felt terrible to live inside.
He realized that corporations shouldn’t have free license to destroy the world that we all share. And he realized that he needed to practice better stewardship of his body, his own personal environs. He changed his diet and his lifestyle and no longer felt like garbage all the time.
Lin also provides some useful information about this country’s War on Drugs. If someone was looking for an accessible way to learn more about this, I can see myself recommending either Trip (for the dudes in jail) or Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day (for the harried parents working alongside me in the YMCA snack room).
And those business cards? They made convenient bookmarks. Verdant green, the front advertised a local hydroponics supply store, the back listed the store manager’s name and telephone number.
This seemed like a great advertising strategy. Much more precise (and less evil) than Facebook’s targeted ads.
I won’t be buying any hydroponics supplies, but I’ll probably put those business cards back before I return the book.
Most of what I’ve found in books has been less directly relevant to the subject matter. I felt dismayed to find a business card for a local artist / writer / model / actor – the front showed her in pinup-style undergarments with the cord for a video game controller entwining one stockinged leg – inside a library copy of Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller.
When I flipped through one of Deepak Chopra’s new-age self-help books (that I pulled off the secondhand inventory shelf at Pages to Prisoners to mail to someone who’d requested stuff about UFOs, Wicca, and conspiracies), I found a Valentine’s Day note (written by a small child in crayon) and a polaroid of a tired-looking bare-breasted woman staring at the camera from atop a camper’s bed. MWPP totally would’ve gotten dinged if I’d mailed the book with that picture still inside.
And I’ve written previously about the time I found an acceptance letter from Best of Photojournalism inside a previous year’s edition of the book as I selected books to mail to a prisoner interested in photography.
But I didn’t mention that I visited the university library to find the accepted photograph (of a stretch of highway closed for the emergency landing of a small plane in distress) …
… or that I then put together a package of books to send to that photographer, because it turned out that he was also in prison after murdering his son-in-law.
The impression I got from news reports was that this man had a daughter whom he’d raised alone. When his daughter was 13 years old, she fell in love with an abusive, oft-unemployed 19-year-old. She soon became pregnant. As it happens, this boyfriend took too many drugs. I’ve met many men in jail who are totally charming while sober but (“allegedly!”) wail on women when they’re not. Some are quite frequently not sober.
During this man’s trial, several witnesses testified to the violent physical abuse his daughter was subject to. His daughter’s boyfriend “would grab ____, jerk her by the face, force her to go places, cuss her out if she didn’t do the right thing … “
Not that this is a reason to shoot somebody.
Still, I wondered how a book from the man’s personal library had wound up in the inventory of the Pages to Prisoners bookstore. The murder occurred in August of 2012. Mid-autumn, 2015, his book was on our shelves.
I like to imagine that his daughter made the donation. That perhaps, by then, she’d forgiven her father. That she’d realized how miserable U.S. incarceration can be and wanted to do a little something to make it better.
I certainly hope that his book helped people at the prison where I sent it.
I play board games with a local reviewer. We often try two or three each week – and I’ve noticed that I’m happiest after playing really flawed games.
Consider, for example, the card game Boss Monster. You portray a villain building a dungeon full of traps. Each turn you expand your dungeon, making it more enticing and more dangerous. Then adventurers appear and venture into one of the players’ dungeons; you win by causing their demise.
My gaming buddy really dislikes this game: while playing, you make very few meaningful choices. Sometimes no choices at all, honestly.
That’s not fun.
But I loved it! Not just because I have a soft spot for games that portray humans as the enemy (in Ferretcraft, which my family designed, you play as a forest creature and the “orcs” are just green-tinted humans). And not just because I’m a sucker for cute art (which makes me feel lucky that my favorite artist makes games with me).
Even in his negative review, my buddy stressed again and again how great Boss Monster looks.
I should admit, it wasn’t very fun to play. Shuffling a deck of cards and sitting down to “play” doesn’t mean much if the game has only marginally more strategy than War. But there are several really clever ideas behind the game – they’re just poorly executed.
For instance, players are competing to lure adventurers. If your dungeon has less treasure than an opponent’s, no heroes will visit, and so you can’t get points for dooming them. Unfortunately, the cards that are best at luring heroes are also the best at dispatching them. There’s no strategy here – on each turn, you should play the most powerful card. The design would’ve been much improved if there was a tension between attracting adventurers and harming them.
And the adventurers are each lured by a different type of treasure. Wizards seek spellbooks, warriors seek weaponry, thieves seek gold. If you happened to build a dungeon full of gold, and a thief happens to appear, you’ll get to slay that hero. But the adventurers are drawn from a deck at random, which means there’s no strategy here either. Most likely, each player in the game will be best at luring a certain type, and the random order that adventurers appear determines who wins.
With a few changes, though, this could be really fun. A card that’s good at luring heroes shouldn’t hurt them much – then players would have to balance what their dungeons need. The adventurers should be more difficult to dispatch if several voyage into a single dungeon at the same time, which would impose a cost on being too good at luring them. And the adventurers should wait in town for a bit before entering the dungeons, which would allow players to plan ahead. Perhaps the adventurers would spend time drinking ale and boasting in a tavern – each might need a different number of beers before feeling ready to tromp off to his or her doom.
(It’s not clear whether an extremely strong hero would need more beers – a higher alcohol tolerance – or fewer – more confidence. I think either design has interesting gameplay implications. If each hero in town drinks one beer per turn, and the powerful heroes can handle more liquor, then you have a long warning period in which to make your dungeon deadly enough to handle hardy adventurers. Or if weaker heroes require more liquid courage, then players can vie to lure easy points away from their opponents. We’d probably test both designs and then write lore justifying whichever was more fun.)
With those changes, you’d get to make meaningful choices every game instead of simply doling out cards and seeing who wins.
But even though Boss Monster wasn’t fun to play, it was a blast to think about. Which made me feel grateful to the designers … and to my parents.
Growing up, there was always an expectation that we’d modify games. Pieces from the board games we owned were used to make dozens of others. My brother and I played Risk daily for several summers in a row … but I don’t think we ever played an entire game according to the rules printed on the box.
And it’s not just while playing board games that I feel grateful. Once we’d learned that we might have to modify games to have more fun, it was easy to view the rest of the world with an eye toward improvement. More than just games are flawed, after all. I might feel overwhelmingly depressed by everything that’s wrong with the world if I didn’t feel at least a little joy in tinkering, trying to make things better.
Because it is daunting. Or at least it feels daunting when I look at the Pages to Prisoners mail queue, knowing that each envelop might be somebody else stuck in solitary with no one to talk to, nothing to read. Or it might be somebody who’s getting out soon and wants to turn his life around (recently I sent books to somebody who wanted career guides and self help because he’s about to finish a seventeen year sentence). Or it might be somebody who’d like to play games – our criminal justice system hoovers up all kinds. But if we abandon people to our current dehumanizing, demoralizing system, we’ll mostly get one type back.
In my high school Spanish class, we read a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A bulb breaks, spilled light fills the room, two boys at home alone float atop the photons.
I spoke very poor Spanish. I knew the word for “swim,” but not for “drown.” The story ends with a party thrown by the boys for their classmates. The other children brought no rafts. Light pours down and the boys’ boat rises and their classmates die. The little corpses bob amidst furniture, fistfuls of condoms, and a television flickering with nudity.
The flood of light is dangerous.
In jail, there’s a moment each day when everyone’s agony is synchronized. A guard yells “chow time” at four fifteen a.m.. The men brace, their brief solace snatched away. The lights go off at midnight and then it’s less hard to be locked up. Eyes closed, maybe even sleeping, the jail is not so different from any other place.
“When the lights come on,” T tells me, “that’s when the darkness comes.”
And so that final second – after a guard yells, before they flip the light switch – is excruciating. All the guys agreed.
T spent his final days here hoping no one would come from California. He’d served his full sentence and unless they extradited him – which they could only do if a representative showed up in person – the judge had to release him. “They’ve got less than two weeks,” he told me, and then, at our next class, “they’re down to four days.”
T asked me once, “Is it selling out, thinking I’m going to dress real different once they let me out? I used to wear, you know, jeans, some baggy shirts, but I’m thinking now, I get out, I want to dress real nice. I don’t want them to mess with me, you know?”
It isn’t selling out. It’s shameful, sure – but he’s not the one who should feel ashamed. Everyone else in this country should feel ashamed that he can’t dress the way he wants, not without drawing undue attention from the police. My pallor and Ph.D. let me wear my hair in dreadlocks, dress in tattered clothes from Goodwill or the dumpsters, and still be treated with respect.
To be treated as well as me, T, with his melanin and Hispanic accent, has to look much “nicer.”
We demand most from those who’ve been given least.
The first poem T wrote was a lyrical persona piece from the perspective of a threatened woman. After he finished reading it aloud, the class clapped and someone asked to hear it again. T started to read a second time, but then choked up and began to cry. He’d never had a room full of people actually listen to him. Twice.
Another man hugged him. After about ten seconds he said he was okay and continued reading. And after that day, he wrote two or three poems each week.
On his final day in class, he was shivering beneath a blanket but was happy – “four more days and they have to let me go!” He planned to stop by Pages to Prisoners, maybe volunteer.
California came to collect him with two days to spare.
MARK SCHLERETH: Everybody’s done it — it’s depending — depending upon how much cheating you think it is. And again, I think to me it’s setting your cruise control in a 65 mile an hour zone at 72 and think “I’m not gonna get a ticket for that because nobody’s gonna give me a ticket for going, you know, 6 or 7 miles an hour over the speed limit.”
STEPHEN A. SMITH: Well, to touch on your last point, Mark Schlereth, as just a fun way of getting into it, most brothers that are behind the wheel, we anticipate we may get pulled over if we go seven miles over the speed limit. Let me just throw that out there as an aside.
— ESPN First Take Podcast, May 21st, 2015
When I was nineteen and visiting a high school buddy at his college, a cop tailed me for two miles, flashed his lights after I parked, then sauntered up and complimented me on my impeccable driving. I’d ferried a carload of friends down from Northwestern for the weekend, and by way of a “thanks for letting us crash on your couches” offering for my (twenty-one-year-old) buddy, we’d stopped at a liquor store to pick up a case of beer and a bottle of rum just after hitting town.
Unbeknownst to me, a recently-passed law made it illegal for minors to operate any motor vehicle being used to transport alcohol, even in the trunk1. Since I’d driven, then sat chatting in the car with a friend while our twenty-one-year-old companions ducked into the liquor store, the cop who spent his evenings idling on a ridge overlooking the parking lot (fighting crime one entrapment site at a time!) pegged me for an easy mark.
It’s true. I’m a privileged dude. I grew up in a wealthy suburb outside Indianapolis. At nineteen, I was having my first interaction with the police. I answered the cop’s questions because I naively thought that’s what you do, with the denouement being confiscation of our alcohol and citations — six hundred dollars all around — doled out to me, the underage driver, and my of-age friends, accomplices to the crime.
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that my friend riding shotty had a baggie with a quarter ounce of pot in his coat pocket. To my suddenly paranoid mind the whole car seemed to reek from the furtive smoking he’d done during our drive, but I was a wealthy-looking white kid — the cop yoinked our sack of booze from the trunk without asking to search the car.
I’m less oblivious now. My high school was pure Wonder Bread, roughly what you’d expect in a suburb full of Republican doctors and lawyers served by an illegally-bigoted real-estate association2. Big houses and pale bland robot kids. I had black friends in college, but my mild touch of Asperger’s meant I never noticed their treatment by the outside world. Hell, we were college kids. We mostly walked around campus or hung around the student housing co-op, smoking pot and playing chess. We rarely even saw the outside world together.
During graduate school my big-C Consciousness score bumped from dead zero to something I hope is at least passable. My brown-skinned colleagues were routinely belittled by their advisors, and there weren’t many of them, and all the janitors were black and Latino, and the verbal abuse showered upon them was worse. Very frustrating to see. Although it’s shameful that it took me so long to notice.
White-looking white dudes in this country are free to be placidly oblivious. Maybe a bit less easily now — shortly after I finished my Ph.D. the national media started giving some coverage to the most egregious police abuses, like murdering people in the street3 — but, given all the “War on Police” coverage rolling on Fox News4, it can’t be that hard to remain ignorant.
As far as my own blindness goes, I’m trying to atone. I’ve done a lot of reading lately; I went through twenty-three years of education without picking up a single book by Hurston, Baldwin, Ellison, or Morrison. I’d blame my teachers but, at some point, didn’t it become my own damn fault?
Still, better late than never. I teach now, twice a week at the local jail. I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners, an advocacy organization that sends free packages of books. I run a correspondence writing program for inmates across Indiana, hoping that I can help some of our nation’s most stigmatized citizens find an audience for their stories.
And I drive really, really slowly. Like 27 in 30 m.p.h. zones. Like consistently below the speed limit, even downhill. Because heartbreaking work from contemporary thinkers like Michelle Alexander got me thinking about the Fourth Amendment.
When it comes to harping about the Bill of Rights, Democrats yelp most about the First Amendment, Republicans about the Second … although Republicans will invoke the First, too, when it comes to their right to emblazon courthouses with religious iconography, or to deny pizza to homosexual weddings (only tasteless straight people would even consider serving greasebomb pizza at a wedding, but still), or to banish mandatory medical information from their “pregnancy crisis centers.” The First and Second Amendments bogart all the big press.
But it’s the Fourth Amendment that actually needs our help. Protection from unreasonable search and seizure. As you may have noticed, I have at times had non-zero quantities of marijuana on or around my person. My youthful indiscretions were less egregious than those of any sitting president of the last sixteen years, but they were certainly prosecutable offenses. And yet. I got to finish college, earn my Ph.D., marry, raise my children. No police officer thought to poke his nose into my pockets, cluck what have we here, and charge me for the eighth that I was holding. But just last month I sent a care package to a dude my age, my height, my weight, who has been in prison since he turned 19, six years of that in solitary, all stemming from a conviction of “possession with intent to sell” a very ordinary quantity of marijuana.
Dude has no beautiful wife. No beautiful life. I sent him, among other things, some erotic stories to read5. In his letter he apologized for even asking for them, but explained that after six years in solitary he felt so achingly lonely.
All of which he earned by being black. Caught with less pot than I’ve at times had in my own vehicle.
But he was searched. I was not.
In a world with real Fourth Amendment protections, he would’ve been safe. His life could’ve been like mine. He’s my age, my height, my weight! Except for more melanin and shorter dreads, his picture even looks like mine.
The heart of the problem is that you can’t do much in this country without a car. And the illustrious members of the Supreme Court have issued a series of rulings that cumulatively result in our Fourth Amendment rights evaporating almost as soon as we step into a car6. These are lucidly described in David Harris’s George Washington Law Review essay, “Car Wars: The Fourth Amendment’s Death on the Highway.” Unless you’re prone to high blood pressure or apoplectic rage, you should give it a read.
The Supreme Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment was designed to protect innocents. As soon as you break a law, you give up your rights. Doesn’t matter that incorrect use of a turn signal is totally unrelated to the likelihood you’re dealing drugs — once you slip up, any cop who wants can nab you. Question and answer time! Trawl for outstanding warrants time7! Stroll around your vehicle with the drug-sniffing dog time!
The tangle of laws on our roadways is brutal, too. At times it might seem impossible to know and follow them all. Worse, it is often literally impossible to follow them all.
That’s why white people should drive more slowly.
Almost every road has a posted maximum speed. In most states, if you drive one mile per hour above that limit, you’re breaking the law. Fourth Amendment rights? Gone!
I’ve got itchy feet. I listen to music in the car. I plan out stories in my head. What can I say? Sometimes my mind isn’t totally focused on the driving. So it’s pretty common for my speed to fluctuate a few miles per hour here and there. To stay consistently under the limit, I have to aim for something like eighty or ninety percent of the maximum speed. 27 m.p.h. in a 30, say. 49 in a 55. Then my slight moments of inattention won’t bump me over.
But most states’ vehicle codes also contain a clause stipulating that you are in violation of the law whenever you drive at a speed “that impedes or blocks the normal and reasonable movement of traffic.” 8 The normal movement of traffic in most places I’ve lived is about ten miles per hour above the posted limit, which means that any driver below the limit will be in technical violation of the “impeding traffic” clause9. Which means, again: Fourth Amendment rights? Gone! The courts have ruled that technical violation is all it takes. And, yes, I’ve been stopped for driving “suspiciously slowly.”
The driving habits of the majority ensure that there is no speed at which minority drivers will be safe from harassment.
You might wonder, am I ranting about all this just to protect criminals? After all, if a dude doesn’t have marijuana in his car, or coke, or pills in somebody else’s name, then he’s got nothing to fear. Right?
Let’s set aside the sheer degradation of being searched, being presumed to be and treated like a criminal, and simply point out that this supposition is incorrect. The innocent are not safe. From Douglas Husak’s Overcriminalization I learned that some states prohibit “the possession of paraphernalia — items used for a variety of purposes, such as storing or containing drugs. Defendants may be convicted without knowing that the items that qualify as paraphernalia are typically used to commit drug offenses.”
This is by no means a toothless prohibition. Did you know that some people use soda straws to store or transport heroin? I didn’t. Not until I read about Tyrone Tomlin, who was arrested in 2014 in New York City — and beaten severely, causing irreparable brain damage, during his 21 days at Rikers — for possession of a soda straw. The soda in his other hand was insufficiently mitigating evidence to keep him safe and free.
Have you ever driven with a soda straw in your car?
Or, how about money?
Seems ridiculous that it would be illegal to have U.S. legal tender in your vehicle. But, for some people, it is. Why? Because money is sometimes used in drug transactions. Which means that if a police officer stops someone — perfectly legal whenever any stipulation of the vehicle code has been violated, which, given that every speed technically violates either the posted maximum or the “impeding traffic” clause on most roads, means roughly whenever the officer wants — and searches the car, and finds money, that money can be confiscated. Especially if the driver looks like someone who might’ve intended to use that money to buy drugs. Or if the driver looks like someone who might’ve earned that money by selling drugs. Basically, if the driver looks black.
Police officers have seen MTV. They’ve seen videos with young black men flashing bills and braggin’ ‘bout the bricks they moved to get ‘em. Doesn’t matter that these videos are fiction, that many were produced and disseminated by white people, that studies have shown that the vast majority of both drug users and drug dealers in this country are white10. Facts are trifling things compared to how people feel.
Without Fourth Amendment protections to contend with, police officers have enormous latitude to make their prejudices come true. If the police think a certain type of person looks like a criminal, they can focus their attentions on similar-looking people, which will lead, lo and behold, to the capture of many criminals who fit that description.
To me, this sounds unfair. But because the unfairness is visible only through aggregate statistics, the risk that any particular driver will be stopped, searched, and incarcerated unfairly is considered to be merely “conjectural” or “hypothetical.” No young black male can know in advance that he will be the unlucky driver discriminated against today. So the Supreme Court has ruled that individual citizens do not have standing to introduce these statistics into any court case, even though anyone glancing at the data can see that they’re unfair11.
I’ll admit, the stakes here may seem small. When you next find yourself behind the wheel, you might feel an urge to goose the engine, nudge over the legal limit, get where you’re going a little sooner. After all, as long as you personally are not a police officer unfairly targeting minority drivers, are you causing any harm?
Yes. I would argue that you are. By contributing to the “normal” flow of traffic above the designated limit, you preclude the existence of any legal speed. This is a harm we cause collectively. But there is more: by arriving at your destination early, you profit from injustice. Those who profit from injustice are tainted by it. As a white person grappling with these issues, I find these words from Jim Wallis’s America’s Original Sin particularly instructive:
White people in the United States have benefited from the structures of racism, whether or not they have ever committed a racist act, uttered a racist word, or had a racist thought (as unlikely as that is). Just as surely as blacks suffer in a white society because they are black, whites benefit because they are white. And if whites have profited from a racist system, we must try to change it. To go along with racist institutions and structures such as the racialized criminal justice system, to obliviously accept the economic order as it is, and to just quietly go about our personal business within institutional racism is to participate in white racism.
Acting alone, neither you nor I can cure the ailments of our society. But each and every one of us, individually, can forgo those perquisites allotted to us unfairly. If you, like me, look white, you could choose to violate the speed limit. You would probably face no penalty. But others, through no fault of their own, do not have that choice. They pay for your privilege.
In a world where others are required to drive slowly, shouldn’t I?
1. Indiana Code 7.1-5-7-7 stipulates, among other things, that “It is a Class C misdemeanor for a minor to knowingly transport [an alcoholic beverage] on a public highway when not accompanied by at least one (1) of his parents or guardians.” In case you were wondering about the retrograde pronoun usage, an earlier passage of the legal code stipulates that “the masculine gender includes the feminine and [sic] where appropriate, the single number includes the plural.” Equivalent laws are on the books in several other states, such as Massachusetts, but for the life of me I can’t imagine that any of these laws has made the world a safer place.
2. Harsh words, but true. It’s rumored that a company in the area once issued permits for black employees to display on the outsides of their cars because the police, knowing that black people couldn’t possibly live there, would otherwise pull them over for a little casual harassment. As recently as 1996, a black state trooper was stopped a block from his own home because a cop thought it inconceivable that he belonged anywhere nearby. The Indianapolis chapter of the NAACP brought a class action suit — this was by no means an isolated incident — that was settled in 1999, at which point the local police department claimed they would no longer systematically target older cars and black- or brown-skinned drivers.
3. You could argue that Eric Garner’s death in the arms of Daniel Pantaleo was somehow accidental. But Walter Scott was clearly murdered. And these are only the men whose deaths, like horrifying low-res snuff films, were captured entirely on camera. Of the thousands of black men killed by police in the past few years, some hundred of them unarmed, it’s hard to believe — grand jury judgments aside — that no other instances constitute murder. I’d list names — they deserve remembrance — but do you realize how long that list would be?
4. Yes, the shootings in Dallas were frightening. And two officers were senselessly murdered in New York City. But the “War on Police” coverage began long before Dallas and has been incommensurate with the actual harms suffered by our men in blue. I’m not sure violence wreaked by one or two unhinged individuals constitutes a war. After the tragedy at Sandy Hook, nobody claimed there was a “War on Elementary School Children.”
5. Every prison has a unique set of regulations as to what type of books they’ll allow inmates to receive. Some prisons set a limit on quantity, others specify “no hardcovers,” or “no spiral bindings,” or, and this is trickiest for a volunteer-run organization struggling to send out free books, “no used.” This dude was at one of the “no used books, no hardcovers” facilities. Let me tell you, not many people have donated pristine paperback copies of My Secret Garden lately. I wound up sifting literotica.com for tasteful stories (I have no problem with Saxon-derived language, but no way am I sending anything with violence or the word “slutty” in it), then spending half an hour in front of our one-page-at-a-time-or-it-jams, single-sided-only printer to put together a forty-page pamphlet for him. Hopefully the guards let it through.
6. I’d like to blame this development on the usual suspects, the quintet of crusty hate machines appointed by the political right, but I can’t. Whren v. United States, for instance, was decided unanimously. This case hurts most, setting a precedent that the police may stop any driver who violates any stipulation of the vehicle code, even if that violation alone, independent of an officer’s preexisting desire to stop a particular driver, would never be considered sufficient cause to pull someone over. Because most states’ vehicle codes span many hundreds of pages, everyone commits a technical violation sooner or later. After I finished my Ph.D. and was driving a U-Haul full of books and furniture from California to Indiana, I was tailed for several miles by a Utah state trooper who eventually dinged me for failing to signal for the requisite two seconds before passing a truck. I’d signaled for only a second and a half. Of course, after he stopped me he saw past the dreadlocks, army green cap, and sunglasses to my pallid skin and nice-as-pie wife and declined to even glance in the back. So it goes.
7. Even in Justice Sotomayor’s scathing dissent to Utah v. Strieff, in which the majority seems to have been bamboozled by recent quantum mechanical evidence from dual slit experiments about time-traveling information, ruling that the future discovery of a warrant makes illegal behavior by a police officer retroactively become legal, Sotomayor acknowledges that we have a long history of permitting suspicion-less warrant trawling of anybody driving a car. “Surely we would not allow officers to warrant-check random joggers, dog walkers, and lemonade vendors just to ensure they pose no threat to anyone else,” she writes, although she knows already that she is wrong — the majority would allow this. But Sotomayor has no beef with the haranguing of drivers: “We allow such checks during legal traffic stops because the legitimacy of a person’s driver’s license has a ‘close connection to road-way safety.’ ” Make no mistake: although she writes “legal traffic stops,” the modifier is redundant. Given the state of our roadways, all traffic stops are de facto legal.
8. This is true whenever you drive so slowly that “three (3) or more other vehicles are blocked.” In the small college town where I live this takes no more than a quarter mile driving dead on the speed limit. At two or three miles per hour below, that many cars can pile up within seconds of turning from my street onto the main road.
9. Not to mention the serious risks you incur by driving at or below the speed limit on a three- or four-lane highway; outside of rush hours, traffic flows at fifteen or more above on every city-circling interstate I’ve driven.
10. This claim is obviously subject to numerous assumptions. It’s difficult to accurately assess the frequency of illegal activities: I’ve lied on surveys before, and I can’t be the only one. Even though every survey indicates equivalent rates of drug use across ethnicities, disparities could exist. But it seems unlikely. Among people I’ve known, use of all drugs seems to be roughly correlated; I haven’t met people who never smoke, never drink, but are willing to drop acid or snort a line of coke. And the abuse rates for legal drugs, for which I imagine the data are more trustworthy, suggest that white people are slightly more interested in escaping reality than other ethnicities. As far as the racial distribution of drug dealers goes, the data are even more fraught. Total numbers are lower, which by itself means less trustworthy statistics, and it must seem even riskier to admit on a survey that you’ve been selling. So this conclusion is based instead on data that suggest people buy drugs from dealers who look like them. Again, there are caveats — even if everyone uses drugs at the same rate, and everyone buys drugs from dealers who share their ethnicity, it may be that some populations of dealers serve far more customers than others, which would mean fewer individual dealers.
If this were the case, though, we might expect incarceration rates to even out in the end. A naive expectation would be that high-volume dealers would receive longer sentences. That’s not what’s happened, though. Instead, black people are incarcerated at a much higher rate for nonviolent drug crimes, and they receive consistently longer sentences than white people for seemingly-identical infractions. Despite the fact that the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project serves a set of fourteen states where the population is only between five and ten percent black, about a third of the inmates we help are black (setting aside what it even means to be black in this country, a question far too tangled to be dealt with in a footnote).
11. This case, City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, really was decided by a quintet of hate machines. A black driver was stopped for a minor traffic violation, dragged from his car, and choked until he passed out. In an ensuing court case, the driver sought to change Los Angeles police department policy such that future drivers would not be choked. His lawyer documented that most drivers choked this way were black. The Supreme Court threw out that evidence and dismissed the case. Justice Marshall wrote a dissent that clearly describes the harm caused by willful blindness to this type of statistical evidence: “Since no one can show that he will be choked in the future, no one — not even a person who, like Lyons, has almost been choked to death — has standing to challenge the continuation of the policy.”