On Darwin and free love.

On Darwin and free love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My essay failed.

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

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

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

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

I am a scientist

I explore high and low

I question what I know

Emmy is great. Find her at emmybrockman.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s even a graph!

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

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

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

UCLA psychology professor Matthew Lieberman wrote,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the biography Erasmus Darwin, Patricia Fara writes that,

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

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

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

IMMORTAL LOVE! who ere the morn of Time,

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

Warm’d into life the bursting egg of Night,

And gave young Nature to admiring Light!


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

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

Patricia Fara writes that,

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

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

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

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

On telepathy and the battle for narrative control.

On telepathy and the battle for narrative control.

After William Burroughs experienced how pitifully he could be held in thrall by a small molecule, he developed a lifelong interest in telepathy and mind control. 

His own brain had been upended.  Suddenly, he found himself devoting the vast majority of his time and money toward a single cause: obtaining a day’s ration of opiate.  If he was delinquent in this task, he grew sick.  Agony would keep him focused.

If that drug was capable of re-sculpting a human personality, might there be other ways?  In Queer, the protagonist speculates:

“I know telepathy to be a fact, since I have experienced it myself.  I have no interest to prove it, or, in fact, to prove anything to anybody.  What interests me is, how can I use it?

“In South America at the headwaters of the Amazon grows a plant called Yage that is supposed to increase telepathic sensitivity.  Medicine men use it in their work.  A Colombian scientist, whose name escapes me, isolated from Yage a drug he called Telepathine.  I read all this in a magazine article.

“Later I see another article: the Russians are using Yage in experiments on slave labor.  It seems they want to induce states of automatic obedience and ultimately, of course, ‘thought control.’  The basic con.  No buildup, no spiel, no routine, just move in on someone’s psyche and give orders.

“I have a theory that the Mayan priests developed a form of one-way telepathy to con the peasants into doing all the work.  The deal is certain to backfire eventually, because telepathy is not of its nature a one-way setup, nor a setup of sender and receiver at all.”

As it happens, psychedelic drugs are quite poor tools for potentiating mind control.  But there are other ways.  A precisely-localized magnetic pulse can cause prompt, unnoticeable alterations in a person’s behavior – researchers were able to change how their human study subjects responded to unfairness, all without those subjects realizing that they were acting differently from usual.

Because repeated behaviors give rise to our personality, it stands to reason that repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation could rewire a person’s identity.  Invisibly, and, with the right interference patterns, at a distance. 

You could be made other.

The more common form of mind control practiced in the United States is much less technologically advanced.  Rather than using a magnetic pulse to stimulate or suppress particular regions of the brain, we employ narrative control.

Here’s a simple story: a bell rings, then dinner is served.  If this story is integrated inside the brain as universally true, then the sound of the bell will trigger salivation.  This is the basic principle behind Pavlovian conditioning.  You can train a dog to associate dinnertime to the sound of a bell, or to have an aversion to a particular smell.

Humans can be similarly conditioned.  Companies like Facebook and Apple have incorporated a variety of sensory experiences into their designs, all intended to engender a sense of urgency about checking your telephone.  The alerts, the updates, the little pings – these are pushed to the forefront of the design because they compel engagement.  Likewise the little jingles of dropped loot in online fantasy games.

In a perfect world, corporations would not make their users’ brains worse in order to increase their own profits.  If those companies’ designs were less malicious, the makers wouldn’t need to be so vigilant about making sure that their own children don’t engage with their creations.

But those are little stories.  A few stray details added to the narrative of your day: if you see the dot, click to see the update!  More threatening is the prospect of mind control that totally rewrites an internalized narrative.  Take a person’s memories and supplant them.

In Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, the doctor Benway describes his interrogation techniques:

“While in general I avoid the use of torture – torture locates the opponent and mobilizes resistance – the threat of torture is useful to induce in the subject the appropriate feeling of helplessness and gratitude to the interrogator for withholding it.  And torture can be employed to advantage as a penalty when the subject is far enough along with the treatment to accept punishment as deserved.”

In an excellent article for Science magazine, journalist Douglas Starr describes research into false confessions, situations when people are subjected to such extreme narrative control that they temporarily lose grasp of their personal memories and accept instead an interrogator’s version of reality. 

A variety of techniques are employed – the threat of torture, as above; a questioning regime that is in itself torturous, giving the subject an incentive to play along just to make it stop; sleep deprivation to muddle the brain; ardently repeated falsehoods to supplant the subject’s own stories; deceitful cajoling to persuade the subject that there would be minimal consequences to accepting an alternate version of reality (by saying things like “Anyone would have done the same thing”).

And it works.  Innocent people can be made to believe that they’ve done horrible things.  With a variety of laboratory experiments, psychologist Saul Kassin has shown that these techniques can induce almost anyone to confess to things they haven’t done.

Your stories can be wrested from you.

Indeed, our entire legal system is a battleground for narrative control.  Two sides compete to determine what story will enter the legal record: this is typically set up as a test of wits between a well-trained, well-funded prosecutor and an indigent, incarcerated individual who might or might not receive a brief consultation with an overscheduled public defender.

Predictably, the prosecutor often wins.  Because prosecutors have absolute, unchecked power to determine what charges to levy against a defendant, they can threaten people with the risk of outlandish punishment … and they can force a defendant to suffer in jail simply by delaying trials.  So, eventually, when a prosecutor offers an alternative story that would allow the defendant’s torture to end, most people will renounce their own memories.  They plead guilty.  After all, you might spend another year in jail waiting for a trial, or you could just let the prosecutor re-write history and walk out today.

Of course, you might not walk out today.  Even if you were told that you would.  In this battle for narrative control, one side – the defendant – is required to be honest.  The other is not.

And so people lose their stories, the very narratives that make us who we are.

Featured image: neural pathways in the brain taken using diffusion tensor. Image by Thomas Schultz.

On power and species.

On power and species.

At track practice, a pair of high school runners were arguing.  Knowing that I’ve completed twenty-two years of schooling, they figured I could resolve their debate.

“Coach Brown, who would win in a fight, Superman or The Hulk?”

I stared at them blankly.  I knew a bit about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which helps to understand The Hulk, but I’d never read a Superman comic.  Superman didn’t sound like an interesting hero: he seemed too powerful.  Even The Hulk is more interesting within the context of a complex campaign, when he might become enraged and wreck his own plans, than in a single fight.

I failed to provide an answer, and the kids went back to arguing.  (“Superman could just turn back time to before The Hulk got enraged, then smash him!”) 

And I resolved to read a Superman book, to shore up this gap in my education.  Astounding, isn’t it, that Stanford would allow me to graduate without knowing anything about the paragon of the DC universe?

I chose Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman.  And was pleasantly surprised – although Superman is indeed too powerful for the risk of danger to provide narrative tension, he’s still sad.  He doesn’t get the recognition that he feels he’s due; his powers leave him feeling isolated and alone; during the 24-hours when his girlfriend becomes his equal due to a magic serum, she spends her time flirting with other heroes. 

Doing great work can feel hollow if nobody appreciates it.

Midway through the series, Superman meets two other survivors from his native Krypton.  He expects that they’ll congratulate him on how well he’s kept his adopted planet safe.  Instead, they’re disgusted by his complacency.

Superman, in turn, feels disappointed by his brethren.  Within the world of comic books, characters who view their powers as conferring a responsibility are heroes; those who think that power gives them the right to do whatever they want are villains.

Homo sapiens are not as intelligent as the new arrivals from Krypton.  We are smaller, slower, and weaker.  Our tools are less technologically advanced.  If they chose to cull our kind, we could do nothing to resist.


I recently had the opportunity to read Luke Dittrich’s New York Times Magazine article on the Puerto Rican macaque colony that was traumatized by Hurricane Maria.  (I’ve written previously about Dittrich’s investigation into the history of “Patient H.M.” and unethical behavior among MIT memory researchers.)

This particular colony of macaques has been studied closely for years.  Researchers have voluminous observational data from both before and after the hurricane; they’ve stored many tissue samples as well.  The hope is that this dataset could unveil the biochemical consequences of trauma, and elucidate traits that allow some people to weather trauma more effectively than others.

With clear insights into the specific pathways affected by trauma, we might even be able to develop drugs that would allow humans to stave off PTSD.  Or cure it.

Macaques have long been used as subjects for medical research.  We’ve developed several vaccines that prevent AIDS in macaques, but unfortunately the differences between SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) and HIV meant that some of these vaccines increased human susceptibility to the disease.  Whoops.

An image attributed to the Primate Research Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and disseminated in 1992.

Macaques are highly intelligent, social animals with approximately 93% the same DNA sequences as us humans.  For immunology research, they’re kept in wire cages.  They can’t touch, don’t really get to move around.  But that’s not so bad compared to the nightmarish psychological studies that have been conducted on macaques in the past.  Dittrich’s article summarizes a few of Dr. Harry Harlow’s experiments.  Harlow named several pieces of his research equipment, such as “The Pit of Despair,” a small box devoid of light or sound in which children could be trapped for months on end, or “The Rape Rack,” which shouldn’t be described.

“[Harlow] found that the females who had endured the trauma of both the Pit of Despair and the Rape Rack tended to become neglectful or even severely abusive mothers.


We’ve conducted studies on humans who have been traumatized.  By surveying hurricane survivors, we’ve found that many suffer from PTSD.  But one drawback of these investigations, Dittrich writes, is that “the humans in these studies almost never become experimental subjects until after the traumatic events in question, which makes it hard to gauge how the events actually changed them.

If a researcher interested in how trauma affects individuals or societies were to dream up an ideal natural laboratory, she might imagine a discrete landmass populated by a multigenerational community that has been extensively and meticulously studied for many decades before the traumatizing event.  Even better, it would be a population to which researchers would have unfettered access – not only to their minds, but also to their bodies, and even their brains.”

We are to macaques as Superman is to us.  We are stronger, smarter, technologically superior.  We can fly into space; macaques have done so only at our whims.

In “St. Francis Visits the Research Macaques of Modern Science” by John-Michael Bloomquist, we eavesdrop on a conversation between the saint and Miss Able, the first primate to leave our planet.  St. Francis asks about her experience of the voyage; she tells him “The Gods did not let me see anything, the damn cone didn’t have a window.

The capsule and couch used by one of America’s first spacefarers, a rhesus monkey named Able, is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum. Able and a companion squirrel monkey named Miss Baker were placed inside a Jupiter missile nose cone and launched on a test flight in May 1959.

We are indeed like gods among macaques, but we have not elected to be heroes.  Instead, we’ve ravaged their ancestral lands.  We’ve wracked their children with twisted nightmares that they could not wake from. 

Even the Puerto Rican macaque colony that Dittrich writes about – some individuals are permitted to live out their days in relative peace, but this is a breeding center.  If you’re developing an HIV vaccine, your lab’s macaques will die; for a few thousand dollars each, this colony will furnish replacements.  According to their website, they maintain “an available pool of rhesus macaques in optimal condition for research.

We humans are like gods, but, unlike Superman, we’ve chosen to be villains.