I try to feed my children every night, but I never vomit blood into their mouths.
When I try to hang upside down – like from monkey bars at a playground – I have to clench my muscles, and pretty soon I get dizzy. I couldn’t spend a whole day like that.
And, yes, sometimes I shout. Too often during the pandemic, I’ve shouted at my kids. But when I shout, I’m trying to make them stop hitting each other – I’m not trying to figure out where they are.
It’s pretty clear that I’m not a bat.
Because I haven’t had these experiences, philosopher Thomas Nagel would argue that I can’t know how it feels to be a bat.
In so far as I can imagine [flitting through the dark, catching moths in my mouth], it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves.
But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.
Perhaps I can’t know what it feels like for a bat to be a bat. And yet, I can empathize with a bat. I can imagine how it might feel to be trapped in a small room while a gamboling, wiry-limbed orc-thing tried to swat me with a broom.
It would be terrifying!
And that act of imagination – of empathy – is enough for me to want to protect bats’ habitats. To make space for them in our world. Sure, you could argue that bats are helpful for us – they’re pollinators, they eat pesky bugs – but empathy lets us care about the well-being of bats for their own sake.
Literature exercises our minds: when we read, invent, and share stories, we build our capacity for empathy, becoming more generally aware of the world outside our own skulls.
Writing can be a radical act of love. Especially when we write from a perspective that differs from our own. The poet Ai said that “Whoever wants to speak in my poems is allowed to speak, regardless of sex, race, creed, or color.” Her poems often unfurl from the perspective of violent men, and yet she treats her protagonists with respect and kindness. Ai gives them more than they deserve: “I don’t know if I embrace them, but I love them.”
That capacity for love, for empathy, will let us save the world. Although many of us haven’t personally experienced a lifetime of racist microaggressions or conflict with systemic oppression, we all need to understand how rotten it would feel. We need to understand that the pervasive stress seeps into a person’s bones, causing all manner of health problems. We need understand the urgency of building a world where all children feel safe.
And if we don’t understand – yet – maybe we need to read more.
Experiments suggest that reading any engaging literary fiction boosts our ability to empathize with others. Practice makes better: get outside your head for a while, it’ll be easier to do it again next time.
Of course, we’ll still need to make an effort to learn what others are going through. Thomas Nagel was able to ruminate so extensively about what it would feel like to live as a bat because we’ve learned about echolocation, about their feeding habits, about their family lives. If we want to be effective anti-racists, we need to learn about Black experiences in addition to developing our empathy more generally.
As a bookish White person, it’s easy for me to empathize with the experiences of other bookish White people. In Search of Lost Time doesn’t tax my brain. Nor does White Noise. The characters in these books are a lot like me.
The cognitive distance between me and the protagonists of Americanah is bigger. Which is sad in and of itself – as high schoolers, these characters were playful, bookish, and trusting, no different from my friends or me. But then they were forced to endure hard times that I was sufficiently privileged to avoid. And so when I read about their lives, perched as I was atop my mountain of privilege, it was painful to watch Ifemelu and Obinze develop their self-protective emotional carapaces, armoring themselves against the injustice that ceaselessly buffets them.
Another reader might nod and think, I’ve been there. I had to exercise my imagination.
In Being a Beast, Charles Foster describes his attempts to understand the lives of other animals. He spent time mimicking their behaviors – crawling naked across the dirt, eating worms, sleeping in an earthen burrow. He wanted a badger’s-eye view of the world.
Foster concluded that his project was a failure – other animals’ lives are just so different from ours.
And yet, as a direct consequence of his attempt at understanding, Foster changed his life. He began treating other animals with more kindness and respect. To me, this makes his project a success.
White people might never understand exactly how it feels to be Black in America. I’m sure I don’t. But we can all change the way we live. We can, for instance, resolve to spend more money on Black communities, and spend it on more services than just policing.
Empathy is working when it forces us to act. After all, what we do matters more than what we purport to think.
It’s interesting to speculate what it would feel like to share another’s thoughts – in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Shorefall, the protagonists find a way to temporarily join minds. This overwhelming rush of empathy and love transforms them: “Every human being should feel obliged to try this once.”
In the real world, we might never know exactly how the world feels to someone else. But Nagel wants to prove, with words, that he has understood another’s experience.
One might try, for example, to develop concepts that could be used to explain to a person blind from birth what it was like to see. One would reach a blank wall eventually, but it should be possible to devise a method of expressing in objective terms much more than we can at present, and with much greater precision.
The loose intermodal analogies – for example, “Red is like the sound of a trumpet” – which crop up in discussions of this subject are of little use. That should be clear to anyone who has both heard a trumpet and seen red.
We associate red with many of our strongest emotions: anger, violence, love.
And we could tell many different “just so” stories to explain why we have these associations.
Red is an angry color because people’s faces flush red when they’re mad. Red blood flows when we’re hurt, or when we hurt another.
Red represents love because a red glow spreads over our partners’ necks and chests and earlobes as we kiss and caress and fumble together.
Red is mysterious because a red hue fills the sky at dawn and dusk, the liminal hours when we are closest to the spirit world.
These are all emergent associations – they’re unrelated to the original evolutionary incentive that let us see red. Each contributes to how we see red now, but none explains the underlying why.
We humans are blue-green-red trichromatic – we can distinguish thousands of colors, but our brains do this by comparing the relative intensities of just three.
And we use the phrase “color blind” to describe the people and other animals who can’t distinguish red from green. But all humans are color blind – there are colors we can’t see. To us, a warm body looks identical to a cold wax replica. But their colors are different, as any bullfrog could tell you.
Our eyes lack the receptors – cone cells with a particular fold of opsin – that could distinguish infrared light from other wavelengths. We mistakenly assume these two singers have the same color skin.
When we look at flowers, we often fail to see the beautiful patterns that decorate their petals. These decorations are obvious to any bee, but we’re oblivious. Again, we’re missing the type of cone cells that would let us see. To fully appreciate flowers, we’d need receptors that distinguish ultraviolet light from blue.
Most humans can see the color red because we’re descended from fruit eaters. To our bellies, a red berry is very different from a green berry. And so, over many generations, our ancestors who could see the difference were able to gather more nutritious berries than their neighbors. Because they had genes that let them see red, they were better able to survive, have children, and keep their children fed.
The genes for seeing red spread.
Now, several hundred thousand years later, this wavelength of light blares at us like a trumpet. Even though the our ancestors learned to cook food with fire, and switched from fruit gathering to hunting, and then built big grocery stores where the bright flashes of color are just advertisements for a new type of high-fructose-corn-syrup-flavored cereal, red still blares at us.
Once upon a time, we really needed to see ripe fruit. The color red became striking to us, wherever we saw it. And so we invented new associations – rage, or love – even though these are totally unrelated to the evolutionary pressures that gave us our red vision.
Similarly, empathy wasn’t “supposed” to let us build a better world. Evolution doesn’t care about fairness.
And yet. Even though I might never know exactly how it feels when you see the color red, I can still care how you’re treated. Maybe that’s enough.
Header image: a greater short-nosed fruit bat, photograph by Anton 17.
Last week, my kids and I visited my father in Indianapolis. We went to a playground near his apartment.
Playgrounds had re-opened the day before, so my kids were super excited. They’d gone almost three months without climbing much. And the playground near my father’s apartment is excellent, with a variety of nets and terraces suspended from platforms near the canal.
When we arrived – at about eleven a.m. on an eighty-five degree day – we noticed a child sprawled face down in the shade at the other end of the playground, apparently asleep.
My own eldest child promptly started climbing toward the highest slide, which was going to be quite difficult for her. I followed her up, ready to provide encouragement whenever she felt too nervous, and to catch her if she slipped.
My four-year-old hopped onto a swing.
My father, temporarily free of supervisory duties, crossed the playground. In addition to us and the sleeping child, one other family was playing – a woman my age with a baby strapped to her chest and a four-year-old careening in front of her.
My father asked if the sleeping child had come with them. The woman shook her head. So my father asked a few more people, calling down to folks who were sitting on benches near the water.
Nobody knew who this child was.
My father knelt down and gently woke him, to ask if he was okay. My father is a medical doctor. Helping people is what he likes to do.
When roused, the child had a seizure. His body shook. His eyes went stark white, having rolled all the way to the side.
My father called 911.
But then, after about thirty seconds, the child’s seizure ended. And, unlike the fallout from a typical epileptic seizure, the child sat up immediately, alert and unconfused.
My father told the dispatcher that maybe things were fine – no need to send an ambulance – then hung up to talk to the child.
“Are you okay?” my father asked.
“Oh, that’s my sugar high,” the child said. “Some people get a sugar high from eating sugar, but I get that when I sleep. It happens a lot, just when I sleep.”
“I think you had a seizure.”
“Well, I just call that my sugar high.”
“Do you take any medications?” my father asked.
“Only a little, sometimes, for my ADHD.” And then the child started to climb up toward the high slide of the playground, near me.
A few moments later, a drone began to hover near us. I’m not fond of drones, mechanically whirring through the air. And I’ve never even had reason to feel traumatized! They must be so terrifying for people who’ve survived contemporary war zones, or who’ve been subject to drone-enhanced policing.
“What’s that noise?” my six-year-old asked.
“It’s a robot,” I said. “A flying robot. See, over there. Sometimes they put cameras in them.”
“It’s called a drone,” the formerly sleeping child clarified. “I used to work with drones. I’m an inventor. But that person should be careful. That drone is over the water, and when drones crash into the water they can short circuit and catch fire.”
“You like drones?” I asked.
“I like to build stuff. Some drones you can control with your mind, like telekinesis, with a strap …”
“Oh, like an electroencephalogram?” I asked. “We played a game at a museum once, you wear a headband and try to think a ping-pong ball across the table.”
“You can make a drone fly that way, too. But those are tricky because if you laugh they crash.”
“You wouldn’t want to laugh while it was over the water!” my six-year-old exclaimed, giggling.
“You wouldn’t,” the child agreed, sagely. And then he turned to me to ask, “Say, do you know where the nearest McDonalds is? My dad wants me to get him something.”
I shook my head, apologizing. “We’re visiting my father, I don’t know where anything is around here. But you could try asking him.”
When asked, my father shook his head, too. His apartment is in a rather fancy part of of Indianapolis, it seems. “I don’t know of one … I don’t think I’ve seen a McDonalds around here.”
“Well, that’s okay, I’ll get something at a gas station instead. Thanks!”
And with that, the child jogged away. I never even learned his name.
My father walked over to me. “I’m worried about him,” he said. “That was a tonic-clonic seizure! I don’t know how he came out of that feeling lucid. I mean, he’s obviously a bright kid, but …”
“It didn’t look like he had a phone with him,” I said. “I don’t know, suddenly needing food … I’d guess schizophrenia, but that’d be really strange for an eight-year-old.”
“I know,” my father said. “But something’s wrong.”
On that, we definitely agreed. A lot of somethings might be wrong if a third grader is napping at a city playground on his own.
And I didn’t help him.
In retrospect, I’m still not sure what I should have done.
When my father thought the child was experiencing an acute medical emergency, he called 911. But then he canceled the request when the problem seemed chronic, not urgent. The arrival of an ambulance probably would’ve caused more harm than good, because a trip to the ER is often followed by egregious bills.
A few weeks ago, my spouse woke up with blurry vision. This might be nothing serious, or it might be the sign of a detached retina, so we drove her to the ER. After two hours of waiting, a doctor spent three minutes with her, visually examining my spouse’s eye while shining a light on it.
Thankfully, nothing was wrong.
We received a bill for $1,600. After requesting an itemized bill, they split the charges into a $200 ER fee and $1,400 for “ED LEVEL 3 REGIONAL.”
To diagnose a child who’d just emerged from an atypical seizure, they might levy poverty-inducing charges, which is why my father canceled with the dispatcher. He volunteers at the free clinic because he knows how many people are priced out of access to health care in our country.
But, if not a hospital, who could we call for help?
Currently, there’s a big push to defund the police. In many cities, the budget for policing is so large, and the budget for other public services so small, that police officers are de facto social workers. Which doesn’t make anybody happy.
In a recent New York Timesconversation, Vanita Gupta said, “When I did investigations for the Justice Department, I would hear police officers say: ‘I didn’t sign up to the police force to be a social worker. I don’t have that training.’ “
Police officers are tasked with responding to mental health crises, despite receiving little training in psychology, counseling, or even de-escalation. Police officers use their budget to combat the downstream effects of poverty – which often includes theft, vandalism, and domestic violence – without a commensurate amount being spent on addressing the poverty itself. Police budgets dwarf the amounts spent on jobs programs and public work projects.
Many police officers join the force because they want to help people. They’re motivated by the same altruism that inspired my father to practice medicine. But just as hospital billing, as a system, undermines the altruism of individual doctors (“In this seminar, we’re going to train you to optimize billing. If you perform diagnostics on a third organ system, we elevate patient care to the preferred reimbursement tier.”), American policing, as a system, exacerbates racial injustice and inequality.
Even a charming, well-spoken, eight-year-old Black child has good reason to fear the police. I don’t think any good would have come from us calling the cops.
And so I’m left wondering – what would it be like if we did have an agency to call? What if, instead of police officers with guns, we had social workers, counselors, and therapists patrolling our streets?
Maybe then it would have been easy to help this child.
As is, I did nothing.
Feature image: photograph of sidewalk chalk by Ted Eytan, Washington D.C.
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.
At a library booksale, I purchased a copy of The Magus intending only to read the racy bits. At a comic shop in California, I bought a bundle of Playboy magazines from the 1970s. After reading an interview with the Erika Lust, my spouse & I watched some of her company’s short films. While traveling in India with friends, we visited a health center and each purchased an Ayurvedic massage.
massage, each of us was taken to private rooms and told to change into rather skimpy
thong underwear. Then a trained
professional – a man for the males in our group, a woman for the females –
rubbed our bodies with a blend of oil and spices, carefully kneading our
muscles. There wasn’t the sort of
rhythmic, focused attention that I imagine to be a component of “happy
endings,” but midway through I began to fret about what I would say if that was
the sort of massage that I’d inadvertently purchased.
Worrying left me even more tense after the massage than before it started. Whoops.
after we had all showered and reconvened in the lobby, my friend who’d
convinced us to try ayurvedic massage regaled us with a story from his
childhood. His parents were Indian, and
massage was a totally normal part of their culture. And so, during a family vacation to Mexico
when my friend was fourteen, his mother purchased a massage for him at one of
the tents near their beach.
through, the masseuse wrapped her fingers around his oiled penis and rapidly
pumped back and forth. My friend was
alarmed but, as a naive adolescent, didn’t know how to make it stop. So he assumed that the easiest way to get
through the experience was to close his eyes and think of things sultrier than
masseuse cleaned off his belly. He
sheepishly exited the tent. His mother
asked, “Was it a good massage, beta?”
averted his eyes and mumbled, “yup.”
Most teenagers act embarrassed and cagey around their parents all the
time, so she didn’t realize anything was wrong.
would have been outraged to realize that she had hired a sex worker.
is a slippery concept, though. In the
process of writing this essay, I tried to come up with a definition; I
failed. You could reasonably argue that all
massage therapists are sex workers.
Patrons are nearly naked; there’s a whole lot of lubricated skin-to-skin
contact; a body is used as conduit to satiation.
A number of other professions fit most of the definitions of “sex work” that I came up with. In strip clubs, lap dancers rub against a patron’s body in order to produce orgasm. After pregnancy, many women visit physical therapists who help them regain bladder control; a worker rhythmically curls her gloved fingers inside the patron’s vulva. A model might pose for Playboy – or even the Victoria’s Secret catalog – knowing that young men will climax while gazing at her image. An actor in a pornographic film engages in sexual contact for money; so do police officers.
who drafts an erotic story is arguably a sex worker, too. The experience is enjoyed asynchronously, but
the exchange of titillating words can be a form of sexuality, and a patron can
certainly reach orgasm.
practice, these people are unlikely to face legal consequences for their sex
work. Because the term “prostitution” is
so nebulously defined, prosecutors and judges get to decide what counts.
Even for full-fledged, both-parties-shuck-their-clothes, somebody’s-parts-enveloping-somebody-else’s-parts types of sex work, certain people slide right past the law. Many clients look like prosecutors and judges – wealthy, white, and male – so it’s easy to feel sympathy for them. Hasn’t the bad press already hurt this man enough? And, he’s a pillar of his community! We’d cause too much collateral damage by locking him up!
we punish people who are already marginalized.
Poor people, Black people, brazen women, LGBTQ folks, undocumented
immigrants, drug addicts … they elicit little sympathy from our
prosecutors. Go ahead and lock them
up. Fine them. Deport them.
Juno Mac and Molly Smith have written an excellent book, Revolting Prostitutes, documenting the actual results of our laws against sex work. On the topic of nebulous definitions, Mac and Smith write that, in England (where sex work itself has been decriminalized, but every measure that would allow sex workers to keep themselves safe is illegal):
The definition of brothel-keeping is so capacious as to easily facilitate the criminalization of sex workers: a brothel can be any place where ‘more than one woman offers sexual intercourse, whether for payment or not’ or that is ‘resorted to for the purposes of lewd homosexual practices’. In other words, a flat-share where both housemates regularly have casual non-commercial sex could theoretically count as a brothel under British law.
and misogynistic, this is exactly the sort of language that leads to injustice. Police officers haven’t been raiding the
apartments of college kids who choose to fool around with their classmates;
instead, they use this law as another tool to oppress undocumented immigrants.
should be no surprise that carceral feminists and sex-working feminists have
such difficulty even discussing this topic.
We disagree not only on the solution but on the problem: for
carceral feminists, the problem is commercial sex, which produces trafficking;
for us, the problem is borders, which produces people who have few to no rights
as they travel and work.
solutions we propose are equally divergent.
Carceral feminists want to tackle commercial sex through criminal law,
giving more power to the police. For sex
workers, the solution includes dismantling immigration enforcement and the
militarized border regimes that push undocumented people into the shadows and
shut off their access to safety or justice – in other words, taking power away
from the police and giving it to migrants and to workers.
Smith acknowledge that there are valid reasons to dislike the existence of sex
work. But there is a danger – if we are
too focused on the risk that society might view women’s bodies as objects to be
bought and sold, we might lose sight of the real problem.
workers don’t like their jobs. They sell
sex because they need money.
When we devote resources to the criminal justice system instead of the social services that people need, we make the problem worse.
not here to uplift the figure of the ‘sympathetic’ client, nor the idea that
any client has a ‘right’ to sex. We are
not here to prioritize discussion on whether the sex industry, or even sex
itself, is intrinsically good or bad.
Nor – as we will unpack over the course of this book – are we uncritical
of what work means in a context of insatiable global capitalism and
looming environmental catastrophe.
sense that we wish to see an end to all work, particularly the gendered and
exploitative nature of prostitution, many sex worker activists are in fact ‘sex
industry abolitionists’. As the English
Collection of Prostitutes have said, ‘Ultimately we are organizing for an end
to prostitution … When women are able to claim back the wealth we helped produce,
the economic conditions which have forced millions of people everywhere to sell
their mind, body, time, and skills in order to survive or improve their
standard of living, prostitution will no longer be there.’
feminists] position work in general as something that the worker
should find fulfilling, non-exploitative, and enjoyable. Deviation from this supposed norm is treated
as evidence that something cannot be work.
work, it’s exploitation’ is a refrain you hear again and again. One feminist policymaker in Sweden told a
reporter, ‘Don’t say sex work, it’s far too awful to be work.’ Awfulness and work are positioned as
antithetical: if prostitution is awful, it cannot be work.
feminists and even policymakers often ask sex workers whether we would have sex
with our clients if we weren’t being paid.
Work is thus constantly being re-inscribed as something so personally
fulfilling you would pursue it for free.
this understanding is in some ways embedded in anti-prostitution advocacy
through the prevalence of unpaid internships in such organizations. … The
result of these unpaid and underpaid internships is that the women who are most
able to build careers in the women’s sector – campaigning and setting policy
agendas around prostitution – are women who can afford to do unpaid full-time
work in New York and London. In this
context, it is hardly a surprise that the anti-prostitution movement as a whole
has a somewhat abstracted view of the relationship between work and money.
be mostly positive for those who can largely set the parameters of the
conversation, like high-profile journalists.
However, this does not describe reality for most women workers or
workers in general (or even many journalists).
Most workers suffer some unfair conditions in the workplace and would not, as a rule, do their jobs for free. Work is pretty awful, especially when it’s low paid and unprestigious. This is not to say that this state of affairs is good, or that we should accept it because it is normal, but nor is it useful to pretend that work is generally wonderful and exclude from our analysis the demands of workers whose experience does not meet this standard.
Smith would love to live in a world where no one felt the need to sell
sex. Barring that, they would like to
see sex work become less exploitative, and they offer concrete policy
suggestions that would help. Their
proposals are reasonable – and very different from the laws that our predominantly
wealthy, white, male legislatures have been passing.
Even in Sweden – where we first saw the “Nordic model,” which ostensibly decriminalizes the act of selling sex while punishing buyers – sex workers are harassed by the police. There has been no amnesty for women who sell sex because they are barred from other forms of employment by their immigration status.
if the police chose to pursue only buyers, these laws would still harm sex
workers. If any person involved in a
transaction is considered a criminal, the transaction will be dangerous. Sex workers subject to the Nordic model are
unable to take basic safety precautions, and so they are hurt by these laws.
U.S. bills that were ostensibly passed to protect women have instead caused
worldwide harm. Mac and Smith write
SESTA-FOSTA [which shut down websites like Backpage for trafficking concerns] censored a huge number of advertising platforms at once in spring 2018, rendering sex workers in the US and beyond more precarious, broke, and desperate almost overnight as their source of income vanished. SESTA-FOSTA increased the power of clients and would-be managers, as sex workers scrambled to find work in any way they could.
One client wrote, ‘I definitely think this will end up being a win for hobbyists [habitual clients] … prices will drop because providers [sex workers] will not be able to pull in new customers and have to take whoever they can get. Specials [such as sex without a condom] will become more prevalent … They will have to act friendlier and not have the luxury of turning away clients any longer.’
clarifications for terms like “hobbyists” and “specials” were provided by Mac
seem paradoxical that these laws, which ostensibly aim to fight exploitation,
instead make exploitation easier and more prevalent. But ultimately it is not a paradox: reducing
sex workers’ ability to connect with clients always increases scarcity and
makes workers more vulnerable.
When we try to suppress demand by passing laws that punish people who buy sex, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous. When we try to suppress demand by shutting down advertising platforms, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous.
doing the wrong things.
are targeting the wrong sort of demand.
In economic terms, the demand for sex work is relatively elastic. Fooling around is fun; it isn’t necessary. When the price goes up – because sex workers raise their rates, because there’s an outbreak of STIs, because the transaction is criminalized, because there’s a cultural norm that people share their sexuality only within the confines of a church-sanctioned marriage – most people will have less sex.
of contrast, the demand for a safe place to live, food for your children, or
medicine are all inelastic. When
you’re fleeing the ravages of climate change or militarized gang violence, it
doesn’t matter how much it costs. That’s
why our immigration policies have been failing – by policing our borders, we’ve
raised the price of migration, but we haven’t addressed substandard living
conditions in people’s home countries.
Instead, we are making people’s homes less safe. Both the colonial legacy and ongoing carbon pollution of places like the United States and wealthy European countries have led to droughts, government corruption, and drug-sale-funded violence around the world. We have a moral obligation to help the people whose homes we’ve ruined; instead, we’re treating them like criminals.
I’ve written previously that a global wealth tax used to fund a guaranteed basic income would be the best solution to many of our world’s problems; Mac and Smith also conclude that:
sex work unnecessary, there is much work to do: winning rights for
freedom of movement, labor rights, access to services and to work without
threat of deportation, employment alternatives, better welfare provisions,
cheaper housing, support services for single mothers, and so on. If everybody had the resources they needed,
nobody would need to sell sex.
Revolting Prostitutes is an incredibly well-written, deeply researched, important book. It deserves to be widely read – certainly by everyone who purports to care about feminism, immigration, or human rights.
I worry, though, that some readers might be turned away by an ad hominem attack. Many authors have careers that inform their writing; I’ve never seen these mentioned in our local university’s library listings before. Wouldn’t it be enough to list “Author: Smith, Molly” with no clarification?
descended from the oppressors. My
ancestors ventured from their homeland with colonial aspirations and genocidal
It wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t born yet! But, having inherited vast privilege, some measure of responsibility from the misdeeds of my people surely falls upon my shoulders.
A hundred thousand years ago, several species of humans shared our planet. My ancestors, who would give rise to contemporary Homo sapiens, mostly lived in Africa. They differed from other primates in that their brains were larger, their posture more upright, their epidermis darker in hue, their verbal communication more nuanced.
During a period of climate change, my ancestors left their home. The planet was warming; glaciers receded; Homo sapiens ventured north.
Europe was already populated by humans, people who had weathered the bitter cold through the waning ice age. But my ancestors were undeterred. They did not respect the old territorial boundaries. Soon they supplanted the native peoples. Every last one of the natives died. Their people disappeared from the face of the earth, extinct.
Every time my ancestors ventured to a new land, the old inhabitants were killed. Nearly all of our planet’s large animals are gone now; megafauna extinction is directly correlated with human migration.
If it’s any consolation, Homo sapiens were not the only perpetrators of these atrocities. Every other human species – including those whom my ancestors harried to extinction – wrought similar devastation on their environments.
In this case, no reparations are possible. The victims are dead; their families curtailed. My ancestors’ misdeeds against them ceased, but only because there was no one left to harm.
But I can atone through remembrance.
And so, as a descendant of the oppressors, I felt a special sympathy toward the Neanderthal. When I was in school, these humans were consistently described as brutish, uncouth, and unintelligent. But I recognized that sort of language. My people have almost always maligned supposed “others” – until we took the time to learn how smart they are, all non-human animals were imagined to be unthinking automata. Pale-skinned Europeans claimed that intelligence – or even humanity itself – was inversely correlated with epidermal melanin concentration (by which measure Pan troglodytes would be more human than any Englishman).
Forty years ago, medical doctors implied that men who felt a sexual attraction to men differed from their peers on a cellular level, as though the human immunodeficiency virus was sensitive to a psychological preference. Even now, many medical doctors believe that people with higher amounts of epidermal melanin experience pain differently.
My people’s negative assessment of the Neanderthal, I figured, was probably not true. Indeed, in recent years we’ve discovered that Neanderthals made art, that they probably had spoken languages … that they were like us. Enough so that many humans living today carry Neanderthal DNA sequences in their genomes.
Inspired by Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a first-person perspective of the apocalypse wrought upon 11th century England, I began working on a story narrated by the last of the Neanderthal.
I was still working on this story during the 2016 presidential election. But with our 45th openly praising white supremacists, I felt suddenly less inspired to celebrate the Neanderthal. Many of the hate mongers were extolling the virtues of humans descended from northern Europeans, and, as it happens, these are the people who have the most abundant remnants of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes.
Genetics isn’t destiny. And there haven’t been any correlations between Neanderthal DNA and intelligence; indeed, most of the genetic sequences that have been proposed to modulate intelligence are probably false. Neanderthal DNA has been found to correlate only with an increased risk of depression and an increased susceptibility to allergies.
I began working on my Neanderthal story as an apology to the dispossessed, but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it in an environment where some individuals might tout their Neanderthal heritage as a mark of superiority. As though their blood conferred the right to mistreat people from other backgrounds, or the right to so thoroughly ravage our planet’s atmosphere that other people’s homes are scorched or submerged beneath the sea.
seems shocking to me. Quite recently,
the Neanderthal were thoroughly impugned.
As though we could declare their kind to be undeserving of existence and
thereby spare ourselves a reckoning for having killed them.
contemporary oppressors herald the Neanderthal as a source of greatness. Light-skinned warrior folk, beset by
dark-skinned immigrants from the south.
Humans have been ingesting dimethyltryptamine, a potent psychedelic, for over a thousand years. We’ve been using cocaine even longer. Marijuana was used medicinally in China thousands of years ago; soon after, celebrants in India began to ingest it as a psychedelic to potentiate religious experience. Mind-altering experiences were so prized in ancient Greece that prophets huffed narcotic vapors.
Not all drug use is good, obviously. Narcotics like opium, heroin, oxycontin, et al., can latch onto a person’s mind and compel continued use at any cost. Somebody told me recently, “I knew I was gonna get caught. I’m on probation, they drug test me all the time. I mean, I was thinking about it while I was cutting it up: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me. I was thinking about it while I was loading the syringe: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me. I thought I’d only have to do a week, though, and that seemed okay. Which is insane! I know it’s insane, but that’s what I was thinking. I guess I was wrong. I’ve been here three weeks and I still haven’t had my court date.”
Even fish, if they get hooked, will risk their lives for another dose. When human parents are snared by addiction, they endanger their children. The man whom I quoted above? He’d managed to stay sober for almost seven months, but relapsed the night of his son’s second birthday. His wife had to break down the bathroom door. After the ER, they brought him straight to jail.
In class together, we read Josh Rathkamp’s “Single Father,” in which the narrator fears that his diabetes will cause him to fall out and be unable to help his daughter. Several parents recognized their own dread. Then we read “Daddy Wake Up” by local poet Travis Combs. Combs loves his son, but, like a diabetic, a person suffering from opiate addiction might find himself paralyzed, “a mass of mess.”
But psychedelic drugs are tightly controlled. Despite thousands of research findings to the contrary, they’re classified by the U.S. government as having no accepted medical treatment use. Possession is a felony.
Perhaps this shouldn’t seem surprising. Spiritual drug use has been prized by our ancestors for thousands of years, but most cultures closely regulated which people would be privileged with access to those sacraments. Depending on the time and place, only wealthy people would be allowed to use drugs, or only people born to a certain caste, or only men.
In the United States, cocaine
was rightfully recognized as a wonder drug for decades, but then a cadre of
white supremacist politicians claimed that cocaine would turn black men into
monsters. Prohibition was mediated
It’s true that cocaine is
dangerous – both psychologically and physiologically – if you’re ingesting the
purified compound. But coca tea is no
more dangerous than earl grey. Indeed,
if you decided to purify caffeine from tea leaves and snort it, you might die.
Marijuana was also legal in
the United States until the racist propaganda machine started spinning stories
about what would happen when people from Mexico smoked it.
Yet when people in Denver supported a ballot initiative that reduces the legal risk of possessing psilocybin-containing mushrooms, Pollan wrote an editorial denouncing the initiative. Yes, there is some nuance; Pollan states that
No one should ever be arrested
or go to jail for the possession or cultivation of any kind of mushroom – it
would be disingenuous for me to say otherwise, since I have possessed, used and
grown psilocybin myself.
And he claims, oddly, that the ballot initiative would be merely symbolic, citing as evidence the fact that only 11 psilocybin cases have been prosecuted in the last three years, out of approximately 150 arrests. I personally have never been prosecuted for a crime, nor even arrested, but I’ve been told that it’s a very traumatic experience. I’ve heard this from very reliable sources, men who have been through all sorts of horrific trauma in addition to their arrests.
For all the people subject to
this trauma – not to mention everyone more deterred than Pollan himself by the
current legal status of this medicine – the initiative would have very
Instead, Pollan centers his
cautionary argument on the idea that psilocybin “is not for everyone.”
That idea is true enough, as
far as things go. Some people probably
shouldn’t use psilocybin. Some people
feel traumatized by the bad experiences they go through while under its
influence. But I would argue that arrest
is more traumatizing, and that the very illegality of the substance
increases the likelihood that someone will go through a bad trip.
And the regulations seem absurd compared to how we treat other drugs. For instance, someone with a predisposition to develop schizophrenia could be pushed closer to this condition by ingesting psilocybin. The drug can hurt someone who uses it. But alcohol, which is totally legal for most U.S. citizens over 21 years of age to purchase and consume, causes a huge amount of harm even to people who abstain. Alcohol is the psychoactive drug that causes the most harm to others.
It’s unlikely that our sitting Supreme Court justices would have sexually assaulted anyone while using psilocybin for a meditative journey of self-discovery. Indeed, that sort of experience might have led someone to develop much more empathetic political views.
Because alcohol consumption is so likely to lead to poor decision-making and violence, it’s illegal for people on probation to drink. Many have to check in at “blow & go” breathalyzer stations once or twice a day, which is really tough for people whose drivers’ licenses are suspended. But, still, we passed this law to keep other people safe.
Or consider antibiotics. Every time you use antibiotics, you make the world a little worse. With every dose, there’s a risk that the bacteria you’re hoping to kill off will instead evolve to resist them.
And yet, even though using antibiotics hurts everybody else, they’re regulated much less than other drugs. If you take psilocybin, it’s not going to hurt me at all. But if you take an antibiotic – or, worse, if you decide to manufacture huge quantities of antibiotics and them inject 80% of them into cows, pigs, and chickens, all of whom are being raised in fetid conditions – you’re making it much more likely that I will die.
In the past, somebody might
get scratched by a cat … and die.
Any infection could turn septic and kill you.
In the future, a
currently-treatable infection might kill me.
Or kill my children.
But we’re not stopping the
meat industry from using them. We’re not
using our legal system to protect all of humanity from their
misuse. Instead we’ve outlawed
psilocybin, a compound that could usher you through a spiritual experience that
helps you become a kinder, happier person.
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.
If you live next to a concentrated animal feeding operation – facilities that houses thousands of farmed animals in fetid conditions – there’s no point in buying perfume. The smell of animal excrement overwhelms any scent you could wear. If you’re interested in a romantic dalliance, you’ll have to woo people with your looks. Or, sure, conversation. But a charming scent won’t do it.
In other environs, scent contributes to your allure. We humans choose our mates based on a huge number of considerations, including the way people smell. Back in 1995, zoologist Claus Wedekind proposed that human females are most attracted to the scents of men whose immune genes differ from their own.
During college, a friend tried to convince me that the best route to romantic success was Old Spice aftershave. “It reminds women of their fathers,” he said. This is, of course, the opposite theory from Wedekind’s – that females would seek out partners whose scents mirror their own genetic lineage.
But this much is uncontested – by overwhelming our sense of smell, air pollution makes humans less sexy.
We’re not the only animals who use aroma to identify attractive mates. Stick insects can have a wide range of physical appearances, and multiple species sometimes live in overlapping areas. Each subpopulation of stick insects secretes a different mix of oily aromatic chemicals from their skin. These oils protect them from scrapes and dehydration – and help them find mates of their own kind.
If stick insects couldn’t smell, they might mate wantonly.
That’s what happens with fish.
When we pollute water, fish lose the ability to recognize each other. In the same way that humans near a CAFO won’t notice each other’s scents because they can only smell ammonia and sulfurous shit, fish living near human dumping grounds – whether it be farm run-off, factory effluents, or untreated sewage – find their sense of smell overwhelmed.
Many types of fish behave the way my Old-Spice-sporting friend hoped humans would – they seek mates who smell like their forebears. Which they can’t necessarily do in polluted waters. And so fish mate across species. Their chimeric children dissolve the old boundary lines.
Perhaps you thought this couldn’t happen – the traditional definition of a “species” is a population of organisms that can produce fertile offspring only by mating with each other. But the traditional definition is wrong; scientists don’t actually know what a species is. Whatever boundaries exist seem porous. The Neanderthal genes carried by modern Homo sapiens show that humans also mated with other species, at least until we drove our relatives into extinction. Chimpanzees are the closest we have left, sharing 98% of our DNA, but now they’re endangered too.
Although – maybe that’s fine. Not murdering our relations, or endangering the chimps; maybe it’s fine for multiple lineages to merge back into one. I hate to find any virtue in pollution, but dissolving species boundaries doesn’t sound so bad.
Contemporary biology textbooks claim that species boundaries arise whenever subpopulations cease interbreeding. For the “Advanced Placement” biology test, students are expected to know that speciation can be triggered by migration, or a geographic impediment like a new highway, or even cultural barriers.
A strong preference for certain types of scent might qualify as a cultural barrier. Or tropical birds that want their mates to look or dance a certain way. And so would anti-miscegenation laws in the United States. Except for the gene flow provided by pale-skinned rapists, those biology textbooks imply that epidermal melanin concentrations marked a species boundary until the 1960s in the United States.
In the contemporary U.S., parental wealth creates a similar mating barrier. In many parts of the country, children born to rich, well-educated parents rarely even chat with children born to poor people, let alone marry them. This phenomenon has persisted for only a generation or two, which is certainly too brief to create a species division, but shows no sign of abating.
Marrying somebody who shares your interests seems fine. My spouse and I seem to be fairly similar people. And yet – should I be alarmed that my own choice inches us closer toward the world of Metropolis?
Feature image: “Character study, strong smell” by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.
Thor finds himself grappling with the Midgard Serpent, a giant snake that had encircled the entire planet. Thor bops the snake on the head with his magic hammer; the snake retaliates with poison.
[Thor] steps nine steps but is finished
by that serpent who has no fear of malice.
Both Thor and Serpent die.
Thor’s father Odin spent much of his life obsessed with prophecy. Convinced that great sacrifice would lead to wisdom, Odin stabbed himself with a spear and hung himself from a tree till nearly dead, nine days and nights. Later, he traded an eye for a vision of the future – who needs depth perception, anyway?
But Odin still brought destruction upon himself.
According to the prophecies, Odin would be killed by a giant beast, the Fenris Wolf. Like the Midgard Serpent, this wolf was a child of Loki. By rights, the wolf should have joined the pantheon. It would have been Odin’s ally.
Instead, Odin deceived the wolf – you shuck shackles as easily as Houdini will! But let’s try one more time. If you can’t escape this set, we promise we’ll untie you. We just want to see, so that we can all marvel at your strength – provoking his anger.
If Odin hadn’t been such a jerk, Loki’s children wouldn’t have hated him. Ragnarok would not have come. Thor might have lived forever.
Or perhaps not. Because Thor surely died again when he was forgotten. What good is a god without worshipers? Pious humans keep their deities alive.
It’s not clear whether Thor was ever really worshiped, but libations were probably poured for him. I’ve never studied spiritual husbandry, but I bet the occasional splash of beer onto the ground was enough to keep Thor ticking.
Then his people converted to Christianity. They’d celebrate Jesus instead. Thor might have been forgotten entirely except that a few Christian scholars, years later, decided that the old stories should be preserved. Which means, of course, that our knowledge of Thor’s escapades is laced with Christian stereotypes.
In Christianity, women have a clearly subservient role – Job’s wife was a replaceable possession; Jesus’s teachings were conveyed to us solely by men. It’s not clear whether the Norse shared these prejudices.
For instance, contemporary genetic analysis revealed that one Viking warrior – long assumed to be male because he was buried with weapons and the regalia of high rank – was actually female. (As soon as this discovery was made, members of our modern Christian-ish society decided that she probably wasn’t that great a warrior after all, even though her prowess had gone unquestioned until she was revealed to have two X chromosomes.)
In Thor’s greatest recorded battle, he wears a dress. Within the world of Norse myth, the burly bearded man smites giants, but so might the presumed willowy beauty. Thor was Thor, but someone you’d thought was Freya might be Thor as well. In duress, man and woman alike could conjure the passions of battle.
Thor limped along for centuries, partially resurrected, his stories preserved so that Christian readers would better understand the poetic devices used in Icelandic literature. Wasn’t until the 1970s that anyone strove to worship Thor back to life.
In the beginning, the white supremacist movement in the United States was closely linked with Christianity. Southern plantationers thumped their Bibles. Specious theories about Noah’s grandchildren were used to justify slavery.
(Noah drank too much. On a night while he was passed out drunk, one of his sons castrated him so that there wouldn’t be any more siblings to share the inheritance with. Noah was understandably upset, and declared that this particular son’s lineage would become slaves. A few thousand years later, a nation of ignoramuses convinced themselves that people with higher epidermal melanin concentrations must be descended from this son.)
(The version of this story that was eventually settled upon for the Hebrew cannon – i.e. the version in the Old Testament – is circumspect to the point of absurdity.)
The KKK hated black people, but they hated Jewish people, too.
In the 1970s, a subset of white supremacists decided that Christianity itself was a tool for Jewish mind control. Jesus was just another cog in the great ZOG plot! They reasoned that the whole love thy neighbor business was intended to make them weak, and that they’d been tricked into worshiping Yahweh, who was and always would be a Jewish god. They conveniently overlooked the fact that Christians had been murdering Jewish people for millennia.
They spoke out against cultural appropriation. White people shouldn’t latch onto other peoples’ cultures or beliefs, they said. Instead, white people should worship their own gods.
They decided that Odin and Thor were white gods. As though a person’s religion could be coded into DNA. As though your genes determined which stories you should believe.
Thor really was racist, it’s true – but he was prejudiced against the race of giants, not any particular population of humans. And even though Thor was murderously prejudiced against the giants, it was still considered acceptable for him or other gods to drink and cavort with them, or intermarry.
The modern supremacists who’ve claimed Thor as their own think differently. For instance Else Christensen, who distributed Odinist materials to prisons with missionary zeal, who wrote that “We, as Odinists, shall continue our struggle for Aryan religion, Aryan freedom, Aryan culture, Aryan consciousness, and Aryan self-determination.”
Thor first died battling a snake. (This sort of bloody end would grant entrance to Valhalla – as opposed to Nilfheim, Hel’s dark cold misty kingdom, final destination for all who died of illness or old age.)
Then Thor died ignominious, his followers having dwindled, his worship having ceased. For centuries, the mud drank no more mead for Thor.
(After writing the preceding sentence, I wanted to mention which seasons. I typed “when can dolphins conceive” into my search bar. The top hit was a website called Can Male Dolphins Get Pregnant, with the blurb “There will be nothing you can do about it but pray.” I clicked the link. The page instantly re-directed to a website called Trusted Health Tips featuring a “new groundbreaking online video that reveals how to get pregnant,” alongside the disclaimer that “pharmaceutical and fertility companies have requested the government to ban” the video, since it would clearly destroy their businesses. Our generation is the first to have all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips! We are like gods, are we not?)
Dolphins, like humans, are attracted to a wide range of sexual partners. Pairs or trios of males form long-term strategic alliances, and they will engage in “psuedo-sexual” behavior with their allies. Presumably one or both of the participants finds these activities pleasurable. They’ll tumble with females, and males, and humans, too.
As best we know, dolphins hold no negative stereotypes against those who pursue consensual pleasure, no matter what form it takes.
I’ve felt surprised, when discussing sexuality in jail, that so many men who’ve spent time in prison still use starkly binary terminology. I’ve never heard anyone use the word “bisexual” in jail. Instead I’ve heard things like, “I’ve got nothing against people who want to be gay. It’s not for me, but I’ve got nothing against it. What gets me is when people who I know are gay, who I saw be gay inside, they get out and want me to back up their lies that they’re not. I’m like, excuse me, I know you’re gay, so how can you ask me to tell somebody that you’re not?”
At another class, we discussed human sexuality throughout history. Physical affection was encouraged among the troops of ancient Rome, with the idea that a soldier might fight more fervently to protect his lover than his country. Japanese samurai were considered unrefined if they didn’t savor the occasional dalliance with another male. (I refrain from describing the samurai’s encounters as “sexual,” because many were not consensual by contemporary standards – the objects of their desire were often too young.)
In many cultures, if someone was so persnickety that he had sex exclusively with women, despite spending long periods of time surrounded only by other men, he’d be seen as deviant.
One of the guys interjected, “Yeah, but what they were doing wasn’t, you know, cause I heard you’re only gay if your testicles touch.”
This was immediately disputed. “No way – there’s positions with two guys and a girl where your testicles touch, and I know for a fact that don’t make you gay.”
My co-teacher and I sighed. We’re both long-haired, relatively effeminate men, typically dressed in some measure of women’s clothing – every pair of pants I own comes from either the Indiana University dumpsters or the women’s department of Goodwill, and the same is true of most of my co-teacher’s jackets.
But my co-teacher and I live in a world where ambiguity is safer. The way we punish people in this country carves away the nuances of people’s personalities – immersed in violence, they’ll need friends, but people are shuffled so often that there’s little time to build friendships. They make do with communal identity instead.
When people were talking over a young black man as he read a poem, they were shushed by a convicted murderer covered in Aryan Brotherhood tattoos. The tattooed man never seemed particularly racist. He was very well read, and often mentioned things he’d learned from reading The Quran or Confucius. But he was socially a white supremacist. A pragmatic choice for a dude who’d spent eighteen years in prison. At cafeterias under AB control, he’d get to eat.
Likewise, no matter who men fool around with, most choose to identify as socially heterosexual while they’re inside.
(A lovely quote from Morgan Freeman that I first saw as an epigram in CAConrad’s While Standing in Line for Death: “I hate the word homophobia. It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.”)
Our world didn’t have to turn out this way.
In the poem “Gilgamesh,” Spencer Reece documents the slow crumbling of an affair – the poet fell in love with a man who desires only the young. As Spencer ages, the romance fades. This man wants only to recapture the love that was denied to him in youth.
This instability is tragically common – Spencer’s paramour was raised in a culture that considered all sexual desire to be sinful, and homosexual desire especially so. Even outside prison walls, we consider certain ambiguities too fraught to tolerate:
Fragments, clay cylinders, tablets, parchment –
to write Genesis, they say, the writers
searched their neighborhood,
found all kinds of things, including
the epic about Gilgamesh, much of it damaged,
regarding the man who saw into the deep.
Somehow, the part
about Gilgamesh and Enkidu
What a different world we’d have if our sacred books taught that love was love was love. People could comfortably be all of themselves.
In his poem “Dolphin” from An Aquarium, Jeffrey Yang writes that