When we attended my grandmother’s memorial service, my children sat in the front pew. They flanked my mother and mostly succeeded in sitting quietly, despite having just ridden for two hours in the car. We were proud.
The service was held inside the Presbyterian church where my grandmother worked for twenty-five years. Large stained glass windows poured colorful light into the room. The walls were adorned with Christmas decorations.
“It’s so beautiful,” said our five-year-old.
The minister was wearing a white robe with gold trim. Before he began to describe my grandmother’s complicated hair and meticulous proofreading, he told stories about Jesus. “We must welcome the Lord into our heart,” he said from the pulpit.
“Myrtle has joined Him there,” he said.
Our younger child – three-and-a-half – turned and asked, quite loudly and clear as a bell, “Which sky ghost do these people believe in?”
Driving home from the ceremony, the song “Heaven’s Only Wishful” by MorMor came on the radio.
“Heaven is the name of the sky ghost kingdom in Christianity. That religion isn’t always kind toward women – there were thirteen apostles, but one was a woman and the people who wrote the Bible left her out – so there isn’t a queen in the stories about Heaven. There’s a prince, the kid, Jesus, and there’s a king, the father, usually just called God, or Yahweh, and there’s a grandfather figure, the Holy Ghost.”
“And maybe you’ve seen in books … like in Mr. Putter and Tabby, whenever Mr. Putter really likes something he says it’s ‘heavenly.’ Which means the cake or whatever is so good that you could serve it in the sky ghost kingdom. Even Jesus would think it was delicious.”
“His grandfather is a ghost?” exclaimed our youngest.
“When your father said ‘grandfather figure,’ maybe he misspoke,” my spouse said. “When people feel moved, when they see or hear something really beautiful, sometimes they say they’ve been visited by the Holy Ghost.”
I clarified. “But that’s how people think about their grandparents – and great-grandparents, and great-greats – in a lot of religions that include ancestor worship. Do you remember in Moana when her grandmother comes to visit her?”
Of course they remembered. Our kids love Moana. When they’re sick, they listen to the Moana soundtrack. Twice a year – to celebrate special events like the winter solstice or the end of school – they watch the movie on my tiny laptop computer screen.
“Her grandmother came and sang to her. But her grandmother had died. She wasn’t reallythere. They drew it that way because they wanted to show you how it felt. It was as though her grandmother had come to her, and that gave her the courage to do a really hard thing, to take back the heart all by herself.”
“Take it to Te Kā, the lava monster!”
“Yes, the lava monster. But the difference is that in cultures like Moana’s – and Daoism in China, some Native American religions here – the ghost or spirit who visits is your ancestor. Someone personal. Family. The story in Christianity is that everyone shares the same dead grandfather figure, the Holy Ghost.”
“I would want you to visit me, Mama,” said our older kid. Which I believe was meant sweetly, like I want you instead of the Holy Ghost, and not I want you instead of my pedantic parent.
“Yeah,” agreed our younger. “I’d want Mama. And Te Kā!”
Ah, yes. From lava monsters do we draw our strength. I’ve clearly taught my children well.
Among worms, there is equality. When worms entwine, each could become a
mother, a father, or both. Neither worm
has grounds to bemoan the fundamental unfairness of our universe – not while
fooling around, at least.
Later, the worms might drown, or be eaten by birds, or be mutilated and held captive by a mole. That all must feel horrible. But while mating, each worm should feel as though it’s been given a fair deal.
Among emperor penguins, both parents
make huge sacrifices for their young.
Each parent will huddle over the egg for months without food, staving
off the Antarctic chill. When it’s time
to trade places, the parents must pass the egg using only their webbed feet –
if they make even a small mistake, the egg will roll away and freeze, killing
the chick inside.
Because each parent puts forth such a
huge amount of effort to raise a chick, each must feel quite choosy during the
mating season. When a pair of penguins
flirt, neither seems to have the upper hand.
Most animals’ reproduction is more
asymmetric. For them – for us –
differing roles can feel unfair.
Often, one partner gets to be pickier
than the other.
Among smooth guardian frogs, fathers are deeply invested in raising their young; mothers hop away after mating, providing no help. Female smooth guardian frogs seem as though they’d be perfectly happy to make babies with anyone. They can always have another fling while a past paramour is protecting the last batch of eggs.
For a male, mating is a serious commitment. He’ll carefully consider his options. And so each female sings to woo him. A common strategy: knowing that males are choosier when it comes to sex, she’ll sing her heart out, hoping to sway his decision.
Among many other species of frogs, males’ songs serve the same purpose. Hoping to woo womenfolk, male bowerbirds build.
Female ducks raise their young. They have the freedom to choose their
mates. Male ducks would have more
leverage during courtship if they planned to contribute as parents. But they don’t.
Male ducks are the natural world’s equivalent of violent incels. Aggrieved by their lack of choice, they rape. This has been going on so long that female ducks’ anatomy has evolved – they can trap unwanted sperm with labyrinth passageways inside their bodies, and are able to straighten the path to fertilization during consensual sex – allowing them to maintain mate choice despite the constant threat of assault.
From an evolutionary perspective,
animals that put forth an effort as parents have earned their
choices. They generally get to indulge
their desires … and, even more importantly, should be safe from those whom they
do not desire.
Among many species, we can see evidence
of this push and pull between devoted parents and the absentees who loudly
sing, “Choose me! Choose me!”
For instance, we can learn a lot about the sex lives of our closest relatives by comparing the males’ genitalia. No, not your uncle – that’d be weird. I mean the great apes. A traditional comparison of gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans is shown below.
Male gorillas claim a territory, and
then the dominant male within each territory feels reasonably certain that
every female living there will mate with him and only him. Although he makes minimal contributions
toward parenting – which means the females should feel free to shop
around for sexual partners – he sways their decision through physical
violence. Mostly he’ll direct aggression
at other males, hoping to stave off their competition, but he’s occasionally
rough with “his” females as well.
For male gorillas to control female sexuality without helping as parents, they had to become huge. As it happens, this evolutionary pressure caused their brains to shrink. They have almost 90% fewer neurons than we’d expect for a primate of that size. If gorillas were egalitarian, they would’ve been more intelligent than humans. But there simply weren’t enough calories for gorillas to have large brains and sufficient brawn to indulge in violent sexual coercion.
There’s less difference in size between
male and female chimpanzees, but male chimpanzees also use violence to sway
mate choice. A male chimpanzee might
attack and kill a mother’s babies in order to impregnate her … but he won’t if
he thinks that they might be his own children.
The safest plan for a mother, then, is
to distribute her sexual favors widely.
Her children will safe from everyone with whom she shared a
dalliance. Maybe she’d like to be choosier,
but each male will only last a few seconds, so the cost must not seem like too
much to bear.
From an evolutionary perspective, then,
male chimpanzees are not competing to be the most beautiful. Nor to be the greatest artists. They don’t sing. They do battle, but they tend to
battle in cooperative gangs, with the outcome being that each male among the
upper echelon will have the chance to get it on. A friendless, low-ranking male might be
chased off every time he attempts to mate, but many others will have an
That’s why male chimpanzees produce so
much sperm. The chance to fertilize a
mother’s egg comes down to probability.
If a chimp ejaculates prodigiously, he’s more likely to sire offspring.
Several human cultures believed that babies are formed from sperm, and that mothers required repeated infusions during pregnancy in order for the child to form correctly. Among the Bari of Venezuela, each man who contributed sperm was treated as a biological father – the child was presumed to inherit virtues from each.
Under these beliefs, polyamory was the best strategy for raising a capable child. A mother needed to consider which qualities would help her children most in life, then spend time astride the men who possessed each. The best singer, the most nimble climber, the most astute tracker – each trait was an evening’s lay away.
And her strategy surely worked. Fooling around with the best singer would probably lead to singing lessons. If the best hunter also shared an orgasm with this child’s mother, he’d make an effort to explain the sights and sounds and rhythms of the forest. Honestly, it makes no difference whether talents come from nature or nurture if fathers are willing to teach every child that their sperm might’ve helped create.
The Bari culture, like that of most other human hunter gatherers, was quite egalitarian compared to our own. But even among hunter gatherers, human fathers were typically shabbier parents than mothers. For instance, fathers who hunted typically claimed to be the ones feeding their families, even in places where the “women’s work” of gathering fruits, nuts and seeds provided more nutrition than meat. But an occasional dead deer confers more bragging rights than a sackful of nuts each day, and human males have long loved to brag.
As humans began to practice agriculture, our societies became less equitable. More and more of the childrearing was done by women.
According to the basic principles of
evolution, this means that women should have had more and more leverage during
courtship. More and more control over
their sexuality. In cultures where
mothers do basically everything – feeding the family, teaching children,
cuddling them through the night – women should have had close to free reign in
choosing their partners.
And there’s biological evidence that human women used to be in control. For instance, many women’s sexual preferences seem to cycle rhythmically. Relatively effeminate, helpful partners are favored most of the time, but ultra-masculine brutes suddenly seem sexy during temporary bursts of hormones. In the past, human women probably made out with multiple different men each year.
That’s why human males – unlike gorillas or chimpanzees – have a strong incentive to provide a rollicking good time in bed. Or in the back of a cave, on the forest floor, alongside the riverbank, wherever. Although there’s been intense debate about the degree of correlation between male penis size and female sexual pleasure, most people seem willing to admit that there’s a link.
When women buy sex toys … well, usually they buy external vibrators. These don’t always resemble the genitalia of any biological organism. Many are designed to look like lipstick tubes or other innocuous objects, for modesty’s sake.
But toys that are designed for penetration? These tend to be much longer and thicker than either a gorilla’s inch-long erection or a chimpanzee’s three-inch, slender shaft. Human males tend to be well endowed because it’s a way to sway women’s choices. By giving her a good time, a man might have the chance to fool around again.
But in addition to huge cocks (relative to other primates – as Jeffrey Yang wrote in his poetry collection An Aquarium: The barnacle has the longest penis / of any animal in proportion / to its body size. Happiness / and proportion: / never be ashamed of evolution), humans also have huge brains. Instead of evolving better and better ways to deliver consensual pleasure, human males invented stories to subvert female mate choice.
males aren’t as horrible as ducks, but we’re close.
the world, human males have used religion as a tool to constrain female
choice. We teach that the natural
inclination toward polyamory is evil. A
woman needs to devote herself to one man.
In many cultures, women are not even allowed to choose who that man will
Even in contemporary experiments on U.S. college students, the presence of sexual competitors leads people to espouse more strident religious experiments. If you can’t win with your looks, or with your charming personality, why not tell her that it’d be immoral to make eyes at that other guy?
men could have made art like bowerbirds.
We could’ve sung like frogs.
Hell, we could’ve capitalized on the promise of our large genitalia to
deliver such sweating shaking shuddering good fun that our sexual partners
would remain dazzled forever.
If emperor penguins learned about our sex lives, they’d be appalled. “Dude,” a penguin father might say, “you don’t need to coerce her with a sky ghost! Just be a good parent. Then you’ll get to choose, too.”
That’s sound advice, Mr. Penguin. I am trying to be a good parent. Even when the kids are fussing, I try.
In the beginning,
subatomic particles careened too quickly to connect. The universe was “hot.” (Temperature is a measure of average speed as
objects jiggle. When physics people say
that our universe was “hot,” they mean that everything was moving just shy of
the speed of light.)
In the beginning, our universe wasn’t very interesting. But then the homogeneous cloud of fast-moving particles cooled as it expanded. Speeds slowed. Soon, particles dawdled long enough in each others’ vicinity that they could interact. Hydrogen atoms formed, then hydrogen gas, then stars.
Stars are interesting – when a cloud of gas is big enough, its net gravity can pull everything inward until the density becomes so high that nuclear fusion begins. This raging cascade of explosions counteracts the force of gravity and the star reaches an unsteady equilibrium until, eventually, it runs out of fuel and collapses or explodes.
An exploding star scatters
heavier atoms across the sky. When these
are incorporated into a new star, they can participate in nuclear fusion events
in turn, producing even heavier atoms.
Then that star might
Eventually, there were enough heavy atoms floating about the universe that a condensing cloud could form both a star and a set of orbiting satellites. On these satellites – planets – atoms combine in more interesting ways than inside the bellies of stars.
After all, the infernal
core of a star is pretty hot, too.
Inside that blazing oven, particles can form atoms, and atoms can
combine to form heavier atoms, but these are too frantic to form molecules
– long strings of atoms bonded together.
The chemical bonds that hold a molecule together are much weaker than the electrostatic and nuclear forces that maintain an atom. But planets – even broiling, meteor-bombarded ones – are peaceful places compared to stars. On the primordial earth, lightning strikes or UV radiation probably catalyzed the formation of complex molecules like amino acids and nucleic acids.
These molecules are just
big amalgams of subatomic particles. The
underlying stuff is the same … but there’s more of it.
More is different.
Consider the behaviors of a single amino acid. An amino acid is complex compared to a quark or electron. It can do acid-base chemistry! Its mix of charged and neutral surfaces lets it interact in neat ways with various solvents.
But if you compare that
single amino acid to a protein – and a protein is just more amino acids
joined together – you’ll realize that the single amino acid is total
Proteins, though …
wow! They can fold into fantastical
shapes. They can function as molecular machines,
their parts churning and twisting and flipping as they shuttle other molecules
from place to place, or even create whole new molecules.
When you glom more and
more and more subatomic particles together, eventually you create things
that are complex enough to imprint patterns on the world. They create more things like themselves. Proteins and RNA make new proteins and RNA.
And then, a cell! A cell is an amalgam of molecules all dissolved inside a bubble of fat. If you thought proteins were cool, check this out! Cells can swim, they can eat, they can live and die.
Or, what if there were more
cells? Then you can make us! With many cells, you can make brains,
which makes consciousness, which can give all those subatomic particles the
ability to work together and realize that they are subatomic particles.
Well, no. One single human animal, in isolation, probably wouldn’t figure that out. Each human, as an individual, can be pretty great – but to form a culture complex enough to study particle physics, you’ll need more people. Contemporary physics papers list hundreds of authors, and that doesn’t even credit everybody who worked to build the equipment, and or worked to grow the food, and took care for the children, or taught the physicists, when they were young, allowing them to one day become physicists …
And each of those
physicists, and engineers, and farmers, and caregivers, and teachers … each is
a collection of cells, which are collections of molecules, which are
collections of atoms, which are collections of subatomic particles. As we transition between scales, we see
qualitative differences in behavior from adding more.
This essay is made from a
set of just 26 letters, but these can be combined to form a few hundred
thousand different words, and those can be combined to convey an
infinite number of different ideas.
We blink many thousands of times each day. Our eyes close, pause, and then open again. We need to blink. Staring at screens – as I’m doing now, typing this essay, and as are you, reading it – causes us to blink less frequently, and that can lead to headaches. But the quality of each blink doesn’t affect us much. Most blinks pass by without our even noticing.
Meditation is just a long blink. Close your eyes and let more time elapse before you open them again.
But more is
different. A blink doesn’t disrupt your
thoughts. Meditation, however, can be a
Many religions praise the value of meditation, especially in their origin stories. Before he began his ministry, Jesus meditated in the Judaean Desert – he saw all the world’s kingdoms before him, but rejected that vision of power in order to spread a philosophy of love and charity. Before he began his ministry, Buddha meditated beneath the Bodhi tree – he saw a path unfurl, a journey that would let travelers escape our world’s cycle of suffering. Buddha decided to share that vision with others.
Before teaching his fellows to reshape the world with words, Odin meditated from a tree branch – he felt that he had died, transcended life, and could see the secret language of the universe shimmering before him.
I’ve been preparing anti-racist material about paganism and spirituality so that we have more things to send to people who contact Pages to Prisoners. As part of this project, I’d like to include information about meditation. After all, neo-paganism is invented – typically quite recently – and, as above, many religions have preserved stories suggesting that their founders’ meditation inspired their faith. These religions don’t always prioritize meditation as a contemporary practice, but many do: Christian monks repeat prayers in a way that’s strikingly similar to mantra meditation, Hindu adherents are advised to sit and experience a simulacrum of Shiva’s asceticism, and even warrior cultures have prized pre-battle stillness as a way to focus attention and more fully inhabit the present.
The scientific literature is also replete with papers about meditation — but most of these are junk. It’s fairly easy to find published studies claiming that mindfulness training can confer disease resistance, immunity to aging, or even paranormal abilities like extra-sensory perception. Scientific papers aren’t inherently more trustworthy than the internet.
But it’s true that your mind is plastic, and your moods can dramatically alter the way you perceive the world. Conditions that affect our nervous system – like depression, insomnia, and even chronic pain – can be treated through meditation. The experiments that scientists use to assess things like “creativity” or “attentiveness” are often open to interpretation, but it’s not unreasonable to imagine that meditation would help.
All people are
creative. Our problem, often, is that
our ideas can flit away before we fully grasp them. Like dreams, they fade, and we’re left with
the irksome sensation that “I feel like I just had a good idea, but …”
Meditation can clear the
turbid waters of your mind. Like gazing
into a pellucid lake, it could become easier to spot your good ideas when they
I’ve never been inside a
prison, so I’ll have to collaborate with friends who have spent time there as I
make the pamphlets. But everything I’ve
read suggests that most prisons are loud, chaotic, stressful, and
dangerous. Which has obvious
implications for how easily people can meditate. If you live near a beautiful glen, you could
probably do well by your brain by simply taking some time each day to sit
peacefully beside some flowing water.
Instead, I’ve been learning about mantra meditation. By silently intoning the same phrase over and over – even if it’s just a nonsense word – you can overcome a fair bit of external distraction. To test, I’ve tried meditating at the YMCA. This place is very calm compared to our county jail, which I’ve heard is itself calmer than a prison, but where I sit, people are usually conversing, and there are a variety of rattling exercise machines.
Several of the guide books I’ve read recommend that you pay somebody a bunch of money to teach you transcendental meditation. During your training, you’ll be given a secret Sanskrit word or phrase. People who’ve taken these training courses have posted a bunch of the words online, and apparently a mantra is selected based upon your age and gender.
That seems silly to me –
although it’s possible that different people’s minds would respond best to
different mantras, my gender isn’t a big component of my identity, nor is my
I did pick out a Sanskrit phrase, which is perhaps a silly choice in and of itself. After all, I can’t speak Sanskrit. But I thought it might be nice to have a set of sounds that didn’t carry a lot of semantic meaning in the rest of my daily life. Although Sanskrit mantras would have held meaning to the original practitioners of this style of meditation, Sanskrit is generally considered a formal, ritual language, not something that people speak at home with their families. Even for native speakers, the chance of crossed wires, in which people were inadvertently saying their special mantras at other times of day, was probably pretty low.
While meditating, there are times when I’m pretty oblivious to my environs, even though I’m sitting in a crowded, noisy place. I assume that I should recommend, for people meditating in prison, that they use a buddy system. Unless somebody you trust immensely was sitting nearby, I assume it would feel too unsafe to allow yourself to completely let go in the way that deep meditation requires.
In case you’re interested
in trying, I can tell you what’s worked so far for me. I’ve been thinking the phrase “sat nam.” I liked the translation when I looked it up
online, and it’s felt convenient to have two discrete sounds – I think the
“sat” while breathing in, and “nam” while breathing out. I’ve read that people aim to spend about six
seconds each on inhalation and exhalation, but I breath much more rapidly than
If nothing too distracting is going on nearby – maybe just some clanking from the ellipticals, treadmills, and stairmasters – I breath in and out once every four to eight seconds. But when people are having a conversation right next to me, I take a breath every one or two seconds, which means I’m intoning my little mantra more often and can do a better job of isolating myself from what’s going on around me.
As far as I can tell, that isolation is the goal of meditation. Our minds evolved to expect constant stimulus during our waking lives. If you reduce the degree of outside stimulation, like with a sensory deprivation chamber, you invite your mind to conjure strange thoughts, visions, and sounds to replace the inputs that it expects. But you have to keep at it long enough.
When particle physicist Richard Feynman described his experience with sensory deprivation tanks, he wrote:
Ordinarily it would take me about fifteen minutes to get a hallucination going, but on a few occasions, when I smoked some marijuana beforehand, it came very quickly. But fifteen minutes was fast enough for me.
Mr. Lilly had a number of
different tanks, and we tried a number of different experiments. It didn’t seem to make much difference as far
as hallucinations were concerned, and I became convinced that the tank was
unnecessary. Now that I saw what to do,
I realized that all you have to do is sit quietly.
I would like to
have done it at home, and I don’t doubt that you could meditate and do
it if you practice, but I didn’t practice.
I’ve only had a bit of
practice, but when I sit still with my eyes closed and block out the outside
world with a repeated phrase, my mind will sometimes drift. I’ve been trying to sit for twenty minutes,
although I often inadvertently rouse myself after about fifteen – which hasn’t
seemed to be quite enough, for either me or Dr. Feynman. But I get the feeling that it has to be
continuous. Once I’ve opened my eyes and
glanced at the clock, I stop for the day.
Even if nothing much has happened.
On these days, I console myself with a quote from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that I learned from Bob Roth’s Strength in Stillness: “Even in a shallow dive, you still get wet.”
I begin by stretching –
although I’m practicing in a relatively distracting environment, it seems
reasonable to minimize the distractions of my own body. I try not to move while meditating, and it’d
be harder to maintain a single posture if I could feel my body ache.
After I close my eyes, the
first few minutes typically feel like a waste of time. I’m sitting there repeating a nonsense phrase
and I can’t help but think of the myriad other things that I ought to be doing.
As long as I can force
myself to keep at it, though, the experience changes. More becomes different. Undulating phosphenes blossom in the umber
field of my closed eyes. Sometimes I
slip into reverie; if I catch myself daydreaming, I’ll resume intoning my bit
of Sanskrit, which helps me set aside whatever vein of thought led me astray.
Nobody is totally sure why we need sleep, but recent results have suggested that nitrogenous waste and other metabolic toxins can only be cleared from brain cells while we’re snoozing. If you stay awake too long, trash piles up along the roadways of your mind, and all that junk prevents learning, memory formation, and attentiveness.
During my classes in jail, I often work with men who have stayed awake for weeks at a time by taking methamphetamine – they’ve experienced a wide variety of hallucinations, paranoia, and mental turmoil. Amphetamines aren’t very toxic, but loss of sleep can seriously damage a person’s brain.
One day without sleep
won’t kill you. Luckily so – since
having kids, there have been many nights when a little one wakes up screaming
and I never get to rest. But more is
different. After three days without
sleep, the shadow people start talking.
After eight days, my students have started talking back: “I knew they
weren’t real … but I still didn’t want to be rude. But we got into all these arguments.”
Sleep washes away the
argumentative shadow people.
When meditation goes well, I sometimes imagine my mind being cleansed – I’ll sit there thinking sat nam, sat nam and envision a cascade of water flowing over me like Heracles used to clean King Augeas’s stables. But meditation might not help with keeping a brain tidy – those experiments on the waste-clearing function of sleep were done with mice, and (to the best of my knowledge) nobody has taught mice to meditate.
If you trust my spouse’s
subjective evaluation, though, meditation seems to help. I’ve apparently been more pleasant to live
with since I started practicing.
If you’re going to try, aim for at least twenty minutes, maybe once or twice a day for a few weeks. My apologies if it seems pointless at first. I’d recommend you keep at it – just like a single minute won’t give you the same benefit as twenty, it seems reasonable to expect that a single day wouldn’t have the same benefit as a month’s daily practice.
Our criminal justice system ensnares people from all walks of life. Occasionally we’ll hear about the arrest of a wealthy sociopath with a penchant for child abuse, like Jared Fogel or Jeffrey Epstein.
But, let’s face it. Justice in this country isn’t applied fairly. If you’re wealthy, your behavior has to be a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a poor person. If you look white, your behavior has to a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a black person.
There’s abundant statistical evidence to back up these claims. But the Supreme Court won’t allow any particular individual to petition for reduced punishment based on the statistical evidence. After all, prosecutors, judges, and juries ostensibly came to their decisions based on the unique details of each individual case. Just because people who resemble you are often treated unfairly doesn’t mean that you were treated unfairly, too.
Because we apply punishment so inequitably, our jails and prisons are full of people who’ve been treated poorly by the world. Compared to the average citizen, people in prison grew up with less money, received less education, experienced more trauma. And, no matter what people’s earlier lives were like, if they’re in prison, they’re not being treated well now.
So they have a lot of justifiable grievances against the dominant political, cultural, and religious beliefs of our country. Punished unfairly by their fellow Christians, people sour on Christianity. Inside walls where the demographics make it blatantly obvious that our laws are enforced in a malignantly racist way, racial tensions boil.
At Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people inside, we get requests for stuff about Norse mythology, Odinism, and Asatru. Lots of folks ask for material to learn foreign languages – people want to feel like they’ve accomplished something during their time in prison – but I always feel skeptical when somebody wants help learning Icelandic.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Icelandic. And Norse mythology is cool! Unfortunately, a gaggle of violent white supremacists decided that Norse mythology should be the basis for their religion. Starting in the 1970s, a right-wing racist from Florida began sending “Odinist” publications into prisons.
During the thirteenth century, Christian scholars transcribed many of the old Norse myths so that they could better understand the literary allusions of old Icelandic poetry. But they didn’t record anything about ancient religious practice. We barely have any information about most ancient pagan beliefs. Anyone who wants to adopt a pre-Christian European religion now – whether it’s Wicca, Druidism, Odinism, or Celtic polytheism – is basically forced to make things up.
I have nothing against religious invention. All religions were made by human beings – there’s no a priori reason why a religion created long ago, by people who understood much less about the world than we do now, would be better than something you invent today. Sure, ancient religions have been tested by time, suggesting that they possess virtues that their practitioners found helpful over the years, but most ancient religions have their problems, too. Inaccurate cosmologies, scattered hateful passages in their texts, that sort of thing.
So I like the idea of neo-paganism. You want to find a clearing in the woods and
do some moonlit dancing? You’d rather
worship a feminine generative force than a norm-enforcing patriarchal deity? You want to exalt nature as a hearth to be
protected rather than a resource to be exploited? Go right ahead! All of that sounds pretty great to me.
neo-paganism as it’s currently practiced in prison tends to be pretty hateful.
That’s why I’ve been
working on a set of anti-racist pamphlets about Norse mythology. Currently, when people ask for The Poetic
Edda or whatever, we send a friendly letter saying that we don’t have it,
and also that we generally don’t stock that sort of thing because it runs afoul
of our anti-hate policy.
But the Norse myths are
certainly no more hateful than Biblical myths, and we send plenty of
those. The main difference is that
centuries of continued Christian practice have created a scaffolding of gentler
beliefs around the stories in the Bible.
The text of Psalm 137
states that “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little
ones against the stones.” But the
text is a tool, not the entirety of the religion. The practice of Christianity frowns upon
the murder of any human infant. Whether
you like the kid’s parents or not.
We’d be better off if Pages to Prisoners could send warm-hearted material about Norse mythology to people. Sure, you can interpret the Norse myths as endorsing a war-mongering death cult. You can interpret the Old Testament that way, too. But you can also interpret the Norse myths as environmentalist. Feminist. Supporting the pursuit of knowledge. Judging strangers based upon their merits, not their appearance.
Odinism is so entangled with white supremacy, though, our pamphlet will have to
address skin color and genetic heritage directly. It’s a fraught topic. Lots of people in the U.S. don’t like any discussion
of evolution. Some people feel squigged
out when they learn that contemporary birds evolved from the same set of common
ancestors as the dinosaurs. And that’s far
less emotionally charged than a description of human evolution.
Plus, skin color still has huge implications for how people are treated in the United States. Consider, um, those prison demographics I cited above. And so discussions about the evolution of epidermal melanin concentrations are especially tense. Although the underlying biology is simple – some places have more sunlight than others! – because people think it matters, it does.
I’ve found that these conversations are actually a decent way to get people interested in the study of archeology and biology, though. After we’ve discussed this in jail, people have asked me to bring research papers and textbooks so that they could learn more.
Whenever two groups of an organism stop mating with each other, they’ll slowly drift apart. This rift might occur because the groups became physically separated from each other. Maybe one group migrated to an island. In contemporary times, maybe the groups were separated when humans built a new highway bisecting a habitat. Maybe two sets of similar-looking insects mate apart because they’re eating fruits that ripen at different times.
Or the groups might stop mating with each other because a chance mutation caused members of one group to want their sexual partners to smell a certain way. Various species of stickleback are able to interbreed – they identify other members of their kind based on smell. But water pollution has overwhelmed the fishes’s senses, leading the fish to mate indiscriminately.
If humans hadn’t
polluted their waters, though, these sticklebacks would have drifted farther
and farther apart until it became impossible for them to interbreed. No matter how many sense-suppressing
chemicals we dumped.
We don’t know what caused the initial rift between our ancestors and the ancestors of contemporary chimpanzees. About 4 million years ago, though, these groups stopped having children together. By 2 millions years ago (at least 100,000 generations later), these groups looked quite different from each other. Although it’s possible that these organisms could have still mated with each other and raised viable progeny, they rarely did.
One group of these
creatures, which included our ancestors, had a tucked pelvis and mostly upright
posture. This allowed for a good vantage
while scavenging and, eventually, hunting.
The other group, which includes chimpanzees’ ancestors, mostly moved on
all fours. This body plan results in
fewer mothers dying during childbirth.
As ever, there are trade-offs to be made.
Up until about 2 million
years ago, all our ancestors lived in Africa.
But then they began to migrate.
Over the next million years, they explored much of the globe. By about 500,000 years ago, half a dozen
different types of humans lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia. The difference between one population to the
next was not like the racial differences among contemporary humans, but more
like the difference between lions and tigers, or between polar bears and brown
bears. Scientists describe them as
distinct species. Although they were
similar enough that they could have sex and raise children together, they
rarely did – they lived in distinct parts of the world and had begun to evolve
adaptations to their specific environments.
Evolution isn’t easy. Nor is it quick. Just because a certain trait would be
advantageous doesn’t mean that creatures will acquire it. In the desert, it would help to have
adaptations for water retention like camels, or long ears like jackrabbits to
cool the blood. But a trait can only
spread after a random mutation creates it.
And, even if a trait is very helpful, if only one individual is born
with the adaptation, there’s no guarantee that it will have enough children for
the benefit to spread through the population.
Once a beneficial trait has a good toe-hold – present in perhaps 1% to 10% of the population – then we can expect it to flourish. But below that amount, even great adaptations might die off due to bad luck. That’s why it takes so many generations – tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands – before you see organisms become drastically better suited for the environment. Even when scientists do directed evolution experiments in the lab, it takes about this many generations for a population of bacteria to evolve ways to consume a new food source, for instance.
By 500,000 years ago, the various species of humans were recognizably different. Denisovans lived in the mountains, and their hemoglobin genes allowed them to avoid altitude sickness. Their blood was less likely to clot and cause strokes, and they could extract more oxygen from the thin air. These are incredibly beneficial traits. Even though the Denisovans went extinct about 40,000 years ago, about 40% of people currently living in Tibet have copies of the Denisovan hemoglobin gene.
Our ancestors migrated east to the Denisovans’ homeland just before the Denisovans went extinct. To be perfectly honest, we probably killed them. But before or during this genocide, a few of our ancestors must have had sex with the locals. And then the bi-racial children of these Homo sapiens / Denisovan couplings must have been significantly better off for the gene to spread so widely.
The Neanderthal lived at
high latitude. Over many generations,
their average skin color became paler.
In part, this was probably due to the lack of selective pressure. Think about a dodo – there was no advantage
for these birds to lose their fear of humans.
But, because the dodos were living on an island that no humans traveled
to, there was also no harm in the birds becoming fearless.
Dodos lost a beneficial
trait – fear – because their fear wasn’t actively needed. It’s kind of like the airbags in an old
car. If your car’s engine goes bad,
you’ll notice right away. Turn the key,
hear it sputter. You use the engine
every time you drive. But your airbags
could get worse without you noticing … and then, in the moment when they’re
needed, they won’t deploy.
Humans living near the equator need epidermal melanin. If you don’t have enough melanin, you’ll get sunburns, which exacerbate the risk of infection and dehydration; you’ll suffer radiation-induced DNA damage, which leads to skin cancer; and you’ll lose folate, which means that pregnant women will have more birth defects.
The most recent ancestors
that humans and chimpanzees shared in common had pale skin. Contemporary chimpanzees are still pale. They can afford to be – their fur protects
them from the sun. But our ancestors
lost their fur, probably so that they didn’t overheat while running, and this
led to the evolution of dark skin.
High concentrations of
epidermal melanin distinguished humans from the other apes.
As humans migrated to
higher latitudes, though, they gradually lost this indicator of their
humanity. Because the sunlight was less
intense, there was less selective pressure.
Humans could lose their epidermal melanin in the same way that dodos
lost their fear – not because it was helpful to go without it, but because the
trait went untested in their day to day lives.
They had no way to “realize” how important it was.
Your airbags aren’t
helpful until you crash. And then
they’ll either deploy and save you, or they won’t.
Now, it’s possible that the Neanderthal also experienced some positive selective pressure on their skin color as they migrated north. Over thousands of generations, the Neanderthals may have benefited from paler skin because it increased their production of vitamin D. We don’t know for certain that the Neanderthal felt any evolutionary pressure to have more vitamin D – after all, contemporary Inuit people live at very high latitudes but still have a lot of epidermal melanin – but it’s true that vitamin D deficiency is a big risk among people with crummy diets.
In the past, hunter / gatherers typically ate much healthier, more varied diets than farmers. When humans began to farm, they would mostly eat the one type of plant that they cultivated, rather than the wide mix of plants that could be found growing wild. And when Homo sapiens farmers migrated to northern Europe, their diets were so poor that they even developed loss-of-function mutations in a cholesterol synthesis gene, probably so that they’d have higher concentrations of vitamin D precursors. Among these people, pale skin was probably a big advantage. They’d be ready for the cloudless days when their homeland’s feeble sunlight was enough to make some vitamin D.
Around 40,000 years ago,
our planet’s most recent ice age ended.
The world began to warm, and glaciers retreated from Europe. By then, a group of humans living in Africa
were recognizably Homo sapiens.
These were our ancestors. Every
human alive today – no matter what you look like or where your family is from –
is descended from this group of people from Africa. They lived in tribes of twenty to a hundred
people, had darkly pigmented skin, made art, and spoke complex languages.
As the world warmed, some
of these Homo sapiens began to migrate.
These journeys occurred over many generations. Some tribes stayed in Africa; some tribes
ventured north into Europe; others moved east toward Asia. As they traveled, they encountered the humans
who already lived in those places. As
I’ve mentioned, the newcomers occasionally had sex and raised children with the
natives. They probably also killed a lot
of them. Unfortunately, we Homo
sapiens don’t have the best reputation for treating strangers well.
rarely enough that most people living today have about 99% Homo sapiens DNA. Some people, especially if their families are
from Africa, have essentially 100% Homo sapiens DNA. At other extreme, even people whose families
are from Europe have 96% or more Homo sapiens DNA.
Among people living in
Tibet, the Denisovan hemoglobin gene is common, but most other Denisovan genes
Like the Neanderthal
before them, the Homo sapiens who ventured north into Europe began to
lose their epidermal melanin. People who
hunted and fished probably became paler simply because there was less risk of
sun damage. Remember, this didn’t happen
all at once. Average skin color would
change only over the course of hundreds or even thousands of generations, not
during the course of a single journeying Homo sapiens’s lifetime.
Our ancestors spent almost
all their time outdoors, which is why even dark-skinned people could probably
synthesize plenty of vitamin D. Among
contemporary humans, vitamin D deficiency is such a big problem because we
spend too much time inside. As I type
this, I’m sitting at a table in the YMCA snack room, lit up by flickering
fluorescent bulbs. This low-quality
light won’t help me make vitamin D.
Instead, I take a daily
supplement. But that doesn’t come near
matching the health and psychological benefits of time outdoors.
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that people in jail – places not known for providing a rich, high-quality, varied diet – typically get to go outside no more often than once a week. At our local jail, their hour of “outdoor rec” occurs in a little courtyard at the top of the jail, a cement space covered with a chain-linked fence. Outdoor rec often happened at night – a friend who was recently released told me that “This was still nice. You could see some stars. And there’s that restaurant, Little Zagrib, down the street? Sometimes we’d smell foods from their kitchen.”
Treating people that way
is unlikely to help them get better.
But back to our migrants! Descendants of these pale-skinned Homo sapiens continued to explore new territories. Some reached North America about 12,000 years ago, and some of their descendants continued farther, all the way to South America.
As people traveled –
journeys that lasted many generations – they continued to evolve. Indeed, skin color was a trait that came
repeatedly under selective pressure. As
people migrated south into the Americas, they were living progressively closer
and closer to the equator. Compared to
their grandparents, they were bombarded by more intense sunlight. They needed more epidermal melanin.
This is a process that
takes a long time. A family might have
six kids; maybe the two palest kids get sunburned, which makes it more likely
that they’ll develop skin infections and die before they have children of their
own. If this happens again and again,
among many different families, then eventually the whole population will wind
up with slightly darker skin.
Because human skin color
has changed during each of the many prehistoric migrations, it isn’t correlated
with other traits. As we entered the
modern era, people’s skin color was lighter or darker based on how close to the
equator their recent ancestors lived.
But human populations migrated so often that there were many different
groups, each with unique cultural and genetic heritages, living at every
latitude. Because skin color is so
closely linked to latitude, this means many different groups shared similar
concentrations of epidermal melanin. And
there’s no evolutionary pressure linking a trait that protects skin to brain
size or intelligence.
As it happens, there are
major events known to have caused a decrease in human brain size (and probably
intelligence). After all, human brains
are costly. Even though there’s a
benefit to being clever, there’s also been constant evolutionary pressure against
Large brains kill
mothers. Because humans walk upright,
childbirth is riskier for human mothers than for other primates. Our posture constrains the width of our hips
– both male and female – but a baby’s whole head has to pass through that
Having children is so
risky that we evolved to give birth about 3 months prematurely. Human gestation takes about a year, but most
mothers give birth after only 9 months.
This allows a baby’s head to continue to grow outside the mother’s body,
but human babies are totally helpless at birth.
We have to be very devoted parents to keep them alive.
Also, our brains require a
lot of fuel. Human evolution occurred
over such a long, long time that our ancestors lived through many droughts and
calamities. During the hard years, our
ancestors would struggle to get enough to eat, and a large brain makes that
A person with a smaller
brain requires fewer calories, making that person less likely to starve in lean
times. And, again, it’s worth
remembering that evolution happens over so many generations, among so many
families, that even small changes can add up.
If mothers who have small-headed children can survive a dozen
pregnancies, but mothers with large-headed children die after only a few, then
the trend will be to have people with smaller brains. Intelligence has to be extremely
beneficial to overcome this sort of evolutionary pressure.
Similarly, if people with
small brains are more likely to survive and raise children during droughts,
then, after hundreds of generations of people who have survived dozens of
extended droughts, you’d expect to see more people with small brains.
Many of us have the bad
habit of reflexively thinking about evolution as the gradual development of
more and more complexity. But that’s not
what it is. Evolution is the process by
which things that are better suited for their environment become more
abundant. If the environment is a hard
place to live in, then evolution tends to push for more and more simplicity. When it’s hard to get enough calories, why
waste calories on anything that you don’t really need?
Starfish are descended
from organisms that had brains. But
starfish are brainless. The ancestral
starfish that weren’t wasting energy thinking were more likely to survive.
Which should make you feel
pretty good about your own brain, actually.
Your ability to think is so fabulous that your ancestors evolved larger
and larger brains … even though these brains were sometimes causing us to
starve to death, or kill our mothers.
That’s a valuable thing
you’ve got inside your skull. It cost
our ancestors so much for you to be able to have it.
But, right. Because the cost was so high, human brains did shrink sometimes. Like when we first domesticated dogs. Our ancestors began living with dogs about 30,000 years ago. Dogs were willing to do some thinking for us – they’d sniff out prey and listen for predators at night. Based on the behavior of my family’s dogs, I bet that they licked the faces of screaming children. Maybe that doesn’t seem essential for survival, but I certainly appreciate every time our dogs calm the kids down.
Because we could slough
off a few mental tasks – I don’t need to be so observant if the dog will
help me hunt – our brains could shrink, making childbirth less deadly and
reducing the caloric cost of maintaining our minds each day.
When humans switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, our brains shrunk further. A hunter / gatherer has to know so much about every plant and animal living nearby; the work asks more of a person’s brain than farming. This evolutionary trend was exacerbated by the fact that people’s diets became way worse when they began to farm. Instead of getting nutrition from a wide variety of different plants and animals, a farmer might eat meals consisting mostly of a single type of grain.
There’s nothing we can do now about these evolutionary trends. Dogs and farming swayed our ancestors’ evolution toward smaller brains, but it’s not as though you can get those neurons back by deciding to take up hunting, or never living with a pet.
But, honestly, our brains are so plastic that our genetic heritage matters less than how we choose to spend our time. By nature, neither gorillas nor parrots will speak human language. But individuals from both these species have been able to learn to communicate with us after we taught them.
Nobody is born with an
innate understanding of mythology, religion, science, or mathematics. None of that can be encoded in your
genes. If you want to understand this
stuff, you’ll have to make an effort to learn it.
Neuron count only suggests
a brain’s potential. You could do
incredible things with a low number – consider, by ways of analogy, the feats
that 1960s NASA accomplished using computers much smaller than a contemporary
telephone. And, conversely, sensory
deprivation will make it much harder to get things done, no matter what your
That’s why I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners. Our brains are capable of wonders. At any age, we can learn and grow. And yet, we lock people into prisons that seem designed to make them worse.
In fantasy novels, trees walk upon their roots and battle with their limbs. That makes sense to me. If I think about two trees interacting, I consider the branches; the taller tree shades the other, limiting its competitor’s growth.
But my perspective is upside down. Trees are standing on the sky, reaching for one another through the earth. They listen underground. They communicate down there, passing messages to one another, or even meals.
their branches grope for sunlight in the unconscious way that my kids’s feet
seek warmth like homing missiles while they sleep. I try to roll over only to find somebody’s
toes wedged under my back.
year, trees inch their feet toward the sun.
And their engaging social lives are hidden from me, buried
underground. My reflexive perspective gives
me an inverted image of a tree’s world.
not alone in this misunderstanding.
hold our heads high as we walk across the ground. A major source of tension in human evolution
was arranging our skeletons in such a way that we could walk upright without
too many women dying in childbirth – our posture constrains the shape of the
Although some species do exhibit dramatically different body morphs between males and females, it’s more common for evolutionary changes in one sex to diffusely alter the other. Club-winged manakins have bones that are more dense than other birds, which makes them worse at flying. All club-winged manakins fly poorly, male and female, even though only the males use their dense bones to produce mate-luring music. Or consider the orgasms and nipples of Homo sapiens, which fulfill important biological purposes in one sex, and serve as a vestigial source of fun for the other.
prehistoric times, men and women probably hunted together. The evidence is especially compelling for
human populations like the Neanderthal in southern Europe, who lived in such
small groups that they would be unable to kill large prey without help from everyone
in the group. But even if prehistoric
men had hunted alone, their upright stance and endurance running would have
introduced an evolutionary pressure constricting the width of a human pelvis.
ancestors first descended from the trees to scavenge meat from lions’
kills. Eventually, they began to
hunt. Their strategy was to exhaust and
bewilder their prey, hoping to use the local geography to assist in each
kill. Mammoths were more likely to fall
to their deaths than be slain by hurled spears; mounds of butchered bones
accumulated at the base of particularly useful cliffs.
caloric density of cooked meat allowed our brains to expand … but the embrace
of hunting also caused more women to die in childbirth.
tragically, our upright posture distorts our understanding of the trees that
once harbored our communities. After
all, we live in our heads. It seemed
sensible to us that the most interesting life of a tree would transpire in its
biology doesn’t force us to view the world a certain way, but it
dictates which perspectives are easiest to take.
Because our brains are story-generating organs, human cultures invariably see time as flowing uniformly in a single direction. But for subatomic particles, time appears to be symmetrical; the Feynman diagram of an interaction would appear perfectly plausible progressing either forward or backward.
universe’s progression toward greater entropy, i.e. randomness, seems to
introduce a directionality for time’s arrow.
But there’s no a priori reason to expect a world to progress
toward higher entropy. This
directionality seems to exist only because our particular universe happened to
be in an unstable, low entropy state shortly after the Big Bang.
say most physicists. From my
perspective, I’m content assuming that the past is fixed but the future is
mutable. If I didn’t believe in that
asymmetry – whether it’s real or not – I’d probably lapse into despair.
again, even if we accept that time is flowing, our perspective alters how we
feel about that change.
flow of time progress or decline?
tree’s branches its hands or its feet?
Indian mythology, time is cyclical, but within each cycle it flows toward
corruption. Time passes and the world
grows worse. Currently we are trapped
within a Kali Age, the worst possible world, knowing that all the great heroes
have passed. We are just biding our time
before the world can be destroyed and made good again.
the sunder, time will once again cause that new world’s gleam to fade. Nothing can stave off the encroach of rot.
Judaism, the ancient sages lived longer than we do, and knew more, too. At one point in time, a pair of humans were good:
before long, we disobeyed the whims of God and were exiled from paradise.
Book of Shem, David Kishik writes that
original means to linger by the origin and insist on it. The task is to avoid the progression toward a
future or an end, and to stop the narrative before it develops any
further. In this sense, and in this
sense only, the origin is a worthwhile goal.
Hence in Hebrew forward (kadima) is related to what is ancient (kadum),
just as backward (achora) is linked to what is last (acharon).
humans want to reclaim the imagined glories of the past.
America great again, perhaps.
personally think that many recent technological developments in our world are
bad. We’ve designed distracting,
addicting telephones, and we’re putting them into the hands of children. Our brains evolved to be extremely plastic,
which let our species adapt to a wide variety of circumstances … but this
neural plasticity allows exposure to fabulous, drug-like devices to
dramatically alter our brains, probably for the worse.
we’ve designed distracting, addicting advertising platforms – these siphon huge
amounts of money away from productive industries, and the perverse economic
incentives we’ve constructed allow these companies, alongside equally-unhelpful
investment banks, to lure many of the most clever college graduates to their
But I’m certainly no Luddite, pining for a purer past. The world was a terrible place for so many people. Although I appreciate the thesis that Yuval Noah Harari presents in Sapiens– that the invention of agriculture made people’s lives worse than when all humans were hunters and gatherers – I see those grim millennia as akin to the hump in a chemical reaction, a transition that must be traversed in order to reach the desired products.
generations, most people scraped out a miserable existence by subsistence
farming. Their lives were worse than
their ancestors’. But we, now,
can feed so many people so easily that we could make our world into a paradise.
not doing it, but we could.
At least we’re making baby steps toward a society in which people aren’t punished for their genetic background, or gender, or religious beliefs. I mean, even in the United States we still treat women shabbily; across the country, racist police departments beleaguer Black citizens; atheists and Muslims are eyed with distrust.
used to be worse.
And, sure, even if we were the best of stewards, our planet would eventually be doomed. Even if we don’t exhaust the resources here on Earth, the sun will run out of energy and bloat to engulf our world in a ball of fire. Maybe that’s fine. Death is a part of my life; perhaps I should look upon extinction as a natural part of humanity’s journey through time.
so cool to image people someday spreading amongst the stars. I dream about the future. And hope against hope – despite overpopulation,
climate change, and all – that my children will find a better world than the
one I’ve been living in.
perspective, time will let us make the world better.
it surely won’t happen on its own. We
will have to work to make it better. The
work might not be that hard. Just live
the way you would if the world were already the place it ought to be.
Kishik begins his lovely theological meditation The Book of Shem by
pondering the inverted grammar that opens Genesis. Instead of a typical subject verb direct
object construction, the first sentence of the original Hebrew text is
arranged adverb verb subject direct object.
Kishik, “This is an odd grammatical construction, not only in English
(compare ‘Yesterday walked Joseph’) but also in Hebrew.” Odd, although not totally outlandish.
questions whether the grammar was actually strange, however. What if the book of Genesis opens with a
perfectly normal sentence that is intended to convey a bizarre idea,
instead. The first word, which everyone
presumes to be an adverb, might instead refer to a power above even Yahweh
himself (“Bereshit” in Hebrew, commonly rendered as “In the beginning” in
have something like:
created (a) god, the heavens and the earth.
It seems implausible that Kishik, or anyone, would consider this translation to be what the original authors of Genesis intended. Even if the translation itself were more plausible, this interpretation is divorced from the actual religious practices that treat Genesis as a foundational text. Religions use the book, but no religion is defined by a text alone.
seem bizarre for InTheBeginning, the mysterious pre-civilized force, to be
mentioned only once, at the moment when he creates our Lord. But Kishik pursues this idea through an
entire arc of environmentally-conscious speculation. If InTheBeginning created Yahweh, then
Yahweh’s formidable jealousy becomes comprehensible. We can understand why Yahweh might
compulsively, almost tic-ishly, appraise the quality of his own creations: … and
God saw that it was good.
begins by misinterpreting Genesis, but this allows him to make interesting
discoveries along the way. He concludes
that, just as InTheBeginning was a pre-human, pre-lingual force able to create
God, there must be a symmetrical post-human, post-textual void for the world to
return to. Although God made a covenant (Genesis
9:11) promising not to destroy the planet, He does not possess total control.
not kill us. But he may not be able to
save us. We humans might destroy this
we’re well on our way.
raised in a mostly secular household, and I’m still wary of mysticism (despite
my own belief in free will). I’m quite
obviously an outsider to every religious tradition. But religions shape the way most humans
approach the world, so it behooves all people, myself included, to learn and
think deeply about them.
outsiders must occasionally appropriate the right to critique these texts.
important to understand their standard interpretations. But, even from the perspective of an
outsider, a lot of nuance can be revealed through assiduous misinterpretation.
The Book of Shem, although obviously nonstandard, is an enlightening,
standard interpretation, Jesus was sacrificed so that God would forgive us
humans. This is a very traditional myth,
with variants told by many human cultures across the globe. Wrathful deities must be appeased through the
intentional, unwarranted sacrifice of something good.
In The Iliad, the Acheans praise Zeus by slitting the throats of a whole row of young men kneeling in the sand. Abraham bound his son on the mountaintop; the boy survived that day, but a lot of the story’s power comes from the original audience knowing that this sort of sacrifice was common. They would have realized how close Abraham came to plunging down the knife. There are numerous stories about the need to murder beautiful virgins to appease volcanoes, or to ensure good harvests, or to bring back rain.
though Jesus’s sacrifice makes sense within the framework of traditional
mythology, it seems jarring within the context of Christianity, which purports
to worship a kind, merciful god.
Christianity, it actually makes more sense for God to incarnate himself and
suffer greatly so that we humans would forgive Him. He created this world, and this world causes
us to hurt. Until He feels some of the
hurt that He has subjected us to, his apologies would seem insincere.
hopelessness – God subjected Job to these in order to win a bet. He subjects nearly all humans to these travails
as a matter of universal design. He needs
to know the cost that we pay.
hanging from the cross, He could look to Job and say, I understand how you
might have felt.
not what the original authors wanted the Bible to convey. But we’d have a better world if it were.
soon learned that being inside a jail – even as a visitor, there to read poetry
for ninety minutes and then leave – was miserable. But he kept going for an entire year. The people in jail are suffering on behalf of
all U.S. citizens – which meant, on his behalf – so he needed to suffer
students were once encouraged to ingest many different medications, so that
they would understand what the compounds they’d prescribe felt like.
author(s) of the Ramayana intended for Rama to be the greatest possible
man. Within their philosophical
framework, Rama is unambiguously good.
The story is a triumph of the hero.
helpful to look at the myth with modern eyes and willfully misinterpret
it. When we read the story now, Rama
seems flawed because his world was flawed.
end of Rama’s saga his path is blocked by the ocean. His wife is held captive on an island
kingdom; Rama feels helpless, trapped on the shore. And so he threatens violence against the very
launching a powerful assault, I shall with my arrows dry up the ocean together
with its fish and sea monsters and its masses of conch and oyster shells.
lord of the ocean, abode of sea monsters, thinks that, because I am endowed
with forbearance, I am weak. To hell
with forbearance for people like this!
bow and my arrows, which are like venomous serpents, for now in my fury I shall
convulse the imperturbable ocean.
passage was translated collaboratively by Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland
Goldman, & Barend Nooten. And it is
troubling to see Rama, the ideal man, threaten physical violence to ensure that
the world conforms to his desires.
Goldman and Goldman include the following footnote:
episode, in its rendition by Tulsi Das, is the setting for his famous verse
about how certain things and creatures, including sudras and women, only
perform when beaten. This verse has been
the subject of critique and controversy among members of the women’s movement
and Dalit advocacy groups in contemporary India.
castigate Rama for his words, we are clearly misinterpreting the text. Rama is good within the text, because this
behavior was good within his world. A
man, head of the household, was allowed to beat his wife or servants if they
did not meet his expectations.
Most people would find it difficult to read Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” with a straight face now. But, in another revealing misinterpretation, proponents of the Dravidar Kazhagam movement have found parallels between the Ramayana itself and a Kipling-esque tale of colonial conquest and oppression. In the Ramayana, light-skinned north Indians execute a south Indian king, subjugate the local populace, and install their own ruler. (I’ve written about this interpretation previously, here.)
itself, along with the oppressions of the caste system, seems to have reached
south India in this way. The original
conquest probably occurred around the time that the Ramayana was
composed, although the spread of Hinduism was not yet complete even many
centuries of years later, when Kipling’s British white men arrived to make
matters even worse.
When I asked my mother and my uncle about our ancestors, they
started with their grandparents’ generation, the earliest one they’d known.
Their grandfather and grandmother were born in the late 1800s in the
Khammam district, within what later became the state of Andhra Pradesh, where
they lived as part of a nomadic clan.
Their clan did not practice agriculture.
They subsisted on fruits, on roots, on honey, on whatever they could
catch or snare. They were not
Hindus. They worshiped their own tribal
goddesses and had little to do with society outside the forest where they
When the British cleared the forests for teak plantations, my
great-grandparents’ clan was driven out onto the plains, where the civilized
people, the settled ones, the ones who owned land and knew how to cultivate it
– in a word, the Hindus – lived. The
little clan, wandering outside the forest, found a great lake and settled
around it. There was no sign of human
life for miles and miles. They took up
farming. The land around the lake was
fertile and gave them more than they needed.
They called their new settlement Sankarapadu, after one of their gods.
But soon the civilized people took notice of them. They were discovered by an agent of the local
zamindar – the great landlord appointed by the British to collect revenue in
that area – who saw the rice growing in their fields and levied taxes, keeping
the bulk of what he extracted for himself.
But that was not enough for this agent. He and his family and his caste people moved
nearby and set about stealing the land by force and by cunning. They loaned the clansmen trivial sums at
usurious rates to buy small necessities such as salt, seeds, or new clothes for
a wedding. Unable to pay off these
debts, the villagers gave up their land acre by acre. My ancestors, who had cleared and settled the
area, were reduced to working on their old fields as laborers.
This is what has happened to tribal peoples in India who try to
settle down and cultivate land since time immemorial. It still happens to this day. What set Sankarapadu apart was that the
Hindus who usurped all the fields around it did not settle there
themselves. That’s because the village
is surrounded by fetid swamps filled with poisonous snakes, scorpions, and
thick swarms of mosquitoes. The
landlords settled on safe and elevated ground several miles away in a village
In the forest, my great-grandfather’s clan had had no caste. But in Hindu society everyone is assigned a
place in the caste system. Certain
castes traditionally own land, and others have to work for those who do. For those who must work, the caste you are
born into determines the kind of work you do.
There are priestly castes, carpenter castes, potter castes, barber
castes. The more impure a caste’s
traditional occupation in terms of ritual law, the lower its status.
people of Sankarapadu entered Hindu society with no caste of their own and the
most impure occupation of all, that of landless laborers, there was no question
where their place would be: at the bottom, as despised outcastes. Outcastes are also called untouchables
because they are supposed to be so ritually unclean that the slightest contact
with them will defile even low-caste Hindus.
Untouchables cannot share meals with others, much less intermarry with
them, and are made to live apart from the rest of the village in a segregated
colony on its outskirts. Sankarapadu
became the untouchable colony of Polukonda, albeit an unusually remote on.
The Ramayana was not meant to be a story of oppression. But this misinterpretation has value, because it helps us understand the widespread biases of the author’s world — biases that persist to this day and still cause horrific suffering and violence.
critique will invariably lead us to misinterpret religious texts. That shouldn’t stop us. I’m curious to know what the old stories
would mean if the world were as good as it could be.
One day at nap time, my two-year-old daughter riveted awake and said: “I’m worried about ghosts.”
I know, I know. The fact that she wouldn’t sleep is normal. Hundreds of children books have been written about children refusing their naps or failing to settle down at night and go the ____ to sleep. But I felt that this worry was fixable.
The day before, I’d read a book to her that had a ghost. I thought she was old enough! And I made silly noises! She laughed and seemed unperturbed!
But then she worried. That dark, dark chest had a ghost inside? Where else might ghosts be lurking?
“There was a ghost in that story,” I said, “but it was only a story. Ghosts are only ever in stories. They’re not real.”
She eyed me warily, but, still, she lay down and slept.
Two hours later, she lurched awake and announced that she’d made a song.
“Do you want to hear it, Father?”
“Of course I want to hear it!”
“Ghosts are pretend,” she intoned, over and over to no discernable tune. I smiled, and she hopped off the mattress and began to march around the house, still singing. I heard that song many times over the next few months.
Because she seemed to understand ghosts so well, I used that same language the next year when she asked me about Christmas.
“Some people tell stories about big sky ghosts above the clouds, watching us. There’s a story about one of the sky ghosts, a sky ghost named Yahweh, who had a human kid. So Christmas is a festival when people celebrate the sky ghost kid. Like your birthday, kind of.”
“Ohhh,” she said, nodding. She likes birthdays.
In my first explanation of Christmas, I didn’t include anything about penance. She was only three years old, after all. That’s a little young for the canonical version – Jesus, the sky ghost kid, has to suffer as a human in order for the rest of us humans to be forgiven.
And it’s certainly too young for John-Michael Bloomquist’s beautiful (and far more logical) re-imagining, in which Jesus, a human incarnation of God, has to suffer in this form in order for us humans to forgive God. In “The Prodigal’s Lament” Bloomquist writes that:
I think Christ died for us
to forgive his father, who until he became a man
and dwelt among us had no way of knowing
what it was like to be Job …
Now my daughter is four. And she’s still interested in religion. One day after dinner recently, she asked, “Can you tell me more sky ghost stories?”
“Sure … which one do you want?”
“All of them!”
“Naw, dude, I can’t tell you all of them. There are so many that … even though I don’t know them all … even though I only know a small, small bit of all the stories … I’d be talking for days!”
“Then tell me the sky ghost story about the snake again.”
I’d previously told her about Siddhartha meditating beneath the bodhi tree, sheltered by Mucalinda. She heard that story just before bedtime, and promptly wrapped herself with a blanket like a cobra hood and scampered around the house chanting, “I’m Buddha! I’m Buddha!”
“How about this, I’ll tell you four short sky ghost stories about snakes. Does that sound fair?”
“So, this first one is from Sumeria. It’s hot there, a desert now. And in their sky ghost story, a prince named Gilgamesh … “
Yes, I know, Gilgamesh would be more accurately described as a king. But countless Disney films have trained American children to think that princes and princesses are the ones who romp off for adventure. Even though our daughter has only seen Moana, she knows all the other characters from talking to her friends.
“… had a best friend named Enkidu. But then Enkidu died. They couldn’t play together anymore, so Gilgamesh felt sad. He wanted to find a way for people to never die, so he went on a long journey and found a potion, a special drink that would make people live forever. But then he took a nap, and a snake drank the potion.”
“A snake did??”
“It’s just a story potion, it’s not real, but people told that story because they saw snakes shed their skins and thought that meant they lived forever. But really it’s because snakes, when they’re growing, shed their skins all at once. Humans shed our skin bit by bit all the time.”
She glanced down at her arm. It didn’t look like it was shedding.
“And the next story you know, about Buddha. Because there was a prince named Siddhartha Gotama living in a fancy palace, and things were pretty nice inside the palace. But one day Siddhartha took a walk outside and saw that other people weren’t happy, they were sick or hungry or sad. So instead of going back inside the palace, Siddhartha wanted to think about ways for people to be less sad. He sat for a long time under a tree, just thinking. He sat so long that a real person would need to stop to eat, or sleep, or drink water, or use the bathroom …”
She is learning that even when you’re doing something really important, you still have to take breaks to use the bathroom. Otherwise you wind up needing new pants. Every week we have so many loads of laundry to put away.
“… and some other sky ghosts saw him sitting there, thinking. And they realized that he was going to learn their special sky ghost secrets. These sky ghosts weren’t very friendly. They thought that if they shared their things with other people, they’d have less.”
“The sky ghosts decided to make a big storm so that Siddhartha would have to stop thinking. He’d get all wet, or need an umbrella, or have to go inside. But a snake, a naga sky ghost, Mucalinda, saw the storm coming and decided to help. The snake wrapped his big, big hood around Siddhartha to make a bubble, like a tent, so that he could still sit and think as though the storm wasn’t even there.”
“And in the next story, from the Hebrews, a sky ghost named Yahweh made a human out of dirt, and then …”
I stopped for a moment. No, I decided, it’s not worth telling my daughter a story in which boys get made from mud and girls get made from boys.
“ … or, no, better the version from the Quran, where Yahweh made two people out of dirt, a mother and a father, and let them live in a garden where there were so many fruit trees, fruits with such a perfect mix of amino acids that humans wouldn’t need to eat anything else. And there were two super special trees, one that would let anybody who ate it have knowledge and one that would make people live forever. Yahweh thought that those two were the best trees, but he was a jealous ghost, he didn’t want to share. So he told the humans not to eat any fruits from those special trees.”
We have plenty of rules in our house, but I’ve promised my daughter that if she asks why there’s a certain rule, I have to explain it to her as soon as there’s a safe chance to do so. And I’d be remiss in my parenting duties if I told her that in the day that thou eatest Oreos before dinner thou shalt surely die.
“Then a snake came and explained to the humans that Yahweh was being mean and making up a story, that if they ate the fruit from those special trees they wouldn’t actually get sick. So the humans ate fruit from the knowledge tree, but then Yahweh saw them and locked them out of his special garden before they could share his live forever tree.”
She frowned. Two of her grandparents have died; even though we tried to make passing seem normal, she probably understands why so many of the sky ghost stories are about wanting to live forever.
“And then your last sky ghost story for tonight … this one is from a place that’s often really cold, up north where nights are long in wintertime. In that story there’s a sky ghost named Loki, a trickster ghost like Maui from Moana, and he was always making mean jokes.”
“But why was Loki mean?”
“Well, sometimes people told stories to show what not to do. Loki made mean jokes and in the end bad things happened to him, to help teach kids not to make mean jokes anymore.”
“But one time, early in the story, before he’d done too many mean things, Loki had some kids. But the Loki kids weren’t humans, one was a skeleton and one was a big wolf and one was a big, big, big snake. And, well, you know that our planet is like a ball, right, but back then they didn’t know for sure, and they thought it might look more like a swimming pool. So they thought something had to be around the edges, and they figured it was a big, big snake who circled around the world and held in all the water.”
“And then what did the snake do?”
Um … I didn’t want to answer that one. The Midgard Serpent doesn’t actually do much. Thor mistakenly tries to pick him up during a bet in a giant’s castle once, and then tries to pick him up again when he’s out fishing, and then finally bops him on the head during Ragnarok … and that time gets poisoned and dies.
“We’ll borrow some more sky ghost books from the library and find out,” I told her. “But now it’s bath time!”