On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

We recently read Donika Kelly’s “Bower” in jail. 

I love this poem.  There’s a undercurrent of darkness as the bird constructs his pleasure dome. “Here, the iron smell of blood.”  But he is undeterred.  “And there, the bowerbird.  Watch as he manicures his lawn.”

This bowerbird has themed his edifice around sparkling bits of blue.  Bower birds incorporate all manner of found objects: berries, beetles (which must be repeatedly returned to their places as they attempt to crawl away), plastic scraps.  A bowerbird has a clear vision, a dream of which colors will go where, and scours the forest to find the treasures he needs.

Will high-contrast white in front of the brown bower bedazzle guests? Our artist can only hope. Image by davidfntau on Flickr.

Female bowerbirds raise children alone, so she doesn’t need a helpful partner..  Instead, she’ll choose someone who can show her a good time.  And her pleasure will be enhanced by a beautiful dome, a splendid arch beneath which several seconds of intercourse can transpire.

A mother-to-be typically visit several bowers before choosing her favorite.  During each inspection, the male will hop and flutter during her evaluation … and then slump, dejected, if she flies away.

Kelly closes her poem with the experience of a crestfallen artist: “And then, / how the female finds him, / lacking.  All that blue for nothing.

I especially love the wry irony of that final sentence.  We create art hoping to be fawned over; it’d feel nice to know that readers enjoyed a poem so much that they responded with a flush of desire for the author. 

But this is rare.  No piece of writing will appeal to all readers; an author is lucky if it appeals to any.  The same holds true for painting, music, and bowers.  A bowerbird hopes that his magnificent edifice will soon be the site of his acrobatic, if brief, bouts of copulation.  But his life will miserable if he can’t also take pleasure in the sheer act of creation. 

Female tropical birds are free to select whichever male they want.  Their flirtations are unlikely to be turned down.  And because each intimate encounter is vanishingly brief, a single male might service every female in an area.  The other males, having assembled less glorious bowers, will die without ever experiencing erotic delights.

And so a bowerbird needs to enjoy his own arch.  To endure, to thole, even if no one wants to fool around with him.  Even if no one looks.  He needs to feel pleasure as he assembles those beautiful hues.  Every visiting female might quickly fly away, but all that blue will have served a purpose.

I love the poem “Bower,” but I also hope that Kelly enjoyed writing her poem enough that my opinion doesn’t matter.

After reading “Bower,” our class got sidetracked into a wide-ranging conversation about birds.  At first, we did talk about bowerbirds.  Most of the guys had no idea that birds like that existed – that an animal might make art – but one guy had seen a television show about them years ago, and the program made such a deep impression on him that he still remembered much of it.  “They really do,” he said.  “I’ve seen it.  And they showed the people nearby, somebody who was eating breakfast cereal with like a plastic spoon, and this bird flew right over and took it.  Later they found bits of it all broken up, in this weird ring around the bird’s nest.”

And then this man started talking about crows.

He gesticulated profusely as he talked, which was rather distracting.  One of his hands had about 1.3 fingers; his ring finger was missing entirely, and the others, including his thumb, ended after the first knuckle.  I wouldn’t have felt so puzzled – stuff happens, after all – except that one of his stories involved chasing somebody with a steak knife, and this was the hand he brandished.

Many of the people in jail have suffered severe physical injuries.  When we were discussing personality manipulation and mind control, someone told me that he’d been hit by a truck and that everything in his life had felt flat and emotionless ever since.  He showed me the thick scar at the top of his head: “When it happened, I guess I was out for almost a week, and it took another month before I really remembered my name.  Even then, for that first year I felt like I was back in eighth grade again.”  He was twenty-something when it happened.

Another time, I asked a man if he wanted to read the next poem and he said he couldn’t, that he was disabled, then thumped his leg onto the table.  He had a rounded stump where most people’s foot would be.  I didn’t quite see the connection between his injury and the poem, and it’s not as though we ever force people to read.  We have a lot of guys with dyslexia, and I go in with the goal of making their Fridays a little more pleasant; no reason for somebody to suffer unnecessarily.

“I was working in a saw mill,” he said.  “Planer caught me and, zzooomp.  Didn’t even feel anything, at first.”

He got a legal settlement – a few guys muttered that they’d trade a foot for that kind of money – but his pain script led to more opiates and eventually the money was gone and he was in jail and the only help he was getting was from a PD.

But, right, back to the man gesticulating wildly as he talked about birds.  “Real smart animals,” he said.  “Especially crows.”

I nodded.  Crows can use tools – they’ll craft hooks out of wire, cut twigs into the length they need for various tasks.  Their brains are structured differently from primates’, which lets them cram just as many neurons into a much smaller volume

Photo by Natalie Uomini on Flickr.

The guy went on: “See, I was living in a tent, and cops kept coming by, harassing me.  Cause there’d always be all this trash on the ground.  They’d say, ‘look, we know that you’re sleeping here, but you can’t just leave all this shit everywhere.’  And they’d make me clean it up.  I’d do it, but then a day or two later, there’d be trash scattered everywhere again.  I thought it must be some homeless guys or something that was doing it.”

“But it turned out these crows – they knew I was drinking, that I’d never be up before about noon – and they were raiding the dumpster out behind McDonalds.  I only found out because I actually woke up one morning to piss.  And I looked up and these crows in the tree above me, they carried tied-off garbage bags way up into that tree and were tearing them apart, looking for things to eat.  And that’s how all that trash was getting everywhere.  I’d thought it was homeless guys, and it was crows!”

Male bowerbirds can afford to be such terrible parents because they live in tropical forests where there’s an abundance of food to eat.  Crows, though, need ingenuity to survive.  Sometimes they pick apart the leavings of hairless apes below.

Because crows raise their young in much harsher environs than bowerbirds, males contribute more than just DNA.  While a mother roosts, the father will gather food.  And so he’ll try to impress a potential mate, beforehand, with his gathering prowess.  He won’t build, paint, or compose poetry, but he’ll scour the land below for tasty treats and shiny things, then leave these gifts at his beloved’s feet.

As with bowerbirds, some crows are helpful without reaping the benefits of a dalliance.  When a female crow begins to build a nest, five other crows might bring sticks and twigs.  These five won’t all be rewarded with the chance to sire her young.

With luck, the crows enjoy the sheer act of helping. 

Neither birds nor humans will be lauded for everything we do.  If we measure success based solely upon the rewards we reap, many of our lives will feel bleak.  In a world full of pyramids – bowerbird mating, corporate finance, the attention economy of social media – not everyone can be at the top.

No matter the outcome, we can all feel fulfilled if we focus on the process of what we’re doing. 

Admittedly, it’s hard to find the zen in a lot of the shitty jobs out there in the world.  But I did enjoy typing this essay.  And I will try to enjoy the irritating parts of parenting today.  Someday, my children will learn to ask for cereal politely.

On telepathy and the battle for narrative control.

On telepathy and the battle for narrative control.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You could be made other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your stories can be wrested from you.

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

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

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

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

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

On storytelling and social justice.

On storytelling and social justice.

Recently, Dave Eggers joined four local panelists (Lindsey Badger, Michelle Brekke, Max Smith, and me) to discuss writing and incarceration, especially the role of storytelling as a force for social justice.

When I discuss poetry with people in jail, we often get sidetracked into conversations about outer space, pharmacology, neuroscience … as it happens, the latter is particularly relevant to any discussion of storytelling.  Because your consciousness has evolved to create stories.

When you choose to do something, like picking up a pen, the first thing that happens is that, unconsciously, your brain will send signals toward your muscles.  You will begin to act.  Then, once you are already in motion, your consciousness will be informed of your decision.  Thats when your brain generates a story to explain why you chose to pick up the pen.

First, we act, then we concoct a narrative.

A human consciousness will typically create a story explaining why we chose to do something even if it wasn’t really our choice.  If a researcher sways someone’s action through the use of transcranial magnetic or direct current stimulation, most people will still offer up a coherent explanation explaining why they chose to act that way.

Personally, I think this sort of research into free will and mind control is fascinating.  I could continue rattling off more facts.  By reading this essay, you might learn something.  But it probably wouldn’t change how you act.  Knowledge doesn’t spur behavior, emotions do.

In Mama’s Last Hug, Frans de Waal writes that:

The Portuguese-American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio reported on a patient, Elliot, with ventromedial frontal lobe damage.  While Elliott was articulate and intellectually sound, witty even, he had become emotionally flat, showing no hint of affect in many hours of conversation. 

Elliott was never sad, impatient, angry, or frustrated.  This lack of emotion seemed to paralyze his decision making.  It might take him all afternoon to make up his mind about where and what to eat, or half an hour to decide on an appointment or the color of his pen. 

Damasio and his team tested Elliott in all sorts of ways.  Even though his reasoning capacities seemed perfectly fine, he had trouble sticking with a task and especially reaching a conclusion.  As Damasio summarized: “The defect appeared to set in at the late stages of reasoning, close to or at the point at which choice making or response selection must occur.” 

Elliott himself, after a session in which he had carefully reviewed all options, said “And after all this, I still wouldn’t know what to do!”

After all, there is no way to prove, mathematically, how to be good.  Your intellect will invariably fall short.  Only by trusting your emotions can you decide that one course of action is better than another.

And that is the value of stories.

Eggers, who devotes much of his time to teaching young people, says that you could provide them with huge quantities of information – about mass incarceration in the U.S., or how we mistreat undocumented workers, or Muslim Americans after 9 / 11 – and it wouldn’t change anything.  “But,” Eggers said, “if you give them even a 15-page first-person narrative, they become activists.

By way of example, my co-panelists discussed several local stories that could be presented in a variety of ways.  For instance, the kid who recently died in our local jail because the jailors stopped providing his medication after his eighteenth birthday.  I’ve written about his ordeal previously; Max Smith had become close friends with him while they were confined in a small cell together; Lindsey Badger met with his mother after he died to preserve stories about his life that depict him more accurately than the terse denunciation he received from our local newspaper.

Michelle Brekke added that, although she hadn’t read the article about this young man, she knows that when she was sentenced, “If you were to look me up online, on a database or whatever, you would see that I’m a drug addict, you would see that I’m an intravenous drug user, you would see that I’m a drug dealer, but today, and even then,  that’s not who I am.  I’m actually a very kind, loving, caring person, who has had a really crappy way of life shoved onto me, so that’s the way of life I chose to take.  I’m an overcomer, and I’ve been able to overcome that.

Luckily I was on the inside when I got arrested because I’m sure that the things that were said on social media, there couldn’t have been anything good.

During her time in prison, Brekke began to write, which allowed her to tell the whole truth.  She refused to let other people dictate the narrative of her life.  “To be able to tell your story, or to hear somebody else’s story, you get the beginning, the middle, and the now.

The last prompt from the audience was, “I’m curious about each of the panelists’ perspectives on how writers can hurt readers in a way that’s inspiring for people to act.”

Smith and Brekke answered for the panel (perhaps you could argue that Eggers has already provided an answer in his books – by intermixing levity with pain you can create stories that are sufficiently fun that they’ll reach an audience, but still convey a spark of indignation that compels people to work to change the world.  After two hundred pages of comic antics in The Parade, Eggers concludes with an incandescent flash of horror).

Smith said, “Unfortunately for many of the people who are incarcerated, just being true to their experience hurts readers.  It’s a horrible, horrible experience that is hard to imagine if you haven’t been exposed to it.” 

And Brekke added, “I would want a reader to feel my own hurt, through the writing.  To not feel sorry for me, but to be able to feel the truth and the pain that I once felt.

The written word does not accomplish much if a tale is too unpalatable to reach its audience, but when the sorrows come from a place a deep integrity, or when the hurt is leavened with a touch of humor, readers might trust an author enough to continue. 

And I am grateful that so many deeply committed people are willing to share hard stories in a way we can appreciate.  Because we’ll need the emotional wallop of powerful stories to compel us to change the world.

Featured image: Max ribbing me. From a recording of the panel created by Jeremy Hogan.

On Tara Westover’s “Educated.”

On Tara Westover’s “Educated.”

A man in my poetry class recently told me, “Ugh, cocaine is awful.  You use some, you’ll want some more, but I hate it.  It makes me such a jerk.  I mean, I’m not like this, I’m never like this, but if I’m on coke, I’m like, bitch, you best make yourself useful around here.”

Cocaine has a reputation as a fun party drug, but nobody in jail has anything nice to say about it.  And it’s not that they’re down on drugs in general – that same man told me:

“Meth?  Meth is great – you should never try it.”

And then he explained the social niceties of trying to shoot up in the home of a friend who was recently diagnosed with HIV.  This friend was apparently cavalierly sloppy with needles:

“Like, blood was spurting, and I was scooting back thinking, like, god, I wish I was anywhere but here … “

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Glasseelskils_0European eels are endangered.  They swim huge distances to complete their life cycles – hatching at sea, undertaking a voracious (oft cannibalistic) quest up rivers, then returning to their birthplaces to spawn – and have been thwarted by hydroelectric dams blocking their migration, and the tendency of an insatiable terrestrial ape to catch and consume huge numbers of their kind.

Now these eels face another obstacle: they must complete their voyages while blitzed on cocaine.  European governments dump drugs into the sea to “destroy” them, but that’s not how water works.  The drugs are still there.  The eels get high.

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576px-Robert_Louis_Stevenson_by_Henry_Walter_Barnett_bwAccording to popular legend, Robert Louis Stevenson was very sick before he wrote his Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Stevenson had tried many cures; all had failed.  Then his spouse bought cocaine.  This worked.  Suddenly Stevenson could write again.  In three days, he composed his novel.

When he read the first draft to his spouse, she said it didn’t seem sufficiently allegorical.  So Stevenson flung the pages into the fire and began again.  In three more days, he’d composed the version of the story that we know today.

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Dr. Jekyll was a fine man.  On drugs, he became a monster.

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IMG_5233When our first child was just shy of two years old, she liked to wear a green long-sleeve with a picture of The Incredible Hulk rampaging.  She’d pull it from her drawer; I’d say, “Oh, you want to wear your Hulk Smash shirt today?”

One day, I asked her, “N., why does Hulk want to smash?”

She looked down at the picture, then back up to me.  First she signed the word hungry.

“Oh, Hulk wants something to eat?”

She shook her head.  No, that didn’t sound quite right.  She looked down again, then made another sign, banging her hands together for the word shoes.

“Hulk is upset because he has no shoes?”

She bobbed her head yes.  No shoes.  That would make her rage, too.

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Once, some runners on the local high school cross country team asked me who would win in a fight, Superman or the Hulk.  They’d reached a detente after one claimed that the Hulk was unstoppable when enraged (“… and nothing calms him down except his girlfriend.”), and the other argued that Superman could turn back time until the moment before Hulk had gotten angry, then smash him.

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Superman vs. Hulk by JD Hancock on Flickr.

I demurred.  I don’t think Superman is a very interesting hero, and the Hulk is interesting only in campaigns, not battles.  I like the idea of a hero who might go berserk and accidentally thwart his own plans, but a single bout of wrestling isn’t like that.  I think it’s more compelling to consider his constant risk of hurting the people that he loves.

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fullsizeoutput_12In Educated, Tara Westover writes beautifully about the horrors of living with the Hulk.  Her early years were controlled by a father in the throes of extreme paranoia and delusions of grandeur:

Fourteen years after the incident with the Weavers, I would sit in a university classroom and listen to a professor of psychology describe something called bipolar disorder.  Until that moment I had never heard of mental illness.  I knew people could go crazy – they’d wear dead cats on their heads or fall in love with a turnip – but the notion that a person could be functional, lucid, persuasive, and something could still be wrong, had never occurred to me.

The professor recited facts in a dull, earthy voice: the average age of onset is twenty-five; there may be no symptoms before then. 

The irony was that if Dad was bipolar – or had any of a dozen disorders that might explain his behavior – the same paranoia that was a symptom of the illness would prevent its ever being diagnosed and treated.  No one would ever know. 

Because her father was at war with the federal government, Westover never went to school.  Her birth went undocumented – she didn’t have a certificate that would’ve allowed her to enroll until years later, and even then wound up with a hodgepodge of documents that listed slightly differing names and birthdates. 

And her father needed money, because he was frantically stockpiling food and ammunition.  He needed solar panels (back when they were much more expensive than today) because the power grid was going to cut out after Y2K.

As one of God’s soldiers, he needed to build an ark.  Or tank.  Arsenal.  Whatever.

This constant hustle for money led Westover’s father to subject his children to incredible dangers.  There might be a safe way to do a job, but if the risky way could save two minutes, the man put his kids’ lives on the line.  Westover was forced to ride up to a trailer inside a bin filled with two thousand pounds of scrap iron.  When her leg got caught and she couldn’t jump out, her father still dumped the bucket.  Westover tumbled nearly twenty feet to the ground.  And this was lucky.  If she’d fallen a few inches to the other side, she would’ve been crushed by all that iron. 

Her brothers were injured even more grievously at her father’s hands.

For instance, a brother’s clothes caught fire while he was working with his father.  In Westover’s recollection, the father then lifted his burnt son into the cab of a truck and made him drive home alone.  Only the ten-year-old Westover was there to help him, so she put her brother’s burnt leg inside a garbage can full of ice water.

She thought:

If Dad had been with Luke on the mountain, he would have brought him to the house, would have treated the burn.  Dad was away on a job somewhere, that’s why Luke had had to get himself down the mountain.  Why his leg had been treated by a ten-year-old.  Why it had ended up in a garbage can.

Except that she then realizes that her father must have been with her brother.  He must have been there in order to put out the fire; otherwise the whole mountainside would’ve burned. 

In a footnote, Westover adds: 

Since the writing of this story, I have spoken to Luke about the incident.  His account differs from both mine and Richard’s.  In Luke’s memory, Dad took Luke to the house, administered a homeopathic for shock, then put him in a tub of cold water, where he left him to go fight the fire.  This goes against my memory, and against Richard’s.  Still, perhaps our memories are in error.  Perhaps I found Luke in a tub, alone, rather than on the grass.  What everyone agrees upon, strangely, is that somehow Luke ended up on the front lawn, his leg in a garbage can.

Westover’s father was abusive, and he routinely convinced his children that their memories were in error, instead substituting his own (oft-illogical) versions of events, but he isn’t the Hulk in this story.  Yup, things get worse.  One of Westover’s brothers might suddenly snap and become Hyde.

Westover loved her older brother Shawn, but during an over-hasty job with their father, Shawn fell twelve feet, striking a concrete wall headfirst, and sustained a severe brain injury.  Instead of taking the kid to the hospital, their father propped him against a pickup truck and left him to sit in the hot sun.

His pupils were unevenly dilated.  His brain was bleeding.

Fifteen minutes later, Shawn wandered back to the worksite and started acting wild.  He screamed, flung his father, ran around leaping and howling.  The others tackled him – at which point his head again struck the concrete, hard – and called 911 for a helicopter to airlift him to the hospital.

It took some time for me to realize that although Shawn looked the same, he wasn’t.  He seemed lucid, but if you listened carefully his stories didn’t make sense.  They weren’t really stories at all, just one tangent after another. 

Worse, he was violent.  But unpredictably so.  At one moment, he and Westover might be laughing together.  At another moment, he’d twist her arm behind her back so brutally that she worried her wrist would break, call her a slut, and cram her face into a toilet bowl.  He hacked at the throat of his son’s pet dog with a five-inch knife blade while the animal howled, dying.  He called his sister and placidly explained his plans to visit her university and murder her.

In a lucid moment, he helped Westover install a massive deadbolt in her bedroom door, despite knowing that he was the only person she needed protection from.

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Tara_Westover_1+2-smallerAnd yet, Westover escaped.  Although she’d never set foot inside a classroom, she was accepted to Brigham Young University, where the consensus view of reality was much closer to her own.

Of course, she made a few stumbles.  Because she didn’t understand what course numbers signified, she enrolled as a freshman in an upper-level art history class.  Worse, she raised her hand to ask after the meaning of a word she didn’t recognize: Holocaust.

During one of my own classes, we were discussing poems from Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony when I mentioned that Reznikoff had also written about the Holocaust.

“Holocaust, what’s that?” a man asked. 

Unlike Westover, this man had grown up in an urban area.  But he’d stopped attending school when he was pretty young, and there’s a lot of cultural knowledge that we tend to take for granted.

I’d like to think that I handled the situation better than Westover’s professor.  Westover was shamed.  In our poetry class, we instead talked about how the word “holocaust” could be seen as offensive when used to describe the years during which members of the Nazi party murdered at least 6 million people, typically because their victims believed in Judaism.  The word “holocaust” originally meant a burnt offering for God, so Jewish leaders instead referred to this period of history with the Hebrew word for “catastrophe.”  Although even that phrasing seems off, because “catastrophe” generally evokes natural disaster, whereas the Holocaust was mass murder and torture on a scale comparable only to American slavery.  A purely human evil.

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Westover became a historian.  After experiencing firsthand the nightmare of having her own account of reality constantly replaced by someone else’s version, she understood how powerful storytelling can be.  Educated is a beautiful book.  And, to my mind, a much more sensible depiction of unequal opportunity in the United States than J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

Westover recognizes how lucky she was to escape, and how narrowly she avoided the fate of her sister-in-law.  And Westover gives a powerful endorsement of government aid:

I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.  My professors came into focus, suddenly and sharply; it was as if before the grant I’d been looking at them through a blurred lens.  My textbooks began to make sense, and I found myself doing more than the required reading.

On ‘The Theft of Fire.’

On ‘The Theft of Fire.’

Stories are powerful things.  A world in which workers are brought into a country as farmhands is very different from one in which barbaric kidnappers torture their victims to extract labor.  A world in which death panels ration healthcare is different from one in which taxpayers preferentially fund effective medical care.

You’ll feel better about your life if you sit down and list the good things that happened to you each day.  There’s only one reality, but countless ways to describe it.

Like most scientists, I love stories of discovery.  These stories also reflect our values – many years passed before Rosalind Franklin’s role in the determining the structure of DNA was acknowledged.  Frontal lobe lobotomy was considered so beneficial that it won the Nobel Prize – sane people didn’t have to tolerate as much wild behavior from others.  Of course, those others were being erased when we ablated their brains.

Even equations convey an ideological slant.  When a chemist writes about the combustion of gasoline, the energy change is negative.  The chemicals are losing energy.  When an engineer writes about the same reaction, the energy change is described as positive.  Who cares about the chemicals?  We humans are gaining energy.  When octane reacts with oxygen, our cars go vrrrooom!

I’ve been reading a lot of mythology, which contains our oldest stories of discovery.  The ways we tell stories haven’t changed much – recent events slide quickly into myth.  Plenty of people think of either George W. Bush or Barrack Obama as Darth-Vader-esque villains, but they’re just regular people.  They have myriad motivations, some good, some bad.  Only in our stories can they be simplified into monsters.

In Ai’s poem, “The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” she writes that

512px-JROppenheimer-LosAlamosI could say anything, couldn’t I?

Like a bed we make and unmake at whim,

the truth is always changing,

always shaped by the latest

collective urge to destroy.

Oppenheimer was a regular person, too.  He was good with numbers, and his team of engineers accomplished what they set out to do.

My essay about the ways we mythologize discovery was recently published here, alongside surrealistically mythological art by Jury S. Judge.

theft of fire

On storytelling.

On storytelling.

Phagocytosis_--_amoebaWhen an amoeba needs to eat, it hugs food.  This process is called “phagocytosis.”  The amoeba reaches out and merges again behind its meal – creating a bubble of the outer world inside itself.  And here, enswathed, its food is digested.  Like ourselves, amoeba are soft machines converting food into heat, exhaled carbon dioxide, and excrement.

Indeed, our whole planet can be viewed as a whirling machine converting low numbers of inbound high-frequency, low-wavelength photons from the sun into a much larger number of low-frequency, high-wavelength photons.  Our Earth’s carpet of green sucks sunlight; roving animal life grazes and respires, sloughing infrared.

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Those animals come in two forms: tubes and bags.  Jellyfish have one opening, a mouth from which they also drool excrement.  Jellyfish are bags.  Most land animals have two openings, a mouth and an anus.  Tubes.

No matter the form, for animals to carry on, they must engulf other life.

But, sometimes, the engulfed live on.

The “power stations” of our cells are called “mitochondria.”  These look like small bacteria, but they have been tamed.  Mitochondria carry some DNA, a fraction of the genes they need, but the rest of their genes are inside our cells’ central nuclei.  Mitochondria were almost surely swimming freely once: now their ancestral selves can be known only by studying the organelles (little organs) inside our cells.

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Mitochondria from a mammalian cell.

Stories, too, swallow each other.  At times, we can learn our own history only from stray remnants that linger in the engulfing tales.

From the King James translation of Genesis,

God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.

And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

The Hebrew scholar Umberto Cassuto argued that these lines reveal the presence of another, older myth.  The phrase translated as “great whales” in King James, in the original, might be better rendered into English as “great sea-monsters” or “great sea dragons.”  Which is startling – that dragons, alongside humans and cows, would be one of only three types of animals specifically named in Genesis.  Humans told the story.  Cows were their wealth and livelihood.  Why do dragons merit such importance?

From Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch’s From Gods to God (translated by Valerie Zakovitch):

Cassuto argued that the particular identification of the sea dragons in the context of the Creation was polemical in nature.  It was meant, he proposed, to remind the reader that these enormous creatures were created beings like all others: they were not divine, nor were they mythical creatures with powers to challenge God, the Creator.

Marduk_and_the_DragonIn other myths that were widespread at the time Genesis was written, Earth began as a water planet.  Gods lived in the sky, and other gods lived beneath the waves, but there was no land for humans.  Only after an inverse gotterdammerung – a great war between sea & sky gods that marked an end to the deluge – did continents form.  The soil we walk upon is a perhaps a corpse (Marduk, god of heaven, slew Tiamat, goddess of the sea, and made our world by scattering her flesh over the surface of the deep), perhaps a demilitarized zone (after Baal, god of heaven, squelched the uprising of the Prince of the Sea and his dragons, the oceans retreated – shamed, waters allowed themselves to be confined by shores).

Elsewhere in the Bible, Yahweh himself is praised for creating the world by pushing back the waters, as in the Babylonian and Ugaritic myths: Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?  Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over?

This old myth has nearly faded away, but some fragment of it pulses on within the Bible… like the mitochondria preserved by our cells.

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Image by bies on Flickr.

In Islam, Jesus son of Mary is incorporated into the tale – he is a prophet, preparing the way for Muhammad.  He ascended bodily into heaven, but will return with armaments for the judgement.  If all Christian texts were lost, we would still have these traces with which to reconstruct the beliefs of Christians.  Although it’s not clear how close we’d come to the New Testament from lines like:

728px-The_Harrowing_of_HellAnd when Jesus, the son of Mary, said “O children of Israel, indeed I am the messenger of Allah to you confirming what came before me of the Torah and bringing good tidings of a messenger to come after me, whose name is Ahmad.”  But when he came to them with clear evidences, they said, “This is obvious magic.”

Jesus wrought miracles, and for these was persecuted – that much of the story would remain.

Even now, our stories strive to ingest one another.  It’s like watching a pair of amoeba battle, each struggling to form the outer bubble.  The theory of evolution is uncontroversial when applied to crystals or stars – the idea that what we see now will be those structures that simultaneously optimized persistence and replication in the environments they were presented with is simply thermodynamics and math.

But when applied to animals – to humans, especially – the theory of evolution is seen as an origin myth in competition with all the others: the slain dragons, the sculpted clay, Yahweh conjuring with words.  And so a Christian interpretation proffers that God created humans through evolution – a teleological misconception that’s often touted as “compromise.”

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Evolution is not a ‘tree’ growing upward toward ourselves… more like a shrubbery, with everything that has survived to the present on roughly equal footing.

(Teleological misconception: the idea that evolution has a purpose, that humans are “higher” life forms.  Evolution is a random drift, with success defined only by persistence.  Life forms have either made it to the present – in which case, bully for you – or they’ve gone extinct.  They were well-suited for the environs or not, but there isn’t an absolute metric to judge them by.  A variant form of humanity that was less innately bloodthirsty would be, to my eyes, superior to ourselves; if such creatures ever arose, they were surely slaughtered by our own forebears.  Many of our worst traits seem to have helped human ancestors survive and sire children, which is all evolution “wants.”)

And, similarly, scientists attempt to engulf the old
myths within their story.  Evolutionary psychologists pontificate as to the reasons why humans are compelled to invent gods and believe self-sacrificingly in them.  I’ve discussed some of these previously, such as the theory that a belief in watchful gods improves human behavior, boosting interpersonal trust.  People who trust one another can collaborate more easily, which might make a society more successful.

I’m a scientist, but I see no need for the theory of evolution to swallow our myth-making tendencies.  A major virtue of many religious stories is their insistence on behavior that goes against the directives of the natural world.

Though shalt not kill.

For a creature striving to pass along its genes at all costs, this is foolish advice.  Murder provides more to eat, more space to gather berries from, more resources of all kinds.  Many species kill their own kind, to say nothing of the murder of other species.  They have good reason to, from an evolutionary perspective.  Yet, many religions include a prohibition against killing.  In the Bible, humanity’s paradisaical form – to which we’ll return when we have returned the Earth to a state of grace – was vegetarian.

800px-Marten_van_Valckenborch_Tower_of_babel-large.jpgOr, the story of the Tower of Babel?  As a factual account, this is absurd – ancient builders would never reach heaven.  But as a way to communicate an moral precept – that our hubris can be deadly, and that because we can is insufficient rationale to attempt some goals – the story is beautiful.  With sufficient biomedical and / or computational understanding, some day we might be able to live forever… but should we?

To be good stewards of this Earth, at time we must restrain our grand designs.  We could gird the whole planet in steel and concrete.  We could hack down the few remaining forests for farmland.

Robert Bellah gives a lovely summary of these prohibitions in his Religion in Human Evolution:

          The gods had to dig out the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as well as the irrigation canals, and they found it all too much.  They decided to revolt against Enlil, and having burned their work tools they surrounded his house.  Enlil, frightened and barricaded at home, called on Anu and Enki for advice as to what to do.  He felt like abandoning earth altogether and joining his father in the sky.  But Enki, always the clever one, had a suggestion: why not create men to do the work the lesser gods found so tiresome?  He killed one of the lesser gods, We-e, perhaps the ringleader of the rebellion (could we call it a strike?), and, mixing his blood with clay, fashioned the first human beings.

          Enki’s plan worked almost too well: men took over the work of the gods, but greatly prospered in doing so.  Their growing population became so noisy (“the land bellowed like a bull”), that Enlil could get no sleep.  He sent a plague to wipe the people out, but the wise man Atrahasis consulted Enki who told him to keep the people quieter and give more offerings to the gods, and the plague ceased.  Again the people increased and the noise level rose.  This time Enlil sent a drought, but again Atrahasis persuaded Enki to intervene.  The third time was really too much and Enlil sent a great flood to kill every human being.  Enki, however, was one ahead of him and had Atrahasis construct an unsinkable boat, load it with every kind of animal, and last out the flood.  When Enlil discovered what Enki had done he was furious, but meantime the decimation of the people had left the gods with no offerings, and they were beginning to starve.  Enlil finally realized that humans were indispensable to the gods, and, having arranged several methods of birth control, allowed Atrahasis and his people to resettle the earth.

          One might think, says [Thorkild] Jacobsen, that Enlil cut a rather poor figure with his fear, impulsiveness, and insensitivity, but to the ancients the story illustrates Enlil’s ultimate power, his stunning capacity to create a flood that could potentially destroy every living thing.  Jacobsen concludes: “All the same it is clear that the myth views absolute power as selfish, ruthless, and unsubtle.  But what is, is.  Man’s existence is precarious, his usefulness to the gods will not protect him unless he takes care not to be a nuisance to them, however innocently.  There are, he should know, limits set for his self-expression.”

On mental architecture and octopus literature.

CaptureI might spend too much time thinking about how brains work.  Less than some people, sure — everybody working on digital replication of human thought must devote more energy than I do to the topic, and they’re doing it in a more rigorous way — but for a dude with no professional connection to cognitive science or neurobiology or what-have-you, I spend an unreasonable amount of time obsessing over ’em.

What can I say?  Brains are cool.  That they function at all is pretty amazing, and that they do it in a way that gives us either free will or at least the illusion of having it is even better.

Most of my “obsessing over brains” time is devoted to thinking about how humans work, but studies on animal cognition always floor me as well.  A major focus of these studies, though, is often how similar human minds are to those of other animals… for instance, my recent hamsters & poverty essay was about the common response of most mammalian species to unfair, unrectifiable circumstance, and I’m planning a piece on the (mild) similarities between prairie dog language and our own.

The only post I’ve slapped up lately on differences between human and animal cognition was about potential rattlesnake misconceptions, but even that piece hinged upon a difference in the way they see, not the way they think.

Today’s post, though, will be about octopi.

A baby octopus (graneledone verrucosa)  moves across the seafloor as ROV Deep Discoverer (D2) explores Veatch Canyon.

A study on octopus evolution was recently published in Nature (Albertin et al., “The octopus genome and the evolution of cephalopod neural and morphological novelties”), and the main thing I learned from that paper & some background reading is that octopus brains are wicked cool.

Honestly, if we asked Superman to spin our planet backward some twenty billion times in order to re-run evolution, I think cephalopods could give apes a run for their money on potential planetary dominance.  Cephalopods are quite intelligent, adept problem solvers, have tentacles sufficiently agile for tool use, and can communicate by changing colors (although with much less finesse than the octospiders in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series. The octospiders used a language based on shifting striations of color displayed on their skin).

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The biggest obstacle holding octopi back from world domination is the difficulty for a water-dwelling species to harness fire or electricity.  But octopi can make brief sojourns onto dry land… and even land-dwelling apes took something like 20 million years to discover fire and some 22 million for electricity.

Sure, that’s faster than octopi — they’ve had a hundred million years already and still no fire — but once Superman spins the planet (first he fought crime!  Now he’ll muck up our timeline to investigate evolution!), there’ll be a chance for him to stop that asteroid and save the dinosaurs.  I imagine that living in constant terror of T-Rex & friends would slow the apes down a little.

I’ve never had to work under that kind of pressure, but it’s probably much more difficult to discover fire if you’re worried that a dinosaur will stomp by, demolish your laboratory, and eat you.

Octopi ingenuity might be similarly stymied by pervasive fear of giant monsters: sharks, dolphins, sea lions, seals, eels, and, yes, those ostensibly land-bound hairless apes.  Voracious, vicious predators all… especially those apes.

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And yet.  Despite the fear, octopi are extremely clever.  They have a massive genome, too.  In itself, genome size is not a measure of complexity, in part because faulty cell division machinery sometimes results in the duplication of entire genomes — no matter how many copies of Fuzzy Bee & Friends you staple together, even if you create a 1,000+ page monstrosity, you won’t create a narrative with the complexity of The Odyssey.

That’s what researchers thought had happened with the octopus genome.  Sure, they have more genes than us, but they’re probably all duplicates!  Albertin et al. were the first to actually test that hypothesis, though… and it turns out to be wrong.  The octopus genome underwent massive expansion specifically for neural proteins & regulatory regions.  Which suggests that their huge genome is not dreck, that it is actually the product of intense selection for cognitive performance.  It isn’t proof, but it’s definitely consistent with selection for greater mental capacities.

There isn’t any octopus literature yet, but evolution isn’t done.  As long as octopus survival & mating success is bolstered by intelligence, there’s a chance the species will continue to slowly “improve.”

(I am biased in favor of smart creatures, but more brainpower is not necessarily better in an evolutionary sense.  For an example, here’s my essay on starfish zombies.)

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But even if a species derived from contemporary octopi eventually gains cognitive capacities equivalent to our own, we may never grasp the way they perceive the world.  Their brains are organized very differently from our own.  Our minds are highly centralized — our actions result from decisions passed down from on high.

For most human actions, it seems that the mind subconsciously initiates movement, firing off instructions to the appropriate muscles, and then the conscious mind notices what’s going on and concocts a story to rationalize that action.  For instance, if you touch something hot, nociceptors (pain receptors) in your hand send an “Ouch!” signal to your brain, your brain relays back “Pull yer damn hand away!”, then the conscious mind types up a report, “I decided to pull my hand away because that was too hot.”

(Some people have argued that this sequence of timing indicates that we lack free will, by the way.  Which seems silly.  Our freedom doesn’t need to be at the level of conscious decision-making to be worthwhile.  Indeed, your subconscious is as much you as your consciousness.  Your subconscious reflexes reflect who you are, and with concerted effort you can modify most if not all of them.)

Octopi minds are different.  They seem to be much more decentralized.  Each tentacle has a significant neural network and can act independently.  Octopus tentacles can still move and make minor decisions even if cleaved away… like the zombie movie trope where a severed arm continues to strangle someone.

Since we have no good way to communicate with octopi, we don’t know whether their minds are wired for storytelling the way ours are.  Whether they also construct elaborate internal rationalizations for every action (does this help explain why I’m so fascinated by free will?  Even if our freedom is illusory, the ability to maintain that illusion underpins our ability to tell stories).

But if octopi do explain their world with stories, the types of stories they tell would presumably seem highly chaotic to us humans.  Our brains are building explanations for decisions made internally, whereas an octopus would be constructing a narrative from the actions of eight independently-acting entities.

Who knows?  Someday, many many years from now, if octopi undergo further selection for brain power & communication, we might find octopus literature to be exceptionally rambunctious.  Brimming with arbitrary twists & turns.  If their minds also tend toward narrative storytelling (and it’s worth mentioning that octopi also process time in a cascade of short-term and long-term memory the way mammals do), their stories would likely veer inexorably toward the inexplicable.

Toward, that is, actions & consequences that a human reader would perceive to be inexplicable.

Octopi might likewise condemn our own classics as overly regimented.  Lifeless, stilted, formulaic.  And it’d be devilishly hard to explain to an octopus why I think In Search of Lost Time is so good.

Octopus_vitiensis

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p.s. I should offer a brief mea culpa for having listed different lengths of time that apes & octopi have had with which to discover fire.  All known life uses the same genetic code, so it’s extremely likely that we all share a common ancestor.  Everything alive today — bacteria, birds, octopi, humans — have had the same length of time to evolve.

This is part of why it sounds so silly when people refer to contemporary bacteria as being “lower” life forms or somehow less evolved.  Current bacteria have had just as long to perfect themselves for their environments as we have, and they simply pursued a different strategy for survival than humans did.  (For more on this topic, feel free to read this previous post.)

I listed different numbers, though… mostly because it seemed funny to imagine a lineage of octopi racing the apes in that “decent of man” cartoon.  Who will conquer the planet first?!

I chose my times based on the divergence of great apes from their nearest common ancestor (gibbons, whom we’ve rudely declared to be “lesser apes”) and the divergence of octopi from theirs (squids, ca. 135 million years ago).  The numbers themselves are pretty accurate, but the choice of those particular numbers was arbitrary.  You could easily rationalize instead starting the clock for apes in their quest for fire as soon as the first primates appeared, ca. 65 million years ago… then octopi don’t look so bad.  Perhaps only two-fold slower than us.  Or you could start the apes’ clock at the appearance of the very first mammals… in which case octopi might beat us yet.