On the creepy parallel between gene duplication and oppression – as inspired by a passage from Karen Armstrong’s “Fields of Blood.”

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“If, as has been shown for ethnographically documented hunter-gatherers, women in the most meat-dependent foraging societies spend less time procuring food and more time engaged in the production of technology and performing nonsubsistence tasks, then Clovis women likely spent the majority of their time not gathering plants.  In this sense, equating women solely with plant gathering is reducing their role in prehistoric societies to activities for which they may have spent little time and effort.  The ‘shrinking’ phenomenon may not be entirely the effect of preservational bias but the inherent bias of archaeologists limiting female labor to the plant realm.”

     ~ From Nicole Waguespack’s article “The Organization of Male and Female Labor in Foraging Societies.”

There’s a term in there – “perservational bias” – that I hadn’t seen.  I guess that shows how little archaeology I’ve studied.  The idea: if a task uses tools that will decompose – anything with wooden baskets, or even a free-standing windmill – then it might fade away and disappear from the archaeological record.  People digging through the strata later will find only durable tools – a stone arrowhead, for instance – and get a skewed impression of how people spent their time.

Anyway, I thought this was interesting – modern archaeologists, given the biases present in their own societies, ascribed limited roles to prehistoric women.  Waguespack wanted to address that bias, arguing that if women’s contribution to diet wasn’t needed, they probably still did *something* as opposed to sitting around twiddling their thumbs all day.  Seems like a reasonable assumption, right?

And I came across this article because I was trying to learn what percentage of people’s time was spent on food production through prehistory.

This article does have a chart of numbers for the time spent on foraging for modern hunter-gatherer societies – often four to six hours per day – although, really, the numbers I should’ve been looking for were for early agricultural societies.  Because hunter-gatherer societies are often regarded as highly egalitarian, and I’d just come across this passage in Karen Armstrong’s “Fields of Blood:”

“By the end of the fifteenth century CE, agrarian civilizations would be established in the Middle East, South and East Asia, North Africa, and Europe, and in every one–whether in India, Russia, Turkey, Mongolia, the Levant, China, Greece, or Scandinavia–aristocrats would exploit their peasants as the Sumerians did.  Without the coercion of the ruling class, it would have been impossible to force peasants to produce an economic surplus, because population growth would have kept pace with advances in productivity.  Unpalatable as this may seem, by forcing the masses to live at subsistence level, the aristocracy kept population growth in check and made human progress feasible.  Had their surplus not been taken from the peasants, there would have been no economic resource to support the technicians, scientists, inventors, artists, and philosophers who eventually brought our modern civilization into being.  As the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton pointed out, all of us who have benefited from this systemic violence are implicated in the suffering inflicted for over five thousand years on the vast majority of men and women.  Or as the philosopher Walter Benjamin put it: ‘There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.'”

That passage gave me a lot to think about.  Many people participating in the modern economy of the United States feel a residual squeamishness because the distribution of capital in this country is deeply rooted in the history of slavery and genocide – if you buy a house, well, no one *made* the land it’s sitting on, so if you delve far enough back through time murder or the threat of violence was necessary for that piece of land to be claimed by someone, who then sold it to someone else, onward through time until it ended up with you.  But I hadn’t previously considered the idea that *all* the trappings of modern culture – so much of it brought to us by discoveries rooted in the scientific method – is rooted in oppression. Early scientists were aristocrats: no one else had as much free time to pursue experiments.

So, right, I rooted around to find some numbers (in the United States, for instance, we went from 90% of the populace being employed in food production some 200 years ago to less than 2% today – so presumably the percentage of people working in food production was 90% or higher through most of history), and spent a while thinking about this.  And figured I could write an essay, because I’d recently written one that mentioned gene duplication events as a driver for evolution.  Not sure what article I posted for this fact previously – I have many in mind for this topic – so here’s a nice recent review by Katju & Bergthorsson, again stressing that gene duplication events give you room to maneuver:Gene-duplication

“[G]iven that most mutations are degenerative, a duplicated gene is much more likely to end up as a pseudogene than to acquire a function that is distinct from the ancestral gene and actively maintained by natural selection. Loss of one copy, either due to deletion or mutational inactivation is the fate of the overwhelming majority of duplicated genes.”

Which, right – most of the time accumulated mutations after a gene duplication event turn your new sequence into symbolic dreck – but, think, without the prior duplication, you would’ve even have the chance to try out that dreck.  Mutations that reduce the function of a necessary gene, if there were only a single copy, would be selected against.

And I wanted to write an essay about the metaphorical link between gene duplication events and the oppressive taxation that Armstrong wrote about.  Perhaps I should include one last background quote – from Richard Dawkins’ introduction of the concept of “meme,” an evolving bit of culture, presented in his work “The Selfish Gene.”

“We do not have to look for conventional biological survival values of traits like religion, music, and ritual dancing, though these may also be present.  Once the genes have provided their survival machines with brains that are capable of rapid imitation, the memes will automatically take over.  We do not even have to posit a genetic advantage in imitation, though that would certainly help.  All that is necessary is that the brain should be capable of imitation: memes will then evolve that exploit the capability to the full.”

The idea is that culture will also evolve, in a way similar to the evolution of genetic sequences.  As long as a bit of culture is good at propagating itself – either a story that’s fun to hear, or fun to tell, or a piece of knowledge that helps its carrying people survive – it’ll pass through the ages.  You might think of biblical proscriptions against certain foods.  If those foods caused people to get sick, there’s a survival benefit to the meme’s carriers by propagating them, and they’re encased in the bible, which people enjoy reading from.  Their very souls depend on it.

But any scientific or technological discovery “evolves” similarly.  The principles of mathematics, the scientific method, knowledge about electricity.  As our knowledge is refined, in ways that make what we have to say more useful, it’s spread more widely … to the point that now 80% of the world’s population has access to electricity.

(Also: only eighty percent?  We are not doing a great job.)

But for that process to start, electricity has to be discovered in the first place.  And that is what I see as the link between stratified oppression and gene duplication events.  Once humans were living in agricultural societies, where there was a big benefit to ownership of capital (which, right – this claim can be contested.  The whole idea that farming heralded the beginning of stratification and oppression.  Heather Pringle wrote a nice article on the effect of staked claims in pre-agricultural societies – think, “This is my fishing rock… go sit somewhere else!”  Or, “This is where I hunt for berries… in this here berry patch… go forage over there, in that rocky field!”  But there isn’t any evidence that any pre-agricultural peoples attempted to build the type of long-ranging empire made possible by farming), by using violence or the threat thereof to claim ownership of land and tax the people working it, you create leisure time.  Like a duplicated gene, the person who no longer needs to work for food is free to do something else.

And I think the analogy goes farther.  Most duplicated genes degenerate and produce nothing of value.  And I personally imagine that most aristocrats through history were more the Caligula type – only drinking some wine, sleeping with some slaves, causing trouble – than the Ben Franklin type (who, uh, did other stuff too).  But, because useful information spreads so rapidly, it took only a miniscule fraction of good ones to create our modern culture.

This perspective – the idea that stratification was important to give the lucky few a chance to pursue cultural advances – also gives me a new vantage for some passages from the Ramayana.  Many of the hardest passages for me are those involving caste.  The idea that a kingdom would be thrown out of balance if someone who’s supposed to be oppressed instead pursues enlightenment is pretty horrible to me. Here’s a passage from M.N. Dutt’s translation of the Ramayana:

“On the banks of that pond one ascetic was performing the most austere penances with his legs upwards and head downwards.  There upon approaching him, Rama Said–O you of good vows, blessed are you; I do ask you, now, O you highly effulgent and grown old in asceticism, in what Varna you are born.  I put this question out of curiosity.  I am the son of king Dasaratha and my name is Rama.

“For what are you going through such hard austerities?  Is it heaven, or anything else that you pray for?  O ascetic, I wish to hear, of the purpose for which you are performing such hard penances.  Art you a Brahmana, or an irrepressible Ksatriya or the third caste Vaisyas or a Sudra?  Do you speak the truth and you shall be crowned with auspiciousness.

“Hearing the words of Rama, the ascetic, whose face was downwards, gave out his degraded birth and communicated to him for what he was performing ascetic observances.

“Hearing the words of Rama of unwearied actions, the ascetic, with his face downwards, said.

“O highly illustrious Rama, I am born in the race of Sudras; and with a view to reach the region of the celestials with my body I am going through these austere penances.

“O Kakutstha, I shall never utter a falsehood since I am willing to conquer the region of gods.  I am a Sudra and my name is Sambuka.

“The Sudra ascetic having said this, Rama took out of scabbard a beautiful sharp sword and chopped off his head therewith.”

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Right?  Very crumby.  Dude is just trying to be good!  But the king’s job was to ensure that oppressed people stay oppressed.  And now I, sitting here typing on a laptop computer, surrounded by all the comforts of the modern world, am the disconcerted beneficiary.

On personhood, in the Ramayana and in court.

On personhood, in the Ramayana and in court.

Screen shot 2014-12-05 at 6.12.26 PMI’ve been working on a modern retelling of the Ramayana.  Mostly because the myth provided a framework for approaching a number of issues that I wanted to discuss, like free will: numerous commentators think the Ramayana is primarily a story about fate, and the structure of Valmiki’s telling, in which an episode of the gods wanting to stop Ravana is presented long before Rama’s wife is kidnapped and Rama journeys to battle him, does imply a belief in predestination.  Which is kind of cute – this concept that I wanted to discuss from a scientific perspective can also be approached from the mythological perspective.

But probably the biggest draw of the Ramayana, for me, was as a framework for discussing the idea of personhood.

Which is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about as I’ve learned a bit more U.S. history.  Obviously there is the issue of race – for many years, a “surfeit” of melanin indicated a deficit of personhood.  I don’t think I need to include any links for the historical examples, and feel pretty rotten linking to anything relevant to the contemporary fallout from hundreds of years of considering certain people to be not people, but property.

Or there’s the case of women – most revealing might be to consider the history of rape law, which treated rape as a property crime, not as violence against people: Susan Brownmiller’s “Against Our Will” offers a good historical perspective.  Because, right, if someone assaulting you is considered a property crime against your husband or father – do I need to spell out why that’s not good?

The Ramayana addresses the issue of rape law in a way that seems similar to me: Rama kills his wife’s captor, but not, he claims, to free her, but only to avenge an insult against his own character – how dare you take something that belongs to me.

Here’s a quote from (I believe – I’ll swing by the library to check and make sure I’ve cited the correct edition) Goldman & Goldman’s translation of Valmiki’s book 6, Yuddhakanda.  You can scroll down, I guess, if you get the gist after a bit?


As he gazed upon Maithili, who stood so meekly beside him, Rama began to speak, as rage simmered in his heart:

“So here you are, my good woman.  I have won you back after conquering my enemy in battle.  Whatever there was to be done through manly valor, I have now accomplished.

“I have wiped clean the affront, and so my wrath is appeased.  For I have eliminated both the insult and my enemy at the same time.

“Today, my manly valor has been witnessed.  Today my efforts have borne fruit.  Today, having fulfilled my vow here, I am once more master of myself.

“You were carried off by that wanton raksasa when you were left alone, but now, through manly action, I have expunged that affront brought about by fate.

“What human purpose can man serve if his spirit is so feeble that he will not wipe clean through his own blazing energy an insult he has received?

“The leaping of the ocean and the razing of Lanka–today those praiseworthy deeds of Hanuman have borne fruit.

“Today, through their valor in battle and their beneficial counsel to me, the efforts of Sugriva and his army have borne fruit as well.

“And the efforts of my devoted Vibhisana, who abandoned his evil brother and came to me of his own accord, have likewise borne fruit.”

As Rama was saying these words in that fashion, Sita, wide-eyed like a doe, was overcome with tears.

But as Rama gazed upon her, his anger flared up once more, like the raging flame of a blazing fire drenched with melted butter.

Knitting his brows on his forehead and glancing at her from the corner of his eye, he spoke harshly to Sita there in the midst of the monkeys and raksasas.

“In wiping away this affront, Sita, I have accomplished all that a man could do.  In my wrath, I have won you back from the hands of my enemy, just as, through his austerities, the contemplative sage Agastya won back the southern lands that had been inaccessible to all living beings.

“Bless you, but let it be understood that it was not on your account that I undertook the effort of this war, now brought to completion through the valor of my allies.

“Instead, I did all this in order to protect my reputation and in every way to wipe clean the insult and disgrace to my illustrious lineage.

“Since, however, your virtue is now in doubt, your presence has become as profoundly disagreeable to me as is a bright lamp to a man afflicted with a disease of the eye.

“Go, therefore, as you please, daughter of Janaka.  You have my permission.  Here are the ten directions.  I have no further use for you, my good woman.

“For what powerful man born in a respectable family–his heart tinged with affection–would take back a woman who had lived in the house of another man?

“How could I who boast of my noble lineage possibly take you back–just risen from Ravana’s lap and gazed upon by his lustful eye?

“I have recovered my reputation, and that is the purpose for which I won you back.  I do not love you anymore.  Go hence wherever you like.”


But, right, why am I writing about all this today?  Well, I just saw in the news that the case for chimpanzee personhood in the United States failed on appeal.  And, yes, there is an army of monkeys in the Ramayana, and passages explicitly addressing whether the monkeys are people (they are not – even though some commentators believe the monkeys are a stand-in for the shorter, darker Dravidians of south India) – here is a passage from book 4, Kiskindhakanda:

“So enough of this sorrow!  Your death was decided upon justly, tiger among monkeys: We were not being arbitrary.

“By snares, nooses, and various traps, men in hiding or out in the open catch all kinds of beasts who run away terrified or confidently stand still.

“Men seeking meat shoot animals that are attentive or inattentive or even facing the other way, and there is nothing wrong with this.

“Even royal seers who fully understand righteousness go hunting here.  And so, monkey, I struck you down with an arrow in battle regardless of whether you fought back or not.  After all, you are only a monkey.”

It’s concerns like these – who counts, who should be afforded rights and respect and dignity – that drew me to the Ramayana in the first place.  And, yeah, I picked it because it was relevant to a lot of issues I follow in the news, but it’s still sad to watch the contemporary situations unfold.  For instance, here is a quote from the legal decision on chimpanzees:

In our view, it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights – such as the fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus – that have been afforded to human beings.

And, look, if we put together a guessing game where there were chimps in cages, and Homo sapiens in cages, and you were supposed to say which was which, you’d get every answer right.  I’m nearly sure of it, unless you have a very, um, “interesting” brain or worldview or whatever.

But that aside, I think they’re decision is quite low quality.  And not just because it seems crumby to say that banks are people but chimps are not.  It seems upsetting that they use a framework that obviously they should know isn’t met by all Homo sapiens to draw their conclusion.

It’s unlikely anyone would argue that chimpanzees should be held legally accountable for all their actions.  Obviously they aren’t competent to stand trial.  But we have a legal precedent for Homo sapiens failing competency, and there are plenty of children and mentally-handicapped people who aren’t capable of bearing legal responsibilities or societal duties.  I think those people are people too – and I’m not trying to say that the mentally handicapped are equivalent to chimpanzees, but that there is not a clear demarcation between the capabilities of one group and the other.

In fact, the whole idea of separating chimpanzees from humans is grey.  There are several problems with the concept of speciation – I can’t find great links for this in the approximately two minutes I have left to type this essay (someone is very upset that I’m not paying enough attention to her and is teething on my knee), but …

I am seriously running out of time here – the teething has progressed to flailing and some yells.

But, really, we do not have – and I believe can not have – a sharp-bordered definition of human.  There are problems with all the possible tests – whether or not two things interbreed and produce a fertile offspring can only be tested pairwise, and excludes the infertile – tests for mental acuity could exclude the handicapped – tests for appearance could exclude burn victims or amputees- tests for DNA content are inherently statistical and fuzzy-bordered.  So trying to use the species concept to designate legal rights seems crumby to me.

Which in a way is related to the idea of marriage being legal only between a man and a woman.  Gender is also scientifically grey – there are XY women, for instance, and some people’s genitalia at birth do not match their presumed physiological gender after puberty– so a legal designation using binary categories seems inherently flawed.


P.S.  I was able to sneak to the library and borrow Kenneally’s “The Invisible History of the Human Race.”  I’ve learned an interesting bit of trivia so far – if you’d asked me to guess when the involuntary display of humans in zoos had ended in the United States, I would have guessed 1865.  Reasonable guess, right?  Good old thirteenth amendment, exception for “punishment” (which would *never* be applied along racial lines) and all.

But I would’ve been wrong.  Ota Benga, an African man, was displayed in the Bronx Zoo as late as 1906.  There’s even a promotional photograph of him posing with a chimpanzee at the zoo.

Which, again, is not to imply that the issues are equivalent.  Better to deal with the bigger injustices first.  And, humans take up space, we’re heterotrophs, we need energy for our grand designs – it’s not possible to live without hurting others, even if the harm were as small as “you can’t be here while I’m here because of the Pauli exclusion principle.”  But I think it’s worth thinking about what harms are worth it.  Cause, yeah, chimps are cool.  Getting to see chimps is cool.  Most people can’t afford to travel somewhere to see chimps in their natural habitat.

Personally, I think the trade-off isn’t worth it for chimpanzees, given the facilities many zoos have available for them.  But there’s an argument to be made.

For this case, though, Tommy’s situation is worse.  It’s hard for me to see what benefit is being accrued that would justify his situation.