On human uniqueness and invasive species.

On human uniqueness and invasive species.

We like to see ourselves as special.  “I am a beautiful and unique snowflake,” we’re taught to intone.

Most of the time, this is lovely.  Other than the U.S. Supreme Court, hardly anyone thinks you should be punished for being special.  Of course, the Court’s opinion does matter, since the ignorant claims of five old rich white men have an inordinate sway in determining how U.S. citizens will be allowed to live.  And they, the conservative predecessors of our lockstep quartet (soon to return to a quintet) of hate machines, oft feel that the beautiful snowflakes should melt in prison.  In McCleskey v. Kemp, the court decided that statistical evidence of injustice should not be admissible as evidence; they would only consider documentation of deliberate bias in individual cases.

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Unique when you are on trial, now orange & a number.  Photo by Joel Franusic on Flickr.

Which means, for instance, that if a police force decides to systematically harass black drivers, and winds up stopping hundreds of black drivers and zero white drivers each month, they’re in the clear as long as each black driver stopped was violating some portion of the traffic code.  At that point, each black driver is a unique individual lawbreaker, and the court sees no reason why their experiences should be lumped together as statistical evidence of racial injustice.  Adolph Lyons, after being nearly choked to death by an L.A. police officer, could not convince the courts that the L.A. police should stop choking innocuous black drivers.

Lovely, eh?

So it can hurt if others see us as being too special.  Too distinct for our collective identity to matter.

At other times, we humans might not feel special enough.  That’s when the baseless claims get bandied about.  For instance, K recently received a letter from Stanford’s Graduate School of Education pontificating that “Only humans teach.”  A specious example is given, followed by the reiteration that “Only humans look to see if their pupils are learning.”  Which simply isn’t true.

But people feel such a burning desire to be special – as individuals, as fans of a particular sports team, as people with a particular skin color, or as people who follow a particular set of religious credos – that an ostensibly very-educated someone needed to write this letter.

That’s why the occasional correctives always make me smile.  For instance, research findings showing that other animal species have some of the skills that our sapiens chauvinists oft claim as uniquely human, or other data indicating that humans are not as exceptional as we at times believe.

Consider our brains.  For many years, we thought our brains were anomalously large for the size of our bodies.  The basic rationale for this metric was that more brain power would be needed to control a larger body – this seems tenuous if you compare to robots we’ve created, but so it goes.  Recently, a research group directed by Suzana Herculano-Houzel counted how many actual neurons are in brains of different sizes.  Again comparing to human creations, computer scientists would argue that more neurons allow for more patterns of connections and thus more brainpower, somewhat comparable to the total number of transistors inside a computer.

As it happens, no one knew how many neurons were in different creatures’ brains, because brains are very inhomogeneous.  But they can be homogenized – rather easily, as it happens.  I did this (unfortunately!) with cow brains.  These arrived frozen and bloodied; I’d smash them with a hammer then puree them in a blender till they looked rather like strawberry daiquiri.  For my work I’d then spin the soupy slushy muck so fast that all the cell nuclei pelleted on the bottom of centrifuge tubes, ready to be thrown away.

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After a spin in the blender, all brains look the same. Photo from Wikipedia.

Alternatively, one could take a sample of the soup and simply count.  How many nuclei are here?  Then stain an equivalent sample with antibodies that recognize proteins expressed in neurons but not the other cell types present in a brain: what fraction of the nuclei were neurons?  And, voila, you have your answer!

Gabi et al. did roughly this, publishing their findings with the subtly anti-exceptionalist title “No relative expansion of the number of prefrontal neurons in primate and human evolution.”  We have more neurons than smaller primates, but only as many as you’d expect based on our increased size.

zombie-starfish(Perhaps this leaves you wondering why gorillas rarely best us on human-designed IQ tests – as it happens, the other great apes are outliers, with fewer neurons than you would expect based on the primate trends.  Some of this data was presented in a paper I discussed in my essay about the link between “origin of fire” and “origin of knowledge” myths.  In brief, the idea is that the caloric requirements of human-like brainpower demanded cooked food.  The evolutionary precursors to gorillas instead progressed toward smaller brains – which happens.  The evolutionary precursors to starfish also jettisoned their brains, making themselves rather more like zombies.)

Perhaps all these brain musings are an insufficient corrective.  After all, humans are very smart – I’m trusting that you’re getting more out of this essay than the average hamster would, even if I translated these words into squeaks.

So let’s close with one more piece of humility-inducing (humiliating) research: archaeologists have long studied the migration of early humans, trying to learn when Homo sapiens first reached various areas and what happened after they arrived.  Sadly, “what happened” was often the same: rapid extinction of all other variety of humans, first, then most other species of large animals.

All the Neanderthal disappeared shortly after Homo sapiens forayed into Europe.  There are reasons why someone might quibble with the timeline, but it seems that Homo erectus disappeared from Asia shortly after Homo sapiens arrived.  The arrival of Homo sapiens in Australia brought the extinction of all large animals other than kangaroos.  The arrival of Homo sapiens in South America presaged, again, a huge megafaunal extinction.

On evolutionary timescales, we are a slow-moving meaty wrecking ball.

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Bad as we are, we can always get worse. My country! Picture by DonkeyHotey on Flickr.

And our spread, apparently, resembles that of all other invasive species.  This is slightly less derogatory than the summation given in The Matrix – “[humans] move to an area and … multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way [they] can survive is to spread to another area.  There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern.  Do you know what it is?  A virus.  Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.” – but only slightly.

Upon the arrival of Homo sapiens in South America, we quickly filled the entire continent to its carrying capacity, and then, after the invention of sedentary agriculture – which boosts food production sufficiently for an area to support more human farmers than hunter gatherers – resumed exponential population growth.  Although the switch to an agricultural lifestyle may have been rotten for the individual actors – the strength needed to push plows makes human sexual dimorphism more important, which is why the spread of agriculture heralded the oppression of & violence against women throughout human history – it’s certainly a great technology if our goal is to fill the world with as many miserable humans as possible.

We’ll be passing eight billion soon, a population inconceivable without modern farming technologies.  And likely unsustainable even with.

Not, again, that this makes us unique.  Plenty of species are willing to breed themselves into misery & extinction if given half the chance.  Almost any species that follows r-type population growth (this jargon signifies “quantity over quality”) – which oft seems to include Homo sapiens – is likely to do so.  My home town, wolf-less, is currently riddled with starving, sickly deer.

On inadvertent racism.

On inadvertent racism.

A few years ago, my little brother got one of those fancy new telephones.  This prompted me to spend hours extolling the virtues of my own phone – it flips open and shut so that I won’t call anybody by mistake, it has big buttons that depress satisfyingly when I dial a new number, the battery stays charged for days, the maximum volume is very loud.

My brother soon grew sick of my paean.  “How much do you think your phone is worth?” he asked me.

“Oh, I don’t know, I mean, I bought it for thirty dollars, but that was a few years ago… twenty, maybe?”

“There it is.”

We were walking through the grocery store at the time. He’d pointed and, sure enough, a display cabinet offered telephones identical to my own for $4.99.

Not that this makes me like my device any less.  It’s amazing that such a splendorous piece of technology can be bought for under five bucks.  But it did startle me enough for my brother to accomplish his intended goal: getting me to shut up about it already.

Anyway, I joined a friend, briefly, while he was playing Pokemon Go.  I flipped open the phone, aimed the camera at a promising spot, then typed an “8.”  It looked something like a decapitated snowman.

“Look!” I shouted.  “I found an Acephalous Frostychu!  That’s a good one, right?”

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Gotta catch ’em all?

My friend was unimpressed.  Apparently the game is more fun when played using other people’s telephones.

Unless you’re playing in a minority neighborhood, that is.

Not just because it can be unwise to stroll blithely unaware of your surroundings in some areas.  To play the game, there are apparently various resources you have to obtain.  In some places, especially wealthy neighborhoods, these resources (like the traps you’ll need to enslave new gladiators) are easy to find.  You can play the game for free.  In other places, including many black neighborhoods, those resource centers are sparsely distributed.  The game items you need won’t be found free.  To play the same way in these areas, you’d need to shell out a bunch of money.

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This does not mean that Niantic, the company that developed Pokemon Go, had any racist motivation.  There was a perfectly reasonable explanation for why game resources were distributed the way they were: they based the new game’s maps off user-generated data from a prior game that was played most in wealthy areas.

The motivation was not based on racial prejudice.  But the outcome was consistent with it.

I’d argue that outcomes, visible to all, matter more than professed motivations.  Not that I think Pokemon Go matters much, but the designers should fix this.  I imagine the correction wouldn’t be very difficult to implement, and inadvertent racism probably hurts almost as much as the maliciously-intentioned real thing.

Plus, if Niantic fixes their game, they’d send an important message to the U.S. Supreme Court: you have to consider the consequences of an action, not just its motivation.

For instance, policing.  Black- and brown-skinned people are far more likely to be incarcerated than white-skinned people who engage in identical behaviors.  In the United States, this disparity seems racially motivated every step of the way; black Americans are treated worse by the police, by prosecutors, by judges, by parole boards, and by future employers whose jobs will be needed to stay out.

But there are always arguments that some of the disparity isn’t racially motivated.  Consider, as an example, the first foray into that long slide: an encounter with the police.  Well, no matter what you might be doing, you’re more likely to run into a police officer in minority neighborhoods.  The rationale is that police officers are more heavily concentrated in areas with “higher crime.”

We’ve assessed which areas are “higher crime” incorrectly, though.  For many years, police officers were distributed based on the number of prior arrests in an area, not the number of crimes that had been committed there.  This issue is discussed in Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime:

51P9fNxVlRL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The discouraging figures did not necessarily reflect actual crime on the ground as much as they did the flawed criminal justice data-gathering that accompanied the intensification of federal law enforcement programs.  Arrests were counted as part of the crime rate regardless of whether they produced a conviction, meaning, for example, that if a group of black youth were arrested for robbing a liquor store, all of those youth would be recorded as burglars and counted as part of the crime rate, even if they were subsequently released for lack of evidence.  Since black men under the age of twenty-four had the highest arrest rate in the United States – a result of the targeted law enforcement encouraged by the federal government – they were seen as responsible for the majority of the nation’s crime and skewed reported rates accordingly, even though crime was increasing faster in suburban and rural areas in the mid-1970s.

Racist decisions in the past produced bad data.  If we blithely use that data now, it doesn’t matter whether our motivations are good or evil: the outcome will be unfair.

Of course, many of us, in our day to day lives, do not choose where police officers are deployed.  But I’d argue that most white people make choices that might inadvertently abet our country’s racial injustice.  For instance, while driving: because minority drivers are stopped so much more frequently for minor infractions (at times with nightmarishly awful consequence), it is unfair for white drivers to take advantage of their implicit privilege.  After all, driving fast is more fun than following the speed limit.  You get places faster.  And some people can speed with the knowledge that they’re very unlikely to be stopped by the police.

Which would be fine if you were blithely ignorant.  But as soon as you know that others would face serious consequences over the indulgences permitted to you – for speeding, for smoking a jay, for questioning a teacher’s or police officer’s authority – carrying on with your life unchanged is (inadvertently!) racist.  In the words of Reverend Jim Wallis,

Wallis and AOS book, 2“To go along with racist institutions and structures such as the racialized criminal justice system, to obliviously accept the economic order as it is, and to just quietly go about our personal business within institutional racism is to participate in white racism.”