On apocalypse-preppers, technology, and oppression.

On apocalypse-preppers, technology, and oppression.

33572350._UY700_SS700_In Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling, the protagonist is preparing for apocalypse.  At a parent-teacher conference, her dad rants that our world is falling apart – we’re polluting the oceans, growing monocultures of a select few (vulnerable) food crops across all arable land, disrupting the climate, overpopulating the planet – and that it’s ridiculous for his daughter to take spelling quizzes in the face of such calamity.  At home, he has her cleaning guns instead of studying for school.

It’s an iconic image – the grizzled, isolate, male prepper.

On dating sites specifically catering to preppers and survivalists, men far outnumber women.  On the banner image for the C.U.M.A. Survival School (which teaches combat techniques, animal trapping, how to build fires, and the like), there are three women out of seventeen visible people.

survival school.JPG

Journalist Nicky Woolf interviewed attendees at a 2015 Preppers and Survivalists Expo in Florida.  One of the men Woolf spoke with was sitting beside a handwritten recruitment sign, looking for someone with medical training to join his team.  Woolf asks the man whether his wife came to the Expo.

He suddenly looks tired.  “No.”  I ask if this is a point of contention between the two of them.  “I bought equipment for my son,” he says.  “I bought three of everything, one for me, one for my wife, one for my son.  My son is too possessed, and my wife is totally mind-controlled by the programs on the TV, the fluoride she’s drinking – because fluoride…”  Bingo!  He begins another rant.

I interrupt him to get more details about his wife.  “She won’t look at anything,” he says sadly.  “She won’t look at any of the literature, she won’t look at any of the DVDs.”

For some reason, I find this unbearably sad.

“How does that make you feel?” I ask.

“What can I do about it?” he says.  “I love her.  Been with her 27 years.  But when the shit hits the fan, I’m going.”


While I was researching a story about a hands-on retreat teaching the history of technology – under the auspices of recreating our world after a disaster – I realized there was a strong feminist argument for preserving this knowledge.

710v76v5doLLewis Dartnell distills some of this information in The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch.  Dartnell focuses on contemporary technologies, especially methods to jump-start food production and long-distance communication from the detritus of our current civilization.  The book is focused on the future – Dartnell convincingly argues that technological development after our civilization’s collapse would progress very differently than it did in the past, both because contemporary artifacts would remain to be learned from … and because we’ve already depleted the easily-accessible fuel sources that powered our own industrial revolution.

If we were starting again, we would have to make green technologies.

The history of technology still matters, though.  Contemporary gender inequality sprung from that history.

763220016_3ed7cdeb06_bAmong most primate species, gender inequality is correlated with sexual dimorphism – when males are a lot bigger, they behave badly.  In bonobos and chimpanzees, males and females are relatively close in size … and they have relatively equal status.  In gorillas or orangutans, males are much larger than females … and females can have pretty rotten lives.

And humans?  We actually have pretty low sexual dimorphism.  The average male is bigger than the average female, but only by about 15%.  Based on the behaviors of other primates, we ought to be fairly egalitarian.  Through most of our evolutionary history, we probably were … as were many of the hunter-gatherer societies that persisted until recent eras.

But you wouldn’t know it by looking at contemporary U.S. news.  And we’re doing better now than we have been for the past several centuries.

What went wrong?

PSM_V18_D469_Wheeled_plough_from_the_roman_empireIn our current world, being 15% bigger provides very little benefit.  Gasoline-powered machines do our heavy lifting.  But the importance of human sexual dimorphism was accentuated by early technologies. Our size differences mattered more once we developed agriculture … and seemed crucial after the invention of the plow.

Being 15% bigger does matter if you’re plowing a field.  Suddenly, men were more important for food production than women.  The status of women in these cultures plummeted.  And – lucky us – our culture derived from theirs.

sapiens book.jpgIn Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, vegan historian Yuval Noah Harari depicts the development of agriculture as a kind of “original sin.”  After agriculture, the average person experienced a much lower quality of life.  Agriculture made progress possible, but only because it made oppression possible.  Serfs could be taxed to feed the idle rich.  After agriculture, most people worked harder and ate worse.  Inequality soared.

Certain patches of land were better than others before agriculture.  Even among hunter-gatherers, there are skirmishes.  Tribes fight; people die.  But agriculture made war worthwhile.

And agrarians thought it reasonable to spin myths about the weakness of women.  15% more body mass meant the world to them … and we still celebrate their stories.

Let’s hope we never go through that again.

On fear.

On fear.

cta_brown_line_060716We recently visited my brother and our Auntie Ferret in Chicago.  Traveling with two young kids was difficult, but not impossible.  N held my hand while we strolled down the sidewalk and we did the five-hour drives to and from the city while she and her brother were sleeping in their car seats.

When we returned to Bloomington, I excitedly regaled staff at the YMCA “play and learn” childcare area with our adventures: we went to Restaurant Depot!  A grocery store where you can buy a six-pound tub of chili garlic paste!  It was magical!

One woman shuddered slightly: “Chicago?  I’m afraid to go there.”

Based on that statement alone, I’d bet large sums of money that she voted for Donald Trump.

Which isn’t such a bad bet.  He lost the popular vote, and Bloomington is a liberal isle in the midst of southern Indiana, but… this is southern Indiana, after all.  Trump garnered a lot of votes here.

And he campaigned on fear.

It’s not the best emotion, fear.  It’s no hope, for instance.  I’d say fear is far worse than whatever emotion best characterizes the recent Clinton campaign, even though I’m not quite sure what that emotion is… scorn?  Which isn’t good, but I’d swallow my pride and vote for smarmy self-satisfied scorn over fear any day (as in fact I did).

banksyfollowyourdreamsWe’re already seeing the awful consequences of fear: an executive order barring immigrants and refugees from a few (poor, Trump-property-less) countries that people here fear.  Yes, it looks like children are drowning as families flee the civil war (sparked by climate change from our pollution).  But what if those deaths are all part of an evil ploy by ISIS (not Daesh, not ISIL) operatives to infiltrate the United States?

The ban is misguided and heartless, obviously.  But it’s hardly the worst that fear can do.  Because fear inspires attack.

Which is a fascinating research finding.  Terrifying, yes, given our current political situation.  But still fascinating.  You get it all here: mind control… senseless violence… and… killer mice?

Back in 2005, Comoli et al. found that hunting seemed to activate a pattern of neurons in the amygdala, the brain region responsible for fear in a wide variety of mammals, including humans.

So… what would happen if you suddenly activated those neurons?

Usually, neurons are activated only when we think.  Our thoughts are patterns of neuron activations, and they cause further activations, which means we get to keep thinking, on and on as we learn and grow… until we die.  Then the activations stop.

picture-1Each of these “activations” is a flow of electricity from one of the cell to the other.  Neurons are lined by “voltage-gated ion channels,” and these let signals flow.  Ions entering through one gate cause nearby gates to open.  After a gate opens, though, it takes a while to recharge, which causes the current flow in a single direction.

And that’s how you can create a Manchurian candidate.  Instead of hypnosis – conditioning Sinatra to flip when he spots a playing card – you infect neurons with new ion channels that open when you shine laser light on them.  Make a recombinant virus, load it into a syringe, and plunge that needle into the brain!

The laser causes your new ion channels to open, and then, once they do, all the others respond, creating a flow of current.  The signal becomes indistinguishable from any other thought.  Except that whoever holds the laser is in control.

Wenfei Han et al., for the study “Integrated Control of Predatory Hunting by the Central Nucleus of the Amygdala,” took some mice and infected their amygdalas with these light-activated channels… and found that they’d created killing machines.  In their words:

When a non-edible item was placed in the cage, laser activation caused the otherwise indifferent mice to immediately assume a ‘capture-like’ body posture and seize the object, which was then held with the forepaws and bitten.  Behavior was interrupted immediately upon laser deactivation.

Light on… attack!  Light off… whoa, what was I doing?

mouse attacking.jpg

From Han et al.:

Generally, upon laser activation, mice readily seize, bite, and often ingest, non-edible objects, an effect that was modulated by internal state.  Laser activation also abolished natural preferences for edible over non-edible items.

When left to their own devices, mice will hunt crickets (although it’s worth noting that “Consistently, by employing the cricket-hunting paradigm, [laser activation] shortened the time needed for mice to capture and subdue their prey.  Captured crickets were immediately eaten.”), but the mind-control lasers cause them to hunt anything.

Well, almost anything.

Activation did not induce attacks on “conspecifics,” that is, their fellow mice.  But human psychology seems to allow great flexibility in distinguishing between our own kind and others.  When a mouse sees a mouse, it’ll know it’s a mouse.  But we are so tribal that when one Homo sapiens sees another, the knowledge of shared humanity is often clouded over.  Instead of recognizing a human, we might see a Syrian, or a Muslim, or an “illegal,” or a Republican, or a criminal.

A mouse won’t hunt another mouse, but we humans are great at attacking our own.

Of course, we don’t know for certain that humans would attack so single-mindedly if we activated neurons in the amygdala.  We conduct only voluntary research on humans, and it seems unlikely that many people would sign up for an experiment involving the injection of viruses into the brain (which causes the infected neurons to become light-activated), intentional lesions between various brain regions (to isolate activities like hunting and eating – a quick slice lets researchers permanently uncouple those thought patterns), and euthanasia (to dissect the brain at the experiment’s end).

mouse-801843_1920The mice used in these studies – or any other research studies, since mice aren’t even considered “animals” for the purposes of the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act – did not fare particularly well.  Far worse than the impoverished or imprisoned Homo sapiens whose “voluntary” research participation is induced by the offer of a piddling amount of cash or less mistreatment inside.

But now we know.  Inspire sufficient fear, trigger attack.  We’ll find an other – edible or not, deserving or not – and try to kill it.

People who felt afraid voted for Trump… and he has been using his social media megaphone to inflame their fears further ever since… and if we don’t calm those fears, war is coming.

Terrorism is scary.  But can we get a little more “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” around here?

On Viet Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, the grotesque in art, and guilt.

the-sympathizer-new-193x288If I were asked to pick a work of cinema that most resembles Viet Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, the recent Vietnam War novel that reads like a mash-up of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and George Orwell’s 1984, I would pick The Triplets of Belleville.  This despite the fact that The Sympathizer includes a segment about the making of an Apocalypse Now-esque film by a Coppola-esque director.  To me, the most striking feature of The Sympathizer was its depiction of life as fundamentally grotesque.

Not that I think life is gross.  But part of what makes The Triplets of Belleville so charming is the way all the characters’ physiognomies are exaggerated to convey their lives and loves.  Bicyclists’ leg muscles bulge to bursting beneath twiggy torsos.  A subservient waiter bows so abjectly that his head dips below his waist.  Americans totter forth bulbous, ponderous, perpetually facestuffing.  Bodyguards tower broadshouldered like playing cards.  Frogs fly splayed-limbed through the air, detonated by grenades.  Old television programs are as unsettlingly racist as you’d expect.  The whole film is horrifying and beautiful.

Still from Triplets. See what I mean?

And I couldn’t help thinking of that film while reading Nguyen‘s book, given the prevalence of dark human body metaphors, especially through the first third of the book.  Passages like:

We were smoking a final cigarette at the mouth of the dank, dripping alley that was the beer garden’s exit when a trio of hydrocephalic marines stumbled out of the vaginal darkness.


I woke up in the perineum of time between the very late hours of the evening and the very early hours of the morning, grotty sponge in my mouth, frightened by the severed head of a gigantic insect gaping its jaws at me until I realized it was only the wood-paneled television, its twin antennae drooping.  The national anthem blared as the Stars and Stripes waved and blended with sweeping shots of majestic purple mountains and soaring fighter jets.  When the curtain of static and snow finally fell on the screen, I dragged myself to the mossy, toothless mouth of the toilet, then to the lower rack of the bunk beds in the narrow bedroom.


Grease glazed the orange Formica tabletop, while chrysanthemum tea stood ready to be poured from a tin pot into chipped teacups the color and texture of the enamel on human teeth.

So much of the world Nguyen creates resembles our bodies, but always in unsettling ways.  To my reading, the reason seems to be that life, for soldiers even attempting to carry on with normal life in peacetime, truly is grotesque.  Horrors abound, and it must be awful knowing the misdeeds that transpired in your name, and the misdeeds that might be expected of you still.  Here is Nguyen on the pervasive evil of war:

The point of writing this is that the crapulent major was as sinful as Claude estimated.  Perhaps he had done worse than simply extort money, although if he did it did not make him above average in corruption.  It just made him average.

Indeed, this calls to mind the passage from Greene’s The Quiet American that suggests the most damning behavior in war is to act without accepting responsibility for the full human costs of each choice.  In this passage Pyle, an American ambassador, is surveying the wreckage from a bombing he helped plan, hoping that it would boost the political chances of the south Vietnamese conservatives.  The narrator, politically agnostic, isn’t shocked so much by the bombing itself as by Pyle’s attempt to squirm free of blame.

QuietAmericanPyle said, ‘It’s awful.’  He looked at the wet on his shoes and said in a sick voice, ‘What’s that?’

‘Blood,’ I said.  ‘Haven’t you seen it before?’

He said, ‘I must get them cleaned before I see the Minister.’  I don’t think he knew what he was saying.  He was seeing a real war for the first time: he had punted down into Phat Diem in a kind of schoolboy dream, and anyway in his eyes soldiers didn’t count.

I forced him, with my hand on his shoulder, to look around.  I said, ‘This is the hour when the place is always full of women and children — it’s the shopping hour.  Why choose that of all hours?’

He said weakly, ‘There was to have been a parade.’

‘And you hoped to catch a few colonels.  But the parade was canceled yesterday, Pyle.’

‘I didn’t know.’

‘Didn’t know!’  I pushed him into a patch of blood where a stretcher had lain.  ‘You ought to be better informed.’

‘I was out of town,’ he said, looking down at his shoes.  ‘They should have called it off.’

The first third of Nguyen’s novel, the section that felt like a response to The Quiet American, was great.  As befits the narrator’s status as a mole, a communist agent embedded in the South Vietnamese Army, forced to fight against his allies in order to maintain his disguise, much of the writing can be interpreted several ways.  Nguyen‘s aim seems well-described by this short dialogue between a leftist Vietnamese reporter and the narrator — this appears shortly after a small cadre of South Vietnamese military leaders take refuge in California:

So what do you think of our Congressman?

Are you going to quote me?

You’ll be an anonymous source.

He’s the best thing that could have happened to us, I said.  And that was no lie.  It was, instead, the best kind of truth, the one that meant at least two things.

viet-nguyen-small-319x400Despite the wavering ambiguity through much of this section, Nguyen occasionally drops the trickery to deliver cutting political analysis.  I’ll end this post with one more quotation from his book, a beautiful passage that helps explain the doublethink that allows Americans (as an undifferentiated aggregate perhaps best represented by our major televised news organizations) to believe in their exceptionalism and status as defenders of freedom and liberty despite imprisoning huge numbers of people without just cause, despite torture, despite having built an empire from the stolen land, labor, and resources of others with no plan for future recompense … I could go on.  But why?  You don’t need my rant.  You should read Nguyen‘s explanation instead:

They believe in a universe of divine justice where the human race is guilty of sin, but they also believe in a secular justice where human beings are presumed innocent.  You can’t have both.  You know how Americans deal with it?  They pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence.  The problem is that those who insist on their innocence believe anything they do is just.  At least we who believe in our own guilt know what dark things we can do.

On the origins of war.

24451Recently someone suggested Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Blood Rites” as a companion piece to read alongside Karen Armstrong’s “Fields of Blood” (see a recent post inspired by the latter here).  Which seemed reasonable enough; both works attempt to explain war and where it comes from.  And although I hadn’t expected to be overly fond of Armstrong’s work based on a review I’d read about it in the newspaper, I think her theories are much more reasonable.

Ehrenreich’s book had some parts I liked; her analysis of the importance of the moon through ancient time, as well as the importance of menstrual cycles, and how the two may have influenced goddess worship, was very interesting.  I just disagree with her theory of where war comes from.

Here’s a passage from the beginning of her work that explains her thesis:

In the conventional account of human origins, everything about human violence is explained as a result of our species’ long prehistoric sojourn as hunters of animals.  It is the taste for meat and the willingness to kill for it that supposedly distinguish us from other primates, making us both smart and cruel, sociable and domineering, eager for the kill and capable of sharing.  We are, in other words, a species of predators–“natural born killers” who carried the habit of fighting over into the era of herding and farming.  With the Neolithic revolution, wild ungulates were replaced as prey by the animals in other people’s herds or the grain stored in other villages’ fortresses; and the name for this new form of “hunting” was war.  In this account, the sacralization of war arises only because the old form of hunting, and probably also the sharing of meat, had somehow been construed as sacred for eons before.

No doubt much of “human nature” was indeed laid down during the 2 1/2 million years or so when Homo lived in small bands and depended on wild animals and plants for food.  But it is my contention that our peculiar and ambivalent relationship to violence is rooted in a primordial experience that we have managed, as a species, to almost entirely repress.  And this is the experience, not of hunting, but of being preyed on by animals that were initially far more skillful hunters than ourselves.  In particular, the sacralization of war is not the project of a self-confident predator, I will argue, but that of a creature which has learned only “recently,” in the last thousand or so generations, not to cower at every sound in the night.

…the idea being that human violence arose through self-defense, attempting to fight off predators, and the same emotions underlie modern conflict.  She points out the frequency of predator symbols, etc., amongst militaries.  And this allows her to introduce what I find to be a very elegant metaphor:

To put it another way: We will not find the roots of the human attraction to war by searching the human psyche for some innate flaw that condemns us to harass and kill our fellows.  In war we act as if the only enemies we have are human ones, but I am proposing that the emotions we bring to war are derived, in an evolutionary sense, from a primal battle that the entire human species might easily have lost.  We are not alone on this planet, and we were once decisively outnumbered by creatures far stronger and more vicious than ourselves.

Medicine offers a useful analogy.  In an autoimmune disease, the body’s immunological defenses turn against the body itself.  Cellular responses which evolved to combat invading microorganisms start combating, instead, the tissues of heart or muscle.  We do not understand exactly why, in all cases, the immune mechanism becomes so confused that it can no longer distinguish “self” from “other.”  But we could not even begin to comprehend these perverse ills if we had no inkling of humankind’s long struggle against an external enemy–the viruses, bacteria, and parasites that cause so many diseases–because it was out of that struggle that the immune system evolved in the first place.

Similarly with war: The weapons have changed beyond recognition over the millennia, but the basic emotional responses represent defense mechanisms which evolved in combat with a deadly, non-human “other.”

In fact, I think she could extend her metaphor even farther with some findings from modern science, specifically the “hygiene hypothesis” proposed to explain the current prevalence of autoimmune diseases.  The idea being that if you take away the microorganisms that your body has evolved to fight, even by something as simple as making your environment too clean, you increase the chance of contracting some of this diseases.  With no exogenous enemy, the body fights itself.  So it seems very elegant to think, humans evolved to fight off predators.  With no predators, our same emotional need for combat is subverted to cause us to fight amongst ourselves.

But personally, I don’t think it’s true.

Personally, I think it’s much more likely that the underlying motivators, emotional and otherwise, that fuel war are rooted in the scarcity of resources.  You have, I want, I kill.  And, yeah, I’m a cold-hearted economist, so that does bias me toward explanations like this.  But I think there are a couple pieces of evidence to consider that support this.

For instance, chimpanzees are still subject to the sort of predation that Ehrenreich thinks formed a human emotional connection to war.  So, as in the autoimmune metaphor above, they shouldn’t fight amongst themselves – they still have leopards and lions and such to battle.

But chimpanzees do fight in a manner sometimes eerily reminiscent of human warfare.  And they seem to do so in order to gain access to resource-rich territory or (relatively) scarce mating partners.  Obviously it’s sketchy to draw conclusions about ancient human behavior based on contemporary chimpanzee behavior, but I think this does show that it’s reasonable to posit intergroup intraspecies combat for resources in a species still subject to predation – with predation sometimes causing up to 40% of all deaths.

And, again, it’s easy to imagine that most territory was roughly equivalent prior to the invention of agriculture, but that does not seem to be true.  Even through ancient time, with everyone living on unimproved territory, there would have been reason to fight.

Robbers-cave-Eagle-bannerI also think that it’s important to consider human sociological research that shows the way violent conflict might begin – such as the Robbers Cave experiment (which, look… the old psychology experiments were pretty clearly unethical.  Things like this or the Stanford prison experiment.  But since they were in fact conducted, we may as well use the data, right?), or my personal favorite, an experiment to see if people would develop ingroup/outgroup conflict after being lied to about a personal characteristic – in this case schoolboys were asked to estimate a number of dots, then the researchers ignored their answers and randomly told them they were overestimators or underestimators.  Conflict between the groups ensued!  But in all these conflict experiments, there is exogenously-imposed resource scarcity.  Yes, eventually there were emotional components to the boys’ dislike of outgroups, but only after experiencing unequal division of prizes, picnic food, money, etc.

And Ehrenreich wrote that you might not expect self-sacrificing style combat for resource gain because combatants would not necessarily be genetically related to those who would benefit by their victory:

The biologically “rational” explanation for certain kinds of altruism is that it promotes the survival of one’s kin, and hence of genes that are similar to one’s own.  It could be argued that this explanation applies to situations in which men die defending their immediate clan or families (although the practice of exogamy has guaranteed that even clans and families will be of varied genetic makeup).  But it is somewhat more of a stretch from a band or tribe of loosely related individuals to the mass, genetically polyglot armies of both ancient and modern states.

…but as with the boys’ behavior in those psychology experiments, just because behavior is irrational when observed in a modern setting does not mean that it couldn’t have reasonable genetic underpinnings.  Because the modern world is so different from our environment through most of evolutionary time.  One of my favorite (outdated) books on this subject is Desmond Morris’s “The Human Zoo,” in which he analyzes some of the ways humans are ill-suited for our modern environment because it’s so dissimilar to the environment we evolved in.  Like, okay, goose imprinting?  It makes no sense to do that if you’re living in a world where you see humans first.  But that’s not the world that geese evolved in (or, well, even if it was, enough geese still knew they were geese that it’s as though the humans were just instantly devouring whatever portion were imprinted to them), so that’s how things are.  Similarly, if people evolved in a world where everyone composing their ingroup was worth helping – genetically or otherwise – then we will likely still have those compulsions, even if we now live in heterogeneous societies where you’d perhaps be better off always acting like a jerk.

Anyway, that’s why I disagree with Ehrenreich’s theory.  Even though it’s interesting, and the idea “humans fight to gain control over scarce resources, or because someone subverts the mental wiring that makes them think they need to gain control over scarce resources” is rather bland.  But to me the latter, simpler explanation seems more reasonable.  And, look, there’s still room for fun speculation, even if you extract the sacred underpinnings from war.  Because you can think about the sacred and religion in other contexts instead!  Like, okay, Marc Bekoff’s theory that the evolution of religious practice is rooted in intraspecies play, as though practices like dogs’ bowing before their wrestling bouts were proto-ceremonial in nature (EDIT: I first read about this theory in a book by Marc Bekoff, and he’s done a lot of experiments on play in dogs.  But it seems that the theory long predates him – I was just informed by the introduction to Martin Van Creveld’s “Wargames” that the theory that human culture springs from play was first proposed by Johan Huizinga in “Homo Ludens.”  So, just wanted to revise this, make sure I give credit where credit’s due, etc.).  I mean, sure, that’s not war, and it might be equally incorrect, but isn’t that also a fun thing to think about?