The truth about conjoined twins

The comedian grabs his mike, leans forward like a preacher or a cheerleader. “Repeat after me: ‘I am unique.'”

“I am unique!”

“‘I am an individual.'”

“I AM AN INDIVIDUAL!” roars the audience.

“‘I do not repeat phrases just because someone tells me to.'”

“I DO NOT REPEAT phrases just because . . . ” (Confusion. Laughter. Shame-faced applause.)

This routine forever endeared me to Steve Martin – my second-favorite living American philosopher (right after Yogi Berra, who gets top billing because he is only inadvertently wise). Face it, our naive mythos of rugged individualism just makes us all the more susceptible to group-think. The genius of the American system is that we conspire in our own hoodwinking. We are at once the most faithful and the least God-fearing of nations: we want to believe, but not to be confined by the dictates of the conscience.

But for all that, I love our culture of extreme individualism . . .


Spurred by my attempt to conjure up a two-headed woman, a couple readers searched the online database ProQuest and came up with an article from Life magazine, July 1996: “Together Forever,” by Kenneth Miller. My father remembers an earlier article, also from Life, describing the English conjoined twins of whom I was thinking the other day. (That article appeared too long ago for Proquest to pick up.)

The Miller article, which The Sylph was kind enough to forward, is touching and thought-provoking. The “Hensen” twins are somewhat more separated: their extra-wide torso contains two hearts, two stomachs, three lungs, and two spinal cords as far as the waist. At the time of the article they were in Kindergarten, and appeared happy, healthy, had loving parents and a supportive community (a small town somewhere in the Midwest). I’d love to reproduce the entire article, but I’ll content myself with a few paragraphs.

Each controls the limbs and trunk, and feels sensations, on her own side exclusively: If you tickle the ribs on the right, only Abby giggles. Yet the girls manage–no one knows exactly how–to move as one being. The paradoxes of the twins’ lives are metaphysical as well as medical. They raise far-reaching questions about human nature: What is individuality? How sharp are the boundaries of the self? How essential is privacy to happiness? Is there such a thing as mental telepathy? Bound to each other but defiantly independent, these little girls are a living textbook on camaraderie and compromise, on dignity and flexibility, on the subtler varieties of freedom. . . .

Abby and Britty are lucky to live in such a [rural] setting, and they’re lucky to have a set of parents intrepid enough to help them navigate a difficult path. If the Hensel adults ever feel overwhelmed, they don’t show it. “I don’t think we’ve ever said, ‘Why us?'” says Mike. Instead, they seem to relish the challenges posed by their two eldest daughters. They have taught Abby and Britty to swim, to ride a bike and to explain that they came from a single egg–and are therefore special–when other kids ask questions. They buy the twins snazzy outfits, then have a seamstress modify the upper portions. “It’s important to create two separate necklines,” says Patty. “Otherwise it would make them look like they’re one person.” They encourage the girls to express their individual tastes in everything from leggings (Abby likes blue; Britty prefers pink) to hobbies (Britty is into animals; Abby loves to draw). While the Hensels are not particularly religious–“We go to church, but we don’t sit in the front pew,” says Mike–they draw on reserves of strength that can only be called spiritual. They also draw on a circle of helpers: Patty’s sister, Mike’s parents, the family doctor, the day-care provider who helped the twins learn to walk. . . .

When Abby and Britty go among strangers, the stir is not entirely the product of ignorance or insensitivity. As Freud noted, any event evoking ancient images of the supernatural makes us shiver–and gods and sorcerers have long been adept at generating doubles of themselves. Twins have symbolized good or evil in many cultures. The Yoruba worshiped them; the Algonquin killed them at birth. No wonder conjoined twins, who throw our definitions of doubleness and singleness into disarray, elicit such awe.

One uncanny phenomenon regularly associated with identical twins, conjoined or not, is paranormal communication: the man who dreams of a plane cash just as his twin’s F-14 is going down in flames; the woman who dreams of a litter of puppies the moment her twin, thousands of miles away, gives birth. Scientists have failed to find a higher incidence of telepathy between twins, but as Eileen Pearlman, a Los Angeles psychotherapist specializing in twins, puts it, “Is that because it doesn’t exist or because there isn’t a way to test it? The jury is still out.” It is certainly tempting to chalk up some of Abby and Britty’s behavior to mind-reading. Like many twins, they often speak and act in unison. Playing cards with their day-care pals, they shuffle the deck without even looking down. When Britty coughs, Abby’s hand–the right–shoots up reflexively to cover her sister’s mouth. “The other day,” says Mike “they were sitting watching TV. Abby says to Britty; ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ Britty says, ‘Yup.’ And without another word, off they went to the bedroom. They both wanted to read the same book!”

Pearlman, who says she often senses when her own twin is about to call, believes identical twins may simply know each other so well, and have sufficiently similar brain wiring, that they can anticipate each other’s actions. Dr. Carson of Johns Hopkins speculates that something else may be at work with Abby and Britty: “Given the fact that they have shared organs, it’s almost impossible for there not to be some overlapping in their autonomic nervous systems.” . . .

The Hensel girls are stars here. Today the kindergarten teacher, Connie Stahlke, is having her 11 charges cut out paper snowmen. As always, she gives the twins an option: Create two separate projects or team up. Although they often work independently and never copy each other’s answers on tests, they decide to collaborate this time. Since it is impossible to use scissors without a spare hand to hold the paper, it would take them twice as long to finish if each made her own cutout. In the end, the twins’ snowman is the most elaborate of all.

Teamwork is a concept Abby and Britty have grasped more quickly than their peers. Once, after several students got into an argument, the twins led a class discussion on how to get along. “They’ve definitely had to do that their entire lives,” says Stahlke. . . .

It can’t have been easy. Their different temperaments have been apparent since infancy. Abby has a voracious appetite; Britty finds food boring. Abby tends to be the leader (“She wants more things and is more diplomatic in getting them,” says Mike’s mother, Dorothy); Britty is more reflective and academically quicker. Sometimes they argue. Once, Britty hit Abby in the head with a rock. But they have obvious inceptives to arrive at a consensus. When they can’t agree on where to go–a rare occurrence–they literally cannot move. When one misbehaves, both are sent to their room. “They watch out for each other like you wouldn’t believe,” says their father.

To J. David Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina who has written on conjoined-twin psychology, the individualism of siblings born of a semidivided egg sheds light on the nature-nurture debate–the question of whether we are shaped mainly by heredity or environment. Unconjoined twins have identical genes (nature) and grow up only inches apart (nurture), what can explain their dissimilarities? Some scientists theorize that the position of each fetus in the womb affects development. Some suspect one twin is dominated by the right brain hemisphere, the other by the left. Smith’s answer is less mechanistic: “It isn’t just genes or the environment. People are acutely involved in creating their personalities. They make different choices, choose different directions.” The development of conjoined twins, he says, “is a compelling study in human freedom.” . . .

In the hallway, the girls are putting on their sneakers. Abby consults her sister: “I think I should make a double knot, don’t you?” Britty nods and lends a hand. [Their mother] Patty, watching from the kitchen, gives one of her enormous smiles. “If they had to be put together,” she says, “I think they were put together perfectly.”

This makes me want to weep and cheer at the same time. I left out the central episode of the story, where they go to visit the Mall of America with their parents and siblings and are treated with an amazing mixture of respect and friendly curiosity. A few people stare, then apologize. Folks are friendly and welcoming as only Midwesterners can be. Sometimes I hate this country, but then I read something like this and it makes me realize I really wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

Reassembling Simic

And now for something relatively different: an appreciation of the well-known Serbian-American surrealist poet, Charles Simic.

Over the years I’ve collected nine of Simic’s books almost without trying – the better part of his oeuvre. I have to say I like the earlier books better – they have more of the breath of authentic discovery in them. In the later ones he seems a bit tame, a parlor magician still given to occasional flashes of wizardry among all the prestidigitation. But the two most recent books of his that I have, Walking the Black Cat and Jackstraws, contain almost as many startling images as the first three.

Even at his best Simic has always been the master of the inspired couplet or stanza; individual poems are sometimes a little less than the sum of their parts. Perhaps this is an Eastern European thing, but the world his poems inhabit does appear irredeemably fragmented. The shards, however, suggest figured urns that would’ve blown Keats’ mind. Sometimes the antiquarian’s labored reconstruction is successful, and sometimes there simply isn’t enough that’s salvageable.

But as Milosz says, over-analysis of poetry is reprehensible! All this is simply by way of excusing what I am about to do here this morning: liberate a bunch of Simician fragments from their original matrices and reassemble them into a short sequence of linked verses. Pretend that it’s 2500 years in the future and we’re puzzling over the only leavings of another Sappho.

Actually, there is already something of that lost quality in Simic’s work, with its inescapable mid-20th century milieu. Men wear hats, gypsies tell fortunes, and the corpses of abstract truths still seem relatively fresh. Could anyone else get away with such rank idealism? But in the mouth of a non-native speaker like Simic a language can sometimes ring more true, freed from the worst excrescencies of literary precedent and quotidian use.

Sources: FOREST (Dismantling the Silence, 1971), HUNGER (Ibid), FOR THE VICTIMS (Ibid.), THE CURE (Charon’s Cosmology, 1977), AN EVENING WITH THE MASTER (Austerities, 1982), EARLY EVENING ALGEBRA (Unending Blues, 1986), THE FLY (Ibid ), untitled (complete poem, The World Doesn’t End, 1989), THE VARIANT (Charon’s Cosmology), CREPUSCULE WITH NELLIE (The Book of Gods and Devils, 1990), INSOMNIAC’S DEBATING SOCIETY (Jackstraws, 1999), DARK TV SCREEN (A Wedding in Hell, 1994), WINTER EVENING (Walking the Black Cat, 1996), BED MUSIC (Ibid.), THE WIND (complete poem, from Dismantling the Silence), MYSTIC LIFE (Jackstraws).

A cluster of roots
Pulling in every direction.
. . . .

Take it as medicine,
A teaspoon at a time, and remember:
You are a saint turned over on a spit,
You are a roach caught by the convicts.
. . . .

Then, at last, we’ll get a true taste of ourselves.
The ear will crawl back into the eye
Like Jonah into his whale.
. . . .

Mating season
Of the hand and the glass,
Respectful homage
Of the wine to the light,
That I talk to, that I quarrel with . . .
. . . .

A soul with a falcon’s hood
Bent over a nursery school slate
Which screeches and bleeds darkly
As it lets itself be written
. . . .

The chalk must have been given her by a child.
One kept looking for him in the crowd . . .
. . . .

He was writing the History of Optimism
In Time of Madness. It was raining.
. . . .

“Tropical luxuriance around the idea of the soul,” writes Nietzsche. I always felt that too, Friedrich! The Amazon jungle with its brightly colored birds squawking, squawking, but its depths dark and hushed. The beautiful lost girl is giving suck to a monkey. The lizards in attendance wear ecclesiastical robes and speak French to her: “La Reine des Reines,” they intone. Not the least charm of this tableau is that it can be so easily dismissed as preposterous.
. . . .

The proverbial dry blades
Sticking in the throat.
. . . .

All of a sudden, a clear sense of a memorable occasion . . .
The joy of it, the delicious melancholy . . .
This very strange man bent over the piano shaking his head, humming . . .


Then it was all over, thank you!
Chairs being stacked up on tables, their legs up.
. . . .

The cueball Buddhist
Among us
Pooh-poohing all foregoing,
It’s just our imagination.
Imagine that?
. . . .

O Cordelia, my name is Lear. My name is
Primo Levi. I sit naked between
The open window and the dark TV screen,
My hands and sex bathed in the fire of evening.
. . . .

My love’s window was on fire
With the sunset.
Her hair was red.
The pillow she carried in her arms
Was like a baby.

Quiet as a bread crumb,
I stood and watched.
. . . .

Our love was new,
But your bedsprings were old.
. . . .

Touching me, you touch
the country that has exiled you.
. . . .

It takes a tiny nibble
From time to time.

Don’t you believe it.

It sends a shiver down our spines
In response.

Like hell it does.

There’s a door you’ve never noticed before
Left ajar in your room.

Don’t kid yourself.

The narrators discuss their task

–What is my name?
–You are Melissa. I am Absynthia.
–We are two?
–No. You are one, I am one. Together we are still one. We cannot be divided.
–What do they call us, then?
–They call us the Twin. But our real name is Errata.

Two heads, two halves of the body. Two necks, two shoulders, two arms, two legs, two lungs. Four eyes, four ears, two brains, a single heart. Two tongues, two hands, two breasts, a single sex. Two mouths to feed one stomach.

–How did this happen?
–It could have been anything. We should have been anything but this.
–What could be better? It’s every wit’s first thought about two heads . . .
–But on second thought . . .
–Yes . . .
–One of us had a second body and lost it to the first. We were like Jacob and Esau, struggling in the womb.
–It might have been better for history had those two been like us.
–History? One scroll out of many. We could give birth to something else, I feel it in our bones.
–Before we rejoined we were little more than clusters of potential.
–Little Gordian knots. Little clumps of this and that, bundled with yarn, fastened with a charm, stuck in a little skin sack.
–We dwelt in possibility?
–Are dwelling there still. They could have refused us at birth . . .

On a bicycle flying through the intersections, the lights turning green at their approach. One looks right, one left. Peddling, braking, shifting gears without a thought.

–It was a last-minute decision.
–The angels were asleep at the switch.
–Or God?
–Not if we know what’s good for us. God puts an end to questioning.
–What is the end of questioning, then?
–You laugh and I’ll weep. We’ll both menstruate. That way we’ll cover all the bases.
–Before we had words, could we hear each other’s thoughts?
–The pattern was there, unrecognized. We knew, but we didn’t know that we knew.
–Nothing’s really changed then, except now
–we are one step farther from the back door
–we came in by. But
–the sun’s gonna shine. The wind’s
–gonna rise.

To him or her of adequate desire

Everyone knows the first line; here’s the whole poem. This is #466 in R.W. Franklin (The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, Harvard/Belknap Press, 1999).

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

1862 was a banner year for St. Emily. She wrote the magnificent “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” and immediately afterwards a poem whose last couple of lines deserve equal renown (#373):

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

#413 is probably too abstract and explicit to rise to the level of these others, but is valuable precisely because it lays bare one of her central themes:

Heaven is so far of the mind
That were the Mind dissolved –
The Site – of it – by Architect
Could not again be proved –

‘Tis Vast – as our Capacity –
As fair – as our idea –
To Him of adequate desire
No further ’tis, than Here –

Cross-reference: Poem # 910

Some quotes on the art of seeing

“Magnified tenfold, the complexity and detail of a single snowflake took me completely by surprise. How could something as small and ordinary as snow be so perfectly beautiful? I couldn’t stop looking. Even now, I remember the sense of possibility, of mystery that accompanied that first glimpse. For the first time, but not the last, I had the sense that there was more to the world than immediately meets the eye. I looked out at the snow falling softly on the branches and rooftops with a new understanding, that every drift was made up of a universe of starry crystals. I was dazzled by what seemed a secret knowledge of snow. The lens and the snowflake were an awakening, the beginning of seeing.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (Oregon State U.P., 2003)


“A Cheyenne elder of my acquaintance once told me that the best way to find something is not to go looking for it. This is a hard concept for a scientist. But he said to watch out of the corner of your eye, open to possibility, and what you seek will be revealed. The revelation of suddenly seeing what I was blind to only moments before is a sublime experience for me. I can revisit those moments and still feel the surge of expansion. The boundaries between my world and the world of another being get pushed back with sudden clarity, an experience both humbling and joyful.

“The sensation of sudden visual awareness is produced in part by the formation of a ‘search image’ in the brain. In a complex visual landscape, the brain initially registers all the incoming data, without critical evaluation . . . Not until [a] pattern is repeated, with feedback from the conscious mind, do we know what we are seeing. It is in this way that animals become skilled detectors of their prey, by differentiating complex visual patterns into the particular configuration that means food.”



“For most travelers the face of the tropical rain forest appears surprisingly monotonous, especially when experienced in the flat light of mid-day. . . Even the most highly trained botanists are humbled by the immense diversity of the Amazonian forests. Confronted with the unknown, they collect specimens and do their best to identify a plant to family or genus. Only later, in the comfort of the herbarium and invariably with the assistance of a colleague specializing in that particular group of plants, will they figure out the species and obtain a complete determination.

“In other words, most botanists working in the Amazon must come to peace with their ignorance. When they look at the forest, their eyes fall first on what is known and then seek what is unknown. [Richard Evans] Schultes was the opposite. He possessed what scientists call the taxonomic eye, an inherent capacity to detect variation at a glance. When he looked at the forest, his eye fell reflexively on what was novel or unusual. And since he was so familiar with the flora, he could be confident that if a plant was new to him, it was new to science. For Schultes such moments of discovery were transcendent. He was once in a small plane that took off from a dirt runway, brushed against the canopy of the forest, and very nearly crashed. A colleague who was with him recalled years later that throughout the entire episode Schultes had sat calmly by a window, oblivious to the screams of terrified passengers. It turned out that he had spotted a tree, a new species of Cecropia, and had scarcely noticed the crisis.”

Wade Davis, One River (Simon and Schuster, 1996)


“To those whose sole need is to get from here to there, superhighways are a boon. In truth, without their aid it is doubtful we could have seen, in a single season, all the varied aspects of winter across the continent. Yet they are part of a present paradox: the more the land is traversed, the less it is seen. Year by year, the jet airlines fly higher, passenger cars on superhighways go faster. One shows the land as a distant map unrolling, the other as a landscape blurring by. Both remove us from contact. I remember Wilbur Shaw, three times winner of the Indianapolis 500-mile race, once saying to me: ‘The faster you go, the farther you have to look ahead.’ I remembered John Muir, in the California mountains, protesting that nothing could be seen at the rate of forty miles a day.

Edwin Way Teale, Wandering Through Winter (Dodd Mead, 1957)


“Knowing the wildflowers, naming all the birds without a gun, these are admirable attainments. But there is always a residue of sadness when we learn the name and lose the wonder of the living thing itself.

“We become specialists and our interests shrink. . . . In all times, the appreciator has had to have his excuses ready. Different times, different excuses. A century ago, it was looking for a moral lesson. Today, it may be a hunt for ecological significance. But, in this speeding modern world, an increasing number of people are realizing that just to stop, just to enjoy nature, has its own significance.”



“Inspired by the writings of such naturalists, I began college with a biology major. But I eventually realized I had little affinity for the kind of science I encountered there, with its emphasis on quantified data, controlled experiments, technological monitoring devices, and theoretical analysis. Because I was unable to comprehend and appreciate this work, I felt incapable of understanding what really mattered about nature. But I found a refuge in anthropology, where the descriptive method had persisted like an orphan child, and where the study of Native cultures revealed traditions of natural history that seemed richer than anything accessible in Western science . . .

“Among the Koyukon people . . . elders like Sarah Stevens and Grandpa William carried their vast and insightful knowledge of the natural world with great humility. I never heard them speak of how much they knew, but of how little, and of how much there was to learn, how difficult it was to understand even the smallest mysteries around them. Anthropologists working among traditional peoples are often told they have learned very little about the culture they’ve come to study, even after their research has gone on for many years. Unfortunately, the rocks, plants, and animals are unable to give the same appraisal to those who study them, although its humbling influence might be of great benefit.”

Richard Nelson, The Island Within (Random House, 1989)

[A] rapidly evolving science recently labeled ‘biomimicry’ studies nature as a source of wisdom that can teach us everything from how to clean up industrial messes to how to create adhesives that hold their grip underwater. Harvard geneticist Dr. Richard Lewontin notes, ‘The one point I think all evolutionary biologists are agreed upon [is that] it is virtually impossible to do a better job than an organism is [already] doing in its own environment.’ . . .

“The unique lens structure of lobster eyes, for example, has inspired the design of a new type of telescope . . . Termite nests in arid regions are being studied because of an ingenious design that allows maximum circulation of air entering from the outside, keeping the nest cool. These nests could conceivably lead us to more efficient air conditioning . . . And the incredibly lightweight yet strong and efficient limbs of insects and other arthropods are helping us improve the designs of everything from industrial cranes to artificial limbs.”

Mark J. Plotkin, Medicine Quest (Viking, 2000)

“Now the umialiks [= skin boat owners] were in taboo. They moved slowly. They were grave. The village was silent. No one talked to the umialiks. No one sang or worked on equipment.

“Four days the umialiks sat. They thought about the whales they would catch. They thought, and they saw them. It was frightening and sacred.

“And now the umialiks told their families to open their caches. ‘Feed the old people, poor people and orphans!’ The umialiks were generous. Their meat stores were opened. The more they gave, the more whales would come and lend their bodies.”

Tom Lowenstein, Ancient Land, Sacred Whale: The Inuit Hunt and its Rituals (FSG, 1993)

Errata "R" Us

The alert reader of yesterday’s post may have noticed a logical inconsistency big enough to drive a freight train through. The opening scenario dealt primarily with HIV-1, yet in the second scenario, the evil dude is clearly concerned about either another, more virulent virus or perhaps a number of diseases acting in concert, analogous to the introduction of Old World diseases to the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries. O.K., so perhaps he alters his genes so that his descendents would be immune to all these diseases. But that deprives us of the neat, binary opposition of a single savior vs. anti-savior. And it isn’t at all clear to me that a retrovirus could be transmitted in any way other than through sex or the mixing of blood. The really virulent ones are lytic viruses like Ebola, for which vaccinations could probably be developed.

So the concept would need a lot of work before it could be shaped up well enough for a novel. (Probably could still form the basis of a workable movie script at this point – Hollywood producers have never let glaring inconsistencies and implausibilities get in the way of high drama and pathos!) Additional complexity would actually help in the layering of meaning, I think.

As I pondered the novelistic possibilities in the shower this morning, I realized I would want it to be narrated in the twin voice of a woman with two heads. There actually is such a young woman somewhere in Britain, I believe. Both heads are fully functional, and are treated by everyone as two separate persons. Each has her own ambitions. The way I understand it, the town conspires to keep her identity secret (along with its own identity). This was something I read in a legitimate news source, not a tabloid.

In any case, the legal, theological and romantic implications of a human being with two, fully functional heads are interesting. It would be fun to place her in a culture where twins are revered. As a narrator, she would speak ordinarily as two sisters, sometimes bickering, sometimes finishing each other’s sentences. We could have each head studying different languages, or one head performing simultaneous translations for the other, etc. During moments of heightened awareness, she/they would speak as one in a distinctly hair-raising manner, like the plural voice of God in Shoenberg’s Moses and Aaron.

Mind you, I don’t see myself writing this novel. No, I envision a co-authorship between Barbara Kingsolver and Orson Scott Card. That’s the kind of artistic partnership that could lead either to prophetic vision or to mutually assured destruction. Maybe both!

Half-assed prophecy

The Savior will be born somewhere in East Africa, most likely. He may already have been born; we have no way of knowing. In fact, chances are he will live and die unknown to the outside world – which is to say, the world of scientists, far-away governments, pharmaceutical companies and the international press. Within a wide circle of towns and villages, however, he may be fairly well known, though unrecognized as anything special. Most people will profess to hate him, but enough will love him to spread his unique and invaluable form of resistance throughout the region – and eventually around the world.

A few things we can know for certain. His sex and sexual orientation: a male heterosexual. His character: to be an effective savior, he will have to be at least moderately promiscuous. The more sex partners he has, the better it will be for the survival of humankind. So we know the type, yes? Or we think we do. Amoral and narcissistic, possibly even to the extent of being what psychologists call a psychopath or sociopath: an individual who is apparently constitutionally incapable of experiencing true empathy. Far from the anti-social ax murderers of the popular imagination, true psychopaths are much more likely to be extremely charismatic. They seem friendly and likeable – and why not? They are not burdened by the kinds of doubts and insecurities that haunt the rest of us, the 95% of people who worry about how they are perceived and actively imagine what others around them might be feeling. Many successful leaders are psychopaths: positions of power in most societies select for the very traits they possess in spades. Some psychologists speculate that power is the only real compensation for the emptiness that psychopaths say they habitually experience.

Of course, the Savior could turn out to be a relatively ordinary guy who likes having sex with a lot of different women. I am simply discussing probabilities. I should mention that there will need to be more than one of him. In fact, humanity will need a different savior for every deadly viral infection in the coming shit-storm of plagues that will likely kill between 80 and 90 percent of the human population: around 80 percent from outright infection, the remainder from circumstances related to the breakdown in social and political infrastructure. Mortality will be highest in the so-called developed world, where populations are densest and where citizens are most highly dependent on complex food, water and energy transport systems.

How does a species evolve resistance against a retrovirus like HIV-1? First, let’s recall how a retrovirus works. Basically, it tricks a cell into fusing with it, then, once inside, adds its own DNA to that of its host. Ordinary viruses employ the more direct method of conquer, pillage, destroy. Vaccines work on them because – unlike retroviruses – they don’t corrupt and disable the T cells needed for successful counterinsurgency by the host’s immune system. Vaccination – simply injecting a weakened form of the HIV-1 virus in hopes of strengthening the body’s defenses – is unlikely to work against AIDS. Retroviruses are simply too devious in their subversion of the immune system.

Some 30 million years ago, our primate ancestors survived a similar retroviral Armageddon. The details are unclear, but a record of sorts has been preserved right in our DNA. Roughly eight percent of the human genome, it seems, is of viral origin. The computer analogy is helpful: these are strands of code that have long ago been disabled by the removal of key parts that enabled their reproduction. They exist harmlessly in every cell in our bodies, including the hard drive – our germ cells. Right in the DNA of the sperm and the egg.

Actually, it is possible that these lines of code still perform some useful function, in blocking similar codes from re-infecting us. But 30 million years is a long time, and the new retroviruses are too different for this legacy to be of much use. Its presence does serve as a reminder of what the body is capable of, however.

Studies of a colony of mice in a barn in California back in the late 1980s provide clues about what may have happened, and what will need to happen again. When a team of pathologists from UC-Davis discovered the colony, it was in the throes of an especially virulent retrovirus that was being transmitted to infants as they nursed. But a small segment of the population had developed immunity, and the researchers quickly identified the genetic fix this group possessed. A single mutation in a single mouse had passed into the germ cells; the small group of survivors were its offspring.

Organisms, fortunately, are not very much like computers. We are not really “programmed” – much less “hard-wired” – by our DNA, because much of what happens in our development from one moment to the next, from fertilization onward, is guided by what the scientist can only describe as random chance. (Religious people may conceptualize it differently, of course. In fact, their conceptualizations are not only not “wrong,” but possibly highly useful in helping the mind/body fight off infections – at least from garden-variety viruses or fungal and bacterial infections. Sometimes even cancers. But probably not the most powerful retro- and lytic viruses.)

Mutations are one particularly important form of change introduced through random chance. Although the vast majority of mutations have negligible effects within a population, and some are highly disadvantageous (sickle-cell anemia, babies born with two heads), a low level of mutation is essential to the preservation of life on earth. A damaged or incomplete HIV-1 provirus (the DNA version of retroviral RNA) should eventually arise. It may arise more than once, but chances are it will arise soonest and spread most quickly in that part of the world currently most devastated by AIDS: East Africa. It will work, pathologists feel, by reproducing just the viral proteins that form receptor sites on the surfaces of host cells, without making copies of the RNA for intercellular travel and infection.

Viruses are a lot like multinational corporations: they aren’t really living organisms, but they act like they are. They are obligate parasites that possess merely a set of detailed instructions, a template for their replication. Unlike true life forms, all the energy and material necessary for their reproduction must come from elsewhere – from their unwilling hosts. Unlike a predator, they cannot be said either to love or to hate their prey. One doubts, in fact, that they possess any form of sentience whatsoever. They seem deathless, machine-like – immortal.

But just like corporations, they are fiercely competitive. Retroviruses, once established in a host cell, engineer it to make enough receptor-binding proteins to completely fill the receptors on the surface. Thus, new invaders will have nowhere to dock, no port of entry. If a mutation produces a defective copy of the retroviral DNA capable of locking out the original and all others like it, the host cells will be saved. If those cells include sperm or egg cells, the offspring of the parent organism will inherit an immunity to infection by the retrovirus. This is what happened among the mice in California and presumably among our primate ancestors as well.

Could such a mutation be manufactured in the laboratory and simply injected into AIDS patients? Perhaps. An article in the February 2004 issue of Natural History, “Fighting HIV with HIV,” by T. V. Rajan – my source for of most of this information – explores the possibility in detail. As Rajan envisions it, though, the procedure would be complex, high-risk, and hellishly expensive. Given the political and economic near-impossibility of providing the currently effective drug treatment to sufferers in the impoverished regions of the world where AIDS has the most impact, it is difficult to share the author’s enthusiasm for this treatment. And even if “present technical limitations” can be overcome, the treatment would rely on bone marrow stem cell inoculation. Only regular body cells, not germ cells, would be involved. Intentionally altering the human genome is considered beyond the pale – which is not to say, I suppose, that it couldn’t or won’t be done.

One can imagine a scenario quite different from our opening one in which “saviors” unwittingly originate successful mutant competitors with HIV-1, HIV-2 and other retroviruses soon to spread, through various means, among the grievously over-concentrated and over-consuming human population. In this alternate scenario, a fabulously rich individual – perhaps a psychopath also – himself becomes infected. He decides to break the unwritten rule and employs teams of molecular biologists and genetic engineers not merely to administer the stem-cell inoculation therapy on himself, but to insert a defective copy of the retrovirus into his own sperm cells. Much of humanity will die, he calculates, but everyone with my genetic material will survive. My genes, he thinks: mini me. The Master Race!

But he must be careful. Other powerful people, other amoral heirs to ill-gotten corporate wealth may be plotting something similar. Therefore he must also finance a world-wide network of agents to hunt down and eliminate the competition. He studies the history of past epidemics, like the Black Death of 14th-century Europe, and realizes that the retroviral Armageddon will only provide a brief breathing space, maybe a century or two. A narrow window of opportunity for his descendents to cement their control over increasingly scarce fossil fuels and other non-renewables. They will have the will to such power, of course, because they will be – many of them – just like him. But for those who might be a little soft, who might be tempted to share, he will have to create some social mechanism capable of inculcating his values and outlasting the centuries. A new religion . . .

Call it a fable, call it science fiction. I am only playing with possibilities, based on very limited knowledge. But if a hundred years of occasionally prescient futuristic stories and novels have taught us anything, it is that humans are not very good at anticipating the unforeseen. Most “realistic” scenarios are simply extrapolations from current technology, and become prescient in hindsight through a combination of blind luck – random chance – and strong insights into human nature. I’ll have to leave it up to the reader, then, to decide how well my guesses might approximate real human outcomes.

That there exist individuals sufficiently amoral for all of this we should not doubt. That neither one of my hypothesized characters would know of the other is also likely: they move, after all, in parallel worlds with little meaningful contact by virtue of the very bonds of extreme dominance and servitude that unite them. Being a mushy headed, religious-when-it-isn’t-too-demanding kind of guy, I like to imagine the Savior not in fact as a psychopath but as a good guy, deep down. Someone who actually, really likes women – a lot. And who is attractive to them not through an air of dangerous power but due to his fundamentally empathetic nature. It seems as least as likely as the alternative.

The second guy – he’s evil. He probably does sinister things, like have all his offspring marked at birth in some special, secret way that will allow them to recognize each other in later life as the Chosen. He will have an Achilles’ heel: his own arrogance will make him blind to the possibility that Nature is bigger, wiser and more powerful than all humanity put together. The priesthood he spawns won’t realize until it is way too late that their semi-mythical progenitor had competition, and that this competitor, by spreading copies of his superior resistance all over the place – for free! – has won the day.

But that’s why he, and not the evil rich guy, is the Savior. He will not, of course, benefit personally from the innovation in his genes. In fact, his body will likely be so riddled with the disease that his own life – and the lives of most if not all of his partners – will be incandescently brief. That’s why he needs to be so promiscuous in order to succeed at the unknown task that Fate has marked out for him.

As an afterthought, it seems to me that in the long run, for a social animal, selfishness and power-lust are just not advantageous traits. That’s why they’re relatively scarce in their pure form. Love, empathy, and the capacity to truly enjoy lots and lots of sex: these are advantageous traits. You can deride the bearers of such traits all you want: call them arty-fartsy, call them yellow, call them meek. But in the end it is they, and not you, who will inherit the earth.

Interview with a fungus

“The modern history of the fungi, which I date from about 400m years ago, has been a remarkable success story. The fungi occupy two vital niches in nature whose importance has never been challenged. In one niche, we are drivers of the carbon cycle, elite teams of detritivores whose mission is to digest organic matter and return the component parts to the ecological system. Without our work, life on earth would long since have ground to a halt for lack of raw materials. In another niche, we act in partnership with the roots of plants to extend their reach into the soil environment and enhance their uptake of water and nutrients. These partnerships are called mycorrhizas — myco for the fungus, rhiza for the root. Animals in turn feed on plants and benefit from this arrangement. So the fungi play two very distinct roles worldwide, and both roles are critical to maintaining the biosphere in good working order.’
‘Where does mankind come into your history?’
‘Mankind comes into our history about 20,000 years ago, at the time they discovered the uses of alcoholic fermentation. We credit the genus Saccharomyces with this development. Ancestral spores of that yeast settled in a pot of gruel prepared by a group of hominids whose existence up to that point was best described as nasty, brutish and short. This began what we call the honeymoon period in the relationship of man and fungus. Unfortunately, the honeymoon didn’t last very long.'”

Read the complete essay, “Interview with a Fungus,” by Diane Brooks Pleninger, here. This was the winner of 2003 writing contest, with the theme, “Do We Need Nature?” sponsored by Royal Dutch Shell and The Economist. A good read.

Monsters ink

I decided to post the entire essay below, under yesterday’s entry, rather than split it and put the second half here. For those who first read it yesterday afternoon, that portion has now been significantly rearranged. (There may be a few more minor corrections, but I don’t anticipate substantial changes – this is, after all, just a blog!) I apologize for the confusion.

I’m wondering if I have invented a new genre here? It’s clearly not a book review of Quammen’s Monsters of God, since I haven’t read it yet. Nor could you call it a book preview, since I have little idea of what’s in it – I was merely riffing on what I take to be a few of the major themes. A “book anticipation,” perhaps?

UPDATE: repeat of conclusion removed as a pointless exercise. I will not pander to the attention span-deprived!

Monsters of God

I’m exhausted. I spent most of last night battling, or running and hiding from, Evil.

They weren’t full-fledged nightmares – I’m a lucid enough dreamer to nip those in the bud, usually by waking myself up and going to the bathroom, as I did around midnight. But it is a tribute to the hold of monsters and demons on the imagination that I returned to the same dream when I fell back asleep.

I can’t remember many of the details now, but the monsters were basically alien invaders of indeterminate form who had the power to assume human shape. You could recognize them only when they opened their mouths, literally and figuratively: their voices were strange and machine-like, and they had many rows of monstrous teeth. (This has precedent for me not only in the movie Coneheads, but also in the 14th century classic of English mysticism The Cloud of Unknowing, where we are told that the devil is anthropomorphic in every respect except that his mouth lacks a roof. Someone checking his upper jaw for cavities would see the fires of hell roaring away inside his skull – which vision would produce instant and irreversible insanity.)

And of course my dream monsters were very hard, if not impossible, to kill. I say “of course” because everyone reading this has had similar dreams, and has doubtless seen many of the same horror and sci-fi movies I have. It’s a truism to observe that the supposed Death of God has barely touched beliefs in monsters and demons; alien abduction stories fit the mold of the time-honored, nearly universal demon-possession motif. A widespread perception of wolves and big cats as vicious killers hampers well-meaning efforts to reintroduce top carnivores, despite statistics showing that attacks by domestic dogs are far more dangerous. (In terms of annual human fatalities, the deadliest animal by far is the mosquito. When was the last time you had nightmares about a mosquito?)

The very fine natural history writer David Quammen has a new book out called Monsters of God, which has been garnering very good reviews; I’ll be anxious to see what he makes of these issues. The book is billed as a report on the status of man-eating carnivores around the world, most of which are now endangered or seriously threatened by poaching and/or habitat destruction. This raises not only ethical dilemmas but epistemological issues, it seems to me. Aside from the keystone ecological roles played by top carnivores, might they be said to play a keystone role in the human imagination?

I believe it was Bruce Chatwin, in Songlines, who proposed a direct link between human evolutionary biology and mythology (I don’t have the book in front of me). He cited ample evidence that our hominid ancestors co-evolved with large, predatory cats, which became extinct (or were driven to extinction?) a scant million years ago or so. Thus, the terror of being stalked and killed is in some measure “hard-wired” into our genetic makeup, because a healthy fear of Things That Go Bump in the Night would’ve been a highly advantageous trait. Those among our potential ancestors who entertained a less fearful or more romantic view of Wild Nature would’ve achieved a mystical oneness with powers greater than themselves somewhere in the digestive track of a saber-toothed tiger.

I maintain that the continued existence of big critters than can eat us (and gladly will, given half a chance) is essential to the health of the human spirit. Large carnivores remind of us our place in the overall scheme of things; they serve as teachers and role models for the proper use of violence; and through our continued coexistence with them we learn to master fear and hatred, which otherwise can transform us into the very monsters we most hate. Let me outline each of these arguments in turn.

Knowing our place

Man-eating tigers, crocodiles, rhinos and the like help keep us humble. By humble, I don’t mean subservient to so-called higher powers. However much the dog-like dominance hierarchies of human social arrangements may suggest otherwise, in Nature, as Heraclitus first pointed out, there is no absolute high or low, no up or down. The Great Chain of Being is in fact a food web – a perfectly Deleuzian rhizomatic structure. Rather, as the Sufi thinker Idries Shah maintained, humility is a technical requirement for the advancement of understanding. At its most basic, it grows from a healthy awareness of the relative (in)significance of the individual ego and of humanity as a whole. It’s no accident that God’s “answer” to Job out of the whirlwind (itself a symbol of fearful, greater-than-human realities) culminates in lengthy descriptions of Behemoth and Leviathan. These are the archetypal Monsters of God.

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?
Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?
Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee?
Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?
Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens? . . .
His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth . . .
The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold: the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon.
He esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood . . .
(see Job, Chapter 41)

Note the language of covenant here. The author implies that by lording it over wild animals, man is playing God without any real sense of the responsibilities this entails. In the world of the Old Testament, excessive pride is seen as sinful because it implies the assumption of undeserved powers: see the Tower of Babel; Lucifer; Nebuchadnezzer; etc.

The scholar James Kugel, in his very accessible introduction to the Old Testament The Great Poems of the Bible (Free Press, 1999), stresses the ancient Hebrews’ quite different estimation of the importance of self from our own. “A human being just is very small, and God . . . is ‘very big.’ In other words, it is not (or not simply) that biblical man cannot conceive of the world without God for some mechanistic reason – because, for example, the world could not function without God. Rather it is first and foremost that he cannot conceive of himself without God, without, that is, some notion of how he and the rest of the little creatures down here fit into the much, much larger world. [H]is own capacities . . . extend only so far, and if he is to be able to understand anything of the world beyond them, he needs to fit himself into the world, he needs a source of reference beyond himself.”

Kugel quotes Psalm 104, that great hymn to the powers of Creation:

Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth.
The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.
The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens.
(Psalm 104:20-22)

This is a far cry from the modern worldview. Even those who call themselves fundamentalists are convinced of human mastery over the cosmos – in fact, they are often in the vanguard of those who call for the commercial exploitation of wilderness and the eradication of large carnivores from what they consider to be at most a semi-wild playground for human beings. Where the authors of the Bible envisioned a non-human realm filled and ordered by an essentially playful, often violent Creator and his creatures, we see frontiers, open space, resources.

Playing god, crying wolf

“But really,” a secularist reader might argue, “however you might decry it, there’s no turning back now. Humans have simply altered the biosphere too much not to play God. In fact, it would be irresponsible now to shirk our god-like responsibility to act as planetary managers. For without wise stewardship, without planning on a massive scale, there will be social and environmental chaos.”

There’s some appeal to this argument – and little doubt that the arguments of libertarians to the contrary are regularly used to downplay or excuse the crimes of the biggest despoilers of land and water and the most oppressive exploiters of human beings. But I tend to agree with the libertarians about the risks of assuming that we could ever possess the wisdom that would be required to impose a New World Order. And I wonder if true wisdom is even compatible with the kinds of judgements that are involved in running a state or managing a trans-state entity like a global corporation or the U.N.

Let’s return briefly to the Bible – although many other ancient texts and accounts from modern ethnography might serve just as well. Again and again the reader is told that “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” This is, I’m afraid, one of those notions that keeps everyone but discipline-happy and obedience-prone fundamentalists from fully enjoying the Old Testament. Unless we cling to a narrow definition of wisdom as the internalization of a set of rules, how can fear possibly have any positive side effects? Isn’t God just a synonym for love writ large? How can divine love possibly inspire fear?

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in God in Search of Man (Jewish Publication Society, 1959), says that the word usually translated as “fear” in this context – yirah – should actually be rendered as “awe.” Heschel defines awe as “the sense of wonder or humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery.” It is, he says, an essential prerequisite to faith. The person who simply fears punishment, in this life or the next, is “considered inferior in Jewish tradition.”

“In a sense, awe is the antithesis of fear,” Heschel continues. “To feel ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation’ is to feel ‘Whom shall I fear?’ (Psalms 27:1).” I am a little skeptical that the distinction between awe and fear can be so neatly drawn. But I concur wholeheartedly with Heschel’s conclusion: “Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the universe becomes a market place for you. The loss of awe is the great block to insight. A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom . . . ”

The disastrous consequences of reductionist thinking, of turning the world into a market place, are all around us. To cite just a few of the latest outrages, planned or on-going: drilling for oil in the fragile arctic tundra, home to one of the last fully intact ecosystems in the Northern hemisphere; developing gas fields all along the Rocky Mountain Front; draining aquifers of fossil water to pump coal slurry hundreds of miles through the desert of Arizona; clearcutting old-growth forests to make particle board and disposable chopsticks. These examples are obvious and can easily be multiplied.

A more insidious consequence of the loss of awe is the unthinking, society-wide acceptance of the proposition that humans can and should manage Nature for their own benefit. Questions of scale and time-frame are usually tossed aside. Discussions of the ethics of new technologies such as cloning and genetic engineering tend to devolve into narrow considerations of human self-interest, sometimes expanded to include questions about what might happen to ‘the environment’ if, say, genetically engineered traits escape into the wild. But the operative assumptions are baseless fantasies: that human self-interest is an obvious, measurable and culturally neutral thing; and that it can be separated from the interests of non-human species and of the biosphere at large.

With all due respect to George Orwell, it seems to me that we are closer to the antiseptic horror of Brave New World than the slave-state of 1984. Technologies that will allow parents to pre-determine the sex of their offspring, and possibly many other traits as well, are already coming into use. To accept such decision making as normal and rational is to forego far more access to freedom than we would lose through simple tyranny, for in this case it is the freedom of Nature itself that is being infringed upon. The same argument may be made against genetic engineering, nuclear power, and the production of chemicals that have no analogue in nature and no precedent in evolutionary history. In each case we are trying to fit Creation into a container of our own making, and in each case we our courting doom.

In the Bible, as we have seen, Wild Nature is Creation at its most elemental. We in the West derive much of our sense of wilderness from the Bible, of course. Wilderness is not merely the mirror-image of the pastoral realm; it is also a source of refuge – even salvation. Moses leads the Hebrews through the wilderness for forty years to acclimate them to their new-found relationship with Yahweh; Jesus fasts in the desert for forty days before he fully accepts his own role. Fields must be rested every seventh year – allowed to grow wild – to regain their vigor. Every seven-times-seventh year, during the jubilee, land must be not only rested but redistributed equally among the people. That’s because land is not ultimately owned by human beings, but held in trust for them by God: that is to say, it is ultimately free.

In the Hebrew Bible, major infractions of the covenantal relationship with God lead to droughts, crop-destroying hailstorms, plagues of locusts – what we would call environmental consequences. And when God reclaims land, it returns to its original state of wild (i.e. willful, self-willed) freedom. In the wilderness the wild donkey roams free of the halter; storms and whirlwinds wreak their fury; young lions and baby eagles scream for blood. What might be seen as disastrous in the human realm is an integral part of the awesome grandeur of Creation.

What we know of ecology bears out the intuitions of the ancient Hebrews, which are shared to a great degree by indigenous peoples around the world. Our attempts to manage land and water for economic ends usually involve the radical curtailing of natural processes that appear inconvenient and highly destructive. Streams and rivers that regularly flood their banks must be channelized, diverted, contained by levees, locks and dams. Wildfires must be prevented. Trees felled by natural disturbances must be “salvaged.” Insect and disease outbreaks must be battled through every means necessary. In all these cases, attempts to place limits on the violent power of Nature involves us in the perpetration of far greater violence against the health and integrity of ecosystem processes.

Not surprisingly, the professionals charged with managing our public lands strongly resist any implication that their efforts might be counter-productive. Never mind that some ecosystems must burn; that regular floods, tornadoes, icestorms, insect outbreaks, etc. are part of natural disturbance regimes. Never mind that essential processes such as pollination, plant-fungus interactions and nutrient and water cycles are endangered by the interruption or prevention of those processes. Never mind that effective land management in many cases is oxymoronic, predicated upon knowledge that is fragmentary or non-existent. The notion that some areas should simply be left alone (after some minimal restoration efforts) is anathema to the managerial ethos. Indeed, many higher-level bureaucrats in the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management appear to agree with their counterparts in industry: that self-willed land has been “locked up.” Freedom is Slavery!

Wilderness advocates and opponents alike say that the distinction between humans and Nature is artificial, and so it is. Perhaps in another century or two we will achieve the wisdom that many American Indian tribes once possessed, and “wise use” will no longer be a grotesque caricature of true, thoughtful stewardship. But what strikes me about the whole wilderness debate is the absence of any recognition that wilderness – broadly defined – is not so much a realm where human beings are absent, but where larger-than-human realities are present.

Chief among those realities, of course, are the Wild Things that can Eat You Up. Kids love monsters, as Maurice Sendak understood: it’s somehow fun to be scared. Campfire ghost stories and monsters under the bed are inescapable facts of childhood. And well into their adulthood, many people here in the East (for example) remain convinced that cougars are still out there, in the semi-mythical back-of-beyond – and many people are actually excited by the possibility! “The truth is out there,” as agent Mulder says about extraterrestrials. And maybe it is.

Keystone predators

This is more than an idle dream (or errant nightmare). Recent biological research is bearing out the intuition that predation is an essential part of the natural scheme. It is not simply a matter of populations of prey species becoming too large in the absence of natural predators. In fact, populations of many species are controlled by predation, but less directly than the way we suppose. Studies of large herbivores have shown that the healthy fear of predation is much more important than the actual number of killings, which would be too small in aggregate to constitute much of an effect. This fear is healthy not only for individuals of the prey species, whose chance of survival is thereby maximized, but also for many other species in the same ecosystem.

If predators are removed from an ecosystem, large herbivores like deer and elk quickly lose their fear of browsing in the open year-round. (Hunting seasons enforce only a temporary reversion to more natural behavior.) They tend to congregate in larger groups, during daytime hours, and simply spend a lot more time feeding – leading to higher reproduction rates and population explosions. Biologists refer to this as a switch from time-minimizing to energy-maximizing behavior. Sensitive environments such as streambanks and natural forest openings are suddenly much more vulnerable to over-browsing. As populations expand, whole suites of plant species can disappear along with everything that depends upon them for food or habitat.

When top carnivores are reintroduced, the ripple effects can be far-reaching. Mid-sized predators are forced to alter their behavior along with herbivores, and their numbers will drop in a similar manner. Populations of many species of birds, small mammals and other prey of these mid-sized predators will rebound. At the same time, brushy, edge and herbaceous habitats will begin to recover, with positive repercussions for many more species and for the recovery of other ecosystem functions. Streamside alders – essential food for beavers – may successfully sprout after a century of severely arrested development: this has been the case in Yellowstone following the reintroduction of wolves. Beavers play a keystone role in the creation of wetland habitats. Even though they are directly preyed upon by wolves – which places a severe restriction on how far they can go from water, hence limiting the size and shape of their disturbances – beavers benefit enormously from the presence of wolves in the ecosystem.

Biologists still have a lot to learn: for example, how do different species of “top” carnivores, such as wolves, cougars and grizzlies, interact within a single landscape, and what might be the ecological ramifications of those relationships? The state of scientific knowledge is limited in part because of the success of bounty programs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in removing carnivores from much of North America. These programs had the blessing of wildlife managers of the time, who were heirs to a Christian or Manichaean worldview that saw herbivores as good and predators as useless parasites whose removal, it was thought, would lead to the natural equivalent of utopia. This experiment failed as catastrophically as contemporaneous movements to create a socialist paradise (though doubtless for different reasons).

Unfortunately, however, we need specialized training – not just awe and humility – simply to perceive the damage wrought by this failed attempt to play God. Humans are adaptable animals; a short memory can be a distinct blessing in a world filled with terrors. And who really wants to be told that the pleasingly park-like forest where we go running and the nice, open lakeshore where we go for picnics are actually radically simplified, impoverished landscapes that fewer and fewer other species can call home? Who doesn’t thrill to the grace and beauty of a doe nuzzling her fawn, and shudder to think of the fangs and claws that honed such perfection through millions of years of co-evolution?

Beware more beasts

I still remember my first true encounter with existential terror. I think I must’ve been around 14. I was lying on my back in the field, looking up at the night sky, when all of a sudden I felt chilled to the core by the thought of all that “outer space” that was not and would never be human. I suppose the best way to express it would be to say that it was an encounter with supreme indifference. I realized in the most immediate and visceral way imaginable that everything humans think they knew about the universe is most likely, simply wrong. As I continued to stare upwards, I had the sensation that I was looking up into a gaping mouth with countess burning teeth, opening wider and wider.

Was this the kind of awe that leads to faith? I don’t know. But there’s no doubt it was a profoundly humbling experience. Heshel makes the important distinction that God is not the mystery itself but the revealer of mysteries; certainly I did not for a moment feel any impulse to worship the “outer space monster” that had intruded upon my imagination. But now that I think about it, I wonder if my immediate re-visioning of a cold indifference into a kind of fire-breathing monster wasn’t, in fact, an attempt to humanize the mystery? Isn’t this what the shaman does: stamp a human face on every part of the cosmos? Endow every sublime and mysterious thing with sentience, such that even the most terrible beings display a predator’s fond regard for its prey?

Presumably, anyone given to the kinds of thoughts and impressions I habitually entertained as a teen would have been prepared for shamanic initiation in a gatherer-hunter society. But while a shaman-to-be would often allow himself (or herself) to be symbolically eaten by a future power-animal, most if not all members of such societies would seek a relationship with a spirit guardian, often personified (yes, that’s the right word!) as an animal. The near-universality and apparent great antiquity of such practices led the eco-philosopher Paul Shepard (The Others) to speculate about “how the animals made us human.” Neanderthals, as far as we know, did not paint animals on cave walls; recent thinking depicts them without symbolic language, and hence without the cultural flexibility to adapt to the violent and abrupt climatic shifts of the Paleolithic.

Genocide against these competing hominids may have been our original sin. Be that as it may, there is mounting evidence that the megafauna of the Americas, which evolved in the absence of humans, was driven to rapid extinction by the Paleolithic invaders of 14,000 B.P. It is interesting that virtually every modern hunting people investigated by ethnographers in the last 150 years evinces a deep sense of angst about the necessity of killing. A sense of human fallenness seems a near-universality.

In indigenous worldviews, the prey animals must be implored in advance and propitiated after the fact for the gift (or loan) of their bodies. Often there are mythical Owners of the game who must also be propitiated. Strict rules (“taboos”) govern every aspect of the hunt and subsequent use of the animal. No part of a carcass may be tossed idly aside or otherwise treated with disrespect. Can we really say, with the spectres of Mad Cow Disease and regular e-coli outbreaks hovering over our antiseptic supermarket shelves, that these beliefs are so much superstition?

Christians would do well to remember that they are alone among the three Peoples of the Book in lacking a ritual analogue to these most ancient codes of reverential conduct toward our non-human brethren. From my perspective, as an outsider to all three religions, it does seem as if, in rejecting the minutely detailed halakhic superstructure of the “scribes and Pharisees,” Christianity deprived itself of a great source of complexity and nuance. The radically simplified mental landscape of the religion of St. Paul proved all to easy to subvert: with the conversion of Constantine, “love thine enemy” became “in hoc signo vinces.” A kind of schizophrenia crept in. The book of Revelation swarms with fevered nightmares of beasts, paranoid visions of cosmic evil and power-fantasies about a sacrificial lamb come back to life as a super-carnivore. And the Church became more Roman than the Romans in its fanatic determination to extract confessions and punish all thought-crimes with torture and execution.

Thankfully, the worst excesses of extreme dualism were kept at arm’s length. But there’s little doubt in my mind that our on-going war against the wild has deep roots in Christian tradition, whatever its ultimate origin (the Greeks, the Persians, the ideology of the Roman empire). Rebels against God included not simply heretics but wizards and witches (eventually meaning anyone with access to unofficial knowledge or power) and all the monsters of the bestiaries. The brutish, speech-deprived wild man was the archetypal enemy of the knight-errant in the mythology that grew out of the Crusades and formed the first truly popular literature after the introduction of the printing press. As most of us know only from reading Cervantes’ brilliant send-up of the genre, such romance novels were all the rage during the decades that saw the Conquest of the New World and the beginnings of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

“Love thine enemy” may or may not be too idealistic a formulation. But common sense alone suggests that respect must be extended toward our opponents, our adversaries, toward everything with the power to harm us. The cumulative wisdom of the ages – based on reverence, which is respect taken to a higher power – teaches that whatever has the power to harm may also heal us. The figure of the monster is thus deeply ambiguous. Our natural discomfort with ambiguity leads us to try to capture and confine it in one of two mental cages: either as an all-malevolent demon, or as a cuddly stuffed animal (cf. Defenders of Wildlife’s ever-popular version of the Gray Wolf).

I greatly fear that without the continuing presence of wolves, bears, jaguars, tigers, crocodiles, sharks and the like, an irreplaceable treasure house of visions to counter human self-centeredness will be lost. Our descendents will forget that there ever was such a thing as a beast whose violence was not only not malevolent, but could even be seen as necessary and beautiful. Already our children’s impressions of Wild Nature are shaped largely by Walt Disney, even as we teach them to fear the all-too-real human monsters that actively wish them harm.* Already, we in the United States are reverting to a medieval view of righteousness beset by cosmic evil, of barbarians at the gates (when in fact the barbarians are in charge). A universal myopia threatens to leave us forever suspended between utopia and dystopia: Don Quixote’s impossible dream unable to hide the horror of the endlessly recapitulated Conquest. Genocide, ecocide: we become what we most fear. “Feed my lambs,” said the gentle voice on Rwandan public radio over and over on the morning when the state-sanctioned killing began. God help us all.
*See The illusion of safety in Creek Running North for a valuable corrective to the society-wide perception of the risk of child-snatching.