On turkeys

I met a turkey the other day. He walked up the steps alongside me with his dainty dinosaur claws and long stilt legs and then he wobbled along a narrow beam, going somewhere I could not follow. Halfway through, he perched himself atop the metal post, sat and looked out on the world below. He stayed there quietly for an hour, just watching the dusk set in and bring with it a sky peppered with stars.

It was pretty marvelous.

The holidays are a time of joy and merriment and gratitude, an opportunity for us to access the better parts of our nature and bond and bicker with the humans we’ve been lucky enough to be put on this planet with, as much as they may drive us insane. But there’s no reason a beautiful, sensitive, sentient creature needs to be killed (and brutally, at that) for us to be grateful for our lives and each other. I hope this can be a year in which many of us challenge tradition and choose to be thoughtful about what we’re celebrating, to feel the thread of life that connects all of us, and to choose to eat something peaceful to honor the existence we all (humans, turkeys, what have you) have the precious privilege of living.

We are all just touching the mystery of being small, fragile, and temporary. This year, let’s be radical and hold love and compassion at the center of our celebration, rather than a badly-outdated tradition.

On molting: An exercise in outgrowing our mammalian brains

In my childhood, I spent many hours watching grasshoppers undergo the arduous process of molting alongside my Uncle – one of the greatest (and little known) insect enthusiasts of our time. In practice, this has meant spending a ton of time crouched over in bushes spying on the private lives of, well, bugs. If you’re at all familiar with the process of molting, you know there’s nothing too romantic about watching. Moment to moment, the changes in an insect’s form are nearly imperceptible.

Unless you have a superhuman attentional fortitude, you’d probably lose interest within a matter of seconds. But Uncle would stay engrossed in capturing this process, for dozens of hours on end. He had a religious devotion to the well-being of these tiny creatures, and for good reason. As an insect molts, it’s left in a state of near-paralysis – vulnerable to predation, hungry, and asphyxiated. My Uncle often stood guard over hoppers he’d befriended mere moments before as they underwent their ecdysis, because he loved to be near the wondrous spirit of transformation.

On each occasion I’ve borne witness to, the anthropod eventually emerges victorious – a soft, fleshy, vulnerable creature with shiny, new features, having left his rigid exoskeleton behind. This can mean it’s grown a pair of wings, rehabilitated an injured limb, or simply grown larger. It’s a process that occurs anywhere from 5 – 60 times over the course of an insect’s lifetime.

What’s interesting to me about these insects isn’t that they undergo metamorphosis. As humans, we do too. We may not shed our exoskeleton in a single, continuous layer, but we do leave a cloud of dead skin particles and hair follicles everywhere we go. Our muscles tear and grow stronger, our bones lengthen, our scars fade, old materials leave our bodies and new ones take their place.

What captivates me about them is that their physical transformation can be bucketed into several discrete phases. To the naked eye, it appears that in only a matter of hours they have started anew – they abandon the exoskeleton that’s accompanied them faithfully for a stretch of their lives and begin again.

A cicada undergoing ecdysis, Wikipedia

There’s a romance to this that I can’t escape, especially as we enter the new year.

Although we humans don’t have physical exoskeletons, we do have mental ones. Our brains quickly form biases and associations about the world, and they saturate our belief systems. Moment to moment, we operate almost entirely on a set of heuristics we’ve adopted through generations past or as a matter of direct experience. We’re myopic. We’re tribal. We cling to what we know.

Like exoskeletons, these mental tricks allow us to move efficiently through the world and keep us safe from harm. However, they also limit our growth in important ways.

Heuristics, while efficient, are often misguided. They’re what phenomena like racism and prejudice are built upon. Myopia is critical for our survival moment-to-moment (navigating traffic) – but crippling when we try to plan for the future in almost any meaningful way (saving money). Sometimes, our nearsightedness even makes it difficult for us to consider fairly the experiences of those far from us – physically, racially, or specially. Our tribalism gives us beautiful things like pride for our country and loyalty towards our loved ones, but it also gives rise to immense cruelty (see: Holocaust). The list goes on and on.

From time to time, we too need to shed our allegorical exoskeletons to grow beyond the comforts afforded by our mammalian brains.

This year, as we’re building our resolutions of habits to build and break, we should remember to ask:

How can our values – like our behaviors – be in a state of meaningful evolution?

Our values and beliefs – and the use of our attention that underlies them – deserve careful scrutiny.

The whole of human history can be told as a story of blind spots and overcoming them. As a race, we’ve excelled at relying on our mental shortcuts to justify the exclusion of others from moral consideration. We can look to the beginnings of civilization at the treatment of slaves in Athens to the modern-day exclusion of women from positions of power. One need not look very far to see the moral errors we’ve been oblivious to, even in our time. We can Google “genocides happening today” and see – easily – how catastrophically incompetent our “default mode” can be at attributing salience to important things.

So, who or what are we ignoring that we ought to be paying attention to?

Which blind spots do we possess?

How do they protect us?

How do they limit us and our ability to serve others?

This is an admittedly demanding set of questions to answer. Answering them impartially would require us to challenge our subconscious mental processes and to see, clearly, the limits of our own programming. But I think we will find – after overcoming the initial discomforts of this exercise in extreme vulnerability – that it is a unique privilege to live in accordance with values we actively choose for ourselves, as opposed to ones we passively come to hold and that then follow us for the remainder of our lives.


Let’s whittle away a bit at these layers of abstraction. Practically speaking, our molting process can take many forms. I’ve included some tactics that have worked well for me here. Although my process is messy and I borrow inspiration from others daily, I hope these tips can serve as useful starting points for your own self-examination.

1. Begin with this fairly-comprehensive list of cognitive biases. Study them, ingest them. Use them to fuel your self-awareness. You can chart the biases you notice in yourself. For each, ask: How does this bias protect me or something I care about? And also: How does it potentially hurt me or others?

I reached several new insights and updated my behavior accordingly using this model. For example, when I first learned about the “just-world fallacy” – that is, the tendency for people to believe that the world is fundamentally just, causing them to rationalize an otherwise inexplicable injustice – I began to look at situations of injustice in a new light. There was a noticeable shift away from the attribution of guilt, shame, and blame and towards compassion and responsibility for the well-being of others.

Similarly, once I understood the diffusion of responsibility as a cognitive bias, I became hypervigilant about public situations in which individuals could be in need of assistance. Typically, we avoid getting involved in such interactions – because we experience fear of embarrassment from offering potentially unwanted help, or fear that we might make a situation worse. We rationalize our inaction by thinking “Surely, someone else has already helped” and in doing so leave the injustices as they are. Chances are: if you don’t help, no one else will.

2. Draw out your circle of concern. Ask yourself: Who do I care about? Who lies outside of my natural circle of concern? Peter Singer’s Famine, Affluence, and Morality may help you step into the frame of mind this exercise requires.

In recent years, my own moral circle has expanded to include non-human animals, insects, and most recently – people of the future. Each of these groups managed to elude my visceral sense of morality for most of my life, but once I saw them as what they were (other minds), these new inclusions have changed what I eat, what I do, and how I give. This might sound exhausting at first; many of us experience compassion fatigue for the countless ills that plague the human race alone. But as a matter of direct experience, I have found it to be one of the greatest joys of my life, to recognize other beings as deserving of our compassion and to live, as best as I can, in accordance with that belief.

In addition to expanding your circle of concern, it’s worthwhile to ask whether or not your actions are aligned with your moral circle as it stands. The continued existence of the human race is something most people can probably get behind without much persuasion, and yet it’s a comically underfunded area of academic research – as philosopher Nick Bostrom’s chart artfully captures. In trying to act more consistently with our existing circle of concern, we might spend more of our resources on trying to prevent the next global pandemic or on mediating AI risk.

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Funding for different subjects of academic research from Nick Bostrom’s “Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority”

3. Observe yourself in motion. Throughout your week, notice each time you feel a sense of “right” or “wrong” and jot them down. Where did these values come from? Why do you believe what you believe? Think about whether there’s a good reason they exist beyond just, “this is how I was taught” or “this is what I’ve always known” or “it feels wrong”. Listen closely to the things you find sacred. Bring them into question.

I often catch myself thinking something is wrong because it “doesn’t feel natural” – usually accompanied by a gut reaction that tells me to run for the hills. But, what is “natural”? Are man-made buildings any less natural than a beaver’s dam? Is cell-based meat any less natural than ice cream? Is genetically-engineering food to have more nutrition any less natural than using life-saving medications to fight disease? Should an object’s proximity to this ambiguous state we call “nature” have any bearing on whether something is good or bad? Human beings are products of nature, so in my view, nature, evolution, natural selection, whatever you want to call it – gave us all of this. In other words, everything is natural…our evaluation of whether something is good or bad should be held separate from what feels natural and what doesn’t.


We can expect our molting process to be as arduous, uncomfortable, vulnerable and paralyzing as the one our insect friends undergo. But like the shedding of an exoskeleton, each molt can open us up to the world in extraordinary ways. At the very least, I can promise it’s worth it to spend a moment of this brief existence examining the contents of our own minds and choosing for ourselves what we believe and how we will live. I don’t think any of us will reach the perfect moral destination in our lifetime, but I do think we can strive to see clearly and make our choices count in the time that we have here.

The art of lingering, and living deeply

My good friend, mathematician Greg Parker, once taught me that you can untie a double-knot the same way you do a single-knot – by pulling on the end of a single lace.

This blew my mind at the time. It turns out that just by lingering on that same motion for a few seconds longer, by following through, the formidable double-knot will come undone.

If you’re cleverer than I am, you probably figured this out a long time ago. It’s not exactly earth-shattering, but I do think it reminds us of something important: That just a little bit of lingering can enrich your life in arresting ways.

In my life, this mostly manifests as an acute attentional awareness of small, unsuspecting things that can sometimes unveil the multitudes they contain.

The other day, my boyfriend and I were taking a walk under a canopy of trees after a light rainfall, when something caught my eye. I looked down and saw hundreds of autumn leaves sparkling brazenly on the sidewalk around us. Upon closer inspection, we found delicate, crystalline patterns that had formed on the leaf’s surface. We dropped to the ground and let ourselves be taken by these tiny wonders.

As we handled them, the pools of water on the leaf’s surface moved like drops of mercury  – slower and more intentionally than one would expect of water. Each bead was heavier and more viscous than the next, and we meditated on how much weight lightness could carry. I became captivated by the imaginative distortions these droplets created of our world; in them, I found mountain ranges and snow fields, and I felt something akin to joy stir inside me.

A mountain range in a raindrop

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A natural approximation of a fractal

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Now, I see these worlds every time it rains.

By loitering when we would otherwise move briskly through the world, we unlock new dimensions previously unknown to us. Curious things await us in this precious condition of existing. We just have to slow down enough to pay attention.

 

Recommended reading

Initially posted: December 18, 2018

Last updated: April 25, 2019

On Effective Altruism

Famine, Affluence, and Morality by Peter Singer

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The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer

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Against Empathy by Paul Bloom

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On Animal Welfare

Does Vegetarianism Make a Difference? by Brian Tomasik

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

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Animal Liberation by Peter Singer

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On Mindfulness

The Dharma of the Princess Bride by Ethan Nichtern

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Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn

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Salmon dreams

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When I was young, I used to eat salmon almost every night. My father would start cooking his signature dish after he got home from work, filling the air with a delicate waltz of garlic, ginger, and green onion. In those days, I used to lock myself up in my room after school to “do homework”, but on the nights my father cooked his beloved salmon, even the reclusive teenager in me couldn’t resist being lured out of her lair. Some days, my mother would join in on the fun, and we’d have not one but two different preparations of salmon for dinner – one seared and one steamed. My sister and I would squeal with excitement, run downstairs in a flurry, and delight over the inscrutable way each bite melted away. Dad would always be flushed from the heat of the kitchen. He smelled like a hardworking garlic clove. Once dinner was ready, he would run in with effusively rosy cheeks and beads of sweat dripping from his forehead and put the dish on the table with a curt “dinner is served”. Dad was never much of a smiler, more of the stern type. But when he cooked for us and when it was well-received (which it always was), an almost indiscernible smile would play at the corners of his mouth.

Fish has a special significance for my family. My mom had some superstition about eating animals larger than humans, something about it being disrespectful – “bad luck”. That meant our household was pork and beef-free, which was often a point of tension between my parents. We were allowed to eat chicken and seafood only, and eat seafood we did. At our extended family reunions, it would not be unusual to see several whole fish on the table – with their heads and tails still attached, basking in a warm, flavorful broth. My cousins would sometimes pick at their milky eyes – sometimes to suck on them, sometimes just to see what a fish with no eyes looked like. It sounds grotesque – but it was at these dinners that I learned to associate food with familial warmth and curiosity.

Today, there is no single place that challenges me more than the live seafood section of an international supermarket.

In this place, I feel the deepest inner turmoil. As I wander through rows of overcrowded tanks, my mind at once conjures up the sweet and tender scenes from my childhood that I described to you and forces me to confront the silent horrors that hid so politely behind them.

In the live seafood section, I don’t get to hide. I see thousands upon thousands of shrimp, stacked upon each other – the ones at the bottom dying slowly of asphyxiation from having their bodies crushed under the weight of their peers. I see giant crabs crammed into a tank – some clawing viciously to try and get on top, while others seem resigned to accept whatever suffering awaits them. I remember that there are billions of non-human animals I can’t see that die, annually, in much this same way.

It’s amazing to me how easily we can forget inconvenient truths about the world and how we relate to it. I’ve been following a plant-based diet for two years now and still, I go most of my days unconcerned about the well-beings of billions of sentient creatures that lie comfortably out of sight. If one truly lived as if one believed that cruelty towards other thinking, feeling persons – human or non-human – was unethical, our lives would look very different.

Albert Einstein once said,

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us the universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

As Einstein argued, we are biologically hardwired to preference those closest to us – be it specially, geographically, or temporally. It is crucial for us to escape this “optical delusion of [our] consciousness” and extend our consideration to all of the people we can’t see, who we aren’t biologically hardwired to consider seriously – whose suffering is just as real, just as inscrutable, and just as tractable as the ones we do. That feeling of being compelled by the suffering of another that we see before us is deeply, profoundly important. But it will lead us astray if we allow it to convince us that satisfying that feeling signals the end of our moral obligation.

This is most clear to me in Chinese restaurants, where it’s not at all uncommon to dine in the presence of tanks filled to the brim with live sea creatures. In fact, many restaurants put them out in the open; they use them to boast of the freshness of their fare. We’ll kill one just for you.” they say, “You can have the freshest carcass around.” For decades I ate my meals in abattoirs like these without even batting an eye. If our visceral sense of compassion is such a reliable compass: Where was my sense of duty then?

This tells us that our cognitive dissonance does its job and does it well.

And that’s bitter praise.

All of us should strive to be honest with ourselves, even when our brains are optimized for delusion.

It’s colossally important for us to confront the realities we’re all complicit in. Because they exist whether you look at them or not. Because their suffering is real and demands our attention.


On a recent visit to the seafood section of my local supermarket, I remember seeing a Dungeness crab peering at me from inside of a large, murky tank. It was standing upright on the half-alive carcasses of hundreds of its companions – the only one standing upright, facing outward, and looking at me, its claws clasped tightly together with blue twist-ties. I watched it move clumsily over the bodies under it, and then I watched it watch me – the person on the other side.

I wondered what it was thinking. As I did, a passage from Elizabeth Costello crept its way into my brain. It was about the inner thoughts of a fictitious chimpanzee named Sultan, whose intelligence was being measured by a group of scientists.

“Sultan is alone in his pen. He is hungry: the food that used to arrive regularly has unaccountably ceased coming.

“The man who used to feed him and has now stopped feeding him stretches a wire over the pen three meters above ground level, and hangs a bunch of bananas from it. Into the pen he drags three wooden crates. Then he disappears, closing the gate behind him, though he is still somewhere in the vicinity, since one can smell him.

“Sultan knows: Now one is supposed to think. That is what the bananas up there are about. The bananas are there to make one think, to spur one to the limits of one’s thinking. But what must one think? One thinks: Why is he starving me? One thinks: What have I done? Why has he stopped liking me? One thinks: Why does he not want these crates any more? But none of these is the right thought. Even a more complicated thought—for instance: What is wrong with him, what misconception does he have of me, that leads him to believe it is easier for me to reach a banana hanging from a wire than to pick up a banana from the floor?—is wrong. The right thought to think is: How does one use the crates to reach the bananas?

“Sultan drags the crates under the bananas, piles them one on top of the other, climbs the tower he has built, and pulls down the bananas. He thinks: Now will he stop punishing me?

“The answer is: No. The next day the man hangs a fresh bunch of bananas from the wire but also fills the crates with stones so that they are too heavy to be dragged. One is not supposed to think: Why has he filled the crates with stones? One is supposed to think: How does one use the crates to get the bananas despite the fact that they are filled with stones?

“One is beginning to see how the man’s mind works.”

[…]

“At every turn Sultan is driven to think the less interesting thought. From the purity of speculation (Why do men behave like this?) he is relentlessly propelled toward lower, practical, instrumental reason (How does one use this to get that?) and thus toward acceptance of himself as primarily an organism with an appetite that needs to be satisfied.”

Though we can certainly dismiss this excerpt as an unsettling fiction, I think we’d be remiss to do that. Costello’s fictional exploration of the inner workings of a chimpanzee’s mind poses important questions about how we think about minds different than our own. It asks us to entertain the possibility that other minds may be infinitely rich in their experience and complexity, though unsuspecting in their presentation. It demands us to confront the possibility that the inner experience of a non-human animal – even one with only 100,000 neurons – can be far more sophisticated than we can examine with the limits of our science. It challenges us to extend our consideration to minds we have no basis for understanding deeply.

But, importantly, it’s not only our ability to imagine the experiences of others that matters in our moral calculus. In that moment, looking back at this crab, I remember feeling overwhelmed with my sense of duty to him above all of the others. I felt his pain. I felt his desire for freedom. And I also remembered that there are serious limits to our imagination that makes something like empathy quite an unreliable tool for deciding who deserves our compassion and who does not.

I’m a big believer that fish are sentient (and there’s a growing body of evidence and reason that supports this) and thus, have moral weight. That’s not the issue I take with empathy here. The issue is that empathy is innumerate – it begged me to save this one crab above the hundreds of others. The issue is that empathy is bigoted – it chose the one I could best relate to and dismissed the rest as if they weren’t also owed an existence free from suffering. The issue is that empathy is myopic – it activates most reliably when I am nearby the tanks, though I have just as much of a moral obligation to those geographically, specially, and temporally distant.

I wanted badly to save this crab. But instead of doing that, I went home and donated the $25 I would have used to save his life to The Good Food Institute. My company matched that donation, which meant that my $25 quickly doubled to 50. The most up-to-date calculations suggest that some of the top animal welfare charities (of which GFI ranks) can save an animal from a lifetime of suffering at the rate of $1 per life. 50 lives instead of the one life I felt like I’d come to know deeply in the moments we shared together through the filmy glass. That’s 50 lives, 50 crabs and pigs and cows and chickens I won’t ever meet. 50 lives rescued through a mechanism that doesn’t carry any of the romance we associate with doing good.

Our mammalian brains are not optimized to think this way, it’s true.

But we should try our best. We should remind ourselves why it’s important to strive to be better than we have been. We should always be undergoing the arduous process of molting – shedding our skin, challenging our beliefs, our behaviors, launching crusades against our visceral senses of morality. We should evaluate ourselves deeply, and not feign helplessness when really we can do so much to help.

Let’s strive to create a world in which all persons – regardless of color, shape, size, ability, species – have the ability to live a life without needless suffering. Let’s break down the belief that we and those like us, those closest to us, those we identify with the most, are the only ones who matter.

We have a lot of important work to do here. So, let’s get started.