UrracaWatch: A biodefense twitter mystery

This is is an internet mystery that is now mostly defunct. I’m going to write it down here anyways in case someone can tell me what was going on, or will be able to in the future.

UPDATE, 2020-05-17: UrracaWatch briefly went back up briefly in December 2020. It is down again, but this time I was able to capture a version on The Internet Archive. Here’s a link to that archived version.

In July 2019, a few people on Professional Biodefense Twitter noted that they were getting follows or likes from some very idiosyncratic twitter accounts. (Some more screenshots are available at that link.)

The posts on these accounts had a few things in common:

  • Links to apparently random web pages related to chemical weapons, biological weapons, or health care
  • These links are routed through “UrracaWatch.com” before leading to the final link
  • No commentary

The accounts also have a few other properties:

  • Real-sounding usernames and display names
  • No other posts on the account
  • I tried reverse-image-searching a couple account-related images and didn’t see anything. James Diggans on Twitter tried doing the same for account profile photos (of people) and also didn’t find results.

The choice of websites linked were very strange. They looked like someone searched for various chem/bioweapon/health-related words, then chose random websites from the first page or two of search results. Definition pages, scholarly articles, products (but all from very different websites.)

Tweets from one of the UrracaWatch Twitter accounts.
Tweets from one of the UrracaWatch Twitter accounts.

Some example UrracaWatch bot account handles: DeterNoBoom, fumeFume31, ChemOrRiley, ChristoBerk, BioWeaP0n, ScienceGina, chempower2112, ChemistWannabe. All of these looked exactly like the Mark Davis @ChemPower2112. (Sidenote: I really wish I had archived these more properly. If you find an internet mystery you might want to investigate later, save all the pages right away. You’re just going to have to take me on faith. Alternatively, if you have more screenshots of any of these websites or accounts, please send them to me.)

if this actually is weird psy-op propaganda, I think “Holly England @VaxyourKid” represents a rare example of pro-vaccination English propaganda, as opposed to the more common anti-vaccination propaganda. Also, not to side with the weird maybe-psy-op, but vaccinate your kids.

And here are some facts about the (now-defunct) website UrracaWatch:

  • The website had a very simple format – a list of links (the same kinds of bio/chem/health links that end up on the twitter pages), and a text bar at the top for entering new links.
  • (I tried using it to submit a link and didn’t see an immediate new entry on the page.)
  • There were no advertisements, information on the creators, other pages, etc.
  • According to the page source code and the tracker- and cross-request-detecting Firefox app Ghostery, there were no trackers, counters, advertisers, or any other complexity on the site.
  • According to the ICANN registry, the domain UrracaWatch.com was registered 9-17-2018 via GoDaddy. The domain has now expired as of 9-17-2019, probably as part of a 12-month domain purchase.
  • Urraca is a spanish word for magpie, which was a messenger of death in the view of the Anasazi people. (The messenger of death part probably isn’t relevant here, but they mention the word as part of a real-life spooky historical site in The Black Tapes Podcast, and this added an unavoidable sinister flavor.) (Urraca is also a woman’s name.)

(I don’t have a screenshot of the website. A March 2019 Internet Archive snapshot is blank, but I’m not sure if that’s an error or was an accurate reflection at the time.)

As far as I can tell, nobody aside from these twitterbots have ever linked to or used UrracaWatch.com for anything at all, anywhere on the web.

By and large, the twitterbots – and I think they must be bots – have been banned. The website is down.

But come on, what on earth was UrracaWatch?

Some possibilities:

  • Advertisement scheme
  • Test of some kind of Twitter-scraping link- or ad-bot that happened to focus on the biodefense community on twitter for some reason
  • Weird psy-op

I’m dubious of the advertisement angle. I’ve been enjoying a lot of the podcast Reply All lately, especially their episodes on weird scams. There’s an interesting point made in my favorite episode (The Case of the Phantom Caller) in dissecting a weird communication, which I asked myself here – I just can’t see how anyone is making money off of this. Again, there were occasional product links, but they were to all different websites that looked like legitimate stores, and I don’t think I ever saw multiple links to the same store.

That leaves “bot test” and “weird psy-op”, or something I haven’t thought of yet. If it was propaganda, it wasn’t very good. If you have a guess about what was going on, let me know.

The Germy Paradox – Filters: A taboo

This is the fifth post in a sequence of blog posts on state biological weapons programs. (“A taboo” was originally going to be the second-to-last post, but has been switched with “The shadow of nuclear weapons”. The index has been rearranged in past posts accordingly.) Others will be linked here as they come out:

1.0 Introduction
2.1 The empty sky: A history of state biological weapons programs
2.2 The empty sky: How close did we get to BW usage?
3.1 Filters: Hard and soft skills
3.2 Filters: A taboo
3.3 Filters: The shadow of nuclear weapons
4.0 Conclusion: Open questions and the future of state BW   

In 3.1: Hard and soft skills, we discussed the possibility that the Germy Paradox exists because bioweapons aren’t actually easy to make. Today, we go into the past and discuss another possibility – that whether or not they’re effective, there’s some kind of taboo or cultural reason they aren’t used.

This is not a new idea, although there’s no real consensus. I separate scholarly explanations for the Taboo Filter into two schools: the humaneness hypothesis and the treachery hypothesis. In the humaneness hypothesis, people reject BW because they are unnecessarily cruel. The treachery hypothesis asserts that the taboo is an outgrowth of the ancient beliefs about poison and disease in warfare – that they are secretive, unfair, inexplicable, and fundamentally evil. This hypothesis has many facets and intermingles with evolutionary revulsion to poison and contamination.  

But first, how do weapons taboos break?

The reason this filter explanation is particularly interesting is that taboos exist at the whim of the culture, and don’t have particular concrete reasons for existence. If we are protected by a taboo against BW usage, how resilient is that protection?

Trying to assess the strength of a taboo is difficult. We cannot reliably predict the future or the vicissitudes of future policy decisions, particularly when it comes to rare events like BW development or usage.

This is especially true when we are not even certain of the origin of the taboo. But we can perhaps compare it to another event: the chemical weapons taboo. Chemical and biological weapons are, while not terribly similar, often treated similarly in policy (Smith 2014), and are often seen lumped under the categories of “biochemical weapons”, “CBW” (Chemical and Biological Weapons), “CBRN” (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons), or “WMD” (weapons of mass destruction), so it is appropriate to compare policy decisions. 

Chemical weapons have been used much more frequently than BW, and hence, the taboo has been broken on multiple occasions. The Hague Convention was broken by the use of poison gas in WW1; and the Geneva Protocol was broken by chemical and biological weapons use by, among others, Japan, Iraq, and Syria. (Jefferson 2014) Weapon usage is subject to “popularity”, and the up to 161 usages of chemical weapons in Syria have probably built upon each other and reduced psychological and political barriers to future attacks.(Revill 2017) This taboo may already be on unsteady ground. 

More directly, the USSR created the largest biological weapons program of all time after signing the Biological Weapons Convention treaty, and Iraq operated an enormous program secretly until 1991. (Wheelis and Rózsa, 2009) In addition to a handful of bioterror efforts in modern times, several states are currently suspected of having biological weapons programs. (A list and sources can be found in Aftergood, 2000.) The BW taboo, as well, may not be as resilient as it appears. That said, it seems likely that an outright declaration or usage of biological weapons by a state would both provoke a stronger response, and erode the taboo severely. The likelihood of this last possibility is what seems most concerning. However, to understand it, we must understand what factors are behind the apparent taboo today. 


The first school of thought I consider holds that a taboo exists because biological and chemical weapons are seen as unacceptably inhumane compared to conventional weapons. This seems to have been the motivation of one of the earliest modern explicit taboos against chemical and biological weapons usage, the 1863 Lieber Code (Jefferson 2014). This set of guidelines for humane warfare in the US Army included the following: 

Article 16: “Military necessity does not admit of cruelty – that is, the infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering or for revenge, nor of maiming or wounding except in fight, nor of torture to extort confessions. It does not admit of the use of poison in any way, nor of the wanton devastation of a district. It admits of deception, but disclaims acts of perfidy; and, in general, military necessity does not include any act of hostility which makes the return to peace unnecessarily difficult.”

Article 70: “The use of poison in any manner, be it to poison wells, or food, or arms, is wholly excluded from modern warfare. He that uses it puts himself out of the pale of the law and usages of war.”

Leiber, 1863

This code influenced other guidelines for warfare, leading to the forbidding of use of chemical and bacteriological weapons in the Hague Conventions and later the Geneva Protocol. 

As a principle, the humaneness taboo relies implicitly on at least one of two assumptions – first, that death or injury from BW is worse than the same from conventional weapons. Second, that BW are more likely to be used against civilian populations, or otherwise inflicting harm on people who would not be affected by conventional weapons. It is easy to imagine that the days-long struggle of a lethal case of smallpox is less humane than an instantaneous death from a bomb, or that biological weapons are frequently targeted at civilians. But these assumptions should be assessed. 

There is some evidence that soldiers affected by chemical weapons during World War 1 had higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (Jefferson 2014), and diseases are obviously capable of causing protracted suffering. Still, objections have been raised to the notion that biological weapons harm targets more than conventional weapons. Early US responses to the Lieber Code, quoted above, point out that effects from “poison” weapons are not necessarily worse than sinking ships and causing enemy soldiers to drown. (Zander 2003) BW may even be better – many pathogens give infected enemies “a fighting chance” to recover completely, rather than a kinetic attack that maims or kills outright. (Rappert 2003) A minority objection is that since war-makers are motivated to end wars quickly, it may be inhumane to ban any kind of battlefield weapon, on the grounds that removing a country’s best strategy will cause the war to go on longer, and thus extend the suffering that goes along with it. (Rappert 2003) These utilitarian frameworks are important to consider, although when understanding the route of norms, it is important to note that the actual tradeoffs involved are less important than the perception of what the tradeoffs are. Either way, it seems as though neither academia nor military decision-makers have considered these points in detail when making choices about BW, suggesting that this kind of reasoned analysis is not being done anywhere. 

The second assumption that the humaneness hypothesis may rely upon is that biological weapons are more likely than conventional to be used on civilians. There is some evidence for this, in that Japanese BW were extensively used against civilians (Barenblatt 2004) and targets of later BW programs during the Cold War included cities and agriculture. (Wheelis and Rózsa 2009) But the far larger and more influential nuclear war plans during the Cold War included the destruction of cities and billions of civilian lives (Ellsberg 2017), even after both Soviet and American governments agreed to give up their BW programs. Sparing civilian lives in worst-case scenarios cannot have been a military priority. 

If the humaneness hypothesis is true, we should expect states to be more comfortable with facing and wielding nonlethal BW. For chemical weapons and perhaps biological weapons as well, this seems to be true. (Pearson 2006, Martin 2016) The American, Soviet, and Japanese BW programs had vast programs to develop agricultural weapons, damaging crops or livestock without affecting humans. (Wheelis and Rózsa 2009) Nonlethal anti-personnel weapons were major component of the American BW program (Alastair 1999) as well as an end goal of the South African BW program. (Wheelis and Rózsa 2009) As far as chemical weapons go, the nonlethality of defoliants is considered to have been a major reason those weapons in particular were used by Kennedy during the Vietnam War (Martin 2016) (although other explanations have been proposed as well, as described later in this piece). It is less clear that revelations of a nonlethal BW program today would provoke less fear than revelations of a lethal program – recent literature has not discussed this question. 

Disconcertingly, Susan Pearson suggests that the promise of incapacitating nonlethal BW may inspire development of other BW tactics. (Pearson 2006) While nonlethal weapons were an eventual goal of the South African weapons program (Wheelis and Rózsa 2009), they planned on developing anthrax weapons first, so there is precedent for this claim. Any erosion of this norm may open the door for more overall use of BW, humane or not. (Ilchmann and Revill 2014)

Powerful and invisible: The treachery hypothesis

A separate body of thought holds that biological warfare exists in the public mind in a category that can be described as “treacherous”. This is related to what Jessica Stern calls the “dreaded” nature of BW: it is invisible, unfamiliar, and triggers a disproportionately degree of disgust and fear. (Stern 2003) In explaining this nature, proponents generally refer to the history of revulsion to poison and disease. This would have begun in the evolution of the species, creating an intuitive revulsion of sickness and contamination that kept our ancestors alive. (Cole, 1998)

 This trend can be observed in a huge variety of cultures: in Hindu laws of war from 600 AD (Cole 1998), to poison’s association in Christianity with the devil and witchcraft (van Courtland Moon 2008), to South American tribes that allowed warriors to poison their arrows when hunting but not for war. (Cole 1998) Poison and disease are often seen as acceptable tools against subhumans, but not against equals. (Zanders 2003)

It’s important not to overstate it – the taboo is not a human universal. Both the Bible and the Quran contain provisions on how to wage war, but do not forbid poison, disease, or the like as weapons. (Zanders 2003) In Europe, despite official prohibitions beginning in the Renaissance era, their use was defended until 1737. (Price 1995) Nonetheless, the taboo is still notably common in human culture. It is hard to imagine early taboos existing for humanitarian reasons, when conventional warfare before guns and modern medical treatment was so disabling. Instead, it may be because toxic weapons were seen as unbalanced – hard to detect, difficult to explain, and near-impossible to treat. 

Proponents of this view rarely address an apparent contradiction this presents – that poison weapons are taboo because they are too powerful. This seems, on its face, absurd. Richard Price addresses this and suggests that despite the conception of poison as a “woman’s weapon” and a treacherous “equalizer” between forces, it is not actually very effective as a weapon. (Price 1995) Similarly, in modern settings, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley makes a compelling case that the threat of biological weapons programs has been overstated and underwhelming compared to their actual accomplishments. (Ben Ouagrham-Gormley 2014)

Additionally, the persistence of these taboos throughout the modern age has not been fully explained. In the treachery lens, poison and disease are thought of as “the unknown” and often associated with magic. (Price 1995) Today, we understand much more about biology. Does this imply that the taboo is weaker now than it has been? If not, why has the taboo on biological weapons remained constant throughout recent history, but not, for instance, one against bullets, fire, and explosions? This theory does seem generally robust, and the comparisons to historical taboos are compelling indeed, but existing research does not explain why the taboo persists and is so specific to biology.

Taboos into the future

What kills a taboo? Susan Martin discusses the idea in the context of US chemical weapons usage in Vietnam. In this case, Martin argues, politicians were able to override one norm by asserting another – that usage of defoliant chemical weapons was acceptable because the viable alternative was use of nuclear weapons, also taboo. (Martin 2016) Kai Ilchman and James Revill assert that this is part of a string of incidents that have been eroding the biological and chemical weapons taboos over time. (Ilchman and Revill 2014) In addition, many believe that the Biological Weapons Convention is nearly or entirely useless, since it contains no provisions for verification and since it allows for “defensive research” that is practically indistinguishable from offensive research. (Zanders 2003, McCauley and Payne 2010, Koblentz 2016)

The two hypotheses presented here are not the only ones. Further research or thinking in this area might identify more solidly the source of the taboo, and otherwise help determine how it can be strengthened.

The upcoming section will discuss the idea that there is no taboo, or at least no functional taboo any more. If this is the case, then the lack of observed weapons programs or usage is a purely strategic decision.


Aftergood, Steven. “States Possessing, Pursuing or Capable of Acquiring Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Federation Of American Scientists, July 29, 2000. https://fas.org.

Barenblatt, Daniel. A plague upon humanity: The secret genocide of axis Japan’s germ warfare operation. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Sonia Ben. Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development. Cornell University Press, 2014.

Cole, Leonard A. “The Poison Weapons Taboo: Biology, Culture, and Policy.” Politics and the Life Sciences 17 (September 1, 1998): 119–32. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0730938400012119.

Courtland Moon, John Ellis van. “The Development of the Norm against the Use of Poison: What Literature Tells Us.” Politics and the Life Sciences 27, no. 1 (2008): 55–77.

Ellsberg, Daniel. The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2017.

Hay, Alastair. “Simulants, stimulants and diseases: the evolution of the United States biological warfare programme, 1945–60.” Medicine, Conflict and Survival 15, no. 3 (1999): 198-214.

Ilchmann, Kai, and James Revill. “Chemical and Biological Weapons in the ‘New Wars.’” Science and Engineering Ethics 20, no. 3 (September 1, 2014): 753–67. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-013-9479-7.

Jefferson, Catherine. “Origins of the Norm against Chemical Weapons.” International Affairs 90, no. 3 (May 1, 2014): 647–61. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2346.12131.

Koblentz, Gregory D. “Quandaries in contemporary biodefense research.” In Biological Threats in the 21st Century: The Politics, People, Science and Historical Roots, pp. 303-328. 2016.

Martin, Susan B. “Norms, Military Utility, and the Use/Non-use of Weapons: The Case of Anti-plant and Irritant Agents in the Vietnam War.” Journal of Strategic Studies 39, no. 3 (2016): 321-364.

McCauley, Phillip M., and Rodger A. Payne. “The Illogic of the Biological Weapons Taboo.” Strategic Studies Quarterly 4, no. 1 (2010): 6-35.

Lieber, Francis. “INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE GOVERNMENT OF ARMIES OF THE UNITED STATES IN THE FIELD, ‘The Lieber Code.’” Government Printing Office, April 24, 1863. Lillian Goldman Law Library, The Avalon Project.

Pearson, Alan. “Incapacitating biochemical weapons: Science, technology, and policy for the 21st century.” Nonproliferation Review 13, no. 2 (2006): 151-188.

Price, Richard. “A Genealogy of the Chemical Weapons Taboo.” International Organization 49, no. 1 (1995): 73–103.

Rappert, Brian. “Coding ethical behaviour: The challenges of biological weapons.” Science and engineering ethics 9, no. 4 (2003): 453-470.

Revill, James. “Past as Prologue? The Risk of Adoption of Chemical and Biological Weapons by Non-State Actors in the EU.” European Journal of Risk Regulation 8, no. 4 (December 2017): 626–42. https://doi.org/10.1017/err.2017.35.

Smith, Frank. American biodefense: How dangerous ideas about biological weapons shape national security. Cornell University Press, 2014.

Stern, Jessica. “Dreaded risks and the control of biological weapons.” International Security 27, no. 3 (2003): 89-123.

Wheelis, Mark, and Lajos Rózsa. Deadly cultures: biological weapons since 1945. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Zanders, Jean Pascal. “International Norms Against Chemical and Biological Warfare: An Ambiguous Legacy.” Journal of Conflict and Security Law 8, no. 2 (October 1, 2003): 391–410. https://doi.org/10.1093/jcsl/8.2.391.

The Germy Paradox – Filters: Hard and soft skills

This is the fourth post in a sequence of blog posts on state biological weapons programs. Others will be linked here as they come out:

1.0 Introduction
2.1 The empty sky: A history of state biological weapons programs
2.2 The empty sky: How close did we get to BW usage?
3.1 Filters: Hard and soft skills
3.2 Filters: A taboo
3.3 Filters: The shadow of nuclear weapons
4.0 Conclusion: Open questions and the future of state BW 

Welcome to the second half of our series. (This is post 3.1.) I’ve established that despite extensive historical weapons programs, biological weapons haven’t really been used in a major way since WWII. We don’t ever seem to have been a “close call” away from biological warfare. Why not?

I don’t have a complete answer. I have some pieces of the answer, though. The first piece, and one very good answer, is that BW are not as cheap and deadly as commonly thought, and that substantial resources and expertise are needed to successfully create biological weapons. This argument is well-made by Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley in her book Barriers to Bioweapons – a combination between hard technical skills and soft skills like poor management. I’ve written a summary of the book on this blog before.

That post will act as Part 1 of this section.


Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Sonia. Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development. Cornell University Press, 2014.

The Germy Paradox – The empty sky: How close did we get to BW usage?

This is the third post in a sequence of blog posts on state biological weapons programs. Others will be linked here as they come out:

1.0 Introduction
2.1 The empty sky: A history of state biological weapons programs
2.2 The empty sky: How close did we get to BW usage?
3.1 Filters: Hard and soft skills
3.2 Filters: A taboo
3.3 Filters: The shadow of nuclear weapons
4.0 Conclusion: Open questions and the future of state BW 

 I’ve heard a lot about “nuclear close calls.” Stanislav Petrov was, at one point, one human and one uncomfortable decision away from initiating an all-out nuclear exchange between the US and the USSR. Then that happened several dozen more times. As described in Part 1, there were quite a few large state biological weapons programs after WWII. Was a similar situation unfolding there, behind the scenes like the nuclear near-misses? Were any biological apocalypses-that-weren’t quietly hidden in the pages of history? What were the actual usage plans for biological weapons, and how close did any of them come to deployment?  

First, to note that there are a few examples of state uses of BW in modernity – the most major being the Japanese BW program’s use of lethal weapons against Chinese civilians in the 1940’s. More recently, the Rhodesian BW program used weapons against their own citizens on small scales in the 1970’s, and South Africa program operatives attempted to sicken a refugee camp’s water supplies with cholera in 1989 (but failed). There are also a few ambiguous incidents, and the possibility of unnoticed usage. These incidents and possibilities are concerning, but are rare and on small scales. 

The claim I assert is that since the 1940’s, there have been no instances of the sort of large-scale usage of BW in international warfare, like that which the imagination conjures upon hearing the phrase “biological weapons.” My research suggests, more tentatively, that not only were there no such uses, but there were no close calls – that even in major state programs that created and stockpiled weapons in quantity, these weapons were virtually never included into war plans, prepared for usage or, especially, used. The strategies they were intended for were were generally vague and retaliatory to offensive uses of biological or nuclear weapons.  This has another bonus: understanding what biological weapons were ever made in mass quantity, or were ever seen to have particular strategic value.

Ways of classifying BW

Note two failure modes which are common in existing literature which tries to extrapolate from past bioweapons plans: first, an overly narrow reference class limited to weapons that were actually used in combat, of which there are very few; second, an overly broad class composed of every pathogen or plan that programs ever experimented with. The latter would include many plans that were impractical or undesirable and eventually abandoned. No literature thus far has focused on this middle ground between these extremes, or analyzed the strategic goals of such usages in depth. 

Addressing BW under a framework of planned usage is rare. Categorizations of weapon usage are also uncommon. Most commonly found is the sorting of BW strategies into the theater of war – strategic, tactical, and operational uses (Koblentz 2009, Leitenberg et al 2012). This categorization system is broadly applicable and not agent-based, and thus may apply to future weapons with novel agents as well as to past programs. On the other hand, three abstract categories are not enough to be predictive, and many usages could plausibly be described as affecting multiple theaters. Any new categorization system should factor in historical strategies and motivations as a reference class to understand possible future uses.

No concrete intentions

To illustrate why considering usage plans is valuable, note that many sophisticated BW programs did not in fact make war plans that incorporated their weapons. In many cases, this is because early conceptual research was time-consuming and unsuccessful, and the results were considered inferior to conventional or nuclear weapons. UK, South African, Canadian, and French programs never resulted in mass-production of a finalized weapon, much less strategies for such a weapon’s use (Balmer 1997, Wheelis et al 2006). The South African and UK programs both explored unusual intended uses (assassinations and fertility control (Purkitt and Burgess 2002), and area-denial, respectively (Wheelis et al 2006), but no weapons were created which would fulfill them. Even the USSR program, which weaponized more agents than any other BW program in history (Leienberg et al 2012), failed to make concrete war plans involving BW (Wheelis et al 2006). The broader intents of these programs are still interesting, but clearly the relative importance of various programs changes when considering concrete war plans. 

“No first use” of BW

Many state biological weapons programs post-WWII, and their strategies for weapons usage, were heavily intertwined with nuclear policy. The UK BW program, since 1946, was guided by a principle of “no first use” that echoes that of their nuclear program – that they would not use biological weapons unless the UK was first attacked with biological or nuclear weapons (Balmer 1997). This was also the original stated purpose of the US program, although the “no first use” doctrine was officially rescinded in 1956 (Wheelis et al 2006). Information revealed after the Iraq BW program survey group investigation in 2004 revealed Saddam Hussein’s intent in 1991 to use BW to retaliate against “unconventional” weapon attacks by the US (“Iraq Survey Group” 2004). The USSR was likely also interested in using weapons after a nuclear exchange with the US (Leitenberg et al 2012). In this way, BW join with nuclear weapons as a facet of mutually-assured destruction dynamics. 

BW have long been considered “the poor man’s nuclear weapon”. Numerous studies and documents have suggested that biological weapons are cheaper per death-caused than nuclear weapons (Koblentz 2004), are relatively simple to construct, and could be developed by less-wealthy states to give them the MAD protection or bargaining capability of a full-fledged nuclear power. This idea has been criticized in several ways – for instance, by Gregory Koblentz, who points out that biological attacks are not reliable in the same way that nuclear attacks are and thus do not fulfil the major goals of deterrence (Koblentz 2009), and by Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, who observes that biological weapons are in fact significantly more difficult to produce than commonly believed (Ben Ouagrham-Gormley 2014).

Nonetheless, the perception that biological weapons are an alternative to nuclear weapons is widespread, including by powerful figures like Hillary Clinton (Reuters 2011) and Bill Gates (Farmer 2017). In light of this, it is interesting to observe that all three programs for which “no first use” was a primary strategic goal – the UK, US, and Iraq programs – were also nuclear powers or pursuing nuclear weapons.  The UK and US BW programs were indeed later abandoned in favor of developing and relying on on nuclear weapons programs for defense and deterrence (Balmer 1997).

Non-lethal weapons

The popular image of BW as lethal antipersonnel weapons does not describe the whole of BW development, but certainly describes large swathes of it. The USSR, US, and Iraq programs all mass-produced lethal weapons; for example, anthrax-filled munitions. Of these, it seems that the Iraq program was the only one that actually deployed such weapons. Saddam Hussein was particularly interested in anthrax, not just for its virulence, but for its ability to remain active in soil and potentially cause death over many years.

Despite the prominence of the above, both in actuality and in the public eye, a great deal of effort focused on biological weapons has been focused on non-lethal weapons. These may be incapacitating antipersonnel weapons, or weapons with non-human targets such as plants or animals to attack the enemy’s agricultural system. Desiderata between lethal and non-lethal biological weapons has not been well-explored by the literature. It has been suggested that caring for incapacitated soldiers, particularly those who are sick over a long period of time, can be more burdensome on an enemy than in simply burying and replacing killed soldiers (Pappas et al, 2006). While strongly dependent on the pathogen and expected death rates, this is a practical reason these weapons may be preferred. Inflicting nonlethal or economic damage is also seen as more humane than lethal damage, and perhaps more politically acceptable. Political acceptability was, for instance, part of the internal US motivation for using anti-plant chemical weapons rather than human-targeted weapons in the Vietnam War (Pearson 2006). However, humanitarian or political motivations for developing biological weapons have not been described or well-documented in research.

Some of the first modern BW production was for weapons aimed at cattle: before WWII, the US and UK collaborated on producing anthrax-infected cow cakes, meant to be scattered over German fields to damage agriculture. Later, the US program explored agricultural weapons until 1958 (Hay 1999), and two of the twelve weapons finalized by the US program were agricultural – rice blast and wheat stem rust (Wheelis et al 2006). The USSR did not stockpile anti-agriculture weapons, but a variety of them were developed by a sub-program of the BW apparatus code-named Ecology (Koblentz 2009), and production was designed to scale quickly if needed (Alibek 1999). These would not be used in conditions of total war with the US, but in smaller wars with smaller nations (Alibek 1999).            

Both the US and the USSR also invested in incapacitating weapons for use against humans. The USSR weaponized the rarely-lethal Brucella sp. and Burkholderia mallei, as well as Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus (VEEV), which causes flu-like symptoms. The US also invested heavily in incapacitating weapons. Four out of ten standardized antipersonnel weapons produced by the US BW program were not intended to be lethal: Brucella suis, Coxiella burnetti and VEEV, as well as the staphylococcus-derived Enterotoxin B (Wheelis 2006). In what may have been the closest call of major use of a BW since WWII, airplanes were loaded with VEEV-containing weapons during the Cuban missile crisis (Guillemin 2004). This was unauthorized, but nonetheless seems to have come very close to real battlefield usage.           

Here’s a summary of my findings by program:

CountryProgram active periodUsageStrategic goal for weaponsDegree of progress in creation
USSR1925-1990Never usedSomewhat unclear, as second-strike capability (to ensure complete destruction), as a first-strike weapon against small countriesMultiple biological weapons created and stockpiled
UK1942-1956Never usedAs second-strike capabilityNo weapons ever developed to completion
USA1942-1970Never used, nonlethal weapon loaded onto plane in one instanceUnclear, complement to conventional weaponsMultiple biological weapons created and stockpiled
Canada1940’sNever usedUnclearNo weapons ever developed to completion
French1940’sNever usedUnclear No weapons ever developed to completion
Japan1940’sUsed weapons in international warfare.Death, area denial, regular weapon of warMultiple biological weapons created, stockpiled, and used
Israel1948 – ???Probably never usedUnclear, perhaps as deterrenceUnclear
Rhodesia1975-1979Used weapons against dissidents inside the country.As internal tool.Crude weapons created and used (e.g. placing cholera in food and water supplies.)
Iraq1980s-1996Never usedAs deterrence, second-strikeMultiple biological weapons created and stockpiled
South Africa1983-1988One instance of attempted use (failed)Assassination, fertility control, control, possibly as regular weapon of warNo weapons ever developed to completion

[Bold country name = BW used. Italics: BW use attempted or “almost used.”]


Alibek, Kenneth. “The Soviet Union’s Anti-Agricultural Biological Weapons.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 894, no. 1 (December 1, 1999): 18–19. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.1999.tb08038.x.

Balmer, Brian. “The drift of biological weapons policy in the UK 1945–1965.” The Journal of Strategic Studies 20, no. 4 (1997): 115-145.

Farmer, Ben. “Bioterrorism Could Kill More People than Nuclear War, Bill Gates to Warn World Leaders.” The Telegraph, February 17, 2017. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/17/biological-terrorism-could-kill-people-nuclear-attacks-bill/.

Guillemin, Jeanne. Biological weapons: From the invention of state-sponsored programs to contemporary bioterrorism. Columbia University Press, 2004.

Hay, Alastair. “Simulants, Stimulants and Diseases: The Evolution of the United States Biological Warfare Programme, 1945–60.” Medicine, Conflict and Survival 15, no. 3 (July 1, 1999): 198–214. https://doi.org/10.1080/13623699908409459.

“Iraq Survey Group Final Report.” Iraq Survey Group, September 30, 2004. https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/report/2004/isg-final-report/.

Koblentz, Gregory. Living Weapons. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.

Koblentz, Gregory. “Pathogens as weapons: The international security implications of biological warfare.” International security 28, no. 3 (2004): 84-122.

Leitenberg, Milton, Raymond Zilinskas, and Jens Kuhn. The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Ouagrham-Gormley, Sonia Ben. Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development. Cornell University Press, 2014.

Pappas G, Panagopoulou P, Christou L, Akritidis N. Brucella as a biological weapon. Cell Mol Life Sci 2006; 63: 2229-36.

Pearson, Alan. “Incapacitating Biochemical Weapons.” The Nonproliferation Review 13, no. 2 (July 1, 2006): 151–88. https://doi.org/10.1080/10736700601012029.

Purkitt, Helen E., and Stephen Burgess. “South Africa’s Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme: A Historical and International Perspective.” Journal of Southern African Studies 28, no. 2 (2002): 229–53.

Reuters, Thomas. “Hillary Clinton Warns Terror Threat from Biological Weapons Is Growing.” The National Post, December 7, 2011. https://nationalpost.com/news/biological-weapons-threat-growing-clinton-says.

Wheelis, Mark, Lajos Rozsa, and Malcolm Dando. Deadly Cultures: Biological Weapons since 1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

The Germy Paradox – The empty sky: A history of state biological weapons programs

This is the second post in a sequence of blog posts on state biological weapons programs. Others will be linked here as they come out:

1.0 Introduction
2.1 The empty sky: A history of state biological weapons programs
2.2 The empty sky: How close did we get to BW usage?
3.1 Filters: Hard and soft skills
3.2 Filters: A taboo
3.3 Filters: The shadow of nuclear weapons
4.0 Conclusion: Open questions and the future of state BW 

A lot of ink has been consecrated in describing the history of modern BW programs. Martin et al’s “Chapter 1: History of Biological Weapons: From Poisoned Darts to Intentional Epidemics.” In Medical Aspects of Biological Warfare (2018) [PDF] is a superb short summary with a focus on the agents and weapons explored by these programs. It’s far better than I could write, and relevant to the rest of this sequence. I recommend reading it.

I present a condensed timeline of state BW programs within the last century here as well:

CountryProgram active periodNotes
USSR1925-1990Major expansion and resurgence during approximately 1970.  By far the largest BW program to have ever existed. A great deal of our information on it is gleaned from Ken Alibek’s memoir Biohazard.
Japan1940’sWeapons were extensively tested and used against the Manchurian Chinese population.
USA1942-1970A fairly large and well-run program, similarly technically competent as the USSR program, despite having 10-fold less funding. Ended with the US beginning the Biological Weapons Convention, which came into effect in 1975.
UK1942-1956Worked closely with the US BW program. Later helped introduce the Biological Weapons Convention.
Canada1940’sPartially sponsored/encouraged by the US.
French1940’sDetails are scarce.
Israel1948 – ???Details are scarce.
Rhodesia1975-1979Crude weapons created and used (e.g. placing cholera in food and water supplies.)
Iraq1980s-1996Created in response to the external threat represented by Israel. The Iraq Survey Group Final Report is a comprehensive summary.
South Africa1983-1988Mostly controlled by one person. Focus was on weapons against internal threats and assassination, not large-scale offensive weapons against other nations.


The reference mentioned in the first paragraph is: Martin, James W, George W Christopher, and Edward M Eitzen. “Chapter 1: History of Biological Weapons: From Poisoned Darts to Intentional Epidemics.” In Medical Aspects of Biological Warfare, 20. Textbooks of Military Medicine. Fort Sam Houston: Office of the Surgeon General, Borden Institute, 2018.

Iraq: See the 2004 US Iraq Survey Group Final Report. (Available here.)

Israel: See the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s summary (available here.)

Other country’s details are either in the Martin et al piece linked above, or may be cross-pollinated from other sources.

The Germy Paradox: An Introduction

I’m writing a sequence of blog posts on state biological weapons programs. This is the first post. Others will be linked here as they come out:

1.0 Introduction
2.1 The empty sky: A history of state biological weapons programs
2.2 The empty sky: How close did we get to BW usage?
3.1 Filters: Hard and soft skills
3.2 Filters: A taboo
3.3 Filters: The shadow of nuclear weapons
4.0 Conclusion: Open questions and the future of state BW 

This is a bit of a review of my first year of graduate school. Unintentionally, many of my projects that year revolved around a question I’ve been mulling over for a long time. I’m calling it by a terrible nickname, “the germy paradox”, as a counterpart to the question posed by Richard Fermi on the apparent nonexistence of aliens in a vast and star-filled night sky: “If biological weapons are as cheap and deadly as is everyone seems to fear, then where are they?”      

There are few known state bioweapon (BW) programs, and very few at all since the 1970’s. This is despite greater interest and advances in life sciences, as well as a lot of active concern over biodefense. Why don’t we see many state BW programs? Is this for concrete and technological reasons, for strategic reasons, or for reasons of social unacceptability? If some of these reasons go away, for instance as biotechnologies become cheaper and easier to weaponize (as many, e.g. Mukunda et al 2009, Schmidt 2008, believe they will), how safe will we be then?

The history of the biological weapons taboo is multifaceted and will be addressed in greater detail. But some basic background will help kick off this series and explain the question. Biological and chemical weapons are often considered in the same breath (Smith 2014), referred to in early history as “poison” weapons (Cole 1998). Explicit prohibitions of the use of poison weapons in warfare began in the 1400s (Price 1995). Use of biological (or at the time, “bacteriological”) weapons was formally forbidden in combat by the 1925 Geneva Protocol, but several state BW programs went on to proliferate during WWII and the Cold War (Zanders 2003). These programs often stated that their weapons would be used only in retaliation against a nuclear or biological attack, in a version of the popular nuclear “no first use” policy, and they rarely developed clear strategies for BW wartime usage (see Wheelis and Rózsa 2018).

States today are constrained by the Biological Weapons Convention, an international protocol banning not only usage but development of BW. It was developed by the US in 1972 alongside removal of the US’s own program, and signed by all but a handful of countries (UN Office).

 Today, no nation claims to have a BW program, nor to have used BW for large-scale attacks since WWII.

I use the language of the Fermi Paradox to structure this series. 

The first part of this series, “The Empty Sky,” describes the modern history of biological weapons. It then makes the case that we have never seen large-scale usage or near-usage of these weapons since WWII. 

The second part, “Filters”, borrows from Robin Hanson’s model of “great filters” that stand in the way of planets creating space-faring civilizations, thus creating the Fermi Paradox (Hanson, 1998). This section explores reasons we don’t see biological weapons as much as we might expect.

New posts in this sequence will come out twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, until it’s done. (This is to give readers time to keep up.)


  1. Mukunda, Gautam, Kenneth A. Oye, and Scott C. Mohr. “What rough beast? Synthetic biology, uncertainty, and the future of biosecurity.” Politics and the Life Sciences 28, no. 2 (2009): 2-26
  2. Schmidt, Markus. “Diffusion of synthetic biology: a challenge to biosafety.” Systems and synthetic biology 2, no. 1-2 (2008): 1-6.]
  3. Smith, Frank. American biodefense: How dangerous ideas about biological weapons shape national security. Cornell University Press, 2014.
  4. A. Cole, Leonard. “The Poison Weapons Taboo: Biology, Culture, and Policy.” Politics and the Life Sciences 17 (September 1, 1998): 119–32. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0730938400012119.
  5. Price, Richard. “A Genealogy of the Chemical Weapons Taboo.” International Organization 49, no. 1 (1995): 73–103.
  6. Zanders, Jean Pascal. “International Norms Against Chemical and Biological Warfare: An Ambiguous Legacy.” Journal of Conflict and Security Law 8, no. 2 (October 1, 2003): 391–410. https://doi.org/10.1093/jcsl/8.2.391.
  7. Wheelis, Mark, and Lajos Rózsa. Deadly cultures: biological weapons since 1945. Harvard University Press, 2009.
  8. “The Biological Weapons Convention.” The United Nations Office at Geneva. Accessed December 11, 2018. https://www.unog.ch/80256EE600585943/(httpPages)/04FBBDD6315AC720C1257180004B1B2F.
  9. Hanson, Robin. “The Great Filter – Are We Almost Past it?”. 1998. (Web Archive) https://web.archive.org/web/20100507074729/http://hanson.gmu.edu/greatfilter.html

Tiddlywiki for organizing notes and research

Happy new school year to my fellow students! With my first year of grad school under my belt, and my sword and shield out for Round 2, I wanted to share a tool that’s helped me on my journey.

Two years ago, my go-to system for organizing my research and writing “citations in 3 different programs” + “pile everything into a haphazard series of google docs and hope for the best”. I figured this wasn’t great. After doing some reading and trying several alternatives, I discovered Tiddlywiki.

Tiddlywiki is an ancient open-source wiki application in the form of an html file. It has all the tools you need to make a wiki in the form of “tiddlers”, self-contained chunks of info that you can tag and link to each other. When you save the wiki, the program and your text all get wrapped up together into the same .html file – it both stores your info and is the program for running the wiki. It works on any web browser, as well as special programs.

I stuck with it and here’s why:

  • Wiki format: Wikis seem really compatible with the way my brain works. If I take notes on a book or article, that source gets its own tiddler on the wiki. They can then get interwoven, crosslinked, expanded upon, etc.
  • Elegant: Does most things I want it to. Easy to link to tiddlers and drag them or other files in from other wikis/folders. The structure is transparent and customizable.
  • Robust: Tiddlywikis from a decade ago are still perfectly functional today. The entire program and dataset lives in one small html file that runs on anything with a web browser.
  • Meta-aesthetics: Feeding all my data to Google is a little worrying. Tiddlywiki, meanwhile, is open-source and runs from your computer. The fact that the program is a quine is really neat.
  • Encryption: Tiddlywikis have an encryption function baked in. I don’t know if it’s very good. Consider using Veracrypt for better security. But if you don’t want to do that, here you go.  This also means you can upload your wikis and backups to cloud services while keeping them encrypted. (Go to “Tools” in the sidebar, then click on the “set password” button. After you set a password, you can look at the .html file text to be sure that, yes, everything is encrypted into nonsense characters.)
  • Customizable: Easily change the color scheme, any text or formatting, the layout, etc. It’s extremely adaptable. You can also install a variety of plugins, though I haven’t felt the need to myself as of yet.
  • Transportable: My wikis live on a flashdrive and can work on any computer. I took all my research with me to and from work every day this summer for an internship.

Things I like less

  • Saving is not obvious. This simplest version is “edit a copy of a blank tiddlywiki in a web browser, save locally to your computer or a flash drive, repeat every time you edit it”, which is kind of a pain.
    • I work on various computers, so my Tiddlywikis are saved on a flash drive. I edit them in web browsers, and save them back to the flash drive when I’m done. I back them up every week.
    • On my Ubuntu laptop, I edit them with the program TiddlyDesktop, which makes saving easier.
  • You can use images, but they get saved as raw code into the html file itself (so every image makes the file that much larger), and there aren’t tools for manipulating them. (There is a cute, tiny, and almost useless drawing program baked in.) I tend to save a few images, like graphs or figures from papers, but wouldn’t personally use Tiddlywiki for image-heavy work.
  • Some features (e.g. spellcheck, in-text search with highlighting) depend on the browser or other program you’re using to edit the wikis.
  • Kind of old-looking, not maximally aesthetic.

The number of wikis you have is up to you. I started with one wiki for a specific writing project and one wiki for work, notes and research. My active Tiddlywikis now include:

  • Grad school material
  • Internship research material
  • General writing, notes, and personal research
  • Writing and worldbuilding/characterization/plot details for a novel
  • Recipe storage
  • Quotes and poetry I like

Your mileage may vary.

How do I try it?

Here’s a nice one to explore as an example, a thesis website in Spanish. Here’s one on philosophy. (Note that you can’t actually edit the versions that appear on the website. You can locally save the whole wiki and changes you make to it, though.)

If you like it, here are some resources to get you started. This is the official website, which has lots of helpful documentation. (Note that it’s also a tiddlywiki!)

Here are some youtube videos I also found helpful.

After making a few tiddlywikis, I found that I kept making the same tweaks to them to get them set up in a way useful for me. In that light, I made a new “blank” or “empty” tiddlywiki that had those changes baked in already.

Here it is: the Eukaryote Writes Blog empty tiddlywiki. You may find it better than the default empty wiki. It comes with a couple new color schemes, a table of contents, and some layout tweaks, among other small changes. 

Other research tools

All hail the exobrain!

I keep track of research citations formally with Zotero, or the tool my work prefers. For informal reading, I’ll also just note the authors and title and/or URL of the source (in my tiddlywiki!) so I can find it later.

For keeping track of time spent working, I’ve gotten some utility out of KanbanFlow. I like the Pomodoro Technique, and KanbanFlow has both pomodoro timers and a nice task-sorting and task-prioritization system built in. I currently don’t worry about tracking time, and use Google Calendar, a bullet journal, and a bastardized Kanban Board variant to keep my brain in order.

Previously, I used the website MarinaraTimer to time pomodoros. I love it for exactly two reasons: the ability to pause pomodoros, and the sound effect “Ominous Woosh”. 

A giant whiteboard for $14 (plus nails)

All my friends love whiteboards, because they’re giant nerds. It’s only a good party when somebody starts trying to illustrating a point on the whiteboard. Also, to-do lists you can’t miss.

This isn’t my idea, but it’s good and I thought I’d share it. Home Depot and Lowes sell a material called “thrify white panelling” or “smooth white hardboard”. It’s cheap – mine was about $14 for a 4-foot-by-8-foot sheet. I asked the store staff to cut the panel in half so it would fit in my car, which they did for free.

It’s easily chipped, so watch out if you want it to look flawless.

Then I stuck it to the wall of my studio apartment. I used some kind of drywall anchor to screw it on, with washers, to get a good grip on the material. (I think using a drywall anchor was overkill, and can’t recommend them for renters until I see how cleanly they come out of the wall – so if you have a better low-damage attachment system, maybe try that first. I wasn’t able to get them to stick with Command velcro strips – the strips kept detaching from the panel material – but other people on the internet seem to have found success in this.)20190707_145520~2

It acts as a whiteboard as-is. Writing gets hard to erase if you leave it up there for a long time, but you can clean it with whiteboard-cleaning-solution, alcohol, or by coloring over the marks with another whiteboard marker and then erasing that. Internet people also report that you can buff the entire surface with turtle wax before hanging it, and this makes it more stain-resistant.

I didn’t do that, and it’s still pretty good, especially for $14.

Let me know if you try this!

Naked mole-rats: A case study in biological weirdness

Epistemic status: Speculative, just having fun. This piece isn’t well-cited, but I can pull up sources as needed – nothing about mole-rats is my original research. A lot of this piece is based on Wikipedia.

When I wrote about “weirdness” in the past, I called marine invertebrates, archaea viruses, and Florida Man stories “predictably weird”. This means I wasn’t really surprised to learn any new wild fact about them. But there’s a sense in which marine invertebrates both are and aren’t weird. I want to try operationalizing “weirdness” as “amount of unpredictability or diversity present in a class” (or “in an individual”) compared to other members of its group.

So in terms of “animals your hear about” – well, you know the tigers, the mice, the bees, the tuna fish, the songbirds, whatever else comes up in your life. But “deep sea invertebrates” seems to include a variety of improbable creatures – a betentacled neon sphere covered in spikes, a six-foot long disconcertingly smooth and flesh-colored worm, bisexual squids, etc. Hey! Weird! That’s weird.

But looking at a phylogenetic tree, we see really quickly that “invertebrates” represent almost the entire animal tree of life.


Invertebrates represent most of the strategies that animals have attempted on earth, and certainly most of the animals on earth. Vertebrates are the odd ones out.

But you know which animals are profoundly weird, no matter which way you look at it? Naked mole rats. Naked mole-rats have like a dozen properties that are not just unusual, not just strange, but absolutely batshit. Let’s review.

1. They don’t age

What? Well, for most animals, their chance of dying goes up over time. You can look at a population and find something like this:


Mole-rats, they have the same chance of dying at any age. Their graph looks like this:


They’re joined, more or less, by a few species of jellyfish, flatworms, turtles, lobsters, and at least one fish.

They’re hugely long-lived compared to other rodents, seen in zoos at 30+ years old compared to the couple brief years that rats get.

2. They don’t get cancer

Cancer generally seems to be the curse of multicellular beings, but naked mole-rats are an exception. A couple mole-rats have developed cancer-like growths in captivity, but no wild mole-rat has ever been found with cancer.

3. They don’t feel some forms of pain

Mole-rats don’t respond to acid or capsaicin, which is, as far as I know, unique among mammals.

4. They’re eusocial

Definitely unique among mammals. Like bees, ants, and termites, naked mole-rats have a single breeding “queen” in each colony, and other “worker” individuals exist in castes that perform specific tasks. In an evolutionary sense, this means that the “unit of selection” for the species is the queen, not any individual – the queen’s genes are the ones that get passed down.

They’re also a fascinating case study of an animal whose existence was deduced before it was proven. Nobody knew about eusocial mammals for a long time. In 1974, entomologist Richard Alexander, who studied eusocial insects, wrote down a set of environmental characteristics he thought would be required for a eusocial mammal to evolve. Around 1981 and the next decade, naked mole-rats – a perfect match for his predictions – were found to be eusocial.

5. They don’t have fur

Obviously. But aside from genetic flukes or domesticated breeds, that puts them in a small unlikely group with only some marine mammals, rhinoceros, hippos, elephants, one species of boar, and… us.


You and this entity have so much in common.

6. They’re able to survive ridiculously low oxygen levels

It uses very little oxygen during normal metabolism, much less than comparable-sized rodents, and it can survive for hours at 5% oxygen (a quarter of normal levels.)

7. Their front teeth move back and forth like chopsticks

I’m not actually sure how common this is in rodents. But it really weirded me out.

8. They have no regular sleep schedule

This is weird, because jellyfish have sleep schedules. But not mole-rats!

9. They’re cold-blooded

They have basically no ability to adjust their body temperature internally, perhaps because their caves tend to be rather constant temperatures. If they need to be a different temperature, they can huddle together, or move to a higher or lower level in their burrow.

All of this makes me think that mole-rats must have some underlying unusual properties which lead to all this – a “weirdness generator”, if you will.

A lot of these are connected to the fact that mole rats spend almost their entire lives underground. There are lots of burrowing animals, but “almost their entire” is pretty unusual – they don’t surface to find food, water, or (usually) mates. (I think they might only surface when digging tunnels and when a colony splits.) So this might explain (8) – no need for a sleep schedule when you can’t see the sun. It also seems to explain (5) and (9), because thermoregulation is unnecessary when they’re living in an environment that’s a pretty constant temperature.

It probably explains (6) because lower burrow levels might have very little oxygen most of the time, although there’s some debate about this – their burrows might actually be pretty well ventilated.

And Richard Alexander’s 12 postulates that would lead to a eusocial vertebrate – plus some other knowledge of eusociality – suggests that this underground climate, when combined with the available lifestyle and food source of a molerat, should lead to eusociality.

It might also be the source of (2) and (3) – people have theorized that higher CO2 or lower oxygen levels in burrows might reduce DNA damage or related to neuron function or something. (This would also explain why only mole-rats in captivity have had tumors, since they’re kept at atmospheric oxygen levels.) These still seem to be up in the air, though. Mole-rats clearly have a variety of fascinating biochemical tricks that are still being understood.

So there’s at least one “weirdness generator” that leads to all of these strange mole-rat properties. There might be more.

I’m pretty sure it’s not the chopstick teeth (7), at least – but as with many predictions one could make about mole rats, I could easily be wrong.


To watch some naked mole-rats going about their lives, check out the Pacific Science Center’s mole-rat live camera. It’s really fun, if a writhing mass of playful otters that are also uncooked hotdogs sounds fun to you.


Small animals have enormous brains for their size

One thing that surprised me when working on How Many Neurons Are There was the number of neurons in the brains of very small animals.

Let’s look a classic measurement, the brain-mass:body-mass ratio.* Smarter animals generally have larger brain sizes for their body mass, compared to animals of similar size. Among large animals, humans have famously enormous brains for our size – the highest of any large animal, it seems. But as we look at smaller animals, that ratio goes up again. A mouse has a comparable brain:body-mass ratio to a human. Getting even smaller, insects have higher brain:body-mass ratios than any vertebrate we know of: more like 1 in 6.

But brain mass isn’t quite what we want – brains are mostly water, and there are a lot of non-neuron cells in brains. Conveniently, I also have a ton of numbers put together on number of neurons. (Synapse counts might be better, but those are hard to come by for different species. Ethology would also be interesting.)

And the trend is also roughly true for neuron-count:body-mass. Humans do have unusually high numbers of neurons per kilogram than other animals, but far, far fewer than, for instance, a small fish or an ant.


If you believe some variation on one of the following:

  • Different species have moral worth in proportion to how many neurons they have
  • Different animal species have moral worth in proportion to how smart they are
  • Different species have moral worth in proportion to the amount of complex thought they can do
  • Different species have moral worth in proportion to how much they can learn**

…then this explanation is an indication that insects and other small animals have much more moral worth than their small size suggests.

How much more?

Imagine, if you will, a standard 5-gallon plastic bucket.


Now imagine that bucket contains 300,000 ants – about two pounds.*** Or a kilogram, if you prefer.

Imagine the bucket. Imagine the equivalent of a couple large apples inside it.


A bucket. Two pounds of ants.

Those ants, collectively, have as many neurons as you do.


(Graphic design is my passion.)

You may notice that an adult human brain actually weighs more than two pounds. What’s going on? Simply, insect brains are marvels of miniaturization. Their brains have a panoply of space-saving tricks, and the physical cells are much smaller.


*Aren’t the cool kids using cephalization quotients rather than brain-mass:body-mass ratios? Yes, when it comes to measurements of higher cognition in vertebrates, cephalization is (as far as I’m aware) thought of as better. But there’s debate about that too. Referring to abilities directly probably makes sense for assessing abilities. I don’t know much about this and it’s not the focus of this piece, anyway.

**Yes, I know that only the first question is directly relevant to this piece, and that all of the others are different. I’m just saying it’s evidence. We don’t have a lot of behavioral data on small animals anyways, but I think we can agree there’s probably a correlation between brain size and cognitive capacity.

***Do two pounds of “normal-sized” ants actually fit in a five-gallon bucket? Yes. I couldn’t find a number for “ant-packing density” in the literature, but thanks to the valiant efforts of David Manheim and Rio Lumapas, it seems to be between 0.3 gallons (5 cups) and 5.5 gallons. It depends on size and whether ants pack more like spheres or more like blocks.


Suggested readings: Brian Tomasik on judging the moral importance of small minds (link is to the most relevant part but the whole essay is good) and on “clock speeds” in smaller animal brains, Suzana Herculano-Houzel on neuron count and intelligence in elephants versus humansHow many neurons are there. (The last piece also contains most of the citations for this week. Ask if you want specific ones.)

This piece is crossposted to the Effective Altruism Forum.