Bob Shell: Morality & Science

Photo: Tony Ward

The Honorable Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and current member of the United Nations Global Commission on Drug Policy recently said, “We need to accept that behaviors and actions of others that are not aligned with our own moral perspectives do not need to be turned into criminal offenses.”. That’s a remarkably perceptive observation.

I’ve always believed that my body and soul belong to me alone, and the government has no business sticking its long nose (or arm) into my affairs. As long as I’m harming no one else I should have the unimpeachable right to do as I please. Government today wants to be our daddy and dictate what we can do. One of my favorite people in history is Woodrow Wilson. He once said:

“I do not want a government that takes care of me. I want a government that keeps other men’s hands off of me so that I can take care of myself.”

My sentiments exactly.

The same applies to my photography. Just because some people were offended by my erotic nudes is no reason to demonize and imprison me. Nudity and sex are both natural and normal parts of the human experience, but they scare the bejaysus out of a certain portion of humanity. Perhaps because both show that were animals, in spite of our exalted ideas of ourselves. It doesn’t bother me to be an animal, even to be “The Third Chimpanzee,” as Jared Diamond has called us in his book of that title. Are we more than mere animals? It used to be said that humans alone had self awareness, and that made us different. But recent research with animals has shown that some animals are self aware, specifically the great apes, bottlenose dolphins, orcas, magpies, and Asian elephants. Most recently, a fish called the cleaner wrasse has passed the “mirror” test for self awareness. This is a simple test. Put a mirror in front of an animal and see if it realizes “Wow, that’s me!”

Scientists in Germany put a black mark on the fish in a place where it could only be seen in a mirror. The fish was confused by the mirror at first, but then caught on and, after checking its reflection in the mirror, tried to remove the mark by rubbing the area of the mark against a hard surface. The mental ability of distinguishing “me” from “the rest of the world” is a very important step up the ladder of intelligence.

Another very simple test uses a three-sided box made of wire mesh. An animal is put inside with a treat clearly visible on the other side of the mesh. The animal is blocked from the treat in front and on both sides. To get the treat it has to master the idea of going away from the treat, out the open back of the box, and around to the treat. Most animals fail this test, futility trying to reach through the wire mesh, which is impossible. Most dogs fail this test, as do most cats. A minority of dogs figure it out, and a larger percentage of cats. Both fail the mirror test, although many years ago I had a cat who figured out mirrors, and also figured out how doorknobs work.

In 1929 a scientist named Constantine von Economo discovered a special kind of brain neuron, that has been named after him. Most brain neurons are blobs with the single axon and multiple dendrites extending in all directions. The von Economo neurons are long and thin with axon and dendrites only at the ends. So far these special neurons have been found only in humans, great apes, whales and dolphins, and elephants. I call them “the neurons of consciousness.”

Humans have about 1.5 times as many von Economo neurons as elephants. Are these special neurons what makes us human? Could a simple mutation that produced these neurons be what elevated us above all other earthly life in sentience? I tend to think that the answer is yes.

It’s purely an untested personal theory, but I think that ingestion of certain substances may spark the production of more von Economo neurons in our brains. Silicon valley has recently discovered the benefits of microdosing with LSD and other psychotropic substances, and has found that it increases productivity in jobs where conceptual thinking is important. Where does any government get off telling people not to use natural substances that improve their mental acuity? The fact that these substances are currently illegal has not significantly reduced their popularity. There must be a good reason for that.

I feel blessed that I came of age when these substances were legal and “magic mushrooms” and peyote buttons could be ordered by mail from magazine ads. Pure pharmaceutical LSD made by Sandoz in Switzerland, where Albert Hoffman discovered it by accident, was readily available. Then in 1969 the government made everything they could think of illegal, shutting down research into therapeutic use of psychotropics. Only recently has very limited research been restarted, often with strong positive results. We’ve been held back from important research for fifty years! And all because of misinformed, ignorant fear. Governments worldwide need to learn that they do not own their citizens, that the citizens own the governments.


About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models.  He is serving the 13th year of his sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Facility, Virginia. To read Bob Shell’s, first essay on civil war, click here:

Editor’s Note: If you like Bob Shell’s blog posts, you’re sure to like his new book, COSMIC DANCE by Bob Shell (ISBN: 9781799224747, $ 12.95 book, $ 5.99 eBook) available now on . The book, his 26th, is a collection of essays written over the last twelve years in prison, none published anywhere before. It is subtitled, “A biologist’s reflections on space, time, reality, evolution, and the nature of consciousness,” which describes it pretty well. You can read a sample section and reviews on

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