Slavish Conscience

Over at the London Review of Books, Adam Phillips criticizes self-criticism in an essay that includes this brilliant bit:

We are never as good as we should be; and neither, it seems, are other people. A life without a so-called critical faculty would seem an idiocy: what are we, after all, but our powers of discrimination, our taste, the violence of our preferences? Self-criticism, and the self as critical, are essential to our sense, our picture, of our so-called selves. Nothing makes us more critical – more suspicious or appalled or even mildly amused – than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism, that we should be less impressed by it and start really loving ourselves. But the self-critical part of ourselves, the part that Freud calls the super-ego, has some striking deficiencies: it is remarkably narrow-minded; it has an unusually impoverished vocabulary; and it is, like all propagandists, relentlessly repetitive. It is cruelly intimidating…and it never brings us any news about ourselves. There are only ever two or three things we endlessly accuse ourselves of, and they are all too familiar; a stuck record, as we say, but in both senses – the super-ego is reiterative. It is the stuck record of the past…and it insists on diminishing us. It is, in short, unimaginative; both about morality, and about ourselves. Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him, that he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout, of some catastrophe. And we would be right.

Phillips is right: there is something seriously wrong with the homunculi in our heads. With Freud as his theory-master and Hamlet as ego-actor, Phillips engages with conscience, that most intractable and culturally inflected aspect of ourselves. Though Michel Foucault merits no mention in his essay, Phillips is also talking about discipline: that resolve, sometimes steely but always nagging, which seemingly arises from within but which is implanted from without. In near modernity, or in Abrahamic times and places, this conscience or discipline is the voice of God, whose state-serving accoutrements present as morals. In modernity, or in consumer-capitalist times and places, this conscience or discipline is the voice of the Market, whose state-serving accoutrements present as desires. These are the shaming and punishing voices of masters, in which case we are slaves.

— Cris


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Misogi Water Rituals (Pt 2)

In the previous post in this series, I described my personal experience of an extreme misogi water purification ritual performed in Kikonai in Northern Japan. In this post, I will continue that discussion and recount an altogether different experience I had more recently (about one month ago) at another misogi event, this time held at Teppozu Inari a Shinto shrine located in a suburb of central Tōkyō.

Kanchu Misogi

Misogi event at Teppozu Inari Shrine in Tōkyō. Image provided by Yoshio Wada

In certain respects the ritual event in Tōkyō followed a similar format to that of the event in Kikonai; again there were musical performances, local volunteers provided servings of hot soup and a crowd of expectant observers watched a smaller group of hesitant looking misogi performers purify themselves with ice cold water. There were, however, a number of important differences. First, unlike at Kikonai, the performers were not being splashed with buckets of water, instead they climbed and then squatted down in a large pool of icy water (complete with floating blocks of ice). Second, the misogi was only being performed for a single forty minute session; this was not the three day ordeal of Kikonai. Third, as opposed to four young boys, the performers in Tōkyō were made up of a group of around 100 people, the majority of whom were middle aged men (and unlike Kikonai there were also a few women participating). Fourth, it was significantly warmer. While Tōkyō in the winter is not what one would describe as ‘warm’, it is a far cry from the -15 degree temperatures and falling snow of Kikonai (on the day of the misogi in Tokyo the sun even kindly made a brief appearance). Fifth, before performing the misogi all of the performers performed a series of synchronised ritual ‘exercises’ (described here), while simultaneously chanting together loudly. And finally, whereas the Kikonai festival was held in a small, relatively remote town in Hokkaidō, the Tokyo event was held at a shrine in central Tōkyō, located in an area only a few stops away from the central Tōkyō train station.


The synchronised ‘exercises’ before the misogi. Image from reuters.

There are other points of departure but the ones above are the most significant and combine to create a misogi event with a substantially different atmosphere and function than the event in Kikonai. Specifically, while both events contain the sense that the spiritual merit from the performances will extend to the wider community- in Kikonai to produce a successful year of fishing and in Tōkyō to help purify the sick and weak members of the community- it was at the latter location that this purpose seemed to be most strongly emphasised. During interviews and informal discussions the shrine priest at Teppozu Inari and other local leaders were emphatic that their ritual was not about displaying individual fortitude, but was a collective act performed by the healthy on behalf of those in the community who were physically incapable of participating. This might be the normative interpretation, but I also experienced some personal evidence in support of this interpretation when a local resident, who was wheelchair bound, came up to express their appreciation to me for taking part. The shrine priest also explicitly contrasted the ritual with other events like the Polar Plunges held in North America, noting that such events tend to focus on the individual challenge of enduring the cold water, while the emphasis here was squarely on the community.

To be clear though the distinction is simply in the degree of emphasis as in Kikonai the misogi event also included many references to the wider community and there was substantial involvement from community members; with plenty of processions, musical performances, stalls providing local produce/products and even a sizeable entertainment festival organised in the town centre. However, the fact that participation in the misogi proper in Kikonai is restricted to young, unmarried boys and the extremity of the ordeal faced, means that inevitably there is a stronger emphasis on the individual performers. It is also clear that the ritual serves as a rite-of-passage to adulthood with most of the locals that we spoke to agreeing that the boys who participate increase their local status (as some people termed it becoming heroes). However, when I raised the elevated status point with one of the young performers, they laughed and said that any possible status increase, especially with women, would be limited to Kikonai and that this would be of little benefit when they were moving to work in Tōkyō. In response I helpfully suggested that they could carry pictures of the event to show potential love interests in Tōkyō but the performer astutely noted that this was likely to cause irreparable damage to any budding romance. While we were joking, the performer’s comment does actually raise an interesting theoretical issue for certain costly signalling theories of extreme rituals. Such theories suggest that individuals incur a cost (e.g. performing a painful misogi) in order to a) signal their fitness and increase their attractiveness to potential mates and/or b) to provide a ‘hard to fake’ signal of commitment to a group and thus gain access to desirable group resources and elevated status (Sosis & Alcorta, 2003). The issue here though is why there would still be a strong motivation to participate in Kikonai, when the possibility of extracting benefits from female attention or group resources has been essentially removed by the (ever increasing) trends in rural-urban migration (from the 2014 group, for instance, 3 of the boys were not living in Kikonai).

The answer may be that in the face of significant migration the ritual is actually in a slow process of decline (the previous years did see the first time that non-residents took part) but I saw little evidence of this. The event was clearly an important source of pride for the town and this perhaps suggests that the previous (potentially adaptive) in-group signalling function is now being subsumed by a newer out-group signalling function- as a tourist attraction. This still leaves the question of what motivates the individual boys to volunteer for a four year long ordeal/commitment, but given the general importance of the ritual to the community (it is probably Kikonai’s most famous feature), and the fact that there are clear social and financial rewards (the performers receive not insignificant donations), the survival of the event, at least in the near future, seems assured. Indeed, while there is more fluidity to ritual practices than many people would expect, local traditions can prove remarkably resilient and this is especially true in a culture like Japan, where festivals are largely detached from any rationalised beliefs or doctrines.

Returning to the Tōkyō event, the misogi festival at Teppozu Inari also seems far from decline, with recent years seeing the number of participants continue to grow from around 40 or so 10 years ago to almost 100 in 2015. The participation of this many performers is all the more remarkable given that the shrine’s grounds are relatively small. Teppozu Inari is not some spacious rural mountain shrine, it is embedded right in amongst the surrounding urban sprawl of Tōkyō. In fact, the shrine’s physical structure displays some evidence of the compromises required to accommodate to such surrounding, as the characteristic sloping roof structure of one of the smaller shrine buildings abruptly cuts off against the wall of a concrete tower block looming behind the shrine. Regardless of these urban surroundings, or perhaps due to them, the community festival seems to be flourishing with the shrine managing, in addition to the performers, to pack in crowds of around 100-200 people, despite the majority of the space being taken up by the large pool of ice.

Misogi performers filling in our questionnaires. Photo courtesy of Mark Moffett.

Misogi performers filling in our questionnaires. Image courtesy of (and copyright owned by) Mark Moffett.

Although I was there with a team to collect research, I was still able to take part in the actual misogi performance and consequently I couldn’t help making comparisons with my experience in Kikonai. I had actually worried a little beforehand that despite the higher temperture the Tōkyō misogi might be more painful than my previous experience due to: a) the surrounding air temperature being warmer than the water, which would make the water feel colder and b) being totally immersed in cold water, meaning that there would be no heated pockets of protection or means to avoid the icy chill (my armpits had remained a refuge with my crossed arms in Kikonai). As it turned out, the misogi experience overall felt less severe than the previous event and this was in large part due to the performance of the synchronised exercises and chanting mentioned earlier (we also went for a run through the streets around the shrine- wearing only loincloths).

These exercises were absent from the event in Kikonai and I think they are fundamental to establishing a different atmosphere to the ritual performance. While video footage recorded by a friend conclusively revealed that I was, by far, the least synchronised performer present, I can confidently attest that while performing the actions and the associated chants and shouts I felt in total synchrony. This sense was further enhanced by the fact that all performers were dressed in the exact same attire- a simple white loincloth and headband- and had the same shred focal point of attention, a similarly attired man facing all of the performers from an elevated stage leading the exercises and chating. I learnt afterwards that this man was from another Shrine and something of a professional ritual performer. It would be hard to overstate just how pervasive his charisma was or the atmosphere of authority created. Discussing the event afterwards with other researchers and some friends who attended, all of them mentioned the tangible atmosphere that was created by this man’s performance and the complementary reaction it instilled in the other performers.

The impressive chant leader in question (centre right). Image courtesy of (and copyright owned by) Mark Moffett.

A core theoretical insight of research on group psychology has been to document the conditions and implications of a process called depersonalisation. Depersonalisation, according to social identity theorists is a hydraulic process and entails the dissolution of the personal self in favour of identification with a collective group category. This process can have negative consequences by lessening the sense of individual accountability (with lynch mobs offering a paradigmatic example) but it can also be channelled into establishing positive affect and camaraderie, as was the case at this misogi. A 2009 study by Wiltermuth & Heath demonstrated that this effect was strong enough to be replicated even under artificial laboratory settings, as groups of strangers displayed greater levels of cooperation in an economic game in conditions were they performed synchronous acts (singing and moving) together.

Cooperation over a five round economic game. From Wiltermuth & Heath (2009).

Cooperation levels during a five round economic game. From Wiltermuth & Heath (2009).

I remain somewhat sceptical of how far depersonalisation alone can account for group behaviour and I agree with the critiques from psychologists such as Masaki Yuki and Bill Swann that there are forms of group psychology that do not entail depersonalisation and instead rely on intensely relational, personalised bonds. But my experience at the Teppozu Inari shrine reminded me of just how powerful synchronous (or at least perceived) synchronous performance can be. As the only hairy caucasian taking part in the misogi I was by definition an outgroup member, and well aware of this fact and the distancing that comes with my role as a researcher, and yet completely unexpectedly during the time that we stood chanting and performing the rhythmic movements together I felt not like a pretender but an actual member of the group. This suggests to me that reacting to shared identity markers and synchronous performance is a deeply rooted element of our coalitional psychology… or that I am easily deluded!

Definitely an outgroup member.

Definitely an outgroup member.

— C Kavanagh

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Channeling National Religion

In a recent Foreign Affairs article the author analyzes a propaganda television channel in one country which reminds me of a propaganda channel in another country. I have removed all references to the first country and inserted bracketed references for the second country:

Once the television audience’s attention has been grabbed, [this channel] sets about reshaping its perception of the world. The process starts with an assault on critical thinking. [This channel] is full of conspiracy theories and mysticism, not just about the nefarious [traitors and foreigners] who stand behind every public protest in [the country] but also about countless other threats lurking everywhere. Bizarre pseudoscience programs warn viewers about impending deadly fungi epidemics and introduce them to psychics who can enter their minds. Any sort of rational debate is rendered impossible by a constant stream of false assurances—illogical connections between two associations where two random facts are fused to create a distorted whole.

“A coincidence? I don’t think so!” — that’s the catch phrase of the popular talk-show host[s]. [These hosts have] famously asserted that a[n] education program that teaches children about bodily functions demonstrated the West’s appalling moral decline. [These hosts have] also attributed [Muslim] criticism of [the West] to a historical grudge that he said they have harbored since suffering a military defeat [during the Crusades]. 

Having drawn in the viewers and disabled their critical defenses, [this channel] reaches deep into the nation’s emotional traumas. Politicians and presenters feed the audience nonstop reminders of the difficult [Cold War era], when, they argue, [Communists] cheered at the sight of a weakened [Homeland] and of the tremendous human toll of the two world wars. Saying that [this channel propagandizes] the past wouldn’t be quite correct; rather, [the channel] engages with history in a way that inflames traumas instead of healing them.

These kinds of tricks are not aimed at helping viewers achieve closure — in fact, they serve the opposite purpose. Coming to terms with the past requires that people bring their traumatic experiences into the realm of critical thinking in order to grapple with them—an approach used in psychotherapy. [This channel], by contrast, works more like a cult—heightening the vulnerability of its followers by forcing them to relive bad experiences without ever making peace with them.

Once viewers have been turned into emotional putty, [this channel] makes its final move: lifting the audience up with tales of glorious victories achieved by national leaders, from [the Founding Fathers to Ronald Reagan], thereby tying the viewers’ emotional uplift to [patriotic] heroics. The necessary [myth] is added as the icing on the cake—and by that point in time, the audience is ready to swallow almost anything.

The original article is about “Putin TV” or Russia’s Channel One, though it well describes the ways in which Fox News works. While I watch Fox only occasionally for academic reasons, it’s like entering another world, one in which everything is falling apart, enemies besiege us, our countrymen betray us, and only God and guns can save us from the coming political, military, and religious Apocalypse. In this television netherworld, anxiety, fear, and crisis are manufactured or kept at fever pitch so that calls to salvation will have maximum effect. While Fox makes for fascinating study, its national religion hold on the faithful is insidious.

— Cris


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All About ISIS

Over at The Atlantic, Graeme Wood has posted an article on ISIS that is a tour de force of reportage, a near perfect melding of intellectual history and investigative journalism. It makes for gripping reading and left me yearning for more, though the more I want would require ethnographic fieldwork that is impossible for obvious reasons. At this point we can only imagine what life is like in ISIS controlled territory, but Wood’s article allows the imagination to run wild. I imagine a Camus-like atmosphere, an all too real yet surreal theater of the absurd. Blood, lots of blood, has this flowing quality: it spins back and flashes forth, galvanizing one moment and disorienting another. The closing scene of the latest ISIS video perfectly captures this quality, though stills can do no justice to this Coptic-killing choreography of waves:

Isis-Bloody-WaveISIS-Message-BloodWithin Wood’s article we find two lessons that deserve further emphasis, as both are major issues in religious studies. The first is about definitions and teaches us that “Islam” (like all modern religions) manifests in myriad ways, no one version of which can be singled out and normatively classed as “true, authentic, or legitimate.” There are many iterations of “Islam,” in other words, and saying that ISIS is un-Islamic gets us nowhere. The second is about motivations and teaches us that religious beliefs can directly and primarily impel action. While this claim may seem commonsensical to some, academics often explain, or explain away, religiously motivated action as a product of something else: economy, social structure, politics, power, colonialism, symbolism, etc. In the case of ISIS, religious beliefs are primary and direct spurs to action.

With these in mind, let’s look at some key article excerpts on the first lesson (definitions):

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition” (emphasis added for benefit of progressive ecumenical religionists, aka Huffington Post religion section readers).

It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State “a problem with Islam.” The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose. And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them.

The Islamic State’s ideology exerts powerful sway over a certain subset of the population. Life’s hypocrisies and inconsistencies vanish in its face. Musa Cerantonio and the Salafis I met in London are unstumpable: no question I posed left them stuttering. They lectured me garrulously and, if one accepts their premises, convincingly. To call them un-Islamic appears, to me, to invite them into an argument that they would win. If they had been froth-spewing maniacs, I might be able to predict that their movement would burn out as the psychopaths detonated themselves or became drone-splats, one by one. But these men spoke with an academic precision that put me in mind of a good graduate seminar.

Western officials would probably do best to refrain from weighing in on matters of Islamic theological debate altogether. Barack Obama himself [wrongly] claimed that the Islamic State was “not Islamic”…I suspect that most Muslims appreciated Obama’s sentiment: the president was standing with them against both Baghdadi [i.e., ISIS] and non-Muslim chauvinists [i.e., Fox News producers/consumers] trying to implicate them in crimes. But most Muslims aren’t susceptible to joining jihad. The ones who are susceptible will only have had their suspicions confirmed: the United States lies about religion to serve its purposes.

Now let’s look at some key article excerpts on the second lesson (motivations):

There is a temptation to rehearse this observation – that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise – and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes. Hence, perhaps, the incredulity and denial with which Westerners have greeted news of the theology and practices of the Islamic State. Many refuse to believe that this group is as devout as it claims to be, or as backward-looking or apocalyptic as its actions and statements suggest.

Without acknowledgment of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.

According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

Leaders of the Islamic State have taken emulation of Muhammad as strict duty, and have revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years. “What’s striking about them is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these texts,” Haykel said. “There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”

These excerpts, while extensive, are but a small part of Wood’s article, which I strongly recommend reading in full. It also repays re-reading, allowing the ethnographic imagination to run wild with morbid fascination.

— Cris

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Sapir-Whorf & Sea Slugs

Over at Five Books, linguist Daniel Everett discusses his recommended reading list and touches on several topics for which he is sort of famous: his early missionary work and eventual disillusionment, his years spent living with the Pirahã people deep in the Amazon, his claims that Pirahã lacks recursion and is a finite language, and his assessment or disagreement with Chomsky. During the course of his discussion, Everett lauds a hypothesis which is near to my affective heart and dear to my cognitive head:

Interviewer: So that gets right into our first book in a way because Sapir was famous for the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis about the relationship between language and thought.

Everett: Sapir’s 1921 book Language is still to me the most important pioneering book ever written on linguistics and I’m probably unique in holding that perspective – everybody knows it’s important but I just think it’s massively important. In it Sapir talks about bi-directional influences between culture and language and thought. A lot of people only give him credit for the idea that the language we speak can affect the way we think, which then became known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, and Whorf actually learnt this from Sapir.

But Sapir didn’t stop with that, he said just as language can influence thought, culture can influence language. He argued that language clearly has some computational aspects that cannot be reduced to culture but there are a number of broad characteristics we find in individual languages that reflect the culture that they emerge from and I find that to be extremely pioneering – extremely prescient – and just incredibly innovative. I can’t think of anyone in the history of the study of language that has been more innovative in thought about language than Edward Sapir. He died in 1939 at the age of fifty-four, right at the beginning of World War Two. I think that’s one reason he had less influence.

Interviewer: A lot of people, myself included, have this kind of caricature of Sapir’s approach to language as if you don’t have the word for it you can’t think about it. Is that wrong? That’s not the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis at all?

That is one possible interpretation. You can take the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and it has two manifestations: one is linguistic determinism and one is linguistic relativity. Linguistic determinism is the idea that the language we speak determines the way we can think. Linguistic relativity is a much weaker hypothesis and suggests that the language we speak affects in some way some of the ways we think when we need to think quickly. And this is confirmed in experiments…This suggests that language is a tool for thought but it isn’t thought. So we definitely think without language and I think that has to be true because otherwise we have no explanation of animals. The more we equate thinking with language, the less able we are to cater for the thought that my dog clearly has when she comes to me to go for a walk or understands the dozen or so words that I speak to her that I know she understands.

His claim that thought does not reduce to language poses problems for purely computational approaches to mind. Can we “think” without words or outside language? I think or feel so, and so probably do my dogs.

As much as I love dogs and would like to ponder the ways in which our home culture conditions their cognition, today I want to discuss an equally remarkable creature and amazing product of evolution: Elysia chlorotica, otherwise known as a sea slug. This is not, however, an ordinary sea slug, as its emerald leaf body suggests:


Elysia chlorotica (Credit: Patrick Krug)

If it looks like a leaf, it could just be camouflage, or it could be something else: a photosynthesizing animal. It has long been known that Elysia ingests algae and uses the photosynthetic products for its benefit. But it was not known, until recently, that this is not a simple case of ingestion, curation, and digestion: Elysia has incorporated algal photosynthetic genes into its chromosome. This is the finding of a recent paper in The Biological Bulletin, the fantastic details of which are covered by Science 2.0:

It has been known since the 1970s that E. chlorotica [the slug] “steals” chloroplasts from V. litorea [the algae] (called “kleptoplasty”) and embeds them into its own digestive cells. Once inside the slug cells, the chloroplasts continue to photosynthesize for up to nine months – much longer than they would perform in the algae. The photosynthesis process produces carbohydrates and lipids, which nourish the slug.

How the slug manages to maintain these photosynthesizing organelles for so long has been the topic of intensive study and a good deal of controversy. “This paper confirms that one of several algal genes needed to repair damage to chloroplasts, and keep them functioning, is present on the slug chromosome,” Pierce says. “The gene is incorporated into the slug chromosome and transmitted to the next generation of slugs.” While the next generation must take up chloroplasts anew from algae, the genes to maintain the chloroplasts are already present in the slug genome, Pierce says.

“There is no way on earth that genes from an alga should work inside an animal cell,” Pierce says. “And yet here, they do. They allow the animal to rely on sunshine for its nutrition. So if something happens to their food source, they have a way of not starving to death until they find more algae to eat.”

This biological adaptation is also a mechanism of rapid evolution, Pierce says. “When a successful transfer of genes between species occurs, evolution can basically happen from one generation to the next,” he notes, rather than over an evolutionary timescale of thousands of years.

This is the kind of science, and horizontal gene transfer evolution, that really gets my mythic blood flowing and raises all kinds of future Oz possibilities. Feeding from the sun is a bewitching idea. GMO humans anyone?

— Cris


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Oral Tradition & Indigenous “Myth”

Over the past week I’ve been reading One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark (History of the American West) (2003) by Dartmouth history professor Colin G. Calloway. It is a masterful work, perhaps the single best survey and synthesis of Native American ethnohistory that I have read. One of the outstanding features of Calloway’s writing is his serious treatment and use of oral traditions which in the past have been classified as “myths.”

Kiowas, for example, have oral traditions that distinctly recall major landmarks of their multi-century migration from the mountains of Wyoming to the Black Hills of South Dakota to the plains of Oklahoma and Texas. Apache and Navajo Athapaskans who migrated from the far north into the deep southwest between 1000 and 1600 CE recount “myths” of emerging from cold places where even the days were dark. These well describe Canadian winters and may even hearken back to Beringia. On the Northwest Coast, supposedly mythical oral traditions recall earthquakes and tsunamis that have been archaeologically confirmed as having occurred thousands of years ago.

To this list of American examples, of which there are many more, we can now add Aboriginal stories which accurately recall lands that were flooded by rising sea levels after the Last Glacial Maximum approximately 18,000 years ago. Incredibly, some of these stories or “myths” may be 13,000 years old, with several others having time depths of 9,000 to 7,000 years. In a recent paper, linguist Nick Reid and geographer Patrick Nunn analyzed 18 Aboriginal stories which recall coastal flooding and matched these to geological events. Over at The Conversation, Reid and Nunn recount their remarkable discovery and suggest these Aboriginal stories may be unique for their deep fidelity:

The rise of sea level since the last ice age from 120 metres below present occurred not just around Australia but around the world, inundating significant parts of all continents.

We might expect to find comparable collections of sea-level rise stories from all parts of the globe, but we do not. Perhaps they exist, but have been dismissed on account of an improbable antiquity by scholars adhering to the more orthodox view that oral traditions rarely survive more than a millennium.

Another possibility is that Australia is genuinely unique in having such a canon of stories. That invites questions about why and how Australian Aboriginal cultures may have achieved transmission of information about real events from such deep time.

The isolation of Australia is likely to be part of the answer. But it could also be due to the practice and nature of contemporary Aboriginal storytelling. This is characterised by a conservative and explicit approach to “the law”, value given to preserving information, and kin-based systems for tracking knowledge accuracy.

This could have built the inter-generational scaffolding needed to transmit stories over vast periods, possibly making these stories unique in the world.

While I doubt that the Australian example is unique, I have no doubt that indigenous oral traditions are remarkable repositories of deep history and ancient knowledge. They are not just, and never were, “myths.”

Those interested in the Reid-Nunn paper should check the Daily Mail’s coverage, which has some nice graphics including this map:

Aboriginal-Stories-Flooded-Lands– Cris

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Super Ruminations

Later today over 100 million Americans will be mesmerized by that late-capitalist orgy of excess and jingoism known as the Super Bowl. It has to be the most loathsome, overproduced, over-hyped spectacle on earth. But if Katy Perry is your thing, then by all means do not miss the half-time show. In another world, one not beholden to fantasy and scripts, I would consider the Super Bowl a near perfect caricature of the larger culture, something like NASCAR but for a much bigger audience and cross-section of America. But in the “real” world, or the simulacra, the beat of commerce pounds without ironic distance or awareness. The play must go on and damn the critiques.

With this bit of cathartic cultural misanthropy out of the way, let’s look at some news nuggets from last week. The Guardian reported that one of the American evangelical kids (there are several) who purportedly “died,” went to the Christian version of heaven (no virgins unless they tragically died young), and wrote a best-selling book about it, has come clean and admitted that he lied about everything. His name, perfectly, is Alex Malarkey. Although well-founded rumors of Malarkey’s lie have been around for years, the millions of evangelicals who bought the book, and the bullshit, have steadfastly defended Malarkey and his story. Some of them continue to defend it and claim that Malarkey’s original story is true and his recent confession a lie. While I have never thought Freud’s wish-fulfillment theory of religion is particularly persuasive, it’s at times like these that I think it is the best explanatory theory going.

With Malarkey’s confession of lying out of the way, we might hope that Colton Burpo is next. But this seems unlikely given that his “died and went to heaven” book has sold over ten million copies (there are 13,200 reviews on Amazon). I’m guessing that all ten million of those hope-filled buyers will be religiously watching the Super Bowl today.

Over in Denmark, nothing is rotten and Shakespeare was wrong. This is the country, mind you, that usually ranks first in worldwide scores of health and happiness. I would have added liberty to this list, but as a red-blooded American I’m constitutionally unable to equate high taxes and social welfare with that sacred concept. So the liberty thing aside, Denmark is a great place to live. Or is it? As the Atlantic reports, some Danes have doubts:

A surprising number of Danes agree with me, though: They also think their homeland is stultifyingly dull. Newspaper columnist Anne Sophia Hermansen, of the broadsheet Berlingske, caused a small kerfuffle recently when she expressed her feelings about what she saw as Denmark’s suffocating monoculture: “It is so boring in Denmark. We wear the same clothes, shop in the same places, see the same TV, and struggle to know who to vote for because the parties are so alike. We are so alike it makes me weep.”

Another prominent newspaper commentator, Jyllands-Posten’s Niels Lillelund, pinpointed a more serious side effect of the Danes’ Jante Law mentality: “In Denmark we do not raise the inventive, the hardworking, the ones with initiative, the successful or the outstanding; we create hopelessness, helplessness, and the sacred, ordinary mediocrity.”

Even the usually ebullient Ove Kaj Perdsen, an economist at the Copenhagen Business School, was open to this line of criticism: “I like Denmark, but I like to work abroad. I pay my taxes with great honor because I know for a fact that whenever I need something it will be there … Every day I conclude the best place to live is Denmark, but for me this kind of social cohesion, these middle-class-oriented societies, do not present the kind of challenges I am looking for. I want to be in the best places, and you don’t find the best places in Denmark when it comes to elite research and education.

This is fascinating, even if it is insidiously preaching to the American choir. If those secular Danes would just get right with God, they’d be like us.

While I would like to share more cynicism for this Super Sunday, I’m in charge of the beer, wings, and pizza, so these good things, like all good things, must come to an end. Be well, my friends, and stay thirsty.

— Cris


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