Category Archives: Essentialism

Blood On The Page

Sachin Tendulkar - Ooh let me finger your pages!

Well, I talked about it and I even asked my publisher whether it was possible, but finally someone has got round to publishing a book that contains human blood mixed in with the pulp. According to the BBC, a special edition new biography of Indian cricketing star Sachin Tendulkar will contain drops of his blood, its publishers have reportedly said.  Ten copies are being printed containing a signature page mixed with his blood that will sell each for $75,000 (£40,000) each. This is the ultimate in memorabilia collecting that I have written about and I just want to say I told you so. Some people want to have a physical connection to someone they admire through owning and touching the objects that are imbued with psychological essence.

When I asked my publisher about doing the same for SuperSense (now re-titled, “The Science of Superstition”) they thought I was crazy. More importantly I am not a sporting legend like Tendulkar. It may have just seemed a bit gross. In any event I did have a stamp made up with red ink that contains my essence. So some of  you who proudly own such a rare copy which I have personally signed with this special stamp, could in principle have me cloned at a later date. One problem that the publisher’s may not have considered is that such books containing human tissue may violate strict regulations without a special import exclusion. There again nobody knows what cricket is in the US.

One of the good things about blogging and Tweeter is that people keep sending you stuff and I just got this from @AbrasiveShrub. Thanks – keep sending me more.

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Bringing Up Baby

At the end of each year, The Independent newspaper launches an appeal to support various charities.  This year it has drawn attention to Action Aid and the case of Jennipher Alupot, a Ugandan mother forced to breastfeed the puppies of her husband’s hunting dogs. Her husband had paid a “bride price” of two cows to his father-in-law and reasoned that as the cows were no longer around to provide milk then his new purchase would have to provide for the pups.

This is a story of abuse that seems to be endemic in cultures where wives are traded as commodities but what really made this report “almost too horrific to be believed?” Was it the abuse of wives? Clearly not, as domestic abuse is a universal problem that rarely makes a headline. Was it the concept of bride price? Maybe, but as one commentator pointed out, the practice is also widespread. I think the real horror (and this was evident in the comments) was the idea that a human might be forced to suckle an animal and that is something that most of us find disgusting.

breastfeeding calves animals

What's so wrong with this?

Last year I posted a blog about GMTV presenter Kate Garraway’s campaign to raise public awareness about surrogate breastfeeding by posing for a picture of her apparently breastfeeding a calf. Her point was,  why is giving human milk to a calf more shocking than giving cow’s milk to a baby? Of course, it caused outrage and I think this was because of the same inherent essentialism that seems to be violated by these acts. Most of us simply don’t want to cross the animal-human boundary when it comes to acts of intimacy.

We are happy to drink milk but the notion of drinking it directly from the source is something that would turn a few stomachs as this next picture shows. It just seems too intimate.

What is so wrong with this image?

breastfeeding monkey

Amazonian woman breastfeeding monkey

But not all think like this. I bought a hammock some years back that came with assembly instructions and was surprised to see an image on an Amazonian woman reclining in a similar hammock breastfeeding a goat.  I have no idea what the importers of the hammock where trying to promote but when I looked into the practice it turns out that some tribes are not adverse to breastfeeding animals. So clearly culture shapes what we find acceptable here but still it does seem very odd. I do have another image of a New Zealand woman breastfeeding her puppy but I think my point has been made.

This image of the woman with the monkey was taken by Jacek Palkiewicz from the 2007 Huaorani Expedition and can be found here

UPDATE: As this is my most popular post, I thought I would update it with more photographs that seem to titillate.

What a lovely puppy

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Fat Chance It’s the Fountain of Youth: Update

One of the world’s most valuable industries is rejuvenating cosmetics. This business is estimated to be around £6.4 billion in the United Kingdom alone. The average British woman will spend £186,000 on cosmetics in her lifetime, and a large proportion of this will be on anti-aging creams. These creams are largely based on essentialist beliefs that including various youthful ingredients like fetal tissue or mulched placenta will “rejuvenate” aging skin. Another belief is that human fat makes the best soap which according to experts is “pure baloney.”

Peruvian Police Display Bottles of Human Fat Extracted From Murder Victims

What else could have motivated the gruesome murder and harvesting of human fat by a Peruvian gang? The gang confessed to five murders where they hacked off the head and limbs and disemboweled poor peasants and then hung the torsos on meat hooks suspended over candles to melt the fat. The fat they harvested was apparently to be shipped to Italy, via intermediaries, where it would end up being used in expensive skin-softening beauty creams.

Experts are skeptical at the police reports but I could well believe that this gang were misguided. Remember Tyler Durden’s raids of liposuction clinics in “Fight Club?” If the gang had, then they would have probably realized that one of the few things that western society is not in short supply of is fat. Rather, it’s kidneys and livers they should have tried to sell rather than throwing them away

Update: Well it turns out that this story has been a hoax. Reuters just released this report that the police officer in charge has been fired for cooking up a story based on local superstitions.

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Jacko’s Essence to Become Diamonds

 

Jacko is set to become a diamond

Jacko is set to become a diamond

Well it was only a matter of time before someone would get round to producing Michael Jackson relics. That company LifeGem that I have told you about before is set to make artificial diamonds from strands of MJ’s hair.

The bitter irony which seems to have escaped the company is that the hair they have obtained comes from the incident when MJ’s hair caught fire in 1984 on the set of  a Pepsi commercial he was filming. This accident left him with major burns and no doubt contributed to his use and dependence on painkillers – a dependence that would later kill him (assuming the conspiracy theorists have got the murder explanation wrong).

Jacko’s hair will be carbonized and turned into about 10 diamonds. In 2007, a lock of Beethoven’s hair was similarly turned into a diamond that sold for $200,000 so I guess LifeGem will make a small killing. The king of pop will become a relic.

Thanks to Konrad for alerting me to this one.

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When Humans and Dogs Collide

They say that many dog owners look like their pets. Dr. Lance Workman from Bath Spa University (just up the road from me) tested this out with a study to see if people could match 70 dog owners to their breed of dog. Apparently the hit rate was well above chance between 50-60% compared to 33% (I guess that will be choose one photograph from three then!).

Spot the dog

Spot the dog

 

We also have a tendency to attribute human qualities to non-human beings. This video made for the Athens Olympics shows what happens when anthropomorphism and human assimilation collide.

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Would You? Could You?

The Japanese robotics industry continues to make startling advances in creating life-like robots and here is just one recent example.

 

Gigolo Joe

Gigolo Joe

Is it a coincidence that much of this effort appears directed to creating young female humanoids? I was once told by an internet investor that much of the technological advances in the internet were spurred on by the lucrative pornography business. I wonder if similar motives operate in the world of robotics. Assuming engineers do get there one day, then this raises some interesting questions. Would synthetic sex constitute infidelity? Would robots free individuals from the urges that create so many problems? Or would robot sex lack that essential quality we seek in others? Jude Law’s robotic Gigolo Joe  in Speilberg’s “AI” suggests maybe not. At the moment HRP4C, as she is affectionately known, costs $200,000 but like all technology her price will eventually come down. Maybe so will her value. Would sex with a cheap robot be less satisfying? What do you think?

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Diana’s Big Mistake

 

Princess Diana's Biggest Mistake?

Princess Diana's Biggest Mistake?

Some may regard her biggest mistake was her marriage to Prince  Charles. Others think it was failing to wear a seat belt. But for one happy memorabilia collector, it is a big rubber (that’s eraser to you sniggering US visitors) that used to belong Princess Diana. Yesterday, an old rubber was auctioned and sold for £540 ($890) to a Swiss collector surpassing previous estimates. This is yet another example of people paying large amounts of money for mundane objects that are elevated to special status by their previous owner. For some reason, the Princess held on to this rubber she first acquired as a teenager. Maybe it was a private joke. 

In contrast, her nemesis, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall is not regarded as Royality by many loyal Diana fans. Her memorabilia is unlikely to fetch anywhere near the prices that Diana memorabilia will continue to fetch well into the future. Maybe this is why the toilet seat that Camilla sat on during an impromptu visit to an East Sussex pub only sold for £87 ($100).

 

Touched by royality? - I think not.

Touched by royality? - I think not.

The landlady of the pub said, “I went to open the latch on the door, then low and behold Camilla was standing there. She smiled, said hello and I thought ‘What do I do? Curtsey or bow? She asked if she could use the toilet and I said ‘Of course you can. The toilet still needs to be decorated, but they are spotlessly clean’. She said ‘It’s fine, don’t worry’.” The landlady  added: “I’ve never sat on a public toilet, but after she left I went in there and said ‘My derriere has been touched by royalty’.”

Fat chance. I bet Camilla did what everybody does when using a public toilet. She carefully laid strips of toilet paper around the rim of the seat so that she could avoid the common touch! I wonder what the People’s Princess, who had the common touch, would have done?

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Would You Accept the Heart of Killer?

2444291746_272fe079a4Would you willing accept an organ transplant from a murderer? This goes a bit further than wearing the clothing of a killer that I discuss in SuperSense. For many there is a fear of taking on the psychological states and even memories of the donor. As noted in an earlier post, such notions of cellular memories are surprisingly persistent. In 1988, Claire Sylvia a US woman in her forties with primary pulmonary hypertension had a heart and lung transplant to save her life. After the operation she reported a change in her personality that she attributed to taking on aspects of the personality from the donor. Her book, wittily entitled “A Change of Heart,” documented her experiences and was offered as evidence for the pseudoscientific theory of cellular memories, where psychological properties are thought to be encoded in organ tissue and can be transplanted into a new host.

One recent small study of transplant patients reported that one in three thought they had taken on some aspect of personality from the donor. There is also the case in 1999 of the terminally-ill British teenager who was forcibly given a heart transplant against her will because she feared she would lose her own identity with someone else’s heart. Clearly this belief is not a trivial issue.

I spoke with a leading Bristol transplant surgeon about this and he explained that there were many physiological reasons why patients experience a change in personality, not mention the simple fact that they have been given a second lease of life in a situation where it is difficult enough to find donor organs. However, Claire Sylvia didn’t just report a change in personality. She developed an inexplicable taste for beer, chicken nuggets and found herself strangely attracted to short blonde women. You guessed it. The 18-yr-old male who was the donor for her heart and lungs, liked his beer and chicken nuggets and had a short blonde girlfriend.

Some patients believe not only that they take on aspects of the donor’s personality but in some cases they form a psychic bond. This is what Ian and Lynda Gammons reported following the successful transplantation of one of Lynda’s kidneys in a life-saving operation for husband.

When I spoke with one of the coordinators for the National transplant programme that just happens to be based in Bristol, she was fairly dismissive of these reports and concerns. I am not sure whether she misunderstood my line of enquiry and thought that I really did believe in cellular memory or she was being evasive. Anyway, it was clear to me that this could be a sensitive issue.

Despite my fascination with this supernatural belief, I don’t think that it is ethically appropriate to interview transplant patients about whether they have concerns about cellular memories from their implanted organs. There are far more serious issues to consider. 

So we conducted a study of healthy adults just to get a sense of attitudes towards whether people would be concerned about the identity of the donor. We got them to rate 20 faces along a number of dimension including how happy would they be to receive a life-saving heart transplant from that person. This gave us our baseline scores. We then repeated the questions for the same 20 faces mixed among another 20 distractor faces. This time we told them that the potential donor was either a convicted murderer of voluntary worker. 

The study which is currently in press with the Journal of Culture & Cognition reveals that you get overall positive (halo) effects when you learn someone is a good person and overall negative (horns) effects when you discover that they are evil. The effect is strongest for the killer’s heart. A second study replicated the effect and found no difference between a potential heart versus liver transplant. Maybe people just think killers are more likely to have diseased organs. Except that the halo and horns effects are found for all questions that are irrelevant to lifestyle. Rather I would submit that psychological essentialism (the idea that identity and morality) are believed to be encoded in the body is the primary reason that people fear the heart of a killer.

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Wasabi Monkeys

There is something unnatural about genetic engineering that alarms most members of the public. Even without a full appreciation of the potential problems that genetic modification could produce, Joe Public doesn’t like the idea of scientist’s playing God. That’s how most people refer to this new field. There seems to be something fundamentally wrong about inserting the genes of one life form into another.

There are indeed potential problems with genetic modification (GM) as one has to be careful not to produce unforeseen mutations that have negative consequences. One of the problems of GM is that it by-passes the longer, winnowing processes of natural selection where diversity emerges within the context of an environment of competing life forms.  It’s the laboratory equivalent of importing cane toads to Australia that have no natural predator and then discovering decades later that your environment is overrun with these reviled amphibians.

However, I don’t think the general public are primarily concerned by the problem of unforeseen consequences but rather people are appalled by the transformation of life forms in principle. There is something very wrong about mixing different life forms or at least that’s how the public view it.

I think that this concern reflects a naïve essentialist belief that species are categorically different from each other. This biological essentialism emerges early in child development and before children have been educated about genes and DNA. Rather, our naïve biological reasoning leads us to draw a distinction between life forms by inferring some deeper mechanism that makes life essentially different from each other.

Marmoset_385x185_563858aThis week we learn that Japanese scientists have bred GM monkeys with feet that glow fluorescent green under ultraviolet light. This is because they have had the green fluorescent protein (GFP) marker gene inserted. Why might you ask do we need transgenic marmosets with feet that glow fluorescent green in the first place? The answer is that GFP can be used as a marker to track the effects of genetic manipulation. Last year’s Nobel prize was given to the scientist who discovered and developed the GFP marker technique. 

I would imagine that most of the general public would probably have no particularly concern about this study as the research seems so academic. However, I bet there would be more public outcry if they knew that the GFP was originally isolated from a jellyfish.  This jellyfish gene has been successfully used with many different plants and animals but the marmoset study is the first time that primates have produced offspring that carry the GM trait allowing a colony of transgenic animals to be produced.

The idea of plants and primates having jellyfish genes seems so unnatural but then that simply reflects our misunderstanding of what genes are. Our naïve biological essentialism simply does not easily allow for the concept that all life forms share a common set of genes. Humans may share around 98.5% of their genetic make-up with our closest cousin the chimpanzee but we also share around 50% with a banana. That just doesn’t seem right.

Maybe the mother of one of the twin marmosets agreed as she bit it to death. Or maybe the Japanese mother marmoset mistook the glowing green feet for wasabi.

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Sleeping with the Fishes

Image10The BBC correspondent Heather Alexander highlighted a feature this morning on Breakfast Time television about the Eternal Reefs company in the US who, for a fee of up to $6,495 (£4,000), will incorporate the ashes of a loved one into a concrete pod that is designed to encourage marine life and coral once deposited 3 miles off the coast. So far, around 1,000 such reef balls have been dropped on the ocean floor.

Families and friends are invited and encouraged to attend and participate in the casting of their loved ones.  The process includes mixing the remains into an environmentally safe concrete reef mixture to create their Memorial Reef. According to the website, “Once the Memorial Reefs have been cast, family and friends are given the opportunity to put handprints and written messages in the damp concrete reef mixture. Many loved ones feel this is a wonderful way to stay in touch for eternity.”

I don’t regard this as reefer madness. The interviews with the relatives were very revealing about the way many felt that the deceased would still be alive as part of a living coral reef.  This is a manifestation of essentialism and mind/body dualism that is so typical of the supersense, but one with good ecological intentions. As manager George Frankel said in the interview, “It’s a win-win situation for the relatives and the fish.”04250027z

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