Category Archives: Essentialism

German Blood Sausage

Two German Air Force sergeants are currently facing a court martial for preparing sausages made from their own blood based on one of their grandmother’s old recipes. According to the report, they had plans to develop a line of blood sausages using friends and comrades. Apparently the scheme only came to light when a fellow soldier questioned whether donating blood for sausage making was part of their duties.

Having been to Munich and Leipzig I can attest that Germans really enjoy their meat. At one evening dinner as part of a protracted job interview, the hosts took great delight in feeding me bollocks and I am not talking about the nature of the job requirements and duties I would be expected to undertake. No, Germans love to eat meat and are also partial to the occasional sweet

Armin Meiwes

Armin Meiwes

pork. In SuperSense, I talk about Armin Meiwes, the Rotenburg cannibal, whocannibalvicr_468x501 killed and ate Bernd Brandes. What’s so disturbing about this case is that Bernd was a willing victim but read the book for the more unbelievable aspects.

Human blood sausages and cannibalism smack of vital essentialism and if you find it going on in the elite of the German Air Force, then frankly what hope have we for eradicating such medieval beliefs?


Filed under Essentialism, Weird Story of the Week

Galileo Gives Church the Finger

galileo1_11In ‘SuperSense’ I discuss the odd attitude that we have towards revering the remains of the dead. I think that relics are a manifestation of such essentialist beliefs. Usually, relics are bones from saints, but ironically, the same veneration has been applied to the middle finger of one of the earliest martyrs of science, Galileo Galilei.  

As most of you know, Galileo famously fell out with the Catholic Church after defending Copernicus’s discovery that the earth moved round the sun and was charged with heresy. He was ordered to be imprisoned, a sentence that was commuted to house arrest where he spent his final 9 years. 

Recently, British and Italian scientists have applied to the Catholic Church to exhume the remains of Galileo to determine whether he suffered from degenerative visual impairment.

Currently, Galileo’s middle digit is on display in the History of Science Museum in Florence. It is mounted on a marble base inside a glass egg and is said to be pointing towards Rome.  One might think he has had the last laugh.

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Essential Love

web031The desire to share an intimacy with lovers, even after they are gone has a long history. During the Victorian era, it was fashionable to have the hair of the deceased made into mourning jewelry. Today, you can have the cremated remains of the deceased made into a diamond. From as little as £2,500, LifeGem will create a diamond in white, blue, red, green or yellow. And for those of the animal persuasion, they offer a similar service for pets.

imgname-biojewelry_rings_made_from_wisdom_teeth-50226711-bioblingOn the other hand you don’t have to wait for your beloved to be dead. Just take them along to Guy’s Hospital London where the good dentists will extract their wisdom teeth and then grow them up in a bone medium large enough to create a disc from which jewelers can fashion engagement rings with inscription “Forever, and for always.”  Clearly the desire to have your partner wrapped around your finger extends well into essentialism.

Which reminds me. What ever happened to that vial of Billy Bob Thorton’s blood that Angelina Jolie used to wear round her neck? Did she bury it, drink it or flush it down the toilet?


Filed under Essentialism

Let’s Face It

Last week, a Cleveland Clinic announced that the first US face transplant patient had been discharged. Her identity and the circumstances surrounding her loss of face have been kept a closely guarded secret for obvious reasons, unlike Isabelle Dinoire, the French lady, whose face was partially chewed off by her dog, was mawkishly paraded in front of the world’s media.

What does it mean to have a face transplant? Unlike other transplantation procedures, the face transplant is not necessary to prolong life but rather it allows those who are hideously disfigured  to re-enter a society. 

But what of wearing someone else’s face? What are the psychological implications? We have just had an academic paper accepted for publication which examines our essentialist anxieties concerning organ transplantation from another individual. In a hypothetical situation, we asked adults to rate how happy they were to receive organ transplant from others after learning about their moral background. We are much happier to accept an organ donation from someone who has led a morally upright life but much more adverse to receiving a life-saving organ transplant from a murderer. It’s a massive effect.

Fairly obvious and all hypothetical you might argue, but in 1999, a fifteen-year-old girl with terminal heart disease was forcibly given a heart transplant because she refused to agree to the life-saving operation because she thought she would lose her own identity. Psychological essentialism is not just an abstract academic pursuit of mine. It has tangible consequences for the way we reason about decisions regarding the assimilation of other people’s bodily tissue. For example, it not only influences the way we regard organ transplantation but also whether we are willing to give consent for the donation of organs from loved ones. After all, many relatives believe that their deceased loved one lives on in the new body.

A face transplant must be the most difficult challenge to the sense of one’s own identity. Good luck to the poor women.


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

The Weapon Salve

Following from my post about “The Gonad Doctors,” Arno alerted me to a recent article translated from the German Newspaper ‘Speigel,’ about a forthcoming book by medical historian, Dr. Richard Sugg of Durham University on medicinal cannibalism. I particularly like the story about Pope Innocent VIII drinking the blood of three murdered boys. Now, if ever there was a name that was a misnomer.

In the book, Dr. Sugg’s makes the claim that pre-enlightenment medicine regularly used bodies parts for cures.

In SuperSense, I mention Paracelsus, one of the leading alchemists of the day and his particular recipe for a weapon salve. Weapon salves were thought to cure wounds inflicted by weapons by treating the instrument responsible for the injury. Paracelsus wrote,

” Take of moss growing on the head of a thief who has been hanged and left in the air; of real mummy; of human blood, still warm – of each one ounce; of human suet, two ounces; of linseed oil, turpentine, and Armenian bole – of each two drachms. Mix all well in a mortar, and keep the salve in an oblong, narrow urn.”

Once this ointment was prepared, it was important to recover the original weapon and dip it in the ointment. In the meantime, the wound was to be cleaned regularly with fresh water and bandages each day after the removal of ‘laudable pus.’ 

The logic of the weapon salve reveals a number of supernatural misconceptions. The weapon had a sympathetic connection with the wound by virtue of the fact that it had inflicted it. The various ingredients for the salve were chosen because they had sympathetic affinity with the healing process. Some ingredients may have been chosen because they were believed to counteract the negative aspects of infection by exerting antipathetic forces to cancel them out. The gruesome ingredients of the potion demonstrate essentialist thinking. The use of human tissue reflected the belief that it possesses essential forces that can affect the healing process. Particularly prized was the tissue from those who had died healthy and young; no one wanted rejuvenating fat and blood from either the ill or old. Hence, most recipes called for the use of those who had been executed, the younger and more virile the better, as the young had more life force in them than the sick and dying.

If any of this ancient witchcraft  sounds familiar then maybe you have been speaking to a homeopath recently. The logic behind most homeopathic cures involves the same magical laws of sympathy and antipathy. The only difference is that the dilutions are so weak that they are indistinguishable from pure water. But that’s another post for later.

With it’s medieval origins and wacky logic, you don’t get such supernatural thinking in today’s modern healthcare system, do you?



Filed under Essentialism, supernatural

The Gonad Doctors

brinkleyjohnr_fThis one is for “poietes” and her last comment, but really I do need to start  sharing some of the strange stories that I have covered in my quest to unravel the human SuperSense. The book will be published in 70 days. Yikes. So here is a snippet. In it I talk about the amazing story  of Dr. John Brinkley.

As a trainee medical student, John Brinkley worked in  a Kansas slaughterhouse and noticed that the prowess of billy goats. What made them so jumpy?  The owner of the goat farm had been complaining of reduced libido and Brinkley suggested inserting male goat gonads in to the aging farmer’s scrotum.

The operation worked, and the aging farmer went on to father a son, called “Billy” no less. John Brinkley went on to earn a fortune and the mighty and rich on both sides of the Atlantic lined up to pay large amounts of money to have the gonads of others inserted into  their scrotums. I don’t want to give the whole story away but it involved huge amounts of money, crime, international outrage, an attempt to be elected governor, and possibly the explanation for how HIV transferred from monkeys to man. I think you will enjoy the story.

Needless to say, this type of thinking is pure essentialism where we believe we can absorb the youthful properties of others  through intimate contact. Yes, the gonads are a source of vital hormones but inserting another animal’s or man’s family jewels will not make you more vibrant.


Filed under Essentialism

Human Essence

blood_cellsFollowing from the postings related to organ transplants and animal essence, I was reminded that in Japan there is a popular belief that personality and compatibility is determined by which blood group (ABO) you have. This wacky theory apparently surfaced in 1927 following the publication of a Japanese paper, “The Study of Temperament Through Blood Type” which attempted to explain personality differences in terms of blood group. In another study, the author, Takeji Furukawa, wanted  to “penetrate the essence of the racial traits of the Taiwanese, who recently revolted and behaved so cruelly.” The essence theory really got going in the 1970s following the publication of “Understanding Affinity by Blood Type” by Masahiko Nomi. There are of course, real physiological issues about compatibility for blood transfusions but this Japanese theory (which is also found in Korea) claims that it affects personality as well. There are dating agencies that specialize in matching couples on blood, personal ads carry this information and of course, the tabloids offer blood horoscopes.


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Robot Sex

After my recent post about whether we should marry robots, I guess we still have a long way to go.

I wonder how you would feel if your lover’s arms fell off mid way.

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Animal Essence

A number of commentators have asked what I mean by essences and essentialism. Basically, the idea is that we naturally assume that there is a true identity of something that exists independently of its outward appearance.

images-1For example, imagine that you had a raccoon and that you had the technology to change its images2appearance so that it now looked like a skunk (change the color of its skin, paint a white line down the back, add a bag of smelly stuff and so on). If I asked you whether it was a raccoon or a skunk then you would say that it is still a raccoon. You might explain that in terms of DNA and you’d be right. But before DNA was known, you would have given the same answer. Young children who do not know about DNA also say that animals are essentially the same despite outward appearances because they are  basing their answer on intuitive essentialism. Susan Gelman and Frank Keil are some of the leading researchers in this area.

pigletslionsI have taken this idea further by arguing that essentialism could be the basis for some supernatural beliefs. The idea that someone’s essence could contaminate the physical world is a recurring theme in many of the postings that I have put up on this blog.


Filed under Essentialism, Research

Cellular Memories and Bad Blood

I am taking part in a radio interview for BBC Southern Counties Radio’s Brighton breakfast show hosted by Gordon Astley on Sept 10th at around 10am (assuming the world does not come to an end when they switch on the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland).

They want a scientific opinion on the reports from transplant patients who think that they have taken on personality characteristics from the donor following the operation. On the show will be Ian and Lynda Gammons who I interviewed for my book. In 2005, Ian had kidney failure and by chance, his wife, Lynda was found to be a compatible match for organ transplantation. About 6 months after the operation, Ian started to notice a change in his attitudes towards shopping, cooking and working in the garden. All the activities his wife enjoyed but that he could not abide. However, one day during a shopping trip with Lynda he suddenly exclaimed that he was really enjoying himself. Since then Ian has taken up his wife’s interests with enthusiasm. He reports that they have a telepathic connection and even share dreams.

Around 1 in 3 transplant patients believe that they have taken on characteristics of the organ’s donor or at least think that they have changed personality in some significant way. Interestingly, such reports are more common among those that have received an organ from a deceased rather than living donor such as in the case of the Gammons.

The first widely publicized report of such organ memory was the former dancer Claire Sylvia who received the heart and lungs from a young man. Following the transplant she developed a taste for beer, chicken nuggets and an attraction to short blond women. The donor’s girlfriend had been short and blond. He liked beer and chicken McNuggets were found in his coat pocket at the scene of the fatal road traffic accident.

How are we to understand such common reports? One pseudoscience theory is that of cellular memory whereby tissue and organs store information about the individual that can then integrate with the host if transplanted. However, psychological states such preferences and memories are encoded in the cerebral cortex and hippocampus and these brain areas cannot be transplanted. Nor is there any reputable evidence for storage of mental states outside of brain tissue. Organs are indeed connected to the brain via nerves but it is a totally different type of nerve system to that of the cortical neuronal networks of the brain that generate the mind.

Rather, I think that a more likely explanation is the longstanding supersense belief that others have an essence of identity that can be incorporated by contact. Certainly this is what Swedish researcher Margareta Sanner has found in her interviews with patients and the general public. Not only do we believe we can absorb the vitality of others by intimate connection, we also believe we can absorb some by their memories and personality. And what could be more intimate that sharing a physical connection with another through the incorporation of part of their body into our own.

This is why one of the greatest concerns for potential organ recipients is the loss of one’s own identity. In 1999, a 16-year-old girl dying from heart failure was forcibly given a heart transplant because she had refused the life-saving operation. She was so concerned that she would lose her identity with some else’s heart insider her, that she preferred certain death.

It does not have to be an organ. My grad student Arno just translated this article from a Dutch paper that reports a recent situation where a Serb was holidaying in Croatia and learned that the country was suffering from a severe lack of blood donated for operation. Having donated blood for years the man turned up at the hospital and offered to make a donation. This was gratefully accepted until they discovered that he was a Serb. When asked why he was turned away, the hospital explained that patients would not accept a transfusion of Serbian blood. It was bad blood.

This reminds me of a number of recent scandals in the US and UK where families where not happy about their loved one’s organs going to recipients from a different race. When a Newcastle Hospital accepted an organ donation on the condition it went only to a white recipient, UK legislation was enacted in 2000 to stop families dictating who should receive donations.

It is not only the recipients of organs who believe that they take on the personality of the donor, so do the relatives who think that the deceased lives on in a new body! No wonder the UK transplant coordination centre is not keen to discuss this problem as such beliefs could hamper their program to recruit more donors.

I am not sure how I would react to someone else’s organs inside me. On an intellectual level I know that organs are just component parts that serve a function but to be honest, I think I too would have to fight hard not to believe that I had part of someone else living on inside of me. It’s only natural.  


Filed under Essentialism, Radio, supernatural