Last month I had the honour to chair Richard Dawkins when he gave a talk in Bristol about his new book, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” We exchanged respective signed copies of our books and I have been slowly working my way through his though I have to say I have not yet finished – a million writing deadlines of my own to complete.
But I did want to write a post on the opening to Chapter 2 entitled, “Dogs, Cows and Cabbages.” In it Dawkins, asks the question, “Why is it so difficult for people to accept natural selection,” and he gives the answer, that when I read it, knocked me off my seat – essentialism. If you have not read SuperSense, a large proportion of it addresses this notion that we believe the world is inhabited by essences and that this explains many supernatural beliefs and practices. So you can imagine how gratifying it was to see it pop up in Dawkins’ latest book where he calls its influence, “the dead hand of Plato.”
However, if I had researched SuperSense more thoroughly I would have discovered that essentialism is also the answer given by Ernst Mayr for why people have a problem with natural selection. Mayr points out that since the time of Plato, people have assumed that there is a true identity to reality that cannot necessarily been seen directly. It’s like there is an ideal form for all the things we detect in the world. So there is an essential dog, an essential tree and so forth. All the variation we experience in the world is interpreted as some deviation from an ideal form – a form that is essential. But such a viewpoint is inconsistent with continual change and evolution. Origins of species through natural selection does not fit with the Platonic view and this is a point that I made in the book. You don’t have to teach children this. They naturally assume that all species are essentially different from each other and that’s why they have a problem with accepting Darwin.
Of course, I go further than Dawkins and Mayr in my theory. Essentialism is not just a belief about true identity. It manifests as a supernatural force that can contaminate reality. There is essential evil, essential goodness, essential youth, and indeed I would argue that we essentialize those things we consider unique such as individuals. I argue that an individual’s essence can contaminate an inanimate object or possession – maybe even a signed book. This is one reason why some people don’t want to touch or wear the killer’s cardigan. It also explains why we find the notions of duplication, genetic modification and all manner of procedures that violate the integrity of the individual as abhorrent. We are not necessarily aware of this way of thinking and as I have been at pains to point out, it may operate intuitively, but I think that every child born is still shaking the dead hand of Plato.
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.
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.
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?
Would 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.
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.
This 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.
The 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.”
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
pork. In SuperSense, I talk about Armin Meiwes, the Rotenburg cannibal, who 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?
While we are still on the mummy theme, I saw on the PT site that a few Buddhist temples in northern Japan house a number of “living mummies.” In an attempt to achieve Nirvana, these monks had to undergo a gruesome three-step process:
1) Eat a diet of nuts and seeds, exercising vigorously for 1,000 days to rid the body of fat.
2) Eat only bark and roots for the next 1,000 days while sipping on poisonous tea made from the sap of the urushi tree.
3) Finally retreat to an underground tomb and meditate until dead. Leave for 1,000 days and voila, if the corpse is still well preserved, then they are deemed to be a living mummy.
This reminded me of the medieval delicacy of mellified man described by Mary Roach in her gloriously hilarious book, “Stiff.” Mellified man was a delicate sweet used for medicinal purposes and was allegedly prepared in the following way according to the Chinese Materia Medica (1597),
“… In Arabia there are men 70 to 80 years old who are willing to give their bodies to save others. The subject does not eat food, he only bathes and partakes of honey. After a month, he only excretes honey (the urine and feces are entirely honey) and death follows. His fellow men place him in a stone coffin full of honey in which he macerates. The date is put on the coffin giving the year and month. After a hundred years, the seals removed. A confection is formed which is used for the treatment of broken bones and wounded limbs. A small amount taken internally will immediately cure the complaint”
Such an account seems entirely fanciful but there was a roaring trade in the apocatheries of Europe for elixir made from North African mummies. Mummy elixir was so popular that it created a black market trade with grave robbing and faked mummies, a situation that has not changed today. Today, the practice is more motivated by selling corpses to gullible collectors rather than those seeking a quick human nibble. Needless to say, this all smacks of human essentialist reasoning where eating human flesh is believed to bestow some magical power.
With such a plethora of supersense related stories to report this week I thought I would investigate this one. Consider this. If you and I are a couple and we decide to make a doll from the hair on our heads, that said doll would be half mine and half yours and nobody else’s – yes? Now imagine that the said doll disappears but that you and I discover the whereabouts of its location some several years later. Who does it belong to? You and I – yes? So would it be wrong for the authorities to destroy the doll? It seems an obvious yes.
Now replace hair with DNA and try the logic again. While going through his personal records, the parents of Mark Speranza discovered that their dead son deposited his semen in a tissue bank in New York six months before he died of cancer more than 10 years ago. His parents sought to reclaim their son’s sperm in order to impregnate a surrogate mother but had their claim refused in a court of law this week. They argued that as they had paid the yearly maintenance fee for the sample, they were entitled to it. However, the court ruled that handing over the sample would violate the rule that all sperm must be screened before impregnation.
Somehow I think this is just a health technicality. We all know that the real reason is not concern about giving birth to a damaged baby but rather the ethical validity of parents raising their children from the dead, or at least their belief they can. What do you think?
In ‘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.
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.