Tag Archives: essences

Rubber Love

I was planning on reporting this last year but was reminded of this story again by Arno’s comment on an earlier posting about anthropomorphism of robots.

sexdollLast August, the body of a girl was found by walkers in a remote wooded area in Japan. It was wrapped in a bag and bound round the neck and ankles. The police immediately launched a murder investigation. Don’t worry the image is not what it seems. Several hours later the post-mortem revealed that the ‘corpse’ was in fact a sophisticated sex doll. Police thought it was a prank but in fact, the doll had been dumped by a 60-year-old man who had lived with the doll for several years following the death of his wife.

 Arno alerted me to the post by Sherry Turkle about the future of robotic partners. She very correctly points out that most humans need companionship in whatever form it takes. The Tamagotchi phenomenon several years ago revealed that we nurture what we love but we also loveimages1 what we nurture. These little electronic pets had to be fed, played with and the owners had to clean up after its digital messes. As Turkle points out, Tamagotchis demonstrated that in digital sociability, nurturance is a “killer app.” But then her post moves into really interesting territory. Why not marry a robot? In his book, “Love and Sex with Robots,” computer scientist David Levy predicts such a future.

Sex with an object is acceptable (after all what about all those sales of “toys”), but I think that even the most sophisticated robot would be lacking in human essence. Levy’s vision fails to take into account that we fall in love and desire the essence of another individual, something that the most sophisticated programmer can not achieve.



Filed under General Thoughts

Swiss Milk

A Swiss restaurant owner has announced this month that he intends to serve a menu of dishes cooked with human breast milk. Mr Locher has been posting ads looking for lactating woman to provide the raw ingredient at about £3($6) for 14 fluid ounces.

He first began experimenting with it when his daughter was born and claims, “One can cook really delicious things with it. However, it always needs to be mixed with a bit of whipped cream, in order to keep the consistency.”


weekendI wonder how many customers this menu will attract. Although most of us have been breast-fed as infants, the prospect of consuming someone else’s breast milk does make most of us feel a little queasy. Why? What is about consuming someone else’s human milk that some of us find repugnant? Why are we so happy to consume cow or goat milk? And what is so wrong with Kate Garraway suckling a calf in the recent Guardian article to highlight our peculiar attitudes towards breast-feeding?

 You may remember a few years back that TV chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall cooked up a mother’s placenta on an episode of Channel 4’s “TV Dinners.” Rosie Clear had just given birth and wanted to celebrate this with friends and family with a special dinner. Hugh obligingly flambéed the placenta with red wine and shallots to make a pâté, served on foccacia beard. As I described in the book, apparently Rosie’s husband woofed down 17 helpings while other dinner guests were more reluctant. Half the viewing nation rushed to their telephones to complain whereas the other half rushed to their toilets. Channel 4 was severely reprimanded by the British Broadcasting Standards Commission for bad taste and Hugh was left confused by the public reaction. What’s so wrong?

I think the placenta thing is more gross and for someone not keen on red, bloody meat in the first place, I know which I would swallow if forced to choose.

Still it is an interesting dilemma. As always, I think culture plays a role by shaping our disgust response which I would argue builds upon essentialist notions. We don’t hold these notions for cows and goats but humans are another matter. That’s why the Swiss authorities are still baffled by the apparent loophole in the law that allows Mr Locher to serve human milk. No one thought that it would ever be an issue. Maybe they should start considering other bodily parts. Finger nibbles anyone?


Filed under In the News, Newspaper, Weird Story of the Week

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

The Holocaust Suitcase

Jennifer Anglim Kreder, an associate professor of law at Northern Kentucky University, has recently written an interesting piece on the legal and ethical implications when museums retain personal artifacts. In it, she identifies the conflicting interests of museums to display personal items and the wishes of relatives who want to have such items returned because of their sentimental value. In particular she reports the same story about Michel Levi-Leleu and his father’s suitcase that I discuss in my book, “SuperSense.”

This is the bizarre story of Michel, a 66-year old retired engineer who took his daughter to see a temporary exhibition in Paris on the Holocaust on loan from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. This exhibition contained some of the many suitcases that the Holocaust victims were encouraged to pack and label in a cynical ploy used by the Nazis to trick the Jews into thinking that they were being relocated rather than being sent to death camps.

Pierre Levi, Michel’s father was one such individual who disappeared during the war. The last time Michel saw his father was in 1943 when he left the safety of a refuge in Avignon in France with a cardboard suitcase looking for a new home with his Jewish family. In 2005, Michel’s daughter spotted a battered cardboard suitcase in the Paris exhibition bearing the name of her grandfather.

Michel response was immediate. He wanted the suitcase back and was soon locked in a legal battle to get the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum to return the item to the family.

Kreder’s report of the proceedings is astounding. The Museum responded by countering with the precedence that no items had ever been returned and that if such claims were ever allowed then this would compromise the whole future of the Museum ever allowing public access. It then attempted to deny that the suitcase ever belonged to Pierre Levi, despite the fact that the case also bore his prisoner number as well. They then said that there were many Pierre Levi’s but again, the case bore the street address of Michel’s father. In dismissing the over-whelming evidence, the Museum regarded Michel’s claims as “highly dubious.”

Kreder’s article is thought-provoking. In a time when many museums are compelled by law to return sacred objects, there is a question of whether museums would survive if they could not display authentic items. This is because we value authentic items more than copies because of our psychological essentialism.

However, in this case, or suitcase to be more precise, it seems unjust to withhold the item from the Levi-Leleu family. For a start, it is very unlikely that all the suitcases in the Holocaust museum could be identified and returned to relatives and there must be thousands. More importantly, Michel does not want the suitcase simply to stick it in the attic. He stated,

“I’m not asking that they give it back to me and I’ll put it in a cupboard. I want it to be seen by the people who visit the memorial.”

However, Michel also reveals a supersense towards the suitcase. One of his reasons for wanting to keep the suitcase in France is that he, “didn’t want it to repeat the journey that it had already made to Auschwitz.”

For Michel, it is almost as if the suitcase had become his dead father. Kreder then goes into a fine-grained analysis of the legal precedence of individuals making claims for return of items but ends the article by concluding that museums are morally obligated to return symbolic objects that should never have been taken in the first place.

I had hoped to be able to update you about the Holocaust suitcase and expected a legal decision to be reached in May this year, but I understand that proceedings are still ongoing.

I’ll keep you posted on this one.

Anyway, do you think that the museum is right by acting on behalf of the majority rather than the individual? I am not so sure.


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

Dawkins on Darwin – Does Richard Have a SuperSense?

I am enjoying Richard Dawkins’ latest TV series, “The Genius of Charles Darwin” currently broadcast on UK’s Channel 4. I am sure it will rally the atheists and rile the religious.

images1Not only is Dawkins celebrating the brilliance of Darwin and the power and elegance of Natural Selection to explain the origins of species, he looks like he is using the series as a platform to batter the believers again. Good luck to him. They are not easily dissuaded by argument or evidence.

However, there was one moment in Monday’s episode that I simply had to comment on. Dawkins went to London’s Natural History Museum that still house some of the original specimens documented and labelled by Darwin.

As he sat down to examine the collection, Dawkin’s said, “”This is a very weird feeling… these are Darwins original specimens!” 

He then picked up one pigeon and described how it differed from another.

“This one has been re-labelled but this one has been written in Darwin’s original hand”

At that point Dawkins held up the label to the camera in a lingering shot that I suppose the producers wanted to evoke a moment of awe and reverence.

One thing is clear. Dawkins is a passionate man and clearly has conviction in his advocacy of atheism and rejection of supernaturalism. But I wonder if he, like many others, feels an emotional connection to others through the objects they once handled in the same way the religious covet a relic?

I hope he does. It would make him seem more human to many.

Thanks Alice for bringing this to my attention.


Filed under Essentialism, Television

If You Want to Get Ahead…..(update)

The use of human body parts in medicine has a long history. For example, the medieval weapon salve was a popular treatment for wounds of conflict in the dark ages. It was believed that enacting a cure upon the weapon that had inflicted an injury could heal wounds. Paracelsus, the renowned 15th century Swiss alchemist, provided the following recipe for one such weapon salve.

“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.”

One would imagine that such practices would have been abandoned in today’s modern era of antibiotics. However, in Africa where belief in witchcraft and magic is still very prevalent, there are continuing reports of similar practices. Earlier this month, police in Gabon arrested a gang of grave robbers who had been removing body parts to be used in Muti (magic) rituals. According to the article, skulls in particular were valued around $620 on the black market, which is a vast amount of money in such an impoverished country.

At least the donors were already dead. What is more worrying are the reports of murder of individuals for body parts. For a sufficient amount of South African Rand, a witch doctor or Muti man can bury a beckoning human hand at the entrance of your new shop to encourage trade. The practice is, of course, illegal but that does not stop Muti killings that take place each year to satisfy the demand for body parts.

And it is no longer restricted to the African continent. The dismembered floating torso of the boy (referred to Adam) found in the London Thames river in 2001 was widely regarded as first example of a ritualistic Muti killing in the UK. It is no coincidence that the victims are often children. Not only are they the most vulnerable but they are also regarded as most potent in vital energy. Belief in vital energy that can be absorbed by another is one dark side of human irrationality.

Later I hope to post how such beliefs have infiltrated the cosmetics industry.


I wanted to update you on the Adam story with this fascinating interview with the botanical expert at Kew Gardens who analysed the contents of the victim’s stomach… what an extraordinary clash between modern science and voodoo… Listen out for the completely tasteless remark from the linking journalist at the end of the piece.



Filed under supernatural