On conspiracy theories and Santa Claus.

On conspiracy theories and Santa Claus.

Our daughter wants to visit dungeon-master Santa.

This isn’t as scary as it sounds – the local mall Santa happens to be a developer for Dungeons & Dragons.  Unfortunately, our daughter has a bit of trouble with impulse control.  I’ve heard that this is normal for three year olds.

santa-2990434_640“What would you say to other kids about Santa?” we asked her.

“I’d tell them that Santa isn’t real.”

“But, remember, only their parents are supposed to tell them that.”

“Why?”

“Well, you should know that we will always tell you the truth.  If we’re telling you a story, we’ll let you know that it’s a story.  But some other families are different.  They want their kids to believe the dungeon master lives on the North Pole with an army of elves.”

Why?”

“I … I dunno, dude.  But don’t tell the other kids, okay?”

I’ve written previously about the harm in conspiring against children – belief in one conspiracy theory makes people more likely to believe in another.  People who believe that the government is covering up evidence of UFOs are also more likely to believe that vaccines cause autism, fluoride in the water enables mind control, and the Earth is flat.

And, sadly, we start our citizens early.  The Santa story is a vast conspiracy, a large number of authority figures (grown-ups) collaborating to keep the child in a state of ignorance.  A local philosophy professor told me that he felt the story was valuable as a measure of intellectual development – at first the child believes, but then begins to notice flaws in the story.

“Uh, if it takes two minutes to deliver presents, it would take a thousand years to visit everyone in the United States, or two million Santas on Christmas Eve – but not every house has a chimney!”

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I think it would be cynical to lie to children as a developmental metric.  This measurement changes the child (which is not Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, f.y.i.).  The experience of uncovering one conspiracy will train children to search for conspiracies elsewhere.  Perhaps a child is supposed to realize that there’s no Santa at seven years old, that there are no gods at eleven, that the moon landing was faked at thirteen, that JFK is smoking blunts in the Illuminati’s underground lair at seventeen.

After all, the Santa story isn’t the final time we conspire against children.  In my school’s health classes, all sexuality outside of marriage was described as fundamentally bad.  Even if we somehow dodged pregnancy and disease, disrobed physical affection would break our hearts and leave us feeling guilty and ashamed.  Recreational drug use was described in similarly bleak terms (by a teacher who drank coffee every morning).

Students grow up, get laid, drink beer, smoke pot.  Grown-ups were hypocritically hiding the truth.  Sex is fun.  Drugs are fun.

What else were they hiding?

(Have you seen all those children’s books with pictures of happy animals on the farm?)

A lot of the guys in jail believe in conspiracy theories.  Despite a plenitude of dudes with Aryan tattoos, I’ve never heard anybody on a full-tilt ZOG rant, but I’ve been told about Nostradamus, Biblical prophecy, the CIA (to be fair, I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking about MK Ultra, too).

To an extent, I understand why.  The people in jail are being conspired against by judges, informants, and the police.  With lives in thrall to the overt conspiracy of our criminal justice system, covert conspiracy seems probable, too.

And so, in preparation for this essay, I took a few minutes at the beginning of class to say, “There’s an administrator at the local school who thinks the Earth is flat.  Says so to kids.  You guys hear anybody talking about that?”

flatearth“Oh, yeah, there was this dude in A block!  He was talking about it like all the time!”

“Now he’s in seg.”

“It’s like, has he never seen a globe?”

And the guys wondered what that administrator was doing inside a school.

“Cause kids go there to learn, right?”

Kids do need to learn critical thinking.  They should question whether the things they’re taught make sense.  I’ve heard plenty of teachers make erroneous claims, and not just in Indiana’s public schools – some professors at Northwestern and Stanford didn’t know what they were talking about either.  Even so, I think it’s unhelpful to train children by having them uncover the Santa story.  That experience is a step along the way to thinking your sensory experience has primacy over abstract data.

After all, the planet feels flat enough.  It looks flat from most human vantages.  And it would be cheaper to deceive people than to send spacecraft to the moon (a former colleague recently went to the International Space Station for some incredibly expensive molecular biology experiments.  This was a huge undertaking – and she was only 0.1% of the way to the moon).

If you take a kid for his MMR vaccine, and shortly after vaccination he seems to regress into autism, that narrative – which you watched with your own eyes! – is more compelling than a bunch of medical statistics proving there’s no connection.  If you comb the Bible and find lines mirroring current events, that narrative also must seem more compelling than the thought that history is chaotic.  Physicists from Einstein till the present day have been dismayed that quantum mechanics feels so unintuitive.

It’s tricky to find a balance between our own senses and expert opinion.  It’s even harder in a world where numerous authority figures and media outlets have been caught spreading lies.

And so, while I try not to judge others’ parenting decisions, please, take a few minutes to think about the holiday stories you tell.  If you’d like to live in a country where the citizenry can agree on basic facts, lying to your kids might be not be the way to get there.

On prayer.

On prayer.

In jail, we read Czeslaw Milosz’s “On Prayer” (translated by Robert Hass), which opens with the lines:

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.

All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge

And walking it we are aloft

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Photographs by Robert Croma on Flickr.

After somebody read the poem aloud, I asked him: “What would your ideal god look like?”

“Um … tall … blonde, blue eyes …”

I was worried he was describing Thor.  It’s a bad bias, reminiscent of the old surgeon riddle.

The guy went on: “ … thirty-two D …”

Greek_-_Aphrodite_-_Walters_2399“Oh,” I said.  “You wanna worship Aphrodite.”

“Man, she’s great,” he said.  “I’ve been reading all the Greek myths and stuff.  But she is wicked when she’s mad.  Like Arachne committed suicide, and there’s Echo, and Na … Nar …”

“Narcissus.”

“… who she just wrecked.”

It’s true – the god of desire can hurt you.  We were discussing mythology in a room full of dudes incarcerated for possession.

Many of them know that desire is wrecking their lives.  I often say that I’m not against drugs, but certain drugs, mixed with certain people, are definitely bad news.

“That’s me,” said a guy who told me that he’s been shuffling in and out for the last twenty-four years, with the durations out often lasting no more than weeks.  “Last year … after my wife died … my son had to bring me back.  I was over at my nephew’s, and we’d had something like a full gram, each time we sold some I had to be like, here, let me try it with you, and I was falling out … but my son just happened to come by in my truck, and I had all the stuff.  He hit me with Narcan.”

Narcan – naloxone – revives people after overdose.

“So I know I gotta quit.  If I don’t stop, I’m gonna die.”

640px-Naloxone_(1)

In AA, people work with a higher power to stay sober.  A buddy told me, “It was hard coming out as an atheist in AA.”  But Milosz, the poet, would say that there’s no contradiction.  Milosz approached religion from a “scientific, atheistic position mostly,” and then he lived under the Nazis in Warsaw – an experience that could shake anybody’s faith.

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.

And yet, prayer does change the mind.  Earnest prayer can heal. 

All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge

 if there is no other shore

We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.

The men know the grim statistics – rehab fails most people.  A counselor can’t reach into their minds and save them.  Neither can any god.  I’d argue that scientists can’t, either, but some scientists are trying – they’re testing transcranial magnetic stimulation aimed at a region of the human brain associated with impulse control.

Zap.

Do you want drugs now?

Transcranial_magnetic_stimulationA few people in the clinical trials have said “No,” but most people probably still do.  Which isn’t to disparage magnets – we’re asking an awful lot of them.  Addiction is a loop.  So many memories cause desire to swell.  For the guys in jail – many of whom started using when they were eleven or twelve – this is the only life they’ve known.  Their minds have never dealt with the world sober.  They are being asked to start all over again.

But some people manage to quit.  When rehab works, change comes from within.  And so it doesn’t matter whether any god is listening – prayer is for the person who prays.

We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.

On prayer, diversity among deities, and ADHD.

On prayer, diversity among deities, and ADHD.

My new favorite computer game begins each round as a real-time strategy game like Starcraft.  You command your little empire to build temples and offer up various sorts of psalms – will you praise your deity’s ever-gathering hands, its watchful vigilance, its fiery vengeance?

After you feel that you’ve done enough to celebrate your deity, you can command your priests to summon it – at which point the gameplay switches to a third-person adventure mode vaguely reminiscent of the old arcade classic Rampage.  You must attempt to destroy opposing civilizations with your deity … but there’s a twist.  The attributes of your deity reflect the way it was prayed to.  With too much emphasis on its “ever-gathering hands,” your god’s hands become massive. Those unwieldy appendages drag behind you as you walk, plowing deep furrows into the ground.

In this phase of the game, the controls can seem laggy and loose.  It turns out that this is intentional; as in the game Octodad, an inability to control your creation is an essential part of the game.  Certain types of prayer might make your deity more powerful but also more difficult to manage.

John_Martin_-_The_Great_Day_of_His_Wrath_-_Google_Art_Project

Presumably you’d avoid this sort of self-destructive excess – like praising wrath to the extent that your god destroys your own kingdom promptly after being summoned – but opposing players can infiltrate your civilization with heretics, and the way they pray will affect your god as well.

Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas ends with the idea that “everyone gets the devil he deserves.”  This is the underlying concept of the game, but for gods instead of demons.

First Coming includes elements of both real-time strategy and arcade smash-em-up.  And the idea of human prayer sculpting physically-manifest deities is intriguing.  I’d go so far as to argue that it’s the greatest game, flawed only in that it doesn’t live up to the Ontological Argument for the existence of God.

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Bible_primer,_Old_Testament,_for_use_in_the_primary_department_of_Sunday_schools_(1919)_(14595468018)We live in a culture that reveres vengeance.  The majority of the U.S. worships a deity who was praised for his violence.

Sometime around 600 BCE, a kingdom that worshiped a local deity called Yahweh was conquered by Nebuchadnezzer, whose people worshiped the storm god Marduk.  After the surrender, many of the conquered people were deported to Babylon, where they would help make that city the most splendid in the world.

But some of the conquered Hebrews were allowed to remain in Jerusalem, where they still worshiped Yahweh in traditional ways – mostly by ritually killing animals – until they attempted to regain their independence.  Then the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzer sent an army to circle the city.  The people began to starve.  The uprising was crushed.

102.Zedekiah's_Sons_Are_Slaughtered_before_His_EyesThe Hebrew leader was captured.  He was held, struggling, a soldier on either side restraining his arms.  One by one the Babylonian conquerors brought Zedekiah’s children.  The leader surely screamed, begging to die.  The soldiers gripped his arms more tightly.  And (2 Kings 25) they slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah.  Those murders were his last sights, lingering in his blinded mind.  His sons bodies spilling blood from their slit necks into the dust.

Many more of the remaining Hebrews were then deported to Babylon, to slave for the greatness of that city.  They carted stones to build monuments to Marduk.  This god’s temples soared into the sky, one some seven stories high.

And the Hebrews saw the ceremonies held to celebrate Marduk.  On the fourth day of the New Year’s festival, priests read from a sacred text, the Enuma Elish, describing the origin of the world.  The old gods had sex; they were murdered by their children; the flesh of their bodies was used to construct heaven and earth.  Other sacred texts included the Atrahasis – which describes the flood that nearly destroyed humanity when we became too noisy and disturbed the gods’ rest – and Gilgamesh which celebrates fraternal love.

The-Rise-and-Fall-of-Adam-and-Eve_Stephen-Greenblatt_coverIn The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, Stephen Greenblat writes that “These works feature gods – a whole pantheon of them – but Yahweh is nowhere among them, let alone their lord and master.

The Hebrew people were crushed, their god so insignificant that he appeared in none of the victors’ stories.  And so the Hebrews fought back … with words.  They wrote a sacred text of their own, one in which Yahweh reigned supreme and the Babylonian tales were mockingly tweaked.  The glorious temples gave rise to “The Tower of Babel,” symbol of mankind’s unwarranted arrogance.  In the Hebrew flood story, humans were killed because the city people – and none were more urbane than the Babylonians – were corrupt.  Sex did not mark the origin of the world, but rather began after the fall.

And they sang psalms to a deity patiently waiting to enact murderous revenge:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

… and, in answer of their own question, the conquered people begin to sing …

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Raze it, raze it, even to the foundation thereof.

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hath served us.

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

After the siege, Hebrew sons were murdered, daughters were raped, those of able body were made slaves.  They asked of their god revenge.  They prayed to a lord who would kill, and abet their killing, to restore their kingdom.

bible-1623181_640And … several millennia later … our philosophical traditions are rooted in their prayers.  Our nation is embroiled in retributive wars.  Our punitive prisons are overflowing, with those unfortunate enough to land inside often made worse by their time there.

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Yahweh was praised for his patient pursuit of vengeance.  And we celebrate those qualities – in school, especially, we praise those able to dispassionately sit for hours, ingesting knowledge.  Those with difficulty sitting still, we drug.

Which is sad – there are many ways of being smart, even if our culture celebrates only one of them.

Indeed, many cultures have told myths with ADHD heros.  In the Apache myth of the origin of fire, Fox joined a flock of geese in flight … but then forgot the rules for staying in the air.  But that was okay – it was only after he tumbled to earth that he had a chance to steal fire from a tribe of fireflies and bring it to mankind.

In many Polynesian myths of the origin of fire, it was brought by Maui … whose impulsiveness would almost surely lead to an ADHD diagnosis in the contemporary United States.  Each time he received a gift of fire from his ancestor in the underworld – she was pulling off burning finger- or toe-nails and giving them to him – he intentionally quenched them in a nearby stream, just to see what she’d do next.  His curiosity was nearly the death of him.  Irked, she lit the world on fire.

In the Norse pantheon, Loki sometimes plans … but more often pursues whatever rebellious notion pops into his head.  The mutant children he sired will destroy the world.  His penchant for vicious barroom taunting (and impromptu murder) angered all other gods and led to his repeated exile from their kingdom.

But his exploits were still celebrated.

lightning.jpgOr there’s Annabeth in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, a daughter of Athena who helps the protagonist recover after a battle with a minotaur:

“And the ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom.  That’s your battlefield reflexes.  In a real fight, they’d keep you alive.  As for the attention problems, that’s because you see too much, Percy, not too little.  Your senses are better than a regular mortal’s.  Of course the teachers want you medicated.  Most of them are monsters.  They don’t want you seeing them for what they are.”

On Edward Dolnick’s ‘The Seeds of Life’ and artificial wombs.

On Edward Dolnick’s ‘The Seeds of Life’ and artificial wombs.

Juvenile_Smooth_Guarding_Frog_(Limnonectes_palavanensis)_maybe-_(6967250574)Among the smooth guardian frogs of Borneo, females croon to the males, attempting to woo a mate.  This is abnormal for frogs: usually females are serenaded.  But males of this species are the most devoted parents – they guard the fertilized eggs and carry tadpoles from pond to pond after they hatch.  Whereas the females simply lay eggs and leave.

Because male smooth guardian frogs contribute most to the next generation, they are more discerning than females when choosing a mate.  Unclaimed males might be surrounded by strident singers, each striving to win his affection.

Do smooth guardian frogs tell myths?  If their myths are anything like ours, they probably exalt female creator gods whose eggs – sans any contribution from the males – burst forth with heroes.  Or even entire worlds.

Human myths purposefully invert the workings of the world.

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Among humans, females contribute most to survival of the species.  Females undergo nine months of gestation and perhaps years of breastfeeding for every child.  From the first, they pour huge amounts of energy into their offspring.

But human males – especially after the switch to agrarian lifestyles, at which point our minor sexual dimorphism made a large difference in how many calories each individual could procure – fancied themselves to be more important than females.  So we told stories in which men were the stewards of existence.

From Edward Dolnick’s The Seeds of Life:

9780465082957In ancient Egypt, the creation of new life – indeed, the creation of the entire universe – was emphatically the province of males.  Females played a subsidiary role or (in the case of the gods) no role at all.  Creation myths told of male gods who, as one historian writes, “gave birth to their spouses, their children, other humans, animals, cities, sanctuaries, shrines, perpetual offerings, earth, and the planets themselves.”

One papyrus manuscript records the boasts of the Sun God, who first created himself out of nothing – we are not told how – and then took matters into his own capable hands, masturbating the universe into existence.  “I created on my own every being … my fist became my spouse.  I copulated with my hand.”

In human myths from around the world, male gods act as solitary progenitors.  Yahweh creates the world alone.  Then Adam gives birth: a rib is taken from his body to make Eve.

The male leader of the Greek pantheon births a child: Athena springs forth from Zeus’s head.  In some variants of the Ramayana, Ravana creates Sita with a sneeze.

(Did the originator of this myth know anything about reproduction?  How could you imagine birthing a child through a nostril?)

Even among mortals, human males often imagined themselves to be the more important parents.  Obviously female bodies could carry new life, and male bodies could not.  So the men created myths in which female bodies were replaceable – in their telling, sperm was essential.  Women were not.

From Wendy Doniger’s Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts:

51W-viAy4OL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In Hindu mythology the instances of unilateral female creation are by far outnumbered by unilateral male creation.  The male seed is fertile in itself, particularly the seed of a great ascetic who has kept it within him for a long time and is therefore “one whose seed is never shed in vain” (amogharetas); that is, he engenders a child every time he sheds his seed, no matter where he sheds it.  Even an ordinary man’s seed is basically the source of life, as is evident from the Upanisadic tradition; in Dharmasastra, too, the seed remains more important than the womb.  The seed shed by a powerful male may fall into any of a number of womb substitutes (a pot, the earth, a river, or somebody’s mouth) and produce an embryo.

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In The Seeds of Life, Dolnick describes the experiments that finally led Europeans to understand that both parents produce essential gametes.  In the late 1700s, Lazzaro Spallanzani sewed silk pants for male frogs as a form of full-body contraceptive device.  When frogs ejaculated inside their sperm-retaining pants, eggs would not become embryos.  After the pants were turned inside out and rubbed across the jellied clumps of eggs, tadpoles grew.

Spallanzani also performed the first artificial insemination of a dog.  He was a Catholic priest.  Priesthood was different in those days.

rogersShortly after I finished reading The Seeds of Life, we discussed Pattiann Rogers’s “The Rites of Passage” in jail.  This poem opens with the initial cleavage of a fertilized frog egg, followed by its development into a blastula and the formation of organs until

that one definite moment

When a fold of cells quivers suddenly for the first time

And someone says loudly “heart,” born, beating steadily,

Bearing now in the white water of the moon

The instantaneous distinction of being liable to death.

We talked about the almost magical border between nothingness and life – J. said, “When I had my son, I didn’t even want to tell anybody for months, I was worried they’d laugh, they’d say, like, you, you’re just gonna fuck it up.”  And S. said, “I dunno, man, my kid was born, and I was just like, damn.  I made that!”

The thing that hurts these men most is that they’re not there for their kids.

Then we talked about embryology.  I told the men, briefly, about Spallanzani’s experiments.  Then told them that, although I’ve never touched the genitalia of any non-human animal, I used to work next to a man who collected sperm from horseshoe crabs.  He wore gloves.  The supine crabs scrabbled for his arm with their little claws.

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Although early European doctors thought human females contributed nothing to a child other than a fertile field for growth, they were concerned that feminine misbehavior could corrupt poison the filed and corrupt a fetus.  From Rebecca Kukla’s Mass Hysteria:

419Nh3Un2WL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The seventeenth-century textbooks are particularly concerned about and often organized around the possibility of deformed births, with a special focus on the dangers of the impure, permeated womb.  Sadler’s book, for instance, is organized primarily as a list of ways in which the womb can fail to maintain its purity and its integrity–the womb here leaks and ‘weeps,’ and various ‘corrupt humours’ flow in and out of it, making nothing more ‘perilous’ to the body than the ‘ill-affected womb.’ 

Many of the works go into elaborate detail, describing and often visually representing famous cases of monstrous births.  Monstrous births could be the product of weak seed or impure blood, of conception during menstruation, of the woman fertilizing herself with her own seed (!), or, most importantly and consistently, of maternal ingestions of sights and substances that could pollute or deform the womb.  In justifying the need for careful knowledge and monitoring of the maternal body, in the preface of his book, Sadler warns us: “From the womb come convulsions, epilepsies, apoplexies, palseys, hecticke fevers, dropsies, malignant ulcers, and to bee short, there is no disease so ill but may proceed from the evil quality of it.”

They thought that if a pregnant female gazed upon an impure sight, or had an impure thought, the child inside her would be irrevocably damaged.  Which implied the converse.  If a baby was born wrong – mentally or physically disabled – it was proof that the mother’s mind was foul.  Kukla reports that “lascivious thoughts could produce hermaphrodism and other obscene monstrosities.

Children needed to be protected from their mothers.  Otherwise women’s lascivious thoughts would cause a decline in the human race.

For years, doctors recommended that women not breastfeed their children – mothers could exert a harmful influence through their milk as well.  A mother who was good and pure would produce healthful milk, they thought, but most were not.  After all, sex itself was sin.  And children were rarely engendered without sex.  To minimize risk, mothers should feed their babies with commercially prepared substitutes instead.

These doctors would have been thrilled to read in the news, as I did the other day, that modern researchers have come closer to developing an artificial womb.  Children can be kept safe from the perfidies of maternal imagination!  And though it’s not quite unilateral male creation, this “fluid-filled biobag” is akin to the womb-replacing baskets and jars of ghee of Hindu myth.

lamb

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And yet.  A belief that men convey the stuff of life, with women serving solely as a fertile patch of earth, need not lead to misogynistic behavior.  Some cultures have used the same mistaken mythologies to create more egalitarian worlds.

Again from Dolnick’s The Seeds of Life:

Common across many cultures, too, even today, is a belief that it takes many acts of sex to create a baby.  “Many of my New Guinea friends feel obliged to have regular sex right up to the end of pregnancy,” writes the scientist Jared Diamond, “because they believe that repeated infusions of semen furnish the material to build the fetus’s body.”

. . .

Many South American tribes go a step further: not only is the developing baby built up from new batches of semen, but it is best if several different men make a contribution.  All those men are considered the child’s father.  Among the Bari people in Venezuela, for instance, “a good mother will make a point of having sex with several different men, especially when she is pregnant,” one historian writes, “so that her child will enjoy the qualities (and paternal care) not merely of the best hunter, but also of the best storyteller, the strongest warrior, and the most considerate lover.”

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Biology isn’t destiny.  Not even our beliefs about mythology force us to behave any particular way.  A world that is good and fair would be compatible with many myths.

 

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post-script: Shortly after this essay went up, the O.E.D. online’s “word of the day” was “murk,” which includes a misogynistic quote from the early 1400s that fits these themes perfectly.

From Prick of Conscience (1425): Man … was consyved synfully With-in his awen moder body … Par duellid man in a myrk dungeon And in a foul sted of corupcion.

As best I can tell, this would be rendered in modern English as “Man was conceived sinfully within his own mother’s body, and then he dwelled in a murky dungeon (her womb) in a foul state of corruption.”

Male writers have long seemed to channel their jealousy at women’s ability to create life into a hatred of women.  If men have no wombs, we’ll call wombs corrupt!  Although, did you look at that picture of the womb-replacing “bio-bag”?  Less murky, sure.  Totally exposed to the light.  But it also looks nightmarish.

 

On fire myths and the origin of knowledge

Heinrich_fueger_1817_prometheus_brings_fire_to_mankind

EDIT 5/4/2018: a finished essay based on this research was published here.

If you’re writing about conflicts between religious and scientific worldviews, there is absolutely no reason why you’d be forced to write about fire. But, c’mon… fire is cool. Eventually you probably would.

While researching myths about the origin of fire, I realized that my criteria for classifying something as a fire myth are significantly more inclusive than other people’s. For instance, there was an afternoon about three or four years ago when K left school during her lunch break to drive me to the university library. That morning I’d received an email notifying me that my hold request for Sir James George Frazer’s 1930 book Myths of the Origin of Fire: An Essay had been processed.

During our car ride to the library I was babbling nonstop about how excited I was to have a chance to read this book. Eventually I told K, “I can’t wait to see how he spins Adam and Eve…”

K interrupted me. “There’s no fire.”

“Well, no. But it’s still clearly a fire myth. Because many culture’s fire myths feature humans who lack fire and are trying to steal it from powerful creatures that have it. But they are never really stealing fire — no culture has one single flame that they have to keep burning in order to maintain their lifestyle. The stories are about humans stealing knowledge. The knowledge of how to make fire, sure, but why not include myths where humans are stealing knowledge or wisdom in general? So, voilá! We have Adam and Eve, we have Buddha’s snake-shielded initial enlightenment…”

“Oh, I get it,” K said. “So do you think he’ll write about electricity?”

“Electricity?” I sounded incredulous. Despite having claimed that naked people in a garden eating an apple was actually a story about fire, I couldn’t see what electricity had to do with it.

Statue_of_young_Benjamin_Franklin_with_kite_-_by_Carl_Rohl-Smith_-_1893

“Sure. The whole story about Ben Franklin with a kite in the rain. Clearly a myth. Our origin myth for electricity. And since electricity is like fire…”

Oh. Right. I definitely should have thought of this. I could’ve thought about Orthodox Jews who won’t flip light switches in order to honor Exodus 35:3, “Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day.” The equation of electricity with fire has a long history in folkloric analysis. And, besides, the Ben Franklin myth is great. Mad man out in the rain, risking death, discovering the phenomenon that enables our modern world.

So I nodded. “Yeah, maybe he wrote about that… or even the invention of the atomic bomb…”

At the time, I didn’t realize that his book was published in 1930. So I started daydreaming that soon I would be reading his analysis of the mythologized version, Oppenheimer out there aghast in the desert and rattling off some Sanskrit, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Plus, the discovery of atomic fission has an elegant interpretation within the general mold of ‘humans gain fire but then are punished for their transgression.’ Because atomic power is useful, but knowing how to use it is its own punishment. Ever since gaining that knowledge, we have also lived with the fear that we might wipe ourselves away.

Many people answer the Fermi paradox (Hey! Look at all those stars! But… where are the starpeople?) by postulating that there is a bottleneck few civilizations can pass. The knowledge of how to wield atomic power, or how to build sufficiently effective particle accelerators, might contribute to such a bottleneck — it’s knowledge that is probably necessary before you can travel amongst the stars, but the knowledge also allows your species to potentially delete itself.

All of which is to say that I was incredibly excited at the prospect of reading Frazer’s book. And, perhaps inevitably, I was disappointed after K dropped me off and I jogged up to the checkout desk and borrowed it.

CaptureThis isn’t Frazer’s fault. His book is an impressive piece of scholarship: he collected the myths about the origin of fire from many different cultures around the world. But that’s all it was. A collection of stories. I was tricked by his subtitle, “An Essay.” To me the word “essay” implied that there would be an effort toward analysis and synthesis. I wanted Frazer to address the idea of what makes something a fire myth (although his definition seems to have been narrowly, a story about humans learning how to initiate oxidative combustion).

Or Frazer could’ve speculated about what the typical structures of fire myths tell us about humanity (although he might respond that there are enough different varieties — the young person who wrestles fire away from his elders, the humans who are aided by a fire-stealing relay of animals, the thief who hides fire away in flammable wood as soon as capture seems imminent — that there are no general conclusions to draw. But, phooey, I say! Jung would find some generalities to analyze).

There was none of that.

Even the conclusion of his “Conclusion” seems strange to me. Oddly devoid of essayistic interpretation. Because Frazer seems to want folklore to be a companion science to archaeology, whereas I consider folklore to be primarily useful as a companion to psychology. For instance, no matter what you think about the historical veracity of the Bible or the Ramayana or the epic of Gilgamesh, like all literature those works reveal truths about the minds of the authors. And I’d argue that religious literature also reveals important truths about the peoples who revered these stories and considered them worth preserving.

Instead, Frazer concludes his book with this:

“When we consider how often, in the long ages which preceded the discovery of the metals, men in palaeolithic and neolithic times knocked stones together for the purposes of fashioning those rude implements which still exist in countless thousands scattered over the face of the globe, we can hardly avoid concluding that the mode of kindling fire by the percussion of stones must have been discovered independently over and over again in many parts of the world; and as little in this as in the case of the fire-drill need we resort to the hypothesis of a single discoverer, a solitary Prometheus, whose fortunate invention was spread from hand to hand to all the ends of the earth. The Yakuts of Siberia tell how fire was at first accidentally discovered by an old man who, having nothing better to do, amused himself by knocking two stones together, till sparks leaped from the stones and set fire to the dry grass. We need not accept the tale as historical, but it is probably typical of what must almost certainly have happened over and over again in prehistoric times.

“Thus, in spite of the fantastic features which distort many of them, the myths of the origin of fire probably contain a substantial element of truth, and supply a clue which helps us to grope our way through the darkness of the human past in the unnumbered ages which preceded the rise of history.”

Um, sure. The myths tell of humans gaining fire. And humans did indeed gain fire. But…

CaptureAt least his book was a great compilation of stories. After my initial dismay, I was pretty happy to be reading it. Probably my favorite myth is the South American one in which jaguars originally had fire. Humans did not. Humans crept up and stole it away… and then, spiteful, jaguars stopped using it. Claimed they didn’t even want it anymore. And, also, they decided to start occasionally mauling and eating humans in punishment.

The jaguars in some ways resemble hipsters who, as soon as their favorite bands become popular, decide they don’t even want to listen to them anymore. Pfff… fire? That’s so 300,000 BCE.

If you’re interested in a clever analysis of the myths, though, Frazer’s book might not be for you. Perhaps you’d be more pleased by the second chapter of Gregory Schrempp’s The Ancient Mythology of Modern Science. Schrempp’s goal was to analyze popular science books as though they were folklore; in the chapter on fire he centers his analysis on John Barrow’s The Artful Universe.

Barrow wrote that only creatures resembling Homo sapiens could have discovered the use of fire. Too-large creatures would overheat and die, too-small creatures would be endangered by the smallest sustainable fires. But the assumption that small creatures could not tame fire presupposes an unjustifiable assumption about the social organization of the species. Yes, the psuedo-individualistic approach used by Homo sapiens has been very successful. But on our own planet cooperative social organization has proven extremely successful and evolved separately numerous times, in bees, ants, wasps, termites, etc. These cooperative colonies also behave in ways that seem cognitively complex despite the extremely small brains of each individual. So it’s fair to speculate that technological advancement to the point of fire-wielding would be more likely to occur in a socially cooperative species.

Here is Schrempp’s rebuttal to the idea that the minimum fire size promotes human-like body morphs amongst any technologically-advanced species: “One could easily pull together a case in favour of small beings who manage to take advantage of centralized heating; the nice coincidence that the smallest peat fire can sustain one human could just as easily be the nice coincidence that it can sustain a tribe of small creatures.”

And, in rebutting the idea that the minimum-sized fire would seem dangerously large to small creatures, Schrempp points out that many social insects sacrifice individuals to attain a colony’s goals. There are ant species that use their own bodies to build bridges and the like; for instance, here’s a reference for ants constructing boats out of their own bodies. In some of these species the structural volunteers survive, in others they are left behind to die. So it’s not such a stretch to imagine a fire-weilding ant-like species in which individuals immolate themselves in order to deliver fuel to the colony’s central flame. Horrifying, sure, but evolutionarily reasonable.

There is also quite a bit of scientific research that bolsters the link between myths about the origin of fire and the origin of human knowledge. One example is Fonseca-Azevedo and Herculano-Houzel’s study “Metabolic constraint imposes tradeoff between body size and number of brain neurons in human evolution,” which claimed to demonstrate that human-sized brains would only be possible for primates that were using fire to cook their food.

Banksy.
Banksy.

Their work draws upon the well-established idea that brains are energetically expensive: it takes a lot of calories to keep your noggin churning. Other oft-expensive organs are the liver — it takes a lot of calories to keep you from inadvertently poisoning yourself — and the gut — which is cute because it mirrors the adage “It takes money to make money.” Here it takes energy to extract energy, although this is true only with foods that are difficult to digest. Raw root vegetables, leaves, stalks, etc. Hummingbirds don’t have that problem: sugary flower nectar goes down easy. Nor did fire-wielding carnivorous protohumans, which seem to have underwent significant simplification of the gut: cooked antelope practically eats itself!

Sounds great for a species that was struggling to obtain enough calories. Possibly less helpful given the rampant obesity amongst subpopulations of modern Homo sapiens.

In Fonseca-Azevedo and Herculano-Houzel’s paper, they plotted numerous production possibility frontiers for primates eating raw food. Which… have you run across the term “production possibility frontier” before? If so, my apologies for the digression. If not, perhaps you have heard that economists often discuss a trade-off between guns and butter.

A “production possibility frontier” is a graph of what you could possibly make. You have some finite set of resources, and depending on your priorities you might make different sets of things. A country that only cares about war and doesn’t mind having its people starve to death might produce 20 guns and 0 pounds of butter in a year. A country that only cares about food and doesn’t mind allowing its enemies to live might produce 0 guns and 80 pounds of butter. And a country interested in a little bit of this and a little bit of that might produce 18 guns and 70 pounds of butter. As in, the trade-offs are generally not linear. A butter churn is not very helpful for the manufacture of guns.

That unequal trade-off — using your churn to produce butter instead of guns doesn’t cost you much — explains why production possibility frontiers are often convex outward-bulging graphs. Like the one below, Figure 2 from their paper.

Capture

Oddly enough, they didn’t include a dot for humans. I’d imagine that most people would want to see that from a study purporting to be about human evolution. The human dot should be at about (80, 10.9), out in that dangerous zone for raw-food-consuming primates needing to spend ten hours per day eating.

This graph is of course based on an assumption about how many calories you can obtain per hour of effort. Ecological shocks can reduce this, so a species that was able to survive in lush times might die off during a drought. And, as expected, what a species eats can change this. Access to nutrient-dense food saves time.

celery-is-uselessFor instance, K likes celery. But I’m the one who does most of our grocery shopping, so she’s always stuck asking why I never buy it. My complaint is, does celery even count as food? I think of food as something I eat in order to have more energy… why would I purposefully ingest something that runs down my food clock faster?

With celery, not even cooking helps. But numerous other food sources, such as tuberous root vegetables, switch from being not-food (negative calories) to food (mmm, french fries) as soon as you cook them. Bacteria- or parasite-riddled meat also undergoes the same transition. As discussed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites, protohumans were probably poor hunters. Much of the meat they ate was probably obtained by scavenging, and if your goal is to gain nutrition instead of contracting a vomit-inducing case of food poisoning, it’s might be necessary to cook that day-old half-eaten antelope corpse you found sitting out in the sun.

(Not that I’d eat it either way, but most evolutionary biologists have by now rejected the theory that protohumans should’ve gotten in their cars and driven to the local protogrocer to buy a block of prototofu whenever they were hungry.)

The point being that it may have been impossible for protohumans to obtain either their brain size or their culture-yielding free time without cooking their food. Which to me supports the conceptual link between fire myths and knowledge myths. From an evolutionary biology perspective, fire use and human knowledge seem inextricably linked. From a folkloric perspective, there are many parallels between the stories we tell about our origins (although the evolutionary biology story lacks the idea of divine retribution against those protohumans for transgressing their animalistic birthright… unless you want to tack on the cheesy Spiderman quote “with great power comes great responsibility” and assume that because humans can think, we must think, meaning we are saddled with the demands of morality).