Eating Babies

Spring and early summer are surely one of the most delightful times of year to be outside. In this vibrant phase of the yearly cycle nature is overflowing with tender new growth, fresh life, and amazing vitality. It is the perfect time of year to enjoy the bountiful blooming of wildflowers, to watch the lazy flight of newly emerged butterflies, and to eat the succulent flesh of babies.

“What did you say!? That is horrible! I would never eat babies.”

Most people will be surprised by one element from that list of spring delights. Some will be disgusted and offended. Nevertheless, I would argue that eating babies is as much a part of the spring season as wildflowers, bird song, and the verdant carpet of green that covers the hills.

Why is it that we romanticize the unfurling of flower petals, the prodigious buzzing of pollinators, and the chorus of frogs while feeling revolted and indignant when we see opportunivores swooping in to eat vulnerable babies? This is one of those instances where many scientifically-minded, and usually objective naturalists feel an uncontrollable urge to step in and “interfere” with the natural processes. The same person who professes a “leave no trace” backcountry ethic and a hands-off conservationist approach to wildlife management suddenly finds themselves chasing a hungry predator away from a fragile baby animal.

Is this just another example of our imposition of arbitrary and misguided ethics onto the natural world? Is this a product of the Disneyfication of nature in our modern Western society? Or is it perhaps a deeper human instinct, an innate and adaptive desire to protect our own babies that is easily triggered by the young of other species? A deeper look at the logic behind our diet and a cross-cultural survey might provide some semblance of an answer.

If you are adamantly anti-baby-eating, I suggest we take a look in your fridge. Do you have any baby broccoli, baby carrots, or baby corn in there? “But that is different,” you might protest, “those are just plants.” What about sprouts, the quintessence of tender babiness, that the health-conscious human might ingest by the thousands in a single meal? You might argue,“Those are still plants. They are not really babies.”

If eating baby plants is morally acceptable because they are more distant from us on the tree of life that might make some kind of sense. We won’t delve into the controversy of whether or not plants have feelings here, nor will we look at baby mushrooms which are phylogenetically more similar to animals like us than they are to plants. Instead, let’s take another look into the fridge of the anti-baby-eater to see if we can find any other ethical contradictions.

What’s that in the cardboard carton in the door? “Those are just, well, uh, you know, eggs…” you respond someone guiltily as if realizing the logical inconsistency mid-sentence. “ But they aren’t really babies yet and, uh, everyone eats them.” If an egg is not the best example of a helpless, tender, succulent, vulnerable, under-developed baby then I’m a mountain gorilla. Yet in our society we scarf chicken eggs in astronomical quantities without thinking twice about their nature.

It is a delicate ethical tight-rope walk that we navigate with egg-eating. We eat eggs by the dozen and incorporate them into more recipes than almost any other ingredient. Yet many people in our society get squeamish if they see a speck of blood in the yoke or think too much about the biological meaning of an egg as they eat their omelette. While we Westerners hard-boil eggs and put the whites in our desserts we are revolted by the mere mention of some of the Asian uses of eggs. The partly developed “balut” eggs prized in the Philippines are particularly difficult for most Westerners to stomach. This embryonic delicacy is but one example that shows the ethical ambiguity of eating eggs and babies when a cross-cultural perspective is taken.

In the case that you argue, “But I don’t eat Balut eggs, that is just weird and wrong!” let me bring up some other examples that are more appealing to the Western palate. As we continue our perusal of the fridge of the anti-baby-eater we might have to look in the freezer. Are those lamb chops? And is that veal? These examples of baby eating require less explanation to the average American and despite growing concerns about the ethic of veal production both of these meats are still commonly consumed in the US.

I think that baby-eating is a perfect example of where the ethics of humans and the ethics of nature converge in an ambiguous gray area that we must examine further. The simple fact that such topics incite powerful and conflicting emotions in most people means they deserve more thought. There is a tendency to do the opposite, to assume that something is either right or wrong, to make an unconscious value judgement based on one’s instinctual reaction or the majority opinion of one’s mother culture. This is a perfect time to slow down and observe our own thought process, our emotional responses, our social programming, and the realities of the natural world. It is at this frayed edge of our comfort zone where deep learning takes place.

Culture: Definition and Function

“Culture refers to the learned, socially acquired traditions of thought and behavior found in human societies. It is a socially acquire lifestyle that includes patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.”  –Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson 2003

If you were to take a person and peel away their clothes, food, tools, language, ideas, beliefs, and worldview, what would you have left? Would that naked body and empty mind still be a person? Would they be able to survive?

Humans are the only animal that depends more on culture than biology. Our bodies are weak and unimpressive compared to most animals. We are ill-protected from the elements in our thin skin, our senses seem mediocre compared to most, and we seem to have few physical adaptations for self-defense or harvesting of food. Nevertheless, we have colonized more of the planet than any other species and have developed strategies for surviving in some of the harshest bioregions.

Since the emergence of anatomically modern humans, 200,000 years ago, culture has been our main way of adapting and evolving. Unlike biological evolution, cultural evolution allows for much faster change. In many cases, cultural evolution allows for adaptations and novelties that would not be possible with biological evolution. Human populations that migrated to the arctic did not have to evolve thick layers of blubber, dense fur, or other physiological adaptations to the cold. Such evolution would have taken thousands and thousands of generations if possible at all.

Cultural characteristics, whether they be material culture or worldview, can be analyzed from a sort of evolutionary perspective. The basic assumption is that if culture is our way of adapting to the environment then there should be a rationale to cultural characteristics. While this view can be criticized as overly simplistic and deterministic I feel that it often provides useful insight and is capable of explaining many things. This way of seeing culture can also be helpful to get away from the idea that some cultures are superior to others or that there is a progression of cultural stages from lesser to greater. All cultures came about as an adaptation to a particular environment over time. Cultures that have been in the same region for thousands of years must adapt to fit that environment. From this perspective, the aboriginal culture of a region is likely to be the best-suited culture for that region.

This essay outlines the basics of the anthropological definition of culture. Whenever I refer to culture it is this anthropological definition that I am referring to.

Why learn primitive skills?

Stretching goat hides - 1
Your ancestors did not hop into their GPS-guided, climate controlled SUV’s and drive (while texting) to the nearest Wal-Mart to take care of their survival needs. They did not have heat, light, and water at the flick of a switch next to the refrigerator full of food. Your ancestors depended directly on their skills and in-depth knowledge of their surroundings to survive.

“Why do primitive skills still matter today? Aren’t we beyond that?” Some people might ask, implying that modern technology negates the importance of such ancestral ways. There are several major reasons why these skills are worthy of study and appreciation. First, I would point out the fact that for 99.9% of our existence humans have lived in small, non-hierarchical, minimally-specialized bands of foragers. That means that individuals understood, owned, and practiced the skills necessary for their survival. That is the context in which our species evolved; that is who we are.

When you begin to learn some of the basic skills that your ancestors used to survive you will develop a new understanding and connection with what it means to be human. You will be humbled by the level of sophistication, strength, dexterity, coordination, and creativity required for “primitive technologies.” Failure, frustration, exhaustion, and blisters will teach you to appreciate ancestral skills and hopefully you will stop taking for granted the luxuries of more modern technologies.

While humbling, primitive skills offer endless rewards for those who take time to practice and learn. In addition to a newfound sense of connection and respect, you will develop an empowering sense of self-sufficiency and a new way of seeing the world. Knowing your survival priorities and how to take care of them from materials found around you is a powerful and extremely basic set of skills. In today’s society the average person knows more about video games and celebrity pregnancies then they know about what their body needs to survive! Ask them to list their survival needs in order of priority and they will fail. No, Wi-Fi and caramel macchiatos are not survival priorities!

Studying ancestral skills will make you feel more confident, more connected, and more self sufficient. It will also put your life in perspective and help you deal with many modern issues. When you understand the basics that have provided for our species for the majority of our existence it will be easy for you to detect bullshit in the modern world. You will have a better grasp on what matters and what does not matter; you will see which modern technologies are indispensably useful and which are worthless trash.

Some primitive skills, such as tracking and nature awareness, have the potential to entirely change how you see the world! You will notice things and recognize patterns that other people will be clueless about. Not only is this perceptual shift fun and intriguing it is also utilitarian. Noticing things and being aware of subtle clues comes in handy in the modern city world just as much as in the woods. It could give you new insights at work, help you find your keys, or save your life.

There are also ecological benefits to learning and practicing Ancestral Skills. Basic human survival skills are the most fundamental way in which we relate to our surroundings. When you spend more dirt time practicing you get more connected to your environment and better understand your relationship with it. This should lead to a sort of environmental ethic that is not naive, city-born, or blinded by the human-nature dichotomy. Such an ethic and understanding can inform wiser daily choices. In general, our pre-industrial ancestors had a much deeper and culturally codified understanding of sustainability, resilience, and ecological responsibility.

Other benefits of practicing Ancestral Skills can come to our social lives, and our mental and physical health. Getting outdoors and cooperatively working with other people on tasks that we evolved to do has a powerful way of inspiring and satisfying. Communication, teamwork, and conflict resolution are also survival skills that served us in the past and are necessary in the modern world. This social aspect combined with the nature of many of the Ancestral Skills provides great exercise for the brain and the body. Many of the skills require new perceptual training, sensory development, and cognitive functions that we don’t engage sufficiently in modern life. Working on the type of tasks that our bodies and brains evolved to do has a powerful effect.

“Now I see why these skills matter, and they sound fun and interesting, but how am I supposed to learn about them? They don’t teach those things at my school!”
Ironically, now is the best time in history to learn these skills. There is a resurgence in the US and other countries to teach and practice primitive skills and technologies from different cultures and time periods. Below are links to several events and organizations that are good places to start.

Buckeye

Acorn

The Sharpening Stone

Saskatoon Circle

Wintercount

Rabbit Stick

Bulletin of Primitive Technology

 

 

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Knowledge as an obstacle to learning

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With today’s omnipresent media it seems that the average person knows more than ever before in human history. Google searches, wikipedia articles, and countless online news sites make huge amounts of information available. This information bombards the modern person from all directions: TV screens at gas stations and checkout lines, 24 hour news channels, magazines, shared articles on Facebook, DIY websites, and Youtube tutorials. How often do people quote some bit of information that they “know” but they have no idea where the information even came from?

 
I have been wondering about this phenomenon for a while and I have become more and more critical of the whole idea of “knowing.” These days I try really hard not to recite bits of information that I’m not sure about, where the source is forgotten, or at least I put a strong disclaimer on what I spout. For those who are interested there is a field of philosophy that deals with knowledge, how it is acquired, and how it influences belief, certainty, and the concept of truth. This branch of philosophy is called epistemology and is worth some reading. For a basic article see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology

 
Lately, I have been leaning towards the idea that “knowing” or knowledge is one of the major obstacles preventing learning. This phenomenon is easily observed in young children who are the masters of learning. They constantly ask unusual questions and make novel connections when young. This flow of novel thinking is essential to how children learn about the world around them. Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often pruned out and paved over with “knowledge” in the process of socialization. I’m frequently saddened by how adults respond to the often keen and always worthy questions of children. The first possibility and perhaps the most common is for adults to ignore or not notice a child’s question. They might reject the question outright or not take it seriously. If they do provide an answer for the child it often is an answer that shuts off the child’s line of inquiry. Once the child “knows” this answer, often misinformation, they are much less likely to pursue the matter further. They think that they know. Following is an example of this unfortunate stifling of the learning process.

 

I was once visiting the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, an impressive center with diverse animals and plants in well made exhibits. At the enclosure for the desert bighorn sheep I was watching the adult male of the herd repeatedly bashing his head against a large palm tree. From the sizable dent in the tree it was evident that the ram did this on a regular basis. A large group of people stood milling around the exhibit and I could only imagine the pent up stress and boredom of such a creature. Just then, a little girl asked out loud, “Does that hurt it when it hits its head like that?” It seemed to me like a legitimate question rooted in a feeling of empathy for another creature. However, the girls mom seemed to think it was a stupid question and answered quickly without a second thought, “Of course not. Haven’t you seen them bashing heads all day long on TV?”

 

The mother’s answer is based on “knowledge of the the world” that she has acquired over  the years of her life (apparently much of this from watching TV). She may have seen bits of documentaries about bighorn sheep where the males ram into each other during the mating season. Even more likely she saw this behavior in a popular beer commercial that ran during a Superbowl. From this she assumed that since this is normal behavior for them that it probably doesn’t hurt. She also expressed a high degree of certainty about her “knowledge” in her response to her daughter. She did not add any modifiers or maybes. She did not admit her own lack of an answer to the question.

Chances are that bighorn rams have lots of anatomical features that mitigate the potential damage of their intense head-on impacts. Chances are that the male we were watching was not causing too much damage to himself by ramming the palm tree. However, the point is that we will probably never know if he was experiencing pain. More importantly, the girl’s question is totally valid and a perfect entree into a fascinating line of inquiry that could open many doors of learning. Let me create an alternative scenario where an adult did not insultingly answer the question in a way that stifled a potential learning experience:

At the bighorn sheep exhibit the adult male repeatedly bashed his head against the palm tree in the corner. A large dent in the trunk showed that this was a regular behavior. Just then a little girl asked out loud, “Mommy, does that hurt him when he bangs his head like that?” A thoughtful moment passed before the woman answered, “ I’m not sure honey, how could we find that out?” Instantly, more neurons are firing in the girl’s brain, more connections are being made, and she is forced to think creatively. She recalls her own experiences of pain while also searching her memory for examples of other animals experiencing pain. “ I know that some animals can feel pain, remember that injured horse we saw?” The question hangs in the air before she continues, “But how can we know what they are feeling if we can’t talk to them?”

It is easy to imagine all the possible lessons that could stem from the girl’s original question. Maybe this conversation will lead her to become a behavioral biologist or inspire her to study the neuroscience of pain. Unfortunately, all it takes is an unthoughtful and self-assured answer in the wrong tone of voice from an adult to stifle the learning opportunity. This scenario can also happen between adults, in a whole community, or within the microcosm of our own mind. I think we must be careful of this tendency if we truly want to learn. For true learning is a process, a way of seeing and thinking, it is not the mere accumulation of bits of information.

Be always wary of knowledge and answers; seek instead the power of good questions and child-like curiosity.

For more info on the wonderful Arizona Sonora Desert Museum see here: http://www.desertmuseum.org/

Learning how to Learn

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One of the “meta” topics that I’m most interested in is learning. Learning about new subjects and learning new skills is great but learning how to learn is even better. If you know how to learn in a more effective way you can apply this skill to the learning of any new material. This provides flexibility and adaptability that are increasingly important in the modern world. When the future is uncertain and overwhelmingly complex it is hard to know what skills and subject matters are most important to learn. Will it be more useful for me to study small scale food production, wilderness survival, conflict-resolution, or self-defense? Or would I be better off focusing all my energy on the narrow subject matter of a particular career? In unpredictable and rapidly-changing times one thing is certain: being good at learning itself is a major advantage.

A look at human history and prehistory shows that the ability to adapt to new and rapidly changing conditions is one of the hallmarks of our species. It is likely that much of our biological hardware and cultural software arose to deal with the difficulties of an unpredictable environment and novel challenges. There are many debatable things about human evolution and human nature. However, one thing that is apparent is that we are born to learn.

If we are innately so good at learning how come we often find learning new things difficult, especially as we get older? Unfortunately, our culture, that all-powerful tool, often dictates to us what is possible and not possible. Recent neuroscience continues to show us the incredible feats of plasticity, connection, and memorization that the brain is capable of. Many popular beliefs and cultural assumptions about the limits of the brain have been totally blown out of the water. “An old dog can’t learn new tricks” is a good example of a cultural meme that is not based on brain science and can influence our capabilities. Luckily, we do not have the brains of dogs, and we are indeed capable of learning new tricks, new languages, and other new skills as we age. The burgeoning field of neuroplasticity continues to find evidence that the brain’s ability to learn and adapt is far greater than previously assumed.

I will be writing several entries about learning since it is one of the great meta-topics under which all of my other interests fall. I will get more into specific techniques for improved learning while delving into particular topics of study and also philosophizing about learning and knowledge in general. I will tie in current research in cognitive science because we are in the golden age of brain research. Everyone with a brain should be interested.

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Science Illustration

DSCN3562 Here is an example of one of my illustrations.

My diversity of interests, unique perspective, and holistic outlook have frequently complicated my search for a clearly defined career in today’s myopic and overspecialized world. I often lamented the fact that I could not pursue the multi-faceted life’s work of the renaissance man, such as Leonardo da Vinci, or the diverse skill base of the 19th century scientists and natural historians, such as Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt.

In my continuing quest to find a way to connect my widespread interests and follow a life path that is in tune with my earliest predilections I have found the field of Science Illustration. In particular I have decided to apply for the Science Illustration graduate certificate program at CSU Monterey Bay. This program used to be at UC Santa Cruz and I heard about it when I was studying anthropology there. However, I somehow thought that it was not really a viable career path. Some type of deeply ingrained and insidious bias against art had me subconsciously convinced that art was not something to major in or seek a career in.

For more about the program that I’m applying for checkout the website here:

http://scienceillustration.org/index.htm

Make sure to check out the gallery with alumni artwork here:

http://scienceillustration.org/gallery/galleryhome.htm

Since I was a kid I have loved drawing and I have loved nature. Drawing was always a personal thing for me and I never really pursued formal instruction. Looking back, part of me wishes I had taken it more seriously, took more classes, or majored in art. However, I know that the path I took, no matter how circuitous, has allowed many experiences that are essential to my personality and outlook today. If I had majored in art in college I might not have gone down the path that taught me so much about sustainability, agriculture, homesteading, primitive skills, and tracking.

One of my inspirations for pursuing science illustration is John Muir Laws. He is the author and illustrator of a field guide to the Sierra Nevada and several other books. He fits the bill for a 19th century Naturalist with keen field observation, countless hours of dirt time, evocative and accurate illustration skills, and a strong science background that is not overly specialized, corporatized, or computerized. Laws is also extremely generous with his knowledge and techniques, often teaching workshops in the San Francisco Bay Area and posting many useful tutorials on his website.

Check out John Muir Law’s excellent website:                                   http://johnmuirlaws.com/

I have sent in my application for the CSUMB program and should hear back in the next month or so. It is a very exciting turning point in my life and I am looking forward to an extremely stimulating and challenging learning experience!

I’ll get a portfolio of my work up soon.

Marley’s Background Essay

Every aspect of a person is a reflection of their experiences. What we have seen, heard, or done makes us who we are.

One of the most important influences on my life is my family history. I was born into a family characterized by a convergence of diverse cultural, racial and class backgrounds. My mother’s parents included the son of an ex-slave who grew up on an Indian reservation and became a labor organizer and the daughter of Jewish immigrants form Lithuania who resisted Czarist pogroms. My father’s parents included the son of coal miners of German and Irish descent who became a labor relations expert and the daughter of a German immigrant milkman who at the age of 50 sailed around the world. When I was six years old my parents were divorced and soon thereafter my father moved to Costa Rica.

Exposure to many cultures within my own family provides me with awareness of and some insight into widely divergent ideas and worldviews. Being raised in such a diverse environment has fostered in me an insatiable curiosity and desire to understand the workings of the world and its inhabitants. This global family also gives me the chance to leave the world of most of my peers behind and experience life in other countries.

Since I was six years old I have had the privilege of spending part of almost every year living with my dad in Gunacaste Costa Rica. Being part of a rural Central American community has not only allowed me to become fluent in the language, but in the culture as well. Life on the farm where my dad lives is at polar opposites from life in San Diego, yet both of these places have been home for me. One is a metropolis with millions of people, criss-crossed by freeways while the other is a village of less than a thousand, surrounded by jungle and farmland. The dramatic shift from one home to the other has punctuated the yearly rhythm of my life and made me adaptable. This ability to adapt to new environments has proven useful in my life, especially in my travels.

Three weeks after graduating high school I began a year that would have unprecedented effects on my life. I decided to postpone my studies for a year to travel and work in Central America and Europe. During this time I lived in several European countries, taught English at a Costa Rican High school, and worked on a dairy farm in Denmark. That year of my life provided me with invaluable experiences as well as a newfound confidence and motivation.

Because of the diversity of my family and my experiences I have a unique way of seeing and responding to the world. I am accustomed to interacting with people from all over the planet and adapting to the culture which they belong to. My curiosity and global perspective thrive in today’s increasingly interconnected world.