Archive for May, 2011

Not as Alone as We Think

When laypeople think of culture, it’s generally in terms of the art produced by a group of people (Paris has a lot of culture) or a group’s social behaviours (teen culture, geek culture). When anthropologists think of culture, they use both those meanings at the same time. Culture in an anthropological sense is “the customs, civilization, and achievements of a particular time or people” (my Canadian Oxford dictionary), “An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning” (Wikipedia), and “The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group” (also Wikipedia). The ‘social learning’ of that second definition means that culture is transmitted between people and especially between generations. No transmission? It’s not a culture.

When I think of anthropological cultures, I think of stone tools, pottery, buildings, clothing, body modification and adornment, weapons, burial rituals, music, taboos, and social structures—the kinds of things you can dig up, extrapolate from existing artifacts, or document in indigenous cultures. There’s more than this, of course, but these are what get reported in pop science magazines and introductions to anthropology, including children’s books and the class I took in university. It’s hard to draw a line over how many behaviours, like using rocks to open seed pods or putting furs on your back when it’s cold, qualify as a formal culture, but the widest possible definition—one transmitted behaviour is culture—means that humans have had culture for a very long time. Tool use has been documented in hominids as early as 2.5-2.6 million years ago although there’s debate over which hominids made them. Neanderthals had weapons, buried their dead, painted their bodies, and constructed shelters. This wide definition is the one I’m going with here, because at the very least, one cultural behaviour is the beginning of culture.

You see, culture isn’t unique to the Homo genus and its ancestors, although H. sapiens sapiens seems to have taken it the furthest. Chimpanzees, our closest living relative, use tools, including termite sticks and spears. They have a vocabulary of gestures. They have a rigid hierarchy, patrol their borders, form alliances, and start wars. Of course, some of that may be purely instinctive, but where does the line get drawn? Is the human tendency to back up a friend in a fight culture or instinct?

As for other primates: Gorillas also have a social order. A group of Japanese snow monkeys wash their food (link to Youtube). Gorillas, orangutans, and capuchin monkeys use tools. (More examples at the Wikipedia articles.) Notably, orangutan tool use varies by geographical region, suggesting cultural transmission rather than innate knowledge. Chimpanzees have been observed learning tool-making techniques. Of course, tool use is generally seen as an indicator of intelligence, which is accurate, but the facts of population variance and learned behaviours also point towards present culture(s).

Using tools is actually one of the main ways we see cultural behaviour in animals. Dolphins have been seen teaching offspring to push sponges as a foraging tool. One species of Indonesian octopus uses shells and coconuts for protection. Sea otters use rocks to crack open shellfish (Youtube). Elephants will use bark to save drinking water, sticks to swat flies, and rocks to get past electric fences. And of course, birds, especially corvids such as ravens, crows, and jays, and perching birds such as finches and nuthatches, use tools—most often a twig or piece of bark to retrieve insects. New Caledonian Crows are particularly interesting, because they’ll adapt tools for new uses, then pass the knowledge to the rest of their group.

Other evidence for animal cultures include: learned foraging behaviour and evasion tactics in parrots, death rituals in elephants, and the recently discovered adoption of new mating songs in humpback whales. Whales, dolphins, and elephants also have social structures.

It’s hard to say, of course, if any of these behaviours, even if they’re passed on or widespread in populations, are signs of a culture. They may be instinct. They may be evidence of how culture evolved, while not being culture themselves—especially when a species displays only one or two behaviours. They may fall more under biology or psychology than under anthropology. And of course, I’m only an armchair anthropologist. I don’t have nearly enough training to argue definitively in any of the cases I’ve mentioned. But I ask:

  • If these are signs of non-human cultures, could there be signs that we haven’t noticed yet, signs we haven’t realized are signs, and deeper cultural traditions than we’re aware of? What might they be? What species?
  • Alternatively, what if these animal behaviours are signs of cultures evolving as we speak? If we left the animals alone for thousands or millions of years, would they develop civilizations as we did?
  • What if Douglas Adams was right about dolphins and mice having advanced cultures? And/or alien origins? What if he was wrong about them, but crows or octopuses had cultures equal to those of humans?
  • There’s a movement to give the great apes human rights. Could proving conclusively that they had a culture advance the cause? How would having apes as equal citizens change things? If apes get rights, what other species will?
  • All the animals I’ve mentioned are highly intelligent. Some can learn human language. Some have theory of mind. Many are capable of spontaneous problem solving. Does intelligence beget culture? Does culture beget intelligence? Do they evolve simultaneously? Or is there no correlation at all?

Adapting to Humanity

Recently I read an article on (Thanks to Roger Ebert for the link) titled “7 Animals That Are Evolving Right Before Our Eyes”. It’s a fascinating list, ranging all over the animal kingdom. (And before you make a crack – sorry, bad pun – about scientific accuracy from a comedy site, every item on the list has multiple sources cited and links provided.)

As I read the list, I noticed something a bit disturbing: Almost every animal mentioned is evolving (apparently) in response to the effects of humans on their habitat. Tuskless elephants are being born with greater frequency (most likely due to poaching of tusked elephants); Peppered moths apparently changed color to better hide from predators amidst the pollution of the Industrial Revolution; and some of Moscow’s stray dog population appears to have learned to ride the subway.

The one item that most gave me pause was the discovery of the Grolar bear – that’s a hybrid between Grizzly and Polar bears. Amazingly, in April 2010 one bear was killed by a native Inuvialuit hunter, and DNA tests confirmed that not only was it a grizzly/polar hybrid, it was 2nd generation – meaning unlike some other hybrids (like the mule), grolar bears are fertile. This means that, as the polar bears’ habitat melts from global warming, there may be more and more meetings between polars and grizzlies, resulting in more hybrids, which could continue to reproduce – creating a large population of grolar bears (or Brolar bears, as polar bears can also successfully mate with brown bears).

As Cracked pointed out, polar bears are carnivorous, while 80-90% of the grizzlies’ diet is plants. So by nature, polar bears tend to be more aggressive. And this means that a hybrid grolar could be, in essence, a highly aggressive carnivorous beast that’s better suited to warmer climates than its grizzly parent or grandparent.

It occurred to me to wonder whether our damaging the environment has led to the creation of a predator that will intrude on our territory before long. And that got me thinking: what other crazy or unexpected animals might our influence on the planet jumpstart into existence?

So let’s hear your theories! What animal will evolve in the near future as a result of our effect on the world that we’ll come to regret? And please be realistic – no matter how entertaining it sounds in theory, there will never be a sharktopus.

Life, Death, and Water Mythology

I’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides for some time. The movie is loosely based on Tim Power’s  novel by the same name. In anticipation of this event, I talked my fearless editor into letting me celebrate with a post or two.

While chatting about potential topics related to the movie centering around water and the fountain of youth, she mentioned water myths in the context of space travel. I was surprised at first. I so seldom think about such things when I consider space exploration. Sure on alien lands, encountering alien cultures I can absolutely see it. I just don’t think of any kind of belief system in relation to spaceships and travel. The one exception might be John Scalzi’s  The God Engines.

Ok so let’s try an experiment. I am going to share with you locations, creatures, and ideas both real and fantastic that belong to our collective human mythology involving water. They will be direct quotes from various sources.  As you read over them, try and think how they might fit into stories involving space travel. Are you with me? Good. Read the rest of this entry »

Parasites Infest Science Fiction

Literally. Parasites hijack our bodies, manipulate our thoughts and emotions, and even use us as incubation chambers for cute little baby parasites. And it terrifies us! The very idea of some outside entity invading us…not just our world, but you and me specifically…gets inside of our heads and makes our skin crawl. Which is why they make such great Sci-Fi monsters! They’re everywhere! Movies, television, literature…we can’t get enough of the creepy little guys. The Xenomorphs from the Alien franchise are arguably one of the most iconic parasitic organisms ever, with a complex life-cycle that requires a human host. Stargate SG-1 has the Goa’uld, parasites that integrate with their human hosts rather than bursting out of their chests. Even in children’s literature you have the Yeerks; evil space slugs from the Animorphs novels who tried to enslave humanity via the ear canal.

Noticing a bit of a trend? If you look at AMC’s list of the Top Ten Parasite Movies, more than half of them feature an alien parasite. Even though parasites are common right here on Earth, their life cycle is so radically different from ours it feels alien. Especially to those of us living in developed countries with treated water and clean food, where parasitic infections have been largely eliminated. In many parts of the world however, especially in areas with poor sewage treatment, parasites are still a day-to-day problem.

What most people imagine when they think of the term ‘parasite’ are intestinal parasites. Hookworms, roundworms, pinworms and the like colonize the intestinal tract as adults, laying eggs that are shed in feces. The eggs and larvae then spread via contaminated water to other animals, including humans. Gross. They don’t reach full maturity until they find a host though, so their life cycle actually depends on obtaining this ideal host environment. Different species of parasites have adapted a wide variety of techniques for improving their odds of finding the host they need.

For example, Toxoplasma gondii is a parasitic germ whose primary host is cats. It can infect other animals, but is only capable of sexual reproduction in cats. When T. gondii infects rats it actually alters their brain chemistry to make them attracted to the scent of cat urine, thereby increasing the likelihood that the parasite will end up inside of a cat, along with its current host. It’s a very subtle manipulation of the intermediate host to get the parasite where it wants to be. Kind of like mind control.

Opiocordyceps unilateralis, known as the zombie-ant fungus, functions in a way that is entirely like mind control. When this parasitic fungus infects a carpenter ant, it manipulates the host into leaving the colony and attaching itself to the underside of a leaf. The fungus prefers to grow in this environment. When the ant dies, the fungal stalk erupts from its body and produces spores…which drift down to the forest floor and infect other ants.

Most parasites try to avoid killing their hosts. Why mess with a free ride, after all? But that is certainly not always the case. Certain species of wasp, known as parasitoid wasps because they ultimately destroy the host, lay their eggs inside other insects. When the eggs hatch, the juvenile wasps eat their way out of the living host without so much as a ‘thank you’. Parasitoid wasps are often cited as the inspiration for the Xenomorph life cycle.

So you see, we don’t need to look to outer space or science fiction to be creeped out by parasites. There’s plenty of creepiness to go around here at home.

Friday the 13th

We only get one Friday the 13th this year which may turn out to be a relief for some of us. No, I am not superstitious. Well, I’m not about most things, and I’d have to stop and really think of an example of a superstition I fall prey to. Just the same, as I was set to back out my drive way this morning, my husband started for me in a hurry. It turns out the car he was going to drive had a dead battery. It is odd. We can’t figure out exactly what drained the battery. It has an automatic light shut off feature. Hmmm. We had been ahead of the clock. I dropped him off at the office just in time.

Next, I went to get the gas that I would now need BEFORE commuting to my own office. Filling up would run me late, and as I hurried, I stepped in a puddle of ick near the pump. You might say it is the start of a run of bad luck. To that I would admit that I am wearing sandals when I should be wearing boots. It isn’t raining today, but it has rained frequently this week. You might say I believe that we make our own luck, good or bad, or that I don’t believe in luck at all. Read the rest of this entry »


We’ve all seen the utopian cities in science fiction and fantasy where people live in harmony with nature in overgrown tree forts, flitting from tree to tree on vines or suspended walkways. From Tolkien’s Lothlorien to the Home Tree in Avatar to the treeships in Hyperion and the Ewoks and Wookees of Star Wars, it seems that living in a tree-house is all the rage for the more eco-conscious species. But is arboreal living really the greenest way to live?

Tolkien's elves might be able to pull of eco-friendly living in the trees, but mere mortals are better off living in cities if they want to protect the environment.

Read the rest of this entry »

Big Speculation – Fat Fiction

 More people on Earth are overweight than underweight. Yet the trajectory of human body size in science fiction and fantasy could be graphed with a line sloping sharply in the opposite direction. Where’s the fat? 

Authors, we’re not doing anyone favors by dodging the facts of life. Fiction’s greatest purpose is to address reality in a way that frees readers to relate to it without suffering it directly. We certainly don’t make our writing any better by preempting the fat (or dark skin, or women, or children). If anything, we sabotage our stories by depriving our characters of experiences that matter to real people living in the real world. 

Of course this problem has complex origins. Western fat bias is going global, and escapism will always have wide appeal, after all. However, I suspect part of the problem stems from a generally poor understanding of what fat is, how it works, and why it’s important. 

Here’s the skinny on fat: Every cell in our body requires cholesterol to function. We need fat to live, so there’s no point demonizing it or pretending it has no place in speculative fiction. Furthermore, fat cells – collectively, adipose tissue – do so much more than store excess calories. Fat behaves like the other organs of the body; it actively participates in metabolism, yes, but it also influences our neurochemistry and immune system

There is more to talk about than weight loss when it comes to fat. Isn’t it curious that different types of fat deposits predict different long term health outcomes? Isn’t it more interesting that one’s sense of satiety, of ‘fullness’, depends more on the brain’s ability to receive certain chemical signals from the gut than it does on how much is eaten? Isn’t it downright fantastic that, once upon a time, being fat was socially advantageous? 

When I browse a bookstore, I see vast expanses of neglected frontier. Even the science fiction and fantasy sections are narrow and homogenous. If our art imitated life, I’d see two covers with ample main characters for every one featuring an athletic lead. It makes me want to write in the gaps. To fill the void in our fiction with fact. And fat. 

Five minutes of speculation later, and I already have more ideas than I have time to develop: 

– Aliens make first contact and assume that the widest person on Earth is our leader. 

– A zombie epidemic starts with an appetite suppressant, and only the obese outlast the horde. 

– Santa Claus trims up and loses his powers, and is nightmarishly replaced by Rumpelstiltskin. 

– It turns out that the fatter one’s body, the greater one’s magic, but because using magic burns calories at a phenomenal rate, nearly all magic is applied to agriculture.

What’s your big speculation?

Printing the future

The technology for 3D printing feels like science fiction to me, but it’s already here. A 3D printer can make nearly anything you’d like by extruding paste from a nozzle that can move in all three directions. After the paste hardens, you have a thing, whatever you envisioned.

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