In Praise of Dinosaurs

Dinosaur VisionYesterday my colloquium students worked in teams on their research projects.  While “Team Ungulate” discussed the similarities and differences of reindeer, horse and donkey evolution, “Team Fowl” (ultimately dedicated to the chicken and the pigeon) became immersed in the miracles of dinosaur vision.  Like other reptiles, dinosaurs saw the world in technicolor, and many of them had full binocular vision that could capture minute details in a landscape a mile away.  We might assume that extinction was a just desert for a life form that proved unable to adapt to climate change, but I was struck by how central vision — or at least the visual imaginary — was to Augmenting Human Intellect and the Memex.  Douglas Englebart and Vannevar Bush both sought to capture, store and extend (augment) associative trails of information that humans use to order, synthesize, and create knowledge.  As Englebart’s initial vision of the word processor suggests, the apparent “magic” of  the CRT is its ability to replicate both the shape and speed of what we “see” in our “mind’s eye,” and to quickly summon the associative trails we stash in its remote corners.

memex_headcam

The modes of augmenting human intellect that have emerged from these mid-20th century visions have revolutionized our ways of knowing, modes of being, and social interactions in miraculous and often disturbing ways.  Yet their initial inspiration and enduring touchstone is the kind of symbolic reasoning intimately bound up with visual perception and the organization of space.  Dinosaurs, with their eagle eyes, may have been way ahead of their time:

“Dinosaur eyes take in a wider view, bending in at the edges like a glass globe filled with water. Nothing is gray or drab or dull; rather they see swimming particles of color, a moving mosaic of dancing colored specks. As we would see a starscape in the night sky, they see a sparkling “lifescape” in the woods by day, a world teeming with life.

Some humans see with dinosaur vision, Bix explained: artists, poets, and children. But for the rest of us, as we grow older, the mammalian part of the brain clouds over the reptilian part, and drains away a little glory of the world.” –James Gurney, “Dinotopia”

Historical Perspective and Paleofantasies

I enjoyed our discussion of canine-human evolution yesterday, and wanted to circle back to our fascination with the paleolithic past.  Chris gave us excellent context on the appeal of the “edenic / authentic paleo” in current health and fitness trends, and I think we all appreciated the nuances of his post and questions. What I wanted to come back to here are the connections between historical thinking and how we invoke an imagined past to help us move forward in an increasingly fraught present.  I appreciated how Marlene Zuk’s recent article reminded us that efforts to get back to a more “pure,” “healthy,” or “natural” lifestyle invoke a static ideal that never existed. Evolution isn’t over.  Like domestication, it is an ongoing process. Paleolithic people may have had less heart disease and lower cholesterol, but they weren’t necessarily more “healthy,” or “better adapted” to their environment than we are. Like other organisms they were making their way the best they could. Some of them eventually domesticated grains and abandoned hunting and gathering for a settled lifestyle that we see both as the beginning of “civilization” and the end of a naturally healthy lifestyle. At the same time, though, many other people became and remained nomadic pastoralists, with all of the dietary and cultural baggage that entailed. As historians, we need to remember that utopias are just that — imagined, idyllic, impossible communities.  We invoke them into being to validate our analyses of the present and legitimize our agendas for the future. I’m quite sure that many of us would benefit from exercising more and eating less processed food. But to imagine that paleolithic people had a more “natural” lifestyle than their contemporary descendents is to take them out of history and deny the continuity of evolution.

Why so Sirius?

I’m interested in the intersections between new and old media, and the interfaces between humans, other animals, and technology. My blog title references my car radio, the magnitude of the digital revolution, and the dogs the Soviets sent into orbit to pave the way for human space flight.

SiriusXM Logo

Drink Your Kumis – Or Fermentation as Humanity’s Best Friend

The discussion about Erica’s terrific post about (among other things) milk and the Mayan apocalypse reminds me that fermented beverages are important, not just to the social lives of contemporary college students, but to the ancient and enduring practices of pastoralism on the Eurasian steppe.  For many people of Turkic and Mongol origin, kumis an alcoholic beverage made from fermented mare’s milk was (and still is) a dietary staple.

For those of you who are wondering about the logistical challenges of milking mares, here is captivating, contemporary account. mare milking in Kirgyzstan

(BTW, the foal in this image has the same kind of leopard spotting found in the Pech Merl image on our mother blog!) And fear not, city dwellers, and others who don’t have access to their own mares, can also imbibe kumis from a bottle.

Kumis bottle with glassKumis’s relative from the Caucasus, kefir, is made from goat, cow or sheep’s milk, and I have fond memories of scouring the stores of Moscow for it in the hungry days of the collapse of Communism.

Kefir cartonUrbanization and industrialization did cause many problems in terms of maintaining a supply of healthy milk. It’s doubtful that we would have traded beer for kumis, even without the advent of Pasteurization, but it’s worth remembering that Ghengis Khan’s warriors drank their kumis.

The Utility of Categories

An instructor’s first post. Inspired by Camilla and Alex

The intensity of the group’s responses to HHH gave me pause – mostly of the good kind. Although we rejected many of Bulliet’s claims, it’s clear that the conceptual categories of “pre-domestic, domestic, post-domestic” got us thinking about our contemporary sensibilities in new and provocative ways.  So, from my perspective, this was a good day!

I was especially struck by Camilla’s ruminations on how her own practices and beliefs support and confound certain aspects of the postdomestic paradigm.  While I’m loathe to engage blogging as a kind of confessional, after reading her reflection on the Utility of Categories  I’m offering the following in further support and recognition of the sweet spots and contradictions of Bulliet’s categories:

I am a native of Western Kansas. My father’s family homesteaded in Smith County, a vast mesa of prairie earth at the geographic center of the continental US.  My childhood revolved around summers spent on the family farm (then in Southern Missouri), where I helped slop hogs, feed chickens, and tend calves, and spent endless hours fussing over the horses and pony that drew me away from the air-conditioned comfort of suburbia to the sweltering humidity of the fields. I ate meat.  Lots of meat.  Most of it came from animals raised on the farm. I thought it was perfectly normal to have a freezer in the garage full of beef and pork. Mine was a “domestic” upbringing, even if I’m too young to have experienced the full-blown era of domesticity Bulliet describes.  I loved animals.  I had pets from wood, field and stream as well as dogs and cats.  And I ate animals.  Lots of animals.

I did have qualms, though.  My grandfather gave me a calf every summer and I always chose a heifer, partly so my herd would expand and partly because I knew cows were more likely to remain in the pasture for several years than steers were.  When I went to college in California, my grandfather sold my herd off to help pay my room and board.  I tried not to think about where my cows ended up — I had raised them and watched over them for many years.  At the same time I encountered what passed for meat in a college dining hall.  I was not impressed.  So I quit eating it and discovered that all of the non-meat food that had never been part of our hamburger / pork chop cuisine was really tasty!  I didn’t really miss meat, but when I went home for Christmas, my mouth watered at the prospect of a good steak dinner.

I couldn’t finish the steak.  It tasted greasy and heavy and made my intestines very unhappy.  I waited a couple days and tried a hamburger.  Same problem.  I was bummed.  And then it occurred to me that this wasn’t a bad thing.  Like most people, I ate meat because I liked it.  Once I no longer liked it, and eating it made me feel sick, an array of rationales for the new normal appeared.  The main one was the unnecessary killing – sacrificing creatures, some of whom I knew as individuals, just because I wanted to eat them seemed senseless and selfish.  I wasn’t much worried about the “factory farm” issue at that point.  The livestock I knew ranged freely, ate well, raised their young themselves, and did not fear predators. I just realized that I found living animals more attractive than dead ones.  I was also impressed with the work of Francis Moore Lappe, and welcomed the prospect of helping people and the environment by eating lower on the food chain.  I was also powerfully impressed by how terribly my gut hurt when I ate that steak.  How could meat be good for you if it made you feel so awful?  And so, more than thirty years ago, I slipped into vegetarianism; not, as Bulliet would have it, out of a “post-domestic” revulsion over imagined animal suffering and death, and estrangement from actual livestock.(cf. pp. 15-18).  No, the shift for me was facilitated by an entirely unintended consequence of foregoing something previously tasty long enough to (accidentally) lose the taste for it. With the desire to eat meat gone, it was easy to reject nearly all of the philosophical moves and practical ploys that put it on my plate in the first place.

There’s more to my “domestic” evolution in the era of “post-domesticity,” but it will have to wait for another evening.