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05 MAY, 2015

The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning: The Extraordinary Edible Record of Two Women Explorers’ Journey to the End of the World

By:

“In Antarctica, everything is stripped down… It is only who you are and what you do that counts.”

“Housekeeping, the art of the infinite, is no game for amateurs,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in 1982 in a fictional piece full of truths, a New Yorker short story about an all-female crew of polar explorers titled “Sur: A Summary Report of the Yelcho Expedition to the Antarctic,” later included in the short story collection The Unreal and the Real.

The pioneering polar explorer Ernest Shackleton would’ve been well-advised to heed Le Guin’s admonition. In 1914, as he was readying to embark upon his heroic Antarctic expedition, he posted the following recruitment ad in the wanted section of a London newspaper:

MEN WANTED for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, nor and recognition in case of success.

Among the responses was one from a young woman named Peggy Pergrine, writing on behalf of a female trio:

We ‘three spotty girls’… beg for you take us with you on your expedition to the South Pole. We are … willing to undergo any hardships that you yourselves undergo. If our feminine garb is inconvenient, we should just love to don masculine attire… We do not see why men should have all the glory … especially when there are women just as brave and capable.

Shackleton replied dryly:

There are no vacancies for the opposite sex on the expedition.

Shackleton expedition photographer Frank Hurley working under the bows of the Endurance, 1915. Before abandoning the ship, Shackleton and Hurley chose 120 glass plates to keep, including this rare color one. They smashed 400 plates; Shackleton feared Hurley would endanger himself by even thinking of returning for them.

Whether the great explorer and his crew survived by merit or miracle remains unknown, but survive they did — however narrowly — not without attention to cuisine. (A year later, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his crew, who gave us the most enchanting photographic record of early polar exploration, weren’t so lucky — the entire crew perished in the grip of starvation and extreme cold.)

Menu prepared by Frank Hurley for Midwinter Day dinner, June 22, 1912

Courtesy Mitchell Library State Library of New South Wales

Shackleton’s return from Antarctica was the catalyst for a new era of polar exploration — over the course of the century since his voyage, countless expeditions have taken to this 90-percent glaciated island of mystery and magic, which occupies a tenth of our planet and holds most of the world’s fresh water but has remained unknown for most of human history. In the mere century that humans have inhabited the continent, several nations — including Russia, Chile, China, Uruguay, Poland, and Argentina — have set up research stations, which quickly sprouted the most prolific byproduct of our civilization: human mess.

Project Antarctica, VIEW Foundation pilot cleanup at the Polish research station, Carol Devine in center, 1995

In June of 1994, one woman was tasked with the very endeavor Shackleton had so bluntly denied young Peggy Pergrine exactly eight decades earlier: Humanitarian Carol Devine received a handwritten letter from the Polish Academy of Sciences, inviting her to spearhead what would become Project Antarctica — the world’s first major collaborative environmental initiative to clean up the debris that had accumulated since researchers first set foot on this icy wonderland.

It was a singular job that required the marriage of science and housekeeping, and it was — as Le Guin had observed a decade earlier — no game for amateurs.

Photograph by Jean-Baptiste Charcot from the first French expedition to the Antarctic, 1903–1905

As the expedition leader, Devine set out to recruit volunteers — in an era, it should be noted for perspective, when efforts of this sort were coordinated via fax and derailed by such disasters as blowing a slide projector. In addition to a program manager, an Antarctic veteran, and a biologist, she hired Wendy Trusler — a visual artist and chef renowned for cooking at tree-planting camps throughout Northern Canada.

So began a most unusual and vitalizing collaboration between the two women, which would become, twenty years later, The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning: A Polar Journey (public library) — an extraordinary tome blending the enchantment of Thoreau-like journaling (“A brilliant morning. Sun turns berg in bay into gold.”), the fascination of scientific observation and philosophical reflection (“[The Chilean Commandante] said you can’t write about something of which you are not a part. I disagreed, and agreed.”), and the pure delight of delicious, immensely inventive recipes for meals cooked with minimal ingredients and maximal imagination (“sea cabbage salad made with laminaria [fresh kelp]”).

Carol Devine (right) and Wendy Trusler, Bellingshausen, 1995

Photograph by Lena Nikolaeva

Devine writes in the introduction:

How do you start to clean up some 28 years worth of accumulated rubbish and encourage long-term commitment to cleanup?

[…]

This book is an invitation to experience our and others’ passions, doubts, victories, disasters, concerns, joys, heartbreaks, discoveries, recipes, warnings and encouragement for crossing stormy passages and being (or at least trying to be) good citizens of the world. It’s a call for earth stewardship. Why should future generations have to clean up our collective mess and inherit a planet depleted of biodiversity and resources?

Food is life, food is culture. It shaped old expeditions and shaped ours, and we’re going to use it to tell you this story.

And indeed Trusler’s recipes, written with great warmth and subtle humor, offer a living record of this singular experience.

Fisherman's Fish

Photograph by Sandy Nicholson

No dishes. No forks, You eat Fisherman’s Fish with your hands using your fingers to pull the tender flesh away from the bone. I make it at home using the whitefishes our local fishmonger brings in. Freshly caught bass, trout, pickerel or perch would be even more delectable.

2 whole fish about 1 pound each (whitefish, cleaned, with the skin on) // ¼ cup all-purpose flour // coarse salt // vegetable oil

Cut the fish into ½- to ¼-inch steaks and pat dry. Put the flour on a shallow plate and sprinkle with salt — a few pinches should do. Add enough oil to a large skillet to cover the bottom and place it over medium-high heat.

Dredge the fish steaks in flour on all sides and place them in the pan when the oil is hot, but not smoking. Cook until the fish is golden brown underneath, then turn the steaks and fry the other side until crisply. This should take about two minutes per side.

Serve straight from the pan with wedges of lemon, apples and pears. Have plenty of sweet lemony tea made (vodka shots if it is a special occasion) and be prepared for people to drop by once word gets out.

Makes a meal for six; more if you are serving it as a snack or starter.

The recipes pay homage to the national cuisines of the various research stations — Ukrainian cabbage rolls, Great Wall dumplings, spiced Russian tea. Tucked into them is also a taste of the changing legal and moral conventions surrounding our relationship with nature. Trusler offers a pause-giving appendix to the Fisherman’s Fish recipe:

We strongly encourage using sustainable seafood for this recipe. The Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection, signed in 1991 and entered into force in 1998, prohibits disrupting wildlife. While the kind of small-scale fishing a few of us did was not yet a breach in 1996, we are aware it was a grey zone and in hindsight are uncomfortable.

Rosemary Maple Borscht

Photograph by Sandy Nicholson

Vladimir the Russian cook made his borscht using a meat stock. My version kept the vegetarian volunteers in camp happy and even got the thumbs up from the Russians. To make vegan Rosemary Maple Borscht just substitute olive oil for butter and hold back on the dollop of crème fraiche or sour cream.

2 pounds beets (around 5 medium) // 3 medium potatoes // 2 tablespoons butter // olive oil // 2 onions // 2 cloves of garlic // 1 celery stalk // 2 large carrots // 1 small cabbage(about 5 cups chopped) // 1 tablespoon caraway seeds // 8 cups water // 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar // 3 tablespoons maple syrup // 1 can crushed tomatoes (28 ounces) // 1 tablespoons sea salt // pepper // fresh rosemary

Peel and cube the beets and potatoes and put them aside. Heat the butter in a large pot set over medium heat and add the beets and potatoes, tossing to coat them with butter. Reduce the heat and sauté, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon and being careful not to bruise or break the cubes. After about 5 minutes add enough water to cover the vegetables and gently simmer until tender, around 10 minutes.

While the beets and potatoes are cooking, mince the garlic and onions and chop the remaining vegetables. Put the caraway seeds into a large Dutch oven or stock pot and toast them over low heat, pushing them around the pan from time to tie so they don’t burn. When you begin to smell the aroma of the caraway add enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom of the pot. Stir in the onions, garlic and celery, sprinkle with salt and cook over medium heat until the vegetables are soft and translucent. Next mix in the carrots and cabbage and sauté for about 5 minutes before adding the remaining water. Bring briefly to a boil and reduce the heat before making the final additions.

Add the beets and potatoes in their cooking liquid, along with the vinegar, maple syrup, crushed tomatoes and a large sprig of fresh rosemary. Cover and simmer for at least 40 minutes to bring the flavors together. Season to taste and make adjustments to the thickness of the soup by adding water as you see fit. Garnish with rosemary and a dollop of crème fraiche or sour cream and sere with freshly baked bread.

Makes enough for ten to twelve people.

Cooking for small teams of volunteers on King George Island meant I had to scale back my recipes from my bush cook days, but only so far. I love that I can get a few meals from this soup. It keeps for five days and freezes well even if you aren’t in Antarctica.

All-In Pizza

Photograph by Sandy Nicholson

Pizza is a personal thing, so it’s often best to let people make their own. When I recognized the ice-breaking potential for this hands-on meal, I stated to serve it the first night of each camp.

I put out a stack of partially baked pizza crusts with a variety of toppings and let the volunteers and dinner guests do the rest. Make-your-own pizza night encourages creativity, shapes conversation (even when there is little) and is a fabulous way to turn around leftovers.

Pizza Bases

1 batch Honey Oatmeal Bread dough (page 81) made through the first rising // Cornmeal for the pan

When the dough has doubled in size, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface, punch it down and cut it into four equal pieces. Knead each piece a few turns, roll them into uniform balls, and set aside to rest, covered, for about 5 minutes while you grease your baking sheets and preheat your oven to 350° F.

To make pizza crusts that are the same shape and size, roll out a ball of dough into a 14×14 inch square about 1/4-inch thick. Cut four rounds from the dough using a 7-inch pot lid or a bread and butter plate as a template. Continue with the remaining dough. Sprinkle the prepared baking sheets with cornmeal. Transfer the rounds to the baking sheets.

Bake until the bases begin to brown slightly around the edges, 8–10 minutes. Turn out onto racks immediately to cool and repeat with the rest of the dough as baking sheets become available.

If you prefer the look of a more free-form pizza, divide your dough into sixteen pieces and shape each of them into a ball. Proceed with a rolling pin or use your hands to press and pull one of the balls of dough into a pleasing shape. Continue until you have formed and baked all of your pizza crusts.

If you are going to use your bases later that day, they can sit out. If not, airtight container or wrap them in plastic and freeze them until ready to use.

Makes bases for sixteen pizzas.

Paging through the journals of Shackleton and other pioneering explorers, Devine gasps at how they capture “the beauty of our shared humanity, records of the weather and heart, humor and hardship, the shifting inside and outside world, the value of knowledge transfer and a hearty stew” — all things that her own cookbook-cum-travelogue offers in ample portions.

Russian scientist Sasha Diesel serving tea in the watchman's room, Bellingshausen, 1996. 'Sasha Diesel made the best tea,' Trusler writes. 'He spoke less english than I did Russian so we'd default to Spanish, which was equally dubious. Mostly we'd sit in companionable silence making things.'

Photograph by Wendy Trusler

For much of the expedition, Devine and Trusler were the only women amid troves of male researchers — in one emblematic extreme, on the Russian station, they were surrounded by five Sashas and four Vladimirs. This often made for tragicomic encounters bespeaking at once how far we’ve come since Shackleton’s dismissal of the female trio and how far we have yet to go. Devine recounts one such experience on a Russian scientific ship in December of 1995:

Two ship staff were at a table beside us and three others at another, dining with the captain and first mate. We were shocked when the man selling red roses pushed two onto us. I looked over at Tomas’s table and he smiled. Tomas — the macho Polish-Argentinian penguin specialist. Who sent us the flowers? Adorable and ridiculous at the same time. Then Andy walked over to us and said, “Do you ladies want us to chaperone you home?” Was he serious? Is it still 1900?

Indeed, Devine points to the long tradition of pioneering women who had ventured to Antarctica since 1900 — botanist Jeanne Baret, who became the first woman to work in the region’s Falkland Islands in 1766, disguised as a man; Caroline Mikkelsen, a Norwegian whaler’s wife, the first woman to set foot on the actual continent in 1935; marine biologist Maria Klenova, the first Russian woman in Antarctica, who helped map the first Soviet Antarctic atlas in 1956 — the year Admiral George Dufek, the first commanding officer of the U.S. Operation Deep Freeze, declared that women would join the U.S. Antarctic program “over [his] dead body”; geochemist Lois Jones, who led the first all-female scientific team to the continent in 1969; retired nurse Barbara Hillary, who became the first African American woman to reach both poles — the North Pole at the age of 75 and the South Pole at 79.

Jackie Ronne, the first female working member of a U.S. expedition, and Sig Gutenko wrapping pemmican, 1947

Courtesy of Karen Ronne Tupek

Devine considers women’s evolving role in polar research, however glacial the pace of that evolution:

Women are respected scientists, artists, activists, explorers, support staff and more. Today they represent one-third of staff at Antarctic bases, lead and participate in game-changing research, such as Susan Solomon and team who helped identify the cause of the ozone hole. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were depleting the ozone layer protecting life from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet light. Scientists and politicians acted following the discovery: The Montreal Protocol (1987) was a landmark environmental treaty banning CFCs.

Devine and Trusler soon began to observe the questionable behaviors of the male scientists with an anthropologist’s detached fascination rather than with personal indignation. Devine writes in another journal entry:

Late at night: Sergey told Lena that the guys told Maxim and Yuri that they had to “stay away from our girls.” They had noticed them flirting with us. Group dynamics.

And yet, for all the limitations of extreme weather, paltry supplies, and dated gender norms, Devine and Trusler approached the expedition with an air of expansive possibility — something Trusler captures beautifully in a journal entry shortly after they cast off:

I have this feeling, a strange sense of something unfolding, opening in front of me.

Photograph by Sandy Nicholson

In an entry from the following day, Devine marvels at the gift of the experience:

It is a privilege to live here, get insight into the scientists’ and staff’s Antarctic life and routines.

In one particularly wonderful entry — wonderful for its fusion of science and humanity, for embodying how we think with animals, for its sheer exuberance of being-in-the-worldness — Devine writes:

The seal colony. They stared at us at first but carried on as if we were irrelevant. Scratching their “arms” with their cur-covered “hands.” Two seals were hugging each other. one put its arm over the other’s back and made like a kiss. Then some seals scrapped — males with teeth-marks in their skin, chopped-up fur. We are all seals perhaps.

We moved from the seal colony to a hut of the biologists. Another exquisite experience. The shack was a wagon-like trailer now held not on rocks, but whalebones! It was a shabby hut with green oil paint chipping off in big chunks — sundried cracks all over. Inside were two beds.

Nature mirrors nature. A rock sitting high on another rock looked like an elephant seal.

This is a lesson on minimalism. Every hut is a treasure, is useful. Recycled.

There is also an invigorating geopolitical peacemaking undertone to the project. In one of several wonderful essays accompanying the recipes and journal entires, Devine reflects on the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, which declared the continent “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science” and was signed by 49 countries by 2012. Remarking what “a rare achievement in a world beset by conflict” it is, she echoes Einstein on the common language of science and marvels:

I love that science is an Antarctic currency and tool of diplomacy.

In another essay, exploring where the garbage collected by the Antarctic cleanup volunteers goes, she examines our ambivalent attitudes toward earth-stewardship:

Maybe there is no morally superior place for garbage.

[…]

I had no idea exactly what we would be doing … but only that we were part of some kind of greater movement. All people who came on our project were willing to work but a few still thought nature was there for them. I had a volunteer from New York in the pilot cleanup at the Polish station the year before who wrote on her feedback form: “Not enough penguins.”

But perhaps most powerful of all is the almost allegorical quality of the project — the way it distills the human experience to its absolute essence, which Devine captures elegantly in the book’s postscript, written nearly twenty years after the expedition:

In Antarctica, everything is stripped down. You have what you have and even less than that materially. It is only who you are and what you do that counts.

Complement The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning, unsynthesizably dimensional and deeply gratifying in its totality, with Rachel Sussman’s photographic journey in Shackleton’s footsteps and this lovely illustrated chronicle of his famous expedition, then treat yourself to more unusual cross-disciplinary cookbooks: The Modern Art Cookbook, The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook, The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, The Futurist Cookbook, and Found Meals of the Lost Generation.

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01 MAY, 2015

Our Microbes, Ourselves: How the Trillions of Tiny Organisms Living Inside Us Are Redefining What It Means to Be Human

By:

“You are mostly not you… We are not individuals; we are ecosystems.”

Being alone may be the central anxiety of our time but, as it turns out, you are never really alone — at least in a biological sense: Every single cell of you — that is, every cell made of human DNA — is kept company by ten cells of microbes that call your body home. And because microbes are single-celled organisms that each carry their own DNA, the difference is even starker in genetic terms — you carry approximately twenty thousand human genes and two to twenty million microbial ones, which makes you 99% microbe. What’s more, although you and I are 99.99% identical in our human DNA, we are vastly different in our individual microbiomes — you have only one in ten of my microbes. Even more striking than the sheer number of these silent and invisible cohabitants is their power over what we consider our human experience — they influence everything from our energy level to how we handle illness to our moods to how tasty we are to mosquitoes.

The enormous implications of this micro-scale relationship, implicated in conditions as diverse as obesity, anxiety, arthritis, autism, and depression, are what Rob Knight explores in the deeply fascinating Follow Your Gut: The Enormous Impact of Tiny Microbes (public library) from TED Books, who have previously published journalist Pico Iyer on the art of stillness and mathematician Hannah Fry on the mathematics of love.

Knight, a Professor of Pediatrics and Computer Science & Engineering and Director of the Microbiome Initiative at the University of California, San Diego, writes:

You are made up of about ten trillion human cells — but there are about a hundred trillion microbial cells in and on your body. Which means: you are mostly not you.

But we are not, as we have thought, merely the unlucky hosts to the occasional bad bug that gives us an infection. In fact, we live in balance with a whole community of microbes all the time. Far from being inert passengers, these little organisms play essential roles in the most fundamental processes of our lives, including digestion, immune responses, and even behavior.

Our inner community of microbes is actually more like a collection of different communities. Different sets of species inhabit different parts of the body, where they play specialized roles. The microbes that live in your mouth are distinct from those residing on your skin or in your gut. We are not individuals; we are ecosystems.

[…]

We’re discovering that microbes are deeply integrated into almost all aspects of our lives. Indeed, microbes are redefining what it means to be human.

And yet all this incredible complexity was practically unknown to us a mere forty years ago — a sobering testament to how inconstant knowledge is and how illusory our sense of its completeness. (Astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser captures this beautifully in his manifesto for living with mystery, in which he writes: “We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.”) Knight considers the staggering disconnect between our longtime obliviousness to the single-celled universe and its far-reaching dominion:

Single-celled organisms are more diverse than all of the plants and animals combined. As it turns out, animals, plants, and fungi; every human, jellyfish, and dung beetle; every strand of kelp, patch of moss, and soaring redwood; and every lichen and mushroom — all the life we can see with our eyes — amount to three short twigs at the end of one branch on the tree of life.

So staggering is this diversity that not only are the microbes on your hands 85% different from those on mine — meaning we each have a microbial fingerprint — but the microbes on your left hand are even different from those on your very own right hand.

Inspired by the theory of biogeography developed by the great British biologist and anthropologist Alfred Russel Wallace — Wallace, Darwin’s contemporary and the underdog of the race for evolutionary theory, mapped the relationship between land area and species diversity — Knight collaborated with University of Colorado evolutionary biology and ecology professor Noah Fierer to develop a similar way of mapping computer keyboard area and microbial species diversity. They came up with what they call the “Wallace line” between the letters G and H — the fault line of mingling for the microbial populations of your left and right hand, which each colonize the respective half of the keyboard.

Here is some perspective for our human solipsism, which tends to grasp things not in absolute terms but in terms relative to us: You carry about three pounds of microbes in your body, which renders your microbiome one of your largest organs — around the same weight as your brain. But more than a mere static presence, this hefty microbiome is an active agent in your dynamic state of being. Knight points to one particularly pause-giving point of impact — the growing body of evidence that our microbiome affects our behavior, shaping “who we become and how we feel”:

It turns out that, rather than too few mechanisms, there are almost too many to contemplate.

From their throne in our guts, microbes not only influence how we digest food, absorb drugs, and produce hormones, but they can also interact with our immune systems to affect our brains. Together the various interactions between microbes and the brain are called the microbiome-gut-brain axis, and understanding this axis could have profound implications for our understanding of psychiatric disorders and our nervous system.

Among the potential applications of this understanding is the promise of alleviating the physiological and psychoemotional burdens of obesity:

Sometimes our genes determine which bacteria live inside us, and then those bacteria turn right around and influence how we behave. This is very well demonstrated in mice lacking a gene called Tlr5, which makes them overeat and subsequently become obese. Mice missing Tlr5 have microbes that make them hungrier; they overeat and become fat. We can prove it’s the microbes doing this in two separate experiments. In one, we transfer the Tlr5-less mice’s microbes into other genetically normal mice, which then overeat and become fat. In the other study, we use antibiotics to wipe out the microbes in the Tlr5-less mice and watch as their appetites return to normal. It’s amazing to think a genetic tweak can create gut microbes that affect behavior and that this behavior can be transferred into another stomach and alter the behavior of its formerly normal host.

Knight points to similar studies being done on inhibiting anxiety by introducing microbes from anxiety-free mice to anxious mice, and considers the imminent development of vaccines against stress, PTSD, and depression. He points to one particularly promising area of study:

According to the World Health Organization, depression is now the leading cause of disability in the United States and is rapidly becoming more common in the developing world. This increase in depression rates matches the rise of other diseases frequently considered to be Western, such as inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes, all of which, we now know, have both immune and microbial components. Could our estranged soil bacteria, which modulate the immune system, be playing a role? In experiments in mice, Mycobacterium vaccae, a soil bacterium, has reduced anxiety. Intriguingly, in a social stress situation (essentially, smaller mice are put in a cage with a much larger, dominant mouse, which beats them up), M. vaccae treatment makes the mice much more resilient against the effects of stress, possibly providing a model for treating stress disorders in humans.

But far beyond the realm of lab mice, we’re conducting everyday experiments on our human microbiome all the time, usually without realizing it — Knight points out that everything from our diet (for instance, the balance of grains and proteins we eat and our your alcohol intake) to the antimicrobial hand-soap we buy to our use of antibiotics alters our microbiome.

Indeed, one of the most important aspects of Knight’s book, far beyond its scientific fascination, is its role as a vital public service announcement against the misuse and overuse of antibiotics — an outcry against the monoculture of mainstream medicine and a call for reclaiming our agency in the handling of our own bodies.

Pointing out that vaccines have “saved more lives throughout the world than any innovation except clean water” and are thus “humanity’s greatest triumph in public health,” he turns a critical eye toward the ludicrous anti-vaccination movement, lamenting “how much people worry about vaccines and how little they worry about antibiotics.”

A quick primer here: Antibiotics work by killing harmful bacteria in our bodies with poison that is more toxic to them than it is to us. But because bacteria breed rapidly, they also adapt to evolutionary pressures fast. Antibiotics exert one such pressure, which means bacteria swiftly sidestep the poison’s effect by developing resistance to it. Like the spammers who are constantly outsmarting and bypassing our anti-spam systems, we end up bombarded with unwanted, harmful material despite our ephemeral defenses.

But apart from being largely ineffective in the long run, antibiotics have a darker and far more significant downside — they tamper with our microbiome, sometimes modifying it to a dangerous degree. They are especially perilous for newborns and young children — Knight notes that antibiotics in the first six months are associated with weight gain (which is hardly surprising, given we use antibiotics to fatten up livestock) and may put the child at greater risk for obesity in adulthood:

Antibiotics can have a profound effect on a child’s microbial development, which may account for their apparent influence on later obesity.

[…]

Antibiotic treatment of newborns, even briefly, causes significant alterations to the composition of their gut bacteria. Perhaps more worrisome, antibiotics disturb the normal patterns of colonization of Bifidobacterium, one of the beneficial microbes. Colonization by Bifidobacterium plays a critical role in the development of a child’s immune system. Antibiotic use early in life may thus elevate the risks of allergies and allergic asthma by reducing the beneficial effects of microbial exposure.

But we are creatures of instant gratification, which is probably why we are so much more accepting of antibiotics, even if they are far more dangerous, than we are of vaccines — we take antibiotics when we are ill and they make us feel better almost immediately, almost miraculously; we are given vaccines when we are healthy, in the hope that they prevent some far-off future illness which, if they perform their respective medical miracle and work, we actually never get to experience. It’s easy to choose something that works easily and quickly, however perilous the side effects, to something that works invisibly and with greatly delayed gratification, even if it’s the safest life-saver.

In the remainder of the altogether illuminating Follow Your Gut, Knight goes on to explore how we get our microbiome and what we can do to optimize it for better physical and psychological health, both as individuals and as a culture. Complement it with Knight’s TED talk, which planted the seed for the book:

Illustrations by Olivia de Salve Villedieu

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27 APRIL, 2015

Einstein on the Common Language of Science in a Rare 1941 Recording

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“Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem — in my opinion — to characterize our age.”

What makes Albert Einstein endure as “the quintessential modern genius” isn’t merely his monumental contribution to science but also his unflinching faith in the human spirit and in our civilizational capacity for good even in the face of undeniable evil. At the peak of WWII — exactly a decade after his little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on racial justice and exactly a decade before his letter to a disheartened young woman (incidentally, a Brain Pickings reader’s mother) affirming why we are alive — Einstein penned a piece titled “The Common Language of Science,” which aired as a radio broadcast for London’s Science Conference in September of 1941 and was soon published in the journal Advancement of Science. It was eventually included in the altogether indispensable anthology Ideas and Opinions (public library), which also gave us Einstein’s views on the value of kindness and the combinatory nature of creativity.

Einstein traces how language developed as a tool of transmuting thought into acoustic expression and evolved into “an instrument of reasoning,” then argues that science is the most international language there is — humanity’s sole shared instrument of reasoning — but the scientific method alone, without moral direction, is insufficient in assuring our civilizational welfare.

But there is another, subtler aspect of the recording that makes it profoundly pause-giving — perhaps one more discernible to those of us who live and think in a language not our native: Here is one of humanity’s most extraordinary minds, struggling to articulate its brilliant contents in a foreign language — slowly, imperfectly, with painfully measured words. There is no more jarring a reminder of our chronic tendency to mistake the presence of an accent for the absence of acumen — how often do people, even well-meaning and educated people, hear such verbal delivery by a stranger and immediately judge her intelligence as inferior to their own?

“You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [or else] you are in trouble,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their superb conversation on identity and the immigrant experience. And yet a central source of trouble in the immigrant experience is precisely the world’s inability to unbridle what you are saying from how you are saying it. It is wholly reasonable to surmise that even Einstein — who was once a little boy reticent to use even his native language — felt the weight of the unconscious social biases to which we are all susceptible.

This original recording of the piece, in Einstein’s own wonderfully accented voice, is nothing short of a cultural treasure. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

The mental development of the individual and his way of forming concepts depend to a high degree upon language. This makes us realize to what extent the same language means the same mentality. In this sense thinking and language are linked together.

What distinguishes the language of science from language as we ordinarily understand the word? How is it that scientific language is international? What science strives for is an utmost acuteness and clarity of concepts as regards their mutual relation and their correspondence to sensory data.

[…]

The supernational character of scientific concepts and scientific language is due to the fact that they have been set up by the best brains of all countries and all times. In solitude, and yet in cooperative effort as regards the final effect, they created the spiritual tools for the technical revolutions which have transformed the life of mankind in the last centuries. Their system of concepts has served as a guide in the bewildering chaos of perceptions so that we learned to grasp general truths from particular observations.

What hopes and fears does the scientific method imply for mankind? I do not think that this is the right way to put the question. Whatever this tool in the hand of man will produce depends entirely on the nature of the goals alive in this mankind. Once these goals exist, the scientific method furnishes means to realize them. Yet it cannot furnish the very goals. The scientific method itself would not have led anywhere, it would not even have been born without a passionate striving for clear understanding.

Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem — in my opinion — to characterize our age. If we desire sincerely and passionately the safety, the welfare, and the free development of the talents of all men, we shall not be in want of the means to approach such a state. Even if only a small part of mankind strives for such goals, their superiority will prove itself in the long run.

Complement with the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice and this rare 1929 recording of A.A. Milne reading from Winnie the Pooh, then revisit Einstein’s answer to a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray and his correspondence with Freud on war, peace, and human nature.

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16 APRIL, 2015

Thinking with Animals: From Aesop to Darwin to YouTube

By:

How metaphors of nonhuman beings help us give shape to the human experience and make sense of our inner lives.

We think in metaphors — they are our bridge of meaning between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Anthropomorphism — the tendency to project human qualities onto nonhuman beings and objects — is perhaps the most common of all metaphorical modes. In our earliest conscious experiences, we are surrounded by toy animals and immersed in children’s books rife with animal characters — in fact, cognitive scientists now know that the development of metaphorical thinking in children is what gives rise to the imagination, so imagining animals as ourselves and projecting ourselves onto animals is a developmental achievement for the human mind. But using animals as a mode of clarifying the human experience is something that permeates every stage of life and every epoch of our civilization, from ancient creation myths to Aesop’s fables to Orwell’s allegorical masterwork Animal Farm to Lolcats and its conceptual predecessor. We are drawn to YouTube videos of animals not just because they are cute or comical, but because they are contextually cute or comical — implicit anthropomorphism juxtaposes their nonhumanness with the expectations of a human context, putting into practice Arthur Koestler’s pioneering biosciation theory of how humor works.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

The fascinating complexities and hidden dynamics of our human dance with nonhuman metaphors is what Max Planck Institute director Lorraine Daston and science historian Gregg Mitman explore in Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism (public library) — a wildly stimulating anthology of essays that began as a workshop at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for the History of Science held in May of 2001, exploring our metaphor-riddled relationship with animals from a variety of perspectives: philosophical, historical, anthropological, political, economic, scientific, and artistic, from ancient India to the Victorian laboratory to the internet.

Daston and Mitman write:

We are animals; we think with animals. What could be more natural? The children’s section of every bookstore overflows with stories about animal heroes and villains; cartoons and animated feature films show the adventures of Bambi, Mickey Mouse, and the Road Runner to rapt audiences… From Aristotle to Darwin down to the present, naturalists have credited bees with monarchies, ants with honesty, and dogs with tender consciences.

They go on to examine how thinking with animals in both senses of the phrase — on the one hand, the kinship of thought and feeling between us and other creatures; on the other, our tendency to use other animals in symbolizing and dramatizing aspects of the human experience — transforms us.

They trace the root of our paradoxical attitude toward thinking with animals — the automatic readiness with which we employ anthropomorphism despite continuing to view the term as one of intellectual and moral reproach:

Originally, the word referred to the attribution of human form to gods, forbidden by several religions as blasphemous. Something of the religious taboo still clings to secular, modern instances of anthropomorphism, even if it is animals rather than divinities that are being humanized.

[…]

In the sciences, to impute human thoughts or emotions to electrons, genes, ants, or even other primates is to invite suspicions of sloppy thinking.

One can’t help but think of the resistance Jane Goodall faced from the scientific establishment for naming rather than numbering the chimps she studied as she embarked on a career that would render her one of the most important scientists of the past century. Had Goodall not learned to think with animals as a child, thanks to her toy chimpanzee named Jubilee, she would have never dreamt the childhood dream that she spent her life turning into a reality.

Illustration by Patrick McDonnell from 'Me... Jane,' a picture book about Goodall's formative years. Click image for more.

Daston and Mittman capture the history of this paradox elegantly:

Despite the official ban on anthropomorphism in science, thinking with animals permeated practice in the field and the lab. Both animal and human were transformed in the process.

Of course, this stubborn resistance to letting other animals encroach on our status as self-appointed supreme beings isn’t limited to science — it has a long cultural history and is central to our understanding of what it means to be human. What Margaret Mead observed of our intraspecies divides — “The Northern identity is dependent upon whom you can keep out,” she told James Baldwin in their magnificent forgotten conversation on race and identity — is also true of the human identity, which is dependent upon enforcing the interspecies divide.

And yet, Daston and Mitman note, even though evolutionary theory has made it increasingly difficult to draw a hard-and-fast line between humans and other animals, there is more to our cultural conflictedness about anthropocentrism:

There is a moral as well an intellectual element to critiques of anthropomorphism. On this view, to imagine that animals think like humans or to cast animals in human roles is a form of self-centered narcissism: one looks outward to the world and sees only one’s own reflection mirrored therein. Considered from a moral standpoint, anthropomorphism sometimes seems dangerously allied to anthropocentrism: humans project their own thoughts and feelings onto other animal species because they egotistically believe themselves to be the center of the universe. But anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism can just as easily tug in opposite directions: for example, the Judeo-Christian tradition that humans were the pinnacle of Creation also encouraged claims that humans, being endowed by God with reason and immortal souls, were superior to and qualitatively different from animals. In this theological context, it made no sense to try to think with soulless animals.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

But even if, in an age when we’ve left behind Decartes’s notion of animals as mere soulless “automata” and we’re beginning to recognize the complexities of animal consciousness, there is a different kind of arrogance in projecting our own souls onto nonhuman animals:

Even if anthropomorphism is decoupled from anthropocentrism, the former can still be criticized as arrogant and unimaginative. To assimilate the behavior of a herd of elephants to, say, that of a large, middle-class, American family or to dress up a pet terrier in a tutu strikes these critics as a kind of species provincialism, an almost pathological failure to register the wondrous variety of the natural world — a provincialism comparable to that of those blinkered tourists who assume that the natives of the foreign countries they visit will have the same customs and speak the same language as at home.

At the heart of the matter seems to be a larger kind of arrogance: We tend to accept and honor otherness, be it in our fellow humans or in our fellow species, for as long as it’s convenient — as long as it doesn’t require us to reformulate our us-ness and revise our own way of being in the world. But once it does, all bets are off. This is why we’ve made such profoundly insufficient progress on enduring issues of racial justice and why we sign Facebook petitions for animal rights while buying products mired in animal testing and cruelty. Drawing that increasingly artificial hard-and-fast line between human and nonhuman consciousness is what allows us to continue considering ourselves moral beings; refusing to widen our circle of empathy and sympathy to other creatures is what allows us to go on fancying ourselves empathetic and sympathetic people even as we harm nonhuman animals, directly and indirectly, with our daily choices.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for a rare edition of Orwell's 'Animal Farm.' Click image for more.

Daston and Mitman capture this poignantly:

Should animals be treated as moral persons, with rights like those accorded to human beings? If so, would animal rights imply that humans ought to embrace vegetarianism, stop wearing fur and leather clothing, and abandon experiments on animals that do not serve the animals’ own interests, for the same reasons that cannibalism and instrumental experiments on humans should be rejected as ethically repugnant?

[…]

Since many (though not all) of the arguments pro and contra in this debate hinge upon the degree of analogy between humans and other animal species, and more particularly on the analogy between thoughts and feelings, the ancient and almost universal practice of thinking with animals has taken on new significance.

In a sentiment that calls to mind John Berger’s provocative 1980 essay Why Look at Animals, they add:

The question raises important issues of representation and agency. Thinking with animals is not the same as thinking about them.

[…]

The outcome of all of them depends crucially not only on how we think about animals but whether, and above all how, we think with them.

Illustration for Aesop's Fables by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for more.

To be sure, our motives for thinking with animals aren’t purely philosophical — they are often quite practical. Images of animals in visual communication create moods and, ultimately, sell products. Daston and Mittman write:

Pets enhance the health and happiness of their owners [and] animal personalities move the public and politicians more effectively than wildlife statistics… Striking images of animals are in great demand by global advertisers because — in contrast to equally striking images of humans — age, race, class, and culture do not interfere with identification and the desire to acquire… No wonder that anthropomorphism has been assiduously cultivated: money, love, and power are all to be had by thinking with animals.

And yet anthropocentrism isn’t always an act of solipsism — it can also be the very opposite: an effort at self-transcendence, evoking Alan Watts’s assertion that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others.” Daston and Mittman offer a counterpoint to the common critique of anthropocentrism:

In certain historical and cultural contexts, the longing to think with animals becomes the opposite of the arrogant egotism decried by critics of anthropomorphism. Instead of projection of one’s own way of thinking and feeling onto other minds, submersion of self in the genuinely other is fervently attempted—but never achieved. It is a virtuoso but doomed act of complete empathy… This extreme form of thinking with animals is the impossible but irresistible desire to jump out of one’s own skin, exchange one’s brain, plunge into another way of being.

Illustration by Bhajju Shyam from 'Creation,' a visual cosmogony of ancient Indian origin myths. Click image for more.

But whichever direction we lean isn, selfishness or self-transcendence, the allure of thinking with animals remains undeniable — something the authors argue is rooted in “the active reality of animals”:

Plants are beautiful, endlessly varied, and marvels of organic adaptation. Yet they radiate none of the magnetism animals do for humans. Even the most enthusiastic fancier of orchids or ferns rarely tries to think with them, in either sense of the phrase… Unlike dolls or robots or any other product of human skill, however ingenious, animals are not our marionettes, our automata (which originally meant “puppet” in Greek). They are symbols with a life of their own. We use them to perform our thoughts, feelings, and fantasies because, alone of all our myriad symbols, they can perform; they can do what is to be done. We may orchestrate their performance, but complete mastery is illusion. Eyes peer through the human mask to reveal another life, mysterious — like us or unlike us? Their animated gaze moves us to think.

Thinking with Animals is a tremendous read in its entirety, spanning from the curious “science” of medieval angelology to Kafka to how the Victorian elite sparked the fashion of pet ownership. Complement it with Laurel Braitman’s empathetic inquiry into the mental life of nonhuman animals, one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2014, and Jon Mooallem’s moving paean to wildlife, then treat yourself to one of the loveliest animal-charactered allegories of our time, Marianne Dubuc’s The Lion and the Bird.

Thanks, Laurel

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