Bugs, Dada, and Genes
I’m rather casual about food, that is, I don’t consider myself particularly picky. Where others make gagging noises at the thought of touching okra or Brussels sprouts, I think it is no big deal. But, like most people, I do draw the line somewhere and that somewhere resides firmly before six- and eight-legged combustibles.
On the surface, one would believe that an aversion to eating bugs is instinctual. After all, some bugs bite and sting and contain all sorts of toxins–so they must be bad, right? But on the other hand some plants contain toxins, too, but that doesn’t prevent anyone from going to the salad bar. So disgust of bug eating perhaps is cultural instead. The husband and wife team Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio certainly make a case of it in Man Eating Bugs, a journalistic and photographic account of entomophagy around the world.
There were some things I already knew about–like eating honeypot ants in the bush of Australia, tarantulas in South America, using scorpions in Chinese medicine, and putting maguey worms in bottles of tequila to authenticate potency–but there were also other fascinating (yet squeamish) delicacies. In Japan, around Ina City, people harvest the larvae of aquatic caddis flies or zaza-mushi which are sauteed with soy sauce and sugar. In Botswanna, mopane worms, the caterpillar of the anomalous emperor moth, have three times the protein of beef. Because of their desirability, they’ve been hunted to near extinction. In Indonesia, children catch dragonflies for snacks. But in every culture, as Western influences seep in, people are abandoning traditional diets for processed foods. As one man the authors interview laments, “TV and chicken killed the dragonfly.”
One of the most interesting things about this book is the style that it’s written in: alternating journal entries between the two authors. It is both amusing and entertaining. One can tell immediately that Menzel must be the gung-ho instigator of this wacky project. He looks forward to each bug meal with relish and describes those creepy-crawlies with a gourmand fondness. “Not unlike what I imagine a deep-fried peanut skin filled with mile, woody foie gras would taste like,” he rhapsodizes about silkworm pupae. D’Aluisio is far more hesitant about this enterprise. Most of the time, she hides behind the camera on the pretense of being documentarian to pass on any wriggling dinner dish. It’s only near the end, after reluctantly sampling some of the local cuisine that she gains a more understanding view of entomophagy despite her western upbringing. Her contribution, however, is far more about the appreciation of the diversity of people’s lives and cultures than merely the ingredients of their meals.
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What do you first think of when you hear the art term “dada”? Before reading Dada: The Revolt of Art by Marc Dachy, I believed Dada to be a French-derived branch of surrealism characterized by visual and verbal diarrhea, not unlike a random generator run amok. But this is only one small part of the whole–perhaps exacerbated into popular opinion around the early 1920’s when there was a very violent and public split in the original Dada movement into Instantaneism and Surrealism centered in Paris.
To really understand Dada, one must go back to World War I. In the middle of the chaos of war and authoritarian governments, artists were trying to find a balance between the two, to break away from the bourgeois ideal of the aesthetic. Dada was as much about opening up political narrow-mindedness as it was a new foray into the artistic avant-gaurd.
Yet I am not convinced that this art movement truly was a revolution in thinking about the modern world. Dada is nothing more than protest trussed up in another guise. Kitchen sinks on pedestals and syllabic poems have no meaning outside of the creator’s explanations and manifestos. These pieces of modern art are like emoticons in e-mails. Take them out, and the meaning of the e-mail still is clear.
However, I do not think that Dada was completely useless. It was the physical manifestation of the western world in unrest. A group’s sudden decision to shock and titillate was a symptom of something terribly wrong on a much larger scale. And perhaps this serves as an example as one of society’s signposts for a rocky near future ahead.
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Every time I pick up a science book, I am struck with terrible indecision. Should I read the book in my hand or some other science book on the shelf? Eventually, I decide with a sigh, I will have to read all of them if I’m to keep up with anybody. Despite publishing slumps and low library check-out rates (for materials other than DVDs), everyone else seem to be incredibly well-read–more than me at any rate–or at least they act like it. Maybe it’s due to the company I keep or perhaps to my poor brain’s inability to quote verbatim passages from relevant texts. Or maybe it’s because I don’t pretend to know everything. (The words “I don’t know” is as much of a conversation stopper as much as the subject of scab picking.)
Anyways, when I picked up Matt Ridley’s Genome, I was at first skeptical. How can anyone tell a biography of a species in a mere 23 chapters, 300 pages? Any genome, from bacteria to human, is extremely complex and after many textbooks and even more research papers, the story is still far from complete. But one has to take into account that this book is for laymen. The average person on the street has no time to wade through the vast scientific literature. Instead of training for years to be a jet fighter or astronaut, people want to get on a roller coaster ride and get the so-called entire experience in 90 seconds or less. And Genome is precisely that, a roller coaster ride of genetic proportion, abet in paper form.
Ridley structures the tale on the number of human chromosomes and picks one gene from each to help him tell the story of how our genome came to be. This ranges from the 5S RNA as a clue to the origin of life to the tumor suppressor TP53 and the ced genes which cause programmed cell death. In between, one finds out such goodies like genetic antagonism between the sexes, genes involved in language, prions, Alzheimer’s, and genomic parasites. Some may argue that it is not genes that determine who we are but the environment. If that is so, then there is still no free will–it is the outside forces that determine our destiny. But Ridley concludes with an odd and almost paradoxical view of free will: since genes are part of us, and there is obviously some genetic control over our lives, isn’t that a form of free will?