Fiction is not cultural appropriation

The fires of cultural appropriation were fanned recently when the editor of a small magazine published by The Writers’ Union of Canada wrote “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation.” Then he poured gasoline on the fire by promoting a “Cultural Appropriation Contest” in which the winner would the writer who appropriates culture the most: “. . . the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.” He was forced to resign.

Credit: Illustration by Jon Foster

Fiction is not cultural appropriation because storytelling is not the property of any one culture. Fictional characters are, by nature, inventions of the storyteller. Writers may invent talking animals (Animal Farm) or wizards and magic (Harry Potter). In all cases they are fabrications, not cultural appropriations.

Cultural appropriation is not fiction. It is real. Grey Owl (aka Archibald Belaney) didn’t just write stories about indigenous North Americans –he completely assumed their identity. The British-born Belaney fabricated his persona after arriving in Canada in 1906. In 1925, he married a Mohawk Iroquois woman, 19-year-old Gertrude Bernard (aka Anahareo), who later encouraged him to write about his experiences.

Some indigenous writers claim that only they can fictionalize indigenous characters. But to what extent should a writer be indigenous? Prize-winning Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden wrote extensively about the indigenous experience. Boyden is primarily of Irish and Scottish ancestry but also claims Nipmuc and Ojibway heritage. How pure should an indigenous writer’s linage be to qualify?

A writer for APTN National News called out Boyden for faking his indigenous roots. I can understand calling out an author for not portraying authentic fictional characters. However, Boyden’s characters are authentic. I his novel, Three Day Road, he tells the story of two Cree soldiers serving in World War I, inspired by an Ojibwa sniper. Would Boyden’s story be more authentic if his pedigree were more indigenous?

Cultural appropriation is layered. An art gallery in Toronto recently cancelled an exhibit by a non-indigenous artist Amanda PL because her paintings carried elements of the indigenous artist Norval Morriseau. PL made no pretence at being indigenous. However, Morriseau himself has been accused of appropriating Christian symbols in his work. Author André Alexis finds a certain irony in the layers of appropriation upon appropriation:

“There are levels of irony at play in all this. To begin with Norval Morriseau was criticized for using sacred symbols in his work. He was accused of debasing them. There is a consistency, here, but how strange that some of the condemnation of PL would be a condemnation of Morriseau, too (Globe and Mail, May 14, 2017).”

If anything is appropriated, it is the entire volume of human storytelling from when early humans looked up at the constellations of the night sky and told of Ursa Major, or “great bear”. These tales are so ingrained that they can be used to trace ancient migrations of humans across the globe. Julien d’Huy explains in Scientific American:

“This research provides compelling new evidence that myths and folktales follow the movement of people around the globe. It reveals that certain tales probably date back to the Paleolithic period, when humans developed primitive stone tools, and spread together with early waves of migration out of Africa (September, 2016).”

Advertisements

When is a GMO not a GMO?

Everything we eat has been genetically modified but no one would call crops from common crossbreeding GMOs. No, Genetically Modified Organisms occur when DNA from one species is inserted another. So-called transgenic crops, such as corn and soybeans, are resistant to the herbicide Roundup. Use of the technology has led to public distrust of GMOs.

crossbreeding

But other technologies modify genetics yet they are not defined as GMOs. With the arrival of the precision gene-editing tool called CRISPR, definitions become more than just semantic says Scientific American (March, 2016). If the foods produced by CRISPR are not defined as GMOs, then public acceptance will be greater.

Let’s look at some current technologies that are not defined as GMOs. The oldest is conventional crossbreeding, widely regarded as “natural.” If we want a blight-resistant plant that produces desirable fruit, a wild relative of the plant that is blight-resistant can be cross-pollinated with one that produces desirable fruit. However, this process is not precise –it transfers not only the desirable trait but also large segments of chromosomes. Along with the desirable chromosomes can be undesirable ones; a process called “linkage drag.”

Modern wheat is one of those. Nina Fedoroff, a plant biologist and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, refers to domesticated versions of bread wheat created by traditional breeding as “genetic monstrosities.”

Then there is Mutagenesis, not considered as creating GMOs by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Developed in the 1920s, it involves the use of x-rays, gamma rays or chemicals to induce mutations in plants. The mutants are ten examined for desirable traits. It’s a shot in the dark.

A more precise shotgun approach was refined in the 1980s. Cisgenesis involves using a DNA particle gun to literally shoot genes with the desirable trait into a plant cell. Cisgenesis can also be accomplished by using bacteria to carry the desirable genes into the plant cell. It’s more efficient than conventional crossbreeding because there is less linkage drag. Whether or not the product is a GMO is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Gene-spliced plants are not considered GMOs. In this method, undesirable traits are turned off by introducing RNA into genes which interferes with the gene. Some approved foods using this method are non-browning potatoes and apples.

CRISPR is totally new and the jury is out on whether they produce GMOs or not. The precision and low-cost of CRISPR confound the problem. As I described in an earlier column, CRISPR is like a search and replace function in a word processor in which all instances of a spelling error can be found and replaced.  Or it can be used to find and simply delete the error.

Supporters of CRISPR argue that when the technology is used to delete but not insert genes, then the results should not be called GMOs: as when an undesirable trait is deleted and not replaced with anything.

Critics of CRISPR say that any tinkering with genes using any technology, other than “natural” methods, should be enough to label the products as GMOs.

Clearly, public acceptance relies on accurate definitions.

 

100 years of Einstein

This month, one hundred years ago, Einstein completed his theory that would forever change physics. Not just physics but his astonishing ideas revolutionized philosophy, art, and culture. A commemorative issue of Scientific American is unambiguous on his impact: “How Einstein reinvented reality.”

elevator-buttons

Before Einstein, gravity was thought to be a force that pulled coffee cups to the floor. I remember the terse graffiti written on a washroom wall that summarized this notion: “gravity sucks.”

Einstein was sitting in a Swiss patent office in 1907 when a thought “startled” him. He recalled: “If a person falls freely, he will not feel his own weight.” We all have fanciful thoughts but this one had serious implications.

In his thought experiment, Einstein imagined a person falling in an elevator. Our office worker only wanted to get off on the third floor and now he’s falling, weightless, to certain doom.

But no, Einstein now imagines our hapless worker, in his elevator, floating in space. Unless the clerk was told, he would be unable to tell the difference because in both cases he is weightless. While floating in space, free as stardust, is a better choice, he’ll still have some explaining to do.

Einstein’s genius was equating the two and called it “the equivalence principle”; both merely manifestations of the same phenomena.

Einstein then turned to another thought experiment. Now he imagined our worried wanderer accelerating upward through space, the floor pushing up on his feet. By the equivalence principle, our reluctant spaceman could easily imagine himself safely back on earth waiting in his elevator stopped between floors. But he is not.

Through a pinhole in the wall, he sees beam of sunlight. To his astonishment, the beam doesn’t hit a point exactly opposite the wall but slightly lower. Because he is being accelerated, by the time the beam hits the opposite wall the elevator has moved up.

Fine, but what could possibly cause that to happen back on earth? It turns out that space itself is curved and that light beams follow those curvatures, as does everything else. Massive objects create dents in space somewhat like a bowling boll dents a trampoline. Rather than “fall,” objects follow those indentations in space.

Great ideas, but what about the math? Einstein’s brainwaves remained in the realm of speculation until 1912 when Einstein finally applied himself to the equations that would tie acceleration and gravity together. For four years he struggled with the math, often leading to dead ends. He told a fellow genius, David Hilbert, about his problem and Hilbert went to work on it too.

Einstein was under pressure. He promised a solution to be delivered to the Prussian Academy in November, 1915. Not only was he in a race to beat Hilbert to a solution but the clock was ticking down to the lecture.

After a month of whirlwind calculations and frenzied corrections, he arrived on November 4 still wrestling with his theory. “For the last four years,” he candidly told the assembled academy, “I have tried to establish a general theory of relativity.”

It was a long gestation and a difficult delivery but one which forever changed history. Meanwhile, our office clerk has some amazing stories to tell the kids.

Is Monsanto evil?

Yes. Are genetically modified foods dangerous? Possibly. Could science find out if they are? Yes.

blind

Monsanto’s practices run contrary to science, which is ironic when the corporation depends on science for its profits. Claire Robinson puts it this way: “Is Monsanto on the side of science? The answer appears to be: ‘Only if they can control and profit from it.’ That runs contrary to the spirit of scientific inquiry, which must be free to go wherever the data leads — however inconvenient it may prove to a company’s bottom line (New Internationalist, April 2015).”

Monsanto uses false pretenses to promote genetically modified foods. Sure, looming climate change seeks drought resistant crops; increasing populations hunger for productive harvests. But to suggest that, therefore, GM foods are the only solution is misleading. That would be like the supporters of an open pit copper mine near a city justifying the mine based on the need for copper. Yes, we need better crops. Yes, we depend on copper too but these are non sequiturs: justifications not connected in a logical way to the argument being made.

If Monsanto has nothing to worry about, they would allow independent scientists to test their claims in the time-tested way –give scientists GM seeds and the non-GM (isogenic) parent seeds and conduct a double-blinded, controlled experiment. Compare the results of both for toxicity, nutritional value, drought and pest resistance, environmental risk.

An editorial in Scientific American wonders why Monsanto and others are operating in such a anti-science way. “Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers (August, 2009).”

Look at what happened to Australian scientist Judy Carman who decided to carry out an animal feeding study with GM crops. She asks three GMO corporations to supply seeds. One didn’t reply, another wanted details of her study first, and Monsanto sent her a legal document to sign stating that she would give Monsanto the results of her study before publication. Carman was astonished at the blatant censorship of her study:

“We would have been legally bound to do that whether they gave us the seeds or not. No sensible scientist would agree to such conditions, and we didn’t,” she told New Internationalist magazine.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t any research on GM seeds published. But the only studies that see the light of day have been approved by the seed companies before they make it peer-reviewed journal. “In a number of cases, experiments that had the implicit go-ahead from the seed company were later blocked from publication because the results were not flattering,” says Scientific American.

The editorial also quotes entomologist Elson J. Shields in his letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency tasked with regulating the consequences of genetically modified crops. “It is important to understand that it is not always simply a matter of blanket denial of all research requests, which is bad enough,” he wrote, “but selective denials and permissions based on industry perceptions of how ‘friendly’ or ‘hostile’ a particular scientist may be toward the technology.”

Is this characterization of Monsanto not flattering?

 

 

Cultivate the thinner inner-you

Research indicates that you can lose weight by cultivating greater diversity of bacteria in your gut says Claudia Wells in Scientific American.

“New evidence indicates that gut bacteria alter the way we store fat, how we balance levels of glucose in the blood, and how we respond to hormones that make us feel hungry or full. The wrong mix of microbes, it seems, can help set the stage for obesity and diabetes from the moment of birth,” explains Wells.

obese-mouse

Studies of identical human twins, one obese and the other lean, reveal that the gut bacteria of lean twins is more diverse. These Bacteroidetes specialize in breaking down bulky plant starches and fibres into shorter molecules that we can use as energy.

Studies in mice back this up. First, genetically identical mice were raised in a germ-free environment and separated into two cages. Then one group was populated with gut bacteria from an obese human twin and the other half with gut bacteria from the lean twin. Both groups were fed exactly the same. The mice with gut bacteria from the obese human twin became fatter while their siblings with lean human bacteria did not.

Then researchers, whose findings were published in the journal Science last September, moved the two groups into the same cage. The fat mice became thin because, unappealing as it may seem, mice consume each other’s feces.

Why didn’t the lean mice become fat rather than the other way around? In a word: diversity.

The researchers theorize that a diverse population of gut bacteria perform specific functions. One is to help regulate hunger so that lean people will feel full after eating. Another eliminates certain amino acids that are elevated in obese people and lead to type 2 diabetes.

While a diverse gut populations contribute to thinness, food still matters.  When mice who had become lean were fed a typical “Western diet,” they grew fat. Their siblings who were fed a diet low in fat and high in fruit, vegetables and fibre remained thin.

Growing a diverse garden of gut bacteria takes care. It starts on the day we are born when mothers give newborns a “bacterial baptism” through vaginal birth. Breast milk nurtures useful bacteria and inhibits harmful ones.

Antibiotics kill not just the weeds in this biological garden but also valuable species. “Antibiotics are like a fire in the forest,” says one researcher. They wipe out entire swathes of microbes and leave fewer to populate the gut.

Diets that are high in fat and antibiotics cause weight gain in mice and that appears to be true in humans. For ethical reasons, the design of human experiments proving the connection would be difficult.  However, circumstantial evidence exists. Maps showing obesity in the Southern U.S. line up with maps of high fat diet and high antibiotic use.

The research requires a re-thinking of who “we” are since the microbes that live in our intestines, mouth, nose, skin and genital tract outnumber “us” by a factor of ten. More realistically, what we euphemistically refer to ourselves is simply baggage that carries our vital microbial community.