Twist of Lime

witchoflimeOctober enters as a liminal month. A few remaining hours of lingering summer but more shortening days of winter’s encroaching wolf. A time of harvest and celebration. Lengthening nights bearing strange noises. It was a couple of Octobers ago that I noticed The Witch of Lime Street either on Amazon or some bookstore shelf. I knew I’d read it this time of year, but I had to find the time to appreciate it appropriately. David Jaher’s debut book, subtitled Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, spins a story appropriate to this time of year. The story of Mina Crandon, aka Margery, is as misty as the ghost she apparently conjured during the roaring ‘20s. The story is all the more remarkable in that the medium who’d attracted so much attention has been all but forgotten now that mediums and psychics tout their wares “for entertainment purposes only.” No one wants a fraud misdemeanor on his or her record, just in case.

Margery emerged during a contest set up by Scientific American that offered $2500 for any medium whose effects could not be explained by science. A board of experts, including Harry Houdini, was established and the contestants tried their best. Unlike most mediums Margery was from a secure household, being the wife of a surgeon. In other words, she didn’t need the money. Some of the feats she performed, according to the records scoured by Jaher, are truly amazing. So amazing that she had nearly convinced the prize committee that she deserved the prize. Houdini, however, led the opposition. During the course of all this she had, at points, convinced Harvard faculty that she was genuine, and submitted herself to controlled conditions. Some very intelligent men, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, believed she was authentic. Never actually caught in trickery, evidence suggests that she faked some manifestations, but many educated observers nevertheless believed in her powers.

This engaging account has as many twists and turns as a corn maze, and features several prominent players. Houdini and Doyle clearly top the charts, but for those who’ve read about the history of parapsychology there will be some familiar names throughout. The one who is least known is Margery herself. Being an historian, Jaher can’t proclaim his own verdict on the medium’s claims. His account, however, is even and provocative. Based on the many records that were available on the subject before seances became artifacts of a more gullible age, this book will leave you scratching your head. Then, you may wonder, were those my fingers or those of someone else doing the scratching?


Thinking about Thought

The history of thought can be compared to a slow-moving pendulum. At other times it can be more like a ping-pong game. Acceptability for ideas can take time, but sometimes the perceptions change rapidly. Having been raised in a small town in a Fundamentalist setting, it is difficult to assess where exactly the “status quo” was when I was growing up, but by the time I had reached college it was pretty clear that the challenge science posed to my particular brand of religion was pretty firmly entrenched. Materialism—in the philosophical sense—had obviously gained several champions. B. F. Skinner and his followers applied this template to human beings, and it became fairly common to hear that we were basically automatons. (Ironically, double predestination in the Calvinism I was learning about taught pretty much the same thing.) Today there are even more vocal heralds proclaiming that all that is, is material. If it can’t be measured empirically, it can’t exist. The pendulum, or ping-pong ball, has come to one side of the table, or arc, awaiting rebuttal.

An article in Scientific American from two years ago (my personal pendulum sometimes moves slowly as well) asks the question “Is Consciousness Universal?” The article by Christof Koch describes panpsychism, the theory that anything beyond a certain level of organization is conscious. Koch begins by discussing dogs. Those of us who’ve spent time with dogs know that they are clearly conscious, although a materialist would say they are just as much dumb matter as we are. But panpsychism goes beyond dogs and horses and other “higher” mammals. Anyone who has taken the time to study any animal in depth, particularly those that are obviously mobile and can seek what they wish to find, knows that animals have will, and intension. The loss of meaning only comes with materialism.

Integrated information is the term Koch uses to describe the baseline of consciousness. Of course, this would need to account for more than the merely biological. Computers may be sufficiently complex, but the information they “possess” is not integrated, thus keeping them from being truly conscious. I’m not enough of a scientist to understand all the technicalities, but I do know that something as simple as common sense suggests that consciousness is part of all animals’ experience of life. As some scientists have long realized, feeling, or emotion, is integral to the thought process. Only when we realize that we share this world with a great variety of conscious creatures will we begin to make any progress toward understanding the difference between mind and mindfulness.

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A Tale of Two Bees

We’re nearing the competition season for FIRST Robotics. The animated, mechanical creatures created from scratch since early January are now set to compete for a kind of ultimate, ultimate frisbee. Only you can’t call it “frisbee,” for copyright reasons. Ironically drone bombers have been in the headlines this past week. Drones are robotic planes that fly their missions with human pilots sitting safely hundreds, or even thousands of miles away from the action. People are beginning to wonder—is this ethical? I pull out the Scientific American I purchased at Bush International in Houston last week. There’s an article about robo-bees. In a scare that seems like it could have come straight from the X-Files, I’ve been reading about the disappearance of bees. There are people seriously worried about this. It does seem that we failed to learn the lesson of Rachel Carson, and a land of milk and honey just doesn’t appeal without the honey.

The robo-bees are the size and roughly the shape of biological bees. They can be programmed to behave like bees and pollinate plants that our missing bees have been, well, missing. There may be hope for the flowers after all. But I wonder about the honey. No doubt, technology will come to the rescue. Those labs that gave us sucralose, aspartame, and stevia can surely invent a golden, viscous liquid sweetener that drips from a pipette. No cause for worry here. We can recreate the natural world in the laboratory. Honey has been reputed to have medicinal effects, but we can synthesize medicines in the lab as well. You might not want to dribble those on your biscuits, however.

Honey is made from nectar, the mythological food of the gods. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism all recognize the religious significance of honey. Those of us who’ve been stung realize that a price has to be paid for such divine sweetness. The gods are like that. Roses have thorns for a reason. Not that I’m not impressed with the technology behind robo-bees. I am astounded that tiny robots can be built to fly and perform as we understand nature to dictate the Apis genus. They don’t, however, have the minds of bees. Mind is not the same as brain, as we’re beginning to learn. And minds are not limited to Homo sapiens. I recall when in our arrogance we thought we could improve the productivity of bees (capitalist bees) by breeding them with their Africanized cousins, biologically separated by an ocean. Many nightmares haunted me of the resulting killer bees. Yes, I had been stung as a child. Just by regular, garden-variety bees. From those painful events I learned a valuable lesson. We tinker with nature at our own cost. I, for one, am willing to deal with real-life stingers to taste the very food of the gods.

True bee or not true bee?

True bee or not true bee?


Animal Mentalism

SciAmScience is how we know things. Most things, at least. One of the fundamental aspects of human life not yet grasped by the great empirical method is creativity. We generally have an idea how it works, but, like so much of human experience, it is difficult to describe precisely. When I saw this month’s Scientific American fronting with the headline “Evolution of Creativity”—two of my favorite topics—I knew I’d have to read it. The article by Heather Pringle zeroes in on the archaeology of very early human history. Before modern human, actually. I’d been telling students for years that the development of such traits as artistic representation, burial, music, and an awareness of some forces “out there” could be found tens of thousands of years ago. These, I suggested, marked the beginnings of religious sensibilities. I’d be willing to go even farther, however, and suggest that we share some of these traits with our fellow creatures. Religion may have a biological basis. That’s not where Pringle is going, however, and she addresses not religion, but creativity.

Pringle suggests that evidence for human technology—modest though it may be—stretches back further than the 40K epoch that seemed to house an explosion of human innovation. She shows how sophisticated knowledge of the environment and corresponding innovations were occurring 77,000 years ago, and even earlier. Some of it stretches back before Homo sapiens; stone weapons may be as early as Homo heidelbergensis and kindling fire as early as Homo erectus. Even our Australopithicene cousins seem to have been happily knapping stones two-and-a-half million years ago. The evidence, at the moment, seems to end there. I wonder, however, how far back cognitive development goes. We tend to underestimate the thinking abilities of animals, despite our constant surprise at how smart they seem to be. How very human! How very male, to assume that everything else is here for our use and pleasure.

Scientists often come upon with astonishment ideas that creative folks have been pondering for centuries. Science must be careful—that is one of its limitations. Creativity, the phenomenon Pringle explores, contains, in the words of Lyn Wadley’s team in Science, chemistry and alchemy. Creativity, like religion, isn’t afraid of magic. No doubt, some scientists will claim that true intelligence only begins with humanity. Looking at the way we treat each other, sometimes I doubt that it begins even there. If there is any hope for us, I would humbly suggest, it will come in the form of creativity. It is that very alchemy that keeps me coming back to science, and science will teach us, eventually, that animals are creative too. When we place ourselves among them, we will have created a world.