Dead on

Thursday’s D.I.Y. Dharma class in Vancouver touched on contemplating your own death, a well known Buddhist object of meditation. Coincidentally, so did the previous Sunday’s meditation session with Zen monk Wayne Codling (Sojun Enso) in Victoria.

All of which reminded me of the following passage early on in David Darling‘s provocatively titled 1996 book Zen Physics — the Science of Death, the Logic of Reincarnation. As walking “meat-based time machines” (per Vic slam poet Skawt Chonzz) with built-in expiry dates, this is uncomfortable information we should have.

As soon as a person’s heart stops beating, gravity takes hold. Within minutes a purple-red stain starts to appear on the lowermost parts of the body, where blood quickly settles. The skin and muscles sag, the body cools, and within two to six hours rigor mortis sets in. Beginning with a stiffening of the eyelids, the rigidity extends inexorably to all parts of the body and may last for between one and four days before the muscles finally relax.

Two or three days after death, a greenish discoloration of the skin on the right side of the lower abdomen above the cecum (the part of the large intestine nearest the surface) provides the first visible sign of decay. This gradually spreads over the whole abdomen and then onto the chest and upper thighs, the color being simply a result of sulfur-containing gases from the intestines reacting with hemoglobin liberated from the blood in the vessels of the abdominal wall. By the end of the first week, most of the body is tinged green, a green that steadily darkens and changes to purple and finally to black. Blood-colored blisters, two to three inches across, develop on the skin, the merest touch being sufficient to cause their top layer to slide off.

By the end of the second week the abdomen is bloated. The lungs rupture because of bacterial attack in the air passages, and the resulting release of gas pressure from within the body forces a blood-stained fluid from the nose and mouth — a startling effect that helped to spawn many a vampire legend among peasants who had witnessed exhumations in medieval Europe. The eyes bulge and the tongue swells to fill the mouth and protrude beyond the teeth. After three to four weeks, the hair, nails, and teeth loosen, and the internal organs disintegrate before turning to liquid.

On average, it takes ten to twelve years for an unembalmed adult body buried six feet deep in ordinary soil without a coffin to be completely reduced to a skeleton. This period may shrink drastically to between a few months and a year if the grave is shallow, since the body is then more accessible to maggots and worms. However, soil chemistry, humidity, and other ambient factors have a powerful effect on the rate of decomposition….

The other porn addiction

Hal Niedzviecki in The Other Porn Addiction, from Walrus Magazine, April 2009:

British social theorist Nikolas Rose talks about the modern individual as an “entrepreneur of him- or herself” who is “to conduct his or her life, and that of his or her family, as a kind of enterprise, seeking to enhance and capitalize on existence itself through considered acts of initiative, and through investments.” The modern individual, then, seeks relationships that are essentially “parasocial” — the term social scientists use to describe the one-sided relationships we have with celebrities, in which we know everything about them, but they don’t know we exist. Social networking scholar danah boyd [sic] has argued that this flow of detailed information is creating a new class of people in our lives — people we follow closely online and come to know intimately but voyeuristically, without any need for genuine interaction. [emphases mine]

Much as i appreciate, at times, the product of “the other porn addiction” (subtitle: Why are ordinary women exposing themselves online?), the article provides some thought-provoking issues as to the social health of the people involved.

I’m a big admirer of Niedzviecki, one of Canada’s most astute social commentators. Hal’s website: www.smellit.ca.

The rise of consciousness

Here’s a “lost post” from last fall, when i was reading about evolution: Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall, interviewed by Amy Otchet, UNESCO Courier journalist:

Ian: One thing truly sets us apart from every other species: consciousness. Human consciousness has been described as a kind of inner eye, which allows the brain to observe itself at work and therefore permits us to have the complex interpersonal relationships that far exceed those of any other animal. Modern human anatomy goes back over 100,000 years but it wasn’t until maybe 40,000 years ago that modern cognition suddenly burst on the scene, as evidenced by the cave art of the Cro-Magnon, for example, in Europe. What triggered this cognitive explosion?

It is impossible to be sure what this innovation might have been, but the best current bet is that it was the invention of language. For language is not simply the medium by which we express our ideas and experiences to each other. Rather it is fundamental to the thought process itself. It involves categorizing and naming objects and sensations in the outer and inner worlds and making associations between resulting mental symbols. It is impossible for us to conceive of thought (as we know it) in the absence of language, and it is the ability to form mental symbols that is the fount of our creativity, for only once we create such symbols can we recombine them and ask questions like “What if…?”

Amy: Human evolution has come to a standstill, you say. We haven’t really changed since acquiring cognition and we cannot expect any major innovations in the future. What is holding us back?

Ian: You’ve got to have small populations in order to get meaningful genetic innovations. The [human] population is getting larger all the time, individuals are infinitely more mobile now and the prospect of isolation of populations is lower than it ever has been. We can imagine some sci-fi scenarios of isolated space colonies but they would inevitably be sustained by a lifeline from Earth. Or we can imagine genetic engineering. However, artificially produced genotypes could only be sustained by sequestering “engineered” individuals which I doubt and hope would never be deemed permissible. But if it was, these genetic innovations would remain only among these small “laboratory” populations.

So to hope that a bit more evolutionary fine-tuning will solve our problems is foolish optimism. We have to cope with ourselves as we currently cope with the world and the problems that we cause in it. We have reached a pinnacle in the sense that Homo sapiens is truly something unique. Whether you think it is superior or not is up to you. I suspect that if other species were capable of contemplating this question, they would not conclude that we represent a pinnacle.


The whole interview is very good, if you’re at all interested in this sort of thing. Methinks that evolution may have a few more tricks up its sleeve than Tattersall allows in this interview. Things like maybe killing off enormous numbers of any species that can’t or won’t control its own population. That could well result in small, isolated populations.

‘Scientism’ infects Darwinian debates

There’s a good piece from the level-headed columnist Douglas Todd in the Vancouver Sun this weekend. Subtitled “An unflinching belief that science can explain everything about evolution becomes its own ideology“, it makes for a good read on the newest brand of fundamentalism pitting itself against all those “traditional” fundamentalisms. The first few paragraphs:

There are two major obstacles to a rich public discussion on Charles Darwin s theory of evolution and what it means to all of us.

The most obvious obstacle is religious literalism which leads to Creationism. It s the belief the Bible or other ancient sacred texts offer the first and last word on how humans came into existence.

The second major barrier to a rewarding public conversation about the impact of evolution on the way we understand the world is not named nearly as much.

It is “scientism.”

Scientism is the belief that the sciences have no boundaries and will in the end be able to explain everything in the universe. Scientism can like religious literalism become its own ideology.

Does this sound like an argument you’ve had? Does this sound like six people you know?

Full story on-line here. It also appears on Todd’s blog, The Search, which is well worth a bookmark.

Quirks & Quarks: No plastic, please

Hey, friends. It’s time to lose the plastic bags. Really, it’s time.

It’s normal to be stopped at international airports to have your documents and luggage checked by officials, but I’ve never been stopped for carrying plastic. After landing in Rwanda last month and passing through customs at Kigali airport, I was just about to leave the building when an official intercepted me, pointed to the duty free items I was carrying and said, “You can’t have those.”

Thinking I was about to lose my new purchases in some African tourist scam, I watched the man take a pair of scissors, cut the plastic bags open, put the items in a paper bag and handed them back to me. Plastic bags are illegal in Rwanda.

More on Bob McDonald’s Quirks & Quarks blog.