Banksy: Vortex of the Zeitgeist


“The thing I hate the most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us mainly with the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists. Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little. ~Banksy.

As someone who sometimes has trouble in malls and grocery stores because of what I can only begin to describe as a kind of semiotic agoraphobia, I have found a great deal to appreciate in the artistic devices and proclamations of the British artist known only as Banksy. His talent for revealing the links between graffiti and advertizing, what they imply about the public use of space, of symbols, of human attention, of the powers at play in the way these things are shaped, will no doubt make him stand out as one of our generations’ most notable contributions to art history.

I may be wrong here, but I’ve always felt that much modern art, despite the highly erudite and supposedly subversive messages contained within it, has had an overall conservative, reactionary, and culturally stagnating effect. This, while holding itself with the same smug sense of self-satisfaction, singed in the fires of righteous indignation, reserved for the avant-garde and radical. If you have to have the money, time and other support structures required to go to art school for four or more years just to have a positive emotional response to two blue stripes separated by a red one (i.e. Voice of Fire, by Barnett Newman), it’s probably not as radical as you suspect.

In the 1950s and 60s, the CIA covertly funded such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. This is not to say that the artists involved knew of, or would have approved of, this support, but only that abstract expressionism, and its equally abstract descendants, can and have also served conservatism and nationalistic propaganda.

It is important to keep in mind that things are never inherently radical or conservative though, that these are not properties essential to the work of art itself; they change overtime, from place to place and person to person. Yet it does seem that we live in a context were individuals frequently find themselves confronted with heavily restricted and shepherded hermeneutic resources, be they in the form of advertizements telling us how to interpret products or scientific and political developments, the import of which are fed to us through “talking head” commentators. Within this context art that requires artists to tell us how “high” art is to be appreciated and set apart from “low brow” art, or those things merely produced by illustrators, hardly seems to stand in contrast to the reactionary and conservative interests of the current age.

In the highly stylized yet realistic climate of soviet art, Voice of Fire would have been truly a revolutionary act and a powerful political commentary. Yet it made its first public appearance in America alongside an Apollo space capsule, red-and-white striped Apollo parachutes, photographs of the moon and images of movie stars.

I’ve commented in a previous post about the culture of advertizing and what I feel are some of its effects on the human psyche, and what can be done about it. In a much more immediate sense, on the ground and in the streets, I believe Banksy has shown how graffiti is another valuable player in the conductorless orchestra of semiotic resistance.

And for this, I am grateful.






Banksy: Armoured Peace Dove

Armoured Peace Dove, West Bank.

“Joseph and Mary making their way toward Bethlehem, only to find their route blocked by the Israeli West Bank barrier.”

For More Information:


Featured bottom right, “Irony”.

The Beautiful Knowledge of Ida Craddock

What does Aleister Crowley have in common with the suffragette movement of the nineteenth century? Understandably, one could have trouble with this question. Yet one intriguing answer can be found in the works of the free thinker, free speech advocate and early agitator for women’s rights, Ida Craddock (1857-1902).

Craddock infamously crossed swords with the giant of nineteenth century American censorship, Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), who bragged that he had personally driven at least 15 people, including Craddock, to suicide in what he called his “fight for the young”, and as a self-described “weeder in God’s garden”. Now seen as more of a valiant defender of free speech and women’s rights instead of just as a  victim of Comstock’s violent crusade, Craddock was also an early western defender of belly dancing, writing a fiery defence of the performance of the group Little Egypt, which was presented at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.

She was also actively engaged in a range of occult matters, associating herself with the Theosophical Society, describing herself as a Priestess and Pastor of the Church of Yoga. Craddock taught correspondence courses to women and couples on the sacred nature of sex for its own sake. More publicly, she wrote pamphlets, articles and books on the subject in order to prevent “sexual evils and sufferings” (which is what attracted Comstock’s ire). Ostensibly single all of her life, she described her active sexual relationship with an angelic being (sometimes a spirit) named “Soph”, who she claimed taught her many things about sacred sexuality (and in whose embrace she was said to be so vocally excited as to give the neighbours some cause to complain of the noise).

Defending the existence of her spiritual lover, Craddock would explore the history of erotic relationships between humans and angels, spirits, incubi, succubi and other creatures from ancient times to her present day, presenting the result of her labours partly in her work Heavenly Bridegrooms.

In 1902, Craddock was arrested under New York’s anti-obscenity laws and was scheduled to be incarcerated. She wrote two suicide notes, one public and one for her mother (who had already attempted and failed to get her institutionalized). In her public note, she began:

I am taking my life, because a judge, at the instigation of Anthony Comstock, has decreed me guilty of a crime which I did not commit–the circulation of obscene literature–and has announced his intention of consigning me to prison for a long term.

She concluded the note with a public appeal to protect her written work, which I think it is fitting to produce verbatim here:

I earnestly hope that the American public will awaken to a sense of the danger which threatens it from Comstockism, and that it will demand that Mr. Comstock shall no longer be permitted to suppress works on sexology. The American people have a right to seek and to obtain knowledge upon right living in the marriage relation, either orally or in print, without molestation by this paid informer, Anthony Comstock, or by anybody else.

Dear fellow-citizens of America, for nine long years I have faced social ostracism, poverty, and the dangers of persecution by Anthony Comstock for your sakes. I had a beautiful gospel of right living in the marriage relation, which I wanted you to share with me. For your sakes, I have struggled along in the face of great odds; for your sakes I have come at last to the place where I must lay down my life for you, either in prison or out of prison. Will you not do something for me now?

Well, this is what I want the American public to do for me. Only one of my books, that on “The Wedding Night,” is at present under legal ban. “Right Marital Living,” which is by far the more important book of the two, and which contains the gist of my teachings, has not yet been indicted. Mr. Comstock, however, told me, when arresting me, that he expected to get both books indicted. If sufficient of a popular demand be made for this book, and especially if the demand voice itself in the public press, he will not dare to attack the book in the courts. Will you do this one thing for me, those of you who have public influence? Remember, it is for you and for your children that I have fought this nine-years’ fight. And although I am going to a brighter and a happier land, nevertheless, I shall still look down upon you all here, and long and long and long that you may know something of the radiantly happy and holy life which is possible fore every married couple who will practice these teachings. Even in Paradise I cannot be as happy as I might, unless you share with me this beautiful knowledge.

I beg of you, for your own sakes, and for the future happiness of the young people who are dear to you, to protect my little book, “Right Marital Living.”

To her mother, Craddock wrote that she would refuse to for to the asylum, but that she loved here and should not grieve her passing, for:

the world beyond the grave, believe me, is far more real and substantial than is this world in which we to-day live. This earth life which the Hindoos have for centuries termed “Maya,” that is illusion. My people assure me that theirs is the real, the objective, the material world. Ours is the lopsided, the incomplete world.

And concluded by reminding her:

Dear, dear mother, please remember that I love you, and that I shall always love you. Even if you get fantastic communications from the border land, remember that the real Ida is not going there.

The real Ida, your own daughter, loves you and waits for you to come soon over to join her in the beautiful blessed world beyond the grave, where Anthony Comstocks and corrupt judges and impure-minded people are not known. We shall be very happy together some day, you and I, dear mother; there will be a blessed reality for us both at last. I love you, dear mother; never forget that. And love cannot die; it is no dream, it is a reality. We shall be the individuals over there that we are here, only with enlarged capacities. Goodbye, dear mother, if only for a little while. I love you always. I shall never forget you, that would be impossible; nor could you ever forget me. Do not think the next world an unsubstantial dream; it is material, as much so as this; more so than this. We shall meet there, dear mother. Your affectionate daughter,

Ida C. Craddock

On October 16th 1902, Ida Craddock committed suicide, apparently by slashing her wrists and inhaling natural gas.

And this is where Crowley comes into this.  After Craddock’s death he wrote a positive review of her “Heavenly Bridegrooms” in his periodical Equinox, claiming that it was:

one of the most remarkable human documents ever produced, and it should certainly find a regular publisher in book form. The authoress of the MS. claims that she was the wife of an angel. She expounds at the greatest length the philosophy connected with this thesis. Her learning is enormous. […] This book is of incalculable value to every student of occult matters. No Magick library is complete without it.

While Crowley was “The Beast”, and was certainly no feminist by nineteenth century, let alone contemporary standards, he was no Comstock either, and appears to have greatly valued Craddock’s contribution to occult literature and her beautiful knowledge.

For More Information:

Some of Craddock’s writing, including her public and private suicide notes: “Anthony Comstock and the Death of Ida Craddock”

Chappell, Vere. 2010. Sexual Outlaw, Erotic Mystic: The Essential Ida Craddock. Newburyport: Weiser Books. (By the sounds of it, an interesting mix of Craddock’s own writings and biographical analysis)

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. 2010. Heaven’s bride: the Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman. New York: Basic Books.

Facinated by Fractals

[errata: So Mandelbrot coined the term fractal in 1975, not the 1980s. Also have to work on using “um” as a place holder! And… maybe a script would help.]

For More Information:

Buzsaki, Gyorgy. 2006. Rhythms of the Brain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

A Tautological Singularity: Kurzweil, Science Fiction and the Question of Intelligence

Ray Kurzweil is an American inventor, businessman, and graduate of MIT who has become something of a cultural phenomenon in technocratic circles throughout the United States. He is alternatively described as a: “restless genius” by the Wall Street Journal, ‘the ultimate thinking machine’ by Forbes, and Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the ‘rightful heir to Thomas Edison”. Kurzweil is the founder of the aptly named Kurzweil Computer Products, Kurzweil Applied Intelligence, Kurzweil Music Systems and invented the Kurzweil 250 Digital Synthesizer, the Kurzweil Cybernetic Poet and the Kurzweil Reading Machine. More than this, he is one of only five members of the Army Science Advisory Group (ASAG), a body responsible for advising the U.S. Army on the priorities of its scientific research, and has testified before the American Congress on his views on how scientific funding should be spent. Aside from these achievements in the realms of business and politics, he has become the icon of a branch of futurism that has a wide audience amongst the influential circles in which he travels. Bill Gates, Dean Kamen, Marvin Minsky, and a startling array of scientists and inventors have gathered around his banner of technological utopia. With such steady excitement in industrialist and political circles it is necessary to explore just what it is that Kurzweil predicts when he discusses the Singularity, why he has predicted it, and what it says about the principles underlying our present understanding of intelligence and technology. These are important things to consider, for few of us are immune to this vision. Implicitly, even if we have never even heard of it. Every day when we assume the price of electronics will go down over time, or when we trust in technological solutions to hunger, pollution, war and disease, we are in some ways tacitly consenting to Kurzweil’s understanding of the nature of technology, and the destiny of humanity.

Kurzweil’s views come from somewhere, from the heady mix of such thinkers as Alan Turing, Hans Moravec, Isaac Asimov, Vernor Vinge and Gordon Moore. Since many readers will be unfamiliar with the terms Kurzweil uses to discuss his ideas, and since Kurzweil himself often develops convoluted chains of associations between these terms, it will then be necessary to elaborate on a number of them. Kurzweil’s understanding of intelligence, artificial intelligence, the law of accelerating returns, the Singularity and what he calls the “saturation” of the universe with intelligence will thus be explained in some detail. Finally, given this background, the consequences of his understanding of intelligence will be explored. Personally, I cannot shake the feeling that it presupposes that there is an underlying teleological continuity between order, computation, evolution and intelligence which has as its ultimate conclusion the Singularity, but which may very well rest upon a tautology.

Alan Turing (1912–1954) was the single most instrumental figure in the development of artificial intelligence, being the first to lecture on computer intelligence and having written the now famous essay “Intelligent Machinery” in 1948. This paper is sometimes called the first manifesto of A.I. and explores the issue of how much a machine could replicate the higher functions of the human brain. It was not published during his life, but Turing would continue to develop the idea that the human brain is in effect a digital computer, and that in this case machines could be made as intelligent as human beings. Kurzweil has particularly high praise for the Turing Machine, Turing Test, and the Church-Turing thesis. Time and again he returns to these three concepts when attempting to draw a connection between human and machine intelligence.

The Universal Turing Machine (not to be mistaken for a Turing Machine, which is more limited) was Turing’s theoretical conception of a machine capable of performing any conceivable computation. It consists of an infinite tape and a device which can read the symbols printed on the tape as instructions. It can in turn print further symbols, based on a small number of possible instructions and provide an output. For Kurzweil, the Turing machine is “a further demonstration of the universality and simplicity of computation”. The simplicity is evident in the small number of logical functions required to perform a potentially infinite number of calculations. The universality will be made evident with a look at the Church-Turing thesis.

The thesis was developed independently by Turing and the American Alonzo Church. It posits that “[t]he universal Turing machine can perform any calculations that any human computer can carry out”. This is based in part on the already perceived equivalence of human and mechanical computation, since in this case computation is seen as nothing more than the application of systematic rules to a numerical problem. For Kurzweil, this has the further consequence that: “problems that are not solvable on a Turing machine cannot be solved by human thought, either”. Yet it is here valuable to note that the “computations” of Turing’s machines were based off the methodologies used by computers (the term then in common use to specify human beings who performed computations according to some fixed method). There is already a deep seeded sense in this work of computation being fundamentally identical with human computation.

The Turing Test is a proposed examination in which a human judge interviews an artificial intelligence and a human foil, without being able to see them. If the judge cannot tell which is the human and which the machine then the machine is considered to possess human-like intelligence. Kurzweil supports the practical, observational basis for determining artificial intelligence which he sees in the Turning Test, and praises the insight of using human dialogue as its deciding factor. This is because of the way Kurzweil perceives the complexity of human dialogue, as well as his trust that it is nevertheless subject to a reductionist interpretation. Most importantly for our discussion, the test is dependent on an outside observer to “judge” if the machine’s performance can be considered intelligent. While the criteria are purposefully left vague, there is a sense that this is the only way to  avoid the difficult metaphysical problems surrounding the internal, reflective qualifications for intelligence.

The conclusion that there is no difference between human intelligence and computation is the key principle underlying Kurzweil’s support for Turing’s three proposals, which argue for the universality of computation, the observational and practical basis of intelligence and the equivalency of intelligence with computation. To this end he places the 1937 derivation of the Church-Turing thesis on his timeline of significant events because it lays down for him that: “all problems that a human being can solve can be reduced to a set of algorithms, supporting the idea that machine intelligence and human intelligence are essentially equivalent”.

Kurzweil’s own definition of intelligence as laid out in Spiritual Machines owes a great deal of its form to his reading of Turing, along with the somewhat tautological understanding of the meaning of computation. Despite this, however, it is important to point out that Turing never did propose a universal definition of intelligence. At best he was offering a criterion for human thinking, not of thinking as such, and asked the question:

“May not machines carry out something which ought to be described as thinking but which is very different from what a man does?”

In 1965, the inventor Gordon Moore postulated that the surface areas of transistors were being reduced by about fifty percent every twelve months, resulting in a consistently exponential increase in price-performance approximately every two years. In his own words:

The complexity for minimum component costs has increased at a rate of roughly a factor of two per year […]. Certainly over the short term this rate can be expected to continue, if not to increase. Over the longer term, the rate of increase is a bit more uncertain, although there is no reason to believe it will not remain nearly constant for at least 10 years.

Kurzweil goes much further than this in stating that a similar law has been in effect throughout all of history. He explains that his law describes “the acceleration of the pace of and the exponential growth of the products of an evolutionary process”. These products include computing technologies, but extend much further than Moore’s Law into biological and evolutionary systems.

Hans Moravec, writing in 1988, likewise used an extrapolation of Moore’s law to argue that machines with greater than human intelligence are the ultimate culmination of biological intelligence, and will ultimately be humanity’s “mind children”. As with most of the thinkers discussed here, he argues for the unity of technological and biological evolution, provides an array of exponential graphs with somewhat subjective points to demonstrate his points and proposes a state in which the universe will at some point “wake up”. He is also very keen on circumventing the second law of thermodynamics, this time through a “subjective infinity” which results from the increasing ease of computation at lower and lower temperatures, allowing our mind children to exist in an information state that would be, essentially, eternal.

This leads to the crux of Kurzweil’s argument, the Singularity. It is a concept which has been gaining in support since its inception in 1963 with I.J. Good’s lecture “Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine”, which attempted to trace out the consequences of advanced computers for our understanding of meaning and intelligence. It is important, then, to remember that Good was a British cryptographer and statistician who worked under Alan Turing on the Colossus project as a member of the secret World War 2 group Hut 8. In concluding this talk, he commented that:

It is more probable than not that, within the twentieth century, an ultraintelligent machine will be built and that it will be the last invention that man need make, since it will lead to an “intelligence explosion.” This will transform society in an unimaginable way. […] The design of the machine will be partly suggested by analogy with several aspects of the human brain and intellect. In particular, the machine will have high linguistic ability and will be able to operate with the meanings of propositions, because to do so will lead to a necessary economy, just as it does in man.

The linguistic component of this approach, as well as the relationship between human and machine intelligence, as we have already seen in Turing, is a reoccurring theme. It goes beyond Turing however, in positing an intellectual impetus which will snowball into an “intelligence explosion”, a notion that does not necessarily occur in Turing’s meditations on machine intelligence, but which forms the heart of modern theories of Singularity.

It seems like there is a considerable gap between the sixties and the eighties in which theorists did not turn their attention to the subject of Singularity. This changed with mathematician and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge’s 1983 article “First Word”, published in the January edition of Omni Magazine, after which a number of other writers and scientists renewed their interest in the subject. In Vinge’s 1993 paper “Technological Singularity”, he again put forth the position, arguing that when: “greater-than-human intelligence drives progress, that progress will be much more rapid”. With the consequence that progress itself would result in the creation of even more intelligence entities on an even shorter time scale.

Vinge had written about the phenomenon of the Singularity before 1983, but instead of doing so in an essay he chose to do it with a story. His 1966 work “Bookworm Run!” was his first articulation of the concept. This brings up the important connection between Kurzweil, the Singularity and science fiction. Even in his 1963 lecture, Good is clearly cognizant of this debt to science fiction when discussing the value of ultraintelligent machines. He warned his listeners to be wary of assuming the benevolence of smarter than human intelligences. Good commented that he found it strange that this point was only ever raised in science fiction and concludes that it: “is sometimes worthwhile to take science fiction seriously”. Vinge also notes that science fiction writers were in fact the first to feel the effects of the Singularity:

More and more, these writers felt an opaque wall across the future. Once, they could put such fantasies millions of years in the future. Now they saw that their    most diligent extrapolations resulted in the unknowable … soon. Once, galactic empires might have seemed a Post-Human domain. Now, sadly, even interplanetary ones are.

This relationship of science fiction to science is applicable to Kurzweil himself, as he chooses to begin The Singularity is Near with a discussion of the Tom Swift Jr. series of books and their influences on his early development. The series ran from 1954 to 1971 and focused around the adventures of Tom Swift Jr, the son of the inventor Tom Swift, himself the wealthy CEO of the imaginary Swift Enterprises. The overall message of the series was one of scientific optimism, in which Tom would regularly retreat to his basement laboratory, only to emerge with the solution to the world’s biggest problems (conveniently also finding ways to make more money for Swift Enterprises in the process).

While foregrounding this scientistic optimism, however, it is surprising that Kurzweil makes so little reference to the writings of Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), only mentioning him briefly in The Age Of Spiritual Machines to point out that any superintelligent or self-replicating machine would have to have something like Asimov’s three laws of robotics in order to prevent it from eliminating the human race either through intention or accident. In his 1956 short story “The Last Question” Asimov wrote about a series of ever more complex computers attempting to solve the problem of how to reverse entropy in the universe. The story concludes with an ultraintelligent machine making the Godlike command “let there be light”, reversing the inexorable flow of entropy and restarting existence itself. More than this, a consistent theme through Asimov’s writing was the relationship of robots (Artificial Intelligences) to concepts of empire, which culminates first in a planetary intelligence called Gaia and then in the prediction of a universal intelligence called Galaxia, which bears a striking resemblance to Kurzweil’s own depiction of a universe “saturated” with intelligence. Yet what exactly does he mean by this intelligence?

According to Kurzweil’s definition, intelligence is: “The ability to use optimally limited resources –including time– to achieve a set of goals (which may include survival, communication, solving problems, recognizing patterns, performing skills)”. The relationship of artificial intelligence and intelligence for Kurzweil is a straightforward one. Artificial intelligence is the same as human intelligence except for the fact that it does not rely upon a biological substrate. This point is made clear in a twenty thousand dollar bet Kurzweil made with Mitchell Kapor on a computer’s ability to pass for human by the year 2029. In the terms of the bet both competitors agreed on the definition that a computer “is any form of nonbiological intelligence […] and may include any form of technology, but may not include a biological Human (enhanced or otherwise) nor biological neurons”. Thus the distinction between human and machine intelligence is merely one of substrate, and not of kind.

Kurzweil’s trust in biological intelligence’s ability to produce non-biological intelligence then leads him to the conclusion that not only is artificial intelligence an inevitable outcome of biological intelligence, but it will also be both quantitatively as well as qualitatively better than its predecessor. This is because while there is fundamentally no difference between human and machine intelligence, machine intelligence has the benefit of being free from the localized corporealness of an animal body. It can rapidly share its knowledge, make copies of itself and modify itself in ways that human intelligence can not. While Kurzweil does praise the workings of the human mind insofar as it is a stepping stone to bigger and better things, he nevertheless assures his readers at every step that “the architecture of the human brain is […] profoundly limited”. This is in contrast to how he envisions machine intelligences, which will have freedom of “design and architecture ([…] they won’t be constrained by biological limitations, such as the slow switching speed of our interneuronal connections or a fixed skull size) as well as consistent performance at all times”. As a result of this “[c]omputers will prove more capable of solving unsolvable problems than humans will”, which in the end, he deems to be the pinnacle of biological intellectual achievement.

Kurzweil justifies this view on the trajectory of intelligence through his “Law of Accelerating Returns”, which lays down that: “As order exponentially increases, time exponentially speeds up (i.e., the time interval between salient events grows shorter as time passes)”. In other words, order begets more order exponentially, creating ever shortening gaps between events that represent substantial increases of order. For example: when one compares the development of computers over time, or our understanding of biological processes. A consequence of this is that, while entropy in the universe is increasing, there exists “pockets” in which it actually decreases, leading to ever higher forms of complexity, and, ultimately, intelligence. What Kurzweil means by salient events are events in the history of computation and evolution which demonstrate accelerating growth curves in their degree of complexity. In The Singularity is Near he provides a small army of graphs plotting such things as computing power versus cost in Moore’s Law, brain scan resolution versus year of development (time), and, most dramatically, time to next event versus time before the present for milestones as varied as the birth of the Milky Way, the emergence of life, stone tools, democracy and modern physics. By placing these events on one accelerating continuum he hopes to demonstrate how his law is a universal one which can account for the observed increasing order in the universe. To do so he begins with the order and formation of the universe itself, but rapidly focuses on the earth, and then the human, and then even goes so far as to consider the United States as the pinnacle of this development. This telescopic universality will be vital to his argument, for Kurzweil does not hide the fact that his law of accelerating returns is directly inspired by Moore’s Law on Integrated Circuits.

The Singularity, or technological singularity, for Kurzweil is “a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed”. This theoretical period during which technological progress will be measured in seconds, rather than months or years, is the ultimate result of smarter than human A.I. continuing the law of accelerating returns past the point of human comprehension. The Singularity derives its name from the singularity observed in black holes, whose masses are entirely compressed into a point containing essentially no volume. This results in an infinite gravitational pull that does not permit information from escaping its event horizon, and that represents the point at which our ability to make meaningful predictions breaks down

Despite the historical black hole represented by the Singularity, Kurzweil uses it to justify his view that when a planet: “yields a technology-creating species and that species creates computation […] it is only a matter of a few centuries before its intelligence saturates the matter and energy in its vicinity”. What he means by the saturation of the universe is that we will in effect be “utilizing the matter and energy patterns for computation to an optimal degree, based on our understanding of the physics of computation”. In order to understand this position it is vital to know that Kurzweil possesses an almost Pythagorean understanding of information as being at the heart of all things. Everything from stones to people represents information in its varying degrees of complexity. Thus, what is “saturating” the universe in this scheme can be understood as an ultra-refined pattern of order, which ultimately expresses itself in some universe-wide intelligence.

It is apparent from the previous discussion that for Kurzweil intelligence is by its very nature a kind of computation and is not substantially different in humans or machines. Kurzweil, as for most of the previously mentioned thinkers, sees the work that Alan Turing did through the 1940s and 50s as being instrumental in making this connection. However, it is important to remember that Turing himself did not believe in any one standard for intelligence and instead postulated that while a machine will be intelligence, its intelligence may be of a substantially different kind than that of its human counterparts. One consequence of this disconnect between Kurzweil’s understanding of Turing and Turing’s thought is that Kurzweil turns intelligence into one universal phenomenon similar to light or heat, whereas Turing himself made no such claims and could only describe “criterion” for thought. Since intelligence as computation is like a unified force of nature it is possible to place it under some equally universal understanding of evolution. Yet this understanding of universal evolution is one which is driven by direct goals rather than through random mutations and genetic selection, as in Darwinian evolution. For example: in terms of Darwinian evolution there is, technically speaking, no direct difference in the “fitness” of a slug or a human, whereas under Kurzweil’s computational understanding of evolution there is, since its direction leads to higher forms of complexity and intelligence.

This view is supported by Kurzweil’s understanding of evolution and its equivalency with evolutionary algorithms now in use to engineer intelligent strategies for commercial problems. As has already been seen, for many of the thinkers associated with Kurzweil, there is no set distinction between biological and technological evolution; it is seen as the processes in which some kind of higher order and sophistication in achieved in a chaotic system because of evolutionary pressures, moving first in the biological world and then the mechanical one. Evolutionary algorithms are computer programs made to design “intelligent” solutions to engineering problems. They do this based on emulating a process like natural selection, with offspring, “genetic” mutations, inheritance, and selective pressures, but in a situation in which the programmers can dictate the terms of “survival” (i.e. a more aerodynamic wing structure, or efficient engine). He makes the association between algorithms and evolution very clear when he states that over generations of evolution:

the order (suitability of information for a purpose) of the design of organisms increases, with the purpose being survival. In an ‘evolutionary algorithm’ […] the purpose may be defined to be the discovery of a solution to a complex problem.

Since he sees evolutionary algorithms as being essentially equivalent to evolution, there is nothing conceptually preventing him from transferring the same solution oriented structure of an algorithm onto all evolutionary processes.

The question which then arises is what is the solution to the evolutionary algorithm working in nature? Kurzweil sees evolution as the means of increasing order in an otherwise chaotic system, and order itself is defined as “information that fits a purpose”. In the end, this purpose is the expansion of intelligence, which would seem circular if it did not have its culmination in the Singularity. This is because the circularity of the expansion of intelligence through evolution ultimately cultivates in the “critical mass” of universal intelligence. Kurzweil then feels justified in making the claim that everything from rocks to people to galaxies are fundamentally composed of information being slowly ordered to higher degrees of computation through evolution, with the ultimate goal being the expansion of intelligence in the universe. Evolution thus understood is why the law of accelerating returns must redirect and ultimately marginalize the role of entropy in the universe. It seems fair to say that for Kurzweil an entropic conclusion to existence could not allow for the progress (understood by increases in order and computing power) experienced by human civilization throughout its history. In short, the history of evolution, which we have to some extent already experienced, is only made possible by its conclusion in a Singularity and a saturated universe, rather than an entropic one.

Kurzweil can make his radical claims about the Singularity because of his view that intelligence, computation, order and evolution are essentially equivalent. They are collectively seen to be a force of nature striving for accelerated expansion throughout the universe. These four distinct, but closely related, phenomena may or may not be as identical as the Kurzweil implies, for it is an association which Kurzweil never directly makes and seems to assume as a given about the natural world. Yet the axiomatic nature of this standpoint is vital to understanding his position, since it is the underlying principle of a goal which allows the equivalency between these four concepts. Computation moves towards an answer and order toward a greater suitability of the information within it to some purpose. In this way evolution is a mere expression of order insofar as the “suitability” in question is survival, or, in Kurzweil’s algorithmic understanding: any goal at all. Intelligence then, understood as the ability to optimally use resources to achieve goals, is in a fundamental way not substantially different from order, evolution and computation, but only differs in the plurality and complexity of its various goals.

Ultimately, it seems we are left with two alternatives, both which derive their argumentative force from purely axiomatic understandings of the world as teleological or otherwise. One possibility is that we must accept that intelligence and the history of intelligence is teleological in nature, in which case it can be equated to goal-fulfillment in its various manifestations, and seems to be subject to Kurzweil’s laws. The other option is that it is not teleological, in which case we will have to come to terms with the fact that everything about what we perceive as progress and purpose are largely incidental and accidental, and ultimately represent no great losses, gains or certainties. In either case the argument has little bearing on the possibility or desirability of artificial intelligence or the Singularity and has a great deal more to do with how comprehensible and manageable these phenomena will ultimately prove to be should they ever manifest themselves. Even if intelligence is not teleological, a random, purposeless system of intelligence could still produce effects similar to the Singularity. Thus if Kurzweil is right or if he is wrong, the implications of his work reaches far beyond the realms of engineering, computer science and science fiction from which they sprang. Rather, they reveal the extreme ambiguity at the heart of our understanding of ourselves and our relation to the world around us.

For More Information:,_Jr.

Dyson, George B. Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence. New York: Helix Books, 1997.

Gardner, James N. Biocosm: The New Scientific Theory of Evolution – Intelligent Life is the Architect of the Universe. Hawaii: Inner Ocean, 2003.

Good, I.J. “Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine”. (1999. Aeiveos   Research Library. 21 March. 2008.)           <  y/Authors/Computing/Good-IJ/SCtFUM.html>

Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

—. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. “About Kurzweil – Speaking Engagements, Press, and More”. 2008.

Kurzweil, Ray and Mitchell Kapor. “By 2029 no computer – or “machine intelligence” – will have passed the Turing Test”. 2001. The Long Now Foundation. 23 March 2008. <>

Moore, Gordon. “Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits”. In Electronics (Vol 38. April 19, 1965).

Moravec, Hans. Mind Children: the Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Strauss, Linda M. “Untitled Review” in Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 17,   No. 3. (Summer, 1992), pp. 396-401.

Turing, Alan Mathison. The Essential Turing: Seminal Writings in Computing, Logic, Philosophy, Artificial Intelligence, and Artificial Life, Plus the Secrets of Enigma. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Vinge, Vernor. “Technological Singularity”. 1993. ROHAN Academic Computing 21 March. 2008. <;

Emilie Autumn, February 22nd 2012, Toronto

A mix of old and new greeted plague rats at the Opera House last Wednesday as Emilie Autumn once again visited Toronto, this time to promote her newest album “Fight Like A Girl”. While those representing order at the venue itself were a bit more authoritarian than I was personally used to, the space itself was very nice.

The performance began in much the same vein as her previous one with the perennial favouret “4 o’clock” with her rat mask and the spectacular shadow screen. I was pleased but also somewhat perplexed to see the similarities between the two shows. It seemed a bit like a splicing of two, admittedly excellent, separate performances into one.

Still, sporting an impressive and feathery fohawk, Emilie Autumn did her thing, and did it well, singing songs both angrier, and yet also more hopeful than her previous album.

And as I stood there in the audience, crow’s head staff in hand and flanked by my friends Scott, Brendan (possibly the worlds tallest Emilie Autumn fan) and his partner Sarah (both who I first met at an Emilie Autumn concert last year), standing in a sea of teenage girls, I really realized just how much we were vicariously sharing in Emilie Autumn’s trauma in ways that I think should be, if not problematized, at least reflected on in greater detail.

I have come to believe that we can not help but try to live out the dramas of our minds in the world around us, and more often than not the creative act becomes the medium through which we try to self-consciously shape ourselves. I think that Emilie is well aware of this, and she takes care at the end of her shows to applaud her plague rats for their unity amid diversity, and encourages them to sublimate their own suffering into creative acts, to “take back the asylum”. Yet just as much as the creative act, we also stage the people in our lives themselves as actors in our mental dramas. They fulfill a variety of archetypical needs, and indeed, it is in fact trickier than most would like to admit to say we “know” another person. In this case, the audience is just as much a part of Emilie’s mindspace as she is of theirs. In such songs as “Swallow” (one of my favorites) I have the feeling Emilie knows this. Which such stanzas as:

I’ll tell the truth all of my songs
Are pretty much the fucking same
I’m not a faerie but I need
More than this life so I became
This creature representing more to you
Than just another girl
And if I had a chance to change my mind
I wouldn’t for the world
Twenty years
Sinking slowly
Can I trust you
But I don’t want to


I don’t want to be a legend
Oh well that’s a god-damned lie, I do
To say I do this for the people
I admit is hardly true
You tell me everything’s all right
As though it’s something you’ve been through
You think this torment is romantic
Well it’s not, except to you
Twenty years
Sinking slowly
Can I trust you
But I don’t want to

What I wonder is, how many of her fans are likewise so aware? What are we really doing when we share in this kind of vicarious trauma? Is it cathartic, voyeuristic, or part of the compulsion to repeat inherent in the traumatic event itself? How many plague rats actually do think “this torment is romantic”, or conversely, how could one actually survive such torment unless sustained by a kind of romance? What does she represent to her fans more than “just another girl”? I know that I am not what one would consider the target demographic for such performances, the infamous 49%, as it were, and I’m still struggling through “The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls” (the content makes it a difficult book for me to read), but I think I have some sense of these answers for myself.

But enough of my endless attempts at something like introspection and hyper-intellectualization, and back to the show!

The pre-encore performance ended with the song “One Foot in Front of the Other” which I have to say was probably my favoret of the new songs sung that night. After all the displays of trauma and sexuality it completed the performance with the not-uncomplicated sense that maybe things are going to be ok.

Life from the Unliving

“I shall never forget the sight. The vessel of crystallization was three-quarters full of slightly muddy water — that is, dilute water-glass — and from the sandy bottom there strove upwards a grotesque little landscape of variously coloured growths: a confused vegetation of blue, green, and brown shoots which reminded one of algae, mushrooms, attached polyps, also moss, then mussels, fruit pods, little trees or twigs from trees, here and there of limbs. It was the most remarkable sight I ever saw, and remarkable not so much for its appearance, strange and amazing though that was, as on account of its profoundly melancholy nature. For when Father Leverkühn asked us what we thought of it and we timidly answered him that they might be plants: ‘No’, he replied, ‘they are not, they only act that way. But do not think the less of them. Precisely because they do, because they try to as hard as they can, they are worthy of all respect’. It turned out that these growths were entirely unorganic in their origin; they existed by virtue of chemicals from the apothecary’s shop, the ‘Blessed Messengers’. Before pouring the waterglass, Jonathan had sprinkled the sand at the bottom with various crystals; if I mistake not potassium chromate and sulphate of copper. From this sowing, as the result of a physical process called ‘Osmotic pressure’, there sprang the pathetic crop for which their producer at once and urgently claimed our sympathy. He showed us that these pathetic imitations of life were light-seeking, heliotropic, as science calls it. He exposed the aquarium to the sunlight, shading three sides against it, and behold, toward that one pane through which the light fell, thither straightway slanted the whole equivocal kith and kin: mushrooms, phallic polyp-stalks, little trees, algae, half-formed limbs. Indeed, they so yearned after warmth and joy that they clung to the pane and stuck fast there. ‘And even so they are dead’, said Jonathan, and tears came in his eyes, while Adrian, as of course I saw, was shaken with suppressed laughter. For my part, I must leave it to the reader’s judgment whether that sort of thing is matter for laughter or tears.”

This passage, in Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend, by the novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955) features the work of the French biologist Stéphane Leduc (1853–1939), who attempted to show, with his artificial life, the chemical basis of development and growth through the processes of osmosis and diffusion. In her book Making Sense of Life the philosopher of science, Evelyn Fox Keller (1936-present) dedicates a considerable portion of her first chapter to a study of Leduc’s synthetic biology in an exploration of what it means to understand organisms, as opposed to other aspects of nature.

Unlike physicists, Keller observes, biologists do not look for a “theory of everything”, strictly speaking, for:

“Just as the diversity of life, rather than its unity, has historically commanded the respect of life scientists, so too, [she proposes], the epistemological diversity of their aspirations demands our respect as historians and philosophers of science.”

This epistemic shift places a much greater emphasis on the role of description in explanation, leading Keller to conclude that:

“A description of a phenomenon counts as an explanation, I argue, if an only if it meets the needs of an individual or community. The challenge, therefore, is to understand the needs that different kinds of explanations meet.”

Since needs vary by time and place, so too do the explanatory terms that are seen to address them. “Theory”, “knowledge”, “understanding” are such fluid, historically contradictory terms, and their fluidity emerges, in part because:

“As evolutionary beings, there is some extent to which it can not make sense in its entirety.”

These observations place a much greater emphasis on analogical, metaphorical thinking, even while undermining traditional claims to the kinds of understanding they can potentially lead us to. In my previous post on the role of analogical reasoning in Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s study of microorganisms, I pointed out some of the ways in which it helped Leeuwenhoek come to terms with, and develop a working knowledge of, his microscopic observations, while at the same time, by contemporary standards, led him to draw erroneous, though understandable conclusions about the life processes of the creatures he was studying. Synthetic life, based, as it is, on an emphasis on the continuity between the organic and inorganic worlds, is another area that lends itself well to these kinds of considerations.

Whether seen in reductionistic or vitalistic terms, crystallization in particular, and the formation of minerals in the earth in general has a very ancient connection with living matter in western thought. Ancient and medieval alchemy was premised, in part, on the thought that metals gestated in the earth, and had a kind life, could be killed, and reborn in the alchemical furnace.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and other early modern alchemists were particularly taken by “the vegetation of metals”, chemical phenomena such as the “Tree of Diana”, Arbor Diana, a dendritic amalgam of crystallized silver, created from mercury in a solution of silver nitrate.

Johann Christian Reil (1759–1813), who coined the term psychiatry in 1808, used crystallization as a powerful metaphor in his attempts to show how knowable forces could be responsible for the existence of life, while later naturphilosophen would use it to demonstrate the vitality of all of existence, the symmetries between the human and the natural worlds, and thereby the efficacy of using analogy, metaphor and introspection in their attempts to understand it.

In 1836, Andrew Cross (1784-1855) a British electrical experimentalist claimed to have produced insects through a process of electrocrystalization and presented his findings in Bristol at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. While not the inspiration for Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein as is commonly believed, (Frankenstein was written in 1818) it did serve as evidence for the self-organization of life in Robert Chambers’ best selling and controversial work, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published in 1844. The self-organization of nature, whether found in evolutionary or nebular theories, was considered a particularly dangerous concept in England during the 1830s and 40s because of its political connotations for the self-organization of society, instead of a top down model in which a supreme ruler, i.e. God, governed absolutely. Because of the potentially damning political consequences, Chambers chose to remain anonymous for his entire life, but his work is now credited with making evolutionary theories acceptable to the British middle class, creating an environment in which Darwin, having agonized over whether or not to publish his view for almost twenty years, could present them with far less chance of legal action being taken against him.

In an interesting way appeals to analogical or metaphorical reasoning, with all of it’s promises and pitfalls, does seem to consistently undermine established political and epistemic structures, and in some ways is to explanation what the Protestant Reformation was to Christianity, a leveling of authority as each observer is given a new sense of confidence in the validity of their own observations, no matter how seemingly aberrant.

And as for the consequences this has for the creation of living or, semi-living things? Strange, one can only hope.

For More Information:

Keller, Evelyn Fox. 2002. Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors and Machines. Cambridge: Harvard University.

Mann, Thomas. 1948. Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend. New York: A.A. Knopf.

strand beast:

Fugitive Flights: Nick Cave and Wings of Desire

While perhaps a somewhat dubious honour to the Australian musician, when I first heard Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds I was struck by how effectively he seemed to have tapped into a particularly “American Gothic” sense of sin and felony. At any rate, his appreciation for the work of Johnny Cash is certainly evident in his collected discography, narrating, as it does, dark scenes of love, death, crime and condemnation with classic goth rock wedded to country tunes and ersatz organs that scream out of a religion in which the Devil is everywhere, and salvation so very, very fleeting.

These themes are very well brought out by Pernille L.G.’s accompaniment for “Up Jumped the Devil”, which is an excellent example of an artistically sophisticated fan-created music video, and speaks to the positive effect of YouTube in exhibiting these kinds of projects to a much broader audience than they might have otherwise enjoyed. The use of stop motion animation for the bones, the manipulation (and incineration) of paper characters and the skillful setting of the action to the rhythm of Nick Cave’s music set this out from the bulk of similar videos.

Speaking of artistically inclined movies, I was also quite enthused to learn of Nick Cave’s appearance in the film Der Himmel Über Berlin – Wings of Desire, in the English release. A meditative romantic fantasy starring Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander as the weary and world-curious angels Damiel and Cassiel, and also featuring Peter Falk (of Columbo fame), Wings of Desire is a worthwhile and important film, and a poignant snapshot of Berlin in the 1980s, before the fall of the wall.

So I suppose the theme of this post has been the way in which art begets art, and speaks to its diverse globe-spanning influence, from America, to Australia, Germany and Denmark, Pernille’s base of operations. Indeed, I can think of few things more fugitive, or fulfilling.

For More Information: (Pernille’s Youtube channel)

Wild Through the Ages: Kamala, Amala and the Focus of Folklore

A recent article by the freelance journalist Maia Szalavitz recounts the story of Dani, a young girl who was rescued by social workers from the extreme neglect she had been living in since her birth in Plant City, Florida. Szalavitz describes Dani as a feral child, though she is quick to qualify that:

‘Feral’ isn’t a diagnosis, of course. But the term usually refers to a child raised by animals, like Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome who was said to have been reared by a she-wolf. […] More recently, the term has been expanded to include children whose human care and contact was extremely limited.

The article is typical of contemporary accounts of feral children in its association between the legends of wild children with supposedly “real” cases and cases of extreme neglect, though it differs somewhat in its emphasis on the empathic, rather than linguistic dimensions of the experience. Nevertheless, it is a recent and telling example of the cultural and historical forces that underpin the present day understanding of feral children, and hints at the folkloric associations that lay behind it.

The genealogy of feral children from legends to their present use in describing the state of extreme neglected has been noted and commented upon by others. However, it is still fruitful to consider the channels through which this transition took place, for it is evident that as a subject feral children exist at an interdisciplinary crossroads, uniting writers and folklorists with anthropologists, psychologists and linguists to create a communal space for discussion and dissent. This space, however, is not a democratic one, and despite the considerable prestige of science at the beginning of the twentieth century, the role played by folklore is remarkable. The example of Kamala and Amala, the wolf-girls of Midnapore, is particularly revealing in this regard. In looking at the literature surround these children, two important things are made evident. Firstly, it becomes fully apparent how in the study of feral children the arguments from folklore have been omnipresent. They are used to both support and detract from the credibility of the accounts. For those in favour of viewing the stories as credible, the persistent and widespread existence of a body of folklore surrounding feral children provides evidence of some deep underlying truth to the legends. For those critical of the stories, the folklore serves as an obscuring agent, contaminating observations and leading people to wrongly interpret lost children with congenital defects as authentic cases. However, in the discussions surrounding the authenticity of Amala and Kamala, most commentators referenced European myths when arguing for the use of folkloric evidence, while detractors focused on the fallibility of non-European superstitions. This divide leads to the second consideration of this paper. The epistemological value of evidence in these cases is consistently in favour of European accounts, suggesting that they, unlike native accounts, are less subject to the contaminating influences of folklore. There is a definitive undertone of colonialism in the anthropological discussion of feral children, for in many cases their presence was a negative indicator of the degree of civilization in the nations in which they were discovered. While their potential existence was thought to provide a wealth of information to western social science, the deprived conditions that gave rise to them was seen to indicate a need for further developmental work on the part of more civilized nations.

This study will begin with a look at the foundational legend of Romulus and Remus. From here, it will then be informative to consider the stories of Mowgli and Tarzan that appeared shortly before the “discovery” of the wolf-girls Amala and Kamala by the Reverend J.A.L. Singh in 1920. With this background it will then be possible to look at the folkloric, popular, psychological and anthropological literature surrounding accounts of feral children in light of the publication of Wolf-Children and Feral Man by Singh and the anthropologist Dr. Robert M. Zingg from the University of Denver in 1942, with a particular emphasis on the ways in which folklore shaped the content and direction of the discussions.

The value of legends and literature to the study of feral children cannot be overstated. It is a common reference point and beginning for numerous articles on the subject, and can help explain the rapid process of mythologization that takes place when social scientists and other researches are confronted with “authentic” cases. As the folklorists Michael P. Carroll supports in his essay “The Folkloric Origins of Modern ‘Animal-Parented Children’ Stories”: “The fact that modern observers have so often characterized a newly discovered ‘wolf-boy’ as a ‘real life Romulus’ or a ‘real life Remus’ is by itself evidence that the association of these contemporary accounts with the Classical tradition is well-established”. Though usually mentioned only in passing, as in Szalaitz’s article, these myths and legends are so often connected with their real world counterparts that they serve to set the stage of the discussion before any scientific study can even begin.

Considering its importance to the subsequent literature, the story of Romulus and Remus is surprisingly mild when compared to the amount of time that other feral children have reportedly spent in the wild. According to the Roman historian Livy, writing in the first century BCE:

In those days the country thereabouts was all wild and uncultivated, and the story goes that when the basket in which the infants had been exposed was left high and dry by the receding water, a she-wolf, coming down from the neighbouring hills to quench her thrust, heard the children crying and made her way where they were. She offered them her teats to suck and treated them with such gentleness that Faustulus, the king’s herdsman, found her licking them with her tongue.

That is all. There is no indication of how long they were left in the care of the she-wolf, and, aside from the occasional mention of their “urge to found a new settlement” where they had been found as infants, the actual role that the she-wolf played in their upbringing is marginal. If an undercurrent of the brother’s origin does exist, it takes the form of their subsequent mastery over nature, for shortly following this passage we find them hunting, shepherding, farming and robbing from thieves to share with their friends. The depiction is much the same in the first and second centuries ACE, as recorded by Plutarch, both in its brevity and in the subsequent power the brother’s gain over their surroundings. The wild upbringing of those destined to found civilizations has been noted by others, and is a consistent motif in a number of legendary accounts. It seems evident that the brothers serve here as representatives of a human community that gains mastery over its surroundings from a state of helplessness in its primeval origins. The situation is much the same in the popular literature that was written near the beginning of the twentieth century.

Some years before the discovery of the wolf-girls of Midnapore was announced, legends surrounding feral children would receive new interest with the advent of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan. As the historian Adriana S. Bezaquén observes:

by the end of the nineteenth century the ‘exotic’ animal-raised child entered literature and popular culture with striking and lasting power, first in Britain, in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894), and almost two decades later in the United States, in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Tarzan of the Apes” (1912). The stories of wolf-child Mowgli and ape-boy Tarzan, though prompted by the spate of ‘real’ cases and incorporating elements form them, reinscribed the ancient myths. Far from the pitiful, brutish examples of inhumanity depicted in the ‘real’ accounts, Mowgli and Tarzan stood out and excelled among both animals and humans and thus became appealing heroes for readers stirred by imperialist dreams and hungry for vicarious adventure.

Unlike their real world counterparts, these modern legends took up the old banners of humanity’s mastery over nature and revitalized their cultural influence in the public imagination. To see this mastery one need only look at Kipling’s story “Mowgli’s Brothers” in which the feral child Mowgli comes to the wolves as a hunted, helpless infant, but who leaves their company in defiance after frightening away the tiger Shere Khan and exclaiming: “What ye will do, and what ye will not do, is not yours to say. That matter is with me; and that we may see the matter more plainly, I, the man, have brought here a little of the Red Flower [fire] which ye, dogs, fear”. In this respect the role of Tarzan is somewhat more complicated, however, for while Burroughs admitted being influenced by the legend of Romulus and Remus, as well as by the stories in Kipling’s Jungle Book, his wild man is more ambivalent towards the allure of civilization. Nevertheless, both stories served to glorify the strength of human nature in a strange environment, and it is this element, as we shall see, that was often drawn upon by subsequent commentators.

According to his own accounts, the Reverend Singh discovered the wolf-girls of Midnapore on October 17th 1920, their existence was accidentally made known to the world on September 7th 1921, Amala died on September 21st of the same year, followed nine years later by Kamala on November 14th 1929. The “diary” of their story, alongside Zingg’s “Feral Man and Cases of Extreme Isolation of Individuals”, was only published in 1942. The protracted nature of the announcement helped to insure a continued interest in the subject, while figures such as Zingg tried to authenticate the account and coax a supposedly unwilling Singh to publish. The point in the Reverend’s description of the children that caused the most consternation was the claim that their eyes gave of a peculiar “blue glare” at night. This seemingly superhuman capacity to see in the dark, their sharp teeth, heightened sense of smell and hearing, and physical build which spoke of “strength and agility” all play into the myths that already surrounded the idea of feral children since the end of the nineteenth century. Yet only the question of the glowing eyes was noted by the experts who provided a commentary to the case. The description that Singh provides of their natural strength and agility is never compared with his numerous other accounts of their enfeebled states due to sickness and neglect that they experienced after their reintroduction to human society. These fantastic particulars aside, however, it was the potentially folkloric origin of the girls’ upbringing by wolves that saw the greatest attention by subsequent investigators.

Social scientists of every stripe often commented on the relationship between supposedly real feral children and their fantastical counterparts during the early years of the twentieth century. As Bezaquén observes, this trend has been a common one. The extreme rarity of the events that may produce feral children, the taboo on performing any controlled experiments, and the often remote location of the stories mean that: “In most cases, the human sciences have no choice but to feed on non-scientific accounts, reports, and testimonies, while regularly distrusting the actual value or authenticity of the evidence”. It is to these early commentaries that we now turn our attention.

On the side of folklore, it is clear that the interest in feral children was not one of a purely literary or mythic bent, but that several writers, most notably J.H. Hutton, understood it as their responsibility to help cast judgment on the credibility of the real life evidence. Hutton gave a presidential address entitled “Wolf-Children” in the March 1940 edition of the journal Folklore. He began the discussion with comments on the interest in wolf-children in a recent edition of The Times, and followed this by stating that:

it is clear that apart from any particular interest the subject of wolf-children may have in itself, the point at issue, which is whether such stories are to be treated as credible or to be wholly discredited, is of no little importance to a Society which is primarily concerned with folklore. For the wide prevalence of stories of this kind indicates a rooted belief in their possibility.

For Zingg, Hutton would serve as an important source of census information on life in India and provide folkloric comments in regards to the stories of feral children. While in this text he was “indebted to the kindness of Dr. Robert M. Zingg” for several of his references, he would ultimately decline the opportunity to write a forward in Zingg’s and Singh’s account of the children’s development. He declined because he felt that in the end their work was an “improved version” of what actually occurred. Despite Hutton’s reservations about the complete reliability of their account and his own feelings of inconclusiveness about the evidence at hand, he did not discredit the possibility that Amala and Kamala were reared by wolves in part because of the widespread presence of these very myths. This attempt to account for the legends of feral children by appealing to the possibility of their reality was also characteristic of the popular articles on the subject.

In the articles of the 1940s a monolithic depiction of science is presented as attempting to come to grips with the stories of feral children. Lois Mattox Miller typifies this approach in his article “The Wolf-Girls and the Baboon Boy”, which dramatically begins with the following homage to both myth and science alike:

From Romulus and Remus, mythical founders of Rome, through Kiplind’s Mowgli to Tarzan, stories of human babies adopted by wolves, bears, or apes, and reared to super-manhood far from human society have fascinated people of all ages in all climes. Scientists, always skeptical of the unauthenticated, have nevertheless searched for evidence of weird reality behind so persistent a myth pattern. […] [N]ow, for the first time, science has evidence of two cases of humans who may have been reared by wild animals; he tragic Wolf-children of Midnapore; and Lucas, he Baboon Boy of South Africa.

While Miller’s article points out that: “To the casual reader, these are just fascinating wonder-tales; but the scientists look to them to throw light on the relative importance of heredity and environment in shaping behaviour patters”, his discussion concludes on a triumphant note transcending the arena of nature and nurture to the glorification of humanity: we can ape better than the apes and live among wolves, and this likely demonstrates a greater, rather than a lesser intelligence in the cases of these children. We shall see that this sense of triumph, characteristic of the legends, was mirrored in several of the social scientists own accounts.

The role of folklore as potential evidence for the existence of feral children and the idea of human triumph that accompanies this are both present in the introductory sections of Wolf-Children and Feral Man. To begin with, the foreword presented by Dr. Ruggles Gates from the Human Heredity Bureau, even more forcefully reiterates the position of Hutton in his interpretation of the connection between folklore and reality. It also indicates a degree of value judgment, insofar as it assumes that feral children are exclusively the produce of ruder states of civilization, for he comments that:

The evidence is I think, conclusive that in former centuries when civilization was in a much ruder state, wolf-children were occasionally found even in Europe. The story of Romulus and Remus turns out to be mythical, but founded upon earlier myths which presumably had an ultimate substratum of truth. […] It is only reasonable to suppose that such legends were not pure inventions but were founded upon rare occurrences, among peoples in an early stage of culture.

In his contributing foreword Dr. Arnold Gesell, then director of the Clinic of Child Development at Yale University, presents a decidedly triumphant account of the wolf-girls of Midnapore. Despite the death of Amala at an early age, he stresses the fact that Kamala survived: “To an extraordinary degree she survived psychologically and achieved human estate”. Furthermore, despite his assertion that the dichotomy of nature and nurture is “barren”, he concludes his contribution to the text with the comment that: “The career of Kamala, even though cut short, demonstrates anew the stamina of the human spirit and the operation of developmental reserves which always ameliorate the adversities of abnormal fate”. Among the contributing scholars to the Reverend Singh’s diary, Dr. Gesell stands out as being exceptionally representative of the influence of folklore and popular myth. Bezaquén explicitly points out this effect on Gesell’s thought and how it was manifested in his subsequent publications on the matter. As she describes in regards to his Wolf Child and Human Child: Reconciling the Extraordinary and the Normal: “Despite his protestations to the contrary, he resorted to the emotional and evocative power of fiction to lend cohesion to the whole. His recurring references to Kipling’s Mowgli implicitly afforded another narrative framework, a romantic alternative to his scientific exposition of the normal child’s growth, against which the story of Kamala might be read”. If this is any indication of the intellectual atmosphere among the social scientists that supported the Reverend Singh’s claims, then it is clear that folklore was never far from center stage both implicitly and explicitly. It even formed the basis of dissenting views.

Psychologists, tending to be more sceptical, nevertheless acknowledged the importance of folklore in these matters, albeit often for different reasons. Marian W. Smith in her 1954 article on wild children and the principle of reinforcement, points out that: “Before the […] cases can be analyzed it is necessary to accept them as evidence, even if only temporarily”. She stresses that a tacit acceptance of the truth of the matter rests on shaky ground because it is difficult to state with any certainty which came first, claims about the actual existence of feral children, or the folklore in which they played a largely symbolic role. However, rather than removing the place of folklore in the scientific discussion, it instead gives it a central place, because as Smith observes in these cases: “The interplay between reality and belief is far from simple”.

This outlook is particularly evident in the writings of one of the more public detractors of the credibility of the wolf-girls of Midnapore, the psychologist Wayne Dennis. In his 1941 article “The Significance of Feral Man” he uses the existence of a body folklore surrounding feral children in India as warning sign. He cautions his readers, reasoning that:

Since the idea of wolf-children is current in India […] if a mute, who could give no account of his past, were found in India at the present time, it is easy to guess the direction of speculation concerning his origin. … India possesses a large number of unfortunates to whom such a myth could be fitted.

Unlike the vision of human triumph presented by Gesell, Dennis considers most, if not all of the cases of feral children to be the products of folkloric inspired misunderstandings of children with mental defects who were separated from their parents for short periods of time and then discovered by others. In this way folklore becomes the defining point for him and many other detractors of the authenticity of feral children. As he comments later in The Significance of Feral Man: “In searching for the origin of the belief that a specific child was reared by beasts it would be relevant to examine the folk lore [sic] of the region from which came the original story.“ Yet while describing it as a source of scientific contamination in the search for feral children, Dennis nevertheless ascribes to folklore a great deal of importance, particularly in the context of underdeveloped societies. It is to the idea of the obscuring effects of folklore in a colonial context that we now turn our attention.

It has been said that the science of anthropology developed as an instrument of colonialism. This seems particularly evident in the case of feral children, whose presence in a nation inevitably served as a comment on its state of civilization. Western observers were quick to note that the phenomenon: “Has seldom if ever been witnessed by a European, at any rate since the seventeenth century”. As we have already seen in the comments made by Dr. Gates they could only have appeared “even in Europe” among “peoples in an early stage of culture”. Yet, for him, this early stage of culture is part of what makes India “a paradise for the anthropologist”. Western social scientists’ fascination with feral children was complicated by the prejudicial distrust of “uncivilized” folklore, and the understanding that their presence in a nation served as further proof that it was in an early stage of development.

As we have already seen to a large extent, social scientists that wanted to support the possibility of feral children turned to the validity of western folklore to help support their claims. However, those who sought to discount the idea of feral children often disparaged the epistemological value of the accounts made by “uncivilized” native peoples, who were more likely to fall victim to superstition (in other words, their own folklore). The colonial values underpinning these critiques are evident Dennis’ The Significance of Feral Man, in which he reminds the reader to be skeptical because: “The desire to please and likewise the desire to pull the leg of the white man are not unknown among the darker-skinned races”. However, these views reach their most blatant form in the work of an earlier scholar that Dennis makes references to: the nineteenth century British anthropologist E. Burnet Tylor. In Tylor’s “Wild Men and Beast-Children”, he makes similar critiques of the existence of feral children based on the unreliability of uncivilized accounts. He incredulously states that: “we have no other evidence than that of natives, and it is pretty well known what Oriental evidence is worth as to such matters”, and, comparing the account of feral children to a native belief that people are born with crocodile twins concludes that: “if all the Asiatics living were to declare with one accord that a child and a crocodile had been born twins at one birth, we should not believe it”. In the face of this colonial background it is therefore telling that Zingg himself felt compelled to remind his readers to be more accepting in their judgements, for “there should be some presumption that native Indian testimony of even the lowest classes is not always necessarily false”.

There are few questions thornier than those of the first origins of a thing. All the subsequent promises and pains of its entire history have the tendency of becoming inscribed in its beginnings, and a tangled mess ensues, which after all, is what the present is. If any topic of consideration is more beset with difficulties, it is the question of human nature. The image of the feral child or wild man through history and legend has in many ways exemplified both of these quandaries, and done so with all the poignancy of an infant abandoned in the woods. Kamala and Amala did exist, but the question of whether or not they were the wolf-girls of Midnapore is another matter. At the very least, their story serves to highlight the importance and influence of folklore in the social sciences, and show how literature together with myth can shape the nature and direction of scientific debates. Here, it is important to note that Zingg’s and Gesell’s approach to the value of folklore was not in itself unscientific or misguided, any more than Dennis’ assertions to the contrary, what was interesting was the channels through which the two parties operated, and the shape that their discussion took on in light of the folkloric undercurrents of their subject matter. Likewise, the colonial prejudices of Dennis and Tylor can perhaps be expected, but in this matter they serve to bring light to an area in the history of the social sciences that would benefit form further elucidation. If the presence of feral children is both indicative of an “anthropological paradise” as well as a negative indicator of a nations state of civilization, then what does this indicate about the role and responsibility of this kind of science? Furthermore, the marked preference of European folklore on the side of Singh’s supporters and the attention drawn to the folklore of India by his detractors is some indicator of the lack of self-reflexivity present in early anthropology. As the grotesque cases of Dani and other neglected children testify, to this day there is the desire to recast cases of abandonment in the present day to those of human triumph in its legendary past. In this way it is indicative of a basic human need, a need that demands some role for folklore when faced with the damning evidence against the virtue of civilization that is and always has been the feral child.

For More Information:

Dennis, Wayne. “The Significance of Feral Man”. In The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Jul., 1941). p. 425-32.

Gates, R. Ruggles. “Foreword”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. xiii-xvi

Gesell, Arnold. “Foreword”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. xvii-xviii.

Hutton, J.H. “Wolf-Children”. In Folklore, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Mar., 1940), 9-31.

—. “Wolf-Children and Feral Man”. In Man, New Series, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Dec., 1967), 631.

Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Book. 2009. Wikisource. 13 April 2009. <>

Livy. The Early History of Rome: Books 1-4 of The History of Rome From its Foundations. Trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1960.

Miller, Lois Mattox. “The Wolf-Girls and the Baboon-Boy”. In The Science News-Letter, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Jul. 13, 1940). p. 26-9.

Plutarch, Romulus. Trans. John Dryden. The Internet Classics Archive. 2009. Web Atomics. 13 April 2009 <>

Singh. J.A.L. “The Diary of the Wolf-Children of Midnapore (India)”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. 3-126.

Smith, Marian W. “Wild Children and the Principle of Reinforcement”. In Child Development, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Jun., 1954). p. 115-23.

The Society for Science & the Public. “Wolf-Child Stories Are Doubted by Psychologist”. In The Science News-Letter, Vol. 39, No. 17 (Apr. 26, 1941), p. 261.

Tylor, E. Burnet. “Wild Men and Beast-Children”. In Anthropological Review, Vol 1. No. 1. (May, 1863). p. 21-32.

Zingg, Robert M. “Introduction: Continued”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. xxxv-xli.

—. “Feral Man and Cases of Extreme Isolation of Individuals”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. 131-365.

Bezaquén, Adriana S. Encounters with Wild Children: Temptation and Disappointment in the Study of Human Nature. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.

Carroll, Michael P. “The Folkloric Origins of Modern ‘Animal-Parented Children’ Stories”. In Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Apr., 1984), 63-85.

Lewis, Diane. “Anthropology and Colonialism” In Current Anthropology, Vol. 14, No. 5 (Dec.,1973), 581-602.

Newton, Michael. Savage Girls and Wild Boys. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.

Szalaitz, Maia. “A Feral Child’s Journey to Recovery: How One Expert Helps Children Heal After Severe Abuse and Neglect”. 2009. MSN Health & Fitness. 12 April 2009. <>

Microbial Life, The Myths of Science and the Legacy of Lovecraft

Having just finished Stefan Helmreich’s Alien Oceans: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas, I was struck by a number of things, but, most fugitive, and therefore most interesting, was one parable he recorded, told to him by a postdoc at the Delong Lab at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

This postdoc, described as being interested in alternative epistemologies, spirituality, the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and the French Jesuit, paleontologist and philosopher Teilhard du Chardain, described the potential geological life cycle of methane producing microbes in a subsection entitled “Lovelock meets Lovecraft”:

“Once upon a time, when the earth was young, there was very little oxygen in the atmosphere. Instead, the atmosphere was mostly composed of methane and carbon dioxide and the oceans were warm and shallow. Life evolved to thrive under these greenhouse conditions. Methanogenic microbes feeding on carbon dioxide and other simple carbon compounds produced vast quantities of methane and this methane was in turn consumed by methane-oxidizing microbes found primarily beneath the ocean’s surface. In cooperation with sulfate-reducing organisms, the methane-oxidizing microbes built towering reef cities formed from mineralized carbonate and filled them over countless generations with their collective brood.

And affairs continued in this tranquil equilibrium for one and a half billion years, until the genesis of oxygenic-phototrophic metabolisms and the oxidation of the atmosphere. Life forms able to adapt to elevated oxygen levels thrived and radiated. Meanwhile, those content with living in anoxic places were pushed to marginal zones, to extreme environments– subterranean worlds and still waters, mud flats, and seafloor spreading centers. The great reef cities fell into ruin and were subsumed into submarine strata, a cryptic but lingering record of the lives of these ancient organisms. Despite this catastrophic reversal of fortune, these ancient ones held onto the edges of their once great empire and there they waited.

And here’s the moral of this conjectural tale: They knew, these ancient ones knew, to the very core of their genomic fiber, that it would all be okay, because through their DNA they had bequeathed the knowledge and the drive to return and rebuild. Because it turns out that all of the anthropogenic processes connected to climate change– fuel emissions, deforestation, cattle grazing– may well have the result of bringing back the ancient atmosphere. you see, these ancient organisms are patient. And here are the ironies– a good story always has ironies– they have no imperial ambitions, they have adapted to live and lurk in the marginal zones. But when the madness of humanity resurrected the ancient atmosphere they will be ready and willing to return, to rebuild their ancient dwellings beneath the sea and continue their eldritch cycling of methane. And the primordial balance will return. Until the next big catastrophe.”

The narrative helps to show the influence of Lovecraftian myths for contemporary scientists in the field, and how these myths play into the larger concerns of geological time, the “order” of nature, and critiques of anthropocentric thinking that were themselves part of the cultural milieu that Lovecraft himself was addressing at the beginning of the 20th century. Mythic thinking, is, after all, not reserved to traditional religions but plays itself out in any form of life that finds itself colliding with the uncertainties of acting in the world, even that of science. Indeed, Helmreich’s pairing of James Lovelock, one of the founding fathers of the “Gaia hypothesis”, with Lovecraft, whose myth cycle could be considered the cosmic counterpoint to it (emphasizing the extreme fragility of life and the incomprehensibility of the “inner workings” of existence) consciously plays off of the fundamental dichotomy of a secular mythology contrasting ecological “order” to “chaos”.

For More Information:

The Glassy Essence of Life

Coming to Dresden without much prior research I happened upon the Blaschka House, which, sadly, is not usually open to the public except on special occasions, but does serve as an excellent excuse for a blog post.

The collection of specimens crafted from glass by the father and son team of Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolf Blaschka (1857-1939) was a rich and rare anomaly of biological modeling. While they largely produced elegant glass replicas of plants, they also made a number of sea anemones, squid, octopai, jellyfish and other invertebrates, several of which can be found in the art gallery at Cornell. The bulk of the collection, however, is held in Harvard after the Blaschkas signed an exclusive ten-year contract with the university in 1890.

When Rudolf died in 1939, he had no apprentices and no one to learn the craft skills behind his glass work. Many of the techniques used to create the Blaschka models were thus never revealed, and I believe they remain unknown to this day.

The choice of materials, glass, is interesting for a number of reasons. Glass was not the most immediate, or common material for such models in the nineteenth century, it was difficult to safely transport and difficult to work with when compared to wax. While it did have an advantage over more common, dead specimens, in being able to preserve the colours and structure of the living thing being modeled, it nevertheless took a great deal of time to make and perfect, and tasked the detailed memory and skill to produce a convincing replica.

There is, I suspect, an interesting, largely untold story about the quest for the basic unit connecting the organic and inorganic worlds in the nineteenth century with the Blaschka’s choice of materials. It culminates in what Bob Brain from the University of British Columbia has termed the “Protoplasmania” at the end of the century. Protoplasmania, a strand of nineteenth century culture that connects Thomas Henry Huxley’s undue excitement over Bathybius haeckelii, what he thought was the original source of all life and turned out to be a chemical artifact of specimen preservation, to french parapsychologists’ attempts to use high speed photography to capture images of ghostly ectoplasm, evidence of the ability of space itself to store memory, and Edward Munch’s “Scream”.

Ernst Haeckel (who lent his name to the short lived Bathybius haeckelii) was also invested in the glassy essence of life. His celebrated Kunsformen der Natur featured a wide array of

glassy radiolarians, whose silicate shells and startling symmetry lent them an alien, primordial appearance.

Haeckel was a friend of the Blaschkas, and lent them books from his library when they were called upon to work on a series of marine invertebrates. It is more than likely, then, that the material choice was not just an artistic statement, but was deeply embroiled in the theories about life and nature involved in protoplasmania, which tied together so much of the art and science of Fin-De-Siècle Europe.

For More Information:

Brain, Robert. (2010). “How Edvard Munch and August Strindberg Contracted Protoplasmania: Memory, Synesthesia, and the Vibratory Organism in Fin-De-Siècle Europe”. In Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 35, No. 1.