September 23, 2012 § Leave a Comment
That the opportunistic parasite Toxoplasma-gondii, the ancient Egyptian cat goddess Bastet, and the ideas that inform Bruno Latour’s Actor-network theory (ANT) all exist independently are not contested subjects. That they are unified has yet to be examined. The goal of this paper will be to situate these three seemingly disparate phenomena into an interactive web of possibilities that will prove useful for the disciplines of science, social science, mythology, philosophy, and other fields of study. Our first step will be to examine Kevin T. Lafferty’s research on the eco-science of toxoplasmosis in human agents and its cultural outcomes. Lafferty’s work will lay the ground for a complimentary analysis of an ancient Egyptian dynamic that encouraged the (then unknown) proliferation of the parasite into the people’s daily and spiritual life of upper and lower Egypt within the religio/mythic power symbolized in the guise of the female cat deity Bastet. We will then conclude by demonstrating how the microbial and mythic agents (yes, toxoplasma-gondii is considered a non-human agent with agency, along with cats, humans, and Bastet etc.) will be placed into a non-hierarchical perspective of ANT by way of Bruno Latour’s work concerning science, people, microbes, technology (mummification) which is an un-stratified way of understanding the relationships between all the actors/actants involved.
In a 2006 paper Lafferty proposes the idea that the parasite Toxoplasma-gondii has influenced human culture. Lafferty quotes J.P. Webster explaining that the parasite promotes the risk behavior of affected rodents “T. gondii appears to manipulate rodent behavior in sophisticated ways that would increase transmission to domestic cats” (2749). The infected rodents are said to engage in high risk activities so as to get caught and eaten by the cat, thus positioning the parasite in the body of its desired carrier. Felines are the ideal host for the parasite, but humans can become infected due to their proximity to cats as house pets, companions, and domestic pest control. “The reproductive phase of this protozoan lives in the cells that line the intestine of a feline. [And can] infect [other] cats or encyst in the brain and other tissues of a wide range of warm-blooded vertebrates, including humans” (J.K.A. Beverly qtd. in Lafferty 2749). Once the parasite has infected a person, traceable personality traits are said to take place with noted variance between the genders, “For instance, in infected women, intelligence, superego strength […] and affectothymia […] are higher, while infected men have lower intelligence, superego strength and novelty-seeking […]; both infected men and women have higher levels of guilt-proneness […]” (Flegr [sic] and Hrdy [sic], qtd. in Lafferty 2749). Because T. gondii affects men and women in these gender specific ways, using the cultural research of Hofstede & McCrae, Lafferty ‘predicts’ the outcome of “…higher aggregate neuroticism. Aspects of human culture associated with neuroticism are male control, materialism, rules and structure [and] that T. gondii could increase the cultural dimensions of ‘masculine’ sex roles and uncertainty avoidance” (2551).
All of Lafferty’s observations are pointing in a general direction: microbial agency. Before we incorporate that into Actor-network theory, let us refer to a number of studies that demonstrate the unlikely connection between T. gondii and the worship/mummification of cats in ancient Egypt. On the topics of Toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia, the Stanley Medical Research Institute writes in their online article “All about Cats and T. gondii Transmission” about the “…major example of cats being regarded as pets […] in ancient Egypt […] a local cult worshipping a cat goddess (Bastet) became widespread. Cats were highly valued and often mummified when they died” (¶5). This obvious link to ancient Egyptian cat deification and to the goddess Bastet is not unique. Mark Greener also postulates a similar argument with his independent research on T. gondii and its ancient roots (again including its link to schizophrenia), where he writes “Bastet might have evolved from the Middle Eastern Neolithic cat cult into a protective goddess, reflecting the cat’s critical role protecting from rodents the grain vital to the society’s survival” (¶13). It is common knowledge that Egyptian priests preformed the necessary mummification of cats to accompany and assist the pet’s owner in the afterlife. What is not widely known is that the deceased cats were mummified with the same meticulous care and attention to detail as their human counterparts (Owen 2004). It was due to this proximity to the animal’s entrails—hence its waste products—that the priests would have easily contracted toxoplasmosis. There was not any awareness of microbial infection, and because of this there was not a concern for sanitary conditions by which to handle the human and animal corpses. Ancient Egyptian priests enjoyed a place of societal prestige (Porphyry ¶8). This social position enabled the infected priests to promulgate the belief that cats were to be revered, this lead to the outright worship of the feline goddess Bastet. This confirms Lafferty’s findings, whereby T. gondii infiltrates itself in a materialistic, male-dominated cultural pattern. This also affirms Lafferty’s connection with the more stable and affable traits that are manifested in females when they become infected. Bastet was primarily known for her protective qualities. The importance of Bastet in ancient Egypt cannot be underestimated (BBC). It is only till now, in the 21stcentury, that we can finally bridge the gap and silence some of the mysteries behind the extreme reverence of cats to the time of the Egyptian pharaohs with this key symbiotic microbial/human relationship.
With all of this under consideration, let us finally position these findings within Actor-network theory (ANT). ANT was popularized by the French sociologist, philosopher Bruno Latour with Michel Callon in the 1980s (Crawford 1). As Crawford defines ANT, we are reminded of a critical feature
…the agency of nonhumans (machines, animals, texts, and hybrids, among others), [and] the ANT network is conceived as a heterogeneous amalgamation of textual, conceptual, social, and technical actors. The ‘volitional actor’ for ANT, termed actant, is any agent, collective or individual, that can associate or disassociate with other agents (1).
This point is central to our argument because it positions the nonhuman T. gondii as an actor/actant on the same interactive level as the human and societal actors/actants. Latour in his book The Pasteurization of Francewrites at length on microbes as agents, for instance he writes “We have to add the action of microbes” (35), and he later underscores this with “…the action of the microbe redefined not only society but also the nature of the whole caboodle” (38). Since Latour also positions ANT within a semiotic structure he privileges relationships within the network “There is no external referent. Referents are always internal to the forces that use them as touchstones” (166). The network of actors and actants becomes an entity we’re not used to recognizing, because we typically think that the only actor worthy of our attention is human. What this could mean in terms of ANT and T. gondii is implicated in the way T. gondii is usually thought to have conscious agency. When we refer to the way T. gondii seems to be ‘controlling’ its host we are situating it within a network whereby the human, cat, or mouse become victim to the parasite’s ‘will’. In a strict scientific understanding, T. gondii is merely affecting the physiology and neurology of the infected host. But once we recognize that agency need not be only about the volitional, we can then allow for the simple and complex ways micobes, humans and culture reverberate with unstratified connectivity. Crawford helps to define ANT by showing that it’s non-essentialist (1). To this concept Latour writes “…we should not decide a-priori what the state of forces will be beforehand, or what will count as a force” (155). The same can also be said for the weaknesses (155). What this means is that we cannot (with ANT) suggest that one actor’s role is essentially stronger or weaker that the other—ANT insists on a level playing field with no winners and losers. One actor is not more important than another. “Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else” (Latour 158).
Suddenly our prayers are answered. Reality becomes fiction and vice-versa. Our fetid microbial actor T.gondii becomes an ancient deity, mice are less risk averse, cats are coddled, men become domineering, and women’s superego is pronounced. But, now the most pressing question to ask is: in this non/fictional network who plays who?
BBC. “Temple to Cat God Found in Egypt.” BBC. (2010). Web. Retrieved on 18 September 2012.
Crawford, Cassandra S. “Actor-network Theory.” Ritzer-Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Web. Retrieved on 19 September 2012.
Greener, Mark. “Of Rats and Cats and Suicide, Toxoplasmosis Gondii.” Fortean Times. (2007). Web. Retrieved on 15 September 2012.
Lafferty, Kevin D. “Can the Common Brain Parasite, Toxoplasma Gondii, Influence Human Culture?” Proceedings B of the Royal Society. (2006). PDF. Web. Retrieved on 15 September 2012.
Latour, Bruno. The Pasteurization of France. Trans. Alan Sheridan and John Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press. (1988). Print.
Owen, James. “Egyptian Animals Were Mummified Same Way as Humans.” National Geographic. (2004) Web. Retrieved on 18 September 2012.
Porphyry. “On abstinence from animal food (1823) Book 4.” Trans. Thomas Taylor. Early Church Fathers – Additional Texts. (n.d.). Web. Retrieved on 18 September 2012.
Stanley Medical Research Institute. “All about Cats and T. gondii Transmission.” The Stanley Medical Research Institute. (2008). Web. Retrieved on 15 September 2012.
 Toxoplasma-gondii infection.
 Ancient Egyptian feline goddess.
 “warm, outgoing, attentive to others, kindly, easy-going, participating and likes people” (Lafferty, 2749).
 group, societal, and/or cultural neurosis.
September 22, 2012 § Leave a Comment
How much credence do we give a brief article on wisdom presented in the popular scientific press? The answer will depend on the variety of uses we might have for such an article. For instance, are we reading it because we are actually interested in the neurobiology of the brain? Are we reading it to gain wisdom? Although the emphasis of Meeks and Jeste’s (2009a) work focused on the neurobiology of wisdom, it is worthwhile to reflect on their conclusions, as well as the limited way Lite (2009) presents it in her article in Scientific American.
Before I look at Meeks and Jeste’s (2009a) paper, I’d like to lay down a couple of initial arguments. First with Lite’s (2009) article there are obvious omissions which are probably due to her editorial constraints, but in addition to this, Lite titles her article: “Is Wisdom in the Brain?” (2009). On the surface, this title is just a little redundant, since where else would we find wisdom, other than in our brain? Of course, this particular question can be asked and can lead us to any number of philosophical problems, for instance, is knowledge and/or wisdom innate? But, this isn’t where we want to go, because the particular study of neurobiology under consideration has to do with locating the exact function and chemistry of the brain when it is engaged in thinking wisely—the study is not trying to determine if wisdom can be located in the brain. A better title could be: Can Science Locate how Wisdom Works Within the Brain? The other contention I have with Lite’s article vs. Meeks and Jeste’s, is that she fails to account for the possible applications/conclusions that can be made using the study as a foundation for further developments in neurobiology and beyond. In other words, Lite basically presents that facts and we as readers don’t know what to do with the information, other than to conclude that a neurobiological study has recently looked into brain chemistry, circuitry and connections to determine where and how wisdom takes place in a laboratory context.
Meeks and Jeste (2009a) elaborated on research literature that was compiled from multiple sources that used the cutting edge technology of neuroimaging (fMRI) to study the brain. To define what this technology actually is, Hannah Devlin (2012) tells us that a fMRI “…works by detecting the changes in blood oxygenation and flow that occur in response to neural activity – when a brain area is more active it consumes more oxygen, and to meet this increased demand blood flow increases to the active area” (¶ 1). What this suggests is that neurobiology (the biology of the nervous system) shouldn’t be entirely confused with neuroscience (the study of the nervous system). Science Daily defines neurobiology as: “the study of cells of the nervous system and the organization of these cells into functional circuits that process information and mediate behavior” (2008, ¶ 1). Essentially, Meeks and Jeste were elaborating on multiple studies and research that used fMRI results showing what areas of the brain are connecting and what chemical exchanges and functions took place when wisdom was employed by groups of subjects in a laboratory setting.
What is most remarkable about the study is the basic fact that Meeks and Jeste (2009a) compiled an actual list (see below) that is comprised of the subcomponents of wisdom (p. 356). Their compiled six subcomponents are: “Prosocial attitudes and behaviors, Social decision making/pragmatic knowledge of life, emotional homeostasis [emotional regulation], reflection/self-understanding, value relativism/tolerance [overall tolerance of other’s beliefs], acknowledgement of and dealing effectively with uncertainty and ambiguity [and so on…]” (Meeks & Jeste, 2009a, p. 356). As I mentioned earlier, this list is the best part of the research because is provides an objective list of the important features of wisdom. Their objective list of the characteristic traits of wisdom is then employed, one at a time, to locate what exactly happens in the brain when each subcomponent is tested on while undergoing a fMRI. For instance, the doctors/scientists examined what precisely happened biologically in the brain when a patient is acting altruistically?—and so on.
the subcomponents of wisdom (2009a)
How does the extensive scientific paper compare to what Lite (2009) writes about? Although she does a good job presenting the main ideas of the study, she also leaves parts of the information out. One oddity in her article is that she hyperlinks the reader to Meeks and Jeste’s (2009a) paper, yet she refers to another talk given by the doctors elsewhere. I did a Google search and found a PowerPoint that Meeks and Jeste (2009b) put together that refers to most of what Lite writes about. Another point, and the most important part Lite leaves out, has to do with the doctor’s comments on potential uses of their research. These points are important because this demonstrates how the doctors envision the applications of the research into the future and the likely connections to other areas of expertise—gerontology, philosophy, developmental research etc. (Meeks & Jeste, 2009a, p. 361). Their list for the possible applications has a few that are worth quoting: “objectively measuring wisdom, examining the relationship of wisdom to socio-demographic variables […] using animal models […] and developing interventions to enhance wisdom” (Meeks & Jeste, 2009a, p. 363). There are four others, but the four cited here stand out as excellent ways to think about where Meeks and Jeste see the research going. Lite makes no mention of these and I argue that if she did, her article would have more direction into the actionable features of how to implement this unique wisdom research.
Assuming that Lite’s (2009) article had to be short due to Scientific American’s editorial constraints, we’ll give her the credit she deserves. However, we practically know that things will get lost in the paring down of key information. With this said, let us not forget that we are dealing with understanding the neurobiology of wisdom, so actual wisdom cannot be left out of the ways the subject is addressed. This kind of problem is common when comparing philosophy to science. Philosophy and science are often conflated and typically this is at the disservice of the philosophy, since so few care to do the philosophical work behind it. This leads me to then question an obvious problem with Meeks and Jeste’s (2009a) analysis. This problem is honestly addressed by the doctors when they confess: “Many studies included performance-based laboratory tasks, whose validity for assessing specific domains of wisdom may be open to question (e.g., how well an in vitro game assesses altruism in real life)” (Meeks & Jeste, 2009, p. 361). Their parenthetical statement is a form of an actual question I pose. How can anyone measure real-life altruism while examining a test subject while she’s attached to the wires, devices and machinery of a fMRI. I have to imagine that a patient would be stuck to all this equipment while she prescribed tests and games. Can this realistically be an effective way to know and understand the workings of altruism as it happens in the brain? Although there are questions about altruism where we can readily answer with assurance in the lab—do you give money to a charity? While other forms of extreme altruism are more drastically circumstantial—can you risk your life to save another? I’d have to say that the latter is way too difficult, if not impossible, to answer with any assurance, since we don’t know what we’ll do to save a life until we have the unfortunate situation at hand.
It should not be concluded that I would discourage any effort to continue this neurobiological work of Meeks and Jeste (2009a) along with others doing the same kinds of research. With this said, the take away lesson would be not only the where and how wisdom takes place in the brain, but to also understand how we can engage the act of encouraging actual wisdom in all circumstances—especially when we do science.
Devlin, H. (2012). What is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)? Psych Central. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/lib/2007/what-is-functional-magnetic-resonance-imaging-fmri/
Lite, Jordan. (2009). “Is wisdom in the brain?” Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=is-wisdom-in-the-brain-2009-04-06
Meeks, Thomas W., MD & Jeste, Dilip V., MD. (2009a). Neurobiology of wisdom. Archives of General Psychiatry. Retrieved from http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=483035
Meeks, Thomas W., MD & Jeste, Dilip V., MD. (2009b). Neurobiology of wisdom. Retrieved from http://libraries.ucsd.edu/locations/bml/_files/jeste.pdf
“Neuroscience.” (2008). Science Daily. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/articles/n/neurobiology.htm