Chad Weber did such an excellent job in his last post on Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, that we asked him back to talk Sapolsky’s work with baboons.
Robert Sapolsky goes to the African plains ever summer to study baboons. Sapolsky paid most attention to a particular forest “troop” (or baboon group). One year, the aggressive young males of the forest troop began raiding a neighboring troop’s territory — more specifically, a pit in their territory used by nearby safari lodges as a trash dump.
One day, these aggressive young hoodlums raided the dump and feasted on a large amount of raw beef. Unfortunately, it was infected with bovine tuberculosis; for baboons, unlike humans, getting tuberculosis means an inevitable, quick death. All the baboons in the pit troop died, as did all the aggressive young raiders from the forest troop.
Sapolsky was devastated — data on a population that just went through a catastrophic demographic shift would be useless. He wanted to see baboons behaving normally, not a group that had just lost all its tougher males and had its gender ratio turned upside down.
The forest troop was markedly different after the deaths — calmer, less violent, with more grooming and much more positive interactions than before. He decided not to study them, as they were clearly waiting for other aggressive, dominant males to show up and return the troop to its old, violent ways.
An assistant was sent to do a census on the forest troop years later, and returned to Sapolsky very excited. Sapolsky reluctantly agreed to see what was so shocking. He was stunned to find that the members of the forest troop were still acting “friendly,” and doing things no baboons had ever been observed doing before. Male baboons never groom each other — except in the forest troop. Males have no role in raising their kids, and never hold/carry their kids — except in the forest troop. The average distance between troop members was reduced by more that 50 percent.
Sapolsky was eager to learn how the troop, which now seemed far too peace-and-love oriented to defend itself, had managed to avoid being taken over. Then, one day, a violent, dominant male fell upon them and attempted to subjugate the troop to his rule. The troop instantly turned on him and literally tore him limb from limb. When Sapolsky went out to study the troop the next day, the baboons were quietly grooming each other as usual, and on the ground beside them was the severed face of the would-be usurper. The group managed to avoid a return to violence by reserving all their aggression for the males who occasionally tried to fill the power vacuum.
At a dinner and lecture for a fundraiser, Sapolsky did a Q&A after finishing his lecture. Someone asked him, based on his experience and his research, how can we reduce or eliminate violence in our society. His answer: “Kill all the aggressive young males.”
My friend Susannah, urban preservationist extraordinaire, sent me this pamphlet from 1917 on Community Mausoleums in Chicago. The pamphlet is filled with high falutin’ rhetoric like, “Above all things we ask for our Dead the grace of Good Taste.” According to the pamphlet, community mausoleums will last as long as the monuments of Rome. And yet, despite all that, Susannah found it on a list of Ten Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois.
Here are some of the pictures of the community mausoleums in the pamphlet:
This reminds us, again, that just as the human body does not last forever, neither do the things designed to memorialize it. Even extreme outliers like the pyramids of Egypt, which have stood through time, will eventually crumble. This is not to say that we should not preserve and respect these mausoleums, as they are not only places where the dead reside but important historical buildings.
However, one of the reasons I’ve come to be such a natural burial enthusiast is that with natural burial you are going into death knowing there is no forever. By choosing to send your entire body straight back into the elements, there is no delusion of eternal safety and preservation of your remains.
The sixth installment from awesome Austin-based funeral director Sarah Wambold documenting the process of opening her own funeral home.
“I’ve made everything from furniture to sex toys,” a product designer whispered into my ear as she slipped her business card into my hand. “I’m also a woodworker.”
Now I was listening.
“Can you make a casket?” I asked hopefully. She nodded enthusiastically. I handed her my card and we made plans to get together soon.
This, friendly Order folks, was the scene that unfolded after my first-ever pitch night. It took place recently here in Austin as part of an initiative by Elance, a freelancing website, to get people to “work differently.” Nobody was expecting to hear about a funeral home start-up, and afterwards, nobody could stop talking about it. And I didn’t even technically win.
I decided to enter the Ignition Pitch Night because it was beyond time for me to start practicing my business pitch. It was also high time I let Austin know I was planning to open the funeral home of its dreamz. The Internet is Continuum’s first home, but Austin will be its physical location, and it has always been inspired by this city.
When I arrived, I noticed I was the second-to-last person pitching. I was going to have to follow up pitches for baby equipment rental apps, elementary education apps, football apps, party cake apps. APPS. So I was already different conceptually, but that started to get me excited. Once the pitching started, it went by really quickly because we were only allowed 5 minutes each. We also got to have PowerPoint slides, a program I used to find hilariously inadequate for presentations but now realized, with the right amount of finesse, can be fairly persuasive.
By the time it was my turn, I had sat through just about every pitch starting off with a question such as, “How many of you like to take pictures?” or “Who likes to eat cake?” I actually was going to do this standard open, but decided to go a step further at the last minute. “I’m not going to start with a question,” I began, “because I already know the answer. We’re all going to die.” Welp, that shut them up!
Surprisingly, I was able to move on from the grimness of that statement and describe my funeral home as a new and better funeral experience for everyone, and as the funeral home that Austin deserved. By this time, I was hearing gasps of approval. It was all very exciting.
Good vibes aside, my pitch does need more work. I need to have a clearer ‘ask’ and be more specific about the dreaded financials (spoiler alert: it’s gonna be high). I was lucky enough to get some tremendously helpful feedback about how to improve it and, in fact, the woman who won the competition, whose pitch was perfect, was very supportive and eager to help. There was a great spirit of collaboration surrounding the competition, which was a relief, because networking events can sometimes be overwhelming and feel a bit desperate.
It became clear to me that Austin is ready for this funeral home and people really want to talk about funerals when they’re in a safe space. One of the judges approached me at the end of the night, saying, “Awesome. Your idea is phenomenal. Don’t put it away just because you didn’t win tonight.”
I wouldn’t dream of it.
Daehyun Kim is everything.
“I was born in Seoul, in 1980. Now I’m living and working in Seoul. I studied fine arts at a university, specialized in Traditional East-Asian Art/Paintings. I’ve been making Moonassi drawing series since 2008. They mostly are small size and pained only in black by using pen and marker, sometimes brush.”
Daehyun Kim has illustrated multiple times for death-themed New York Times articles, which is how I found his work. I’ve been stalking him since then. Hahaha, just kidding, I wouldn’t stalk someone. *Dead, crazy eyes*
Friend of the Order Chad Weber gives us the highlight reel of Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky’s lecture “Poverty’s Remains.” The lecture is available (for a fairly large sum) on the Great Courses website, and some of Sapolsky’s free lectures can be downloaded here.
Because of society’s death-phobia, historically most people did not want the bodies of their loved ones to be autopsied. As a result, anatomical knowledge came largely from the dissection of the bodies of the poor, who were buried in shallow graves in Potters’ Fields or just left at the hospital to be bought up for study by colleges.
Being poor alters your anatomy in several ways; one of these markers is found in the thymus, which shrinks in response to stress. A stressful week decreases thymus size by 75 percent, so imagine what the constant, chronic stress of poverty would do. As a result, physicians thought that the shrunken, abnormally small thymuses of the poor were the actual size of normal thymuses.
Enter Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Because SIDS is defined as the death of a previously healthy baby, and because extremely poor babies are generally unhealthy, SIDS is basically a condition limited to middle- and upper-class babies. At the time, poor babies dying was not unusual enough to merit special attention.
When doctors began dissecting babies who died of SIDS in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they found these well-to-do babies had big thymuses. Of course, these “big thymuses” were actually normal-sized, healthy thymuses that had not been shrunk by the stress of poverty. But the doctors compared them to the thymuses of the poor they had autopsied and said “Aha! SIDS is caused by an enlarged thymus! These enormous thymus glands are compressing the babies’ tracheas while they sleep, suffocating them!” They even came up with a name for the supposed condition – Status thymicolymphaticus.
With the discovery of radioactivity and its potential medical uses, a treatment for Status thymicolymphaticus was devised — simply irradiate the baby’s throat to shrink the thymus, thus saving him or her from SIDS. The treatment became commonplace in the 1920s and ’30s.
Unfortunately, the thymus is located right next to the thyroid, and the thyroid reacts to radiation by becoming cancerous. Only in the mid-1930s did doctors realize that the large thymuses were healthy thymuses and smaller thymuses are indicative of unhealthy stress levels. They then realized that not only did Status thymicolymphaticus not actually exist, but treating this nonexistent problem with radiation was unnecessary and potentially lethal. By the time the radiation treatments were stopped, over 10,000 babies had died of thyroid cancer as a result of the treatments. Part of the sometimes grotesque growing pains of modern medicine.