Some Preliminary Thoughts

Holy Science (Batman?)

Good morning,

1. Wikipedia’s List of Cetaceans includes pictures of most species of cetacean, but when they're missing one, they say [cetacean needed]

cetacean needed

2. Marina won a National Press Club Award!

Specifically, the Ann Cottrell Free award for Animal Reporting!

The awarded work centered on her reporting amid the bird flu outbreak about how veterinary researchers help Big Ag by laundering their favored, extremely cruel “depopulation” (extermination) methods into policy (April 2022 / The Intercept). She also has some great follow-up reporting on this story throughout last year at The Guardian.

By the way, Marina is starting an email list of her own, so if you want to hear more from her, sign up here!

3. Here's a good comic:

I'm a Luddite & so can you!

The Book

Subramaniam, Banu. Holy Science: The biopolitics of Hindu nationalism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019)

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while. Subramaniam was trained as an evolutionary biologist, but is probably best known for Ghost Stories for Darwin (2014), about how modern biology is haunted by the “ghosts” eugenicist methods, frameworks, and premises. That book is much more autobiographical than Holy Science—Subramaniam motivates Ghost Stories with her own dissertation research—but both books show the value of alternate modes of storytelling for talking and thinking about science.

Holy Science is about India, where Subramaniam grew up. Since its independence and partition in 1947, India has been caught between pluralistic ambitions of embracing all the languages and religions on the subcontinent and a nationalistic current that aims to make Hinduism (the basis of which lands became India rather than Pakistan) the foundation of life and governance in the Indian state. In Holy Science, Subramaniam explores how Hindu nationalists—especially in the BJP, the ruling party in India since 2014—have embraced some aspects of science as useful to their nationalist ambitions, while maintaining that they are firmly rooted in timeless Hindu tradition.

I came into the book not knowing much about India, or about postcolonial studies (one of the scholarly traditions in which the book is rooted) in general. So I can’t speak to how well the book approaches those. In fact, the book was less of an empirical study than I’d hoped—though it's well-sourced, so anyone interested in learning more about science, especially biology, in modern India could get a lot from its bibliography. Subramaniam’s contribution is in pulling together several disparate threads in the Indian state’s approach to science, and compellingly describing the resulting “archaic modernity”: India imports Western science and makes it its own, often in service of an ethnonationalist agenda. Genetics and ecology reinforce caste structures (that were in many cases only codified under the British Raj). Reproductive technology like surrogacy is alternately embraced and rejected, depending on what is useful in the BJP’s crusade to position itself as the protector of the Hindu/Indian family. Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine) is embraced as just another way to enrich oneself and one’s cronies in a globalized, capitalist world.

Other Archaic Modernities

That science should be seen as a connection to some archaic past isn’t as remarkable as you may think. As Subramaniam writes (and as noted in another book I've reviewed here, God, Human, Animal, Machine), western “secular” science is still deeply laden with Christian concepts and worldviews. In Fascist Pigs, a history of agricultural science under fascism, Tiago Saraiva shows that Mussolini’s, Salazar’s, and Hitler’s dictatorships (in Italy, Portugal, and Germany respectively) embraced scientific agriculture as precisely the tool that would reconnect the inhabitants of a fascist nation with their land—a connection thought to have been sundered by modernity. We can actually see the same thing in Italy today. The right-wing government of Italy, which has renamed its agriculture ministry “the ministry for agriculture and food sovereignty”,1 has pushed for bans on cultured meat. Nominally, these protect farmers and Italian tradition, but as an excellent story in the Financial Times recently noted, many of these traditions are post-war inventions, and extremely useful inventions for scaremongering politicians [Link is paywalled, but you can usually get around it by googling Financial Times gastronationalism]. The key bit:

These politicians understand the power of what Grandi terms “gastronationalism”. Who cares if the traditional food culture they promote is partly based on lies, recipes dreamt up by conglomerates or food imported from America? Few things are more reassuring and agreeable than an old lady making tortellini.

It wasn't always like this. “The grandparents knew it was a lie,” Grandi tells me, finishing the last of his prosecco. “The philologic concern with ingredient provenance is a very recent phenomenon.” Indeed it’s hard to imagine that people who survived the second world war eating chestnuts, as my grandfather did, would be concerned about using pork jowl instead of pork belly in a pasta recipe. Or as Grandi puts it, “Their ‘tradition’ was trying not to starve.”

Subramaniam expresses the hope that the BJP’s archaic modernity isn’t the only way of combining scientific knowledge and spiritual meaning. She intersperses her book with interludes wherein she writes in a totally different register, imagining what a Hindu cosmology that embraces changeability and mutability, diverse forms of living and knowing, would look like. It’s not my spirituality, so it’s hard for me to judge how successful she is. But Holy Science is an important call to see where our science and spirituality are mixing—whether in India, Italy, or the U.S.—and to be explicit about the values we build into that mix. When we make these decisions thoughtlessly, it’s all-too-easy for the already-powerful to build an archaic modernity that serves themselves, and excludes other ways of being. We need to intentionally ask, as Subramaniam does, who our science and spirituality serve.

Quick ask to protect the Internet

Screenshot of social media posts by @siderea@universeodon.com: You, personally, should be afraid of this law. This law should terrify you. This law is a gun to YOUR head - not someone else's head, someone less fortunate than you, someone less privileged than you: YOU.  You, personally, are threatened by this law. I suggest you react accordingly. 8/8; PS, the other gnarly wrinkle of asking everyone to submit ID to use the internet, is that it both makes it way easier to steal people's IDs - after all, the parties that will be legally responsible for proving that they checked your ID will want to keep a copy to prove that they got it, right? So now platforms will have databases full of copies of people's legal IDs - *and* it creates a whole new motivation for wanting to have access to someone else's stolen ID!

Siderea, Sibylla Bostoniensis on Mastodon

Americans on this newsletter should know about the “Kids’ Online Safety Act,” currently working its way through Congress, because folks... it’s bad. It uses the tired old “Think of the children!” concern trolling to sneak through a slate of draconian controls over online activity: basically, if you post anything online that a state AG deems harmful to children—and remember, in this day and age, this could be something as tame as “trans people exist” or “slavery is bad” (or, on the other side of the spectrum, “here’s some basic tips on living safely with guns”)—you could be personally responsible for ensuring that nobody 16 years old or younger ever sees it.

It could also lead to you being required to provide your state ID for quite a bit more casual browsing—and the last thing anyone wants is the State or the Feds knowing their browsing habits. Before you say “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” think about all the potential for blackmail, spurious prosecution, and witch-hunting that even the most innocuous browsing or online chatter could hold.

If that doesn’t sound like a future you want to live in, the Electronic Frontier Foundation will help you contact your Congresscritters and tell them to stop it. Please run, don’t walk, to do so!

What I’m reading

Data Bytes

What happened to the cycle of renewal? Where are the regular, controlled burns [of old platforms, making room for new ones]? Like the California settlers who subjugated the First Nations people and declared war on good fire, the finance sector conquered the tech sector

Hot Off the Presses

Tornado Alley has shifted 500 miles east in 30 years... The permafrost line has moved 80 miles north in 50 years in parts of Canada... The Wheat Belt is pushing poleward at up to 160 miles per decade

The recipe:

Was surprised I hadn’t shared this Spicy Garlic Tofu from Pick Up Limes yet. It’s been a regular in our meal rotation for some time, and is endlessly customizable too—we add some frozen stir-fry veggies and serve over brown rice, which makes it enough for dinner and lunch the next day too!


This is Some Preliminary Thoughts, Bennett McIntosh’s blog. You can sign up for updates via email or rss, or unsubscribe here.

  1. Whether you call it food sovereignty, economic independence, or autarky, it’s a notable echo of Mussolini’s ambitions for Italy a century ago. It’s not as if economic independence is universally evil—I’d much rather the US be powered by home-generated solar & wind than Saudi oil, and economic self sufficiency is often an vital goal for colonies getting out from under the thumb of their former rulers—but there’s a long and inglorious history of fascist nations working for food sovereignty in particular in order to drum up support from farmers, sever the ties that bind them to other nations, and, in the case of fascist Italy and Germany, prepare their economy for war.

#hist-bio #summer-23