Today’s Guardian Top 10 List: Weird Fiction Books

China Miéville:

“I don’t think you can distinguish science fiction, fantasy and horror with any rigour, as the writers around the magazine Weird Tales early in the last century (Lovecraft in particular) illustrated most sharply. So I use the term ‘weird fiction’ for all fantastic literature – fantasy, SF, horror and all the stuff that won’t fit neatly into slots. Any list of favourites is subject to regular rapid change, of course, so what’s here is just a fast-frozen moment.”
In no particular order…

1. The Course of the Heart by M John Harrison
A towering genius of modern fiction. That he’s not won the Booker proves the bankruptcy and back-slapping generic snobbery of the literary establishment. I nearly chose his seminal Viriconium sequence, but this unforgiving story of gnosticism and loneliness worries and worries at me like a dog, so I gave in and picked it, scared.

2. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
The trilogy, not just the second volume, of course. Somehow this manages to be both rich and austere at the same time – the sense is of vastness, but of unbearable claustrophobia, too. The egregious BBC adaptation turned it into an Augustan costume romp and stripped out all the shadows and all the dust. Philistines.

3. Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

Not very original to choose an Alice book, but they loom so large in my head it would have been a lie not to. Both are magnificent, but this is the darker and stranger.

Does Anecdotal Evidence Undermine Science?

218a1b510071fc2e89ad50450e85422e_1 Michael Shermer in Scientific American (via bookforum):

The recent medical controversy over whether vaccinations cause autism reveals a habit of human cognition—thinking anecdotally comes naturally, whereas thinking scientifically does not.

On the one side are scientists who have been unable to find any causal link between the symptoms of autism and the vaccine preservative thimerosal, which in the body breaks down into ethylmercury, the culprit du jour for autism’s cause. On the other side are parents who noticed that shortly after having their children vaccinated autistic symptoms began to appear. These anecdotal associations are so powerful that they cause people to ignore contrary evidence: ethylmercury is expelled from the body quickly (unlike its chemical cousin methylmercury) and therefore cannot accumulate in the brain long enough to cause damage. And in any case, autism continues to be diagnosed in children born after thimerosal was removed from most vaccines in 1999; today trace amounts exist in only a few.

The reason for this cognitive disconnect is that we have evolved brains that pay attention to anecdotes because false positives (believing there is a connection between A and B when there is not) are usually harmless, whereas false negatives (believing there is no connection between A and B when there is) may take you out of the gene pool. Our brains are belief engines that employ association learning to seek and find patterns. Superstition and belief in magic are millions of years old, whereas science, with its methods of controlling for intervening variables to circumvent false positives, is only a few hundred years old. So it is that any medical huckster promising that A will cure B has only to advertise a handful of successful anecdotes in the form of testimonials.

Has the “Surge” Worked?

I’m not convinced by the suggestion that there is a causal link, but Immanuel Wallerstein’s piece in Monthly Review is worth considering.

[L]ook at what has happened elsewhere in the Middle East because of the surge.  In November of 2006, the United States and NATO had been congratulating themselves on the success of their efforts in Afghanistan.  But since then, two things have happened.  The number of U.S. casualties has soared, passing now those in Iraq.  So has violence against Afghans. Suddenly the Taliban are back in a big way.  And now, for the first time since 2001, the pundits are talking about the possibility of the U.S. losing the war in Afghanistan as well as Iraq.

And look at Pakistan.  Since November 2006, the country has had relatively democratic elections,  which brought to power a legislature  hostile to President Musharraf, still the person on whom the Bush regime is relying to pursue a policy favorable to U.S. interests.  Musharraf, as a consequence, has been struggling to keep his head above water.  One of the ways in which he has done this is to make a tacit deal with the Islamist forces in the northwest frontier region that favor and harbor both al-Qaeda and the Taliban.  Recently, these forces almost occupied the largest urban center  in the region.  They are in any case very strong,  and are actively helping the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Then look at Iran.  Iran is huffing and puffing.  So is Israel about Iran.  So is Dick Cheney.  The fact is, however, that Iran  is stronger than ever.  And they have been strengthening in every way their links  with the two groups in Iraq upon which U.S. hopes are based — the al-Maliki government  and the Kurds. Iran actually shares many interests with the United States in Afghanistan.  But the United States is unable to take advantage of this geopolitical alliance because it in


Life With My Sister Madonna

John Crace’s abridgement of Christopher Ciccone’s book, in The Guardian:

Madonna460x276My relationship with Madonna takes a turn for the worse when she marries the fat phoney, because Guy can’t deal with the fact that he really fancies me. Tough titties, Guy! I’ve got my boyfriend Danny.

She fires me 19 times more and each time I apologise and promise to go to Kabbalah, but when she refuses to reimburse me for the Athena print I bought for her London home, I’ve finally had enough. So now, I sit alone in my bedsit, bitter, yet content, praying for the moment Madonna’s career hits the skids and her kids end up in therapy. Just like me.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

We Should Talk About This Problem

There is a Beautiful Creature
Living in a hole you have dug.

So at night
I set fruit and grains
And little pots of wine and milk
Beside your soft earthen mounds,

And I often sing.

But still, my dear,
You do not come out.

I have fallen in love with Someone
Who hides inside you.

We should talk about this problem—

I will never leave you alone.


Thirty-Eight Witnesses: A Review

From The Chicago Tribune:

Book_2 Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was 28 when she was stabbed to death in the New York City borough of Queens in 1964, but she and the circumstances surrounding her death remain alive in public reflexes every time we encounter what social psychologists often refer to as the bystander effect.

A.M. Rosenthal, who was metropolitan editor of the New York Times when the murder happened and so was in charge of its coverage, wrote a book shortly after the killing that is by turns indignant, self-excoriating and insightful not just on the social responsibilities of community but also on the paradoxes and foibles of journalism. Titled Thirty-Eight Witnesses, after the number of people at the time assumed to have knowledge of the crime but who did not report it as it occurred, it has just been reprinted after 44 years. While it resembles a time capsule in some respects, several of the haunting questions Rosenthal raised, generalized to any such situation, remain unanswerable, and link as firmly to the present as they did to their own time.

Rosenthal recounts one of the follow-up stories that the Times produced in the wake of the murder, contacting a random selection of sociologists, psychologists and theologians in search of perspective. From the sociologist who pointed to “‘affect denial'” to the theologian who spoke of New York’s “‘depersonalizing'” effects but asked not to be identified, Rosenthal noted that “the reaction of almost every one of these social physicians was to admit total failure on their part to understand.” As social psychologist Stanley Milgram, best known for his studies on authority and obedience, put it at a conference 20 years after the murder, the case represents “our primordial nightmare. If we need help, will those around us stand around and let us be destroyed or will they come to our aid?”

More here.

Why Migraines Strike

From Scientific American:

Migraine For the more than 300 million people who suffer migraines, the excruciating, pulsating pain that characterizes these debilitating headaches needs no description. For those who do not, the closest analogous experience might be severe altitude sickness: nausea, acute sensitivity to light, and searing, bed-confining headache. “That no one dies of migraine seems, to someone deep into an attack, an ambiguous blessing,” wrote Joan Didion in the 1979 essay “In Bed” from her collection The White Album.

Historical records suggest the condition has been with us for at least 7,000 years, yet it continues to be one of the most misunderstood, poorly recognized and inadequately treated medical disorders. Indeed, many people seek no medical care for their agonies, most likely believing that doctors can do little to help or will be downright skeptical and hostile toward them. Didion wrote “In Bed” almost three decades ago, but some physicians remain as dismissive today as they were then: “For I had no brain tumor, no eyestrain, no high blood pressure, nothing wrong with me at all: I simply had migraine headaches, and migraine headaches were, as everyone who did not have them knew, imaginary.”

Migraine is finally starting to get the attention it deserves.

More here.

Lee Rourke’s top 10 books about boredom

In the Guardian:

“Boredom has always fascinated me. I suppose it is the Heideggerian sense of ‘profound boredom’ that intrigues me the most. What he called a ‘muffling fog’ that swathes everything – including boredom itself – in apathy. Revealing ‘being as a whole’: that moment when we realise everything is truly meaningless, when everything is pared down and all we are confronted with is a prolonged, agonising nothingness. Obviously, we cannot handle this conclusion; it suspends us in constant dread. In my fictions I am concerned with two archetypes only, both of them suspended in this same dread: those who embrace boredom and those who try to fight it. The quotidian tension, the violence that this suspension and friction creates naturally filters itself into my work.”

1. William Lovell by Ludwig Tieck

From the German Romantic literary cannon sprang this extraordinary yet – these days – relatively unread novel. Within its pages existence and being are seen as a perpetual spiral of boredom. William Lovell, the novel’s eponymous anti-hero, stands on the peripheries of society waiting for a world to satisfy him completely. Of course, it doesn’t and nor can it, creating a wonderful tension throughout. This is one of our first novels solely about boredom – a novel that was possibly too modern for its own time and a perfect starting point for this list.

2. Mercier and Camier by Samuel Beckett

Beckett’s boredom was an ugly boredom. Endlessly repeated. And through this ugliness, this grotesque repetition a strange, eerie comedy was born. Anything written by Beckett is wholly spellbinding to read and this lesser read masterpiece perfectly sums up the continuing theme of boredom throughout his oeuvre. Mercier and Camier is a short novel of chance meetings and missings – a theme repeated by Beckett almost mercilessly. The banal that he unearths and reuses in his fictions gives it a sense of post-history, a sense that his voice is appearing from elsewhere, something other.

3. The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

For me this simply has to be the definitive book on boredom. I sometimes forget I am breathing when I find myself lost in passages from it, so engrossingly beautiful are they to read.

A Quranic Argument for Secularism: A Seminar

Annisl_au The Immanent Frame has a series of interesting posts about Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im’s Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a, all well worth reading. Daniel Philpott:

An-Na`im’s gigantic lifelong task has been to develop an Islamic basis for human rights and constitutional government, including religious freedom and full equality of citizenship for Muslims and non-Muslims and for men and women. He offers his latest book, Islam and the Secular State, as the culmination of this work.  Here, he defends a “secular state” that is based on these values and where sharia is not the basis of constitutional law. He makes clear that he is not arguing for the exclusion of religion from politics. Muslims remain free to argue for policies based on their convictions about sharia, but they ought to do so on the basis of secular “civic” reasons and within the framework of a constitutional order based on human rights. Secular, for him, does not mean hostile to religion but rather a differentiation between religion and state. In fact, he seeks an Islamic justification for the secular state. It is the high quality of his pursuit of such a justification over the course of his career that makes him a giant.

His work has long followed the lead of his mentor and inspiration, the Sudanese intellectual Ustadh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, who sought to reinterpret the Quran so as to ground human rights and equality. Like Taha, An-Na`im holds that traditional sharia, as it developed over the centuries following the revelation of the Quran, indeed sanctions aggressive jihad, the killing of apostates, the subordination of women, and dhimmitude or worse for non-Muslims. This history cannot be interpreted away. What can be reinterpreted is the Quran, which includes verses both from the earlier, more tolerant, Mecca period of Mohammed’s life, as well as those from the later Medina portion, marked by conquest and subordination. It was the Medina version that had become orthodoxy by the 10th century. But it is the verses from the earlier period that represent the true, universal message of Islam; the Medina verses were in fact an adaptation to particular historical circumstances in the life of the embryonic umma.  An “Islamic Reformation,” to borrow from the title of An-Na`im’s previous prominent work, would retrieve the Meccan verses for politics today, making them the ground for human rights, equality, and the rule of law. In the spirit of Taha, whose teachings led to his martyrdom at the hands of the Sudanese state in 1985, An-Na`im has courageously taken his arguments for Islam and human rights all over the Muslim world.

Quantum poetics


Writing about space is difficult. Since the time of Lucretius, poetry has taken science – investigations of nature – as part of its legitimate subject matter. Dante used medieval cosmography, Chaucer was well versed in astrology, alchemy, medicine and physiognomy. Milton and Donne had complicated reactions to the drastic realignments inherent in Copernican theory and Galilean astronomy. When Newton (partially) revealed the workings of the universe, Alexander Pope led the cheerleaders: “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: / God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.”

Now, post-Darwin, post-Einstein, post-Hawking, the questions multiply like cells and come from every direction: relativity theory, quantum mechanics, neuroscience, genetics, astrophysics … The “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of religion continues and science is, for many, the main entrance to the universe. Though you can refuse to go in, of course. Yeats did, and took to superstition.

In recent times, the great science-poet was Miroslav Holub, a leading Czech immunologist who died in 1998. Often humorous and bleak, he mixed an eastern European deadpan surrealism with medicine, mathematics, philosophy.

more from The Guardian here.

power on power


Since the Vietnam War the Republican Party has developed a reputation for having a superior approach to national security. Americans have long trusted the views of Democrats on the environment, the economy, education, and health care, but national security is the one matter about which Republicans have maintained what political scientists call “issue ownership.”

Partly, this is for particular historical reasons. President Eisenhower initiated US involvement in Vietnam, and President Nixon escalated the war in 1969 and kept US troops on the ground in a manifestly unwinnable mission until 1975. But John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were tagged as the primary culprits. President Carter was widely seen as having bungled the Iran hostage rescue mission and having responded ineffectually to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Although he substantially increased US military spending, he was never forgiven for his claim that Americans had “an inordinate fear of communism.”

more from the NYRB here.

karadzic captured


Radovan Karadzic, one of the world’s most wanted war criminals until his arrest on genocide charges , disguised himself to live and work in Belgrade as practitioner of alternative medicine, “freely walking in the city”, Serbian authorities said Tuesday.

Senior Serbian officials gave their version of his arrest, which was announced late Monday, at a televised news conference in Belgrade Tuesday but took no questions.

Contrary to some reports, the officials indicated that the arrest took place on Monday after officers followed Mr. Karadzic for several hours from mid-afternoon until the evening. A photograph displayed to reporters showed Mr. Karadzic with long white hair and a flowing white beard — his appearance markedly different from the clean-shaven figure with a distinctive quiff of gray hair familiar before the 13-year hunt that led to his arrest.

more from the NY Times here.

Tuesday Poem

The Tao Te Ching –Verses 4-6
Lao Tzu

Tao’s a bottomless well
ever used, never drawn down

Call it eternal no thing ness
an infinite no thing filled with all
a void of countless possibilities

Tao is hidden on our face
under our nose

What made Tao is older than God
what made it, who knows?

Tao has no bias
it’s even-handed with evil and good
The wise resemble Tao in this way
they deal with whatever Tao brings

Tao is infinitely like a bellows
—hollow within, but useful
The more you empty it, the better it works

The more you take it apart with talk
the harder it is to know it whole
and to make it blow

Don’t wander from it’s center

Tao is the Great Mother
empty as a seed and infinitely as fertile
It gives inexhaustible fruit

It is always within you
You can use it any way you want

Interpretation by R. Bob


Magnifying Taste: New Chemicals Trick the Brain into Eating Less

From Scientific American:

Sugar Humans are hardwired to love the sweet, savory and salty foods that provide the energy, protein and electrolytes we need. In an age of mass-produced products laden with sugar and salt, however, our taste proclivities can readily bring on obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes—all among society’s biggest health problems. But what if a handful of tiny compounds could fool our brains into eating differently? That is the idea behind the new science of flavor modulation. Scientists who have unlocked the long-standing mystery of taste biology are developing inexpensive yet potent compounds that make foods taste sweeter, saltier and more savory (heartier) than they really are. By adding tiny amounts of these modulators to traditional foods, manufacturers could reduce the amount of sugar, salt and monosodium glutamate (MSG) needed to satisfy, resulting in healthier products.

San Diego–based Senomyx is at the forefront of this new technology, and large companies are responding. Nestlé started incorporating Senomyx’s savory flavor modulators in its bouillon products last year. Coca-Cola and Cadbury aim to begin using Senomyx’s compounds early in 2009. Senomyx is also designing bitterness blockers to make less palatable foods taste better, which could broaden the world’s sources of nutrients. For example, companies could use soy protein more widely, potentially feeding more people, if they could mask its bitter aftertaste. Such blockers could also make medicines taste better, which would encourage people to take them. By tricking our taste buds, Senomyx could save food makers a heaping teaspoon of money, allowing them to replace volumes of sugar, salt and other ingredients with minute quantities of cheap compounds. More important, taste modulators could revolutionize our health, making what tastes good to us actually be good for us.

More here.

Mirrors Don’t Lie. Mislead? Oh, Yes.

From The New York Times:

22mirror_600_2 Whether made of highly polished metal or of glass with a coating of metal on the back, mirrors have fascinated people for millennia: ancient Egyptians were often depicted holding hand mirrors. With their capacity to reflect back nearly all incident light upon them and so recapitulate the scene they face, mirrors are like pieces of dreams, their images hyper-real and profoundly fake. Mirrors reveal truths you may not want to see. Give them a little smoke and a house to call their own, and mirrors will tell you nothing but lies.

To scientists, the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of mirrors make them powerful tools for exploring questions about perception and cognition in humans and other neuronally gifted species, and how the brain interprets and acts upon the great tides of sensory information from the external world. They are using mirrors to study how the brain decides what is self and what is other, how it judges distances and trajectories of objects, and how it reconstructs the richly three-dimensional quality of the outside world from what is essentially a two-dimensional snapshot taken by the retina’s flat sheet of receptor cells. They are applying mirrors in medicine, to create reflected images of patients’ limbs or other body parts and thus trick the brain into healing itself. Mirror therapy has been successful in treating disorders like phantom limb syndrome, chronic pain and post-stroke paralysis.

More here.

McCain and the Myth of the Medical Market

080429_mccain_allenThe US annual health care expenditure is riding a nonstop escalator. The current spending of over two trillion dollars will reach an unsustainable four trillion dollars or 20% of the GDP in 2017. Yet, an estimated 47 million Americans had no insurance for a whole year in 2006 and 89.5 million people under the age of 65 did not have any insurance for one month. And last week, the AMA reported in the American Medical News that middle-income insured Americans have difficulty in accessing care. About 59 million Americans, either delayed or did not get health care in 2007, a problem that only low-income uninsured commonly face.

Current per capita expenditure of $6697 – the highest in the world – has bought financial grief for many but not good health for all. The US health infrastructure is probably the best in the world (probably overbuilt) and technology – even unproven – penetrates early and spreads fast. But each service costs more in the US compared to the OECD countries. Where does this place US in the quality of care? In a study by the Commonwealth Fund comparing six counties (Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, UK, and the USA) in various indicators like quality care, access, efficiency, equity, healthy lives and expenditure, the USA ranked lowest – fifth or sixth- in almost all indicators except ‘right care’ (a subset of quality care) where it was at the top.

The catastrophe of unaffordable care is unfolding like a Greek tragedy before the national audience; the characters sense the looming disaster but the flaccid leaders seem powerless to stop it. The explanation lies in the way we finance health care – a global problem and not particular to the USA.

Nations have used three ways to finance health care: tax revenues, non-profit community health insurance and commercial insurance. They pool financial resources either with a single payer like in Canada, UK, Japan and Taiwan or with multiple payers (pluralistic systems) like in the USA, France, Belgium, Australia, Denmark, Germany, New Zealand and Netherlands. The pluralistic US health care depends mainly on tax revenues and commercial insurance.

These pooled funds purchase health services from providers – hospitals, doctors, pharmaceuticals and device manufacturers – on behalf of their clients. Allocation of funds (what to buy) and efficiency (for how much) control supply side costs. Currently, 30% of total expenditure goes to hospitals, 21% for clinical services and doctors, 10% for pharmaceuticals and 25% for other services.

A prepayment by individuals into a pool affords an assurance of financial risk coverage in case of unpredictable future sickness. The fund remains solvent by recruiting a large number of consumers with varying health profiles, so a large number of healthy people subsidize the unfortunate 20 percent unhealthy, who use 80 percent of health services.

The US health system – which is expensive and not equitable – has faltered in the mechanics of purchase of health services. McCain wants to rectify it by injecting market competition at two points of purchase: one, to empower individuals to buy less expensive health insurance and second, to encourage them to negotiate the price of services with providers.

This plan is similar to what Cogan, Hubbard and Kessler have expressed in their well-written book, ‘Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise’. They recommend five steps, which I quote below:

  1. Health care tax reform
    • Tax deducibility of health care expenses
    • Expanded health savings account
    • Tax credits for low income people
  2. Insurance reform
    • Interstate portability
    • Subsidized private insurance for the chronically ill
  3. Improve health information
    • Report cards on providers
    • Guidelines for best practices
  4. Control anticompetitive behavior by providers and insurance
  5. Reform malpractice

McCain intends to drop the tax deductibility of health insurance expenditure of employers and instead give a tax credit of $ 2500 to individuals and $ 5000 to families who will buy their own insurance. The plan will also allow insurance companies to sell products across state lines to encourage competition and offer a ‘no-frills’ insurance to low risk individuals.

As inexpensive insurance does not translate to affordable health care, McCain will popularize individual health saving account (HSA), which frees the consumer of the illusion (moral hazard) that care is free because a third party is picking up the tab. Instead, HSA empowers her to shop for value for money and works as a tool for demand side cost control against ‘moral hazard’.

John McCain, the republican presidential hopeful, believes that a free market will provide the healing touch to the ailing health care system. He has a reform plan: cut off the regulatory hands and let the invisible hand work its magic. Will it succeed? The answer is a two-letter word: no.

McCain’s plan may induce employers to drop health benefits for the employees and encourage individuals to shop for their own insurance across state lines. This will fragment the original risk pool. It is likely that young brawny frolickers on Miami Beach will get cheaper health insurance from some distant company; they will abandon their pool loaded with retirees in Tampa, who now will have to pay higher premiums to cover the higher risk. While the young may find affordable insurance, the total health care cost to the system will stay the same.

McCain has faith in the ability of an individual – armed with free choice – to wade through the maze of health information. The HSA will encourage consumer directed health care, which allows patients to decide which health services to buy. But explosion of medical knowledge leaves a vulnerable consumer – in this case a patient- with an insurmountable disadvantage of knowledge asymmetry with his clinician. Add to that numerous insurance plans (Seattle has 747!), which compound the asymmetry with incomprehensible complex multiple insurance products with caveats and uncovered services, which are more difficult to decipher than Egyptian hieroglyphics. Assuming the unlikely scenario that patients will be able to overcome this asymmetry, the HSA plan still will have distribution distortions; healthy adults and children will spend less leaving the sick with higher expenses.

The world experience of last century tells us that health care is impervious to the free market justice and the system needs both supply and demand side controls. Innovations like co-payment, capitation, pay for performance, evidence based medicine and tax subsidies generate distortions, enough to undo any benefits they accrue. Attempts to correct these distortions require substantial administrative organization and expenditure and have been difficult to implement.

Health care in the US is approaching “The tragedy of the commons” described by Hardin in ‘Science’ in 1968: a group of herdsman can increase their number of cattle as long a common pasture has enough carrying capacity, but as the pasture reaches its feeding limit the herdsman can do irreparable harm by over-consumption. The current health care system comes with built in cost escalation mechanism: expedience guides its operation. Over consumption of the medical commons provides illusionary protection for the patient and profits for the provider.

In an article in the New England Journal Of Medicine in 1973, the author Hiatt asked: “Protecting the medical commons: who is responsible?” He exhorted “It is imperative that physicians and other health providers work closely with professionals from many fields, and with consumers, to ensure the availability and dissemination of information that will permit decisions that are in the best interests of society.” The clinician alone cannot do it, as she works both as an independent businessman and patient advocate simultaneously; she is always treading the boundary between ethics and profits; between imperfect medical science and legal threats. The medical commons will become barren unless all stake holders in the system stop overgrazing.

The solution seems obvious: repair the current pluralistic system with stronger cost cutting measures and provide universal coverage and subsidies for the poor. But considering the hurdles to overhaul of the current system, single payer system may be the only option. Almost all developed nations are moving towards a single payer system, which saves considerable money on administrative costs. While estimates on administrative costs vary in various studies, most developed countries with a single payer spend approximately 10 percent on administration, while the US spends over 25 percent. This saving alone could meet the needs of the uninsured.

No panacea exists when aspirations for health care far exceed the need. And when the constrained resources do not even satisfy the unmet need, it may be the time to concede that the poor, old and the sick need a helping hand and not an invisible one; or they will be at the mercy of a hand that is sure to stay invisible when they need it the most.

Philosophy in the Barnyard

What’s Really Wrong With Bestiality

Justin E. H. Smith

Books and articles discussed in this essay:

John Corvino, “Homosexuality and the PIB Argument,” Ethics 115 (2005): 501-34

Cora Diamond, “Eating Animals and Eating People,” Philosophy 53 (1978): 465-79.

Lawrence Krader, Social Organization of the Mongol-Turkic Pastoral Nomads (The Hague: Mouton, 1963).

Ruwen Ogien, L’éthique minimale (Bayard, 2006) (contains a fascinating treatment of Kant on masturbation).

Peter Singer, “Heavy Petting” (2001), posted at Available here.

Richard Sorabji, Animal Minds and Human Morals: The Origins of the Western Debate (Cornell University Press, 1995).

Cass R. Sunstein and Martha C. Nussbaum (Eds.), Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions (Oxford, 2004) (contains the essays by Catharine MacKinnon and Richard Posner cited below).


Images2It’s exceedingly difficult to know how to broach this interest of mine: if I don’t explain why it interests me, my readers will assume that I have a personal stake in the matter; if I insist that it interests me only as an intellectual challenge, I will no doubt hear that I protest too much. So let me confess at the outset that I am ineed a zoophile, but only in the English sense that I love animals, and not in the French sense that I really, you know, love animals. I believe, much more importantly, that crucial lessons about our conceptualization of animals, and the moral stance we take towards them as a result of the way we conceptualize them, may be learned by an unflinching examination of the supposed moral obstacles to having sex with them. 

Elsewhere, I have argued that most of what we think we may and may not do to or with animals is a result of pre-moral concept formation, and that the subsequent moral explanations we give for why we do x to one species and not another are only ad hoc attempts at rationalizing in moral terms a code of conduct that lies much more deeply in us than any of our commitments to Christian ethics, Kantian ethics, utilitarianism, ‘inalienable rights’, or what have you. Clearly, for example, there can be no account in terms of a consistent ethical theory of why one would placidly accept the factory-farming and brutal slaughter of billions of cattle per year, but then find eating dog meat or rat meat morally abhorrent (the fact that we in turn find dog meat and rat meat abhorrent for very different reasons is a problem we’ll get back to soon enough). Similarly, there is no ethical theory (at least not one that takes animals themselves as morally relevant subjects) on which one could consistently hold that it is a moral transgression against an animal to use it for one’s own sexual gratification, but that it is at the same time morally permissible to slaughter that animal and eat it. 

Better screwed than stewed, is how Dan Savage put this same point, attempting to give voice to the interests of a sheep.  Of course, the presumption that sheep can’t have interests –and along with this that they can’t have life projects, preferences, that they can’t give consent or withhold it– is one that underlies much of the anthropocentric argument that slaughtering them can’t count as a moral transgression against them. But it is precisely this same point, that sheep are not the sort of creatures that can give consent, that is supposedly one of the most important grounds of our moral prohibition on having sex with them. Theorists attempting to account for the behavior of non-bestial carnivores –i.e., the huge majority of the human race— seem to want to have it both ways: they invoke the animals’ diminished capacity to have a say in constructing their own life as both a license to kill them –the ultimate withholding of moral concern– and as generating all sorts of particular obligations to animals, including the obligation not to have sex with them. There’s something fishy about this, and I think I know what it is: our explanations in terms of moral theories of what we can or can’t do with animals cannot possibly be made to be coherent, since what we can and can’t do with or to animals has nothing to do with our concern for their status as morally relevant entities, or with their rights, or anything of the sort. 


Not mere things, but not people either, is how Catharine MacKinnon has acerbically characterized the received human view of animals. Certainly, any effort to push animals towards one end of this continuum or the other has generally been rejected as going too far. Thus Descartes’s doctrine of the bête-machine was disputed by nearly all of his contemporaries as extremist and as a violation of common sense, while this doctrine itself constituted a rejection of the extremism of figures such as Girolamo Rorario, the 16th-century Italian author of the treatise That Brute Animals Make Better Use of Reason than Humans. Aristotle accounted for the animals’ intermediacy by appeal to their possession of the sensitive, but not the rational soul; Leibniz, by appeal to their faculty of perception without apperception; and many today, by appeal to their low-grade cognition, without any grasp of the syntax that makes our own thinking so rich and distinctively human. How the grasp of syntax, or the failure to grasp it, is meant to translate into a measure of moral status remains, however, entirely unclear. As Richard Sorabji has noted, “They lack syntax, therefore we may eat them” is hardly a compelling argument.

Arguments have been proferred for the past two centuries to the effect that such and such things may not be done to animals in virtue of the rights these entities have, and that these rights are traceable to what these entities, in themselves, are, to their very natures. But these arguments come very late in a very long history of human coexistence with animals, in which the various things that we do with or to animals have been held to be significant principally in view of their significance for us.  We think of this significance as a ‘moral’ significance, but it seems to be one that arises prior to any moral reflection at all, one that is built into the very concept of animal.  Lists of rules governing contact with animals date back much earlier than animal rights, much earlier than the concept of rights itself, indeed much earlier than philosophy, and it remains the case today that most of what we consider permissible or impermissible to do with or to animal is pretheoretical, and theoretical elaborations of why we ought or ought not do certain things with or to animals tend to look a good deal like medieval philosophical arguments against ‘sodomy’: ad hoc rationalizations, under cover of deductive argumentation, of what is already largely accepted as the status quo.

We learn what animals and humans are, Cora Diamond argues, through “the structure of a life” in which we are here and do this, and they are there and do that.  For example, “we learn what a human being is in –among other ways– sitting at a table where we [humans] eat them [animals]” (98).  This structure of a life that gives rise to our very concepts of humans and animals is also what defines what it is possible to consider doing to these different sorts of entity.  Thus, there is no concept of a human or an animal independently of our understanding of what we may and may not do in our relation to them. What we may and may not do to a certain sort of entity might eventually be explicated in terms of moral duties, but for Diamond what one may do to a certain kind of thing is simply built into the concept of it, prior to any considerations of a ‘moral’ character in the sense that Singer understands morality.

Concept-formation precedes ‘morality’, and the grasp of a concept just is a grasp of  the various ways in which one may enter into relations with a thing.  The duties we have to human beings, Diamond holds, are a consequence not of the sort of things human beings are, but of the notion that we have of them, and we form our idea of the difference between humans and animals -of the range of things one may do to the different sorts of entity– in full awareness of the relevant respects in which they are similar to us. Diamond is interested here in accounting for why human beings tend to think it is alright to kill animals and eat their meat even though we are aware of the various respects –neurophysiological, etc.– in which they are similar to us. Yet a line of reflection similar to Diamond’s is also fruitful in attempting to account for why human beings tend to think it is not alright to engage in sexual relations with animals. 

What defines the range of what may appropriately be done to animals –and what makes this range something different from the respective ranges of what one may do to or with plants, humans, and artefacts– has nothing to do with the animal’s innate capacities, but only with the valenced position they occupy in a social system that has always already existed once any effort is made to reflect on it in terms of moral philosophy.  The discovery of the irrelevance of capacities arguments in general gives us occasion to reconsider the true sources of our sense of what it is or is not moral to do to animals. This sense, I believe, is not something separate from our very concept of animal: concept formation consists precisely in learning the range of possible relations with the entity in question.


I would like now to attempt to lay out what I take to be the principal arguments against bestiality, in order then to show, in the following and final section, why all of them so far have missed the mark entirely.

1. Impossibility of consent. We generally take the treatment of an entity as a morally relevant one to be wrapped up with the fact that this entity is of the sort that is capable of having projects for its future.  The sort of entity that can form long term projects is the sort we take to be able to give consent to enter into certain kinds of relations, among these sexual relations. We take it to be wrong to enter into certain relations with entities that might, under other circumstances, give consent, that might be able to say, ‘this is consonant with my conception of how I want my life to unfold,’ but nonetheless are unable to do so at present.  Thus child-molestation and necrophilia can be denounced on the grounds that a potentially project-having creature cannot give consent, due to the fact that one person is approaching another with sexual intentions either too soon or too late. (Necrophilia is a more complicated case, since it is difficult to account for how a dead person can have interests at all that might be violated, but I do not want to pursue this difficulty here.)

There has been precious little discussion of bestiality among moral philosophers, other than one succinct notice in the popular press from Peter Singer, of which the purpose seems more to taunt the mainstream for the vehemence of their opposition to it, rather than to inquire after the reasons for this opposition. Here, Singer’s one criterion for the rightness or wrongness of conduct with an animal is, as in his other writings, whether the animal suffers.  Some men, he notes coolly, decapitate chickens in the middle of raping them.  But, Singer asks, “is it worse for the hen than living for a year or more crowded with four or five other hens in barren wire cage so small that they can never stretch their wings, and then being stuffed into crates to be taken to the slaughterhouse, strung upside down on a conveyor belt and killed? If not, then it is no worse than what egg producers do to their hens all the time.” Moreover, Singer continues, “sex with animals does not always involve cruelty.”

What Singer fails to notice, though, is that cruelty is generally not at issue in the way people assess the moral valence of sex with animals. Having sex with a chicken is no worse for the chicken than what is involved in egg production, yet few will deny that sex with chickens is further from what is generally perceived as acceptable behavior than is support of the poultry industry. Singer believes that current practice is not acceptable, and wants to make our moral commitments vis-à-vis animals line up with a reasoned consideration of what animals are. His reasoned consideration leaves him with the conclusion that sex with animals is fine, as long as it does not hurt them, whereas beating them and killing them, insofar as these hurt them, are always wrong. In other words, considering what animals in themselves are leads Singer to the conclusion that the rules governing our actions with them should be the same as those governing our actions with other humans.

MacKinnon for her part sees the inability of animals to consent as one possible source of our prohibilition of bestiality: “Why do laws against sex with animals exist?… Moralism aside, maybe the answer is that people cannot be sure if animals want to have sex with us.  Put another way, we cannot know if their consent is meaningful” (267). But does anyone really think non-violent sexual contact with a non-consenting animal is really bad for it? It seems much more likely that MacKinnon is off the mark here, and that any effort to account for prohibitions on bestiality in terms of protecting the rights of beasts amounts to a gross overstretching of rights talk into areas of the lives of creatures where it clearly does not have any relevance. Singer, though perhaps the most vocal defender of a comportment towards animals that takes seriously the idea that they are rights-bearing entities, to his credit acknowledges that, even if animals have rights, non-violent sexual contact doesn’t seem to be a violation of these rights.

Yet the very fact that animals react with such indifference to behavior –namely, sexual behavior– that in humans is always accompanied by all manner of questions about how this instance of it fits into our lives, about whether it enhances or diminishes our autonomy, whether it is ‘good’ or not, shows that animals are so very different from humans that it might not be an easy matter at all to extend a concept –that of rights– from its original application in the human domain all the way to sea-anemones.  A sea-anemone can’t be raped, not violently, not statutorily.  It’s just not the sort of entity for which this is a meaningful concept to employ. What about a sheep? A sheep could almost certainly be raped violently, but what the creature itself would find objectionable, if I may be permitted to imagine myself into its place, would probably be the violence of it, and not the rape itself. On MacKinnon’s thinking, a sheep could also be a victim of statutory rape: it could be ignorant of the harm done to it, yet harmed it would still be.  This strikes me as absurd.

2. The Kantian position: bestiality as masturbation. Most animal protection laws, in any case, do not take animals to be rights-bearers at all, but instead are rooted in a Christian-cum-Kantian ethical theory according to which animals are a sort of simulation of morally relevant entities.  Thus in the US, “only Utah categorizes the laws against sexual contact by humans with animals under cruelty to animals” (MacKinnon, ibid.).  For a Kantian, it is not that beating a dog is really a moral wrong committed against the dog itself, but since beating dogs might serve as a gateway to beating morally relevant humans, it is nonetheless forbidden. “Animals are a means to an end,” as Kant says, “and humans are that end.”  If behavior towards animals could eventually impact behavior towards humans, it becomes indirectly morally relevant. 

For a strict Kantian, masturbation with the help of a sex toy and bestiality are wrong for exactly the same reason.  Both involve the use of a mere means to an end for one’s own self-gratification, and for Kant there could be no ontological difference between the artefact and the animal that might make a moral difference.  The simple act of self-gratification, Kant thinks, means that one also takes oneself as a means to an end, that is, one fails to recognize one’s proper human status as an end that cannot be a means.  For this reason, Kant believes that “such an unnatural use of one’s sexual attributes” amounts to “a violation of one’s duty to himself,” regardless of whatever morally irrelevant tools, including animals, might come into play. For Kant, masturbation is so terrible that it does not even deserve to be called by its name. It is worse than suicide, since in suicide one at least displays the fortitude to transform oneself into a non-end once and for all. Masturbation is so infinitely bad that the mere incorporation of an additional tool into the act can’t possibly tip the scale any further.

For anyone who is not a strict Kantian (most of us, I think, as far as this question is concerned), tool-aided masturbation and bestiality clearly are different, for the simple reason that sexual contact with an animal, unlike sexual contact with a vibrator, is unavoidably a sexual relation.  A vibrator is a tool, a means to an end, and this end may be fulfilled alone. Even if we are all in disagreement about whether animals have full moral status, we non-Kantians will all agree that an animal is not like a vibrator. It cannot be a tool, but is always a being, and if one has sexual contact with it, one has sexual contact with some sort of other

3. Non-mutuality. Some argue that the problem with bestiality is that, even if an animal is undeniably an other, it is still the sort of other that lacks life projects. Thus a sexual relation with an animal can’t amount to a shared life project, and –it is presumed– any morally praiseworthy sexual relation ought to be such a project. Something like this account is often heard in response to the conservative complaint that to permit homosexuality in our society will lead quickly to an ‘anything goes’ atmosphere in which bestiality, among other perversions, thrives. As Rick Santorum said, once you’ve got man-on-man sex, why not man-on-dog? 

John Corvino, in a recent article, responds to Santorum’s reasoning with a lengthy account of the various respects in which homosexuality differs from ‘PIB’, that trifecta of unacceptable relations: pedophilia, incest, and bestiality. Corvino’s argument to keep bestiality in its traditional place, while helping to promote homosexuality from its (recently) traditional place into a preferable one, is based in the claim that sexual contact with an animal cannot contribute to the development of a meaningful relationship with an other, cannot, by definition, contribute to a profound interpersonal interaction, while a homosexual, intraspecies relationship is as well suited to do so as a heterosexual one. This claim is true, as far as it goes, but it presupposes that such profundity is an intrinsic feature of any morally salutary sexual contact. I’m not saying it’s not, but as Corvino himself says, it is the job of philosophers to investigate presuppositions.   

There are all kinds of sexual activity that one could argue are morally salutary, or at least not morally nugatory, that nonetheless do not involve mutual growth and profound interpersonal communication.  Consider Jan Švankmajer’s film, Conspirators of Pleasure. This is the story of people who build elaborate machines with which to masturbate. These count as projects, to say the least, and this is to say that masturbation –a form of sexual activity that cannot by definition involve mutual growth or communication, since there is only one person involved– is not necessarily just a sexual release.  Potentially, one may approach bestiality in the same way in which Švankmajer’s characters approach masturbation, as a project, or even a consuming passion. The rural adolescent with limited options is one thing, the protagonist of Edward Albee’s play, The Goat –who falls in love with a goat after looking into its eyes and sensing, deep in his soul, that the beast undersands him– is quite another.  (We might also consider Roberto Benigni’s character in Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, who recounts to a priest his past affairs, and how he decided to move on from a watermelon to a sheep after realizing that a meaningful sexual encounter involves a creature “with a soul.”) We may say Albee’s character is warped, and leave it at that. But –and this is something Albee clearly wants us to consider– the same point has often been made about homosexual desire, and it behooves the philosopher as well as the playwright to provide an account of what it is about this particular class of entities that makes desiring them something only a warped person could do.   

In any case Santorum was comparing apples and oranges (or maybe something more like apples and orange-hood), since what was at issue in the state of Pennsylvania, where he served as congressman, was not whether men were having sex with men (they were), but rather whether men should be allowed to marry other men. For this, there is no analogous debate regarding human-animal relations, which goes to show how very different are the issues of sex and marriage. We do know that among certain groups of Mongol-Turkic nomads, it is possible to marry inanimate objects. Lawrence Krader tells us that “[a]n unwed mother or a pregnant girl who has no husband is often married to a prayer rug, a tree, a terra-cotta figurine (of a lion, etc.)… The purpose of these anomalous marriages is to give a social standing to the child…  Another form of anomalous marriage is that of an unmarried girl with a belt belonging to a guest who is permitted to cohabit with the girl with a family in accordance with the rules of hospitality.” These possibilities do not stem from a prior recognition of the possibility of having sex with the inanimate objects; girls who are married off to statues or to rugs know at the outset that they will not be having sex with their unresponsive spouses. The objects simply function as placeholders in a logic of kinship that requires pairings at all costs, and that makes do with things like statues when there are no men available.

This anthropological datum serves to underline how different the question of possible legal kinship pairings is from the question of possible morally permissible sex acts. This example even suggests the surprising conclusion that we might sooner find a culture that permits marriage to animals than we could find one that permits sex with them. In our culture, of course, marriage is thought (or hoped) to be based on love, and in-love is a state in which people having sex are thought, or hoped, to be. But this is by no means a necessary feature of the concept of marriage in general, or of particular instances of marriage in reality.  At a minimum, to be married is to conceive of oneself, and to be so conceived by one’s society, as being one of the members of a pair. Corvino is right to distinguish the question of sex from the question of legal recognition of a relationship that is seen as ideally involving sex, but again, wrong to presume that the moral status of bestiality derives directly from the objective limits to the reciprocal meaningfulness of an animal-human relationship. Anyway we can grant that sex with a horse will not lead to mutual emotional growth, but Corvino is wrong to take it for granted that such mutuality is a sine qua non of salutary sexual relations (again, it might in fact be a sine qua non, but philosophers don’t take things for granted).

4. Fear of hybridism. There is another argument that we should perhaps briefly mention, one that was once very important but that has fallen out of fashion in the light of increased knowledge of the relevant scientific facts. For much of history, one concern about bestiality was that it would lead to monstrous hybrids. The classical moral argument against bestiality thus resembled the one still commonly invoked against incest: it leads to birth defects, and so our morality is a simple reflection of inflexible genetic facts. Richard Posner notes that “[t]he belief… behind making it a capital offense for a human being to have sexual intercourse with an animal –that such intercourse could produce a monster– was unsound, and showing that it was unsound undermined the case for punishment” (67). Today, we have more or less accepted that it is unsound, as we now know that, for the most part, cross-fertility is not a real possibility. But it is certainly understandable that in the absence of real knowledge of how genetics works, our ancestors might have been truly concerned about the need to police the boundaries of our species by prohibiting bestiality. In this respect, the prohibition on sex with animals would have nothing to do with morality at all, but would simply be an instance of group selection, and the moral accounts given of it simply afterthoughts. 

5. Debasement. Just as Peter Singer had predicted,  the primary mainstream objection to his stance in partial favor of bestiality –if the The New Republic and National Review Online are representative– is that sex between humans and nonhumans, regardless of the circumstances in which it occurs, is “an offence to our status and dignity as human beings.” For Kathryn Lopez of National Review Online, for example, the red flag is any suggestion that “humans ain’t nothing special” (“Peter Singer Strikes Again,” March 8). Singer notes that the vehemence with which people react to bestiality “suggests that there is another powerful force at work: our desire to differentiate ourselves, erotically and in every other way, from animals.” I can also imagine a second version of the debasment argument that would not emphasize the specialness of humans, as does Lopez’s version, but instead would locate the wrongness of bestiality in the fact that it is an instance of promiscuity in general.

To invoke the debasing character of bestiality is hardly to make an argument; it is only to give a gut reaction without explaining why the idea of this deed has this effect on the gut. Gut reactions may be the most we can hope for in issues such as this, but I think I have at least an inkling of an explanation of why we might justly call bestiality wrong, an explanation that does not, I hope, amount to either a mere gut reaction (as does 5), nor to a reliance on false scientific beliefs (as does 4), nor a reliance on an unargued presupposition about the minimal conditions of salutary sexual contact (as does 3), nor a reduction of the animal to a morally irrelevant tool, coupled with an implausible argument against self-gratification as a betrayal of human dignity (as does 2), nor a strained invocation of the animal’s supposed rights (as does 1). 


I have already argued that most of what we believe it is permissible or impermissible to do with or to animals arises not from moral reflection, but from pre-moral concept formation, from, as Cora Diamond says, the fact that we are here and do this, and they are there and do that. I think this approach can help us to get to the heart of the matter and to determine what’s really so abhorrent about bestiality.

Bestiality is, quite simply, weird. Now I want to make an important theoretical distinction between, on the one hand, the predicate ‘weird’ in this instance, and, on the other hand, predicates such as ‘base’ or ‘vile’ or ‘repulsive’.  ‘Weird’ here means ‘does not fit with our concept of the thing’, a concept that is formed prior to moral reflection.  On this view, then, having sex with an animal is weird in the same way as, say, keeping a watch-pony in the yard, hitching up your German shepherd to plow the field, going to the zoo to look at common house cats, or serving up rat meat. There is nothing ‘morally’ wrong with any of these activities, in the sense that no real harm is done to any creatures (or at least no more harm is done to the rat or the German shepherd than the harm ordinarily permitted when it comes to beasts of burden or beef on the hoof), but they nonetheless make a mess of our usual conceptual distinctions between work animals, food animals, exotic animals, pets, and vermin.

In important respects, pets, vermin, food animals, and work animals are as different from one another as all of them are from human beings. In some cases, the rigidity with which these different conceptual categories determine what we may do with or to animals belonging in them is at least as great as the rigidity with which an entity’s membership in the class of animals determines that we may not have sex with it, or another entity’s membership in the class of humans determines that we may not keep it on a leash. Zoophile pornography is illegal, but largely tolerated, whereas a restaurant that would dare to serve dog meat, in North America, anyway, would be shut right down, even though, I insist again, there is nothing worse in eating a dog than there is in eating a cow. It seems reasonable to suggest, moreover, that the significance of an act of bestiality with a beloved pet is at least as different from, say, one with a sea anemone as it is from one with another human being.  Barnyard bestiality seems already quite different from pet bestiality, and this, we may presume, has to do with the important conceptual difference between food animals and pets. The use of a sea anemone seems barely worth denouncing as bestiality at all, but rather seems more similar to the use of any inanimate sex toy; or to the now legendary purpose to which a cow’s liver was put by Philip Roth’s protagonist in Portnoy’s Complaint.   

Conceptual distinctions between vermin, pet, etc., I think, do the heavy work of determining the range of what we perceive it fitting to do with the differents sorts of animal, prior to any moral reflection about what sort of treatment animals, in view of what they in themselves are, deserve. The conceptual categories into which different sorts of animal are placed have nothing to do with their neurophysiology, their ability or inability to use syntax to generate novel sentences, or their ability or inability to freely give consent. The wrongness involved in an action that betrays a failure to grasp the concept of pet or vermin, in turn, has nothing to do with the perception of harm to the creature.  It has only to do with the perception of harm to the shared conceptual scheme that enables us to give order and meaning to the world around us. No set of rules does more to contribute to this order and meaning than the set that dictates who may have sex with whom or what, when, where, and in what manner. And this is why bestiality is wrong. 

Justin E. H. Smith really is a philosopher. For an archive of some of his academic work, please visit

For an extensive archive of his non-academic writing, please visit