Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Celestial Poo

Ames, IA (July 27, 2013)

Since we are talking about bugs, I found this interesting news in yesterday rss feeds. Catholics parishioners in Fresno, California, made it to the news when they claimed that a tree next to their church was crying. Now, weeping statues are quite common in catholic lore, but a crying tree seemed to me quite a novelty. According to the parishioners, the tree started crying when a parishioner asked for a miracle to cure her illness. Since then the tree is allegedly crying in sync with the worshipper's prayers. Now, where are the bugs in this story, you may ask? Well, it turns out that what is dropping from the tree are not exactly tears, but actual droppings, from aphids secreting a sugar-rich sticky liquid (honeydew) as they feed on the plant's sap. In the right season, when there are enough aphids, the amount of honeydew they secrete is massive enough that it can indeed resemble as if their tree is crying. Although some of the parishioners are well aware of the physical explanation for the phenomenon, they still believe it is a miracle, which they see in how the tree started "crying" exactly when a miracle was pleaded. I guess an entomologist's poo can as well be worshippers' tears!

This is not at all surprising. All myths find their origin in some natural phenomena. Myths are created as part of the human drive to explain the world, when the actual cause of phenomena is beyond our immediate understanding. Our brain is tuned to see patterns (especial faces), even when there is no pattern: better err on the safe side seeing a leopard where there are only shadows, than missing the predator and ending up as its lunch. So we tend to develop fantastic stories to explain the extraordinary facts of everyday life, building in the process the sacred and profane mythology that so much permeates all human cultures. There is actually nothing wrong with that: those myths are what make human cultures interesting, regardless to their very mundane origin. I still enjoy reading Garcia-Marquez "One hundred years of solitude" even though I know that his magic realism is nothing else than his grandmother tales. Myths are what give depths to the soul of human cultures. They enrich us. Provided, of course, that they don't get into the way in our decision making when, being a naturalistic explanation available, we need to get past our myths to be able to make informed decisions about our future.

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