Saturday, September 1, 2007

Observing a meme on a beautiful Saturday morning

A meme is similar to a gene in that it represents a discrete unit of information that is subjected to selective pressure. It is unlike a gene in that even though it may contain a set of instructions that code for the production of something (for example, Paul Prudhomme's recipe for blackened redfish) it does not appear to be subject to natural selection and is only expressed and propagated if it is artificially selected by humans who then spread it around. Put another way a meme is a unit of information that is either believed and repeated by a significant number of people so that we end up running into it a lot, or it disbelieved and doesn't get around.

I'm sure it will not surprise regular readers of A Hunger Artist that I have a Google news alert out for foie gras. Reading these things everyday for months involves reading a lot of repetitive information from a wide variety of sources and, not surprisingly, has turned up a few memes. I'm not willing to do the yeoman's work of quantifying the rate of occurrence of any quanta of information in the population of "literature" around any particular subject -let alone fricking duck liver- but I'm pretty comfortable saying that I've read some version of the following thing enough times in Op Ed columns, regular pieces of "journalism," letters to editors etc. to say that it's probably a meme.

"The vast amount of feed pumped down the ducks' throats cause enormous internal pressure, and the pipe sometimes punctures the oesophagus, [sic] causing many to die from choking on the blood that fills their lungs. Some birds literally burst, choke to death on their own vomit, or become so weak that they are unable to fend off rats from eating them alive. Other ducks die a slow, painful, and premature death by suffocation from inhalation of regurgitated feed," Sawhney informed adding that the birds who survive the feedings suffer from a painful illness that causes their livers to swell to eight to ten times their normal size." Source


fiat lux said...

There's actually a name for the repetitive sending of similarly-worded letters to the editor: "Astroturfing". Frequently it's because some interest organization has made a form letter available to its membership and encouraged them to use the letter as the basis for their own letters to the editor, letters to congress, etc.

Many, of course, simply copy and paste the letter and send it out unchanged.

Jennie/Tikka said...

Following the logic trail:

All this info about how the animals suffer is not something I have observed personally, which means -

a) It is true but I have never observed it happening; or

b) It is not true and these are statements aimed at producing a calculated emotional response in me; or

c) It is partially true but exaggerated - which also is aimed at producing a calcuated emotional response.

So which is it?

I have no way to visit a farm such as this so I have no way to go and observe in person.

I have definite reservations about believing the animals are suffering as they've been described for multiple reasons:

1. Its not good business. Having dead and dying animals laying around is bad for the other animals. Its not likely to happen. Its not OUT OF THE QUESTION that it occurs...its just not likely.

2. That the birds are in significant pain.

Pain is a function of excessive sensation signals received in the brain from nerve endings. There is no such thing as a "pain sensor" or "pain area" in the brain - of people or animals. Pain is simply an excess of another sensation - heat, cold, pressure, registered at the nerves and communicated to the brain. An overstuffed liver is neither hot, or cold, or under pressure or ruptured. To sense pain it would have to have a way to sense being overfed. That is not something nerves are designed to sense.

Internal organs in people and animals, is a function of the brain stem - the very basest part of the brain and the part of the brain we have no conscious awareness of. The brain stem monitors whether they are functioning properly or not and regulates them. Internal organs in people and animals - have no way to sense, heat, cold, pressure, etc. because the nerve endings that are in the skin are not likewise in internal organs. Where, precisely, would the pain be coming from and how would the brain know about it?
These systems in the brain do not cross-communicate so where and how would the animal (or person) gain awareness of what was happening in their liver??

If it was so easy to sense when something was wrong internally - in people and animals - because of pain, we wouldn't be needing to send people in for MRI's, X-Rays, etc., to try and detect things like cancer. It is because there is no way to sense pain in internal organs that we are so paranoid as a culture to test, test, test to catch these things early. Animals are wired no differently. So where is all this pain coming from?

We do have a mechanism in people and animals for detecting when we have eaten or drunk enough...but whether this causes pain is highly debatable. If it caused pain we'd be seeing a lot of human obesity, yes?

Jennie/Tikka said...

A lot LESS human obesity is what I meant to say...left out a word.

Bob del Grosso said...

fiat lux
I am familiar with the phenomenon you describe but didn't know it had a name. Frankly, if I had to give a name to it myself it'd be unprintable. So Thanks!

I don't think the current example represents a case of astroturfing though. I could be wrong but it seems more like a case of a lazy or careless journalist who decided to cut and paste from an astroturfed source. For the record I am not suggesting that you implied otherwise.

I'm no neurologist but I'm pretty sure that birds don't even have spindle cells in the their brains that are capable of receiving signals of fullness and associating those signals with any type of emotion. I'll have to do some research I suppose. Of course even if they don't have them they may still experience distress. And I suppose that there are instances where the feeding tube does tear them up. However since an instance like that would not be in the interest of the farmer's bottom line, I'll bet it's pretty rare.

Jennie/Tikka said...

I'll have to get my old textbooks out myself - but if memory serves me correctly, here's how it would have to happen:

Duck/goose is presented with food. Is force fed. Sensation of stomach over-fulness would cause pressure on stomache nerve. Sensation would travel the Central Nervous System and register in the Thalamus, I believe (could be wrong...I'll have to check). Thalamus would have to be wired into the Amygdala to produce an emotional distress response. Limbic system would cause aversion (fight or flight response).

Do the animals begin to try to escape when the feeding machine is presented (because of past memories of trauma??) Or do they approach the feeder?

The questions become:

1) Do ducks and geese have Amygdala structures and what other structures are they connected to? Limbic system? PNS? CNS??

2) How long can they recall a memory? Do they have the same ability to remember what happens to them as a human does?

And more that I won't post here yet.

One thing is certain - they do NOT have the same brain structures as human beings do. That much is certain. They do not experience life the same way as humans do.