Origins of the Human Mythos

There are as many origin stories as there are early regions on earth.

There are as many origin stories as there are early regions on earth. They all describe processes that resulted in one version of life or another.

Here’s one from the Bakuba people who flourished in the southeastern part of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo:

“Darkness was over the earth which was nothing but water. Mbombo ruled over this chaos. One day he felt a terrible pain in his stomach and vomited the sun, the moon and the stars. The sun shone fiercely and the water steamed up in clouds. Gradually, the dry hills appeared. Mbombo vomited again, this time trees came out of his stomach, and animals, and people, and many other things: the first woman, the leopard, the eagle, the falling star, the anvil, the monkey Fumu, the man, the firmament, the razor, medicine, and lightning.” –Knappert, J. (1977). Bantu myths and other tales. Leiden: Brill.

In this version, Mbombo had a dark earth covered in water to work with and it was the rest of the universe that he (it’s a “he”) brought into being. Whether they were all causing a pain in his stomach (why wouldn’t they?) or whether vomiting was just what one did during the process of creation is not clear. This single act of emesis wasn’t sufficient, so the rest of his stomach’s contents populated the now-illuminated mix of dry hills and water that composed the planet. He also had an anvil, a razor, lightning, a meteor/comet, the discipline of medicine, woman (apparently emitted first), a few animals, and man causing his distress. The myth goes on; you can read it, along with some other myths of Africa at the link.


Mask of the Bakuba people used in religious rituals to represent their earliest ancestors


The Bushmen or San people of southern and southwest Africa have a different view of how it all began. Here’s a nice video that shares one version of the story (virtually any of these differ in some details as they were all told to a western ethnologist by whoever was willing to share):

It is interesting that people and animals were all present but living in a paradise beneath the earth. The creation involved growing a tree, digging a hole to let all of them out, and warning them not to play with fire. Their punishment was that they no longer were able to communicate with their previous under-earth cohabitants. I am certain that if Prometheus heard this story he would beg Zeus for relitigation of his case.

Ethiopians, in the central eastern section of Africa, had a different take on how it all began:

It seems that Wak was a caretaker god for the skies and earth but was not an angry god (a cool feature for a god to have). We get a foreshadowing of the “rib of Adam” bit, although there was no clay involved and animals and demons were all progeny of the first marriage.

The oldest creation myth from the Rg Veda, one of the four scriptures on which Hinduism is based, is complex:

“Thousand-headed Purusha, thousand-eyed, thousand-footed he, having pervaded the earth on all sides, still extends ten fingers beyond it. Purusha alone is all this—whatever has been and whatever is going to be. Further, he is the lord of immortality and also of what grows on account of food. Such is his greatness; greater, indeed, than this is Purusha. All creatures constitute but one quarter of him, his three-quarters are the immortal in the heaven. With his three-quarters did Purusha rise up; one quarter of him again remains here. With it did he variously spread out on all sides over what eats and what eats not. From him was Viraj born, from Viraj evolved Purusha. He, being born, projected himself behind the earth as also before it.
When the gods performed the sacrifice with Purusha as the oblation, then the spring was its clarified butter, the summer the sacrificial fuel, and the autumn the oblation.
The sacrificial victim, namely, Purusha, born at the very beginning, they sprinkled with sacred water upon the sacrificial grass. With him as oblation the gods performed the sacrifice, and also the Sadhyas [a class of semidivine beings] and the rishis [ancient seers]. From that wholly offered sacrificial oblation were born the verses and the sacred chants; from it were born the meters; the sacrificial formula was born from it. From it horses were born and also those animals who have double rows [i.e., upper and lower] of teeth; cows were born from it, from it were born goats and sheep. When they divided Purusha, in how many different portions did they arrange him? What became of his mouth, what of his two arms? What were his two thighs and his two feet called? His mouth became the brahman; his two arms were made into the rajanya; his two thighs the vaishyas; from his two feet the shudra was born. The moon was born from the mind, from the eye the sun was born; from the mouth Indra and Agni, from the breath the wind was born. From the navel was the atmosphere created, from the head the heaven issued forth; from the two feet was born the earth and the quarters [the cardinal directions] from the ear. Thus did they fashion the worlds. Seven were the enclosing sticks in this sacrifice, thrice seven were the fire-sticks made, when the gods, performing the sacrifice, bound down Purusha, the sacrificial victim. With this sacrificial oblation did the gods offer the sacrifice. These were the first norms [dharma] of sacrifice. These greatnesses reached to the sky wherein live the ancient Sadhyas and gods.” – The Rig-Veda, 10.90, in Sources of Indian Tradition by Theodore de Bary (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 16-17.

This is an entirely different level of complexity than we see in the above myths or in the one most westerners know. One observation is to notice that Purusha is both the everything and is offered as a sacrifice and is born of Viraj, who was (of course) born of Purusha. To make it even more complicated, another version of this occurs in Manusmriti, another scriptural text of many but this one designating Hindu law. In this version, Purusha creates time and also designates the duties of the various castes.

(n.b. Purusha is the Featured image for this post.)

From southern China, the story went like this:

“In the beginning , the heavens and earth were still one and all was chaos. The universe was like a big black egg, carrying Pan Gu inside itself. After 18 thousand years Pan Gu woke from a long sleep. He felt suffocated, so he took up a broadax and wielded it with all his might to crack open the egg. The light, clear part of it floated up and formed the heavens, the cold, turbid matter stayed below to form earth. Pan Gu stood in the middle, his head touching the sky, his feet planted on the earth. The heavens and the earth began to grow at a rate of ten feet per day, and Pan Gu grew along with them. After another 18 thousand years, the sky was higher, the earth thicker, and Pan Gu stood between them like a pillar 9 million li in height so that they would never join again.

“When Pan Gu died, his breath became the wind and clouds, his voice the rolling thunder. One eye became the sun and on the moon. His body and limbs turned to five big mountains and his blood formed the roaring water. His veins became far-stretching roads and his muscles fertile land. The innumerable stars in the sky came from his hair and beard, and flowers and trees from his skin and the fine hairs on his body. His marrow turned to jade and pearls. His sweat flowed like the good rain and sweet dew that nurtured all things on earth. According to some versions of the Pan Gu legend, his tears flowed to make rivers and radiance of his eyes turned into thunder and lighting. When he was happy the sun shone, but when he was angry black clouds gathered in the sky. One version of the legend has it that the fleas and lice on his body became the ancestors of mankind.

“The Pan Gu story has become firmly fixed in Chinese tradition. There is even an idiom relating to it: “Since Pan Gu created earth and the heavens,” meaning “for a very long time.” Nevertheless, it is rather a latecomer to the catalog of Chinese legends. First mention of it is in a book on Chinese myths written by Xu Zheng in the Three Kingdoms period (C.E. 220-265). Some opinions hold that it originated in south China or southeast Asia.

“There are several versions of the Pan Gu story.

“Among the Miao, Yao, Li and other nationalities of south China, a legend concerns Pan Gu the ancestor of all mankind, with a man’s body and a dog’s head. It runs like this: Up in Heaven the God in charge of the earth, King Gao Xin, owned a beautiful spotted dog. He reared him on a plate (pan in Chinese ) inside a gourd (hu, which is close to the sound gu ), so the dog was known as Pan Gu . Among the Gods there was great enmity between King Gao Xin and his rival King Fang. “Whoever can bring me the head of King Fang may marry my daughter, ” he proclaimed, but nobody was willing to try because they were afraid of King Fang’s strong soldiers and sturdy horses.

“The dog Pan Gu overheard what was said, and when Gao Xin was sleeping, slipped out of the palace and ran to King Fang. The latter was glad to see him standing there wagging his tail. “You see, King Gao Xin is near his end. Even his dog has left him,” Fang said, and held a banquet for the occasion with the dog at his side.

“At midnight when all was quiet and Fang was overcome with drink, Pan Gu jumped onto the king’s bed, bit off his head and ran back to his master with it . King Gao Xin was overjoyed to see the head of his rival, and gave orders to bring Pan Gu some fresh meat. But Pan Gu left the meat untouched and curled himself up in a corner to sleep. For three days he ate nothing and did not stir.

“The king was puzzled and asked, “Why don’t you eat? Is it because I failed to keep my promise of marrying a dog?” To his surprise Pan Gu began to speak. “Don’t worry, my King. Just cover me with your golden bell and in seven days and seven nights I’ll become a man.” The King did as he said, but on the sixth day, fearing he would starve to death, out of solicitude the princess peeped under the bell. Pan Gu’s body had already changed into that of a man, but his head was still that of a dog. However, once the bell was raised, the magic change stopped, and he had to remain a man with a dog’s head.

“He married the princess, but she didn’t want to be seen with such a man so they moved to the earth and settled in the remote mountains of south China. There they lived happily and had four children, three boys and a girl, who became the ancestors of mankind.” – China Creation Myths

We are the descendants of a dog-headed god who was also the source of heavens and earth… well, after he broke open the black egg with a broadax. The dog-headed bit explains a lot but why did the princess marry him? That remains a mystery to this day, dear readers.pangu


Pangu (Attribution)


Here’s a story from the Lakota Native Americans:

“There was another world before this one. But the people of that world did not behave themselves. Displeased, the Creating Power set out to make a new world. He sang several songs to bring rain, which poured stronger with each song. As he sang the fourth song, the earth split apart and water gushed up through the many cracks, causing a flood. By the time the rain stopped, all of the people and nearly all of the animals had drowned. Only Kangi the crow survived.

“Kangi pleaded with the Creating Power to make him a new place to rest. So the Creating Power decided the time had come to make his new world. From his huge pipe bag, which contained all types of animals and birds, the Creating Power selected four animals known for their ability to remain under water for a long time.

“He sent each in turn to retrieve a lump of mud from beneath the floodwaters. First the loon dove deep into the dark waters, but it was unable to reach the bottom. The otter, even with its strong webbed feet, also failed. Next, the beaver used its large flat tail to propel itself deep under the water, but it too brought nothing back. Finally, the Creating Power took the turtle from his pipe bag and urged it to bring back some mud.

“Turtle stayed under the water for so long that everyone was sure it had drowned. Then, with a splash, the turtle broke the water’s surface! Mud filled its feet and claws and the cracks between its upper and lower shells. Singing, the Creating Power shaped the mud in his hands and spread it on the water, where it was just big enough for himself and the crow. He then shook two long eagle wing feathers over the mud until earth spread wide and varied, overcoming the waters. Feeling sadness for the dry land, the Creating Power cried tears that became oceans, streams, and lakes. He named the new land Turtle Continent in honor of the turtle who provided the mud from which it was formed.

“The Creating Power then took many animals and birds from his great pipe bag and spread them across the earth. From red, white, black, and yellow earth, he made men and women. The Creating Power gave the people his sacred pipe and told them to live by it. He warned them about the fate of the people who came before them. He promised all would be well if all living things learned to live in harmony.

“But the world would be destroyed again if they made it bad and ugly.” – Lakota Creation Myth

In this one, we have a cataclysmic flood that kills the initial people and destroys nearly all animals but is replaced by people made of mud brought to the water’s surface by a turtle.

There’s no need to go into the western version and it is beyond the scope of any decent post to provide every story that I’ve found in doing this research on the web. You can do the same, of course, provided you have the curiosity. It is rewarding to read as many of these stories as you can, particularly if it results in some humility in the face of all the imaginative metaphors for creation that coexist with the western versions, evolving out of the Middle East as they did (hint: there are more than one version of how creation occurred). There are many shared elements in the stories but there are many elements that are unique to their cultures.

Why should we put aside some of these stories and glorify others? I would propose that is nothing more than western cultural chauvinism to do so. We celebrate what we know and denigrate that which we do not.

So let’s not do that so much. If you’re interested in learning about humankind, learn as much as you can about the huge number of disparate cultures that have evolved and don’t marginalize one or another because their source was “primitive” or not in “The Bible.” We were all primitive once. Our antecedents share that. As should we.

I think I’ll stick with more modern versions…






Something is Going Well Around Here!

The 1,000 “like” road marker disappearing in the rear view mirror…

The WP auto-post function just told me that I have accumulated 1,000 “likes,” which are all because the imaginary “you” have been appreciating what I’ve been pouring forth since June 22nd. It hasn’t been four months yet and I have so many “likes!” Who knew?!?

I’ve logged 87 posts (one was a repeat, so doesn’t really count and one was a reblog in respect for a new WordPress-induced friend) in 111 days, meaning that I’ve hit about 78% of the days between start and present. Not bad. Could be better. Let’s see if I can pick up the slack.

Thank you, everyone!


Border Follies

There are four borders on our planet and we’re not one of them.

There are four borders on our planet:

  1.     The air we can breathe and the air we cannot.

This border is gradual and becomes more real as any of us ascend into our atmosphere. While the troposphere contains ~80% of our air (which is a mix of gases as faithful readers already know), the stratosphere holds a mere 19% or so. As we leave sea level and go up mountains, there is less air, therefore less pressure exerted by the air upon us. By the time we get around to climbing Mount Everest, there is so little oxygen left in the lower pressures of atmosphere experienced at that altitude that climbers must bring their own. On the other hand, it gets much colder as we climb so there are two good reasons to remain close to flat land: (1) decreasing air and (2) decreasing temperature. This is all graphed out in the Pressure scale helpfully included in the following:

The Structure of the Atmosphere

As a little imagination game, imagine that your roommate and/or spouse (depending on years of commitment) has just cracked open a rotten egg in your kitchen. The spreading smell represents earth’s atmosphere and you want to get as far away from that particular atmosphere as possible. The farther you remove yourself, the less the smell and (for purposes of this analogy only) the less atmosphere there is. Although you can’t really smell air, you can experience its absence quite profoundly (caution: side-effects may include a light-headed feeling, confusion, dizziness, shortness of breath, and death).

2.   The air we can breathe and the earth we cannot.

While sea level and much mountain air is pleasant to breathe, inhaling earth of any kind results in clogged oral and nasal passages. If attempts to breathe earth are continued, bronchi and alveoli may become non-functional leading to a lack of air and at least some of the side-effects mentioned above. Do not breathe earth. While it is good for plants to stick their snouts deep within a nice chunk of earth, particularly when it is enriched with supplements, we must insist that you do not attempt to replicate their behavior. While a diagram of the earth coming into contact with air is not very exciting, there are many important processes that happen between the various solid surfaces, natural and human-made, and the air. Here’s a nice diagram of how the stuff we put into the atmosphere comes back for visits:

The structure of earth’s atmosphere and how what we do on the surface has an effect.

3.    The air we can breathe and the water we cannot.

You would think this boundary is as boring as the one between the air and the earth and you would be incorrect. The atmosphere and bodies of water of significant size have a very dynamic interaction. This incredible time-lapse map of global oceanic currents (courtesy the nice people at NASA) shows their beauty, dynamism, local and transglobal effects, their overall complexity:

But these are only the surface manifestations of phenomena that reach into the clouds and oceanic depths as well. The following video, produced by NASA using data from a number of their satellites and narrated by Liam Neeson, starts with an explanation of how the earth is protected and affected from the sun’s energy output by the magnetosphere.

Chances are that you may have missed the thermodynamic heat pump that powers circulation in our oceans. It is called thermohaline (“temperature-salt”) circulation or conveyor belt. As surface water is warmed by the sun at the equator it is swept north and south toward the icy poles. There it is cooled. As cold salt water is denser than the warm variety, it sinks as it approaches the poles and is swept along the ocean’s floor back towards the equator and elsewhere around the globe. Given the complexity of the currents and circulation, it is thought that it may take up to 1,000 years for one unit of water (let’s say a cubic kilometer) to circulate back to its point of origin.

4.    The water we cannot breathe and the earth we cannot breathe.

This is not our realm. We belong walking along the surface of the earth, breathing the atmosphere and drinking the purer forms of water. We must take our atmosphere with us when we move into the water or earth.

Our takeaway lesson? While you can only breathe the air portions of this very real barrier between the air and water or between earth and water, the effects that air, earth, and water have on each other is astonishingly complex and persistently in motion. Without this perpetual motion going on between the three of them, there would be no weather and no recycling of the gaseous and aqueous realms so necessary for us to live.

The fifth border is imaginary—human-made—compared to the four above. Here is one way of picturing it:

For a more legible version

All these countries, all these governments, all these people divided up by imaginary lines cut into the earth and bleeding the blood of its citizens. Why do some people want to go elsewhere? Why are “violations” of these imaginary lines fraught with so much emotion, so much passion, so much need?

Here’s another way of looking at these imaginary lines:

Adjusted Net National Income Per Capita - US$
Courtesy World Bank databases (if you’re curious, it is free to do your own data searches)

At one end of the spectrum of net national incomes, we have Malawi, a country that is full of nice people who through no fault of their own barely scrape through a year on virtually nothing… and that’s the AVERAGE income! At the other end, we have Qatar, Monaco, the Scandinavian countries, some others (the names aren’t as important as the concept here). The average net national income across all countries is around $45,000/year.

The reasons the imaginary boundaries are important is that people who have governments that don’t work in the interests of the families who live there want to leave and find opportunity elsewhere, which makes their destinations nervous—probably for some good reasons. The destinations of choice all seem better from a distance as the people who want to leave their countries are doing fairly poorly. As more people arrive at their destinations, it is likely that the quality of life in that country will be overwhelmed by newly arrived citizens—and the existing citizens who were already doing poorly and will see a deterioration in their quality of life. On the other hand, the people who leave their countries of origin leave behind many family members, the culture and geography they know and appreciate, their way of doing things, which may have been that way for millennia and are much loved.

The solutions are not easy. I propose the following:

  1. The countries that are not doing well by their citizens must determine why there are disparities in quality of life and correct them so that anyone who wishes can make a one-to-one comparison between their lives at home and their imagined lives elsewhere.
  2. This will often mean that the people who are doing the best in those countries must find ways to share their success with more of their citizens. As it is often the case that wealth from natural resources, agriculture, etc., are harvested by the poor and enjoyed by those who are already comfortable, that seems to be an appropriate basis for sharing. Do corporations and governments own the natural resources of any particular country? I would think all citizens of the planet “own” them equally and that the corporations and governments are only there to ensure equitable distribution of them and any profits that arise from manufacturing.
  3. The countries that are doing well must find ways to channel resources to the countries who are not. These resources must find their ways first to the people who need them the most. Once inequities in education, nutrition, safety, health, domicile and baseline income are addressed, more generalized issues (e.g. governmental corruption) must be addressed as well.

This kind of change is needed. The earth—on its own—figures it all out in spite of the various environmental disasters we keep visiting upon it. Now, we the people must figure out how to stop killing each other—or passively allowing each other to be killed—and work through the inequities that we allow to exist between us.

It is easy to come up with arguments that refute these positions: political, religious, racial, gender, class, family history, income, etc. It is better to stop arguing and get to solutions. We are all one thing and that thing is the human species. Let’s solve our problems so we can all stop with the stupidity.

Featured image

When Sounds Became Stories

The bear went over the mountain…

Most of our fellow critters surrendered to geography at some point in their evolution. One rodent species gets broken up into two species when barriers separate them and the factors that supported their initial growth (e.g. predator species or nutrients) are differentiated between the two locations. This is called allopatric speciation but is just a notion to ponder while following the rest of the post.

This didn’t stop humans, though. For whatever reason, when our ancestors encountered barriers they went over the mountains and deserts, crossed the rivers and seas (and oceans!), and kept on going. Why? The most probable reasons are disputes with family members (intra-tribal disputes), the inevitable inter-tribal disputes that arise after familial separations (because we have a hard time letting go), resource limitations (depletion of hunter-gatherer “raw materials), weather fluctuations (e.g. drought), and good old curiosity (“to see what we could see”).

This is a complex map more fully explained here. It follows differentiation in Y-chromosome DNA over a few million years. In this map, the earliest known DNA originates in western African, roughly where Cameroon is located. Also interesting is the first migration is southwards towards Namibia, where the Khoi-san people are thought to still speak one of the original human languages (it is sometimes known as the “click” language – and don’t you dare snicker – their people have been communicating far longer than yours).

Why these peregrinations resulted in different languages is a mystery to me but as we wandered I am sure we developed new words. Perhaps our oral word stores (our familiar/tribal/personal lexicons) just changed by dialect creep and then by lexicon differentiation. There was little need for inland valley people to develop a word for seabirds or dolphins. People who fished the oceans didn’t develop a rich thesaurus for describing desert weather.

As this diaspora continued and time passed (we’re talking , those dialects and these needs to discuss various matters must have changed so much that the initial language and the resulting branches just diverged. There were words that remained the same or similar (compare Germanic and Scandinavian words for “day;” numerous examples in other languages abound) and those that were new and unrelated to any previous word.

The stories they all told to each other diverged as well. The Ur-Cameroonians had different origin myths, different sun and moon myths than the Ur-Namibians (n.b. “ur” has the meaning of “proto” or “early” or “primitive” when added as a prefix), and so forth as the people traveled and developed their own stories about how “it” all works. They passed these stories on down to their children as they did for theirs.

Eventually, the Ur-Cameroonians and Ur-Namibians probably didn’t even know what the other was saying anymore. They could learn to understand but their languages had diverged to the point that they  were distinct (or perhaps these two sets of folks could understand each other well but make no sense of what the pygmies said in the Congo rainforest). It is novel in itself that although the languages diverged they could still be learned; the brain could do both things—make new words and learn other (in a way older) words. Pretty neat stuff!

There are two breakthroughs here: the creation of language and (for it would be a long time before it happened as far as we can tell) the creation of written language and the implicit creation of storage media and engraving tools.

As far as we can tell, it is the Sumerians and Egyptians who first engraved their thoughts into clay and stone using the cuneiform and hieroglyphic methods in roughly 3400 to 3200 B.C.E. But cave paintings in various regions predated these folks by tens of millennia, perhaps as much as 40,000 years ago in Sulawesi. Surely, these were a way for the elders to assist themselves in their duty to tell stories. Once the wall was embellished, it was an artifact of the elders. It is likely that their children saw these initial paintings as revered lessons of the ancestors and that the paintings themselves became part of the story.

Today, we download books through the æther and consume them seconds later. This may have all started because the Ur-Cameroonians went walkabout and forgot their initial language. And that their children eventually came up with ways to depict their stories on bark or cave walls or clay tablets and eventually paper. And these letters you see before you, which aren’t before you at all but are on a server that you are mining for information just as I am doing the same.


A 25.5 to 27.5 thousand-year-old cave painting from a southwestern Namibian cave

Featured image: Khoi-san cave painting from the western cape of South Africa, roughly 3,000 years old. It is more common to see representations of people in African cave paintings than in the European cave paintings (e.g. France, Spain).

Another Slow Day in Paradise

It was another slow day in paradise.

It was another slow day in paradise. A and B were flitting about the huge meadow with its vast and varied flowers, shrubs, and trees, all of them spaced perfectly so every flower, shrub, and tree got the perfect amount of sunlight, the perfect amount of water sipped from the fertile earth. Every kind of beetle, fly, bee, ant, butterfly, and spider floated about in the gentle breeze, while every kind of bunny, mouse, cat, dog, horse, goat, sheep, pig, lion, giraffe, elephant, and gazelle pranced about, munching on all of the good things there were to eat, which sprang back up as soon as they were nibbled. A stream ran through the center of the meadow but then again there were streams with stepping stones every so often all over the place. Some had waterfalls and some had pools of just the right depth in their centers, causing the stream to widen a bit more than usual, then tighten back up after the pool was behind the coursing waters.

Theit (that’s what it liked to call itself when it came down to check in with A and B; it wasn’t a real name, sort of a joke—”the it”—you see?) had just wafted in from everywhere and coalesced in the form of a fluorescent tapir. Theit had tried subtler appearances but had to spend too much time convincing these two that it was it. Theit did it gently as the last time it at coalesced, A and B had run off screaming and it took precious seconds to find them cowering behind a baobab tree. This time, Theit found form behind a yew bush growing near one of the streams and strolled out to talk to “the experiment,” as it called them in its mind.

“Hi A. Hi B. How’s it going down here?” The fluorescent tapir spoke in a perfect East African accent, which sounded startlingly like many of the sounds A and B heard on a daily basis, except shaped more carefully and regularly into sounds that made sense to their minds.

A and B stared at the tapir and knew what it said. This sort of thing had happened before and while it had been confusing and a little terrifying at first, they had grown accustomed to unexpected creatures sauntering up to them and having a chat. After all, they spent a good deal of any day doing the same thing with squirrels and horses. Walking up, having a chat, the creatures chatting back. Why not this oddly-hued beast with truncated snout?

“Hi Theit!” they said in unison. It was like they shared a brain. Not always in a good way either. “It’s going the same as always. Nothing new to say, just having a nice day speaking to everyone and enjoying the sunshine and streams and fruits. Did you want something in particular?”

“Well, yes. It’s lesson time.” Theit noticed that both of them shuddered. Theit was aware this was not their favorite activity, which was exclusively wandering about bothering their fellow creatures and picking an excessive number of flowers, which it had warned them about on numerous occasions: “They’re for the bees and butterflies, you two. All you’re doing is taking beauty out of the ground, sniffing it, then throwing it down. Just lean over and do your sniffing on the living thing, please!” he had said. They went ahead and picked flowers as if they had no memory at all.

“Do you remember what we talked about yesterday?” Theit had a really confused sense of time as it meant nothing to it at all, while still being this counter-function it had implanted in the world so that stuff might eventually get done.

A and B shook their heads. No surprise. And, to be fair, it may have been more than a day. Theit needed to work out how to be more regular in lesson-giving.

“Well, we worked through addition and subtraction. Remember those? I give you two fruit, then I give you two more. How many fruit do you have?”

“Two” they said in unison.

Theit breathed in slowly and then let the air escape from the tapirs lungs. “No. I first gave you two fruit. At that time you had two fruit. Then I gave you two more. How many fruit did you have?”

“Two” they said in unison. Then B said “Two two.”

“Good, B! And how many is two two? What do we call that number of fruit?”

“Fruit” said A. “Two two” said B.

“And what do we call “two two,” B?”

“Four?” said B. “Fruit” said A.

“Very good, A! I can hear that you remember the word for two two! That is very nice! Please teach that to A so he remembers, okay?”

“Yes” said B.

“Okay, let’s see how you remember subtraction. If you have four fruit and I ask for two fruit back so that I may share them with other creatures. How many fruit do you have?”

“Two” said B.” “Fruit” said A. At this point Theit thought A’s time might be better spent smacking himself in the head with a rock but Theit didn’t make him do that. Although that made sense. That would have been beneath Theit’s mission with this experiment, which was purely about creation, observation, data, and outcomes.

“B, could you help out A with this subtraction concept? There are bigger numbers to add and subtract and even different ideas that are not addition and subtraction and we must talk about them as well.”

“Okay” said B. A said “fruit!”

Theit was a little worried. It seemed that B was slowly understanding the information being shared but A was not. And both of them, to be honest, seemed more concerned with playing with the creatures and picking flowers than they were in learning. How was multiplication and division going to go if adding and subtracting up to four was proving this difficult? Theit let a rare shudder ripple through the tapir’s frame, although Theit was the one shuddering. Was this another failed experiment like the bacteria that ate all its own young and didn’t multiply? Or the lizard that popped off its own head when it was caught by a predator? They seemed like good ideas at the time—bacteria that controlled themselves, lizards with an escape mechanism—but those had gone wrong.

Theit didn’t really know how long that thought lasted. Was it brief or was it really long? In any case, Theit looked up and A was chasing a bunny through the meadow grasses and flowers and B was chasing A. Neither A nor B were catching what they chased but they laughed as they ran. You couldn’t really hate that.

“Come here, you two” said the fluorescent tapir. “More studying to do!”

A and B took their time but came over looking a little petulant with the tapir, which was an odd look as tapir’s usually provoke giggles rather than petulance. Theit didn’t care. It was time for lessons.

“Okay, let’s try something. It’s a trick I use all the time and it works on stars, planets, galaxies, and universes. I even used it here to make all these grasses and trees and flowers and bunnies. You like all these things, right?”

A stared and B nodded. A looked at B and noticed the nodding thing, which he had seen before, and nodded as B took the time to stare.

“Now, I’m going to talk about multiplication. It’s a way to make big numbers of things out of small numbers of things. Just listen and see if you get a pattern. We’re going to start with “one.” One multiplied by one is one. You can say this more simply just by saying “times” whenever you would say “multiplied by,” okay?”

“Okay” they said in unison. Theit had no idea if they were mimicking him or understanding, so he went on.

“If one times one is one, guess what one times two is?”

A said “one” and B said “two.” Perhaps there was some hope for B.

“Next. One times three is what, B?”

B said “three.”

“A. Anything?” asked Theit.

“One” said A, looking quite determined. Inside, the fluorescent tapir sighed a little sigh.

“B, what is one times four?”

“Four” replied B. A rubbed his leg and looked at a flower.

“Let’s try it something, B. What is four times one?”

“One” said B. Theit’s brief snout wiggled a little. It was confirmed. This was going to take a long time. Whatever would happen when the discussion turned to algebra? The snout wiggled ferociously at this thought. Theit sent a calming wave of thought through the tapir and got it to settle down. No one liked a condescending teacher, even if the teacher was a loveable tapir in bright colors.

Theit had a thought. There was a lot to do. Although Theit was coalesced in various forms all over this universe and every other universe doing this same kind of stuff, Theit thought that it might be time to pay attention to some of the more curious experiments and leave these two to their own devices. Their meadow too. It was a nice meadow and was perfectly balanced to live without dying and replenish itself without looking too sad. That took a certain amount of stamina from Theit’s other projects, which were infinite in number and completely manageable but still….


Theit visited A and B, this time as an enormous paramecium with lots of undulating cilia. A and B knew it was Theit because they had never seen this thing before. Although they found it sort of horrible, they also knew that it was okay to approach it as it ciliated its way over to them.

“A. B. How are you?”

“Good” they said in unison.

“Getting enough to eat?”


“Finding enough playmates among the squirrels and bunnies?” Theit asked about these because it seemed that A and B had a particular fondness for them over the larger animals or the ones who roared, although they all lived well next to each other. As was planned.

They both nodded. That seemed like an advance. Perhaps B had taught A the nod thing.

“Okay. Well. I have good news and bad news. Which would you like to hear first?”

“Good” they said again, although perhaps they meant that they would like to hear the good news first. That’s how Theit interpreted it.

“Well then. The good news is that all of this stuff you like is going to stay here. You can play with it all and eat fruit and drink from the streams and have as much fun as you like. Would you like to hear the bad news now?” Theit asked.

“Good,” which Theit took as a tacit understanding that they would now like to hear the bad news.

“Well. Hmmm. The bad news. Erm. I’m not sure how this is going to work out but I’m going to be away for a while. I’m not going to be able to perform maintenance on this place. Instead, you’re going to have to start doing it yourself. What does this mean? Well, it means that I’m going to give everything the power to multiply and divide but I’m also going to give everything the power to add and subtract. New stuff will come alive and old stuff will die. Bunnies and horses and trees and flowers and bees will all multiply but their cells—the little bits of life inside them that make all of this stuff work—will divide. That probably makes no sense to you at all since you haven’t really graduated from basic addition and subtraction (and I really don’t want to think about algebra or calculus, Theit said internally) but I’m hoping that if you see it happening it will make sense over time. It may take a while.”

A and B stared at Theit and didn’t move. They really had no idea what Theit was talking about. This was often the case and sometimes if they remained really still for a sufficient amount of time, Theit was quiet and loped off into the trees. It didn’t seem like this thing was going to lope but they could hope.

“It’s been nice, A and B. You’re the only ones I’ve made that are as hairless as you are. Really, you’re just a variation on a theme. See the hairy ones over there? The ones chasing after a zebra? Yeah. You’re the hairless—relatively speaking, of course—variety. And you walk on your back legs without using your front legs. I’m pretty sure that’s going to have consequences, by the way, but that’s beside the point. I do like you. Don’t take any of what’s about to happen personally. It’s not. Really. I just have a lot to do.”

With this statement, Theit coalesced a giant chunk of wrapped paper blocks out of the air and opened one to a middle page.

“See these? I’m going to call them “books” because they don’t have a name. They don’t have a name because I’ve been thinking about them and it’s come time to make some, so here they are. If you look at this page (it’s called a page, guys), you’ll see black squiggly marks. That’s called “writing” and this writing is in the first language of your creature-type. It tells you stuff. But I can’t wait around for you to learn what it says. I’m going to call this “homework” and you have to worry about what it says or you’re going to be a little out of luck for a long time. Okay?”

“Okay” said A and B.

“Okay” said Theit. Then he made the paramecium lope off into the woods.

A and B stared at the “books” and then stared at each other and then sat down.

Then they got up and ran after the bunnies and squirrels.

After a while, A and B noticed that the grasses changed colors and were replaced with other grasses and other flowers and that when they picked the flowers, they didn’t grow back. They noticed that when they picked fruit from the trees, the fruit didn’t grow right back. They noticed that the beasts who roared stopped other creatures from moving and tore them apart and that the smaller creatures kept away from the roarers. Some of the larger creatures were none too thrilled with the roarers either, so a lot of creatures moved away from them and lived in trees. A and B moved along with them. After they ate all the low-hanging fruit, they climbed trees to get the other fruit. After they ate those, they started to look at the bunnies and squirrels sort of like they saw the roarers looking at the bunnies and squirrels. They caught a few and tore them apart but then the bunnies and squirrels got smart and stayed away. And then the streams dried up, so A and B had to start walking. Their hips hurt. Their feet hurt. Their lower backs hurt. And they learned to feel pain, which led them to cry. Then they learned to say mean things to each other, which made one or both of them cry more.

Then one day, B got fatter and fatter and eventually a new creature popped out. B took care of the little creature until it grew. A wandered around playing with animals and flowers and leaving B to do all the work of raising the creature, which was as hairless as they were. And they kept walking until they found a place to call “home,” which was not much like their old place and had less fruit and the creatures stayed away. But it was home and they raised their creature and then another.

There was only one thing they had forgotten. They left the books at the place where Theit made them and had no idea how to get back there.

It took a long time for them to figure anything out. They remembered Theit fondly now and made up some stories, almost none of which were true. And they left out the bits about the fluorescent tapir and the enormous paramecium. They had a difficult time believing those themselves. So who would believe them?

Featured image

Paramecium caudatum

I Was Nominated (and Accept)

Confabler nominated me for a Sunshine Blogger Award!

My distant, yet close friend Confabler has nominated me for the Shiny Shiny Sunshine Award. I love her imagination and sense of whimsy; she lets her muse du jour lead and she follows. There’s a wonderful freedom to that which is (1) difficult to allow in the rational process of “writing” and (2) enjoyable to find.

1. If you were to choose an insect that would take over the world after human extinction, who would that be?

It sort of depends on our route to extinction. If it involved an epidemic, the population of flies might see a giant uptick. This would be a good one:

Gauromydas heros

If it is a slow process, then I nominate the Japanese Rhinoceros beetle because it would be awesome if creatures  with such improbably fashioned protuberances were to be the alpha species (Megasoma and Titan beetles would be acceptable alternatives):

Allomyrina dichotoma

 If our extinction took all other terrestrial life along for the ride, I would like to see this enormous isopod (a relative of our terrestrial roly-polies) rule the seas (note inclusion of actual human hands for sense of scale):

The underside of a male Bathynomus giganteus, a species of giant isopod captured in the Gulf of Mexico in October 2002.

2. How old were you when you first read Harry Potter? And your favorite author of course?

I was pretty old when I read my only Harry Potter book (the first one). I didn’t enjoy it enough to complete the series, although I’ve seen all the films and enjoyed them well enough. In the period I read that first one, I was typically reading a lot of history and didn’t find that it was a good use of my time. When I was really young, I read the Classics Illustrated versions of novels, which were quite good at introducing a curious young mind to the wonders of literature without having to do the work (sort of illustrated CliffsNotes (I didn’t use these in school though), if you will). When I was a little older, I read Robert E. Howard, Sax Rohmer, John Carter of Mars, H. Rider Haggard, Stanley Weinbaum, George McDonald fantasies, etc.

My favorite author is Gabriel Garcia Marquez for One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. His writing is so rich, amusing, full of simple wisdom and abundant humanity it is hard to believe he was just a human being writing about the lives he saw playing out around him. I literally would read some passages and have to put the book down as if I had just sipped the richest chocolate elixir in the world and needed to savor it until I sipped again. His Spanish-to-English translators did a good job in getting it right; Gregory Rabassa (OHYoS translator) was even praised by Garcia Marques himself!

3. If you were invisible what is the craziest thing that you would do?

Here’s an odd one: Go and hang around bigots, transcribe their conversations, and publish them for the world to see how terrible people speak when they think no one is listening (but, oh yeah, we have the internet so this already happens). If I could walk through things, which seems fair since I’m invisible, I would go around seeing what it felt like to do that—see if there were different textures to different things on the inside than on their surface.

4.what food makes you feel like a hungry hyena?

This has changed so much over time! These days, I don’t get this kind of urge anymore. In my early adult (late teen?) years… ICE CREAM!!!!

5. A song that makes you dream?

Gymnopedie #1 by Erik Satie

6. Have you ever planted a tree?

Yes. Unasked but answered: quite a few!

7. Choose your man: superman/ Spiderman/ iron man and if he was your best friend one thing that you would make him do?

Can I choose Supergirl? If I can, I would have her take me around to various places in the world, build shelters so I could stay there and visit free, then whisk me off to the next place on “our” list (she would be enjoying the sight-seeing with me, of course! What kind of boor do you think I am?!?!).

8.How much time do you spend in front of the mirror everyday?

As little as possible, which involves shaving and brushing my teeth. I find that shaving my teeth first helps with the brushing.

9.why you started blogging and tell us about the post enjoyed the most making.

I was having a bunch of conversations with people who did not seem to understand the wonderful humility of learning and doing science and wanted to see how well I could write about how science is a discipline that can assist us all in not leaning out too far over our skis (getting ahead of ourselves and pretending we know stuff we don’t). Blogging has become so much more than that since my first post on June 22, 2016, and I have had so much fun writing fiction and revisiting some poetry I wrote several decades ago (and finding them easier to “fix” than I remembered).

I’m not sure which of my posts I enjoyed the most. They’re all my children so I like them all? I probably like the odd bits of fiction that I had no idea were inside me when I woke up and then found them on the page looking up at me. I like The Big Day of these. Of the science posts, I like The Mess: Parts 1 & 2 and the Appendix 1 items best (maybe). Of the historical pieces, I like Risk Management. Of the life pieces, I like Building Blocks the best. Anyone who reads this is encouraged to make up their own mind; I am hopelessly biased.

10. Which social media platform are you addicted to (including WordPress)?

I don’t do much social media except WordPress. I don’t like Facebook at all and deleted my account. WordPress is addicting but in a very healthy way! You get to create something and share it with new friends from all over the world. That’s a great addiction have.

Now the rules:

1.thank the person that nominated you.

Thank you, Confabler. You are a true virtual friend, and I don’t mean that in any Pokemon way either!

2. Answer the questions from your nominator.


3. Nominate fellow bloggers you follow.

Hereinafter lie the following nominees in no particular order (order, of course, being an illusion):

Confabler – it would be completely wrong not to boomerang this thing back at her; how could I like what she writes and like that she nominated me but ignore why we share interests at all?

November_child –  in her poetry, every word is judiciously considered for its various meanings and the images they stir and she makes great short stories that are deep and playful and serious all at the same time

anonymouslyautistic – for doing an AMAZING job of writing about this misunderstood spectrum of living – and for inviting others who share her interest to contribute

English Lit Geek – because she searches the web and her library for poems that communicate her inner soul to us all out here in the ‘sphere and I appreciate this!

Wiser Daily – because this guy writes REALLY well about every single subject he wraps his mind around, because he is not a scientist but writes extremely clearly about science, because he is just a damned good writer!

Breathmath – because they are doing an astonishingly serious job of trying to get the world to see the beauty in mathematics

Sheryl – because she’s written a book, is working on others, has great tips for doing the same, and kindly visits my offerings fairly often

The Nexus – because he writes REALLY well about physics and does a great job of doing what I set out to do, whether I’m doing it on any given day or not

The Biology Yak – because she is passionate about biology and shares her passion in every word on every topic she chooses

afternoonifiedlady – even though I have no idea what it is to be an afternoonifiedlady, I love her rants about living with and without her ex and trying to wrestle with notions of romance – she is very witty and amusingly pissed off!

Yaskhan – for her lovely, succinct way with words

urbanagscientist – because she is at least as worried about the misunderstanding of science as I am

Luke Atkins – because he writes really well about difficult subjects and he writes like the stuff matters a lot, which it absolutely does!

And there are more in my list of 119 writers that I am following but this is enough for now.

4. Give them 10 questions to answer.

If you wish (and I clearly cannot impose this on any of you, please respond to confabler’s funny questions. I enjoyed them, maybe you will too!

Kind regards, MSOC

It was Generous of confabler to choose me. Now I have to Jump off and do other stuff!

3 Days, 3 Quotes #3

All of us writing blogs and reading the blogs of others on this site, not to mention reading magazines and books and other websites and subtitles and road signs and even obnoxious billboards, might have forgotten a time when we could not read and write.

All of us writing blogs and reading the blogs of others on this site, not to mention reading magazines and books and other websites and subtitles and road signs and even obnoxious billboards, might have forgotten a time when we could not read and write. In honor and respect of the joy we all obtain from reading and writing, my third quote, goaded forth from me by Julie, is:

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” – Frederick Douglass (1818 – 1895)
In October 2015 the Pew Research Center summarized its recent data on American reading habits – not the same as literacy, but important nonetheless. If found that 72% of Americans reported reading a book (in any format) in the past year. The average American reads 12 books a year, but there is a “gender gap.” The average American woman reads 14 books, while the American man reads 9. College graduates averaged 17 books/year, while people who didn’t graduate high school read 3. In households that made above $75k, the average reader knocked out 15 books/year, while households making less than $30k read 7 books/year. The link posted below the following video breaks the data down further. Give it a read….

I had hoped to report on global literacy rates but found that the available data are under-reported, reported sporadically, or not reported by many governments. Data from 2010 – the year in which the most data was reported recently for the largest number of countries, literacy rates ranged from 25.1% (Guinea) to 99.8% (Azerbaijan). The average literacy rate for all of us is about 86%, with males at 90% and females at 83%, but again, these data are incomplete; it is, therefore, an unknown what the actual average may be.

Interpreting the data may lead to an inappropriate conclusion as well. If one of us were to get a 90% or 86% or 83% on a really difficult exam we might feel relieved but people who cannot read – and who knows how many that really is – learn by oral tradition and probably will not attend school and take exams and become competitive in the world of technologies and international negotiations. They may have a full life still but don’t we all have a secret wish that everyone could read and write? It may not be obvious but literacy affects health; if a patient cannot read materials provided by a physician or read the label on a prescription, the effort to regain health may be for naught.

In an earlier post today I noted that those of us who can help should consider doing so. Improving literacy is a worthy area to help this big old planet out. What if the whole world blogged with us?

Literary Facts Infographic (UNESCO)

UNESCO Literacy Program

UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report