Saturday, September 16, 2006

Professor Yin Says "No" to Bug Burgers

Although this post may not persuade you, my colleague Tung Yin is one of the brightest, most widely informed, and productive academics it's ever been my pleasure to know.

The popularity of his blog, The Yin Blog, is understandable, given his insightful reviews of everything from court opinions to pop culture.

Since his office is just across the hall from mine he often stops in to challenge me with some proposition or other. So when he stopped in the other day I assumed it was going to be to try to persuade me that, say, TIFs are a really good thing.

You can understand my surprise when the "issue" he presented for our deliberation involved a choice between a "rat burger" and an "insect burger."

Here's his blog entry, in its entirety, on September 5, 2006:

Random question of the day

This question actually came up in a conversation I had with a colleague (I asked the question):

If you had to choose one or the other, would you rather eat a ratburger or an insectburger?

Surprisingly, that colleague and another one that I polled had trouble deciding. Maybe it's just me, but I'd think it's a really easy choice -- rats are still mammals, not too different from rabbits (which I've eaten once before), whereas insects are bugs (ick!).


Now there are, of course, many ways of approaching this question. Perhaps the answer, as in the movie "War Games," is "The only winning move is not to play the game."

If you are willing to play the game you might want to know if you will be able to assure yourself that the rat is not diseased, that the insects are not poisonous, and in either case how, and how long, they will be cooked. If the reason for your choice is your near starvation, with no other options, you might want to know something of the comparative nutritional value of both.

But this is not what Professor Yin says is (presumably) decisive for him. He would choose the rat burger because (among other reasons) "insects are bugs (ick!)."

A week ago, in New York, I was speaking on the subject of "General Semantics, Terrorism and War," September 8, 2006. Now I wouldn't urge any relevance of what I had to say about terrorism and war to "The Yin Dilemma." But I do think that general semantics has a significant contribution to make. (Some basics of general semantics are illustrated in that speech text and described in the footnotes.)

Growing out of World War II, Hitler's use of propaganda to alter behavior, and the necessity of eliminating "communication failures" with regard to the prospect of an all-out atomic World War III, general semantics offers a number of tools to help us become a little more reflective about the ways in which our language structure can "do our thinking for us." As one general semanticist put it, "humankind is no more conscious of the language through which it swims than a fish is conscious of the waters of the sea." As another said, "humans are the only species able to talk themselves into difficulties that would not otherwise exist."

It's as impossible to "summarize" general semantics' principles, tools and literature in a blog entry as it would be to summarize the law of contracts.

But the tools applicable to Professor Yin's "insects are bugs (ick!)" are captured in the general semanticists' phrases, "the word is not the thing," and "the map is not the territory."

There are "levels of abstraction" to our language from, in this case, the name you give your pet ant, Andy, the category of "ants," then the more inclusive "insects" (or "bugs"), followed by "animals," and perhaps "living things." Going "down" the abstraction ladder from Andy, we could describe his appearance, and -- if the unthinkable were to occur, and an autopsy were necessary -- perhaps his molecular and atomic structure.

This awareness is useful, if not essential, in dealing with children's (or adults') "food dislikes."

My father, who was one of the early general semanticists, while a sensitive and kindly man, was insistent his children at least taste everything on their plates. "'Asparagus' is just a word," he might have said. "What is it about that word you don't like?" Then he would ask, "Have you tasted what is on your plate? If not, how can you know you don't like the taste of this thing -- as distinguished from the word?"

He died in 1965, so I can whisper to you very softly that neither a "rat burger" nor an "insect burger" sounds very tasty to me. But even today I wouldn't want to make such a significant decision on the basis of the words alone. So why don't you taste both for me and tell me what you think.

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Kyle Lobner said...

I think it's important to note that the taste of meat (at least in the animals I've tried) varies on a noticeable level based on what they ate when alive.

Case in point: My dad and most of his family (myself included) hunt deer. In central Wisconsin, where we typically hunt, deer generally live at least part of the time off of corn, both because there's a fair amount of corn farming going on and because people use it to bait them. At home in northern Wisconsin the deer are more frequently left to their own devices.

My point is this: the rabbits you've eaten (as well as the rabbits and squirrels I've eaten) fed most of their lives on foliage. The rat you're suggesting we eat has probably spent most of its life scavenging, eating things that are borderline rotten, and as a result would probably be significantly less delicious.

In spite of that, though, I'd eat the rat. It'd be significantly less crunchy.

Nick said...

K.L.: While you don't use the jargon of general semantics, you really make my point in ways I hadn't thought of.

General semanticists also note the differences between two things for which the same label has been applied as, for example in this instance, "Rat(1)" [a superscript] and "Rat(2)."

What you've pointed out is not only that (a) no two rats are identical because no two of anything are identical (if you're willing, if necessary, to get into the atomic level), but because (b) in this case the taste, nutrition, etc., will vary between Rat(1) and Rat(2) on the basis of what they've eaten.

This reality would give even more weight to my Dad's argument that (in this context) you can't accurately say "I don't like rat" until you've tasted this rat.

-- Nick

AllenFlagg said...

Thanks, I'll take the Bug Burger. I've eaten fried grasshoppers (taste like popcorn hulls), fried caterpillars, chocolate covered baby bees.
A friend and I ate a supper of smoked pig's brains, and later got sick, because it had gone bad. I ordered calve's brains at a fancy French restaurant a few days later, but my stomach refused it. It took me six months of eating larger and larger nibbles of calve's brains before I retrained my stomach to accept tasty brains.
In my G S courses I offered strange looking British breakfast food in a Dog Yummies box and Dog Yummies in the break-fast food box. They liked the Dog Yummies best, influenced by the box.
On 33rd and 14th Streets and on 10th Avenue are restaurants that have delicious goat meat stew. Join me for lunch? I'll bring the dessert !

Nick said...

For anyone reading these comments who is unfamiliar with Allen Flagg, he is one of the country's top general semanticists. So his input is very much appreciated.

But the "Dog Yummies" breakfast cereal story reminds me of my own story -- designed to make a point regarding corporate control of our nutrition, rather than anything about general semantics.

Back in the 1970s Adelle Davis wrote a series of books about nutrition, in the course of which she would refer to a number of ingredients (such as choline and inositol) that I had never seen mentioned on ingredient labels.

Just for the heck of it, I checked the ingredients in Purina Dog Chow and Pig Chow. Sure enough, mentioned there were every single one of the ingredients Davis said were essential for the mammals called humans -- but left out of our food.

In short, it was not that corporate America had no way of knowing what was essential for mammals; they were putting the essential ingredients in the other mammals' food. They were just failing to put them in our food -- perhaps as a cost saving measure.

In those days I was doing a lot of guest appearances on national and local TV shows. So one of my favorite gigs was to go on the set with a box of breakfast cereal and a box of pet food, point out the difference in the ingredients, and suggest we'd be better off if we ate Purina Chow (sometimes taking a bite of it -- to the groans of the audience).

Anonymous said...

Damn, Dawg! Ya'll got me straight trippin', Boo!