Cat stripes and folk tales

The New York Times published an article on September 7, 2021, entitled ‘How the Cat Gets Its Stripes: It’s Genetic, Not a Folk Tale’. The article, written by James Gorman, explains how a team of scientists found that a simple genetic mechanism, involving a protein that affects embryonic tissue and a gene that inhibits the protein, could produce a variety of patterns on cats’ coats.

Gorman begins his article by invoking the fact that “folklore is full of stories about the coat patterns of cats: How the tiger got its stripes. How the leopard got its spots. And scientists ask the same questions…”. Gorman subsequently segues into the broader questions of morphogenesis, the process by which different body parts develop their shapes, and doesn’t touch on folklore again for the rest of the article.

Why then does the headline pay so much attention folk tales? (By virtue of being included in the headline, the newspaper indicates that the reader is to expect that that is a big part of the story. Ideas or concepts that a reporter includes in throwaway fashion typically don’t find mention in headlines.) I found the headline to be jarring because it evoked, deliberately or otherwise, a habit among hardcore rationalists and anti-superstition activists to dismiss folktales and mythologies that underlie superstitious beliefs as not just unreal but also invalid.

Such dismissal often takes the form of cosmetic ridicule: wait for the next solar eclipse, tune into any Tamil news channel – or any local-language news channel – and look out for members of a local ‘rationalists’ group sitting outside and having a meal, to counter a common belief that eating during a solar eclipse is harmful. I find, based on how my extended family and their friends react to such images, that the ‘rationalists’ simply wish to prove that ‘they’re right and those who maintain such beliefs are wrong’ – or at least that’s how they’re perceived.

(Note: members of my extended family are entirely upper-caste, upper-class and have at least an undergraduate degree. I’m extrapolating their reactions to everyone else.)

This attitude would miss an important point that stems from the answer to the following question: why is beating back superstitious beliefs considered socially and morally desirable? Because it discourages the believers from accessing educational and health-related resources, which in turn harms society as a whole, and because, given the way democratic power has been structured by society and the state, superstition can disempower the believers.

However, this requires us to separate stories that we believe to be real from stories that we believe as stories, and not as history. And, to me at least, this distinction is useful because, unlike ‘rationalists’, we’re not trying to erase the stories (simply because the scientific method can’t validate them); we’re trying to say, ‘They’re important stories in your culture, but they didn’t actually happen’ – or even ‘They’re important stories in your culture, but science is another way to understand the world’. These are harder strategies to adopt vis-à-vis achieving certain outcomes, and require sustained, broad-based commitment from society as well as the government – but they’re less violent because they don’t intend to dismantle entire belief systems to allow science to take that place.

But sadly, pop rationalism – and pop scientism – is easy to practice, to the point where the agenda of ‘rationalists’, those on local TV news as much as white libertarians in the US, seems to be to replace one poorly understood but disempowering belief system with another poorly understood but disempowering belief system that works to their advantage. Importantly, we must acknowledge that science can disempower, too; to quote from an older post:

[Ambedkar’s and Periyar’s] ire was essentially directed against autocratic personal governance that expected obedience through faith. In India, unless you’re a scientist and/or have received a good education, and can read English well enough to access the popular and, if need be, the technical literature, science is also reduced to a system founded on received knowledge and ultimately faith. There is a hegemony of science as well. Beyond the mythos of its own cosmology … there is also the matter of who controls knowledge production and utilisation.

(Another related issue is that many, if not most, members of the scientific community consider the harbouring of pseudoscientific beliefs to be implicitly wrong and implicitly deserving of excision. Many of us ‘educated’ ones have also taken for granted the political context that science often needs – typically, through the state’s support and endorsement – for the statement ‘pseudoscience is bad’ to be true. Pseudoscience can be wrong, as ‘rationalists’ often offer to check and prove, but why is it so eminently bad? I can think of one context in which it is certainly irrelevant.)

Ultimately, the public project must be to empower those we believe to be disempowered by creating opportunities for them to participate on their terms – instead of attempting to assimilate them into the hive-mind, to the point where they shed their cultural values, traditions and histories and adopt the ways of science, the ‘one true master’. If I could, I’d change the headline of Gorman’s article to ‘How Do Cats Gets Their Stripes? Their Genes Have the Answer.’ or something like that.

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