Top Dogs and Cat Poop
Hello there :)
Happy new year! How are you? I’ve missed writing to you my loves.
Welcome to issue fifty five of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected things I’ve recently encountered.
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Part I: Things I’ve Encountered Online
New year, new parasite; and this one’s a doozy:
Is the urge to start a company caused by a brain parasite?
“In Yellowstone National Park, a lone wolf usually ends up dead. Gray wolves typically live and hunt in packs, but sometimes a pack member leaves its family group. Other wolves, protecting their own pack's territory, will kill the loner. One kick from an elk or a bison can be deadly. And then there are more prosaic threats, like getting hit by a car. So why would any wolf take the risk of striking out on its own?
The traditional answer: ambition. "Not a lot of wolves survive the process," says Kira Cassidy, a field biologist with the Yellowstone Wolf Project, which reintroduced wolves to the park in 1995. "But if you do, you have a good chance of starting your own pack." These are the top dogs, the theory goes, who slough off the strictures of bourgeoisie wolf society to make a name for themselves.
But what inspires a particular wolf to get up off its hindquarters and leave its pack behind? What is motivating them? Cassidy and her colleagues had a hypothesis: Maybe a parasitic infection was egging them along. Specifically, a microorganism called Toxoplasma gondii.”
Toxo-what now? I’m so glad you asked:
“Toxo, as it's colloquially known, has a baroque life cycle. It reproduces in cat species (like the cougars in Yellowstone) but then leaps to other hosts, from rats and hyenas to people and wolves. And once it takes up residence in a new animal, Toxo is linked to all sorts of weird behavior — much of it spurred by a strangely elevated appetite for risk. Cassidy's team looked at blood samples taken from 229 captured gray wolves and compared them with the way the wolves fared in the wild. The results, published last month in the journal Communications Biology, were striking. Wolves that left their packs were twice as likely to be positive for Toxoplasma. And Toxo-positive wolves were 46 times as likely as uninfected wolves to become pack leaders.”
Turns out, some researchers believe Toxo might act in a similar way in humans:
“If Toxo turns wolves into risk-takers, could it be having the same effect on us? It's primarily contracted from coming into contact with cat feces, contaminated water, or undercooked meat, and as many as 80% of humans may be Toxo-positive, most of them without even knowing it. And there's sketchy but tantalizing evidence that Toxoplasma alters our behavior, too — especially entrepreneurial behavior.
Which is to say, many members of our species who exhibit "alpha dog" tendencies in the business realm may be Toxo-positive. Feel like starting your own company? The Yellowstone wolf data hints that it's just the side effect of a protozoan inhabiting our brains in a failed attempt to make more protozoa. Maybe that business you admire wasn't founded by the Great and Powerful Oz, a heroic leader of epic proportions, but by the parasite behind the curtain.”
At this point, journalist Adam Rogers is at pains to point out that wannabe Elon Musk bros almost certainly should not start throwing cat-poop eating Toxo parties because of the health risks. I hope the bros don’t read that bit of article — go ahead and eat all the cat poop you want bros, you deserve it.
There are a bunch of studies which suggest being toxo-positive correlates with entrepreneurial behaviour:
Students positive for Toxo are significantly more likely to major in business, with a particular interest in entrepreneurship.
From sampling the saliva of attendees at entrepreneurship events, they found that Toxo-positive people were more likely to have started their own businesses.
Looking at national entrepreneurship data, countries with more business-starting action also have higher levels of Toxoplasma overall.
It affects women too — Lerner and Johnson's team paired data on all the new businesses in Denmark started by women from 2005 to 2014 with data on Danish women's Toxoplasma status. They found that women who were positive for the parasite were almost 30% more likely to start a business.
But wait — does the parasite cause this behaviour?
“[…] other factors could explain all those Toxo-infected entrepreneurs. Maybe the businesspeople infected with Toxo were already daredevils. In fact, that could be how they got infected in the first place, if they were more likely to travel the world and get exposed to contaminated water, or more likely to lick a cat's butt. Maybe their capacity for risk-taking is the cause, not the effect.
However Toxoplasma works, it can't make someone do anything they didn't have the capacity for. It's possible that Toxo just intensifies a person's baseline appetite for risk, sort of like turning up the volume on a song that's already playing. That's how Ajai Vyas views the studies that have been done in animals. "Probably there's a continuum of the behavior," he says, "and the parasite shifts it toward impulsivity and risk-taking."
Johnson and Lerner don't disagree. In the subjects they studied, Lerner says, the parasite seemed to be "reducing fear of failure."
Correlation is not causation, friends! I’d strongly recommend reading the whole article not least because it’s fascinating to think about how much of our behaviour might not actually be under our own control:
“It's common for germy things to affect behavior. There's a fungus that makes ants climb up to a high vantage point and then explodes out of them, to spread more widely. A species of worm makes grasshoppers jump into swimming pools in search of water. The microbes in the human gut can apparently affect our mood. And if Toxo alters behavior in humans, maybe we're full of other microorganisms that are doing the same thing.
Which is a wild thought. Sum up all those effects and pretty soon you start to wonder: How much of what you do is you, and how much of what you do is them? If behaviors as complex as entrepreneurship can be spurred by a tiny parasite with, presumably, no interest in PNL, maybe all sorts of human activities are really just accidental, or incidental to microbial reproductive tides.”
Moar serendipitous finds:
IT’S A NEW YEAR, AND I’M NOT READY
It feels appropriate to reshare last year’s love letter to myself and everyone else who feels tyrannised by the Gregorian calendar: remember friends, the “new year” can begin whenever the hell you choose.
The Strangely Beautiful Experience of Google Reviews
Last year I mentioned coming across a Google Maps review of the monument at Avebury which read: “Great place, good atmosphere, cold drinks, chilled out pre-club vibe”; so I was delighted to read this article by Will McCarthy about the glimpses of humanity which can be found in this unlikely corner of the internet.
Why the super rich are inevitable
This is a brilliantly accessible piece of data journalism from the Pudding which explains how our economy is designed to create just a few super rich people and a whole lot of poor people. Mind = blown.
Gabrielle Bellot: On Jellyfish and the Fear of Touch
“Can you want and not want the same thing, all at once?”
Urban Tetris by Mariyan Atanasov
In this series of images by by Mariyan Atanasov, the urban architecture of Sofia, Bulgaria becomes an oversized Tetris game:
And finally, it’s extremely early to be calling headline of the year, but I suspect this might be a strong contender: UK Town Cancels New Year Fireworks For Walrus, Only For It To Masturbate And Leave
Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now
I’ve read a bunch of books since I last wrote to you, here are the ones I’d strongly recommend getting your mitts on:
Go On by Tania Hershman, Hershman explores what it’s like to be a woman moving happily on her own through the world via a variety of narrative threads — a woman walks through a graveyard talking to the dead; school girls grapple with what anger is and what it might be; a group of scientists leave a baby in the forest; and “fake mothers” can be hired for £50 per hour. It’s absolutely delicious, and I think it’s the first time I’ve ever read a novel about a woman like me.
Fruiting Bodies by Kathryn Harlan, an anthropologist gambles in a magical world; mushrooms spontaneously grow from a woman’s body; a girl and her father travel the US searching for a mythical beast — this is a gorgeously eerie collection of short stories about people on the precipice of change.
An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schlansky (translated by Jackie Smith), in each chapter Schlansky follows a different literary convention in order to consider something which is irretrievably lost to the world — from the island of Tuanaki, to Sappho’s poems.
Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland, here Maitland journeys through Britain’s forests in order to uncover the cultural links between our woodlands and our fairytales.
Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching
Here’s some telly I’ve watched recently and would recommend:
Wendell & Wild (Netflix) - this glorious stop-motion animation about an orphan named Kat who tangoes with otherworldly ghouls, fiendish adults, and the prison industrial complex, is a collaboration between Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline), and Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us, Nope).
White Noise (Netflix) - Noah Baumbach’s adaption of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel definitely won’t be for everyone, but I loved it.
Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street (Netflix) - this four-part documentary is arguably over-long, but benefits from remarkable access, and unlike many documentaries of this ilk, does give the victims a voice.
Bonus! I’ve absolutely loved listening to the Lolita Podcast by Jamie Loftus. The Nabokov literary classic has sparked infinite discussion in the 65 years since its release, but the cultural memory the book has left behind lives more in romance and fashion aesthetics than a cautionary tale about a deceptive predator and his young prey. Loftus wants to know how we got here, and in this series traces Lolita — the person, Dolores Haze — from her literary origin to her current status as a doomed icon.
Part IV: What I’ve been up to…
My festive season was lovely. I got to spend time with friends and family, I read a stack of books, plus I stuck to my resolution of last year: and chose not to worry about making grand plans for the new year — I’m ignoring the calendar — 2023 starts whenever I’m ready :)
Over the past two weeks I’ve been doing pre-scoring for the European Content Awards, plus thinking a bit about what I want 2023 to look like. To help me figure some of this stuff out I’ve signed up to:
The art of imperfect action - a masterclass from Oliver Burkeman (author of 4,000 Weeks) on 14th and 15th January.
How to enter 2023 a bit less generally f*cking terrified - a webinar which my friend Kirsty Hulse is running on 18th January.
Planning to make plans, writing my 100 Good Things post for 2022, having a bash at the macramé kit I got for Christmas.
That’s all from me for now :)
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