The last couple of weekends, we collected our little pencils and little notebooks and put on our little glasses and backpacks and set forth to the Chicago Humanities Festival, where this year’s theme was “Animal: What Makes Us Human,” in hopes of bettering ourselves through education. Here are some things we learned.
“A thousand robots are better than one,”
said Rice University computer science professor James McLurkin in “Invasion of the Robot Ants,” while his five-inch-tall “SwarmBots” whizzed around the stage like a colony of ants—which is exactly what they’re supposed to do. The principles of swarm robotics, which McLurkin studies, are based on the behavior of swarm animals—ants, bees, termites, cockroaches—and the way they share information.
When you look at how honeybees as a hive search for, collect, and distribute nectar, McLurkin explained, “It’s a flowchart! A program. It’s bee-ware!” None of the individuals are performing complex functions, but by broadcasting their observations and actions to the entire hive, they become a sophisticated problem-solving entity. Similarly, the SwarmBots use infrared light to communicate their actions and geographical position with their brother bots, allowing them to move in formation and distribute work among themselves. Although McLurkin is still patiently working out the bugs (get it?) of the SwarmBots (“You have to be very zen in the field of robotics”), he’s developing them to be ideal for tasks that are too dangerous or laborious for humans—like searching for survivors in the aftermath of a natural disaster, tracking forest fires, and mapping the topography of Mars. —Janet Potter
Race in America has to be learned—not just by native-born children, but by adult immigrants, too. In particular, a person who comes to the United States from Nigeria—already “black” by American standards—has to learn their own race. In Nigeria there is ethnicity, but not race. When Americanah author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came from Nigeria to attend college in the U.S., she said, she discovered four American tribalisms: class, political ideology, regional affiliation (north/south), and race. Certain moments were as instructive as they were surprising: One professor was visibly taken aback that she, a black woman, had the best essay in his class. An African-American man, a stranger, addressed her casually as “sister.” She quickly understood that she was supposed to understand the meanings of these subtle moments, even as they’re conditioned by a specifically American history. What Adichie finds most interesting now is the discomfort and “coded language” Americans use to talk about race — and our confused, fraught, offending, and offended feelings around it. Can we Americans have an honest conversation about race? Only if we’re willing to be uncomfortable, Adichie said, and to acknowledge our privileges—such as her privilege as outsider: “I can say more. The history is not mine—there’s not as much at stake in potential discomfort.” —Connie Vaughn
“Historians need pigs,”
said Peter Mancall, a professor of history and anthropology at the University of South California, at the beginning of a talk entitled, appropriately enough, “Pigs for Historians.” Apparently there are other animals historians need just as badly—Mancall returned to the porcine question only in the Q&A, and only under pressure from the audience. Otherwise he offered a wide-ranging introduction to the ways in which European colonists conceived of the animal kingdom in the early days of the American venture, carrying with them a strong desire to list, catalog, and describe the creatures of the known world. And beyond, as when the natural historian Edward Topsell extolled the “the medicinal properties of the ground-up horn” of the unicorn. In the early 17th century Topsell wrote a book about “four-footed beasts,” and then one about serpents; he was brought up short in his subsequent alphabetical catalog of the avian world, because so many birds begin with the letter “C,” which he never got past. You could say he was cock blocked.
Europeans in the Americas were awfully fond of beaver, whose stock they’d exhausted in the Old World, and they also found utility in pigs, who are impressively self-sufficient: Mancall said colonists would leave a couple swine on an uninhabited island, come back a few months later when they’d bred, and harvest what they needed. There’s still a spot in the Bahamas where a passel of pigs, left there who knows when, live all alone, swimming happily in the blue island waters. It sounds like the best place on earth. —Sam Worley
The beauty of fairy tales is that their meanings evolve along with us,
said Maria Tatar, chair of the Program in Folklore and Mythology at Harvard, in “The Big Bad Wolf Reconsidered.” “The fairy tale gives us this minimalist style—it doesn’t fill in the blanks for us.” We’re not told what the characters are thinking, and that allows us to speculate. “We can continue to dig deep again and again.”
In recent cultural depictions, Tatar said, Little Red Riding Hood has evolved from a preyed-upon innocent to a predator herself. She cited the 2005 movie Hard Candy, in which a 14-year-old girl tortures a man suspected of sexually assaulting other children. Earlier Little Red Riding Hoods learned that if they wanted to be safe, they needed to be polite and obedient, and not wander off the path—as opposed to, say, slaughtering potential offenders. Now there’s “a new culture of warrior women” who are “as ruthless as the predators once were,” Tatar said. This role reversal has been criticized by some as faux feminism. Tatar herself thinks the brutal new Little Red Riding Hood may be an overcorrection, and she hopes a less martial one will result from further evolution. —Steve Bogira
Donna Tartt writes with “the worst pen [she] can find,”
in cheap, spiral-bound composition notebooks. The best-selling novelist was at the festival to talk about her new novel, The Goldfinch, and said her frugal writing habit helps her to remember that her work can all be revised, repurposed, or thrown away. Sometimes she’s given beautiful leather-bound journals as gifts, and she’s “afraid to touch them.”
After the critical and popular success of Tartt’s debut, 1992’s The Secret History, her devoted fans waited ten years for The Little Friend and another 11 for The Goldfinch, giving the famously exacting writer time to throw out plenty of those notebooks. She said she was “three or four years in” the writing of The Goldfinch and wasn’t happy with it when she made a trip to Las Vegas (“a city I had never intended to visit”). An exhibit of French impressionists at the Bellagio unexpectedly gave her the solution to her manuscript’s problems, as well as a new settings (about a quarter of the book takes place in Vegas). It’s always “the thing that comes up quietly by the back door” that’s worth waiting for, Tartt said. —Janet Potter
Crows have two sounds,
a “caw” that signals danger and a “haw” that means only meat. In a lyric, fantastical piece she read from her notebook, the genre-bending poet Anne Carson told the story of a man who strikes up a friendship with a talking crow named Short Pants. After Short Pants’s mate, Fury, is shot to death, the human-bird relationship falls apart. If this wide-ranging story can be said to be about one thing, it may be the subject of how we human animals feel grief and loneliness. “We want to believe that other creatures grieve like we do,” said Carson. In suggesting we project our experience onto our avian friends and other animals, Carson also raised a question, without seeming pedantic or abstract, about whether we project certain ideas of what we’re going through onto our own experience. Might not grieving contain a large dose of humor that we’re not supposed to talk about? A serious poet with a silly story about serious questions gives us a glimpse into how we do, and don’t, know ourselves. —Connie Vaughn
A napkin on your lap is great for passing secret messages,
and also an excellent way to keep your clothes from getting stained. Lemony Snicket himself was not present to share that bit of wisdom, having been caught up in a suspicious investigation that eventually landed him in the hospital, but his very handsome colleague Daniel Handler was on hand to pass along Mr. Snicket’s regrets and narrate the slide show he left behind. Snicket had intended to instruct his audience in how to conduct suspicious investigations and show how these investigations can be hindered by asking the wrong questions. After warning the audience to look out for suspicious people wearing suspicious clothing, Handler began reading from Snicket’s latest book, All the Wrong Questions, the story of how he launched his own career in suspicious investigations at the tender age of 13, when a mysterious woman slipped a note under the napkin on his lap while he was dining in a restaurant with his parents. After instructing the audience in the proper way to read secret notes (you emphasize certain crucial words and insert dramatic
pauses), Handler announced his intention to read the entire book, but ran screaming from the room after page five. —Aimee Levitt
Neanderthals were a lot smarter than we’ve given them credit for,
and more like us, too. And the correct way to pronounce “Neanderthal” is “Neander-TALL”; saying it the other way makes you sound like an anthropological, well, you know. The popular perception of the Neanderthal as a hunched-over, hairy, voiceless creature was based on the skeleton of a 45-year-old specimen collected 100 years ago, said anthropologist John Hawks in “Are We the Last Neanderthals?” But of course he would be hunched over: he had already outlived the average Neanderthal by 15 years. More recent analysis of Neanderthal skeletons and artifacts has shown that Neanderthals had vocal cords, cooked their food (probably in leaves and animal intestines, since they lacked pots), performed surgery on one another (most obviously amputations), buried their dead, dressed up in feathers and shells held together with string, and traded over long distances. “They were acting fundamentally like humans,” Hawks said. Especially interesting: Thanks to early intermingling, most modern humans share about 3 percent of their DNA with Neanderthals. (This figure is greater in people from Asian, less so in people from sub-Saharan Africa.) That’s about the same amount of DNA you have in common with one of your great-great-great grandparents. —Aimee Levitt
A young female publishing executive quietly revolutioned comics.
In 1976, at the age of 28, Jenette Kahn became publisher of DC Comics, where she’d go on to serve as president and editor in chief in her 26 years there. A Harvard graduate in art history, Kahn worked to elevate comics from a “disposable, ephemeral” medium to an art form. Noticing that the comics industry was more evolved in the UK than in America, she took trips to recruit now legendary talent like Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and David McKean. Part of bringing these artists on board involved overthrowing the industry’s “draconian” copyright system, which prevented artists from receiving royalties. Kahn argued that the best writers and artists must have had “wonderful ideas in the drawer they were never going to show us” if they weren’t supported.
These ideas included Frank Miller’s Ronin, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Gaiman’s revival of Sandman, which ushered in a new era of comics that moved away from “upright, macho” heroes and explored darker themes. “We’re not in the superhero business, or the funny-animal business, we’re in the business of telling stories with pictures and words,” Kahn said. Although her dedication to creators’ rights and high-quality storytelling landed her in the “corporate doghouse” more than once (such as when DC killed Superman), she said, “When I needed to get away, I could always go to the ladies’ room.” —Janet Potter
The original Bambi was a Zionist allegory
and a warning to Jews about the dangers of assimilation, said Paul Reitter, a professor of German at Ohio State University, in “Bambi’s Jewish Roots.” Felix Salten, who lived his entire life prior to World War II in Vienna, published Bambi, A Life in the Woods in 1923. A journalist, novelist, and pornographer, Salten was also a committed Zionist, though he didn’t believe all Jews should necessarily immigrate to Palestine; he didn’t think he personally could live far from Austria’s climate and its forests, where he was an ardent—but compassionate!—hunter, primarily of deer. Instead, Salten wrote and lectured about the importance of maintaining a Jewish self-identity, particularly in the midst of a hostile and anti-Semitic society. (Ironically, he’d changed his name from the more Semitic-sounding Siegmund Salzmann.) The deer in Bambi, like the Jews, spend a lot of time commemorating their history of persecution at the hands of humans. Bambi’s father, the Royal Leader, teaches him that he should never allow his oppressors to make him feel inferior. Bambi’s weak cousin, Gobo, by contrast, is captured and tamed by humans, who give him a collar to wear. When Gobo returns to the deer, he tells them how kind the humans were to him and how the collar will protect him from hunters. The next time he meets a hunting party, he’s shot and killed. —Aimee Levitt