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483 - The Great European Shouting Match
If Europe has one defining cultural characteristic, it is that it has none. This may sound like too neat a paradox, but it’s not that far from the truth. There is not a single state, language, religion or ethnicity that even comes close to dominating the continent as a whole - although at least one in each category at some point in history had the pretension to try (1). Europe's war-torn history demonstrates that such diversity is, well, divisive. The European Union was designed to supersede the continent's internecine past, and its continuing appeal (at least to those European countries still outside the EU) is the degree to which it has succeeded, inaugurating an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity (2).
But that does not imply that cultural diversity has been neutralised. The EU, lacking a unifying cultural paradigm similar to the US's 'melting pot', has ended up celebrating a rather bland version of multiculturalism. One example: the buildings on the euro notes are imaginary, in part to avoid fueling national chauvinisms, either of the slighted or boasting variety.
This lowest-common-denominator kind of multiculturalism might actually be the least bad solution. In the kaleidoscope of cultures that is Europe, no matter from where you look at it, you're always surrounded by 'the Other'. It takes but a few small steps thence to paranoia, xenophobia, and worse. I remember speaking to a European about the neighbouring ethnicity, literally living up the road. "Oh yes, but they're all racists," she said, apparently undefeated by her own logic.
Another solution to dealing with the potential divisiveness of diversity, and if done in good humour at least a lot funnier, is the great European Shouting Match. Let it all hang out! Air that mistrust! Calling each other names establishes three things:
(1) that nobody is exempt, neither from feeling superior to others nor from being looked down upon by others. At least in this, everybody is equal. In the Republic of Mockery, we are all both givers and takers.
(2) that familiarity breeds contempt. Most often, the deepest disdain is reserved for the closest neighbours, from whom distant strangers would have a hard time distinguishing us. Inversely, those distant and/or obscure members of the European family are damned with faint put-downs of the who-the-heck-are-they-variant.
(3) that the sum of these insults says equally much about the nationality doing the shouting, or at least the perception we have of them: Germans are materialistic and utilitarian, the French still dream of la gloire, the British cherish their splendid isolation, etc.
The last map in the order as they are shown here seems to have been created by in June 2009 Yanko Tsvetkov to accompany an editorial in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the others apparently are variations on that same theme by the Bulgarian-born, London-based designer of the first one. Some of these maps also recently featured in the Daily Mail, at which point they appear to have gone viral, as testified by the large number of readers sending them in (see below). Even though a grain of truth might be mixed in with some of the descriptions on the maps, this blog in no way endorses any of the sentiments they express (3).
Europe seen by the Germans
Quite insidiously, the colour toning of this map binds Germany to its linguistically related neighbours, i.e. Luxembourg, Switzerland and Austria. Since World War Two, any such hint at territorial ambitions beyond the borders of the Bundesrepublik is a definite nein-nein. The Swiss are labelled Schokolade ('chocolate'), the Austrians Schnitzelreich ('escalope empire'). Reducing other countries to their (perceived) national dish is a very ancient type of put-down (compare the age-old French moniker for the English: les rosbif). Another colour tone difference, this time in Germany itself, is between the former West and East Germanies, the former labelled Sparkasse ('savings bank'), the other called Proletariat. It reflects the fading, but still powerful division between the prosperous west and the poorer former German Democratic Republic in the east, which has been the beneficiary of billions of euros of government support after Unification in 1990.
Other examples of the culinary dismissive jibe include Belgium ('waffles'), Hungary ('goulash'), Poland ('vegetables'), Ireland ('whiskey') and Bulgaria ('schnapps'). Russia is simply seen as a gas vault, the Ukraine and Belarus as 'gas transit land'. A crude portrayal perhaps, but not far from the larger, geopolitical truth. Russia is the largest single supplier of natural gas to Europe. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder now sits on the board of Nord Stream, a company piping Russian gas into Europe.
Apart from eating and heating, Germans are also shown to be quite obsessed with Freizeit ('holiday' marked across Slovenia and Croatia, 'cheap hotels here' in Greece and Spain, its islands transformed in 'Balearic Germany'). Italy's label 'pizza and museums' acknowledges that country's culinary and cultural attractions. The Czech republic and Slovakia are referred to merely by the names of their capital cities (Prague and Bratislava), perhaps to reflect their popularity as a citytrip destinations.
Most of former Yugoslavia is labelled 'uncharted', while Turkey is reduced to its role as 'workforce source' (there are about 4 million Turkish Gastarbeiter and their descendants living in Germany). Of all the other labels, two stick out: 'Enigma code breakers' (UK) and 'old neighbours' (the Baltics) - two oblique references to the Second World War, the former suggesting some residual resentment, the latter a form of nostalgia. The rather neutral depicition of France as Eiffelreich ('empire of [Gustave] Eiffel, he of the Eiffel Tower) on the other hand reflects the non-animosity between France and Germany that has become the cornerstone of European good neighbourliness and integration.
Europe seen by the Italians
The Italian view of the European continent is alternately ignorant and harsh, with Eastern Europe dismissed as dominated by 'porn stars' (Hungary; no doubt a reference to La Cicciolina), 'thieves' (Romania), 'babysitters' (Bulgaria), 'women with braided hair' (Ukraine) and 'Other Slavs' (Slovakia). Other latin countries are merely seen as extensions of Italy (France is the 'Bruni Empire', Spain is full of 'Italian dialects') or of other countries (Portugal is 'Brazil'). The British Islands are reduced to popular sports ('Rugby' for Ireland and 'Wembley Stadium', the home of soccer, for the UK). Switzerland is the land of '(cuckoo) clocks', while the Germans pay for their reputation as hard workers with the put-down 'clock addicts'. Poland still is the land of Karol Woytila, the previous Pope, while Russia, again, is nothing more but a source of natural gas. Turkey is the land not of guest workers but of belly dancers.
Just like Germany, Italy itself is also split in two, also reflecting a dichotomy between a richer half (in this case the north) and a poorer half (the south, labelled 'Ethiopia' - Sicily is even called 'Somalia').
Europe seen by the Bulgarians
From a Bulgarian perspective, Russia is not the land of natural gas, but of natural alliances (i.e. 'Big Brother'). Reflecting some theories on the origin and migrations of the Bulgarian people, Ukraine is named their 'Urheimat'. The Serbs next door have earned a reputation as 'loose cannon', while Albania is (expressly?) mislabeled 'Kosovo', and Montenegro 'South Serbia'. Macedonia is called 'Greek Slavs', while the Greeks are 'dish breakers'. Germany and France are reduced to some of their best-known export products (cars and cheese), while Belgium is seen as the home of the EU, a generous provider of subsidies (hence 'God'). Poland, bizarrely, is the land of 'sexy fembots'.
Europe as seen by the French
France is portrayed as still recovering from its early 19th-century ambitions of dominating the continent. Hence the labelling of both Belgium and Switzerland as 'semi-France', Russia as 'Napoleon's dream', Austria as 'old archenemy' and Portugal als 'English allies'. Other countries are labelled to reflect possible alliances, i.e. Ireland ('catholics'), Romania and Moldova ('poor brothers' and 'poor cousins'). The faintest praise is reserved for the Germans ('best friends' - one can almost hear teeth gnash), while Algeria is still seen with nostalgia: 'France woz here'. Reflecting a political attitude not shared by some other major European powers, France sees Turkey as 'definitely not Europeans'. Hungary for once is not seen as a country of pornstars, but as 'Sarko's land', the ancestral country of France's president Nicolas Sarkozy.
Europe as seen by gays
A hilariously different perspective is offered by this map of Europe as seen by the gay community. Sweden for once isn't the land of Volvo, but of trashy dance music (does that include Abba, though?) Catholic Ireland is 'in denial', while Catholic Poland is the 'Bible Belt'. Slovakia and Hungary respectively are the source of 'military porn' and 'non-military porn' (what is it with those Hungarians? Or those Slovakians, for that matter). Not all is well in the 'Federated Holiday States of the Mediterranean', as they are adjacent to the lands of 'straight homos' (Italy), homophobic tribes (most of the Balkan) and 'sexy homophobic men' (Turkey). Even on a gay map, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland are still the countries of waffles, hash and snow, respectively.
Europe as seen by the British
The United Kingdom is famously ambiguous about its European affiliation, let alone about its membership of the European Union. Three elements combine to reinforce Britain's euroskepticism: its geography as an island nation, the legacy of its overseas Empire and its heroic role as the sole holdout against a continent dominated by the Nazis. Margaret Thatcher tried to steer the European Community in the direction of a purely economic alliance of sovereign nations, but the drive towards 'ever closer union' (as mandated by the EU's own founding texts) has proved inexorable - and very ominous, from a British perspective.
Europe is therefore not seen as a collection of states, but as an 'Evil Federated Empire of Europe', producing all kinds of goods that may or may not be good to get into the UK (statues, cake, beer and soup, but also drugs, pest, dirty porn and immigrants). The Russian exiles, outrageously wealthy even for London standards, have given Russia the reputation of 'big spenders'. Iceland, reflecting its dubious role in the recent financial meltdown, is labelled 'Las Vegas'.
Europe as seen by the Americans
This map offers an external, and even more unidimensional perspective on European diversity. Americans apparently still see Russia (and Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova) as thinly veiled communists, and the Scandinavian countries as one big 'socialist union' (it must be a relief for the Danes to be called something other than Vikings, for the Finns not to be reduced to their mobile phone industry and for the Swedes to be linked to something else than Volvo, Ikea or Abba). The Netherlands, soft on drugs, are 'Sodom', the Iberian peninsula is dominated by Brazil and Mexico, Italy is simply 'godfathers' country, France is full of 'smelly people' and the UK is affectionately called 'mummy'. Ex-Yugoslavia is 'resident evil', while Turkey is 'thanksgiving dinner'.
European stereotypes, a composite map
This map seems to be a composite of European stereotypes. Nobody is left out. The EU, in view of its massive agricultural budget, is seen as the 'Union of Subsidized Farmers', Russia is a 'Paranoid Oil Empire', Ukraine is a country of 'gas stealers' and Norway (outside of the EU because independently wealthy) is 'Selfish Fisherman Land'.
Many thanks to all those who sent in these maps: Anthony Argyriou, Kevin Axe, Michael B, Roel Damiaans, Jóhannes Birgir Jensson, Patrick Chevallier, Stefano Cirolini, David Clarke, Patrick Dea, Kathi Dubach, Vincent Frietman, William Grewe-Mullins, Lars Haefner, Lee Jones, Charlie Kaupp, Jonathan Leblang, Christine Lohr, Katrien Luyten de Zurrita, Jim Mannheim, Alex Meerovich, Benjamin Miller, Kasper Nijhoff, Ivan Plis, Maria Popova, The Brigand’s Republic, Fabian Schmidt, Mikael Schulman, Tom Schuring, Teddy Sherrill, Marcin Siehankiewicz, Tobi, Jon Worth.
The maps can be seen in their original context at [this page] on Mr Tsvetkov's website Alphadesigner.
(1) Examples? Off the top of my head, and in corresponding order: the Soviet Union, French, catholicism, the so-called 'Aryan' race. These examples are of course non-limitative and debatable (esp. in the case of religion, where it could be argued that Europe was/is overwhelmingly christian, but also that the devastating wars between its sects suggest otherwise).
(2) No armed conflict has ever been fought between member states of the EU (or its predecessor, the European Economic Community). On the other hand, the organisation has proved embarrasingly powerless to stop armed conflict in its own backyard - the Yugoslav wars in the mid-1990s ended only through US-led NATO intervention.
(3) Except where they pertain to Icelanders, those credit-crunching, volcano-firing, cod-hogging, elf-worshiping, Bjork-exporting bastards.
All this from a wad of gum?
- Researchers recently uncovered a piece of chewed-on birch pitch in an archaeological dig in Denmark.
- Conducting a genetic analysis of the material left in the birch pitch offered a plethora of insights into the individual who last chewed it.
- The gum-chewer has been dubbed Lola. She lived 5,700 years ago; and she had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes.
Five thousand and seven hundred years ago, "Lola" — a blue-eyed woman with dark skin and hair — was chewing on a piece of pitch derived from heating birch bark. Then, this women spit her chewing gum out into the mud on an island in Denmark that we call Syltholm today, where it was unearthed by archaeologists thousands of years later. A genetic analysis of the chewing gum has provided us with a wealth of information on this nearly six-thousand-year-old Violet Beauregarde.
This represents the first time that the human genome has been extracted from material such as this. "It is amazing to have gotten a complete ancient human genome from anything other than bone," said lead researcher Hannes Schroeder in a statement.
"What is more," he added, "we also retrieved DNA from oral microbes and several important human pathogens, which makes this a very valuable source of ancient DNA, especially for time periods where we have no human remains."
In the pitch, researchers identified the DNA of the Epstein-Barr virus, which infects about 90 percent of adults. They also found DNA belonging to hazelnuts and mallards, which were likely the most recent meal that Lola had eaten before spitting out her chewing gum.
Insights into ancient peoples
The birch pitch was found on the island of Lolland (the inspiration for Lola's name) at a site called Syltholm. "Syltholm is completely unique," said Theis Jensen, who worked on the study for his PhD. "Almost everything is sealed in mud, which means that the preservation of organic remains is absolutely phenomenal.
"It is the biggest Stone Age site in Denmark and the archaeological finds suggest that the people who occupied the site were heavily exploiting wild resources well into the Neolithic, which is the period when farming and domesticated animals were first introduced into southern Scandinavia."
Since Lola's genome doesn't show any of the markers associated with the agricultural populations that had begun to appear in this region around her time, she provides evidence for a growing idea that hunter-gatherers persisted alongside agricultural communities in northern Europe longer than previously thought.
Her genome supports additional theories on northern European peoples. For example, her dark skin bolsters the idea that northern populations only recently acquired their light-skinned adaptation to the low sunlight in the winter months. She was also lactose intolerant, which researchers believe was the norm for most humans prior to the agricultural revolution. Most mammals lose their tolerance for lactose once they've weaned off of their mother's milk, but once humans began keeping cows, goats, and other dairy animals, their tolerance for lactose persisted into adulthood. As a descendent of hunter-gatherers, Lola wouldn't have needed this adaptation.
A hardworking piece of gum
A photo of the birch pitch used as chewing gum.
These findings are encouraging for researchers focusing on ancient peoples from this part of the world. Before this study, ancient genomes were really only ever recovered from human remains, but now, scientists have another tool in their kit. Birch pitch is commonly found in archaeological sites, often with tooth imprints.
Ancient peoples used and chewed on birch pitch for a variety of reasons. It was commonly heated up to make it pliable, enabling it to be molded as an adhesive or hafting agent before it settled. Chewing the pitch may have kept it pliable as it cooled down. It also contains a natural antiseptic, and so chewing birch pitch may have been a folk medicine for dental issues. And, considering that we chew gum today for no other reason than to pass the time, it may be that ancient peoples chewed pitch for fun.
Whatever their reasons, chewed and discarded pieces of birch pitch offer us the mind-boggling option of learning what someone several thousands of years ago ate for lunch, or what the color of their hair was, their health, where their ancestors came from, and more. It's an unlikely treasure trove of information to be found in a mere piece of gum.
The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.
- This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
- Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
- The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
Some countries value self-expression more than others.Credit: Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images
Question: On what map is Lithuania a neighbor of China, Poland lies next to Brazil, and Morocco and Yemen touch?
Answer: The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map. To be precise, the 2017 map. Because on the 2020 version, each of those pairs has drifted apart significantly.
These are not, strictly speaking, maps but rather scatterplot diagrams. Each dot represents a country, the position of which is based on how it ranks on two different values (discussed below). The dots are corralled together into geo-cultural groups:
- Catholic Europe, which comprises countries as diverse and far apart as Hungary and Andorra■ Protestant Europe, taking in both Iceland and Germany
- The Orthodox world, from Belarus all the way to Armenia
- The three Baltic states
- The English-speaking world, including both the U.S. and Northern Ireland
- The huge African-Islamic world, ranging from Azerbaijan to South Africa
- Latin America, which goes from Mexico to Argentina
- South Asia, which comprises both India and Cyprus
- The Confucian world, encompassing China and Japan.
The placement of the dots indicates cultural proximity or distance. Some countries from different groups can be more similar than other countries in the same group.
See the examples indicated above: cultural neighbors China and Lithuania belong to the Confucian and Baltic groups, respectively. Poland is part of Catholic Europe; its 2017 neighbor Brazil is in Latin America. Morocco and Yemen are closer culturally to Armenia, in the Orthodox group, than they are to Qatar, despite all belonging to the African-Islamic group.
The 2017 version of the map places Malta deep inside South America and lets Vietnam, Portugal, and Macedonia meet.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Creating a culture map
So, what exactly are the criteria used for plotting these dots in the first place?
These maps are part of the World Values Survey, first conducted by political scientist Ronald Inglehart in the late 1990s. With his colleague Christian Welzel, he produced an update in 2005. The WVS has been revised several times since, most recently in 2020.
The WVS asserts that there are two fundamental dimensions to cross-cultural variation across the world. These are used as the axes to plot the various countries on the diagram.
- The X-axis measures survival versus self-expression values.
Survival values focus on economic and physical security. There is not much room for trust and tolerance of "others." Self-expression values prioritize well-being, quality of life, and self-expression. There is more room for tolerating ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities.
- The Y-axis measures traditional versus secular-rational values.
Traditional values include deference to religion and parental authority as well as traditional social and family values. Societies that score high on traditions typically also are highly nationalistic. In more secular-rational societies, science and bureaucracy replace faith as the basis for authority. Secular-rational values include high tolerance of things like divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide.
As indicated by the significant changes on the 2020 map, the cultural values of nations are not static:
- Countries that move up on the map are shifting from traditional to more secular-rational values.
- Countries that move to the right on the map are shifting from survival values to self-expression values.
- And, of course, vice versa in both cases.
According to the authors of the map, changes in cultural outlook can be the result of socioeconomic changes — increasing levels of wealth, for example. But the religious and cultural heritage of each country also plays a part.
The world's cultural landscape is dynamic — you could even say promiscuous, producing new bedfellows every few years.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Some notable features of the 2020 map:
- The Baltic group has been dissolved; Lithuania is now part of Catholic Europe, Estonia a lone Protestant island in a Catholic sea. More worryingly, Latvia seems to have dissolved completely.
- In general, survival values are strongest in African-Islamic countries, self-expression values in Protestant Europe.
- Traditional values are strongest in African-Islamic countries and Latin America, while secular values dominate in Confucian countries and Protestant Europe.
- The United States is an atypical member of the English-speaking group, scoring much lower on both scales (that is to say, lower and more to the left). In other words, the U.S. is more into traditional and survival values than the group's other members.
- Shifting attitudes don't just separate; they also unite. Belgium and the U.S. are now culture buddies, as are New Zealand and Iceland. Kazakhstan is virtually indistinguishable from Bosnia.
The Inglehart-Welzel map is not without its critics. It has been decried as Eurocentric, simplistic, and culturally essentialist (that is, the assumption that certain cultural characteristics are essential and fixed, and that some are superior to others). Which is, of course, a very self-expressive thing to say.
For more on these maps, on the WVS surveys, and on the methodology used, visit the World Values Survey.
Strange Maps #1098
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
A study finds that baby mammals dream about the world they are about to experience to prepare their senses.
- Researchers find that babies of mammals dream about the world they are entering.
- The study focused on neonatal waves in mice before they first opened their eyes.
- Scientists believe human babies also prime their visual motion detection before birth.
Imagine opening your eyes for the first time as a brand new baby. The world is so mysterious, full of obstacles and strange shapes. And yet it does not take babies all that long to get their bearings, to latch on to their parents, and to start interacting. How do they do this so quickly? A new study published in Science proposes that babies of mammals dream about the world they are about to enter before being born, developing important skills.
The team, led by professor Michael Crair, who specializes in neuroscience, ophthalmology, and visual science, wanted to understand why when mammals are born, they are already somewhat prepared to interact with the world.
"At eye opening, mammals are capable of pretty sophisticated behavior," said Craig, "But how do the circuits form that allow us to perceive motion and navigate the world? It turns out we are born capable of many of these behaviors, at least in rudimentary form."
Unusual retinal activity
The scientists observed waves of activity radiating from the retinas of newborn mice before their eyes first open. Imaging shows that soon after birth, this activity disappears. In its place matures a network of neural transmissions that carries visual stimuli to the brain, as explained by a Yale press release. Once it reaches the brain, the information is encoded for storage.
What's particularly unusual about this neonatal activity is that it demonstrates a pattern that would happen if the animal was moving forward in its environment. As the researchers write in the study, "Spontaneous waves of retinal activity flow in the same pattern as would be produced days later by actual movement through the environment."
Crair explained that this "dream-like activity" makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, as it helps the mouse get ready for what will happen to it after it opens its eyes. It allows the animal to "respond immediately to environmental threats," Crair shared.
What is creating the waves?
The scientists also probed what is responsible for creating the retinal waves that mimic forward motion. They turned on and off the functionality of starburst amacrine cells — retinal cells that release neurotransmitters — and discovered that blocking them stopped the retinal waves from flowing, which hindered the mouse from developing the ability to react to visual motion upon birth. These cells are also important to an adult mouse, affecting how it reacts to environmental stimuli.
Graphic showing the origin and functionality of directional retinal waves.Michael C. Crair et al, Science, 2021.
What about human babies?
While the study focused on mice, human babies also seem to be able to identify objects and motion right after birth. This suggests the presence of a similar phenomenon in babies before they are born.
"These brain circuits are self-organized at birth and some of the early teaching is already done," Crair stated. "It's like dreaming about what you are going to see before you even open your eyes."