654 - Making Maps of France (Nudge, Nudge)

654 - Making Maps of France (Nudge, Nudge)

Cuddly toys, ripped to pieces. Their limbs and tails, snouts and eyepatches strung up and nailed to a museum wall. Teddy bears and their furry friends are supposed to be a child's last line of defence against night terrors. But here, perversely, they themselves become the terror: cruelly chopped up and grotesquely rearranged into a nightmarish tableau

But this is more than a grisly trophy wall. The chaotic collage of cheerful colours and big childlike eyes and grins is arranged in a familiar, hexagonal shape: the contours of France. The westernmost tip of Brittany is marked by what looks like a pair of ears, or perhaps wings – blue in any case. A dolphin's tail helps flesh out part of the Pyrenees border with Spain. The Alsatian border with Germany is shaped by bear's legs, and one baby doll leg the companion of which dangles from the southern coast of Brittany. The country's body is bulking with paws and arms and legs and heads...

This is a work by the French artist Annette Messager. One of her recurrent themes is the ambivalence of childhood, that magical era of firsts. Never again will joy and terror be so fresh, so intense. It's also a phase of life bounded by the comforts of innocence, and the thrills of experience. Not neatly separated, but intermingling. Hence the chopped-up teddies. But there's a twist to the work, and the clue is in the cartographic form it represents – and in its title, the delightfully French expression: Faire des cartes de France.

The expression goes back to the reign of Louis XIII (b. 1601 – d. 1643), who ascended to the throne as a nine-year-old. When the adolescent king reached puberty and had his first wet dreams, his courtiers euphemistically referred to the young king's nighttime soiling of the bedsheets as 'making maps of France'. Which is not merely a poetical way of describing those stains – probably not neatly hexagonal, but France back then wasn't either - but also calculatingly political: considering the future of the kingdom depended on Louis XIII's loins, the phrase also expressed the hope that he would measure up to the physical practicalities of dynastic succession.

Which brings to mind an expression from across the Channel, much later and not of royal origin, but also concerned with procreation for the good of the nation: Close your eyes and think of England. I wonder how that would look as wall art.

Many thanks to Philippe Gonzalvez (a.k.a. #363), who saw this artwork in LaM, the Art Museum of Villeneuve-d'Ascq (a new town near the northern French city of Lille) and sent in a picture of it. Here is the museum's page on Annette Messager's work.

A brief history of human dignity

What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

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Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
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Urban foxes self-evolve, exhibiting Darwin’s domestication syndrome

A new study finds surprising evidence of the self-evolution of urban foxes.

A fox at the door of 10 Downing Street on Janurary 13, 2015.

Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A study from the University of Glasgow finds urban foxes evolved differently compared to rural foxes.
  • The skulls of the urban foxes are adapted to scavenging for food rather than hunting it.
  • The evolutionary changes correspond to Charles Darwin's "domestication syndrome."

How much can living in the city change you? If you were an urban fox, you could be evolving yourself to a whole new stage and becoming more like a dog, according to a fascinating new study.

Researchers compared skulls from rural foxes around London with foxes who lived inside the city and found important variations. Rural foxes showed adaptation for speed and hunting after quick, small prey, while urban fox skulls exhibited changes that made it easier for them to scavenge, looking through human refuse for food, rather than chasing it. Their snouts were shorter and stronger, making it easier to open packages and chew up leftovers. They also have smaller brains, not meant for hunting but for interacting with stationary food sources, reports Science magazine.

Interestingly, there was much similarity found between the male and female skulls of the urban foxes.

The observed changes correspond to what Charles Darwin called the "domestication syndrome," comprised of traits that go along with an animal's transition from being wild, to tamed, to domesticated.

The study was led by Kevin Parsons, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow.

"What's really fascinating here is that the foxes are doing this to themselves," Parsons told the BBC. "This is the result of foxes that have decided to live near people, showing these traits that make them look more like domesticated animals."

The researchers are not suggesting you should go out and get a fox as a house-pet just yet. But they are seeing the evolutionary process taking place that's moving the urban foxes along the path towards becoming more like dogs and cats, explained the study's co-author Dr. Andrew Kitchener from National Museums Scotland.

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London on May 14, 2020.

Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP

"Some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today," said Kitchener. "So, adapting to life around humans actually primes some animals for domestication."

The specimen came from the National Museum Scotland's collection of around 1,500 fox skulls.

You can read the study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

fox sleeping beneath stadium seats

A fox at the LV County Championship, Division two match between Surrey and Derbyshire at The Brit Oval on April 9, 2010 in London, England.

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

​'The time is now' for cryptocurrencies, PayPal CEO says

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