Epsilon Theory: Don't Fear the Reaper

Buck Finemann, seventy two years old. Cantankerous old geezer. No-one liked him much, but they allowed him to play poker with them once a week because he was a terrible card player and had been known to lose as much as seventy five cents in a single evening.
– Carl Kolchak, “Kolchak: The Nightstalker – Horror in the Heights”

Rakshasa: Known first in India, these evil spirits encased in flesh are spreading.
– E. Gary Gygax, “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st Edition, Monster Manual”

So may the outward shows be least themselves.
The world is still deceived with ornament.

Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea, the beauteous scarf
Veiling an Indian beauty—in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest.
– Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice”

I would guess that not more than 1 in 100 Epsilon Theory readers remembers Darren McGavin in Kolchak: The Nightstalker. It’s a television series that only ran one year in the mid-1970’s, plus a couple of made-for-TV movies, but for whatever reason it made a big impression on me. A perpetually down-on-his-luck news wire stringer, Kolchak was a truth-seeker and a puzzle-solver, even if his truths and puzzles were found in the hidden corners and supernatural mysteries of 1970’s Chicago. Kolchak was Mulder before The X-Files was a gleam in Chris Carter’s eye.


My favorite Nightstalker episode involved a Rakshasa, an evil Indian spirit that could take the form of whatever human its victim trusted the most. For the unfortunate Buck Finemann it was his rabbi; for Kolchak (who thought himself immune because he trusted no one) it was his elderly neighbor. For weeks afterwards I enjoyed scaring myself by imagining that my family and friends were actually Rakshasas, just waiting for the most psychologically crushing moment to pounce. A few years later, when the first AD&D Monster Manual was released, I can’t tell you how delighted I was to see my old friend the Rakshasa playing a prominent role, captured perfectly by Dave Trampier’s drawing of a pipe-smoking tiger.

Almost all cultures have their mythological version of an evil shape-shifter who replaces a loved one. Sometimes it’s a child switched at birth; sometimes it’s an adult doppelgänger. The human animal has a primal fear of the counterfeit human…an alien consciousness possessing a perfectly “normal” human body…and it remains one of the foremost tropes for horror media, from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” to “The Thing” to “The Omen”. We love to scare ourselves by imagining Rakshasas and their ilk.

In Indian mythology, however, the Rakshasa is less inherently malevolent than it is simply foreign or alien. It is an Outsider, with an entirely non-human conception of social organization and purpose, and it is this differentness, particularly when coupled with an intimately familiar external appearance, that frightens us. When the Other looks like us, we take it as a betrayal and we assume it must be a threat. External appearance is a signal, as powerful to us as a pheromone is to an ant, and as a eusocial animal we are biologically evolved and culturally trained to respond to these signals…positively to a familiar appearance and negatively to the unfamiliar. But the human animal makes immediate assumptions based on external appearance that go far beyond simple positive and negative affect. Virtually all of our communications – including the meaning we ascribe to language – are part and parcel of the cognitive models we form based on external appearance. There are plenty of good evolutionary reasons why the human animal places such an inordinate reliance on external appearances to drive our Bayesian decision-making processes, plenty of reasons why we are so suspicious of differentness, so trusting of sameness. But all of these good reasons were developed for small group subsistence on the African savanna 100,000 years ago, not modern mass society.

In 1952 John Steinbeck published East of Eden, the book he considered to be his masterpiece. There’s a passage in this book – a startling conversation between the wealthy farmer Samuel and his Cantonese cook, Lee – which reveals beautifully the chasm of meaning and understanding in our communications perniciously created by our group-oriented, external appearance-focused, social animal nature. It’s a genius observation of the human condition, and I hope it prompts you to read the book.

“Lee,” he said at last, “I mean no disrespect, but I’ve never been able to figure out why you people still talk pidgin when an illiterate baboon from the black bogs of Ireland, with a head full of Gaelic and a tongue like a potato, learns to talk a poor grade of English in ten years.”

Lee grinned. “Me talkee Chinese talk,” he said.

“Well, I guess you have your response. And it’s not my affair. I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t believe it, Lee.”

Lee looked at him and the brown eyes under their rounded upper lids seemed to deepen until they weren’t foreign any more, but man’s eyes, warm and understanding. Lee chuckled. “It’s more than a convenience,” he said. “It’s even more than self-protection. Mostly we have to use it to be understood at all.”

Samuel showed no sign of having observed any change. “I can understand the first two,” he said thoughtfully, “but the third escapes me.”

Lee said. “I know it’s hard to believe, but it has happened so often to me and to my friends that we take it for granted. If I should go up to a lady or gentleman, for instance, and speak as I am doing now, I wouldn’t be understood.”

“Why not?”

“Pidgin they expect, and pidgin they’ll listen to. But English from me they don’t listen to, and so they don’t understand it.”

“Can that be possible? How do I understand you?”

“That’s why I’m talking to you. You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception.”…“I’m wondering whether I can explain,” said Lee. “Where there is no likeness of experience it’s very difficult. I understand you were not born in America.”

“No, in Ireland.”

“And in a few years you can almost disappear; while I, who was born in Grass Valley, went to school and several years to the University of California, have no chance of mixing.”

“If you cut your queue, dressed and talked like other people?”

“No. I tried it. To the so-called whites I was still a Chinese, but an untrustworthy one; and at the same time my Chinese friends steered clear of me. I had to give it up.”
– John Steinbeck, “East of Eden”

Steinbeck didn’t know it, but his observation of the false differentness generated by race is exactly what evolutionary science reveals. In fact, from a human evolutionary perspective, the external characteristics that we associate with race have almost nothing to do with fundamental differentness or genetic diversity.


This is a Wikimedia Commons map of the human migration out of Africa (upper left of diagram, North Pole in the center), showing our inexorable advancement to every corner of the globe. By testing the persistent mutations of mitochondrial DNA of modern humans (passed from mothers to their children, so tracing the matrilineal line), we can identify which genetic populations (called haplo-groups) precede others, and by how long. The earliest splits of the mtDNA haplogroup occurred within Africa itself (L1, L2, and L3)

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