Made of 100% Local Organic Culture

Riffing about cultural evolution, from religious traditions to family idiosyncrasies

Hi there!

This is issue #8 of Light Gray Matters, and the first of 2021. I’m a bit late, but Happy New Year!

Actually, we’re January 6th (or were, anyway, before I took so long finishing this newsletter), so Happy Epiphany to whoever celebrates that holiday.

Actually, let’s talk a bit about Epiphany. I’m not religious, but in my secularized French-speaking society, we celebrate Epiphany anyway. We celebrate it, as we do for many secular holidays, with food. In this case, the main treat is the galette des rois, or king cake. It’s an almond pastry that contains a bean or small figurine hidden within. Whoever is lucky enough to get the bean in their slice is crowned king or queen for the night.

Which basically means wearing a cheap and tacky paper crown much like this one:

And that’s it. It’s a, uh, very minor holiday. Some years I even forget it exists. Some others, like this year, there isn’t large enough of a party to justify the cake. But I like the tradition.

Which brings us to the real topic of today: culture. That is, everything that isn’t nature. Traditions, art, styles, ideas, learned behaviors, tools, inventions, languages, and so on.

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted an Interintellect Salon about cultural evolution. It was a lot of fun! We discussed many topics, from mores around personal finance, food, and gender, to fashion cycles, the demographics of culture, and the fine line between being original and being recognizable to your peers.

But my favorite part was the answers to a question I asked to everyone in attendance. In fact, it was a choice of two questions:

  1. What is a cultural trait that was passed to you by your parents or family, but is uncommon in your surrounding culture?

  2. What is a cultural trait you adopted from your surrounding culture, but is not found in your family?

My answer to question 1, suggested to me by my brother, was drinking coffee from bowls. My parents have always done this, so it feels perfectly normal to me. But the people around us in Quebec really don’t, for some reason. My brother was telling me that his roommates would use his coffee bowls for anything but coffee, and would find it really weird that he didn’t drink his coffee in a mug.

(Looks normal, right? Except for the pink coffee. No, my family does not drink pink coffee. I’m extremely limited in my color options right now, okay?)

Beyond that, we got a lot of cool familial idiosyncrasies from the other attendees. Someone grew up with bees, and didn’t realize that most people were afraid of them until later. (Cue the discussion of our cultural relationship with insects, including eating them.) Another never drank milk in their family, but started to drink it as an adult. (The perfect timing to bring up how lactose [in]tolerance is a great example of gene-culture coevolution.) One member in attendance ate the most intriguing unique family dish: the water soup. (I think it was mostly just broth.)

I love these examples because they show us how diverse culture is, even at the micro level. Just about any piece of cultural information can appear and spread. We see it with memes and virality. We see it in the history of ideas in science and philosophy. We see it with long-standing traditions that make little sense anymore, like the king cake.

(Hey, I just realized I’m using cake as a cultural evolution example again. I suppose I can’t help it.)

In any case, that’s why I think cultural evolution is one of the keys to understanding the world. I’ll be writing about that more — it will most likely be my next big topic after friendship.

So the newsletter might be about that for a few weeks. Though, come to think of it, this newsletter is itself made of culture. 100% local, organic culture. So in a sense, it always has and always will be about cultural evolution. Like everything else.

Meanwhile, I remain

Royally yours,


On Twitter: Movie Commentary

My Twitter account continues to be very random, but the important part is that I’m having fun with it, right? In any case, I had fun tweeting about some movies I saw (in whole or in part).

I had a Frankensteiny movie night with my dad, in which we grafting two very different movies together. We watched the beginning of Total Recall (1990), but then got more interesting in a French wedding comedy being played on another channel: Le Sens de la fête (2017). Fun pairing!

And a few days ago, I watched Your Name Engraved Therein (2020), a Taiwan LGBT-themed movie that… turned out to contain lots of plot elements about Quebec. And my general impression that nobody really understands Quebec was confirmed once again. So I made a thread on the mistakes.

We’re talking about culture again, it seems. Can’t escape it!

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