Dec. 31, 2020

The Hidden World of Sh*t (a farewell to 2020)

The Hidden World of Sh*t (a farewell to 2020)

Language warning. We use the word sh*t a lot in this episode, since it is, in fact all about poop. 

To wrap up this crappy, some may even say shitty year, host Adam Gamwell and intern Elizabeth Smyth discuss the origin of the word shit, how the way we defecate is culturally constructed, what our poop reveals about us, and so much more in this New Year’s Eve mini-episode of This Anthro Life. Farewell 2020, it’s been real.

In this episode we dig into:

  • What poop tells us about culture and our biology
  • Whether to sit or squat?
  • Poop’s superpower for healing gut microbiota and potential energy source
  • How poop in space might tell us if we are, in fact, extraterrestrials ourselves

Also check our new blog Voice and Value where we dive deeper into all things human: Voice and Value – Medium

Articles referenced:

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Website: This Anthro Life

Music: Epidemic Sounds

No Regrets - Guy Trevino

Basmati - Farrell Wooten

Episode Art: Liz Smyth

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The Hidden World of Shit 

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:00:00] It reminds me of your last year's happiness episode and listening to it and doing the transcript for it and thinking, wow, that was so optimistic.

Adam Gamwell: [00:00:14] Well this is actually a  great point and a great lead in for today’s episode because we’re talking about shit, were talking about poop,defecating, most things that people don’t want to talk about or think about and we know it’s been a tough year but it’s funny  you know because the happiness and the good life with the Aztecs was a more unabashedly optimistic episode, there’s actually a lot of positive thinking that can come out of how we deal with shit or poop. I think you just gave us the perfect intro right there.

Adam Gamwell: [00:00:49] Hey, everybody, I want to welcome you to This Anthro Life. It's really exciting to be here. This is Adam Gamwell and I am joined today, I'm very excited to have my colleague, Liz Smyth joining us, Liz, how are you doing?

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:00:57] Great. How are you?

Adam Gamwell: [00:00:59] Doing pretty well, I’m excited to talk about shit. Liz has been working and interning with This Anthro Life for the latter part of the year 2020, which has been awesome. So good things can come out of tough years, as we're saying. And you've probably recognized her work in expanding our transcripts that we have offering now, we're adding them to every episode and her works with show notes, as well as she's done some really great original essays in our new Voice and Value blog, which we will have and links to as always. As we were kind of opening up here, it's been a difficult year, as we know, 2020, like some would say it's been downright shitty as it were. Yet it’s the end of the year and oftentimes people like to think about new year's resolutions and they want to expel the bad things of the past year and  pick up some great new practices for upcoming year, preparing for what’s next, and that kind of got us thinking about what would be an appropriate episode that could send the year off.  Something about happiness and the good life are important, but it felt a little weird for 2020, given how it's been, so we thought about going into the other end of things. And so the question about how we deal with shit is is a little bit about how we deal with challenges more generally Right. And so what does shit tell us about ourselves and how we deal with it and about how we want to solve problems and think about dealing with health and defecation? What does that tell us about how we want to solve problems and make the world a better place. Liz and I have been talking back and forth about how do we think about these ideas and part of it is where do these words come from? So I’d love to share a little bit of a story of where the word shit comes from. I’m curious Liz do you know where the word comes from or why we use this term?

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:02:37] No, I don't, which is kind of odd. You would think you would, but I don't. I'd love to know.

 Adam Gamwell: [00:02:43] Right, it’s one of those words we use a lot and as of right now I don’t know. I think I just saw on Netflix that Nicolas Cage has a history of curse words, a new show. I haven't watched it yet, so he may have an episode on this, maybe Nicolas Cage can help inform us, like on all things I suppose. This also might be something of an urban legend, I'm not really sure. But the idea is that during the industrial revolution and a little bit past when manure was the main source of fuel for burning and heat. They would  collect it from farms and cattle out in pastures and then they would load it up on trains and then send it across to different states or different cities where they needed for burning things. Now one of the main things we probably know about cow manure in general or sheep manure or farm manure is that, um, feces releases methane and methane, not only smells bad, but it's flammable. And so what would happen is that they would put these piles of manure into train cars. And if there was traveling across, you know, think about the American Southwest or anywhere, just kind of in the middle part of the country and it's hot and dry. And so then a spark would happen or something, and then the train would explode. That's bad cause you lose a train and this is because again, all the methane, but get built up and captured. And so what folks started doing is they were devising a scheme to store the shit higher in the train. So that way , it would be able to vent out the methane, and then they could store things below it too, if they need to. So basically just like building a second tier or higher on cars. So on the actual cars themselves, they apparently would write S H I T,  which was an acronym for store high in train so that the methane would have the ability to escape out the top without getting captured below everything. So that's the urban legend of where the word shit comes from.

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:04:29] Wow. That's actually really interesting. I can't believe that's an acronym and now we use it as a word, that’s so interesting.

Adam Gamwell: [00:04:40] right. Like we got lazy.

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:04:42] Yeah, I know we got lazy from it. It makes us think about how we say, like something stinks, we might use the word PU, you know, more like Pepe Le Pew kinda thing. It actually came from an ancient exclamation at saying something is rotten and stinking. Yeah. Isn't that so interesting. Like it's from the stem putrid and putrify.

Adam Gamwell: [00:05:16] Interesting.

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:05:17] Yeah. Yeah. It's so interesting to me that we have these very, um ancient or maybe even not so ancient with the industrial revolution ideas about what something, the smell of something gross, like shit or the literal word shit and how that came from an acronym.

Adam Gamwell: [00:05:27] It’s funny because one of the questions we want to tackle here is what does poop tell us about culture in ourselves as being human because it is kind of an awkward thing to talk about. I almost want to have a counter of how many times we say the word shit or poop during this episode. Just because you don’t often talk about it, however one of the things that inspired this episode was that I ran across this article the other day that was, published in Wired that was of excerpt from a book by Harold McGee that was called Nose Dive a Field Guide to the World’s Smells. And it was just about kind how the story of poop is actually the story of human technology. And I had never thought about that before, you know?  But then of course, if we're thinking about like  the word shit being part of a train, or like in relationship to moving things around industrially, or even, this Indo-European root of the word pu or is this part of a word when we think of things that are rotten,  it's like, In how we even think about shit is built into the way that we deal with technological change and even how we express things, you know? So that's quite interesting and there's a lot there obviously.

I found this quote that I want to read that to me is like perfectly encapsulating of graduate school level of writing anthropology. But it's, it's an entire essay about poop worlds, by Shaka McGlotten and Scott Webel. And what they say is that "it's possessed of a vibrant materiality that confuses the categories of life and death. It crisscrosses the intimacies of public and private bodies, institutional and fleshy. And subterranean networks of sewers and everyday taboos. There’s a lot happening in this quote but I really like the idea of bodies, institutional and fleshy, . It confuses the categories of life and death, right? It crisscrosses both public and private. What does this quote evoke in your mind?

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:07:15] Wow. That's a good question. It's such an interesting way to talk about poop, to me. It's so like you said, it's very academic and kind of very anthropology, if that's the way to put it.  I thought it's interesting it says it crisscrosses the intimacies of public and private and how the ideas and taboos around poop have changed, you know, long ago we used to probably poop in pretty open areas or together and that's still the case in some places as well. It's not usually the case in Western society, but even like George Washington's house he has a double like person, like two people could be in his outhouse at the same time.

And I think about that and think about it that wasn't quite that long ago, although it was, but that's not something you would associate with a president of the United States. Right. That's just kind of interesting to me. Maybe nowadays we might, I don’t know.

Adam Gamwell: [00:08:22] You gotta take a meeting.

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:08:24] You have really important information. You gotta bring your friend with you. You don't want to be alone. Any of that?

Adam Gamwell: [00:08:36]  I didn’t know that.That’s super interesting. There’s a double, team  team toilet I guess but that's actually, that's a perfect example of how that like criss crosses this public and private, right that it's like both, but then you're there with a teammate or a friend. Or maybe an antagonist depending on what you're trying to go for. But then also, it’s public in a very interesting way because it’s the President’s house.

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:09:02] Yes. Yeah. 

Adam Gamwell: [00:09:04] It’s a matter of state. And so  what I think is really interesting with this example of George Washington that you bring up too is that it points out to the idea that animal excrement in general, humans are animals obviously. We’re generally disgusted by seeing a pile of dog shit on the sidewalk or a horse shit in the street or obviously human shit is even worse almost. Right. 

But what Harold McGee points out in his book, Nose Dive a Field Guide to the World’s Smells is that apparently this reaction of disgust that we have is actually something that we learn, we're  taught culturally, it’s not necessarily an automatic, biological reflex, that we don’t want to be around shit. If you look at different aped, chimpanzees or gorillas you may see them using excrement as a weapon, throwing it at someone else. But oftentimes you’ll see them smelling it too as forms of identification of knowing who somebody is. Humans are just weird in the ape community because we don’t do that. Every other animal. Dogs are known for sniffing butts, cat’s do the same thing. Cats will show you its butt because it’s friendly, it’s saying to you, hey this is who I am. Humans would never do that right. It’s funny because we tend to have this idea that it’s naturally disgusting to even think about or deal with poop, but for most other animals this is one way of communication.There's the ideas that rabbits will eat their poop and they kind of digest their food twice.

Again, that sounds gross to us but they actually get nutrients in a different way because their digestive juices have broken down the food in a slightly different way. These are things that, again, we don't really think too much about this, but when, when we look again across even speciestoo, we realize that poop is actually such an important part about life right. Of how we identify and communicate with others. It’s interesting then to think of the George Washington example, because to us, it sounds quite strange to have a team toilet, but if you don’t have the same kind taboo, of you can’t poop near somebody or you can’t be near them when you're going to the bathroom, then it's almost, you think about it, it's actually perfectly rational, that's a great place to meet cause you gotta be sit down for a few minutes anyway. So why not have a meeting. I don’t know, it’s a learned behavior, we are immediately abhorred by it but what do you think about that?

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:11:02] Yeah, but it's an interesting thing to bring up because yes, of course we as humans tend to shy away from, we think it's taboo to be around poop or excrement of any type. And it is interesting that our ape cousins don't feel the same way. It's interesting, I wonder why they use it as a weapon  if they feel it's not necessarily gross. That's interesting. That's something I don't know. I'd love to know about that. Why is it a weapon?

Adam Gamwell: [00:11:31] Thats a good question. And you know the like example of a chimpanzee throwing poop at either people, if they're visiting or other chimpanzees maybe because it’s a readily accessible thing you can throw?

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:11:41] I guess that's true.

Adam Gamwell: [00:11:42]  It might be as simple as that, so if any biological anthropologists are listening, hit us up and let us know., let us know, why are chimpanzees throwing poop instead of sticks and stones? 

You know something else is interesting about this is the  conundrum of, to sit or to squat, right? How does somebody go to the bathroom? We live in the United States, though we live on different coasts we have the same kinds of toilets as far as we know, I’ve never been to your house but I assume you also have a western toilet you sit on. Most people listening probably have one of those right. You may have a squat toilet if you have an outhouse in the back of your yard or something But we've been sitting on porcelain toilets for a while now I mean the the flush toilet itself was invented in the 16th century which is interesting by Sir John Harrington , but it really only became  mass produced and used by the masses in the 19th century. So it's not even, 200 years it's not super long we've been sitting But it's really interesting just to think about this is a way that we have chosen culturally to sit and  if you've never thought about this before Still today actually, you pointed this out before Liz in a lot of places around the world squat toilets are the norm. You see this in India. You see this in large parts of South America. When I lived in Peru and I was hanging out on farms with farmers. Most of the time they would have an outhouse for the squat toilet and it actually took a little time to get used to it.

But, there's scientific research that it's actually a little bit better for you to squat , than it is to sit And this has to do with the way that our bowels and our muscles are configured down south.  And that when you're sitting, your sphincter muscles are not entirely able to be relaxed but when you're squatting they are And if you've only been sitting in toilets for 200 ish years maybe a little longer they may have had medieval, privies where you can sit down, but for the most part ,  you'd be squatting over a pot or the ground And, it's not because we were lacking a toilet to sit on but that's actually just the way that we normally would defecate or go to the bathroom. And so that's interesting to contemplate that we have what we consider it to be modern amenity in terms of a sit toilet. It is nice to have a flushing toilet. There's no question about it, like, it feels cleaner that way, at least to us, right? But, it's not necessarily better for us in terms of our biology. And so even just recognizing how our culture will shape the literal way that we go to the bathroom and it's not necessarily just a question of like, is it more sanitary to have a flush toilet versus being able to go into a hole in the ground if you have a squat toilet but really also again like what is it actually better or good for us in our bodies Right  And because I can't ask you about, have you tried a squat toilet?

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:14:19] It's just interesting how culture, we usually think of culture as divorced from biology, but really it's so interconnected, you know, we define what we do biologically? I mean, we have biological needs, like eating and defecating, but we define how we do them, what we eat, how we defecate, where we defecate, all of the above.

 Adam Gamwell: [00:14:39]  Meaning that we’re never purely at the whims of our biology right, we can obviously share them in different ways. Even our past selves too because in archeology there is the study of coprolites, there’s the study of human shit, and animal shit too, but even that we can study fossilized poo to see how ancient diets were like and health was. We can’t see necessarily how they went to the bathroom unless there is a toilet or squat toilet we can see that but culture shapes everything that we do in terms of the kinds of things that we think we should eat, how we should use the bathroom, how we should defecate, something that seems so, is so basic biology that we have to do it but how we do it and where we do it. Are we in a room by ourselves, the colonial British had this idea in colonial Africa there was this not nice discourse that Africans would just defecate recklessly and that they needed to have a more clean, sanitary idea of going to the bathroom so this is actually where we saw the name of the wash closet come up too. They need to build latrines, a whole in the ground with a slab of concrete over it with four walls and that becomes the wash closet as it were. But even this idea that one group, especially when there's unequal power at play, thinks there should be, what  is cleaner, like this is the proper way to go to the bathroom, I think we know the British are known for having ideas of propriety but all cultures have it really. And then they imposed that on other groups of people. It’s interesting to see that even on the level of defecation right. We see this not super differently today. Even if we’re talking about developing versus developed nations, I mean there are UN led sanitary and public health programs that are about building latrines and ending open defecation is what they call it in rural  areas across the world because there are public health concerns with having shit out there. Like if someone has an intestinal parasite, it can come out in there shit and if somebody steps in it they can catch it and pass it along, but also  again what does it mean to be sanitary and acknowledging that there are power differentials to that with what counts as sanitary and what’s the safe thing to do, and what is the best way to use the toilet. All this to come back and say that the most basic of biological acts is laden with power, laden with culture and how we do it, when we do it, and with whom, or not. All these big kind of cultural parts. We don’t often find ourselves contemplating the life in the toilet bowl, it is quite a complex space, I think, you know?

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:16:59] So thinking about, poop and COVID-19, cause of course we can't do an episode about 2020 and not mention COVID-19. That would be insane. Wouldn't it?  Yeah, but it's interesting as Adam pointed out earlier, we can find out a lot about our health from our stool samples and from sewage as well.

And that's what some scientists have been doing, to monitor the COVID-19 outbreak, cause you can see it in stool samples earlier than  people are presenting symptoms or in people who don't present symptoms at all.

And we can see where. COVID-19 is highly congregating. So 140 universities and places with congregate living like nursing homes or homeless shelters are surveilling their wastewater and to quickly and passively just assess risk and see where they can allocate the resources, see where they need, you know, what cities need more hospital beds, what cities need more ventilators down to that kind of stuff. But also where do we need more testing? Where do we need more masks?

Adam Gamwell: [00:18:10]  If feel like this has probably been a very common practice for a  scientists and medical researchers for a while but it’s interesting how it almost takes on a new need and a new level of help if we just focus on waste water and excretion as something we can measure on a building level that we can get  an indicator of where there are higher levels of risk, cause obviously this has huge implications, if there’s  shortages of testing, or it takes a lot more work to go test every single person if there’s a nursing home of 300 people or a dorm that has a thousand students in it, that’s a ton of work to go test every single one of them but then it’s like if you can get a vision at the water level or at the waste level right, then you can see the potential level of COVID is or other kinds of pathogens then you know where to put your money at risk I think that that's super interesting . This is how we can solve problems with shit right, its not just about trying to get rid of it, since its a part of us, or was theres much we can learn from it, in terms of how we can improve our own health  and allocation of resources. Its kind of cool cause the flip side of this is not only does poop come out of us, but it can come back into us with fecal transplants, for example, and this is super fascinating and both, its funny I don’t particularly   feel grossed out by it  If you, if you have an immune issue and you live with someone or live near them you'll have sort of similar biomes in your gut and if you’re ill and your missing some of the bacteria that you need and your  but your partner has it for example you can get a fecal transplant, you know they would take some of their feces, they would dry it out obviously usually put it in pill capsule, then you can, you can eat it. And then it helps repopulate your gut flora, its genius right, we have these built in storage systems almost in that we can use them to heal ourselves.To me, it's just kind of cool that you can download some healthy bacteria this way.

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:19:54] Absolutely. I agree. I think it's so interesting how our gut biomes are our second brain, how , what's going on in our gut affects everything in our body. And it's so interesting that you can have a fecal transplant, although it does sound a bit gross, of course because of the culture of how we feel about shit and all that. But, it is so interesting and it's a testament to science and how we can use our own bodies and things we usually think of as  something to get rid of something that's gross. We need away from us. How can we actually use that for our own good? You know, how can we save ourselves with science? I guess you could say.

 Adam Gamwell: [00:20:41] That’s our questions right? And what I love about this too there's economic things too, there are  arguments that human feces that can be  captured, largely their talking about this in the development world, Sid Perkins wrote about this in science magazine a few years ago.

But, the idea is that rather than just thinking about excrement as something that goes out and taints the environment or maybe transmit disease, it can can actually be harnessed to heat and power millions of homes. This harkens the idea of why the UN would want to close out open defecation again cause it can be more easily transmitted disease and have some environmental impact. The idea is that if we can capture feces and deposit it in latrines for example the sludge can be collected and heated in kilns at temperatures that are super hot, like 300 degrees centigrade or 572 degrees Fahrenheit, which  that's more than I usually bake with.  It'll create charcoal like briquettes. And this is kind of crazy,then you can actually take these briquettes and then you could burn them like charcoal and according to the United Nations University Institute for Water in Environment and Health put out that essentially these poop briquettes have the same content pound for pound as coal and that’s crazy. So it's like, we actually are making our own coal, if you think about. Obviously it’s a very different thing than coal mining but if the idea is to get energy, people defecate in certain places, you capture it, you bake it and then you have charcoal briquettes. That's pretty interesting,that kind of blew my mind when I read this was a possibility. 


Elizabeth Smyth: [00:22:02]

Yeah. I agree  when I read that as well, looking at it, I thought, wow, that's amazing that we could do something like that could be a new energy source, a renewable energy source. That would be amazing.  Because we talked a bit earlier about how our microbiome and our gut collects all the things from our body. And then if we defecate this and we use the briquettes, turn them into basically human-made coal, our own coal. I wonder how the things that we put in our body might affect the air quality of burning this human-made coal.

 There was an interesting docu-series on Netflix that I watched, it's called Connected: The Hidden Science of Everything and it's with Latif Nasser. And he goes with Dr. Leon Barron to the Thames river in London, which is notorious, it's been notorious for centuries for being disgusting and filled with feces, but they took a sample and they found that they could measure the amount of cocaine the city of London was using and MDMA and other things, recreational illegal, and maybe not illegal drugs, and things like antidepressants and antibiotics. And I wonder how if we burn that, what would that do to our air quality. I'm not sure. I mean, better than coal, less great than coal, I'm not sure.

Adam Gamwell: [00:23:35] I mean, even linking those two examples together, that you can both capture feces, bake and then burn it for energy  and the previous point you made, that you can test the levels of not only pathogens but in this case drugs in the water supply through wastewater is super interesting, our poop is a record as weird as that sounds then what we do with that record after it gets made , do we burn it? Do we bury it? Does it become energy, does it stay waste, are intensely interesting questions, right? And especially as we're thinking about, broader implications of climate change and obviously burning coal  is incredibly damaging for releasing atmosphere warming gases so yeah, I think your question is spot on like does doing something with feces, besides getting people over the ick factor which I don't think would be that hard get, a charcoal briquette in no way resembles a turd in the same say that like having a steak doesn't necessarily resemble what you might think of as a piece of a cow sliced off. So it's like we're capable of doing it. We're capable of taking something that we think would be disgusting, like watching an animal be cut up into then having just that piece by itself separated.

  I would be hopeful  that this could be something that offers some solutions of how we get similar energy needs until we get over some of the political hurdles of finding more renewable sources and scaling those up. Who knows, maybe we can all be little powerhouses.

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:24:53] I like that idea, everyone doing their part to be a little powerhouse for the world.

Adam Gamwell: [00:25:01] I think for final point in this episode, you mentioned this to me and I’d love  you to walk us through this. Poop in space, we obviously have to go if we're going to space. There’s really interesting research happening around this also. And this is a little bit out of this world.

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:25:14] So apparently there's actually 96 bags of different kinds of human waste. So not just poop there's Anything from urine, poop, throw up, anything, anything that humans have can yeah, all of it, all of it and it's actually just been left on the moon, from various space missions from different astronauts. And we're not sure about this because we haven't gone to the moon in a while, but scientists want to know if bacteria from human waste has survived in these bags.

That would be interesting because of course  they've been in the vacuum of space for several years now. They could be dead. by what we know about space, they should be. But if they are not dead or if they could be reanimated, it would mean that. Well one, some types of life, obviously not humans can live in the vacuum of space. Also the idea of panspermia, that life on earth was created by either a meteor or some kind of space rock hitting earth, and life and bacteria already being on that rock, hitting earth and then creating all the life that we are now. And that idea is just so interesting to me. And if bacteria can grow in space or it can stay alive in some form or can be reanimated, there is potential that the panspermia hypothesis, that would be great evidence for it, which would be just amazing. Something I am a bit nerdy about, I want to know. 

Adam Gamwell: [00:27:00] I am particularly excited that a bag of shit on the moon is how we’re testing the idea of panspermia. And so folks I think that is perhaps the best metaphor we can leave us right?

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:27:33] Yeah I agree. I agree. Like a bag of shit can actually be a scientific discovery that could change how we understand life on earth completely..

Adam Gamwell: [00:27:36] I think that's great. And so, if we're trying to think about it, we're here at the end of the year. We are hoping to put behind us a challenging year. We're excited about what's gonna come next. The future seems bright. I think this is a perfect way to send us off, we’ve gone to space. We've taken a shit there and we’ve left it and it might just tell us and it might just tell us if we came from outer space. What more could we ask for right?

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:27:57] Yeah, 

Adam Gamwell: [00:27:58] Liz, thank you so much for chatting and this has been a super fun conversation. It's great to have you on the mic. Let's do it again. I wish you, and all of our listeners, a Happy New Year, here's to health and figuring out all the good stuff that's next, right. To a less shitty year next year.

Elizabeth Smyth: [00:28:23] Absolutely Happy New Year to you too. And this has been fun.

Adam Gamwell: [00:28:27] Cool. We'll see you all in 2021.

Adam (Overdub): [00:28:29] You're listening to This Anthro Life, and I'm Adam Gamwell.