New Internationalist

Curiosities

Issue 274

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Curiosities
Questions that have always intrigued you about the world will appear in this, your section,
and be answered by other readers. Please address your answers and questions to ‘Curiosities’.

Are there any cultures in the world where there is never any reason to exchange gifts?

Gifts to Hindu priests come with sins attached.
ASHA SPAAK /
CAMERA PRESS

I think people will always find reasons for exchanging gifts. But there are cases where reciprocity is not desirable or appropriate.

In India, for example, dana (cash or a gift) is given to Bhahman priests. Since dana ‘contains’ the sins of the giver, it must not be reciprocated lest the sins are also returned. In Papua New Guinea ‘big men’ give away substantial amounts of goods in return for allegiance from others. However, they are actually competing with other ‘big men’ for prestige, trying to outdo rivals rather than exchange equally. It could also be argued that charitable giving rests on the premise of non-reciprocity. Blood donation is an interesting example, though it has been argued that people do ‘get something back’ in the form of feeling a part of society.

The controversy around selling human organs or embryos may well relate in part to an uncertainty about whether such things are ‘gifts’ or ‘commodities’ and whether ‘exchange’ is appropriate. Further reading on gifts, commodities and exchange is extensive: as a starting point, I suggest the classic text by Mauss, called The Gift. An absorbing and more contemporary suggestion would be Money and Morality of Exchange by Bloch and Parry.

Joni Wilson
Edinburgh, Scotland

Gift exchange is a concept alien to all cetacean cultures, unless one counts intangible gifts such as whale-song.

Jonathan Cardy
Teddington, England

What evidence is there that children vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella
at an early age will enjoy lasting immunity? What is the risk of their developing these
diseases in later life, when they can be more serious?

I thought the ‘answer’ given by Peter Holdsworth in NI 271 was dangerous, false and biased.

Measles deaths have reduced from 2.5 million a year in 1980 to 1.0 million now. It’s still far too high, and effective immunization must continue (see UNICEF State of the World’s Children). Of course malnutrition greatly increases susceptibility and must be combated too.

Dr JH Hirshman
University of New South Wales, Australia

Where does one get the seeds to grow a seedless grape vine?

There are no seeds – the vines are grown by vegetative propagation. I very much doubt that seedless grape vines are available to the public.

BM Coote
Lower Hutt, Aotearoa/NZ

awaiting your answers

What proportion of Muslim women cover their faces in public? Is the practice increasing? And do women who cover their faces suffer any discomfort or health problems?

Sandra Mariner
Taunton, England

At work we use the term ‘Spanish custom’ when highlighting the use of a procedure that has not been documented in one of our many rule books? Where has the term come from?

Louise Funnell
Bristol, England

Why in most communities in the world do women live longer than men?

Eric Marsh
Tasmania, Australia.

What proportion of the earth’s arable land is currently used for the cultivation of drugs and stimulants, including coffee, tea, tobacco, grapes, hops, marijuana, coca and opium?

Klaus Graichen
London, England

If you have any questions or answers please send them to Curiosities, New Internationalist, 55 Rectory Road, Oxford OX4 1BW, UK, or to your local NI office (see inside front cover for addresses).

THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN THIS SECTION ARE NOT NECESSARILY THOSE OF NI.

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