The power of wastefulness

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach world history. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.

Symbols of Waste

The royal seamstress carefully mended the silvery threads of her sovereign's robes. Each strand had been painstakingly ripped from the belly of her homeland and shaped by artisanal hands into a masterpiece of visual art.

She ignored the politics of it and tried to focus on the slow monotony of the delicate work.

"You know they're destroying the plain," her son said, angrily chewing the snack she'd made for him. "Our people's whole way of life is turning into a mockery and it's because you're letting him waste yhaoginli silk on fripperies."

Memarie closed her eyes and sighed. A handspan taller than her, and he was still in some ways so young. "Power clothes itself in foolishness, Djon. That's how they show power. No one else can afford to be so wasteful."

She certainly couldn't, royal seamstress or no. When her son stormed away in disgust, she finished his plate.


I've written before about social signalling and how we convey information through symbols and appearance, as well as symbols of power & the duties of leadership. Both essays are deeply relevant to this very short story, which was originally inspired by this tweet about Matt Damon and NFTs and my own reflections on how a lot of status symbols have remarkably little to do with practicality — I can imagine primitive peoples rolling their eyes at early trades of gold and seashells in the same way they do about modern cryptocurrency and blockchain-based access tokens to exclusive Discord channels.

If you want to learn more about crypto culture the internet is filled with a multitude of resources on the subject. My favorite is Money Stuff by Bloomberg opinion writer Matt Levine, mostly because I enjoy his tone and his careful breakdowns of obscure laws related to economics news. Instead, I want to talk about the yhaolingi, which I introduced back in Stringent, although not by name.

Yhaolingi are domesticated spiders approximately the size of a small dog, so as to avoid falling afoul if the square-cube law, which is a mathematical principle that explains why sci-fi tropes like dragonflies the size of airplanes are basically impossible. Their name is inspired by the Yangshao, who were a Neolithic culture probably responsible for the production of silk, and the Bagheera kiplingi, which are the closest thing spiders have to being cooperative vegetarians.

The main reason that we've domesticated silkworms and not spiders is because the vaaaast majority of spiders turn cannibal when their population gets dense enough to be useful. Populations at wild density are prohibitively labor-intensive to work with. It's totally possible to use spidersilk to make silk fabrics like this golden cape from Madagascar, though, which for some reason didn't make it into the spidersilk edition of this newsletter.

Anyway, developing and thinking about the yhaoginli — and learning about the early history of human domestication — got me to wondering why the Monche nomads might have hypothetically domesticated these spiders in the first place. I haven't been able to find out much about the initial domestication of the silkworm, but most fiber-producing animals I've come across were initially domesticated for their meat. The first domestic sheep had really short hair that was functionally useless for weaving with — ditto goats, pigs, rabbits, etc. It took many years of targeted breeding to develop cows that easily produced an overabundance of milk and sheep that produced thick wooly coats. Modern sheep don't shed their coats the way primitive ones do, so they can get so fluffy that if they're left without human assistance they become weighed down by their wool and have difficulty surviving.

Nobody I'm aware of eats silkworms, though, and dogs an obvious exception to my rule of thumb that most animal domesticates were originally domesticated for their meat. Horse riding and wagon-pulling definitely came after domestication, for example. Plant domesticates tend to either have a history as a food or fiber; as far as I can tell, purely decorative plant domestication is a much more modern thing. Though roses as a species are about 35 million years old, they've only looked like what we're used to for about a thousand years.

One of the few exceptions I've been able to find was gourds, which, while technically edible when they're immature, are more useful as containers and music-making. From what I can tell, gourds are just about the only domesticated plant that could be found all over the globe in the pre-Columbian era. The Americas have wild grapes, but not domestic ones. Incidentally, grapes in the wild generally have male and female vines. But the process of domestication selected for hermaphrodism, which is a relatively rare genetic trait.

Rather than have the yhaoginli be a weird outlier like gourds and dogs, though, I've decided it makes more sense to say that the Monche do eat yhaoginli spiders. The newsletter edition on cuisine certainly includes a great many cultures that eat insects and arthropods, so why not this one? A thought which led me to a whole new story that will serve as a sequel to Beetle Siege, which is about a priestess defending the food stores for her city during a siege. It should be out on the 22nd for early birds and gold-tier subscribers (you can check your account details here) :)

Further Reading

  • For the best book I've ever read involving domesticated spiders, the evolution of spiders, the behavior of spiders, and basically anything spider-related, I strongly recommend Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It's fairly "hard" on the scifi scale and involves one of the best examples non-human point of view characters  spaced out over millennia that I've ever seen. There are human point of view characters, too, but the portia spiders (which are extremely smart for their size) are what make the book so incredibly good. If read it (either tense!) let me know what you think in the comments.  


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