EGENIS seminar: Exploring the Easter E.g. - Shifting Baselines and Changing Perceptions of Cultural and Biological "Aliens" Prof Naomi Sykes (University of Exeter)

Egenis seminar series

An Egenis, the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences seminar
Date22 March 2021
Time15:30 to 17:00
PlaceOnline event.

Very little of what we see around us in Britain today can be classed as 'native'. When the sea cut off the island from the rest of the continent (c. 8,000 years ago) the flora, fauna and human population were very different. Over millennia, Britain's ecology and culture have been transformed. Change has been the only constant, with population movements being responsible for the island's unique bio-cultural heritage.

Ancient migrations of people, ideas and animals are widely celebrated and incorporated into expressions of British cultural identity. However, the more recent the migrations, the more negative the attitudes towards them. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in discussions about 'native' versus 'alien' status, be it in relation to animals, people, or religious ideologies. In general, native is perceived as positive and 'natural', whereas the term 'alien' is attached negatively to cultural and environmental problems. These perceptions often translate into societal attitudes and policy making, in particular that relating to biodiversity, even though they may result from "shifting baselines".

"Shifting baseline" refers to the phenomenon whereby people consider the socio-environmental circumstances of their childhood to be 'natural' and morally absolute. In the absence of deeper historical and archaeological understanding, these nostalgic ideals are adopted blindly (and often erroneously) as the foundation for decision-making both at a personal level and more broadly in science and policy. This project sets out to investigate the role of shifting baselines and their impact on the value-judgements placed on 'native' and 'alien' animals, people and ideologies through the high-profile and publicly engaging example of Easter.

Easter is the most important event in the Christian calendar, yet astonishingly little is known about when it first appeared in Britain, the origins of its component customs - e.g. the gifting of eggs purportedly delivered by the Easter 'bunny' - or how they coalesced to form current practices. Easter and its associated animals - namely the brown hare, rabbit and chicken - are all 'alien' to Britain. However, they are viewed positively because they arrived in the long-forgotten past. Easter is therefore an excellent example to highlight the impact of shifting baselines and challenge negative attitudes to cultural and biological 'aliens'.

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