1664: Mycology

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Conspiracy theory: There's no such thing as corn. Those fields you see are just the stalks of a fungus that's controlling our brains to make us want to spread it.
Title text: Conspiracy theory: There's no such thing as corn. Those fields you see are just the stalks of a fungus that's controlling our brains to make us want to spread it.


Cueball and Megan are studying a fungus that takes over the brains of mammals and makes them want to study the fungus. This is a reproductive tactic by the fungus, since the fungus makes the mammal whose brain it took over want to study the fungus, which means that mammal will need to produce more of the fungus to study it. Cueball and Megan are most likely themselves being controlled by the fungus, since they tell Ponytail that they want to cultivate the fungus as much as possible.

The title of the comic refers to Mycology, the study of fungi.

This is likely a reference to various parasitic species of Cordyceps fungi, which can infect the brains of insects causing behavior advantageous to the reproduction or spread of the fungus. This also may be an allusion to another fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which manipulates its hosts to aid its propagation.

Toxoplasma gondii is also known to alter the behavior of mammals, and some researchers have proposed that this parasite may be partly responsible for the "Cat lady" phenomenon, whereby humans are compelled to hoard cats. The comic and its subtitle may, in fact, be a subtle argument that human behavior, and the entire concept of free will, may need to be re-evaluated given the massive numbers of Human parasites known to exist.

In evolutionary biology, the phenomenon of an organism influencing its environment, sometimes by modifying the behavior of other organisms, is known as “the extended phenotype”. Richard Dawkins wrote a book of that name (as a follow-up of “The Selfish Gene”) where he describes this mechanism as an extreme example of the so-called selfishness of genes.

The title text parodies numerous conspiracy theories, by suggesting that corn, which has been propagated by humans throughout large parts of the world, is actually just a fungus that has used humans, and is not a grain at all. This type of theory is remarkably similar to the Brain in a Vat thought experiment, and to the Isaac Asimov short story Each an Explorer. In both cases something has affected the perception of the mind itself, making it impossible to discern the true reality of something.

This is quite similar to an argument made in the book Sapiens. Author Yuval Noah Harari points out that domesticated crops are among the most successful life forms on the planet, in terms of propagation. These plants have influenced humans to do everything in our considerable power to spread their seeds, eliminate competing plants and animals, and even provide fertilizer and irrigation to help them grow and spread. From the perspective of the plants, they've domesticated us, rather than the other way around. This differs from Randall's conspiracy theory, in that domesticated plants provide us with food in exchange for propagation, making this more like symbiosis than parasitism.

Conspiracy theories are a recurring subject on xkcd.


[Megan and Cueball are talking to Ponytail.]
Megan: Our lab is studying a fungus that takes over mammal brains and makes them want to study fungi.
Cueball: It's very promising! We're opening a whole new wing of the lab just to cultivate it!

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Sounds like a reference to the parasite that infects cats and migrates to humans/rats/mices that make them likes cats so that the parasites can infect other cats. The parasite has been very successful in history ( Toxoplasma gondii ) 14:17, 6 April 2016 (UTC)

I just heard that urban legend the other day. Unfortunately, Googling doesn't turn up anything for me to cite. Still, I feel like that is what the comic is referencing. Suspender guy (talk) 18:13, 6 April 2016 (UTC)
What "urban legend"? Toxoplasma gondii behavior is described on wikipedia, with references. Only it's not really "like" cats as much as not fear them. -- Hkmaly (talk) 11:42, 7 April 2016 (UTC)

At first glance, this seems like a beneficial method to promote the spread of the fungus. However, I believe this to be an evolutionary dead end. Everyone affected will be easily identified by their desire to study fungus. And their research will eventually reveal efficient ways to kill the fungus without harming the host. Plus, the behavior modifier doesn't cause the host to want to study that particular fungus, but just fungus in general. So the human hosts won't have any instinctive or intellectual need to protect the fungus from eradication. 20:50, 6 April 2016 (UTC)SiliconWolf

This reminds me of Captain Higgins, the parasitic flatworm. -- 22:46, 6 April 2016 (UTC)

Isn't the title text almost the same argument as Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire? Also, there actually is a corn fungus that is eaten in Mexico called corn smut. 23:21, 7 April 2016 (UTC)

There's a new latest comic, but there's no page for it. I don't know what's supposed to happen now, but I clicked the button that was supposed to fix it and it didn't. Does the page for the new comic need to be manually created first or something? 15:41, 8 April 2016 (UTC)

I actually thought this was a general reference to how academia often trains people to study academic subjects for the sake of themselves and not necessarily any practical real world application. Thus a successful academic department is one that successful brainwashes its students into loving its subject and wanting to stay, become a professor, and perpetuate the field. 17:58, 8 April 2016 (UTC)

YESSSSSSSSSSS BRAiNWAsHinG 17:16, 26 March 2024 (UTC)

Sounds like a reference to psychedelic mushrooms imho. The biological role of psilocybin which is produced by those mushrooms is still somewhat unclear but it has intense effects on mammals brains functions when consumed. One hypothesis is that psychedelic mushrooms are psyhemerophile and thus depend on humans/farm animals as their main distribution vector. Opening a whole new lab for growing them after experiencing them seems like the logical way to go. 20:47, 8 April 2016 (UTC)

I assumed that this was a reference to Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which affects the behavior of ants such that they suicide to propagate the fungus. Miamiclay (talk) 21:44, 8 April 2016 (UTC)

The corn parasite thing is part of the plot to the joke John Green novel Zombiecorn. Ejetzer (talk) 02:41, 15 April 2016 (UTC)

Oh lawdy. I am strangely obsessed with mind control, but the title text kind of scares me. O-O 17:15, 26 March 2024 (UTC)