The White Dot: A Parable

Originally posted anonymously at in Sept 2011. It had 563 views in March 2013. Posterous is now closing down, so I am reposting here. Not my normal style! Enjoy this parable of academic publishing and look forward to the time when the white dot comes to Science!

Dear cousin, I feel I must relate the tale of an island we recently visited in the midst of an archipelago kingdom. The inhabitants of the island had established a remarkable economy, based on a trade in dolls. These dolls were beautiful artifacts indeed. Carved from wood, dressed in gaudy clothes and garlanded in extraordinary symbols, each was exquisite and unique. One fashioned in the image of a revered ancestor, another like a gargoyle. Some took the form of gnomes or sprites or other weird and fanciful creatures, and each bore a coloured dot on the tip of its nose.

But their strange and enigmatic beauty was not the source of their value. Imbued with the reason of their makers and the ancestors, the islanders believed, the dolls could in some way fortell the future, or ward off evil from those who apprehended them. The belief had taken hold across the archipelago and visitors would travel from far and wide to behold the dolls, though they understood them little more than us. The islanders struggled to explain the dolls’ powers to outsiders, so steeped were they in their arcane lore. Though their speech was convoluted and they could not speak of it plainly, there was a grace to the simple, sturdy carvings which was apparent to the most untutored gaze.

Now it was a forested but not very fertile island and the islanders had not the resources to sustain themselves. Yet, so highly-prized were the dolls that the adjacent islands would send them, once a year, a cargo of coconuts just sufficient to feed them in their labours, in exchange for the chance to visit and see the dolls.

The dollmakers would toil for months or years over each creation and then bear it with to the top of the mountain where a higher caste, the dotters, lived around a caldera surrounded by piles of coconuts. There they would humbly submit their work at the hut of one of the dotters, together with an offering of coconuts. Presented with a new doll, the dotter would emerge and inspect the handiwork to determine whether it was worthy of his mark, a painted coloured dot on the nose of the doll. The dotters had formed some sort of obscure hierarchy and we gathered that the green and red dots were the most prized marks, but that even a blue or yellow dot was a mark of great prestige.

At the house of the red dotter the dolls were often cast aside with scarcely a glance (these dolls might be taken to another dotter), but the finer craftwork was always carefully inspected. The dollmakers had lately learned that the red dotter had an appreciation for the gaudy clothing in which the dolls were dressed. As well as attracting attention the clothes could cover up blemishes and scratches in the underlying woodwork and with the right attire, it was said, the doll itself might be made of motley twigs. No matter, for when the red dotter had selected a doll for his collection he would hold it before a group of dollmakers and carefully note their reactions. Only then, and only if the doll’s appearance gathered not a frown and only gasps of awe, would he place his red mark on its nose and hide it away in the yard behind his hut. The proud doll maker would returnto the doll maker’s village and tell everyone about his success, and if anyone wanted to see it and perhaps gain something of its mysterious power, they had only to climb the mountain and present an offering of coconuts to the dotter.

A similar scene could be observed at the house of the blue dotter. She would hold up any doll brought to her (some had already been cast aside by the red dotter) but would only make her mark on its nose if there was general approval amongst the dollmakers assembled before her. Those whose dolls bore a blue dot, were content to leave their work with the dotter, knowing that she would safeguard it well and would allow all to see it for just a few coconuts.

It was remarkable to see the sheer quality and variety of the dolls. Even those in the yard of the brown dotter the craft on display was finer than anything we had encountered in all our voyages. Certainly these dolls’ clothes, if they wore them, we less gaudy but the woodwork was very fine indeed. For like all the other dotters, the brown dotter insisted that he would only place his mark on a doll if all of the makers who he brought together agreed that it was acceptable, and since he specialised in a very particular type of doll, the makers who gathered around his hut tended to agree that they were a superior kind, even if others thought differently.

So one way or another few makers left the mountain carrying their doll undotted and with their coconuts returned to them. But if they were unsuccessful a little more polish or some different clothes might be enough to make them acceptable on another occasion.

This much we saw for ourselves. We visited the dotters’ huts several times, always bringing with us an offering of coconuts, and we were allowed to glimpse the collections in the yards around the caldera. Although we encountered many visitors from beyond the island their visits were fleeting. Most of the visitors to the yards were from the maker’s village – often young people who were beginning to make dolls of their own for the first time. Evidently they were required to study the best work of the masters, but this was always kept in the dotters’ yards. Even the masters themselves came regularly to the caldera to study the work of their rivals and of previous generations.

At length we understood that the makers were troubled. As the stocks of coconuts dwindled in the maker’s village each year they made preparation for a festival of judgement. The greatest makers (those whose red- and green- dotted dolls festooned the yards at the top of the mountain) would be given the last of the coconuts, but those who had been less successful would be chased away from the island altogether, taking their chances with the surf.

At this time of year there were often mumblings in the maker’s village. Everyone knew that outside the dotters’ huts the piles of coconuts were so huge that they had begun to rot at the bottom. But what could be done? The very existence of the island depended on the shipment of coconuts, and that in turn depended on the prestige of the marks that only the dotter’s could make.

Never had the situation been more acute than during the year of our visit. The harvest of coconuts had failed, and the shipment was smaller than expected. Times were hard, and the makers lived from hand to mouth, but we were made most welcome and over the weeks and months we began to understand their peculiar lifestyle (as I have explained) and gradually we gleaned something of the power they attributed to the dolls (as real to them as the Holy Trinity is to us).

It happened that on the eve of the festival we supped with the greatest master of the dollmakers. This was to be our last night on the island, for we planned to seek passage on the boat that would bring the shipment of coconuts in the morning, and that would return to the mainland after the festival. As we ate, we talked of the festivities ahead and the customs that we had yet to witness with our own eyes.

The master was a modest, spritely old man, he was revered throughout the village, and even the dotters regarded him with a respect that bordered on humility. He rarely made a doll that was not promptly awarded a red or green spot, and he had a great many apprentices who would watch him at work, and would spend many days and nights (and many coconuts) studying his finest creations and those of his rivals in the dotters’ yards of the caldera. As we dined, one of these, a young woman, came to the door of his hut. Lowering her gaze she held out a doll. The master took it in his hands and it was plain even to us, that this was a superb creation. Though it had no clothes, its smooth elegance and strength was such that one immediately understood it significance.

“Master”, she said, “my doll was cast aside today by the green dotter. Tomorrow is the festival, and having made only two brown dotted dolls, I am to leave the island. Will you bear this up to the red dotter and present it as your own, for I feel sure he will accept it from you.”

The old man’s eyes glistened. “I cannot do this”, he said, “for it is a grave transgression to pass off another’s work as one’s own”.

“I do not mind, for I will be gone”, said the apprentice. “The doll is my parting gift to you, in thanks for all you have taught me. Finish it, clothe it, take it to the dotters, or do what you will – it is yours.”

The master smiled. “This is a very fine gift indeed.” He stroked the doll’s cheek, and seemed to be looking deep into its eyes; one could almost believe he was hearing it speak. “But I have a better gift for you.” He handed the doll back to the apprentice. “Bring your doll to the village hall, and gather together all the other apprentices and the makers.”

And so we set forth to the village hall, a simple gathering place, like a large hut. As we drew close we saw a crowd of men and women. Each had carried with them a doll, and they laid them out on a low tressle. And there we saw for the first time the full diversity and beauty of the makers’ work. From the sublime to the occasionally ridiculous, some not even half-finished, some dressed in fancy rags, but each with its unique character and showing signs of its creator’s long and careful toil.

The master moved to the front of the throng and leaning against the tressle he pulled out of his leather bag a pot of white paint and a brush. He raised up his apprentice’s doll – the crowd first gasped, then smiled and cheered, and the master took up his brush and painted a white dot on the doll’s nose.


Author: tomhartley

Neuroscientist and University Lecturer in Psychology

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