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 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.
In practical terms, this implies it makes humans desire it while they don't have a need for it, much like a drug addiction. For example it could make us believe corn starch gives us energy and makes us feel full. At the same time this would be an illussion and human bodies would function equally well or better without it. It could even make humans think it was nutritious but having no nutritional value. There would be little difference between this conspiracy theory and the reality, as it posits the fungus-corn would be the same food that humans have already been cultivating for food for millennia. Unless, of course, this fungus's stalks have no nutritional value, and it's only been making us think that it's a food, and those of us who live on corn are starving without realizing it. Humans would then have distorted views of reality where corn-emaciated people look healthy as well as making humans spontaneously and presumably subconsciously forge scientific studies on the nutritional value of the fungus.
Conspiracy theories is 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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