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A potpourri of political, scientific and writerly musings.
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eople ask me why I write nonfiction – nature/science books in particular. I didn’t plan it that way but after some 30 years making my living as a science writer of books, magazine articles and television shows, I figure I must not be too bad at it. I knew I wanted to be a writer from around age 8. I loved reading more than anything in the world – fairy tales, Nancy Drew mysteries, Hardy Boy mysteries, and Book-of-the-Month-Club novels that an adult cousin passed on to me after she finished reading them. I thought I would write fiction, but life takes many unexpected twists and turns. The adventure of life is to follow them and see where they lead.
The first twist for me was an opportunity to write a book about scientific discoveries that were made by chance or error. I had to work really hard to write that book because I had no background in science. I was an literature major with a minor in creative writing. The year I worked on that book was grueling. I had a full-time job but spent weekends in the New York Public Library doing research for the book. I did get a book, Discovery By Chance, written, and after it was published, other science writing jobs on television documentaries came my way. To write one of those films, which was about tropical rainforests, I traveled to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s field station on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, to do research. Being in the rainforest and meeting a bunch of field biologists hooked me on science, especially evolutionary biology, the science that deals with life on Earth, who we are, and how we evolved.
I don’t know anything more fascinating than the fact that life evolved on this fortunate planet, and that of all the directions life could have taken, creatures like us evolved. Chance figured in our evolution as well. We wouldn’t be here had it not been for a cataclysmic accident that wiped out the dinosaurs. Some 65 million years ago, an enormous asteroid (6 miles across) hit the Earth, sending up dense dust clouds that blocked the sun’s rays and darkened the skies. Without sunlight, plants couldn’t carry out photosynthesis and manufacture food that is the base of all food chains. Without their plant food, the vegetarian dinosaurs and many other species died of starvation along with the carnivorous beasts like T. Rex that fed on them. Without the sun’s warmth, the Earth also experienced cold winter conditions. Scientists think the fallout from this asteroid killed up to 70 percent of all plants and animals on Earth at that time – a mass extinction.
It was a fortunate extinction for us, because living in the shadow of the gigantic beasts was a small shrew-like insect-eating mammal that may be the ancestor of modern placental mammals. A specimen 160 million years old has been found. Over time, following the extinction of the dinosaurs, numerous mammals evolved, including primates and the great apes that are our ancestors.
I find it exciting to learn what we share in common with our closest primate relatives – the chimpanzees – and how we differ. Our modern human species, Homo sapiens, first appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago -- only a flicker of evolutionary time. DNA analysis shows that all of us who are alive today are descended from those early humans who lived in Africa. At the deepest level of our cells, our genetic blueprint, we are all African. What is more profound or exciting than that?
I write about nature and science because they form our knowledge base, provide evidence for what we know, and point toward solutions if our leaders are wise enough to embrace evidence. Sadly, today too many people in positions of power deny science and embrace superstition. I write science because I cherish life and hope in some small way to contribute to the education needed so desperately to protect our planet and save humanity from its self-destructive ways. Think of this: Dinosaurs ruled the Earth some 135 million years; our species hasn’t been around even a quarter of a million years. We are babies, and some of our grown-ups act like toddlers having tantrums. At the current rate of willful destruction of the planet’s resources, we won’t need an asteroid to wipe us out. We’re doing it to ourselves.
Is there hope? I like to think so. We’re a resilient, hardy species with huge brainpower. If we use our intelligence, creativity, compassion and ability to cooperate with each other and solve problems, we could protect our home planet and improve the quality of life for everyone. But it's a big IF.
Today, May 17th, is the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. I was a junior in an all-white Virginia high school (there were no racially integrated schools in the South at this time) when the decision was announced. In my naivete, I thought there should be a celebration.
But there was no celebration. Instead Virginia politicians turned to fear-mongering against “mongrelization” and mounted a policy known as “massive resistance” to implementing the court’s decision. Using every political tactic at their disposal, including closing schools to prevent desegregation, Virginia’s politicians succeeded in delaying school integration until the late 1960s. One entire county, Prince Edward County, closed its public schools for five years rather than integrate. Here and in other areas of the state, private academies for white children sprang up but black children sometimes had no education at all. It was an ugly time in our history. Looking back now, I wonder how grown people could have acted so hatefully against children and against people they had known all their lives.
Even when I was a child, segregation never made sense to me. It went against everything my parents, my school, and my church taught me: love your neighbor as yourself, all men are created equal, respect everyone, liberty and justice for all. An old Sunday school song depicted a world quite different from the one in which I was living: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children in the world. Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.” I felt I was getting mixed signals from these institutions and my community. When I asked why, nobody seemed to be able to give me an answer that made any sense. I felt I was getting simultaneous stop and go signals about how life should be lived.
Growing up on a farm, my brother and I played with the children of our black neighbors. We were friends. It was okay to play together in our yard, but we couldn’t express that friendship in public. We couldn’t go to school together; we couldn’t go to church together; we couldn’t go to the movies together.
The cultural mantra was “separate but equal,” but there was no equality in separation. I remember the “White Only” and “Colored Only” signs next to water fountains and on waiting room doors; the “White Only” and “Colored Only” sections of the local movie theater. Blacks weren’t allowed to sit at tables in the local drugstore/soda shop. Even the cemeteries were segregated. Did this mean heaven and hell were segregated? I felt that segregation made victims of both blacks and whites, that it limited freedom for all of us, though I knew I wasn’t humiliated and discriminated against as black people were. By the luck of the genetic draw, I was born white, but I would be no less me if I were black. Skin color was just another feature like eye or hair color. But segregation exploited skin color as an inborn badge of superiority or inferiority. Segregation said being black diminished a person's humanity, relegated a person to second-class status. But whites had done nothing to deserve their superior status. It didn't make any sense.
I didn’t understand how anybody calling themselves Christian could embrace segregation. Throughout my teenage years, I argued with my father, who was a devout Christian, on this point. Neither he nor my mother were racists. Like many other decent, well-meaning white southerners, they were born into the system of racial segregation, but they harbored no hatred of blacks. Indeed, there were some genuinely loving friendships between blacks and whites, especially between black and white women. But they were emotionally shackled by a system that required holding back feelings and avoiding openly embracing each other’s humanity. So there was intimacy and denial of intimacy – a system of wounded love. Always you had to be aware of how far you could go. The social taboo – the line that must never be crossed, on fear of death for black men – was interracial mixing – the great sexual bugaboo. Until 1967 when the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s law against interracial marriage as unconstitutional, mixed marriage was a felony in the state of Virginia and other southern states.
We’ve come a long way since 1954. Interracial marriage is no longer taboo, we have an interracial president who was raised by a single white mother and his white grandparents, and schools throughout the country are racially integrated though still segregated in many areas because of housing patterns. But we’re not in a post-racial society yet. Blacks still experience discrimination in job opportunities, housing, educational opportunity, access to medical treatment, and administration of justice. Black male children are especially at risk of racial hatred, such as the wanton murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whose murderer was acquitted. Black male students in grades K-12 are nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended from school than white students. Young black men are stigmatized as criminals or potential criminals. According to the Center for American Progress, people of color are “ disproportionately incarcerated, policed, and sentenced to death at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts.”
So segregation is no longer legal but America still suffers from racism. Indeed, since President Obama’s election, racism seems to have surged particularly in the Republican Party. Legislation to hinder and limit the voting rights of African-Americans and other non-white minorities has been passed in various Republican-led states. Jim Crow has resurfaced under the guise of preventing so-called voter fraud. The journey to get beyond racial segregation that began 60 years ago with the Brown v. Board of Education decision hasn’t been completed yet. But I choose to believe we can overcome racism if enough people of good will speak out and remain vigilant. In some small pockets of the country, including many in the South, it has already happened quietly and peacefully.
If Freud had known more about the birds and bees, he might never have fantasized his theory of penis envy. In fact, a lot of theories about what sex is or ought to be might be vastly different if they were more firmly grounded in biology than in romance. The truth is: What passes for the story of the birds and the bees is a bedtime tale for innocents that leaves out more than it tells. In the reality of the wild, birds, bees, butterflies, snails—even orchids and avocados—“do it” in ways that would make the erotic Hindu sculptures at Konarak blush all the way down to their stone toenails. A tableau of nonhuman sexual strategies includes cannibals, transvestites, hermaphrodites, homosexual rapists, males with two penises, and plants that deceive, seduce, and kill. When it comes to mixing genes—and biologically, that’s what sex is all about—anything and everything goes.
There are almost as many ways and positions for “doing it” as they are creatures on the face of the Earth. Our human repertoire of seduction techniques seems unimaginative by comparison. Some animals and plants change sex as blithely as humans slip into evening clothes. Others resort to trickery—the biological equivalent of our sexual con games. A few animals even give up their lives for sex, but unlike us humans, they don’t have any choice in the matter. In the nonhuman world, sexual behavior is genetically programmed. Here, sex is straight and unadulterated. Nobody worries about who’s on top or who comes first or whether orgasms are clitoral or vaginal. There are no value judgments attached—no “crimes against nature,” sexual deviates, “unnatural” sex acts. Evolution favors whatever strategy best enables an animal or plant to pass along its genes and leave successful offspring.
It’s fun to be a voyeur in the world of nonhuman sex, but there’s a more serious reason for paying close attention to the birds and the bees. Training binoculars on nonhuman erotic windows can provide new biological perspectives on human sexual behavior—particularly taboos and discrimination, rape, wife-beating, and possibly other forms of sexual aggression. First, however, it’s necessary to give up some of our human chauvinist ideas. Excerpted from my book "How To Have Sex If You're Not Human"
Scientific illiteracy will kill us all. It's not a nuclear blast we have to fear but the blast of ignorance that characterizes the Republican Tea Party and the religious right. Scientific ignorance is the greatest threat to national security, global security and personal security. Yet, we have members of Congress celebrating such ignorance and trying to pass it off as public policy. Some of the statements coming out of politicians' mouths are so stupid, a fiction writer could hardly make them up. In recent months, Congresspersons, ex-Congresspersons and political candidates have made statements that are downright scary. Here's a sampling:
On Rape and Women's Bodies"From what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," proclaimed Rep. Todd Akin (R-Missouri), the 2012 Republican Senate nominee from Missouri. Thankfully, the voters in Missouri shut down Akin's bid and reelected Senator Claire McCaskill.
On Wind Energy and Climate Change"Wind is God's way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it's hotter to areas where it's cooler. That's what wind is. Wouldn't it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up? Now, I'm not saying that's going to happen, Mr. Chairman, but that is definitely something on the massive scale. I mean, it does make some sense. You stop something, you can't transfer that heat, and the heat goes up. It's just something to think about." This came out of the mouth of Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas)
This same Congressman told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee: "I would point out that people like me who support hydrocarbon development don't deny that climate is changing. "I think you can have an honest difference of opinion of what's causing that change without automatically being either all in that's all because of mankind or it's all just natural. I think there's a divergence of evidence. . . I would point out that if you're a believer in the Bible, one would have to say the Great Flood is an example of climate change and that certainly wasn't because mankind had overdeveloped hydrocarbon energy."
Jim Sensenbrenner (R=WI) called research on climate change "an international conspiracy." Sensenbrenner is on House Science Committee.
Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) said: “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.” In the same speech, Broun claimed “I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.” This shining light of knowledge is also on the House Science Committee.
Just so I don't leave you in this muddle of negativity, here's a smart comment from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of Hayden Planetarium, Museum of Natural History, New York City.
“Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.”
This is the season when people give lip service in talk and song to “peace on Earth,” yet we live in a society that promotes violence. From video games to the NRA, the gunslinger as hero is promoted in thousands of ways, some subtle, some blatant. On December 13, 2013, the day before the first anniversary of the massacre of 20 first-graders and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Bill Moyers interviewed Richard Slotkin, former professor at Wesleyan University and author of “The Fatal Environment,” “Regeneration Through Violence,” “Gunslinger Nation,” and his most recent book, “The Long Road to Antietam.” Discussing the Newtown shooter, Adam Lanza, Professor Slotkin pointed out that Lanza was obsessed with violent video games and used them, in effect, to train himself for his deadly attack on children and teachers. He also shot his mother and himself. Violent video games like “Grand Theft Auto,” -- of which there are now five versions -- can act as “training films” for criminality similar to the way the military uses video games to train soldiers. Moyers showed an excerpt from a video game that has even been developed about the Newtown massacre. The game allows the viewer to follow and actively shoot students in a classroom. Greed and exploitation know neither good taste nor compassion.
Since the Newtown massacre there have been 26 more school shootings with 200 children killed. It’s possible to look at violence as a disease epidemic in the U.S. Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2010 alone (the latest year for which the CDC has records), a total of 31,672 Americans were killed by guns; 2694 were children or teens. “We produce the lone killer . . . [who’s] trying to validate himself or herself in terms of our society,” Slotkin said. But the school shooters are all men, Moyers pointed out, asking why that is. Slotkin replied that white men “feel their position is imperiled” and turn to the “mystique of weapons.” Guns are symbols of “productive violence,” Slotkin said. Yet the only thing produced is dead bodies, heartbreak and grief.
Incredibly, following the Newtown shootings, the NRA campaigned for more guns, arming teachers, rather than accepting even the weakest, most basic, of gun control measures such as background checks. I have no quarrel with hunting. I grew up on a farm. My father and all the other farmers in our neighborhood had guns for hunting. Daddy shot rabbits and squirrels, and Mother cooked them, and we ate them. I learned to shoot but unlike my brother, was never interested in hunting. In rural environments where populations of some animals, such as deer, have exploded because they have no predators, a hunting season makes sense. But the hunting argument can’t be used to support military assault weapons in city streets. You don’t hunt deer with AK-47s. People are the only prey in urban environments.
Peace on Earth is just another dream unless we begin teaching peace as fervently as we teach war. The reality of school shootings is the nightmare we currently inhabit.
Blasting off to outer space in my rocket ship
I'm not on drugs but I'm high from the trip.
My mission is to find another place,
a planet or a moon where the human race
can start a new world when ours is destroyed
by leaders who treat lethal weapons like toys.
As I orbit the Earth, tears come to my eyes
'Cause it's the only living planet in these pitch black skies.
The only one that shines with a deep blue sea,
The only one that breathes life's chemistry,
The only one to harbor life's amazing evolution
But to keep it going, we need a revolution,
not the kind that's fought with weapons of terror
but with intelligence to admit human error.
From the windows of my ship in the vacuum of space
Earth looks as small as one human face,
And I think of all the people as one and the same,
The same human species with one human name.
Underneath the different languages and different colored skins,
We're all the same -- just women and men.
All living together on this one cosmic ball
where survival will depend on the efforts of us all.
The view is very different when you go out far.
You can see the total folly of any kind of war.
You can see our leaders acting out with their primitive brains
Ancient battles that took place on Africa's plains.
But the weapons are no longer sticks and stones.
It's high technology with nuclear bombs.
And if that's not enough hanging over our heads,
Radioactive wastes may kill us all dead.
Or destruction of the ozone can let in deadly rays
of that blazing solar furnace that lights all our days.
The dolphins are dying, and they say it's from pollution,
But the leaders of the world haven't found a solution.
Maybe they're dumb or just too lazy
Or maybe they're just downright crazy.
From my vantage point in my rocket ship,
It seems like a shame to let things slip
right out of our hands when we have the power
to protect the Earth and make it flower.
I am coming home because my mission is over.
There is nowhere to go for this interplanetary rover.
No other place in the whole Milky Way
Where human beings could possibly stay,
No other planet, no asteroid or rock
Where human beings could set up shop.
If we start anew, it will have to be down there
On our planet with water and breathable air.
I make my last orbit and tears come to my eyes
'Cause Earth's the only planet in these pitch black skies.
The only one that shines with a deep blue sea,
The only one that breathes life's chemistry.
The only one that harbors life's amazing evolution,
But to keep it going, we need a global revolution,
Not the kind fought with weapons of terror,
But with intelligence to admit human error,
A change that comes within the heart and mind,
Achieving peace for humankind.
This was written several years before 9/11.
This past weekend (Feb. 22-23, 2013) I attended Christopher Newport University’s annual Writers Conference--the 32nd, in fact. This one honored my dear friend and wonderful writer Doris Gwaltney, author of HOMEFRONT. See Doris’ Facebook page. Doris Gwaltney became coordinator of the conference in its fifth year and served in that capacity for eight years. She teaches a Lifelong Learning class in creative writing, and has been a mentor and inspiration to many local writers. She also serves on the Advisory Council for the CNU Writers Conference.
I always find this writers conference nourishing, and this year’s was no exception. Humans rights was the theme of the conference and the opening day’s panel discussed human rights issues, including rape, violence against women and children, and human trafficking in sexual and other forms of slavery.
Novelist and attorney Corban Addison gave an outstanding presentation about his novel, A WALK ACROSS THE SUN, and his involvement with international justice movements to combat human trafficking, which he called “the fastest growing criminal industry in the world.” Trafficking for sexual and other forms of slavery is not just something that happens in other countries. Addison pointed out that in the United States some 100,000 American children are trafficked every year. “It’s as easy to order a girl on the Internet as it is to order a pizza.,” he said, adding that “We spend more on military marching bands than on liberating slaves.” Globally about 2 million children are trafficked every year. The average American sex buyer is male, as are sex tourists that go to Thailand, which is known for an active sex trade in young girls. Until the grassroots rises and demands an end to this kind of slavery, “dollars will continue to fuel the trade,” Addison said. He advocated an educational campaign on human trafficking similar to drug trafficking education.
Rosemary Trible, wife of CNU President Paul Trible, talked about her book, FEAR TO FREEDOM, about her rape experience when she was in her twenties. Since then she has become an advocate for rape victims and founded the nonprofit organization, Fear 2 Freedom, which provides aid to victims of sexual abuse. “I don’t believe anybody eight-years-old says, ‘I’d like to be a prostitute when I grow up,’” Trible said.
Tina Kempin Reuter, CNU assistant professor of international politics and law, presented the policy angle on human rights, pointing out that the concept of human rights is only about 70 years old, and because of communications technology, more people than ever before are aware of human trafficking. With increased awareness, there is a greater chance that more laws against this practice will be passed and implemented.
In a panel on “The Facts about Fiction,” novelist Michael Farmer said a writer needs to know three things: the truth, the subject and the trade. A writer of Western novels, Farmer described the rigorous research that goes into each of his books and the need for authentic details to bring a story alive. Farmer is a member of the Isle of Wight, Virginia, writers group. His novel, HOMBRECITO’S WAR, was a 2006 Spur Finalist and a 2007 New Mexico Finalist for Best Historical Fiction. Other members of this panel were mystery writer Maria Hudgins and poet Nathan Richardson.
Saturday’s keynote speaker Lucinda Roy, Alumni Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech University, talked about her memoir, NO RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT, about the 2007 shooting that killed 32 people and wounded 17 others at Tech. Roy had taught the student, Seung-Hui Cho, who opened fire on students and faculty and then killed himself. She said she had recognized he was a troubled kid and tried to obtain some help for him but none was forthcoming. The experience, which affected her deeply, is the subject of her memoir.
Steve Watkins, author of the novels DOWN SAND MOUNTAIN (winner of the 2009 Golden Kite Award for Fiction) and WHAT COMES AFTER, presented a lively, humorous discussion on “Why Write YA.” Books for this age group -- 14 up -- find a ready market that continually renews itself as children from the middle grade readership grow up the literary ladder. Watkins pointed out that girls are the primary readers of fiction in the YA category and that they like to read books in which the protagonist is at least one year older than they are. YA novels these days deal with adult topics, including rape, pregnancy, drugs, crime, homelessness, etc., and many are read by adults.
There were many other fine panels and presenters but impossible to attend them all. It’s always refreshing to mingle with other writers, listen to accomplished authors talk about how they work and reenergize the creative batteries for the projects at hand and those on the drawing board.
Congratulations to Cindy Halliday, Conference Coordinator, poet Ann Falcone Shalaski, President of the Advisory Council for the CNU Writers Conference, Joanne Dingus, and all the other council members and those from the Lifelong Learning Society who were involved in organizing this wonderful conference.
I am honored to be featured on Morgen Bailey's wonderful Writing Blog. A great blog for writers to follow.
I made it into the Authors Show 2012 edition of 50 GREAT WRITERS YOU SHOULD BE READING. Thanks to everyone who voted for me.
Today's EXPLORING NATURE podcast was devoted to climate change. Hurricane Sandy brought this issue to the fore. There is no more urgent issue than climate change. Worry about whether Iran develops a nuclear weapon pales next to climate change, which will have devastating consequences for the entire planet if governments don't address it. The two governments that most urgently need to address climate change are the United States and China. Yet we have some politicians and the fossil fuel industries that refuse to recognize the seriousness of climate change. They are stuck in denial and in an anti-science attitude that endangers all life on Earth.
The science and signs of climate change are out there. The scientific community has been in agreement about climate change for some 40 years. The changes are accumulating rapidly, more rapidly than originally predicted. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2000 to 2009 was the warmest decade ever recorded. If people keep on adding greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at the current rate, the average temperature around the world could increase by 4 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100.
Increased temperature affects the oceans, weather patterns, snow, ice, plants and animals, including people. As the top layer of the ocean gets warmer, hurricanes and other tropical storms grow stronger with faster winds and heavier rain. That's what we saw with Sandy.
Since the 1980s, the U.S. has experienced more intense single-day storms that are dumping a lot more rain or snow than usual.
In the past century, there has been about a foot of sea level rise in the New York City area, and this figured in hurricane Sandy with the storm surge added to the normal tidal surge, producing devastating flooding for New York and New Jersey.
Melting sea ice is also a factor and will continue to be a factor in the world's coastal areas where so many large cities are located. Arctic sea ice reached its lowest seasonal minimum since satellite data began to be kept in 1979.
Summer 2012 was the third hottest on record.
The trends of wilder weather and greater temperature extremes are expected to continue. Exactly what climate scientists have been predicting for more than 20 years is happening. Everyone needs to pay attention and pressure their governments to do something about it while we still can.
Rape is the topic of my latest podcast, EXPLORING NATURE. Rape is not a pretty topic. It's downright ugly and the politics of rape are uglier than I've ever seen them in my lifetime. Rape victims are under attack again. I say again because for centuries there was a blame-the-woman attitude toward rape, as if rape was not something to take seriously--just some "boys-will-be-boys" fun. Women somehow brought on rape by dressing seductively or by inviting intercourse and then lying about it to trap some poor unfortunate man. The man was the victim. When rape began to be taken seriously as a crime, it was seen as a property crime against the husband or the father. It was his property, not the woman victim, that suffered the attack. The raped woman was "damaged goods."
It took many decades for rape to be defined as a violent crime against the victim. The World Health Organization defines rape as "physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration--even if slight--of the vulva or anus, using a penis, other body parts or an object." The FBI's definition, as of 2012, is "The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim."
Rape is a crime of violence but this fact seems to have been lost on a group of Republican male legislators whose goal is to deny women victims access to abortion for any cause. Displaying ignorance of women's anatomy and science, and a stunning callousness toward rape victims, these legislators are more concerned about the rapist's sperm investment than the woman's violation. They downgrade the seriousness of rape by parsing "forcible rape," "legitimate rape," and pregnancy from rape as a gift of God. But rape is rape. There is no acceptable rape and no holy rape.
Most recently, Richard Mourdock, Indiana Republican running for the Senate, made the astounding statement that pregnancy resulting from rape is, "something God intended to happen . . . a gift from God." This statement is one of the most offensive remarks about rape I have ever heard. It implies a theory of divine rape. Mr. Murdock's view would open the door for a rapist to defend himself by arguing that he was just carrying out God's will.
Then there was Todd Akin, Republican congressman from Missouri, coining the term "legitimate rape," and displaying his ignorance of science by proclaiming that a woman's body could "shut down" pregnancy resulting from rape.
Murdock and Akin are extremists but they aren't alone. Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan is on the record saying rape is just another method of conception and not a reason to allow abortion. About a dozen Republican Senate candidates oppose abortion for rape, incest or to protect the health of the mother. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said he would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned.
There are several things to note about these efforts to turn back the clock on rape victims. First, these men constitute an anti-abortion Mafia. Their extreme view on pregnancy from rape are part and parcel of a general war on women being waged primarily by Republican men. Secondly, they don't talk about rape as a violent crime. By their statements and the bills they sponsor, they are more interested in protecting a fertilized egg than in protecting women from rape. What they end up protecting is the rapist.
Every year in the United States, between 25,000 and 32,000 pregnancies result from rape. Mr. Akin needs some medical instruction about women's bodies. There is no mechanism for "shutting down" pregnancy from rape. Perhaps Mr. Akin is more familiar with the bodies of some female insects than with women's bodies. Female tenebrionid beetles of the species Pterostichus Lucublandus produce a kind of chemical mace that they use not only against predators but also against unwanted males. This spray is so disabling that even after the male cleans himself, he falls into a kind of coma for several hours, giving her time to get away. Of course, the female pays a price for this defense. Until she can resynthesize her supply of defensive spray, she is vulnerable to predators.
Women are vulnerable to predatory men. The worst predators currently are the male legislators who are passing laws and sponsoring bills that have the intent of controlling women's bodies and denying women autonomy over their reproductive biology. The remarks of Mourdock, Akin and Ryan display contempt for women and should be unacceptable to any sane person.
Hear more by listening to the podcast. Also see my book, Sexual Strategies: How Females Choose Their Mates, which has an entire chapter on how males across the animal kingdom try to subvert female choice.
Today's podcast, EXPLORING NATURE, presents Part II of the discussion about war as the culture of death for the human species, the environment and the planet. Unlike the Stone Age, when people hurled stones at each other and had no weapons of mass destruction nor any concept of a global ecosystem, violent conflict was a local head-bashing between neighboring tribes. Today's techno-warfare with remotely controlled drones, missiles and bombs threatens all life on Earth. Yet humans use these weapons as if they were living in the Stone Age, and that is the most dangerous aspect of warfare today. The humans who promote war as the only way to resolve conflicts, who substitute bombs for brains, are using Stone Age behavior with Space Age weapons. This disconnect between behavior and technology imperils the planet and the survival of the human species. Given the awesome destructive power of modern weapons, war should be declared obsolete by all nations on Earth.
Today on my podcast, EXPLORING NATURE, I'll be talking about war in the context of environmental degradation.
Imagine the puzzlement of intelligent beings from another planet as they approach Earth. Descending through Earth’s dense atmosphere, the ship’s sophisticated sensors whirr with incoming data. The readings are bizarre: millions of acres of land littered with explosive devices; landscapes pockmarked by bomb craters; radioactive materials polluting bodies of water both large and small; toxic chemicals poisoning soils; carbon dioxide clogging the air, building up heat around the planet. Incredibly, the planet appears to be a toxic waste dump. These intelligent aliens might well wonder what kind of crazed animal wreaks such damage on an otherwise beautiful planet, one that seems so suitable for life. They might be even more surprised to learn that the damage was and continues to be done by the species considered the most intelligent on Earth – Homo sapiens.
Why does a species with such a short lifespan spend so many of its precious years making life as miserable as possible, even hastening death for so many of its own kind? One might conclude that they are possessed by such a deep hatred for life that they are willing to attack and poison the only known planet that sustains and nourishes them.
Whatever the pathology in the wiring of some human brains – inexplicably those in the heads of men likely to be leaders of countries – it has invented a monstrous self-deception that war and national security are inseparably linked. In pursuit of this illusion, governments spend most of their economic and human resources manufacturing, selling and buying weapons of destruction that not only increase insecurity but threaten all life on the planet.. Back on October 28, 2002, the first observance of the International Day for Preventing Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said: “War not only causes human suffering. It can also be devastating to the environment. Long after peace has been restored, the negative environmental impacts of conflict often remain.”
War is hell on Earth. Environmental destruction is a strategy of war. There is hardly any environment on the planet that has not been scarred, scorched, poisoned, mined, radiated or otherwise brutalized by war. The world’s armed forces are the single biggest polluters of the planet. According to the Science for Peace Institute at the University of Toronto, Canada, 10 to 30 percent of all global environmental degradation is a direct result of military actions (Ref. 1). Eleven nuclear reactors and at least 50 nuclear warheads sit on the ocean floor. Mines and unexploded ordnance lie in wait in some 90 countries. According to the International Commission of the Red Cross, 100 million land mines are scattered around the world where they kill or maim between 1,000 and 2,000 people, mostly children, every month. After more than 23 years of war, Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, its once dense forests and much of its farmland have been destroyed, and rare species of birds and mammals, such as snow leopards, gazelles, bears, and wolves, are endangered.
In Iraq, 12 years of U.S. invasion and occupation have left that country crippled, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians dead, homes, schools, hospitals, electrical and sanitation systems destroyed, some some 2 to 4 million refugees, depending on whose figures you use. Iraquis’ air, soil, water, blood and gene pool have been contaminated with depleted uranium, resulting in birth defects and cancers. And the environment is littered with unexploded cluster bombs.
The Vietnam war has been called “an unprecedented assault on the environment.” Ten percent of southern Vietnam’s tropical forests, including one-third of its coastal mangroves were destroyed by herbicides. Mangroves play a vital role in coastal ecology and provide a rich source of food that sustains fish populations. Over the course of 13 years, from 1961 to 1974, Vietnam was repeatedly hit by cluster bomb units (CBUs), affectionately called “bomblets,” large bombs, napam, land mines, and toxic chemicals. The country’s soils, water systems, biological diversity, and even its climate were affected. During the course of the war, the United States admitted it dropped 72 million liters of chemicals on Vietnam, most of it Agent Orange. This highly toxic agent contained the most dangerous type of dioxin called TCDD, which stands for 2, 3, 7, 8 tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin. Known to cause almost every kind of cancer, TCDD spread throughout Vietnam’s drinking water and soils and entered the food chain. From there, the toxic chemical got into the blood of animals, including humans, where it entered the germ cells, subverted DNA, the basic molecule of life, and caused mutations – babies born with two heads, fingers and toes that drop off, strange limbs, and retarded growth. Both human and environmental effects will continue long into the future.
The most devastating assault on humanity, one that launched the horror of nuclear war, occurred in August 6, 1945, when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Watching the mushroom cloud boiling up from what had been a city filled with life, Colonel Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the B-29 airplane that dropped the bomb, wrote in his journal: “My God, what have we done?” The heat, air pressure, and radiation from the explosion made it seem as if a sun had exploded. Within seconds, people, buildings, plants, and all animal life within a 1.5-mile radius was vaporized. For months and years to come, people exposed to the radiation died – more than 140,000 by the end of 1945. An estimated total of 200,000 people are believed to have died as a result of the bomb.
Three days later, on August 9, 1945, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb, this one on the city of Nagasaki. Approximately 70,000 people died by the end of 1945 as a result of this bomb, nicknamed “Fat Man.”
One might have thought that the horror, suffering, death, and devastation caused by these two bombs would have been enough for governments to take immediate action to outlaw such weapons. Instead, it triggered a nuclear arms build-up, known as the Cold War, between the United States and the former Soviet Union that continues to threaten the entire planet even though the Cold War has ended. The activities of producing these deadly weapons and the disposal of the waste by-products have created entire areas of the planet that are now radioactive.
Learn more on the podcast.
You may think you know some weirdos, possibly a few in your own family, but chances are, these eccentrics are colorless bores next to some of the bizarre types found in the nonhuman animal kingdom. It's hard to say which is numero uno, the panda with its five fingers and so-called pseudothumb, the changeable chameleon, whose lightning-fast tongue is almost twice as long as its body, or the tuatara, which has third eyelid in the top of its head and is the only survivor of a group of reptiles that lived during the time of the dinosaurs.
Weirdness, of course, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder--or, in the case of the tuatara, in the third eye of the beholdee. It all depends on who, or what, you are. Just as there are varying degrees of beauty, so are there different levels of weirdness. Some animals and humans merely look weird; others act weird; and some look at weird as they act or vice versa. These and other animal weirdos are the topic of my EXPLORING NATURE podcast for October 1, 2012. Air time: 2-2:30 PM, ET, or listen to archived show anytime.
Today's podcast, EXPLORING NATURE, deals with female mate choice in the context of evolutionary biology. In his book, Social Evolution, biologist Robert Trivers pointed out that female choice "is not just a matter of permitting sex." In biology, female choice means more than a female showing her preference for certain males. It means more than her selecting a male for his attractiveness, more than her being receptive to sex. For female choice to be meaningful in evolutionary terms, it must also be adaptive. Her decision must enable her to produce more offspring that are better adapted to survive than if she had mated randomly. You can listen to this fascinating episode on blogtalkradio:
The September 17, 2012 edition of my podcast, EXPLORING NATURE, explains why the anti-science attitudes in the U.S. are handicapping our students and threatening national security by graduating students who do not have the knowledge to cope with the world. Never has it been more important for children to have a sound science education yet we have one political party – the Republicans — and fundamentalist religious groups that oppose scientific facts and celebrate ignorance. These attitudes hark back to a pre-scientific era when superstition took precedence over evidence. Recent statements by politicians are mind-boggling in their stupidity. Yes, stupidity is the right word. We have Republican senatorial candidate Todd Akin’s comment about “legitimate rape,” and his further fake science comment that the female body can shut down pregnancy that occurs by “legitimate rape.” There’s no evidence for anything he said. During the Republican primaries, Texas governor Rick Perry dismissed evolution as “just a theory” that has “some gaps in it.” Evolution is the foundation of the biological sciences. It’s as firmly established as gravity. Media interviewers sometimes ask politicians whether they believe in evolution. But evolution isn’t a belief. It’s a firmly established fact of life on Earth. Would anybody ask whether one believes in gravity? This dangerous opposition to the teaching of evolution and the attempt to teach creationism in the science classroom confuses religion with science and leaves children uneducated in the basic science of life. Science and religion are two completely different things. Religion is faith-based. Science is evidence-based. Let’s just review what science is. Simply, science is the best system we have for gaining knowledge using observation and experimentation to describe and explain natural phenomena. The experimental method is a technique for obtaining knowledge about humans and their physical environment. Applying the experimental method involves several steps. The initial step is seeing and stating a problem in the form of a question. Then all the information that might have anything to do with the problem is used to set up hypotheses, or possible explanations. These hypotheses are tested, not once but many times. If none of the hypotheses solve the problem, alternatives are sought. In sum, the experimental method is a tool for finding, testing, and choosing among alternative solutions to physical or social problems. In this way, the method enables people to use chance, rather than be victimized by it, and to use their minds in solving problems, perhaps to a degree as yet unimagined. The significance of the experimental method is that it is a controlled way of knowing. Older ideas suggested knowledge could be obtained by psychological means—intense belief or feeling—and that such knowledge was absolute or unalterable. Such a theory of certainty acted as a strait jacket on the mind by precluding fresh inquiries and making some subjects off-limits for investigation. Experimental science’s great contribution to human development was in challenging the theory of absolute truth. According to experimental science, reality simply did not support such a theory of sbsolute truth. Nature, including human nature, constantly changes. Why shouldn’t our methods of obtaining knowledge relate to what is happening? Why should a person’s word or feelings be accepted as proof? To be useful, knowledge should be available to more than one person, and it should correspond to physical reality. Knowledge, therefore, needed a more substantial basis than a person’s word or feeling; it needed concrete, demonstrable evidence. And humans needed a way to determine when a theory could be accepted as knowledge. Controlled testing was the solution. Controlled testing is a way of placing limits on an experiment for the purpose of demonstrating whether a hypothesis corresponds to physical reality. Problems are composed of many little parts, any one of which might be significant. To reduce the risk of leaving out something that might be important, a scientist tests these parts—called variables—one by one. For example, in investigating whether humans could travel to the moon, scientists first analyzed the problem into its many components: what was the moon’s atmosphere? Its soil? What kind of clothes did space travelers need? What type of landing craft was required? How much power was needed to launch the spacecraft and, send it to the moon and then return to Earth? Had scientist tried to devise one test which would answer the large question, they might have left out something of life-saving importance. As the experimental method began to be used, subjects previously forbidden to science, such as human anatomy, were investigated. Old theories which had been accepted without question for centuries—that the Earth was flat, that the the sun revolved about the Earth, that disease caused germs rather than the other way around--were disproved after instruments were invented to observe and measure such characteristics and relationships. Some people hated to see a cherished theory disproved, and they resisted the new methods of experimental science with arguments, violence, and even with laws that censored or banned ideas which questioned the views of the people in power. Sound familiar? This is where we are right now, as the anti-science crowd tries to take us backwards by opposing the teaching of evolution and by declaring climate change a hoax despite decades of evidence to the contrary. Again I’ll go back to Texas governor Perry because he’s such a clear example of willful ignorance. Governor Perry made the astounding statement that “a substantial number of scientists . . . have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects. And I think we are seeing almost weekly, or even daily, scientists are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate change.” This statement is not only ignorant; it’s a lie. Decades of data support the fact that global warming, caused by human activity, is occurring at a rapidly accelerating rate. According to the National Academy of Sciences, 97 to 98 percent of researchers studying climate say that the evidence for climate change is getting stronger, not weaker. The current support for ignorance on the part of Republicans and fundamentalists make me think of the situation Galileo faced in the 1600s when he reported his observations and measurements that the sun–not the Earth--was the center of our solar system. The religion-driven opposition to a heliocentric universe was so strong that in 1633 Galileo was tried by the Roman inquisition, found guilty of heresy, and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. Superstition, refusal to accept evidence, holds back the pursuit of knowledge. In our own time, we are seeing a devastating effect on science education in state after state that bans the teaching or evolution or distorts science education by confusing it with religion. Anti-science is shortsighted and can only weaken our national security by failing to give children the education they need to confront our highly technological world.
Every Monday I host a podcast called EXPLORING NATURE. Each show takes listeners into unusual, sometimes bizarre, hidden worlds of animals and plants. A lot of human behavior, sometimes political, sometimes romantic, is sprinkled in. Air time is Monday, 2-2:30 PM, ET. All shows are archived and can be heard anytime. Show topic for Monday, September 10, 2012, is confidence of paternity, which it means, and tactics both human and nonhuman males use to ensure confidence of paternity. Men's tactics to control women and ensure confidence of paternity take some of the most brutal forms found in nature. Here's the link to the upcoming show: I encourage listeners to call in with questions or comments. Thanks for listening.
Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm said it loud and clear: voter suppression is “treasonous”!
Of course, you won’t hear Republican legislators calling these treasonous laws -- there are 150 of them in 37 states -- voter suppression. They’re about “election integrity” and “protecting” the election process from voter fraud. But the real fraud is these laws, and fraud stinks. “Election integrity” is a sham, a lie invented to cover up these laws’ real purpose – preventing certain Americans from exercising their right to vote.
You have to understand, these fraudulent laws don’t target just anybody. They’re highly selective, aimed at people that traditionally vote Democratic: the elderly, the young, and minorities. Red Robbin’ has replaced Jim Crow. Instead of a poll tax, these laws intimidate, discourage and block voters by requiring a government-issued photo ID, which can be difficult and costly to obtain. Other voter-extermination tactics include shortening the early voting period and making it difficult if not impossible for third-party organizations such as the League of Women Voters to register voters. Some states have even reduced the operating hours or closed offices where residents can obtain photo ID.
Once again, Florida is ground zero for fraudulently disenfranchising voters. The U.S. Justice Department is suing the state, charging that its voter purge program, which would disenfranchise up to 180,000 voters, violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Virginia’s in on the act, too. Republican Governor Bob McDonnell signed into law legislation that will make it harder for thousands of Virginians to exercise their right to cast a ballot for the candidate of their choice. Senator A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) called the act “an affront to Virginians and the Constitution.”
But who cares? Republican Senator Mitch McConnell set the stage for this antidemocratic drama: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” he said in an interview with the National Journal’s Major Garrett on October 29, 2010. Republicans have ruthlessly pursued that agenda since President Obama took office. Turning their backs on governing and the people who elected them, Republicans have blocked, stalled, obstructed and killed all the bills that President Obama initiated to create jobs and help the American people. Now, with voter suppression measures, they are out to kill American democracy. This is not only treasonous, it also amounts to what former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich calls a “quiet, slow-motion coup d’etat.” Voters are the only check on this coup. Bankrupt of ideas, candidates, and proposals to help anybody except millionaires and billionaires, Republicans are out to overthrow democracy itself. If they win, America will become a fascist, corporate country controlled by an extremely wealthy elite riding on the backs of the middle class and the poor. It would, as former President Bill Clinton said, be “calamitous for our country and the world.” It’s up to we the people to prevent the stink of a fraudulent election.
I've climbed the iMovie learning curve and created my first book trailer for my eBook, HOW TO HAVE SEX IF YOU'RE NOT HUMAN! Let's hear the cheers. Of course, I'm lucky to have an in-house composer -- my husband Ed Bland!
You can watch it on YouTube.
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Today I launched my new radio show, EXPLORING NATURE WITH MARY BATTEN, on BlogTalkRadio. Each Monday at 2 PM Eastern Daylight Savings Time, I'll talk about hidden aspects of the natural world drawn from my eBook, HOW TO HAVE SEX IF YOU'RE NOT HUMAN. The shows are archived. You can listen at: BlogTalkRadio
I'm honored to be featured in Sylvia Browder's wonderful blog for women authors.
Check it out: http://sylviabrowder.com/featured/mary-batten.html/
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It’s easy to understand misogynist Republican men if you view them in the context of the animal kingdom. Males, from fruit flies to men, have an anatomical limitation. They cannot produce eggs, and if they’re mammals like us, they cannot get pregnant or give birth. Their only contribution to reproduction is sperm. And sperm must leave a male’s body in order to fertilize an egg. This means that in the act of mating, males lose control of their most precious biological possession, their sperm. Once sperm leave a male’s body, they are under the control of the female. She can eject them, kill them, block them or allow them to fertilize her eggs. Females are scary creatures!
Among waterfowl, where rape is common, females have evolved vaginas with dead-end sacs, a kind of internal burial ground for an unwanted male’s sperm.
The only way males can try to control their sperm investment is by controlling the recipients—females! And males—insects to humans—do anything and everything they can to exert control and subvert female choice. (Of course there are many wonderful liberated men who think with their brains instead of the instrument below their belt, but those who want to make women’s bodies property of the state are not among them.)
Subversion tactics are seen most clearly in insects. Female insects mate with several males and store sperm in their sperm-storage chamber. Scientists have discovered that female choice goes on internally in the female’s reproductive tract. It is within the changing climate of this internal environment that hidden or “cryptic” female choice takes place, perhaps at the level of the ovum itself, in determining which sperm of which male, if any, will be allowed to penetrate the egg’s membrane to achieve fertilization. Such internal female choice may be going on in women, too!
So males across species engage in sperm competition and mate guarding to ensure that only their sperm fertilize their mate’s eggs and sire her offspring. Among insects, some bizarre tactics for ensuring confidence of paternity have evolved.
One tactic is the copulatory plug, a gluey substance secreted by the male to block the female’s genital opening, preventing a rival’s sperm from getting inside. The male damselfly has a kind of scooper on the end of his penis that he uses to scoop out previously deposited sperm before mating with a female. Some male fruit flies inject toxic semen, which thwarts rivals but also hastens the female’s death.
Men don’t use genital glue or sperm scoopers but they do use religion, laws and politics to achieve the same end – controlling women’s reproductive biology. The use of mutilating genital surgery in some 28 countries of Africa and the Middle East wounds about three million young girls every year. The current profusion of ultrasound and “personhood” bills being passed by Republican male legislators across the U.S. are the human equivalent of insects’ copulatory plugs. These men are probably no more aware they are acting out such a primitive biological scenario than are insect males. They are caught up in a form of mass hysteria reminiscent of medieval witch hunts and persecution of women. Indeed, the attempt to vilify Planned Parenthood is similar to medieval persecution of women who gave advice on preventing births.
If the current misogynist movement led by Republican men were not so dangerous and harmful to women and our entire society, it would make an interesting anthropological field study. It’s unprecedented in U.S. history, to see males, primarily in one major political party, using the legal process and available medical technology to turn back the clock, prevent access to, and even ban medical advances that benefit men as well as women. Yes, many women accept their subjugation and support these efforts. But would they if they understood that from a biological perspective, these men are acting as brainless as beetles? With this difference: Male insects are ou
I'm climbing the marketing curve--the toughest challenge for an author. At least, it is for me. I've learned a lot from David Hancock, author of "Guerrilla Marketing." I was fortunate to catch David's workshop on this subject at the Christopher Newport Writers Conference last February.
My interview on the Authors Show will be online for 48 hours, April 9-10. I'll be talking about my book, SEXUAL STRATEGIES: HOW FEMALES CHOOSE THEIR MATES. Here's link to show: http://www.wnbnetworkwest.com/WnbAuthorsShow1.html
This link should take you directly to the Nonfiction page, but if it doesn't just click on Nonfiction.
Tomorrow, April 9th, will be the fifth installment of my podcast, EXPLORING NATURE WITH MARY BATTEN. Show will be live from 2 to 2:30 ET. I welcome callers. If you miss the live time slot, you can listen to the archived edition.
I just did a fun interview about my eBook, HOW TO HAVE SEX IF YOU'RE NOT HUMAN, on the Radio Show, SUSAN RICH TALKS: Love and Lifestyle. Susan Rich and Annemarie Schuetz were great interviewers and we had a fun time talking about mating behavior across the animal kingdom, including humans. Also had a chance to plug my book SEXUAL STRATEGIES: HOW FEMALES CHOOSE THEIR MATES. The show is archived, so you can listen by clicking on the show link.
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Since my last posting, I've done a couple new interviews with some terrific interviewers.
Yesterday (April 16) I was on Flora Brown's wonderful podcast, COLOR MY LIFE HAPPY. We had a good time talking about the sex lives of animals and plants from my new eBook, HOW TO HAVE SEX IF YOU'RE NOT HUMAN. The show is archived and you can listen anytime.
On April 11th, I was on SUSAN RICH TALKS: LOVE AND LIFESTYLE, talking about my favorite subjects -- animal mating habits and the role of female mate choice in evolution, from my book SEXUAL STRATEGIES: HOW FEMALES CHOOSE THEIR MATES. This show is also archived and you can listen at your convenience.
My podcasts, EXPLORING NATURE WITH MARY BATTEN, are also archived. On yesterday's podcast, I talked about trickery in nature. I'll present part II of this fascinating topic next Monday, April 23rd. Tune in.