Sunday, October 12, 2014

Endangered in America

No, this is not about the greater sage grouse, the mountain yellow-legged frog, or any other endangered nonhuman species. It’s about members of our own species. Black men -- particularly young black men -- are endangered in America. They are criminalized, incarcerated disproportionately and, in far too many incidents, killed by police – the very people charged with protecting us. All of us.

In city after city, young black men are routinely stopped by police for “walking while black,” sometimes on the street where they’ve lived for years. Some black men have even been stopped or arrested by police while trying to enter their own homes, most notably prominent Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2009.

Some years ago in Los Angeles, a friend was stopped on a street outside his apartment and held at gunpoint in a squad car for two hours. The police were looking for a suspect in his 30s; my friend was in his 70s, but he “fit the description!” Black men, from teenagers to adults, have heard this accusation all too often.

America’s wretched racist legacy has conditioned many whites to fear non-white skin color – the “we” and “them” attitude gone pathological – and some in positions of authority respond by unpacking the national weapon and unloading on black men.

Young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts, says a new report from ProPublica, released October 10, 2014. In an analysis of 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012, ProPublica found that “blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.” Imagine the national outrage if a proportional number of young white men had been shot by police during that same time period. We need a surge of national outrage over the murders of young black male Americans.

August 2014 was a particularly deadly month: Michael Brown, age 18, killed August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri; Ezell Ford, 25, shot in Los Angeles, California, August 11, 2014; Dante Parker, 36, tased in Victorville, California, August 12, 2014. When he developed trouble breathing, Parker was taken to a hospital where he died.

Criminalization of black men has a long ugly history in America, as Khalil Muhammad, head of the New York Public Library’s Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture and author of Condemnation of Blackness, explained in an interview with Bill Moyers on June 29, 2012. “If we think about the moment immediately following the Civil War, there was the invention of something called ‘the Black Codes’ in every Southern state. And those codes were intended to use the criminal justice system to restrict the freedom and mobility of black people. And if you crossed any line that they prescribed, you could be sold back to your former slave owner, not as a slave, but as a prisoner to work off your fine after an auction where you were resold to the highest bidder. It tells you something about the invention of the criminal justice system as a repressive tool to keep black people in their place,” Muhammad told Moyers. “And it’s still with us. It’s still with us, because ultimately, as a social problem, crime has become like it was in the Jim Crow South, a mechanism to control black people’s movement in cities.”

Slavery ended long ago but the psychological dregs remain with us. President Obama has not been immune to the racism that still infests and sickens our society. Since he campaigned for the presidency, he has been the target of racist epithets and cartoons, vilification, unprecedented disrespect, and attempts to paint him as non-American. Although his election is one of the most triumphant moments in American history, it has not triggered a post-racial era. On the contrary, it unleashed a virulent Obama hatred and blatant resurgence of political racism. One entire political party – the Republican Party – has spent the past six years trying every tactic in its book of dirty tricks to destroy the Obama presidency. Any day, I expect to hear some Republican or Fox News wag blame Obama for bringing the Ebola virus into the U.S. Think it’s far-fetched? It’s not impossible from a party that rejects the findings of science, spurns evidence, celebrates ignorance and has done everything it could to block, obstruct or kill every social policy President Obama has tried to get through Congress. It’s as if Republicans are trying to exact revenge on the American people for electing Barack Obama president.

In campaigns throughout the country, Republican candidates have only one issue: anti-Obama. At the Congressional level, Republicans have supported only two issues: more tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires; and overturning the Affordable Care Act, which is, in fact, providing health insurance to millions of previously uninsured Americans, reducing medical costs and working much better than even its proponents expected. They have put nothing positive on the table. Because of their inaction and right-wing ideology, I have come to a conclusion I don’t like, namely, that the Republican Party, which once had real statespersons like Eisenhower, is now a party of rich, racist old white men who care nothing about the poor, the middle class or minorities. Indeed, a right-leaning Supreme Court majority gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Republican-governed states have gerrymandered districts to isolate minority voters most likely to vote Democratic and have set up obstacles to discourage minorities, the young and the old from voting. Racism run amuck at the highest levels of government.

You see, Barack Obama was never supposed to be president. He was never supposed to make it through the racist maze. He was never supposed to get out of the “place” that racism designed to confine all African-Americans but particularly African-American men. The fact that he did – that a majority of American voters elected him twice – sent a shockwave through the racists among us. And they are trying to ensure that it never happens again. Of course, they won’t win. America is too diverse, and that diverse population is only increasing. But in the meantime, we have to waste time and precious human resources putting up with those racists who occupy some powerful positions. More importantly, we have to recognize the ugly racist undercurrent of some local and national politics and exercise our votes to get racists out of office. There are more intelligent, more compassionate, more tolerant Americans out there. We know this because they turned out to elect the first African-American president in our nation’s history, and every day they make significant positive contributions at every level of community life, from operating free clinics to raising funds to provide fuel assistance to needy people. There is much unheralded goodness and generosity in this country, and we need to tap into it.

In 2008, President Obama said, "Yes, we can." And we did. Twice. Now we have to do everything we can to rid our culture of racism. Ultimately, our democracy and the social health of our nation depend on it.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Why I Write Nature/Science Books

People 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 a 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.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Looking Back and Moving Forward

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.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

It's Okay to be a Voyeur in the Nonhuman World

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"

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

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.

On Science

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.”

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Peace on Earth or Blood in the Classroom?

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.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Global Revolution

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.