On scientific beliefs, Indigenous knowledge, and paternity.

On scientific beliefs, Indigenous knowledge, and paternity.

Recently my spouse & I reviewed Jennifer Raff’s Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas for the American Biology Teacher magazine (in brief: Raff’s book is lovely, you should read it! I’ll include a link to our review once it’s published!), which deftly balances twin goals of disseminating scientific findings and honoring traditional knowledge.

By the time European immigrants reached the Americas, many of the people living here told stories suggesting that their ancestors had always inhabited these lands. This is not literally true. We have very good evidence that all human species – including Homo sapiens, Homo neaderthalensis, and Homo denisovans among possible others – first lived in Africa. Their descendants then migrated around the globe over a period of a few hundred thousand years.

As best we know, no lasting population of humans reached the Americas until about twenty thousand years ago (by which time most human species had gone extinct – only Homo sapiens remained).

During the most recent ice age, a few thousand humans lived in an isolated, Texas-sized grassland called Beringia for perhaps a few thousand years. They were cut off from other humans to the west and an entire continent to the east by glacial ice sheets. By about twenty thousand years ago, though, some members of this group ventured south by boat and established new homes along the shoreline.

By about ten thousand years ago, and perhaps earlier, descendants of these travelers reached the southern tip of South America, the eastern seaboard of North America, and everywhere between. This spread was likely quite rapid (from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist) based on the diversity of local languages that had developed by the time Europeans arrived, about five hundred years ago.

So, by the time Europeans arrived, some groups of people had probably been living in place for nearly 10,000 years. This is not “always” from a scientific perspective, which judges our planet to be over 4,000,000,000 years old. But this is “always” when in conversation with an immigrant who believes the planet to be about 4,000 years old. Compared with Isaac Newton’s interpretation of Genesis, the First People had been living here long before God created Adam and Eve.

If “In the beginning …” marks the beginning of time, then, yes, their people had always lived here.

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I found myself reflecting on the balance between scientific & traditional knowledge while reading Gabriel Andrade’s essay, “How ‘Indigenous Ways of Knowing’ Works in Venezuela.” Andrade describes his interactions with students who hold the traditional belief in partible paternity: that semen is the stuff of life from which human babies are formed, and so every cis-man who ejaculates during penetrative sex with a pregnant person becomes a father to the child.

Such beliefs might have been common among ancient humans – from their behavior, it appears that contemporary chimpanzees might also hold similar beliefs – and were almost certainly widespread among the First Peoples of South America.

I appreciate partible paternity because, although this belief is often framed in misogynistic language – inaccurately grandiose claims about the role of semen in fetal development, often while ignoring the huge contribution of a pregnant person’s body – the belief makes the world better. People who are or might become pregnant are given more freedom. Other parents, typically men, are encouraged to help many children.

Replacing belief in partible paternity with a scientifically “correct” understanding of reproduction would probably make the world worse – people who might become pregnant would be permitted less freedom, and potential parents might cease to aid children whom they didn’t know to be their own genetic offspring.

Also, the traditional knowledge – belief in partible paternity – might be correct.

Obviously, there’s a question of relationships – what makes someone a parent? But I also mean something more biological — a human child actually can have three or more genetic contributors among their parents.

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Presumably you know the scientific version of human reproduction. To wit: a single sperm cell merges with a single egg cell. This egg rapidly changes to exclude all the other sperm cells surrounding it, then implants in the uterine lining. Over the next nine months, this pluripotent cell divides repeatedly to form the entire body of a child. The resulting child has exactly two parents. Every cell in the child’s body has the same 3 billion base pair long genome.

No scientist believes in this simplified version. For instance, every time a cell divides, the entire genome must be copied – each time, this process will create a few mistakes. By the time a human child is ready to be born, their cells will have divided so many times that the genome of a cell in the hand is different from the genome of a cell in the liver or in the brain.

In Unique, David Linden writes that:

Until recently, reading someone’s DNA required a goodly amount of it: you’d take a blood draw or a cheek swab and pool the DNA from many cells before loading it into the sequencing machine.

However, in recent years it has become possible to read the complete sequence of DNA, all three billion or so nucleotides, from individual cells, such as a single skin cell or neuron. With this technique in hand, Christopher Walsh and his coworkers at Boston Children’s Hopsital and Harvard Medical School isolated thirty-six individual neurons from three healthy postmortem human brains and then determined the complete genetic sequence for each of them.

This revealed that no two neurons had exactly the same DNA sequence. In fact, each neuron harbored, on average, about 1,500 single-nucleotide mutations. That’s 1,500 nucleotides out of a total of three billion in the entire genome – a very low rate, but those mutations can have important consequences. For example, one was in a gene that instructs the production of an ion channel protein that’s crucial for electrical signaling in neurons. If this mutation were present in a group of neurons, instead of just one, it could cause epilepsy.

No human has a genome: we are composite creatures.

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Most scientists do believe that all these unique individual genomes inside your cells were composed by combining genetic information from your two parents and then layering on novel mutations. But we don’t know how often this is false.

Pluripotent (“able to form many things”) cells from a developing human embryo / fetus / baby can travel throughout a pregnant person’s body. This is quite common – most people with XX chromosomes who have given birth to people with XY chromosomes will have cells with Y chromosomes in their brains. During the gestation of twins, the twins often swap cells (and therefore genomes).

At the time of birth, most humans aren’t twins, but many of us do start that way. There’s only a one in fifty chance of twin birth following a dizygotic pregnancy (the fertilization of two or more eggs cells released during a single ovulation). Usually what happens next is a merger or absorption of one set of these cells by another, resulting in a single child. When this occurs, different regions of a person’s body end up with distinct genetic lineages, but it’s difficult to identify. Before the advent of genetic sequencing, you might notice only if there was a difference in eye, skin, or hair color from one part of a person’s body to the next. Even now, you’ll only notice if you sequence full genomes from several regions of a person’s body and find that they’re distinct.

For a person to have more than two genetic contributors, there would have to be a dizygotic pregnancy in which sperm cells from unique individuals merged with the two eggs.

In the United States, where the dominant culture is such that people who are trying to get pregnant are exhorted not to mate with multiple individuals, studies conducted in the 1990s found that at least one set of every few hundred twins had separate fathers (termed “heteropaternal superfecundication”). In these cases, the children almost certainly had genomes derived from the genetic contributions of three separate people (although each individual cell in the children’s bodies would have a genome derived from only two genetic contributors).

So, we actually know that partible paternity is real. Because it’s so difficult to notice, our current estimates are probably lower bounds. If 1:400 were the rate among live twins, probably that many dizygotic pregnancies in the United States also result from three or more genetic contributors. Probably this frequency is higher in cultures that celebrate rather than castigate this practice.

Honestly, I could be persuaded that estimates ranging anywhere from 1:20 to 1:4,000 were reasonable for the frequency that individuals from these cultures have three or more genetic contributors.** We just don’t know.

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I agree with Gabriel Andrade that we’d like for medical students who grew up believing in partible paternity to benefit from our scientific understanding of genetics and inheritance – this scientific knowledge will help them help their patients. But I also believe that, even in this extreme case, the traditional knowledge should be respected. It’s not as inaccurate as we might reflexively believe!

The scientific uncertainty I’ve described above doesn’t quite match the traditional knowledge, though. A person can only receive genetic inheritance from, ahem, mating events that happen during ovulation, whereas partible paternity belief systems also treat everyone who has sex with the pregnant person over the next few months as a parent, too.

But there’s a big difference between contributing genes and being a parent. In Our Transgenic Future: Spider Goats, Genetic Modification, and the Will to Change Nature, Lisa Jean Moore discusses the many parents who have helped raise the three children she conceived through artificial insemination. Even after Moore’s romantic relationships with some of these people ended, they remained parents to her children. The parental bond, like all human relationships, is created by the relationship itself.

This should go without saying, but: foster families are families. Adopted families are families. Families are families.

Partible paternity is a belief that makes itself real.

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** A note on the math: Dizygotic fertilization appears to account for 1:10 human births, and in each of these cases there is probably at least some degree of chimerism in the resulting child. My upper estimate for the frequency that individuals have three or more genetic contributors, 1:20, would be if sperm from multiple individuals had exactly equal probabilities of fertilizing each of the two egg cells. My lower estimate of 1:4,000 would be if dizygotic fertilization from multiple individuals had the same odds as the 1:400 that fraternal twin pairs in the U.S. have distinct primary genetic contributors. Presumably a culture that actively pursues partible paternity would have a higher rate than this, but we don’t know for sure. And in any case, these are large numbers! Up to 5% of people from these cultures might actually have three or more genetic contributors, which is both biologically relevant and something that we’d be likely to overlook if we ignored the traditional Indigenous knowledge about partible paternity.

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header image from Zappy’s Technology Solution on flickr

On urgency and gender-affirming medical care.

On urgency and gender-affirming medical care.

In the New York Times Magazine article “The Battle Over Gender Therapy,” journalist Emily Bazelon describes the conflicting views of several medical doctors and psychologists. They disagree over timing and access: who should decide whether a young person receives gender-affirming medical care, and how long should this decision-making process take?

In general, waiting before finalizing a decision is best. This is true whether they are big decisions – like getting married or buying a house – or relatively small decisions – like buying a new couch, posting an irate Twitter message, or drinking another beer. If you can give yourself time to mull it over, you’ll probably be happier with your resulting decision, even if you end up doing the same thing.

In the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, a chess instructor attempts to teach this patience to his student:

“So what’s your best move?”

“Rook to d.”

“What about taking on e?”

“What about it?”

“You didn’t consider it. You’re still not considering it.”

“I’m right. Rook to d is the best move.”

“You didn’t study the board!”

Even when the answer seems clear, it’s still often better to take time to think. To plan, to weigh options.

But we don’t always have this luxury. Sometimes, when considering whether to buy a house, people feel forced to make a decision immediately – otherwise, someone else might buy it! These snap decisions, like the home purchases that many people made during the pandemic, are more likely to lead to regret.

For a person seeking gender-affirming medical care, deciding to begin hormone therapy might be an even bigger decision than getting married or buying a house. Hormone therapy can cause irreversible physical changes. For a person who was assigned female at birth, taking testosterone often results in a permanently deeper voice; reshaping of the face to appear more angular; changes in the shape and size of genitals.

Similarly, when a person who was assigned male at birth uses hormone therapy to help their appearance and physiology better match the gender of their brain, an analogous set of changes may linger even if this person decides to stop taking the medications.

And, yes, some people will decide to stop taking the medications. As with any medical treatment, hormone therapy has both benefits and side-effects, and it’s hard to know how these will balance out for a particular individual’s brain & body before they try.

So, it’s a big decision. There are irreversible changes. Obviously, taking a lot of time to wait and evaluate would be best, right?

But sometimes, competing urgency makes waiting impractical. As an example, consider surgical removal of an organ. This is a drastic measure: you’d like to wait and mull things over. Unfortunately, time pressure from the septic shock of an advanced bacterial infection might force a quick decision. My friend was barely conscious during this decision-making process after collapsing in the lobby of our local hospital.

When deciding whether or not to initiate gender-affirming hormone therapy, there’s a bit more wiggle room. But for a young person who’s mustered up enough self-knowledge and courage to talk to their parents or healthcare provider about wanting medication, there is still looming time pressure.

During puberty, bodies can change very drastically within a matter of months. Many of these changes are lifelong and irreversible. Waiting to evaluate isn’t just a default, low-impact choice. Hormone therapy is a big deal, but waiting will also bring dramatic, permanent physiological changes. Not to mention continued psychological turmoil, which might be compounded by the knowledge that, for all of your bravery in speaking up, you’re still not getting the help you need.

My main qualm with Bazelon’s article? For all the nuance devoted to the medical doctors’ and psychologists’ opinions, we hear very little from young people. Bazelon interviewed over 60 clinicians, researchers, activists, and historians, but only half that many of the young people whose brains, bodies, & lives are at stake. As a parent, I’m aware that children can do or say a lot of irksome, irrational things; as someone who works with elementary and high-school students, I also know that we have to recognize young people as valid knowers and thinkers.

I want to hear about the sense of urgency from young people themselves. Instead, this central issue was only passingly mentioned in a single sentence, a quote from child psychologist Laura Edwards-Leeper about the process of evaluating young people for gender-affirming treatment: “If a child was on the cusp of puberty, and anxious about how their body was about to change, we tried to squeeze them in faster, which I still think is really important.”

Young people have a stake in our world. And yet – with our inaction on climate change; our mass production & sale of military-grade weaponry to anybody who wants it; our treating schools as a lower priority than bars or restaurants during the pandemic, and then keeping schools closed or disrupted even after we had data showing that these disruptions were causing children even greater harm than Covid-19 infection; our age- and wealth-based prejudices that give retirees a far greater say in the future of our country & planet than the young people who will inherit the mess – we are not only disenfranchising young people, but abjectly failing them.

Young people have not been silent. We ought to listen.

On pandemic-era incarceration.

On pandemic-era incarceration.

During the first year and a half of the Covid-19 pandemic, the local county jail wouldn’t admit volunteers. Incarceration in the United States sounds crummy most of the time, but most of the people I’ve communicated with have said that things were even worse during the pandemic: more fear, more tension, fewer opportunities to do much of anything either than sit & worry.

Around that time, the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project – an organization that sends free books to people who are incarcerated – received many letters like this:

The prison I am at has us on 23 hour a day lockdown due to the coronavirus threat. We also lost access to most jobs around the prison, visits, library, and a lot of other things that help relieve stress, like sports, walking track, weight-lifting, church, etc.

So books will be a huge help, we are three-deep to a cell and I can’t say I always enjoy the company.

And also –a la Baudelaire’s “oasis of horror in a desert of boredom” – we received some terrifying stories from people who got very sick:

On Sept 1st I was Covid-positive, on Sept 4 shortly after 6 a.m. I was rushed to the hospital. I was on a ventilator & in paralytic coma for 6 ½ days. Both lungs free of pneumonia, I have now been diagnosed with stress-induced cardiomyopathy due to Covid. I am back at the prison. My voice sounds like a man (LOL).

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There are almost always communicable diseases circulating through the jails and prisons. That’s certainly still been true during the Covid-19 pandemic: in southern Indiana, vaccine uptake is relatively low, especially among the population of people usually targeted for incarceration. Still, volunteers began visiting the jail again as soon as we were allowed – during stressful times, people need more support and kindness than usual, not less.

For the past few months, the administration has been letting us bring equipment to record people reading books for their kids. Then librarians at our excellent local library send the video and a paper copy of the book to the person’s kids.

After a Sunday morning recording session, someone was telling me a bit about her recent experience:

We’ve got three levels of security in the women’s block right now, so we’re on lockdown about 22 hours a day. They only let us out to the common area one level at a time.”

Breakfast at 4:30, why I was feeling a sleepy. They do have coffee at commissary, instant coffee. Commissary’s a little tough, the prices of everything have gone up but they didn’t raise the weekly cap, so you can get a little less each week. My parents have been putting money in my commissary, but you can’t do more than the cap.

My parents have been taking good care of me, thank God, not that I deserve it.

Which always breaks my heart to hear somebody say. She deserves help. We all do.

I doubt there’s anyone among us who would be pleased to have people always associate us with the worst things we’d ever done. Or have our worst moments mulled over by judges and prosecutors and public defenders, then written up in someone else’s words and stored in a permanent file.

I’ve certainly done bad things & broken laws: I had the good fortune to not be caught. (Good fortune, plus pale skin, masculine frame, upper-class accent, apartments in wealthy, less-policed areas …) I drove with drugs in my car. And I definitely hurt people – started petty arguments, callously trampled feelings – in ways that aren’t illegal, but I’d still feel awful having those moments replayed again and again, discussed in a courtroom, treated as though those smallest, meanest moments were the essence of me, the most important thing for somebody to know about me.

In Just Mercy, lawyer Bryan Stevenson writes that:

I thought of the victims of violent crime and the survivors of murdered loved ones, and how we’ve pressured them to recycle their pain and anguish and give it back to the offenders we prosecute. I thought of the many ways we’ve legalized vengeful and cruel punishments, how we’ve allowed our victimization to justify the victimization of others.”

But simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.

I frequently had difficult conversations with clients who were struggling and despairing over their situations – over the things they’d done, or had been done to them, that had led them to painful moments. Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst things we’ve ever done.

I told them that if someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief.

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In jail that day, I tried to say something vaguely similar. But at the end of our recording session, I got to return to my loving family. I got to read a book to my children while hugging them.

She went back to the block, waiting for us to mail a DVD of her reading & a copy of the book to her kids. Which isn’t the same, and isn’t enough.

On the apparent rise in transgender and non-binary identities.

On the apparent rise in transgender and non-binary identities.

Many more people in the United States now identify as transgender and/or non-binary than in the recent past. This increase is most dramatic among younger generations.

There are two major causes of this change, and for political reasons it’s essential that we acknowledge both.

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My spouse was recently speaking to a colleague and (cheerfully) described the increase as being due to our nation’s changing culture. In my opinion, we still have a long way to go, but many people are much more accepting than in the recent past. As the perceived risk decreases, people will be more likely to reveal their true identities.

But that isn’t the whole story.

The chemical make-up of our world is radically different than in the recent past. As a (lapsed) organic chemist, I’m quite proud of human ingenuity and our ability to synthesize so many wondrous medicines, small molecules, and industrial materials. The technologies we have access to are amazing! We can live so much longer, and our quality of life during that time is pretty awesome.

We’ve dramatically altered the environment, though. Industrial run-off and medicinal metabolites are present at high concentrations in our water supply, including lots of “endocrine disrupting chemicals.”

Endocrine disrupting chemicals often resemble naturally-occurring hormones and signaling molecules. Many of these chemicals are known to induce non-binary sexual development among other animals – in recent years, there’s been a dramatic increase in the proportion of wild animals born with intersex characteristics.

We humans are also susceptible to this altered chemical milieu. The environment in which human brains and bodies develop during gestation is chemically different now from in our recent past.

As epidemiologist Shanna Swan writes in Countdown: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, “The changes in sexual development taking place all over the world appear to have been accompanied by an apparent rise in gender fluidity …”

Intersex is different from transgender or nonbinary. “Intersex” describes physical morphology and can be assessed for non-human animals; “transgender” and “nonbinary” describe what’s going on inside a person’s brain. But brains are a product of biological development. It’s reasonable to assume – although it would obviously be unethical to test or prove – that endocrine disrupting chemicals capable of changing external sexual morphology also impact developing brains.

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Children are more likely to self-identify as transgender or non-binary now than in the recent past, partly because they are growing up in a different culture, partly because their brains and bodies developed in a different chemical environment.

We don’t yet know how much of the shift has been caused by which factor: maybe the explanation is 10% cultural, 90% biological; maybe both contribute equally; maybe the shift is more due to culture than biology.

But it’s essential for us to acknowledge both contributions – especially because a large portion of our nation’s population espouses conservative or traditional values that decry the cultural change.

Yes, the Democratic party’s policies celebrating diversity have shifted the culture; the Republican party’s policies promoting business and minimizing environmental regulation have shifted the chemical environment.

Whether or not we are happy that gender fluidity is on the rise, it’s important to note that both major political parties in this country have contributed.

I’m no biological determinist – from my perspective as a masculine autistic person who’s chosen to focus on caretaking, I like to imagine that I’m transcending my biological inclinations – but those of us who celebrate liberal values and diversity do ourselves a political disservice if we fail to acknowledge the impact of our shifting environment on gender.

Children will be safer when we make clear that these aspects of their identities aren’t a choice. This is who they are. Personally, I think that’s great. But some people don’t. And so we need to convey that political policies that those people supported helped make children’s lives today different from the way the world used to be.

The way we speak about these issues matters. If we want to include as many people as possible in these conversations – which we must, if we’re going to move forward as a nation – we have to include the whole complex breadth of the world.

Even when it feels uncomfortable.

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Header image by Ted Eytan.

Frog image by John P Clare — although I should acknowledge that not only is this frog living in Ireland, not the U.S., but I’m also not a herpetologist and can’t tell you this frog’s biological sex. But it’s a good looking frog!

On vocabulary and time.

On vocabulary and time.

As children learn to speak, they feel out gaps in their parents’ language. Words that ought to be there, but aren’t.

On a Friday afternoon, my five-year-old might say something like “Tomorrow at school I’ll finish drawing my Snakes Waam!” (This is a series of comic books she’s making in which a family of snakes prevent monsters from burning down our city.)

My daughter knows that there’s no school on Saturday – when she says “tomorrow,” she means the next day when I am at school.

Or, on a Monday morning, she might say: “Yesterday at school we got to visit the library!”

I wish that English had the words she’s grasping for!

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Different languages sway speakers toward different conceptions of the world. In English, we typically imagine that we’re facing the future: the world to come is before our eyes.

But, as David Kishik writes in The Book of Shem, “in Hebrew forward (kadima) is related to what is ancient (kadum), just as backward (achora) is linked to what is last (acharon).” Or, as Laura Spiinny writes in “How Time Flies,” “q”ipuru, the Aymara word for tomorrow, combines q”ipa [“behind / back”] and uru, the word for day, to produce a literal meaning of ‘some day behind one’s back.’

In these cultures, there’s an emphasis on the past as known – things that have happened can be seen, whereas the future is a mystery. There’s also, especially in biblical Hebrew, a sense that the progression of time is coupled with decline.

In Sanskrit, I believe the future is described as being ahead of people, but in ancient Vedic thought the progression of time leads toward inevitable decay. Time flows cyclically, but during each cycle the world becomes steadily worse until it is destroyed and reborn as good again.

Within these cultural frameworks, it’s certainly possible to feel optimistic about the future, but it’s more difficult.

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I found myself thinking about how our culture might shift if English had the words my daughter wants. A set of time words that were strictly relational: a “tomorrow” that could mean “the next time I’m in school” or “the next time that I see you.”

Perhaps this would help us to maintain a more fluid perspective on time. To see that psychological time flows unpredictably and unsteadily, not like the uniform ticking of clocks (stubborn little devices that have made many people’s interior lives feel worse).

As James Gleick writes in “The Toll of the Clock,” “When the first public sundial arrived in Rome some Romans cursed it.

The gods damn the man who first discovered the hours and – yes – who first set up a sundial here, who’s smashed the day into bits,” wrote Plautus.

People have been complaining about clocks ever since.

We each contain many braids of time. The hours we spend with different groupings of people are unique strands. Time together makes relationships, a link that’s distinct from each day’s journey of the sun.

Would we put more effort into maintaining our relationships if there was no other way for “tomorrow” to come?

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header image by Chris Campbell on flickr

On perspective and Zoom.

On perspective and Zoom.

In Unique, neuroscientist David Linden describes the cultural associations between smell and taste.

Most people from the United States will say that vanilla, strawberry, or mint odors smell sweet.

On the face of it, this doesn’t make sense. Sweet is a taste, not a smell. A substance cannot smell sweet any more than something can sound red.

There’s nothing intrinsically sweet about these odors – we’ve just learned to associate them with sweet taste.

As a counterexample, in Vietnam, where caramel and mint are used primarily in savory dishes, their odors are not typically described as sweet.

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This association is sufficiently powerful that its effect can be measured in the lab.

For people whose past cultural experiences have led them to associate mint smells with sweet tastes, pairing the scent of mint with a sip of sucrose solution makes them believe that the drink is more sugary than it really is. When mint scent is paired with a sip of mildly acidic water, the drink seems less sour than it really is.

This experiment didn’t assess people’s perception of alcoholic drinks, but people in the United States probably make the same mistake about the bourbon in a mint julep.

photo by Grizdave at flickr

Our assumptions – particular to our own cultural experience of the world – can powerfully deceive us.

A mint julep mixed perfectly for someone from the United States would taste bitter to someone from Vietnam.

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Viet Thanh Nguyen – author of The Sympathizer, which I’ve written about previously – strives to draw attention to our cultural blindness. The way our minds’ innate self-deceptions allow us to overlook or misinterpret the experiences of others.

My spouse and I have often felt grateful for Nguyen’s work. His essay about the sinking sensation he felt after teaching his child to read was particularly beautiful. (I linked to it in my own essay about teaching a child to read.)

Which is why we felt so dismayed by Nguyen’s most recent New York Times editorial.

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Nguyen explains why he enjoys teaching over Zoom. He’s prompted with students’ names; he can see their reactions up close; student voices contribute to the lecture from the same up-front position of power as his own; typed remarks can overlap without distracting; lectures are recorded for students to review later.

All well and good. Nguyen is quite intelligent. If he thinks Zoom is good for lectures, I’m inclined to believe him.

But lectures aren’t the best way to learn.

For many subjects, project-based learning is a more effective way to educate students. Many of my spouse’s resources – designed primarily for teaching college-level biology and introductory Earth & space science with a social justice bent – are available on her website, here.

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For the better part of a decade, I’ve hosted a poetry class in the county jail. We read poems and discuss how they make us feel. Our discussions touch upon contemporary scientific research, mythology, economics – all safe enough topics, for most folks – but also religion, addiction, trauma, violence, relationships, loss – which can be tough for anyone to talk about, let alone a room full of men who won’t get to see their families for months.

Because people cycle through the county jail, I never know who will be coming to class each week until I get there. For a few months, I might be with mostly the same group of men. Other weeks, I won’t have met any of the dozen or so people previously.

And there’s a huge difference between what we can accomplish – between what sorts of things feel safe to discuss – when the people in class haven’t met me before, and haven’t been in a class like that with each other. If we haven’t built the necessary emotional connection, we can do less. The class is worse for all of us.

Recently, the jail has allowed a small number of classes over Zoom. But Zoom doesn’t let you make the same emotional connection.

People sometimes complain about the supposed invasiveness of Zoom – the camera snatches up your personal surroundings, the pictures on your wall, the books on your shelves, your family in the background – but it’s by no means the intimacy of being there.

screenshot from a video by Rose Bythrow

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My spouse says, “Over Zoom you can’t tell who’s hungry.”

It would be nice if she meant this metaphorically – that it’s hard to tell who’s eager to learn. But, no. Many students aren’t eating enough. They are hungry.

Worse, we read Nguyen’s paean to Zoom on a snow day.

Streets near my spouse’s high school school were well-salted and plowed, but we live in a sprawling, semi-rural area – the school district serves families from a mix of socioeconomic backgrounds. There are hills and valleys – not everyone can get a satellite signal at home. And the for-profit cable companies certainly haven’t connected those families to the modern world with wires.

Still, the pandemic has made “e-learning days” seem like a reliable alternative. If it snows, kids learn from home.

“What’s Zoom supposed to do,” my spouse asked, “for my students with no heat?”

This isn’t (only) a concern for fluke events like the avarice-fueled power outages and heat losses in Texas. My spouse grew up in Albany, New York. Every winter was cold. The infrastructure to heat homes there was secure – for children whose families had money.

My spouse’s family didn’t. Her father failed to pay the electric bill. The power was shut off. And then the district called a snow day.

If my spouse and her sibling had gone to school, it wouldn’t have been so bad. Warm classrooms, a hot meal.

Instead they were stuck at home, shivering. Wanting so badly to go to a neighbor’s house. But then the neighbors would know.

In the United States, where poverty is often stigmatized as a moral failing, people hide the ache of want.

Which is why Zoom is so horrible. Zoom makes it easy. When you only have to disguise a small corner of your life, you can convey the illusion that things are okay.

Even when they’re not.

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header image from Zoom corporation’s “About” page

On magic.

On magic.

There’s broad scientific consensus that school closures hurt children, probably making a significant contribution to future increases in premature death.

There’s also broad scientific consensus that school closures – particularly elementary school closures – aren’t helpful in slowing the spread of Covid-19. Children aren’t major vectors for this virus. Adults just have to remember not to congregate in the teachers’ lounge.

Worldwide, a vanishingly small percentage of viral transmissions have occurred inside schools.

And … our district just closed in-person school for all children.

In-person indoor dining at restaurants is still allowed. Bars are still open.

Older people are sending a clear message to kids: “Your lives matter less than ours.”

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For at-risk children, school closures are devastating. A disruption in social-emotional learning; lifelong education gaps; skipped meals.

But for my (privileged!) family, the closure will be pretty nice. I was recently feeling nostalgic about the weeks in August when my eldest and I spent each morning together.

Our youngest attends pre-K at a private school. Her school, like most private schools around the country, (sensibly) re-opened on time and is following its regular academic calendar.

My eldest and I will do two weeks of home schooling before winter break. And it’ll be fun. I like spending time with my kids, and my eldest loves school so much that she often uses up most of her energy during the day – teachers tell us what a calm, lovely, hard-working kid she is. And then she comes home and yells, all her resilience dissipated.

Which is normal! Totally normal. But it’s a little crummy, as a parent, to know you’ve got a great kid but that you don’t get to see her at her best.

Right now she’s sad about not going to school – on Monday, she came home crying, “There was an announcement that we all have to switch to online only!” – but I’m lucky that I can be here with her. Writing stories together, doing math puzzles, cooking lunch.

Maybe we’ll practice magic tricks. She loves magic.

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Last month, I was getting ready to drive the kids to school. T. (4 years old) and I were in the bathroom. I’d just handed T. her toothbrush.

N. (6 years old) walked over holding a gallon-sized plastic bag.

“Father, do you want to see a magic trick?” she asked.

“Okay, but I have to brush my teeth while you’re doing it.”

“Okay,” she said, and opened the bag. She took out a multi-colored lump of clay. It was vaguely spherical. Globs of red, white, and blue poked up from random patches across the surface, as though three colors of clay had been haphazardly moshed together.

“So you think this is just this,” she said, but then …”

She took out a little wooden knife and began sawing at the lump. “This is just this?”, I wondered. It’s an interesting phrase.

Her sawing had little effect. The knife appeared useless. I’m pretty sure this wooden knife is part of the play food set she received as a hand-me-down when she was 9 months old. “Safe for babies” is generally correlated with “Useless for cutting.”

She was having trouble breaking the surface of her lump.

I spat out my toothpaste.

She kept sawing. She set down the knife and stared at the clay intently. A worthy adversary.

I stood there, watching.

She grabbed the knife again and resumed sawing. More vigorously, this time. She started stabbing, whacking. This was enough to make a tiny furrow. She tossed aside the knife and pulled with her fingertips, managing to pry two lobes of the strange lump away from each other.

“Okay,” she said, “it’s hard to see, but there’s some green in there.”

T. and I crouched down and peered closely. Indeed, there was a small bit of round green clay at the center of the lump.

“Wow!” exclaimed T. “I thought it was just a red, and, uh, blue, and white ball! But then, on the inside, there’s some green!”

“I know!” said N., happy that at least one member of her audience understood the significance of her trick. “And look, I might even get it back together!”

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N. started performing magic when she was four. T. was asleep for her afternoon nap.

“Okay,” she said, “you sit there, and I’ll put on a magic show. Watch, I’ll make, um … this cup! See this cup? I’ll make it disappear.”

“Okay,” I said, curious. We’d just read a book that explained how to make a penny disappear from a glass cup – the trick is to start with the cup sitting on top of the penny, so that the coin looks like it’s inside the cup but actually isn’t.

I had no idea how she planned to make the cup itself disappear.

“Okay, so, um, now you’re ready, and …” she looked at the cup in her hands. Suddenly, she whisked it behind her back. And stood there, looking at me somberly, with her hands behind her back.

“I don’t have it,” she said.

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Magic – convincing an audience to believe in an illusion.

This is just this.

I don’t have the cup – it’s gone.

Much of our Covid-19 response has been magic-based. We repeat illusory beliefs – schools are dangerous, reinfections are rare, death at any age is a tragedy – and maybe our audience is swayed.

But that doesn’t change the underlying reality.

The cup still exists – it was behind her back.

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Everyone will die. Mortality is inescapable.

Our species is blessed with prodigious longevity, probably because so many grandmothers among our ancestors worked hard to help their grandchildren survive.

(The long lives of men are probably an accidental evolutionary byproduct, like male nipples or female orgasms. Elderly men, with their propensity to commandeer resources and start conflicts, probably reduced the fitness of their families and tribes.)

After we reach our seventies, though – when our ancestors’ grandchildren had probably passed their most risky developmental years – our bodies fail. We undergo immunosenescence – our immune systems become worse at suppressing cancer and infections.

We will die. Expensive interventions can stave off death for longer – we can now vaccinate 90-year-olds against Covid-19 – but we will still die.

Dying at the end of a long, full life shouldn’t feel sad, though. Everybody dies. Stories end. That’s the natural arc of the world.

What’s sad is when people die young.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to unnecessary school closures.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to unmitigated climate change.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to antibiotic resistant bacteria.

These are urgent threats facing our world. And we’re not addressing them.

The cup is still there.

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For my daughter, of course, I played along. I smiled, and laughed. She stood there beaming, holding the cup behind her back.

“Magic!” I said.

N. nodded proudly, then asked, “Do you want me to bring it back?”

It’ll take the same measure of magic to bring back schools.

On childcare.

On childcare.

After my eldest was born, I spent the first autumn as her sole daytime caretaker. She spent a lot of time strapped to my chest, either sleeping or wiggling her head about to look at things I gestured to as I chittered at her.

We walked around our home town, visiting museums and the library. I stacked a chair on top of my desk to make a standing workspace and sometimes swayed from side to side while I typed. At times, she reached up and wrapped her little hands around my neck; I gently tucked them back down at my sternum so that I could breath.

She seemed happy, but it felt unsustainable for me. Actually getting my work done while parenting was nigh impossible.

And so our family bought a membership at the YMCA. They offer two hour blocks of child care for children between six weeks and six years old.

The people who work in our YMCA’s child care space are wonderful. Most seem to be “overqualified” for the work, which is a strange thing to write. Childhood development has huge ramifications for both the child’s and their family’s whole lifetime, and child psychology is an incredibly rich, complex subject. Helping to raise children is important, fulfilling work. No one is overqualified to do it.

Yet we often judge value based on salary. Childcare, because it was traditionally seen by European society as “women’s work,” is poorly remunerated. The wages are low, there’s little prestige – many people working in childcare have been excluded from other occupations because of a lack of degrees, language barriers, or immigration status.

I like to think that I appreciate the value of caretaking – I’m voting with my feet – but even I insufficiently valued the work being done at our YMCA’s childcare space.

Each time I dropped my children off – at which point I’d sit and type at one of the small tables in the snack room, which were invariably sticky with spilled juice or the like – I viewed it as a trade-off. I thought that I was being a worse parent for those two hours, but by giving myself time to do my work, I could be a fuller human, and maybe would compensate for those lapsed hours by doing better parenting later in the day.

I mistakenly thought that time away from their primary parent would be detrimental for my children.

Recently, I’ve been reading Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s marvelous Mothers and Others, about the evolutionary roots of human childhood development, and learned my mistake.

Time spent in our YMCA’s childcare space was, in and of itself, almost surely beneficial for my children. My kids formed strong attachments to the workers there; each time my children visited, they were showered with love. And, most importantly, they were showered with love by someone who wasn’t me.

Hrdy explains:

A team headed by the Israeli psychologist Abraham Sagi and his Dutch collaborator Marinus van IJzendoorn undertook an ambitious series of studies in Israel and the Netherlands to compare children cared for primarily by mothers with those cared for by both mothers and other adults.

Overall, children seemed to do best when they have three secure relationships – that is, three relationships that send the clear message “You will be cared for no matter what.”

Such findings led van IJzendoorn and Sagi to conclude that “the most powerful predictor of later socioemotional development involves the quality of the entire attachment network.”

In the United States, we celebrate self-sufficient nuclear families, but these are a strange development for our species. In the past, most humans lived in groups of close family and friends; children would be cared for by several trusted people in addition to their parents.

Kids couldn’t be tucked away in a suburban house with their mother all day. They’d spend some time with her; they’d spend time with their father; they’d spend time with their grandparents; they’d spend time with aunties and uncles, and with friends whom they called auntie or uncle. Each week, children would be cared for by many different people.

The world was a harsh place for our ancestors to live in. There was always a risk of death – by starvation, injury, or disease. Everyone in the group had an incentive to help each child learn, because everyone would someday depend upon that child’s contributions.

And here I was – beneficiary of some million years of human evolution – thinking that I’d done so well by unlearning the American propaganda that caretaking is unimportant work.

And yet, I still mistakenly believed that my kids needed it to be done by me.

Being showered with love by parents is important. Love from primary caretakers is essential for a child to feel secure with their place in the world. But love from others is crucial, too.

I am so grateful that our YMCA provided that for my kids.

And, now that they’re old enough, my kids receive that love from school. Each day when they go in, they’re with teachers who let them know: You will be cared for no matter what.

On sending kids to school.

On sending kids to school.

I was walking my eldest child toward our local elementary school when my phone rang.

We reached the door, shared a hug, and said goodbye. After I left, I called back – it was a friend of mine from college who now runs a cancer research laboratory and is an assistant professor at a medical school.

“Hey,” I said, “I was just dropping my kid off at school.”

“Whoa,” he said, “that’s brave.”

I was shocked by his remark. For most people under retirement age, a case of Covid-19 is less dangerous than a case of seasonal influenza.

“I’ve never heard of anybody needing a double lung transplant after a case of the flu,” my friend said.

But our ignorance doesn’t constitute safety. During this past flu season, several young, healthy people contracted such severe cases of influenza that they required double lung transplants. Here’s an article about a healthy 30-year-old Wyoming man nearly killed by influenza from December 2019, and another about a healthy 20-year-old Ohio woman from January 2020. And this was a rather mild flu season!

One of the doctors told me that she’s the poster child for why you get the flu shot because she didn’t get her flu shot,” said [the 20-year-old’s mother].

These stories were reported in local newspapers. Stories like this don’t make national news because we, as a people, think that it’s normal for 40,000 to 80,000 people to die of influenza every year. Every three to five years, we lose as many people as have died from Covid-19. And that’s with vaccination, with pre-existing immunity, with antivirals like Tamiflu.

Again, when I compare Covid-19 to influenza, I’m not trying to minimize the danger of Covid-19. It is dangerous. For elderly people, and for people with underlying health issues, Covid-19 is very dangerous. And, sure, all our available data suggest that Covid-19 is less dangerous than seasonal influenza for people under retirement age, but, guess what? That’s still pretty awful!

You should get a yearly flu shot!

A flu shot might save your life. And your flu shot will help save the lives of your at-risk friends and neighbors.

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For a while, I was worried because some of my remarks about Covid-19 sounded superficially similar to things said by the U.S. Republican party. Fox News – a virulent propaganda outlet – was publicizing the work of David Katz – a liberal medical doctor who volunteered in a Brooklyn E.R. during the Covid-19 epidemic and teaches at Yale’s school of public health.

The “problem” is that Katz disagrees with the narrative generally forwarded by the popular press. His reasoning, like mine, is based the relevant research data – he concludes that low-risk people should return to their regular lives.

You can see a nifty chart with his recommendations here. This is the sort of thing we’d be doing if we, as a people, wanted to “follow the science.”

And also, I’m no longer worried that people might mistake me for a right-wing ideologue. Because our president has once again staked claim to a ludicrous set of beliefs.

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Here’s a reasonable set of beliefs: we are weeks away from a safe, effective Covid-19 vaccine, so we should do everything we can to slow transmission and get the number of cases as low as possible!

Here’s another reasonable set of beliefs: Covid-19 is highly infectious, and we won’t have a vaccine for a long time. Most people will already be infected at least once before there’s a vaccine, so we should focus on protecting high-risk people while low-risk people return to their regular lives.

If you believe either of those sets of things, then you’re being totally reasonable! If you feel confident that we’ll have a vaccine soon, then, yes, delaying infections is the best strategy! I agree! And if you think that a vaccine will take a while, then, yes, we should end the shutdown! I agree!

There’s no right answer here – it comes down to our predictions about the future.

But there are definitely wrong answers. For instance, our current president claims that a vaccine is weeks away, and that we should return to our regular lives right now.

That’s nonsense. If we could get vaccinated before the election, then it’d make sense to close schools. To wait this out.

If a year or more will pass before people are vaccinated, then our efforts to delay the spread of infection will cause more harm than good. Not only will we be causing harm with the shutdown itself, but we’ll be increasing the death toll from Covid-19.

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On October 14th, the New York Times again ran a headline saying “Yes, you can be reinfected with the coronavirus. But it’s extremely unlikely.

This is incorrect.

When I’ve discussed Covid-19 with my father – a medical doctor specializing in infectious diseases, virology professor, vaccine developer with a background in epidemiology from his masters in public health – he also has often said to me that reinfection is unlikely. I kept explaining that he was wrong until I realized that we were talking about different things.

When my father uses the word “reinfection,” he means clearing the virus, catching it again, and becoming sicker than you were the first time. That’s unlikely (although obviously possible). This sort of reinfection happens often with influenza, but that’s because influenza mutates so rapidly. Covid-19 has a much more stable genome.

When I use the word “reinfection” – and I believe that this is also true when most laypeople use the word – I mean clearing the virus, catching it again, and becoming sick enough to shed the viral particles that will make other people sick.

This sense of the word “reinfection” describes something that happens all the time with other coronaviruses, and has been documented to occur with Covid-19 as well.

The more we slow the spread of Covid-19, the more total cases there will be. In and of itself, more cases aren’t a bad thing – most people’s reinfection will be milder than their first exposure. The dangerous aspect is that a person who is reinfected will have another period of viral shedding during which they might expose a high-risk friend or neighbor.

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If our goal is to reduce the strain on hospitals and reduce total mortality, we need to avoid exposing high-risk people. Obviously, we should be very careful around nursing home patients. We should provide nursing homes with the resources they need to deal with this, like extra testing, and preferably increased wages for nursing home workers to compensate them for all that extra testing.

It’s also a good idea to wear masks wherever low-risk and high-risk people mingle. The best system for grocery stores would be to hire low-risk shoppers to help deliver food to high-risk people, but, absent that system, the second-best option would be for everyone to wear masks in the grocery store.

Schools are another environment where a small number of high-risk teachers and a small number of students living with high-risk family members intermingle with a large number of low-risk classmates and colleagues.

Schools should be open – regions where schools closed have had the same rates of infection as regions where schools stayed open, and here in the U.S., teachers in districts with remote learning have had the same rates of infection as districts with in-person learning.

Education is essential, and most people in the building have very low risk.

A preponderance of data indicate that schools are safe. These data are readily accessible even for lay audiences – instead of reading research articles, you could read this lovely article in The Atlantic.

Well, I should rephrase.

We should’ve been quarantining international travelers back in December or January. At that time, a shutdown could have helped. By February, we were too late. This virus will become endemic to the human species. We screwed up.

But, given where we are now, students and teachers won’t experience much increased risk from Covid-19 if they attend in person, and schools aren’t likely to make the Covid-19 pandemic worse for the surrounding communities.

That doesn’t mean that schools are safe.

Schools aren’t safe: gun violence is a horrible problem. My spouse is a teacher – during her first year, a student brought weapons including a chainsaw and some pipe bombs to attack the school; during her fourth year, a student had amassed guns in his locker and was planning to attack the school.

Schools aren’t safe: we let kids play football, which is known to cause traumatic brain injury.

Schools aren’t safe: the high stress of grades, college admissions, and even socializing puts some kids at a devastatingly high risk for suicide. We as a nation haven’t always done a great job of prioritizing kids’ mental health.

And the world isn’t safe – as David Katz has written,

If inclined to panic over anything, let it be climate change Not the most wildly pessimistic assessment of the COVID pandemic places it even remotely in the same apocalyptic ballpark.

On ‘Among Us’ and parenting.

On ‘Among Us’ and parenting.

Last week, I wrote a reflection on the popular social deduction game Among Us. It’s a charming game, I had a lot of fun while playing, and I probably won’t play again.

And yet.

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In Among Us, players are assigned to be either interstellar scientists, attempting to complete a variety of mundane chores in order to return home, or evil aliens who sabotage the ship and slay the crew.

While the scientists complete their chores, they have to snoop for suspicious evidence, hoping to discover which of their crewmates are secretly aliens in disguise. At plurality-vote meetings, the crew can choose to fling people out the airlocks – if that person was an alien, perhaps the sabotage will cease! If that person was actually a hapless human scientist who couldn’t convince you of their innocence, well, your team is that much closer to doom.

Soon the aliens will vote you off your own ship.

#

I was brushing my teeth, staring at the black constellations of mold that have infiltrated our bathtub’s caulking. I thought, I should fix this.

It wouldn’t take so long. Scrape away the old caulking. Bleach everything. Run a dehumidifier to dry the room. Lay fresh caulk. Remind everyone not to use the bathtub that day.

An easy chore.

The chores in Among Us are all quite easy, too. The most difficult is just five rounds of the pattern-matching game Simon. Or clicking twenty asteroids as they hurtle across the screen. Most of the chores involve pressing a button and waiting.

But the chores become tense when aliens are constantly sabotaging your spacecraft. Or you might finish half a task when someone yells that they’ve found a dead body and interrupts your work with another meeting.

As I was looking at the moldy caulk, I heard that sound. The gut-wrenching alert noise, coming from our dining table.

“Ooops.”

Toothbrush still in mouth, I went to the table. Our eldest had poured a large quantity of almond milk directly on the tablecloth. Her cup was mostly empty. She was watching the milk drip from the edge of the table.

“Gmmph um dff cluff!” I said.

My kid just stared at me.

I sighed. You’re not supposed to swallow toothpaste.

I swallowed the toothpaste and said, “Get a dishcloth!”

“Ohhh,” she said, and went to the kitchen to find one. Nearly a minute passed while the milk drip, drip, dripped onto the floor. Eventually I went to get a dishcloth. My kid was sitting on the floor with several dishcloths in her lap, trying to pick her favorite.

Parenting small children is rather like Among Us. There’s an endless parade of tiny chores, each made more difficult by the fact that saboteurs are in your midst.

Except that it’s quite easy to identify the saboteurs. And I love them too much to vote them out the airlock.

Both imposters vented into the butterfly gardens … chaos is sure to follow.