Epitaph for a Family Tree
We are in mourning for a member of the family--a gnarled southern red oak tree that shaded our backyard for more than two centuries. Three generations of my family enjoyed its majestic beauty. Our grandfather tied his mules under that tree when he came to the house for the midday ”dinner” common on farms. My brother, sister and I played beneath its sheltering branches. I collected acorns, placing them on the tiny plates of my tea-set for a pretend meal that would have been a real meal for squirrels.
But we had to take it down. Trees age as people do but in tree time, not human time. Two weeks ago, the tree suffered a fracture as one of its enormous limbs crashed to the ground during the night. After consulting with local tree services, we had to recognize the tree was dying, and we had to put it – and us – out of our misery. The old tree was no longer a protective organism but a danger to life and human limb.
So the tree comes to the end of a life stretching back beyond my family, connecting us to a deeper history with the greater human family and the land. Its acorn may have spouted when Native Americans hunted on this land and paddled their canoes along the “creek,” as we affectionately call the Pagan River that flows along the back of the property. We know Native Americans were here because my nephew has found many projectile points in the fields.
Saying goodbye to this botanical member of our family has been painful and morbidly fascinating. Using ropes, crane and saw with surgical expertise, the highly capable Wade Brothers cut off the tree’s massive limbs one by one until it stood like a giant amputee with bare stubs. Finally, they felled its great trunk with an earthquaking roar as it struck the ground and lay like a wounded prehistoric beast.
It came to my generation to let it go. My brother Vasco Batten will enjoy its warmth as he burns oak logs in his fireplace next winter. We’ll spread oak-chip mulch to nourish our gardens. Now there’s only a gap in the sky where its 100-foot crown once spread its leafy branches. The tree enriched our lives. If not blood kin, it was sap kin. Humans share with trees, and other plants, the same four chemical building blocks that make up our DNA—our legacy of life on Earth. We’ll miss it.
Nothing Can Replace a Real Book
Reading remains one of my greatest pleasures in life. Reading real books, holding them in my hands, turning the pages, going back and forth, pausing to savor a sublime passage or to make a note on a real piece of paper, not some electronic gizmo. Yes, I love my computer and would never want to go back to the days of writing on an electronic typewriter. I am one of those dinosaurs who began writing on a clunky manual typewriter, graduated to an electronic machine, and finally to a computer. I'm thankful for the computer. It enables me to be more creative because I can change things around and preview it with the click of a mouse. In the pre-computer days, I made few changes because it meant retyping the entire manuscript or making corrections through several layers of carbons. (Remember carbons?) Thankfully, the computer has eliminated all those hassles and freed the creative imagination. But honestly, I don't enjoy reading on a computer screen. I want the tactile pleasure of a printed book. And when I make final revisions, I do it with a very sharp No. 2 pencil. I like holding that pencil in my hand and feeling it pressing into the paper. It helps me think and give that revision my most focused attention. We all have different ways of working.
During the past year, I discovered Peter Matthiessen. What a fabulous writer! Told to "rest, rest, rest," by my doctor after a bout of pneumonia, I had the enforced leisure time to read SHADOW COUNTRY. I had heard Matthiessen talking about this book on NPR and I was intrigued. I believe this book may be the best American novel I've ever read. Masterful storytelling, dense, complex, poetic writing style, brilliant characterization. A totally enthralling experience.
When I am really interested in an author, I try to immerse myself in his/her works. Other Matthiessen books I enjoyed are: THE SHOW LEOPARD (breathtaking); RACE ROCK; THE CLOUD FOREST, and AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD (brilliant),and THE TREE WHERE MAN WAS BORN, a beautiful collaboration between Matthiessen and photographer Eliot Porter.
Other books I've enjoyed -- and admired -- are Salman Rushdie's MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN, Ayaan Hirsi Ali's brave autobiography INFIDEL, and Iranian author Azar Nafisi's READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN.
I'm now making up my 2010 reading list.
Fanaticism in war, of the type that drove recorded Christian and Islamic conquests, was probably unknown on Earth until chiefdoms and especially states emerged within the last 6,000 years.
Guns, Germs and Steel
Making A Killing
By Mary Batten
It’s all about money. Forget about the freedom-and-democracy rhetoric. That’s for chumps. War is the biggest money-maker on the planet. With every bomb dropped, every rocket launched, every gun shot, the weapons manufacturers ring up profits. Ka-ching! Ka-ching! Only the dead have nothing to gain.
So it has come to this. After some three million years of primate evolution, humans are still turning on each other with a ferocity seen only among chimpanzees. Homo sapiens, the species with the most complex brain, seems beset with madness. Visitors from another planet would be justified in thinking they had discovered a vast insane asylum.
Sadly, the fact is that the most deadly violence is committed by men. Numerous studies show that men are more likely to kill other people than are women, and they are most likely to do so in organized groups. The question has been raised whether humans have a violent brain. The answer is No, according to many anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists. Indeed, studies show that humans can live in cooperative groups much better than they can live in violent groups. Criminologist Manuel Eisner of Cambridge University says his study of history indicates that homicides have actually been declining since the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. During that time, says Eisner, there were an average of 32 murders per 100,000 people per year. The homicide rate declined every century thereafter, finally reaching 1.4 per 100,000 people in the twentieth century (Eisner 2001). Deaths from warfare have also declined. “If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million,” says Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker (Pinker 2007, Jones 2008). However, before humans congratulate themselves on a decline in violence, it’s necessary to take into account weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear weapons can instantly vaporize entire regions and the millions that inhabit them. Nuclear wastes tick out their half-lives over thousands of years, bestowing a toxic legacy on soil and water for future generations. It is not enough that violence has declined. In today’s world, warfare should be obsolete.
The political leaders who still pursue warfare as foreign policy, seem specimens of arrested development, their intelligence lagging so far behind the times that they might as well be ice men, thawed from a glacial past to confront a world for which they are unprepared. In their mindsets and actions, they are maladapted to the high-tech age. Seemingly bereft of reason and negotiating skills, they pursue inappropriate policies, making war instead of peace. It’s as if their brain cells never developed beyond the Stone Age, the early stage of human evolution that spans several hundred thousand years.
During the Upper Stone Age, some 40,000 years ago, anatomically modern people known as Cro-Magnons appeared. At that time, the total human population of the planet was probably less than one million. (Today it’s 6.5 billion.) Throughout the Stone Age, which comprises most of human evolutionary history, people lived in small groups of hunters and gatherers. They faced their enemies with clubs or spears. Battle was up close and personal. The reach of a weapon was arm’s length or the distance a rock could be thrown or a spear hurled. Then men fought to protect their women and children or their territories from bands of hostile males. Today, there are still bands of hostile males -- armies of them -- fighting each other, all out to kill, maim, and pillage, as if life were not short enough. Even warfare is not enough to satisfy their thirst for blood. Using their bodies as weapons, men rape and terrorize girls and women, treating females as reusable spoils of war. More recently, some young men turn their bodies into incendiary devices, killing themselves and anybody else in their suicidal path.
Modern warfare broadcasts its madness – grown men acting like bad little boys throwing tantrums with the most lethal weapons ever invented. Men getting their rocks off with each target incinerated, each bagged and tagged body, each woman raped, each child eviscerated.
Total madness! All waged by big men who have never grown up.
Bad boys, drunk on power, seem to be in charge of many countries, large and small. In the United States, a bare majority of voters elected a bad little rich boy to the Presidency. Some folks said he was the kind of guy they’d like to have a beer with. Better they had left him in the bar. The arrogant folly of George W. Bush’s reign – yes, it has been an imperial Presidency – is the greatest disaster in U.S. history. His soon-to-be legacy is a list of horrors: a preemptive war in Iraq based on lies, suspension of habeas corpus, condoning torture, disregard for the Constitution, illegal spying on American citizens, a wrecked economy, tax policies that benefit the one percent of wealthiest Americans, “signings” that place him beyond any law he doesn’t like, and fear manipulation of the American people.
For Bush and his compliant cadre of Republican faithful, aided by cowardly Democrats, war is money in their pockets. No matter that war kills other people’s children; no matter that war mongering in our high-tech age is suicidal, genocidal, and ecocidal. In the ultimate gesture of denial, this President doesn’t attend soldiers’ funerals. And, hey, so much destruction can be launched by remote control, just like a video game!
Afghanistan, Iraq, Chad, Congo, Darfur, Israel, Kenya, Lebanon, Pakistan, Sudan – all places of turmoil where innocents struggle against the violence imposed by bully leaders flaunting their pitiful machismo like the sandbox boys fighting with toy weapons. But these weapons are not toys.
In contrast are the artists, scientists, doctors, and inventors who compose symphonies, write novels, rocket astronauts into space, send instruments to explore the far corners of the universe, map the human genome, and analyze the DNA of cancer cells. One segment of humanity working to improve life and bring beauty to the world; the other vested in violence and death.
Given the vast destructive power of nuclear weapons, there can be no winners in modern warfare. So why do so many men glory in death and destruction?
I believe we can find some answers in evolutionary biology. Male-male combat occurs among many species of animals as part of the male reproductive strategy. Males fight to establish status and dominance. Males fight to obtain resources to impress potential mates. The genetic stakes are high. If a female doesn’t choose a male as her mate, he is a genetic zero. He will produce no offspring. Countries that foster war and base their entire economies on weapons manufacture have, in effect, nationalized male-male competition for resources but these resources are no longer connected with reproduction. Warfare could thus be viewed as failed mating strategy. Controlling the resource – in the case of Iraq, oil – is the goal. However, it is interesting that the young men who detonate themselves seem seduced by a fantasy of postmortem mating with virgins in Paradise.
In this election year, Americans face a clear choice between the warmongers and the peacemakers. Indeed, one Republican candidate, John McCain, has said staying in Iraq for one hundred years would “be fine” with him. Only those who lack vision, reason, and common sense would condemn this nation – and the planet – to eternal war. So much more is humanly possible.
Eisner, M. 2001. British Journal of Criminology.41:618-638.
Jones, Dan. 2008. Killer Instincts. Nature. 451:512-515.
Pinker, S. 2007. The New Republic. 236:18-21.
Where Are the Grown-Ups?
By Mary Batten
Enough! Enough of the killing and wounding. Enough of rape and torture. Enough of the bombs and missiles, the destruction of homes and schools and workplaces and bridges and roads and buildings and everything that supports and nurtures life. The world desperately needs leaders who are grown-ups, not adolescent bully boys masquerading as men. Here they are – the gang of seven whose sandbox tactics threaten all life on Earth: Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, Hezbollah’s Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Iran’s Mahmoud Amadinejad, Israel’s Ehud Olmert, North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, and the bully-in-chief George W. Bush.
Every parent who has ever taken a toddler boy to an urban sandbox has seen the territorial behavior. Little boys typically seize another child’s shovel or bucket while proclaiming loudly, “Mine! Mine!” Parents or caretakers intervene, teaching the child to share, to recognize what is his and what belongs to another, and to resolve disputes through cooperation and negotiation rather than hurling sand. Sadly, the bully gang of seven act as if they had no parenting. Possibly they are cases of arrested development. More likely, they are mad, suffering delusions of fundamentalist fantasies. Behaviorally, they are stuck in the sandbox, but politically they are in positions of power where their uncontrolled actions threaten all of us.
Now these aging adolescent boys, swaggering to demonstrate how manly they are, wield the most lethal weapons ever invented as if they were sandbox toys. Seemingly incapable of reasoning and negotiation, they resort to the terrorism of war. These merchants of death reap blood profits as the body counts rise, and suicide bombers detonate themselves and everyone else in their lethal range, and the arms manufacturers produce more weapons to nurture endless wars. Enough!
The terrorism of war — the only foreign policy bullies seem to understand – reveals a profound hatred of life. While self-righteously proclaiming he is “pro-life,” the bully-in-chief Bush vetoes stem-call research as murder but promotes the mass murder of war. If Bush and the rest of the gang of seven care about life, they should veto war. In our technological age where nuclear weapons can incinerate civilization, war is unacceptable behavior. If we had grown-ups for leaders, they would declare war obsolete.
Life is the only gift evolution has granted us and it is terminal. We will all die in time. But must the resources of nations – human as well as economic wealth – be committed to hastening death rather than nurturing life?
If grown-ups were in charge, wealth would be spent to make the precious years of life better not worse. It would be spent to improve health, foster education, the arts and sciences, and eliminate poverty. These things are possible if we have leaders who are truly pro-life rather than pro-death.
But first, the people – their parliaments and congresses – must grow up, exercise parental intervention and remove the bully boys from power. Democracy can flourish only if citizens act like responsible adults and demand better behavior. In countries that are democracies, the people have choices. They can elect thoughtful adults rather than bully boys as their leaders. The current line-up of war-mongering leaders raises the serious question whether the people want to be bullied? No homeland can ever be secure as long as terrorists are in charge of governments. If these madmen are enabled to continue their destruction, the entire planet can be incinerated. Perhaps that is what the Christian, Muslim and Jewish fundamentalists want most of all – to be exploded to cinders in some final rapture.
SCIENCE EDUCATION UNDER ATTACK
"Humanity is part of nature, a species
that evolved among other species. The
more closely we identify ourselves with
the rest of life, the more quickly we will
be able to discover the sources of human
sensibility and acquire the knowledge on
which an enduring ethic, a sense of preferred
direction, can be built."
Edward O. Wilson
The Diversity of Life
As a science writer, I am extremely concerned about the attempt by Christian fundamentalists to dumb down science education in the United States. This movement threatens American students and the nation’s national security in more far-reaching ways than the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Fundamentalism, whether Christian or Muslim or any other kind, is a terrorism of the mind. American students, who already lag far behind their European and Japanese counterparts in science literacy, are now at further risk of emerging from high schools without the intellectual tools to understand our increasingly complex technological world or to appreciate the awesome four-billion-year evolutionary history of life on Earth.
In many parts of the United States, science teachers are being intimidated and pressured to introduce something called "intelligent design," which is not science at all, in science classrooms. Like so-called "creation science,“ intelligent design is a slogan similar to an advertising slogan used to sell a product. In this case, the slogan is being used in an attempt to “sell” religion to school boards that are struggling to make decisions about what should be taught in science classrooms. If the effort to inject religion into the science classroom succeeds, it will be a tragedy for American education.
It is understandable if people have difficulty grasping what science is. Many Americans have not had a good or even an adequate science education and this makes them vulnerable to the easy, simplistic explanations provided by religion, myths, and superstitions. God can be used as the easy answer for everything. One doesn’t even have to think about the complex processes that govern star birth or keep a rainforest ecologically balanced or that drive cellular functioning of the remarkable human body. By accepting the easy answers of religion, one doesn’t have to learn to think at all, and perhaps the suppression of critical thinking is the goal of these efforts. All the more reason to untangle the false claims and illogical arguments being publicized by those who are now trying to impose “intelligent design” on science teaching. To say that life is so complex it could only have been created by an “intelligent designer” is nonsense. Such a statement is not testable and thus does not meet the basic criterion for science.
What is Science?
Science is a method for examining the natural world and learning how it works. Scientists ask questions, formulate theories, then test those theories through observation, experimentation and the collection of evidence. If evidence does not support the theory, then scientists begin again, modify the theory or develop a new one and begin the process of testing all over again. Through questioning, developing hypotheses, observation, and experimentation, scientists continually push forward the frontiers of knowledge.
The scientific process is the best method we have for acquiring knowledge about ourselves, our planet, and the universe. When numerous scientists repeatedly collect evidence that consistently supports a theory, we accept that theory as fact. For example, gravity is a theory that is well proven and accepted as fact. The theory that Earth orbits the sun, once disputed by medieval theologians, has long been proven as fact. Once people even believed that disease caused germs rather than the other way around, but the great 19th-century French chemist Louis Pasteur’s work on microbes conclusively disproved that old belief. Today, the evolution of antibiotic-resistant microbes is exactly what evolutionary biology predicted. The development of agents to combat these diseases will come from evolutionary biology not from theology.
One of the great achievements of science has been to free people from superstition. Sadly, the current attack on evolution would take young people backwards into the vague, illiterate world of superstition.
Evolution – The Unifying Concept of Science
Evolution is the unifying concept in the sciences. There are more than two centuries of fossil evidence and, in recent years, molecular DNA evidence, supporting Darwin’s theory of biological evolution through natural selection. Every environment, said Darwin, presents living things with pressures, whether extreme cold or heat, flood or drought, scarcity of food, predation, or limited space. Those individuals that can withstand those pressures survive and reproduce, passing their genes on to future generations. Since offspring inherit their parents’ genes, successive generations take on the adaptive advantages.
Losers in the struggle to survive leave few or no offspring, and eventually suffer genetic death. The unfortunate and much misused phrase, “survival of the fittest,” was invented by Darwin’s contemporary, English philosopher Herbert Spencer. Darwin was persuaded to use it, but as biologists today recognize, a phrase that better describes the ultimate criterion of evolutionary success would have been reproduction of the fittest.
When Darwin published his monumental book, The Origin of Species, in 1859, he was met with vitriolic attacks from theologians and others who accepted a religious view of a static universe in which all living things had been created perfectly in their present forms. This is the view of Christian fundamentalists who interpret Genesis, the first book in the Bible, as literally as their Victorian predecessors. With intelligent design, these zealots have repackaged religion into a pseudo-science that would take education backwards to a pre-scientific era characteristic of the Dark Ages. Yet science education has never been more important and necessary for young people to become responsible, informed adults.
There is no “debate” between intelligent design and evolution because the former is a matter of faith and the latter is a matter of empirical evidence. There is no dispute among scientists whether evolution has taken place. At the same time, there is nothing in science that precludes anyone from practicing a religion and believing in a god or gods. Many scientists are devoutly religious and many church leaders of all faiths accept evolution. Anyone can believe that a supernatural being works through the process of evolution. Those whose faith is strong have no difficulty accepting evolution. Perhaps those who so vigorously oppose evolution are of such weak faith that they are afraid to confront the facts of life.
Ideas about “intelligent design” and creationism and the current wave of opposition to the teaching of biological evolution are a replay of Victorian opposition to Darwin. The re-emergence of this anti-science attitude in the midst of the most complex technological age of the human species would be an appropriate topic for discussion and analysis in a history or philosophy class but it is not science.
Note: A version of this essay appeared as an Opinion piece in The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, September 2, 2005.
Darwin, Charles. 1859. The Origin of Species. London: Murray.
Darwin, Charles.  1981. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Reprint. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Dawkins, Richard. 1976. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press.
Dennett, Daniel. "Show Me The Science." New York Times, Aug. 28, 2005.
Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs and Steel. New York: W.W. Norton.
Gould, Stephen Jay. 1976. "Ladders, Bushes, and Human Evolution." Natural History, April, pp.24-31.
Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1999. Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection> New York: Pantheon Books.
Trivers, Robert. 1985. Social Evolution. Menlo Park, CA: The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, Inc.
Wilson, Edward O. 1992. The Diversity of Life. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
For more information, see the position paper posted on the National Science Teachers Association website.