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Kinship

I’ve become obsessed with elephants. They’re majestic, intelligent, and adorable in an odd-looking way. In spite of their appearance, I’ve come to learn about key commonalities between humans and elephants. They’re social beings who have demonstrated an understanding of human gestures. They have eyelashes. Baby elephants suck their trunks the way a human baby sucks its thumb.

They mourn their dead and can recognize themselves in the mirror:

All of these facts have persuaded me of the fact that we share a kinship with these mostly gentle giants. They are people who have the right to live happily the way humans do. But nothing convinced me more of this fact than when I saw that some elephants will even dance to music:

This clip broke my heart for so many reasons. Maybe it’s because they’re the victims of butchery in Africa and exploitation throughout the world. 100,000 elephants were poached in three years to meet an increased demand for using their tusk in religious artwork, trinkets, firearms, etc.

Or maybe I felt overwhelmed because we presume that enjoying art is unique to humans. There’s so much we don’t know about other living creatures, and it’s the human default to assume that they exist as resources for whatever purpose we deem fit, whether they be food, pets, entertainment, decoration, trophies, etc.

There are many elephants, particularly in Africa, who are also keenly aware of this fact, and they have developed a human-specific call to convey the threat to their fellow elephants. We have a word for them, and they are smart enough to have a word for us. Their word, however, is a warning to run for their lives.

 

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Nontrivial Pursuit

I’m currently reading A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.  It is well-written and engaging. Bryson writes with an amusing and well-researched voice. I’m only a few chapters in, but I’m already learning some surprising facts that put the process of scientific discovery and our place in the universe in perspective:

  • Pluto is just one quarter of 1% of Earth’s mass. It’s about half the size of the lower forty-eight states in America.
  • Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the Cosmic Microwave Background in 1965. They received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1978, but they didn’t completely comprehend the importance of their discovery until they read about it in the New York Times.
  • The outer edge of our solar system is surrounded by the Oort cloud, and it would take 10,000 years for us to reach.

Oort-Cloud

  • Isaac Newton, no doubt, was a brilliant scientist. He invented Calculus, identified the laws of nature, laid the foundations for spectroscopy, etc. He also spent a lot of time on alchemy and studying the floor plan of the lost Temple of King Soloman in Jerusalem because he thought it contained mathematical clues to the dates of the second coming of Jesus and the end of the world.
  • The first dinosaur bone was discovered in New Jersey in 1787. It was sent to Dr. Caspar Wistar, the leading anatomist at the time. Wistar didn’t recognize how significant of a discovery it was, and the bone was put in a storeroom and eventually was lost.
  • In 1797, Henry Cavendish accurately calculated the mass of the Earth at six billion trillion metric tons. The current estimate for the Earth’s mass is 5.9725 billion trillion metric tons, which is only 1% different from Cavendish’s conclusion.
  • There are about 5,000,000,000,000 protons in the dot of an “i.” By comparison, there are more protons in that much space than there are seconds within half a million years.

The book is filled with several facts like this, but I hesitate to label them all as trivia. While I don’t gain practical knowledge that I will use in my everyday life or on the job, Bryson writes about the people who made discoveries that we take for granted. I can’t imagine a general awareness without dinosaurs, our place in the solar system, or having some clue about our building blocks. They are so fundamental to our worldview, yet we rarely stop to consider where such notions originated. I look forward to learning more.

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The Bipedal Menace

In 1974 Peter Benchley published the novel Jaws. It eventually sold 20 million copies. In 1975, Steven Spielberg released a film adaptation that went on to overtake The Godfather and become the highest grossing film before Star Wars came alongToday, it is the 7th highest grossing film of all time, and its classic plot and music are a well-known reference in our culture.

Since then, our fearsome fascination with these creatures has continued and been illustrated in our entertainment. Shark Week has become an annual televised event on the Discovery Channel since 1988. Jaws itself had three sequels and inspired a new genre of movies: about 50 killer shark movies have been made, and the more recent Sharknado was successful in spite of its ridiculously inane plot.

shark movies composite of posters

In spite of his success, Benchley came to regret writing the novel; he felt responsible for portraying sharks as ruthless, vindictive, man-eating predators. In 2000 we wrote for  National Geographic:

“Considering the knowledge accumulated about sharks in the last 25 years, I couldn’t possibly write Jaws today … not in good conscience anyway. Back then, it was generally accepted that great whites were anthropophagus (they ate people) by choice. Now we know that almost every attack on a human is an accident: The shark mistakes the human for its normal prey.”

Unfortunately, this updated information hasn’t changed our aggression towards this largely harmless species. There are about 500 species of sharks, and only a dozen of which have posed a threat to humans. According to current statistics, sharks kill about 12 humans each year, and humans kill about 100 million sharks each year. Sharks are endangered, and humans thrive with our population at about 7.2 billion. It is a tragic situation that exemplifies the definition of the word, “overkill.”

Many of these sharks are killed for their fins through a cruel practice called shark finning. The sharks are caught, and their fins are cut off while they’re still alive. They are thrown back into the water, and since they can’t swim, they sink to the bottom of the ocean as other sea creatures eat them alive. They endure this suffering and butchery because there is a high demand for shark fin soup, a traditional symbol of wealth in Chinese cuisine. The unfortunate irony is that the fins themselves are tasteless, and shark meat has an unhealthy amount of mercury; however, they are sought after for their exotic, lucrative status.

shark_bkgrd_ld

In spite of the fact that humans are threatening sharks’ long-term existence, the notion of hunting sharks is still considered entertaining enough to spawn a reality show. In 2013, NBC Sports premiered Shark Hunters, a competition in which the contestants try to earn money by hunting the largest shark they can find. In the advertisement, they describe sharks as “the deadliest predator in the ocean.”

Aside from the sheer barbarism of the show’s premise, the notion that sharks are the deadliest is wrong. Sharks do have other predators: orcas, octopi, and more importantly, humans. We kill more marine animals than any other species, yet we make impressionable films and TV shows portraying our victims as threatening killer beasts.

Perhaps it’s because humans are fascinated with large, powerful species, and we have the dual desire to witness and conquer them. Sharks are not the only animals we subject to our excessive butchery. African elephants, the largest terrestrial animals, are facing extinction due to relentless poaching for ivory. Tigers have also experienced a frightening plummet in their numbers due to poaching. About 100 years ago, there were 100,000 tigers, and now there are only about 3,200 of them left.

Our intelligence and resourcefulness have given us dominance on Earth, but, when physically compared to a majestic tiger or an intimidating shark, we appear small and innocuous. Even the sight of a shark’s fin piercing the water provokes horror. Perhaps by taking this scary fin and turning it into an expensive bowl of soup, we can compensate for what we lack. This compensation also comes in the form of ivory-laden jewelry and trinkets, a head on the wall, or a tiger-striped rug. It’s reminiscent of those CSI and Law and Order episodes in which they rush to catch a serial killer who takes a unique trophy from his/her victim. Sadly, it’s entirely plausible that these animals could take the fate of the Dodo and Passenger Pigeon.

Meanwhile, the media continues to portray sharks as deadly for the sake of entertainment. Even Reader’s Digest and the Discovery Channel are misrepresenting sharks: the latter is airing fake documentaries like Monster Hammerhead and Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives that portray fictitious, vengeful sharks. Shark Week producers even lied to scientists to get their commentaries. Dramatization is a part of entertainment, but what we’re really doing is attributing our own violent tendencies to these creatures.

Shark Brutality

This mass psychological projection also expresses itself in alien movies. Most alien films depict beings from other worlds as threatening and wanting to take over our planet (e.g. Aliens, Independence Day, The X-Files, etc). E.T. is the minority. Maybe it’s because this is what humans would do if they could. Subjugating other living things to our will, whether they be humans or other animals, is a consistent theme in the history of Homo Sapiens. If a species more intelligent than us were to make a documentary about us, it could be entitled, “Homo Sapien Week,” or more accurately, “Homo Sapien Century,” because in the last century, our expanding, industrialized way of life has been at the expense of wildlife everywhere.

It’s laudable that Peter Benchley realized the impact of his stories and became a conservationist later in life. Unfortunately, his latter message has yet to collectively catch on as successfully as his work as a novel writer. If we continue to live in a fictitious reality obsessed with hunting harmless animals, their existence will be as blank as the screens upon which we have projected our own behavior.

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Golden

Last weekend I spent a bit of time at the Rothko Chapel with a friend. It’s a nondenominational chapel designed to incorporate wall-sized paintings by Mark Rothko. While I was only there for about 15 minutes, it was still an experience for me. The dull lighting gave the interior a solemn tone. People were silent, aside from some soft whispers. Some were using the meditation cushions up front. Even the children were quiet. It was the ideal space for public contemplation.

The paintings were largely monochromatic with darker tones than Rothko usually employed. They were like giant, opaque mirrors that reflected my own thoughts back to me. Their lack of shape and contrast offered me little to fix my mind upon, so I had no choice but to listen to my increasingly loud, wayward thoughts. At times the black paintings were reminiscent of Rorschach ink blots, and my mind would impose shapes onto the paintings.

I left with the feeling that it is what a religious edifice ought to provide: a space in which to cultivate silence and self-awareness. It takes away the images, fables, and rituals, but, in exchange, the visitor receives a brief opportunity to get to know oneself.

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The Fairest of Them All

Anyone who has been a responsible children’s caregiver has at least tried to teach the difference between a need and a want. They could be at the mall facing a child throwing a tantrum over candy or a teddy bear that they don’t want to share with their siblings. They persistently bellow with such intensity that a witness could think the child was starving. But in reality they don’t need the ice cream, videogames, or iPads that they whine about getting; they want them.

Our needs and wants mature and persistently follow us into adulthood. We continually learn to file them into their respective categories, whether they be a house, a new car, or a vacation. Some desires are complex and inborn.  For example, many adults eventually feel the desire to have a family. Unfortunately, some cannot biologically fulfill this goal: studies indicate that up to 15% of couples of childbearing age are infertile. This can be a very disappointing reality to face for those who want to be parents. Some people of means have been turning to IVF (in vitro fertilization) as a solution, and it is quite costly.

The average cost of one cycle of IVF is $12,400, and the chances of the first cycle working are one in three. In spite of these hurdles, the growing American infertility industry grossed $3.5 billion in 2012. Fertility drugs alone grossed 1 billion worldwide with half of that coming from America. Since its initial success in 1978, more than 5 million babies have been produced via IVF worldwide. Fertility treatments have created about 50,000 babies a year in the United States. The recession had a minor impact on this business. In fact, the number of IVF procedures has tripled in the past 15 years, and 61, 740 babies were born in the US through IVF in 2012.

Meanwhile, there are 153 million orphans worldwide. The annual rate of adoption cannot compete with the rate of children created through IVF: in 2012, American families adopted about 7,000 children. Adopted children make up a mere 2% of the total child population. Over 58,000 orphans were put in group homes or institutions instead of traditional foster homes. A meta-analysis of 75 studies shows that children raised in orphanages have an IQ 20 points lower than their peers in foster care.

Unfortunately, foster care does not provide a stable environment for children. About 397,122 children are living without permanent families in the foster care system. 101,666 of these children are eligible for adoption, but nearly 32% of these children will wait over three years in foster care before being adopted.  55% of these children have had three or more placements. An earlier study found that 33% of children had changed elementary schools at least five times.

In 2012, 23,396 young adults aged out of the foster care system lacking basic life skills. 40% had been homeless, 50% engaged in substance abuse, and 17% of females were pregnant. Only 48% were employed. Nearly 25% of youth aging out did not have a high school diploma or GED, and a mere 6% had finished a two- or four-year degree after aging out of foster care.

These children need homes. Whereas those who can afford an in vitro baby are doing so because they want a child who will reflect their genetic make-up. There is a narcissism that fuels reproduction. Instead of crying for their own teddy bear, these grown adults are seeking their biological offspring at fertility clinics. The fertility industry profits off this self-entitled demand at the expense of millions of children deprived of families.

When an expecting mother feels a life growing inside her, it is a powerful and understandably coveted experience. It is a privilege and not a right, however. Technology, money, and biological impetus have obscured this distinction. One can only hope that children produced through IVF fall far from the tree and learn to identify their own greed and vanity. Parents, after all, are supposed to want their children to be better than they are.

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So True

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Sanctity

Texas Democrat Wendy Davis made the news after leading an impressive filibuster of an extreme bill set to ban abortions after 20 weeks in non-surgical centers. She stood for 11 hours without leaning on anything or taking a bathroom break. She, her cohorts, and a large crowd of supporters managed to kill the bill and shine a spotlight on pockets of liberals living in a largely Republican state. It also illustrates how abortion has remained a heated issue in spite of Roe v Wade.

Sadly, this is not the first recent example of Republicans taking drastic measures to forbid abortions. In the year 2012 we have heard some astonishingly uneducated remarks said about abortion and rape. Perhaps the most surprising part is the fact that these men were political figures (implying a need for verbal tact) who made such comments in a public forum where they knew they were being videotaped. It demonstrates surprising views still perpetuated today.

If we look back on American history, women largely had the choice to terminate their pregnancies from colonial times to the nineteenth century. Newspapers featured euphemistic advertisements for abortion-inducing drugs.  Convicting women for abortions was rare. By 1900, abortion was banned (unless it saved the life of the mother) to increase birthrates. The primary motivation was not religion.

There also isn’t a single word condemning abortion in the Bible. The Catholic church only started to officially ban abortions in 1869. And, up until then, there were varying opinions on the issue among all Christian denominations.

Today, however, the issue has become inextricably tied to religious beliefs. Considering the unwavering religious opposition to abortion, one would think that Christianity has been unequivocally pro-life throughout history. This is not the case.

In light of this political climate, I’ve decided to be yet another person to chuck a few pennies at this overly simplified and extremely polarized issue. To begin requires defining the radical pro-life stance: they do not believe in any or only some exceptions for abortion, and they can be against contraception. They may also seek  legislation to limit and/or ban abortion. They may also be against  contraception and/or condone rapists  who want to seek custody and visitation rights of their offspring. They may use violent means to get their message across.

My first problem with radical pro-lifers is their definition of being pro-life is too narrow; several act as if  abortion is unrelated to other issues regarding life and death. For example, being pro-life and against any reasonable gun law (e.g. universal background checks) does not make any sense. Assuming human life begins at conception (which one can challenge), both guns and abortions are weapons that kill.

To address this disconnect, I think it’s important to make a distinction between being pro-life in position and being pro-life in practice. An individual can be one, neither, or both. To be pro-life in position is to believe abortion is wrong with few or no exceptions. To be pro-life in practice is to actually make decisions that involve supporting, raising, teaching, and funding the lives of unwanted children. It also means supporting life through out all stages of human existence.

The pro-life politician who wanted his mistress to get an abortion is a clear-cut example of being pro-life in position but not in practice. Another example is the politician who on one hand doesn’t want abortion to be an option and on the other hand proposes legislation to cut funding to medicaid, healthcare, food stamps, veterans’ benefits, family support programs, and student loans. The Governor who holds a special session to pass an aggressive anti-abortion bill while overseeing more executions than any other Governor is not pro-life in practice.

In contrast, there are  people who are pro-choice in position but pro-life in practice. They are the occupational therapists, special education teachers, complex care doctors, and parents who tirelessly care for children with complex medical problems like Down’s Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Klinefelter’s Syndrome, Autism, etc. These are the children who, by and large, will not be completely self-sufficient. Some may not live to see adulthood, which means they are likely to “take” more money than they can “make.”

In spite of this, there are people out there who strive to help them reach their best potential, regardless of how much it falls short of the American standard of success. The people who don’t give up on children who are going to die young anyways are genuinely pro-life in practice, and that is different from whether or not they believe women should be allowed to have abortions or not. Some may be pro-life in position, and others may be pro-choice in position. Their actions are pro-life in practice.

Radical conservatives forget a simple but crucial fact: to be alive is to cost money. To be alive, healthy, relatively happy, and somewhat successful requires several resources, especially if a child has special needs. Funeral costs aside, death is the most fiscally conservative state one can be in. So pushing for financial austerity is really a pro-death choice.

It seems like radical pro-lifers want to defend the unborn, no matter what the cost. They ignore the trauma of women who were victims of sexual assault. Some even want to fight for rapists’ rights and allow them to prevent their victims from getting abortions. And  the majority of states in America allow rapists to custody and/or visitation rights.

Forcing a child into this world in which the mother is of low means and/or fragile mental health and the father is a sexual predator is a disservice to the child. There is the possibility that the child could thrive in spite of their environment, but it is a reasonable decision for a mother to not want to raise a child in such circumstances.

To continue off this point, simply being alive isn’t enough. As stated before, supporting life requires financial and emotional resources. If one cannot provide those resources, then it’s not really being pro-life. It’s like buying a plant during a drought. To argue for life should include arguing for quality of life as well.

Many have noticed how most radical pro-lifers are right-wing males who ironically advocate personal freedom and small government. They worship deregulation and despise gun laws, even if it hurts people and costs lives. When a woman wants to take charge of her reproductive rights, however, it is immoral. Perhaps their underlying motive is keeping women in the traditional child-rearing role. This could explain why abortion has become so heated in the past century: women have gained more rights and freedoms. Women were already limited to being mothers when the Bible was written, so forbidding abortion was unnecessary.

This could also explain why radical pro-lifers are against contraception. They may argue it is for religion and the (unrealistic) ideal of saving sex for marriage. But birth control prevents unplanned pregnancies. Unplanned pregnancies are the reason why abortion even exists. Radical pro-lifers should be for contraception, but in truth, they are for whatever keeps women doing nothing but raising children.

To be able to defend being pro-life requires an honest look: a certain standard of living is made possible through the death and/or suffering of others. We annihilate other populations of humans for land, religious/ideological dominance, and other resources.  We force our fellow humans to work in unsafe working conditions to make the clothes we wear and the technology we enjoy. Corporations avoid paying taxes and pollute our environment for financial gain. Insurance and pharmaceutical companies have mastered the art of assigning a profitable dollar number to human health and life.

Again, to the radical pro-lifer, however, none of these things seem to be as offensive as a woman deciding to have an abortion.

Furthermore, if there was no death, there would be no room for new life. Earth is relatively small, and we share it with many other species. It does not have infinite room for our dramatic increase in population and life expectancy. This fact is clear when the issue of social security comes up. Humans are living longer, and the political party that wants to ban abortion also wants to cut funds to the elderly and/or raise the eligibility age. This too is not being pro-life in practice.

More importantly, our current way of life entails an excessive release of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This has led in an increase in the Earth’s temperature. Global warming has several life threatening consequences: it will increase droughts, wildfires, and the intensity of storms. It will reduce our agricultural output. It will bring many species closer to extinction.  This excess of “being pro-life” is making the only home we have less hospitable for future generations and for other magnificent species. This is not being pro-life in practice. It is arrogant to act like the Earth was made only for us.

To take this point further, life and death need to be examined more broadly: they are part of a cycle. It’s a consistent theme in nature and our universe. Carcasses nourish the soil. Fossil fuels provide us with energy. Some pine cones need fire to grow. Stars need to die to provide the building blocks for life. It is an interconnected pattern.

A similar idea could apply to abortion. It is a difficult decision that can leave a woman with many complicated emotions. There are risks and consequences, but it is a choice she should be allowed to make for herself. When denied this choice, one study showed that most women keep their babies, fall into poverty, and are more likely to stay in relationships with abusive partners. The right to choose can give a woman a second chance at living a fulfilling life for herself.

This rationale shouldn’t be used as justification for reckless abortions, murder, or war.  But if radical pro-lifers equate abortion with murder, then they need to work to prevent unplanned pregnancies  the way we need to prevent oppression, violence, and war, etc.  Education, birth control, and affordable health care for women can reduce the abortion demand.  Banning abortions is likely to be about as successful  and as counterproductive as banning alcohol was.

It is understandable to prioritize potential babies; they are the most vulnerable, and they are part of humanity’s future. But the fact that the same radical pro-lifers are the people who want to gut financial support to America’s safety net shows that their actions don’t match their words. It really does take a village to raise a child, and raising children is one of the most difficult jobs, even under ideal circumstances.

Furthermore, the abortion issue goes beyond just the question of whether or not pregnancies should be terminated. It’s about how we treat the defenseless–including defenseless people who have already been born. Our track record has not been impressive; we cannot hide behind a self-righteousness we haven’t earned. Nor can we pretend that we don’t make subjective, selfish decisions when it comes to sacrificing one life over another.

This does not warrant anarchy; it warrants making educated choices about complex issues for women in challenging situations. Extreme anti-abortion politicians may think that minimizing the horror of rape gives them an extra badge of purity in the “Pro Life Scouts Club,” but it contradicts what it means to advocate for life. And they are taking it in a direction that perpetuates bigotry against women

Lastly, our lifestyles have been increasingly self-destructive, and we need education about our impact on the environment and population growth. Life on Earth is increasingly precarious, and given our dependence on fossil fuels, forcing more mouths to feed into this world contributes to this problem. The ecosystems on our rich planet exist in a delicate balance, and our continual disruption of this may very well lead to our deaths.