Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein (Harper, 2016) 301 pages

SAG Orenstein

Last time, I looked at Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls, so this will be a good comparison of books dealing with similar content read more or less back-to-back. I have to say, I liked Orenstein’s breezy style a lot more than Sales’ more formal and “this is really a serious issue” approach. Also, as I mentioned, Sales’ book has chapters organized by age, from 13 to 19, which suggests boundaries that, in my experience, are more in the eye of the beholder than deeply embedded in reality.

I read this book because I liked Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter book from a few years ago. Here, the author, as parent of a young girl, examines the whole “Disney princess” culture and the potential negative effects this “little girl as royalty” might have on girls as they grew up.

Orenstein’s book has chapters organized by theme. So one chapter investigates whether girls today are encouraged to consider themselves as sex objects (only when they want to be, the chapter title suggests) while another explores if the term “virgin” has any meaning when sexual activity, even for very young teens, is much more adventurous that it was not too long ago.

Instead of an age progression based on social media and technology use, Orenstein uses conversations with girls of many ages (but still mainly teens) to structure chapters revolving around sex, from hookups to coming out at a young age as a lesbian to friends and parents. Orenstein does not form judgments often, except perhaps when it comes to the role of alcohol in campus rape scenarios. She doesn’t moan when girls report that being known as a “prude” or a “virgin” might be just as shameful as being called a “slut” (p.3).

In fact, the book begins with a plea on the part of a well-endowed high-school girl that it should not be her (and other girls’) responsibility to “dress to control the boys” (p.9). Why should it be? she asks. Why isn’t the school and the boy’s parents doing more to have boys control themselves? It seems a pertinent question when 100% of girls report being sexually harassed (p.11) and most girls have resorted to wearing shorts under their school uniform skirts because the boys will not refrain from grabbing at the hems and lifting them up. Why aren’t boys encouraged in ads and on TV to wear tight shorts and expose their midsections in freezing weather (p.12)?

As Orenstein points out on p.14, Bruce Jenner, covered in Olympic sweat, used his body, but Caitlin Jenner, covered by a corset from “Trashy Lingerie,” displayed it. And many times, what girls are encouraged to do is to use their bodies to please boys, through sexual activity. Girls in middle school will strip on Skype for their boyfriends, because this remote display was one way to be a “bad girl” without the risks of “real sex” (p.23).

You can find the same kinds of perhaps surprising or even shocking statistics here as in Sales’ book: the new second base is masturbating the boy’s penis while he fingers the girl (p.47), 12-year-olds routinely ask health teachers if they should spit or swallow (p. 48), the concern about queefing (look it up: it was on South Park…p.63), girls are pressured to shave their public hair about the age of 14 (p. 67), and do on.

On the other hand, Orenstein does a very good job of dealing with the perils of date rape and campus drinking. She ties a lot of it in to the concerns about what the book calls “the number”…that is, how many sexual partners are too many (p.98). The book says that the average number of partners a girl has in college is seven. (p.105). But like many averages, a few really high or low numbers might skew the results.

This book goes places where the other book did not travel much. There is a long section on a “Purity Ball” where fathers take their daughters to dances and exchange vows of virginity until marriage vows are exchanged (p.84 on). Like the author, I got a bit of a queasy feeling about this strident display of rejecting all forms of intimacy. If there’s anything that perpetuates the view of a female as the possession of a man, it’s the idea that these girls have to be chaperoned by their fathers (or another close male relative) until they can be safely handed off their husbands (and later, their sons).

There are also long sections on women who have been raped (p.130) and gay sexuality (p.142). The age when girls came out as gay has dropped from about 25 in 1991 to 14-16 today (p.148). One issue I had is that Orenstein tends to split the stories up as she goes through her narrative, so a woman goes on a date on one page, gets drink ten pages later, then wakes up naked more pages later. Some schools have begun teaching “refusal skills” so that fewer women will have unwanted sexual activity (the FBI definition of rape) and still feel compelled to say (as the woman on p.197) to the boy, “Thanks, I had fun.”

The book ends with a frank discussion of how modern society is failing to give women and girls the tools they need to succeed in their relationships. Girls are still more likely to learn “what feels good” when they are touched not by themselves, but from someone else (p.205). There is more consideration in ordering a pizza for a couple (“Ok, you don’t like anchovies…”) than there is about sex (p.207).

Orenstein is not afraid of tangling her sex talk with politics. Once we decided to teach only abstinence in schools, we lost all chance of teaching our children to be responsible at the same time. We expect teens to break rules, but not the ones regarding the denial of their sexual natures (p.221).

On the other hand, I have a hard time agreeing with people that women who post naked photos are “empowered” by their sexuality. I say this because I think the female body has been so fetishized in modern America that an objective appreciation of the nude female form is all but impossible today. I think that a woman (or man, for that matter) should be able to walk down the street naked if they want too and not be at risk of any harm. But we are a long way from that, I think. At this point, I’ll be happy enough to hear about a boy covering a drunken girl with a blanket and staying with her until she sobers up.

Full Service by Scotty Bowers

Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Live of the Stars by Scotty Bowers with Lionel Friedberg (Grove Press, 2013) 286 pages

FS Bowers

Last time I checked, Scotty Bowers was still going strong at 92 (he was born July 1, 1923, so he’s not quite 93 just yet as I write this). This is a good thing, because once Scotty goes, the number of people who can testify first-hand about the wild and crazy days of Hollywood between the end of World War II and the late 1980s, when fear of AIDS made everyone a bit nuts (or become porn stars), will be greatly diminished. And Scotty was not just a witness, he claims to be one of the movers and shakers of what is sometimes called “Hollywood Babylon” (which Kenneth Anger wrote a famous book about).

This book probably only exists because you can’t libel dead people. And almost everyone famous in this book has been long gone. Shocking, I know, the thought that they had sex, sometimes with people they weren’t married to, and of the same sex…and a LOT of it…but get over it.

Trigger warning (I actually know what those are): If sexual topics upset you, or if the very idea that people, men and women alike, are having sex makes you turn away because the whole thing strikes you as sort of icky, then you might want to stop now and read about war or violence or something safer. On the other hand, I’m not the kind of person who thinks that you have to use a certain vocabulary (or not) to talk about sex, so you might be disappointed in that regard also.

This book made me think about things I hadn’t pondered for years. I thought about how my father had fought in the Pacific like Scotty Bowers, although my father fought for the Army’s 77th Division on Guam and Okinawa and Bowers fought for the Marines on Guadalcanal. My father, however, rejoined his family in White Plains, NY (where they had moved from outside Scranton, Pennsylvania) while Bowers stayed in Hollywood after the occupation of Japan ended. I always wondered why my father came back, until he told me much later that he didn’t trust his stepfather, a drunk who abused all his children, with his mother. When my grandparents’ family moved to Rockford, Illinois, my father had married my mother and stayed in New York. At least, my father always said, the war got him out of the coal mines. Next time anyone tells you how wonderful and vital the coal industry is, talk to me, and I’ll tell you what my father thought…you could ask my grandfather, but he died in the mines in 1917.

Back to the book, I promise.

Scotty Bowers—real name George—gives most of what you need to know about his life before coming to Hollywood after WW II on pages 15-17. Born on a farm, the family moved to Chicago in the 1930s and George became Scotty in 1934 when this very good-looking boy of 11 (the book has lots of photos) began hanging around with a girl who had Scottie dogs. People would say “Here come the Scotties” (p. 43) when they strolled by, and, after the girl was gone, people still addressed him as “Scottie.” So the name stuck (and his mother never cared for George in the first place, says p. 18).

After Pearl Harbor in December 1941, young men (and not-so-young-men: they took a lot of older people then than they do now) had two choices: sign up or wait to get drafted. My father waited, but Scotty and a close buddy signed up for the Marines. The Marines were picky, then and now, so there was a bit of extra prestige that went along with being a Marine, even back then.

(I can’t resist telling this story about that…my father-in-law’s cousin, also age 92, told me that even after he signed up for the Navy, the Marines tried to claim him, a big farm boy from North Dakota, thinking he was with a pool of draftees when they all reported for duty. No, no, he told them, I want the Navy…and he told me “There was no way I was hitting the beach and getting killed…I wanted to stay on the ship where the food was better.” And the Marines really couldn’t touch him.)

OK, I’m only going to talk about the book now, I promise/promise.

After the Marines, Scotty took a job pumping gas at a gas station in the heart of Hollywood: on the corner of Van Ness at 5777 W Hollywood Boulevard. It’s not long before he was offered twenty bucks for certain “favors” of a sexual nature. Of a homosexual nature. Now young Scotty, like many farm boys and service members, was not naïve about such matters (which should probably include high school football players and, come to think of it, just about everyone). However, Scotty’s philosophy about such things was years ahead of his time:  “if it feels good, do it” said the 1960s. (Actually, those days it was closer to the Victorian undercurrents that stated “do what you want, but don’t scare the children or horses.”)

At the station, Scotty started pimping for his veteran friends, many of whom were in great need of ready cash. Another friend parked a big RV behind the station, which Scotty then used as a bedroom for his “customers.” Eventually, he moved on to bartending, another good occupation if sex is what you’re looking for, or peddling.

Business was booming throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s, because in pre-cell-phone days, gas stations and phone booths were places you could make and take calls without the people around you paying too much attention. Even after Scotty got married and had a child, he does not want to give up his bisexual lifestyle, and he was lucky enough to have had a wife who was fairly comfortable with this relaxed arrangement.

In the book, Scotty claims to have had sex with folks are varied as Edith Piaf, Spencer Tracy, Vivien Leigh, Cary Grant, and the abdicated King of England Edward VIII (the Duke of Windsor). He also hung around with or arranged partners for Tennessee Williams, Charles Laughton, Vincent Price, Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Errol Flynn, Gloria Swanson, Noël Coward, Mae West, James Dean, Rock Hudson and J. Edgar Hoover. And this is not even a complete list (well, it almost is).

Not much in the book surprised me, and many of the stories have already been told one way or another. Actually, I was kind of surprised that the Vatican, of all places, has one of the most extensive collections of porn in the world (p. 179). Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey is cited as the source of the story, as is the claim that ex-King Farouk of Egypt was in second place. I guess, to some people then (and now?), this mattered.

The party pretty much ended with the death of Rock Hudson from AIDS in 1985. Suddenly, sex could not only ruin your career, it could end your life. The last fifty pages or so of the book are a sort of sad lament for days gone by. But at some point in everyone’s life, doesn’t it always come to that? It hasn’t happened to me yet, I don’t think…but maybe my reading and writing like this is a kind of warning…:-)

Science of the Magical by Matt Kaplan

Science of the Magical: From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers by Matt Kaplan (Scribner’s, 2015) 246 pages

SOTM Kaplan

This book starts out with a lot of promise. The whole point is that a lot of the things that we once thought of as magical (the result of magic) are now shown by science to be factual (the result of things being the way they are). But somewhere in the middle, this early promise sort of peters out and readers are left with the feeling that a lot of the material is just there to fill out a book. For me, this happened somewhere between the readings of animal livers in ancient Rome (which was very good) and the investigation of gateways to the underworld (which was sort of “okay, so?”).

The solid science of the first part of the book gives way to a lot of speculation in the second part. Now, none of this book’s content could be written without at least some speculation, of course, but when the word “science” appears in the title, it would be nice to have as much science throughout the whole book as possible. After all, there aren’t any Roman Empire priests still around to ask and have them say “Why, yes, that’s exactly what we were looking for when we pulling those hot, steaming livers from those freshly sacrificed sheep…”

Kaplan investigates nine major areas to explore the current science surrounding certain “superstitious” practices. These are Healing (does praying help?), Transformation (into berserk warriors or the opposite gender), Immortality and Longevity (Holy Grail helps?), Supernatural Skies (does weather bring disease?), Animal and Plants as Omens, Guides, and Gods (do wolves and ravens know something we don’t?), Prophecy (oracles and liver readers), Beyond the Grave (actually, near death more than ghosts), Enchantment (psychedelics and love potions), and Superhumans (fire walkers and towel driers).

Some of this stuff reminds me of things I’ve seen on Mythbusters (can you raise your internal temperature mentally?). But a lot of it was new to me, and rather fascinating. Kaplan has an east style, although he can sometimes stretch a paragraph of real material into a couple of pages. Feel free to flip to the good parts.

Which is what I’m going to do here.

Although it isn’t directly related to praying and healing, the first things I got form the book (page 16) was about the Ancient Egyptians and eye makeup. We all know the kohl-heavy, overly-done-up eyes of King Tut and others, men and women alike. But only priests of Horus and Ra and their good buddies got to wear it. Recently, modern science has shown that the mixture of calcium and lead, if just right, protects against various eye disease common in North Africa and the surrounding deserts (page 17). Who wouldn’t worship a god whose followers were all obviously healthier than the people who worshipped some other (false) deity?

On page 22, we learn that researchers like to keep lab mice in cooler temperatures (room temperature for us: 68 to 72 degrees F) than the mice would prefer (in the mid-80s). This slows the mice’s metabolism; they eat less, poop less, and they have to clean the cages less frequently. But the mice prefer it warmer, and when given a choice, all migrate to warmer cages instead of cooler ones. And, as it turns out, the warmer the mice are, the stronger their immunity systems are. So mice, sick or not, react differently when cool or warm. This fact, of course, has enormous implications for, say, cancer treatment research done on chilled mice (page 24). This result is so new that it hasn’t been widely circulated, but maybe Kaplan’s book will help.

In the next chapter, Kaplan discusses how the “bear-serker” warriors of the Vikings might have spiked their beer with mushrooms or other psychedelics to ward off pain and ignore wounds (page 37). There are lots of hints, like traces of plants in Viking graves (page 40), but no smoking gun has been found yet. I think they were just nuts.

The most interesting thing I found in Chapter 3 on immortality was the new research into ageing and calorie deprivation. It was long known that, within limits, a restricted input of calories—less than 1200 per day instead of 2000 or more—had measurable health benefits. Animal studies showed increased life spans as well. One thing I did not know was that a substance called Rapamycin (page 70) can fool the body into thinking calories are scarce, even when they aren’t. Sounds great: eat all you want and still starve yourself to health and longevity. Ah, but rapamycin suppresses the immune system, and that can offset the supposed benefits. But Kaplan suggests more research might find a way forward, and low protein intake might be the key (page 73).

(As an aside, I’ve always thought that ageing was related to nutrition and exercise. People don’t slow down and eat differently because they age, they age because they stop eating right and aren’t as active as they should be. I am in the midst of a life-long—well, for almost 40 years now—experiment to prove that. I’ll let you know how it turns out.) 🙂

The next chapter deals with things like full moon effects (“lunatics”) and the Viking sunstone that always found the sun, even through thick clouds. This chapter really didn’t drag me in, and most of it was inconclusive when it came to the “science” anyway.

Chapter 5 had a fascinating exploration of the relationship between ravens, wolves, and Odin (yes, I know a lot of this book involves Northern European lore and “magic”). Odin, the big Viking god, had two raven buddies named Hugin (“thoughtful”) and Munin (“mindful”). Odin was so closely associated with these ravens that people called him Rafnagud, the Raven God. He also had two wolves around named Gore (“greedy”) and Freke (“voracious”). It’s clear from the names that the scavenger ravens are the brains, and the vicious wolves the brawn, of the operation. But why the raven and wolf mix?

Page 102 reports studies done in Yellowstone Park, showing that ravens and wolves often cooperate to find game. The ravens would follow the wolf pack, hoping to have some yummy leftovers to feast on when the wolves were done with dinner. In fact, the ravens had a hard time finding kills places by the rangers without the wolves to guide them. Not only that, but the ravens would circle over weak and vulnerable prey, waiting for the wolves to follow them to a good place for dinner (page 103). Odin appears to come in when early humans learned the whole raven-wolf trick and began stealing kills from the wolf pack (of course, the wolves became dogs and had their revenge).

A last word on livers…what could a Roman priest learn about the future by carving up a sheep and examining the liver? Plenty, as it turns out. On page 133, Kaplan suggests that the appearance of the liver could tell an invading army a lot about the state of the food and water in the area. Kaplan goes to a butcher to find livers and see if it is possible to tell diseased from heathy livers, and it is. But again, we really have no idea if we’re on the right track or not. The Roman priests have guarded their secrets well…

Too Much of a Good Thing by Lee Goldman, MD

Too Much of a Good Thing: How Four Key Survival Traits Are Now Killing Us by Lee Goldman, MD (Little-Brown, 2015) 344 pages.

TMOAGT Goldman

One of the things we are finding out (see the March 2016 issue of Discover magazine) is that, as a species, homo sapiens isn’t a unique type of animal. What we are is the sole survivor of a large group of similar species who might have lived in the same place at the same time in Africa. We survived and they didn’t because our species was more than likely better at four things than all the competition. Ironically, the very traits that let us prevail when climate change, animal migration, warfare, and other forms of environmental stress tested our species are now the biggest threats that we have to endure far into the future.

Goldman’s book is the first I’ve seen to systematically explore some of these characteristics. He focuses on four things (and as a doctor, I trust him to be able to judge these kinds of things). These four things once helped us, but now hinder us as civilization replaces the wilds our species grew up in. There are three possible outcomes to the situation humanity finds itself in (p. 6): first, everything can keep getting worse until our children’s children’s children down the line no longer live long enough, or remain healthy enough, to raise enough people to keep the species going. Or, we can radically change our lifestyles enough so that we are able to counter the negative effects of these four things and continue, as a species, to make progress (although some might not be able to make the journey). Finally, we can take advantage of new scientific discoveries to either counter these four things genetically (through genetic modification) or treatments designed to counter their effects as we live our lives.

Before going on, just what are these four things Goldman focuses on? Here they are, as I would translate them (from p. 4) into all their simple glory:

  1. Hunger
  2. Thirst
  3. Fear
  4. Blood clots

Of course, there has to be a bit more about how these four basic characteristics, obviously critical to the survival of any individual in primitive surroundings, have become as much as liability as a benefit in modern civilization.

Let’s look at the list again and add some details:

  1. Hunger: We are still genetically a species that is programmed to eat and eat and eat when food is available in order to stock up on calories in the form of body fat to get us through the lean times between feasts and good harvests (I’ve read elsewhere that without fertilizers and irrigation, 4 out of every 10 crop years were utter failures). But now we’ve eaten ourselves into a world where half of the people in it are overweight, a significant portion of those are downright obese, and “lifestyle diseases” like heart disease and weight-related diabetes are rampant.
  2. Thirst: Our need for water, and the related need to replace the salts we shed through urine and sweat, makes us crave salty foods to the point where we are all at the risk of high blood pressure (HBP). This in turn elevates our risk of heart attack and stroke (the same process essentially causes both).
  3. Fear: We were and are a violent species, understandable enough when we had to fend off lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), but civilization has allowed most of us to turn our violent tendencies onto each other and assign peacekeeping tasks to police and armies. As a result, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the related mental distress caused by bottling up much of our impulsive rage are making “normal” life hard for those we rely on the keep violence from spreading everywhere. I wrote about this type of thing before, in 2015 (Deep Violence by Bourke).
  4. Blood clots: Our species benefited in a violent environment by being able to stop bleeding quickly, before we all bled to death from a deep scratch. But this ability also can complicate our normal aging process, especially when coupled with high blood pressure (see #2 above). Fast clotting was even more critical in the days before hospital births, when bleeding to death was a frequent complication for women who had just delivered (this still occasionally happens, even in a modern hospital).

One thing struck me as strange when I read Goldman’s book. I was amazed at how many of the things we take for granted as leading to a “healthy lifestyle” were only discovered recently. For example, a cardiology textbook in the 1940s defined a blood pressure of 200/100 as high, but “mild” and “benign” (p. 110). Walk into any doctor’s office or ER today with that blood pressure and your next stop is likely to be the hospital and a heart monitor.

President Franklin Roosevelt died on 19 April 1945 of a stroke, but what killed FDR was really his high blood pressure (p. 88). FDR was 63 years old, an age considered very old back then, but not even of normal retirement age today (FDR had been US president for 13 years by then: how many presidential candidates are over 63 in 2016?) . Oddly, the effects of his high blood pressure were masked somewhat by his polio and the resulting inability to walk at all or stand (with hip braces) for any period of time.

But by 1945, the years of stress through WW II and the Depression had taken their toll. In 1931, before he became president, FDR’s blood pressure was 140/100. By 1937, as war clouds gathered, it went to 162/98, and then to 200/108 by D-Day in 1944 (p.166). At his fourth inauguration, in January of 1945, Roosevelt only spoke 500 words and was never seen on his feet again. At Yalta early in 1945, FDR was at 260/150, or “off the charts.” His doctors belatedly recommended a low salt diet (!), but by the time he complained of “a terrific pain in the back of my head” and died, his blood pressure was at 300/190 (p. 117).

Bottom line: always, always, always have the nurse or doctor take your sitting blood pressure in each arm, after five minutes of rest (p. 108). If they don’t, they’re taking shortcuts that put you in peril.

One more short take: as late as 1990, 1% of women died in childbirth in the poorest parts of the world, and 1 in 300 (one-third of all childbirth deaths) were the result of uncontrolled bleeding (p. 161), mainly as a result of unfortunate placenta separation (it turns out that much depends on where the attachment is made in the first place).

This book will teach you many things and, if you’re anything like me, scare you enough to make real changes in what you do and eat each day. (Last night, I went to a drive-through craving a burger and found they had just added to calorie count to their menu. Instead of the burger with 1150-1650 calories (plus the fries!), I ordered the simple chicken sandwich at 650 and fed the fries to the dogs. You have to start somewhere.)

(In a couple of weeks, I’ll talk about a little book I found called The Wandering Falcon that acts as a kind of counter-balance to the whole “what would we do without modern civilization?” line of thought.)

Infectious Madness by Harriet A. Washington

Infectious Madness: The Surprising Science of How We “Catch” Mental Illness by Harriet A. Washington (Little-Brown, 2015) 292 pages

IM Washington

I didn’t post a book essay last week because we were in Burlington, Vermont for a kind of work reunion (which was very nice, by the way). I devoured one book on the plane there and back, but I picked up this book in the Phoenix Book Store in Burlington and decided to write about it instead. (I thought it ironic to be from Phoenix and find the Phoenix book store in Vermont, and this is yet another lesson about how you can just walk through a store and let your eye fall on a book and go “hey!”…Amazon, when can I walk through your web site like I walk through the sections of a book store? Get on that, will you.)

Okay, now consider this: if you go to the doctor with a fever, and a cough, and an achy body, they will most likely diagnose you with the flu and tell you to do X and take Y and take it easy. But if you go to the doctor complaining of hearing voices, and that people are stealing things out of your pocket as you walk down the street, and that your spouse is trying to kill you, the diagnosis is likely to be very different.

The whole medical profession is set up today to handle physical illnesses and mental illnesses, and you have to have symptoms one or the other to be acknowledged as ill in the first place. With regard to this last point, I mean that if you go to the emergency room or to a psychiatrist and say “I just don’t feel like myself today” you are unlikely to find a sympathetic ear in either place.

But what if there is no such thing as “mental illness” at all? What if what doctors consider to be classic symptoms of mental illness (voices, suicidal tendencies, and so on) are as much the manifestation of an infection as the flu or mumps? That‘s the question Washington’s intriguing book asks and attempts to answer. Fortunately, there are signs—slight signs, but signs nonetheless—that the whole “mental illness” industry that began with Freud at the end of the Nineteenth Century is finally losing its grip on the medical profession.

Why now? Well, think about this: is the old theory of dualism, most notably proposed by Rene Descartes, valid or not? The same thing comes up in discussions of consciousness and artificial intelligence, and has before in these essays. Is there a mind in our bodies that is separate from on physical essence? Is there a spirit or soul that can survive your death or be transferred to a computer? Or is your brain and body all you’ve got? In that case, the feeling that there is a little guy living in your head behind your eyes is just an effect of how your brain works and not a profound revelation about the universe. Washington summarizes all this on page 17. Modern science can only find a brain and body.

I admit my feelings along those lines have evolved. I used to have a strong belief in the spirit or the soul (the more involved you are in religion, the more likely you are to agree with that belief). Then I went in the opposite direction and thought that the idea that we could separate the experience of being human from the sensory input of our bodies as complete fantasy. Now I truly believe that we can simulate intelligent behaviors in manufactured machines like computers or robots, but that whatever this creation might be, it can never be human (and that we can are risking a lot if we don’t realize this).

Enough about what I think. What about the book? Well, one of the risks of presenting some diseases as purely mental problems is that sufferers are judged to be somehow of lesser substance than otherwise healthy people. Crazy people were an embarrassment to families, and these families did not suffer socially from having plague sufferers among relatives. Madness was caused by moral shortcomings, failed family relations like divorce, bad parenting, and other social issues. In many cases, the mother was blamed for any mental problems her children developed (page 48).

This judgmental attitude did not change much until King George III of England went mad in the late 1700s (page 19). No one could accuse a king of not having a good upbringing or suffering from poor parenting, so maybe there was something else going on.

Professionals still argue about what caused George III’s odd behavior and rages, but all research today seeks a physical cause like infection, not a mental one. One thing that helped the king immensely (for a while) was vigorous exercise and good nutrition, and Washington implies that this is a good regimen for all illnesses today.

The big weakness of the book in claiming that all mental diseases from depression to autism to schizophrenia are caused by infections like strep or the flu or more exotic microbes is that much of the evidence we have is statistical. So if Harry gets strep in the spring of his first year of life, autism might emerge soon after in a certain percentage of cases. The most chilling part of the book is when the author discusses individual cases, and how the pattern of the onset of diseases like schizophrenia is indistinguishable from an infection contracted in the winter, when people are inside and in close contact and do not exercise or eat well.

But a percentage getting sick means the same type of infection leaves another percentage untouched. Why is this stuff so darn variable? Because, Washington says, in many cases, it appears that it’s not the original infection that causes the damage to the nervous system and brain that manifests the mental symptoms, but the reaction of the immune system (page 65). Because the autoimmune system varies so much depending on exercise and nutrition as well as genetics, a high degree of variability in immune response is only to be expected.

Many medical conditions are proving to be autoimmune conditions today, and I was diagnosed with one called Polymyalgia Rheumatica (PMR) in 2010. I am firmly convinced that my episode, which took two years of steroid treatment to clear up, was initiated by a severe case of the flu. My rheumatologist said, “If you’re going to get an autoimmune disease, get PMR, because it’s one of the few we can cure.” Then again, I might well be crazy. 🙂

Why is proving “infectious madness” so hard? It took years before the mental effects of syphilis (called paresis: pages 27-31) were connected with the physical symptoms of the venereal disease. Because we cannot ethically experiment with humans, control groups where treatments that would most likely help are withheld to prove a point are forbidden (not that they haven’t occasionally happened). So strong correlations are probably the best we can do for firm proof until biological science evolves enough to allow realistic test-tube equivalents.

What can you do to protect you and your family from infections that might cause autism, depression, or other “mental” conditions? The easiest one is to wash your hands a lot, and avoid shaking hands in the winter. Don’t eat a lot of junk food (with lots of fat, sugar, and salt included), and avoid hospitals, the Number 1 cause of harmful infections today (page 202). Antibiotics, once so powerful that a doctor in 1967 pronounced the end of infection (page 196), are losing their effectiveness. Therefore, individual exercise and nutrition is more important than ever.

Let me leave you with the words of my father, delivered at a family gathering and greeted by much laughter: “If you can stay out of the hospital, you’ll live forever.” He might have been right.

Women After All by Melvin Konner

Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy by Melvin Konner (Norton, 2015), 404 pages.

WAA Konner

I think the subtitle really says it all. I don’t get the “women after all” point (all fetuses begin as female, but some become male through androgens?). But I certainly understand the issues about sex and evolution. Lots of articles and books have pointed out the “degenerated” aspect of the Y (male producing) chromosome. It’s tiny and has few genes, leaving humans born without a backup copy of a gene on the robust X chromosome (XX babies—female) particularly at risk for life-shortening genetic flaws (page 8). It would not take much for the Y chromosome to disappear altogether, especially once other methods of sexual reproduction besides man-on-woman penis-in-vagina sex become widespread.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The premise of the book is not how genes might end the need for a male role in reproduction (as the book points out, several species reproduce just fine without males, one right here where I live in Arizona: see page 47). The real point of the book is how male treatment of females has jeopardized any warm feelings women as a group might otherwise have for the male of our species. It’s one thing if men die out. It’s another if women push them into extinction.

Consider the whole definition of “supremacy” in the first place. Konner proposes that the male assertion of supremacy over females is based on a deep-seated and uncomfortable realization of male’s inherent inadequacy: males are not equipped, on their own, to carry on the human race (page 9). He also makes the claim that this male “supremacy” is temporary, an anomaly based on the over-valuing of brute force when farming and early towns replaced more relaxed hunter-gatherer lifestyles (page 6). Now that labor-saving devices dominate civilization, the tradeoff of the need for males to build walls and fight wars to knock them down is no longer needed. As Konner points out on page 12, the biggest thing we can do to improve life today is to empower and educate women. No wonder this simple idea is apposed so vehemently all over the world.

This is not to say that gender differences are not important. They are really defining: the first thing anyone noticed about all of us occurred at birth: “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” (page 19). Babies who do not fit into one category of another (those with ambiguous or all-inclusive genitals) will struggle all their lives to find their place in the world. The most fascinating part of the book to me was Konner’s exploration of these outliers in the world of the male-female divide and his countdown of various genetic “mistakes” like XYY males and XY females (which do exist—see below).

I’ve never seen this detailed so completely, so it’s worth going over, I think.

Genes on the Y chromosome create male testes (which create androgens like testosterone in turn) and suppress the female organs (page 26). But sometimes the fetus has two or more Xs and a Y (XXY, XXXY, and so on), a condition called Klinefelter syndrome, but the child will be basically male. Often, a male seems to be XX (female!) but has a tiny Y chromosome attached to an X. Konner calls some XX babies “Ahs” and others “Andras” because they have masculinized genitals that make it hard to say whether the child is a girl or boy. They are basically girls, but in drawing tests they tend to sketch mobile or mechanical objects like boys instead of people or flowers. There are even XY “boys” that have deformed penises, which are often amputated so they can be raised as girls.

These are not quite the same as XY people who look and act female. How is this possible? They have a mutation that means they can’t make androgens and have no androgen receptors even if they could (page 37). These are infertile women, essentially, and show that blocking androgens means there is no maleness in a fetus or person—none.

One of Konners most intriguing passages involves a litany of birth defects: babies born with this chromosomal defect suffer from a shorter lifespan, higher mortality at all stages of life, an inability to reproduce, premature hair loss, and many brain defects, such as attention deficits, hyperactivity, an inability to control impulses, hypersexuality, and an “enormous” excess of inward and outward aggression. We call it maleness (page 8).

However, it would be a mistake to think the Konner’s whole book is about male-bashing. The author is, after all, an unabashed male. We can’t experiment with humans, naturally, but we can look at primitive societies: the author’s his first wife studied the !Kung people in Africa and published ground-breaking work on those hunter-gatherers. We can learn from various ape species such as chimps and bonobos, but these studies tend to be more valuable for understanding genetic influences on behavior than cultural (language is absent in all but human societies).

Males seem to have two pluses to offer in complex, but non-technological, societies. The first is a hair-trigger for aggressive acts, and the second better upper-body strength compared to females. Both these help with projectiles, and are helpful in for big-game hunting and in protecting the tribe. The harm comes when these two aspects of power are not directed outward toward prey or invaders, but inward toward vulnerable women. However, it is worth pointing out that males suffer from male aggression and violence much more than women, who are often protected by a formidable trio of father, husband, son, do: page 7. Male-on-male rape tends to be much more violent than when directed toward women, although that is small consolation to the victims.

For those who still think that male injustice when it comes to the treatment of women is a simply a matter of whiny special-pleading on the part of women, consider these gems that the author presents on page 296:

  • Instead of saying “I’m not interested in you” when approached by a male, women should say “I have a boyfriend/husband.” Men will respect the “property” of other men more than they will accept the simple statement of a woman.
  • What men fear most about going to prison is what women fear every time they walk down a lonely street.
  • The most important thing a woman can learn is to say “Take whatever you want, just don’t hurt me.”
  • A smile might get you followed, but no response can get you killed.

Are these situations exaggerated? Perhaps…but the stories I see in the news, even in the “enlightened” West, tell me that there is more truth is these statements than men might care to admit.

Let me leave with something I heard years ago, during the dawn of the “feminist movement.” I’ve never see it online, but the “Prayer of Aristotle” goes like this:

Aristotle prayed, “Oh, Great Gods of Olympus, thank for making me a human instead of an animal, and for making me a Greek instead of a barbarian. But most of all, thank you for making me a man instead of a woman, because without this last blessing, the first two would be worthless.”

Maybe an end to “male supremacy” will someday be a blessing too.

Life’s Greatest Secret by Matthew Cobb

Life’s Greatest Secret:The Race to Crack the Genetic Code by Matthew Cobb (Basic Books, 2015), 434 pages.

LGS Cobb

The genetic code, for those who have long forgotten high school biology, is the cipher (it’s not really a “code,” as the book points out) whereby the double helix of DNA on the chromosomes in the nucleus determine the structural components (sort of like protein nouns) and enzymes (sort of like protein verbs) our cells are made of. The whole process has proven to be mind-boggling complex, but in short, the DNA unwinds and one of the helixes (yes, the body can tell them apart) translates what are called codons to messenger RNA (mRNA). This mRNA makes its way out of the nucleus and attaches to cell structures called ribosomes, where three units in a row line up with their complements from transfer RNA (tRNA). The tRNA binds to one of the twenty amino acids that make up life on earth, and these chains of amino acids are folded to make almost everything in you, me, and everything else that’s considered alive (although we’re not too sure if viruses are really alive, at least in their crystal form).

Boring, huh?

Well, it can be if you learn the subject backward, which is the way most scientific topics and mathematics are taught in today’s world. That is, you start with what we know today and explain it all in terms of current understanding. But everything, from history to math to science, is boring in retrospect: here’s what we know. All knowledge is founded on great mystery, and this book is about how the mystery of the “unit of inheritance” works was solved by an army of dedicated researchers, dogged experimenters, and a handful of people (sometimes the ones who ended up with the Nobel Prizes) who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The “people history” of DNA begins with a survey of the state of inheritance science before Mendel, whose work was ignored at the time, showed that some characteristics of pea plants, like a color, could disappear for generations and then reappear. Like early experiments with insects (which were plentiful and had short generations), the “unit of inheritance” encountered by animal breeders and others was always a discrete property. For example, a fly’s eyes could be blue or yellow, but never blend into green. These units came to be known as “genes” although no one had any idea what these things might be, other than the idea that they might be made of protein (pages 1-10).

When you think about it, the march of knowledge from this head-scratching confusion (needless to say, genes are made of DNA, not protein—protein is what genes make, among other things) to understanding the atomic structure of genetic material in about 100 years is nothing less than astonishing. The quest produced a parade of Nobel Prizes, and not always to the people who performed the most basic research. In fact, Francis Crick and James Watson, those venerated paragons of the discovery of the helical structure of DNA, spent very little time in the lab getting their hands dirty. They were great synthesizers of other people’s work, and put together their DNA model mainly from listening to other scientists talk about their work.

Cobb is a scientist and teacher himself (zoology, University of Manchester) and patiently explains the key role that conferences and professional publications played in this giant puzzle. By the end of World War II, X-ray studies of mutation causes had shown that genes must be incredibly small: perhaps 1000 atoms or so determined whether a fruit fly had wings or legs in certain position on its body. After the war, a horde of scientists now had time to tackle the key questions about living and life, not killing and death.

If nothing else, Cobb is not afraid of controversy (some history-of-science books, I find, shy away from that). The role or hundreds of male scientists and only “seven women” (page 310) is brought up to show how far women have come in the past 50 years. Cobb tackles head-on the controversy revolving around the treatment of Rosalind Franklin (she pronounced it “Ros-lind”: page 95), the woman who played a key role in the X-ray diffraction studies that showed conclusively that crystallized DNA had a helical structure. Hers seems to be the reverse case of the stereotype of the domineering male senior researcher and cowed female assistant carrying out his instructions. By all accounts, Franklin was a prickly individual, not averse to addressing her fellow by beginning with “How dare you…” (page 98) when Wilkins—who thought they were working together—showed her photos to Crick and Watson. In Cobb’s telling, Franklin is the gruff one and her colleague Maurice Wilkins, who eventually shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA with Crick and Watson, the silent sufferer who found her impossible to work with. Because Nobel Prizes can only be shared by three people, and never posthumously (unless they die after the announcement), Franklin’s death in 1958 from breast cancer saved the Nobel committee from accusations of sexism, not that there would have been many in 1962.

Cobb spends a lot of time considering the role of quantum scientists like Ernst Schrödinger, whose “What is Life?” talk at Trinity College in Dublin spurred a lot of lines of research going into WW II and Leo Szilard and George Gamow, who had some interesting ideas (all wrong) about how nucleic acids could translate themselves into proteins. Along the way, computer scientists like Norbert Weiner, founder of cybernetics, and mathematicians like Claude Shannon, founder of information theory, try to puzzle it all out intellectually. But without firm lab results, these exercises were doomed to failure.

The “genetics as information” section of the book forms a nice counterpoint to modern physicists like Max Tegmark and claims that the “universe is nothing but information.” As Cobb points out, this is a silly thing to take seriously, and you can’t apply Shannon’s bits to everything. Information, whether as genetic instructions or computerized data, cannot contain its own meaning (as one interpretation of Godel ‘s work shows). You can study all the genes in a human genome, but to see what they “mean,” you have to “run them” in a fertilized human egg cell with the proper supply of raw materials.

The last hundred pages form a nice “update” section to the main story in the book, which essentially ends in 1967 when the genetic code mapping of codon to amino acid is completely worked out. Here is a whirlwind tour of epigenetics, prions, the protein folding problem (how can they fold correctly so quickly?), and other surprises.

Let me leave you with a few examples. Yes, the mRNA only reads one strand the double helix, and does so consistently. There are many forms of RNA, most important to epigenetics (page 255), and RNA seems to be much “older” than DNA. But the “RNA world” took days to replicate “cells,” while bacteria can do it with DNA in 20 minutes (page 291). The furor over genetically modified crops like Monsanto soybeans is overblown (page 270), but the race to “recreate” plague viruses from the past is probably a bit nuts (page 281). The human genome of about 3 billion base pairs (most of which might or might not be “junk DNA) comes in about midway between the genome of the loblolly pine tree (22 billion base pairs) and a microbe with a genome of only 112,00 base pairs, probably close to the theoretical minimum or 70,000 base pairs (page 237).

Finally, and this came as a shock to me, there is more than one form of DNA in the human body and in the lab. The “normal” form is B-DNA and spirals counterclockwise (to the right) as seen from above, like a wood screw (page 273). A-DNA occurs in low humidity and is found in some organisms, but why, no one knows. In 1961, C-DNA was discovered forming with certain salts around. And then there is Z-DNA, the left-hand form of B-DNA, also found in our cells, function unknown, but it might be involved in gene regulation.