Saturday, May 25, 2019

Is The Abortion Issue About Something Other Than The Sanctity of Human Life?

I have studiously avoided the most hot-button issue of our time, abortion and the right to choose, but I can no longer stand by silently. What I can do, finally, is refrain from a string of profanities and repeating most of the statements you have already heard. I can continue in my longstanding tradition of not sharing "memes." I can also call for honesty in the debate, if only be sharing my own sentiments. Yes, I am yet another old(er) White male, but please bear with me.

© Christian Seebauer and

Ironically, it was a meme shared on Facebook by a colleague that got me believing that civil discussion might be possible. The meme began with the conventional argument that making abortion illegal won't halt abortions, but will simply make the procedure unsafe. The next panel in the meme re-hashed the idea that abortion rates drop when there is easy access to healthcare, affordable contraception, and comprehensive sex education (presumably including a long, hard discussion of "consent")....

It was the ending panel in the meme that got my attention. It asserted that if one does not endorse measures designed to prevent unwanted pregnancies, then what you are supporting is "'pro control-of-women' and you should be honest about that." Wow. It is the very last part of that sentence, that plea for honesty, that we need to take to heart. Yes, you should be honest about that, about everything.

That is the definitive, overriding problem of our time: honesty. We know some of our beliefs and selfish motivations are distasteful, so we will sacrifice the innocent, put words in the mouths of the unborn, do whatever it takes to justify our continued patterns of behavior and sustain our (outdated?) beliefs. That even extends to warped interpretations of the word of God, the Bible, and other religious documents.

I don't think there is any question that many older men, especially White men, object strenuously to any attempt by women to assert their rights, demand equality, and otherwise threaten the dominion of the patriarchy that has architected our culture and society since....well, pretty much the beginning of our civilization. This stubborn and persistent thirst for power is no doubt expressed in the creation and execution of legislation around abortion.

Why do so many women stand in support of these measures, then? Not being a female myself, I cannot pretend to answer that, nor should I. However, I do suspect that many women are uncomfortable with the idea of independence. My own mother was forced into independence when my father divorced her. It was a hard road for her in the early 1970s when divorce was not common, or at least not publicly discussed; and she had been out of the workforce for well over a decade. Re-entry at an older age was difficult, and most of her superiors in the workplace Enough said.

As near as I can tell, the other, unspoken motivation for advocating for abortion bans comes down to the desire to protect souls without sin, or with the least sin. This would go a long way to explaining why the birthmother is left out of the debate, and why there appears to be little support for child welfare, health, nutrition, housing, education, and other necessities of childhood in the sense of an earthly existence. The "defense of souls" argument would also explain why some religious conservatives do not object to the death penalty. The person has sinned, and is going to hell anyway, so why not hasten his or her arrival at that destination. Since only humans have souls, this might explain a lack of interest in the protection and conservation of non-human organisms, while still clamoring for the teaching of creationism alongside evolution.

If my assumption that "pro-life" advocates care more about the hereafter than the here-and-now is correct, let's start talking about that in an honest manner instead of going to such great lengths to disguise that core principal. If I am completely wrong, I will gladly sit back and listen to your explanation. Keep in mind, however, that I have a pretty good B.S. detector and I will call you out if I sense you are still trying to deceive me.

Mostly, I want to know what is really at the heart of all arguments, about every issue, not only abortion. Be honest and I cannot level accusations or make ridiculous assumptions, or have to guess your intentions or desires....or make blog posts like this where I am left to channel only the straws I am grasping at.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Assumptions of Guilt

A couple weeks ago I was watching CBS Sunday Morning and a story came on about the "Central Park Five." This true story is now on Netflix as the docudrama When They See Us, coming May 31. I am old enough to remember the sensationalized press coverage of the April, 1989 case, but the outcome for the unjustly accused never made the same media impact. This is how it works: Make sure the public knows that the face of violence and mayhem is Black. Let any evidence to the contrary fall through the cracks, or even be intentionally suppressed. This is the storyline of our times, in overt and subtle variations, that we must overcome.


It has the capacity to be a self-fulfilling prophecy for minorities, especially African Americans. Eventually you will become angry and hostile when you are constantly faced with the assumptions of others (Whites) that you are angry and hostile. One could hardly blame any minority individual for becoming a criminal when they have been sentenced by assumption to being one already, yet that is hardly the case. Black criminals are a true minority in our society. The overwhelming majority lead honest, productive lives, and are miraculously tolerant and forgiving when they have every right not to be.

While watching the CBS segment it occurred to me to ask why there are no Black news channels. I went looking for the answer online and learned that there will be one. BNC will debut in November, 2019. There is even a countdown clock on their website. They will be broadcasting in the metropolitan areas where there are high populations of Blacks.

What is needed, though, is for White people to watch it. Caucasians need deprogramming from the constant portrayal of African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities and immigrants as a threat. BNC also needs to be on one of the digital slices that now come free with traditional antenna reception, not something you pay for because....surprise....many minority households cannot afford cable or streaming services. Urban folks will likely have access, but rural White folks are, arguably, the ones most in need of an education in "black."

Why do we not assume the best about other cultures? We could improve our own lives a hundred-fold if we were interested and committed to learning. Black families are not "welfare queens" as much as they are grandparents, aunts, and uncles living on the same block if not in the same household, their elder experience benefiting multiple generations....We do not need to know about the next LeBron James. We need to learn about Black inventors in prime time, not on "EI" shows on Saturday mornings. We need to hear about Jerome down the street who became an Eagle Scout the other day, and Jasmine who will be giving her high school's commencement address as valedictorian. We also need to stop stereotyping names like Jerome and Jasmine.

You get the picture. None of us are immune to the ramifications of the status quo. We White folks are all guilty of perpetuating a society and culture that continually reinforces certain expectations of behavior and occupation of other ethnicities, appropriates other cultures, and repeats it in every news cycle, every piece of advertising, nearly every experience of everyday life. The problem is that we are not demanding accountability from the media, corporate, educational, and religious institutions that are doing it. We are not demanding enough of ourselves in refusing to participate. The only ones being punished, on top of being subjected to constant bigotry, are minorities. Caucasians need to stop being the spokespeople for other ethnicities and cultures. We need to listen, then change our ways. We need to fundamentally change our language to be more inclusive, then be genuinely inclusive.

I am an aging White male writing this, and rarely do I feel this awkward and ill-equipped when I put text to a Word file, let alone broadcast it on my blog. I stand ready to be educated, confront revisionist history, and help build the world I have always wanted to live in, where White Privilege is no longer a....thing. How about you?

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Book Review: Underbug Will Unravel Your Mind, in a Good Way

Lisa Margonelli's Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology (2018 Scientific American, 303 pp) offers a much bigger picture than a mere glimpse inside a termite mound. The book has a story arc as great as the universe, and as small as a microbe found in a termite's gut. It represents a metamorphosis of history, science, and the mind of the author herself. Part memoir, part journey, and all science and experience, it works brilliantly.

The only holes in Underbug are the ones in the dust jacket, a clever nod to the affinity of termites for all things cellulose and lignin, or derived from it. The irony that this work about termites will inevitably be consumed by them reflects a bit of the humor in Margonelli's approach, as well as the futility of expectations in scientific inquiry.

It came as a shock to this reader that the book was something of an afterthought that emerged from a....recreational(?)....fascination with scientific endeavors that Margonelli was pursuing at her own expense, without monetary advances and publisher deadlines. Who does that? Maybe the proper question should be why don't we (writers) all do that? I dare say this might have been a completely different book if the author had started with the intention of writing it instead of putting a wild horse before an organized cart.

If your brain is wired to go off on tangents while reading, Underbug will have your mind reeling, spinning off into the existential time and time again. Anticipating a dry-as-weathered-wood treatise on termites? Then you have another think coming; and another, and another after that. All your assumptions about insects, science, and even history and culture are in for a shake-up. This is exactly what our society needs to recognize: that while we may have a desire to compartmentalize our human activities, social groups, and our personal motivations and emotions, they all have impacts far beyond our habitual perceptions. Interconnectedness, distant consequences, ambivalence, and empathy are the major themes of Underbug, not termites.

Margonelli is one of the "new" league of women non-fiction writers who is able to insert herself into the story to the correct degree, conveying humility and struggle rather than bravado and arrogance as many male writers tend to do. She manages the perfect mix of participation and detachment, cultivating a bond with readers that only gets stronger as the story progresses. She shares your skepticism, but has relentless curiosity and a tenacious commitment to doing whatever she needs to in order to elevate her knowledge and broaden her horizons.

Termites, it turns out, are a nexus of ridiculously disparate scientific disciplines, and a metaphor for human societies. They span a scale that ranges from their miniscule bodies to continental landscapes. Well, smaller than that since termites rely on intestinal microbes to digest cellulose and lignin into compounds useful to the termite. Meanwhile, the mounds of many species utterly transform ecosystems. One can argue that termite colonies and their architectural masterpieces are ecosystems.

How such a "simple" organism can achieve such overwhelming success is one of the conundrums addressed in Underbug. Our failure (so far) to scale-up the termite's "engine" to produce "grassoline" and other biofuels is a testament to the complexity of insects and the limits of science and the human mind. Also, where does one termite end and the colony begin? Which of those two is the "brain?" What constitutes a "mind?" You may be left wondering if termites have it better than we do. The attraction of instinct, after all, is freedom from morality, freedom from responsibility for our actions, because we would not be cognizant of them.

We are nothing if not collectively selfish, being animals ourselves, able to execute our desires to eliminate competition from other species for scarce resources, minimize mortality factors such as predators and pathogens, reproduce freely with greater success thanks to advances in medicine, and to enhance our lives through technology. However, as Margonelli writes:

"We need to call technology what it is -- an abstraction of power, politics, and economics. And then -- if we are going to take ideas from the termites into our human realm -- we should use them to become more human, not less."

I cannot recommend this book highly enough, as a microcosm of concepts in critical need of addressing by the world community, and mulled over with regularity by us as individuals, families, and local communities. Oh, and to explorers looking for signs of intelligent life in other galaxies? You might be looking for interstellar termites.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Lessons From The City Nature Challenge

This year, Colorado Springs joined the ranks of those metropolitan areas participating in the fourth annual City Nature Challenge, which started in 2016 as a contest between Los Angeles and San Francisco to see which city could find the most species of wild organisms inside their municipal boundaries. Today it is a global event.

Blue Jay spotted during City Nature Challenge

Why The Nature Challenge Matters

Professional scientists cannot be everywhere at once, so "citizen scientists" are needed to help understand if animal and plant populations are healthy or declining. Unless an organism has an economic impact, positive or negative, chances are we know very little about it. We do not even know all the geographic areas certain species are found in. Your observations are critical and valuable.


Logistics of the City Nature Challenge

The City Nature Challenge is recorded on iNaturalist, an online platform that also has a smart phone app. Participants register on iNaturalist for free, look for their town's City Nature Challenge project, and subscribe to it. Observations of wild organisms (no people, pets, livestock, or cultivated plants, please) taken with phone or camera are then uploaded to the project. Observations are made in a four-day window, Friday through Monday. After that, you can still upload any observations made during that period, but most of that following week is devoted to identifying the animals, plants, fungi, and other living things already uploaded. City "winners" at the end of the project include most participants, most observations, and most species seen.

Black Swallowtail female

Limits and Pitfalls

At one point, the home page for iNaturalist gave the following disclaimer:

"iNaturalist had record levels of activity this week due to the City Nature Challenge, so notifications of activity such as identifications and comments are delayed. You may receive notifications out of sequence as we work through the backlog as quickly as possible. We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your patience."

That the website did not crash completely is a testament to its server capacity. This aspect of the City Nature Challenge seems to be in good order. Other problems remain, however.

  1. Participation. Recruiting people willing to make more than a casual effort, if that, appears to be the greatest shortcoming of the City Nature Challenge. Here in Colorado Springs, we maybe had one brief announcement on a television newscast. We had a total of 142 participants, many of them "accidental," in a city of roughly 800,000 people.
  2. Automatic suggestions for identification. iNaturalist has image recognition software that will "suggest" a species, family, order, or other level of taxonomy for the image you post. These suggestions are often wildly inaccurate and lead people to identify a North American insect as something from Africa, for example. Users should ignore this feature and instead assign the most obvious level of recognition, such as "grasshopper."
  3. Little or no crossover with other apps. One thing my wife and I noticed was a lack of birders making observations for City Nature Challenge. The avian-inclined prefer the app e-Bird. There is no excuse for not having e-Bird observations during the City Nature Challenge export automatically to iNaturalist. The technology is surely there. Likewise, other apps should be compatible with iNaturalist, at least for bioblitzes and the City Nature Challenge.
Many-lined Skink

Have a Plan of Attack

One thing I personally learned was that it would help to have a plan of attack, or at least a "plan B" if the weather is uncooperative. What can you count on for observations? Bird nests? Insect galls? Mealybugs on the houseplants? You would be surprised by the biodiversity indoors, in your basement, garage, or tool shed. Make a list to remind yourself of those places you can look, or species you know can be found reliably at a given location.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Beyond The City Nature Challenge

If this is the first you have heard of City Nature Challenge, no worries. See if your city participated this year. No? Contact your parks department, local museum, or nature center and ask that they initiate an effort for next year. Meanwhile, you might want to make a habit of participating in other citizen science projects through iNaturalist and similar portals like Project Noah. You will make friends, learn much, and contribute positively to our understanding of planet Earth in the process. The idea that nature-watching can be a social activity is slowly catching on, and that common, widespread interest is what will ultimately protect and restore wild places.

Gilled fungi on a tree