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Archive for September, 2010

Picking out some sexy genes …

I know I’ve been writing a lot lately about the differences between men and women, and perhaps some readers are a bit fed up with the topic. Well, too bad, because today’s NYT reports new science shedding light on this often cloudy subject, and it’s looking more and more as if biology is the culprit.

Under Mendel’s laws of inheritance, you could thank mom and dad equally for all the outstanding qualities you inherited.

But there’s long been some fine print suggesting that a mother’s and father’s genes do not play exactly equal roles. Research published last month now suggests the asymmetry could be far more substantial than supposed. The asymmetry, based on a genetic mechanism called imprinting, could account for some of the differences between male and female brains and for differences in a mother’s and father’s contributions to social behavior.

Beginning way before the body produces a penis on a child destined to be male, the embryonic future dude may already be cherry-picking traits that have more to do with the end product that we have known.

In another novel pattern, she found sex differences in imprinted genes in different region of the brain, particularly those concerned with feeding and with mating behavior.

Sex differences in the brain are usually attributed to the influence of hormones, but sex-based differences in imprinting may be another mechanism by which nature spins male and female brains out of the same genome.

The research is, as it should be, heavy going with a lot of sciency stuff about imprinting … a sort of tuning out some genes while letting others do the driving.

A person gets one set of genes from each parent. Apart from the sex chromosomes, the two sets are equivalent, and in principle it should not matter if a gene comes from mother or father. The first sign that this is not always true came from experiments in which mouse embryos were engineered to carry two male genomes, or two female genomes. The double male and double female mice all died in the womb. Nature evidently requires one genome from each parent.

Biologists then made the embryos viable by mixing in some normal cells. The surprising outcome was that mice with two male genomes had large bodies and small brains. With the double female genome mice, it was the other way around. Evidently the maternal and paternal genomes have opposite effects on the size of the brain.

Hinting that there’s a difference between man and mouse, researchers are guessing that because of monogamy, fewer genes are imprinted … in humans … so less asymmetry?

Working in mice, the Harvard team showed that around 1,300 genes are imprinted. Dr. Dulac said that she expects a substantial, though lesser, proportion to be imprinted in people — maybe some 1 percent of the genome — because humans are more monogamous than mice and so the parents’ interests are more closely aligned.

Really?

Can it be true that millions of years of developing our big brains and thousands of years of socialization getting us all civilized and stuff have made such a difference?

Much of the available evidence comes from mice, and people may to some extent have emancipated themselves from imprinting when they evolved the pair bond system of mating about a million years ago. But the pair bond does not mean perfect monogamy, and in its deviations from perfection there is plenty of room for imprinting to thrive.

No shit.

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Way back some years ago, I wrote a post on what women want in a man in reaction to a list some guy had posted. It was theoretical at the time, since I was happily married and expecting to stay that way.

As we all know, shit happens and life forges its own way when we’re busy making other plans, so not long after those words hit the blog I was forced to take a refresher course in want … and should have reread my own words.

Here’s the list published then:

1. He should look like he could care less about what he wears and not spend more than 30 seconds on his hair.

2. In reasonable physical shape, showing evidence of enjoying a good meal and the occasional ale is required.

3. He can be clumsy and goofy as long as he has a good laugh.

4. He must be good at listening AND hearing. (Eye contact is important, too.)

5. He shouldn’t smell like anything that can be purchased through Duty Free other than a good Single Malt.

6. He must be passionate about something.

7. He should not be whiny, ever have his mother do his ironing or freak out at the sight of bugs or snakes.

8. Loving kids and animals and being gentle goes a long way to making up for lost hair or other mere physical attributes that may be less than perfect.

9. An addiction to the written word is vital.

10. He must have honor, never lie, and be ready to protect those he cares for with his life.

The guy who totally failed at numbers 4, 6, 7 and 10 didn’t last long at all and I have to strain to remember his name, him being referred to as “Blip” for a while, then totally forgotten by the radar.

A few men have satisfied requirements for the short term, but circumstance didn’t allow for taking things much further than interesting flings and long-term friendships over great distances.

One … yeah, the piñata man … scored very well on out-of-ten, and it took almost two years for the deficits to add up to me having to let my head rule my heart for the first time in my life. He was an absolute champ at 1, 2 & 3, more than fair on #4 … I can negotiate on 5, so that was okay … OWNS number 6, only slacks off on 7 when the opportunity to have someone else do his ironing presents, but is fully capable of keeping himself pressed and clean, and stunned me with his rendition of 8.

Unfortunately, 9 was lacking and 10 was beyond him.

Eight out of ten! Not bad!

Well … that’s what kept me going for almost two years: eight out of ten.

For quite a while I ran with the thought that 80% of needs met was enough … more than enough … and about all I could ask of a relationship. Drifting on a sea of his passion gave me moments … amazing moments … and the times the plug was pulled and the air went out of the dingy sending me to the depths seemed almost worth the effort it took to resurface.

More than a dozen times I opted out, and each time he pulled out the stops, trotted out the one-thru-eight where he scored highly, and each time I chose the 80% over the 20 that wasn’t happening.

Until I didn’t.

I may not be good math … and I fully admit to being crap with numbers … but 20% can wipe out 80% and reduce it to zero.

He tells me I shouldn’t expect more than 8 out of 10, that that’s as good as it’s ever going to get, that 100% of nothing is nothing. Perhaps he’s right and he’ll be able to prove that to himself someday.

For me now, though, having 100% of my heart must be better than giving half of it to the keeping of someone who can’t come up with the necessary 20%.

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When the going gets tough
all rocky and rough
It’s nice to be able to verse it.
Although life doesn’t rhyme,
not most of the time,
tweaking words can help make it less worse; it
keeps the heading on course,
does a lot for remorse,
and allows me to swim through the horse shit.

“My Heart was His Piñata”

My heart was his piñata
all terra cotta fragile
cartoon-figured baby
Está para usted, hombre
“Those sweets inside, they’re
mine, all mine” …
Blindfolded, cannot see,
but strikes
and strikes again
seeking flaws
sensing weakness
Precise, controlled
(no wild blows at this party)

My heart was his piñata
strung up well within reach
twisting in the wind
full, too full, with goodies
meant for sharing
He’s happy. He loves it,
makes music he sings
as he swings,
We laugh with the joy of it
Come the final crack,
shattered shell, empty hope
spilled treasures
Mi corazón está quebrado

My heart was his piñata

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Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are. ~Bertold Brecht

An interview with me sparked by my contribution to the new book Female Nomad and Friends … “ is soon to be published.

Bestselling author Rita Golden Gelman launches Female Nomad and Friends: Tales of Breaking Free and Breaking Bread Around the World (A Three Rivers Press Original), June 1, 2010, in Seattle. Forty-one authors tell their stories of adventuring around the world; all but two of them are women.

With “adventuring around the world” as a focus, the interviewer voiced an interest in my world and the changes I’ve seen since first venturing as far as Seychelles back in 1993, prompting a casting back of my mind to early days here and a brief wander through the almost-two-decades leading to the ‘modern’ island life I live now.

I’ve seen many changes to my personal circumstances, but life boiling down, as it does, to the nuts and bolts of plodding one day to the next, it’s nuts and bolts we’re looking at this morning.

I’ll start with the nuts, admitting that my mother sends me walnuts from California, but you can now often find almonds in the shops, and hardware-ish establishments seem well stocked in screws, bolts and tacks, although most are Chinese-made and break easily. The place in town that sells underwear and children’s shoes still has car tires parked at the front door, and any search for specific items involves a hunt through retailers whose shelves seem to have been arranged by Sybil.

All those years back, a phone call to my mom in the US involved a trip to town. Cable & Wireless, the only telecommunication company at the time, offered international calling booths, and for a mere $12.00 a minute would send my voice halfway around the world. Now, almost everyone over 15 has a stylish cell phone permanently plastered to their texting fingers and queues of folks with 10 rupees in their pocket to recharge prepaids at half the top-up cost stretch around town. I not only have three phones, but also an internet connection … some of the time … that offers up a daily alternative to the one daily newspaper, Seychelles Nation, a publication that has no news on Sunday.

Having spent time in many countries by 1993, I was astounded to find this island the only place I was not able to buy a Coke. SeyPearl was the sole provider of soft drinks, and Seybrew was the only brand of beer. Although Pepsi is still hard to come by and I’ve yet to see a Dr. Pepper, Coca Cola has taught this part of the world to sing and some restaurants even offer Corona, lime and all.

Before cable TV was made available, and immediately became de rigueur, SBC was the only television station. With limited programming and an interesting social sense, every evening at 8:30 it would go off-air for an hour to allow people to eat dinner. 11pm saw the end of the broadcast day and came with an admonition to viewers to ‘go to bed’. Now, however, it’s 24/7 and people here fully grasp the reference when I refer to life in Seychelles being rather like “Lost” meets “Desperate Housewives”.

The number of cars on the road has increased exponentially, as traffic and number plates prove; my first car here sported S4016, meaning it was one of 4,016 vehicles registered in the country. New ones on the road now are close to hitting 30,000, and although we did get 5 kilometers of dual carriage way … two lanes of traffic in each direction for American readers … between here and Victoria, most roads keep their narrow windiness, hairpin turns and steep grades.

The world has contracted greatly and sucked Seychelles into the homogenized ball along with it. Seychelles living is not nearly the unique experience it once was … both for the good and for the not-so-good …

BUT …

The country is stunningly beautiful, the sea is as close to pristine as water that globally connects to all water can be, we locals consider beaches crowded when we have to share with more than 20 people, and we still have not one single fast food franchise.

There could come a day when my view includes oil rigs, shopping malls rise up and become teen hangouts and a McDonald’s drive-thru beckons, but that is not today. Check back in 2026 …

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Continuing on from yesterday’s post where I’ve been taking conversations about maleness for a wander around the blog.

I titled this post with a quote from Marie Curie because it was thoughts of her that tugged me toward today’s tangent.

After hours of researching testosterone-driven aggression, infidelity, abuse, slavery, torture … pick a term for what happens to millions daily, any term … I settled in to do some light reading on patriarchy, the history and manifestations of this man’s world we live in.

Although historically, male domination of societies has prevailed … unevenly often, as is evidenced by ancient differences between Greek and Egyptian cultures and such modern poles as, say, California and Kandahar … prehistorically, matriarchies ran the show for something like 40,000 years.

Matriarchal societies are now virtually nonexistent, although a bare few are still functioning in remote corners of the world. The Mosuo of South East China, for example, a culture in which women rule the roost and the word “rape” doesn’t exist.

Few Mosuo women will have more than one partner at a time, even if they are not expected to do so. Mosuo women can change partners as often as they like. In fact, they practice “serial monogamies”, and some relationships can last for a lifetime. So they are not a culture sexually promiscuous as one might think.

Google “mass rape” and see how different the patriarchal world is. From Bosnia to post-WWII Europe, to today’s Congo, rape is not only an active verb in the vocabulary, it’s a living outrage committed by millions leaving millions of victims.

Add in feckless mates, absent fathers, violent crime in general and we get a whopper of a messy man sandwich that’s causing a global bellyache none may end up surviving.

Can we, for just a moment or two, try to imagine a world where women were able to maintain their ancient power?

Okay. Maybe that’s too much.

Can we imagine a world where the power western women have today, limited as that still is, was allocated … what? … maybe 200 years ago?

Back to Marie Curie for a moment.

Maire Curie won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 … the second year prizes were awarded. (She also won the prize for Chemistry in 1911.) In total, a Nobel has been given 41 times to a woman. (Five in 2009 alone.)

What have they won for? Here are a few examples …

Marie Curie: for her discovery of radium and polonium

Irène Joliot-Curie: for their synthesis of new radioactive elements

Gabriela Mistral: for her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin: for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances

Rosalyn Sussman Yalow: for the development of radioimmunoassays of peptide hormones

Nadine Gordimer: who through her magnificent epic writing has – in the words of Alfred Nobel – been of very great benefit to humanity

Aung San Suu Kyi: for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights

In the same period of time, 765 Nobel Prizes have gone to men, also for some great stuff that has made a difference in the world.

And here’s where we get to the imagining bit …

What could our world be like if … even just for the past 200 years … women had had the same opportunities to contribute?

In a bit more than 100 years, look what just 41 women who struggled like hell managed to do.

As Marie Curie, two-time Nobel Laureate was forced to admit:

I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy.

Did anyone EVER ask her husband, with whom she shared the first award, that question? I’m betting NOT.

Has humanity been served by an ancient shift that left women powerless and put men firmly in control?

What would I know? I’m just a girl …

Further reading for the interested:

http://www.japss.org/upload/8._Sharmon%5B1%5D.pdf

http://www.musawah.org/docs/pubs/wanted/Wanted-AW-EN.pdf

j-dv.org/writings/essays/witch.pdf

http://www.humanecologyreview.org/pastissues/her62/62catton.pdf

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Recent posts on topics like the Catholic church and a suspected tendency for men to go feral when women are out of the mix have spawned some interesting and wide-ranging conversations coming my way.

Men being the focus of discussion, we begin slowly today, and with the small issue of infidelity, a hobby women have been known to pursue, as well.

I conducted an informal poll a while back that asked, of men, the question:

If you had a chance to nail a hot babe, and if your partner … with whom you are in a good and committed relationship … was very unlikely to find out about it, would you?

Sorry to say, not one man gave an emphatic no. Some did hesitate, but upon investigation the reticence seemed to have more to do with “how unlikely” than anything else. (Women, by the way, when asked the same question, answered with a unanimous “NO”, followed by: Why in hell would I do something that stupid?)

Maybe it’s only sleazeballs in my world? Maybe. But the following ad seems to indicate differently …

Moving right along …

War. Slavery. Abuse.

USC researcher Leo Braudy’s book “From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity” is reported to address some of the issues under discussion:

At its core, “From Chivalry to Terrorism” deals with the metamorphosis of masculinity through the ages.

“I don’t believe all men are destined to be macho or that manliness is unchanging and absolute,” said Braudy, who has written 10 other books. “So many socio-biological arguments are fatalistic: ‘Men have testosterone, so war will always happen.’ I’m very dubious about the claim that all masculinity is the same, either across history or in a particular era.”

His reflections on chivalry started with an assortment of essays encompassing Braudy’s variety of interests: a long review of several books on Custer; an article comparing a pair of 17th-century poems on premature ejaculation; an essay on Method acting as a metaphor for the 1950s.

17th Century poems on premature ejaculation? Hm. Something like this, perhaps:

Although I muchly love to thrust
I cannot keep my wood, so trust
thee, my dear, to understand
If not, I’ll simply use mine hand

Sorry. Not 17th Century, but five minutes ago, and I digress …

I, too, am dubious about claims that all men are the same, but that’s not the question being asked so often right now.

In attempts to understand the state of the world, the topic of how much of the bad shit that happens daily can be chalked up to testosterone and its effects does come up. There is evidence that reducing the juice has profound impact on aggression in sex offenders:

Attempts to reduce aggression and sexual predation in male sex offenders have included surgical castration and chemical castration (the use of female hormones to suppress testosterone levels). Studies suggest that either approach can be effective; a 1989 German study by Wille and Beier, for instance, compared 99 surgically castrated sex offenders and 35 non-castrated sex offenders about a decade after their release from prison, and found that the recidivism rate of castrated offenders was 3%, while the rate for non-castrated offenders was 46%.

Interesting enough information to have a dear friend, a decade-long voluntary and happy celibate, a woman, suggest an experiment that, on the surface at least, seems to make good sense. It goes like this: Since clerical celibacy — a discipline, not a doctrine, by the way — is very apparently problematic and results in the victimization of children and no little conflict in the minds and nether regions of the guys in dresses — would it not make sense to have catholic priests the world over step up for chemical castration … just to see how it works out? Thinking, “What harm could it do?”, she follows with speculation on the richness of such a vast database and the potential to avert a load of damage to innocents, adding: What the heck do these guys need full nuts for, anyway?

The thought is not without precedent, since some places have made chemical castration a consequence of assault, although after the fact and conviction, not in anticipation of.

When it comes to war and all, it’s not only the hormone-driven territorial imperative, but the desire for money, for power, for control … oh! wait! … Are those guy things?

As a general pattern of behavior, in territorial species the competition between males which we formerly believed was one for the possession of females is in truth for possession of property.

Man … is as much a territorial animal as is a mockingbird singing in the clear California night. We act as we do for reasons of our evolutionary past, not our cultural present, and our behavior is as much a mark of our species as is the shape of a human thigh bone or the configuration of nerves in a corner of the human brain. If we defend the title to our land or the sovereignty of our country, we do it for reasons no different, no less innate, no less ineradicable, than do lower animals. The dog barking at you from behind his master’s fence acts for a motive indistinguishable from that of his master when the fence was built.

To be continued …

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Bits on Men

I like men. In fact, I love men, collectively as a gender and individually. A father, three brothers and two sons were born male, and great, and many of my best friends are men. I have up-close-and-personal loved some amazing men. Men contribute to the world in ways appropriate to half the human population, and the art, lit, music, science, discovery and more that have issued from men over the centuries form the basis of what we like to think of as civilization. (For some thoughts on why there’s an imbalance of input from women, take a read through A Room of One’s Own, or any bit of history of our species.)

I adore men’s bodies, can be enraptured by their minds, find conversation with members of that opposite sex entertaining, compelling and often instructive. The smell of them is seductive, the sight can be alluring and their touch can bring sparkle to a day and spark a fire in a dark night that sets me to glowing.

Yes, men are wonderful …

but … and here’s the caveat we all knew was coming …

… there appears to be a marked tendency to jettison wonderful when women aren’t looking … or when women have no power to slap them upside the head on a regular basis.

Whether it be a mother, wife, an Empress or a best friend, having a woman’s perspective perched on one shoulder seems to greatly temper temptations touted by that other-shoulder-devil, the male … what? … ego? imperative?

Although an extreme example, a common practice in Afghanistan makes a point:

It’s after midnight. I’m at a wedding party in a remote village in northern Afghanistan.

There is no sign of the bride or groom, or any women, only men. Some of them are armed, some of them are taking drugs.

Almost everyone’s attention is focused on a 15-year-old boy. He’s dancing for the crowd in a long and shiny woman’s dress, his face covered by a red scarf.

He is wearing fake breasts and bells around his ankles. Someone offers him some US dollars and he grabs them with his teeth.

This is an ancient tradition. People call it bachabaze which literally means “playing with boys”.

The most disturbing thing is what happens after the parties. Often the boys are taken to hotels and sexually abused.

The men behind the practice are often wealthy and powerful. Some of them keep several bachas (boys) and use them as status symbols – a display of their riches. The boys, who can be as young as 12, are usually orphans or from very poor families.

It’s no question that women in Afghanistan have no power. Men in that country don’t have the worry of a wife or mother or female casual observer pointing out that they’re jerks. No, they can debauch with gay abandon. And they do.

“Bachabaze” is slavery, prostitution, evil … and, apparently, an acceptable hobby.

“Some people like dog fighting, some practice cockfighting. Everyone has their hobby, for me, it’s bachabaze,” …

EveryONE, of course, meaning every man.

Yep, all fun and games.

Will even the gentlest male go feral without the taming influence of woman? Does removing women from an equation assure a downward spiral toward decadence?

It would seem so when one considers the consequences of war and the proclivities of male-dominated institutions … the catholic church comes to mind. (See this report on mass rape now happening in the DRC and just about any old news source for info on sex abuse in the church.)

Historically speaking, some might cite Sparta as an example of male rule pulling off something special, but contrary modern perceptions it wasn’t a lack of female power that allowed the rise of that society.

“During the times of the ancient Greeks, women were generally considered inferior to men and afforded very few rights and privileges. In these male dominated societies, a woman’s only function was to bear children and attend to the needs of her husband. However, the Spartans thought very highly of their women and granted them more freedoms than anywhere else in Greece. This is because unlike the women in other cities, Spartan women played an active role in the life of the polis. The role of Spartan women was not merely to produce male warriors, but to uphold Spartan ideals and ensure that the men maintained the standards which Spartan society was built upon.”

While the Greeks were doing the Greek thing and letting Arisotle set the patriarchal tone, down in Egypt things were far different, which may be why anal sex is not referred to as “the Egyptian thing” …

Egypt left no philosophical record, but Herodotus left a record of his shock at the contrast between the roles of Egyptian women and the women of Athens. He observed that they attended market and were employed in trade. In ancient Egypt a middle-class woman might sit on a local tribunal, engage in real estate transactions, and inherit or bequeath property. Women also secured loans, and witnessed legal documents.

Yes, I love men, but I do worry about them. Left to their own devices, they seem to lack sense, and stick them in an environment where no women have any say over anything that goes on and things can deteriorate rapidly.

The thing is, it seems that men are actually happier when not left to those devices. They live longer, are more productive and off themselves half as often.

So, although men may rail at the thought of a world … or a house … in which women have equal power, it’s a partnership of the sexes that can make life on this planet livable.

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