Saturday, November 30, 2019

Sex on Six Legs by Marlene Zuk

Source of book: My wife found this on the library discards shelf, so we decided to get it as a gift for an insect-loving person we know. But I obviously had to read it first. 

This was clearly one of this “hey, provocative title so a perfect gift for the right person.” But actually, I really enjoyed this book, which is both well researched and well written. 

Marlene Zuk isn’t primarily a writer. Her main job is a researcher and college professor, currently at the University of Minnesota, having worked previously for the University of California, Riverside. Her main areas of research have been sexual selection, and parasites. Which, well, seriously fascinating stuff as far as I am concerned, although I find to my disappointment that not everyone shares my taste.

How did I come to love bugs so much? I’m not really sure, but I do recall that the 1968 classic, Insects do the Strangest Things, was one of my favorite books as a small child. I recall devouring other books along that line from the library too. I like creepy crawlies, shall we say. 

Sex on Six Legs doesn’t quite fit its salacious title. Not even half of the chapters are about sex in the sense of mating. Rather, they look at genetics, evolution, and insect behavior in general. So, such things as insect language (think hymenoptera and termites), insect parenting, the ability of arthropods to learn, the balance of male and female in populations, and other such interesting topics find their way into this book. 

And yes, sex is one of the topics. After all, reproduction is one of the necessary traits of life, and the innate drive to perpetuate our DNA is one of the most interesting areas of study for an evolutionary biologist. This is particularly the case for insects because, unlike, say, humans, the life cycle of six-legged creatures is short, making experiments far more practical. (Not so much, perhaps, as bacteria, but insects also are closer to humans than bacteria - an uncomfortable truth that Zuk brings up regularly throughout the book.) 

One of the things that surprised me most about the book was that Zuk is an excellent and compelling writer. More often in my experience, I have found that good writers can learn enough of the science to put together an enjoyable, informative, and accurate book - but researchers often struggle to make their areas of expertise come alive. Thus, many of my favorite PopSci writers are primarily writers: Mary Roach, Sam Kean, Simon Winchester. There are, of course, some exceptions. Phillip Plait comes to mind. I am definitely adding Zuk to the list. She has written three other books, two of which are available from our library system. I am definitely adding them to my reading list. 

One of the most fascinating facts that Zuk points out is this: because insects are such an ancient life form, they have a tremendous amount of genetic diversity. Which leads to an equally astounding diversity in form, behavior, and gene differences. As Zuk notes, an elephant and a mouse are far more alike than a grasshopper and a flea. Even such things as the total amount of DNA in the cell varies far more among insects than vertebrates. 

And then, there is the subcategory of beetles. Fully one quarter of ALL the known species of animals are beetles. There are an astonishing 350,000 plus known species, with vast differences in diet, size, habitat, and behavior. 

Zuk spends a good bit of time discussing genes - unsurprising given her research on the subject. She also does a great job of explaining how specific genes work. (It doesn’t hurt to have some prior knowledge, though. I recommend Herding Hemingway’s Cats by Kat Arney for an excellent and thorough overview of modern genetics. And Sam Kean’s The Violinist’s Thumb for a more story-based approach.) 

There were a number of moments when I found Zuk’s specific pet peeves to be very like my own. For example, she opens chapter 4 with a fine whine about the way that Hollywood seems to prefer to portray social insects (bees and ants in particular) as male. Which is utter bullcrap. Yes, there are male bees and ants. We call them “drones,” and they are useless for anything other than sperm, and have no role in the complex insect societies. So, Jerry Seinfeld as a “worker bee” is just….wrong. And particularly so since the fact that most hymenoptera are female has been known for literally hundreds of years. Besides, as Zuk emphasizes, the truth is much more fascinating. Males come from unfertilized eggs - and have half the DNA of females. Thus, daughter females share 75% of their DNA with each other, but only 25% with their drone brothers. This leads to some...interesting genetic payoffs. It’s too complicated to explain here, but seriously, read the book. 

Actually, the whole discussion of sex ratios was crazy. Although the effect is less in first world nations, because there is less malnutrition, women who are better nourished tend (at the population level) to produce more male children, while those less nourished tend to produce more female children. This is predictable, given the specifics of human mating: because females are the limiting factor in reproductive rates, they are likely to be in demand even if less healthy. Whereas males, who can reproduce nearly infinitely, compete with each other. (Obviously, this is less apparent in a complex society, but the genetic realities stem from our evolutionary past. Monogamy is, to put it mildly, a startlingly modern idea in our species.) 

Also fascinating was the chapter that focused on homosexual behavior in insects. This area of study has been fraught with controversy, not least because it challenges religious beliefs. As with other facets of animal behavior, it is easier to be (closer to) objective with insects, as we are less likely to project our own interpretations on them than we are on mammals. Although (as the book points out), insects are not automatons, they also do not seem to have “emotions” as we understand them. And certainly, they do not “sin” - what they do is largely the result of genetic programming, not individual choice. And thus, discovering “deviant” behavior in insects can be an aid in rethinking what we think we know about ourselves as well.

Another nice moment was when Zuk riffed briefly on “cyberchondria,” the tendency to look up dire diagnoses online at the first sign of a sniffle. She uses this to introduce the concept of “fertilization myopia,” considering coitus as the end of the story. Which it isn’t, even in the insect world. In fact, a whole bunch of interesting physiological and behavioral adaptations have arisen to affect which sperm successfully reproduces. This ranges from males being able to displace the sperm of previous males, to females being able to select which sperm is used. 

Perhaps the most startling fact from this section (and that is saying A LOT - this whole subject is nuts...pardon the pun) is the discussion of sperm size. Humans, for what it is worth, have relatively small and boring sperm. It gets the job done, but that’s about it. Now, on the other hand, one of the species of fruit fly (which are ubiquitous in this book because they are so often studied) has sperm which is...wait for it...twenty times the length of the male producing it. Say what!??! If that were expanded to human size, we guys would have sperm cells 100 or more feet long. As I said, rather crazy. 

There are so many additional bits to this book that were thoroughly enjoyable and informative. The discussion on what makes for a “language” is thoughtful and a bit disturbing: much of what we have decided makes us “human” can be found, at least in part, in those primitive six legged creatures. 

And this leads to my closing thought. In the last two pages of the book, Zuk transitions from insect language to poetry. Specifically, the poetry of Don Marquis, the creator of archie and mehitabel, the unforgettable cockroach and cat duo. 

What’s that? You haven’t heard of them? 

What IS this world coming to?

Writing during the Jazz Age, Marquis put together humor and biting social commentary using the idea of a cockroach with the soul of a poet devotedly typing his thoughts by jumping on the keys of a typewriter. (He can’t hold down the shift key, so everything is in lowercase.) 

I was, to say the least, thrilled to see that Zuk is a fellow aficionado of Marquis. She goes so far as to quote a couple of passages about the contrast - and similarities - between insects and humans. Although written about 100 years ago in some cases, these poems seem strikingly relevant and modern. Zuk quotes just a sanza of “what the ants are saying.” Here is the whole thing:

dear boss i was talking with an ant
the other day
and he handed me a lot of
gossip which ants the world around
are chewing over among themselves

i pass it on to you
in the hope that you may relay it to other
human beings and hurt their feelings with it
no insect likes human beings
and if you think you can see why
the only reason i tolerate you is because
you seem less human to me than most of them
here is what the ants are saying
it wont be long now it wont be long
man is making deserts of the earth
it wont be long now
before man will have used it up
so that nothing but ants
and centipedes and scorpions
can find a living on it
man has oppressed us for a million years
but he goes on steadily
cutting the ground from under
his own feet making deserts deserts deserts

we ants remember
and have it all recorded
in our tribal lore
when gobi was a paradise
swarming with men and rich
in human prosperity
it is a desert now and the home
of scorpions ants and centipedes

what man calls civilization
always results in deserts
man is never on the square
he uses up the fat and greenery of the earth
each generation wastes a little more
of the future with greed and lust for riches

north africa was once a garden spot
and then came carthage and rome
and despoiled the storehouse
and now you have sahara
sahara ants and centipedes

toltecs and aztecs had a mighty
civilization on this continent
but they robbed the soil and wasted nature
and now you have deserts scorpions ants and centipedes
and the deserts of the near east
followed egypt and babylon and assyria
and persia and rome and the turk
the ant is the inheritor of tamerlane
and the scorpion succeeds the caesars

america was once a paradise
of timberland and stream
but it is dying because of the greed
and money lust of a thousand little kings
who slashed the timber all to hell
and would not be controlled
and changed the climate
and stole the rainfall from posterity
and it wont be long now
it wont be long
till everything is desert
from the alleghenies to the rockies
the deserts are coming
the deserts are spreading
the springs and streams are drying up
one day the mississippi itself
will be a bed of sand
ants and scorpions and centipedes
shall inherit the earth

men talk of money and industry
of hard times and recoveries
of finance and economics
but the ants wait and the scorpions wait
for while men talk they are making deserts all the time
getting the world ready for the conquering ant
drought and erosion and desert
because men cannot learn

rainfall passing off in flood and freshet
and carrying good soil with it
because there are no longer forests
to withhold the water in the
billion meticulations of the roots

it wont be long now It won’t be long
till earth is barren as the moon
and sapless as a mumbled bone

dear boss i relay this information
without any fear that humanity
will take warning and reform

And this bit, from the collection I reviewed nearly seven years ago:

i do not see why men
should be so proud
insects have the more
ancient lineage
according to the scientists
insects were insects
when man was only
a burbling whatisit

I am looking forward to reading other books by Zuk. This one is worth seeking out. In fact, here is another poem by archy that seems to fit. (It’s my favorite…) 

there are two
kinds of human
beings in the world
so my observation
has told me
namely and to wit
as follows
those who
even though they
were to reveal
the secret of the universe
to you would fail
to impress you
with any sense
of the importance
of the news
and secondly
those who could
communicate to you
that they had
just purchased
ten cents worth
of paper napkins
and make you
thrill and vibrate
with the intelligence

Marlene Zuk is definitely one of the second type. 

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Gratefulness: A Parable

Last year, I wrote about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I have always been fascinated by the parables told by Jesus Christ. (And others too: Jonah and Job are fascinating.) Stories are the most powerful way we humans learn and develop empathy - or hate as the case may be. The stories we tell say more about us than our official doctrines and philosophies. Christ’s stories weren’t merely memorable. They were revolutionary. And they got him killed. 

One of my big beefs with the white Evangelical tradition I was raised in is that the teachings and example of Christ seem to be largely irrelevant. Which is how, in recent years, Evangelicalism is characterized by a nasty combination of Pharisaical self-righteousness and legalism with the brutality and hate of Rome. In order to live with the cognitive dissonance this requires, Evangelicals have “spiritualized” everything Christ said and did, making it about their particular theological superstructure rather than the plain - and revolutionary - meaning of the teaching. 

In essence, faith is reduced to “believing the right things,” rather than, I don’t know, following Christ. In my exploration of this parable, I will look at the way its meaning has been neutered.

There are a number of names for this parable, but I think that “The Parable of the Ungrateful Servant” is the best. It captures what I believe is the point: it isn’t primarily that the servant is “unforgiving,” but rather that he responds to the overwhelming blessings he has received by seeking to deny them to others. Let’s dive in. 


Matthew 18:21-35 (NRSV)

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 
23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents[c] was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”


Here is the “traditional” Evangelical interpretation. Because we are all unacceptable to God because of sin, we owe a debt we can never repay. God forgave us (after a vicious human sacrifice, naturally). Because of this, we should forgive people who wrong us. 

As with the neutered interpretation of the Good Samaritan, this interpretation isn’t exactly wrong, but it is...carefully put in a box where it has little power. Or worse, where it is used as a weapon to harm and control people. 

In general, I have no problem with the idea of overlooking petty stuff, or emotionally releasing past wrongs. However, in Evangelical circles, this is often used to force victims of abuse to “forgive” and put themselves back in position to be abused. (I see this specifically in cases of domestic violence.) The use of “forgiveness” in this context is that of a weapon to keep people in their places, to keep the vicious in power, and so on. 

So, I don’t find that this interpretation is much help in reality. For those minor things that one should “forgive,” I find a better approach is just that of empathy and better communication. I haven’t had to learn to “forgive” my wife - I need to understand her point of view and find mutual solutions. On the other hand if (hypothetically), she were to intentionally set out to hurt me, a better approach would be to leave the situation. 

On the other hand, there IS an interpretation of this parable which I believe holds great power, and gets to the heart of what I believe Christ is saying here. 

One of the clues that this parable has a broader meaning is its exaggerated terms. Think about this: how much IS 10,000 talents? Well, a single talent represents about 15 years of wages for a typical worker. So, about 150,000 years worth of wages. Assuming a minimum wage of $10 an hour, that’s $20,800 a year. That’s $3.12 billion. (Side note: this alone explains why the existence of billionaires is a moral obscenity…) 

Now think about this: this guy’s a freaking slave. How could he possibly incur a debt that large? He couldn’t. Obviously. So the debt here isn’t just something he did on his own. I believe that is intentional - I believe Christ intends that this debt be something that the slave didn’t really intentionally incur through his own actions. 

Next, let’s look at the consequences. The slave is going to be sold to another master in order to pay the debt. He and his family. Who will probably be separated, potentially raped, tortured, and so on - that’s all on the table. 

So, the slave pleads. “I’ll repay you” is such utter bullshit that it is laughable. There is no possible way this could ever be repaid. This is a total hail mary. And it works.

The master chuckles and lets him off the hook. 

The next turn of events, though, is horrifying. 

Immediately, without missing a beat, the ungrateful servant goes out and finds another servant and demands immediate payment. And then throws him in jail! It is literally as if not one damn thing has sunk into his thick head. 

There is no gratefulness. There is no sense that he owes anybody anything - people owe HIM. 

Shit like this can’t stay hidden, though. The other servants (slaves) take note, and report this to the master. Who is not amused. 

“Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

Um, yes. Yes, you should. 

And this is where I think the idea that this is about “forgiveness” goes wrong. The point isn’t that the ungrateful servant had bad feelings toward his fellow slave. 

It is that he did bad things to him! 


How does this parable speak to our own times? Let me offer my thoughts. 

Today is Thanksgiving here in America. A day when we give thanks, usually to the supreme being of our choice, but also to those humans who have benefited us. (At least, that’s how I was raised.) 

All across this nation, you will hear “thank you God for all the blessings.” I can guarantee that you will hear things like: “thank you for the freedom to worship,” and “thank you for the financial blessings we have enjoyed,” and “thank you for this feast.” 

These are good things to be grateful for! 

But let’s think about how many of these benefits are “earned.” Not one damn one. 

I was born in America, as a white male in a middle class family. I didn’t earn that. The fact that I have never truly faced hunger isn’t because I am a great person. It is because of when and where I was born. The fact that I don’t worry about drug cartels murdering my family after raping my wife and daughters isn’t because I did something great. It is because of when and where I was born. The fact that I can say what I believe on my own blog isn’t because I earned it - it is because of when and where I was born. 

These “blessings of god” - or “random chance” if you prefer - happened to me without my doing anything. I just was born in the right time and place. 

Let’s look a bit further back: WHY was a born in this time and place? Well, because my ancestors fled violence and poverty in the 1800s to seek refuge in America. The laws at that time allowed them to simply show up and come in. Why is my family middle class? Well, because of the Homestead Act, which established my ancestors as successful farmers; because of public schools, which made us a literate family; because of the color of our skin, which kept us from being kept out of white society, and also means that I don’t worry about my sons being murdered by the police. The list goes on and on.

And I didn’t earn one goddamn one of these benefits. 

Am I grateful? Heck yes! I have received benefits that I didn’t earn, and can never truly repay.

But here is the question: 

How should I express my gratefulness?

Do I give thanks to God? Sure. But that seems kind of, well, “spiritualized.” To reduce this to “God likes me” and say thanks doesn’t actually accomplish anything. 

And, more to the point, it sure looks like what the ungrateful servant did. 

Now, let’s think about this: 

Who are the other servants?

Again, look at that list of benefits I have received. Other people wouldn’t mind a chance at them too. Would-be immigrants and refugees from around the world would love to come here and experience freedom and safety - to escape violence and crushing poverty. Just. Like. My. Ancestors. Others in our own society would like to be free from racialized violence. 

What is my response to them?

Is it, like notorious sodomite James Dobson, to say “go back where you came from...oh, and God loves you.”? Is it, like so many white Evangelicals in my life, to cheer that Trump is “finally doing something about the Hispanic problem.”? Is it to demand that African American protestors be silenced - and to scream at them “bring it, you fucking animals!”? 

Is it to break apart their family, throw their children in cages? Is it to support the highest incarceration rate in the entire world? Is it to strip the disabled and the children of the working poor of their healthcare? 

Is that what gratefulness looks like? 

The master sure didn’t think so. And there were consequences for the ungrateful servant. 

Gratefulness should mean that we are so thrilled by the gifts we have received that we can’t wait to share them with others. 

Why is this so hard to grasp? 


Just like in the case of the Good Samaritan, this parable talks about the Kingdom of God. And eternity. You can see it right in the text - Christ says this is about the Kingdom of Heaven. Those of us who believe in an afterlife should pay close attention to it, because it says something about our destiny. 

If we want to be part of the Kingdom, we have to follow what Christ taught. 

The relevance of this parable has really struck me over the last few years, because I hear echoes of it on a nearly daily basis from the white Evangelicals in my life. 

Last year, I wrote about a specific incident in which a person of my acquaintance commented on one of my posts in support of deporting people who believed they were born in the US, but might have been born in Mexico - the midwife (maybe) lied on the birth certificate. 

The rhetoric was clear: someone broke the law, so draconian punishment is in order. 

In this case, because someone broke a racist immigration law, an innocent person should have their life destroyed. 

That’s just one example. I have heard over and over and over that we are justified in incarcerating men, women, and children, because they “broke our laws.” Meaning that they did what my ancestors (and those of most white Evangelicals too!) did. The only difference is the color of the skin and different laws - ones aimed at “keeping America white.” 

The parallel is so obvious:

Having experienced countless blessings they never earned, white Evangelicals seek to imprison and destroy those who seek the same blessings.

Take it away, Keith Green:

Do you see?
Do you see?
All the people sinking down?
Don't you care?
Don't you care?
Are you gonna let them drown?

How can you be so numb?!
Not to care if they come
You close your eyes,
And pretend the job is done

"Oh, bless me, lord!
Bless me, lord!"
You know, it's all I ever hear!
No one aches,
No one hurts,
No one even sheds one tear

But, he cries,
He weeps,
He bleeds,
And he cares for your needs
And you just lay back,
And keep soaking it in

Oh, can't you see such sin?!
'cause he brings people to your door,
And you turn them away
As you smile and say,
"god bless you!
Be at peace!"
And all heaven just weeps,
'cause Jesus came to your door,
You left him out on the streets

Open up! open up!
And give yourself away
You see the need,
You hear the cries,
So how can you delay?!
God is calling,
And you are the one
But like Jonah, you run
He told you to speak,
But you keep holding it in

Oh, can't you see such sin?!
The world is sleeping in the dark,
That the church just can't fight,
'cause it's asleep in the light!
How can you be so dead?!
When you've been so well famed
Jesus rose from the grave,
And you!
You can't even get out of bed!

Oh, Jesus rose from the dead!
Come on, get out of your bed!
How can you be so numb?!
Not to care if they come
You close your eyes,
And pretend the job is done! 


So, when you sit down at the table with your family and friends, and carve that giant bird, don’t just say “thank you Lord!” 

Take a look around at your fellow humans, and be sure to extend the blessings you have received to them as well.