Friday, April 13, 2012

The Evolution of the Red-Nosed Reindeer

The Winter Holiday Season is now several months past. This is a good moment to reflect in a rational way upon one of the Season's most beloved tales. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer elicits in many Americans deep spiritual feelings, and it is not my purpose to disparage those feelings. But the toughminded among us must step forward to separate fact from fiction, history from legend, and, above all, science from religion.

Rudolph teaches valuable lessons on perseverance, leadership, and the power of crossgender affirmations of physical attractiveness. But the story is not a scientific account of how the rednosed reindeer came to be as a species. Indeed, the authorial community responsible for the Rudolph narrative (it would be naive to attribute the narrative to a single author) never intended the story to be taken as science. This is a truth that the best scholars of the narrative have long recognized. Rudolph was written for a prescientific society of children who viewed nature mythopoeically. They understood nature as the creation of the variable will of a personal being rather than the inexorable product of unchanging impersonal laws. Hence the Rudolphian narrative tradition takes no interest in how Rudolph came to possess his illuminated red nose, especially given that neither his parents nor any other reindeer in his gene pool had the same trait. This indifference to science--to the questions science asks and authoritatively answers--characterizes the entire narrative.

Meanwhile, scientists are just now beginning to piece together a reliable account of the evolution of the rednosed reindeer. Like every species, this reindeer was the product of genetic mutation and natural selection, just as Charles Darwin's theory predicts. Beginning perhaps 100,000 years ago (the fossil record, though extensive, is admittedly not complete), a series of completely random genetic mutations resulted in a North Pole community of reindeer with bioluminescent noses. The exact mechanism of illumination is not known, as fossils provide no record of soft tissue. But in any case its bright and shiny nose gave the rednosed reindeer a competitive advantage against other reindeer, especially during the cold, winter months when days were shorter and food was harder to come by. Similarly, the male rednosed reindeer more easily attracted females, giving him an additional competitive advantage in sexual reproduction over the nonilluminated males. From both these causes the rednosed reindeer began to predominate in the North Pole. Sadly, its gradual decline and eventual extinction was probably due to global warming.

It is little more than quaint coincidence that the story of Rudolph happens to echo and telescope certain elements of the actual history of poor Rudolph's species. Initially, Rudolph's mutant nose is viewed as dysfunctional, but when its real value is discovered, Santa "naturally selects" it. That the nose is also "cute" readily suggests the sexual advantage rednosed reindeer undoubtedly possessed in the competition for mates.

Could it be that in some inscrutable, almost primordial way, the human species can intuit--even in its unscientific myths--elements of scientific truth? I wouldn't count on it. Let's not give so much credit to our lucky guesses. We should enjoy the story of Rudolph for what it is, no more and no less. Properly interpreted, Rudolph can inspire in us the pluck and adaptability by which all species survive in our constantly evolving world.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Jesus of the Broken Arm

Many years ago my mother had a kind of religious vision. She saw Jesus with a broken arm.

She reported the vision matter-of-factly, but confidently, as though its spiritual value, however minimal or uncertain, could be assumed. She described neither a full-scale apparition nor an image preserved from a dream. No, this was simply a quiet portrait of Christ, hung eye-level in the gallery of her mind. His arm was in a sling.

Christ died for our sins, Christians say. It seems a corollary that our sins killed him. Put even more pointedly, we sinners killed him. The sixteenth-century catechism of the Catholic Church placed responsibility for Christ's death squarely on the Christian people. The sins of Christians put Christ on the cross. Centuries later, in my Catholic elementary-school days, I was told that my sins drove the nails into Christ's hands and feet; each sin, in fact, drove the nails in deeper.

The logic, to be sure, is not airtight. Yes, if we had not sinned, Christ would have had no need to climb upon the cross for us. But He freely chose the cross--we did not actively pin Him to it. We must be eternally grateful for His act, and we would be bound for Hell without it, but we cannot, properly speaking, be blamed for it.

Well, enough.

Jesus of the broken arm, like Jesus on the cross, is an image of divine vulnerability, tangible and intimate. In the gallery of my own mind, the broken-armed Jesus is a friend who gazes at me without rancor or guile, without judgment or expectation. I want Him to tell me how His arm came to be broken. But He does not say. He knows. And He knows that I know, too.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Man Who Had 60,000 Abortions

Bernard Nathanson died last February. His passing was little noted by our mass media, those sorry guides to all that is true and important. A learned and articulate ob-gyn, Nathanson was a leading architect of the modern abortion movement until he switched sides in the late 1970s. By then he had performed or supervised more than 60,000 abortions, including one on his own child, nestled in the womb of his girlfriend.

Nathanson was the archetypal modern man, his life the archetypal modern life. Like his father before him, he was an ambitious physician who renounced Orthodox Judaism and accepted only the most conventional (and violable) sort of moral code. Both father and son sought salvation in education and career. And like every true modern, Nathanson was enamoured of science and technology--fascinated by their raw power to deliver not only physical benefits but truth itself. During his professional prime, a monstrous devotion to such possibilities grew up in him unbounded. When the Chinese and Soviets perfected the suction method of abortion in the 1960s, Nathanson became convinced that this was the technological "missing link" to make abortion the safe and efficient solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancies. He co-founded the National Abortion Rights Action League in 1968. Three years later, he took over as director of the Center For Reproductive and Sexual Health, New York City's first large abortion facility.

Remarkably, Nathanson credited his conversion to the pro-life cause to another technology, ultrasound, which for the first time enabled one to see the living fetus in utero. He even believed that technology offered a way out of the moral impasse of the abortion debate. At a lecture at Princeton University in the late 1980s, he would insist that the controversy could be resolved by the development of technologies to transfer an unwanted embryo (the "alpha," he called it, in an attempt at moral neutrality) from the womb of the mother to the womb of a more willing woman. His postmodern audience, subject to a different set of enchantments, was not persuaded.

Ultimately, Nathanson's own self-cast spells were broken. After many years in the pro-life movement, he finally converted to Catholic Christianity. His autobiography, The Hand of God (Regnery, 1996), is an as-yet unacknowledged religious classic. Here he relentlessly unpacks his own moral and spiritual history with the same kind of analytical detachment he had once practiced in a contrary cause.

Nathanson's life reflects the cruelest inclinations of the modern era. Since the close of the Second World War, the nations of the West have turned their destructive tendencies inward. Political peace has settled over Western Europe and America, but it is a peace to end all peace, as the violence inherent in fallen human nature finds fresh direction. "Blood will out," Robert Frost said, "it cannot be contained."

But the life of this modern man also gives grounds for the highest hopes. That Nathanson managed to rise from the depths of the darkest technological amoralism; that to do so he made use of the fundamental tendency he had acquired in that darkness; and that having helped create the abortion monster he managed not only to avoid being devoured by the beast but to also deal it a few blows--all are testament to the enormous power of divine providence, in this or in any age.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The White Market

When we lived in the northeast and had to fly back to Texas to visit family, we typically took a taxi to and from the airport. The airport was miles from our home, and the drive required a major commitment of time. We were reluctant to call upon friends to take us. In most American metropolitan areas, a ride to the airport is the sort of arduous service that only family or very close friends ("like family") can normally be expected to provide. The use of the taxi added nearly $100 to our cost of travel. Had friends or family taken us, we would have saved $100. Put another way, a trip to/from the airport was worth about $100, even if we had gotten it for free.

The provision of free goods and services within families and among friends I term the "white market." This market is very large, surely larger than any black market and quite possibly larger than the market of monetized exchanges we normally call "the economy". For if a monetary value were attached to all of the goods and services performed and received for free by, say, a small family, we would clearly see that a household of even modest monetary income is actually close to being a million dollar operation. Consider just the variety of goods and services generated by the family: meals are prepared, tables set and cleared, laundry washed and folded, finances maintained, bathtubs scrubbed, lawns mowed, children dressed, watched, tutored, and disciplined. Fragile psyches are lovingly shored up over a cup of coffee or a bowl of ice cream. Friends are hosted. Aging grandparents are driven to doctor's appointments. Information is conveyed--sometimes of professional grade, such as medical advice, and sometimes of more pedestrian value, such as the best place to get your muffler replaced.

Is it even possible to complete the list? We only know that virtually everything family and friends do for each other for free, is done among strangers for a price and often, sad to say, not nearly so well. If we must make the dollar the measure of wealth, then let us attach a dollar-value to everything and see exactly how much we take in, and give out.

We certainly hope that the goods and services flow about evenly in all directions, or at least in directions where they are not wasted. But in any case we cannot deny that vast amounts of wealth are being generated that are never properly accounted for by our present lords of coin. The very word "economy" originally meant the maintenance of the household, but economists confidently track the world of monetized transactions, which is quite another thing.

If the truest measure of wealth must include the vast network of in-kind goods and services generated in the white market, then two conclusions must follow:

1) One's monetary income is only a part of one's total income, and likely not the larger part; and

2) True poverty is not so much the lack of money, but the lack of family and friends willing to provide goods and services for free.

Taxi, anyone?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Democracy's Mockingbird

It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, said Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s famed novel, because all it does is make music for us to enjoy.

We very much want to believe that democracy is as innocent and sonorous as the mockingbird. We know that it is not. Democracy has been the willing instrument of vicious majority preference and mass self-delusion. Early on it affirmed and protected, though it did not create, slavery. The coming of the Civil War has sometimes been attributed to an "excess of democracy." Democracy certainly proved ill-equipped to prevent its own dissolution, and our whole political structure had to be reassembled by force of arms. In more recent times, democracy has casually ratified, through numerous acts of legislatures and voters at referenda, an ongoing judicial death sentence on the unwanted unborn. Pope John Paul II often warned of the dangers of democracy unhinged from truth. Democracy is by far the best form of government known to the human race, but the competition is not strong.

Now, though, after the brutal shooting in Tucson, we are offered the smiling countenance of Gabrielle Giffords. She softens democracy, makes us forget its coarser realities. Her biography suggests an upbeat, energetic public servant, ready to listen--but also grounded, anchored, a taker of no bull. A beloved wife and friend, she seems to make democracy sing again.

Giffords's survival and ongoing recovery may or may not be a miracle. But it is certainly a great grace from God to the whole nation. Just by surviving, Giffords has set bounds to the emotional and cultural undertow generated by the shooting. One can scarcely imagine the result had she died. America could hardly have borne the killing of democracy's mockingbird.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Day I Dyed

Like all humiliations, this one caught me unawares.

It began as a holiday joke, really, a lark. A certain member of my family was dyeing his or her hair, though he or she really has little grey to hide. I breezed my way into the bathroom and glanced at the mirror. I was feeling festive, even playful. Christmas break was at hand. A long hard semester of teaching was drawing pleasantly to a close. Days of ease and good cheer stretched out enticingly before me, distorting my perception of more permanent realities. So I piped up: "Maybe I should dye my hair, too!"

Exactly what transpired next, and why, is a matter of some dispute. It can be said with certainty, however, that the next couple minutes or so were moments of great psychological subtlety. The dark brown dye found its way into my hair, even onto my scalp, without my explicit consent, but also without my overt resistance. I vaguely recall phrases--"cheap dye"..."just four bucks"... "grey hard to cover"--before the calamitous final instruction, "Let it set a while."

Sometimes cheap products work. Soon my hair, which had begun to grey in the Clinton era, was indeed dark brown, with just a little silver left untouched at the temples. My daughter's pleasure was instantaneous. Cecilia was thrilled to see time overthrown. I suddenly became the dark-haired dad she had never known, a man in the full vigor of early fatherhood. Next day, she reported the news gleefully to her little girlfriends. "I told them you said you were a 'walking fraud,'" Ceci explained, "but it's OK because none of us knows what that means!"

The day after the day I dyed was not one of placid domestic retreat. Some work duties remained. I had to see and be seen. My first professional encounter was a meeting with a student. Her words were uttered literally at the threshold of my office: "Did you do something to your hair? - It looks darker." I was grateful for the opportunity to reveal my shameful open secret, and to exonerate myself in the revelation--"just a joke, a lark, won't do it again, believe me..."

Later, a holiday luncheon brought colleagues and me together, around intimate, white linen tables. No one said a word about my new look, no one probed, even gently. Some eyes did seem to rest higher upon my countenance than they normally do. Meanwhile, I drank more or less continuously from the cup of humiliation. Oh, to be caught in such a patent act of vanity! I used to be incredulous to see women putting on makeup in public. Had they no desire to preserve and protect the great cosmetic ruse they were part of? Were they not like magicians divulging their secrets before the first rabbit was pulled from the hat? But surely I was now even more exposed. My darkened hair was as patent a fiction as if I had dyed it right then and there, with the brown fluid dripping pathetically onto the white linens and grilled chicken salad.

Like all humiliations, of course, this one has not lasted, will not last, forever. And some good has come of it. I have served, if only for a spell, as liberator of men's vanities. For if a man can dye his hair and be detected, he can certainly dye his hair so as to avoid detection.

Still, I look forward to my old self. Godspeed the grey.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


A twelve-stitch cut on the presidential lower lip will heal quickly. But I feel an obligation to inform my vast readership of the hazards of midde-aged men playing pickup basketball, especially when one of those men happens to be the Leader of the Free World. If he is prudent, our president will repeal Obamaball.

The problem does not lie in the game of basketball itself, which carries the risk of bumps, twists, and bruises but is otherwise quite safe. What gives Obamaball its danger is the presence of men whose reflexes have slowed but whose desire to shine on the court remains as strong as ever. No referees are present to discourage overaggressiveneness, limit fouls, and restrain tempers. Obamaball is the one presidential policy that suffers from a lack of regulatory intervention.

In pickup basketball, too, the absence of permanent teams, leagues, and championships makes the standard of success a very personal one: If on any given day you can beat your guy to the basket, you have triumphed and you can exult all the way to the showers. If that guy happens to be the President of the United States, well, finish the sentence. I do not charge the player who busted Obama's lip with doing so willfully. I do say that he was not in his right mind. No one in his right mind would do anything remotely likely to bust the lip of an American president. But a middle aged man playing pickup basketball is not in his right mind. He is in a mental zone where normal considerations of prudence have long since been expelled.

Injuries in such an environment, including serious ones, are not uncommon, to the dismay of the friends and loved ones of the injured. A former colleague of mine badly gashed his tongue at our noontime contest. Another player, a regular from off-site, was notorious for throwing extraordinarily fierce passes at the most unexpected moments. More than once I narrowly escaped a broken nose. A neighborhood friend, meanwhile, did break his nose at a local parish gym. My wife happened to see him at the hospital with his nose shifted laterally in a most unpleasant manner. Two other competitors bumped head to brow, producing cuts and blood. That encounter was apparently similar to the one that busted Obama's lip. The offensive player claimed a space being occupied by the defender.

Any sensible American man will carefully weigh the risks of pickup basketball to himself and his family. In most cases, he will give up the habit, or make himself absolutely certain of the unnaturally mild intentions of every single player who joins him on the court. As for the President, it is a fair bet that if he continues his hooping ways, he will get hurt again.

Obamaball has gone on long enough to prove to the world that Barry the Bomber has got game. Time to end it, Mr. President, or join a league.