Launch of my new podcast: This World of Humans

Hello friends! I am happy to announce that I am now launching a new science podcast entitled, “This World of Humans.” TWOH will feature new discoveries in the areas of life and social science with an interview with the lead scientist and other guests. I will cover any new research article that I find interesting and that helps answer the question, “Why are we the way that we are?”

Logo1-A-JPEG

The podcast is housed here: www.visionlearning.com/en/twoh

You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, GooglePlay, and SoundCloud.

Also – every episode comes with teaching guides designed to help educators use the podcast and its featured article in their classrooms. Check them out!

I am currently seeking long-term funding for this project, so please keep your fingers crossed for me and if you know of any funding streams that might be interested in supporting this project, please do let me know.

I hope you enjoy This World of Humans!

-NHL

 

Advertisements

Cheap white eggs: Radiolab Dodges All Discussion of Race

[EDIT: After a Twitter discussion with the host and a producer of Radio lab, I have decided to soften the attacking tone of this post and change the title to be more fair and objective. The URL shows the previous title.]

 

I have been a regular listener to Radiolab for years and last week’s topic was of particular interest to me: Birthstory, an in-depth, exquisitely produced narrative about in vitro fertilization and surrogacy as way for two gay men to make a family.

I don’t think this was their best work. Throughout the 60 minutes of the podcast, the issue of race and racial disparities were confronted multiple times, but never discussed. There are also rather glaring unasked questions, whose omission may reveal even more than their answers could have.

Only biological children really count.

The podcast is about Tal and Amir, two gay men from Israel who have a baby, actually three babies (!), through IVF with surrogacy. This is not at all uncommon in our modern era and I join the many that cheer when families are made this way. The first “hmmm” moment was just a couple minutes into the podcast. Amir expressed how important it was to have a baby that was ‘truly his own.’

800px-Male_Couple_With_Child-01

Photo from Kurt Lowenstein Educational Center (it is NOT Tal and Amir, the subjects of this post)

Of course, terms like that are tossed around ubiquitously, but just imagine how that sounds to adopted kids or adoptive parents. We all know that Amir was referring to “biological” parentage and did not intend to imply that adoptive parenting isn’t “real.” But still, is that the best way to say it?

Also, at this point in the podcast, an Israeli journalist is brought in to support the notion that, apparently, having a desire for biological children is, “a very Israeli thing.” [Right, because in no other culture do we see that odd desire!] The speaker validates this point by saying that people who have children are seen as much more valuable to Israeli society than those that don’t. Again, this seems pretty universal to me. If anything, this attitude is much more intense in the Global South.

FamiliaOjeda

The Ojeda family

More to the point, this claim that only the procreative are valuable to society goes without challenge or discussion, even in our era when an increasing number of adults are opting not to have children and facing bizarre condemnation for doing so. On its own, this commentary may seem harmless, but in the larger context, it’s another small example of how dismissive this podcast seems to be of other cultures besides the Western one in Israel and the United States, and of people within those cultures that don’t fit the prevailing winds.

Given the topic of the podcast, this was quite surprising to me.

Foster children aren’t worth mentioning, let alone considering

Then, things started to get more overtly bothersome. While interviewing Tal and Amir about the various options they had to make a family, the hosts discussed insemination, adoption from a foreign country, and even the new phenomenon called “The New Family,” which is picking up steam in Israel and elsewhere. This is a fascinating new social phenomenon in which men and women who, separately, want to have a baby, come together to do just that and then raise the baby jointly, but separately, almost like a divorced couple. Regardless, none of the presented options appealed to Tal and Amir for various reasons.

Nowhere in this discussion was any mention of the possibility of adopting foster children. Not a word. In a podcast in which all manner of family-making was discussed, the issue of foster care was not mentioned even one time the entire hour. I found this especially galling consider the extraordinary lengths that the Tal and Amir went to in order to have their children.

5936992326_f1a06a5571_o

Foster children in Calgary (Alberta, Canada)

Let me clear. It is not the case that Radiolab simply decided to discuss only those options that Tal and Amir flirted with. The discussion began with this quote: “You basically have two options. It used to be three options, but now just two.” [The previous third option is adoption from “third-world” countries, which is now more difficult for gay couples.] In this podcast, Radiolab basically states that “the new family” and international surrogacy are the only possible options for couples that can’t produce their own children naturally but still want to be parents.

Meanwhile, in New York City, where Radiolab is produced, nearly 17,000 kids are in foster care. Around 2,500 of them are ready and waiting for adoption. Many of those never will be and instead will instead age out of the system as orphans.

That’s just New York City. There are over 400,000 children in foster care in the US and over 100,000 of them are currently awaiting adoption. More than 20,000 kids age out of foster care in the United States every year.

Babybox_-_venkovní_strana

A “baby box” in the Czech Republic

In Tal and Amir’s native Israel, the foster care system is in a full-blown crisis. Emergency shelters are overflowing and just this year, the Knesset passed a bill to build more shelters and funded renewed efforts to recruit more foster parents. Adoption by same-sex parents (even those with no biological connection to the child) has been legal in Israel since 2008.

2013-03-30_Ostermarsch_Hannover_vom_Kröpcke_aus,_Regenbogenfahne_Frieden_Peace_hebräisch_Schalom_arabisch_Salam

Somehow, while discussing Tal and Amir’s quest to raise a child together, it never came up that thousands of children need homes right in their own community.

To be sure, I understand that foster parenting is not everyone’s first choice when they think of how they can start a family. That’s why there are so many kids that need homes in the first place. That’s why so many of them age into group homes and then eventually age out of the system without ever getting a real home or a permanent family.

And I understand the reasons people are scared of foster children. There are legitimate concerns about permanency, the resulting pain if children are returned to parents, behavioral or emotional problems resulting from whatever circumstances brought them into foster care to begin with. I get all of that.

But isn’t it worth mentioning that these kids exist? The complete omission of this topic, while other options were at least mentioned, sends a message that foster children aren’t worthy of consideration (a lesson the older ones have probably learned already).

In the case of Tal and Amir, we have Amir’s strong and perfectly natural desire for biological children. (Tal has this desire, too, as they end up making a baby with his sperm as well, which is how they end up with three total.) However, the option of foreign adoption was briefly discussed. This means that the desire for biological children cannot completely explain the lack of mention of foster children in this section of the story.

In Israel, most of the kids in foster care are Ashkanazi, Sephardi, or Arab. In the United States, however, where Radiolab is produced and where the vast majority of its listeners reside, the foster care system is a perfect manifestation of our racial inequality. Because the biggest factors that bring children into foster care are poverty, lack of family and social support, untreated mental illness, and drug abuse, (and because those issues are suffered by Blacks and Hispanics at higher rates than Whites), our foster system is mostly filled with children of color. In 2014, of those in foster care in NYC whose race is known, 95% are Black or Hispanic.

Thus, there is an unmistakable racial element to the complete omission of the subject of foster children, maybe not for Tal and Amir, but definitely as a topic for this podcast.

[Edit: Jad Abumrad, host of Radiolab, pointed out to me that it was Tal and Amir who introduced the options that were discussed, including international adoption, but not including foster care. The hosts then explored those options. There was no omission by Radiolab, intentional or unintentional.]

“Cheap White Eggs”

Because surrogacy for gay couples is specifically banned in Israel, Tal and Amir had to go international. The result was an incredibly complicated and expensive arrangement involving at least four countries and well over $150,000. The two surrogates would be from India, but the implantation, delivery, and neonatal care would actually take place in Nepal because this kind of surrogacy is illegal in India. (And it now is in Nepal, too.)

Indian_subcontinent_CIA

The eggs, however, would come from Eastern Europe.

Why Eastern Europe? With the surrogate in India and traveling to Nepal, surely eggs could be obtained in one of those countries? Why insert yet another country into this already complicated mix? This meant that they had to fly a woman from Ukraine to Nepal for a lengthy stay to harvest the eggs. That’s more borders, more logistics, more flights, and more cost. Why did they have to come from Eastern Europe?

Because that’s where you can get “cheap white eggs.”

That was the term that was used. Cheap white eggs. When Tal said this, my jaw dropped, but I held out hope that this incredibly racially charged issue would then be explored a little bit.

Nope. They laughed. It may have been an uncomfortable laugh, but they repeated the phase and everyone laughed together. Tal and Amir wanted a white baby and were willing to incur the additional logistics, expense, and risk in order to get one. And the hosts gave an understanding laugh.

They laughed because all of us in the West know that of course the baby had to be white. Who would pay that much money only to end up with a black or brown child? After all, if that was an option, they wouldn’t have to do any of this!

The phrase “cheap white eggs” gets more sinister the longer you think about it. First, it implies that white eggs, and thus white people, are a premium. It also reveals that, although there is a desire for thrift, racial preferences trumps all. These aren’t ‘white cheap eggs,’ they are ‘cheap white eggs.’ The baby had to be white. Preferably cheap, but definitely white.

To be fair to Tal and Amir, the desire to have and raise a baby that is the same race as the parents is perfectly natural, especially when the parents are the same race as each other. All else being equal, why introduce the complicated dynamics of transracial parenting into an already complicated family situation? I get that.

But all isn’t equal and the phrase “cheap white eggs” captures it perfectly. Tal and Amir may have simply wanted a baby that was their same race, but in that process they confronted the global machinations of white racial superiority. Rather than a knowing laugh, perhaps some discussion of this warranted?

This feels like eugenics, but oh well…

The selection of the egg donor had Tal and Amir discussing the various physical characteristics that they hoped their babies would have. While I’m sure healthy and happy were understood and thus unspoken, there was sure a lot of scrutiny about eye color, hair color, and even the shape of the nose of the egg donor. At one point, Amir sort of grapples with the notion that this feels a little unseemly. He even says the word “eugenics” when expressing his discomfort, a word that resonates in Tel Aviv more than anywhere. The issue of race surrounds everything in this story, but no one seems to notice.

The scrutiny of the egg donor brings the story face-to-face with one of the most thorny ethical issues in reproductive medicine today: designer babies. Our society is inching closer and closer to the days when technology may allow us to select and edit the physical and even mental characteristics of our children.

The only discussion of this that we got was one question, “And why do you want your children to be tall?” Amir responds, “Well because it’s just easier!” The story then moves on.

Get those white babies out of there!

Fast forward and we reach the point that the three babies are now born. Then, the unthinkable happens. A powerful earthquake strikes Nepal. Devastation is everywhere. No Power. No water. Pandemonium. Death and suffering on all sides.

Given that they are the subject of the podcast, it is not surprising that the narrative quickly turns to the heroic efforts to rescue the newly born babies, along with dozens of other babies of surrogacy, whom are trapped in harm’s way. What did surprise me is how nimbly that pivot was made. Death and destruction in Nepal, BUT WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHITE BABIES?

The story describes how the Israeli government moved mountains to get these new families to safety while, sometimes literally, stepping over the suffering of the Nepalese people around them. In a particularly galling moment, Amir, now a new father, is running desperately on the street looking for help and finds an American in uniform, a security guard for the American embassy. Amir begs for help, “Please, sir, we are Israeli citizens, and we need help!”

The American security officer, of course, snaps into action and rushes them to the safety of the Israeli embassy. Clearly, saving white foreigners is the highest priority, even while bleeding and broken Nepalese still filled the streets.

Nepal Earthquake

Again, it’s not surprising that the podcasts covered the earthquake mostly in terms of how it affects the story they’re telling. But the earthquake affected more than just this family. It killed tens of thousands and sent millions even further into hopeless poverty. Couldn’t we have paid some respect to that fact? And of course any country’s government and embassy has their first priority to take care of their own citizens, but given the disparity in wealth and resources at play here…  oh nevermind.

A look at international surrogacy

The podcast spends its last 20 minutes grappling with the ethical issues surrounding surrogacy, specifically when the surrogates are from underdeveloped countries. To their credit, their investigation reveals some blatant exploitation, misrepresentations, and the risks these surrogates are subjected to.

However, the analysis does not probe very deeply. Their biggest concern seems to be that, if governments ban surrogacy, it just pushes the whole thing underground because, “the demand will still be there.” [The demand for white babies, just to be clear.]

Only two possible government responses are compared: completely unregulated and unfettered surrogacy, or total ban. I’m no family lawyer, but it seems that a middle ground deserved at least some mention? Maybe a government could allow surrogacy but demand that surrogates’ rights be protected, their risk be minimized, and their compensation be reasonable?

That is more or less what happens in Western countries. Although laws very by state in a very imperfect legal patchwork, surrogacy happens in the US every day. For the most part, the women that participate make their choice freely, are provided with medical and life insurance, and are well compensated. Most don’t consider them victims of exploitation. Are countries like India and Nepal not capable of anything like this?

When deciding whether to use an Indian surrogate, Tal and Amir grapple with the possibility of exploitation and then quickly satisfy their scruples by assuring themselves that she is receiving a life-changing amount of money that will allow her to lift herself and her family out of poverty and secure their future. They are paying some $12,500 for “surrogacy services” and that’s a lot of money in rural India.

Only later in the podcast do we find out that less than half of that $12,500 actually went to the surrogate.

Even if it is unfair to expect them to have done any diligence regarding their surrogate (hey, that’s what their paying the agency for, right?), it is hard not to juxtapose their apparent lack of interest in their own surrogate’s life and circumstances with the righteous anger we hear from them later when they find out that she was probably paid $5,000 and possibly much less. “It’s not enough!”

I quite agree.

The surrogacy agency defends this by explaining how many middlemen are involved in getting the surrogates from India to Nepal, vetting them, examining them, getting them across the border, etc. and then reminds us that they can’t be responsible for all the problems in the world.

Radiolab asks nothing further of them, but I wish they had. The surrogacy agency is who profits from all of this and has all the power in the situation. Here’s what I may have asked

 

  • Are you trying to deceive people like Tal and Amir by not making the actual surrogate payment amount more clear in the contract or invoices?
  • In addition to misleading clients, does concealing the amount of payments to surrogates actually hide the exploitation of poor women?
  • What does a surrogate get if she goes through the whole procedure, becomes pregnant, but then miscarries? [This is covered later, but it is asked of the surrogates, not the agency.]
  • How will the surrogate be involved in decision-making if, during the pregnancy, complications emerge that pit her health and well-being against that of the fetus?
  • Who looks out for the legal rights and interests of the surrogates throughout the procedure? Are they provided with independent representation? [They aren’t.] Why not?

Eventually, Radiolab does focus quite a bit of time on the surrogates themselves. They include additional interviews on their website. They seem to be genuinely concerned about the women who choose to do this, why they do so, and what they go through.

Given how unwilling they are to ask any tough questions of the agency, however, this concern could look like mere curiosity. This is a science podcast after all. Radiolab doesn’t have human rights or women’s rights or racial equality on their masthead. That’s not what they are about. Their mission is not social justice; it’s science journalism. But this story is about much more than just medical science, and they know it. I wish they more fully explored the human side.

The messages we send

Radio lab runs on around 500 radio stations and boasts a million subscribers to their podcast. As such, they have a serious responsibility to consider the messages they send each week. I urge them to consider the messages they may have unintentionally sent in this podcast: foster kids aren’t worthy, white people are more valuable and its okay to laugh about that, and it is exploited women that should be questioned about why they are so easily exploited, not the powers that do the exploiting.

I’m sure they don’t really believe any of those things, but I cannot just give them a pass. For them, as for me, not challenging something is akin to normalizing it.

-NHL

NHL-Logo-sil-WonB-color

Nathan H. Lents,    www.TheHumanEvolutionBlog.com

 

 

A Scientist’s Personal Eulogy for Oliver Sacks

Regretfully, I never met Oliver Sacks, but I still feel like I knew him, like so many others do, because he has had such a deep impact on my life on multiple occasions. Many famous people, and those who knew him best, will properly eulogize Dr. Sacks. This, on the other hand, is a personal eulogy, my “Oliver Sacks stories,” and the only effort I can make to memorialize this truly great man. I refuse to see this as an act of vanity because I suspect that much of what I say will ring true for millions of others.

At each important turn in my life, there was Oliver Sacks. I was first introduced to his work when I was 12 years old and saw the movie Awakenings, based on his memoir of the same name. As I watched the movie over and over again, I found myself deeply drawn to the character of Dr. Malcolm Sayer and decided that I wanted to be a doctor, too. It was perfect timing because my 8th grade science class spent the year studying the human body.

AWAKENINGS, Robin Williams (lab coat), Tobert De Niro (plaid shirt), Mary Alice (nurse), Ruth Nelson (green suit), Julie Kavner (nurse), 1990, (c) Columbia

AWAKENINGS, Robin Williams (lab coat), Tobert De Niro (plaid shirt), Mary Alice (nurse), Ruth Nelson (green suit), Julie Kavner (nurse), 1990, (c) Columbia

Why Malcom Sayer? I had already met plenty of doctors, read books and seen movies about them, and knew that it was a highly respected profession that all “smart kids” should consider. Malcom Sayer was different because he saw his patients as a mystery, a puzzle to be solved. He didn’t simply treat symptoms or match the confirmed diagnosis with the accepted treatment. He asked the bigger question, “What is not working here?” and the even more important one, “How can we fix it?” Dr. Sayer, like Dr. Sacks, thought like a scientist because he was a scientist, a point subtly made during his awkward interview as the movie opens. Awakenings Because of this, we get the impression that Dr. Sayer doesn’t quite belong in the hospital and probably shouldn’t be treating patients. As the movie progresses, all of the characters seem to reach that same conclusion as well. That is, all the characters except the patients whose lives he has transformed. And why does Dr. Sayer not quite fit in? Because he is never satisfied simply treating patients. Dr. Sayer is a frustrated scientist working within a system where innovation is not valued and creative thinking is not welcomed. Dr. Sayer is Dr. Sacks. sacks-awakenings4 This feeling of not quite fitting in stuck with me as I completed the entrance requirements for medical school. I slogged through my courses, tackled the MCAT, and survived the interviews. I had my acceptance in hand but all I could think about was the morose Dr. Sayer. Why was he so sullen? Robin Williams Awakenings It was at that time that one of my dearest friends gave me another book written by Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a book filled with neurology cases as strange as the titular one. Paradoxically, this extraordinary book made me realize that I didn’t want to be a doctor at all. I didn’t want to be Dr. Sayer; I wanted to be Dr. Sacks. I wanted to chase clues, do experiments, and ask questions. I didn’t want to treat people; I wanted to study life.

So that’s what I did. I became a scientist, a decision I haven’t regretted for even a moment and for which I have Oliver Sacks to thank. The latest phase of my career has seen an increasing emphasis on writing. As I have come to fancy myself a science writer, it was Oliver Sacks to whom I looked for inspiration and motivation. After all, the list of those who can realistically be called his colleagues is short.

In the past few years, I have read and re-read his books and eagerly devoured his articles in The New Yorker. Like Lewis Thomas before him, he gives the impression of a medicine man out of time. His words often feel like they come from anyone but a physician. A playwright, a monk, a sage, perhaps a romantic poet from the early modern period, but not a physician. And yet, he was a physician, above all else. He was a physician in the truest and purest sense. If only they were all like him. If only all of us were like him. music Just this year, Dr. Sacks did it to me again. I heard in a Radiolab podcast that he’d written an autobiography, On the Move: A Life. In it, Dr. Sacks chose to give his fans a parting gift: a look into the pain and beauty of his private life. images One part of his story touched me deeply. Discovering that he was gay at an early age, he was grotesquely rebuked by his mother and painfully rejected by two would-be lovers. In response, he turned inward and chose to forgo intimacy for virtually his entire adult life.

As he discusses these episodes, he appears at once detached from them and yet still experiencing them. He spent many decades in self-imposed celibacy, instead throwing himself tirelessly into his remarkable career, a jealous lover if there ever was one.

In 2008, Dr. Sacks finally allowed himself to fall in love again with fellow writer Billy Hayes. This was barely a year after I began a relationship with my now-husband. What a cruel difference that my husband and I are hoping to see 50 or 60 years together, while Billy got to enjoy a mere seven years before cancer took Dr. Sacks from him. And from us. oliver-sacks-and-billy-hayes As I read the words of his autobiography, I wondered with teary eyes if my personal life would have been as painful as his had been, had I been born in his era instead of my own. His mother reviled him for his private admission; mine stood with me as I got married in Central Park. What a stinging injustice.

Because Dr. Sacks was not a religious man, I will not disrespect his memory with the usual platitudes of him being in a better place, looking down on us, and all of that. Nevertheless, the statement that Oliver Sacks “will always be with us” is a metaphysical certainty beyond any question. He poured his heart, his soul, his self into his writing to entertain, delight, and challenge us. In that sense, we really do have him here with us.

As I aimlessly leaf through his books, I am grief-stricken for a man that I never met but mostly definitely knew. Because he was so generous with his words, his knowledge, and his heart, I know that I can find him right where he has always been: in The Mind’s Eye.

Goodbye, Dr. Sacks. I shudder to think how my life would have turned out without you in it.

-Nathan H. Lents

NHL-Logo-sil-WonB-colortumblr Thumbnail-Twitter icon facebook-thumbnail-259029

The Women Behind the Discovery of Richard III

Screen Shot 2015-06-13 at 9.34.45 PM

The same week that Tim Hunt made his sexist remarks about the presence of women in research laboratories, I happen to be in the midlands of England teaching a course on forensic DNA analysis at the University of Lincoln. Because I got my PhD studying the cyclins and CDKs, I had long admired Dr. Hunt. I was depressed.

As luck would have it, my spirits would soon be raised. I took a weekend holiday to Leicester and had the wonderful opportunity to visit the remains of Richard III, now interred at the Leicester Cathedral, as well as the museum that tells the story of their recent discovery and exhumation. They have done a truly wonderful job with this exhibition and I strongly recommend anyone who can manage it to go. IMG_5836 (picture taken by NHL)

The discovery of this Medieval monarch, killed and buried more than five hundred years ago, is an incredibly unlikely and dramatic story, a real triumph of both historical research and modern science. I was particularly struck by the central role that women played throughout the story.

First, there is Philippa Langley, probably the single most important person in the rediscovery of King Richard. It was the unwavering passion of Langley, a screenwriter and secretary of the Scottish chapter of the Richard III society, that provided the steady persistence necessary to make the project a reality. She relentlessly raised both money and awareness and was the principle organizer of the exhumation effort. Of the first time she stood in the now-famous car park, she said, “The strangest feeling just washed over me. I thought, ‘I am standing on Richard’s grave.'” Indeed she was. Pictured Phillipa Langley. Archeologists believe they have found the remains of King Richard The 3rd. The dig is taking place in a car park in Leceister. The site is believed to be the long lost, Medevile Church Of The Grey Friars, The last know resting place of King Richard III. Leicester, England. CODE: 362255 www.expresspictures.com Express Syndication +44 (0)20 8612 7884/7903/7906/7661 +44 (0)20 7098 2764 Langley was not the first woman to suspect the car park. It was an essay by Ms. Audrey Strange that first correctly speculated the location of Richard III. In fact, Strange first petitioned the city of Leicester for permission to excavate the car park back in 1962. Her request was denied. She published an essay describing her careful research in 1975 and, fortunately for all of us, it caught the attention of Langley some 30 years later. AudreyStrange1988 Then, there is Dr. Jo Appleby, the osteology expert from the University of Leicester. It was Dr. Appleby’s careful work that confirmed the age and sex of the individual whose remains were found, and confirmed the condition of scoliosis, an affliction that King Richard was said to have suffered from. dad86e503bf08b04280f6a70670040b4Next we have Dr. Turi King, a genetic anthropologist, who led the effort to confirm the identity of the remains by comparing the DNA to known relatives of Richard III. (Note: many sources cite these present-day relatives as “descendants,” but Richard has no direct descendants. He fathered only one child who died before adulthood. Dr. King used DNA from a descendent of Richard’s sister to confirm the mitochondrial haplotype.) King has since completed the sequencing of Richard III’s entire genome. Because SCIENCE. article-2273164-175778A7000005DC-460_634x326 Finally, we have Dr. Caroline Wilkinson, then of the University of Dundee, who performed the reconstruction of Richard III’s face using only the recovered skull as her guide. The Richard III team contracted Dr. Wilkinson without telling her who the subject was, so as to not bias her work. She produced the face of a man with a striking resemblance to the oldest surviving portraits of Richard III. Screen Shot 2015-06-13 at 8.19.37 PM These are the women that rescued Richard of York out of the 15th century dirt underneath a civil service car park. Of course, there were other women and men involved in this truly Herculean effort, but we do well to give these impressive women special recognition.

-NHL

Logo-HumanEvBlog

tumblrThumbnail-Twitter icon facebook-thumbnail-259029

 

 

IMG_5869

(And here’s me in awe of the fantastic work of these women.)