Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Foreskinny Dipping

by Drew Martin
Last night I saw Michelangelo's David in Union Square. It was not as some art-in-the-park replica but rather he was on literature being passed out by a group of anti-circumcision g
uys; all young and good-looking. 

At first I passed by them but then I turned around and picked up their flyers. The piece with David on it had the tagline Born Perfect. Keep Him That Way.

I started talking with a young Australian guy who was ecstatic to learn that while I was cut like most boys in America in my generation, I
 was adamantly opposed to it for my two sons. Having a daughter first was a relief to delay the decision until some time later because the hospital puts a lot of pressure on your to do it a day after the birth. It makes sense for them and the doctors because they get to cash in on this billion-dollar industry, not just from the procedure but from the sales of the foreskins to beauty companies. But no matter how one looks at it, it is genital mutilation and it leads to the deaths of hundreds of babies each year or life-long problems such as accidental castration - that's a pretty big problem.

The Aussie explained that the cut rate down under is much lower than the States because the procedure is not covered by insurance. Here it is just part of the hospital-birth package deal.

Most of what the young man said was interesting, although I had heard a lot of it before. The one thing that absolutely blew my mind was that the biggest advocate for it in America was John Harvey Kellogg. Yes, the man that invented Kellogg's Cornflakes ushered in the nationwide call for circumcision in 1877 to curb male masturbation to uphold the moral values of the Victorian period. Fortunately the foreskin was already carved in stone of some of the world's greatest sculptures, which definitely influenced my decision to leave my boys intact because of my appreciation of the male body as they presented it. That, and a decisive moment in 1992, shortly after arriving to live in Prague. I was privy to a conversation at a friend's apartment where a young, attractive American woman who had dated circumcised Americans prior to her uncut Czech boyfriend was asked which she preferred: foreskin! I remember telling myself at that time to keep her enthusiastic response in mind if I had to make that decision for a baby boy entering the world, which I had to do in 2000 and 2007.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

An Ä+ for Svante ‎Pääbo's Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes

by Drew Martin
The hand axes and eagle talon necklace pictured here were fashioned by Neanderthals more than 100,000 years ago; tens of thousands of years before modern humans arrived in Europe. In fact, these Neanderthal inventions predate modern human tooling and crafting.

While Neanderthals may not have produced sculptures and paintings, they were apparently fond of collecting knick-knacks and certainly had an eye and appreciation for symmetry and adorning themselves.

I just finished reading Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, which is Svante Pääbo's fascinating explanation of how he and his team first sequenced the genome of Neanderthals and then Denisovans (another early hominin, which Pääbo first discovered through gene sequencing). 

Pääbo is diligent in explaining all the trials and tribulations of his quest, which include managing bacterial and human contamination of their samples and perfecting the clean room, getting enough prehistoric hominin bone to sample, finding the most efficient and accurate sequencing machines, worrying about the competition who might publish their findings ahead of Pääbo's group, and handling the critics, which range from creationists to other scientists less enthusiastic about genomic analysis.

A good understanding of biology is helpful to fully grasp Pääbo's more scientific writings about DNA, but even without that I think one would still be impressed by the process he describes. 

While this is not a travel book, Pääbo does take you a bit around the world including his research in Berkeley, California, setting up his department in Leipzig, Germany with the Max Planck Institute, a romantic awakening in Hawaii, and several bone-sourcing trips to Croatia and Russia, where he learns a lot about friendship.

What comes of all of this is a clearer understanding of our relationship to Neanderthals and the dispelling of less probable scenarios. It is now understood that we are much closer to Neanderthals than we previously comprehended. We shared an ancestor in Africa, but the group that evolved into Neanderthal left to Europe about 800,000 years ago. There appears to be a couple waves of modern humans that later joined them. The first wave lived among them and had fertile offspring. A subsequent wave of humans mixed with the interbred humans and spread out into the rest of the world with new technologies and a greater gift of exploration.

One thing 
Pääbo tries to make clear several times, is that whichever the correct order of events, Neanderthal aren't exactly extinct as previously explained when it was thought that humans were a replacement group that did not mate with them. The fact that humans and Neanderthals had children together means that everyone who is not purely African has a certain percentage of Neanderthal genetic information in them. An interesting topic that is teased out of their studies is gene flow. It is clear that in the first interchange of genes, male Neanderthals were impregnating female humans, which would contradict the thought of human dominance over the Neanderthals.

Pääbo is an interesting writer, devoted to his topic, but also willing to make numerous asides:

I was intrigued, but again. I was also worried. There might be a stigma associated with being "Neanderthal." Would people feel bad if they knew that some part of their genome that carried genes involved in how brain cells work came from Neanderthals? Would future arguments between spouses include arguments such as "You never take out the trash because such-and-such brain gene of yours is Neanderthal"?  

And when discussing testicle size in relationship to promiscuity, Pääbo offers:

Humans, as measured both by testicle size and evidence for positive selection on genes relevant for male reproduction, seem to be somewhere between the extremes of chimpanzee promiscuity and gorilla monogamy, suggesting that our ancestors may have been not so unlike us, vacillating between emotionally rewarding fidelity to a partner and sexually alluring alternatives.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Lo and Behold

by Drew Martin
Werner Herzog's greatest talent is easing the subjects of his interviews into a quiet, trusted, confessional space and letting them talk. What they say is often remarkable. 

Herzog keeps the camera rolling so the person is framed in a wide, temporal space. It is a style that further isolates the individual and typically reveals deeper emotions that trail the answers to his quixotic questions. It does not feel manipulative when you see the final cut but I can hear Herzog saying to himself in his long-strided German (accent) "This is a gold-mine." 

It is a set up but not for a comic moment or to tease out a desired soundbyte. It is to create a script of serendipitous remarks stitched together with his calming voice, which has the cadence of a large-load dryer at the laundromat.

What I like most about Herzog's films, which I have written about several times before, is not only his quest for the profound but his ability to capture whatever topic he is focused on with the same level of appreciation. The beginning of Lo and Behold, about the Internet, is not just a visit to UCLA to see the seminal networking device that begot the Internet, but to create a sense of awe about it, which is carried throughout the film.