Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Razor-Thin Difference

Many people believe that Stephen Hawking is the most intelligent human being on the face of the earth. Dr. Hawking is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, a chair once occupied by Sir Issac Newton. There he studies cosmology, the laws of physics and mathematics that define the universe. His goal is to unify General Relativity with Quantum Theory and explain the mysteries of our lives.

My totally-made-up, fictitious cousin Sylvia is a lot like Stephen Hawking. Sylvia studies cosmetology at night. By day she has a chair at Dee Dee's "Curl Up and Dye" Salon in Jersey City that is occupied, the first Tuesday of every month, by Doris Newton. Sylvia helps Doris understand the mysteries of Days of Our Lives while she does her nails.

Stephen and Sylvia have more in common than just their professions. At a genetic level their bodies are very similar, even despite Sylvia's baggy arms. Indeed, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, who has created male transgenic mice with XX chromosomes, suggests that only two genes, called Sry and Sox 9, determine male gender. That's a razor-thin difference, but unfortunately one that has been, and continues to be, very large for some people. Many societies around the world still deny females fundamental rights, while closer to home the good-old-boys at Augusta National (the golf course where the Masters is played) flex their Sry and Sox 9 by denying membership to women. Too bad.

Stephen Hawking also has a lot in common with my totally-made-up, fictitious neighbor Dave. This is true even though Dave is black. The Human Genome Project has revealed that roughly 99.9% of the DNA of every person on the planet is identical, and that variations within a race are more significant than variations between races. Unfortunately, the razor-thin nature of the difference between races is lost on many people. Nearly 40 years after legislation supposedly eliminated all legal distinctions between people of different colors, racism—both overt and subtle—remains rampant in our society.

(My neighbor Dave is gay too. Isn't it ironic that, even as the scientific evidence mounts that sexual preference is also one of the tiny genetic differences that do exist between people, so many steadfastly refuse to consider that possibility, claiming instead that it is merely a moral choice?)

Finally, even though he may not like to admit it, Stephen Hawking shares a lot in common with Kanzi. Kanzi is an ape who lives at Georgia State University in Atlanta. On a genetic level, primates are very similar to humans indeed. We share 98.4% of our genes with chimpanzees, our closest nonhuman relatives. Other animals aren't far behind. We share 95% of our genome with dogs, and an amazing 74% with microscopic roundworms.

Now, you may be the kind of smart aleck who would say, "Gee, a whole 1.6% difference between us guys and them dumb chimps? …Sounds like a lot to me!" Don't count on it. Actually, the difference is much smaller still. That's because, in actuality, none of us are very human at all. In our bodies there are more than 10 times as many bacterial cells as human cells. Doing the math, that makes us mostly bugs and less than 9% Homo sapien, whereas our dog Phydeaux is mostly bugs and less than 8.55% (that's 9% x 95%) Homo sapien. Is there a big difference there? I don't think so.

Most people, of course, don't care that our fellow animals are so much like humans. In this country animals have no legal standing. Moreover, the vast majority of people eat meat, and participate, at least indirectly, in unthinkable agricultural, entertainment and medical atrocities against a wide variety of animals, from primates on down. Often this behavior is rationalized with arguments like, "they're not like us," "they don't really think," "they don't have souls," and "they don't feel pain the way we do." Even if casual observation didn't show these rationalizations to be ridiculous (and it certainly does), the genetic likeness we share with these animals also makes such arguments highly suspect.

Of course, one thing other animals don't share with us is our capacity for speech. Certainly some animals (whales, birds, dolphins) have their own languages that we have yet to decipher. Perhaps most do. But this doesn't seem to count. If more animals could speak to us in a way that we could understand, and tell us about their fears, their suffering, their emotions, would it make a difference? Nobody wants to eat Porky Pig, or send Mr. Ed to the glue factory. I think it would make all the difference in the world.

By the way, Kanzi can speak. As long as he has the aid of a computer he can communicate with us on our own terms. He uses a special keyboard with symbols that he associates with things and concepts. Using his keyboard Kanzi has a working vocabulary of over 200 words, and he can recognize over 500 words.

Just like Kanzi, Stephen Hawking also needs a computer if he wants to speak. He suffers from Motor Neurone Disease and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and must communicate through a portable computer fitted with a speech synthesizer.

The most intelligent man on earth and a "dumb" animal both "talking" in the same way? It's true.

Let me summarize… Cosmologist or cosmetologist, male or female, black or white, gay or straight, human or dog or ape—there's just a razor-thin difference between all of us, and it's just a genetic crapshoot that determines which side of the line we fall on. Given those facts, wouldn't you think we could manage to understand each other a little better? I would.

Too bad we can't isolate the genes for bigotry and intolerance and cruelty. Too bad we can't erase them from the genetic framework forever.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Carnival Carnivores

As the sun sets in the western sky, the brightly colored lights of the carnival midway come up. Over the laughs and screams of the children on the Ferris wheel and the sound of the carousel in the distance, a voice can be heard.

"Step right up, folks! Step right up!"

The crowd gathers around a carnival barker dressed in a red and white-striped jacket with a straw hat. He dances a little jig and then starts his pitch.

"We've got trouble," he says, "right here in River City. With a capital 'N', and that rhymes with 'M', and that stands for Meat!"

"But 'trouble' doesn't start with 'N'!" someone cries.

"That's okay folks," the man reassures the crowd. "The point is—and thank goodness I'm here to tell you—that when you weren't looking killer meat snuck into your little town. You can smell it on your neighbor's breath, and I'll bet you dollars to donuts that little Johnny's passing it to his friends at school!"

"Oh no!" the crowd sighs.

Then someone in the back shouts, "Wait a minute... we like meat."

"Yeah," the crowd says in unison. "We like meat!"

"So you think," the man in the striped jacket says. "But wait 'til I tell you about the evils of killer meat. You, sir..." He points his cane to an overweight man at the front of the crowd. "You suffer from gout, do you not?"

"Oh yes!" shouts the man. "It's terribly painful."

"Wouldn't it be worth giving up meat to get rid of that pain?"

"No," the man says without a pause.


"No way."

"How about if it would make you thin besides?"

The man shakes his head and snarls. "Still not worth it."

"How about if it would prevent that heart attack you're going to have next year?"

The man is angry now. He turns and stomps away through the crowd.

The carnival barker looks frustrated. "You," he says, pointing the cane at a college student. "You're an environmentalist."

"You bet I am," the young woman says proudly. "I even recycle toilet paper."

"Well then, certainly you'll give up eating killer meat once you learn that animal agriculture is our biggest consumer and polluter of water."

The woman considers this for a second and then shakes her head. "Sorry, I'm not that much of an environmentalist."

The carnival barker pushes his hat back and scratches his ear. The crowd is growing restless, and beads of sweat have formed on his forehead.

"How about you ma'am," he pleads to a woman standing with her arms around her little boy. "Your heart has always gone out to every animal in distress you've come across. Wouldn't you give up meat to save the billions of innocent creatures mistreated and killed in our slaughterhouses?"

"Well, I don't know..."

"Wouldn't you take meat off your family's table to protect the innocence and health of your little boy?"


At that moment a man in a cow suit appears. He's wearing a sandwich sign that reads: "Come eat at Jack's Burgers and Shakes—Conveniently located next to the fat lady's tent."

"Can we go get a burger?" the young boy asks excitedly. "They've got a real clown and a playground and everything!"

The woman gives a helpless smile to the carnival barker and hurries her son away.

"Don't go! Please don't go!" the barker calls after her, but by this time the crowd has lost its patience.

"He's just a huckster!" someone shouts.

"He's a charlatan!" someone else screams.

"Yeah, send him back to Charlotte!"

The angry crowd starts to close in around the man, and he holds up his cane in self-defense. "Hey, wait a minute!" he shouts. "I'm only trying to help you!" A tomato flies out of the crowd and hits him on the side of his face, knocking his hat off. Suddenly he realizes it's no use, and he takes a step back, frightened.

The crowd starts chanting, "Give us milk, and give us meat. Those are things we love to eat! We want burgers, we want shakes. We'll eat whatever the animal makes!" Then, as a group, they turn and march off in the direction of Jack's.

The barker lets out a sigh of relief, thankful that the only damage was done by one tomato. Someone comes up by his side, and he sees that it's the carnival owner, a grizzled old man with a Western tie and a frayed vest, a cigarette dangling from his lower lip.

"That was a close one," the old man says.

"I'll say. What did I do wrong?"

The old man shakes his head and toes the dirt with his boot. "You know, I've been in the carny business for forty years now, and I've found that everywhere I go people are all pretty much the same. You can get them to fall for the cheapest illusion, just as long as it's what they want to believe. But if it's something they don't like, well… they'll fight the truth tooth and nail."

With that the old man puts a comforting hand on the barker's shoulder. "You'll have better luck next time," he says.

Neither of them really believe it, though. After all, this is the world of the carnival. The midway is filled with jingling coins, the laughs and screams of children, and the bright lights of the Ferris wheel. Everyone watches as it goes around and around in the blackened sky.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

A Dinner With Friends

Many years ago when I became a vegetarian (this was during the Coolidge administration) there was only one reason for my decision—wanting to be nice to animals. That was all that really mattered to me.

Sure, even back then people knew that vegetarianism was a lot healthier than eating meat, even if we didn't have the benefit of knowing all about saturated fat and antioxidants, not to mention Dave Thomas' heart attack. I knew that giving up meat was good for me, and I figured it was kind of a bonus I got for eating ethically—sort of like extra points for being a nice guy. But it really didn't make much difference. I was young then and, just like everyone else my age, I figured I'd live forever.

My diet reflected this general level of stupidity. When I gave up meat I moved into dairy products with abandon. I'd think nothing of following a Fettuccine Alfredo dinner with cheesecake for dessert. My favorite lunch was American cheese on white bread, "grilled" in the microwave. I knew that omelets, and even ice cream, had to be good for me because, what the heck, all those ads plugging milk and eggs as high protein health foods couldn't be wrong.

Well, it's the sophisticated '90s now. Mr. Coolidge is no longer president, and things seemed to have changed. Yes, I'm still a vegetarian for ethical reasons, and my diet still has nutritional holes in it big enough to drive a Mack truck through. But it's a better diet than it used to be. And somehow that matters more to me now.

There's a certain wisdom that comes with middle age. Okay, maybe a better term for it is "crisis mentality." In any event, when we reach that status in life it inevitably hits us that we're not going to play center field for the Yankees, Hollywood is never going to come calling, and oh, by the way, our bodies are slowly disintegrating before our very eyes.

I'm awfully glad to have vegetarianism along to help me through this crisis. It won't make me live forever, and may not even see me through to old age, but I know now that I'm a lot healthier than I would have been if I hadn't given up meat, and then dairy products, in the foggy, distant past. And the difference is going to become more pronounced as time goes on.

All of this was brought home to me recently when I went out to a restaurant with a group of my meat-eating friends after a concert. I looked around the table and realized that they were eating just like I once did, and it wasn't doing any good for their middle-aged bodies.

Hamburgers were the food of choice that night. As I watched my friend Bill eat his, I noticed that the paunch of his stomach was getting larger every time I saw him. Coincidence, I wondered? In the chair next to him Pat was still looking trim as she downed her burger, but she was talking about her high cholesterol level.

Cholesterol was an even bigger problem for Bill #2, sitting across from them. His blood-cholesterol level was seriously high, and he was due to go in for another test the next day. As he finished his burger, though, he noted that it had come down since he'd "improved" his diet.

My friend Kevin was sitting on my right. "I can't eat burgers anymore," he complained. "My colon can't handle them." He ordered the chef salad instead. As I watched him eat the cheese and eggs and various meats with the creamy dressing, I wondered if there was any lettuce under there. I didn't see any.

Susanna wasn't eating a burger that night either. "I eat very little beef," she said proudly as she took a bite of her club sandwich of turkey, "ham" and "bacon" on white bread with mayonnaise. Very healthy indeed.

Across the table was Jim. He'd gone through bypass surgery a year earlier, and for a while his diet had changed. But now he was biting into a hamburger. "Ah," he said, a big smile coming to his face. "There's nothing like the taste of a burger."

Finally there was Lori, sitting on my left. A delightful but shy woman, she had health problems that required her to always be on oxygen, and she'd recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. "I really need meat protein," she said twice—once to convince herself, and then again to me. "Will you be offended if I order a burger?"

She looked at me with pleading brown eyes and a face that was too thin and tired, the oxygen tube running up to her nose. My heart was breaking. I wanted to tell her about the link between animal fat and cancer. I wanted to get her started on the right track by cooking her a good vegetarian dinner of green vegetables and grains. I wanted to be able to hug her and sincerely tell her everything was going to be all right. But I knew I couldn't do any of those things. A lifetime of habit and bad information are hard to undo, even though I'd been trying for years with all my friends.

"No Lori," I finally said, feeling helpless but smiling so she'd feel at ease. "I won't be offended if you order a burger."

I lied, of course. When meat starts hurting my friends I'm plenty offended.