10 August 2010


BEAUTY. One of my favorite naturalists and writers, Natalie Angier, notes that we humans employ a curious set of standards when we view the animal world -- admiring some creatures for their graceful, swift or beautiful appearance, while abhoring other creatures for their ugliness. Angier notes that our criteria are highly subjective and rarely consistent, and discusses several possible explanations for our judgment. One explanation for finding a species attractive is neotony, in which an animal (especially a pre-adult) has large eyes relative to its size, a large head, and is given to playful behavior -- reminding us of our own young. Reasons for perceived ugliness include having features that are so disturbingly alien compared to our own, that we are instinctively repelled -- or, paradoxically, having features that in some degree mimic those of humans, but to a distorted degree. The full article is entertaining and illuminating.

MORALITY. What's there to do in Warsaw, Ohio? Well, for the past four years, the pastor and congregation of a local church have conducted weekly demonstrations outside a strip club, equipped with signs, bullhorns and video cameras which they use to record not only the faces of patrons, but also their car license numbers, which are posted online. This past Sunday, the owner and performers at the strip club held a counter-demonstration outside the church, clad in bikinis, grilling hamburgers and playing with super-soakers. I find the whole episode hilarious. In my book, you are free to believe what you wish, so long as you do not try to impose your beliefs upon others. The pastor learned that exercising his right to free speech, when carried too far, had unintended consequences. And I'm betting that church attendance next Sunday will be up dramatically.

HEALTH. Last night the CBS Evening News reported that children in the US are entering puberty at alarmingly young ages. At age 7, ten percent of white girls, fifteen percent of Latina girls, and 23 percent of black girls have started to develop breasts. Age 7. The percentages rise with each year of age. These numbers are up dramatically from just ten years ago, and even more so from my childhood (back during the Punic Wars), when boys and girls reached puberty at around age 12 or 13. Earlier onset of puberty is directly linked to an increased risk of cancer later in life, to problems with self-esteem, and to much earlier sexual activity (and exposure to STDs) and other risky behavior.

The cause? The most immediately apparent trigger appears to be fat. Fully one-third of both children and adults in the US and much of western Europe are clinically overweight, and another third are fully obese. Fat is associated with the production of estrogen, hence puberty. There are also substance in our environment which mimic estrogen and hasten the onset of puberty. Here is the video of Katie Curic's interview with Dr. Jennifer Ashton. Clearly, parents need to get a grip on both their own lives and the lives of their children, starting with a healthy diet, regular exercise and awareness of conditions in their environment.

Whatever happened to childhood?

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