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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Things That Keep Me Awake At Night

What is the rate of evolution? Is anyone attempting to measure this? Specifically, when I was a kid in Arkansas, it was routine for dogs to chase cars on our unpaved, rural road. Sis and I were talking about this when she was here recently, recalling how she accidentally killed a dog who ran out to capture her car – when she was heavily pregnant and was rushing me to the doctor to sew up a deep cut I got on a rusty fence. I still have the scar, but the car incident wasn’t as bad as it could have been: the homeowner came out and said it was her son-in-law’s dog, and she never liked him anyway.

It dawned on me that neither I -- nor anyone I know -- has seen a dog chase a car in decades, not even on roads that are even more rural. I do recall one such dog in Portugal, who was mean enough to have chased cars were it not for his fence. This was in 1988, but the area still was so primitive that a shepherd and his small flock of sheep grazed on the grass of our rented house as part of their daily feeding. This dog lived down the lane and never barked at them, but he always made it clear when we walked past that he didn’t understand English. Most dogs do; he probably was just xenophobic.

Anyway, canine behavior clearly has evolved in the past half-century. This is especially remarkable because they only had a few decades from the time that cars were invented to the time that they figured out it was not a good idea to chase them. This is what educational psychologists call learned behavior, which overcomes instinct. That reminds me of my psychology professor, a crazy woman named Charley Jones. She’s got to be long since dead now, so I can use her name.

She was the worst test-giver I’ve ever experienced. Without telling students of her habit, she awarded extra points to people who used the margins of the exam paper to answer questions that weren’t asked. I figured this out (learned behavior) when I made 100% on an exam, but another student – who knew of the professor’s practice – got 135%, which dropped my A to a B. Anyway, she was one of those educators who expected regurgitation of memorized “facts,” no questions asked. (Or not asked, in her peculiar case.)

One “fact” was that babies are born with two instincts: fear of falling and fear of loud noises. When I raised the question of instinctively knowing how to suck for nourishment, she dismissed me. And yet, if fear of falling is so real and innate, why don’t babies cry when someone picks them up and holds them four feet off the ground? I think babies also sleep through alarm bells and other hospital nursery noise.

I doubt if this is learned behavior: babies aren’t organized well enough to tell each other to fear falling and noise. Dogs, though, do communicate enough that they have passed the word about cars through several canine generations. What about other animals? Here in Florida, we see in recent bird behavior that ospreys and eagles prefer homebuilding on utility poles to nesting in trees. The cranes in Brandon prefer hanging out in the parking lot of Pier One to life in the nearby bogs.

What’s going on? Again, is anyone analyzing this? One thing seems certain: nothing is static. Genesis is poetry about one place in the Middle East, and even there, things have changed and evolved in the last millennia. It would be really neat if we humans could pick up some of the positives we dropped on our way to becoming us.

This occurred to me already back in high-school biology, when I learned that hydra can re-grow a lost part of their little bodies. The same, I believe, is true for crabs. At least that is what the crab catchers tell us when they break off a claw, but throw the rest of the shellfish back into the ocean. How do crabs do this? How could we re-grow a lost arm or leg? Hubby tells me that there is a great deal of medical research going on about the regeneration of issue, so maybe our grandchildren will be able to emulate crabs. While we are at it, I’d like a third hand so that I could hold a drink in one hand and a plate of food in the other, and be able to reach my mouth with the third one.

And, of course, birds and flying. I want us to be able to fly, on our own, without a plane, like birds. If we can walk and run, we should be able to fly. I suppose our animal ancestors opted to forego this ability in favor of something else while we were evolving, and we need a second chance at wings -- preferably detachable for sleeping. But seriously, if I were in charge of the world, there would be a lot more funding for biologists and zoologists and ichthyologists – and yes, Governor Scott – anthropologists, too. These fundamentals are more fundamental than vocationally oriented STEM.

Things That Keep Me Awake at Night, Part 2

Yes, I do have trouble falling asleep. Another thing someone should invent is an off/on switch for the mind.

It probably was pondering evolution that led me to think about baldness, which occurs disproportionately in men. What purpose does baldness serve? I don’t think it’s natural selection, as few women that I know prefer a man without hair to one who has some on his head. Judging by the ads on television for hair replacement, it seems that most of the rest of the world agrees, men included. Or even especially men.

So was this evolution place-related? Is there more baldness in Scandinavia or Siberia, where maybe a bald head could be beneficial at catching the sun’s rays? I’ve never seen any evidence for that – or for the opposite. Maybe male aboriginals in Australia and Africa had more hair, but if so, would the purpose be shade? In which case, it’s the opposite of my scientific proposition for northern men. And what about bald eagles? Did they evolve from birds with more head feathers, and if so, why? I guess bald eagles aren’t really bald – they just have short white feathers on their head, in contrast to their fluffy plumage elsewhere. Again, why? Is this an evolutionary coming or going?

Humans apparently are less hairy than we were as Neanderthals, but what’s that point? An inducement to wear clothes? The fashion industry would be in big trouble… But the chief question is why men are so much more afflicted with baldness? And why haven’t they turned this into some kind of evidence of male superiority, as they do with virtually everything else? Human females have less hairy bodies than males, something that I’ve always assumed was evidence that women have moved further beyond the primate stage. But why the difference between men and women in terms of hair on the head and hair on other parts of the body?

It’s not head covering as cause and effect, at least not in measurable time. Jewish men cover their heads, while until recently, Catholic women, but not men, were expected to wear head coverings. Ditto with Muslim women, even today. If anyone has done a study of hair loss rates by religion and/or ethnicity, please let me know about it.

It’s not far from bald to bulls, bullies, bullish, and you know at least one other one. There’s much to muse on there, too. Bullies certainly are negative, as is “bull-headed,” but “bullish” is a good thing, at least in the stock market. When stock prices fall, it’s called a bear market. I can understand the usage of “bull,” even with its aggressive and dangerous overtones, but how did we get “bear?” It’s also interesting that “bear” is a collective noun including both male and female animals, while “bull” refers only to the male. Otherwise, I guess, it would have to be “cattle” market, and that wouldn’t do.

More Re Rates of Change

Hubby and I were talking further about this, and even though we are not types who easily marvel, the rate of change in our lifetimes truly is marvelous. It’s even more worthy of marvel if we add in our parents. None of our four parents grew up with electricity; the gas lamp was the marvel of their youth. None had running water. Hubby’s family didn’t have it until they moved out of the hills of Arkansas when he was nine. My family had it in Minnesota, but we went backwards when we moved to Arkansas when I was ten.

My grandfather was one of the first in his western Minnesota farm community to buy a car – and my mom, his oldest child, clearly remembered how he drove it into a storefront yelling “whoa!” to non-existent horses. Actually, Grandpa set another local precedent when he bought a car for his teenagers: by then, ten of his twelve children had been born, and the family couldn’t fit into one car when they went to church.

Grandma never learned to drive, but Mom did at an early age. There were no licensing laws yet, and my Dad’s spoiled younger stepsister (even she agreed that her middle-aged parents spoiled her) started driving to town when she was twelve. That would have been 1926, and I’m sure that drivers’ tests and licenses became routine everywhere soon after that. It’s interesting, though, that licenses for airplane pilots were earlier – and were international.

The first woman licensed was French, and the second was American Harriet Quimby. After taking lessons on Long Island, she earned her license from the Federation of Aeronautique Internationale in 1911. She was killed the very next year, when her male passenger shifted his (heavy) weight in her open-air, sans-seatbelt plane, and both fell into Boston Harbor. The plane glided in with little damage.

Another thing that keeps me awake: why was it so easy to convince Americans that cars and drivers and planes and pilots and much more should be regulated and licensed, but we still are far away from that with much more lethal guns?


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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