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Ranting and Raving




"If You Can Get Me Out Of This!"

Leo Frankowski (best known for his "Crosstime Engineer" series) once remarked that the people most likely to survive an apocalyptic disaster were not fans who read and fantasize about such things. The real survivor types don't attend cons wearing chain mail, or stash guns and ammo in Montana bunkers. The attend church every Wednesday and Sunday, and build lifetime relationships instead of fortifications. Leo expresses no love of organized religion in any form, and he sounded a bit miffed to be forced to that conclusion: cohesive social groups survive, and the strongest glue is religion.
Edward Wilson of Harvard (perhaps most widely known for coining the word "sociobiology") provides the "why." One way to define a biological species is by listing those traits that, while neither unique to a single species nor sufficient to set it apart from all others, are necessary to a proper definition. "Upright posture" and "large brain" immediately come to mind. But a behavior can also a defining trait: wolves have one packet of behaviors, and domestic cats have another. No one would list "pack behavior" as a trait of house cats, but a catalogue of necessary wolf traits requires it. One key human trait that Wilson listed was the capacity for religion or faith. Though arguably not unique to humans (do dogs "worship" their masters?) the behavior exemplified by 1) addressing pleas to a superior being whose existence cannot be conclusively established, and 2) rituals, hymns, dances, and solitary vision quests, must be included in any trait list for humans. And they are damned near unique to us.

The evolutionary advantage of this capacity for seemingly irrational mass behavior isn't hard to find: anything that contributes to survival of a particular group (humans being a grouping species) does so for the species as a whole. And religion, in all its diverse manifestations, has done that. Wilson argues that the capacity for religion is "hardwired"--locked in our genes. Others consider it strictly a cultural manifestation, but either way, its universality within our species is unmatched by any other "cultural" trait.

I think we must recognize that whether or not we are believers or churchgoers in our ordinary lives, something inside us "wants" to believe, especially when the going gets rough, and when we have no rational options. Picture a lifelong atheist dangling from a rope, six hundred feet up. It is breaking, strand by strand. "Dear God, I don't believe in you, but if you get out me out of this, I will ..." The faith isn't there, but the urge is.

The survivalist in his bunker, waiting for someone to shoot at, isn't going to be the nucleus of a new world order after the collapse, even if he lives to a ripe old age, hoarse from talking to his sandbags. If he comes down from his hill when his freeze-dried food runs out, the citizens of little one-church Hooterville, who survived because God told them to work together and put in the crops on time, and to put their poop somewhere a long way from the well, will probably take him in. Of course he'll have to go to church Wednesdays and Sundays, but ...

Leo isn't planning on having children (that I know of), but if he had some, or were considering it, and if he really believed the end of the world we know was nigh, he'd be moving to Hooterville. Maybe he isn't a believer, but his kids would be.

Copyright 1999, L. Warren Douglas

Sex and the Single-minded

When A Plague Of Change was published, and especially when Cannon's Orb came along, the reactions I got really surprised me. Each novel was nominated for least one award (Plague a Compton-Crook, and Cannon's Orb the Tiptree). Each received much praise, and great lumps of vehement criticism. I didn't hear anything bad about the quality of the writing. What I got panned for was the content--more specifically, the premises underlying both books. My noisiest critics were soi-disant feminists, who called me a male chauvinist, a bigot, and "the most sexist science-fiction writer since Robert Heinlein."
Someone sent me verbatim transcripts of the Tiptree committee's email regarding Cannon's Orb's nomination. The conclusion seemed to be that I had written a rather penetrating analysis of human sexuality, but that I "took a wrong turn" toward the end, when Ben, the wimpy protagonist, was "pumped up" by a trio of adoring females to do something really strong, noble, and masculine, to save the world.

Aw, c'mon, folks! I know you didn't like that scene, or what it represented. You weren't supposed to. You were, however, suppose to ponder it, not toss out the book without finishing it just because that "wrong turn" violated the party line.

Actually, I've always considered Cannon's Orb a "feminist" book--in the sense that the goal is to achieve social, economic, and cultural parity for women-- because reaching any goal requires taking a cold, hard look at the barriers between you and it. One of those barriers is (conceivably) biology, specifically, the biological evolution of distinct and different male and female behaviors that have in that past promoted basic species survival, but may impair achieving parity today.

Several old saws come to mind: "Know your enemy;" "Knowledge is power; " "Ignorance of the (natural) law is no defense;" "Those who don't know (evolutionary) history are doomed to repeat it;" "It takes one to know one;" "Ignorance is bliss. Or is that "Bliss is ignorance?"

Cannon's Orb was not intended as a manifesto, but a warning flag: this is what you're up against, ladies and girls. Not only an old boy network set up by dead white males and maintained by live ones, but a network that evolved with our species and that will not come off in the wash--in a "politically correct" whitewash. You can't pull a wolf's teeth just by denying they exist. That goes for penises and testosterone too

Cannon's Orb was about the genetically determined sexual dimorphism of behavior. If you want to assert that the different responses of men and women to identical stimuli are entirely determined by culture, not genes, feel free. But however good that makes you feel (ignorance is bliss, right?) you aren't going to come up with solutions by ignoring the core problem: to whatever degree that the dimorphism of men's and women's behavior is genetically determined, real solutions to gaining parity for women must take them into account.

Happily for my (vitally necessary) male chauvinist, sexist self-esteem, some of Orb's biggest fans are women. I don't think it's an accident that most of them are doctors, nurses, biochemists, and others with a solid grounding in the biology of human "nature," but still, when they're placed in the balance, I guess less than half the human race is mad at me for writing Cannon's Orb.

Copyright 1999, L. Warren Douglas


Those of us who, ourselves no longer young, have had close ties with someone of an older generation, have experienced the bittersweet revelation that the old are often prepared to go gracefully indeed into that long night. We might have protested that calm acceptance of inevitable death, had we listened to the old ones when we ourselves were young, but later, we welcomed it, though without understanding it, because it would have been uncomfortable, witnessing an old man railing against the injustice of it all, as if he were a youth.
Is it a mature philosophy that allows the old to look ahead to an absolute barrier without feeling the need to tear it down or tunnel under it? Is it is that old veins are filled with watered blood, that old glands exude only saltwater, not hormones of rage and sex? Perhaps. But I think not.

I think not, perhaps because my family line has been blessed or cursed with unusual longevity, and some of the people I knew when young were very, very old, yet only a generation or two beyond mine. I saw in them contrasts that might have gone unnoticed by someone whose grandfather was only fifty, when they were ten. My great-grandfather was born almost two centuries ago, and my grandfather was the child of his old age. My father was the last of nine children, and was born a hundred years ago. He was middle-aged when I surprised him by appearing on the scene. I remember Grandpa, quiet and old, bewildered by the pace of the world, the speed of automobiles, the dubious miracle of television. I seem to remember--though I have probably created that memory out of later thoughts of my own--his sense that the world had long ago left him behind. He had been retired for twenty-odd years, a widower for a decade. I do remember him reassuring my father, who was over fifty then, that he was "ready" to go, whether or not there was anything beyond that looming, dark wall. I remember, almost a half century later still, my own father echoing those words...

In astronomy, much depends on the length of the observational baseline. The distance of stars from this planet is measured by parallax--determining the angle between the star and one point on the earth, and the star and another observation point, or the same point at two different times, using the earth's rotation to spread the legs of the triangle. The orbiting observatories have lengthened that baseline considerably, no longer limited by the earth's circumference.

My personal baseline, combined with those of those ancestors I have personally known, is quite long--a century and a third. Compare that with my childhood best friend, Chris, whose grandfather was younger than my father, and died before Dad did. His baseline would have been a mere sixty years, less than half mine, and is further foreshortened by estrangement from his father before he was old enough to sit down and talk with him. Chris left home at seventeen, and never really returned.

I grew up in a world of older and old men, in a house where a half-dozen cigar-smoking uncles and their father or father-in-law pulled all the chairs in the living room up around a single footstool for their post-prandial Sunday afternoon naps. Their shared reflections, which I heard firsthand, have an immediacy still that surpasses any written account. When Uncle Dan or Uncle Adrian finally challenged Grandpa's supremacy by lifting the worn-out millstone that held the hitching-post in front of the house they grew up in, I was there-- not physically, of course, because the millstone had been removed decades before I was born, but I was still there.

I was there because my second-hand witnessing was not linear, but kaleidoscopic, seen not from a single narrative point of view, but from many, all at once. Whenever Uncle Jerry remembered some family story, Grandpa remembered it differently, and Uncle Kryn, Uncle Adrian, Dad, and sometimes Aunt Cora, remembered it from still other perspectives. The experience of hearing such stories was thus holographic, not a two-dimensional picture or a linear narrative.

I know of only one literary attempt to reproduce that kind of experience--a group of novels by Paul Scott call the Raj Quartet. Set in India 1942-1948, the four very hefty books are all one story, which the reader experiences just as I did those Sunday afternoon reminiscences--in snippets from one character's viewpoint, then another's, not in any particular sequence, and sometimes contradictory, because from one person's perspective things look different than from another's, and people remember not what is, but what is important to them.

The result of reading the Raj Quartet is not "knowing about" a series of events, of having vicariously "experienced" a flow of days and years, one person's adventures, but of being plunged into a welter of unconnected sensation like rush hour in the Paris Metro, trying to find the right train, being jostled, offended by body odor and cheap cologne, tossed about by screeching halts beneath the city at stations that glare and threaten. Emerging from the subway stairs in the pedestrian light of day, one has no sense of having traveled from the Gare du Nord, under Les Halles and perhaps the Louvre to the Gare de Lyon. One has only sensations: screeching, rattling, rushing noise and occasional lulls, light of the stations and darkness of tunnels strobing, babbling voices mostly untranslated by my foreign mind, the odors of people, food, dampness, and perfume.

Thus the Raj Quartet, and of those Sunday afternoons at 1421 Bates Street. I did not "Read" the Raj Quartet any more than I "listened to" the family story. I experienced them, often at a visceral level, knowing that--as with all real experiences--I would never know the "true" reality, only those flashing, fleeting glimpses, those differing perspectives, those contradictions.

When Uncle Dan (or Jerry or Kryn) struggled to lift the millstone, putting Grandpa on notice at last, did it weigh a hundred pounds, or two hundred and fifty? Was it three feet across and a foot thick, or half that, and five feet in diameter? Where Uncle Kryn (or Dad, or Uncle Adrian?) strained and struggled to get it above his knees, did Grandpa really lift it over his head? Was it granite or limestone?

There were so many stories: the day Dad brought Mom over to meet the family, in his red 1913 Maxwell; lighting a fire under Uncle Jerry's Franklin to thin the crankcase oil so it would start, then topping up all the little cups on top of the engine with oil warmed in the kitchen. Then there was the Old Man whom Grandpa and Grandma had taken in. No, not old man so and so, the other one. Which other one? There were six, over the years, or eight, or four ...

Forgive me if you feel that I have strayed. My point is, that long baseline of generations known and stories told has made me old before my time. How many people remember the smell under the hood of a Franklin, comprised half of hot oil, half of piny soot? I remember the first time I tried my hand at cooking on a wood burning range that belonged to my friend Glenn (that is another story, of course, and Glenn was another old man, who had been a chef in Dijon, after World War One). I already knew to move the sauce to the "back burner," way on the right of the cooktop, because Uncle Jerry's cat used to sleep there, where it was only warm, even though the oak splits were blazing in the firebox and coffee was boiling on the leftmost front "eye" of the stove. When the cat jumped on the wrong side of the new stove, which had the firebox on the right side, not the left ... but that's another story. See?

I was not born in 1880, or 1900, but I have been there often. My baseline is quite long. No wonder I have had old thoughts since before I had to shave. So I speak with a certain conviction when I say that the complacency of old men approaching death had little to do with philosophy, or the promise of bright sunshine beyond the terminal wall. It is fatigue, not with the failing body alone, the fear of pain and indignity, of leaving the house, then having to shit without a minute's notice, and making an embarrassing mess, but all the changes that have come and gone, although all lessons learned, that would have to be unlearned, relearned, if one were to hang around for even another decade or two.

It is perhaps trivial to regret the passing of the Franklin automobile, and bonfires beneath the crankcase, when the new 'fifty-three Ford always starts, even in winter, and doesn't even have a socket for a crank. It is perhaps trivial to feel once a life's lessons rendered irrelevant, when one can no longer find a spark plug under the new minivan's stubby hood, let alone change it.

It may be equally unimportant, in the long run, whether one remembers that the "niggers" next door now are "negroes," or rather, "Negroes"-- but no, that was years ago. For a while, they were "Colored," then only one color, "Black," and are now African-Americans. When I was a kid, in 1908, there was a swampy place called "Nigger Hollow" that I cut through on the way to school. Sometime after World War One they made it a park, after kicking the residents out, and they pooled all the water in a scenic duck pond. In the 1960's, when I was an old man, they filled in the pond and built a dozen brick low-income housing units, and now the redneck down the street, the one with the Confederate battle flag license plate on his truck, calls it "Nigger Hollow" again.

I'm not saying I ... I mean my uncles, my grandfather, or my father ... were racists, even though the redneck is. I'm only saying that times changed, and what they learned was superseded, sometimes seeming merely useless, other times becoming dangerously "incorrect," and that the sheer effort of keeping up could be first daunting, then impossible, because there were too many changes.

In 1993, I finally, reluctantly, took over Dad's finances and his checkbook. He had resisted that for years, because he was a proud, self-reliant man. He only gave in when I handed him a 1993 calendar, and pointed at his newly-labeled files for the year. "Electric bills--1933." "Insurance--1933." There were a dozen files, each one labeled 1933.

Have I been going somewhere with all this? I think so. If you stuck with me--and if you've read a few of my books--you'll know where. I am almost tempted to lay it all all in black and white, but I've never done that before, so why should I start now? It isn't necessary to explain everything. Life and literature, like those feet-up, cigar-smoking stories and the Raj Quartet, aren't like that, are they?

LWD-- October 8th, 1949... or is that 1999?
Copyright 1999, L. Warren Douglas

Subject: Corporal punishment

Date: Mon, 22 Nov 1999 11:38:31 -0500

From: <>
To: Salim Muwakkil <>

Dear Mr. Muwakkil,

Regarding your column entitled "Corporal punishment's perverse effects," in the November 22nd Chicago Tribune, I urge you not to throw the baby out with the bath water. As a novelist and anthropologist I often examine facets of human behavior in the light of our growing knowledge of its biochemical roots. The emotions of violence (or of exultation, love, or fear) go hand-in-hand with the surge of adrenaline, dopamine, seratonin, and a host of others in our blood and brains.

Understanding how such things work may help explain how the old "spare the rod" formula could have worked, historically, well enough to become folk wisdom, but is often contradicted by examples like those you cite, such as the higher incidence of homicide in states that allow corporal punishment in the schools. Before either banning or promoting corporal punishment, it might profit us to examine why it sometimes seems to work, and other times does not.

Consider that adrenaline in the bloodstream enhances the transfer of short-term memory to long-term or permanent "storage" in the brain. Spanking (pain) or the fear of it, releases of adrenaline into the system. Thus experiences that occur while adrenaline is "up" tend to become part of our permanent memory--the experiences we draw up for future decision-making. Shouldn't we considered just what "experiences" we are creating, when we use corporal punishment?

Here is an anecdote from my own experience as both child and father. Two boys, aged ten or thereabouts, were caught stealing. One father, while applying his belt to his son's backside, repeated the biblical "Thou shalt not steal" with each stroke. In the other father, with each swing of the razor strop, said something like "This will teach you to steal, you little thief."
If you consider those spankings simply as ways to stimulate adrenaline and enhance the transfer of a memory from short term to permanent, exactly what memory was being engraved in each child mind? Later, no longer boys, the two young men
compared notes. The one indelibly branded in his own mind as a "little thief," had continued to steal. The other, whenever temptation arose, heard a voice from his subconscious, like an echo of the voice of God, saying "Thou shalt not steal," and he did not .

One spanking "worked," and the other did not. The difference was not in the physical punishment, but in the memory each boy carried away from it. Later still, raising my own children, I modified the procedure. The voice my own daughter remembers, saying "I will not steal," is her own.

A well-considered methodology for effective corporal punishment might include the following:

The difference between such a methodology for behavior modification and brutal, inconsistent, and negative abuse is vast. Does the "enormous body of research" you cite in your article take into consideration the enormous variation in what we call, collectively, "corporal punishment?"

I submit to that, without understanding why we've evolved (or were created) with such biological mechanisms as the effect of adrenaline upon long-term memory, we won't resolve issues like corporal punishment with a simple pro or con.


L. Warren Douglas


"You Can't Think Unless You Have Something To Think About."

 I didn't say that. One of Poul Anderson's characters did, near the very end of his 1973 novel There Will Be Time. Harriet Tyson-Bernstein said it again in a 1988 book, without attribution.  I'm sure she believed it was original or, more likely, so self-evident as to be in the common domain. It struck me immediately as simple enough to be profound, though the implications didn't hit me until the middle of the night.

 "You can't think unless you have something to think about."  Imagine that. A score of other aphorisms spring immediately to mind, among them: "GIGO.  Garbage in, garbage out"; "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"--Santayana.; "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it"-- Edmund Burke.

 Yesterday  a conservative talk show host gave several examples of just how ignorant modern Americans are. As I recollect it, very few could distinguish between quotes from the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, the Preamble to the Constitution, or an old Pogo comic strip.And it doesn't end there: Americans' ignorance of science is equally profound.  53% think lasers focus sound waves, according to a Pew Research quiz.  45% believe hydrogen, helium, and/or radon cause global warming.

70% of state and federal prisoners are functionally illiterate.  Over 42 million American adults can’t read at all, 50 million read at fourth or fifth grade levels, and the total number of illiterate adults increases by 2.25 million persons every year.

That covers what American voters don't know, and it's scary enough to think that the ignoramuses are the real swing voters. But consider what they do "know" "Half of all Americans believe they are protected by guardian angels, one-fifth say they've heard God speak to them, one-quarter say they have witnessed miraculous healings, 16 percent say they've received one and 8 percent say they pray in tongues," according to a Baylor U study.  92% believe in God (at least that's something.)

A Harris Poll concludes that 68% believe in the devil, 69% believe in hell. I don't.  That doesn't worry me.  But frighteningly, 65% of those aged 25 to 29 believe in ghosts, while only 27% of those 65 and over do so.  Astrology? 43% (25 to 29) and 17% (65 & over.)  Reincarnation?  40% (25 to 29) & 14% 65 & over.

Are you getting the picture?  It's a trend, isn't it?  We're not only ignorant and getting more so, we're getting flakier, too. 

None of that would have been frightening back when the average voter was literate, owned property, had money in the bank (and could thus afford a poll tax), and knew his congressman personally.  Voters were for the most part stakeholders in America. They were as close as imperfect man is likely to get to Plato's informed aristocracy, without being aristocrats. Stability, solvency, and sanity were more important than a free lunch (or free health care or free anything else) at least partly because they didn't need them.  But from the end of the Civil War, and for a century after, poll taxes & literacy tests were misused to keep even literate and affluent blacks from voting, and they had to go.  Now the pendulum has swung the other way, and any voting criterion more stringent than a temperature of 98.6 degrees is discrimination.  Including ID. Including a brain, even a tiny one. Now, after a half-century of get-out-the-vote drives, every warm body smart enough to remember how their local ACORN friend told them to vote went to the polls in 2008.  And voted for a free lunch.  Again.

So back to Poul's statement, that started it all: "You can't think unless you have something to think about."  More and more American voters have less and less real knowledge to base sound decisions on, and have accumulated a vast trove of nonsense (I could use a harsher word) to replace it.  If you weren’t scared in November 2008, you should have been, shouldn't you?

Poul Anderson  There Will Be Time.

Edmund Burke, sometime in the mid 1700s (cited all over the internet, but I can't find a reliable source.)

 Harris Poll:


 Walt Kelly, used the quote "We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us" on a poster for Earth Day in 1970 & later in several Pogo books..

 Pew Quiz:

 George Santayana  Life of Reason, vol 1, “Reason in Common Sense

 Harriet Tyson-Bernstein  A Conspiracy Of Good Intentions, America's textbook fiasco.

 Civics: Naomi Wolfe


"Make the Bad Things Go Away"

 Our capacity for faith, for belief in things unseen, was characterized by E. O. Wilson as one of the defining traits of Homo sapiens, as a genetically-determined tool for survival of the species in the "natural" environment.  He was (originally) thinking of religion, but good theory explains much, and confirming evidence can sometimes be found in strange places. One supportive example that recently occurred to me is the childish belief in the bad things that hide under beds and in dark corners (themselves perhaps programmed into our genes in a day when dark places and holes in the ground held genuine dangers, especially for children too young to understand what those dangers might be.)

Toddlers—only-children raised entirely at home—generate their own monsters long before they are in a position to learn about them from age mates.  Often inchoate, these fearful entities inspire absolute terror, and no rational assurances from adults can allay that one whit.

A year or two later, with increasing contact with other children at nursery school or play, the monsters take shape; they are skeletons, giant insects, slimy things, things with teeth, ghosts, slithering things—all images drawn from the "collective unconscious" that natural selection created to keep curious little children away from spiders, snakes, dead creatures that some other creature killed (and that might still be in the neighborhood,) and  holes where predators might lurk.

The fear is the reality; the rest is invention, created by bright young minds to explain it. It is so real that even in the bedrooms of our clean, safe, modern homes, parents are absolutely incapable of convincing their fearful children there is nothing to fear.  They must resort to subterfuge.  They must look under the bed—really look—and assure junior there are no creatures there; they must leave the light on, to keep the night-beasts at bay.  The parents, in other words, entirely unable to allay genetically-programmed fears, take actual, physical measures to protect against the creatures that imagination has created to explain them.  When the fears are real, a fantasy may be the right tool for allaying them.


Copyright 1999-2013, L. Warren Douglas

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