In episode #30 of In The Moment, correspondent and Grist editor Matt Craft sat down with journalist Dahr Jamail (2:17) to discuss his experience exploring different parts of the world to witness climate change firsthand. Jamail explains that he believes that one of the major causes of climate disruption comes from people growing disconnected with nature—they just adjust a thermostat and don’t see the impact on the environment around them. Craft and Jamail discuss dealing with the heaviness of the topic, and how Jamail sees climate change scientists looking at their research as soldiers on a battlefield. He nods to the bleakness of our environmental future, and entreats us to act and preserve the land before it’s too late.
Chief Correspondent Steve Scher interviews Siri Hustvedt (12:28) about whether we can trust our own memories to be accurate or if we use memories to construct fictions for ourselves. Hustvedt recalls reading Emily Dickinson at a young age, musing on the idea that her younger self could never have understood what those poems were about. Still, they inspired her to write back then, but what her older self remembers and what the younger self wrote about are different. Hustvedt reconciles the differences between past and present, delving into the ways her writing has evolved and the ways we’re all constantly changing.
And host Jini Palmer highlights a theatrical radio performance from the Mahogany Project for the 13th annual Urban Poverty Forum (24:16). The Mahogany Project shines a light on the facts and repercussions of the U.S. worldwide military presence, our military aid in eradicating terrorist groups, and delves into the consequences of our massive national military spending. They share details on the disproportionately low pay offered to U.S. troops despite the large federal military budget, and the blowback of this spending on taxpayers in the form of reduced resources for housing, healthcare, food, and education.
In episode #29 of In The Moment, correspondent Katy Sewall talks with John Lanchester (3:58) about his book The Wall. They delve into Lanchester’s inspiration for the book—a recurring dream. Lanchester recounts the prescient nature of his dream, which took place before discussions of Brexit and Trump’s border wall. The dream took place in the future of our world impacted by global climate change and a rising sea level, and followed a lone figure standing on a dark, cold wall. Scher and Lanchester explore the notion that walls such, though typically made for security and safety, often create exclusion and othering for those on the opposite side. Lanchester says that those who participate in othering must make constantly make excuses and seek justifications, and must train themselves to see the others as people wholly unlike themselves. In order to change how people see the world, says Lanchester, we need imaginative works of fiction.
Chief Correspondent Steve Scher interviews renowned biologist Frans de Waal (12:20) about our assumptions about animals. They discuss the common perception that animals only have instincts or minimal associative learning. De Waal recalls how in the 1990s his contemporaries laughed off his proposed theories of animal empathy and sympathy—yet he continued his research undaunted, inspired by the close relationships and knowledge he had developed about the primates he worked with. He discusses the process of measuring the physiological effects of emotions in animals, as opposed to feelings which are individual experiences. De Waal also reports that he’s just as happy to work with animals while relying solely on observations.
And host Jini Palmer sits down with Town Hall’s Marketing Manager Jonathan Shipley (21:44) to discuss the Town Crier blog and his interview with translator Michael Straus. Shipley discusses how he learned that the process of translation is not verbatim, but a more complex consideration of finding the “spirit” of the text. Jini and Jonathan delve into the importance of the translator as a part of the finished work, and of the ways which audiences interpret or receive that work.
In this bonus episode of In The Moment, get an inside look at the past and present of our Global Rhythms series! Host Jini Palmer talks with Spider Kedelsky, the founder of the Global Rhythms series. He recalls how the music series came to be and shares his experience working with different groups and musicians over the years. In the 1990’s Spider explored different cultural groups and communities throughout Seattle to bring a diversity of music and traditions to Town Hall’s stages, before broadening the reach of the series to include sounds and traditional arts from around the globe. Then Jini sits down with Jon Kertzer, current curator of our Global Rhythms series, to find out how he got involved with Global Rhythms and learn about his experience in radio and his interest in world music.
He explores this season’s Breaking Borders theme, highlighting the ways which the music of numerous immigrant cultures form the foundation of American music—making it all the more crucial that we celebrate them. Kertzer discusses Mamak Khadem (22:34), who performed the season’s inaugural concert in December, and highlights her established roots in the Iranian community. Kertzer discusses the Pedrito Martinez Group (23:27), a fun high-energy Cuban percussion band featuring members from several parts of Latin America. Next he discusses Lorraine Klaasen (25:03), a South-African jazz singer based in Montreal whose Town Hall show will be her first performance in Seattle. The back-to-back performances of Mokoomba and Chimurenga Renaissance (27:18) break the mold a bit according to Kertzer, since Mokoomba is coming from South Africa and Chimurenga are first generation Americans. These two groups have always wanted to play together, and this will be the first time they’re sharing the stage. To wrap up the series Kertzer discusses Kinan Azmeh (30:30), an amazing Syrian musician classically trained at Juilliard whose techniques merge Western classical music with Middle Eastern Folk traditions.
Learn about the history of our Global Rhythms series—and about the unforgettable lineup that’s approaching this season!
It’s a funny thing—the skinny guy with the turban, glasses, and big beard wandering around New York City dressed up like Captain America. People are smiling. People are laughing. People are joyously putting their arms around him to get a selfie. Sikh Captain America is a popular guy in the streets with that charming outfit, that disarming smile, that shield. Hashtag superhero. Tweet. Retweet. Instagram heart. Facebook post. Heart emoji. Hashtag America.
Sikh Captain America’s name is Vishavjit Singh and he’s had a mob come to his house to murder his family. He’s been called names: “clown,” “genie,” “raghead.” Singh wears a turban. He has a beard. He has brown skin. After 9/11 he didn’t leave his house for two weeks, afraid to. Once he did he was eyed, ridiculed, made fun of, yelled at, derided. Once, not five minutes after taking off his Captain America outfit and getting back into his street clothes, someone yelled at him across the street, “Osama bin Laden!”
Singh started writing cartoons of Sikh characters soon after 9/11. He himself grew up in the Sikh faith (the 5th largest religion in the world) and wanted to start making Sikh characters known. One day he drew a Sikh Captain America. Drawing the Sikh superhero he thought we should relish our diversity and understand our commonalities. Then, in 2012, a mass shooting took place at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. A white supremacist opened fire, fatally shooting six people and wounding four more.
The shooting affected him. Perhaps, he thought with much cajoling from friends and associates, he should don the Captain America costume and step out into the streets. Those horrible tragedies led him to this—the smiling people, the laughing people, the people eager to take their photo with him. “My palms were sweating,” he says on that first foray into New York’s streets. “I was scared out of my mind.” He got hugs. Cops came up to take pictures of him. A fire station invited him in. He was pulled into a wedding. “I quickly realized I was onto something good.” Ever since, he’s traveled throughout the country, and beyond, to fight intolerance. “We all have stories to tell,” he says. “We just have to reach out to people and ask what theirs is.”
I asked Singh for his story.
He was born in Washington, DC but moved to India as a young child. He left India and came back to the states soon after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. The news spread fast the day of Gandhi’s death; the assassins were her own bodyguards and those bodyguards were Sikh. Mobs, eager for revenge, roared into the streets looking for Sikhs. The Singh family was terrified. They survived, with the help of their neighbors, but thousands were not so lucky. Sikh men and boys were burned alive. Sikh women were victims of sexual violence. Sikh businesses, homes, and houses of worship were gutted. He’s drawn these experiences into his cartoons. “We need to read our history, tell our stories, and make more connecting points.”
He returned to America and attended college, turbaned and bearded. People laughed at him, and told him to go back to where he came from. He’s an American citizen. “I began questioning why I needed to stand out. People look at me wherever I go.” He took off his turban, got a haircut, and shaved his beard. After he did it, “No one was looking at me! People thought I was Hispanic and started speaking to me in Spanish. I told them I didn’t speak Spanish. They asked, ‘Then what are you?’.”
Singh’s return to his Sikh roots took years. He’s grown his hair long again. He’s grown his beard back. He wears a turban. Also? He wears a superhero costume. “I’m trying to confuse peoples’ initial perceptions. Confusion leads to exploration, exploration to learning, and learning to understanding.”
“Why can’t we all be Captain America?” Singh asks. “We all can be Captain America. Why can’t a girl be Captain America? A black person? A woman? An old man? A child? We’re all Americans. We should not be defined by labels…I am more,” Singh says, “than what you see.”
An introvert by nature, Singh has certainly stepped out of his comfort zone and he suggests that we all take a few steps outside of our own comfort: “We need to create a safe space for each other. We can learn so much from each other.” As Captain America he goes to comic book conventions, camps, retreats. He lectures to children and adults, and he exhibits at museums (including WHAM! BAM! POW! Cartoons, Turbans & Confronting Hate, now showing at the Wing Luke Museum).
Why? He doesn’t want anyone to feel like he’s felt his whole life: like ‘an other.’ “We write our story every day. Find a way to tell it,” he implores us. “Find your voice. We all have a voice.”
Who is Vishavjit Singh? A Sikh, an American, a cartoonist, a husband, a son, a brother, a writer—more than all that. He teaches us that we’re more than a label, more than the sum of our parts. He’s Captain America, and he’s here to tell us: so are we all.
What does it mean to think like a geologist? Geology professor Marcia Bjornerud gives us a window into a field that studies the literal history of the Earth. She will be joining us on September17 to discuss “timefulness”—her newly coined concept that encourages a drastic (but, she says, necessary) shift in our 21st century perspective. In the meantime, Bjornerud spoke with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby about the geologist’s mindset and the explanatory power that comes from reading the rocks.
AE: What gets a person interested in geology?
MB: Many of our students—and I think this is true across the country, not just at our university—discover geology almost by accident. Many of them first sign up simply to fulfill a lab requirement, thinking that geology doesn’t sound as scary as physics or biology.
AE: And then they realize they love it?
MB: Exactly. The field has a powerful capacity to convert people who don’t think of themselves as “the science type.” I think that’s because, for me, geology has this huge explanatory power and that’s really addictive. I sometimes say geology is the etymology of the world. Once you get in the habit of thinking that way, you want to understand how things came to be. For a lot of people that’s the attraction.
AE: And unlocking that explanatory power, was that the goal of some of your earlier books? To make geology more accessible?
MB: Definitely. This is the world we live in, and it’s really kind of shocking how little the average earthling knows about the planet. I think geology has a PR problem, if people are aware of it at all. It’s linked in their minds, understandably, with the oil industry, the mineral industry, or with this perception of dusty musty museum collections. There aren’t too many opportunities for people to get the big picture. That’s what I’m trying to achieve. I want to give people a window into this longer view, and help them engage with the logic of geology. Over the course of my teaching career I’ve learned that people are hungry for that big picture. They hear about dinosaurs once in a while, but they don’t really have a chance to see the grand overview.
AE: So is that the goal with introducing this concept of “timefulness?”
MB: Yes. It’s not an attempt to tell the whole story of the earth. It’s more about demystifying how geologists think about time. It’s about communicating how we’ve gone about constructing the geologic timescale and why it’s relevant. There’s a misconception that geology is all about the past. While that’s partly true, we also study the past because it’s the only thing that we have that can allow us to make intelligent inferences about what might happen in the future. So geology is increasingly as much forward-looking as backward-looking.
I think it’s an underappreciated intellectual accomplishment that humans know as much about the deep past of the planet as we do. And it’s not just one person who won a Nobel Prize for figuring it out, it’s two centuries worth of people from all over the world. Many different cultures, personalities, and kinds of scientists have contributed to this amazing history of the world.
AE: Accomplishments formed by standing on the shoulders of giants?
MB: Right. The logic of it is comprehensive. You can spend a lifetime learning all the details, but I think at least appreciating how we, collectively, have gone about understanding the past is a step in the right direction.
AE: How do you help a student learn to think this way?
MB: Well, it certainly helps to go out in the field and learn from first principles. One of my favorite metaphors for the way geologists see the world is that of a palimpsest manuscript. In the past, before paper was widely produced, documents were written on parchment. But parchment was expensive, and often used and reused. Old ink would be scraped off, leaving vestiges of the earlier writings underneath. That’s a good way of thinking about landscapes. If you can get out in the field and start seeing these ‘re-inkings’ then it becomes a kind of habit of mind. We can abandon our peculiar 21st century mindset that the past is burned up behind us and instead recognize that the past is in fact everywhere. Our own bodies and cells are narratives of evolution; everything around us has a backstory.
I had a math professor who would often say there are many sizes and shapes of infinity. I think that’s a useful way of thinking about the geologic past too. There are things that happened a long time ago, a long-long time ago, a long-long-long time ago. It’s central to the “timefulness” idea that we get some depth of field and get a sense of the distances between some of the big events in Earth’s history.
AE: Now, also contained in the title of your newest book is the notion of saving the world. How does this expanded depth of field and knowledge of the Earth’s history relate to saving the world?
MB: It speaks to a perceptual shift that we need to make. We need to think of ourselves as earthlings and not as somehow having outgrown the natural world. We’re deeply embedded in the natural world. Things that have happened in the past are going to continue to unfurl, like it or not, into the future. We need to think of ourselves as part of that continuum and set things in motion now that may not bear fruit until we are gone. We have to change our view of who we are in time—and our sense of obligation to future generations.
There are models for doing that here and there, so it’s not an entirely new idea. Kurt Vonnegut famously suggested there should be a new cabinet post, Secretary of the Future, who would provide counsel on behalf of the unborn. I’ve done some work with the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, which is a consortium of tribes in the Upper Great Lakes region that works to protect treaty rights around Lake Superior especially. The treaties that they protect were signed back in the 1830’s, and they’re trying to make plans for the next century or so. So there are models for how to do this, but we need a collective shift in consciousness and self identity.
AE: What can we do on an individual level to model our lives for this way of thinking?
MB: Get curious about the natural world. Get children in particular engaged—tap into their innate scientific curiosity, early and often. And just try to instill in people a sense of their connectivity to the natural world—to the geologic past and the geologic future.
AE: What do you think of the old adage, to say something is “set in stone” or “written in stone?”
MB: That means it’s temporary. Mountains come and go, and erosion prevails.
The Great Hall’s signature oculus has returned from its extensive restoration! After nearly one year offsite with the experts at Seattle Stained Glass, the oculus has been revitalized and reassembled—and the transformation is stunning. The oculus won’t be installed until the renovation is nearly complete, but our skilled construction team has afforded us a glimpse at another of our building’s restored windows.
Where once stood a wall of scaffolding, we can now see the Great Hall’s iconic arched window on the south side of the building, complete with weather proofing and storm windows. These tall and stately panes add a characteristic burst of color to the gleaming terracotta facade, and we can’t wait to see how the assembly looks from the inside! Red weatherproofing material has been applied to exterior window framing, and new storm windows will protect from the elements to extend the life of the glass (don’t worry, the red won’t be visible when construction is complete).
The restoration of Town Hall’s stained glass oculus was generously funded by the Committee of 33.
We often say that Town Hall is more than just a venue, and this is true in many ways. But our organization wouldn’t be the same without our historic home. For twenty years, our institution’s values have been reinforced by the features of our landmark building. Simultaneously austere and welcoming, the marriage of civic-inspired architecture and community-focused construction combine to create an inviting space where our city comes together. The pillars along the building’s face lend the structure a political severity reminiscent of a government building (no wonder we’re so often confused with City Hall!), while the radiant terra cotta façade seems to manifest the warmth inside this bustling gathering space. There’s nowhere else quite like Town Hall, and we certainly wouldn’t be the same without this building. Anyone who’s been to an event inside our venue can attest—our home helps make us who we are.
Preserving the qualities that define each of our performances spaces is a critical goal of our renovation. It’s a delicate balance to achieve as we outfit the building with upgrades that will allow us to continue hosting our city’s inspired conversations. We’re upgrading the Great Hall, overhauling our Downstairs, and adding a new space on the lobby level, the Reading Room. Between these three performance venues we can accommodate events of every size—from a crowd of nearly a thousand seated shoulder-to-shoulder in the pews, to a cozy circle of a dozen chairs. We’re excited to re-introduce you to these spaces, at once familiar and transformed, when we re-open in February of 2019. But until then, come with us for a look behind the cloak of scaffolding at the three performance spaces coming to life inside Town Hall!
The Great Hall’s character is striking from the moment you enter. The curved oak pews radiate out from an unassuming stage, and on a full night you’ll see nearly 900 people packed into those benches. The voices of every discussion carry all the way up to the vaulted ceilings to mingle around the iconic stained-glass oculus. We’re keen to preserve these elements of the space that are so core to the identity of the Great Hall as a place where communities can gather to speak and be heard. That’s why the first item on our list for the Great Hall is a suite of acoustic upgrades. Our architects at BuildingWorks are working in tandem with master acousticians from Jaffe Holden to create a state-of-the-art acoustic program. A custom-designed acoustic reflector will hang above the stage, tuned specifically to the contours of the room to evenly distribute sounds from the stage to every seat in the house—with or without a microphone. We’re also permanently installing our Hearing Loop system to benefit audience members with T-coil hearing aids, as well as special sound damping materials between the floors of the building to prevent the uproar from a lively “kindie-rock” concert from interrupting a measured science panel just down the stairs. Combine all this with a face-lift of restored crown molding and the addition of cushions to our 98-year-old antique pews and the Great Hall promises to perform well, look sharp and feel comfortable every night—whether it features an international virtuoso, a civic leader, or the screening of a classic film.
While the Great Hall is holding tightly to the qualities that lend the space its characteristic warmth, the Downstairs space is transforming dramatically—so much that you might not recognize the room from one night to the next! Downstairs is becoming the Forum, a completely modular 300-seat space designed to keep up with Town Hall’s fluid calendar. One night the room might be configured as a three-quarter thrust stage for a civic lecture, the next it may become a runway for a queer fashion show, or a corner-round platform for a series of Bushwick jazz performers inspired by a heady science-fiction novel. The beauty of the space’s design is its ability to become the best possible version of itself, re-forming to fit the needs of each event and completely transfiguring the energy each night. Add to that a library and bar flanking the space’s ample 5,000-square feet, and the Forum is tailored to invite the community at large to make this space their own—an ideal complement to the aplomb and applause of the Great Hall.
The newcomer to Town Hall’s performance spaces—the Reading Room—resides between the two on our lobby level. This flexible 90 seat space provides the perfect accompaniment to the thunderous applause of the Great Hall and the mid-sized adaptability of the Forum. Ideal for intimate poetry readings, local policy discussions, and events by grassroots community organizations, the Reading Room embodies the promise that this is your Town Hall: a place where you can stand eye-to-eye with an icon one night, and mobilize your neighbors the next. We encountered this kind of energy on numerous nights during our 2017-18 Inside/Out season, when our calendar included more locally rooted events than ever before. The Reading Room is our way of creating a dedicated home for these discussions in our building—a close-knit environment where curious minds can engage directly with impassioned activists, inspired artists, and groundbreaking scholars from our region and beyond.
This building makes us who we are. Each room in our venue has witnessed decades of community congregation around the inspired ideas that infuse our region, ideas that are the pillars of our institution. We haven’t seen these new spaces yet; they’re still taking shape in a whirlwind of concrete and plaster. But when the tarp drops and the scaffold comes down, we hope you’ll be there with us to bring these new performance spaces to life—to fill them with our collective energy and shape them with the values of our community.
It’s been nearly 160 years since the publication of Charles Darwin’s the origin of species with its dazzling description of a model for the evolution of life inspired by those lovely whimsical finches. In that time, Evolutionary Science has advanced a long way, but according to Yale Ornithologist Richard Prum, something also has been lost: a scientific accounting, not just of the functional advantages that drive evolution, but of the aesthetics of animal sexuality that inspire individual choice.
He develops this theory in the new book The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us which he will discuss at an upcoming Town Hall event on Monday, June 11 at the PATH Auditorium in downtown Seattle. But in the meantime we arranged a conversation between him and Grace Hamilton. Grace is a PhD candidate in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Washington and a participant in this year’s UW ScienceEngage program for public science communication. They spoke about the evolution of beauty, the terrifying arms race of duck genitalia and the queering of Homo Sapiens.
Grace Hamilton: I wanted to tell you first how much I enjoyed your book The Evolution of Beauty.
Richard Prum: I’m glad! That’s why you write it, to hopefully get some readers on the other end.
GH: Yeah, I’m not an ornithologist or an evolutionary biologist by training, but I really enjoyed the intellectual passion you bring to the task of resurrecting Darwin’s long neglected theory of mate choice, your dissection of the cultural biases that drove it out of the scientific mainstream in the first place, and the hypotheses about human evolution that this theory of aesthetic evolution provoked. Could you briefly define aesthetic evolution for listeners who haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading your book?
RP: Aesthetic evolution is a process that involves a sensory perception, a cognitive evaluation, and some kind of social or sexual choice. And when these three things come together with some kind of heritable substrate or genetic or cultural substrate, then the result is a distinct kind of evolution that I have called aesthetic evolution. And it’s distinct because the features that evolve this way function in the perception of animals, not in the physical world. So we can compare, for example, the roots of a plant to the flower of the plant. The roots we could describe entirely in terms of their physical functions: holding the plant into the soil, absorbing water and nutrients of some kinds and also interacting with bacteria or fungi in the soil, these kinds of things. But the flower functions in the brain—if you will—of the bee or the hummingbird, the pollinator. And in that way, it functions in a distinct fashion where perception and essentially the taste of the animals matters.
GH: But this isn’t how the field of Evolutionary Biology, how they tend to view traits. Usually the argument is that these traits are not just for the perceptual benefit of others, but that they must convey some sort of information about reproductive value. So what led you down this very different mode of viewing evolution?
RP: Yeah, quite right. The majority of my colleagues think that the pleasure of animals or the subjective experiences of animals, if you will—what it is like to be a bird listening to a song or a bee looking at a flower—most of my colleagues think that these experiences need to be explained away, that is as some kind of utility. And this is a worldview that requires that requires that adaptation by natural selection is a strong force that kind of dominates all the events in evolutionary history. However, somehow or other, the way I have connected my own personal history as a birdwatcher and as a national historian to my scientific research, I’ve just been attracted to another idea, a different theory, and it’s one that actually is historically the original one proposed by Darwin in 1871. And that is the idea that beauty can evolve because of the pleasure it produces, because of the fact that animals like it, right? And that alone can drive the evolution of ornament, sexual ornament in nature in many different ways that are unpredicted by adaptation.
GH: You study one of the most classically beautiful areas of biology, the birds, and what made you think that these ideas initially based on the observation of birds and their mating behavior, could be fruitfully applied to human evolution as you do so excitingly, in The Evolution of Beauty?
RP: Yeah. Well, a lot of my colleagues ask me “Rick, why would you create this mess for yourself? Why would you get involved with talking about people?” and there’s a lot of reasons. One: people are important! How we think about our own sexuality, our own sexual selves, our own beauty has really been influenced greatly by the same kind of science that I have been battling essentially in ornithology. That is the idea from evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, areas of evolutionary biology that have worked on human evolution, have been trying to support the idea that human beauty, whether it’s asymmetry or waist-to-hip ratio or various kinds of aspects of human beauty are all indicators of genetic or quality or condition. Right? And, and I think much of this work is notably bad science, and so that’s one reason to counter it, but it also has, I think, come to influence how people think about themselves. How humans think about their own sexual self.
So I think children or teenagers today grow up looking in the mirror with more challenges than teenagers had in the past in the sense that they look at every asymmetry or every difference from maybe canonical descriptions of beauty and imagine that that indicates actually objective qualities of themselves. And that idea is just deeply flawed scientifically and deeply damaging culturally. And so one of the reasons why to take on the evolution of human sexuality was to try to address that and propose a different path to understanding how we got here, how we got to be this way.
GH: In your book I found it very poignant your discussion of this bad science that often occurs in evolutionary psychology. How there are attempts to “quantify” even female beauty—and usually female beauty—in terms of things like waist-to-hip ratio or facial asymmetry.
RP: One of the oddities of the field is it takes a lot of intellectual shortcuts, but one that’s really prominent is to state that sperm are cheap and eggs are rare and expensive, relatively, and therefore males should be profligate and females should be sexually coy. And this has typically been played out as a sort of rich explanation of human reproductive biology. And I try to document in the book how failed that really is in many ways.
GH: And you cite a sort of intellectual antipathy towards the evolutionary power as female sexual autonomy as something that goes all the way back to Darwin and something that may have predisposed many evolutionary biologists to be hostile to aesthetic evolution.
RP: You know, a number of reviews and some of my colleagues have asked me: “why get into the political history of evolutionary biology and some of these topics?” And I think it’s responsible as a scientist to understand the implications of your statements, so I’ve gotten into these issues because I think that the culture has influenced the science—and not in a good way.
GH: You’ve done fascinating, and in some quarters notorious, research into the torrid sex lives of ducks.
RP: Yeah. I’ve come to realize that duck sex is like a gas; it expands to fill whatever volume you put it in. Keeping it hemmed in a little bit. Yes, we have been working duck sex with my former Postdoc, Patricia Brennan, now a professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and her work has really been revolutionary in understanding an area of Evolutionary Biology called sexual conflict. It turns out it is quite related to the evolution of beauty and it’s really about what happens when freedom of mate choice is infringed or violated by sexual coercion or sexual violence. So the rather violent and troubling sex lives of the ducks turn out to be really instrumental in understanding sexual conflict in a new way. And that’s a big focus of the book.
GH: I was struck by your discussion of this research in The Evolution of Beauty. You assert that the revelation of an aesthetic mechanism for the evolution of female sexual autonomy in waterfowl is a profound feminist scientific discovery. What does it mean for a scientific finding to be feminist?
RP: Well, since the 70’s and on, there has been a fascinating literature in feminist science, feminist biology. But much of it is a cultural critique of science itself, and that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m not talking about science that starts with some kind of political conclusions or assumptions and then elaborate theories. I’m talking about finding that aspects of the political and cultural debate of feminism—and by contrast, patriarchy—are actually evolved in other species than human beings. In the case of duck sex, the discovery is that freedom of choice matters to animals, right? There is something it is like to have freedom of choice, and as a result when freedom of choice is violated by coercion or sexual violence, there turned out to be evolutionary consequences of that.
And the way in which they work is deeply fascinating and I think actually informative to both human evolutionary biology and contemporary culture. So I think of this as a feminist discovery in the sense that we’re finding out that the concerns of human culture and of human wellbeing and thriving are not unique to us. Sexual autonomy is not a concept discovered by suffragettes and feminist in the 19th and 20th century only. It is an evolved feature of the social sexual lives of other kinds of animals. And that opens up a whole new kind of conversation between evolutionary biology, feminism, and gender theory that I’m very excited about.
GH: It’s fascinating stuff. But because of this research funded by the National Science Foundation, studying sexual autonomy and a sort of terrifying genital arms race between male and female ducks, you were briefly the right-wing poster child for profligate government spending. What was that like? That sounds like every scientist’s nightmare.
RP: Well, it was a bit horrifying. So what happened was during one particular phase of debate about government spending during the Obama administration, our grant to study the evolution of the evolution duck sex, the co-evolution of sexual conflict in ducks, was found by a right wing think tank and then soon became the subject of Fox News and other attacks. You know, it was sobering. But one of the things that we were confident of is that duck sex is fascinating, right? The fact of the matter is that the reason why they picked—in one case, $30 billion of government waste and they’re picking on our $350,000 grant—the reason why it’s so fascinating is that duck sex is fascinating! And we knew that if we had, if you will, a fair fight or a level playing field that people would find it fascinating and worthwhile
GH: And it’s not just the sex lives of ducks though, that you talk about in The Evolution of Beauty. You have a whole chapter called “The Queering of Homo Sapiens” in which you— and I’ve heard several theories about the evolution of homosexuality in humans, the idea that it’s kin selection, that this will somehow benefit the nieces and nephews of people with exclusively same-sex attractions—but you posit a new theory that I hadn’t heard before: that males with traits associated with same-sex preferences were actually preferred as mates by females. I was wondering if anyone had pointed out that this theory is an inversion of a classic lament that all the good ones are gay. You’re saying that rather than all the good ones are gay, all the gay ones are good—as in desirable.
RP: Well, you know, starting with a study with a human sexuality is complicated because of course there’s a lot going on! You know, there’s male choice, female choice, male/male competition, female competition, sexual conflict, and culture all piled on top. And so I originally imagined one chapter on human sexuality, but it turned into four because doing it responsibly took so much more time. But you’re right, there is a chapter on the evolution of same-sex preferences and attractions and that I, it as you stated, propose a new theory. And basically what I’m proposing is that same-sex behavior, both between women and men, evolved because it furthered female sexual autonomy during our human evolution. That is, female/female sexual interactions would foster alliances that were appropriately defensive against male sexual and social control—essentially a male hierarchy—and that male/male sexual interactions would also further a social environment that would be less focused on the control of female sexuality and allow females with more social opportunities to further their own autonomous interests.
And so what this means is interesting in two ways. One: it is congruent with the more conservative hypothesis that may be represented by Andrew Sullivan, who wrote a book called Virtually Normal. Which was basically that the gay couple next door are just like everybody else except for who’s in their bed, right? And this is the sort of normalizing view. And it’s true in that sense that I think that this is a deep part of evolutionary history, of the changing of the evolution of a pro-social human species.
However, this hypothesis is also congruent with the more radically queer theorists within the discipline who see same-sex behavior as inherently disruptive. And the reason why I use the term “queering” of Homo Sapiens is to say that same-sex attraction I think evolved specifically because it functions to undermine male social and sexual hierarchy. That is, it evolved because of this feature, which means that there is something inherently queer about it. “Queering” in the sense of undermining the normal, undermining the control, undermining in this case male social control. So I think there’s something for everybody in there. This is a way of opening up the topic that begins with the aesthetic. Previous theories have tried to explain same-sex behavior through its indirect or correlated features, right? But I’ve been saying that at the center of this biology is subjective experience.
What is it that animals want? What do they prefer? And in this case, when it comes to the diversity of human sexual preferences and desires, we can see that we can’t just explain it away as “oh, gay folks are helping raise their nieces and nephews and therefore that’s how the genes are propagated,” right? These are end-arounds, these are dodges, if you will. The real issue is the evolution of desire itself. And that’s something that other previous theories have not gotten to. And so I’m trying to propose that, and by taking the aesthetic view that means that that becomes our, our main question: how does desire itself, how does the object of desire, evolve? And that’s, I think, why it’s been a successful idea.
Richard Prum is the author of The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us out now from Doubleday books. He spoke with Grace Hamilton, PhD Candidate in Biochemistry at the University of Washington. He will be speaking about the book on Monday, June 11 at 7:30pm at the PATH Auditorium.
Our 2017–18 Inside/Out season has been a grand experiment. Last summer we handed the building keys to Rafn Construction, packed up our whole operation, and set out for an all-hands-on-deck exploration of the fundamental questions about how and why we do what we do. We set goals to meet new audiences and institutional partners, to listen and collaborate more closely with our community, and to develop a more welcoming culture for Town Hall.
We made big discoveries and fast friends—and our 44 (and counting!) neighborhood venues have shown us extraordinary hospitality. (No way to thank everyone, but this year would have been inconceivable without our partnership with Seattle University.) We learned that while a lot of our old friends miss our home as much as we do, it’s also been kind of fun to try something new and meet people in their own neighborhoods. Well, that’s a good thing, since we’ll continue Inside/Out in the fall before we come home in early 2019 to a revitalized Town Hall.
This season has been uncharted waters for us, so there’ve been a lot of ways to “get it right.” With the time we have left Inside/Out, you’ll know you’re doing it right if…
…it’s a sunny Tuesday and still you say: “what the heck? I wonder what’s on at Town Hall?”
…you attended a program because it was just down the street.
…you attended a program because you “always wanted to know what that place was like on the inside.”
…you wanted to know more so you bought the book.
…you stopped by a table afterwards to learn how to get involved.
…you introduced a friend to Town Hall.
…you introduced yourself to the person next to you.
…you stepped up to a Q&A mic and asked a question in the form of a question. (No, really: THANK YOU. That guy at Freeman Dyson’s recent talk (he knows who he is) could learn a thing or two from you…)
…you showed up with an open heart and a curious mind—or vice versa—and used Town Hall to expand your horizons, not just to ratify your beliefs.
Think about this over the summer—what did you discover about Town Hall this year? What have you always hoped we could do, or would be? What have you missed this year, and what have we gained? Please respond to the post-show survey or write me with your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for staying with us this season—we are truly grateful. We’ll see you again in September after our last (ever) summer break! (Air conditioning—now that’s a change we’ll all welcome…)
Many in the Northwest consider the orca to be our region’s unofficial mascot. But how did we come to love orcas so much in the first place? Environmental and International History Professor Jason Colbywill be joining us onJune 5(just in time for Washington’s Orca Awareness Month!) to take us on a deep dive into our society’s intricate history with killer whales. In the meantime, Colby sat down with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby to discuss all things orca—from etymology to questions about captivity to the rituals of our resident orca pods.
JC: Well, the orca is really the undisputed apex predator of the ocean. When it comes to prey, they’re specialist hunters. You’ve got so-called “transient” killer whales that focus on marine mammals: seals, sea lions, and even some smaller baleen whales. You have the salmon-eating specialists that are famous in our area and others that focus on sharks or stingrays. But everywhere in the world orcas eat what they want and nothing preys upon them.
AE: Are there any reported cases of orcas harming humans?
JC: There’s one case of a young surfer who was bitten on the leg by a killer whale, but it was probably a case of mistaken identity—the whale probably thought he was a seal or sea lion. There was also a famous Arctic expedition in the early 20th century where a photographer was on the ice and a pod of orcas approached him and started breaking the ice apart. It’s possible they were just curious. It’s possible they were investigating the expedition’s dogs, thinking they were seals or sea lions. The photographer ran across the ice and got away safely, but that account was then published all over the world. It created this perception of the killer whale as an extraordinarily dangerous and formidable predator. There were certainly stories among sealers in Seattle and Victoria of dangerous encounters with killer whales, but no documented attacks that seemed intentional.
AE: If they don’t typically harm humans, what earned them a name like “killer whale?”
JC: The origin of the name almost certainly comes from the Basque and then Spanish and Portuguese assassino de baleias, or “whale killer,” which was likely transposed in English as “killer whale.” That name would have originated among fishermen and whalers who saw orcas attacking much larger whales. If you step back to a period prior to when we saw these animals with affection and imagine what they looked like to the humans who had never seen them before—immense predators with jet-black skin and wolf-like teeth—it’s understandable that we would find them frightening. Humans have a long history of being unsettled by sharp-toothed predators. It must have been pretty easy to imagine that we could wind up on the menu.
We use the name orca now, and we’ve convinced ourselves that it sounds friendlier and more complimentary than killer whale. But the name appears in the works of many 19th and early 20th century writers from a time when we still saw orcas as dangerous. These writers knew their Latin, and dubbing the whales “orca” was meant to convey a much more frightening image. In Latin, Orcinus Orca essentially means ‘demon from the Netherworld.’
AE: That is rather evocative. But we don’t think of them that way anymore. What’s been responsible for the change in public opinion over the last few decades?
JC: Up until the early-to-mid 1960’s this was a species that was still considered a potential threat to human beings. More importantly, this was a species that was viewed as a threat to more valuable resources like salmon and seals, which were being harvested for profit. Orcas were considered a vermin species, much in the same context of wolves, bears, and cougars across North America. It wasn’t until the early to mid 1960’s when the encounters with live killer whales in captivity began to transform public opinion. Seattle is really at the heart of this story. On Pier 56 there was a private Seattle Marine Aquarium, which no longer exists today. The aquarium’s owner Ted Griffin was on a quest to befriend a killer whale.
AE: Was he one of the first ones to see orcas as intelligent creatures rather than just pests?
JC: There were others that were interested in observing them, but Griffin was the one who showed the world that they’re intelligent creatures and potentially friendly to people. Canadian fisherman up north accidentally caught a couple of killer whales in their nets, and Griffin figured out a way to build a floating cage around one of these whales and bring it down to Seattle. This hundreds-of-miles-long journey of this floating cage became front-page headline news, not just in Seattle but across the world. Griffin traveled with this whale, which had been named “Namu,” and they arrived in Seattle right before Seafair in 1965. And there was a massive celebration on the waterfront with a huge crowd gathered to welcome them.
Namu became the first whale to ever perform for people in public—and perhaps even more important is that Griffin himself became the first human being, that we know of, to swim with a killer whale. This was a revelation to people, to scientists and naturalists and writers. Most people thought that if he got in the water with this animal it would tear him apart. Instead he befriended this animal and started performing with it. This relationship, this connection between Griffin and Namu, was really transformative to the way the world saw this predator.
AE: Because killer whales became such an icon in this context of captivity, there’s a complex discussion still going on about killer whales in captivity today. What’s your perspective on killer whales in captivity?
JC: So the purpose of writing my book was to almost be a prequel to the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which was very successful in focusing people’s attention on orca captivity. But the film was successful in part because people cared so much about orcas already. My aim was to tell the story of why we cared so much about orcas in the first place.
I always like to contextualize this historically. Keeping killer whales in captivity played a critical role in transforming people’s views of this animal, but obviously the context of the 1960’s and 70’s is different from today. I think that most scientists now would say that the research that can be done on these animals in captivity has been done, so it’s hard to make the argument that we need to keep killer whales in captivity to study them. But it’s worth remembering that most of the killer whales in captivity in North America are captive-bred. I don’t say that to diminish the animal rights question. Rather, I say it to point out that what happens with animals bred in captivity doesn’t have a lot of bearing on the survival of killer whales in the wild.
I worry that the focus on the moral question of captivity takes attention away from the overarching threats to wild killer whale populations. Our region’s resident killer whales used to number around 250 and now number at 76—and they’re probably in an extinction spiral. The biggest threats to killer whales aren’t aquariums or corporations in Orlando that are keeping a few orcas in captivity. With the growing prevalence of fisheries and pipelines, even here in the Northwest, there are factors that threaten killer whales on a much larger scale.
Food scarcity is a major issue due to growth of commercial fisheries and sport fishing. We also see pollution from increased tanker traffic contaminating their habitats—and even the noise from the tankers can be damaging. Orcas are acoustic animals, and the louder our waters get the more difficulty they have hunting and communicating. So as compelling as the moral question of captivity is to us, it’s not related to these factors which I believe are a much greater threat to the species.
AE: Is there something that you wish people understood about orcas?
JC: One of the things that struck me as I studied orcas is that they are extraordinarily close-knit socially. Our resident Northwestern pods are multi-generational and matriarchal, with extraordinarily long-lived “grandmothers” who can lead their families for nearly a hundred years. Over that time these killer whale pods have developed their own traditions, memories, and itineraries of this region.
For example, take the northern resident killer whales who travel between mid Vancouver Island and southeast Alaska. When they return to northern Vancouver Island in summer they visit these beaches—”rubbing beaches,” people call them—where they take turns rubbing up against these small round rocks. Their visits to this “whale spa” have been observed for generations.
And of course the southern residents have their own rituals. Probably their most famous one is the “greeting ceremony.” The southern residents have three distinct pods: J, K, and L. When the pods come together they line up abreast a few hundred yards apart and pause for a few minutes, then suddenly bolt forward into this large frolic. It’s really fascinating to watch.
They’re remarkably sophisticated animals with their own cultures, their own rituals, their own memories. And I do wonder how they interpret the changes that we’ve imposed on their ecosystem. It’s been transformed incredibly rapidly in a short period of time, and one wonders what they make of it.