Sunday, August 24, 2014


I grew up in the 1930s and 1940s in New York City. My ideas of race were influenced by the movies I saw, the radio programs I heard, and the conversations on the city streets where I lived. I think of the Marx Brothers as they formed a type of conga line with African Americans (then called negroes) in Cocoanuts. I think of Al Jolson, in blackface, on his bended knee singing Mammy.  I think of Amos and Andy and their comic characters (whites playing blacks on radio, but black actors in the 1950s when it shifted to television).  I also think of Jack Benny’s sidekick valet, Rochester [Eddie Anderson], and their comedy routines. I think of the song lyrics “Pardon me boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo-choo?  Track 29.  ‘yes, sir’  … then, boy, you can give me a shine.”   Offsetting this I recall two black friends, one when we lived in the Bronx near Brook Avenue and I was in third grade who taught me how to make a ring from a peach pit. The other was a classmate in junior high school whose father was a movie house film projectionist and whose house I visited in Brooklyn. But by far the most influential experience I had on who African Americans were came when I walked into the freshman English class at NYU.  My teacher was Charles Davis (then Mr. because he was still working on his PhD).  He was brilliant and took an interest in his students and read their essays aloud to the class with the same analysis as the short stories and published essays we had as homework to read.  Later he would take me to coffee at a nearby Chuck full o’ Nuts and ask me about my progress.  When I thought of switching from Biology to English he talked me out of it because he said the books I was reading showed my love for science.  Davis later became the first black professor at Princeton and the founding director of the Black Studies program at Yale. I learned from him the importance of mentoring students and I frequently took students to lunch to teach them generosity as he did for me.

There is an erratic zigzag path to finding our “better natures.”  The abolitionist movement before the Civil War was supported by many white intellectuals, ministers, and men and women of conscience. The Civil rights movement had numerous white supporters of a movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr who spoke to the moral sensibilities of white people.  The Supreme Court set aside prejudicial laws and the federal government took an active role in enforcing civil rights in the old segregationist south. Despite these victories, discrimination in housing and social discrimination lagged behind.  We also liked to believe that electing an African American as President was the last nail in the coffin of segregation and racial prejudice. The response to the deaths of young black men seen as “uppity,” confrontational, or potentially murderous has led to tragedy with largely unarmed men in their teens being shot in a country that still has too many citizens who believe in shoot first, ask questions later, for perceived threats.  Despite these setbacks generating self-doubts about our progress, we need to remind ourselves that there has been progress and there will be progress as we learn to accept our diversity as a nation and see our nation as one that fosters the liberty and equality of opportunity that motivated so many of those who framed our founding documents as a nation. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Identiying our ancestry can be far from simple

My father was born in 1901 in Stockholm his ancestors, maternal and paternal, came from southwest or southeast Sweden.  My Swedish grandmother was born near Goteborg but spent part of her youth in Normandy in France, where she met her future husband who was visiting from a trip to Germany. I can say in good conscience that paternally I come from Swedish ancestry but I can’t claim any French ancestry.
My mother was born in 1893 in Bound Brook, New Jersey, so that makes her American.  Her parents came to the US as immigrants from Tarnapol, then a city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the US census records for 1900 my maternal grandparents are listed as “Austrian.”  After World War I the region that includes Tarnapol was given to Poland, so as a youth I thought first that they were Polish. In 1939, however, Tarnapol was carved out of Poland and given to the USSR so Tarnapol became Russian.  When the USSR collapsed in 1988 Tarnapol  became a part of Ukraine, a country now independent of Russia.  This might seem just a question for map-makers to settle, but it had profound implications for many Americans.
My mother was married twice.  Her first was in an arranged marriage, as was the custom of Orthodox Jews, and the husband her father selected was an immigrant from Chernobyl.  As was the legal policy at that time in US immigration law, my mother became the property of her husband and thus she was a subject of Russia.  She did not know this until she tried to register to vote for Roosevelt in 1940. My brother and I went with her to be re-naturalized as an American in downtown Manhattan.

I could describe my ancestry on my mother’s side as Austrian, Polish, Russian, or Ukrainian.  Most Jews (especially the Orthodox and Conservative branches of Judaism) identify Jewishness as a maternally transmitted trait so they would consider me Jewish.  But Swedes would not consider me Lutheran, the faith my father had until he was about 10 when he became an atheist and his mother converted to Roman Catholicism.

I much enjoy my melting-pot heritage.  It is very American and in the years when I taught genetics and biology, I sometimes had my classes prepare pedigrees of their parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  Along with those connections, I asked for their ancestry.  Most of those who have been in the US for 3 or more generations are melting-pot mixtures who have both ethnic and racial mixtures.  The farther back one goes, the more this becomes a reality because of the migratory history of Americans from coast to coast. Oh yes, when asked about where my mother’s ancestors came from,  I now say “Tarnapol; it’s now in Ukraine.”  Unless, of course, I go into Ancient Mariner mode, and tell them this more detailed story.

When you hear the word "evolution" does "neotony" come to mind?

How many ways can we make a home?  I remember as a child walking through the corridors of the American Museum of Natural History and gawking at the many dioramas which combined realistic painting with artifacts or copies of natural and prehistoric settings.  I saw homes of our ancestors built from mammoth tusks in Siberia.  I saw tepees with animal skin wrapped around a cone of trimmed saplings.  I saw igloos built from blocks of ice or compact snow.  Outside the museum I saw the swank apartments of those who lived on Central Park West and imagined the view of Central Park they enjoyed.  I contrasted that with our own Brooklyn cold water flat with a coal stove in the kitchen.  In books I saw castles and mansions that housed the privileged and log cabins that Presidential candidates promoted as their identification with the underprivileged voter or common man.
In a similar way there are many mechanisms by which evolution occurs.  There is natural selection in which adaptive traits survive, thus providing the genetic basis for them that enters a new generation and this in turn changes the gene frequency of the population.  There is the “founder effect” in which a small number of individuals enter a new niche and reproduces rapidly in large numbers to create a population that differs in appearance from its original source.  There are hybrids that undergo a doubling of chromosome number and thus establish a new self-reproducing species. There are developmental mutations that can multiply body parts or organs like wings, limbs, or eyes.  There are other developmental mutations that place organs in different parts of the body producing new variations in a species.  One of my favorites is a process called neotony in which juvenile or embryonic features are carried into adult stages.  In the 1920s such neotonous species were found in salamanders in caves, the fertile adults sporting gills which are normally absorbed in the related species living outside the caves. 

We humans have a neotonous origin from out primate ancestors because we have prolonged child-raising period compared to other primates which are sexually mature and functionally adult in fewer years.  The most recently studied neotonous organisms are the birds that had a dinosaur-like ancestry.  They miniaturized as they shifted from living on land to living in trees and then to the skies as they developed wings for flight.  Their eyes are larger (like an embryo’s) in proportion to their bodies.  We do not reflect as much as we should on these neotonous traits in the evolutionary process, and most of the debates about Creationism and Intelligent design are waged over natural selection which is only one of many ways evolution works. 

"Vain Hopes I gave to Man"

In Aeschylus’s play Prometheus Bound, Prometheus is chained to a rock, his liver devoured daily by an eagle but it regenerates each night. One of his comforters asks him why he was punished by Zeus.  Prometheus explains how he felt sorry for the plight of humans and taught them to make fire so they could keep warm, cook food, and build a civilization.  This angered Zeus and Prometheus was now paying the consequences for his good deed. In one of his darkest moments as he reflected on some of the bad outcomes of his gift to man, he said “Vain hopes I gave to man.”

Idealists imagine that the benefits of their voluntary participation or support will be realized.  In World War I someone coined the phrase that this was “the war to end all wars.”  Among the abolitionists before the Civil War were many ministers who believed that education, preaching, and popular opinion would lead slave owners to voluntarily give up their slaves.  We have had a “war on cancer” for some 40 years without that hoped for victory.  We have had a war on poverty for 50 years and the gap between the poor and the very rich has increased rather than diminish.

There are some victories along the way.  The suffrage movement did lead to a vote for women.  The Civil War did end legal slavery.  The child labor laws did protect children from hazardous work.  Public health laws did provide compulsory immunization against infectious diseases.  The Food and Drug Administration does protect consumers from contaminated or toxic foods and medicines.  It is not as perfect as idealists wished, but certainly it is far superior than doing nothing.

              Pessimists will see the failures and optimists will cite the victories.  Those who lived through triumphs and disappointments will realize that our “vain hopes” are still worth cherishing. 

What makes a happy marriage?

Nedra and I attended our daughter’s wedding on the beach at the Fort Pierce, Florida, state park.  It was a lovely setting and I was asked to give a blessing to Erica and her husband, Dwayne Morrell.  It was a second marriage for both.  I too had experienced a failed first marriage but with Nedra it has been 55 years of happy marriage and it is still a pleasure to be together. I decided to share what makes a happy marriage and I told the newly wedded Mr. and Mrs. Dwayne and Erica Morrell that is what we learned in our 55 years of being Mr. and Mrs. Elof and Nedra Carlson:

1.       Know that you have common interests that drew you together and let these be a permanent bond you share and enjoy.
2.       Recognize that you also have different interests and learn to respect these because no two people should or can think and experience life alike.  The world is filled with the ideas and contributions of billions of others and we can often learn from those differences.
3.       Learn to sort out the household activities.  I pay the bills; Nedra does the cleaning of laundry and the rooms. We both take turns cooking and shopping. In times of need we pinch hit.
4.       Help other people.  We both find satisfaction and meaning in life when we help causes we believe in and individuals in need.
5.       Appreciate each other’s talents and skills and cheer for each other’s successes.  Encourage each other for your failures or struggles.
6.       Learn to sublimate your discontents and turn disappointments into creative acts and works that benefit others.
7.       Be each other’s confidante and don’t be afraid to express what dispirits you and what your innermost hopes and fears are.

Nedra and I differ in our experiences and talents but we share many of the values expressed in these guidelines.  I admire her gifts in sewing, especially quilt-making. She admires my capacity to write almost effortlessly.  We both love the life sciences with her direction leading to a career in in vitro fertilization and mine leading to a career as a geneticist.  We both have a capacity to be flexible.  I am less secure than Nedra in social settings. Nedra is less secure than I when asked to give a talk in front of an audience.  We still hold hands and tell each other “I love you.”