Saturday, March 24, 2007

Unrestrictive Coloration

I came home to find my husband engrossed in sorting a four-pound bag of miniature jelly beans by color into rows of lined-up Dixie cups. My husband is not a persnickety eater – had the jelly beans been for eating, he would have been tossing them down his gullet in diverse handfuls, not meticulously segregating them. Sixteen months ago, his behavior would have alarmed me. I would have looked worriedly into his eyes and asked him questions like “Who’s the president of the United States?” and “What day is it?” and “What’s our address?” to assure myself that he hadn’t lost his marbles. But over the last 16 months I’ve learned to consider behavior like this completely normal. There was the episode involving raw liver, raw potatoes, our blender, and lots of small plastic containers. There was the origami fest of paper helicopters with various wingspans dropped from a chair, a stepladder and our second floor loft. There were little bolts or washers or whatever those things are called strung on thin rope amid animated talk of pendulums.

So instead of panicking when I saw my highly educated 52-year-old husband carefully sorting a huge pile of tiny jelly beans into ranks of Dixie cups, I calmly joked that the lab must be about miscegenation or perhaps racial profiling. He grinned, then excitedly explained that it was about protective coloration and biological diversity. The plain jelly beans are standing in for food (sensibly enough) and the speckled jelly beans represent poison in a complicated three-round experiment with ever-scarcer and more camouflaged food supplies as the rounds progress.
From what I could glean from the explanation, the planning and matériel for this experiment rival those of the Red Army for the Battle of Berlin. There were apparently a few ultra-tense moments at the plant nursery this morning as the commandant considered both red cedar bark and pine cat litter for the base, but, he informed me without a shred of irony, he resolved the controversy in favor of red cedar bark because it smelled better.

Sixteen months ago, my husband started teaching biology at a nearby state college. It’s been a little like living with Mr. Science ever since, but he couldn’t be happier and I have to say I’ve learned more than I ever did in high school (the last time I had anything to do with biology from an instructional standpoint). There seems to be a non-scientific lesson
inherent in all this, too, which is that you can't make assumptions about people based on externals. It doesn’t stand to reason that a man with an undergraduate degree from Yale, an M.D. from the University of Chicago, and 25 years of practicing medicine under his belt could so exuberantly sort jelly beans. Similarly, it seems unlikely that someone so taken with the jelly bean enterprise could have such blue-chip credentials. But both are absolutely true.

1 comment:

walkermd said...

Wonderful article. He is researching the world (and his mind). I did some similar things some time ago which make both the world and my thoughts clearer for me. Whitetail deer live with a prejeduce toward wolves. They do not stop to consider that an individual wolf my be "different" and hold to threat to them. Instead, they reliably run and alert all of their peers in the process. Captured deer develop a tolerence and sometimes even some degree of affection for dogs; they develop a new predjudice. For deer in the wild, predjudice and "racial profiling" serve them well. These attitudes represent a safe default stance as they consider the world. It can be modified, but this change is not without risk. We do the same. It is not only a rational, but is an essential first response to the world. We generalize. We form first impressions. They enhance our ability to survive. Can they be altered? Of course, but we should do so with caution. As a child our family was visited by a young whitetail who make the rounds each morning, stopping to knock at each door for a taste of pancakes and waffles. When hunting season began "Bambi" left the world to travel on the hood of a hunter's car. She transcended eons of evolution and her predjudices to do the "politically correct" thing and payed with her life. The world is cruel and illogical. Doing a body search of an elderly Swedish lady at the airport, while overlooking dark-skinned young men who resemble wolves for the sake of the "politically correct" or to avoid what may appear to be "racial profiling" will not work well for the animal kingdom. It will serve us no better.