Species-Saving Sex

Don’t look now, but the history of homo sapiens — and of human-like creatures on planet Earth — is getting progressively weirder and more titillating.

article-2029559-0d8dcb7300000578-310_1024x615_largeScientists conducting studies of human genes are learning lots of interesting information about the development of our species.  One of the more provocative findings is that our genetic information indicates that there were multiple instances of significant homo sapien interbreeding with other human-like species — specifically, the Neanderthals, and a mysterious, largely unknown species called the Denisovans —  that left indelible marks in the DNA of modern humans.  And it also appears that the cross-breeding provided us with some useful genetic material, including genes that enhanced the operation of the human immune system and helped our ancestors fight off pathogens.

Not much is known about human history before the dawn of civilization.  Most of what we understand comes from looking at fossils of human ancestors and attempting to piece together the gnarled branches of the human family tree.  Human genetic analysis provides a different kind of window to the past of our species.  It’s now obvious that the early days of the human species saw our ancestors competing with — and apparently having lots of sex with — other hominid species.  We couldn’t have been too much different from them, because the genome evidence means that when humans had sex with Neanderthals and those enigmatic Denisovans, their one-night stands produced pregnancies and non-sterile offspring that, in turn, shared their genes through mating.  All of that cross-breeding among different species helped to make humans what they are today.

We might never learn what happened to the Neanderthals, or the enigmatic Denisovans, and why they died out while humans survived and became the dominant species on the planet.  What we can now say with some confidence is that human ancestors apparently were as interested in sex as modern humans are, and weren’t particularly troubled about who — or what species — they were having sex with, either.

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College Visits

One of my friends from work is on the road, doing some college visits with his daughters.  They’re on the upper eastern swing, looking at schools in Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, and probably a few extra places added in.

I never did any college visits when I was a kid.  I knew that Ohio State had a good journalism program and I was interested in journalism, I knew it wasn’t expensive, I knew I could get in, and I was a fan of the football team.  It was an easy, if not particularly informed, decision.  And it worked out pretty well, because that’s where I met Kish and I got a pretty good, reasonably priced college education to boot.

vassar-libraryBut sometime between the early ’70s and, say, 2000, the world changed dramatically.  Perhaps because of the U.S. News and World Report rankings of the “best” colleges, or because there seems to be more information available now, or because high schools are far more focused on student placement — or because parents are much more competitive about their kids’ college destinations — the college decision has become a super big deal.  College visits are now an expected part of the selection ritual, and Kish and I accordingly went on our share of them with Richard and Russell.

My friend reports that he is enjoying his trip, and I enjoyed them, too.  I think parents inevitably do.  Why not?  You are visiting idyllic green quads filled with old trees and young students, touring beautiful old buildings and libraries, walking past pillars and under stone archways, and listening to student tour guides tell you about the campus traditions — all of which end up being pretty similar.  The visits fall into a kind of rhythm, with breakfast and a drive to campus in the morning, a guided tour followed by an information session, then lunch and a drive to the next nearby campus to do the whole thing again.  You get to spend lots of quality time with your kids, trying to talk about an important decision they will be making and sharing some funny incidents.  The student tour guide who had a clothing malfunction on Richard’s visit to Brown University, and the “Buddy incident” when Russell first visited Vassar, have become part of Webner family lore.

I don’t think it’s as much fun for most kids, though.  They’d probably rather be hanging out with their friends than their parents, and I’m sure the school choices seem overwhelming.  Kids fall back on first impressions and gut instinct — whether it’s sunny or raining, and whether students are friendly or distracted, seems to dictate a lot of the decision-making process — and often seem to just want to get the whole thing over with.

I think college visits are important, but I think parents have to guard against making them into high-pressure events.  It’s one area where the perfect definitely can be the enemy of the good.  The goal shouldn’t be to find the “perfect” school; instead, the visits are a good way to show that there are lots of good schools out there that offer the kinds of options that fit with the kid’s interests and that would be good places to spend four years.  I think that’s a healthier message than endlessly debating whether one school is marginally better than another in the quest for the transcendent college experience.