Showing posts with label development. Show all posts
Showing posts with label development. Show all posts

Thursday, January 05, 2012

A, alligators all around


They say that the distance in inches between an alligator's eyes and its nostrils is equal to the length of the whole animal in feet. This behemoth hangs out by the fishing dock in Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge feeding on discarded bait fish and who knows what else. My best guess is 14 inches nose to eyes, which would make it not unheard-of big but certainly exciting-to-canoe-past big.

It is amazing to think such an invulnerable top predator (at least within the refuge) started out nearby as a scared little snack for herons like this:

Friday, July 22, 2011

37 weeks

It is an obvious yet remarkable fact that a fetus, near the end of pregnancy, could as easily be a newborn baby. Whether through natural birth or c-section, removing the full term fetus from the mother is all that is necessary to transform it into a baby. One remarkable thing about this is that a baby is an air-breathing animal much like any other, and a fetus does all its gas exchange through a tube attached to its circulatory system through its belly button. I can’t easily imagine keeping a tortoise alive by sticking a tube into its belly, nor do I imagine one would have much luck doing so with an adult human, or even a child. But somehow it works for the fetus.

Another thing that is striking about the fetus being a nearly complete baby is that it is a nearly complete baby entirely inside the belly of the mother, upside-down, often with its head inside her pelvis. I don’t know about you, but I could not function for very long with a nearly full sized baby inside me and a skull in the middle of my pelvis. I think I wouldn’t last five minutes, but apparently this situation can go for weeks with little danger, and bearable discomfort, to possessor of either pelvis or skull.

A tremendous amount is now known about ontogenesis, the process by which a single egg grows and develops into a whole person. We have studied it on the scale of molecules, cells, tissues, organs and whole individuals and from the perspectives of physiology, genetics and evolution. There are still vast areas we know almost nothing about, but we can largely reject the hypothesis that there is magic involved. Never the less, things can feel like magic even when reason rejects it. This whole process, of self-directed growth of a single cell into a person, makes it easy to understand why spirits, gods and humunculi are so often invoked.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Science-based do-gooding.

Last month as we drove up to her mom's house, Iris and I were talking about what sorts of non-profits we think really use their money well, in terms of achieving a lot of good with relatively little money. I said that the ones that usually impressed me were those very focused on a single type of action that did that one thing extremely well, rather than trying to save the whales and reduce teen pregnancy and sue the manufacturers and put out a great picture book of homeless homosexual redwood trees. Iris asked what kind of action I had in mind, and I said that ultimately, the step that seems to do the most good for the least expense is educating girls in poor countries where girls don't traditionally get educations. The list of things one can accomplish by educating girls is truly amazing. The level of education of the females in a country is the single best predictor of longevity increases, decrease in infant and juvenile mortality, decrease in rate of population growth, decrease in rate of infectious disease, increase in future education of both boys and girls and so on and so on. It is more important than how rich a country it is, how many doctors it has, the religious practices of the population or how well educated the men are. There are decades of studies comparing between nations, between regions, between villages and between individual families, and at every level having better educated women around translates into a healthier, more stable and less quickly increasing population. And the greatest gains in all these outcomes come from the first steps in educating the women. Whether women have a masters or a PhD doesn't affect the chance of their babies dying much. Whether they finished third grade or had no school at all has an enormous impact. Every additional year of schooling is helpful, but less so than the previous year.

When I read these studies, I feel like we shouldn't be spending development money on anything but educating girls. I feel like we've known about the development wonder drug for decades (and unlike most wonder-drugs, this one actually works) but haven't bothered to use it. Iris pointed out that in many countries, such as Niger, where she was a Peace Corps volunteer, there are cultural sensitivities that would keep a westerner from marching in and educating girls. The education of boys is considered more important, and many boys don't get educated for lack of funding. Post-colonial resentments exist, and must be treated carefully. Iris argued that if an organization wanted to educated Niger's girls, its organizers would have to have the kinds of insights and sensitivities to Niger's culture that only Nigeriens have. She lamented the fact that there was no such organization in Niger.

Imagine then our surprise and delight when (less than a week later) Iris found out that some of her Nigerien contacts were founding an organization to promote and fund the education of Nigerien girls. If we were superstitious people, we could draw all sorts of conclusions from the coincidence. Instead, we have offered to do what we can to help them get up and running. They don't yet have anything more official than a possible name and a board of directors. They aren't even taking donations yet (they still have to apply for tax-exempt status). Iris has been contacting her Peace Corps friends who have particular useful expertise, and I've been unwisely taking time away from my thesis to gather up and summarize the published research on the benefits of educating women. Perhaps it is naive, but I can't help but think that it would be useful to have a well documented statement on the benefits of educating girls to show to potential donors and government types. We expect to be helpful to them however we can. If they are able to do what they want to do, Niger (currently one of the world's poorest and worst educated nations) should be an amazing success story in a decade or two.