Sunday, December 15, 2019

More to Spit than just Drool

                                                                                         Photo by Matt Rogers
I am honored by the great reviews coming in for my new book, SPIT: What's Cool About Drool.
School Library Journal calls it "Well researched and intriguing, the book delves into the scientists who studied saliva, examines current research about what spit can tell us about our ancestors and how it can help diagnose illnesses, and relays impressive tales of how other animals use their spit to communicate, defend themselves, or spread disease. The combination of full-color photographs, humorous cartoons, short chapters, and a disgustingly fun topic will especially appeal to reluctant readers."

From the Canadian Review of Materials: "This drool-worthy nonfiction book rigorously defends the intriguing thesis that spit “is actually the unsung hero of our time – or at least of our mouths.” Early chapters outline the important jobs spit (“or slobber, drool, saliva or whatever you like to call it”) perform in the human body, from helping to speak to aiding in digestion. The healing and life-saving properties of spit are explained in the “Spit for Your Health” section that delves into saliva screenings used for hepatitis C and HIV detection. Other chapters explore creatures, like snakes, llamas, and the slow loris (the only venomous primate), who wield their spit like a deadly weapon."

Kirkus says: "Along with dipping into the biota and biology of spit, venom, and related substances, the author introduces relevant scientists and others, from Ivan Pavlov to baseball spitballer Elwin Charles “Preacher” Roe, as well as a host of animal spitters, including snakes, mosquitoes (“the only creatures that can suck and spit at the same time”), and venomous shrews. Saliva’s roles in both healing and in spreading disease also come in for look overs, and a final chapter gathers up competitive spitting events involving not just watermelon seeds, but also crickets and kudu poop." 

As a child I was disgusted by an uncle who chewed tobacco and was constantly spitting into a brass spittoon next to his chair. I knew from observing him and watching baseball games that men especially like to spit. The more I looked into the subject, the more fascinated I became with the antibiotic, antifungal and antiviral properties of spit.

Dentists have been pioneers in the study of saliva. Spit tests can tell whether you're more likely to develop cavities. They can also tell if people and other mammals are suffering from stress. Zookeepers and vets use spit tests to check the health of animals, including dogs, elephants and gorillas. Some coaches use spit tests to tell whether certain elite athletes are stressed from over-exercising, which might impair their immune systems. Spit tests can replace some blood tests.

Animals and insects use spit in all sorts of ways, such as keeping blood from clotting to using it as a weapon.

Attitudes toward spit differ from culture to culture. In the United States, men spat wherever and whenever they wished, including offices, churches, even the halls of Congress. After 1896 when New York passed the first spitting ban, spittoons were as common as trashcans in bars, banks, offices and other public places. Not all states banned public spitting. It was women who called for an end to the habit. Some men protested the ban as an assault on their "right to spit." Each Supreme Court justice had his (only men were on the court at that time) personal cuspidor behind the bench, but they are now used as wastebaskets.

People like to spit so much that they spit for sport in a variety of contests with watermelon seeds, pumpkin seeds, olive pits, date pits, cherry pits, and even crickets. The most unappetizing contests involve spitting antelope and sheep poop.

Whatever your attitude toward spit, be happy if you can drool. In private, of course.

SPIT is available from your local bookstore or from

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Brainless as Beetles

I originally wrote this essay in 2012. It was published in The Smithfield Times and on my blog March 27, 2012. But it's time to update it and publish it again. I am incensed that a bunch of primarily old white Republican men are continuing to use government to control women's bodies. Every woman and every decent, enlightened man in the U.S. should share my outrage and commit to doing everything they can to kick these men--and sadly a few women--out of Congress and state legislatures. With every legislative snip of women's constitutional reproductive rights, these men are taking our country backwards into a pre-scientific era when both women and men lived at the mercy of their gonads.
Above is a beetle. Beetles and other insects do everything they can to subvert female choice. Men who criminalize reproductive choice, as the Alabama legislature just did a few weeks ago, are no better than male bugs. What pathetic specimens they are, their manhood so fragile, they need to subjugate women in order to feel like big men!

It’s easy to understand these misogynist Republican men if you view them in the context of the animal kingdom. Males, from fruit flies to men, have an anatomical limitation. They cannot produce eggs, and if they’re mammals like us, they cannot get pregnant or give birth. This biological limitation drives some men crazy. Their only contribution to reproduction is sperm. And sperm must leave a male’s body in order to fertilize an egg. Bye, bye! In the act of mating, males lose control of their most precious biological product, their sperm. Once sperm leave a male’s body, they are under the control of the female. She can eject them, kill them, block them or allow them to fertilize her eggs. Females are scary creatures!

Among waterfowl, where rape is common, females have evolved vaginas with dead-end sacs, a kind of internal burial ground for an unwanted male’s sperm.

The only way males can try to control their sperm investment is by controlling the recipients—females! And males—insects to humans—do anything and everything they can to exert control and subvert female choice. (Of course there are many wonderful liberated men who think with their brains instead of the instrument below their belt, but those who want to make women’s bodies property of the state are as backward as slime molds.)

Subversion tactics are seen most clearly in insects. Female insects mate with several males and store sperm in their sperm-storage chamber. Scientists have discovered that female choice goes on internally in the female’s reproductive tract. It is within the changing climate of this internal environment that hidden or “cryptic” female choice takes place, perhaps at the level of the ovum itself, in determining which sperm of which male, if any, will be allowed to penetrate the egg’s membrane to achieve fertilization. Such internal female choice may be going on in women, too! Oh, mercy! Sex for men is fraught with peril.

So males across species engage in sperm competition and mate guarding to ensure that only their sperm fertilize their mate’s eggs and sire her offspring. Among insects, some bizarre tactics for ensuring confidence of paternity have evolved. One tactic is the copulatory plug, a gluey substance secreted by the male to block the female’s genital opening, preventing a rival’s sperm from getting inside. The male damselfly has a kind of scooper on the end of his penis that he uses to scoop out previously deposited sperm before mating with a female. Some male fruit flies inject toxic semen, which thwarts rivals but also hastens the female’s death.

Men don’t use genital glue or sperm scoopers but they do use religion, laws and politics to achieve the same end – controlling women’s reproductive biology. The use of mutilating genital surgery in some 28 countries of Africa and the Middle East wounds about three million young girls every year.

The current profusion of ultrasound and “personhood” bills passed by Republican male legislators across the U.S. are the human equivalent of insects’ copulatory plugs. These men are probably no more aware they are acting out such a primitive biological scenario than are male insects. They are caught up in a form of mass hysteria reminiscent of medieval witch hunts and persecution of women. Indeed, the attempt to vilify Planned Parenthood is similar to medieval persecution of women who gave advice on preventing births. Some self-righteous men have recently called for jailing women who get abortions. Some sickos would jail women who miscarry. Some call for banning birth control!

If the current misogynist movement led by Republican men, including the current president, were not so dangerous and harmful to women and our entire society, it would make an interesting anthropological field study. It’s unprecedented in U.S. history, to see males, primarily in one major political party, using the legal process and available medical technology to turn back the clock, prevent access to, and even ban medical advances that benefit men as well as women. Yes, there are some women who still accept patriarchy. But would they if they understood that from a biological perspective, these men are acting as brainless as beetles? With this difference: Male insects are out to protect their individual sperm investment, and they have no choice in the matter. Their reproductive behavior is genetically hard-wired. Humans have choices. This makes it all the more astounding that the male fanatics are turning their backs on centuries of scientific and social advances and espousing the most primitive level of the human species’ animal nature. The anti-choice movement is functioning as a mass sperm protection society, with Republican men like the self-righteous gang who dominate Alabama’s senate, Catholic bishops and sniveling evangelical pastors clamoring to protect any man’s sperm investment by preventing women from exercising reproductive choice.

Science literacy reveals the ridiculousness and primitiveness of the current wave of misogyny. Not surprisingly, this gang is also anti-science. Facts just get in the way of their hateful anti-woman campaign. The fact that this extremist movement appeals to so many people demonstrates the urgent need for improving science education before America becomes the most socially backward country in the Western world. We’re already on our way.

Want to read more? Check out my book: Sexual Strategies: How Females Choose Their Mates