If you really want to understand the embryonic stem-cell research debate, here's a reading assignment: Stephen Hall's 2003 book Merchants of Immortality. I flipped back to Hall when the stem-cell issue flared up two weeks ago, and President George W. Bush was seen posing with a curious array of children who had been "adopted" as leftover in vitro fertilization embryos, implanted in wombs, and brought to term thanks to the work of a group called Nightlight Christian Adoptions and its "Snowflakes" program.
Standing atop the levee that protects Metairie, Louisiana, a satellite of New Orleans, from Lake Pontchartrain to the north, everything seems normal at first. But scanning your eyes across the horizon -- as I did last November, when I visited my hometown for Thanksgiving -- you suddenly glimpse the city's startling vulnerability. It's simply a question of elevation: On one side of the levee, the lake's water level comes up much higher than the foundations and baseboards of the nearby homes on the other side. Only the most expensive houses, those sporting third-story crow's nests, have rooftops that clear the levee's height.
Newspapers and TV chat shows have been buzzing lately with news of the latest "controversy" in Kansas, over evolution and "intelligent design." Analogies to the famous Scopes trial of 1925 have been rampant, despite the seemingly obvious fact that in Kansas there is no trial. Rather, a series of trial-like hearings have been engineered by the creationist majority on the state's board of education, which aims to create the semblance of a "controversy" over evolution to justify changes to state educational standards. No controversy exists, however, in the forum where scientific debates are properly hosted and refereed: scientific publications. Accordingly, the scientific community has boycotted the hearings.
Once or twice each year in my little corner of Washington, D.C. (the hotel-crowd-oriented Woodley Park area), I encounter our friendly neighborhood pileated woodpecker. He's hard to miss, being crow-sized where other woodpeckers don't grow much bigger than robins. When he flies, often crossing the Taft Bridge to get from one part of Rock Creek Park to the other, he seems to sink a few feet in the air after each wing flap, only to bounce back up again with the next one. He has a bright red head, just like Woody Woodpecker, the only known pileated woodpecker celebrity.