My professors were an amusing bunch

A collection of excellent or humorous things my professors have said this semester:

General chemistry: To illustrate chemical concepts, my professor liked to give examples about both prescription and recreational drugs. This would have been amusing all on its own, but her deadpan humor and the fact that she is short and middle-aged just added an extra layer of unexpected excellence.
In one example, she used heroin as an example of… I don’t remember precisely, but it had something to do with enthalpy.
At any rate, she said this: “It’s a real problem, drug dealers putting [some dangerous substance] in heroin, here in New York. I’ve given it up completely.”

Neuroscience: We had a rotating cast of professors for this class; one would come in, do a series of lectures on a subject, and then hand off the stick to someone else. The first lecturer was all right. He insisted on drawing his lectures, despite his inability to operate a pen in a manner such that the result was elucidating and comprehensible, and was a bit of a wise guy. However, in our discussion of the importance of correct potassium and sodium concentrations in, y’know, having neurons work right, he mentioned how potassium chloride, which dissociates to form potassium ions in solution, could severely upset the chemical equilibria and cause convulsions. What was excellent, though, was that he followed it up with: “This is what we use to kill each other.” Referring to lethal injections, of course. (Professors who realize that science is not divorced from ethics and actually expound on it to a degree are some of my favorites.)

Another one from neuro: Later in the semester, we had a lecture on neurological disorders, namely schizophrenia and depression. Before delving into it, our professor prefaced his lecture with a statement on how you should never bully, harass, or laugh at people with debilitating mental diseases, for the same reason you wouldn’t laugh at someone who was born without legs. It’s not their fault and you should be kind, not cruel. With the stigma that does surround mental illness in our culture, I thought this was a wonderful preface.

Genetics: The semester’s lectures were concluded with a lecture on the genetic basis of behavior, and whether or not behavior can be predicted as arising from purely genetic phenomena. Our professor made some asides during this, all of them poignant. The first was that, though there is genetic variation across human populations, 85 to 90% of it is non-geographically distributed. Which is to say, more or less, that the overwhelming majority of genetic variance in humans is unrelated to race or ethnicity. Additionally, in studies between identical twins, only about 0.5 of behavioral variation is heritable.

Toward the end of the lecture, during which he had discussed the genetic basis of behavior and various quantitative ways it has been examined, he took a moment to mention how it is dangerous to assume that behavior can be easily described by genetics (for those of you who have taken high school biology – it is not remotely Mendelian). As an example, he brought up eugenics in the early 20th century, and how the idea that genetics predicts behavior was used to justify horrific acts, such as the forced sterilization of the mentally disabled or other “societally unwanted” people.

The kicker was this: When we discussed how the reason for the inability of genetics to predict behavior was that there were simply too many interacting genes, the professor made an aside to say that he was glad that there were many genes that affected behavior, because it’ll be much harder to use them to underscore arguments about who should be putting whom in jail.



On Hunting

I am trying to understand an ethical/psychological perspective. The perspective is hunting for sport, and I am finding it troubling and challenging to comprehend.

Hunting for practical reasons, such as food acquisition, profit, or population control is not what I’m interested in discussing here, as this is not my argument, and these are fairly solid stances.  What I find troubling, and what I want to discuss, is hunting for enjoyment.

I did not grow up in the atmosphere of hunting, either. My family doesn’t hunt, and I have somehow managed to eschew a good portion of the culture I’ve been around. However, in the area where I come from, hunting is a very acceptable pastime. Many families own guns, and kids learn to use them relatively early in life. Many people go on hunting trips, or even shoot around in their back yard. Having pictures of oneself posing with dead deer is pretty standard, as is coming to school wearing camouflage. There is nearly no stigma involved. There is some slight disdain for such actions from the slightly less backwoods residents of the town, but no real dialogue about it. When I was younger (in my extreme animal-loving phase around fifth grade that every little girl seems to go through), I was very strongly against it, but since then my opinion had waned to uneasy disregard.

However, I have been aware of its presence, especially since I’ve been considering the ethics of killing animals (another subject I’m pondering, but this is not the topic of discussion currently at table). I do eat meat, which I had grudgingly accepted as a moral equivalent, but for some reason my gut feeling on hunting was different. Surely it was hypocritical of me to eat animals, but condemn killing them?

However, as I’ve said, the topic is not the actual act of killing them. What I’ve come to elucidate is that it is not so much the actual killing of animals that so perturbs me. It’s the enjoyment of it.

I asked a friend if she could try to explain it to me. Her father hunts for sport, and though she herself does not, she is far less instinctively critical of it than I am. I asked her, what is so enjoyable about hunting? Her response was, paraphrased of course, that it has a lot to do with the thrill of the chase and the hunt, and using your cunning to outwit the animal and triumph.

Part of me wants to reply, “Oh, yes, so much fun. What a real challenge that is, you with your superior intellect, technology, and deer stand. Yeah, it was a struggle to outsmart that deer, because everyone knows how intelligent deer are. What cunning you have.” Which, though sarcastic, is a valid point. Of course you’ll get the freaking deer. Yes, I know, there is a degree of challenge to it, but at the end of the day, you’re still the one with the range weapon and the prefrontal cortex.

On the other hand, though, I do see how that could be enjoyable. It’s a little survival fantasy. You get a shot of adrenaline and a sense of power and wit, and you’re catching something that has evolved a multitude of defenses to prevent you from doing exactly what you’re doing – killing it. I can see how that might be enjoyable. In some ways, it reminds me of laser tag. There’s an air of danger, of hunting, of outsmarting your opponent through tactics and vantage, combining with an elevated heart rate and darkness.

I also don’t like laser tag.

I think the part that I really find perturbing is that both of these activities require a certain distancing from empathy. Laser tag requires you, for a few minutes, to not to see your friends as friends, but as opponents, as the enemy in a war. Hunting requires you, for a few hours, to see the deer not as a deer, not as an animal that is not so different from the dog at your side, but as game, as a target on legs. It is precisely this desensitization that disturbs me so, because to enjoy it, you have to push your empathy aside.

I obviously have no moral issue with laser tag, because it is a game that is mutually agreed upon by the participants and no one is getting hurt, though I may choose not to partake in playing. The morals of hunting are less evident, because entities are being hurt and killed – and stuffed and hung on the wall. The other day I remarked on Facebook that it was funny how it was okay to hang a deer skull on the wall, but very weird and morbid to mount a human skull. It was mostly a joke, but I was turning over this issue then, too, and I think it is actually a distinction worth examining. Why is hanging a deer on the wall so much less of a problem? You’re still crowing over dead things, showing off your manliness as a function of things you’ve killed.

A frequently cited story (of uncertain historical origin) is that of how some Native Americans used to say a prayer or apology or thanks over every animal they killed, thanking it for its gift of life that would help them survive. I like this idea. Not because the deer can hear the thanks, or because it cares. It’s dead, and doesn’t speak English. However, I think this is a wise tradition for the sake of the hunter. So they do not forget that what they are getting a thrill from has a cost, and so they do not take the desensitization of hunting into other areas of their lives.


These are my thoughts on the topic. If anyone has an explanation, a defense, a justification, or even just a comment or reaction, I am very interested in hearing more on the subject. I do not think I have researched and examined the topic quite thoroughly enough to have too solid of a stance (and I avoid being uncompromising in the face of valid evidence). And at any rate, I am interested in hearing what people think.

[Note: I am also trying very hard not to make moral judgments based upon whether or not one enjoys hunting. I am merely trying to explain my feelings on the subject, and that maybe people have not thoroughly examined their own mind and actions enough. I am certainly not calling hunters bad people. ]