Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

7Jul/09Off

Mostly Expected Rhetoric from a Discovery Channel Exec

For those of you who don't know, David (WhySharksMatter) over at Southern Fried Science managed to snag an interview with Paul Gasek, Discovery Channel Executive.

David, as his handle implies, is all about sharks and shark conservation - in fact it seems he's been making quite a name for himself in sharkworld. Well, David, as well as many others interested in shark conservation (or even ocean conservation/health) have some issues with the way the DC's Shark Week continues to peddle fear of sharks. I've been personally pretty sick with most nature documentaries these days - catering to the 10 most deadliest this, or the Worst Disease You Can Get From that, or the Freakiest X, or the fear, fear, fear, etc...

David, based on many submissions from his readers, assembled quite an impressive list of questions (pulling no punches, I might add). I highly recommend you check out Paul's answers as it makes quite an interesting read. That being said, the answers were pretty much exactly what you'd expect from the exec of such a huge business as the Discovery Channel - and not all that impressive.

As I stated in the comments over there - it's all a bit moot to me, as I think the Discovery Channel bankrupted the "Discovery" in its name ages ago. Really - just look at the schedule on any given day. How much "discovery" do you see?

Edit: If you think this is a harsh assessment - keep in mind the titles of the first few shows for Shark Week when you read Paul's answers: the 2 hour premier "Blood in the Water," followed by "Deadly Waters," followed by "Day of the Shark 2" (about "when a great white breaks through a 300-pound aluminum shark cage and traps the divers inside. Another shark tackles a former Navy Seal in shallow waters"), followed by "Sharkbite Summer" (about "The bite-by-bite account of America's notorious "Summer of the Shark" in 2001.")

19Sep/08Off

Don’t Fear the Creatures

Me manly. Throw baby.

Me manly. Throw baby.

I fear nothing.

No, that is not statement of my own masculine machismo, which I generally lack. In fact, if you were to stick a fuzzy kitten or a baby before me, you would find me near-instantly reduced to fawning and cooing like a 5-year old girl. I’m not ashamed of that.

No, what I mean is that, for whatever reason – be it upbringing or genetics – I seem to lack a trait that in my experience 95% of the general public harbors. That trait is an irrational fear of some aspect of the living world.

Here is one example of this. I have talked to literally hundreds of people about this over the course of my thirty years, and without fail, nearly everyone I have ever spoken to reveal some sort of prejudicial bias against some specific branch of the animal kingdom. Usually it either is bugs in general, spiders, or snakes. For others it is raccoons, or opossoms, or rats, or any “pesky” vermin.

Often, instead of verbalizing it as fear, they will say “oh, I hate them,” or “I really don’t like them.” However, it all seems to break down to the same thing: an irrational distaste for entire groups of living creatures.

"I hate you too."

"I hate you too."

I simply cannot understand it. I mean, yes I understand intense phobias. My wife is a psychologist and I have a firm grasp on the nature of phobias. But the prevalence of this hatred and fear seems to go far beyond a massive case of societal phobia.

Considering that I seem to be alone in this (though in view of the subject of this blog in general, I’m sure many of you readers are like me), it seems to me that the main question I have is not “why do they fear?” but “why do I not fear?”

I was raised as a redneck rat-tailed child in the woods in Northeast Texas and then in the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. I grew up surrounded with snakes, spiders, scorpions, and all manner of wildlife. But the rub of it is this: so did everyone else I ever grew up around! So did my parents, my siblings, and my friends. Yet still, all of them have some major irrational bias or another against one or more of these creatures.

So why is it you can throw a timber rattlesnake 3 feet in front of me and I’ll be like “wow! cool!”, whereas most people will scream and cry? My entire property is overrun with Northern Black Widows (see pics and video here), yet I have never had the faintest urge to call an exterminator.

I think at this point I should quickly define fear. If you stuck the same snake within striking distance of my body, you can be damn sure that fight-or-flight would kick in and I’d retreat in haste. I wouldn’t dare handle a black widow. The fight-or-flight is reflex to avoid bodily harm. The rest is rational fear, or more accurately, simple respect. This is not the fear I am talking about. I’m referring to the guttural yuk, eww, or aghhh factor that so many harbor.

So tell me, dear reader, because I honestly would like to understand – why do you fear/hate/dislike whatever part of the animal world you do?

I have thought about this a lot, and my best hypothesis is that, for me, fascination trumps fear, and even kills it. I have had an insanely passionate fascination in all things biology (and science in general) since I was 5 (as far back as I can remember). When I was young, I dissected dead things, I played with insects, and I handled king snakes. Some of my little friends did this, but even then, I remember that I seemed much more interested by those things than my friends did. So is this the simple answer? Maybe, but I’m not so sure.

If so, the question just shifts a degree to “why the hell doesn’t everyone else find the living world as fascinating as I do?”

"Be glad glass is too smooth. Be very very glad."

"Be glad glass is too smooth. Be very very glad."

I had several traumatic animal-related events as a child. When I was 9, a scorpion found its way into my pajamas while I slept. It got wedged against my calf where it stung me 8 times. My dad ran in, ripped my pants down, and stomped the scorpion that fell to the ground, while I screamed bloody murder. Still, I think scorpions are awesome. A giant black rat snake I once handled grabbed my hand and chewed it until the blood flowed (also see my related post on black rat snakes and ignorant rednecks). I’ve been stung by countless hymenoptera (hornets bees, wasps, yellow jackets). I’ve been bitten by spiders. Still, I love them all.

Is my brain simply not wired to make the kind of phobic connections that so many others have? My wife is deathly afraid of cockroaches, yet I’m sure the worst that ever happened was that she got one in her hair. Somehow I doubt that a difference in my own susceptibility to phobias or conditioning is the answer – I can’t imagine I wouldn’t develop PTSD if a truly traumatic event were to occur to me.

Am I more rational? I know that in many cases I’m much more rational than others, though I still have my own irrational quirks. However, my lack of fear also extends to other things – like death. I have thought and thought and I can honestly say there is nothing that I simply fear. There are many things that I’d rather not happen, but none that I chronically fear.

I don’t mean this to come across as arrogant at all. I have many many faults, most of which I can admit. But this seems to be a trait of mine I have observed. Those that know me – tell me if you disagree.

It just doesn’t make any sense to me to dislike, hate, or fear any type of creature. There is nothing logical about it. To me it’s like saying “I don’t like the color green.” What does that even mean? I can understand not wanting to wear green because one finds it less aesthetically pleasing or because it doesn't match one's eyes. But this is fundamentally different from not liking the color itself. I would be scared to tromp through a grizzly den, but I don’t hate or fear grizzlies in general.

Anyway, I’ve rambled enough on this. I would very much like to hear any thoughts any of you have.