Review of Monarchs and Milkweed by Anurag Agrawal

Monarchs and Milkweed by Anurag Agrawal is  subtitled: A Migrating Butterfly, A Poisonous Plant and their Remarkable Story of Coevolution.

The Cover of Monarchs and Milkweed by Anurag Agrawal

This is not the first book I have ever read about the monarch butterfly. It’s the second. The first book I read was when I was six going on seven. It arrived as part of the Weekly Reader book club, and it was called The Travels of Monarch X. I read the book, digested it, but ultimately decided that I did not like it. I liked books about people more. The short lifespan of the butterfly upset me. I didn’t like thinking about death. So I laid the book aside and concentrated on other things for the next fifty years of my life.


The first book I ever read about the monarch butterfly — I was six and had just learned English. It was too hard!

The next time I came to mention the book about the monarch was when I was writing Ping  & the Snirkelly People, based loosely on my experiences in first grade. I still did not remember what the book was called or who it was by, but I vaguely remembered reading it in a language I had not quite mastered at the time.

While I have known about the lifestyle of the monarch butterfly since first grade and could recognize a monarch on sight, I wasn’t nearly as interested in them as most people. They were just not at the top of my list, but I still mistakenly assumed that they were useful pollinators, and thought it was a shame if their numbers were dwindling. It was not until I started spotting them on my own property and could see for myself that they were doing nothing for the milkweed plants they depended on that my curiosity was piqued. What was this indolent butterfly contributing to its own upkeep, I began to wonder.

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This year, while I had plenty of purple milkweed, the deer on my property ate the flowers before they could even make seed pods.

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And when the monarchs came out, it was on the thistle flowers that they seemed to depend.

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That’s when I noticed there was a new book out about Monarchs and Milkweed with a beautiful cover illustration. The year was 2017, and the book by Anurag Agrawal was hot off the presses. Somehow,Amazon knew I would be interested, because it showed the book to me in a sidebar, while I was looking for something else. So I ordered the book and started reading it. It was fifty years since the first book about the monarch butterfly.

This is indeed the book I needed to read. It addresses all the points that were bothering me about the Monarch’s reputation and more. Beautifully written and illustrated, it does not talk down to the reader, nor try to sell us a politically correct morality play. This is a book about nature, evolution, scientific inquiry, and also sometimes about politics.

How species involved in interactions evolve and co-evolve depends acutely on the nature of the interaction. If two species are strictly antagonists, then an arms race may ensue. Sometimes, however, species play dual roles, positive under certain circumstances and negative under others. In this case, say if the monarch were both a beneficial pollinator and a herbivorous pest of the milkweed, perhaps the plant would not mount defenses.  The benefits of butterfly pollination to milkweed could outweigh the costs of caterpillar herbivory. But here is where I must dispel a widely held myth about monarch butterflies. Milkweeds do not need monarchs, because the butterflies are simply no good as pollinators. Monarchs are strictly pests. (P. 26)

This is exactly what I had come to suspect over the years, watching the monarchs and the milkweeds on my property. It was the Great Spangles Fritillaries that would frequent the milkweed flowers, not the Monarchs. And if we want to see the Monarch butterfly do well, it can’t possibly have anything to do with the great service that it performs for the milkweed, or any other flowering plant, for that matter.

This nonpollinating aspect of monarchs is not widely appreciated. Although monarchs may successfully pollinate some plant species (perhaps the sunflower family…) this phenomenon has not been well-studied, and they are surely unimportant compared with the myriad other flower visitors. Nonetheless, in a recent presidential memorandum… ‘Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators’, Barack Obama singled out the monarch as the only species other than the honey bee… to be named as an important pollinator. Because the monarch is not, however, a good pollinator, the arms race proceeds… (p. 30)

So now that we know that the milkweed plants regard the monarch as a pest and nothing more, we can go back and ponder about the one-sided relationship of the monarch and the milkweed. The milkweed tries to get rid of the monarch by poisoning it, and the monarch keeps coming back, adapting to the poison, and even uses it to keep birds at bay. How did this happen, and can the milkweed do nothing to fight back?

“Well, no wonder the monarch’s habitat is being destroyed!” I kept thinking to myself.  “The butterfly is destroying the plants on which it depends and giving nothing in return. It probably deserves to die out.” But that is not the sum total of the story, and so I kept reading to find out more about this crazy, “exploitative” relationship.

The toxins used by the milkweed to thwart the monarch are called cardenolides, and somehow the monarch has found medicinal uses for them against internal parasites, as well as weaponizing them against larger predators. They are related to digitalis, and like digitalis, cardenolides can be both a poison and a medicine for humans, as well. According to Agrawal,  traditional medicine has identified the following uses: “subtonic, diaphoretic, alterative, expectorant, diuretic, laxative, escharotic, carminative, anti-spasmodic, anti-pleuritic, stomachic, astringent, anti-rheumatic, anti-syphilitic…” (From Millspaugh, Medicinal Plants, 1892). Humans produce their own cardenolides as a hormone to regulate heart function, which is why cardenolides can be helpful for congestive heart failure. But in plants, cardenolides evolved as a poison  for killing herbivores that prey on them. There is no known function of cardenolides for plants except defense. If plants did not use these substances to kill or sicken or keep away their enemies, they would have no use whatever for them.

Many animals avoid succumbing to cardenolides in milkweed by taste aversion alone. They never get sick, because they cannot be induced to eat milkweed. But for monarch caterpillars, milkweed is the only food. How does that work?

Agrawal points out that it is not as if monarch caterpillars are completely immune to the cardenolides in the milkweed. If the dosage is too high — and it varies from milkweed to milkweed — it will definitely kill the caterpillars. But they do have a sodium pump in their tiny butterfly brains that is remarkably unsusceptible to the toxin. The monarch caterpillar can sequester the daily dose of digitalis prescribed for an adult human with a heart problem, which when compared to its size would have killed it had it been a human the size of a butterfly. No, Agrawal does not say it quite this way, but that’s what he means.

The section about the monarch mating cycle reminded me of the time I came upon two monarchs embracing. Was it consensual? Hard to tell, but Agrawal indicates that early in the mating season, females attempt to flee and males force them down.  Most butterflies related to the monarch use a different, more consensual strategy of attracting females with pheromones and allowing the female to choose the most desirable males to mate with. That the monarch strategy is different has to do with the fact that a mating male doesn’t just give sperm to the female. He also includes a small gift of enough energy to make the flight back to the egg laying ground. Some of the males are too weak to make it back, and so their only hope of reproducing is to give what energy they have left to a female to carry their genetic material to safety.  Females resist early matings, wanting to hold out for stronger males, and also, if they receive too many energy packets, it can kill them. The earlier they mate, the more matings they may end up enduring, and they really only need one for purposes of reproduction.  Only thirty percent of attempted forced matings are successful, because the females get away seventy percent of the time. I don’t remember reading about any of this in the book about Monarch X I read as child.

Even though I have never seen a monarch caterpillar, I have spotted a pair mating

The monarch population of North America migrates twice a year, once from the US  to Mexico in the autumn and once  from Mexico to the US in the spring. They overwinter in a semi-dormant state in Mexico,  all their living and mating and birth and death occurs in the US. But it is the cold weather in Mexico that is required for them to know to turn their next migration northward.  Minus a cold phase, they always head south. Agrawal is concerned that global warming could cause them to head south away from Mexico into South America in the spring.  If that did happen, would they correct course once they encountered cooler weather in the southern hemisphere? It sounds as if they have a single switch in their brain that determines which direction to migrate. Does the switch just tell them to turn around when it gets cold?

Until 1975, it was not even known where the monarchs went during the winter. This means that this information could not have been included in the book that Ping and I read during the school year of 1966/67. A whole group of citizen scientists had been recruited to help tag and keep tabs on the individual butterflies and their comings and goings. Then the question arose: do they make the migration once a year individually, or are there several generations born between migrations? In other words, do the individual butterflies each migrate twice a year, or is their species that does this, so that collectively they appear to be as regular as clockwork? I remember that when I read the book when I was six, I was under the impression that the lifespan of every single monarch butterfly was a whole year. But that is not right. The total time frame from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly is only six to eight weeks for those generations that do not engage in autumn migration. The two migrations every year are something the monarchs do  collectively.

Cardenolide analysis, bolstered by examining isotopes, has led to understanding of the geographic origins of each butterfly.

… a 2013 study using stable isotopes confirmed that the year’s first new generation of monarchs completed development in Texas and southern Oklahoma, but nonetheless, some first-generation butterflies developed as far north as Missouri and southern Illinois and southern Illinois… In other words, most spring migrants leaving the Mexican highlands lay eggs (and die) in the southern United States, but a few butterflies travel remarkable distances on the return journey from the overwintering grounds — up to 1500 miles… and make it to the Midwest. (P. 80)

When looking for a good place to lay her eggs, a female monarch avoids tall, healthy and well grown milkweed plants. Instead, she choose short, shrimpy milkweeds, either those that have just sprouted or those recovering from a catastrophic event such as having been mowed down. Brush fires create the exact kind of newly sprouted milkweeds that female monarchs are looking for. Why? Because the older and healthier and stronger a milkweed plant, the more potent is its toxin. And while monarchs coexist with milkweeds, the milkweed plant does not need them and is definitely trying to kill them. So it is in the best interest of the monarchs to find milkweed that is young or otherwise vulnerable, so that it cannot afford to invest too much of its energy in creating a potent dose of cardenolides. This is not at all what we have been taught.  I personally had believed it was sad that the mowers always came and cut down much of the milkweed at the side of the road before it could even bloom or go to seed. Sad for the milkweed, maybe, but not for the monarchs.

The bee will help pollinate the milkweed, but the monarch will lay eggs that will bring forth parasitic caterpillars that will feed on its leaves.

There is so much about this story that is counterintuitive. Neither the monarch nor the milkweed is looking out for the other. They are not working together — they are antagonists with a serious conflict of interest. But this is not actually unusual in nature. All that peace and serenity and harmony are the result of countless ongoing wars.

Now we have come to Chapter Five, the story of how a caterpillar survives on a diet laced with poison.

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The three major stumbling blocks for a monarch caterpillar are trichomes, latex and cardenolides. The trichomes are hairs growing on the leaves of the milkweed. These hairs evolved as a defense against too much sunlight, but they are also useful against insects that want to eat leaves. The caterpillar has to expend a lot of energy shaving off the trichomes before it can eat of the leaves. Latex is that white sap that the milkweed is named for. It can glue the caterpillar’s mouth shut and totally immobilize it. The latex gushes out every time a leaf or stem is injured. It is a defense mechanism pure and simple. Latex serves no other function for the milkweed plant. Sometimes caterpillars build circular dams in order to dispose of the latex. Sometimes they even suction it out in order to move it out of the way. There are many different techniques that are used by different caterpillars in different situations. Finally, cardenolides is the poison contained in the leaves. Different milkweed plants have different doses of this toxin. For instance, the butterfly milkweed has hardly any at all, so it is safe to eat, but the downside is that butterflies who fed on it as caterpillars can be eaten by birds without ill effect. However, the birds don’t necessarily know what a butterfly has feasted on, so the fact that most monarchs are poisonous deters predators even in the case of those that are not. The average female monarch chooses to lay her eggs on milkweed with an intermediate dosage of cardenolides — not so much that it will kill the caterpillar nor so little that it won’t harm the birds. Collectively, they create a defense for all monarch-kind, though that is not something that any particular monarch is thinking about.

The collective benefit to all monarchs from the effort put forth by each is something that happens naturally, despite a complete lack of selflessness on the part of the insects. In fact, if two monarch eggs are laid on the same milkweed plant, the first to hatch will eat the other. That is how unaware they are individually of the “common good.”

But there are also butterflies that are not monarchs who survive by mimicry and telling lies. If you believe that communication can occur without anyone intending to communicate, then it is also possible to lie without saying a word. Sign and signified are learned, and then someone else uses the sign to imply the signified, except that it isn’t so. The Viceroy butterfly announces with its colors: I am a Monarch, beware my poison, and yet it isn’t true. And many, many birds are duped. How were they to know? And all of this happens, without anybody even needing to have a theory of mind. Take that cognitive linguists! But I digress.

Having survived all the traps, the predators and the internal parasites, and the difficulties with overmedicating or undermedicating with cardenolides, the successful monnarch caterpillar leaves the scene of the crime, where all its eating of milkweed occurred, and searches for a safe place to pupate. Evidence of the damage it caused the milkweed might alert predators to its existence as a dormant pupa, so the caterpillar wanders around and finds another spot. Whereas the monarch caterpillar and the butterfly advertise their toxicity with brilliant colors — a practice called aposematic coloration — the chrysalis tries to blend in and not draw attention. While I personally have seen monarch butterflies mating and damaged milkweeds on my property, I have never seen a monarch caterpillar or a chrysalis. I am not sure whether it is because the monarchs on my property are just passing through, or whether it is that the eggs are laid on very low lying milkweed that I am unable to see. I usually spot dogbane plants early in the season, long before I can see the milkweeds. By the time I notice the milkweed plant, it is usually about to bloom. But I don’t see the monarch butterflies until much later in the season. By the time I spot the monarchs, it is usually the goldenrod, bidens and the thistle flower that are blooming.

It is not possible to study butterflies without knowing quite a lot about the plants they depend on. That is why Agrawal devotes so much time in his book to the milkweed plants. In fact, he has a whole chapter called “The Milkweed Village”.

All the species that have milkweed as their food are interconnected, Agrawal points out. As indeed, so are we all.

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There are only eleven other species of  insects, all of them colorful, that live off the milkweed plant. Most are specialists, eating only milkweed. They include the milkweed tussock moth, Euchaetes egle,  the milkweed beetle, Lavidomera clivicollis, the large and small milkweed bugs, oncopeltus fasciastus and Lygaeus kalmi, three species of aphids, Aphis nerii, Aphis asclepiadis and Myzocallis asclepiadis. There’s a fly that eats between the layers of a milkweed leaf: Lyriomaiza asclepiadis.  There is  even a four eyed red milkweed beetle: Tetraopes Tetropthamlos.  There’s a milkweed weevil Rhyssomatis lineaticollis. And there’s a generalist slug that can eat other things, but has been known to also eat milkweed, especially if somebody else has already dealt  with the latex flow.

Agrawal is concerned with how few and genetically diverse these milkweed eating insects are, and he speculates about what led them to such a remarkable convergence, most of them using the exact sodium pump de-sensitizing solution to the problem of metabolizing cardenolides. He plans to further explore the issue by manipulating fruit flies into situations that would require genetic changes to cope with environments similar to those of the milkweed eating insects.

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Agrawal even mentions the Middle-Eastern milkweed, Calotropis, that I encountered this past year through my friend Dave McClure of Doha, Qatar on Facebook. Even in the Middle East with Calitropis, there is convergence of unrelated insects that have learned to eat the milkweed plant.

One of the seven wonders of the known world is the autumn migration of the monarch butterflies to Mexico. In order to make it to their overwintering site, the  butterflies who do so remain virgins. They do not reach sexual maturity, even though they become adult butterflies. This allows them to live much longer than all the other generations of monarchs who breed throughout the summer. Not breeding allows them to extend their normal average lifespan of eight weeks to eight months.

As these summer monarchs emerge, mature and mate during the summer, they do not employ directional flight, but rather they stay in the general locality where they had been caterpillars. Yet, beginning in mid-August, when the last generation of butterflies emerge, they have low levels of juvenile hormone, and this suppresses reproductive maturity. The result is that this last summer generation of monarch butterflies remain virgins, migrate south and wait months to mate. (p. 181)

The chapter on the autumn migration touches on more than the beauty of millions of butterflies overwintering in secluded spots, covering fir trees on mountain peaks with their fluttering wings. It also contains the most dramatic scene about rivalry between scientists. Having found the overwintering grounds in 1975. Professor Fred Urquhart shared the information of the location with National Geographic, which published breathtaking pictures in a 1976  issue of their magazine. But Urquhart refused to tell his colleague Dr. Lincoln Brower, who specialized in milkweed sequestration in monarchs,  where the overwintering spots were. Unperturbed, Brower used tidbits of information from the National Geographic article to find the spot, and one day he trekked there only to find Urquhart and his crew tagging butterflies. To say that the meeting was awkward would be an understatement. The two never could get along.

Which brings me to the politics of science and also the politics of art. It was Urquhart who was behind that 1966 book that was sent to me all those many years ago as part of a Weekly Reader book club that my father subscribed me to. I was expecting an interesting story, and instead got a meandering paean to a migrating butterfly. I was not impressed. The story had no discernible plot. But though the book was written by Ross E. Hutchins, it was part of Urquhart’s grand plan to recruit small children to help him track the monarch butterflies to their overwintering grounds. At that point in my life, I only ever read the story in a book, and not the preamble or the afterword. But if I had read that part, I would have found this plea:

ATTENTION Would you like to work with Dr. Urquhart as a research associate in his interesting research on butterfly migration? If so, you should write to: Dr. Fred A. Urquhart, Associate Professor, Department of Zoology, University of Toronto, Canada. He can supply you with information and special marked tags to be attached to Monarch butterfly wings. Perhaps in this way you can make an interesting contribution to the study of Monarch migration and the flight paths they follow. Perhaps, too, one of your tagged Monarchs might fly even farther than Butterfly X.

He should probably have added: “But don’t share any of this top secret information with my nemesis, Dr. Lincoln Brower.” It would have made a great thriller!

Speaking of dark plots, the very last chapter of Agrawal’s book reminds us of the roots of the environmental movement, and how Richard Nixon contributed to some of the most dastardly government agencies that are a daily part of our life today.

The environmental movement began to take hold in the decades preceding the discovery of the monarchs’ overwintering grounds in 1975. Prior to this, monarchs were simply a quiet icon of nature. It was the beauty behind metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, the science of mimicry and sequestration of toxins, and the mystery behind their migration that captured people’s attention. Nonetheless, milestones of the era included the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1960, and Richard Nixon’s double boon of creating the Environmental Protection Agency and advancing the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Today, it is under the Endangered Species Act that through the declaration of U.S. Fish & Wildlife that domesticated chimpanzees are an endangered species, PETA brings lawsuits to harass chimpanzee owners and accuse them of a “take”, as if their American born and hand reared chimpanzees had been taken out of nature only yesterday, when they had been bred locally for generations. But for tenured faculty at major universities, all this is seen as a good thing.

When people talk about monarchs and milkweed today, they ask what government should do to protect these species against the incursion of man. Is there not enough milkweed for the monarch to exploit for its own survival, while the plant tries to get rid of this pest? Have too many trees been cut down, so there is no place to roost at night? Are there too many cell phone towers up, confusing the butterfly when it is trying to navigate?

Agrawal states that the declining number of milkweed plants is currently the most popular explanation for a decline in the number of monarchs. That there is a decline is undeniable.

While in the early 1990s there were some 400 million butterflies, roosting each winter in Mexico, in the past few years , the number has hovered at 100 million butterflies, or a 75 percent decline… In Fenruary 2016, as I write this chapter, news was just released that there were 200 million monarch butterflies in Mexico (well over triple the number last year.) Still, any way you slice it, there has been a persistent and long term decline. (p. 213.)

Agrawal discusses different methods of taking a census of the monarch butterfly population and their divergent results. He also explains the difference between the survival of the species and the survival of the migration.  The monarch butterfly species developed in a tropical climate and began to migrate later, because of population pressure on the milkweed it fed on. Agrawal does not believe the decline in monarch populations in North America is due to a limitation in the availability of milkweed, despite the popularity of this explanation. Agrawal and his group of scientists believe the decline has more to do with what happens in Mexico in the overwintering sites. But even this does not necessarily spell doom for the monarch. Migration is just one strategy for survival.

Monarch butterflies as a species are not at all endangered, but due to logging that has affected the overwintering sites, and due to other fluctuations in climate, the annual migration to Mexico is endangered. This is not a problem that government can solve, as outlawing logging in the areas affected has not prevented illegal logging, and climate change is not necessarily man made or under our direct control. Monarchs have survived climate fluctuations in the past, long before humans knew much about them. Hopefully, they will survive without our intervention in the future, even if it means they will need to change course or alter some of their habits.

Here is a video of the author, Anurag Agrawal, speaking about possible reasons for the decline in monarch butterfly populations.

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Copyright 2017 Aya Katz

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The Monarch Butterfly and the Thistle Flower

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I suffered the impending loss of a loved one lately and It fell upon me that “I love you wasn’t enough”. After desperately considering all that could be said I found but one thing that seemed to fit. Unfortunately the opportunity was missed, I relate it here so some may find solace in it.

Your neighbor is a fireman and you learn about firemen from him and from his children. You will generalize from your experience and look at all firemen in much the same way as your neighbor. Your teacher is a fisherman and you learn about fishing from him, again you will generalize about fishermen and think of your teacher and his preferences when you reference fishing.

Each person in our lives comes playing a role of some sort. Our mother represents a multitude of roles female, our father represents many roles male. To a lesser or perhaps greater extent, brothers, sisters, friends and all, give us lesson after lesson on approaching the human condition.

This is how you have made me. What I am in my approach to my life is the culmination of what I learned from all of you.

So perhaps you may give your mind some pause with your next personal encounter to look at the tweaks you have made in your approach or your philospohy based upon the one you are encountering. Yes, feel the love for sure, but look into the nuts and bolts of who you are to find their mark, their extension of your experience to draw on.

Nearly everyone you encounter has something you can learn from. Nearly everyones’ thoughts when shared will leave a permananent mark on who you are. Understand the value of others, be open, listen, share.

So yes, dear cousin, I most certainly love you, but I also thank you for what you brought to my life. I will always look at the world a little differently because of the special way of looking at the world, you showed me.

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Everybody can find beauty in a flower, or a butterfly or a deer. But if you love nature, then you also see the symmetry and the grace of a common, ordinary black rat snake.


This December, just before the weather turned so cold that all the snakes went into hibernation, this beautiful creature decided to hang out right at the entry of my house.

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I spotted its long, black form on the ground, but it did not stay there for long. Soon it was climbing the bare limbs of the bushes and trees at my entry.

The snake saw me, but it was not afraid. It posed for pictures, and it stuck its tongue out periodically.

Isn’t it a glorious world where both rats and rat snakes can live side by side? If you abhor violence, maybe you should check your premises. It’s the beautiful black rat snakes that keep our rat population down, without eradicating either species.

Live and let live is a policy I support. But it does not mean what people think it means. It does not mean peace and tranquility. It means the struggle for life that makes life itself possible. For all of us!


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The Art of Repetition

This gallery contains 9 photos.

I have always been impatient with my paintings. I want to start one and then finish it, and then I want to go on to the next. I’ve never believed in practice works. You know, the kind of artwork that … Continue reading

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Abstract Language

On October 19, 2013, on my other site, HistoriaObscura,com, I published what I consider an important paper dealing with the basic issues concerning authentication of the Journal of Jean Laffite.

Was the Journal of Jean Laffite an Original, a Copy or a Forgery?

The issue of the authentication of the Journal of Jean Laffite, because the only manuscript we have of it is probably just a copy, brings up a more general issue, not only in the study of history but also in the study of language:

  • What makes two texts identical? Is it that they look the same? Or is it what they encode?
  • What makes language work? Is it the physical distinctions? Or is it that there is a one to one correspondence between subcomponents?

I go for the more abstract interpretation of language, and I have very good reason to do so. At home and with my family, I use a language that had been dead and was revived. It was not transmitted in an unbroken line from mother to child like most living languages. A dead text intervened and preserved the language until people were ready to use it again.

And what is more, we have no original copies of that text and no copies that even remotely look like the original. The Old Testament was was passed down by copying word for word and letter for letter. There are some scribal errors, and there are also some passages which have obviously been altered, if we do a good internal analysis, but largely it came down through the generations more or less intact.

But the copies that people now have and are using to study that text are written in a different looking set of symbols from those that were most likely used when the text was first written down.

Hebrew writers adopted the Assyrian alphabet symbols after an exile among Aramaic speakers. Today, and in the past two millenia, when we read the old testament, the sixth commandment, “thou shalt not murder” looks more or less like this: לא תרצח

But at the time of the composition or first writing of the text, it looked more like this:

Does it matter what it looked like? Absolutely not. It is letter per letter the same. But do you know how many people have developed an attachment to the Assyrian form of the letters and think there is something holy or special or undeniably Hebrew about them? These are the same people who would not recognize their friends if they had a new hairdo.

Today, when I communicate by email in Hebrew with family members, if I want to write “thou shalt not murder”, I just type “La trzh.” It’s the same six letters, and it does not matter what they look like, as long as those of us communicating realize what they stand for.

So here is the moral: when looking for your friends, don’t judge by appearances. When identifying a language, don’t base it on what the letters look like. Yo soy una mujer is Spanish. I am a woman is English. I didn’t have to switch fonts to do that. I can do it in Hebrew, too: Ani ase. You judge the code not by the symbols it is encoded in, but by the correspondences. I could use morse code or smoke signals and it would still be the same.

When judging a copy of a copy of an older manuscript whose original no longer exists, we need to be able to do the same thing. Put aside our prejudices of what it should look like and ask ourselves: who could have written this? What language or dialect is it in? What were they trying to say?

Copyright 2013 Aya Katz – – Words and Images

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Olivia Dahl – Ethics of Vaccination

The Dahl Family, from left to right: Theo in pram, Tessa, Patricia Neal, Olivia and Roald. Source: FindaGrave

Olivia Twenty Dahl was one of the children of author Roald Dahl and actress Patricia Neal. She was born on April 20, 1955 and died on November 17, 1962 of encephalitis caused by the rubella virus. The tragedy of her death is currently being used by supporters of the MMR vaccine. Some people mistakenly believe that Olivia died of the measles. In fact, it was not what we in the United States call the measles, but a completely different disease, rubella, which was then commonly known as the German Measles. The rubella vaccine was not yet available to the public in Britain where Olivia Dahl died, and her parents asked that she be given gamma globulin, but the remedy was denied to them by reason of public health rationing.

This article is not meant to give any medical advice. It is instead intended to explore ethical issues involving the conflicts of interest between “the public good” and the good of any particular individual. Olivia Twenty Dahl might have survived if her parents had been able to override decisions made in the name of the public policy in order to save their own child.

The rubella virus, also known as the German Measles, is a disease that for most people takes a fairly mild course, although it can have disastrous effects on fetal development if women contract it during the first twenty weeks of pregnancy. In order to avoid birth defects, it is usually advised today that any woman who has not already had rubella be vaccinated for it prior to attempting a pregnancy. The normal course of the disease for healthy individuals is sore throat and fever, after which there are swollen glands and a rash. About thirty percent of those infected actually do not have any symptoms at all. Lifelong immunity follows infection. In very rare cases, rubella develops into encephalitis, and then the prognosis is not good. Olivia Twenty Dahl was one of those very rare cases.

The disease of rubella has been around since before the Middle Ages, but it was not until 1941 that the medical profession began to consider it dangerous. The virus was isolated in 1962. By 1969 vaccination became routinely available worldwide.

The rubella virus is not to be confused with the measles, a completely different disease caused by the rubeola virus. But it is understandable that from a historic viewpoint people do confuse the two, because they were not distinguished until the 19th century. Today, infants are routinely vaccinated for both measles and rubella and also the mumps in the MMR vaccine. The MMR vaccine is considered safe, but it, too, carries some rare health risks and in some cases the complications become life threatening. Nothing in life is risk free.

Olivia Twenty Dahl — Source

I know about what happened to Olivia Dahl from reading her mother’s autobiography: AS I AM by Patricia Neal. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in Patricia Neal, Gary Cooper or Roald Dahl. It is a very candid biography that in its telling of Miss Neal’s life story touches upon a lot of issues that I am interested in. I understand that there was also another, later biography, but I recommend this one, which came out in 1988.

The back story of Olivia’s death is that her family had been living in New York when her brother Theo was hit by a taxicab while crossing the street in a pram and suffered brain damage. Roald Dahl moved the family to England, where he believed his children would be safe. He was wrong.

When there was an outbreak of rubella at Olivia’s school in November of 1962, a note was sent home to alert the parents. Patricia Neal had two children she felt were particularly vulnerable, Olivia, who was always wiped out after every childhood disease, and Theo, who was injured and highly vulnerable. She was less concerned about her other daughter, Tessa, who had a strong constitution. At the time, even though the rubella virus was already isolated, the vaccine was still in the experimental stages, and gamma globulin was rare in England, and was rationed out only to pregnant women during an outbreak of rubella to help them fight the disease, rather than being used as a preventative for school children.

Ordinary people simply accepted the situation. But Patricia Neal and Roald Dahl were not just ordinary people. They were famous and well respected, and they had connections. They tried to pull strings on behalf of their children.

Roald Dahl’s half-sister Ellen was married to Sir Ashley Miles, head of the Lister Institute. Roald Dahl asked Sir Ashley to get enough of the gamma globulin for his children: Theo, Olivia and Tessa. Sir Ashley was sympathetic, but he was an upstanding British subject, and he did not want to break the rules just to accommodate family. The policy of the government was clear: only pregnant women were to be spared. Children had to risk getting the disease, as they were less vulnerable to its effects.

According to Patricia Neal, Sir Ashley laughed and said that they should let the girls come down with disease as it would be good for them. However, he did get the gamma globulin for Theo, because of Theo’s medical status as an invalid.

Olivia came down with the disease within three days. After she recovered from the usual symptoms, she was listless and lacking in energy. By the fifteenth of November, she slept for over twenty-four hours. The next day she had what appeared to be a stroke. She was taken to the hospital and died on the 17th of November.

What would you have done if this were your child, you knew that gamma globulin could save her, but the doctors and the medical establishment had decided not to give it to you by reason of public policy?

In my opinion – – and this is not a medical opinion, but an ethical one – – Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal would have been justified to buy gamma globulin on the black market or to create a rubella vaccine in their own private lab and to administer it to their daughter when they thought she needed it, and public policy be damned!

But that is not what people are now using this story to say. Instead, they are saying that every child, even the ones who would survive the disease just fine and might be allergic to the vaccine, should be vaccinated by the MMR vaccine, for the sake of children like Olivia.

Not every child faces the same risk. Even in the same family, a parent might be concerned for one child and not another. The disease killed Olivia. Tessa came out just fine. Her parents were never worried about her.

People say we should listen to our doctors. I agree. We should listen, but we should also use our independent judgment on behalf of our children. Public policy is crafted to maximize the chances of most people – – at the expense of some people. But when you have a specific child to look out for, as a parent you must do what is best for that child.

Most children would survive the usual childhood diseases. Most children also survive the MMR. It is the rare child who is the most vulnerable. Some would not survive the disease. Others would not survive the vaccine. It is your job as a parent to try to figure out what the odds are for your own child.

Vaccination for rubella used to be given separately, and children were then left to suffer through the measles and the mumps on their own. Was Sir Ashley right when he said the disease might be good for the girls? Is it ever better to suffer though a disease rather than to be vaccinated for it? I am not sure. Ask your doctor about these things and educate yourself concerning your own child’s health. What is a life saving practice for one child can be a death sentence for another. It is also possible to get one of the vaccines without the others.

Parents have a duty to their own children to see that they get the best possible care. If your doctor tells you that you should get a vaccine because your own child is seriously vulnerable to a disease, then by all means do what you can for your child. Or ask for gamma globulin, instead, during an outbreak. But if your doctor tells you your child is not vulnerable to the disease, but he should get the vaccine for the sake of other children who are less robust, then you might think again.

Ethically it is never right to sacrifice one child for the sake of another.

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Forgotten Art

Rolled up canvases I found

Painting from Bali

Sometimes when we are looking for something we have misplaced, we come across something else that we have forgotten all about. That’s what happened to me one morning. I was looking for gumdrops in the kitchen cabinets and instead I cam across two rolled up canvasses from my years in Taiwan.

These are artworks that were given to me when I was living in Taiwan but that I never got around to framing. And what they were doing in my top kitchen cabinet is beyond me.

The first one was given to me by a fellow professor in the Foreign Language Department at Tamsui Oxford University College. He went on a little trip to Bali and brought back gifts for everyone. He gave me this canvas with the painting of the little boats in the blood-red sunset. But at the time, I was just about to move from Tamsui to Taichung, so I kept the canvas rolled up, thinking I would frame it later. Then later I was very busy with a new baby and a new job, and I never did anything at all about it.

The second one was given to me by Ghost Mask maker from Jiufen. At least, I’m pretty sure it was his. It is black and white and very typically Chinese.

Artwork from Jiufen

Someday, I should frame these pictures and hang them up properly. I just don’t know when yet. I am also thinking that I might be able to use them for cover illustrations for future books someday, if the original artists don’t mind.

What do you think? Would these make good book cover illustrations? How would I go about finding the artists so as to get their permission?

Copyright 2013 Aya Katz – – Words and Images

Note: I took these photos myself of the canvases I found in my kitchen cabinet.

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The article is from November 5, 2013. Facebook reminded me today of this memory from four years ago.


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Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr was the third vice president of the United States. That was the highest office to which he attained, though if he had not been kept from it by the Spanish spy James Wilkinson, he might one day have been the Emperor of Mexico.

Born into a well known family, Aaron Burr was the son of a father by the same name who was then the President of Princeton University, although it was not called Princeton at the time. His mother, Esther Edwards Burr, was the daughter of Jonathan Edwards, a famous theologian. However, when Aaron was still a toddler, his mother and father died of small pox and his grandfather, the theologian, died soon thereafter of an inocculation against small pox, as did the boy’s grandmother. Aaron was then placed in foster care together with his sister Sally and later given to his young uncle Timothy Edwards, a stern disciplinarian with whom he had many theological disagreements. When he was ten years old, Aaron ran away from home and signed up as a cabin boy on a ship in New York harbor, until his uncle found him and took him back to New Jersey. He climbed to the top of the mast and negotiated a deal with his uncle: Timothy would not beat him for running away, if Aaron promised to apply himself to his studies and become a theologian.

Aaron Burr did excel in the study of ancient languages at Princeton, though he never became a theologian. Some of his classmates were James Madison and Edward Livingston.

When the Revoluntionary War broke out, Aaron Burr distinguished himself for bravery, leadership and feats of daring that went well beyond the call of duty. He was discharged as a Colonel. He then studied law and became involved in politics. His marriage to Theodosia Prevost produced one surviving child, Theodosia Burr Alston. Aaron Burr was ahead of his time in that he believed in the intellectual equality of women, and he educated his daughter with the same rigor that he would have applied to a son.

Burr and Jefferson were both members of the Democratic-Republican party that favored limited government. They ran together on the same ticket and defeated the incumbent president, the Federalist and authoritarian John Adams, preventing him from attaining to a second term. However, there was just one hitch: Jefferson and Burr tied in the election. In those days, the person who got the most votes in the presidential election became president.The person with the second greatest number of votes became Vice President. Although Burr and Jefferson were running mates, nobody had anticipated a tie. When all the dust settled, the new president was Thomas Jefferson, but he bore Burr a grudge for nearly beating him, and he did not choose him for a running mate the second time he ran.

While still serving as Vice President, Burr fought and won a duel with Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who had slandered and libeled him and refused to retract. Alexander Hamilton had also been a thorn in Jefferson’s side, but as soon as he died of his wounds in the duel, all this was forgotten, and Burr’s political enemies behaved as if the killing had been a murder.

Once out of office, Aaron Burr conceived of a plan to lead a private army against Spain’s holdings in Mexico. His partner in this plan was General James Wilkinson, but unbeknownst to Burr, Wilkinson was in Spain’s employ as a double agent. Wilkinson betrayed Burr to Jefferson, claiming that Burr intended treason against the United States, instead of war against Spain. Burr was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually tried. He was acquitted of the charge of treason, but was forced to leave the country in disgrace.

Burr spent some time in England trying to raise money for the conquest of Mexico, but when Britain and Spain became allies, he was forced to leave England, and in an increasingly impoverished state he toured Europe until he was finally able to return to the United States shortly before the outbreak of the War of 1812. His daughter Theodosia was lost at sea on her way to visit him in January of 1813.

While Burr lived a very long life after that, he was never able to accomplish anything worthy of note in the succeeding years. Today he is largely forgotten. Yet the significance of Aaron Burr’s life as a founding father of the United States and the philosophical conflicts that his life embodies should not be underestimated. He was the son of an influential family of puritan evangelicals, but he was an agnostic and one of the few politicians who did not hide behind a mask of religiosity. He was a supporter of limited government, and yet Jefferson, his ally in this, stretched the constitution in prosecuting him for plotting to tear the union asunder, which even if it had been true, should not have been a crime in the eyes of a believer in states’ rights like Jefferson. Burr believed in women’s equality and the rights of blacks at a time when these things were quite unpopular. Yet he was also a strong military leader whose expansionist vision for the United States did not involve higher taxation for the citizenry or a costly declared war. If Adams stood for British-style authoritarianism and Jefferson for a French-influenced Jacobin popularism, Burr was epitome of a true American, respecting the rights of all and plotting to take away the property of none.

Copyright 2013 Aya Katz – – Words and Image

Note: I drew the sketch based on the portrait by Vanderlyn.

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The Character of Aaron Burr: A Review

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Knowing People

Would you recognize your friends without their bodies? If you were talking to someone on the phone, and it was one of your friends, would you still recognize them even if their voice did not sound the same? When receiving an email from a friend, if they use a different email address and do not sign, would you still know who it is?

Sometimes I think that very few people know each other, even if they have been friends or living together for years. They recognize one another by the look, sound and smell. If they are long distance or internet friends, they know how the other person sounds, writes or uses language.

One way we can recognize other people is by their word choices and their verbal idiosyncracies. But keep in mind that you know only how someone talks to you. If they use a completely different language to talk to other people, would you still recognize them in their other language?

How well can people who come from different cultures ever get to know each other? If there are things you can only say in your native language, and a friend does not speak that language, how can you share yourself?

Is there more to people than the way they look, sound , smell or express themselves? If so, what is it?

Would you recognize your friends without their bodies? If you were talking to someone on the phone, and it was one of your friends, would you still recognize them even if their voice did not sound the same? When receiving an email from a friend, if they use a different email address and do not sign, would you still know who it is?

Literature that Deals with Knowing Others

Two literary works whose main subject is who we are and whether people really know us are Cyrano de Bergerac and Who is Julia.  Each one has a plot that tackles the issue through a gimmick. In the play by Rostand, the gimmick is one man writing dialogue for another man. Roxane was captivated by the eloquence of Cyrano, but only when his words were spoken by a better looking man. Which man does she love? Does she actually know either of them?

But what if in the real world it’s the same man who is eloquent on paper or in texts, but turns tongue tied and bashful in person? Which one of the two men is the real one? And what if they both are? And what if he behaves completely differently with other people? And what if he’s bold and daring, but only when he speaks Armenian?

A lot of people think that communicating in verse like Cyrano is false and stilted. But what if someone feels more comfortable expressing himself in heroic couplets than any other way? The deceased poet, FL Light, used to leave comments in verse on my online articles.

Dictums of sustenance and diet in true

Perception would leave sugar out of view.

That’s a comment that he left several years ago on my article Candy from Strangers. Was this the real FL Light or just his poetic voice? If we had met, would he be speaking in couplets all the time, or would I learn that he had a thick Bronx accent and a modern American English syntax and vocabulary  in everyday life? I have often wondered about this, and now that he is dead, I keep thinking about that. Did I ever know him?

In  Who is Julia?  the gimmick is more modern. A rich and beautiful woman’s brain is transplanted into another, more ordinary woman’s body. But the husband of the woman who used to occupy that body thinks he married the body. Even though he knows about the transplant, he still can’t let that body go.

Many people form genuine attachments to bodies, even less than perfect ones, while being unable to know the minds that occupy them.

Knowing and Recognizing People is Like Reading a Book

In Ping & the Snirkelly People, Ping realizes that her friend Olivia will never come to know her in the way that Ping has come to know Olivia. That is partly because there is more to know about Ping and partly because Ping has been immersed in Olivia’s culture for a whole year, while Olivia has had no contact with Ping’s culture.

There is no implied reciprocity in getting to know another person. Just because they got to know you, it does not mean that you got to know them. Even though you may know them very well, they may never know you.

Some adults who are considered to be perfectly normal will never understand this. Some children on the autistic spectrum already know it. Being normal does not make people’s self knowledge particularly profound. When things work perfectly for you in all social interactions, you are never required to think about it.

Vacuum County — Order Here

Would you consider doing research in a library in order to get to know another person? Would you stay up nights reading old histories in languages you haven’t entirely mastered, the way Verity did in Vacuum County when she was trying to understand Nabal? Or would you just ask hackneyed questions like: “What’s your favorite color? What kind of movies do you like to watch? Pizza or tacos? Coke or Pepsi? Baseball or hockey? Democrat or Republican? Protestant or Catholic?” Do you honestly think you can get to know somebody by asking him about things that are entirely beside the point for him?

Not everybody is an open book, but many of us actually are, if you will bother to crack the cover and see what is inside. It’s not on our body that the information is hidden, though. But it’s all there in a book or two, if you have the time and the patience. And if you can’t or won’t read them, then you will never know.

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Is there such a thing as talent? And if so what is it? What does it mean to be talented at something? What does it mean if you are not that talented?

This topic came up the other night in conversation. One person asserted that there was no such thing as talent. There is only social conditioning, Mozart was conditioned to be a musical prodigy. If they had conditioned him to be something else, he would have been something else. Anyone can be taught to do anything. Therefore, there is no talent.

I agree with part of that, but vehemently disagree with the rest. I agree that just about anyone can be taught to do just about anything, given enough effort, time, resources and the correct teaching method. But I don’t agree that there is no such thing as talent.

Where I think the disagreement comes in is that we are using talent to mean different things. If you think of talent as the ready made ability to create a perfect, flawless finished product without any training or practice, then maybe there is no such thing as talent. But if you see talent the way I do, as the natural predisposition to do something over and over again until you become very proficient at it without any assistance, then there is definitely talent. Talent is not knowing something in advance. It is the ability to acquire knowledge and skills in a particular area with a minimal investment.

Take music, for instance. Some people have a talent for it, so they are able to match pitch or harmonize or reproduce musical sequences without effort. They obsessively play with music without cease, and since practice makes perfect, their abilities increase exponentially with very little apparent effort. Other people are less talented. This means that when they do try to do something musical, their return on investment for effort is not good. Since they are not rewarded by nature for the effort, they also do not feel any desire to redouble their effort, so they get less practice and arrive at some kind of impasse. It does not mean they cannot learn to do some of the things that talented people can do. It just means it takes them longer to learn, and they may not actually acquire these skills unless they are taught by someone who has good pedagogical methods.

There is nothing wrong with taking some time to learn how to do something you are not particularly talented at. There can be many benefits to acquiring some skills in an area that we are not very good at. But it is unlikely that someone without that innate, natural drive to pursue music will become a musical professional, much less a prodigy. If that does happen, for some reason, it may not be a good thing, either for the person involved or their employers.

I know of one woman who was very industrious and studied music and became very proficient at singing opera. She was aware that she was less talented than others in the field, but she was such a hard worker, she was very determined, and she got good training with good methodology. She stayed up nights learning what other people learned in moments. She compensated for lack of natural ability by working twice as hard as anyone else. She was accepted as a singer in a very prestigious opera company. But eventually she decided that being an opera singer just did not pay well enough for all the work that had to be done. She was expected to learn new songs in no time at all, and it was very stressful because she had to hire a tutor to drill her on each new song, and nobody paid her for all that extra work and what she had to pay the tutor every time a new song had to be learned!

Yes, sometimes it is possible by hard work to propel yourself into a position for which you are not competent. If you are Peter Keating, you can persevere and complete your studies and get a degree as an architect. But what good does it do you in the end, when you have to get Howard Roark to design all your buildings?

Bottom line: anyone can be taught how to do anything, to the point of seeming to do an excellent job if they have time to do sufficient preparation so that they appear to be at their very best. But only a very talented person can do the job in real time under less than perfect conditions.

It makes sense to listen to your heart before you embark on a long and arduous training program. Just because anyone can be taught to do anything does not mean you want to be stuck in a job for the rest of your life for which you have formal qualifications but no internal drive.

Ultimately, that is what talent is: the obsessive desire to do something over and over again because it is fun. If you do not feel that way about something, save yourself the trouble and do not make it your life’s work. Can you do it? Yes, you can. But there is not a good enough return on investment to bother. Stick to what you really love, because that is what will pay off for you!

Copyright 2013 Aya Katz – – Words and Image


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