Monday, October 13, 2008

Virgin birth (yes, really)

An AP report about a blacktip shark, Carcharhinus limbatus, giving birth to a shark pup by parthenogenesis (or, as the Wall Street Journal once memorably framed it in my front-page interview, 'photosynthesis' *):

Scientists have confirmed the second case of a "virgin birth" in a shark. In a study reported Friday in the Journal of Fish Biology, scientists said DNA testing proved that a pup carried by a female Atlantic blacktip shark in the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center contained no genetic material from a male.

The first documented case of asexual reproduction, or parthenogenesis, among sharks involved a pup born to a hammerhead at an Omaha, Neb., zoo.

"This first case was no fluke," Demian Chapman, a shark scientist and lead author of the second study, said in a statement. "It is quite possible that this is something female sharks of many species can do on occasion."

Imagine if women could give birth parthenogenically, on occasion, when we damn well felt like it. The kids would be clones, so think of all the nature vs. nurture debates that could be resolved. Well, not really, because of annoying practicalities like reproducibility of environment. Still, it could be interesting.

* Here, for your delectation and delight, is the beginning of that interview. One day I'll get around to putting the whole thing up on my website, but today is not that day:

In the National Interest, the INS
Turns Away Critical Professionals


In the national interest of the United States of America, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, a branch of the Justice Department, has granted the right of permanent residence to an acrobat from Russia who plays a horn while flying through the air.

A Chinese nuclear physicist specializing in detecting radioactive leaks has also been granted permanent residence in the national interest. So has a Korean golf-course designer, an Indian AIDS researcher, a Russian ballroom dancer, a Greek hydroturbine engineer, a Ghanaian drum maker, a Venezuelan child psychologist and a Nigerian linguist who studies word formation in Swahili.

All these people have come to live in America under a 1990 law that allows the INS to invite them in if it decides their presence will be in the national interest. When it passed the law, however, Congress didn't specify what the national interest was. It left that up to a few hundred clerks who work at INS offices in Texas, California, Nebraska and Vermont.

Indefinite Definitions
Up to the end of the Cold War, people who thought about the national interest usually had national security in mind, and that meant guarding the nation's institutions and its territory. Now the whole concept seems to be fuzzing at the edges. Bills introduced lately in Congress have invoked the national interest to ban the global spread of land mines and to shield America against Iranian missiles; others have invoked it to condemn forced abortion in the Third World, to make wilderness canoeing more accessible in Minnesota and to investigate possible manipulation of the domestic price of cheese.

For the clerks at the INS, this is distressing. It would be easy to pick foreigners to serve the national interest from a list limited to repentant Nazi and Soviet bomb builders. Today, though, Americans can't agree that any immigrants at all are in the national interest. When Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, introduced his bill to crack down on them, much of which became law in 1996, he called it the Immigration in the National Interest Act.

So in the eight years since the national-interest visa went on the books, the INS has been tying itself in knots trying to settle on a definition of national interest. A law normally leads to a barrel of rules; this one has so far led to none-at least no official ones. For an agency often associated with nit-picking, the result is a touch of whimsy. The clerks at the INS have been reduced to choosing foreigners as if they were filling a curio cabinet with collectible personalities. The choices may be in the national interest, or may not be -- but they sure do help keep the nation interesting. "What's the national interest?" Ed Skerrett guffaws. "I think we've all thought about this at one time or another."

At the INS, Mr. Skerrett is the national interest's final arbiter, head of the panel that hears all cases on appeal.

"If I can summarize it, we feel that the emphasis has to be on the individual's contribution," he says. "That contribution has to be in the national interest. It doesn't have to be national security. It can be just about anything. We've seen all sorts of things. Whatever. You name it."

Jolly as it sounds, pondering America's national interest isn't something INS clerks want to do forever. Their bosses won't let them give interviews, but word is they hate troubling over it. Lately, though, the INS seems eager to clarify things.

Making a List
For the past three years, unevenly and unpredictably, it has been trying to boil the national interest down to a checklist. Now it has moved to limit the definition by establishing one narrow case as a general precedent. Its motive may be natural bureaucratic fondness for dull categories, or an inclination to go along with the anti-immigrant flow of the public mood. Either way, some of the world's more creative and less conventional migrants are already being advised these days to look for friendlier shores.

"If we close this door, we're going to lose a lot of talented people," says Carolyn Soloway, an Atlanta attorney who represents some of them. She had a national-interest applicant refused a visa for the first time 18 months ago. "The quirkiest and kookiest can contribute the most," she says. "It's stimulating to have them in American society, whether you agree with their lifestyles or not."

When Ms. Soloway says this, she is thinking of Nicola Griffith, one of her clients. Ms. Griffith comes from Leeds, in England, and was admitted to the U.S. in the national interest a few years ago. She is a lesbian science-fiction writer.

"I'm sitting in the corner of my kitchen," she says on the phone from Seattle; as novelists do, she describes things: "It's one of those Seattle days, half cloudy, half sunny, spatters of rain and birds singing. When I look out the back window, all I can see is trees: cherry, ash, pear. I'm in a little aerie. It's nice."

Ms. Griffith, 37 years old, was a waitress in England, a tree surgeon, a bouncer, an alcohol-and-drugs counselor. With a shaved head and big boots, she sang in a lesbian band. She also wrote science-fiction stories. In 1988, she went to a Michigan writers' workshop, met an American woman and moved in with her in Atlanta. By 1993, still on a temporary visa, Ms. Griffith made up her mind to stay.

But how?

Every path to permanent residency -- a green card -- was closed to her, including marriage to an American citizen. "I wasn't going to marry a straight boy or a gay boy," she says. "I've been an out dyke since I was 15. Why should I lie now?" But Ms. Griffith was at work on her first novel, "Ammonite," about a planet peopled by women who have babies by photosynthesis. When she consulted Ms. Soloway, the lawyer said, "Can you get famous with this book?"

Not too famous -- just famous enough to whet the national interest. "I was really bloody-minded about it," says Ms. Griffith, "utterly determined." Her book came out, got a good review in the Washington Post and won a gay literary award for a work that "best examines gender roles in science fiction." Close, but she still needed an endorsement from somebody a lot more famous than that.

"The hardest part, for an English person, was asking," Ms. Griffith says. "You're never supposed to blow your horn." A friend had once met the poet Allen Ginsberg. Ms. Griffith wrote him. He wrote back: "Nicola Griffith is an astonishingly gifted writer. ... Her work is of the very best in the lesbian and gay literary field. ... In my opinion, it is in the national interest to grant her immigrant status in this country."

Ms. Soloway sent the application to the INS, praying "it wouldn't fall on the desk of a homophobe." Her cover letter said: "Let the United States avail itself of this unique opportunity to capture a treasure." The U.S. did. Unworried about her gender or her genre, the INS gave Ms. Griffith a green card in no time.

She and her partner moved to Seattle in 1995, where the beer and the rain are more familiar. What has she done in the national interest lately? Ms. Griffith says, "I buy food," then adds: "None of my characters talk about being dykes, they just are. They don't encounter homophobia. That's influenced some people, I think, for the better. Of course, I would say that, wouldn't I?"

This was actually an interesting interview process. The writer, Barry Newman, liked me. He told me upfront that, given his editorial instructions, it would be a hostile interview. (I think he felt sorry for me; I was so naive.) So the final result was not a surprise. And that 'photosynthesis' instead of 'parthenogenesis' made it a lot easier to handle: I could giggle, and think, What do they know? Since then, I've had much worse treatment from journalists--and I use the term loosely--who pretend to be friendly, and then are not. One even came into my home and drank tea at my kitchen table and made nice and then eviscerated me and my work in print the next week. It was a terrible shock. She is on my permanent shit list--not for writing bad things but for being deceitful. I haven't been naive about journalists since.

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