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Teens, Sex And Tech Tear A 'Beautiful Life' Apart

Helen Schulman tells the story of a New York family's fall from grace in This Beautiful Life. Critic Maureen Corrigan says the novel is a parent's nightmare -- a cautionary tale about what happens when hormones meet the Internet.

06:14

Other segments from the episode on August 15, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 15, 2011. Interview with Nancy Segal; Interview with Marlene Zuk; Review of Helen Schulman's novel "This Beautiful Life."

Transcript

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Learning Your Sister Is 'Someone Else's Twin'

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this
week.

For years, researchers have studied twins who are raised apart from one
another for clues into how much of our personalities, intelligence and
interests are inherited and how much are products of our environment. No
one's been more involved in those efforts than our guest, Nancy Segal.

She's a professor of psychology at California State Fullerton, and
director of the Twin Study Center, which she founded 20 years ago. She's
also a fraternal twin.

Segal's new book is about three babies born and raised in Spain's Canary
Islands, off the Moroccan coast. Two of the newborns were identical
twins, and due to a hospital mix-up, one of them was sent home with an
unrelated mother who'd given birth to a single daughter. That child was
raised in the wrong home as the remaining twin's sister. No one in
either family discovered the mix-up until the girls were grown, and the
resulting heartache and litigation became a national story in Spain.

Segal's book about the case and the issues it raises is called "Someone
Else's Twin: The True Story of Babies Switched at Birth."

DAVIES: Well, Nancy Segal, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Professor NANCY SEGAL (California State Fullerton): Lovely to be here.

DAVIES: Give us the basics of this story, where these twins were born,
what happened at birth.

Ms. SEGAL: These twins, Begonia and Delia, were born in Las Palmas in
the Canary Islands, located off the coast of Morocco. When the twins
were born, they were born just about the same time as a single child,
and a nurse took one of the twins out for a procedure and brought her
back to the wrong place in the hospital, inadvertently switching the
twin with the single child.

This caused the single child to grow up with the wrong set of parents
and caused an unrelated pair of girls to grow up in a family thinking
all their lives that they were fraternal twins. When they turned 28, the
twin who was raised in the right family went to a shopping mall and was
suddenly approached by a shop clerk who asked if she wasn't someone
else, and she said no, and she just walked on.

When she returned several days later, with the girl that she thought all
her life was her twin, the shop person approached her again and said you
look just like my friend. And she turned to the sister and said you look
just like my friend's sister.

And the resemblances were so striking that a meeting was arranged for
that evening, and it turned out that these two twins who had been
separated for 28 years realized that they really belonged together. DNA
tests followed, the twinship was confirmed, and everyone's life just
fell apart.

DAVIES: Well, there's a lot of twin research, and you've done much of it
for many, many years, and I want to talk about some of what we've
learned. But first, explain, if you will, the basic biology of fraternal
versus identical twins.

Ms. SEGAL: Fraternal twins are created when a mother releases two eggs
at the same time, and they're separately fertilized by two separate
sperm from the father. And these children are no more alike genetically
than ordinary brothers and sisters.

They may look somewhat alike, but they may look quite different. They
share half their genes in common, on average.

Identical twins result when a single fertilized egg divides, sometime
between the first and 14th day after conception. And these twins share
100 percent of their genes in common and of course look very, very much
alike.

The beauty of these two types of twins for researchers like myself is
that we can use them to understand the genetic and(ph) environmental
influences on behavior by simply comparing similarities between
identical twins and fraternals.

DAVIES: Now, just to back up, when these two twins were born in the
hospital, wasn't the mom told that the twins were identical and didn't
she realize when she brought them home they were not?

Ms. SEGAL: Well, the mom who delivered the twins was told they were
identical except that she did not get them at the same time, and she
never really spent time with them because she herself had a health
problem. And she never thought to question the fact that they didn't
look the same.

A lot of people don't pay too much attention to identical versus
fraternal. Maybe they do more now, but at that time they really didn't.
And remember that they were under the influence of the former Franco
regime, where people didn't question what hospitals did.

And so even if one of the babies was a little bit more dark-skinned than
the other members of her family, but she just rationalized that as a
little bit of intermarriage back in my husband's family.

The other mother, it turned out, received a baby that was a little bit
lighter-skinned than the other members of her family, and she too
rationalized on the basis of some intermarriage back in her husband's
family.

DAVIES: Okay, so then at age 28, because they live some miles apart, the
presumed twins are in an urban community, the one living alone is in a
rural community, but eventually people recognized them. This chance
meeting brings them together, and they discover this.

I want to consider the reactions of all of the various parties here
because they all have a unique position. But one of the things that's
fascinating is that the two twins didn't tell their respective families
immediately, did they? They kept that a secret.

Ms. SEGAL: That's right. The twins kept this a secret from their
families because they feared the families' reactions. Imagine a mother
raising a child for 28 years and suddenly finding out that it's not her
child.

DAVIES: All right, so let's see how the different parties reacted to
this emotionally traumatic information. Let's start with Beatriz. She's
the one who discovers she is not biologically related to the sister she
thought was her twin or to the mother who had reared her or her father
and her siblings. How did she take this news?

Ms. SEGAL: Beatriz feared rejection by her family. She thought if I'm
not part of them, maybe they won't want me, maybe they won't love me
anymore. All of her life, Beatriz felt different from her twin and from
her sisters, and this was reinforced because she did not look like them
and she felt different from them. So her reaction was that she was going
to lose a family and lose a twin.

In some ways, you might say her reaction was the most difficult, but I
wouldn't say that. I think everyone's reaction was just different. But
nevertheless, she suffered tremendously.

DAVIES: A tremendous fear that she would be rejected by these folks that
she thought were her family. Now, her sister, or the woman she thought
was her sister, was Begonia. She discovers that the sister she grew up
and loved as a twin is indeed not her biological sister. But somewhere
else there has been, all these 28 years, a twin, somebody who looks and
acts like her, who has lived a life apart. She meets her. Give us a
sense of what this was like for her.

Ms. SEGAL: When Begonia first set eyes on Delia, it was shock and it was
disbelief, perhaps an unusual lookalike. But the similarities were just
too overwhelming - the way they looked, the way they gestured, the kinds
of things that they thought about. An immediate connection formed
between them.

I think that Begonia also worried a great deal about Beatriz because
Beatriz was a rather dependent and needy type, and one thing about
Begonia that was just truly marvelous was that she cared so much about
Beatriz, truly loved her and truly made her feel that she would never be
rejected.

DAVIES: Beatriz being the one who thought she was her twin. So her
reaction in some ways was to be very protective of the emotions of the
woman she grew up with as her sister.

Ms. SEGAL: Yes.

DAVIES: Then we have Delia. She was one of the two identical twins who
was separated and lived a life apart from her twin and with a family
whom she was not related to. How did she react?

Ms. SEGAL: Delia also went through the shock, the disbelief and the
eventual acceptance that Begonia did, and many things that puzzled Delia
over the years, why she looked so different from her two younger sisters
and why she was so different from them, all kind of came clear to her.
She understood things that she never understood before.

And the tragic part about Delia's situation was that she developed
leukemia when she was 16, and Begonia, of course, would have been the
perfect donor for bone marrow had she been available. But this was never
known. And Delia was forced to undergo a much riskier procedure.

But I think that what Delia and Begonia both together were experiencing
was this loss of a truly marvelous relationship that they could have
had, had they been raised together as they should have been, because the
connection between them was almost immediate.

I will say, though, that they didn't really have the opportunity to
develop that relationship because of all the pressures from other family
members - from their mother, who was devastated; from the other mother
and father who just could not believe that the daughter they had been
raising all their lives was not theirs; and then Beatriz, of course, who
needed Begonia's protection.

So Delia and Begonia had to carry on their relationship almost at a
distance, and since I was in Las Palmas and saw them there and have been
following them since, they still maintain their closeness, but they
really haven't had the opportunity to develop that bond.

DAVIES: Nancy Segal's new book is called "Someone Else's Twin: The True
Story of Babies Switched at Birth." We'll talk more after a short break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're speaking with Nancy Segal. Her new book is "Someone Else's
Twin: The True Story of Babies Switched at Birth." It's about a real
case in the Canary Islands, in which two identical twins were switched
at birth at the hospital. One was reared with another girl, who was not
her biological sister but reared as if they were twins, as far as that
family knew, and then one of the identical twins was raised miles away
in a different family.

And just to recap, because this can get confusing to someone who's just
tuning in, we have Begonia, one of the twins, who was raised in an urban
environment, in which I believe you report she had more cultural and
educational opportunities; and her identical twin, Delia, was raised in
a rural setting with a different family that she was not biologically
related to.

Talk a bit, if you would, just about how much Delia and Begonia actually
were alike, despite these very different environments they were raised
in.

Ms. SEGAL: Begonia and Delia were a lot more alike in many ways despite
their different rearing. Neither one of them really went terribly far in
school initially, but later on in life they developed interests that
they wanted to pursue.

They had the similar way of walking. They had similar tastes and similar
opinions on many, many topics. And what really impressed me was how
Begonia said that she and Delia could come into understanding so rapidly
something she could not do with Beatriz. Now...

DAVIES: Beatriz being the one that she had thought was her twin but not
biologically related. Yeah, go ahead.

Ms. SEGAL: That's correct. She had lived with Beatriz for 28 years, and
yet they could not come to the same level of understanding or agreement
that she could achieve so readily with Delia.

DAVIES: And then, of course, there are the moms. We have one mom reared
what she thought were twins. It turns out one was her own daughter,
another completely unrelated young woman, who she loved and adored for
having raised her 28 years.

We have another mom miles away, who's raised a daughter who turns out
she's not biologically related to. Do you want to talk a little bit
about what it was like for them?

Ms. SEGAL: Well, it was shocking for the mothers to suddenly discover
that the child they were raising was not really theirs. I remember
speaking with Begonia's mother, and she didn't have her husband there.
He had died about six years earlier.

And she said she literally went crazy thinking that this was not her
child. She had put all of her trust and faith in the doctors who
delivered her babies.

Now, she heard the news from her daughters, but the other mother, the
one who raised Delia, that mother and father actually heard the news in
quite surprising ways.

The mother was watching television one day, had the local news on, and
apparently Delia had discussed several things with the press, and
suddenly the mother heard her neighborhood being mentioned, she heard a
baby being mentioned that was born the same day as her daughter, and
then she saw her house. And this, put together, actually told her in
some ways that this child was not hers.

Now, I was a little surprised at how quickly and willingly she was to
believe all this, and it makes me suspect that maybe deep down somewhere
there was a doubt, a slight doubt because of Delia's differences in
appearance and behavior from the rest of the family, although I can't
prove that.

But she seemed so willing to believe that this switched baby was hers.

DAVIES: And in Delia's case, and she, again, is the identical twin who
was separated and lived with a family not her own, in this rural
setting, she ended up in a complete rupture with the parents that she
was reared with, did not even invite them to her wedding. Why was that?

Ms. SEGAL: Delia did not enjoy a close relationship with her parents. In
fact, she was largely raised in her grandparents' house. And she didn't
get along for many years, and she certainly clashed with her sisters,
but she explained her disagreements with her parents as the usual
adolescent difficulties that everyone goes through.

But when she suddenly learned that she was a member of a totally
different family, she kept the news hidden. But when it was finally
revealed, she felt that she had no place to go. She was quite torn
between staying in that family and leaving.

She had an attachment, if not a close relationship, with those parents.
She felt that she belonged in that family, even though she was so
different. After all, she was raised by them. And she finally contacted
an attorney, who then suggested she contact a psychiatrist, who really
said to her you can't go back there.

Now, Begonia's mother was willing to take Delia in as her own daughter,
but Delia simply did not regard Begonia's mother as her own mother. She
still regarded the mother who reared her as her own. But she felt caught
between these two worlds in which she really did not feel comfortable.

Now Delia is married. She has an independent life, and I think for the
first time she's content.

DAVIES: This was a case of two twins separated by mistake at birth, and
then an error that was not discovered until they were already adults.
You describe another case in the book, and there are a number, but one
that you describe is a case of two twins in Switzerland, also separated
by error at birth, and the error was discovered when they were, I guess,
seven years old. Do you want to just briefly describe that case? It's
very different.

Ms. SEGAL: Yes. In a small town called Fribourg, Switzerland, in July,
1941, just one or two days apart, a mother gave birth to identical
twins; another mother gave birth to a single child. And this hospital,
very small, had only 12 cribs, and instead of using baby bracelets, they
simply hung a little sign on the post of the bed.

At any rate, something happened, we don't know what, to cause one of the
single babies to be switched with one of the twins. And the mother of
the twins was French-speaking, and the mother of the single child was
German-speaking. And typically in Fribourg, these different people kept
fairly much apart.

But the mother of the twins wanted her children to be fluent in the
German language. So when the boys were six years old, she had them
enrolled in the same German-speaking school as the single boy, and
suddenly everybody was struck by the appearance or the similar
appearance between one of the twins and the single child.

Eventually, at a school parade, the father of the twins met the mother
of the single boy, and after some discussion it became quite clear that
this was probably a switched-at-birth twin case. The three boys were
then sent to Geneva to have 12 very comprehensive days of medical
testing.

It turned out that a switch had occurred, and it was left to the justice
of the peace of Fribourg to decide the fate of these children.

DAVIES: And he made the decision to reunite them with their biological
parents, right?

Ms. SEGAL: Correct, he did, and he made the decision to return them to
their families and switch their names.

DAVIES: And what was the impact of that?

Ms. SEGAL: Well, the impact was devastating to everybody. The children
were totally shocked. Seven-year-old children develop close bonds with
their families, and not only that, they couldn't speak the language of
the family. And the mothers were absolutely devastated. They so loved
these children, and parting with them was just torment for everyone
involved.

I always felt that the boys should have stayed where they were, and
because the families lived in the same town, they could have arranged
meetings between the families, almost a joint custody. But of course in
the late 1940s, those kinds of arrangements were probably not possible.

There were not child development specialists the way we have them now.
The importance of attachment between a child and a parent might not have
been in place and appreciated the way it is today.

So everyone suffered, and they suffer today.

DAVIES: You make the point that despite, you know, the similarities and
affinity among identical twins, that in a case where they have been
reared apart, it's far better to keep them with the parents who have
reared them.

Ms. SEGAL: Well, I should say that I've always been a strong advocate
for bringing twins together. But I think that at the age of seven, that
becomes very, very difficult. And in this particular case, because
everyone lived in the same town, arranging for common meetings or joint
custody would have been easier if people had thought about that.

Now, there was another case I mentioned in the book of two pairs of
twins, all female, born in Puerto Rico, and the switch was discovered
when the children were only one and a half. What had happened here was
that one child in each pair had been switched so that each set of
parents took home one of their twins and someone else's twin.

And the children were eventually switched back at age two. It was
traumatic momentarily for some of the children, but they quickly forgot
and adapted to their new families. But it was a painful decision for the
parents and still is because they came to truly love the babies they'd
been raising.

DAVIES: You know, there are issues involved in rearing twins, and one of
them is when they go to school, should they be sent to separate
classrooms? And I gather sort of the conventional educational wisdom is
yes, they need separation, independence. Do you agree?

Ms. SEGAL: I could not disagree more. I believe that there should be no
single policy for twins, just like there is no single policy for the
educating of non-twins.

Some identical twins in particular do well when they're together.
They're used to being together, they work well together, and I think
that in the early years, to have them separate from one another, as well
as from their parents, upon entering into kindergarten and first grade,
is really a little too much to ask of them.

So what I advise teachers to do is to put the children at different
tables so they can meet other children and still have a sense of where
the other one is. But I really think that you need to take these cases
one by one.

At the start of every school year, I get inundated with telephone calls
and email messages from parents who constantly face school principals
who want to keep children apart. And I just don't think this is in the
best interest of children. I always believe that children, in their own
way, will tell you what's best for them.

DAVIES: Do you advise parents to dress identical twins alike when
they're little?

Ms. SEGAL: I don't advise parents to dress identical twins alike. I
think that what's most important for identical twins is to be called by
their proper name. And that is only going to be possible if they dress
differently and wear their hair somewhat differently.

On the other hand, being an identical twin is a lot of fun. And I think
on occasion identical twins should be allowed to dress the same way if
they choose to, just to enjoy that moment here and there. But as they
get older, most identical twins choose to dress differently.

DAVIES: You've studied twins for so long. What are the unanswered
questions you really want to explore?

Ms. SEGAL: There are a lot of questions concerning twins I'd like to
know the answers to, and one is what causes that fertilized egg to
split. We simply don't know. We know a lot more about what causes
fraternal twinning - that is, older mothers have a higher tendency to
release two eggs at the same time.

I would also like to know more about what causes identical twins to be
so much alike despite the differences between them. And I would like to
know more about the basis of that very strong twin bond that we see
between identical twins.

I've used words like nonjudgmental and intimacy and acceptance to
describe that bond, but I'd like to hear more about that from the twins
themselves.

DAVIES: Well, Nancy Segal, it's been interesting. Thanks so much.

Ms. SEGAL: Thank you.

DAVIES: Nancy Segal is a professor of psychology at California State
Fullerton and director of the Twin Study Center, which she founded in
1991. Her book is called "Someone Else's Twin: The True Story of Babies
Switched at Birth." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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'Sex On Six Legs': When Insects Go Wild

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

Our next guest, Marlene Zuk, can get a little defensive on the subject
of insects. She's a biology professor at the University of California,
Riverside, who spent years studying animal behavior. She says while
everyone loves watching eagle's nests or observing the social behavior
of chimps, fewer appreciate the complex behavior of our six-legged
friends.

It her new book, she says there's evidence that some insects - including
ants and wasps - display individual personalities and learned behaviors
not embedded in their genetic code, and that insects show parenting
skills and mating rituals that are simply amazing.

Marlene Zuk has written two previous books and articles which have
appeared in several publications, including The New York Times. Her new
book is called "Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Love, Life and Language from
the Insect World."

Well, Marlene Zuk, welcome to FRESH AIR. You write in this book that
insects bring home the uneasy truth that you don't need a big brain to
do big things, like, for example, learn from others. Can insects learn?
Do we see this?

Ms. MARLENE ZUK (Biologist, University of California Riverside): Yeah.
Insects can learn a lot more than people give them credit for. I think
one of the things I tried to do in the book is to counteract this image
people have of insects as mindless robots that march around driven by
instinct and don't actually respond to their environment.

But it turns out they learn all kinds of things. They can - and in fact,
not only can they learn, for instance, where their food is or to avoid
noxious stimuli, they can even teach each other. So they can teach
another insect what to do, which is a really extraordinary
accomplishment that not a lot of other animals - even vertebrates as we
often think of as pretty smart - can do.

DAVIES: Okay. Well, give us an example. I mean, how do we know we're not
looking at simply a behavior that's embedded in their genes?

Ms. ZUK: So, with the learning, it's a behavior that's called tandem
running in ants. It doesn't look usually dramatic, I will confess. But
still, it means that an ant who's found a food source will come back to
recruit others to go to the same food source. And anybody who's ever had
ants running around their kitchen knows that, you know, you get this
trail. You don't just get one ant going back and forth.

Well, the other ants find out where to go not just from the odors that
the first ant leaves when it goes back - when she goes back and forth,
but also because an ant will find a nest mate and kind of run along
beside her, sort of encouraging her where to go.

One of the researchers that did this work says that it looks like a
parent teaching a child how to ride a bicycle, you know, where you're
kind of going along next to them and along next to them, and you have
your finger kind of - or your hand on the seat kind of guiding them
along.

And so they do this and steer the other individual, showing them where
to go, and will actually wait for them to catch up and make sure they're
going the right direction, and so forth - which, like I said, doesn't
look very dramatic. It looks like two ants walking together. But in
actual fact, it's teaching. But on top of that, there's at least some
social insects that can recognize minute differences in facial
appearance, just the way we would.

There are wasps that can determine which individual is which based on
really subtle distinctions in the black-and-yellow patterning they get
on the head, just like, you know, you look at someone and look at the
relative, you know, width of their nose and their eyebrows and so forth
and can tell different people apart, they can do a very similar kind of
thing.

DAVIES: You know, this is a fascinating experiment that you describe, in
which somebody actually captures these insects and does a little face
painting on them.

Ms. ZUK: Yeah.

DAVIES: I could only imagine how this is accomplished. So they put
markings on the faces of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: ...these - what are they, wasps, or...

Ms. ZUK: They're wasps. Yeah. They're wasps.

DAVIES: Yeah. And then what did they observe? How did they know that
they were - that the wasps were really making these distinctions and the
subtle differences?

Ms. ZUK: So you can put to wasps together, and they'll interact in a way
just like say dogs would, where one of them will become kind of the top
dog and one of them will become the subordinate. And there's really
characteristic behaviors where you can notice that happening. And the
same thing with wasps. You just need to know what to look for. You know,
you could do this with any animal, where then you'd say all right, well,
how are they telling? And then afterwards, they'll behave just exactly,
you know, as if they remember who was dominant and who wasn't dominant
when they were interacting before. So they'll, you know, if you put them
together again, the one that had won the fight will be dominant and get,
say, access to food and so forth.

Well, if you take the one that was previously subordinate and you paint
it to look dominant, or you take the one that was previously dominant
and paint it to look subordinate, you end up with a slight change in
behavior. So it's like they'll look at each other and kind of stop, as
if you saw your friend wearing a mask. And some things about it looked
familiar, but wait a minute, the face is wrong. You look different. And
the wasps have a really similar sort of reaction, where they kind of
stop and don't behave as though they would to the same individual.

I mean, the actual mechanics of doing this, yeah, I mean it is a little
funny, and you do spend a lot of time, you know, working with really
tiny things. And people who work with stinging insects do have special
ways to not get stung and so forth. But...

DAVIES: Okay. You've just got to tell me: How do we take a wasp then
give it makeup?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ZUK: You need to have a very calm wasp, a very calm wasp. Often you
can either anesthetize insects - there's a couple of short-acting
chemicals you can use, essentially, you know, giving them anesthesia. Or
you can chill down insects, and that often slows them down enough that
you can do things like that, too. Because remember, insects are cold-
blooded. And so anytime you put them in a cold environment, they kind of
go into suspended animation. So a lot of people who work with insects do
that, too.

But the other thing is - and again, this speaks to kind of the insect-
phobia that I also talk about in the book, that insects are really not
out to get you. Certainly, if you pick up a wasp and start messing with
her, then yes, she's probably likely to want to sting you if you're not
careful. But by and large, it's not like you're constantly having to
defend yourself against these, you know, horrible, aggressive insects
that if you're not careful will try to, you know, bite your hand off or
something. So...

DAVIES: You study crickets a lot, right?

Ms. ZUK: I do.

DAVIES: And you have a fascinating story about going into Hawaii and
discovered there are crickets there who are quiet. What was going on,
and why was that interesting to you?

Ms. ZUK: So we've been working for a long time on a species of cricket
that's common all through northern Australia and the Pacific. It's sort
of subtropical. It's been introduced to Hawaii. And in Hawaii, I
stumbled on this really interesting relationship where the crickets are
subject to a parasitic fly. And so the fly can hear the crickets
calling, and crickets, of course, call to attract mates. So all the
chirping you hear outside when you go outside on a summer night, all of
that nice, melodious sound is male crickets desperate for sex.

Obviously, that's very important for evolution, because the more they
sing, the more they're going to attract females, and therefore, the more
they're going to pass their genes on. That's fine.

The problem in Hawaii is that these crickets also, by singing, attract
the attention of a parasitic fly. The fly can hear the song as well or
better than a female cricket. She flies over. The female fly goes over
to the cricket, deposits these larvae on and around it. The larvae
burrow inside the cricket while the cricket's still alive and live,
there consuming his tissues for a week or so while he's gradually
getting weaker but, you know, is still functioning. So it's like they've
got preserved food to eat, the larvae of the fly do.

And then eventually after about a week, they burst out, just like the
movie "Alien," and kill the cricket, and then the fly pupates in the
soil and then becomes an adult fly.

I got interested in this because, from an evolutionary perspective, it's
the perfect conflict. The more the male calls, the better it is from an
evolutionary perspective, because the more females he's going to
attract. So it's a good thing.

But the more the male calls, the more flies he's going to attract, which
is going to kill him, which is obviously a bad thing. And yet it's the
same call that's attracting both kinds of insects. So how does evolution
sort out these conflicting selection pressures? And so we've been
studying there for quite a long time.

The silent cricket that you just mentioned has been a really recent and
really exciting development, which is that we noticed on one of the
islands where the crickets occurred, we were finding fewer and fewer
individuals and we couldn't, you know, here as many. I keep them in my
lab, and I couldn't find as many females to lay eggs for my lab colony.

And eventually, I thought, okay, they're just going to go extinct. This
is actually an introduced species with an introduced parasite, and
sometimes that's unstable. So, all right, never mind, you know, these
things are dynamic, and they're just going to go extinct eventually.

But one day we came back, and I didn't hear any crickets at all, but
started to go to the field site anyway, figuring, you know, you may as
well see if there's anything around. And I started seeing lots and lots
and lots of crickets. So there were many more there than had been
before, but none of them were making a sound. It turned out that they
were not making a sound not because they were behaviorally refraining
from it, that it wasn't that they didn't want to, it was that they
couldn't. Their wings now show this mutation that renders them
completely silent.

DAVIES: So it protects them from the parasite. But what do they do for
sex?

Ms. ZUK: Ah, yes. Exactly. I mean - and it does protect them from the
parasite, because the fly can't find them if they can't call. But, of
course, then the female shouldn't be able to find them, either.

It turns out that it's not all the males that show this mutation. About
10 to 15 percent of the male are still normal-winged callers, as per
usual. And those can attract females just like any male could. The
silent males, the ones that now have this mutation, get very close to
the callers, hang around them, and in so doing, kind of take advantage
of the females that are attracted to the callers and can mate with them
as they move toward the singing males.

DAVIES: There's a lot of interesting stuff in this book about sex,
reproduction, mating. And you found that the competition among males to
reproduce has some interesting manifestations, and in many cases, that
competitions - occurs after they mate. They have these particular
physical adaptations to make theirs the sperm that does the job. Give us
an example or two of this.

Ms. ZUK: Sure. Insects are a great way to study how sex isn't really
over when it's over. People tend to think that after mating has
happened, well, since you can't see anything, then that must be it and
everything is just finished. But an insect - and as it's turning out in
lots of other animals, but insects are a great way to study this, if a
female insect mates with more than one male in pretty rapid succession,
as lots of insects do, then there's an opportunity for the sperm of
those males - so the males themselves are long gone. But there's an
opportunity for the sperm of those males to compete inside the body of
the female in a process that's called sperm competition. And males have
lots of tricks that they use to get their sperm to fertilize the eggs
rather than another male's.

So, for example, in damsel flies, they've got these special scoops on
the intermittent organ – the penis, in effect, of the male - that they
can use to drag out the sperm from a previous male and replace it with
their own.

DAVIES: Wow. And what's the evolutionary value of that? Why would a
species in which males have that ability be more likely to survive? I
mean, why would one individual's sperm be better than another? Why is
that better for the survival and propagation of the species?

Ms. ZUK: It's not that it's necessarily better for the species as a
whole, but pretty much everything we see in evolution happens because it
perpetuates the individual genes that are, you know, doing whatever it
is. So, no, it's not necessarily better for the species, but it means
that if I am able to displace the sperm of another male, then the genes,
for being able to displace the sperm of another male, are going to be
the ones that fertilize the eggs of the female that I just displaced the
sperm from another male in. And so her offspring are all going to be
able to displace sperm. Well, guess what happens? You end up with a
population in which everybody can do this, and there's competition among
males to do it the best.

DAVIES: Now there are also ways in which males try and get females to
accept their sperm, right? Some fascinating examples of that.

Ms. ZUK: In a lot of Orthoptera like crickets and katydids and their
relatives, males produce sperm that's external. It's in a little package
called the spermatophore. But in the species, it's attached to what is
called a spermatophylax, which is this big, globby thing that is - has a
lot of protein in it. It's very nutritious. And the female eats it while
the sperm are draining into her body.

Now the males have to produce this before the female will mate. If he
just goes up to her and jut has the little sperm package, she won't mate
with him. If he gives her the spermatophylax, she will mate with him,
but the bigger and more nutritious it is, the longer she spends eating
it, and therefore the more of his sperm drain into her body and
fertilize her eggs. So there's a lot of selection on males to produce
this very costly - what's called a nuptial gift. And it can often weigh
up to 30 percent of the male's body weight.

DAVIES: Marlene Zuk's new book is called "Sex on Six Legs."

We'll talk more after a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is biologist Marlene Zuk.
Her new book is called "Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love and
Language from the Insect World."

There's some remarkable stuff in here about parenting, taking care of
eggs, raising kids. And it's interesting to discover that there are
plenty of cases where the dads take care, right?

Ms. ZUK: Oh, absolutely. And let me point out that insects make great
parents. One beautiful example that if people go out to streams and
rivers in - especially in parts of the American Southwest that they can
see - are giant water bugs. And giant, of course, is a relative term.
They're probably, oh, I don't know, maybe a little bit bigger than a
dollar coin or something like that, which is, you know, big for a bug.
And they live streams.

And the males actually carry around the eggs on their back for the whole
time that the eggs are incubating. And then when they hatch, sometimes
they'll take care of them a little bit more. Sometimes they'll just let
them go. But the moms just lay the eggs on the back of the male and then
swim off and never a care in the world.

DAVIES: Any idea why that happens?

Ms. ZUK: It's kind of a hard road to hoe for fathers to be the main
caregivers because, of course, in insects, as in lots of other animals,
it's never entirely certain that the father is actually the father of
the offspring that come out of the eggs that the female laid, because,
of course, the fertilization happened inside the body of the female. And
so she can lay these eggs and you can have mated with her, but what if
she mated with somebody else? And so this is called certainty of
paternity, and it means that - in some cases, at least - there's not a
lot of payoff for males to take care of their babies, because the babies
might not really be genetically theirs.

In the case of the water bugs, though, it's very clever, because the
female puts the eggs on the males' back before they're fertilized. And
so then the male can put his sperm on them, and they're absolutely
certain to be his.

DAVIES: Now, you also find cases where insects eat their babies, or at
least their eggs. Give us an example, and tell us why this makes
evolutionary sense.

Ms. ZUK: Again, it's one of these things where sometimes doing something
that seems drastic in the short-term but pays off in the long-term is
really a good idea. For example, if you have a lot of eggs and the
breeding season is kind of going on and on, you're not able to find a
lot of food for yourself, you're going to be better off by eating some
of those eggs, consuming them. And so, of course, they'll survive, but
the ones that remain will get the protection that you can give them by
hanging on long enough to take care of them. So it's a way of
sacrificing the few for the sake of the rest.

DAVIES: And we also see siblicide, right? I mean, young coming out and
eating their brothers and sisters.

Ms. ZUK: Oh, absolutely. And, in fact, it is often kind of a larva-eat-
larva world out there. So if - again, if insects are all in the same
place or if the babies are all in the same place, then the first one
that hatches will often have, as its first act, consuming an egg that's
next it that hasn't had the good fortune to hatch yet. And so siblicide
turns out to be quite common. And again, it's one of these things where
if you can pass your genes on better by doing it, then that's just
what's going to happen.

DAVIES: Now, you also have this fascinating chapter on communication
among insects. And you cite an example of how bees who - where a hive
has gotten big and a portion of the bees in the hive were going to go
out and start a new one will collectively scout out a location and then
communicate, in effect, kind of have a debate and a decision about where
they're going to go. Describe this.

Ms. ZUK: So this is one of the most, I think, understudied and
remarkable things that insects can do. We talk about the complexity of
behavior, they have complex decision-making. And you, you know, you can
liken it to finding a new place to live. Imagine if every time you found
a new house, you had to find it with thousands and thousands of, you
know, your friends and relations. Well, in this case, it's all your
relations, but, anyway. And you all had to agree on exactly where to go,
exactly when to go there and how to find your way.

So bees seem to be able to do this by sending out scouts. So they'll
send out a few individual - when a hive is ready to split, they'll send
out a few individuals that will go looking for an appropriate place to
live and then come back and perform a dance behavior that indicates
where this place might be. And by sort of putting the various dances
together that different individuals do, the bees are actually able to
come to a consensus about where they're going to go. And then once
they've reached that consensus, they all go there. And this is an
amazing ability, again, because their brains are so small.

And this is one of the reasons that insects are so cool to study, that
we think decision-making is a tremendously complicated thing. It
requires, you know, your forebrain. It requires your cerebral cortex. It
requires all this gray matter. Bees don't have any of that, and yet they
seem to be able to do exactly the same thing. One of the people studying
the bees said, you know, it makes you wonder: What are we doing with our
brains? What are they for?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Well, just to be clear about this, we're talking about a case
where the dance isn't about - isn't one bee describing a single, you
know, new location for a potential hive. There are actually multiple
locations that are being described through...

Ms. ZUK: Each dancer will describe its own - each dancer will
describe...

DAVIES: Yeah.

Ms. ZUK: ...a place where it has been, and then eventually the hive sort
of weighs all of the various places and goes to one of them. And exactly
how they do this and exactly what the criteria are for going for one
place over another is still really, you know, being studied right now by
lots of scientists.

DAVIES: Well, Marlene Zuk, it's been interesting. Thanks so much.

Ms. ZUK: Thank you.

DAVIES: Marlene Zuk's book is called "Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life,
Love and Language from the Insect World."

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan on a disturbing novel about childrearing in
the digital age.

This is FRESH AIR.
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Teens, Sex And Tech Tear A 'Beautiful Life' Apart

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Book critic Maureen Corrigan says Helen Schulman's "This Beautiful Life"
is a finely wrought literary novel that should come wrapped in yellow
caution tape. Here's her review and her warning.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: I've been on a roll this summer, reading and reviewing
good novels about family crises: Rachel DeWoskin's "Big Girl Small,"
Dana Spiotta's "Stone Arabia," Kevin Wilson's "The Family Fang." But
this latest domestic drama is one I recommend with a big caveat,
especially if you happen to be a parent: Make sure you start Helen
Schulman's new novel, "This Beautiful Life," on a Friday night, so that
when you find yourself compelled to stay up all hours reading it, you
can take the rest of the weekend not only to recover, but to think long
and hard about the advantages for your kids of home schooling,
cloistered convents, kibbutzes, monasteries and ashrams, or perhaps a
semester abroad program in Antarctica.

You think I jest, but "This Beautiful Life" is one scary story, made
more so by Schulman's great gifts as a close and often funny observer of
upper-class social customs.

Here's the situation: The Bergamot family moves from idyllic Ithaca to
New York City when the dad, Richard, accepts a high-level administrative
position at a Columbia-type university. Mom, Liz, has a Ph.D. in art
history, but she's put her own fuzzy career ambitions on hold to raise
son Jake, who's now 15, and daughter Coco, six.

The Bergamots find themselves plunked into the world of elite private
schools, which include kindergarten sleepovers at The Plaza Hotel and
birthday-party chartered cruises around Manhattan. In the contemporary
comedy-of-manners tradition of a novel like Allison Pearson's "I Don't
Know How She Does It," Schulman, through Liz's alienated perspective,
dissects the various cliques standing outside Coco's elementary school
at pickup time.

Here's a sampling: The JAPs with the JAPs, the head-banded preppy moms
with the preppies, the stray earth mother in Birkenstocks with a baby in
a sling.

Next on the food chain, the caregivers: a couple of grad students
reading Kierkegaard or Sartre and listening to their iPods, the small,
dark fortress of the Caribbean nannies.

Liz saw a clutch of yummy mummies at the foot of the steps. She knew
queen bees when she saw them. They were tall in their metallic sandals,
their skinny yoga butts trim in their designer jeans. Only experience
told her that when these ladies turned away from their gabby circle to
place a cell phone call to their driver or decorator or art consultant,
that the skin on their faces would be pure leather.

Fraught with tension as that female gauntlet may be, the consequences of
a social misstep prove to be much more dire in Jake's teenaged world. At
an un-chaperoned house party one weekend, Jake attracts the attentions
of a lust-struck eighth-grade girl. He rebuffs her, sort-of, but
undeterred, she sends him a homemade sexually explicit video later that
night. Jake freaks out when he sees the video in the privacy of his room
and, out of a mixture of fright and sexual braggadocio, he forwards the
girl's email to a guy friend, who then sends it on to his friends.

Schulman describes the burgeoning virtual disaster this way: By Monday,
it was all over school. Kids were downloading it and watching it in the
library. Kids were finding it on porno sites. It was all over the
country, maybe the world, even, so fast. Just like that. Forward and
Send. It was kind of incredible how fast it went, faster than fire,
practically the speed of sound or even light.

Within weeks, the flourishing future that the Bergamot family envisioned
for itself has withered, all because of a few impulsive, adolescent
finger clicks on the computer.

What sets "This Beautiful Life" apart from, say, your average Lifetime
movie of the week domestic drama is not only Shulman's closely observed
depictions of the Bergamot family's collapse, but also her smart
dramatization of how powerless we all are before the mighty, privacy-
dissolving force of the Internet. At the climax of the novel, a
distressed Liz cries to her husband about their children: I don't know
how to protect them. The genie's out of the bottle. It's in the air.

That last line sounds like it could have come out of a 1950s horror
movie. Indeed, as wry and entertaining as Shulman's social observations
are, it's the totally convincing nightmare aspect of her novel that will
keep parental readers up at night, wondering how on earth to pull the
drawbridges up and shutter the windows against this most potent,
invisible home invader.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.
She reviewed "This Beautiful Life," by Helen Shulman.

You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair. And
you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
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