Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Baboons, Foxes and Stu of Silverton

RadioLab explored the murky realm of change, examining the pacification of male baboons, domestication of Russian foxes and the transgender migration of Stu Rasmussen.

mcclaran-021309-portland-or323955mcclaran-s-rasmussen-MG-0955You don’t have to be a Darwinian to find this array of specimens curious – or funny. But after listening to the NPR show over the weekend, the odd collection of stories about change somehow made sense.

John Horgan, an American science journalist who wrote The End of Science, wondered what it would take to make humans swear off warfare. After asking random people in the streets of Hoboken, New Jersey, Horgan goes to eastern Africa to observe a population of baboons where males have gone from pusillanimous to peaceniks. Having female baboons groom their males did the trick, and the pacification has endured for years.

Brian Hare recalled the work of Dmitri Belyaev, a geneticist who correctly predicted he would be unwelcome in Moscow under the iron fist of Joseph Stalin and hopped on the TransSiberian Railway to set up a fur farm in the gulag. Under that guise, Belyaev undertook an experiment to see how long it would take to domesticate silver foxes.

The foxes that showed little sign of cozying up to humans became fur costs. Those that warmed to human contact were allowed to breed. And in just 10 years, Belyaev produced a breed of domesticated silver foxes. The snooze-in-front-of-the-hearth foxes changed physically. Their ears drooped, their tails curled and their teeth shortened. Their transformation was for all intents and purposes permanent.

Stu Rasmussen grew up in Silverton, Oregon. He enjoys working with metal and wood and is an electrician. When his dat stepped aside, Stu took over Silverton’s only movie theater. Almost everybody in this small Oregon town knew him. He was just another local guy.

Then Stu started to feel impulses that turned him into something different than just another local guy. At first, he manicured and painted his nails. Then he started wearing women’s clothing. Finally, he underwent an operation to give him fulsome female breasts.

s-STU-RASMUSSEN-largeInitially, Stu’s transformation generated some alarm. Teenagers in town were told not to go to the movies so they avoided contact with Stu. But gradually people grew accustomed to Stu being one of the local gals, working on the library board and active in civic life. In 2008, they elected Stu mayor of Silverton, the first transgender mayor in America. The biggest complaint locals had was that Stu showed too much cleavage at city council meetings.

His election drew national attention, and some people simply couldn’t restrain themselves from going to Silverton to protest in person, condemning the man in women’s clothing.

And this is where the story about change gets really fascinating. While the bricks and bats were aimed at Stu, the entire town – including those upset at Stu’s exposed cleavage – rose to his defense. They didn’t write supportive letters to the editor. Men dressed up in women’s clothing and walked around town. Women dressed in men’s clothing and did the same. Stu didn’t need to say a word. His neighbors said it for him: Clothes don’t make the man – or woman.

And in a larger sense, change can occur a lot faster and in a lot of ways than many people could ever imagine. Even Darwin.




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