Life Cycles

Here are some of the cover lines we toyed with for senior editor Samuel Hughes’ story on Assistant Professor of Psychology David White, an animal behaviorist who studies the mating and other habits of Molothrus ater, better known as the brown-headed cowbird:

“Nature’s Deadbeat Dads (and Moms).”

“Cowbirds Gone Wild!”

“Invasion of the Egg Snatchers.”

(Given the reader complaint in “Letters” about our headlines, it’s probably best that we opted for the less tabloid-friendly “Evolution in Flight.”)

Cowbirds are ubiquitous, having spread over most of North America, but their reproductive success has nothing to do with exceptional parenting skills—in fact, cowbirds don’t do child-rearing, instead slipping their eggs into other unsuspecting birds’ nests for hatching and feeding. Despite often never having seen another cowbird, males of the species can sing—and females can recognize—cowbird song. Once this was seen as evidence that they were genetically preprogrammed, but White’s research suggests that, on the contrary, they are highly adaptable and sensitive to their environment and circumstances.

Many of the poor women sociologist Kathryn Edin interviewed for her new book, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, also defy stereotypes. In “Gazetteer,” Edin talks with associate editor Susan Frith about her research. The study found that marriage remains a goal for poor women, but is seen as something to do after they’ve established themselves economically.

There’s also no evidence that having babies before marriage affects these women’s economic prospects—“their prospects are so bad anyway,” Edin notes. In fact, while some single mothers “fail miserably,” she adds, for others the experience of caring for a baby actually helps turn their lives around: “Babies may be getting moms together on some level.”

When we wrote about Bill Novelli C’64 ASC’64 a few years ago, he was fighting for children as the head of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. These days, as CEO of AARP, he’s moved to the other end of the actuarial tables, but he’s still fighting. In “Gray is Good” frequent contributor Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 writes about how, under Novelli’s leadership, the organization broke with tradition by siding with the Republicans to pass a controversial 2003 law adding a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare and more recently has been leading the battle against the Bush administration’s proposals to privatize Social Security.

Novelli, who is writing a book on “boomer aging,” believes that, rather than a demographic disaster in the making, it offers an opportunity to rethink our whole notion of aging. For a different view, turn to this issue’s “Expert Opinion,” in which Dr. Laurence Kotlikoff C’73 conjures a scenario in which “77 million Baby Boomers’ outstretched hands” is causing the America of 25 years hence to plunge “headlong toward Third World Status.” An economist at Boston University, Kotlikoff proposes a solution to the Social Security problem that could meet the requirements of both Democrats and Republicans. There’s just one catch: “Doing so will require major sacrifices, real statesmanship, new ideas, and, above all, a consensus that we’re facing a grave economic danger.”

As unlikely as any such development may seem, it’s never too late to learn, as Nick Lyons W’53, reminds us in a lovely meditation on “those long rhythmic years, ending each June and starting a grade higher each fall.”

“In a world as opaque and bewildering as ours, I can see no way forward except through learning,” he writes in “Alumni Voices.” “And in learning perhaps the world in small ways can learn how to begin anew.”

—John Prendergast C’80


©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/25/05

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