Thursday, December 22, 2005

No more going with the flow.

link to original piece.

The end of the period

A new contraceptive will soon let women stop menstruating. Is it the pinnacle of liberation, or a reckless experiment?


For the average woman, life holds not two but three certainties: death, taxes and 35 years of monthly hormonal mayhem. Periods can be wretched. But from a young age, girls are comforted with the promise that the bleeding, cramping and radical mood swings are all part of the special alchemy of womanhood. Menstruation is -- to use the mother of all feminine-hygiene euphemisms -- a precious gift. Which is why the introduction of a new product that invites women to opt out of the whole ordeal is something of a cultural upheaval. Health experts are predicting that by this time next year, menstruation will no longer be an inevitable function but rather an optional feature, a bit like power steering or pay-per-view.

In 2006, a new oral contraceptive called Anya, developed to "put women in control of when or if they want to menstruate," is expected to hit the Canadian and U.S. markets. Manufactured by Collegeville, Penn.-based Wyeth Pharmaceuticals -- and currently pending approval by Health Canada -- Anya is the first low-dose birth control pill designed to be taken 365 days a year, without placebos (the hormone-free sugar pills taken at the end of every 28-day cycle). Early findings report that Anya is just as effective in preventing pregnancy as traditional oral contraceptives (98 per cent). And as an added bonus, since Anya provides a steady stream of hormones, it promises to quash a woman's usual cyclical fluctuations, virtually wiping out all the irksome symptoms of PMS.

The elimination of periods -- politely called menstrual suppression -- is an objective the pharmaceutical industry has been chasing for several years. In the fall of 2003, Barr Laboratories of Pomona, N.Y., introduced Seasonale in the U.S., the first extended-cycle contraceptive pill, with the slogan "Fewer periods. More possibilities." Unlike traditional oral contraceptives, which a woman takes for 21 days, followed by seven days of placebo pills, Seasonale is taken for 84 consecutive days, followed by seven days of placebos, which gives her four periods a year instead of the usual 13. Despite widely reported side effects, including irregular bleeding, Seasonale -- still pending approval in Canada -- has quickly emerged as a popular option in the U.S. Last year alone, Barr recorded Seasonale sales of US$87 million. Anya takes this concept and raises it to the next level.

So, for any woman who ever found herself staring down a Tampax vending machine without a quarter, the advent of a drug like Anya would seem an occasion for rejoicing. It will mean all sorts of choices for the next generation of adolescent girls. It will mean being able to customize their cycles to suit their lives. (Maybe she's an athlete who doesn't want to bleed during swim meets. Or maybe she just likes to wear white cotton capris.) It will mean no more tampons, panty liners or maxi pads with wings. No more Midol or hot water bottles. No more feeling not-quite-fresh -- even after a shower.

And yet, in theory anyway, the whole idea of menstrual suppression is outrageous. Isn't the whole point of "the curse" that it's not optional? Isn't it natural for women to menstruate? On these questions, the experts -- doctors, feminists, bioethicists and women themselves -- are bitterly divided. On the one hand, advocates say, it's all about providing women with choices and giving them control. We've already been manipulating Mother Nature for decades, so why stop now? But detractors say menstrual suppression is a reckless and profit-driven enterprise -- or, as one women's health expert calls it, "the largest uncontrolled experiment in the history of medical science, hands down." Reckless or not, the need to bleed is poised to become the next front in the ongoing battle over women's bodies.

Dr. Shari Brasner, a 40-year-old Manhattan gynecologist, says she, for one, just doesn't have time to menstruate. Brasner has been suppressing her period for a decade with the continuous use of birth control pills, "whatever samples I've got in my cabinet at my office." (While many women have used this off-label method to skip a single period that is ill-timed to a vacation or honeymoon, it is generally practised only by women with severe menstrual difficulties, under doctor's supervision.) "I have an incredibly busy day," she says, "and the reality is, I just don't have time to get to the bathroom every two or three hours to change a tampon or a sanitary napkin." Brasner adds that she believes her use of birth control pills "to be safe. I know it to be effective, and it saves me time, energy and in the long run, some money. Just in dry cleaning bills alone."

Brasner and other advocates of stopping menstruation point out that among the greatest fallacies in modern popular medicine is the notion that women on oral contraceptives -- roughly 1.5 million in Canada -- experience a period every month. In fact, what they experience is "a fake period," what doctors call a withdrawal bleed. "Women on birth control bleed not because they're having a menstrual cycle, but because when they take their placebo pills, their bodies are withdrawing from the progesterone cycle in the active tablets," says Dr. Leslie Miller, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington, who runs the pro-suppression website In other words, she says, there's nothing natural about it.

In fact, the reason women on oral contraceptives bleed at all is because of one man, a devout Catholic named Dr. John Rock, the co-inventor of the pill. Forty-five years ago, Rock determined that if he could design the pill to replicate the menstrual cycle of the average woman of child-bearing age -- 28 days -- he might succeed in convincing the Church to endorse his invention as a natural form of birth control. Despite his efforts, the Vatican denounced oral contraceptives in 1968, but the 28-day cycle persisted because -- fake or not -- women were comforted by the idea of monthly bleeding. (As evidence of how deeply women have internalized this idea, even Anya, which is taken every single day, will be sold in packages of 28 to preserve the notion of a natural cycle.) But Miller argues that since the bleeding serves no apparent purpose -- except a psychological one -- why not get rid of it altogether?

In 1999, a Brazilian gynecologist named Dr. Elsimar Coutinho polarized the women's health community with the publication of Is Menstruation Obsolete? How Suppressing Menstruation Can Help Women Who Suffer From Anemia, Endometriosis, or PMS. In the book, Coutinho argues that the contemporary woman has many more periods than nature likely intended. A hundred years ago, he points out, the average age of onset was roughly 16. Now, a girl's first period often comes as early as 10 or 11. (Theories to explain this phenomenon run the gamut from higher childhood obesity rates to increased exposure to chemicals in the environment.) Also, women are waiting longer to get pregnant and having fewer pregnancies. Which means that whereas a 19th-century woman may have had fewer than 50 menstrual cycles in her lifetime, the modern woman often has more than 400.

To have so many periods, he says, isn't only a nuisance, but may be an unnecessary hazard to a woman's emotional and physical health. Menstruation, he says, can exacerbate anemia, migraines, endometriosis and polycystic cysts. Also, the frequent use of tampons puts women at risk for toxic shock or vulvar irritation. (Coutinho, as it happens, also helped develop Depo-Provera, a controversial injectable contraceptive that suppresses a woman's period for three months at a time and is believed to cause serious complications in some women, including significant loss of bone density.)

Miller, meanwhile, contends that there are potential health benefits to taking the pill continuously, particularly for those who choose not to have children. "We know that the pill can reduce risks of uterine and ovarian cancer, endometriosis, uterine fibroids," she says. Then there are the savings for women on feminine hygiene products, which collectively cost billions of dollars a year. (In Canada, both the NDP and Conservative parties have toyed with the idea of scrapping the GST on feminine hygiene products to woo female voters.) "There's no downside in terms of health risks to stopping your period," concurs Dr. Julia Johnson, a reproductive endocrinologist at the University of Vermont and one of Anya's primary researchers. "The only drawback is that up to 30 per cent of women still experience some bleeding or spotting in the first six months at unpredictable times."

The upside, however, is potentially enormous, says Miller. "Imagine the freedom to go swimming anytime," she says, "You can wear a skirt with no underwear. You can have sex without thinking about blood on the sheets. You never get anything stained. Every day your hormones are the same. Your breasts aren't tender, you don't feel ovulatory pains. It's a modern problem to have 13 periods a year for 35 years. I think the continuous pill is a modern solution to a modern problem."

But all of this good news, detractors say, is based on the assumption that periods serve no function other than reproduction -- and that you can isolate them from every other system in the body. This, they argue, is preposterous. "Menstruation, this amazingly intricate, carefully crafted cycle, is a vital sign of our health," says Dr. Jerilynn Prior, an endocrinologist and the scientific director of the Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research at the University of British Columbia. "To wantonly disrupt it is a horrifying thought. Regulatory bodies are saying, 'We approved the original pill, so this must be okay. It's just taking the pill more frequently.' But even the original pill probably contains negatives we still don't really know about." The continuous-use pill, she says, is just a way for pharmaceutical companies to revive flagging products -- to find fresh ways to market them by giving them a "new face and a new name."

In 1993, Margie Profet, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington, published a groundbreaking thesis asserting that, aside from its obvious function, menstruation serves to protect women against STDs and infertility by flushing out the reproductive system, ridding it of pathogens, bacteria and other sperm-borne toxins. Also, says Dr. Susan Rako, a Boston-based psychiatrist and women's reproductive health expert whose 2003 book No More Periods? denounced menstrual suppression, a woman's blood pressure is reduced for two weeks of every month during a normal menstrual cycle. "There's a normal physiology that causes this to happen," she says. "It's like your body puts out its own antihypertensive medication every month for two weeks. Women on the birth control pill don't have this experience."

Even the "fake period" of those on the birth control pill serves a purpose by mimicking the body's natural cycle, says Rako. "Menstrual bleeding is the only way a woman's body can rid itself of excess stored iron, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and strokes," she says. "The fact that women have regular bleeding is one of the factors that likely contributes to their having lower incidence of heart attack and strokes than do men before women are menopausal." Prior adds that the break from the high hormone levels of the normal menstrual cycle is likely important for the breasts and bones, particularly among adolescents and younger teens who are at a crucial time in their development. (Even Leslie Miller is reluctant to support menstrual suppression for young people. "I'll get emails to my site from a mother who's got a 12-year-old, and she'll say, 'Oh, I want to take away all of her periods, because she wants to be wearing her bikini down in Tahiti, or because menstruation is messy.' And I'll say, 'You know what, she probably needs a few periods.' Most studies are never done on women under 18.")

Geraldine Matus, a holistic reproductive health care practitioner in Edmonton, asserts that the notion there is no connection between birth control use and fertility rates is another fallacy long perpetuated by the pharmaceutical industry. "My clinical experience is that there is a connection," says Matus, who has been charting the cycles of women with fertility problems for 30 years. A 2002 study published in the journal Gynecological Endocrinology found that it often took up to nine months, and in some cases longer, for women to regain their fertility after the cessation of oral contraceptives. "When coming off the birth control pill," says Matus, "there are often many things missing: proper menstrual bleeds, the presence of ovulation, the presence of cervical mucus necessary for sperm survival. With something like continuous use, it's even more deleterious."

Among detractors of menstruation suppression, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for women in the years before menopause is upheld as the cautionary tale. "We were told for a very long time that there was no problem with HRT, that it would benefit our health, and there were mass prescriptions," says Kathleen O'Grady of the Canadian Women's Health Network. "But when the science finally came out, we found there were serious health risks associated with HRT [including heart problems and breast cancer]. We can't make presumptions first and wait for the science after, especially when we're talking about exposing healthy women to continuous hormones purely for lifestyle purposes." Also, adds Prior, the notion that these pills are low-dose should be in quotations. "It's low dose compared to the kind of pills that were marketed in the '60s and '70s," she says, "but it's not low dose compared to the natural estrogen level. We've been sold that it is, and we accept it as though it is true. We've lost our perspective."

The argument for cessation of periods is couched in feminist notions of choice and control, says Prior, but you can't truly have either when you don't have all of the information, the regulatory bodies aren't demanding it, and the pharmaceutical industry stands to make billions by pushing the drug through. "From a cultural perspective, I think it's misogynistic," says Matus. "Women's bodies are a marvellous thing to commodify. We have all sorts of processes that can be turned into diseases and disease models: pregnancy, nursing, menstruation, menopause -- all of these things. And because we tend to use the health care system more than men, we're a great market share."

While science marches on, perhaps the greatest champion of menstrual preservation is, oddly enough, a 63-year-old bachelor and retired employee of the U.S. Department of Defense named Harry Finley. For four years, Finley ran the Museum of Menstruation -- or MUM for short, a play on "mum's the word" -- out of his home in New Carrollton, Md., attracting over 1,500 visitors, mostly on weekends and by appointment. Ultimately, however, he found it too taxing to have to continually explain to people why the collection is housed in his wood-panelled basement. ("Here I am, a single male going to my basement," he says, in a gentlemanly tone, "and I understand that it just seemed so weird.") For now he hosts the museum online while he searches for a permanent public venue.

An artist and graphic designer by trade, Finley originally became interested in menstruation as a collector of advertisements and other rare and interesting paraphernalia. The "semi-taboo" nature of the subject appealed to him. Now he has one of the most comprehensive private collections in the world, featuring 4,000 to 5,000 items. Included among his finds are antiques like a 1955 "cotton puckerette Sanitary Panty" by Sears, decorated with "bright, gay colors" and featuring a "moisture-resistant crotch which is rubber-lined." There are also works by contemporary artists, including one who uses her own menstrual blood as a medium. His personal favourite is a reproduction of an early 20th-century sanitary apron he commissioned from a local artist. "A sanitary apron is just another thing women wore in order not to have menstruation leaking through their clothing," he says. "I'm always amazed by how much more women are -- and I used this in quotation marks -- 'burdened' by menstruation. Men have nothing comparable to this at all."

A couple of years ago, Finley posted a question on his website that he deemed a very interesting hypothetical: "Would you stop menstruating if you could?" To his surprise, it sparked an impassioned debate. Answers poured in -- and continue to pour in -- from all over the world: "Yes, when your body turns into an enemy every month, you don't want to celebrate it, you want to declare a ceasefire and negotiate release of hostages." "No, but I do believe a woman should have a choice, without judgment!!" "Personally, I'll keep it. I don't trust doctors and medication enough to give up something that is a mild inconvenience which makes me feel human and womanly." "No, it gives me power that men don't have and cannot have over me." "I am a stripper and I dread the monthly demon." "Being a woman is not a disease." And so on.

The results of Finley's crude survey reflect the deep-seated ambivalence women feel about their periods. In a recent U.S. survey by the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, 75 per cent of respondents said they believe men have a real advantage by not having the monthly disruption. Sixty-seven per cent wouldn't miss it if it disappeared. Sixty-nine per cent said they'd try using a birth control method that stopped it altogether if they could be sure it wouldn't hurt them.

Women's conflicted feelings about menstruation, while rooted primarily in its attendant pain, discomfort and inconvenience, are also stoked by centuries, if not millennia, of superstitious rhetoric that has, in many ways, reinforced the perception of women as the morally, physically and intellectually weaker sex. There is a long-standing belief that, for at least one week out of every month, women are practically insane, and unfit for anything requiring logic or rationality. In 1878, the British Medical Journal published an essay about the potential hazards of allowing women to practise medicine, since menstruating women tainted meat when they touched it. In France as recently as 100 years ago, menstruating women were not permitted to enter sugar factories for fear they would spoil the boiling sugar. Scientific studies designed to combat suffragettes in the 1920s "proved" that women were too unstable to participate in the civic process because of their cycles. Among other things, menstruation has been deemed the root cause of female hysteria, marital problems, "cussedness," weight gain, bad mothering, murder and indigestion.

There is another, more humanist aspect to the whole discussion. Among women, menstruation has always been the great leveller. There is a strange sisterhood forged by swapping stories of gym class horrors, leaking at the most mortifying moments, and reading dog-eared copies of Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret in the back of the school library and snickering at the word "men-stroo-ation." (That book -- a slim 1972 volume about a group of preteen girls coming to terms with adolescence -- remains among the top-selling children's titles of all time.) It is a uniquely female experience to sit in health class while the teacher explains why tampons won't, in fact, take one's virginity -- and to watch in horror and fascination as the same teacher drops said tampon into a clear jar of water, causing it to expand like some sort of wispy sea creature. "The menstrual cycle is really the one thing that all women have in common," says Joan Chrisler, a social psychologist at Connecticut College in New London, Conn., who specializes in women's relationships with their bodies, "and I'd feel very sad if we took this away. We'd no longer have this connection to nature and to each other any more."

The onset of menstruation, called menarche -- pronounced like anarchy -- tends to be a formative memory, wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Natalie Angier in her book, Woman: An Intimate Geography, one that is "seared into the brain with the blowtorch of high emotion." "It's very, terribly sad," says Rako, "the idea that teenage girls would grow up in a world where the idea of menstruating is considered undesirable and a nuisance. In fact, there's a certain kind of rhythm that goes with your monthly cycle: where sometimes in the month you feel more energetic, sometimes more creative, sometimes more sexual, sometimes more vulnerable. That's all part of being female."

Which is why for many the question "is menstruation obsolete?" is a bit like asking whether being a woman is obsolete. "It's ridiculous," says Matus. "I could make the same argument about men and ejaculation. I could say, 'Men don't need to ejaculate. It's messy; it means a loss of essential nutrients; it's embarrassing when you have a wet dream and your mother comes in. So take a pill to suppress it.' But that would change everything about how he works. And they'd probably burn us at the stake if we suggested it. But that's how ridiculous this is."

War and Peace.

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A Natural History of Peace
By Robert M. Sapolsky
From Foreign Affairs, January/February 2006

Summary: Humans like to think that they are unique, but the study of other primates has called into question the exceptionalism of our species. So what does primatology have to say about war and peace? Contrary to what was believed just a few decades ago, humans are not "killer apes" destined for violent conflict, but can make their own history.

Robert M. Sapolsky is John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University. His most recent book is "Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals."


The evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky once said, "All species are unique, but humans are uniquest." Humans have long taken pride in their specialness. But the study of other primates is rendering the concept of such human exceptionalism increasingly suspect.

Some of the retrenchment has been relatively palatable, such as with the workings of our bodies. Thus we now know that a baboon heart can be transplanted into a human body and work for a few weeks, and human blood types are coded in Rh factors named after the rhesus monkeys that possess similar blood variability.

More discomfiting is the continuum that has been demonstrated in the realm of cognition. We now know, for example, that other species invent tools and use them with dexterity and local cultural variation. Other primates display "semanticity" (the use of symbols to refer to objects and actions) in their communication in ways that would impress any linguist. And experiments have shown other primates to possess a "theory of mind," that is, the ability to recognize that different individuals can have different thoughts and knowledge.

Our purported uniqueness has been challenged most, however, with regard to our social life. Like the occasional human hermit, there are a few primates that are typically asocial (such as the orangutan). Apart from those, however, it turns out that one cannot understand a primate in isolation from its social group. Across the 150 or so species of primates, the larger the average social group, the larger the cortex relative to the rest of the brain. The fanciest part of the primate brain, in other words, seems to have been sculpted by evolution to enable us to gossip and groom, cooperate and cheat, and obsess about who is mating with whom. Humans, in short, are yet another primate with an intense and rich social life -- a fact that raises the question of whether primatology can teach us something about a rather important part of human sociality, war and peace.

It used to be thought that humans were the only savagely violent primate. "We are the only species that kills its own," one might have heard intoned portentously at the end of nature films several decades ago. That view fell by the wayside in the 1960s as it became clear that some other primates kill their fellows aplenty. Males kill; females kill. Some kill one another's infants with cold-blooded stratagems worthy of Richard III. Some use their toolmaking skills to fashion bigger and better cudgels. Some other primates even engage in what can only be called warfare -- organized, proactive group violence directed at other populations.

As field studies of primates expanded, what became most striking was the variation in social practices across species. Yes, some primate species have lives filled with violence, frequent and varied. But life among others is filled with communitarianism, egalitarianism, and cooperative child rearing.

Patterns emerged. In less aggressive species, such as gibbons or marmosets, groups tend to live in lush rain forests where food is plentiful and life is easy. Females and males tend to be the same size, and the males lack secondary sexual markers such as long, sharp canines or garish coloring. Couples mate for life, and males help substantially with child care. In violent species, on the other hand, such as baboons and rhesus monkeys, the opposite conditions prevail.

The most disquieting fact about the violent species was the apparent inevitability of their behavior. Certain species seemed simply to be the way they were, fixed products of the interplay of evolution and ecology, and that was that. And although human males might not be inflexibly polygamous or come with bright red butts and six-inch canines designed for tooth-to-tooth combat, it was clear that our species had at least as much in common with the violent primates as with the gentle ones. "In their nature" thus became "in our nature." This was the humans-as-killer-apes theory popularized by the writer Robert Ardrey, according to which humans have as much chance of becoming intrinsically peaceful as they have of growing prehensile tails.

That view always had little more scientific rigor than a Planet of the Apes movie, but it took a great deal of field research to figure out just what should supplant it. After decades' more work, the picture has become quite interesting. Some primate species, it turns out, are indeed simply violent or peaceful, with their behavior driven by their social structures and ecological settings. More important, however, some primate species can make peace despite violent traits that seem built into their natures. The challenge now is to figure out under what conditions that can happen, and whether humans can manage the trick themselves.


Primatology has long been dominated by studies of the chimpanzee, due in large part to the phenomenally influential research of Jane Goodall, whose findings from her decades of observations in the wild have been widely disseminated. National Geographic specials based on Goodall's work would always include the reminder that chimps are our closest relatives, a notion underlined by the fact that we share an astonishing 98 percent of our DNA with them. And Goodall and other chimp researchers have carefully documented an endless stream of murders, cannibalism, and organized group violence among their subjects. Humans' evolutionary fate thus seemed sealed, smeared by the excesses of these first cousins.

But all along there has been another chimp species, one traditionally ignored because of its small numbers; its habitat in remote, impenetrable rain forests; and the fact that its early chroniclers published in Japanese. These skinny little creatures were originally called "pygmy chimps" and were thought of as uninteresting, some sort of regressed subspecies of the real thing. Now known as bonobos, they are today recognized as a separate and distinct species that taxonomically and genetically is just as closely related to humans as the standard chimp. And boy, is this ever a different ape.

Male bonobos are not particularly aggressive and lack the massive musculature typical of species that engage in a lot of fighting (such as the standard chimp). Moreover, the bonobo social system is female dominated, food is often shared, and there are well-developed means for reconciling social tensions. And then there is the sex.

Bonobo sex is the prurient highlight of primatology conferences, and leads parents to shield their children's eyes when watching nature films. Bonobos have sex in every conceivable position and some seemingly inconceivable ones, in pairs and groups, between genders and within genders, to greet each other and to resolve conflicts, to work off steam after a predator scare, to celebrate finding food or to cajole its sharing, or just because. As the sound bite has it, chimps are from Mars and bonobos are from Venus.

All is not perfect in the bonobo commune, and they still have hierarchies and conflict (why else invent conflict resolution?). Nonetheless, they are currently among the trendiest of species to analyze, a wonderful antidote to their hard-boiled relatives. The trouble is, while we have a pretty good sense of what bonobos are like, we have little insight into how they got that way. Furthermore, this is basically what all bonobos seem to be like -- a classic case of in-their-nature-ness. There is even recent evidence for a genetic component to the phenomenon, in that bonobos (but not chimps) possess a version of a gene that makes affiliative behavior (behavior that promotes group cohesion) more pleasurable to males. So -- a wondrous species (and one, predictably, teetering on the edge of extinction). But besides being useful for taking the wind out of we-be-chimps fatalists, the bonobo has little to say to us. We are not bonobos, and never can be.


In contrast to the social life of bonobos, the social life of chimps is not pretty. Nor is that of rhesus monkeys, nor savanna baboons -- a species found in groups of 50 to 100 in the African grasslands and one I have studied for close to 30 years. Hierarchies among baboons are strict, as are their consequences. Among males, high rank is typically achieved by a series of successful violent challenges. Spoils, such as meat, are unevenly divided. Most males die of the consequences of violence, and roughly half of their aggression is directed at third parties (some high-ranking male in a bad mood takes it out on an innocent bystander, such as a female or a subordinate male).

Male baboons, moreover, can fight amazingly dirty. I saw this happen a few years ago in one of the troops I study: Two males had fought, and one, having been badly trounced, assumed a crouching stance, with his rear end up in the air. This is universally recognized among savanna baboons as an abject gesture of subordination, signaling an end to the conflict, and the conventional response on the part of the victorious male is to subject the other to a ritualized gesture of dominance (such as mounting him). In this instance, however, the winner, approaching the loser as if to mount him, instead abruptly gave him a deep slash with his canines.

A baboon group, in short, is an unlikely breeding ground for pacifists. Nevertheless, there are some interesting exceptions. In recent years, for example, it has been recognized that a certain traditional style of chest-thumping evolutionary thinking is wrong. According to the standard logic, males compete with one another aggressively in order to achieve and maintain a high rank, which will in turn enable them to dominate reproduction and thus maximize the number of copies of their genes that are passed on to the next generation. But although aggression among baboons does indeed have something to do with attaining a high rank, it turns out to have virtually nothing to do with maintaining it. Dominant males rarely are particularly aggressive, and those that are typically are on their way out: the ones that need to use it are often about to lose it. Instead, maintaining dominance requires social intelligence and impulse control -- the ability to form prudent coalitions, show some tolerance of subordinates, and ignore most provocations.

Recent work, moreover, has demonstrated that females have something to say about which males get to pass on their genes. The traditional view was based on a "linear access" model of reproduction: if one female is in heat, the alpha male gets to mate with her; if two are in heat, the alpha male and the second-ranking male get their opportunity; and so on. Yet we now know that female baboons are pretty good at getting away from even champions of male-male competition if they want to and can sneak off instead with another male they actually desire. And who would that be? Typically, it is a male that has followed a different strategy of building affiliative relations with the female -- grooming her a lot, helping to take care of her kids, not beating her up. These nice-guy males seem to pass on at least as many copies of their genes as their more aggressive peers, not least because they can go like this for years, without the life-shortening burnout and injuries of the gladiators.

And so the crude picture of combat as the sole path to evolutionary success is wrong. The average male baboon does opt for the combative route, but there are important phases of his life when aggression is less important than social intelligence and restraint, and there are evolutionarily fruitful alternative courses of action.

Even within the bare-knuckle world of male-male aggression, we are now recognizing some surprising outposts of primate civility. For one thing, primates can make up after a fight. Such reconciliation was first described by Frans de Waal, of Emory University, in the early 1980s; it has now been observed in some 27 different species of primates, including male chimps, and it works as it is supposed to, reducing the odds of further aggression between the two ex-combatants. And various primates, including male baboons, will sometimes cooperate, for example by supporting one another in a fight. Coalitions can involve reciprocity and even induce what appears to be a sense of justice or fairness. In a remarkable study by de Waal and one of his students, capuchin monkeys were housed in adjacent cages. A monkey could obtain food on its own (by pulling a tray of food toward its cage) or with help from a neighbor (by pulling a heavier tray together); in the latter case, only one of the monkeys was given access to the food in question. The monkeys that collaborated proved more likely to share it with their neighbor.

Even more striking are lifelong patterns of cooperation among some male chimps, such as those that form bands of brothers. Among certain primate species, all the members of one gender will leave their home troop around puberty, thus avoiding the possibility of genetically deleterious inbreeding. Among chimps, the females leave home, and as a result, male chimps typically spend their lives in the company of close male relatives. Animal behaviorists steeped in game theory spend careers trying to figure out how reciprocal cooperation gets started among nonrelatives, but it is clear that stable reciprocity among relatives emerges readily.

Thus, even the violent primates engage in reconciliation and cooperation -- but only up to a point. For starters, as noted in regard to the bonobo, there would be nothing to reconcile without violence and conflict in the first place. Furthermore, reconciliation is not universal: female savanna baboons are good at it, for example, but males are not. Most important, even among species and genders that do reconcile, it is not an indiscriminate phenomenon: individuals are more likely to reconcile with those who can be useful to them. This was demonstrated in a brilliant study by Marina Cords, of Columbia University, in which the value of some relationships among a type of macaque monkey was artificially raised. Animals were again caged next to each other under conditions in which they could obtain food by themselves or through cooperation, and those pairs that developed the capacity for cooperation were three times as likely to reconcile after induced aggression as noncooperators. Tension-reducing reconciliation, in other words, is most likely to occur among animals who already are in the habit of cooperating and have an incentive to keep doing so.

Some deflating points emerge from the studies of cooperation as well, such as the fact that coalitions are notoriously unstable. In one troop of baboons I studied in the early 1980s, male-male coalitions lasted less than two days on average before collapsing, and most cases of such collapse involved one partner failing to reciprocate or, even more dramatically, defecting to the other side during a fight. finally, and most discouraging, is the use to which most coalitions are put. In theory, cooperation could trump individualism in order to, say, improve food gathering or defend against predators. In practice, two baboons that cooperate typically do so in order to make a third miserable.

Goodall was the first to report the profoundly disquieting fact that bands of related male chimps carry out cooperative "border patrols" -- searching along the geographic boundary separating their group from another and attacking neighboring males they encounter, even to the point of killing other groups off entirely. In-group cooperation can thus usher in not peace and tranquility, but rather more efficient extermination.

So primate species with some of the most aggressive and stratified social systems have been seen to cooperate and resolve conflicts -- but not consistently, not necessarily for benign purposes, and not in a cumulative way that could lead to some fundamentally non-Hobbesian social outcomes. The lesson appears to be not that violent primates can transcend their natures, but merely that the natures of these species are subtler and more multifaceted than previously thought. At least that was the lesson until quite recently.


To some extent, the age-old "nature versus nurture" debate is silly. The action of genes is completely intertwined with the environment in which they function; in a sense, it is pointless to even discuss what gene X does, and we should consider instead only what gene X does in environment Y. Nonetheless, if one had to predict the behavior of some organism on the basis of only one fact, one might still want to know whether the most useful fact would be about genetics or about the environment.

The first two studies to show that primates were somewhat independent from their "natures" involved a classic technique in behavioral genetics called cross-fostering. Suppose some animal has engaged in a particular behavior for generations -- call it behavior A. We want to know if that behavior is due to shared genes or to a multigenerationally shared environment. Researchers try to answer the question by cross-fostering the animal, that is, switching the animal's mother at birth so that she is raised by one with behavior B, and then watching to see which behavior the animal displays when she grows up. One problem with this approach is that an animal's environment does not begin at birth -- a fetus shares a very intimate environment with its mother, namely the body's circulation, chock-full of hormones and nutrients that can cause lifelong changes in brain function and behavior. Therefore, the approach can be applied only asymmetrically: if a behavior persists in a new environment, one cannot conclude that genes are the cause, but if a behavior changes in a new environment, then one can conclude that genes are not the cause. This is where the two studies come in.

In the early 1970s, a highly respected primatologist named Hans Kummer was working in Ethiopia, in a region containing two species of baboons with markedly different social systems. Savanna baboons live in large troops, with plenty of adult females and males. Hamadryas baboons, in contrast, have a more complex, multilevel society. Because they live in a much harsher, drier region, hamadryas have a distinctive ecological problem. Some resources are singular and scarce -- like a rare watering hole or a good cliff face to sleep on at night in order to evade predators -- and large numbers of animals are likely to want to share them. Other resources, such as the vegetation they eat, are sparse and widely dispersed, requiring animals to function in small, separate groups. As a result, hamadryas have evolved a "harem" structure -- a single adult male surrounded by a handful of adult females and their children -- with large numbers of discrete harems converging, peacefully, for short periods at the occasional desirable watering hole or cliff face.

Kummer conducted a simple experiment, trapping an adult female savanna baboon and releasing her into a hamadryas troop and trapping an adult female hamadryas and releasing her into a savanna troop. Among hamadryas, if a male threatens a female, it is almost certainly this brute who dominates the harem, and the only way for the female to avoid injury is to approach him -- i.e., return to the fold. But among savanna baboons, if a male threatens a female, the way for her to avoid injury is to run away. In Kummer's experiment, the females who were dropped in among a different species initially carried out their species-typical behavior, a major faux pas in the new neighborhood. But gradually, they assimilated the new rules. How long did this learning take? About an hour. In other words, millennia of genetic differences separating the two species, a lifetime of experience with a crucial social rule for each female, and a miniscule amount of time to reverse course completely.

The second experiment was set up by de Waal and his student Denise Johanowicz in the early 1990s, working with two macaque monkey species. By any human standards, male rhesus macaques are unappealing animals. Their hierarchies are rigid, those at the top seize a disproportionate share of the spoils, they enforce this inequity with ferocious aggression, and they rarely reconcile after fights. Male stump tail macaques, in contrast, which share almost all of their genes with their rhesus macaque cousins, display much less aggression, more affiliative behaviors, looser hierarchies, and more egalitarianism.

Working with captive primates, de Waal and Johanowicz created a mixed-sex social group of juvenile macaques, combining rhesus and stump tails together. Remarkably, instead of the rhesus macaques bullying the stump tails, over the course of a few months, the rhesus males adopted the stump tails' social style, eventually even matching the stump tails' high rates of reconciliatory behavior. It so happens, moreover, that stump tails and rhesus macaques use different gestures when reconciling. The rhesus macaques in the study did not start using the stump tails' reconciliatory gestures, but rather increased the incidence of their own species-typical gestures. In other words, they were not merely imitating the stump tails' behavior; they were incorporating the concept of frequent reconciliation into their own social practices. When the newly warm-and-fuzzy rhesus macaques were returned to a larger, all-rhesus group, finally, their new behavioral style persisted.

This is nothing short of extraordinary. But it brings up one last question: When those rhesus macaques were transferred back into the all-rhesus world, did they spread their insights and behaviors to the others? Alas, they did not. For that, we need to move on to our final case.


In the early 1980s, "Forest Troop," a group of savanna baboons I had been studying -- virtually living with -- for years, was going about its business in a national park in Kenya when a neighboring baboon group had a stroke of luck: its territory encompassed a tourist lodge that expanded its operations and consequently the amount of food tossed into its garbage dump. Baboons are omnivorous, and "Garbage Dump Troop" was delighted to feast on leftover drumsticks, half-eaten hamburgers, remnants of chocolate cake, and anything else that wound up there. Soon they had shifted to sleeping in the trees immediately above the pit, descending each morning just in time for the day's dumping of garbage. (They soon got quite obese from the rich diet and lack of exercise, but that is another story.)

The development produced nearly as dramatic a shift in the social behavior of Forest Troop. Each morning, approximately half of its adult males would infiltrate Garbage Dump Troop's territory, descending on the pit in time for the day's dumping and battling the resident males for access to the garbage. The Forest Troop males that did this shared two traits: they were particularly combative (which was necessary to get the food away from the other baboons), and they were not very interested in socializing (the raids took place early in the morning, during the hours when the bulk of a savanna baboon's daily communal grooming occurs).

Soon afterward, tuberculosis, a disease that moves with devastating speed and severity in nonhuman primates, broke out in Garbage Dump Troop. Over the next year, most of its members died, as did all of the males from Forest Troop who had foraged at the dump.[See Footnote #1] The results were that Forest Troop was left with males who were less aggressive and more social than average and the troop now had double its previous female-to-male ratio.

The social consequences of these changes were dramatic. There remained a hierarchy among the Forest Troop males, but it was far looser than before: compared with other, more typical savanna baboon groups, high-ranking males rarely harassed subordinates and occasionally even relinquished contested resources to them. Aggression was less frequent, particularly against third parties. And rates of affiliative behaviors, such as males and females grooming each other or sitting together, soared. There were even instances, now and then, of adult males grooming each other -- a behavior nearly as unprecedented as baboons sprouting wings.

This unique social milieu did not arise merely as a function of the skewed sex ratio; other primatologists have occasionally reported on troops with similar ratios but without a comparable social atmosphere. What was key was not just the predominance of females, but the type of male that remained. The demographic disaster -- what evolutionary biologists term a "selective bottleneck" -- had produced a savanna baboon troop quite different from what most experts would have anticipated.

But the largest surprise did not come until some years later. Female savanna baboons spend their lives in the troop into which they are born, whereas males leave their birth troop around puberty; a troop's adult males have thus all grown up elsewhere and immigrated as adolescents. By the early 1990s, none of the original low aggression/high affiliation males of Forest Troop's tuberculosis period was still alive; all of the group's adult males had joined after the epidemic. Despite this, the troop's unique social milieu persisted -- as it does to this day, some 20 years after the selective bottleneck.In other words, adolescent males that enter Forest Troop after having grown up elsewhere wind up adopting the unique behavioral style of the resident males. As defined by both anthropologists and animal behaviorists, "culture" consists of local behavioral variations, occurring for nongenetic and nonecological reasons, that last beyond the time of their originators. Forest Troop's low aggression/high affiliation society constitutes nothing less than a multigenerational benign culture.

Continuous study of the troop has yielded some insights into how its culture is transmitted to newcomers. Genetics obviously plays no role, nor apparently does self-selection: adolescent males that transfer into the troop are no different from those that transfer into other troops, displaying on arrival similarly high rates of aggression and low rates of affiliation. Nor is there evidence that new males are taught to act in benign ways by the residents. One cannot rule out the possibility that some observational learning is occurring, but it is difficult to detect given that the distinctive feature of this culture is not the performance of a unique behavior but the performance of typical behaviors at atypically extreme rates.

To date, the most interesting hint about the mechanism of transmission is the way recently transferred males are treated by Forest Troop's resident females. In a typical savanna baboon troop, newly transferred adolescent males spend years slowly working their way into the social fabric; they are extremely low ranking -- ignored by females and noted by adult males only as convenient targets for aggression. In Forest Troop, by contrast, new male transfers are inundated with female attention soon after their arrival. Resident females first present themselves sexually to new males an average of 18 days after the males arrive, and they first groom the new males an average of 20 days after they arrive (normal savanna baboons introduce such behaviors after 63 and 78 days, respectively). Furthermore, these welcoming gestures occur more frequently in Forest Troop during the early post-transfer period, and there is four times as much grooming of males by females in Forest Troop as elsewhere. From almost the moment they arrive, in other words, new males find out that in Forest Troop, things are done differently.

At present, I think the most plausible explanation is that this troop's special culture is not passed on actively but simply emerges, facilitated by the actions of the resident members. Living in a group with half the typical number of males, and with the males being nice guys to boot, Forest Troop's females become more relaxed and less wary. As a result, they are more willing to take a chance and reach out socially to new arrivals, even if the new guys are typical jerky adolescents at first. The new males, in turn, finding themselves treated so well, eventually relax and adopt the behaviors of the troop's distinctive social milieu.


Are there any lessons to be learned here that can be applied to human-on-human violence -- apart, that is, from the possible desirability of giving fatal cases of tuberculosis to aggressive people?

Any biological anthropologist opining about human behavior is required by long-established tradition to note that for 99 percent of human history, humans lived in small, stable bands of related hunter-gatherers. Game theorists have shown that a small, cohesive group is the perfect setting for the emergence of cooperation: the identities of the other participants are known, there are opportunities for multiple iterations of games (and thus the ability to punish cheaters), and there is open-book play (players can acquire reputations). And so, those hunter-gatherer bands were highly egalitarian. Empirical and experimental data have also shown the cooperative advantages of small groups at the opposite human extreme, namely in the corporate world.

But the lack of violence within small groups can come at a heavy price. Small homogenous groups with shared values can be a nightmare of conformity. They can also be dangerous for outsiders. Unconsciously emulating the murderous border patrols of closely related male chimps, militaries throughout history have sought to form small, stable units; inculcate them with rituals of pseudokinship; and thereby produce efficient, cooperative killing machines.

Is it possible to achieve the cooperative advantages of a small group without having the group reflexively view outsiders as the Other? One way is through trade. Voluntary economic exchanges not only produce profits; they can also reduce social friction -- as the macaques demonstrated by being more likely to reconcile with a valued partner in food acquisition.

Another way is through a fission-fusion social structure, in which the boundaries between groups are not absolute and impermeable. The model here is not the multilevel society of the hamadryas baboons, both because their basic social unit of the harem is despotic and because their fusion consists of nothing more than lots of animals occasionally coming together to utilize a resource peacefully. Human hunter-gatherers are a better example to follow, in that their small bands often merge, split, or exchange members for a while, with such fluidity helping to solve not only environmental resource problems but social problems as well. The result is that instead of the all-or-nothing world of male chimps, in which there is only one's own group and the enemy, hunter-gatherers can enjoy gradations of familiarity and cooperation stretching over large areas.

The interactions among hunter-gatherers resemble those of other networks, where there are individual nodes (in this case, small groups) and where the majority of interactions between the nodes are local ones, with the frequency of interactions dropping off as a function of distance. Mathematicians have shown that when the ratios among short-, middle-, and long-distance interactions are optimal, networks are robust: they are dominated by highly cooperative clusters of local interactions, but they also retain the potential for less frequent, long-distance communication and coordination.

Optimizing the fission-fusion interactions of hunter-gatherer networks is easy: cooperate within the band; schedule frequent joint hunts with the next band over; have occasional hunts with bands somewhat farther out; have a legend of a single shared hunt with a mythic band at the end of the earth. Optimizing the fission-fusion interactions in contemporary human networks is vastly harder, but the principles are the same.

In exploring these subjects, one often encounters a pessimism built around the notion that humans, as primates, are hard-wired for xenophobia. Some brain-imaging studies have appeared to support this view in a particularly discouraging way. There is a structure deep inside the brain called the amygdala, which plays a key role in fear and aggression, and experiments have shown that when subjects are presented with a face of someone from a different race, the amygdala gets metabolically active -- aroused, alert, ready for action. This happens even when the face is presented "subliminally," which is to say, so rapidly that the subject does not consciously see it.

More recent studies, however, should mitigate this pessimism. Test a person who has a lot of experience with people of different races, and the amygdala does not activate. Or, as in a wonderful experiment by Susan Fiske, of Princeton University, subtly bias the subject beforehand to think of people as individuals rather than as members of a group, and the amygdala does not budge. Humans may be hard-wired to get edgy around the Other, but our views on who falls into that category are decidedly malleable.

In the early 1960s, a rising star of primatology, Irven DeVore, of Harvard University, published the first general overview of the subject. Discussing his own specialty, savanna baboons, he wrote that they "have acquired an aggressive temperament as a defense against predators, and aggressiveness cannot be turned on and off like a faucet. It is an integral part of the monkeys' personalities, so deeply rooted that it makes them potential aggressors in every situation." Thus the savanna baboon became, literally, a textbook example of life in an aggressive, highly stratified, male-dominated society. Yet within a few years, members of the species demonstrated enough behavioral plasticity to transform a society of theirs into a baboon utopia.

The first half of the twentieth century was drenched in the blood spilled by German and Japanese aggression, yet only a few decades later it is hard to think of two countries more pacific. Sweden spent the seventeenth century rampaging through Europe, yet it is now an icon of nurturing tranquility. Humans have invented the small nomadic band and the continental megastate, and have demonstrated a flexibility whereby uprooted descendants of the former can function effectively in the latter. We lack the type of physiology or anatomy that in other mammals determine their mating system, and have come up with societies based on monogamy, polygyny, and polyandry. And we have fashioned some religions in which violent acts are the entrée to paradise and other religions in which the same acts consign one to hell. Is a world of peacefully coexisting human Forest Troops possible? Anyone who says, "No, it is beyond our nature," knows too little about primates, including ourselves.

[Footnote #1] Considerable sleuthing ultimately revealed that the disease had come from tainted meat in the garbage dump, which had been sold to the tourist lodge thanks to a corrupt meat inspector. The studies were the first of this kind of outbreak in a wild primate population and showed that, in contrast to what happens with humans and captive primates, there was little animal-to-animal transmission of the tuberculosis, and so the disease did not spread in Forest Troop beyond the garbage eaters. is copyright 2002--2005 by the Council on Foreign Relations. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The cigar butts of literature.

link to original article.

Finding little-known work by authors means gold -- sometimes

By Beth Rucker, Associated Press Writer | December 18, 2005

BRENTWOOD, Tenn. --Steve Hines spends hours camped out at the Nashville Public Library, poring through century-old reference books and magazines, looking for obscure works by famous authors.

He's motivated by more than just a love of literature.

Hines is hoping to find and publish stories by writers such as Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder -- not the famous novels like "Little Women" or "Little House on the Prairie," but lesser-known work that still appeals to die-hard fans.

Copyright for most books and stories published in the United States before 1978 expires after 75 years, putting it in the public domain. That means anyone can republish the stories for profit.

Hines found a forgotten Alcott story titled "Patty's Place" while looking through a 1920 copy of St. Nicholas magazine for children in the Nashville library. He published that story as "The Quiet Little Woman," along with another story he found, "Kate's Choice," and sold about 350,000 copies.

"There are people out there who want to read Louisa May Alcott," said Hines, who lives in Nolensville, about 15 miles southeast of Nashville. "That made me wonder if there was more material out there."

Although these stories were never entirely lost to Alcott scholars, Hines gets the credit for placing them back in front of readers, said Jan Turnquist, executive director of Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House home in Concord, Mass.

"If you go to Barnes & Noble or any other bookstore, you're not going to find them in on the shelf there," she said. "What he's doing is making these stories accessible."

But even when Hines finds an interesting story with an expired copyright, there's no guarantee he can turn it into a best-seller.

"When you discover literary gold, you have to go out and do your own crowing," said Hines, who calls himself a "literary prospector."

His first success was a largely forgotten collection of articles written by Wilder when she worked as a journalist -- well before she wrote the "Little House on the Prairie" series.

In the late '80s, Hines came across a reference to Wilder's journalism career in Mansfield, Mo. That inspired him to travel to the University of Missouri to see if he could find any articles she wrote.

"Turns out there was a lot," Hines said. "It was a huge success. 'Little House on the Prairie' was available on TV at that time on a non-cable channel. People wanted to read everything they could by Laura."

Excerpts of "Little House in the Ozarks" were published in Good Housekeeping and the popular devotional magazine, Guideposts.

Hines now is promoting "The Abbot's Ghost" and "The Baron's Gloves," two short thriller novels Alcott wrote under the pen name "A.M. Barnard" nearly a decade before the success of "Little Women."

The novellas have been published by Elm Hill Books, a division of Nashville-based Thomas Nelson Publishers.

In the A.M. Barnard stories, characters are often searching for adventure or tortured by vice. But, in trademark Alcott style, the good characters are ultimately rewarded and the bad characters end up miserable.

Hines wasn't the first to find these stories. The pen name and the stories written under it had already been discovered by Alcott's friends, Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern, Turnquist said.

Hines says his books have sold a total of about 600,000 copies, but not every effort translates into big profits.

A collection of Alcott's Christmas stories edited by Hines and published in 2002 didn't get shipped to sellers until late December, missing most of the lucrative Christmas sales.

Hines has used other jobs through the years -- working for a publishing company, serving as communications director for a state agency and writing a column for a Brentwood newspaper -- to supplement his love for literary prospecting.

"If you find something good that's just plain good, you run into the problem of how do you promote it," he said. "Goodness isn't good enough."

© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Acting out, acting up, or neither?

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Barbarism begins with Barbie, the doll children love to hate
By Alexandra Frean, Social Affairs Correspondent

BARBIE, that plastic icon of girlhood fantasy play, is routinely tortured by children, research has found.

The methods of mutilation are varied and creative, ranging from scalping to decapitation, burning, breaking and even microwaving, according to academics from the University of Bath.

The findings were revealed as part of an in-depth look by psychologists and management academics into the role of brands among 7 to 11-year-old schoolchildren.

The researchers had not intended to focus on Barbie, but they were taken aback by the rejection, hatred and violence she provoked when they asked the children about their feelings for the doll.

Violence and torture against Barbie were repeatedly reported across age, school and gender. No other toy or brand name provoked such a negative response.

“You might expect little girls to love their Barbie and expect an imaginary love in return. Instead girls feel violence and hatred towards their Barbie,” Agnes Nairn, one of the researchers, said.

One interpretation of this phenomenon is that the children are reacting to the proliferation of different types of the doll, which range from Fashion Barbie to Queen Elizabeth I Barbie and even a Geisha Barbie.

“The children never talked of one single, special Barbie. The girls almost always talked about having a box full of Barbies. So to them Barbie has come to symbolise excess. Barbies are not special; they are disposable, and are thrown away and rejected,” Dr Nairn said.

She added: “On a deeper level Barbie has become inanimate. She has lost any individual warmth that she might have possessed if she were perceived as a singular person. This may go some way towards explaining the violence and torture.”

Previous research from the US into Barbie abuse suggested that prepubescent girls destroyed the doll because she reminded them of adulthood at a time when they were still clinging to their childhood, but Dr Nairn found no evidence of this.

She also dismissed the idea that overweight little girls might be jealous of Barbie for being the girl who had everything, including a tiny waist. It was more likely to be a simple reaction against a toy that the children had grown out of, she said.

“The children we were talking to were aged 7 to 11, whereas the right age for having a Barbie seems now to be 4, even though Barbie doesn’t exactly look like it is aimed at four-year-olds,” Dr Nairn added. She and her colleagues Christine Griffin and Patricia Gaya Wicks concluded that, while adults may find a child’s delight in breaking, mutilating and torturing their dolls to be disturbing, from the child’s point of view they were simply being imaginative in disposing of an excessive commodity, in the same way as one might crush cans for recycling.

When the customer does the work for you.

What other businesses can adopt the mod model?

link to original article.

It's A Mod, Mod Underworld
Victoria Barret, 12.12.05

Gabe Newell is the envy of giants in the videogame industry. He designs games--then lets fans make them even better.

A 60-inch plasma screen at the offices of Valve Corp. roars to life with a heavy-metal soundtrack as a new videogame begins, and giant, gnarly aliens creep from the shadows of an ominous alleyway. The game, Alien Swarm, is the work of three creators who have piggybacked off of Valve's big hit, Half-Life 2, replacing the original game's main characters with a cast of their own creation.

Alien Swarm is a "mod," a modified add-on to the Valve title, and the rise of mods--letting your fans and even rivals freely tap into your game to redesign it--is a key reason behind the success of the privately held company. The Half-Life series has sold 15 million copies, and its first hot mod--Counter-Strike, a rapid-fire shoot-'em-up pitting online teams against each other--has racked up 4.8 million units. Never mind that Counter-Strike was designed not by Valve's 50 programmers but by two rookies who had never even met--a high school senior in New Jersey and a college student in Vancouver, B.C. Valve bought the game and hired its two kid creators.

Now comes Alien Swarm, an unfinished mod being shown to Valve Chief Executive Gabe L. Newell by three programmers who make up the entirety of Black Cat Software. They nervously watch for his reaction, and Newell thrills them by leaning his ample 6-foot-4 frame toward them and asking, "So when are you guys going pro?"

They decide that once Alien Swarm is finished, Valve may sell it for downloading on its Web site,, splitting the sales 50-50 with the three game designers. The Steam site has already begun promoting it.

"No one has created the Yahoo for games. That's our opportunity," says Newell, who plans to start selling music and minimovies on Steam next year. He is one of the most sought-after hitmakers in the $8.4 billion U.S. videogame industry. Valve, a nine-year-old Seattle company owned by Newell and a few employees, will do at least $70 million in revenue this year, double last year's sales, with operating profit of $55 million.

Newell's Web storefront, Steam, has 3 million members logging in every week to play games and get automatic upgrades. And while he started out selling in retail stores, in 2004 he became one of the first game developers to successfully sell direct to consumers online--a move retailers typically despise. Newell makes an operating margin of more than 80% on downloaded games; titles sold at retail get a 36% margin.

Users who visit the Steam site get weekly marketing missives and can choose to let Valve scan their computers online to learn new insights. In the spring Valve discovered that its users with the most advanced graphics had tripled to 10% of all players. So it released a new, snazzier level of Half-Life aimed just at them. "Valve has a much better feel for who their customer is than the rest of the industry. It's admirable," says Sega of America President Simon Jeffery.

Says Microsoft Xbox executive Gregory Canessa: "Valve is closest to figuring out how to make online sales work."

Valve has done so by relying on the kindness of strangers: its own customers who are "modders." Valve gives away the software tools that let even amateur programmers make mods, because you must buy a copy of Half-Life to be able to create your own mod or play someone else's.

Newell sells 15 mod versions and knows of 500 mods floating around in cyberspace, but there could be thousands. Half-Life pits a geeky scientist (you) against corrupt government agents and lethal aliens at a top-secret government site. The Counter-Strike mod transforms this into a multiplayer game of terrorists versus counterterrorists. Day of Defeat applies the premise to World War II. Half-Life Rally has cars racing through the original site (and no killing). Vampire Slayer is self-explanatory.

"We let our community of players make up the rules," Newell says. If he likes a mod, he sells it online himself and shares half the sales with the modders. If a modder wants to sell it on his own, he must pay Valve a $200,000 licensing fee, plus royalties, in exchange for using Half-Life's development engine.

Newell, 43, learned from his first employer, Bill Gates, that success in software comes from getting outside developers to write programs that sell more copies of your own. Newell was the 271st employee at Microsoft and, like Gates, is a Harvard dropout. (Steve Ballmer, then Microsoft's head of sales, talked him into leaving college.) Newell spent 13 years in Redmond as the lead developer of the first three versions of Windows.

He was brilliant and wildly productive. "He was doing 30 products a year," says former colleague Alex St. John, now chief executive of WildTangent, a Web shop selling smaller games.

Newell quit Microsoft in 1996 and cashed in his stock options to launch Valve that year. He has put a daunting $15 million-plus of his own money into the company, buying out a cofounder and eschewing venture capital backing. He was inspired by the story of Id Software, producers of Doom and Quake, two massive PC hits that let amateur designers modify the games' code to change details and scenery. One popular mod inserted Homer Simpson as the main shooter.

So Newell licensed some Quake code from Id to create Half-Life, which debuted in 1998 and sold 2.5 million copies at retail in its first year. And there sales would have stalled, but modding extends a game's life and sparks further sales. Newell hired the two young Australian programmers who had created the most popular Quake mod, Team Fortress, and bought the rights to their game. They added more powerful graphics tools for Half-Life modders.

A year later the community produced its first hit: Counter-Strike. Newell bought it for a pittance in 2000 and hired its two creators (the high school kid in New Jersey and the college kid in Vancouver). Half-Life itself didn't reach its sales peak until its third year; most games peak after a few months.

Flush with success, Newell embarked on a five-year, $40 million effort to make Half-Life 2 (similar setting, better tools). Introduced in 2004, it has sold 4 million copies and inspired 100 new mods. Alien Swarm may be the first mod Valve itself will sell for Half-Life 2. Mods now provide 20% of Valve's total revenue and someday could account for up to 50% of sales.

It is the upside, Newell says, of letting customers take total control, and the practice shouldn't be limited to videogames: "George Lucas should have distributed the 'source code' to Star Wars. Millions of fans would create their own movies and stories. Most of them would be terrible, but a few would be genius."