Body language: Robert Winston

NEVER mind the bravura of his lolly-pink shirt. Professor Lord Robert Winston’s trademark ebullience has fizzled into the flatness of jet-lag. It could be a metaphor for the way he views many of modern medicine’s exciting but controversial breakthroughs.

IVF? Overused and the cause of lazy medicine, with doctors now rarely trying to treat the underlying causes of infertility. Donor eggs? The trade in genetic material is morally risky. Gene therapy? Might change what it means to be human.

Winston, a fertility authority best known as the genial, inquiring face of the hit BBC documentary series The Human Body, was in Melbourne last weekend for the Alfred Deakin Lecture series, part of the Federation Festival, speaking on the topic ‘Will
we still be human at the end of the 21st century?’
The short answer is yes. Winston has no doubt that key traits will persist: ‘We will still have the same emotions. We will hate and fear and love as … in the 20th Century. In that sense, we will still be the same as we were 10,000 years ago.’

The question he wants to raise is not about physical or mental evolution so much as human philosophical response to the issues raised by new technologies such as gene therapy.

‘If you alter an individual person’s genetic structure, you alter their children’s structure. If you alter the genome line, you have altered people ever after.

‘I think it’s very problematic. It’s a long way into the future … but we haven’t had the real debate, which is about making transgenic humans; humans who have genes in them that are not actually their own.’

Of particular concern is the temptation, if science makes it possible, to ‘modify our genetics to enhance certain characteristics that we see as valuable: intelligence and strength and grace and beauty and so on. And, if you change the DNA structure to make people more intelligent … you have changed the genome that will be passed on. It will be heritable.

‘You define a species by its genetic make-up. The human species is essentially built into the recipe of its DNA. You change the DNA, you’ve changed the recipe. If you’ve changed the recipe, it’s a different kind of dish.’

If living things are defined by their assemblage of genes as human, chimpanzee, mouse, yeast and tree, and those genes are changed, one has to ask if they would still be human, chimpanzee, mouse and so on, he says.

‘That’s an interesting question because of our central belief that holds the moral structure of our society together, which is that we believe in the sanctity, above all, of human life. We believe in the sanctity of human life mainly because we see ourselves built in the image of God. If we change that image, are we still human? And if we’re not human, how do we view those who are human? Are humans still sacrosanct?

‘When the Nazis destroyed gypsies, Jews and imbeciles in the 1930s, it was because they thought they were subhuman, not truly human. Essentially, it isn’t so different; the difference is they didn’t have the knowledge to understand what we have today.’

The worry is that if we create ‘superhumans’, will they then regard ordinary humans as subhuman?
‘That’s exactly what I’m saying.’
Winston’s concern for human rights underlies his analysis of other hot topics. He supports, for example, lesbian women having access to IVF but not women past menopause using the technique. The latter is ‘morally risky’ because it requires donor eggs, and ‘my impression of most donors is that they wouldn’t out of preference want to give their eggs to a 62-year-old woman’.

But he sees Victoria’s laws banning lesbian access to IVF and artificial insemination as a ‘primitive … legal situation’. Such a stance would have to be based either on religious principles – ‘and everybody’s different religiously’ – or the fear that children would suffer. British research has found that children of lesbian couples do at least as well as children from heterosexual families, he says.

‘It seems to me that legislation that is social essentially should be based on proper evidence, and not to do so is pure prejudice.’

Winston, so affable on screen, can be more caustic when unscripted. When Prince Charles criticised genetically modified food and waxed lyrical about his organically grown vegetables, Winston retorted that HRH ‘is one of the most genetically modified individuals on the planet’.

The paradox still makes Winston laugh.

‘It’s ludicrous to have a diatribe about genetically modified food when the corn that we eat has been genetically modified by selective breeding, which is what the Royal Family’s been doing with arranged marriages for centuries.’

So what does this Labour lord, appointed six years ago by a Conservative government, think of the monarchy?
He finds the question mildly alarming: ‘Oh, my goodness! I’m a Labour peer. I’m not this reincarnation of Stalin, red of tooth and claw and with a pickaxe. I was talking to Princess Anne yesterday. I think they’re rather nice, actually.

‘This isn’t an issue I want to discuss in Australia because you have different views about the Royal Family – quite reasonably because you want, by and large, to re-evaluate your position in the world as a republic. And so you should.

‘For us in Britain, whether you’re Labour or Conservative, the general view is that the monarchy is still a useful political figurehead, which works rather better than a presidency would do. I think the Royal Family hold certain aspects of British tradition together rather well.’

Winston has spent most of his professional life working with life, creating embryos and successfully screening them for genetic defects before implanting them to grow as babies. He has also explored death. In one of his television documentaries, he filmed the natural dying of an old man and used technology to track the disappearance of the last sign of life from his body.

Does Winston, so preoccupied with the big questions, believe in life after death? Again he is startled and a bit irritated.

‘Oh no. God knows. Do I believe …? Does it matter? No journalist’s ever asked me a question like that before. I don’t really have a fear of death except for the things I’ll leave unfinished. Life after death doesn’t really have a meaning for me.’

He continues to muse, off balance at the rare experience of being asked a question to which he has no ready answer.

‘It’s a bit like Lennox Lewis. Lennox Lewis went into the ring not expecting to be knocked out – and he was. And I feel like I’ve been knocked out.’

He roars with laughter, his good humour restored.

First published in The Age.

Love, marriage and housework: navigating the minefield

PROFESSOR Ken Dempsey recalls interviewing married couples about how they shared the domestic load. One husband said with pride: “I always do the Sunday night dinner.” Says Dempsey, “When we came to interview the wife, she just laughed and said, `On the way home from golf, he buys a pizza’.”

This couple is not necessarily destined for the Family Court, although Dempsey points out that American research found that the more housework a man did, the less often his wife thought of divorce.

But he believes women’s resentment about housework is a key barometer of a marriage’s health, and his latest research suggests that even women who see themselves as happily married are more dissatisfied with many aspects of their relationships, including the emotional ones, than are men.

It is mainly female unhappiness that fuels divorce, with up to 75per cent of divorces now initiated by women. This makes the issue as much a matter for community inquiry as bedroom argument.

Is it that men are reluctant to give up male privilege? Or is it that women are trying to force female standards of housekeeping and emotional response on their men?
The research by Dempsey, associate professor of sociology at La Trobe University, is published in the latest issue of Family Matters, the journal of the Australian Institute of Family Studies. It confirms earlier findings that the number of women racing to work clutching briefcases still far exceeds the number of men willing to race about the house brandishing dunny brushes.

Some households with working wives continue to run on 1950s norms: “Many men demanded explanations from wives for not having carried out household or personal care tasks for them, such as having a meal ready the moment they walked in the door from work.”
But women’s response to this is complex. How they feel about the division of labor is not determined solely by how the division works, Dempsey says: “When women say the division is fair, what they are really telling you is how they feel about the marriage generally.

“If a husband is great with the children, which is a high priority for the wife, she tends not to mind doing more of the work. There’s almost no chance she will say the division of labor is unfair even if she’s doing 99per cent of it. If he delivers in other ways that are important to her, she will make rationalisations such as, `Oh, I’m better at this than him anyway’.”

Which throws into some gloom Dempsey’s finding that more women than men thought the following the following areas were unfairly divided: housework (71per cent, 10per cent); child care (64per cent, 4per cent); and leisure opportunities (40per cent and
5per cent).

Both men and women believed that men got the better deal from marriage, with many women describing their husbands as being like another child they had to pick up after. It might be this resentment as much as exhaustion that explains the lower libidos of working mothers reported in a different study last week.

Dempsey’s sample of 85 was small, so it was not representative. But Professor Pat Noller, director of the University of Queensland’s Family Centre, says it is a common finding that women have more complaints, and that many of them revolve around men’s distance from housework and child care.

“Men’s lack of involvement is seen as a lack of equality, because even women who are working full-time are still carrying the major burden at home. But the fact that women are more dissatisfied than men doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of women who are satisfied.” The problem is that those who are unhappy often find their husbands don’t take their concerns seriously. “Typically, he doesn’t see her unhappiness and doesn’t hear her saying she wants change. A study done in Sydney interviewed former couples about why they were divorced. The men all said it had surprised them, but the women all said, `We told him and told him and told him’.”

Noller has sympathy for men’s emotional style, which she says defines intimacy as sharing sex and companionship. “The classic story is where the women tells the therapist that her husband never shows her he loves her, and he says, `But I wash her car for her every week’.”

She says this century has seen a “feminisation of love”, with the female preference for emotional openness and deep talk becoming the yardstick for intimacy. “Men don’t always have the emotional awareness to be involved in this. You ask them how they feel and they don’t know. I think there is a certain degree of unfairness (in that expectation).”

On the other hand, a man’s “not hearing” a woman’s distress in a relationship can be a power play. “If you like the way things are but your spouse wants change and that change centres on you, chances are you’re not going to want to talk about it. That maintains the status quo but it leaves the partner helpless and can destroy the relationship, but men seem willing to take that risk.”

Quinn Pawson, director of counselling education with Relationships Australia, says many couples arrive in therapy stuck in a pattern where he withdraws every time she makes a demand.

“I am confident that men do engage emotionally – we see it week in and week out. But the question is how to engage them … (while) not leaving the woman with all the responsibility for maintaining the relationship, including the emotional housework.”

Another researcher has suggested that the unspoken expectations of wifehood influence the labor sharing in a relationship. Janeen Baxter, associate professor of sociology at the University of Queensland, has found that de facto women do 3.5hours less housework a week than wives.

“For women, it is not just the presence of a man that leads to spending more time on housework and having greater responsibility for more of the household tasks, but it is the presence of a husband.

“It appears that the institution of marriage exerts influence on men and women to behave in particular kinds of ways, independently of the social and economic differences between married and cohabiting women, which we know lead to women doing more housework (for example, having young children in the household, women spending less time in paid work and women contributing less of the family income).”

Her study of 179 people in cohabiting relationships and 1231 married people found that even women who lived with their partner before marriage did less housework after marriage than women who had not lived with their partners beforehand.

But marriages overall have changed from the rigid gender role division of work that used to exist. Baxter says American research found that women had cut their housework almost in half since the 1960s (although they now spent more time on shopping and child care), and that men’s share of housework had almost doubled in that time. It’s just that the figure for men started from a low base.

“Basically, what it comes down to is that in another 100 years things might be equal,” she says.
Table: Perceived problems in marriage

Females % Males %

Partner does not provide enough emotional support 53 15

Communication a problem 38 18

Partner makes too many demands 25 15

Insufficient time with partner 51 23

Insufficient interest in physical love making 2 33

Too busy with work or outside interests 71 30

Insufficient initiative in planning joint activities 76 48

One or more facets of the marriage reportedas unfair to respondent 76 15

Making three or more complaints about partner 67 28

Wanting to change one or more aspects of marriage 58 30

Source: The Melbourne marriage survey, 2001

When the wilderness bites back

In the Grampians, wild kangaroos handfed by tourists have grabbed and kicked humans. In Corinella, a sick bull seal befriended by locals charged them when it was hungry or cross – no laughing matter, given that it weighed nearly a tonne. And the use of bloody carcasses to lure sharks for tourists in cages has been blamed for conditioning them to associate humans with food.

It is not just on Fraser Island, where dingoes who had lost their fear of humans this week mauled a child to death, where the line separating people and the wild is being blurred. But the tragedy highlights the contradiction between the desire to explore wilderness and the shock of reminders that “wild” can mean “ferocious”.

When the result is disaster, the longing to experience the natural state becomes a cry for help to the nanny state. The fantasy that Australians can deal with the bush is exposed as just that. On Fraser Island, rangers were called in to cull dingoes. Environmental consultant and biologist Tim Low says: “We want nature … on our terms. We want to be able to feed wildlife – but hey, if it hurts us, kill it.”

Low’s forthcoming book, The New Nature, argues that interactions between people and wildlife are already so common that there is no longer such a thing as genuine wilderness. “The whole concept that `True nature is out there in the wilderness, unsullied by human contact’ is now incredibly untrue and becoming less true every year.”
As people flock to the wilderness, and as formerly wild creatures find the trappings of city life make their own more comfortable, the question of how the species negotiate sharing the same space becomes more urgent.

Take fruit bats, says Low. Melburnians might be annoyed by their infestation of the Botanic Gardens, but they had better get used to the idea of urban colonies. Bats are now within walking distance of Jupiter’s Casino because they have found that suburban gardens provide a more reliable food supply than the wild. “These shifts are happening all over,” he says.

Even in some of Australia’s most remote areas, says CSIRO research scientist Dr David Saunders, dingoes have lost their native wariness of humans because they have been fed by tourists. Along the Gunbarrel Highway in the backblocks of Western Australia, dingoes fearlessly walk up to campers’ fires.

The cause of this artificially created fearlessness is the fact that some city-bred, TV-consuming humans have also had their wariness of wild animals blunted. This is because their only contact with them is from documentaries, says Patrick Medway, executive director of the Wildlife Preservation Society.

They take for granted the ability to see close-ups of animals, “including ones that are exceptionally dangerous”. Some expect the same in the wild: “We have lost our sense of danger; many people feed wildlife to bring them closer.”

He agrees that television has made tourists impatient and demanding, reluctant to wait for natural sightings in the wild: “On TV you see the flash of jaguar followed quickly by something else, even though the actual filming might have taken thousands of hours. Now, when you take people into the bush, they want instant gratification.”

But people should not contribute to making wildlife dependent on human hand-outs or unafraid of human contact, says Ron Waters, acting manager of flora and fauna compliance and utilisation with Victoria’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

“You don’t want to make animals so unafraid of people that they think they can just do what they like around them. That principle applies right across the board,” he says.

It is bad for both parties to any encounter, he says. Animals’ diets are distorted and their habits changed when tourists feed them. Chucking chicken bones to try to get a better look at a tree goanna, for example, could result in a nasty bite: “They have septic teeth because they eat carrion.”
Where does all this leave the Crocodile Dundee-type fantasies of rugged bush know-how that have become such a large strand of the national myth? Looking rather empty.

Perhaps they always have been; the pioneer stereotype of the noble bushman was created in the first place to ease anxieties that the convict stain made Australians somehow inferior, according to Professor John Rickard, of the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. The idea was that in the encounter with a harsh environment, “the Anglo-Saxon type in Australia had actually been improved”.

The myth continues to shape the national psyche: “Some people with no (bush skills) still see themselves as almost congenitally wonderful in the outback,” says John Bryson, author of the book Evil Angels. “We’re an urban people, but that doesn’t stop us identifying as outback people.”

Bryson says white Australians have not wanted to face the fact that dingoes can be lethal: “Firstly because they’re ours, and we like to like them, and they are very beautiful, graceful creatures.” (Misplaced nationalism).

There has also been a sense that they are mysterious animals: “Part of it is its ability just to appear like the Kadaitcha (an Aboriginal spirit); the number of times in the bush that you will suddenly see a dingo there, regarding you, and he’s appeared without you getting any sense of him travelling there.” (Romanticism).

And finally, he says, white attitudes have been colored by the Anglo-Celtic love of dogs. (Projections of the Old World on to the New).

But wider questions about tourism and the wild remain. How real is a wilderness experience that involves hordes of tourists? Take the dolphins in Port Phillip Bay: how exposed to human swimmers do they have to be before they can no longer be considered wild?

How do we stop loving nature to death?

First published in The Age.