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Nonfiction in Brief

WHEN CHILDREN WANT CHILDREN : The Urban Crisis of Childbearing by Leon Dash (William Morrow: $18.95)

January 29, 1989|ALEX RAKSIN

Many poor black kids in America have perfected a tough street demeanor to hide--from themselves and society--the fact that they are actually among our nation's most alienated and disenfranchised citizens. "When Children Want Children" provides a rare opportunity to look behind this facade of violence (often the only aspect of ghetto life to make the nightly news) and witness a drama more telling, and thus more poignant, than that played out in the streets.

For several months Washington Post reporter Leon Dash lived in a roach-infested apartment in one of Washington D.C.'s poorest neighborhoods, talking informally with several families about problems of violence, loneliness and sexual abuse. Most affecting is Dash's portrait of the children of Lillian Williams. Charlie III, for instance, traces his ever-present anger back to the day when he graduated from sixth grade. He waited patiently for his mother to congratulate him while she consoled his sister Theresa, who was in tears after finding out that she had failed her year in school. Instead of praising him, though, his mother told his sister, "Don't worry Theresa, Charlie will fail, too." (Charlie did just that in the seventh grade, dropping out of school by the time he was 16.)

While Dash writes less about the urban crisis of childbearing than about the panoply of obstacles ensnaring young black Americans (from cycles of cruelty in which the abused become abusers to a widespread lack of self-esteem), he does discover a surprising fact about teen-age childbearing. The women he met were not, as many of us might have suspected, ignorant or careless about birth control; they intentionally became pregnant, Dash writes, because they saw a baby as "a tangible achievement in an otherwise dreary and empty future. It is one way of announcing: 'I am a woman.' "

"When Children Want Children" ends, unfortunately, without suggesting how we might reverse the alarming social trends reported here, such as the threefold increase from 1960-83 in the number of infants born yearly to unmarried teen-agers (from 91,700 to 270,076). In particular one wishes Dash would have investigated whether the U.S. social services cut drastically in recent years might have mitigated these urban ills. This book remains quite powerful, though, calling attention to problems that this "kinder, gentler nation" cannot afford to ignore.

THE EVOLUTION OF SEX edited by George Stevens and Robert Bellig (Harper & Row: $19.95) More demanding than most popular science texts, this book, based on a 1987 Nobel Conference in Minnesota, will compel non-specialists to leaf through the book's glossary for explanations of terms such as Gnetales and propagule . But in return, "The Evolution of Sex," bereft of the dreamy philosophizing that dilutes many popular science books, will give readers a first-hand account of how visionary anthropologists and biologists attempt to unravel the many remaining mysteries of the natural world.

The sex of the title is not the safe sex, sexual abuse and sex offenders of the news media, but the sexual reproduction that helps an organism ensure the survival of its genes. Sexual reproduction is hardly the most efficient way for an organism to do this, British biologist John Maynard Smith writes in a seminal essay, for sex taints the purity of an organism's genes by mixing them with those of the opposite sex. And yet if sex didn't have at least some advantages over asexual reproduction (where organisms usually produce offspring genetically identical to themselves), then natural selection long ago would have eliminated it. Smith thus sets out to target these advantages, from the well-known (Sexual reproduction may be nature's way of responding to a changing environment by getting rid of deleterious genes that would have been passed on in asexual reproduction) to the more controversial (Sex might help repair damaged DNA molecule strands).

This book's liveliest section features a panel debate between science theologian Philip Hefner and his atheistic colleagues, who sense that he is arguing, as Katharine Hepburn did, that "Nature is what we are put in this world to rise above." Biology professor Lynn Margulis offers a more cynical view of humanity's role in evolution, likening people to "great mammalian weeds, in the sense that our human populations grow quickly and alter the environment beyond recognition by anything but cockroaches, rats, Coke bottles, and beer cans . . . If you want to laud human culture for these 'achievements,' then we are in big trouble." Hefner persuasively counters Margulis, however, arguing that human culture, like human biology, has its own "entropic randomization," evolving through the clash of ideas about "how society should be maintained, how slave and free, Jew and Greek, men and women, should interrelate."

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