Monday, May 11, 2009

Margie Profet's Unfinished Symphony -- 5

Margie Profet’s vanishing was neither sudden nor particularly unexpected to Don Symons (left). Mentor, friend, and later, boyfriend, Symons was probably closer to Profet than anyone outside her family. She had, for years he told me, “suffered from serious psychological problems that she was adept at concealing, including when you knew her in Seattle.”  

Considered one of the founders of evolutionary psychology, the study of the human mind as Darwinian adaptation, Symons lived with Profet for about 6 months of their six year relationship. It was 1990, and she was back at Harvard, this time as a graduate student in biological anthropology.  

“I took a sabbatical and moved back with her to support her,” Symons told me. “Although the grad student part was a short-lived disaster, she did make a lot of headway on the allergy paper, she in one room writing, me in another editing.” 

With a sobering tone, Symons draws a different picture of Profet than the one that emerged in the media, noting that she was mis-characterized as a “maverick,” and that her “innate scientific abilities” did more to rally the scientific establishment to her cause than turn it away.  

“Margie was not an outcast, nor a lone voice in the wilderness,” he explains, pointing to her notable supporters. “Bruce Ames is surely one of the most respected biochemists of our time, and George Williams one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of the 20th century. And of course, winning a MacArthur grant testifies to the support she received from some well placed and established people.”  

The scientific establishment may ultimately vindicate some of her theories too, Symons adds, ironic given what he calls “the criticisms of some establishment nutritionists.”  

Williams and co-authors have since written that first-trimester food aversions function as Profet proposed. But in updating the idea for a modern woman's diet, they also allay the concerns of nutritionists who have argued that natural toxins in vegetables simply aren’t at high enough levels to threaten a fetus—or precipitate pregnancy sicknesses, as Profet surmised.

 Modern-day food aversions are vestiges of evolution, they argue, remnants of a time when some foodstuffs did indeed possess a poisonous potential.

“Our forager ancestors ate wild plants that had higher levels of natural toxins than do the plants we eat,” Symons explains. “But growers today deliberately breed better-tasting, less bitter plants, selecting for low levels of natural toxins. In a modern environment, pregnancy may produce food aversions, but at toxin levels that aren’t high enough to threaten a developing embryo. 

On the shoulders of giants goes the adage, and the idea that Margie Profet’s work is still rising on broad shoulders lays to rest another myth about it. She stood on Symons’ shoulders too—he’s acknowledged in each of her major papers—but in press accounts he cedes the limelight and stays in the background.  

Speaking of Margie with such honesty now seems a recognition that friendship demands truth, no matter how hard it may be to deliver. She is diminished by none of this, her friends and colleagues seem to be saying. We love and care for her just the same.  

“I was honored to have helped Margie shape her ideas,” Symons told me. “No one has more respect and admiration for her amazingly creative intellect than I do.”

If you look carefully at it, a 1996 photograph
in Scientific American captures some of the many contradictions in this remarkable woman. Perched like a cat in a soft, Earth-tone chair, legs folded tightly in her arms, Margie Profet is wearing her trademark running shorts and a heavy, fuzzy, brightly-colored sweater. It’s cold beyond the window behind her, where overcast skies crowd out the light and a chill Seattle drizzle sprinkles the glass.  

I walked by Margie at the University of Washington every day for a year, even sat next to her in a physics class. Maybe we spoke a few times—I don’t recall. But I do remember the shorts—no matter how cold or wet or gray, always shorts, like—as Harvey Mansfield recalled to a reporter from 16 years earlier in the Massachusetts snow—like Margie Profet had just come in from her own sunny day at the beach.

Sun and clouds; coldness and warmth; knowledge and innocence; running shorts and heavy sweaters. Mansfield would later characterize the two sides of Margie as “an apparent case of schizophrenia.” Curled tightly into herself the last time he saw her on that lonely Cambridge street, she was exhausted and bowed, no match, finally, for the unrequited cloak that had hovered for so long over the person he knew.

“Margie was a wonderful, free spirit in the best, intellectual sense of the phrase—a charmer, and a beauty, too,” Mansfield says. “May God protect her, wherever she is.”


A Radical New View of the Role of Menstruation (New York Times)

Margie Profet: Evolutionary Theories for Everyday Life (Scientific American)

"School isn't my kind of thing" (Time)

A curse no more (People Magazine)

Are periods a protection against men? (New Scientist)

Margie Profet: Co-Evolution (Omni)

(Getty Image previews in accordance with non-commercial use terms and conditions.)

1 2 3 4 5

No comments: