2009 February

EVOLUTION AND THE INDIVIDUAL TALENT

By | archive, commentary, impressions

Hiccups, hernias and hemorrhoids are all caused by an imperfect transfer of anatomical technology from our fish ancestors.”–biology professor Marlene Zuk in The New York Times (1/20/09)

Don’t let’s go there. We all have our instinctual phobias and obsessions, a fear of sharp-beaked shadows, or a scarcely controllable urge to upgrade that in-home lap pool, again.

Maybe I should have paid more attention before clicking “accept,” but I can never remember whether to stream downloads sequentially or fluvially. No excuses, but I was a botany major. And anyway, anatomical transfer was not part of the core curriculum at my school. It was just assumed that you were comfortable with it, that members of a certain socioeconomic class could discern piscine from avian. What more can I say? I was a scholarship kid, and I winged it.

But hey, really, I have no regrets. I have progressed farther than my parents ever dreamed possible. Like my behaviorist says, individual evolution is not a mad dash to the finish line. It’s a process. You want to have the sense to make a lateral move, if you catch my drift.

Nobody’s happy with the status quo. We all want to become someone or something else. We are all struggling to leave the primordial ooze, but only some of us have the lungs for it–only some of us have the ambition to truly succeed, to shout out to the world, “I am part halibut and proud of it!”

I admit that I am still working on that. Problem is, after twenty-three hours at the office, going flat out the whole time, there’s only so much memory left in my limbic forebrain [hic]. It’s a strain; I won’t deny it. I start to doubt my ability to migrate anatomically. A self-defeating thought, I know, but just the type of self-defeating thought that can swell painfully, that can burn, and itch . . . and, well, you know what I mean.

We all have failings. The difference is that I’m trying not to bust a gut over it. The people who are already there will tell you it’s easy, but I know better: gene transfer and gene expression are two different things entirely. I mean, look at Dick Cheney. OK, yes, he does reveal a certain squat, predatory glee, but that is merely a superficial resemblance to an anglerfish, a trait that might inspire a playground nickname, but no more. What you see is what he’s got.

And then there are the overachievers, like my ex, Felicia. When we met, she was a nobody, hopelessly mono-specific. Now she tells everyone who’ll listen that there are only three degrees of separation between herself, personally, and a race of riverine dolphins–and a scant four to Michelle Obama.

Tell you the truth, I miss Felicia. We had this post-mammalian attraction going big-time. I mean, I really thought the relationship had legs. And then I come home one day totally parched and she says no, she’s moved on, she needs someone with vision, someone who can see eye to eye with her, another panopticon and not some binocular loser like me.

After the initial shock wore off (me, binocular?), I understood that her argument didn’t hold water. Felicia has this way of moving when she knows you’re watching, a slippery sort of grace I thought only I was susceptible to. But, as it turns out, others were watching just as closely, and one of them got a hook in her.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of belief. I believe I am becoming more adaptive every minute of every day. Sometime in the not too distant future, I will find true love, achieve neutral buoyancy, and sleep with my eyes open. Better that than to tell myself I’m destined to a life of synchronous diaphragmatic flutter and peritoneal rupture. Some beliefs are a prop, others a truss.

About Peter Fong

Peter Fong is a flyfishing guide in Mongolia and a temporary editor at the University Press of New England. To read more of his work, visit peterwfong.blogspot.com

STEM CELL RESEARCH (AS IMAGINED BY ITS OPPONENTS)

By | archive, humour

I. THE HEADQUARTERS OF SCIENCE (EUROPE)

- Hand me the abortion elixir.

- But – but Master, it has yet to finish bubbling.

- What in the Darwin?! Here, hold another burning Bible below it. It usually
takes three or four.

- But why can’t we use these perfectly suitable adult stem cells? I have an
entire briefcase right here.

- Because if we cure these diseases, then we’ll be out of business for good!
That’s why!

- I’m so glad you have no common sense.

- Yes, I am extremely arrogant. I refuse to accept anything not in a textbook.

- Dolly Almighty, did you see this fax? It’s from Hollywood. A rush order for
three thousand more designer baby arms!

- Well, this is certainly the first time I’ve supported the right to bare arms!

- Oh, Master!

II. THE PLAYBOY MANSION

- Thanks for inviting me to this science sex party.

- You’re so funny. You are my sex slave that I cloned from stem cells.

- What?! That can’t be true.

- Look at your feet. You are still standing in the petri dish.

- I’m a – I’m a clone? How did you –

- I needed but a single human hair, just like in Superman IV. Movies are
completely accurate portrayals of modern science.

- Why would you do this to me?

- Because I am a scientist and it is my job to hurt people.

- This water from the Playboy Grotto – it isn’t getting me wet.

- That’s because I made you water-resistant, so you could never be baptized!
How’s that for intelligent design!

- You scientific bastard!

III. THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY

- We have a situation.

- What is it?

- Well, when we were growing the soulless babies for spare parts–

- Yes?

- …

- Out with it, damn it!

- Well, we found something – something science can’t explain.

- Destroy it. Destroy it, immediately.

- But Professor Luciferre –

- Immediately.

About Jason Silverstein

Jason Silverstein's writing has recently appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency and the British Journal of Haematology. In recognition of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, he'd like to forgo the customary humorous blurb and ask that you, kind reader, consider supporting the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network at www.pancan.org.

YOU MAKE ME SICK: DOES MALADAPTIVE PSYCHOLOGY CAUSE AUTOIMMUNITY

By | archive, textbook

One of the most prominent environmental risk factors described for numerous diseases is chronic exposure to stressful situations. – “Chronic stress and individual vulnerability,” Schmidt MV, Sterlemann V, Müller MB, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, December 2008, 1148, 174-183.

Is it really true that autoimmune diseases become more active in response to stress? There are a handful of related but distinct faulty causal inferences about stress and illness in much of the literature on autoimmune disorders. From work on stressful life events and multiple sclerosis relapse (footnote 1), to reports of stress-related onset and exacerbations of Graves disease (footnote 2), negative weighting of major life events and lupus symptomatology (footnote 3), and psychological factors in sarcoidosis (footnote 4) , medical researchers conflate correlation with causation. The possible logical errors underlying this pervasive tendency are not mutually exclusive, and can be categorized as: (1) reverse causality, (2) factual and thus deterministic accounts of patient history, and (3) endogeneity bias.

First, it is well-established – if it ever needed positivist-style data compilation and analysis to be accepted as fact – that being sick is stressful (footnote 5). Getting a chronic illness diagnosed and treated takes time and money, and is not something most people would choose to have done for fun on the weekends – weekend after weekend, year after year. At the same time, it is also well-established that being stressed out can make you sick in the sense of making you more vulnerable to colds, flu, and running your car into the mailbox (footnote 6). Type A personalities are notoriously more likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes (footnote 7). Clearly the causal arrow can flow both ways when it comes to stress and illness. This means that, while reverse causality may be a significant problem in the literature on stress and autoimmune diseases, the error is actually one of indeterminacy. We just don’t know which way the arrow flows in general for autoimmune disorders, or how much it flows each way, or which comes first – the freaked-out chicken, or its seriously scrambled egg.

An easier error to call out definitively is that of deterministic patient history bias. “Factual framings produce searches for deterministic ‘what made it happen’ accounts of the past, whereas counterfactual framings produce searches for antideterministic accounts that keep pushing back the last possible moment when something else could have happened” (footnote 8). People crave meaning – making meaning is fundamentally what human beings do, be it through art, science, law, religion, or cookies – and we especially crave stories that make everything make sense. As a result of this drive to tell a coherent life story, nobody tells his or her own patient history with counterfactuals. (Okay, nobody who hasn’t got a book deal.) When we are down, perhaps we are more likely to attribute our downness to previous bouts of downness, so that the trend is coherent and logical. Rather than allowing for random error – admitting that we exist by an accident of fate, a lucky roll of the universal dice – perhaps we weave meaning by telling stories in which one life tragedy (major stressors such as crime, divorce, or relocation) causes another (illness). This is the Grand Unifying Theory of Self. It’s simplistic and linear. It’s comforting and comprehensible in a way that random error spelling life or death – to most people – is not. Alternately, maybe doctors themselves have a tendency to project doomed, deterministic histories onto the patients with diagnoses that are particularly difficult to identify and treat – to wit, folks with relatively rare and apparently multi-system, chronic illnesses such as MS, lupus, Graves, sarcoidosis, and the rest of the autoimmune gang. Maybe doctors as well as patients can fall prey to the very human need to make sense of the senseless, to order random error, and ultimately to find someone to blame, just to feel better.

A more obvious error still in the “stress causes autoimmunity” spiel is endogeneity bias (footnote 9). Among people with a family history of autoimmune illnesses, as well as among females, ethnic minorities, and poor people, there is generally more autoimmune illness. There is also more stress in these subgroups, because caring for sick family members is a form of unpaid labor that no society known to man compensates for (footnote 10). It is also notoriously stressful to not have a penis, to not be white, and to not have oodles of cash. Lo and behold, healthy people tend to hit the jackpot and people who hit the jackpot tend to be healthy (and then, if covariance is a valid way of drawing causal inferences, they all go out and buy a penis). I guess the world is a meritocracy after all. Quick, somebody tell all the toddlers in sub-Saharan African dying of diarrheal disease.

In conclusion, it’s certainly true that particular aspects of certain autoimmune diseases are associated with mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Iron-deficiency anemia in lupus, poor sleep quality in Graves disease, and impaired breathing in sarcoidosis are only a few examples of this. But in these instances, poor mental health is a direct effect of poor physical health. Subsequent spiraling via feedback loops tells us nothing about the etiology of autoimmunity as a potentially life-threatening disease process. Rather, it distracts medical care practitioners and social support systems alike when it is misinterpreted to suggest that illness is a choice.

Further research might seek to answer the medical anthropological questions of how this victim-blaming set of logical errors has come to permeate the rheumatology literature. Is it a result of patients with autoimmune diseases narrating histories in which their previous tragedies and/or recent changes in mental state caused or correlated with their illness patterns – and well-meaning, empathetic doctors simply listening well and believing them (footnote 11)? Or are there more nefarious forces at work here – are doctors and medical researchers following the herd mentality, exhibiting societal biases against women (who are far more likely than men to suffer autoimmunity), against minorities (who are more likely than Caucasians to have most autoimmune problems (footnote 12)), and against poor people (who are more likely to suffer from chronic health problems in general (footnote 13))? One thing is for sure: When it comes to the supposed causal relationship between psychological state and autoimmune flares, the only solid proof is all in their heads.

Footnotes:

1. “The impact of stressful life events on risk of relapse in women with multiple sclerosis: a prospective study,” Mitsonis CI, Zervas IM, Mitropoulos PA, Dimopoulos NP, Soldatos CR, Potagas CM, and Sfegos CA, European Psychiatry, Oct. 2008, 23 (7) 497-504.

2. “Psychosomatic concept of hyperthyroidism – Graves type – behavioral and biochemical characteristics,” Draganiæ-Gajiæ S, Leciæ-Tosevski D, Svrakiæ D, Paunovic VR, Cvejiæ V, and Cloninger R, Med Pregl., Jul-Aug 2008, 61 (7-8) 383-388; “Age and stress as determinants of the severity of hyperthyroidism caused by Graves’ disease in newly diagnosed patients,” Vos X, Smit N, Endert E, Brosschot J, Tijssen J, Wiersinga W, European Journal of Endocrinology, Oct. 30, 2008 (Epub ahead of print, accessed via PubMed); “A patient with stress-related onset and exacerbations of Graves disease,” Vita R, Lapa D, Vita G, Trimarchi F, Benvenga S, Nat. Clin. Pract. Endocrinol. Metab., Jan. 2009, 5 (1) 55-61.

3. “The role of stress in functional disability among women with systemic lupus erythematosus: a prospective study,” Da Costa D, Dobkin PL, Pinard L, Fortin PR, Danoff DS, Esdaile JM, and Clarke AE, Arthritis Care & Research, June 2001 12 (2) 112-119; “Stress, depression, and anxiety predict average symptom severity and daily symptom fluctuation in systemic lupus erythematosus,” Adams Jr. SG, Dammers PM, Saia TL, Brantley PJ, and Gaydos GR, Journal of Behavioral Medicine, July 2005, 17 (5) 459-477.

4. “Psychological factors in sarcoidosis: the relationship between life stress and pulmonary function,” Klonoff EA, Leinhenz ME, Sarcoidosis, September 1993, 10 (2) 118-124.

5. See, for, example: “Psychological Effects of Chronic Disease,” C Eiser, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Dec. 2006, 31 (1) 85-98; and “Toward a general model of health-related quality of life,” Romney DM and Evans DR, Quality of Life Research, December 2004, 5 (2) 235-241. To be fair, the second article “suggests that, although a medical model of HRQOL [health-related quality of life] may be more important when it comes to alleviating illness, a psychosocial model of HRQOL may be more important when it comes to maintaining health and preventing illness.”

6. By which I mean in no way to suggest that there is anything wrong with people who run into the mailbox, honey.

7. As genetics hurtles forward, however, even this au courant theory – commonly accepted as fact – may soon be disproven by the advancement of alternate explanations. For example, the recently discovered MYBPC3 variant is said to cause latent or active heart disease in tens of millions of Indians. If Indians are also disproportionately represented in human capital-intensive fields that require so-called Type A characteristics (like intelligence and organizational skills), then already the Type A story of heart disease has been thrown into question.

8. “Counterfactual Thought Experiments,” Tetlock PE and Parker G, in Unmaking the West: “What-if?” Scenarios that Rewrite World History, Tetlock PE, Lebow RN, and Parker G, Ed., citing Philip E. Tetlock and Richard Ned Lebow, “Poking Counterfactual Holes in Covering Laws: Cognitive Styles and Historical Reasoning,” American Political Science Review 95 (2001): 829-43.

9. Endogeneity bias is a logical flaw that pops up in a lot of social scientific and scientific research when the thing being studied has multiple characteristics of interest. For example, if you wanted to know whether gun ownership increased individual citizens’ chances of being murdered, and you studied victims of domestic violence who bought a gun because their partners had threatened to kill them, your research would suffer from a serious endogeneity bias. Your research subjects would be more likely to be murdered by their partners or former partners who had already threatened to do so, and so you wouldn’t be able to tell how their gun ownership affected their likelihood of getting killed as compared to the general population’s murder risk. In my current context of interest, endogeneity bias is at work when people who are already likelier to be operating under stressful conditions – say, African-American women caring for disabled family members while struggling to gain equal pay – are also found to be more likely to develop lupus than WASPy types whose healthy families have worked for the firm of Fancy, Schmancy & Hung for decades. Stress and lupus correlate in certain subgroups, and they may well covary; but those facts establish no causal relationship between the two variables.

10. And by man, I mean one ignorant American writer. If you are a country, and you will pay me to stay home researching my friends’ and family’s illnesses, call me.

11. I’m playing devil’s advocate here. For a few readers, I played it too well – I am emphatically not saying that sick people tend to blame their life histories for their illnesses. Personally, I think it’s obvious that medical researchers who engage in the blame-the-victim error of suggesting that maladaptive psychology causes autoimmunity are defending themselves from their own subconscious guilt at being healthy when others, by the luck of the draw, are not. Them’s sore winners.

12. But oh, what a tangled web we weave! Non-whites have higher rates of autoimmune diseases like lupus, but being racially discriminated against is in turn associated with having health problems. “It’s enough to make you sick: the impact of racism on the health of Aboriginal Australians,” Larson A, Gillies M, Howard PJ, Coffin J, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, August 2007, 31(4):322-9.

13. Poverty also correlates with increased exposures to environmental contaminants, decreased access to clean water and to safe and nutritious food, less preventive medical care, and other phenomena that translate into chronic disease. Since women and non-whites are also disproportionately likely to experience poverty, covariance is a problem six ways from Sunday.

About Katelyn Sack

Katelyn Sack is a writer, painter, musician, nanny, medical botany researcher, and political economist residing in Charlottesville. Her recent work has appeared in the UK Guardian, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Science Creative Quarterly, Yankee Pot Roast, and Opium Magazine online.

TERRY TALKS VIDEO: MIKE GRETES – MAKING MEDICINES FOR PEOPLE, NOT FOR PROFIT

By | archive, commentary, textbook

(From Terry talks, November 22, 2008)

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All lives, no matter where they are lived, have equal value. Yet access to life-saving drugs is most often limited to those who can pay for them. Also, treatments for many tropical diseases are either unavailable or are increasingly ineffective, with toxic side effects to boot. Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (ubc-uaem.org) is a student organization dedicated to fixing this broken system.

We work by changing how universities set their technology licensing priorities and their research agendas. At UBC, we’ve persuaded administration to publicly adopt a set of Global Access Principles (www.uilo.ubc.ca/global.asp) that are a first-in-Canada, courageous start to making medicines available to everyone regardless of their income. But we can do more. With the help of UBC students, we want to reach every faculty member whose research can benefit the world’s poor. We want to expand UAEM to all major research universities in Canada. We must also ensure that UBC stays true to its commitments.

I’ll talk about strategies for getting this done, give insights into the drug development process and the bizarre world of intellectual property (fun stuff!) and highlight the contributions UAEM has made at UBC – encapsulated by the story of a new drug developed right here – oral Amphotericin B. This drug will treat the disfiguring and lethal disease leishmaniasis that affects tens of millions of people around the globe, and is free of the toxic side effects of previous formulations of the drug. Oral Amp B will be developed and made available at cost to people in low and middle income countries. UBC students will see how a great idea (universities changing access to drugs through licensing agreements) combined with dedicated student activism creates real change in the world.

About terry

What is Terry? Terry is a website that aims to collect prevalent (as in academic, educational, or critical) as well as esoteric (as in creative, humourous, or surreal) pieces that look at pertinent global issues. Plus, it has a kick ass speaker series.

A MISPLACED CHAPTER FROM THE BOOK OF GENESIS

By | archive, humour

And lo, it came to be that God was sitting around in his Lazy-God recliner one quiet millennium, and He sayeth unto His Godlike self: “God is bored and needs some entertainment.” And lo, God created the Earth and all it’s inhabitants without getting up from the Lazy-God chair, even whence God needed the occasional short beer break while working, still He did not leave His chair, but simply reached into His Almighty Demi-God Fridge which He always keepeth beside the Lazy-God chair.

Late in the week, as one Godlike afternoon twinkled into evening, God looketh down upon His new entertainment system called Earth and He smiled at the little animals and plants that He created. He giggled at their natural tendency toward intra- and inter-species violence, and He snickered with slight embarrassment at their obsessive mating rituals. After a few more Godweiser’s from the Demi-Fridge, God decided to make a man. Much later, God realized that He should have done this before His eighth beer of the evening.

And lo, God created mankind, and womankind, and He did smile upon them and snicker in slight embarrassment at their obsessive mating rituals. Soon, in God-time that is, God realized that this mankind He had created was getting quite good at thinking on its own, and was getting rather uppity and rude with God. This mankind seemed to enjoy flaunting God’s arbitrary rules, and so God, in His infinite kindness tried all kinds of subtle punitive measures: like banishing the first man-family into the desert, or drowning everyone on Earth except for one man-family. After such measures did not stem the tide of mankind’s uppity-ness, God decided that He would use His infinite powers to hide Himself from man’s view.

And so God created the shroud of evolution. Yes, God, who valued truth and the love of mankind above all else, created an elaborate lie in order distance Himself from His most clever creations. Much later, God realized, He probably should have created a therapist and some anti-anxiety drugs for Himself.

And lo, God, who had created all the world in only six days, had created mankind on the fifth or sixth day (He could never remember which, because eight beers is a lot, even for God). After this great achievement God decided to devise elaborate falsehoods to hide His accomplishments. He made man think the Earth was over 4 billion years old, instead of several thousand years old. He made man think that life had started with the smallest of organisms, and that through an elaborate system of controlled reproductive errors and adaptive selection of beneficial mistakes that man eventually “evolved” from these simplest organisms. He hid fake fossils in the ground, and tinkered with genomes, and designed elaborate taxonomic relationships among the existing organisms such that mankind would take years and years to elucidate all His lies. He bought a small desk at the God-ware store and put it next to His Lazy-God chair, spending night after God-night sweating over the elaborate lies upon lies that He needed to create to keep mankind fooled. As man became more sophisticated and invented tools and high cost scientific apparatus, so God needed to become more sophisticated in His lies. Soon, God was spending the bulk of His time on His elaborate fabrications, and ignoring His own real first interests: truth and love.

Some men and women really made God’s head hurt. These humans, who called themselves scientists, made God’s life a living Hell. Here He was, a supreme being of love and truth, who commanded all mankind to seek perfection in love and truth, and He had to stay up late almost every bloody night of the week, and most weekends, fabricating increasingly elaborate lies to keep these so-called scientists thinking that He did not exist and that the Earth and all its living beings came about via a slow, semi-random process they called “evolution”. These two conflicting ideologies, love and truth versus elaborately constructed falsehoods, swirled around in God’s giant brain causing Him much guilt and consternation, not to mention loss of sleep. And then one day the matter and anti-matter of God’s brain simply collided, and God’s head exploded.

The matter and anti-matter of God’s exploding head shot outward at terrific speeds on that fateful day, fourteen billion years ago, and in a matter of mere moments created billions of galaxies each filled with billions upon billions of stars. Remnants of this big bang are visible today with the telescopes and other scientific tools the current inhabitants of Earth have designed. About ten billion years after this big bang, some of the exploded contents of God’s head cooled enough to form planets, such as the one we call “Earth”. Life evolved on Earth, and likely has evolved on other planets, because God simply cannot be still, even in exploded form.

Some of the bits of God’s exploded head contained memory-bytes of the dilemma that caused God’s head to explode in the first place, and these memory-bytes sometimes haunt the subconscious of the most highly intellectually evolved Earth organisms, such as dolphins and even humans. These thought-dreams of God’s memory both confuse and comfort the beings that are sensitive to them. And so it came to be that God was everywhere, in every atom, in every subatomic particle, exploded across the Universe in a gigantic irrepressible splatter of life, and love, and truth, and even and always: conflict.

(Originally published January 19th, 2006)

About vincelicata

Vince LiCata is a biochemist in the Department of Biological Sciences at the Louisiana State University. His laboratory studies protein structure and function. He owns two Britney Spears CDs, but one of them is an illegal copy given to him by one of his students. He routinely gives out more than 25% A’s in his General Biochemistry and Biophysical Chemistry courses, yet is considered a hard-ass. He is reasonably sure that if Britney Spears got in a fight with Jessica Simpson, that BS would crack JS like a little twig.