We Just Can’t Seem To Get Along

I listened to an interesting piece on NPR today about stereotyping. It was from a show about the barriers to human cooperation, and argued that the propensity of humans to categorize and stereotype each other hinders progress towards common human goals, but is basic to human nature, and has been shown to begin in infancy.

This to me is a self-evident truth, but is in fact a very controversial idea. The nature-nurture debate is alive and well. Reinvigorated in the 70’s with the publication of E.O. Wilson’s, Sociobiology, it remains highly contentious. Those who believe that there is a basic human nature that conditions our behavior and our relationships with each other are often considered genetic determinists, and champions of the status quo. These ideas are anathema to the political left, and have been attacked systematically for years–famously by Stephan Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. The countervailing view being that we are born as blank slates and that society’s ills and our inability to get along as a species result from faulty human institutions.

Today, there is a growing and vibrant set of academic fields which are generally lumped together as Evolutionary Psychology. The idea is that our brains evolved into recognizably human form in the Stone Age, and we are thus compelled to meet the cognitive demands of our current situation with the same tools used by our forebears. Evolutionary Psychology seeks to assign meaning for our current behavior, and our current social ills as maladaptive relics of formerly adaptive responses to the environment. They argue that our problems stem from our use of Stone Age brains in a Space Age world.

Many consider Evolutionary Psychology a pseudo-science, and a dangerous reformulation of the same ideas that led to eugenics and Nazis and the rest. There is no question that it is a slippery slope, and it is true that the ranks of those who consider themselves Evolutionary Psychologists are liberally peppered with some very weak-minded, even onerous, individuals.

But to dismiss the entire framework out of hand is a mistake, and threatens our ability to make substantive progress as much as those who would say, we are what we are, there is no point trying to change the world.

There is no doubt that our brains are structured in the shape of our evolutionary past. Without acting strictly in self-interest, one could not survive. Our brains seek out patterns, make generalizations, and find contrasts and distinguishing characteristics wherever possible. That’s just the way it is. Of course we stereotype. Of course we act in our self-interest. To think otherwise, is to misconceive the human condition and human relations. To deny it, for political or any reasons, is to stand firmly in the way of change.

The key is not to deny human nature, but to understand it. That is what some Evolutionary Psychologists are trying to do. The work of Steven Pinker, for example, could hardly be more cogently or eloquently presented.

To survive as a species, we must overcome the dictates of our evolutionary past. We must acknowledge our propensity to act in a way that serves our own over others’ needs. Then we must expand what we believe our needs to be. It can happen: a parent brings a child into their circle of self-interest, and acts on their behalf. We will help friends and even neighbors. But outside a very small circle, it breaks down. We must somehow convince ourselves that we all share the same future.

We want a peaceful, clean, just world. This will never happen until, by some miracle, we realize that we all must have a fair stake for there ever to be peace and prosperity. Sewing misery around the world so we can buy cheap sneakers is already coming back to haunt us. Presumably the CEO of Mcdonald’s has children and grandchildren. Yet the ruination of the planet is somehow for others to worry about.

It seems impossible that humans can truly get along, will ever lose the shortness of sight. But we’ve got to do something. If only to show the schmucks they’re not getting away clean.

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Published in: on January 31, 2007 at 3:47 pm  Comments (4)  

Burn Baby Burn

When we eat a plant or an animal who has eaten a plant (or an animal who has eaten another animal who has eaten a plant), we are taking in potential stores of energy in the form of the chemical bonds holding together that organism’s molecules. Molecules are made of atoms. Atoms are composed of a nucleus with electrons orbiting around. Atoms can share electrons with each other, and this sharing holds the atoms together. This is a chemical bond. These bonds are potential sources of energy, since energy is released if the bonds are broken.

The forms of molecules that we can break down and use as fuel are carbohydrates (sugars), proteins, and fats. Every natural thing we eat contains some combination of those types of molecules. We begin by breaking these down, in the process of digestion, into smaller constituents. For example proteins are broken down into the amino acids of which they are composed, large sugars into small sugars, fats into simple fatty acids. Absorbed through the wall of our gastrointestinal tract, these simpler molecules are transported into our cells and become the building blocks of our own proteins, fats and sugars, or they are broken down further and fed into a cellular furnace which extracts the energy from their chemical bonds.

Each of these three classes of molecule begins its journey to the furnace in a different way, but eventually each is converted into the same kind of molecule that can enter a common pathway for complete breakdown and release of its energy. The furnace analogy is more than just apt, since the process of breakdown of these molecules is in fact combustion. That is, a process in which a carbon-based substance whether it be a sugar or petroleum or paper, in the presence of oxygen, is broken down, releasing energy and creating carbon dioxide and water in the process.

Now, in a fire the process is fast and out of control. In the cell by contrast, the process takes place in a stepwise and orderly fashion so as to best utilize the energy released. In a fire, all the energy is lost as heat and light. In our cells, some heat is lost (which is why we shiver—to generate heat by increasing the metabolism in our muscle cells), but some is converted into a storage form useable by our cells for its energy needs.

Basically, the energy released from breaking the bonds between the carbon atoms in these ingested molecules is used to kick an electron up hill in such a way as to capture the energy it releases as it rolls back down. This energy is converted into the bonds of a molecule called ATP–the universal energy molecule for all life, from a bacterium to a redwood.

So how does oxygen fit in? Well, that rolling electron needs somewhere to end up. The oxygen sits at the bottom of the hill waiting to catch the electron as it arrives. At the bottom, a complex system donates that electron to an oxygen atom and converts it harmlessly into water. Harmless is the key. Remember we said atoms have a nucleus with electrons in orbit around. We also said electrons can be shared between atoms, which forms a bond between them. This sharing is actually the result of a key property of atoms. They will always tend to their most stable state. Atoms that have all their orbiting electrons in pairs are very stable. Unpaired electrons create instability, and an atom like this tends to rectify the situation by pairing up with a similarly unstable atom with its own extra electron problem. They put their electrons together to make one happy, stable pair. That is why for example oxygen gas is O2 and not O. It is stable when paired with another oxygen atom.

So when that electron rolls down to oxygen, that oxygen atom now has an unpaired electron. A mechanism is set up to deal with this by linking on two hydrogen atoms and thereby forming a nice stable water molecule. Yet, as an electron is rolling down towards this elegant complex, it can occasionally leak out of the system early, pairing with oxygen outside the safe, water producing complex at the end. Now you have created superoxide, an unstable oxygen with an unpaired electron, that is, a free radical. To find stability it will look for a way to pair that electron. One possibility is to strip an electron from (or, oxidize—hence oxidant) another molecule in the cell (say DNA) and render it harmfully changed or non-functional. These free radicals are therefore extremely toxic. In fact, a type of cell in the immune system purposely creates superoxide and uses it as a weapon against foreign microorganisms.

Our cells contain an enzyme which cruises around and deactivates these free radicals as soon as they are formed. But no system is perfect and small amounts of damage are done to our cells. This damage is minimized by the presence of certain substances, like vitamins A, C, and E. They react with free radicals (are therefore anti-oxidants) and pull them out of circulation.

We break the bonds of organic (carbon containing) molecules, in the presence of oxygen and create ATP which our cells can use for all their activities, and carbon dioxide which is a waste product. The oxygen and carbon-containing molecules come ultimately from plants, who also process the carbon dioxide we produce. Our lungs absorb oxygen, and release carbon dioxide, while the collective lung of the green plants does the opposite.

Wouldn’t it be great if we as humans could manage to elect leaders who are committed to slowing the accelerating destruction of this elegant balance? Rather than those who would sell out the future of our planet in the interest of greed, hubris, and arrogance? Wake up! Our world is being destroyed. It’s not subtle. Vermiculture baby!

Published in: on January 30, 2007 at 11:55 am  Comments (3)  

Nervus Intermedius-How Gross Anatomy Almost Made A Cadaver Of Me-Part 1

I never considered it cheating. I thought of it as being resourceful, showing initiative. When I began medical school, the world of medical education was in the process of tremendous upheaval. A completely new model was replacing the old system. No longer would students study in turn anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology etc. The new program would be integrative: the cardiovascular system would be studied in all its facets at once—its anatomy, its physiology, and the rest. It was based on some wild new idea that people learned better when information was presented within a conceptual framework with some meaning attached to it, rather than having truckloads of disembodied facts rammed down their throats.

Unfortunately for my classmates and me, my school was having none of it. “It worked for us, it will work for you.” They, meaning the stodgy administration and imperious preclinical faculty, resisted like wounded beasts and finally conceded only after an ultimatum: revamp the curriculum or face a withdrawal of federal funding. It took effect at the matriculation of the class behind us, so we were doomed to slog through the same fetid swamp of information as our soul-crushed forebears.

Knowing this bit of political history, it was interesting to begin classes and actually meet these recalcitrant dinosaurs in the flesh — to look into the eyes of these venerable PhDs who sought to wrest us from the grip of modernity.

Medical school began with the most universally feared course in the curriculum: gross anatomy. It was yearlong and not passing meant retaking the entire year. The professors were, for the most part, grizzled ectomorphs who looked to have cut their teeth on the same corpses as Leonardo Da Vinci. The single youngish professor became an object of pity for me as I contemplated the drudgery of his life in an academic field effectively unchanged for centuries. They were apparently involved in research, but it is hard to imagine what they could possibly have been investigating. It was gross anatomy, what’s new? “Counting the fingers: a multivariate statistical approach.” Or, perhaps, “The feet: further evidence that they are to be found at the end of the legs.”

Each student was issued a bone box. This was a small black trunk with a handle containing an entire human skeleton. I sat for hours in my apartment turning the bones over and over, trying to learn the dozens of named ridges, projections, and bumps each bone contained. It somehow managed not to seem creepy having bones all over my apartment. Or, I should say, not to me.

My first visitor was Sarah, a friend from high school. “How do you sleep with these in your house? I mean, if you get up to pee and you’re half-asleep, and you pass an arm on your dining table? I mean a person, was a person, and…” I held forth to her on becoming inured to such things from sheer exposure – the professional distance – the systematic denial of human spirit in student and subject alike. She wasn’t buying. “I could never, I mean never have these in my space. Never.” I tried to explain that in the scheme of my current life, some dried out bones barely registered a blip on the disturbometer.

Continued Tomorrow

Green Genius

“But how is light fuel? We can bathe in the Sun all we want, but we have no way to convert its light into the chemical energy that our cells can use. We can change it into electrical energy with a solar panel, but that’s not going to feed our cells. Lie on the beach all day, and you are still going to have to eat lunch. How does the Sun become lunch?”

So begins an answer to yesterday’s post wherein I talked about entropy and posted Part 1 of Things Fall Apart, an attempt to explain the basics of biology in a way that allows a broad perspective. Entropy dictates an unceasing march towards disintegration for all things. Yet our world is filled with complexity, order, and vitality. How? Energy. A constant influx of energy is required to oppose the tendency to disorder and decay. Energy input may come in the form of eating a deep-fried Mars bar (an Edinburgh specialty), to keep youself intact (if a mite queasy), or patching the roof of your house, to keep it intact.

Today I post Things Fall Apart-Part 2, and explore where all this energy comes from. The answer is the Sun, and the green genius is the way plants take sunlight and use it to create not just energy for themselves, but for all of us.

Why are leaves green? Why do plants need water? How do they create oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide? Tune in to Part 2, and find out how plants feed us, provide our oxygen, process our waste, and ultimately stand–in all their understated vegetal elegance–between us and a slide into nothing.

Published in: on November 30, 2006 at 12:22 pm  Comments (1)  

Things Fall Apart

An aging widower is losing the battle to maintain his crumbling home. The body of a gray fox lies prone in a stand of birch trees; over a season it swells, decomposes, then shrinks back into the soil. Rivulets of spring water roll down a hillside. What thread connects these disparate phenomena?

So begins my attempt to explain the core of biology in a short series that will appear as separate pages on my sidebar. It sounds about as exciting as a repertory film festival in Delaware featuring elementary school filmstrips. But I swear if it weren’t such a hackneyed title, I’d call it Biology for Poets. It is specifically not for science types.

I have noticed that many people have a good grasp of various aspects of biology but, by no fault of their own, lack a clear view of how it all fits together. And, unless you are a scientist, it is truly the big picture that is important. The basic ideas that underlie our presence here in the world can be an endless source of metaphor and creative inspiration for anyone trying to make sense of all this madness. My God, I am a biology evangelist. At once creepy and dorky.

The first subject I address is entropy, which is another way of saying that things fall apart. They unravel and shrivel and disintegrate and crumble and melt. This seems natural to us. But the vitality of living things stands against that inclination, at least for a while.

Published in: on November 29, 2006 at 11:47 am  Leave a Comment