an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘science

a bonobo world? 8 – hunter-gatherers, the agricultural revolution, capitalism and science

leave a comment »

We can see that human society, various though it is, has much in common with chimp society. Throughout human history, males have dominated females to an overwhelming degree, and large groups of males have fought to the death over territory, or over which dominant male should vanquish and control the territory of the other. Edward Gibbon’s monumental Decline and fall of the Roman Empire is a tale of 500 years of political intrigue, betrayal and murder in a system where succession was never based on inheritance but only on political power and skill, with the military always prominent. 

It’s generally accepted that the ancestors of modern human apes engaged in a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle from at least 2 million years ago. This very successful lifestyle was dominant until the development of agriculture a mere 12,000 years ago. While there’s much debate on the structure of hunter-gatherer societies, the dominant view is that they were more egalitarian than post-agricultural societies, and also chimp societies. Recent research also suggests that the success of the hunter-gatherer system, with its sexual division of labour, enabled Homo sapiens to outcompete Homo neanderthalensis as they spread across the globe. However, it’s unlikely that this lifestyle and social system was invariant across regions or time, and evidence found about one group will not stand for all. Technologies varied, as did diet and climatic conditions. In some of these societies, women joined the hunt, or hunted with other women, depending on the type of quarry being hunted and how the hunt was carried out. Kinship relationships in these early societies tended to be matrilineal, that is, descent through the female line is generally acknowledged, though this had little effect on inheritance among hunter-gatherers, as there is virtually nothing to inherit, except, perhaps, reputation. However, the gradual transition to a settled, agricultural lifestyle created a more routinised existence of digging, sowing, reaping, building and defending territory. Research has found that, in women as well as men, bones became bigger and harder during the early agricultural period. It could in many ways be described as a disastrous change in the short term, as workloads increased and diets became less varied. It certainly spelt long-term danger to other species, with deforestation, land degradation and the diversion of natural water-courses becoming increasingly widespread. The reliability of seasonal rains and sunshine became a focus, which led to the growth of religious rites and ceremonies, and to a class of religious intermediaries. As to gender roles, with the development of fixed dwellings, the males tended to do more of the field-work and the women became more home-bound, engaged in child-rearing, cereal processing and other food preparation. And naturally, with land itself becoming increasingly central, territorial conflicts and ownership hierarchies developed. The domestication of animals, together with the cultivation of fields, made these hierarchies more visible. If you laid claim to more land, you could produce more food, making others in the village more dependent upon you. We think today of wealthy people with more capital to invest or otherwise utilise, and interestingly, the word capital comes from the same Indo-European root as cattle, the first animals to be domesticated in large numbers. You might make this increase in your capital more tangible with a bigger dwelling and perhaps more ‘wives’ and dependents under your keeping. 

It certainly seems likely that the development of a sedentary, agricultural lifestyle created a more patriarchal, and unequal, human society. Women spent more time ‘at home’ than they did in hunter-gathering times, and had more children. Recent research has also found that the regions which have had the longest history of an agricultural lifestyle have the most deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes. 

In modern capitalist counties, inequality is obviously increasing, especially if you judge by that most capitalist of nations, the USA, which currently has the greatest income inequality in its history, and the greatest income inequality of all the G7 nations. The gap between the super-rich and the merely rich in the USA has widened spectacularly over the past twenty-five years, and If we examine US wealth from a gender perspective we find that women own 32c for every dollar owned by men. Whether or not the gap between women and men’s wealth increases, I cannot envisage anything but an increasing gap between rich and poor in the US, as it is far more wedded to libertarian mythology than any other nation. 

It’s my belief, though, or maybe it’s a mere hope, that less atomistic societies, such as we find in Asia, may ultimately lead us to the way of the bonobo – a society with less internal strife, less rigid hierarchies and inequalities, a greater sense of togetherness and mutual concern, and even more relaxation and play. 

Science

Some years ago the philosopher A C Grayling gave a talk in Australia, which I heard on Radio National. He spoke of two visits he made in the region of Geneva, to the headquarters of the United Nations, and to CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider. He was stuck by the contrast between the genial, collaborative atmosphere at CERN, featuring scientists from over 100 nations, and the testy, zero-sum nature of negotiations at the UN. 

Science has become more collaborative over time, and far less patriarchal over the last century, though there’s still some way to go. Venki Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel Prize for his contribution to decoding the structure of the ribosome, made many interesting points about the famous prize in his book Gene Machine. He notes the increasingly collaborative nature of science, and doesn’t subscribe to the heroic narrative of science. Many people and groups in recent years have been given the prize – which is always life-transforming because it brings their name to the generally non-scientific public in one fell swoop – for simply being the first to solve a puzzle or make a discovery that many groups or persons were on the verge of making, within an atmosphere of generally collegial competition. It’s also noteworthy that, while the early Nobel Prizes in the sciences were awarded to individuals, this has become increasingly rare. I rather enjoy the fact that, as the twentieth century progressed, and on into the twenty-first, both the collective nature of science and the female contribution to it have become increasingly recognised. I would like to think that the connection between collectivity and female participation is not coincidental. 

Of course, many early breakthroughs in science and technology are anonymous, and as such, seen as collective. Who invented the plow? The Sumerians maybe, or some other Mesopotamian or Indus Valley culture. Writing? Mesopotamia again, or maybe the Indus Valley or China, or separately by different cultures, possibly even in Rapa Nui. But nowadays, we’re keen to give individual recognition for any technological or scientific developments. 

References

https://www.npr.org/2017/11/30/567332015/womens-role-in-the-european-agricultural-revolution-revealed

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/11/15/564376795/from-cattle-to-capital-how-agriculture-bred-ancient-inequality

https://www.jstor.org/stable/44113711?seq=1

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 9, 2020 at 7:26 pm

the male and female brain, revisited

leave a comment »

Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

An article, ‘Do women and men have different brains?’, from Mysteries of the human brain, in the New Scientist ‘Collection’ series, has persuaded me to return to this issue – or perhaps non-issue. It convincingly argues, to me, that it’s largely a non-issue, and largely due to the problem of framing.

The above-mentioned article doesn’t go much into the neurology that I described in my piece written nearly 7 years ago, but it raises points that I largely neglected. For example, in noting differences in the amygdalae, and between white and grey matter, I failed to significantly emphasise that these were averages. The differences among women in these and other statistics is greater than the differences between women and men. Perhaps more importantly, we need to question, in these studies, who the female and male subjects were. Were they randomly selected, and what does that mean? What lives did they lead? We know more now about the plasticity of the brain, and it’s likely that our neurological activity and wiring has much more to do with our focus, and what we’ve been taught or encouraged to focus on from our earliest years, than our gender. 

And this takes me back to framing. Studies designed to ‘seek out’ differences between male and female brains are in an important sense compromised from the start, as they tend to rule out the differences among men and among women due to a host of other variables. They also lead researchers to make too much of what might be quite minor statistical differences. To quote from the New Scientist article, written by Gina Rippon, author of the somewhat controversial book The gendered brain:

Revisiting the evidence suggests that women and men are more similar than they are different. In 2015, a review of more than 20,000 studies into behavioural differences, comprising data from over 12 million people, found that, overall, the differences between men and women on a wide range of characteristics such as impulsivity, cooperativeness and emotionality were vanishingly small.

What all the research seems more and more to be pointing to is that there’s no such thing as a male or a female brain, and that our brains are much more what we make of them than previously thought. Stereotyping, as the article points out, has led to ‘stereotype threat’ – the fact that we tend to conform to stereotypes if that’s what’s expected of us. And all this fuels my long-standing annoyance at the stereotyped advertising and sales directed at each gender, but especially girls and women, which, as some feminists have pointed out, has paradoxically become more crass and extreme since the advent of second-wave feminism.

And yet – there are ways of looking at ‘natural’ differences between males and females that might be enlightening. That is, are there informative neurological differences between male and female rats? Male and female wolves? Are there any such differences between male and female bonobos, and male and female chimps, that can inform us about why our two closest living relatives are so socially and behaviourally different from each other? These sorts of studies might help to isolate ‘real’, biological differences in the brains of male and female humans, as distinct from differences due to social and cultural stereotyping and reinforcement. Then again, biology is surely not destiny these days. 

Not destiny, but not entirely to be discounted. In the same New Scientist collection there’s another article, ‘The real baby brain’, which looks at a so-called condition known as ‘mummy brain’ or ‘baby brain’, a supposed mild cognitive impairment due to pregnancy. I know of at least one woman who’s sure this is real (I don’t know many people), but up until recently it has been little more than an untested meme. There is, apparently, a slight, temporary shrinkage in the brain of a woman during pregnancy, but this hasn’t been found to correlate with any behavioural changes, and some think it has to do with streamlining. In fact, as one researcher, Craig Kinsley, explained, his skepticism about the claim was raised in watching his partner handling the many new tasks of motherhood with great efficiency while still maintaining a working life. So Kinsley and his team looked at rat behaviour to see what they could find:

In his years of studying the neurobiology underlying social behaviours in rats, his animals had never shown any evidence of baby brain. Quite the opposite, actually. Although rats in the final phase of their pregnancy show a slight dip in spacial ability, after their pups are born they surpass non-mothers at remembering the location of food in complex mazes. Mother rats are also much faster at catching prey. In one study in Kinsley’s lab the non-mothers took nearly 270 seconds on average to hunt down a cricket hidden in an enclosure, whereas the mothers took just over 50 seconds.

It’s true that human mothers don’t have to negotiate physical mazes or find tasty crickets (rat mothers, unlike humans, are solely responsible for raising offspring), but it’s also clear that they, like all mammalian mothers, have to be more alert than usual to any signs and dangers when they have someone very precious and fragile to nurture and attend to. In rats, this shows up in neurological and hormonal changes – lower levels of stress hormones in the blood, and less activity in brain regions such as the amygdalae, which regulate fear and anxiety. Other hormones, such as oestradiol and oxytocin, soar to multiple times more than normal levels, priming rapid responses to sensory stimuli from offspring. Many more connections between neurons are forged in late pregnancy and its immediate aftermath.

Okay, but we’re not rats – nothing like. But how about monkeys? Owl monkeys, like most humans, share the responsibilities of child-rearing, but research has found that mothers are better at finding and gaining access to stores of food than non-mothers. Different behaviours will be reflected in different neural connections.

So, while it’s certainly worth exploring how the female brain functions during an experience unique to females, most of the time women and men engage in the same activities – working, playing, studying, socialising and so forth. Our brain processes will reflect the particular patterns of our lives, often determined at an early age, as the famous Dunedin longitudinal study has shown. Gender, and how gender is treated in the culture in which we’re embedded, is just one of many factors that will affect those processes.

References

New Scientist – The Collection, Mysteries of the human brain, 2019

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunedin_Multidisciplinary_Health_and_Development_Study

https://ussromantics.com/2013/10/06/what-do-we-currently-know-about-the-differences-between-male-and-female-brains-in-humans/

Written by stewart henderson

June 25, 2020 at 10:50 pm

the male violence thing: why deny it?

leave a comment »

I’ve written a few pieces on women, power and such things, from a position of frustration that there haven’t been enough women in power, and that women, and men, have suffered too much from male abuses of power – and that of course includes violence. At the beginning of last year I attended a vigil of sorts on the steps of our state parliament, which involved a solemn roll call of all the women who died violently in Australia (not including those who died in vehicle accidents, of which more later), and the sad circumstances of their passing. I noted that not all the women were victims of male violence – only 90-95% from memory – but clearly male violence was the principal problem. I was also aware, from research, that most victims of male violence are other males.

Around 95% of all victims of violence, whether women or men, experience that violence from a male perpetrator.

White Ribbon Australia, citing the Australian Bureau of Statistics

So I was a bit disconcerted when, some time ago, I brought up the obvious issue of male violence, in the context of sport (as opposed to the relative lack of violence, on and off the field, or court etc, in female sports) and I received pushback, as the Yanks say, from someone who more less completely denied that there was any imbalance. In fact he appeared to argue that women were just as violent as men, in every way.

So, to be clear, this is a question of fact, not of opinion, and in order to be factual we need to define violence precisely. I’m defining it as an act which results in death or physical injury, to the self and/or others. This isn’t to deny that psychological or emotional violence exists, of course it does, but it’s virtually impossible to measure. Any conversation between two people could be seen as profoundly coercive by one, totally benign by the other, or anything between these extremes by observers. It’s very subjective. Nor am I denying that psychological violence can be totally life-destroying. It just isn’t measurable in any clear way, unlike physical violence. And it was physical violence that our conversation was about.

Reliable statistical data on this topic is available everywhere on the internet. It tells us a sad, but fairly obvious truth. Men are more violent than women in every country and in every culture on the planet, without exception. And men have been more violent than women in every age of which we have record, since the appearance of Homo sapiens some 300,000 years ago.

Looking at the matter historically, there’s a certain amount of controversy, due to the patchy evidence as to whether hunter-gatherers were more ‘prone to violence’ than humans in a more ‘civilised’ state. Certainly it’s true that after the establishment of expansionist states, war was more often than not a central component of politics, and war was carried out by men, generally young men from their late teens into their late twenties. This state of affairs was the norm for centuries, and one could reasonably argue that warfare as policy was only abandoned when weaponry became so devastating that it was too costly for each state to engage in it, though I think Enlightenment values, a more scientific understanding of universal human nature and the subsequent development of trans-national treaties and organisations have all played a role.

But even in hunter-gathering societies the pattern of male violence was set. The hunters were of course more or less exclusively male, and, with rewards going to the best hunters, fierce competition was bound to arise within hunter-gathering tribes. It’s quite likely that the most successful competitors would have high status, even chieftain status, within the group. And with the division into groups, or tribes, with their more or less self-appointed hunting territories, rivalry and competition between groups would have arisen, the precursors of later, more destructive forms of aggression. We see exactly this pattern, of course, in our closest living relatives, chimps – battles between males of different groups over territory and resources, and battles between males within groups over hierarchy and access to females.

It might be argued that the modern world is quite different. But there’s a pattern in modern society that needs to be accounted for, though it’s not exactly a modern pattern, even if it’s given a modern spin. Men – and boys -tend to join gangs. Of course, not all young men do this, but a substantial proportion do. Women tend not to do so, or not nearly to the same extent. I’m talking about street gangs, crime gangs, ethnic gangs, ‘football hooligan’ gangs, bikie gangs, neo-nazi gangs, white supremacist gangs etc. I even joined one myself as a teenager, and we roamed the streets looking for trouble but rarely managing to find it.

not my gang

What drives this behaviour amongst this section of the male population (from the mid-teens to the mid-twenties, roughly speaking)? Hormones appear to play a primary role, and it’s no coincidence that exactly the same aggressive, show-offy group behaviour is to be found in the young males of other complex, highly social mammals, including chimps, dolphins and elephants. I have mixed feelings for those who scoff at all comparisons between homo sapiens and other mammals, because of course science has taught us about our profoundly mammalian nature, while our development of scientific explanations and understandings is precisely what marks us off from other mammals, and provides us with the potential to transcend our mammalian nature. Biology doesn’t have to be destiny.

The preponderance of male violence in our society is a problem for which we need to find solutions. But first we need to admit that there’s a problem. Let me give one compelling statistic as proof. The major cause of violent death and injury in peaceful countries – those not engaged in internal or external warfare – are males between the ages of approximately 17 and 25 behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. On a per capita basis, males cause 1.5 to 2 times more vehicle accidents than females, regardless of country, and it’s entirely that 17-25 age group that causes the disparity. It’s of course no coincidence that this is the same age that young males join gangs or the military. It’s the hormonal age.

In presenting this brief account of male risk-taking, aggression and violence, I’m not pretending that females are passive victims of all this. Of course the picture is enormously complex (in humans and in other mammals). In the cyber-age, female teenage bullying has become a serious problem – and of course it was a problem in the schoolyard before that. People in general can be brutal and malicious to their neighbours in times of stress, but we’ve emerged from, or are trying to emerge from, a highly patriarchal culture in which being a physically tough male is still a source of respect – in my own schoolyard, everyone knew who the toughest kid was, the ‘best fighter’, not the ‘brainiest’.

So, to return to my conversation, which was about sport and violence, and the claim that men are no more violent on and around sporting arenas than women. It amazes me that, given all the evidence about male violence, someone would think that sporting arenas would be an exception to the well-attested facts about male violence, in comparison to that of women. The sport I follow most by far is soccer, and I’ve particularly enjoyed the rise in women’s soccer in the last few years. It’s of course fiercely competitive, full of rough and tumble, with plenty of pushing and shoving at corners and free kicks, but having watched a lot of female matches over the years, I’ve rarely seen an example of the face-to-face, ‘I’m tougher than you’ behaviour shown at the top of this post, which is very common in the male game. The image prompts more or less amusing comparisons with wildlife programs, with rival males competing to be the pack leader. Men are too often like that, but of course not all men, and with the broad societal changes that have occurred in recent decades and centuries, there’s no need for men to think and act like this today – though the profound inequality that persists still sanctions and rewards this behaviour in poorly resourced, embattled parts of the world.

Where I see most progress and feel most hopeful is, again, the enterprise of science. In reading, for example, Venki Ramakrishnan’s book The gene machine and Meredith Wadman’s The vaccine race, I find the mix of competition and collaboration in fields of research to be favourable to both genders (or should I say all genders these days), and its success will hopefully flow on to politics, sports and other aspects of life.

Written by stewart henderson

June 12, 2020 at 2:03 pm

gods, science and explanation

leave a comment »

If you think that it would be impossible to improve upon the Ten Commandments as a statement of morality, you really owe it to yourself to read some other scriptures. Once again, we need look no further than the Jains: Mahavira, the Jain patriarch, surpassed the morality of the Bible with a single sentence: ‘Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.’ Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept.

Sam Harris, Letter to a christian nation

Reading David Deutsch’s The beginning of infinity, together with a collection of Stephen Jay Gould’s essays, Dinosaur in a haystack, has reminded me of my critique of Gould’s bad NOMA argument, which I reread lately. So here’s a revisiting and a development of that critique.
Put very simply, Gould argued that religion was about moral and spiritual matters, and that science was about causes and effects in the natural world, and that these spheres of interest didn’t overlap, so co-existence was not only entirely possible but mutually beneficial.

In his argument, I noted, Gould generally avoided mentioning gods, or God. It seems to me now, that this is more of a problem than I thought at the time, because religions are all about gods. While I don’t want to be hard and fast about this, religions really don’t exist without gods. In that sense, you might call Buddhism a spiritual belief system or worldview or discipline, but it isn’t a religion. It doesn’t use gods to explain stuff. And Confucianism even less so. Certainly in earlier times, in a more god-besotted world, Buddhism and even Confucianism were associated with or could be easily assimilated with local deities in China, Korea and Japan, and the world of morality was generally associated with portents and god-induced ‘disasters’, but that was to be expected in a pre-scientific climate, which prevailed globally for most of human history.

This is the point. For century upon century, gods, their behaviour, powers and attitudes or natures, were the explanations for war, famine, disease and the everyday accidents that humans suffered from. Even as some medical and other knowledge developed, the will of the gods was always there as a background explanation for the otherwise inexplicable. And so it shouldn’t be surprising, in a world teeming with god-explanations, that the pioneers of more earthly, measurable and testable explanations for phenomena still clung to this background of god-explanations for so much of what they saw around them – the birds in the sky, the food that sprang from the ground or hung from the trees, the life-giving rain, the failed harvests, the floods, the plagues, the invasions and so on.

Nowadays, what we call science can provide better explanations in every area we can think of than do god-explanations, and this is a major blow to religion and its relevance in the modern world. I would describe it as a death-blow. Indeed gods aren’t just bad explanations, they’re not really explanations at all. Why gods, after all? What are they, and where do they come from? No coherent explanation can be offered for them. Of course the obvious answer is that they come from the human imagination, as is evidenced by the human qualities they display – the beauty of the love-goddess, the long-bearded father-god, the thunderous dyspepsia of the war-god and so forth – but such an explanation is anathema to religion, as it collapses the house of cards. So an attempt is made to divert attention from inquiring into the ineluctable mystery of the god’s existence – sometimes by making such inquiries a kind of sacrilegious abomination – and to focus more on the god’s commandments. This is a move made by many a staunch Catholic.

I’ve heard such people say that the ten commandments of the Old Testament are clearly the basis of all our laws and morality. I’d like to have a look at them, particularly in terms of explanation. As young children, we’re often given commands – do this, don’t do that – by our parents. These commands generally have an explanation supporting them, which we learn later. But the explanations are essential, and commands without effective explanations to support them are surely a form of tyranny – at least that’s how I see it.
So let’s have a look at these commandments, which are so essential to ‘western’ or ‘civilised’ morality, according to some. I’ve put them in my own words.

  • 1. I’m your god, you mustn’t have other gods before me.
    This has nothing whatever to do with morality as far as I can see. This god says elsewhere that he’s a jealous god, and this is further proof. Catholics gloss this commandment as a commandment against idolatry, but that’s highly problematic because it makes the enormous assumption that the god called God is not an idol. If he’s saying ‘I’m the true god, all the others are fake’, he needs to provide proof. He doesn’t – and presumably makes the arrogant claim that he doesn’t need to.
  • 2. You mustn’t take my name in vain.
    So what is this god’s name? God, apparently. It’s like a marketing ploy, as if MacDonalds got to change their name to Hamburger and could take action against anyone else who used the name. In reality the god now called God was an amalgam of Hittite and Armenian gods, forged into a monotheistic being by elites of the region somewhere around the 7th century BCE. The idea of the commandment is that you should speak his name respectfully. Why? Because he’s God. The only way to avoid a circular argument here is to provide proof of this god’s existence, which hasn’t been done and can’t be done. There’s no morality on display here.
  • 3. The sabbath day should be kept holy.
  • This is fairly arbitrary, the word coming from the Hebrew sabbat, meaning rest, and it’s based on God’s rest day, as he created the universe or multiverse or whatever in six days and rested on the Saturday, according to Judaic tradition, but Christians arbitrarily changed the day to Sunday. Of course no educated person today thinks the world, universe, or whatever, was created in a week, whatever you define a week as, by an ethereal being. Again, this could only have moral effect if you believe in this creation story and the god at the centre of it (and if you believe the god is egotistical enough to want to be eternally remembered and acknowledged in this way).
  • 4. Honour your parents.
  • As a heuristic, this makes sense, but it is not a given. Some parents kill their children, others do irreparable damage to them. The vast majority, of course, don’t. This is a matter of individual cases and analyses. The complexity of parent-child relations is dealt with most profoundly by Andrew Solomon in his great book Far from the tree. I would refer everyone to that book as a response to the fourth commandment.
  • 5. You mustn’t kill.
  • This again is too vague, as it doesn’t deal with self-defence and other exculpating circumstances. It’s also fairly commonplace, and common-sense. It’s easy to find supporting explanations. Nobody needed this commandment to create laws regarding murder and unlawful death.
  • 6. You mustn’t commit adultery.
  • A lot can be said here. At the time that these commandments first appeared, and for a long time afterwards, women and girls were treated as chattels and very often married off against their will, sometimes as children, to men twice or thrice their age. Considering such a context, and considering that contraception was essentially non-existent in those days, adultery was generally treated differently depending on wealth, social status and gender. There might have been an explanation for the law of adultery, but it probably had more to do with property and the status of offspring than morality per se.
  • 7. Don’t steal
  • The concept of private property would have emerged slowly, and would have been interdependent on other cultural developments in the move from horizontally to more vertically based cultural systems. Even so, it’s unlikely that a prohibition on stealing would’ve been novel when this commandment was formulated.
  • 8. Don’t lie
  • the telling of lies to advantage oneself and disadvantage others would have been a problem at least since effective languages developed, and we have little evidence as to how long ago that happened. We certainly know it was long before the 6th or 7th centuries BCE, so there’s nothing new here. Again, though, the commandment is too vague to be particularly effective.
  • 9. Don’t covet (lust after) your neighbour’s wife
  • These last two commandments are about thoughts, which makes them particularly ineffectual. They might be interpreted as advice, which would leave us with fewer commandments to criticise, but even as advice they seem like so much pissing into the wind. And of course the fact that wives and not husbands are singled out is an indication of the particularism of the patriarchal society this commandment addresses.
  • 10. Don’t covet (hanker after) your neighbour’s goods.
  • Again, hardly a profound or memorable commandment, and barely relevant to today’s society. If you’re impressed by your neighbour’s car, for example, you might ask her about it, check out its performance and decide to get something similar yourself. What’s the big deal?

I’ve spent too much time on this, but I simply wanted to point out that, while gods are what religion is all about, they are, or were, also used as explanations. That’s in fact what they were for. And a ‘commandment’ is simply an explanation once removed, because they represent the god’s will. The explanation, therefore, for bad tidings or bad karma or whatever, becomes failure to follow the will and the commandments of some particular god or other.

Nowadays we have better explanations, based on what we know of human psychology and neurophysiology, and of how we work together in societies, as the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. We also know much more about how the physical world works, which has resulted in technological developments of increasing reach and sophistication. The idea that knowing so much more about what we are has no relationship to what we should do – the moral sphere – has always struck me as preposterous. This old is-ought separation was key to Gould’s NOMA thesis. But it’s not only that science’s increasingly far-reaching accounts of ourselves and the universe we live in is essential to our decisions about what we should do. It’s also true that religion keeps trying to tell us what we are. And its account s just don’t stack up, from the broadest scientific perspective. It just fails comprehensively as an explanation.

Written by stewart henderson

March 20, 2020 at 2:58 pm

random thoughts on progress and culture

leave a comment »

random pic of one of the Andaman Islands, I think

 

I seem to have a mind geared toward progress. I look forward (as I’m just beginning to feel my age) towards electric vehicles increasing market share in the ‘backward’ land of Oz. I look forward to governments here throwing their weight behind renewables without the usual reservations. I look forward to the James Webb telescope finally being launched, learning more about exoplanets, and of course genomics, epigenetics, neurophysiology, human origins, and much more. I look forward to the collapse of the Kim monarchy in North Korea, the demise of the current batch of macho political thugs worldwide, and the continuing rise to power of women in politics, business, science and technology. I’ve read Pinker’s two big books on the virtues of progress and enlightenment, I’m reading David Deutsch’s book on the beginning of an infinity of knowledge and discovery and technological improvement, and I’m wishing I could live at least another hundred years to watch the two-steps-forward-one step-back dance into the future. 

And yet. 

I generally describe myself as a humanist, and I’m drawn to those expressing suspicion and a degree of disdain toward nationalism – but, why is that? Am I free to have those feelings, which have been more or less with me since childhood, or have they been imposed on me by experiences I didn’t choose to have? After all, I’m human but I’m thoroughly localised in time and space. I’m a product, of a particular culture, often described as the dominant culture, white (though my skin is light brown and variable as I tan easily), Anglo-Saxon (though being born in the north-east of Scotland I may have Pictish and/or Scandinavian forebears, and frankly I’m not interested in tracing my ancestry) and protestant (though I’m not religious in any sense). Clearly, if I was born in the same place but several hundred years earlier, I wouldn’t be banging on about progress. I wouldn’t have ended up in Australia and I would likely never have travelled more than a few miles from the town of Dundee, where I was born. Whatever occupation I had wouldn’t have differed greatly from that of my father or my son, if I had one. 

So much for time. Think of place. Had I been born in Australia a few hundred years ago, I would’ve been what Europeans call an Aborigine or an indigenous Australian – but I should get with the program, they’re called first nations people now, presumably because we now know that we’re all actually indigenous to the African continent. In any case, my world would’ve been unimaginably different. Or I might’ve been born to first nation parents, but in the fifties (that’s to say, on my actual birth date), in which case I would’ve experienced a mixture of Aboriginal and Western/European/White Australian culture. Again, an experience nigh impossible for me to imagine. How, in that case, would I think of nationalism, as someone linked to a ‘nation’ with an ancient, resilient culture, or complex of different cultures, but surrounded by an innovative, progressive, dominant culture that I would never quite belong to. Would I want to belong to it? Who can say – I’m mixing generalisations with particular experiences here, and it’s not making sense.   

So it’s perhaps better, or certainly easier, to take the self out of the picture and think of cultures in the way we think of species and sub-species. Some species have found a niche, in the depths of the oceans, say, which has allowed them to survive and even thrive in a basic sort of way for eons, pretty well unchanged. Others, like rats and pigeons, have adapted to a variety of conditions, allowing them to spread across the globe, in tandem with ever-urbanising homo sapiens. Do we value all these species equally? Do we value all human cultures equally? We’re generally encouraged to think positively about biodiversity and cultural diversity. Yet we know that by far the majority of species mothered by this planet are now extinct. Many cultures, too, have been obliterated, by war, climate change, absorption into more dominant cultures and so forth. Which brings me back to progress. There seems to be a tension between the drive to preserve and the drive to transcend. There appears to be room for both drives much of the time, but what if they clash?

I recently had cause to learn a little more about the Andaman Islanders, who have a distinct and clearly self-sustaining culture developed over millenia. They don’t want to be disturbed and they’ve largely been granted that wish. After all, our progressive culture has no great need of their small scraps of land and what, from our perspective, are their meagre resources. However, imagine that something was discovered, via the latest in sophisticated computer technology, not too far beneath the soil of those islands – some mineral with extraordinary properties, valuable beyond measure to the dominant society’s continued technological advancement, but the extraction of which would massively disrupt the everyday life and compromise the spiritual beliefs of the islanders?

Perhaps this is a far-fetched scenario – it’s highly unlikely that, with our multi-faceted ingenuity, we would need to rely on some particular item from a remote set of islands for our juggernaut progress. And yet – I’ve read, in Simon Winchester’s book Pacific – of the fate of the Marshall Islanders in the forties and fifties, as the USA chose to use their region as the site of scores of nuclear tests, causing widespread and more or less permanent radioactive contamination – the price of a particular kind of progress. As Wikipedia puts it:

The testing concluded in 1958. Over the years, just one of over 60 islands was cleaned by the US government, and the inhabitants are still waiting for the 2 billion dollars in compensation assessed by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal. Many of the islanders and their descendants still live in exile, as the islands remain contaminated with high levels of radiation

Mistakes were made…

The ‘new world’ (meaning new to Europeans) and its first nations cultures have paid a heavy price for largely European colonisation, domination and progress. My position, as a somewhat low-ranking beneficiary of the dominant culture, makes it hard to judge the costs and benefits of these developments. We will go forward, but we need to look back at what we’ve done, and to look around at what we’re doing now. Preservation and progress is an uneasy balancing act which we’ll probably never quite master, but we need to keep trying, for humanity’s sake.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_Islands

S Winchester, Pacific: the ocean of the future, 2015

Written by stewart henderson

February 4, 2020 at 2:35 pm

a discussion on scientific progress and scientism

leave a comment »

Pretty funny, but not much related to this post

Scientific progress depends on an expectation of continuous innovation, on encouraging an attitude of willingness to experiment, rejecting established authority of every sort, on the assumption that new experiments will bring out new realities and force us to revise our knowledge.’
Bruno Maçães, The Dawn of Eurasia

Discuss ‘scientific progress’ in the light of this statement.

Canto: This is very interesting. As a ‘fan’ (remembering that this word comes from ‘fanatic’) of scientific progress, an evidence junky, and also a humanist, I can see, and have experienced, a collision between the scientific process, which involves a respect for evidence rather than people, and the strongly held cultural/religious beliefs of people, which they hold fast to as identifying and solidifying principles. For example, the Aboriginal belief, handed down and taught, that their people have inhabited this land for eternity, while scientists are trying to determine precisely when the first home sapiens arrived here, and how old the continent of Australia actually is, given the pre-existence of Gondwana, Pangaea and the rest. 

Jacinta: A belief probably not held by that many Aboriginal people, most of whom have been educated in institutions that treat science seriously. That’s to say, more recent generations, and this is a problem everywhere – ‘established authority’ can also mean traditional beliefs and practices, even the old established language. The tribal language, the local language, being abandoned everywhere for more global forms of communication. 

Canto: Yes I read yesterday an essay topic about the growth of English as an international language, often as a person’s second or third language – and I recognised immediately that the essay was out of date as it stated that about 900,000 used English that way. It’s well over a billion now and rising fast. 

Jacinta: And the language of science is largely English – plus mathematics. It’s funny that there are actual scientific endeavours to preserve many of the 7,000 languages that exist in the world, while scientific communication relies largely on a universal single language…

Canto: Yes, and a person can feel that contradiction, that kind of tugging both ways, within themselves. Like following Scottish or Jewish traditions at times of celebration, enjoying the fun, and then thinking – why am I doing this? I don’t believe in first-footing or plate-breaking or whatever. 

Jacinta: People follow these traditions because they work, or at least they think so, but not always in the traditional way. And many such followers are well aware of this – that these activities don’t work as lucky charms so much as social glue. But that’s the trouble with glue – you get stuck. 

Canto: You’ve heard of the missionary who tried to Christianise the Andaman Islanders and was speared to death for his efforts? Most people’s responses were of the ‘serves him right’ type. But wasn’t that because the missionary was just trying to substitute one set of myths for another? If he was trying to introduce a new fishing method, or, I don’t know, something modernising and scientific…

Jacinta: We’ll have to get onto so-called ‘scientism’ at some stage, but here’s the thing. Maçães writes about ‘rejecting established authority of every sort’, and Richard Feynman apparently described science as belief in the ignorance of experts, but when we come upon, say, the Piripkura people of Brazil’s Mato Grosso, whose continued existence in the face of western diseases and cattle-raising gunmen we’re not even sure about, converting such people into scientific modernists who should question why they’re having difficulty surviving and adapting, seems very arrogant somehow. 

Canto: This is where humanism comes in, and it’s a fraught kind of humanism. Many would say – look, all these tribes will disappear, because their way of life is outdated and ‘in the way’, which doesn’t mean the people will disappear, they’ll gradually get absorbed into the broader population, modernised, urbanised, educated and homogenised into our diverse modern world. If they’re lucky enough not to die of disease and gunshot wounds. 

Jacinta: And their expertise in traditional hunting, gathering and fishing will be found to be not so much ignorant as obsolete within the mechanised world of food production and consumption. And this is happening everywhere, from the Limi of south-western China to the Bushmen of Botswana. Could it be said that they’re the victims of scientific progress? It’s hard to distinguish science and technology from other aspects of modernism I suppose, but this is the complex other face of science’s otherwise refreshing respect for innovation, experiment and evidence rather than ‘experts’, or just plain old people. 

Canto: So what do you think of ‘scientism’, which is I think a rather vague claim about the steamrolling arrogance of science, and what about the possibly self-destructive implications of relentless scientific advancement?

Jacinta: You know there might be something in the criticism, because as I try to get my head around the complexities of, say, electromagnetism, or neurological interactions, I find myself less drawn to some of my earlier loves, literature and the visual arts. I don’t know if that means I’m arrogantly dismissing them, but I do know they’re not engaging me in the old way. I find science more exciting, and maybe that’s dangerous…

Canto: In what way? 

Jacinta: Well, the motto of this blog is ‘rise above yourself and grasp the world’, but that kind of engagement – in something so large if not abstract as ‘the world’….

Canto: The world isn’t abstract – it’s everything. Everything found in time and space. It’s absolute reality. 

Jacinta: Well maybe, but that engagement in ‘everything’, it rather detaches you from the smaller world of the people around you, and – and yourself. Rising above yourself entails escaping from yourself and you can’t really do that, can you? 

Canto: The sciences of biology, neurology, genetics and so forth are the best ways of learning about ourselves. It all comes back to us in the end, doesn’t it? Our mathematical equations, our experiments, our discoveries of black holes, the Higgs boson, gravitational waves, they’re all about us, somehow. The things we do. And it seems it helps our understanding and sympathy. Science is about finding out things, like finding out about other people. The more we find out, the less we tend to dismiss or hate, or fear. Look at those who commit acts of terror. Surely ignorance plays a major role in such acts. A refusal or inability to find out stuff about others. A lack of curiosity about why people are different in the way they look and act. Science – or the scientific impulse, which is basically curiosity – opens us up to these things, so that we no longer hate or fear mosquitos or spiders or snakes or Christians or Moslems or Jews. 

Jacinta: Hmmm, so what’s the buzz about scientism? Let’s end this post by discussing a quote from an essay on scientism written for the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

It is one thing to celebrate science for its achievements and remarkable ability to explain a wide variety of phenomena in the natural world. But to claim there is nothing knowable outside the scope of science would be similar to a successful fisherman saying that whatever he can’t catch in his nets does not exist. Once you accept that science is the only source of human knowledge, you have adopted a philosophical position (scientism) that cannot be verified, or falsified, by science itself. It is, in a word, unscientific.

Canto: Well I’m not impressed with this argument, I must say, probably because I don’t agree with the implied definition of science it presents. Science, to me, is an activity, driven by curiosity, which provides dividends in the form of a greater knowledge which raises more and more questions. I rarely worry whether it’s the only source of human knowledge, because that raises the question of what ‘knowledge’ is, and I’m not so interested in that enquiry. Much more interesting to try and work out how life came from non-life, how our planet got covered in water, whether life of any kind exists elsewhere in the solar system, how different parts of the brain interact under particular circumstances, etc etc. I don’t know or care whether you call those enquiries ‘science’ or not, I only know that you won’t get answers to those questions by just sitting around thinking about them. I mean, you can start by thinking, forming a hypothesis, but then you have to explore, gather evidence, conduct experiments, test then modify or abandon your hypothesis…

Jacinta: I thought the ‘net’ analogy used in that quote was pretty inept. Of course it’s reminiscent of the old Kantian categories, the grid or net by means of which we know things, which separates the noumenal world of things in themselves from the phenomenal world of perception/conception. But Kant’s problem was that the noumenal world was just a hypothesis that couldn’t be tested, since we only have our perceptions/conceptions – enhanced somewhat by technology – with which to test things.

Canto: Probably another reason why so many scientists, especially physicists, seem dismissive of philosophers of science. Another problem with those that go on about scientism is that they insist that there are other ways of knowing, but you can rarely pin them down on what those ways of knowing are.

Jacinta: Yes they’re often religious or new-age types, and spiritual knowledge is their stock-in-trade. And if you don’t have that spirituality, which doesn’t need to be explained, then you’ll never understand, you’ll always be a shallow materialist. There’s no response to that view.

Canto: Yes, we’re obviously on the autism spectrum, though not so far along as real scientists. Meanwhile, let’s keep exploring…

Written by stewart henderson

April 15, 2019 at 9:27 am

some stuff about dinosaurs and their relationship to birds

leave a comment »

Archaeopteryx lithographica with its long bony tail – I took this pic myself at London’s Natural History Museum

Jacinta: Let’s talk about dinosaurs. Are they a thing?

Canto: Of course they are, what are you talking about?

Jacinta: Well I read recently in a New Scientist article that for quite some time in the recent past dinosaur experts didn’t really think ‘dinosaur’ existed as a scientific classification. A new way of classifying was needed because some dinosaurs were bird-hipped and some were lizard-hipped, though they were neither birds nor lizards. So, new names were required.

Canto: Right, so some had hips like lizards, but were clearly not lizards because they had anatomical features that set them apart, and the same went for those that had hips like birds?

Jacinta: Yes I think that’s right. Let’s talk as we learn. Bird-hipped dinos are ornithischians – think ornithology – and the lizardy ones are called saurischians. It was Harry Seeley who shook up the dinosaur-loving world back in 1887 when he argued, before the Royal Society, that what they’d thought were dinosaurs (a term coined by Richard Owen) were really two separate groups, based on those hip bones. Seeley was right about the two groups, but the term ‘dinosaur’, which of course has never disappeared in popular writing, has been rescued over time for science by agreement on other features which bespeak ‘dinosaur’. This has much to do with cladistics, which we may or may not discuss later.

Canto: So the first dinos appeared some 235 mya in the late triassic period, but interestingly they flourished between two major extinction events, the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event about 201 mya, a very sudden event that allowed dinosaurs to fill vacated ecological niches on land, and the Cretaceous-Paleogene (or Cretaceous-Teriary, or K-T) extinction event of 66 mya, which wiped out all the non-avian dinos.

Jacinta: And it should be mentioned that birds are now considered feathered avian dinosaurs, descended from earlier therapods, which strangely are saurischians (lizard-hipped), though a very recent and still controversial paper has reclassified them as ornithischians. I should also mention that dinosaur researchers are a notoriously feisty and bickering tribe, from what I’ve heard.

Canto: I’ve started ploughing through a course on dinosaurs via youtube – The Natural History of Dinosaurs – and I’ve already learned some words, just as background: lithify, diagenesis and coprolite. I’ll let you know if anything exciting crops up, but tell me more about birds being the only remaining dinosaurs and how we know that.

Jacinta: Well, it’s been known since at least the discovery of Archaeopteryx, the type specimen of which was found just two years after Darwin published The Origin of Species, that there are clear anatomical similarities between birds and non-avian dinosaurs. Feathers and hollow bones, for example. There’s also evidence that they share nesting and brooding behaviour. There are also relations with non-avian dinosaurs, some species of which also had feathers, and these discoveries are raising fascinating questions about the origin of flight in these creatures. Of course it’s all very controversial and some researchers are still holding out on the dinosaur-bird link, suggesting other archosaurs were the ancestors.

Canto: What’s an archosaur?

Jacinta: It means ‘ruling reptile’ and these are creatures which first emerged some 300 mya, and they’re the ancestors of living reptiles today. They’re also the ancestors of birds, and dinosaurs. So they’re a larger and older group. Presumably the hold-outs have reason to think birds emerged out of some reptilian line that was distinct from theropod dinosaurs. But that’s nothing to the arguments about the evolutionary steps that led from maniraptoran theropods (perhaps) to modern birds, or the arguments about the origin of flight. Now let me point out that theropods are a suborder of dinosaurs with hollow bones and three-toed limbs, which have long been classed as saurischians until this very recent paper discussed in the New Scientist article, which reclassifies them as ornithiscians. And this seems to be another step – if it holds – towards our understanding of the relationship between birds and their ancestral dinosaurs. An earlier but still pretty recent step were the discoveries, particularly out of China, of a number of fossilised dinosaurs with evidence of feathers, or proto-feathers, and all this, together with advances in analysing and categorising existing specimens using cladistics described in Wikipedia as ‘a method of arranging species based strictly on their evolutionary relationships, using a statistical analysis of their anatomical characteristics’.

Canto: I get very confused about all this. Weren’t there flying dinosaurs – we used to call them pterodactyls – and did they have feathers, or were their means of flight completely different? I seem to remember them depicted like gliders – I mean of the animal kind, with great flaps of skin to catch the wind… Of course that was long before any talk of feathered dinos.

Jacinta: Well hopefully I’ll get to that. Let me talk first about Archaeopteryx, which they reckon dates back to about 150 million years ago. It was probably about the size of a magpie, though there may have been different species of different size (only 11 fossil specimens have been discovered so far). They had feathers, but it’s not known whether they flew like modern birds (flapping flight) or merely glided. A recent study (which I’ve not read) has argued that their flight capabilities were quite limited. They had long, bony tails, which I’m assuming would’ve hampered long-term flight. Interestingly, complex and, for me, impossible-to-verify coloration analyses have presented evidence that the feathers of these critters were a matte black, at least predominantly. Of course it’s hard to prove all this conclusively with 150 million-year-old animals, but speculation and analyses continue, for example on the brain-case of one Archaeopteryx specimen, to determine whether it had a brain for flight (e.g. adequate eyesight, hearing and muscle manipulation). Most of this converges on a limited flight ability, but just how limited will be endlessly argued. And concerning the evolution of birds and flight, there’s a ‘trees-down’ theory (think of sugar gliders etc) and a ‘ground up’ theory. Where does Archaeopteryx fit with those alternatives? That’s still up for grabs.

Canto: Okay, so what about pterodactyls, are they still a thing? Dactyl means digit or finger, doesn’t it?

Jacinta: Winged finger. Yes, they’re a species of pterosaur, with thirty known specimens. They presumably achieved fame among the children of the world as the first-known flying dinosaurs – but they’re not dinosaurs. It’s confusing because ‘saur’ means ‘lizard’, and ‘dinosaur’ means ‘terrible lizard’ and ‘pterosaur’ means ‘winged  lizard’ and they all seem to be connected…

Canto: So what about their relation to birds? Any sign of feathers?

Jacinta: They may have had downy feathers here and there, but not for flight. Their wings were more like those of bats, and they were originally classified as an archaic type of bat. In fact, in the early days of taxonomy, many fossils that had vague similarities to the first pterodactyl fossils discovered in the late 18th century were wrongly designated as pterodactyls, which probably explains their general popularity. It has taken years and many improvements in analysis and dating to sort out the mess, and apparently it still hasn’t been sorted. Anyway, they’re not seen as ancestral to birds. But I may be wrong.

Canto: Wow. Disappointing.

Jacinta: So getting back to the origin of birds, the question of clavicles (collar bones) is important. Birds have wishbones (furculae), which are fused clavicles. The question of bird ancestry has hung on these clavicle bones to a large degree. They’re delicate bones, not easily preserved, and it was long thought that they didn’t exist in dinosaurs. This view has been completely overturned, and in fact most of our understanding about the relationship between birds and earlier dinosaurs come from skeletal studies, or re-examinations, as well as studies of musculature and internal organs, though of course it’s feathers that capture the public’s imagination. But of course there’s a lot of controversy about the how and when of bird evolution, and the evolution of flight, which you’d expect from such scant solid evidence together with intense scientific and public interest.

Canto: Well, I’ve learned something more than the little I knew before about dinosaurs. And their hips. I’ll watch the rest of The Natural History of Dinosaurs’, and we’ll speculate some more in a later post.

Written by stewart henderson

September 4, 2018 at 1:03 pm

Always chemical: how to reflect upon naturopathic remedies

leave a comment »

most efficacious in every case

So here’s an interesting story. When I was laid up with a bronchial virus (RSV) a few weeks ago, coughing my lungs up and having difficulty breathing, with a distinct, audible wheeze, I was offered advice, as you do, by a very well-meaning person about a really effective treatment – oregano oil. This person explained that, on two occasions, he’d come down with a bad cough and oregano oil had done the trick perfectly where nothing else worked.

I didn’t try the oregano oil. I followed my doctor’s recommendation and used the symptom-relieving medications described in a previous post, and I’m much better now. What I did do was look up what the science-based medicine site had to say about the treatment (I’d never heard of oregano oil, though I’ve had many other plant-based cures suggested to me, such as echinacea, marshmallow root and slippery elm – well ok I lied, I found the last two on a herbal medicine website).

I highly recommend the science-based medicine website, which has been run by the impressively-credentialed Drs David Gorski and Steve Novella and their collaborators for years now, and which thusly has a vast database of debunked or questionable treatments to explore. It’s the best port of call when you’re offered anecdotal advice about any treatment whatsoever by well-wishers. Not that they’re the only people performing this service to the public. Quackwatch, SkepDoc, and Neurologica are just some of the websites doing great work, but they’re outnumbered vastly by sites spreading misinformation and bogus cures, unfortunately. It’s almost a catch-22 of the internet that you have to be informed enough to use it to get the best information out of it.

As to oregano oil specifically, Scott Gavura at science-based medicine proves a detailed account. I will summarise here, while also providing my own take. Firstly people need to know that when a substance, any substance –  a herb or a plant, an oil extracted therefrom, or a tablet, capsule or mixture,something injectable or applied to the skin, whatever – is suggested as a treatment for a condition, they should consider this simple mantra – always chemical. That’s to say, a treatment will only work because it has the right chemistry to act against the treated condition. In other words you need to know something (or rather a lot) about the chemistry of the treating substance and the chemistry of the condition being treated. It’s no good saying ‘x is great for getting rid of coughs – it got rid of mine,’ because your cough may not have the same chemical cause as mine, and your cough in February 2007 may not have the same chemical cause as your cough in August 2017. My recent cough was caused by a virus (and perhaps I should change the mantra – always biochemical – but still it’s the chemistry of the bug that’s causing the problem), but no questions were asked about the cause before the advice was given. And you’ll notice when you look at naturopathic websites that chemistry is very rarely mentioned. And I’m not talking about toxins.

Gavura gives this five-point test for an effective treatment:

When we contemplate administering a chemical to deliver a medicinal effect, we need to ask the following:

  1. Is it absorbed into the body at all?
  2. Does enough reach the right part of the body to have an effect?
  3. Does it actually work for the condition?
  4. Does it have any hazardous, unwanted effects?
  5. Can it be safely eliminated from the body?

The answer to Q1 is that oregano oil contains a wide variety of chemical compounds, particularly phenolic compounds (71%). It’s these phenolic compounds that are touted as having the principal beneficial effects. However, though we know that there’s some absorption, we don’t have a chemical breakdown. We just don’t know which phenolic compounds are being absorbed or how much.

Q2 – No research on this, or on absorption generally. Topical effects (ie effects on the skin) are more likely to be beneficial than ingested effects, as the oil can maintain high concentration. This would have no effect on a cough.

Q3 – According to one manufacturer the oil has ‘scientifically proven results against almost every virus, bacteria, parasite, and fungi…’ (etc, etc, but shouldn’t that be bacterium and fungus?). In fact, no serious scientific research has ever been conducted on oregano oil and its effectiveness for any condition whatsoever. So the answer to this question is  – no evidence, beyond anecdote.

Q4 – There have been reports of allergic reactions and gastro-intestinal upsets, but the naturopathy industry is more or less completely unregulated so you can never be sure what you’re getting with any bottle of pills or ‘essential oils’. As Gavura points out, the lack of research on possible adverse effects, for this and other ‘natural’ treatments, is of concern for vulnerable consumers, such as pregnant women, young or unborn children, and those with pre-existing conditions.

Q5 – At low doses, there’s surely no concern, but nobody has done any research about dosing up on carvacrol, the most prominent component of oregano oil, which gives the plant its characteristic odour. Other organic components are thymol and cymene.

 

So there’s no solid evidence about oregano oil, or about the mechanism for its supposed efficacy. But what if my well-wisher was correct, and something in the oregano oil cleared up his cough – twice? And did so really really well? Better than several other treatments he tried?

Well, then we might be onto something. Surely a potential billion-dollar gold-mine, considering how debilitating your common-or-garden cough can be. And how, if not cleared up, it can leading to something way more serious.

So how would a person who is sure that oregano oil has fantastic curative properties (because it sure worked for him) go about capitalising on this potential gold-mine? Well, first he would need evidence. His own circle of friends would not be enough – perhaps he could harness social media to see if there were sufficient people willing to testify to oregano oil curing their cough, where other treatments failed. Then , if he had sufficient numbers, he might try to find out the causes of these coughs. Bacterial, viral, something else, cause unknown? It’s likely he wouldn’t make much headway there (most people with common-or-garden coughs don’t go to the doctor or submit to biochemical testing, they just try to ride it out), but no matter, that might just be evidence that the manufacturer was right – it’s effective against a multitude of conditions. And yet, it seems that oregano oil is a well-kept secret, only known to naturopathic companies and health food store owners. Doctors don’t seem to be prescribing it. Why not?

Clearly it’s because Big Pharma doesn’t support the stuff. Doctors are in cahoots with Big Pharma to sell attractive pills with long pharmacological names and precise dosages and complex directions for use. Together they like to own the narrative, and a multi-billion dollar industry is unlikely to be had from an oil you can extract from a backyard plant.

Unless

Our hero’s investment of time and energy has convinced him there’s heaps of money to be made from oregano oil’s miraculous properties, but that same investment has also convinced him that it’s the chemical properties that are key, and that if the correct chemical formula can be isolated, refined and commercialised, not only will he be able to spend the rest of his life in luxury hotels around the globe, but he will have actually saved lives and contributed handsomely to the betterment of society. So he will join Big Pharma rather than trying to beat it. Yes, there would have to be a massive upfront outlay to perform tests, presumably on rats or mice at first, to find out which chemical components or combinations thereof do the best job of curing the animals, who would have to be artificially infected with various bugs affecting the respiratory system, or any other bodily system, since there are claims that the oil, like Lily the Pink’s Medicinal Compound™, is ‘most efficacious in every case’.

But of course it would be difficult for any average bloke like our hero to scratch up the funds to build or hire labs testing and purifying a cure-all chemical extract of oregano oil. Crowdsourcing maybe, considering all the testimonials? Or just find an ambitious and forward-thinking wealthy entrepreneur?

Is that the only problem with the lack of acceptance, by the medical community, of all the much-touted naturopathic cures out there? Lack of funds to go through the painstaking process of getting a purefied product to pass through a system which ends with double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled human studies with large sample sizes?

Permit me to be sceptical. It’s not as if the chemical components of most herbal remedies are unknown. It’s highly unlikely that pharmacologists, who are in the business of examining the chemistry of substances and their effects for good or ill on the human body, haven’t considered the claimed cornucopia of naturopathic treatments and the possibility of bringing them into the mainstream of science-based medicine to the benefit of all. Yes, it’s possible that they’ve missed something, but it’s also possible, indeed more likely, that people underestimate the capacity of our fabulous immune system, the product of millions of years of evolution, to bring us back to health when we’re struck down by the odd harmful bug. When we’re struck down like this, we either recover or we die, and if we don’t die, we tend to attribute our recovery to any treatment applied. Sometimes we might be right, but it pays to be skeptical and to do research into a treatment, and into what ails us, before making such attributions. And to do so with the help of a good science-based medical practitioner. And remember again that motto: always chemical. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 24, 2018 at 10:18 am

is there life on Mars? – encore

leave a comment »

Don’t worry Davey, we’ll find out

The recent announcement about a large lake of water beneath the ice near the south pole of Mars has naturally engendered great excitement among those desperate to find life ‘elsewhere’, and with good reason. Mars, our closest planet, has long been a haven of hope for this sort of thing, but it has also engendered the ‘too good to be true’ response. It’s almost been seen as a lazy conjecture, as if we should expect to work really hard, and over unimaginably long distances, to find this precious and surely extremely rare stuff called life. But in recent decades we’ve managed to discover life surviving and even thriving under the most extreme circumstances in odd nooks and crannies of our own planet, which has widened our view of life’s diversity and tenacity. And the fact that we’ve been discovering new life on our own planet, is a testament to our developing skills and technology in the search for life – because, of course, the life we’re discovering isn’t new at all, what’s new is our technology and our deeper awareness of life’s range and possibilities.

And what we know about life on Earth is all about water. We’re full of the stuff, as are the plants and animals around us, and we now know that our ancestors emerged from the stuff, and we’ve never stopped being dependent on it. So it’s not surprising that the question about life on Mars is also all about water.

In previous centuries it was much speculated that water lay on the surface of Mars, in what appeared to be canals or waterways of some kind. Nowadays what we’ve learned about the atmosphere at Mars’ surface – low temperature and pressure – has rendered the possibility of liquid water increasingly unlikely. However, water below the surface is another matter. Lake Vostok, four kilometres below the surface in Eastern Antarctica, is just the largest of a number of subsurface lakes – at least 400 found under that continent – and they support thousands of living species.

So for some time there’s been a search for subsurface water on Mars. A radar instrument called MARSIS, orbiting the planet on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express, and purpose-built to search for underground water, has been sending out radio waves which are reflective to liquid water but not to ice or rock. A particularly reflective patch near the south pole appears to reveal a layer of water about 1.5 kilometres below the surface. However, MARSIS is limited in the data it can provide. The depth of the water, and what other material is mixed in with it, are not known – though we know that it’s about 20 kilometres across, and the the Italian research team that has published the findings estimates the water to be at least a metre deep, indicating a genuine lake rather than meltwater. It’s expected that the water will contain salts, which lower the freezing point of water, as would pressure from the material above the lake.

There are still many unknowns here, but the various Mars rovers and orbiters are building evidence, for example that Mars was once warmer and wetter, and that even now liquid water can still be found at periods on the surface. What we haven’t found so far is evidence of life. So how can we get this evidence? First, we need to look for life ‘as we know it’, carbon-based life, because that’s very likely the kind of life we’ll find on our nearest neighbour, and because we have no way of knowing how to look for completely alien life.

Mars’ Curiosity rover has already found organic molecules, specifically methane, which may or may not be produced by biological activity beneath the surface. The rover has been sampling the atmosphere and has found methane at varying levels as the seasons have changed. However, it’s generally believed that the thin atmosphere at Mars’ surface would be insufficient to deflect life-harming radiation. The discovery of a specific and more or less substantial body of water below the surface, perhaps sufficiently protected from radiation, provides a target for future researchers to aim at.

The next step would be to obtain samples from the lake, which is easier said than done. It would require some sort of robotic drill to be sent out there and operated remotely, a task beyond current capabilities. Meanwhile, a Chinese probe is set to be flown to Mars in 2020. It will have radar instrumentation similar to MARSIS, but operating at a slightly different frequency. It may confirm the MARSIS findings or discover other underground bodies of water, further piquing our interest in the very real possibility of life on the red planet.

Is it an underground lake? We can’t be entirely sure.

References

http://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2018-07-26/vast-liquid-lake-found-under-mars-south-polar-ice-cap/10030264

https://theconversation.com/discovered-a-huge-liquid-water-lake-beneath-the-southern-pole-of-mars-100523

http://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2018-07-26/mars-life-evidence-organic-carbon-methane-liquid-water/10038324

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-44952710

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 11, 2018 at 10:38 pm

Useful stuff on extremophiles and their tricks

leave a comment »

A tardigrade or water bear, emblematic creature for extremophile-philes everywhere. Look em up, cause they’re not mentioned in this article

I’ll try to wean myself from the largely thankless task of writing about politics by picking a topic, almost at random, though one that I know will keep me engaged once I get started.

I was reading an article on the geology of the Earth’s crust and upper mantle (aka lithosphere) the other day, which mentioned the possibility of life in the mantle. Little is known for sure about the mantle’s composition and activity, because until recently drilling down to that level has been just a pipe dream, so to speak. The mantle’s distance from the earth’s surface varies considerably from region to region, but the average depth of the crust at its thinnest, ie under the ocean, is about 6 kilometres. In 2011, microscopic nematodes, or roundworms, were found some 4 kilometres below the surface in a gold mine in South Africa. Other single-celled micro-organisms were found in the region, at depths of 5 kms. Since we’ve rarely plumbed such depths, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that life down that far may be commonplace. We already know that life exists under the sea floor, at immense pressures. At the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific, bacteria thrive 11 kilometres below sea level, and some bacteria have been tested in the lab as tolerating 1000 atmospheres of pressure.

Of course, the term extremophile, applied to such life forms, is typically anthropocentric, as they would presumably shuffle off their mortal coils tout de suite when subjected to our torturous environment. Then again…

Extremophiles are of course termed as such when found in conditions that are far from what we would term normal. Such conditions include extremely hot or cold environments, highly acidic or alkaline environments, anaerobic environments, and extreme pressure. They include archaea, the earliest living organisms we know of, some of which have been found to be halophilic (thriving in high salt conditions) or hyperthermophilic (lovers of temps around 80°C).

So how far down can these organisms go? What do they live on? What do they look like and how do they relate to other organisms on the bush of life?

This article from National Geographic online suggests the possibility of an ecosystem existing some eight or nine kilometres below the Mariana Trench. The trench is a subduction zone, a region known to provide pro-life environments of sorts. Analysing such regions requires geological as well as microbiological expertise. A geological process known as serpentinisation provides an ecosystem for methane-consuming microbes. Serpentine is a mineral formed deep in the lithosphere ‘when olivine in the upper mantle reacts with water pushed up from within the subduction zone’, according to the article. Hydrogen and methane are by-products of this reaction, and this serpentinisation process is already known to create microbial habitats at oceanic hydrothermal vents. Furthermore, in recent years, serpentinisation has been found ‘everywhere’, at subduction zones and within mountain ranges, suggesting that methane-supported life may be commonplace, and may even exist elsewhere in the solar system where there is tectonic activity, and an abundance of olivine.

Organisms living at great depths, under great pressure, are called piezophiles. So what is it that permits these bacteria, archaea and other unicellular organisms to thrive – or perhaps only just survive – in such conditions? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, as some, such as xenophyophores, which are found at depth throughout the world’s oceans, are relatively complex creatures that appear to have adapted over time to increased pressure in order to benefit from benthic provender, while others like Halomonas salaria, a proteobacterium, are obligate piezophiles, unable to survive in under 1000 atmospheres. Unsurprisingly the outer membranes of these organisms are necessarily different in structure and composition from your common or garden microbes, but also unsurprisingly, it has proved difficult to analyse the structural features of piezophiles under lab conditions, though it’s clear that regulation of membrane phospholipids is key to maintaining a stable internal environment, which can not only withstand pressure, but also extremes of heat or cold or acidity. Proteins are also modified to maintain function. Although little is yet known about these organisms, the variety of their environments suggest a variety of adaptations independently arrived at. Most are autotrophs, or self-feeders, able to build organic compounds such as proteins through chemosynthesis in the absence of light. Many of them appear able to slow their metabolism and their reproduction rate by many factors.

Researchers are becoming increasingly interested in extremophiles in general, as they’ve widened the possibilities of life in environments hitherto dismissed as unviable – in boiling water or under mountains of ice for example – just as we’ve begun to discover or further explore other planets (and moons) within and beyond our solar system. The field of microbiology has also made great strides in recent decades. Don Cowan, a senior researcher at the University of Pretoria, describes the microbiological ‘revolution’ of the eighties:

In less than a decade, a combination of conceptual, scientific and technical developments all came together. These included the ability to purify total environmental DNA, the development of special marker sequences that can identify different microbial species, and the advent of very fast, very cheap DNA sequencing techniques.

Collectively known as metagenomics, these developments hugely stimulated the field of microbiology. They have done so across diverse areas of science, from biological methods for cleaning up environmental pollution and contamination, to human disease.

Researchers are applying these techniques to the examination and possible exploitation of extremophiles, for example to improve drought or temperature tolerance in plant species, for various pharmaceutical applications and possibly for the development of biofuels, as heat-tolerant enzymes enable plant tissues to be broken down more readily. The range of products and processes that can be improved by tapping into the enzyme production of various types of extremophiles is potentially vast, according to James Coker, a researcher at the University of Maryland’s Department of Biotechnology. In a 2016 paper, Coker admits that research in this field is new, but real progress has already been made:

Four success stories are the thermostable DNA polymerases used in the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) 17, various enzymes used in the process of making biofuels 18, organisms used in the mining process 19, and carotenoids used in the food and cosmetic industries 20. Other potential applications include making lactose-free milk 1; the production of antibiotics, anticancer, and antifungal drugs 6; and the production of electricity or, more accurately, the leaching of electrons to generate current that can be used or stored 21

That last-mentioned application is of particular interest (as are all the others), as clean electricity production and storage is a high priority issue for some. Extremophile microbial catalysts can be used to drive microbial electrochemical systems (MES), a new TLA which may or may not catch on. Related TLAs include the MFC (microbial fuel cell) and the MEC (microbial electrolysis cell). Without losing myself in too much detail here, the exploitation of these microbes to help drive reactions at the electrodes has a number of useful applications, such as the remediation of waste-water, desalination, biosensing and ‘generating electrical energy from marine sediment microbial fuel cells at low temperatures’ (Dopson et al, 2016). None of this is, as yet, set to revolutionise the clean energy industry, but these are just some of the largely unsung incremental developments that are, in fact, moving us towards more clever and efficient use of previously untapped renewable resources. I was about to use the metaphor ‘at the coalface’ – which would’ve been appropriately inappropriate.

It’s impossible for we dilettantes to keep up with all these discoveries and developments in a detailed way, but we can at least feel the excitement of work being done and advances being collaboratively made, as well as sensing the many obstacles and unforeseen complexities involved in transforming the viability of these amazing life-forms and their products into something viable and possibly life-transforming for the humans who have discovered them and unlocked their secrets. When politics and our inhumanity to others (human and non-human) lets us down, we can still marvel at our relentless drive and ingenuity.

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 14, 2018 at 8:50 am