Archive for February 10th, 2012
Fascinating article by Kathleen McAuliffe in The Atlantic Monthly:
No one would accuse Jaroslav Flegr of being a conformist. A self-described “sloppy dresser,” the 63-year-old Czech scientist has the contemplative air of someone habitually lost in thought, and his still-youthful, square-jawed face is framed by frizzy red hair that encircles his head like a ring of fire.
Certainly Flegr’s thinking is jarringly unconventional. Starting in the early 1990s, he began to suspect that a single-celled parasite in the protozoan family was subtly manipulating his personality, causing him to behave in strange, often self-destructive ways. And if it was messing with his mind, he reasoned, it was probably doing the same to others.
The parasite, which is excreted by cats in their feces, is called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii or Toxo for short) and is the microbe that causes toxoplasmosis—the reason pregnant women are told to avoid cats’ litter boxes. Since the 1920s, doctors have recognized that a woman who becomes infected during pregnancy can transmit the disease to the fetus, in some cases resulting in severe brain damage or death. T. gondii is also a major threat to people with weakened immunity: in the early days of the AIDSepidemic, before good antiretroviral drugs were developed, it was to blame for the dementia that afflicted many patients at the disease’s end stage. Healthy children and adults, however, usually experience nothing worse than brief flu-like symptoms before quickly fighting off the protozoan, which thereafter lies dormant inside brain cells—or at least that’s the standard medical wisdom.
But if Flegr is right, the “latent” parasite may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents. And that’s not all. He also believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia. When you add up all the different ways it can harm us, says Flegr, “Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year.”
An evolutionary biologist at Charles University in Prague, Flegr has pursued this theory for decades in relative obscurity. Because he struggles with English and is not much of a conversationalist even in his native tongue, he rarely travels to scientific conferences. That “may be one of the reasons my theory is not better known,” he says. And, he believes, his views may invite deep-seated opposition. “There is strong psychological resistance to the possibility that human behavior can be influenced by some stupid parasite,” he says. “Nobody likes to feel like a puppet. Reviewers [of my scientific papers] may have been offended.” Another more obvious reason for resistance, of course, is that Flegr’s notions sound an awful lot like fringe science, right up there with UFO sightings and claims of dolphins telepathically communicating with humans.
But after years of being ignored or discounted, Flegr is starting to gain respectability. Psychedelic as his claims may sound, many researchers, including such big names in neuroscience as Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky, think he could well be onto something. Flegr’s “studies are well conducted, and I can see no reason to doubt them,” Sapolsky tells me. Indeed, recent findings from Sapolsky’s lab and British groups suggest that the parasite is capable of extraordinary shenanigans. T. gondii, reports Sapolsky, can turn a rat’s strong innate aversion to cats into an attraction, luring it into the jaws of its No. 1 predator. Even more amazing is how it does this: the organism rewires circuits in parts of the brain that deal with such primal emotions as fear, anxiety, and sexual arousal. “Overall,” says Sapolsky, “this is wild, bizarre neurobiology.” Another academic heavyweight who takes Flegr seriously is the schizophrenia expert E. Fuller Torrey, director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute, in Maryland. “I admire Jaroslav for doing [this research],” he says. “It’s obviously not politically correct, in the sense that not many labs are doing it. He’s done it mostly on his own, with very little support. I think it bears looking at. I find it completely credible.”
What’s more, many experts think T. gondii may be far from the only microscopic puppeteer capable of pulling our strings. “My guess is that there are scads more examples of this going on in mammals, with parasites we’ve never even heard of,” says Sapolsky.
Familiar to most of us, of course, is . . .
I’m not following the intricacies of the settlements for felony-level fraud on the part of banks in the recent mortgage/housing crisis, which included such things as kicking people out of a house for which the mortgage had fully been paid, and the like.
But I predict that not one banker will serve prison time for this. Why? Because the US as a society has decided that wealth excuses criminal behavior. And thus you see more criminal behavior by the wealthy and powerful: even if they are caught, nothing happens. They simply continue on.
I’m getting my grub chops back, I hope. The last batch was so bad I finally faced reality and threw it out. Today’s was something that just popped into mind: green beans and yellow crookneck squash and tomatoes—that’s something, right?
The first thing I did was to start the black rice: 1/2 cup black rice, 1 cup water, bring to boil, cover, reduce heat, simmer 30 minutes. Still had a little water, so just turned off heat and let sit. That I did pretty early this morning, since I knew my starch would be the rice.
I cut up everything before I started anything, which made it go smoothly. And I began the cutting up, as always, with the garlic, so it would have 15 minutes of rest before hitting the heat.
In the 4-qt sauté pan I put 1 Tbsp EVOO, and sweated 5 large shallots, chopped: I’m a sucker for the already-peeled ones. I added pinch of kosher salt and a grinding of black pepper, stirred frequently, and as the shallots began to brown, added:
10 large cloves garlic, minced
2 jalapeño peppers, chopped finely
2 yellow crookneck squash, diced
2 good handfuls chopped celery
1/2 chicken breast, cut into chunks
about 3/4 lb string beans, cleaned and cut into sections
1 can diced tomatoes
1/2 c red wine
I stirred that together, and as it began to simmer added the cooked rice, stirred, and covered the pan. I cooked over moderately low heat for 30 minutes, and it’s pretty good. And, as you see, hits the template bang-on. — But wait! Where are my leafy greens?
Still in the fridge. One bunch of very young red chard, crisp and fresh, and now washed and chopped and in the pan with another splash of red wine and 3-4 anchovies for umami. Simmering now for another 20 minutes. Evolving grub.
The famous peppered-moth experiment, showing the results of natural selection in action, has been completed. Susan Milius writes in Science News:
A recently criticized textbook example of evolutionary forces in action, the dark forms of peppered moths that spread with industrialization in Britain, may be on its way back.
Results of an ambitious experiment on the moths (Biston betularia) support the original hypothesis that their dark-colored forms spread in soot-coated landscapes because they are more difficult for hungry birds to spot, says evolutionary biologist James Mallet of Harvard University. He and three colleagues have published the final peppered moth experiment of Michael Majerus, who spent six years monitoring the fates of a total of 4,864 moths, presented his conclusions at a conference but died before publishing them. The study appears online February 8 in Biology Letters.
The moth story not only makes “a compelling example of evolution in action,” but it’s “a terrific case history of how science works,” says evolutionary biologist Scott Freeman of the University of Washington in Seattle. “Majerus raised questions; he and his colleagues did the hard work required to answer them.”
The moths, which usually have salt-white wings sprinkled with pepper-black, have long played a role in evolutionary biology. In the early years of genetics, breeding experiments established that a single gene can create a black form. It showed up in Manchester, England, in 1848, and by 1895, 98 percent of the region’s moths were dark. Moths went dark in similarly industrializing areas, and when clean-air regulations began to clear the pollution, dark forms went into decline.
Experiments in the mid-20th century supported the idea that industrial grime provided better camouflage for dark wings, but that work drew escalating challenges starting in the 1990s. Majerus and other scientists raised questions about those studies’ methods, such as whether the high densities of moths released had altered the results and whether the tree trunks where moths were placed were a normal resting place. Debates over those studies ignited reputation bashing, charges of fraud and a firestorm of creationist glee.
Majerus, who lived in a relatively unpolluted hamlet near Cambridge, England, set out to answer some of the questions himself. On spring and summer mornings he rose before dawn to climb ladders and set out eight to 10 moths on realistic spots in the trees behind his home. He then checked to see if they survived the first four hours of daylight.
After six years of moth patrol, he established that dark forms had only about 91 percent the survival rate of the light moths. That kind of predation pressure was strong enough to account for the shift in moth forms, he concluded.
Majerus also established that a noticeable portion (36 percent) of moths do choose to rest on tree trunks, and he tested, and rejected, the alternative hypothesis that bats instead of birds were differentially catching light or dark moths. Birds indeed were eating the moths; Majerus witnessed many of the fatalities from his window.
The storied moth may one day find its way back into textbooks, though perhaps in new forms. Freeman says he considered including it in his introductory textbook with new material on dark moth forms spreading in gritty North American districts. And author Kenneth Miller of Brown University says he’s thought about discussing peppered moths along with color forms of rock pocket mice to explain natural selection’s influence on dark-pigmented forms.
“In short,” Miller says, “the peppered moth story is and always was a fine example of natural selection in action.”
And in an iPad app as well. Beautiful photos, with the photographer observing a limit: camera-click per day. And he’s shooting on film.
Extremely interesting post with a link to a very cool app (one that I hope The Older Grandson sees). The app, BTW, takes forever to load, so just go about your business. (On my WiFi network it took about 15 minutes.)
I’ve been bemused by the Catholic church’s roaring attack on offering contraceptives, despite the fact that Catholic women by and large use contraceptives routinely to control family size. Mostly I’m intrigued by the difference in energy level between the Church’s attack on contraception and the Church’s
attack on defense of those priests and bishops involved in raping children. Of the two offenses, the church (through its actions) clearly believes that raping children is a private matter best handled within the church, but the decision to allow access to contraceptives is a dangerous public policy.
UPDATE: Justice Scalia, as it turns out, wrote a decision critical to the success of the contraceptive program.
Kevin Drum has a nice summary at Mother Jones:
Over the past week I’ve written a few posts expressing support for the Obama administration’s decision to require health care plans to cover contraception, as well as for its decision to permit only a very narrow exemption for religious organizations. I haven’t really laid out the whole case, though, and today I want to do that in telegraphic form. Then I want to tell you the real reason that my reaction to this has been stronger than you might have guessed it would be, especially considering that this isn’t a subject I wade into frequently. But that won’t come until the end of the post. First, the bullet point warm-up:
- In any case like this, you have to look at two separate issues: (1) How important is the secular public purpose of the policy? And (2) how deeply held is the religious objection to it?
- On the first issue, I’d say that the public purpose here is pretty strong. Health care in general is very clearly a matter of broad public concern; treating women’s health care on a level playing field with men’s is, today, a deep and widely-accepted principle; and contraception is quite clearly critical to women’s health. Making it widely and easily available is a legitimate issue of public policy.
- On the second issue, I simply don’t believe that the religious objection here is nearly as strong as critics are making it out to be. As I’ve mentioned before, even the vast majority of Catholics don’t believe that contraception is immoral. Only the formal church hierarchy does. What’s more, as my colleague Nick Baumann points out, federal regulations have required religious hospitals and universities to offer health care plans that cover contraception for over a decade. (The fact that some such employers don’t cover birth control is mostly the result of lax enforcement.) It’s true that the Obama regulation tightens this requirement, but only modestly: it covers organizations with fewer than 15 employees and it bans copays. Dozens of states already have similar rules on the books. So when Kirsten Powers says, “One thing we can be sure of: the Catholic Church will shut down before it violates its faith,” that’s just wrong. They’ve been working under similar rules for a long time without turning it into Armageddon.
- Some matters of conscience are worth respecting and some aren’t. If, say, Catholic doctrine forbade white doctors from treating black patients, nobody would be defending them. The principle of racial nondiscrimination is simply too important to American culture and we’d insist that the church respect this. I think the same is true today of the principle of nondiscrimination against women, as well as the principle that women should have control of their own reproduction. Like racial discrimination laws, churches that operate major institutions in the public square have to respect this whether they like it or not.
- This new policy doesn’t apply to churches themselves or their devotional arms. It applies only to nominally religious enterprises like hospitals and universities that serve secular purposes, take taxpayer dollars, employ thousands of non-Catholic women, and are already required to obey a wide variety of secular regulations. At organizations like these, the money that pays for employee health care doesn’t come from the church, it comes out of the income stream they get from their customers and clients.
- What’s more, this is hardly a unique matter of conscience. Anyone who pays taxes, including Catholic bishops, ends up financially supporting things they disapprove of. Public regulations often involve financial commitments too, and this one is no different. It’s also pretty minuscule. This is an issue that’s very clearly being blown up for partisan political reasons far beyond its actual impact on religious organizations or religious conscience.
Now, having said all that, it’s also true that I’m normally fairly sympathetic to granting religious exemptions to public policy. You can make a case—not a great one, but a case—that allowing an exemption to the new contraceptive policy wouldn’t actually work a huge hardship on the women affected. And the Catholic Church’s objection to contraception, wrongheaded though I think it is, is plainly of long standing. This is no made-up issue.
So why am I really feeling so hard-nosed about this? The answer goes back a few years, to the controversy over pharmacists who refused to fill prescriptions for the morning-after pill. I was appalled: If you’re a pharmacist, then you fill people’s prescriptions. That’s the job, full stop. If you object to filling prescriptions, then you need to find another occupation.
But of course, the entire right-wing outrage machine went into high gear over this. And it was at that point that my position shifted: if this was the direction things were going, then it was obvious that there would be no end to religious exemption arguments. The whole affair was, I thought, way over the top, and yet it got the the full-throated support of virtually every conservative pundit and talking head anyway. This was, in plain terms, simply a war on contraception.
So I changed my mind. Instead of believing as a default that we should take religious exemptions seriously and put the burden of proof on the rest of us to explain why they shouldn’t be allowed, I now believe that neutral public policy comes first and the burden of proof is now up to churches to provide convincing arguments that (a) An important matter of conscience is being violated, and (b) The public policy in question isn’t important enough to be applied across the board. On the matter of contraception, I don’t think they’ve made a convincing case for either one.
In the meantime, I believe that Obama is even now caving on this one. He doesn’t have much spine, does he?