Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Looking for the Ghost in the Machine

For centuries scientists and theologians have been butting heads over the explanation of religious or miraculous phenomena. One side of the debate argues that things like visions and related experiences cannot be explained by science and therefore must be evidence of God, and until recently, there was very little means of debating that statement. However, recent findings show that there may be a neurological basis to these fantastic claims. BBC news reported on Ellen White, a woman with temporal lobe epilepsy, who experienced powerful religious visions – a symptom that is relatively common to people with this brain disorder. The studies of Michael Persinger caught the attention of the scientific journal Nature’s news center when he reported controversial findings that experiences like White’s could be replicated by applying magnetic stimulation to the temporal lobes. Whether these findings confirm or disconfirm a physical basis for religion is hazy, but these and similar reports seem to suggest that one way or another, there is some neurological basis for spirituality.

Ellen White’s case is characteristic of patients suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy, a condition in which the patient experiences seizures centralized around the temporal lobes. Aside from localization, temporal lobe epilepsy is distinct from other types of epilepsy in that it causes hyperreligiosity. Sufferers of this disorder tend to experience seizures as “a rapture beside which everything else paled. In the rapture was a clarity, an apprehension of the divine – no categories, no boundaries, just a Oneness with the creator.” (pgs 180-181, Phantoms in the Brain) These cases beg the question – what happens when an atheist has this disorder? BBC’s report included a mention of Rudi Affolter, who, despite being a confirmed atheist, started experiencing seizures around the temporal lobe when he was 43. During his first episode, he had a religious vision in which he was “told [he] had gone [to hell] because [he] had not been a devout Christian, a believer in God.” The article did not mention whether this vision resulted in a change in his faith, but it is common for patients with this disorder to become religious following the onset of symptoms. One survey of a group of epileptic patients examines this trend, along with a review of many studies observing the same trend, and notes that in the cases that religious conversion does not occur, subjects still tend to perceive some sort of mystical delusion (Dewhurst and Beard, 1970). However, exact proportions of the cases observed actually included religious experiences or that resulted in conversion were not included. Professor V. S. Ramachandran, a researcher at UC San Diego and author of Phantoms in the Brain, suggests that the connection between epilepsy of the temporal lobe and spirituality may be due to the presence of existing circuits in the medial temporal lobe that, when selectively activated in a seizure, makes patients more prone to religious belief (BBC, 2003). It has been postulated that this is connected to the left hemisphere’s tendency to fabricate explanations for experiences whose causes lie beneath the threshold of consciousness. The seizures seen in these cases also involve the limbic system, which causes a rush of emotional arousal, and it may be that, lacking any rational explanation for what is happening, the left hemisphere comes up with the only explanation it can find for such an intense experience – a message from God. However, it is unlikely that this exact activity accounts for the majority of religious experiences in healthy people. Neuroimaging studies done on highly spiritual people engaged in religious activity have not shown any activation in the left temporal lobe. A study on nuns in “a state of union with God” showed a large array of activation in nearly a dozen locations throughout the brain, none of which were the left temporal lobe (Beauregard M, 2006), and an fMRI study of people engaged in glossolalia showed activation in the frontal and parietal lobes, as well as the left caudate. Both studies suggest that voluntary religious interactions are more associated with higher brain functions, and not solely the limbic system, nor the same region responsible for such episodes in the epileptic patients.

Ramachandran’s research has shown that even in seizure-free periods, people with temporal lobe epilepsy exhibit physical signs of hyperreligiosity in a way that is distinct even from the devoutly religious that are in good health. In his 2003 study, he examined the galvanic skin response of a set of temporal lobe epileptic and healthy subjects when presented with neutral, sexual, and religious words. The healthy subjects showed increased electrical resistance in the skin, indicative of emotional arousal, when presented with the sexually charged words, while no response was measured for the other two groups. The epileptic patients, on the other hand, exhibited arousal only in response to the religious terms, with decreased response to the other two groups. This data fits in well with the typical persona of patients with this disorder, as there seem to be lasting personality changes as a direct result of the episodes. Personality changes tend to include heightened emotions, perception of cosmic significance in trivial events, and an obsessive preoccupation with theological issues, which is occasionally accompanied by hypergraphia, a tendency to excessive writing, generally on a religious theme. These traits have been attributed to what is now called a “temporal lobe personality,” and they tend to permanently alter the patient’s inner emotional life. While this data does not suggest that being religious is due to a quirk in the brain, it does point to particular networks that make a significant contribution to spirituality.

The role of the temporal lobe in religious experience is also discussed in Nature’s article on Dr. Michael Persinger, whose research on temporal lobe stimulation has caused a good deal of controversy. Persinger said that he experienced God for the first time in his life while stimulating his left temporal lobe using the transcranial magnetic stimulator he had available in his lab. Following the experience, he began running experiments to see if such a response would be observed in others. According to his findings, stimulation of the left temporal lobe caused 80% of his subjects to feel an unexplained presence in the room. The article states that Persinger explained this by stating, “[the] magnetism causes bursts of electrical activity in the temporal lobes of the brain, and he linked this to the spiritual experiences.” However, Persinger’s studies have largely been dismissed, as other researchers were unable to produce the same results. Pehr Granqvist, a Swedish researcher, criticized Persinger’s research by pointing out that his studies were not double-blind – and furthermore, the patients were told beforehand what they might experience as a result of the stimulation. When he ran his own studies on 43 subjects with the double-blind design included, he found that only three people reported any kind of religious experience – and two of them were in the control group. Furthermore, half the subjects who reported more subtle spiritual experiences were in the control group. Granqvist acknowledges that while this is a high level of spiritual experience, it matches what Persinger reported in his control groups. Personality tests were also run to examine the subjects’ spiritual orientation, as well as their susceptibility to suggestion, and researchers found that people with these traits were more likely to experience a supernatural presence. Therefore, Granqvist concluded that these experiences could be predicted by suggestibility, and not by the magnetic stimulation. Persinger responded to the study by saying that the correct calibration of the magnetic field had not been used, and that many of his studies were double-blinded. However, the accounts from subjects, including some prominent psychology researchers, are convincing enough to suggest that regardless of the controversy, Persinger’s methods may have some neurological basis.

Of course, many people don’t need psychological studies to know that there can be a connection between religious experiences and the brain. People have been manipulating their neurochemistry via hallucinogens substances to reach states of higher spiritual awareness for millennia, although it is not a method accepted by most modern religious groups. ABC did a report last December on the findings of a study where psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, was studied as a means of induction of spiritual experiences. Because of the long history of this use of related substances, the researchers were not surprised to find that subjects reported “increased wellbeing and satisfaction with life” a full two months after having taken the substance. This is particularly interesting in regards to the connection between spirituality and the temporal lobe because psilocybin primarily affects the brain’s serotonin system, in particular the 5-HT2A receptor. (Griffiths, 2006) The medial temporal lobe is rich in serotonin receptors, so it’s possible that the drug is interacting directly with the section of the brain that is activated in the temporal lobe seizures. Furthermore, other studies have shown that temporal lobe epilepsy reduces the amount of 5-HT1A receptors, whose primary function is to mediate serotonin activity in the brain. If serotonin levels get high, it’s the job of the 5-HT1A receptors to initiate a negative feedback loop that controls those levels. It stands to reason that epileptic patients might be lacking in the ability to mediate their serotonin activity, which explains portions of the “temporal lobe personality,” and also explains the extreme impact of the overstimulation of the limbic system during temporal lobe seizures. Thus, the psilocybin may have similar interactions with the receptors in that region to those that occur during an epileptic episode, which explains the enhanced spiritual awareness in both states.

The growing field of neurotheology prompts many tricky questions beyond inquiries into the physical basis of these phenomena: Does God exist outside the human mind, or is God a creation of our brains? While these studies can’t directly address either of these questions, they do show us that there is at least neurological support for the basis of spirituality in our culture. Whether this is the product of evolution is unclear, but that’s the case with large portions of culture, and is therefore not indicative of the validity of these findings. One criticism of neurotheology is that it violates the principle of Occam’s razor: the simplest explanation is the correct one, and therefore it’s simpler to conclude that religious experiences began as the product of neurological phenomena, rather than to say that it was built into our brain by some form of intelligent design. However, that is the perspective from an objective observer, and the view from a patient with temporal lobe epilepsy would be dramatically different. There is no explanation in conventional wisdom for what this patient must experience in the midst of their emotional centers being overloaded with activity, and as emotions tend to function without rationality, it may be that this patient is in fact using Occam’s razor to the best of their ability when they conclude that they are touched by the hand of God.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Framework for mind modeling

In later chapters of Conscilience, Edward O. Wilson starts talking about the innate tendencies we have towards certain methods of perceiving the world and social organization, much of which is analyzed via sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. I'm trying to piece together what this would look like at the level of the neuron, or neural organization and how it might work in conjunction with our innate instincts as biological beings to shape how we operate. I'll skip over the fact that the genetic evidence backing this up is very sparse, but what with genetics being in its infancy, we can hold out on the evidence. (By the way, "Genes, Mind, and Culture" by Lumsden and Wilson covers this in detail, and I intend to write something about it soon.) The main point I came up with on this count is the innate aversion to incest - an extreme example, I know, but it's well researched and serves as a good template from which to build this idea. The deal is, we're biologically programmed to never have sexual interest in anyone we spend a great deal of time with prior to being 30 months old - a phenomena called the Westermarck effect. I'm thinking that there's some mechanism that categorizes and isolates all interpersonal connections made prior to that age, and that somehow blocks it off from interaction with later processes that take place regarding sexual interest. Imagine that as a result, those processes are somehow coded such that if they're activated while the networks having to do with sexuality are activated, a series of events is programmed to occur such that a strong sense of disgust is produced. This is just an example of the kind of networks and network interactions that are built into our system; these are the things we're hard-wired to do - or rather, the patterns our behavior is hard-wired to follow - although the actual events, people, concepts, etc. aren't there yet. Basically, we're built with a context, and our life experiences create their content. And that's where brain plasticity comes into play. So the epigenetics dictate the predispositions we have, and all we do is fill and/or modify them to fit our environment. (By the way, I'm aware that this is a very generalized and bare-boned breakdown of how things work, but for the purposes of this discussion, I'm putting it aside.)

As we know, it's nearly impossible at this point to actually understand the interactions that go on within the brain that result in consciousness and intelligence. Not on a neural level, anyway - we're just too far from that technologically. At least, that's the general consensus. But I'm thinking that the key to understanding how the brain works is to understand the patterns that we start with, because the fact is, there's an infinite number of ways in which a person can turn out given the body they're born with.

This brings me to neural nets. The idea behind neural nets is that they simulate a set of nodes which each relay information with a certain weight and with certain instructions to the next set of nodes. They're built with a particular set of instructions, which in this case has to do with the analysis and identification of input, but they're also built to be flexible and to learn. They have an algorithm that makes it so that each time the input is identified correctly, the circuits and patterns that lead to that decision are strengthened; if the identification is incorrect, those pathways are weakened. (By strengthen, I mean they are given less weight in relation to the rest of the circuit; vice versa for weakening). Eventually these networks will be able to correctly "learn" to identify the input. We had a really good example of this in class, where a neural net was built to figure out the past tense of various verbs from the infinitive form. (I don't know if that's the correct grammatical term for it, but whatever.) At first, given a small amount of trials (and thus, with a small set of information from which to pick up on patterns and rules) the neural net was able to learn a few basic infinitive-past tense pairings. However, after more trials, the net started making mistakes, and started generalizing the rules. For example, when prompted with "go," the machine would respond with "goed"; "went" with "wented"; and "is" with "ised." After many more trials, and learning from many more errors, the machine eventually got them all right. The uncanny thing about this is that the performance of this neural net mimics exactly the patterns of language acquisition of children.

I'm inclined to believe that this is a pretty good model of some aspects of how our nervous system adapts and learns as it receives more stimulation and more input over time. When combined with what I said earlier about brain plasticity and epigenetics, you could just say that the nerve nets have certain innate patterns that are programmed into them, and that the plasticity is their ability to adapt to new information while staying true to a patterns that turns out to provide a large degree of freedom for variation.

The catch about neural networks, however, is that once the network has been fully developed, it's impossible to go back and analyze the contribution of any one node in relation to the whole of the network. Yes, you could track the activity given an input and result, but it would require using every possible type of input to get a complete picture of how the nodes interact. With a small network, this is feasible, but not so much with a large-scale model like a human brain. There is no way to map out or predict the behavior of the whole neural network based on the rules of the nodes themselves or how they're connected (I'm not sure exactly why this is, but I'm going to get more info on this whole idea from my professor and I'll touch on it later.) and therefore this approach wouldn't actually leave us with a cohesive idea of how the higher brain functions take place on a nerve-by-nerve level. But it's not impossible to understand how it's wired from the beginning. Okay, it is at the moment, because we don't know enough about the connection between genes and behavior, but at some point in the hopefully not too distant future this could be a viable approach.

I'll put a quick interjection in here about genetic algorithms, mostly because they sound really cool, and also because there has to be some element in the mind of combining existing information to create new concepts and reactions. If we just functioned like neural networks, we'd be fantastic at learning and processing stimuli, but we'd be unable to produce creative thought. We'd function completely as a result of cause and effect, and our reactions would never change. However, genetic algorithms do make it possible to create novel behavior. This occurs by synthesis of hybrid concepts from existing ones, taking the handful of "ideas" produced via this process, and then combining them. Think of it as idea mating, complete with isolation mechanisms so that incongruent ideas don't combine and with a full compliment of heritable information being passed down each "generation." This turns out to be the only way for computers to do things like problem-solving - they have a set of parameters to work with, a range of values for the various parameters, an objective, and a set of rules for possible ways to achieve the objective. They then produce random combinations of the parameters in various shapes and forms, test them out, and then randomly combine the traits of the best candidates to form new "concepts," and eventually they settle on a solution. The main constraints of the system is that they might overlook an even more effective solution by virtue of random chance, but that's how natural evolution works as well. The disconcerting part about applying this to a model of how we think is that it implies that creativity is completely random, which I'm not completely sure of. But then again, much of the world's series of events happen as a result of very particular coincidences, so we might not have the right to dispute that point.

Back to the main theme. The best way I can think of to actually model the brain functions is to take this neural net idea, include the capabilities of genetic computation, and make it able to process every conceivable mental process. Bear in mind that it needs to have the capability to perform every conceivable process, not the inborn ability to do so. A neural net can't accurately perform at first, it requires learning to do so; our model of the brain would be the same. And we'll skim over the part about how it would be immensely difficult to figure out every conceivable mental process, let alone model it computationally. Given a model with these characteristics, would we then have a system that can accurately model human thought processes? Well, it could, but it would need prolonged interaction with an environment to even venture out of its program infancy. Furthermore, it would need stimulation and guidance that would provide ample information with which to figure out the rules by which the processes should be governed. Just imagine what that would require given the amount of experience an infant needs to grow to become a competent individual. We'd pretty much have to provide the system with a life and an interactive environment that would attend to its learning process. Beyond that, we'd have to find a way by which the machine would interact with the environment, and that would involve apparatuses for vision and hearing at least, and a tactile and motor program if it's to have motor capabilities. And we'd have to wire all those senses up to the main neural network so the stimuli could be processed... and so on.

To fully simulate a human mind, it seems one needs a human body, since the mind doesn't function independently of the physical space that gives rise to it. Our bodies and our physiology came before our language and intellectual abilities, so who are we to think that we could isolate the mind and simulate that alone? Furthermore, I am very skeptical of our ability to create a mind that is pre-programmed with all the experience and information it would need to function and problem-solve normally without allowing it to learn and develop in a given environment. The only way I can see that this could occur would be for it to come fully-loaded with regards to most semantic, episodic, and motor memory, and its learning processes would have to be guided so it could appropriately interact with the world using the information given. And I'm not sure we could provide a computer program to facilitate this learning process at faster rate. (since I'm not sure that that the time and effort required would outweigh the benefits of this project in the first place if we couldn't speed through this process, or if it had to be performed by a person.) So in essence, we'd have to build a full-sized human with the mind of a baby, and teach it, well, everything. Give it a life, friends, let it make mistakes, teach it, and so on. (Wow, welcome to science fiction.) This is where my thought process on the subject gives way. For all the effort and investment, in regards to resources and the like, you might as we just have a baby. But then again, since when has science not done something flashy and exciting just because it was unnecessary? I'm sure somebody exists who would put down the financial investment to fund such a project, despite the fact that the same result - a person! - can be produced with much less effort, because the hardware has already been designed by Mother Nature. Hell, if I were rich enough, I'd put the money down, despite my stance that it's utterly frivolous at that point. It's just too cool of a prospect not to.

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Bill the Onion Root Tip Cell

Item two in the "old geeky things that Julia has written" series, here's an essay I wrote for AP Biology where we were supposed to describe the process of mitosis in an onion root tip cell. The assignment was probably not to make it into a narrative, but apparently that's what I did, as per the usual.

Once upon a time, in an organism far far away, there was a little cell named Bill. Bill was an onion root cell in a mysterious onion in Guam. He liked to do metabolism and produce ATP, and his favorite thing in the world was the electron transport chain because it tickled his mitochondria. However, he knew that these things were very important especially because they gave him energy to grow, synthesize new DNA, and make copies of his organelles. This wasn't nearly as fun as getting his mitochondria tickled, but that was okay.

He spent a lot of time growing, especially. He made it into a game with his fellow onion root cells - who could grow the fastest? Who could repdoruce the most DNA in an hour? Who can replicate the most organelles by 2 o'clock? They had a lot of fun with this. But they knew that all the fun and games were merely there to disguise the seriousness of the matter. They all knew that all the growing was merely preperation for the most important event in their life, their inevitable destiny - mitosis. Everything they were doing was never done for the sake of doing - it was all for a greater cause, like having fun learning Biology, pretending that it was all for the sake of learning, when in truth all the preparation was for the sake of the AP tests, a fate hanging over one's head like a dark cloud. Bill knew of this fear all too well, as did his friends, but they never spoke of it. Just an hour ago, when they were playing replicate-the-golgi, their playing was abruptly stopped when Jane, a good friend of theirs, suddenly realized that she had actually replicated all her organelle and DNA, and that it was time for her to divide.She began to condense her chromosomes, and her friends looked away, awkwardly trying to continue playing, while their thoughts were occupied with a nagging fascination with jane's strange but beautiful metamorphisis. They knew that their time would also come, in some approaching hour.

Bill time came at 6am. He had been involved in a frustrating game of duck-duck-lysosome in which he was behind, regardless of his ample supply of actual lysosomes. He began to make aster of his microtubules without even knowing, until he noticed a hush in his companions, and felt their eyes on him. Realizing what was happening, he tried to hide his condensing chromosomes, desperately longing for his time at play to continue. After his 19 hours of interphase, he was too used to fun and games. He was afraid of what was happening to him, regardless of it's inevitability.

The three hours it took for him to condense his chromosomes and make his nucleolus disappear seemed to be an eternity. The first step of a generally quick process seemed to be excruciatingly long, like preparing for a project is tedious compared to the actual process of doing it. Finally, however, it was finished. If bill were an animal and had a respiratory system, he would have breathed a sigh of relief. But he didn't have the time - his nuclar envelope disintegrated and spindles connected to each sister chromatid at the kinetechore. Some other spindle microtubules connected with each other and prepared for their task - the elongation of the cell. Bill did all this in terror - he was going to be ripped apart at the nucleus! To him, it was the equivolence of a human's ribcage taking hold of it's organs and preparing to pull.

Bill expected some sort of pain when his chromosomes were pulled to the center of his cell, but then realized that he were merely a cell and had no nerves. He silently begged the spindles to finish connecting to the chromosomes' kinetechore and to get on with their work. Thankfully, it only took them 24 minutes to do this, and then it was done.

Bill's terror mounted. He tensed as he awaited the pulling apart of his chromosomes. He wondered what his life would be like after he had finished the process of mitosis; would he be the same cell? Would he still play with his companions? What if he didn't copy his DNA properly - has he turned into a cancerous cell, destined to be the death of the onion? Did plants get cancer in the first place? How is he able to talk and think these things if he's a plant? Why is anyone writing about thinking cells? Is Julia on crack?

The pulling began.

It wasn't at all as Bill expected! It was like lying still for years and years, and then finally getting up and stretching your limbs. He suddenly felt so alive, and joyous at fulfilling his true detiny as a cell. He felt as if he were having an out-of-membrane experience, as he seemed to watch fro a distance his chromosomes being pulled apart, and dragged to the poles of the cell, which were moving farther and farther away by the non-kinetechore spindles. This took 16 minutes, but Bill wished it had taken longer, he so enjoyed the pulling apart of his chromosomes and the elongation of himself. In the back of his mind, he wondered what all the fuss is about - this was the best thing in the world! He understood now why he had lived for this, and why all other cells live for this as well. (well, he might have been thinking this if he weren't so absorbed in his bliss, or if he actually had thoughts. Of course, this would be a shoddy narrative if Bill didn't have thoughts, so let's just drop the subject, shall we?)

The process of anaphase finished, and telophase began; one hour of the reformation of the nuclear membrane, more elongation, and the reappearance of nucleoli.

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Evolution of the Reaper - November 26th, 2002

This is the first critical thinking bio-related essay I ever wrote. It wasn't assigned, it was just the product of a few lectures on evolution and whatnot. This marks the beginning of my biology career - after this point, there just wasn't any question about what i wanted to do with my life.

I'll probably re-write this later with some more fleshed-out ideas, based on everything I've learned in the ~4.5 years since I wrote this, and commentary on the modifications I intend to write can be found in the footnotes. I'll point out from the get-go that I wrote this very early in my first real introduction to biology, so there are a lot of subtley innaccurate concepts I use. These will be corrected in a later draft. (In other words, take this with a grain of salt, and give me the benefit of the doubt.)

Species survive by evolving to fit their environments. In general, this is done via survival of the fittest - there is a general degree of genetic variation within a species, and the individuals which are best suited to their environment are the ones who live the longest, and are therefore able to pass down their genes the most by reproduction. If there is a disadvantageous defect in the structure of an individual, that individual is less able to survive in the environment and is likely to die early on, or at least not pass its genes off to offspring. If there is a variation in another individual that enables it to be better suited to its environment, then its chances of reproducing more and living longer are increased. That gene is then passed down to subsequent generations, and so on. This is the basic mechanism for evolution.

Now take a look at humans. We are one of the youngest species of the planet, and look at us! We have defects coming out of our ears! Due to the structure of women's hips, they are very likely to develop knee problems. The vertebrate in our backs can get out of alignment very easily, and many of us have to get this checked often. This all makes sense; we've only been walking on our hind legs for a few thousand years! We souldn't expect ourselves to be perfect yet. We've had only the evolutionary blink of an eye to evolve to our new mode of transportation.

However, we have evolved something else extremely rapidly. We somehow evolved intelligence, and soon our life spans increased dramatically (1). We created technology and are able to cure the ailments that would kill off other species. We have lost almost all evolutionary mechanisms! Ugly people have kids, slow people have kids, disabled people have kids, and people who have gotten sick have kids. All the genetic material we have is passed on - the good the bad, and the ugly. As a result, our population is going through the roof. We have an entire industry for the purpose of keeping people alive - health care. We have taken it upon ourselves to combat mechanisms of evolution, which would normally kill us off, keep the population down, and maintain a balanced ecosystem. (2)

Humans also combat evolution as a society. It takes us years to adjust to any sort of variation in our population. Progression is a very slow process. Of course, evolution itself is also a very slow process, but it's designed to keep up with the rate of population growth (3). Our social evolution is unbelievably slower than our population growth rate. But as a result, we don't need evolution to keep us in check. Billions of years of evolution have given us the "survival of the fittest" mentality, so we compete for everything - this is the evolulionary psychological basis of capitalism (4). If you think about it, the most conservative political viewpoints are the most reasonable, evolutionarily speaking - they are very "survival of the fittest" (SOTF) based. Screw the welfare system - if you're predestined to starve to death, great. You'll be cleaning up the gene pool for the rest of us (5). The more progressive viewpoints are the ones which will most likely serve us best in the long run, and which will probably ensure a better quality of life, and a better world for future generations - in other words, one that will actually be there, since we're currently tearing our environment apart (6). Ironically, these ideas go very much against the SOTF grain - they say that if you're living in a shack, the rest of society w ill help you get back on your feet, and then anything is possible for what you do after that point. The word "progressive" indicates the value of the ideals - if you look in any thesaurus, you'll see "evolve" as a synonym for "progress"; as species are constantly evolving to survive in their environments and situations, one would think that progression would lead us to a continuous survival, and a better quality of life at that. The point is that the schools of thought that contradict evolutionary psychology - the most basic foundation of human psychology - are the ones that are most likely to save us in the long run, whereas the SOTF mentality is going to kill us, because it isn't allowing for adaptation (7). And since that's what's still running our world, that's what's going to be the end of us if we don't do something about it.

The main idea is that our society has turned the SOTF psychology that we were born with into something that inhibits evolution, and also gets us stuck in a place where we are constantly getting around the things that would normally kill off some portion of the population, thereby causing physical evolution and the like. Another interesting point is that as our society and industry continue to evolve in this direction, we continue to move away from the more natural sources of life, and stuff our selves silly on things we've created that you would never find in nature. Many of these things cause cancer - of course, because of that, most of them don't get out on the market, and it takes ages for the FDA to find something that isn't carcinogenic. I have a warning label on my shampoo that says that continued use might cause cancer. They had to stop making red M&M's for a while because they found the food dye to be carcinogenic. All these things we create that we inhale, consume, put on our skin, and in any way are exposed to are almost completely unnatural. We have put ourselves into a plastic world, where the synthetic products heal our ailments and make us fat from over-consumption of things that we aren't built to consume. But here's the catch: We don't die from it. We have everything we need to keep ourselves alive under nearly any circumstances. So where's the evolutionary mechanism?

Cancer is the epitome of an evolutionary mechanism. Something happens that causes a gene to slightly mutate - to evolve - and then that mutaiton takes over the body and kills it. How strange that a fundamental mechanism of evolution is the thing that kills us. We have created our own means of evolution - a plastic, carcinogenic world. How sad that we fix the result of this world by the plastic which killed us in the first place. When we are so set against the natural world and the ebb and flow of nature around us, the ebb and flow comes out to get us. (8)

I was just told a story this evening about a woman who tested positive for the gene that tends to lead to breast cancer. It wa horribly common in her family and as a result, the women typically died young. She saw everyone else who had died from it, or was suffering from it, take every step they could to fight it, but to no avail. She decided to try a completely different strategy - she changed her lifestyle, became a deeply spiritual person, and lived as close to the earth as possible. She went in again to get tested for the presence of the same cancer gene years later. It was gone. (9)

I'm not completely sure what to make of that story. I'm not going to continue this essay at this moment because I recognize that I need to let this sit. Now that I have it all written down, I'll be able to process it more. Something tells me that I'll be exploring this for the rest of my life. (10)

(1) More accurately, we evolved knowlege as a means of adapting to an environment in which we had to innovate new strategies of survival. I've got The Symbolic Species by Terrence Deacon sitting on my bookshelf waiting for me, and once I start reading it, I anticipate a huge pile of essays similar to this one (granted, of better quality) on that topic. Stay tuned.
(2) My AP Biology teacher, Mr. Delp, pointed out that all the things I reference in this paragraph are in essence "our evolution - it's how we make our living." He has a point, and I'll probably modify that section later.
(3) I'm cringing at my use of the words "progress" and "design" in reference to evolution. It's a trend I see in a lot of my writing from back then, not because I was even remotely inclinded to believe any model of "intelligent design" but because my understanding of evolution was relatively immature and very plastic. I'm willing to forgive such faux pas, despite the fact that such misguided ideas were what fueled a few similar pieces of writing, because the thing I'm most interested in is the fact that I was writing these things at all in the first place, and not their accuracy as judged by my current college-level understanding of the concepts.
(4) Note the reference to evolutionary psychology. This tickles me for two reasons: first off, my stepmother (who married my father only a few months before I wrote this), as a cultural anthropologist, schooled me very early on the evolutionary psychology, especially in reference to dating - which had bizarre and lasting effects on my strategies therein. But about a year later, I stumbled across Edward O. Wilson, the guy who not only pioneered the field that led to evolutionary psychology, but also came up with theories of biological, social, and intellectual evolution that would later lead me to view him as my role model. Seeing the reference in this early essay tickles me, since I had no idea at the time where that particular set of ideals would lead me.
(5) Insert commentary about the Darwin awards. :)
(6) Yes, I was raised in Berkeley. Get over it.
(7) Mr. Delp points out here, "no, it will kill the 'unfit' while the 'fit' (i.e. rich people) do just fine." He has a point, but the thing I was more particularly referring to (I think) was resource depletion, and the devastating impact a large-scale competition therefor could make.
(8) It's funny how little my values and perspectives have changed.
(9) Turns out this is very common with epigenetics, one of my favorite applications of genetics. There are environmental factors, primarily having to do with diet, that can influence the expression of genes on a semi-permenant level. Most notably, a bad diet can expose detrimental genes to transcription factors, while a good diet can silence those same genes, sometimes for several generations. I'll probably write an entire thing on it at some point.
(10) OK, it's a bad way to end an essay. But this wasn't done in seriousness anyway. Stay posted for a new version!

Monday, October 21, 2002

Conspiracy Theory: Protists are taking over the world!

Installation 3: the continuation of the series of essays I wrote back in AP Bio, this one about protists... again, I don't think this was the prompt, but my way's more fun.

Malaria, Giardia, African sleeping sickness. These three VERY SERIOUS diseases are all caused by – you guessed it – Protists; the first eukaryotes. They are single-celled organisms with a nucleus, and a very complex endomembrane system. Complex enough to take over the world, perhaps? That’s up to you to decide.

Protists have been around for 2.1 billion years – definitely long enough to plot the apocalypse for all other plant and animal species on earth. They evolved from prokaryotes enfolding the plasma membrane of another prokaryote – effectively enslaving it to the whims of the new, mightier protist. A similar method is suggested to be the cause of mitochondria and chloroplasts – a prokaryote takes in an ATP-producing and/or a photosynthesis-doing neighbor, so that it can steal that energy for it’s own use. Because they must do all metabolic processes in a single cell, they are the most elaborate of all cells. A single protist cell is as complete as is an entire human being – or an entire blue whale, the largest creature on earth. So is it possible that they are complex enough to be intelligent?

There are three kinds of protists: Protozoa, which ingest food; absorptive protists; and photosynthetic protists, algae. Some protists are even more cunning than expected – they are able to do both photosynthesis and ingest food from their surrounding environments. Beware of these protists – they may be craftier than we might expect!

Pay close attention especially to the protists on the FBI’s most wanted list. The most wanted protist is the paramecium, which moves around by means of cilia, or tiny hair-like things on the outside of the cell, and which feeds mainly on bacteria. It also has a vicious and strategic method of ingesting said bacteria; it has an oval groove on its side, which is lined with cilia, which draw food into the cell to be engulfed by phagocytosis. It has a system in which it ingests food, digests it, and passes the waste out a hole on its side. It also has a contracting vacuole, which continuously fills with water, which enters from the hypotonic surrounding solution by osmosis that periodically expels it through the cell membrane by contractions of the surrounding cytoplasm.

The amoeba is the next most wanted protist. It is a rhizopod, which means that pseudopodia bulges from virtually anywhere on the cell surface and the interior cytoplasm of the cell moves with it. It uses this method to sneakily catch it’s prey unawares, so it can cruelly engage in phagocytosis. Some amoebas are known to live inside a protective protein shell. Amoebas are everywhere – in both freshwater and marine environments, as well as soil. The evilest of all Amoebas is Antamoeba histolytica, which causes amoebic dysentery in humans. This amoeba is wanted especially for biological warfare.

Eulegena, the next most wanted protist, is easily identifiable by an anterior pocket from which one or two flagella emerge. It has an eyespot that can sense light of preferable intensity, so that it can move towards only it’s specific target. It does photosynthesis as well as consumption of food, so it can really survive in any environment. Be forewarned – this protist is not to be trifled with! It is extremely focused and is not easily deterred.

A more commonly feared protist is plasmodium, the sporzoan parasite that causes malaria. It is reported to be extremely evasive – it can continuously change it’s surface proteins so that it’s not easily identifiable, and it tends to hide from the host’s immune system – in the human liver and blood cells. This protist is responsible for enlisting the help of our planet’s mosquitoes in the protists’ plan to take over the world, as the mosquitoes pass this parasite from host to host.

There is a large group of protists which are generally not to be trusted. While algae may appear nice and sweet when it politely declines your offers of food, it actually is psychically gathering information about you so that you can be more easily brainwashed. This is a theory suggested by me when I discovered that the entire group of algae is photosynthetic, so that they don’t need to rely on food sources aside from light.

A major note of caution: Protists are everywhere! They are in the water! Humans are 80% water! They have rigged evolution so they can TAKE US OVER! An army of organisms that can fit entire colonies on the head of a pin will do us in! THERE IS NO ESCAPE! Take your malaria pills! Boil your water! BOIL YOURSELF! It is the only escape!