Within the last year the understanding of schizophrenia has advanced considerably. Most notably, the origins of the disease have been traced to an overactive expression of the C4 (complement component 4) immune system protein, which is responsible for tagging neurons for “pruning” (destruction) in the adolescent and young adult brain. This “overdrive brain pruning” leads to the devastating symptoms of schizophrenia (delusions, hallucinations, difficulties in planning and life management, paranoia and social isolation). Earlier research, in 2014, linked ultra-high-risk individuals (in terms of developing schizophrenia) to overactive microglial activity. (Microglia are the macrophage immune system cells of the central nervous system, destroying “plaques, damaged or unnecessary neurons and synapses, and infectious agents.“)
Category: Evolution/Biology (Page 1 of 4)
There’s a great essay from Steven Pinker in the new Edge. He thinks carefully (which he’s so good at) about the main arguments made for group selection, and finds them lacking.
I think it’s a valid thought experiment, and potentially useful, to apply the principles of biological evolution (mutation, fitness, selection) to other levels, like molecular evolution (“lower” level, or less dependent on other structures and systems) and cultural evolution (“higher” level, or more dependent on other structures and systems).
I’ve tried to do so myself here. The problem is that it’s so easy to go wrong, and think imprecisely about the model. What, exactly, is the unit of replication and selection? What, exactly, does fitness mean in the context of your model?
One of Pinker’s major points in the essay linked above is that genes are the only unit that has a reliable, high fidelity replication method. And genes are the only biological unit for which is makes sense to talk about mutations.
Groups are not really replicable. Neither are individuals. Selection and mutation occurs at a genetic level, because that’s what actually gets copied (and that’s where replication errors can occur).
The “Libertarian Space Men” value free market principles, private property, technological progress, and personal freedom. This group defines human progress in terms of economic growth, (galactic) expansion, increasing intelligence, and an ever-improving capacity to understand, predict, and manipulate reality.
The “Gaia Collective” values environmental conservation and repair, sustainable living, peaceful coexistence, and spiritual growth. This group defines human progress in terms of ending war, lifting all people out of poverty, compassionate treatment of the young/old/infirm, humane treatment of animals, and a sustainable way of life with minimal impact on Earth’s geology, climate, and ecosystems.
The two groups are not so much opposed to each other as they are to “future-by-inertia,” which is the future we’ll get if we continue business as usual, pursuing short-term interests while ignoring long-term consequences. Almost everyone, including myself, is a member of the future-by-inertia group on at least some days. Like most people, I burn fossil fuels, use electricity, consume products, eat ocean-caught fish, and so on. Business-as-usual, which leads to a possibly dystopic future.
My best guess for what future-by-inertia looks like (the future we’ll get if neither the Gaia Collective nor the Libertarian Space Men have much of an impact) is a 100-year dark age during which energy demand outpaces energy supply. Not the end of the human race, but an ugly stretch that will include population decline, continued environmental degradation, continued poverty and war, and declining standards of living in terms of education, healthcare, leisure time, and expendable income for most of us (with many exceptions and bright spots).
What Beliefs Do We Hold Re: “What Has Gone Wrong?”
As a species, we’ve picked the planet’s low-hanging fruit. First we ate all the mega-fauna, then we chopped down most of the planet’s forests for fuel. We found and burned the easy-to-get oil and coal, we’ve eaten most of the fish. Lately we’ve noticed the atmosphere itself is warming up, with a strong possibility of disrupting stable climate patterns that we’ve become accustomed to.
On the other hand, there are many reasons to be hopeful. We know how to live with less environmental impact (even if we don’t always do so), most nations/tribes/groups peacefully coexist (and intermingle/share cultural wealth), and there are new technological miracles everyday that expand our understanding of reality, open up new creative spaces, and expand the realm of what is possible.
I’ve already looked at different concepts of “human progress,” including the possibility that all human progress is illusory. But what about “anti-progress”? What kind of assumptions do we hold about what’s holding us back as a species?
I’ve revealed one of my own assumptions by looking at the human timeline through the lens of reckless resource depletion (megafauna, forests, oil, coal, fish).
What are your own assumptions regarding what is “wrong” with humanity? What is preventing us from taking a great leap forward into an age of global peace, prosperity, and discovery?
Let’s unpack a few of the possibilities, and look at the evidence for each.
Ten years ago, in 2002, I read an article in WIRED magazine about an experimental drug called Melanotan. Early test results indicated that the drug could make a pale person tan, without sun exposure. Side effects included reduce appetite and weight loss, and a high frequency of spontaneous erections.
Thin, tan, and horny … WIRED dubbed Melanotan “the Barbie drug.”
The other day I came across this alarming video of what it’s like to drive in Poland. My first thought after watching the clip was “What’s the Toxoplasmosis gondii infection rate in Poland?” T. gondii is a brain parasite easily acquired from eating undercooked meat, or contact with cats, and is associated with a six-fold increase in traffic accidents (this association has been replicated a number of times, in different countries). Well, I looked it up, and found that the latent infection rate in 2003 was around 41% (at least among pregnant women). That’s quite high — in the U.S. the infection rate is only about 11%.
Is there anything to my hypothesis that terrible driving in Poland is related to the relatively high T. gondii infection rate? Probably not. The accident fatality rate in Poland is relatively high for a modern industrialized country. But France has a very low accident fatality rate, and a much higher rate of T. gondii infection. So while T. gondii might be a contributing factor, it’s probably not the most important variable.
I’m fascinated by latent/chronic biological infections, and how they affect human health and behavior. T. gondii in particular is linked to changes in personality, and even schizophrenia.
What’s shocking to me, as shocking as the driving in Poland video above, is that so few medical professionals are considering latent infections as part of their diagnostic process. The research is here, and so are the diagnostic tests. So why aren’t medical professionals taking advantage of them?
The Future Is Here, It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed -William Gibson
The above quote definitely applies to the medical profession. How many general practitioners are doing the following?
One way to think about our own brain, personality, and physiology is to consider our sensitivity levels to various neurotransmitters and hormones. Being desensitized or oversensitized to various aspects of our own chemical control systems will drive our behavior and emotions. This happens whether we’re aware of it or not, so we might as well try to understand what’s going on in our brains and endocrine systems.
Most people who live with artificial light, electronic devices, internet connections, abundant food, processed foods, and other conveniences of modern life will eventually experience some degree of being “out-of-whack” in terms of neurotransmitter and hormone sensitivity.