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I mentioned yesterday finishing Faith, Madness, and Spontaneous Human Combustion: What Immunology Can Teach Us About Self-Perception. It was not profound in revelation (aside from one tidbit I picked up about Mitochondrion, and a much deeper understanding of the complexity of some parasitic life forms), but I highly recommend it anyway. The author is very reminiscent of Oliver Sacks in the way that he breaks down complex scientific systems in a way a layman can grasp them, without dumbing down any of the scientific reality of those systems too much.

The recommendation for this book came from vidicon, in a conversation we were having about some of my far-flung theories on human evolution. I have been looking at immunobiology and it's role in our specie's development since I read The Seven Daughters of Eve in 1995. I personally think that inherited immunity/resistance and it's role on societal development is vastly overlooked by historians and anthropologists alike (Jared Diamond notwithstanding).

Where it really hit me was the first time I seriously researched the black death. In the wake of the current news feasts on the influenza (both avian and older varieties) I've been mulling it over heavily again. Over the years I've gone through a couple of black death kicks, mostly because I feel it was such a pivotal event in the formation of Western culture, but, when you step back from it, also in Eastern culture, particularly in regards to how the relationship between the two evolved. Beyond the sociology, however, is this thought:

Why didn't everyone die?

The same holds true for the flu.

What allows certain people to move on normally, healthily, or perhaps just mildly ill in the face of pandemics and epidemics which eradicate slews of other people? In the case of retroviruses, there is little chance of any "miracle survivors", but aside from HIV/Aids, we haven't had mass-fatality epidemics which were related to retroviruses (something which speaks volumes, in my mind, to the possibility of it being a manufactured disease).

There are two possibilities, clearly. Either the survivors had a built up immunity to something else which allowed them to skirt major infection, or the victims all shared a demographic deficiency which made them susceptible. Given the broad range of victims in past events, it seems unlikely to me that the second possibility is the strongest (though still possible).

So that brings me to the door frame of my problem with out classification system in modern science. Modern revisions in biological systematics, as it relates to "other" species. However, because of our contentious past as a culture when dealing with issues of race, particular racial inferiority/superiority, scientists are loathe to explore the sub-species potentials of our genetic lineage. My theory is that the black death targeted not an environmental subsection, but rather a European-based sub-species demographic of humans. I think the survivors were people who were not as succeptable to the pneumonic or septicemic outbreaks of the black death.

I think that moving forward, many of the other "under the hood" traits of the surviving subspecies have been pivotal in the development of Western culture. This all links into bigger ideas I have about humanity, our development, and what makes us different on multiple evolutionary points from most of the other species on the planet.

It doesn't have to do with opposable thumbs, it has to do with memory, emotion, and the refinement of social patterns and triggered hormone release.

I wonder if I'll ever get any further past the musing and outlining phases with any of this crap.

I could go on for hours about this (ask people who know me, they have heard me do it), so I'll spare you the long-winded ramble. Read the book if you've ever been curious how your immune system works. Revise the axiom "Don't judge a book by it's cover." to "Don't categorize a book by jacket and genre, but rather by font, content, author, country of origin, paper type, ink type, page count, printing and binding method, as well as edition, revision, cover art, and condition."

If you read through all this, or learn anything from my inane ramblings, please comment - I am really trying to coalesce a little on these ideas, and other people's opinions are helpful in that endeavor.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 19th, 2005 03:28 pm (UTC)
I read it all, although I'm feeling particularly out of it and am trying to enjoy my lunch break between classes.

We can discuss later though, when I am more coherent and articulate.
Oct. 19th, 2005 04:19 pm (UTC)
Glad to see you picked it up. Parts of the book were more informative, scientifically speaking, than others, but the overall cast of everyday life and death through the eyes of a hardcore immunologist was certainly eye-opening to me.

The sub-species-esque resistances to disease and environmental disruption is an important part of why biodiversity is necessary for long-term success. It's worth the risk of a little sickle cell anemia to have a broad resistance to malaria in the gene pool, isn't it?

I recently finished Guns, Germs, and Steel, and decided that it could have gone on much longer on the germs part.

Oct. 19th, 2005 04:32 pm (UTC)
agreed on biodiversity
diamond is a brilliant writer/researcher, but he knows where his limitations are. historical immunobiological forensics is a thin field on a fat day. read collapse if you haven't already.

that being said, i wonder how truly biodiversified we are. i mean, the squid have us in biomass, how cool could we really be?

seriously though, i wonder if we aren't in a sub-evolutionary cul-de-sac as a result of previous calamity. i just can't shake the idea that the reason we have cycles of horrific disease (Aside from our societal lifestyle choices throughout the majority of the population) is because we are all similar in our genetic weaknesses due to a lack of true biodiversity caused by a previous near-death of our species altogether.

they've proven that happened before. i wonder if we'll make it if it happens again.
Oct. 19th, 2005 05:48 pm (UTC)
Re: agreed on biodiversity
What you say has plenty of truth. Homo sapiens isn't divided up into subspecies, even. For all the billions of us there are, we're still just tribes and troops. Ever since mama started dressing us funny and the environment we're in stopped having a big impact on us, resistence to disease has pretty much been the only remaining evolutionary factor. We can expose more skin to cool off and bundle up to stay warm, so there's no need to grow larger or smaller ears as heat radiators. A silly example.

But what remains has been pretty effective in contibuting to our biodiversity. The viruses and bacteria that invade us tend to stick with us forever—or so we tend to think, since we haven't really seen any go completely extinct since the invention of the microscope. Survivors carry their germs with them, which is how Europe colonized North America. Malaria still prevents European dominance in Africa, regardless of the "backwardsness" of "developing" nations.

Some people in Africa seem to be immune to AIDS. Modern medicine may shortcut their ascendency by giving wealthy Europeans and their decendants the power of their genes without having to do it the hard way—dying bacK and interbreeding—but if if it were three hundred years ago, you'd see another population on the rise in sub-Saharan Africa, and they'd rise pretty quickly, anthropologically speaking.

I think there may have been a cataclysm that hominids barely survived. Hell, it may have been us, a tribe very nearly like ourselves that got the upper hand on the competing species and wiped them out when it became clear we could no longer interbreed. Or possibly it was something supremely environmental. Say, all of our relatives were strongly heat- or cold-adapted and couldn't withstand a series of radical climate shifts. Truth to say, however, the archaeological record doesn't show too many of our relatives ever having existed.

Sometimes I wonder if the theory that mankind took an aquatic turn many millions of years back doesn't have some weight to it. A lot of archaeological data that we seem to be missing could just be underwater.

Oct. 20th, 2005 07:19 pm (UTC)
archeological vs. micorbiological
everything i've read on mitocondrial dna resarch seems to fill in a great number of details regarding the rise and fall of ancient popualtion pools, particularly when paired with the scant archeological evidence we do have.

I agree about the ocean - one of the lines that has stuck with me for life is Robert E. Howard's start to Coanan -

Between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities . . . there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars. . . . Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand.

I bet Conan is somewhere in the Atlantic - maybe even the Medditerrainian =)
Oct. 19th, 2005 10:18 pm (UTC)
Blame Bilderberg.

No seriously though, I'll have to pick both lovely little tomes up for my enjoyment. Sounds very interesting. I am surprised that Tim has not popped his head in and told you, and anyone else involved in the conversation that your theories smack of paranoia.

I mean, You know I do not think that, but he does so get a kick out of saying it.
Oct. 20th, 2005 07:15 pm (UTC)
well, the whole engineered aids thing is a bit paranoid, but not so much that i am out spying on people or picking through garbage, etc.

both good reads - totally worth it.
Oct. 20th, 2005 07:17 pm (UTC)
Re: heh
Gonna head out to the bookstore. I do have a few gift certificates laying around.
Oct. 19th, 2005 11:39 pm (UTC)
I only got to the bit about little chance for "miracle survivors" of retroviruses. Wish I could remember where I saw this, but there are gay men who, despite repeated unsafe sexual encounters, have remained HIV free. They are, of course, being studied to see what makes 'em different. Some sort of protein, I think, on their helper Ts.
Oct. 20th, 2005 07:14 pm (UTC)
it makes sense that if the retrovirus can't bind initally, they wouldn't get a widespread infection. i'm gonna throw that in Abulafia and see what i come up with.
Oct. 20th, 2005 08:12 pm (UTC)
Re: interesting
yeah, something about the shape of the binding things not matching up. it's really interesting, but I'm still glad i'm outta that class...
Oct. 20th, 2005 04:41 am (UTC)
I really only skimmed this post - but it occurs to me that you all should read/see guns germs and steel.
Oct. 20th, 2005 06:44 pm (UTC)
i've read all diamond's stuff - clinically depressing, but highly enlightening.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )


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