Category Archives: biology

No Clarence, You Do Not Have Clearance

Justice Thomas recently wrote a 20 page concurrence to a decision about an abortion law. Someday, this exposition will be renowned as the most extensive, inside-out examination of the genetic fallacy in history. Every textbook will cite it, eventually. To hasten its ascendance, I will make these observations on the Justice’s writing.

First some background. The law at issue is one which restricts abortion in a number of ways, only one of which really got the Judge going.

“This statute makes it illegal for an abortion provider to perform an abortion in Indiana when the provider knows that the mother is seeking the abortion solely because of the child’s race, sex, diagnosis of Down syndrome, disability, or related characteristics. §§16–34–4–1 to 16–34–4–8; see §16–34– 4–1(b) (excluding “lethal fetal anomal[ies]” from the definition of disability).”

We’ll get back to the “child” verbiage. What’s the upshot of this provision, the one which provoked such logorrhea from Thomas?

“Put differently, this law and other laws like it promote a State’s compelling interest in preventing abortion from becoming a tool of modern-day eugenics.2”

Wow, that is a big claim, and it is going to need a lot of support. But what he brings is: “Eugenicists are bad. Things Eugenicists like are bad. This is the sort of thing Eugenicists like, so it is bad.”

On the surface, his argument is just bad, mundane, and not even original. But he is a supreme court justice, so he digs deeper, and we get to see all the sub-strata of the genetic fallacy, and so why it, like all informal fallacies, merits its label.

The first purpose of the genetic fallacy is to shut down one’s opponents. By nature, it contains an accusation of guilt by association, not only for the position which it seeks to defame but for any advocates of that position as well.

Quite a bit of Thomas’ concurrence enumerates the deplorable sayings of Galton, Sanger, Stoddard, etc.. These are people to be reviled and feared. Galton originated the notion of social Darwinism – the survival of the fittest. Thomas provides this example of Stoddard’s toxicity:

Stoddard feared that without “artificial barriers,” the races “will increasingly mingle, and the inevitable result will be the supplanting or absorption of the higher by the lower types.”

But, wait a minute. If the higher types and lower types can’t keep it straight, then how are they ‘types’ at all? This kind of contradiction permeates eugenics, especially when it comes to the use of birth control to advance the cause. If a woman chooses to use birth control to give her children a better economic heritage, or to spare her child a brief and impoverished existence, she would seem to have met the superior-type criteria. Which brings us to the real problem with eugenics: It inevitably classifies on phenotype, with an assumption that the genotype follows. Furthermore, even their assessment of phenotype is hopelessly crude, because it includes social status as big part of the phenotype’s constitution. The blond hair and blue eyes come with a 3-piece suit.

It turns out that the eugenicists are just a bunch of crackpots who don’t really understand genetics, not the scary, evil geniuses referenced in Thomas’ argument. And that’s one problem with the genetic fallacy in general. To taint a position, the associated villains must have some potency to their poison – they must be right to some extent, or at least attractive – yet they must also be wrong, to discredit the position, and repugnant. In the end, you can’t have it both ways.

But the Justice does not stop in the upper layers of the genetic fallacy; he is digging for gold. Underlying every good deployment of this fallacy, there is a slippery slope argument as well. Usually the slippery slope remains implied. It risks being overlooked, in that case. Justice Thomas is not about to let that happen.

If “the masses” were given “practical education in Birth Control”—for which there was “almost universal demand”—then the “Eugenic educator” could use “Birth Control propaganda” to “direct a thorough education in Eugenics” and influence the reproductive decisions of the unfit. Propaganda 5. In this way, “the campaign for Birth Control [was] not merely of eugenic value, but [was] practically identical in ideal with the final aims of Eugenics.”

If you thought Sanger was bad, just wait. She was merely the vanguard. who aimed to soften us all up for the real assault.

And with today’s prenatal screening tests and other technologies, abortion can easily be used to eliminate children with unwanted characteristics. Indeed, the individualized nature of abortion gives it even more eugenic potential than birth control, which simply reduces the chance of conceiving any child. As petitioners and several amicus curiae briefs point out, moreover, abortion has proved to be a disturbingly effective tool for implementing the discriminatory preferences that undergird eugenics.

We are looking down a black diamond run. The last bit, however, brings us to the deeper reasons for rejecting genetic fallacies. In the course of his exposition, Justice Thomas reveals a profound misunderstanding of fetal anomalies, prenatal testing, and worst of all, Freakonomics (he must not have listened very carefully to the episode referenced on page 17). The genetic fallacy generally serves to smooth over such rough spots for its user. For Justice Thomas, it is a smoke bomb which he hopes will cover him while he slips past the implications of words like “child” tossed in to refer to – what? Does he mean zygote, blastocyst, embryo, fetus? What are the physiologic correlates of childhood? Or is it possession of a soul, and if so, just what the hell is a soul, and by what means do we know of it? He concludes:

Although the Court declines to wade into these issues today, we cannot avoid them forever. Having created the constitutional right to an abortion, this Court is dutybound to address its scope.

Indeed, you can’t hide forever.

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Knock Out Mouse Revolution

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Standing in the New Orleans convention center felt a little eerie. The interior was clean and neat. It looked like an airport. Still, I could not help but recall images of Katrina, when the huge edifice had become a beacon of false hope, luring the populace through its doors with the promise of aid, only to leave those who entered trapped like rats.

We had come to a conference to learn about endocrinology, which I had not considered too creepy before. I was wrong.

The proceedings began innocently. Hundreds of physician scientists, and I, filed quietly into a giant auditorium. I want to make clear my lack of qualifications relative to the rest of the group. I am no scientist, and barely a physician. I would much rather read philosophy books and climb around on crumbly sandstone towers than pipette solutions into a gel matrix.

But my job is mostly about helping people protect themselves from diabetes. Plus my wife had a poster to present. So, there I was, attending as an imposter.

The keynote speaker got a prolonged introduction. He deserved it. He was an important person with important research credentials. It was the kind of introduction where a name is never mentioned, for dramatic effect, and because everybody already knows exactly who the subject is. It is a an effective strategy for generating anticipation in the majority who are already quite familiar with the speaker, as well as in those who have never heard of him. It works for everyone, except my wife. She is honest to a fault, and that means that she is a real subject-object-verb kind of person. When presented with a dramatic, obscure speech, her attention lapses. As the speaker walked onstage to the sound of his name, she asked me who this Francis Collins person was.

After a long moment’s reflection, I told her that Francis Collins was a bad philosopher. She seemed to accept my summary, because she promptly settled back in her theater chair to nap through the rest of the lecture. I could not sleep, though I was feeling a little jet lag as well. The lecture was fascinating. Dr. Collins had been right in the middle of genetic research since the beginning of the human genome project, and he took the audience on a trip through the whole endeavor, right up to the current moment: the Big Data revolution.

The Big Data revolution referred to the use of advanced mathematical and computing techniques to sort through scads of data for druggable targets in endocrine diseases. The special techniques had become necessary because the database had exploded. Dr. Collins and his compatriots had deciphered the genomic book of life, but when they sat down to read it, they discovered that they needed a lamp, reading glasses, bookmarks, and indeed, the semantics of the language. The genes turned out to be active in the context of all sorts of transcription factors, promotors, coactivators, corepressors, etc. There was layer upon layer of conditionals which gave meaning to the genetics.

The source of the Big Data revelation was the knockout mouse. The knockout mouse and its cousins, the knockin mouse and the humanized mouse, were what happened when researchers turned to their traditional test subjects with gene manipulation techniques learned in dissecting the genome. By studying mice with selectively induced genetic defects, the researchers had produced the dense pile of data on gene regulation which advanced computing methods might sort out for us.

By the end of the keynote address, I had mouse fever. I wanted to hear all about the things which these creatures could do, and it turned out that I had come to the right place. Over the next few days, I would hear about mutant mice who could run on a treadmill off the couch like they had trained for months. Mice who developed diabetes. Mice who could turn on their brown fat to alter their metabolism. And many of these mice could serve as their own experimental controls. They had mechanisms inserted in their genomes which could turn their genetic defects on and off in response to substances in their mouse chow.

I’ll admit, when I heard about designer mice and their custom mouse chow, I got a little side-tracked. I had been eager to get out of medicine for a while. It all seemed so futile, and even a bit of a sham. Knockout mice might have been the ticket.

Two incidents elevated that thought to conscious consideration. The first was sighting a booth devoted to mouse chow in the exhibit hall.

To understand the significance of the chow booth, one must understand what the exhibit hall is all about. There is an exhibit hall at every conference. They are huge and opulent sometimes, sometimes modest, but always staffed by beautiful, shiny people and stocked with treats, from lattes to foam-model pancreases. Brands like Coach or Louis V. would feel at home amongst the booths.

Giant pharmaceutical companies ruled the hall, and the mouse kibble guys were right there in the mix. If mouse chow could buy an exhibit booth, the mice themselves must be golden.

The second incident was a conversation overheard in the poster hall.

The poster hall is a huge open space with row upon row of cork boards. Researchers pin up posters with summaries of their investigations on the boards, and attendees walk up and down the rows soaking in the knowledge. Usually there is a clearing in the middle with a nest of round banquet tables where everyone can go to take a break, chat and have a cup of pharma coffee. That’s where I sat while my wife presented her poster. I did not sit randomly.

As I walked up on the tables, I spotted a fat man in a plaid shirt and a yarmulke leaning in to say something to a thin, swarthy, bearded companion wearing a dark olive sport coat and a gold medallion. I needed in on that conversation, so I settled in the chair next to them, and swirled my coffee thoughtfully. Imagine my surprise as I picked up on the subject of their conspiracy.

“Yes,” said the fat man, ” I have been trying to find some of those mice. I need them to finish my work, but you can’t find them anywhere.”

“Yes,” echoed his friend, “those mice are nowhere to be found.”

“The closest I came,” the fat man continued, “was this Korean lady in San Fransisco. She said she had some, even said she would send me a few. But she never came through, and now I can’t get a hold of her anymore.”

The mice must be golden.

But my dreams of becoming a mouse Baron were short-lived. Upon further investigation, I found that genetically altered mice did not thrive. It was hard enough to get them past the embryonic stage. Once they could breathe on their own, they often required special conditions and diets just to survive. Worst of all, most of the really good mice had been patented. You bought the limited rights to a strain of mice when you bought the animals themselves. The patent system was the impetus for the black market discussion in the poster hall. You could trade for mice underground and avoid some costs, at the risk of incurring the wrath of the mouse factory lawyers after publication.

Despite the disappointment on economic grounds, I left the conference optimistic. I still had the image of all those colored bars from Dr. Collins’ slide in my head. Each one was a gene which a mouse model could exemplify, and therefore each one was potentially a druggable target. We had this. It was just a matter of time, and mice.

On my way to work, I have some time to think, though not too deeply. I leave early to beat the traffic, but I never do. Most commutes demand constant attention to collision avoidance. The situation is unfortunate, because the commute is the only time to think. Once work starts, I am behind. Someone constantly needs something from me to satisfy someone else who needs something from them, etc.. My workplace is carefully structured to facilitate this cycle. If I need to communicate with someone, odds are that I can lean over to one side and speak to them directly. Otherwise, my computer contains a messaging system which will pop in on whoever I need to inform or interrogate. Patient rooms cluster around my workstation, so I never need to walk more than 6 steps. However, patient contact occupies only a minor portion of my time. Most of the day is passed on the computer and the phone, addressing questions, requests and lab results. At the end of the day the freeway awaits again. By the time I get home, I am burned out and may or may not have it in me to do some physical training and watch television before retiring to get up and do it all again the next morning.

As luck would have it, traffic was light on the first day back from New Orleans. As I drove, I dreamed of druggable targets; Dr. Collins’ slides with the colored bars swam before me. Most of my patients were already on carefully targeted medications, but reaching down into the genome would ramp up medication effectiveness by orders of magnitude. Yet, not all my thoughts were so happy. Other images kept popping into my head, unbidden. I saw other colored slides, from another lecture by another renowned researcher. They were Dr. Brawley’s slides on the geographic and socioeconomic correlates of life expectancy and the epidemiology of conditions like obesity, cancer and diabetes. I could not banish those intrusive images, and by the time I was walking across the clinic parking lot, my mood had deteriorated.

I made it through the day, and finally got to resume my train of thought as I walked back to the car to drive home. I thought about gene targets and Dr. Brawley’s maps again. Then thoughts of one of the day’s patients joined the fray. She was very overweight, and had the metabolic problems that went with excess adipose tissue. She was on targeted therapy for her diabetes in the form of a monoclonal antibody directed at a counter-regulatory hormone receptor. It was the best science had to offer, but she often missed her doses. She had 2 jobs and no car, so she was up early and home late, and she simply forgot her meds sometimes. She set an alarm, but often could not attend to it, or forgot to reset it. We did not even discuss diet and exercise. She lived on a busy street with non-contiguous sidewalks, had no money for a gym, and no time to travel to a safe park. She could not cook, because she had grown up on packaged foods. In any case, she had grown too heavy by now. Her knees had given out under the weight. She could only mobilize fat stores in the face of severe calorie restriction. To reclaim  her life, assuming that was our aim, she would need two joint replacements and a gastric bypass.

I began to re-experience the rising panic which I had felt at the end of her appointment. Dr. Collins & Co. had let me down; I was not armed for this struggle, nor would I be. I stopped to take a breath and get my bearings. The parking lot was nearly empty. A bad smell rose from a nearby drainage grate, and a noise like water flowing.

I imagined that the noise might be something else. Maybe, instead of waste water, it was all those knockout mice, rising through the  sewers from the depths of the New Orleans convention center where the disappointments of Katrina had flowed down to bring the little fellows back, like a time-delayed Ghost Dance. The mice were coming with their little spectral incisors primed to clip down the cages, the labs, the chow booth, the convention center, and all the rest in a massive, surgical revision. I became convinced that the sound was the mice coming. It had to be. It was the only way that the knockout mice could save us.

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Imagine

…for a moment that you have been selected to participate in a groundbreaking experiment.

Neurobiologists have discovered a single neuron in the reticular activating system (RAS) which appears to be responsible for consciousness. In a rat model, when they hit this little cell with a pulse from an electrode, the rat stops and stares blankly. It will carry out reflexive acts, and even complex learned responses to stimulus. But when the electrode is hot, the questing nose and shifting eyes are still.

You will be the first human subject to undergo stimulation of the single consciousness neuron in the RAS. Well, at least one of the first human subjects, because I will undergo the procedure with you.

In the lab, we each have a tiny hole drilled in our skulls and a micro-wire inserted into the target neuron in our brains. Then, under video-EEG monitoring, I flip the switch that turns on your electrode.

Your EEG changes, but nothing seems to happen to you. You continue to chat with me and when I inquire as to the your status, you assure me that you are quite conscious.

But then I switch the current off.

You look surprised, and ask me, “How long was I out?”

I don’t know what to make of your behavior. Were you out? Was someone else in? Does the magic neuron just make you forget yourself for a bit?

There is only one way to find out. I tell you to flip the switch on my electrode.

I come to in the middle of a conversation, and report to you that I must have been unconscious while my electrode was hot. Your report of my behavior mirrors my report of yours: no change until the power goes off, and then the surprised “wake up”.

I still have no answer regarding anyone’s consciousness during the time when the RAS neuron is activated, nor will I get one. I may be able to make some guesses, if I gather loads of video-EEG data, or see what happens when I try to teach you something while the neuron is being stimulated. That behavioral information, in the brainwaves and in speech, may typically correlate with the presence or absence of a conscious state (in our experience).

The correlates can tell me nothing of the actual presence or absence of conscious experience, however. Consciousness occurs within a subject and won’t be found in the intersubjective. That state of affairs does not make consciousness particularly hard or mysterious – we all know all about it every day. It does require a subject to have it though, and it is always consciousness ‘of’. It is just ours and ours alone.

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Balance Impaired

 

DSC00176Close-up, the little gully evoked a strong sense of deja vu. The angle suggested that one might almost be able to stand up and walk it. The rock looked like a crocodile’s skin – all knobs and chunks with few cracks or pockets – and the few voids in the surface had formed from the erosion of yellow clay inclusions. I had been in this situation before, in the Canadian Rockies, the Tetons, the Cascades. It meant sparse and dubious protection for insecure climbing, with an ugly fall looming throughout.

The fresh memory of yesterday’s Eureka foray reinforced my unease. Just going into the mining country in Colorado’s San Juan mountains is sobering.  The road winds through acres of avalanche terrain peppered with jumbles of gray boards and rusty iron marking the eternal resting places of generations of abandoned avarice. Eureka itself stands for self-consciousness of our bitter relationship with the range. Once a small,  hopeful mining community the town is now a single building. The lone, windowless watchtower bears a prominent sign with the name of the town, placed there, no doubt, by the same sort of joker who might strap a party hat on a skeleton.

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Yesterday was our second consecutive day at the ice climbs in the valley above the ghost town. The day before, we had been denied access to the longest climb in the area by an SAR exercise. Yesterday, we encountered a line of four parties on the same route, and we decided to trudge a bit further past the routes at the valley’s entrance. Around the bend and not far above, we found a lovely pillar of ice baking in the sun. The air temperature was cold however, and the ice looked to be in good shape from the ground, so we went for it.

My partner took the lead and ran the two pitches together. It went well until the very top. There he found the last few feet melted out and he could not get to the fixed anchor. Worse, in a fit of hubris, neither of us had thought to have him take the kit for building ice anchors. He put in two ice screws at his high point and I lowered him back to an intermediate ledge. He set up a belay and I set off to retrieve the ice screws and build an anchor in the ice to get us back down to the base.

Looking up at the situation, I knew that I should not risk falling. He had placed the two screws at the anchor properly. They had already held his weight on the lower. But the stainless steel tubes were basking. Many times, I had raced the process now at work on the anchor, placing another screw on a sunny climb before the last one heated up enough to melt loose. I arrived at the anchor and placed a back-up screw. Out of curiosity, I jiggled the anchor screws. They rattled in their holes, and by the time finished the rappel anchor, I could lift the screws free with two fingers.

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By the time we got back down, the crowds had migrated our way. We had another objective in mind for the afternoon, but our hopes were squashed on the road, for we found a fellow standing at the head of the approach trail just staring across the valley as if he were reconsidering something. He informed us that he had ridden a slab avalanche for a few meters down the slope below our goal.  My partner had his wife and young son waiting back in Ouray anyhow.

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There had been angst around bringing the child, who was their first. He was a nidus of concern in some familiar ways. He was 18 months old and did not want to eat or sleep regularly. He clearly understood everything said to him, but his only bit of expressive language was the word “No”. Each morning, he spent a non-stop hour on Rube-Goldberg action. Cups went into other cups, packets of jelly were transferred from person to person and then into the cups, and then back to their original owner. All of this chaos worried his parents. It seemed so overwhelming that one could hardly imagine any organized behavior arising from it.

Unless you had seen it before. I had. I distinctly recalled worrying about how I could possibly teach my first child to speak. I had no training, and no idea where to begin. Nevertheless, the kid started to talk. He had inherited the talent for it. From an adult perspective, it looked like a miracle, because adults liked to think that they had, each and every one, invented the world – or at worst discovered it. That way, the adult felt more competent, and the world seemed more solid.

From the child’s standpoint, he was building a constellation from the inside out. He had his experiences – what he might come to call ‘sense impressions’ should he grow into a particularly deluded adult – and he had the dots and lines to mark and tie together those experiences, inherited in his nucleic acids, language, and culture. The dots and lines were powerful tools. They would allow him to develop at heady pace, mapping out massive territories, like language, on the fly.

His ancestral mechanisms  assembled his star chart in a blur, and if he was at all self-conscious in his adulthood, he would spend a lot of time figuring out how he got there, and what kind of picture he had made with all those dots and lines overlying the bright spots of his experience. It would be daunting and he might be tempted to throw his hands up and just call the dots and lines the truth, to give the mathematical, linguistic and philosophical accretions on experience an undeserved solidity, while relegating the experience itself to a dirtier, incomplete status.

My partner’s son would have an antidote in that case. He would learn to climb, and that would at least open the blinds on the relationship between the picture of the stars and the stars themselves. He would still have to look, but most people didn’t even get that chance.

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Perched in the little gully, I saw the true landscape.

I was not motivated. I felt the burden of all those extraneous considerations which populated the slope with angels and demons instead of little edges and blotches of ice. I climbed back down and handed the sharp end over to my partner. He was motivated, and managed to lead the pitch despite some misgivings about the security of the climbing. I followed without slips or fumbles. It was sketchy, no question. We looked at the next pitch, but decided against it. It would be there when the stars aligned favorably, or even better, when no one was thinking about the pattern of stars at their back.

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The Problem with Pain

My gaze swung between the man on the exam table and the radiograph displayed on the lightbox. He must have sensed a problem.

“What?” he asked.

What indeed. The film basically showed his shoulder blade broken in two.

“When did this happen?” I inquired. He had already told me once; I just needed to be sure that I’d heard it correctly.

“Yesterday afternoon,” he said, ” right after lunch.”

“And why did you wait until this afternoon to come in?’

“Well, I’m here mostly to get my wife off my back. If it was up to me, I wouldn’t have come in, but she thought it might be serious or something, because I tossed and turned last night.”

“Well,” I told him, “It is not a surgical problem, but it is a bad injury. You got lucky.”

After a moment’s reflection I added, “Didn’t that hurt?”

“Kind of,” he laughed, “But it eased up pretty quick.”

“Do you need any pain medication?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” he demurred, “Tylenol is doing fine for it.”

After a few more pleasantries, the man got up, walked out of my office, got in his car and drove back to work. Watching him wince slightly as he turned out of the parking lot, I couldn’t help but think of the patient before him – a fellow with no history of serious injury, a normal MRI of the lumbar spine, and disabling back pain.

The man with the back pain had wanted pain medication. I’d had to talk him out of it, which was a difficult task in that era. Because it was the era before the opioid crisis, when we were in the midst of a pain crisis, according to the medical authorities. Clinicians were directed to take everyone’s pain level the same way that we took their temperature, and to treat the abnormalities discovered by our measurements.

For those with eyes to see, the notion behind pathologizing pain was misguided, at least. The whole scheme rested on the idea that pain was simply activity in the neuronal substrate. Change the activity pattern, by activating opiate receptors, for example, and you get rid of the pain.

I am not being very charitable in my description, but I am being as charitable as I need to be. There are more nuanced depictions, which leaven the mix with talk of psychological context and so on, but the same suppressed premise lurks beneath them all. It is this: a chain of causal events ‘add up’ to pain, and that is just what pain is. X+Y+Z = Pain. But the necessity of such arithmetic has been in doubt even before Hume laid its troubles out so nicely for us Westerners.

Breaking down a phenomenon gives you its pieces, but does not grant commutativity. Activating opiate receptors does not reshape their owner’s pain experience according to a fixed script. Receptor activity is part of the description of a painful experience, along with psychological context, and personal history. Yet there is no prior necessity – necessity by law, rather than necessity in fact. We did not make the distinction.

Secure in our estimation of the relationship between the neuronal substrate and the pain experience, we went after opiate receptors like we go after splinters. Our efforts did not force anyone’s pain experience into a box, but we gave everyone who we treated a new pain experience. Sometimes it suited them better; sometimes it suited them worse. Many, many times it settled in the center of their psyches and they fell into orbit around it.

Our engagement with the epidemic of untreated pain predictably ended in chaos. Now we need to extricate ourselves, and what do we turn to but the tool already in hand.

Instead of the reduction to type, we have rebuilt our story of pain, revising our reduction on the basis of the same mistake. Receptors pertain to behaviors – in the neuronal substrate, and so in the psychology, and so in the organism – but pain is a byproduct of the behavioral mechanism. It is an epiphenomenon. Chronic experiencers need counselling, to convince them that the pain is ineffectual, and therefore not real, at least not in any serious way.

Unfortunately, I get to participate in this second shot at commutative reduction, too. It will go just as well as the first.

 

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The Age of the Toilet Ant

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I  shifted on the cot, but I could not find a dry spot. It was soaked through with sweat, and the time was only 2 PM. The temperature would remain above 100 degrees F until well after 5 in the evening. Maybe the next time I took a vacation from the desert, I would not just go to another desert.

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I got up to go to the outhouse. The pit in this campground was exceptional. Surrounded by a wooden screen and open to the sky, it still cloaked itself in an invisible cloud of stench despite maximum ventilation, and it had ants. They swarmed over it, through it and across anyone with a need to approach their shrine.

I’d spent the last few evenings before the trip watching “Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey”. Ants had crawled over Fred, I’m sure, as he slept in the dirt by his car. The fact provided some sense of justification.

Brushing a few stragglers from my leg, I stumbled back to the tent. Immobilized on my back, I stared at the mosquito mesh overhead and waited for dark. Events of the morning bubbled through the broth of afternoon sensations. There was something about a disappointing performance on a climb below my level (supposedly). An awkward high-step on a fist-jam figured prominently. I recalled the extraordinary feeling that I did not have enough #4 Camalots. My knee and elbow hurt.

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Jeeps trundled through my fever-dream every few minutes, on their daily migration back to Moab. The campground lay very close to the road, and the grinding of their tires and engines echoed off the red sandstone cliff which stood 20 paces behind our tent. An inevitable bump-bump of music accompanied the Jeep sounds, to placate the humans who clung to the great beasts. They passed with a slight weave and steady speed, suggesting instinctive movement.

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The sun finally set, the air cooled, and my brain began to solidify again. Thoughts picked up where they left off: on the subject of “Dirtbag”. Fred did not consider himself a dirtbag, and he offered one piece of evidence for his position: he always had a car.

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.

Those verses set Western expectations of the wandering, mendicant seeker. It was a romantic vision, and a wrong one. Beneath every seeker lurks an offering plate, an alms bowl, a trust fund, or a pink Thunderbird. Even the originator of the myth waffled on its purity, since he qualified the key verse with assurances of heavenly treasures and even a Creflo Dollar wink and nod toward earthly rewards.

I got up to walk around the campground. The little brown bats were out flipping and twisting after invisible bugs. All lower mammals hew to a lived aesthetic.

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The next morning we chose a shady canyon as our climbing venue. We had done the approach walk the day before, after the hot wind had chased us away from the other crag. It looked good, but I had failed to accurately assess the aspect of the climbs. The sun shone full on our perfect hand crack. After an adequate fit of denial, we turned around and marched back down the lovely canyon to flop on sweaty cots through the heat of the day.

I woke to the sound of a light slap against the tent wall. A quiet curse from my son followed. It was dark , and the propane lantern was burning. He crouched over a large beetle lying on its back by the tent door. Ants swarmed over the bug. They bit its legs, locked their mandibles and then the ants attached to the legs were bitten by other ants in the swarm, forming a rude shackle.

My son flipped the beetle upright and it flew off. But it circled back, then hit the tent, and landed right back where it had been. After a few more rescue attempts to the same end, my son stood up and shook his head in disgust. In the morning, the toilet ants had gone back to their regular haunts and the beetle lay where they had abandoned it. The ants had left the body completely intact.

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In “Dirtbag”, someone asks Fred, “Is there one thing that you have come to value above all else?”

Fred answers, “[To] Stay alive.”

Wowbagger The Infinitely Prolonged was – indeed, is- one of the Universe’s very small number of immortal beings.
Most of those who are born immortal instinctively know how to cope with it, but Wowbagger was not one of them. Indeed, he had come to hate them, the load of serene bastards. He had his immortality inadvertantly thrust upon him by an unfortunate accident with an irrational particle accelerator, a liquid lunch, and a pair of rubber bands. The precise details are not important because no one has ever managed to duplicate the exact circumstances under which it happened, and many people have ended up looking very silly, or dead, or both, trying.
To begin with it was fun, he had a ball, living dangerously, taking risks, cleaning up on high-yield long-term investments, and just generally outliving the hell out of everybody.
In the end, it was Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, and that terrible listlessness that starts to set in at about 2:55 when you know you’ve taken all the baths you can usefully take that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the newspaper you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o’clock, and you will enter the Long Dark Teatime of the Soul.

-Douglas Adams

Fred didn’t act like he simply wanted to stay alive. The toilet ants were about staying alive, and its byproducts. His behavior was more like the beetle’s, or even the bats’, though he could never quite achieve the lived aesthetic. But that’s beyond us all.

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Leaving the beetle incident behind us, we returned to the shady crag. The early morning was dead quiet, so the clack of falling rock startled us. We paused in the middle of the approach slope to look for the source of the rolling rocks. It seemed like the noise came from across the dirt road on the bottom of the canyon, but the echoes made localization difficult. The clatter came again, accompanied by a flash of movement on the opposite slope. A running herd of desert bighorns popped out of the rocks, then halted and vanished just as suddenly.

We watched them pull that trick a few more times over the course of the morning. A jeep or SUV would pass on the road and the sheep would dash up the slope for a few seconds, then stop and disappear. A few of the SUV drivers hit their brakes and jumped out with binoculars and cameras, only to be disappointed. They scanned for the invisible sheep briefly before grudgingly climbing back into their cars. None of the jeeps stopped.

I don’t think that they could hear the sheep running over their tires and soundtracks. And also, I don’t think they were about sightseeing in the first place. Rental jeeping seemed to be about crushing a strip of already well-crushed earth beneath one’s knobby tires, rather than viewing the natural wonders.

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Right on schedule, like we had opened to oven to check on a batch of cookies, the 11 AM breeze hit us. I was vacillating at the base of a nice finger crack at the time, and the puff of heat swept a way my angst. We were done.

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Fred Becky was dead. The bats could stay. We had to go back to the tailgating world  where people ate to eat and drove too fast to nowhere. As we packed up, I took one more look at the dead beetle. I though about kicking some dirt over the body, but it didn’t seem right. I left it as it lay, and without an ant in sight.

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Breaking Trail

For the umpteenth time, my snowshoe breaks through the crust and dives into hopeless depth hoar. The continental snowpack nibbles away at one’s soul with a false promise in every step. The crust feels solid when one’s foot first rests upon it. It even holds as weight shifts from back foot to front foot. But, it can sense when the full weight of body and pack has shifted, and then it collapses.

The slog would be bad enough were it a grueling monotony of breakthrough after breakthrough, but it is worse that that. Because sometimes, the crust gives you a few steps on top, and just when you relax, then it lets you fall through into the great vat of cornstarch beneath. What’s still worse about my current situation is that I am following a trail. Minus the snow, it would be easy walking.

If I persist, I will soon get a little psychological boost, as my course turns off the cut trail and into untracked forest. Though it really isn’t any harder or easier than wallowing above the Summer trail, breaking off the established path onto the section that only I know, feels like progress and is an antidote to the demoralizing snow conditions.

I used to do the walk to high camp with a map and compass. I no longer need those. The rocks, trees, sequences of slopes and their conformations chart a more accurate course in my memory. These days, I can get to my destination despite the snow cover because the trail isn’t really on the ground; it is in my mind. Or, so it would seem,

One might say that the trail presupposes or lies in the potential of, my mind and memory. For a trail to be, the possibility of a trail must have been. But the trail is not made of possibilities. It is made of my memories of trees, slopes, rocks, and all the other landmarks on the way. It is made of my senses of time, space and distance, which are properties of the phenomena which constitute thought and memory. My memory, and its possibilities, are dependent upon its contents. And so it is with memory in general; it is defined by having extant referents.

In other words, my memory is nothing without memories, and all the possibilities of memory lie in its contents, including its metaphysical possibilities, which lie in its having contents. When I recall looking down the trail in this moment, I trace a path through the space and time of my memory, just as I did when I stood in the snow on the day I recall. And I do so on background – all the historical infrastructure which orients my current experience and dictates its aspectual shape.

My recollection at the keyboard can’t get going without the background, yet the background can’t be background except in relation to current experience, which links it all together. The possibility of a trail inheres in legs, eyes, slopes and trees. Memory resides in its defining contents. The contents of my memory rely upon where and when I am now.

Some folks get frustrated with all this interdependence and would retreat to the simple certainty of a hierarchy. I can understand the appeal of a world where there is a separate mental substance, an uncaused cause, memory as an independent faculty among other independent faculties, and a trail waiting beneath the snow to accommodate our walk without the hard work of trail breaking.

But that means a world where there may be memory which doesn’t necessarily remember anything, a mind which doesn’t necessarily think about anything,  an agent which does not experience the changes it makes, and destinations which don’t belong to anybody – a world which is not possible.

 

 

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Cult of the Range-Fed Turtles

When my best childhood friend grew up, he decided to become an archaeologist. During his graduate training, he was in charge of  a dig in the Mississippi river valley which unearthed an odd structure. In the midst of the native people’s dwellings, was found a circular enclosure made of closely spaced wooden posts and containing a large pile of turtle shells. The undergraduates were eager to speculate about the purpose of the structure, but my friend cautioned them against it.

“We can’t be sure of its use,” he said”, and we can’t just guess based on what we might use an enclosure like that for today. We can’t just assume they were running a turtle ranch here. Why would they do that with a river full of turtles just a quarter-mile away? We have to put it in context of the surrounding village and the environment of the time, look for other examples and see if there are any modern structural analogs. Then we can make a guess, but it will still just be a guess.”

The next day the professor in charge of the dig came around on a rare site visit to see how things were proceeding. The students were eager to show him the mysterious ring of posts with its pile of shells.

Upon seeing their find, the professor remarked without hesitation, “Huh, must have been a turtle pen,” and promptly resumed his walking tour of the dig.

I don’t know if archaeology has an excuse for this kind of thinking, but medicine does:

Life is short. The art is long. Experience is difficult.

– Hippocrates

We can be forgiven for resorting to teleological assumptions now and again in medicine. With limited time and incomplete information, we must sometimes act on hypotheses which attribute function to structure and purpose to processes. Lucky for us, there’s plenty of slop in the system, so even if we’re wrong at the start, we usually get a second chance. We are trying to get away from teleology, though. “Evidence based medicine” and “scientific medicine” are the names that we have given that effort.

We are trying to get away from teleology because we have been burned by it. We thought that the body made pus to fight off bacterial infections, so for years, when we saw people with respiratory illness cough up phlegm with pus in it, we gave them antibacterial medications. We were wrong, not just about the purpose of pus, but in attributing a purpose to pus. Again, it was an understandable mistake, given the long history of debate regarding the merits of pus. Was it a good sign, or a bad one? Should we encourage or discourage its formation? It turns out we shouldn’t have been focusing on the pus at all, but on    the outcome of our purposeful intervention in the underlying process that produces the pus.

Purposeful results and final causes apply prospectively to human endeavors alone, and even there it’s often difficult to tell whether, when our actions are associated with the desired result, the outcome is due to our actions or simply due to fortuitous circumstances. Applied retrospectively or to processes and structures beyond our control, teleology is a sure mistake.

When we assign an endpoint to a process, we presume causation and correlation must be proven. Humans are notoriously bad at that. In systems which we can’t duplicate or control, we can always tell a causal story (I’m looking at you evolutionary psychology, intelligent design, cosmological fine tuning). But those stories are just interesting rationalizations, sharing the merits of a fairy tale in that they reveal more about us than the subject matter. Our fairy tales are harmless when they are about the universe, the origin of life, turtle ranches or anything else beyond our control. When we tell teleological stories about processes we do seek to influence (and can) we court tragedy.

The practice of bleeding was based on one such tale: the story of homeostasis. We still tell it today, but we tell it as metaphor instead of fact. The story is based on the simple observation that, when a person becomes ill, they go through a series of changes in their physical state which ultimately ends in either the restoration of their previous state, or death. Having observed other systems, the Greeks thought that the process of illness looked like a disequilibrium. Having observed associated changes in fluids which emanated from the body, they attributed the disequilibrium to an imbalance in those fluids. We can hardly blame them for the limits of their observations. We can’t fault their hypothesis. However, we can fault their method.

They didn’t just postulate an imbalance in the humors as a cause of illness, they presumed a balance of the humors as a state the body sought. The difference in these two points of view is subtle, but crucial. If  the balance of fluids is seen as descriptive  then restoring health by balancing the fluids remains a working hypothesis. It admits that other factors may determine the observed equilibrium. It leaves open the possibility that the observed flux of humors is a secondary phenomenon. Most important, it leaves physiologic equilibrium as a simple description, instead of presuming that it is a purpose with causal powers.

Given a description and a working hypothesis, physicians would look at their efforts to balance a patient’s humors with a critical eye. As a teleological assumption, with equilibrium as a “final cause” under Aristotle’s system, the idea creates an entirely different viewpoint. With  humoral balance rooted in the body’s design, variances in expected observations must be due to inadequate methods or incomplete knowledge of the humors. For this version of the “balancing the humors” hypothesis, failure is not an option.

Now, the ancient Greeks may have weathered this kind of assumption better than their heirs. They loved to fight with each other. In the face of inconsistent outcomes from humor-balancing interventions, they were likely to call Aristotle and Hippocrates idiots or just ignore the under-girding theory of causes altogether in favor of their own pet theory. Definitive statements naturally took a healthy beating in the Greeks’ intellectual environment. The Romans, and the Europeans who came after them, were much more pious.

As a result, no one questioned the teleological assumption, out of reverence for its sources, and the vital fluids persisted in medical thought owing largely to the idea of homeostasis by design. No matter how apparent the flaws in our understanding of the blood, bile and phlegm, they were somehow attached to the homeostatic goal of the body. As long as physicians saw that equilibrium as the body’s goal, they could reconcile any discrepant observations with the over-arching story and persist in practices such as bleeding. It fell to investigators outside of the medical profession to discover the secondary nature of the humors. Only then did the practices aimed at balancing the fluids truly begin to fade.

But long after bleeding and the balance of fluids fell by the wayside, the tale of homeostatic purpose continued to plague medical science. Physicians continued to view physiology as directed toward an end. For example  the heart was seen not to pump blood, but to be a pump. Therefore, medical students were instructed to never administer medications called beta-blockers to patients with heart failure.

Beta-blockers stick to proteins in the membranes of  heart cells called beta receptors, which normally bind adrenaline. Via the beta receptor proteins, adrenaline stimulates the heart to pump faster and with more force. In heart failure, the heart can’t contract forcefully or fast enough to keep up with the volume of blood returning to it from the veins. If the heart is a purpose-built pump, beta blockers should be anathema in the setting of heart failure. But in reality, when given to stabilized heart failure patients, beta blockers reduce long-term mortality by about one-third.

We don’t yet know exactly how these medicines achieve such a feat. We do know why they are not inevitably detrimental in heart failure. It is because the heart pumps, but it is not a purpose-built pump. The heart is instead a group of cells which inhabits a specialized niche in a system of many cells all with complimentary and competing characteristics, existing in a state of equilibrium which, in deference to tradition, we call homeostasis.

Our physiology doesn’t try to maintain homeostasis any more than erosion tries to form a natural arch. The arch forms (rather than crumbling like the sides of a stream-bed) because it is geometrically stable given the geology. The arch persists because it is geometrically stable, and so we frequently see natural arches where the climate and geology allow. Nobody marvels at this, speculating about a conspiracy between sandstone and weather patterns. Then again, few people have an emotional stake in natural arches. The same is true of our physiology, minus the low stakes. There is no overall homeostasis sensor or hormone in the body. There is no homeostasis conspiracy.

So, we have abandoned the notion of purpose in physiology, and that simple maneuver has allowed us to discover things like the survival benefit which beta blockers produce in heart failure. This move is the principle behind the randomized, controlled clinical trial. All along, it wasn’t ignorance holding us back, but the project of rationalizing our knowledge to traditionally understood, teleological models.

Of course, the questions driving evidence based medicine don’t start from nowhere. Scientific medicine asks questions based on the results of previous investigations and hypotheses derived from basic science discoveries regarding the components of physiology and their relationships. Some of these hypotheses are even most easily stated in terms of purpose. But those statements are now understood as metaphor, rather than bare fact.

Beyond the fecundity of this change in method, the move away from teleology finally brings some redemption for poor Hippocrates. Rather than using it as an excuse, we can understand his aphorism, “Life is short. The art is long. Experience is difficult “, properly again – as an admonition about method. Be skeptical. Remember that your viewpoint is limited. Watch out for overarching narratives. Good advice, and not just for medicine, but for all those turtle-ranch theorists out there (I’m looking at you intelligent design, cosmological fine tuning, evolutionary psychology…).

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Shrimp Eyes

An answer to the post “What Is Knowledge?” at Self-Aware Patterns. If you don’t want to keep reading this, go read that…

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Imagine…the mantis shrimp sees zorp. Zorp is a color beyond deep violet, and it is a color which humans cannot see, because humans only have 4 of the 16 color receptors which the mantis shrimp eye possesses.

Once upon a time, long before anyone looked inside a mantis shrimp’s eye, a group of marine biologists set out to test the shrimp’s sense of smell. In those days, nobody had looked in a shrimp’s nose either, to map out the nerves and chemical receptors. So, the only way that the biologists could learn about shrimp olfaction was to wave something smelly under a live animal’s nose and see what happened.

The experiment went like this: The shrimp entered a bare tank from an isolation chamber at one end. Prior to the shrimp entering, the biologists had secretly painted a random corner with an invisible, smelly substance. Upon release, if it swam to the marked corner, the shrimp got a treat.

After a bit of trial and error, the shrimp picked up the trick; it swam to the marked corner every time. Mantis shrimp had an acute sense of smell. But the truth is: mantis shrimp could not smell a damned thing. Unbeknownst to the investigators, the invisible, smelly substance which they used to mark the corner glowed zorp.

As it turned out, by sad, chemical coincidence everything smelly,  glowed zorp. Without understanding the micro-structure of mantis shrimp senses, the situation was hopeless. Only the shrimp would ever know the truth. Yet the biologists did know something. They got a predictive model of shrimp behavior out of their experiment. If they wanted to make shrimp bait, keep shrimp away from swimming areas, or start a shrimp circus, they had a reliable, practical theory to help them – they knew how to do it.

Furthermore, they did have some truth, even if it was not the shrimp’s truth. Because, the biologists stated the outcome of their experiment carefully.

Mantis shrimp were observed to preferentially swim to a corner marked with Fragrance 5 after receiving a standard shrimp kibble in association with alighting upon a Fragrance 5 mark in 3 previous instances.”

Obviously, the truth itself does not get you a shrimp circus or anything else. The truth, being blatant, does no work.

Yet we think that we seek the truth when we seek knowledge. We have been told that knowledge is justified, true belief. Indeed, the justification-belief relationship seems unbreakable. If justification is a well constructed story, then all our beliefs have it, as we have somehow arrived at those beliefs. And, we certainly distinguish between things we know and things we merely believe, on a functional basis, which is really just the strength of the justificatory tale.

Truth has little to do with justifications. Knowledge stands apart from mere belief when it does something – when it proves itself reliable. Reliability, like an onion, has no core, and so, knowledge doesn’t have a core either. Peel back a layer and you can aim a cannon. Under the next layer, you have a laser. Under the next, you find the mechanisms needed to build a global positioning system. The same structure undergirds our psychological theory of mind, introspective faculties, and our aesthetics. All those tales which bear re-telling constitute our knowledge.

Truth is just what we’re stuck with.

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Why Have Children?

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Everyone who has had children has asked themselves the question. The answers leave one feeling a bit squeamish, because the answers are all tautologies. The simplest is some version of: Because people have children. The more complicated responses – to make little caretakers for ourselves, for example – beg the question off to another, underlying tautology (We want to live because we live, in this case). There is no immediately obvious rationale.

The question in question is just the sort of question which religion purports to answer. But answers from divine purpose fare no better than circumstantial answers. The simplest answer from religion is: Because God commands it, which does not differ functionally from the first statement above, ‘Because people have children’. More nuanced responses again beg off to deeper tautologies, like the famed divine mission statement from the Christians: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The statement is lovely, but it is devoid of functional content. After thorough contemplation, we are still left standing around, awaiting the Lord’s instructions before we can get on with the glorifying and enjoying.

These tautologies lurk at the bottom of all teleology. No attempts to divine purpose from conditions avoid the fate of Leibniz’s theodicy. When applied, teleological excursions all discover the type of gem unearthed by Dr. Pangloss.  Study of a language’s syntax alone, will never reveal the language’s semantics. What is cannot tell us why it is, any more than it can tell us what ought to be. Attempts to divine purpose from structure, while operating strictly within the structure, are futile.

So, why have children? Why not? Or more precisely, why ask why? It is not a fit question.

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