Thursday, November 21, 2013


If poultry is descended from dinosaurs -- and I have no trouble at all accepting that, esp. considering the Tyrannosaurus Rex roosters still strutting around -- then there are two things that are deep, deep in our genome.  Both recently showed up in little stories on the internet.  One was an account by Ellen Chase, reposted by Nick Kristof, about some adopted chickens, one of which went blind.  Most of the chickens kindly guided and even fed the unfortunate hen, but the chicken at the bottom of the pecking order saw it as an opportunity and often attacked the blind chicken.  Sometimes the rest of the flock intervened and sometimes they didn’t.  Bullying is not just for bulls.  And it is not the strong alpha creatures who are bullies -- rather losers trying to improve their status.

The other was a video clip that shows a turkey hatching, sprawling on the table top totally disorganized, hearing the biologist cheeping at it (which he had been doing all along while the chick was still in the egg), recognizing the voice, pulling itself together, staggering over to lean on the man’s cheek, and going to sleep.   The poult was imprinted and from then on would yearn for and rush to him, just as it would have to its turkey mother.  Babies need moms, but they needn’t be biological or even female or even the same species.

These two behaviors are so deep that they are described as “instincts,”  hard-wired into the brain, which means controlled by the genome by producing protein molecules.  The genes, so old, are still there, no doubt pre-mammal code that promoted survival. (Maiasaurus, the “good-mother” dino laid her eggs in nests near Valier.)  These two coded behaviors were deep enough and protective enough that the mammals preserved them in their own cells.  (No animal was coded for surviving asteroid hits -- that was just situational, literally once in a lifetime or even many lifetimes.)

We are in a time when we are just now looking at the excessive amount of “bullying” behavior in humans and wondering whether that’s really a survival tactic after all.  It certainly is for the immediate success of the individual, but what does it do for the whole community?  Is it a force for consolidation or does it undermine every possibility of human progress by sowing fear, distrust and forced compliance -- which is always an energy and resource burner.

Konrad Lorenz and his imprinted geese

Clearly the imprinting phenomenon is useful and charming.  Mostly.  My mother taught us as small children to hang onto her skirt because there were three of us and she only had two hands, even if she wasn’t carrying something.  On the other hand, when we were needy we followed her around bleating like bummer lambs, which got in her way and drove her nuts.  For an individual trying to get things done, having been imprinted upon is not always pleasant.  When one imprints on a therapist, that worthy will keep it under control with appointments and a closed door.  It might be called a form of transference.

Feral dogs and boys will attach to each other -- dogs with dogs and boys with boys or even dogs with boys -- sometimes in communities (packs, gangs).  But if the pecking order within that community is unstable, then bullying will thin the group.  What is the proper balance between attaching to each other and dominating each other?  What is the best trade-off between the individual and the group?  Can we replace bullying with nurturing in some constructive way?

The news this morning is that scientists have learned how to insert DNA code into the genome -- not at random by infecting with a virus, but deliberately in a specific place as though with tweezers.  So now all we need is to build the right gene (we’ve made simple ones) and put it in the right place (a little trickier).  That neglects issues like the epigenome and methylation, but at least we know the latter exist.  They might be easier ways to affect behavior than inserting or deleting genes.  The genome operates like a symphony orchestra, so one flat note or timing lag can throw the whole composition into trouble.  Genes are interactive and there is no sheet music to hand out.

In the meantime, what are the changes to our health care, our government, our classrooms, our marriages/families that would support nurturing instead of bullying?  In some families, children not capable of forcing their way will be destroyed, if only by exclusion.  This past week a young teen boy, wearing only trunks, was thrown out of the house in sub-zero weather because he was aggravating his parents.  People talk of “survival of the fittest” and define fitness as dominance.  But were these adults "fit" to be parents?

Some mammal mothers, if frightened or disturbed, will eat their babies.  (Mink are notorious for doing this, which is why mink ranchers get nervous around noise and disorder.)  Is this the interaction of the protein molecule that controls T.Rex behavior with the protein molecule that controls Maiasaurus behavior?  (“I love you to death!”)  Is cannibalism a form of over-nurturing? (“I wanted to make him part of me.”)  If humans have both genes, is modern “civilization” somehow making them interact dissonantly?  

So many manufactured molecules are out there in the ground water, and no one knows how to remove them.  Some are coming from meds in the pee of humans who will die without them -- should we be filtering and recycling urine?  Filtering them from the water supply would be formidably expensive, but nowhere near the cost of inserting manmade genes into human cells.  (The cost of getting a readout is now advertised at a little less than a hundred dollars, without specifying the quality, extent or usefulness of the document.)

Above is a still from a horror movie called “Splice” that addresses the mixing of genes from different species by scientific means, one -- naturally -- being human.  Here's the link:  In discussing the film, the director, Vincenzo Natale, astutely says that horror films are one way of thinking about the scientific edges of human life and suggests that this specific film has an undertow of incest.  How can one address genes without sex?  And who can love us more than we can love ourselves -- if we ever get around to it.  Once a person is in forbidden territory it all turns up at once, even our longing for our missing prehensile tails.  (Wings are a different issue --  see Nicholas Cage in “Michael.”  Tails belong to “Alien.”  Then there’s feathers vs. leathers.)

Luckily, we can explore the culturome and the memes of individuals much more easily and quickly, though perhaps not more safely considering how some people survive.  I mean, it upsets them to be investigated, much less interfered with.  Still, it is a counseling truism that if one changes oneself, everything around one will also change.  To understand such atrocities as battering and trafficking, it’s necessary to look at both sides PLUS the larger context.  Is the survival value of being beaten up worth the survival value of belonging to someone powerful?  Is the survival value of beating up one’s partner somehow a kind of self-nurturing, sucking power out of women and children like a Skeksi extracting life from the Pod People peasants?  Some people seem to think so.  I think we need to risk interfering or else lose all our best evolved culturomes.  We are neither dinosaurs nor poultry, but we’re not proving it.

Skeksi from "The Dark Crystal"

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