Saturday, March 22, 2014


For most of history what you saw is what you got:  but like the fellow who married a showgirl and on the first night witnessed her get ready for bed by removing a wig, a corset, “falsies,” fake eyelashes and fingernails, a layer of makeup . . . there were surprises. Then there’s the story about the NA chief who ordered a nice big sturdy woman from the Monkey Wards catalog and was disappointed when the package that came only contained a strong corset.  "She escaped," he said, shaking his head.

Scientists begin to realize that a person is more than they might seem.  In fact, the metagenomic people are suggesting that gut biota and the other microbes and viruses that find our bodies a very nice place to live are not just passive dwellers, but actively interact with our own cells to do us both good and harm. 

Years ago I read an article describing how intimate bodily contact with another human being (lovers, mothers, nurses, masseuses) meant a storm of migration back and forth until both bodies were colonized by the microbes of the other.  And all the others with whom that other has been intimate, some of them historic enough that their carriers were dead.  Sometimes the crossover entities were what had killed their previous carrier!  In the case of really troublesome diseases, this seems obvious, but to sleep with someone who has gut bacteria possibly beneficial to you is still a very strange idea.  The tiny beings who live in your eyelashes or your armpits don’t generally come to our attention.  

But now our ability to investigate the teeny-tiniest of genomic sequences lets us even distinguish among the strains of HIV that arose from chimp SIV, gorilla SIV and gibbon SIV; lets us trace waves of smallpox infection and their origins; lets us map the Great Spanish Flu Epidemic as it marched across the planet.  Now we know that a person might have HIV, but what KIND of HIV?  And what if now you’ve just required a NEW kind of HIV that will react with your old kind -- the consequences unknown?

The evolutionary change twins are Darwin and Lamarck, one saying it’s all about long time survival on an island (those finches whose bills adapted according to what they ate) and the other saying it’s all about behavior, like giraffes stretching their necks to eat the top leaves."  Sensible people say,  “Okay, kids.  Let’s try to get along -- it’s gotta be both/and.”  (Bibfeldt was very sensible.  That’s because he’s not real -- he was invented by students at the U of Chicago Div School in the early Eighties.)  Let’s just accept that both/and stuff.  Let’s apply that to HIV and “gay” -- just for the helluvit.  Let’s accept the idea of the “super person,” including what may be mutations and may be epigenetic, acquired since birth.

Superpersons are the total of DNA, the added annotation of the epigenome; the contributions of maternal gestation support; the nurturing care in the first few years after birth (rat moms' licking); events during the “latency” period (starved grandpas); community context in childhood; family context; education in fashion at the time (culture); early work (culture); and more.  You can’t be “gay” unless the category exists (culture).  You can’t be “Native American” unless the category exists (culture). “Super” should probably be spelled “supra” since is not about heroes with extraordinary powers, but rather about the many forces that amount to overlying identity in the human individual.

We look to biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs in hopes of discovering ways to make persons (like ourselves and our children) more “super.”  Genealogy studies and nationalism also take a close interest in what might make their members extra potent, effective, praiseworthy and otherwise reflecting well on us.  Members who are defective are quietly cloaked.  Achievements are cheerfully exaggerated.  Descendants are urged to improve the previous generations' reputations by being more super superpersons.  This burden might weigh down the descendants so much that they can sink or they can become defiant and refuse to comply -- this may save them.  Or they may be goaded into being more super.

So far no one has decided to starve their pre-adolescent boys in order to improve their grandchildren, but if people will castrate boys of that age in order to improve their singing, they probably just haven’t thought of it yet.

The Netherlands study was possible because such careful records were kept, but there have been many many people starved in those crucial development years, including Blackfeet.  What if it is the epigenomic adaptation of their descendants that has caused the present fat explosion?  What if the economic Depression across America created a generation of starved grandfathers?  How old was your grandpa in the Thirties?

The epigenome is of particular interest because methylation -- which is what controls it -- can be turned on and off, which means that one can indirectly turn a gene on and off -- in an easier way than trying to deliberately mutate a specific gene.   In fact, epigenome methylation somehow controls the status of a stem cell, so we could use it to create a precious stem cell from skin maybe, potentially the kernel of a new heart or lung.   We DO know how to make a break in the double helix and insert new code.  We aren’t too accurate yet, so trying to do this might knock out code for something vital.

About one in a hundred persons has a natural immunity to HIV.  This comes from the affected cells necessarily having two little ports or points of attachment and entry for the virus.  That “one percent” population’s genome gives mutated instruction that fails to create either both or one of those points. They are missing from the white blood cells.  (We don’t know what else the ports do besides accommodate HIV.  There must be something or why would they be there?)  Conceivably, those ports could be shut off with methylation.

Difficult as that might be, there is another side of the superperson that’s much more difficult: the social part, the cultural part, the political part.  These are what support the “ports” for stigma (fear, rage, hate).  Stigma is as deadly -- maybe more deadly -- than HIV.  HIV is a vulnerability disease: it doesn’t affect the red blood cells of the blood, but rather the white blood cells that manage immunity.  Without the response of white blood cells, infections and trauma cannot heal.  There is no white blood cell that can protect from the vulnerability of stigma, but there ARE social equivalents to methylation.  (Friendship, knowledge, joy.)

To cure the social/cultural/political dimension of HIV-AIDS would mean somehow curing stigma:  hatred, competition, permission to victimize, neglect and abuse of children, unjustified violence, and the monetizing of stigma to capture free labor and sexual objects.  It might mean removing the ports for aggression, male virility, combat, physical competition, war -- all the things we blame on testosterone. At the dimension of culture, that could mean the elimination of a whole population that cannot defend itself or compete.  Culture becomes custard.  Could a culture where people are too nice to reproduce be regenerative enough to keep their population high without resorting to capturing the children of others -- which isn’t very nice but has proven to be effective in the past, even for primates?

From an exhibit by

What do we do about the culturally vulnerable that is NOT based on stigma -- just being in the wrong place at the wrong time?  Crop failure, tsunami, volcano.  Stigma is simply an evil way to manage the distribution of food, shelter, education, access to medical care.   If there is enough of all those things, stigma is unnecessary.  

And put a rat on that committee:  people need affection and emotional development.  But rats don’t pay taxes.  It’s an economic problem.  And it’s a competition problem.  Which makes it a territory and resources problem.  Now we’re beginning to talk planet.  In the end, vulnerability is a planetary problem.  It’s vital to include the microbes in our thinking, but we hardly recognize that territory, much less are able to map it or begin to draw blueprints.

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