7.18.2006

Germs and Brains

In my last set of links I brought up Gregory Cochran's "germ theory" of disease- that many ailments we think of as primarily genetic or environmental are in fact due to infectious agents. I'd like to take this a step further, and mention a similar (yet even more speculative) theory from Agnostic over at Dusk.

While Cochran suggests germs may be the culprits behind many "lifestyle" or "genetic" diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Agnostic suggests that much of the variation we see in personality, motivation, and higher cognitive function also may stem from complex interactions with germs. His emphasis, specifically, is that lucky interactions with microorganisms who slip past the "gateway" into the brain, the blood-brain barrier, could be partly responsible for reinforcing certain thinking and motivational patterns common to geniuses. Newton, in short, may have had germs to thank for rearranging his brain for exceptional creativity.

This is a highly aggressive assertion. It'd be very hard to prove (or disprove) that microorganisms commonly influence higher cognitive functions, though we do have solid evidence that some germs do affect behavior (i.e. rabies and toxoplasmosis), that some germs we carry around are good for us, and that the onset of certain patterns of thinking- i.e. schizophrenia- show signs of infectious causation. These facts are somewhat suggestive of some deeper germ-brain connection.

Agnostic's argument depends upon:
  • The vast amount of germs (good and bad) that live in our body;
  • The vast possibilities of how germs could interact with cellular processes and alter mental processes, purposefully or accidentally, given that we already know some do (and that, among all these possibilities, surely a few of them involve increasing the host's intelligence, or altering their motivation).
  • A lack of alternative explanations for the numerous differences which develop between twins
  • A higher winter/spring birth percentage in the set of geniuses (and schizophrenics) he looked at, which he suggests may be indicative of a higher exposure to certain germs as susceptible newborns. The percentages are somewhat startling: he draws on Charles Murray's book "Human Accomplishment", and of the 18 top geniuses Murray identifies, we know the birth month of 16, and of these 16, all but two were born in the winter or spring.

Unfortunately, these connections between genius and infection are rather circumstantial and speculative, and this is not a very testable hypothesis. However, I think there's really something to the author's more general point, that "Of all the imaginable sources of variation in higher cognitive functioning among human beings, the one that remains the least explored is the role of microorganisms."

We know very little about these things inside of us, but we're quite aware that they're terribly important. The organisms we carry around are so tightly integrated with our bodies that we'd die if they weren't there, they outnumber our cells 10 to 1, they vary widely between individuals, many live in our brains, and, as John Hawks notes, we "are using the same metagenomic techniques to fine organisms in our bodies that are used to find new unidentified ocean life!" It would seem quite a stretch to hold that some of the organisms we carry around with us don't significantly affect our cognitive functions in some way. We're not talking "brain control by germs", but this may show up in contributing to more outliers (the Newtons and schizophrenics of this world), in increasing mental variation, and perhaps shifting certain average personalities a few points in some direction.

I think the takeaway concept from Agnostic's argument is that the microorganisms in a person's body almost certainly affect their personality, motivation, and higher-order thought-processes somehow, though we're far from understanding how they would do so, and that a lot of the variation between people may very well arise from the different germs they have, and how the complex interactions between their brains and their germs are playing out. And though it may sound creepy that germs probably commonly influence behavior, it's been this way for millions of years.

This is the first in a series which examines quirky things in and around genetics.
Epigenetics post planned for next week.

7.07.2006

Yahoo Answers: Stephen Hawking

Every so often a celebrity will post a question at Yahoo! Answers. This time it was Stephen Hawking, however, and so I decided to bite.
http://answers.yahoo.com/question/?qid=20060704195516AAnrdOD

The question is,
In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?
Now, this is an awful broad question but it's also important, and could also taken as some sort of an inkblot test. I'd encourage everyone to actually plan out an answer, at least in their heads.

The first answer to appear was
They will live underground
...which I found rather hilarious. :)

My answer, which is probably not as good as that, follows: it underwent a bare minimum of editing, for which I apologize in advance.


There is no simple answer to your question re: the next 100 years, as I'm sure you're aware. We will have to take it one step at a time. But as I see it our general strategy should be:

We need to convince the public, politicians, religions, and businesses that our species' survival is actually in doubt: there's too much inertia based on short-sighted self-interest otherwise. Perhaps a well-placed question to Ask Yahoo might generate some awareness of this issue. :)

Beyond that, we should enlist and provision our top forward-looking scientists (Lord Martin Rees and Ray Kurzweil come to mind) to chart out the least dangerous paths technology could take, and the top students of human nature to find ways to strengthen our society, to buffer it against future shock, and to find ways to give everyone- from suicide bombers to North Korea- some form of hope for a more prosperous future. The promise of a better future for one's children makes all the difference. We should also spend significant resources on innovative ways to encourage the best and brightest upcoming minds into thinking about the future.

The increasing destructive power of technology is perhaps our largest challenge, and there's no way to put the genie back in the bottle (see Kurzweil, "The Singularity is Near"). But we can do things to channel where future technology goes. A good first step is to enact well-researched, foresighted laws and procedures governing proliferation of bio- and nano-tech, and to stay ahead of the technological curve with our policies, contrary to what we do now. There are many regulatory agencies that are not well-structured for dealing with the future, and we must not blink in completely tearing them down and building better ones in their place.

I apologize for using a tired metaphor, but we should view getting ready for the future as an undertaking at least as large in scale as the Apollo Project. And as we get started preparing for the future and reversing the mistakes of the past, it'll all happen fast: to quote Al Gore, "The political system, like the environment, is nonlinear ... In 1941 it was impossible for us to build 1,000 airplanes. In 1942 it was easy. As this pattern becomes ever more clear, there will be a rising public demand for action."

The second step in channeling technology is to setup a world body to enforce the technology laws we enact, and to go along with this, build a more-or-less automated system, having many many cross-referenced inputs, to find and track any situations where people, institutions, and governments are not following our bio- and nano-tech proliferation policies. We have somewhat ham-fisted and ineffectual precursers to this in place, but we should get away from such a body being an arm of government and try to structure it more efficiently, thoughtfully, and transparently- perhaps a mashup of Google and CERN.

The third step is to increasingly augment this hypothetical proliferation tracking system with artificial intelligence and distributed sensors, because as bio- and nano-tech get easier to make, the capacity to track who can (and has) made what becomes more and more difficult. Maturing bio- and nano-tech will also make space colonization both easier and more imperative, as you have noted.

Beyond that, it's difficult to predict what will happen. A lot could go wrong- but we also can throw an unparalleled amount of resources, top talent, and cutting-edge theory and technology into making a good go at things. Once our society realizes we actually are in trouble, you'll be amazed at how much can be done so quickly. And as Lord Rees has stated, despite the dangers technology brings, "there are grounds for being a techno-optimist."

Let's not count humankind out just yet.