Thinking back to the beginning of humankind, what a strange event it must have been to ‘awake’ as a conscious creature. Just imagine, what a strange thing for an organic being of tissue and bone to consider its own purpose — for the first time. At the beginning of culture, there must have been discussions of how best to do things — how do you even do things, when there is no historical precedent? Imagine the first funeral (what to do with the dead?); the first painting (why depict anything at all?); the first idea of a god (why was there such a need to seek explanation, when other animals need none?).
It’s the last Sunday of September. I don’t know where all the time has gone! It seemed like summer was stretching forward, indefinitely, with promises of adventures yet to come…! It is always somewhat forlornly that one thinks back of all those beautiful summer eves that were spent doing nothing at all, since there was another day just another peaceful sleep away.
September is when Autumn inches forward and somehow, every year, manages to catch you by surprise. This year’s September has been wonderfully sunny, and this weekend was no exception. Having lingered around most of the morning, and having had a traditional Swedish pancake lunch (fried in butter until golden, and served with a sprinkle of sugar on top), I ventured out into the sunshine.
Following winding footpaths across fields and through villages, I found myself full of energy — making a brisk September countryside walk the perfect end to the week.
The local farm had some gorgeous sunflowers shining in the afternoon sun, and I noticed that the walnut trees in the background were full of fruit. I’ve been living in the UK for six years, to the week, but I’m still childishly fascinated by the ‘exotic’ trees and plants that thrive in English soil.
My walk reached its end in a local village, where I had a look around before turning back. Walking around the not-yet familiar streets and pedestrian footpaths, I had a feeling of having arrived somewhere, even if it wasn’t the plan. Sometimes such things just happen, with no foresight to guide the way. To me, it just added to the feeling of adventure.
The local church had organ music streaming through it’s open doors, adding to a feeling of familiarity. Village people were comings or an evening prayer, tracing the path from their own dwellings onto that of the church. Though not religious myself, I do appreciate the sense of community that a shared ritual such as Holy Day worship must bring. To me, organ music brings back memories of the last day of school, and all the excitement of freedom soon to be had.
I must remember for next year to make better use of the summer evening light, for it is gone so fast. September is when Autumn inches in on you,when days grow shorter, and when evening shadows grow longer, no matter how fast you walk.
Heading homewards, I brushed against blackberries, regretting not having brought a bag to collect them in. I remember an evening with a fiend, when I filled my hands with foraged berries till I could hold no more,, and returned home to make delicious crumble. Instead, I listened to chickens cooing, and admired the gilded hills in the sunset distance, all the while wondering what’s meant to be done with all the sloes.
It is very quiet over the fields in the early evening, although the cry of a gull from the calm lake can be heard over the hedgerows. Getting closer, I could see rabbits bounding, bright cottontails in the grass. A fox ran past, chasing them, but more like a farmer shoos his sheep than a predator stalking its prey. A few foraged apples that had found their way into my pockets found a purpose as a stranger’s gift to a glossy, brown horse.
There was a post over at the Science-Based Medicine (SBM) blog that discussed ‘placebo’ laws that try to cater to the interest of giving terminally ill patients the opportunity to try experimental treatments, as a very last chance and resort.
On the face of it, these kind of laws fall into the category of ‘what harm can it do?’, and seem both sensible and humanitarian. The good people over at SMB have however put these laws into a bigger context, revealing them to be more driven by ideology than humanitarian concerns.
However interesting the placebo right-to-try laws might be, the discussion in the post that really caught my interest was the interaction between the author of the SBM blog post with their government representatives, and the relationship between the government representatives and the people whom they represent.
All too often, it seems, that legislation is driven more by popularity (right-to-try laws seem humanitarian, and therefore you come across as being a non-humanitarian is you oppose them, and therefore have to support them to seem like a humane human being), causing legislators to cater less to the sensibilities of experts and more to the emotions of the deme whom they represent.
To me, allowing passion to triumph over logic is a travesty, although I recognise that it is an inevitable outcome of any democratic system. Human beings are passionate creatures, and often driven by emotion; emotion giving rise to the fallacy that what feels right must also be right.
At its core, I suspect that this fallacy is the reason why contemporary democracies have not been completely successful in creating a truly humanitarian environment for people to exist in, because it operates on the mistaken assumption that people (the deme) know what they want, and that they are capable of operating logically without being overcome by emotion.
The current system of democracy, where people vote to appoint representatives to represent them, is therefore vulnerable to emotional exploitation, allowing the representatives who most resonates with the deme (rather than the most sensible) to be elected.
Because of this, the prelude to any election is indistinguishable from any popularity contest, where representatives exploit the emotions of the deme to remain in power. To me, this preposition seems absurd.
The preposition is absurd because any system of government that allows people to elect their own representatives operates under the assumption that people know what is best for them. But how is this possible when sense is often obscured by emotion?
Although I am not a political philosopher, by any means, a system of government that is run by the people doesn’t seem much like a system of government at all. The clue lies in the word ‘government’, which is derived from the root ‘to govern’. The word ‘govern’ (in the context of politics) refers to:
the exercise of political authority; the exercise of running a government; of exercising a determining influence; of controlling actions or behaviour.
These definitions seem to me to refer more to a system of experienced mentoring, where the government-deme relationship is analogous to a teacher-student or parent-child relationship; where experience (sense, logic) is the drive that triumphs over emotion; where government representatives are the sobriety that prevents intoxicated passion from going astray.
This relationship makes the issue of government in democracy reminiscent of the question of who is the sensible part in a teacher-student relationship: is it the student, or the teacher? Student-led learning puts the student in control; it being a system where the taught part is in control of the teacher. Although this a system that is becoming increasingly popular (just think of the ubiquitous questionnaires and rankings that prioritise the student ‘experience’ over actual academic outcomes), there is little testament to its efficacy, as student-led learning misappropriates the nature of the teacher-student relationship; it being a relationship where sober sense (experience) is in charge of intoxicated passion (inexperience).
And the situation is the same in the parent-child relationship, where the parent acts as a benign tyrant, whose experience seeks to control the follies of the child. A relationship that puts the child in control of the parent is doomed to fail, as the two parties (the parent and the child) have different motivations. Whereas the child seeks to maximise its own pleasure (being driven by emotion), the parent seeks to maximise the functionality of both (being driven by sense). These two juxtaposed aspirations are not compatible to more than a degree, and to maximise well-being sense must always triumph over emotion. A child whose emotions are constantly satisfied will not be maximally functional — just consider the reason why calling a child ‘spoilt’ is rarely a compliment (associated with undesirable adjectives like ‘rotten’, for example).
When it comes to issues like democracy and government, I don’t understand why the deme is supposed to remain in power, reducing the role of government to catering to the emotions of the people. Why is government different from teaching or parenting? Isn’t the very purpose of a representative democracy that the educated and experienced should be appointed to lead the less experienced and educated — allowing the knowledge and sensibilities of the few to benefit the many?
What is it about Western culture and political history that causes people and governments to both want their cake and eat it too; of appointing puppet representatives that allow the many to lead the many through the few? Logically, it’s like the issue with two negatives making a positive, allowing democracy to become a kind of structured anarchy.
It’s a man’s world out there, that much is for sure. Although this traditionally has been the case, with plenty of cultural practices and social expectations preventing women from truly realising themselves, change is in the air, and the post-industrialised (and secularised, may I add) society is becoming increasingly egalitarian. However, although things are moving in the right direction, it can be slow at times, and a current issue that keeps being highlighted is the lack of women in prominent positions in society.
I have very mixed feelings about this latter issue: that for all our progressive Enlightenment values, women still remain an underprivileged minority in relation to men. While I don’t deny that a degree of sexism seems ingrained in Western society (for which I blame the legacy of Christianity, in no small part), I am sceptical that the current measures that are being taken are enough to fix, or even ameliorate, the issue. Although I don’t have any data to back it up, I suspect that the lack of women in positions of power is more complicated than the media leads us to believe, and that it involves both biological and psychological causes, in addition to the social ones that take most of the limelight.
Not only do I believe that specific occupations have a tendency to select for specific personalities (analytical in academia; caring in childcare, teaching and medicine; etc.), I also believe that the frequency distribution of specific personalities is going to differ between the sexes (although exceptions, as always, always, do exist), since I strongly believe that sex is a biological, and not social, construct at its core — regardless of what sociologists want for us to believe. And although the ever-increasing numbers of women entering traditionally male-dominated occupations such as academia (wherein I am myself a young woman in the early stages of my career), suggest that these biological bases have yet to be properly delineated, I believe that they are at the core of the issue, as, at the end of the day (before the in vitro pregnancy has been developed and perfected and put into practise) it is going to be women who carry babies and bring them to term. And no sociological waffling or social accommodation can change that painful, biological, fact.
Until this inherent inequality has been properly addressed, alongside everything that is associated with conception, pregnancy and childcare, no society can consider itself perfectly egalitarian. Part of my mixed feelings about the issue however relate to my failure to understand why such a perfectly egalitarian society is seen as the utopia towards which we should strive? In my eyes, the argument that women and men should enjoy equal opportunities is, on one hand, obvious, and on the other, self-contradictory. Whereas I don’t believe that women (or men) should be under-privileged because of an issue that is outside their control (like their sex), I also do not believe that we should create a society where everyone is the same; where individuality has to give way to homogenous equality. Rather, I’d prefer to see a society where differences matter; where people are allowed to capitalise on their individual assets and personal aspirations; where we don’t try to herd people into pens where they’d prefer not to be.
So, that’s why I am incredibly sceptical of the next ‘big thing’ that has been proposed to reduce the inequalities that exist between women and men: the fact that women’s career prospects are often marred by the desire to have a family and can be fixed by prioritising one (career) over the other (family) by allowing a woman to freeze her eggs. In truth, this suggestion seems, (at least to me) to be incredibly misinformed: it’s a feeble (and dangerous) attempt to allow women to become more like men, rather than to address the real underlying issues: that (at present) having a career is in many ways incompatible with family life.
Personally, I think the problem of balancing work with family is because the many of the expectations of the professional world developed during a time when men were the dominant sex in the workforce: where a career is forged from hard work and long hours — which was possible for the traditionally bread-winning husband, and currently for the single or childless professional. These expectations are however less compatible with having children: dependent human beings who muddy the waters and complicate the work-family equation.
The answer to the inequality between professional men and women is not to give women the ‘opportunity’ (a blessing, which is really a curse in disguise) to work longer hours: that is to validate the professional life of a man, rather than to empower the professional woman. Just like there are women in top positions (again, there are always exceptions) who willingly chose their career over their family, there are going to be women who jump at the offer of having her employer freeze her eggs. But these women are never going to be representative of women overall, where many are going to choose to prioritise family over their career (as I will myself do, at some point down the line), rather than to postpone pregnancy and family life until a more ‘convenient’ time.
In fact, I find the entire suggestion of freezing eggs ludicrously sexist, for it solves nothing, and only provides the sneering suggestion that women can only be equal to men if they try to emulate the traditional male lifestyle of staying away from the family and the home to focus on personal development and career progression. As a woman, I find the prospect offensive, and if I ever were to be employed by a company that suggested such a thing — that I forfeit my own nature to progress — I would seriously contemplate a change of employer.
In truth, the only way that society can become truly egalitarian is not to force women to become men (or men to become women), but to recognise and accommodate the needs of both. And for that we need a change of culture, and that involves not rewarding the self-sacrificing workaholic, but to reward the person who manages to strike a healthy balance between the demands of work and family life — and to make it at all possible. And that involves to not expect women (or men) with small children to put in the same amount of hours as their child-less peers at work (unlimited paid sick-days if your child falls ill, anyone?), and to encourage men to take part in the raising of children (paid paternity leave, anyone?).
To encourage women to freeze their eggs is validate the very system that the egg-freezing wishes to oppose: by allowing women to become equal to men by the sly suggestion that being a woman (rather than a man) just isn’t good enough.
And that’s not even getting into the many risks and disappointments that are involved with freezing your eggs and having them fertilised in vitro before implantation…
Magdalen College stands on the west side of Magdalen Bridge, and towers over all those who enter the city of Oxford from the East. For many visitors, it is their first impression of Oxford, and I am no different. I first visited Oxford in spring 2012, and arrived on bus 280, from Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, where I lived at the time. I was so taken by the experience that when the time came for me to make arrangements for my doctoral studies, I applied to membership of Magdalen, and to my great delight, I was among the select fortunates who were allowed to become a member of its student body.
One of the privileges of being a student member of Magdalen college, is the opportunity to climb the Tower, when the weather so allows. Members of my MCR had arranged to bring new students up the tower at various times during the week, although none of them had suited my busy introductory schedule. As so often in life, opportunities come along when you least expect them to, and so it happened that it was an overcast Saturday in October, the morning thereof I had spent in my department (as doctoral students are wont to do). On my way back home with a weekend’s worth of reading bundled up, I strolled past my college for lunch. That’s when I caught word of a climb being planned for 1 o’clock, and having swiftly finished my lunch, I found the great Tower gate unlocked, and was able to join my fellow graduate students and eagerly climb the steep (and frighteningly narrow!) set of stairs that spiral their way up-up-up the Tower.
By the time we reached the top the sun was out, brightly greeting us as we emerged from a narrow little door that leads onto the Tower roof. Although I found the climb rather unpleasant (too narrow, and too steep!), my persistence was rewarded with a remarkable and sunny early-autumn view of Oxford that was too good not to share…!
Again, the blog (website) whyevolutionistrue brought a topic to my attention, where Matthew Cobb (of the University of Manchester) asked if there is any justification for trying to recreate a deadly virus. I left a comment on the post with my own thoughts on the matter, and thought I’d also post them here, for the record.
The question asked by Professor Cobb was inspired by a recent paper by Watanabe et al. (2014) [PDF] in Cell Host & Microbe, where a group of US and Japanese scientists report that they “generated and characterized a virus composed of avian influenza viral segments with high homology” to the flu virus which was responsible for the 1918 flu pandemic. To do this the authors identified genetic sequences in contemporary strains of flu whose protein products were structurally similar to those of the 1918 virus, and then using these sequences to re-engineer a virus similar to the original 1918 virus, with the aim of assessing its pathogenic potential. They argue that this is necessary in order to understand what made the 1918 virus so deadly, which will help to prevent and mitigate future pandemics caused by similar viruses in the future. This is logically justified as there is a plethora of flu viruses in circulation, some of which contain sequences similar to those of more pathogenic viruses. As different flu viruses are capable of exchanging genetic information upon co-infection of a host cell, this means that there exists a possibility of new and ‘improved’ viruses emerging, that combine the infectious properties of both parent strains.
Schematic depiction of an influenza virus particle, where a protein shell protects a cargo of coiled RNA, which contains the genetic information for producing more virus particles upon invasion and infection of a host cell. Image from the Centre for Disease Control (http://www.cdc.gov/flu/images.htm).
As a (trainee) geneticist, I see the merit of this work, as it is by understanding the structure of the preoteins that compose a flu virus that allows us to understand its biology and function: how it evades the host immune system, how it infects host cells, how it replicates therein, and how it is transmitted to new hosts. This is possible as a flu virus is little more than a macromolecular ribonucleic-protein structure. To understand how its different components function is essential to understanding how the virus particle itself functions, and how its infectious properties emerge, and this is the focus of much research on the structure of infectious viruses. Therefore, the study of a highly infectious virus, such as the 1918 virus, or a re-constituted strain, allows us to understand what set these viruses apart from more benign strains and inform us of critical structural changes that underlie the increased pathogenic potential of some viral strains over others. This is classical genetics, where knowledge and understanding is derived from the comparison of structural differences, and the functional differences that result. Ideally, such research will inform us of critical structures that govern and modify the infectivity of viruses, to help us identify promising targets for new drugs. The ultimate aim of such research is, of course, to prevent and treat infection in the future.
As a (wannabe) philosopher of science, I find it harder to justify this kind of work, as virologists have been studying the structure of flu viruses for decades, with very few breakthrough discoveries (such as the design and/or discovery of effective drugs) having resulted. In science this is often the case, as it progresses incrementally by accumulating information about detailed specifics, but without resulting in a higher-level understanding of how these specifics influence general mechanisms. When it comes to flu virology, the field is still awaiting its ‘eureka’ moment where all the pieces fall into place and the biology of a flu virus becomes easily characterised just by looking at its component parts. As the matter stands, we’re not there just yet: whilst we understand the flu virus in detail, it’s not sufficiently to be of any practical use to us. Without virologists understanding the biology of the average flu virus sufficiently to treat and prevent infection and epidemics by annual, benign strains, how can we expect them to gain any constructive understanding of more pathogenic strains? Considering the risks involved with working with highly pathogenic virus strains with pandemic potential, it seems ill-advised to generate these in the laboratory when there is no real benefit to be derived from such work to justify it being carried out in the first place.
As with everything in life and science, it is important to understand the basics before you move on to more complicated tasks. Failure to do so seems, to me, more like mis-guided and self-serving sensationalism without a genuine purpose, rather than well-guided science for the common good. So to answer the original question: is there any justification for trying to recreate a deadly virus?, no, there isn’t. Not yet.