Thank a mosquito. . .

Next time you get bit by a mosquito, do not swat him. Rather, thank him for your freedom!  Yesterday marked the 229th anniversary of George Washington’s victory over the British at Yorktown, which meant that American independence was won.  This fascinating piece by J. R. McNeill credits the lowly and much-hated mosquito for this otherwise unlikely turn of events:

Major combat operations in the American Revolution ended 229 years ago on Oct. 19, at Yorktown. For that we can thank the fortitude of American forces under George Washington, the siegecraft of French troops of Gen. Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, the count of Rochambeau – and the relentless bloodthirstiness of female Anopheles quadrimaculatus mosquitoes.

Those tiny amazons conducted covert biological warfare against the British army. Female mosquitoes seek mammalian blood to provide the proteins they need to make eggs. No blood meal, no reproduction. It makes them bold and determined to bite.

Some anopheles mosquitoes carry the malaria parasite, which they can inject into human bloodstreams when taking their meals. In eastern North America, A. quadrimaculatus was the sole important malaria vector. It carried malaria from person to person, and susceptible humans carried it from mosquito to mosquito. In the 18th century, no one suspected that mosquitoes carried diseases.

Malaria, still one of the most deadly infectious diseases in the world, was a widespread scourge in North America until little more than a century ago. The only people resistant to it were either those of African descent – many of whom had inherited genetic traits that blocked malaria from doing its worst – or folks who had already been infected many times, acquiring resistance the hard way. In general, the more bouts you survive, the more resistant you are.

via How mosquitoes helped swarm the redcoats at Yorktown.

The article goes on to explain how the British troops, with no immunity to malaria, were incapacitated by the disease, while the colonial troops, especially the Southerners who had already survived bouts with the mosquito-borne malady, were relatively immune.

Procreation without sex

British biologist Robert G. Edwards won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Medicine for developing the technique of in vitro fertilization.  Beginning in 1978, some 4 million children were born who were conceived outside the womb.

Robert G. Edwards’s breakthrough development of in vitro fertilization, which led to the birth of the first “test-tube baby,” Louise Brown, in 1978, gave humanity the power to do what previously was considered the province of God: create and manipulate human life.

In the ensuing decades, the pioneering techniques that won the British biologist a Nobel Prize on Monday have played a part in controversial scientific advances such as cloning and the creation of human embryonic stem cells while redefining fundamental social roles such as what it means to be a parent or a family.

“The impact on society has been profound,” said Lori B. Andrews of the Chicago-Kent College of Law, who studies reproductive technologies. “The creation of a child outside the body for the first time has had scientific and personal implications far, far beyond the 4 million children who have been born through in vitro fertilization.”

via Robert Edwards wins 2010 Nobel prize in medicine for in-vitro fertizilation.

I’m not saying that this technology is in itself wrong to use. The biggest problem with it is the engendering of “extra” embryos who are left frozen or killed for their stem cells.  But consider “the impact on society” and where we might go from here.

With birth control technology, people can have sex without procreation.  With in vitro technology, people can have procreation without sex.   Does this render the family technologically obsolete?  With no necessary natural function, is it reduced to just a companionship group?

Mental experiment:  An artificial womb is invented.  Will women  still want to go through pregnancy and labor?  (Would you?)  Or will society take advantage of the opportunity to manufacture whatever children are needed and no more?   Would we still take care of them in family units, or would this task fall to a state institution?   Or would everything just go along as it does today, with marriage and parenthood, but without the unpleasantness of childbearing?

Human experimentation

Apparently, the climate of eugenics, euthanasia, racism, and “life not worth living” was current in the United States in the 1940’s, just as it was in Hitler’s Germany. Look what government scientists did in Guatemala:

U.S. government medical researchers intentionally infected hundreds of people in Guatemala, including institutionalized mental patients, with gonorrhea and syphilis without their knowledge or permission more than 60 years ago.

Many of those infected were encouraged to pass the infection onto others as part of the study.

About one third of those who were infected never got adequate treatment.

On Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius offered extensive apologies for actions taken by the U.S. Public Health Service.

“The sexually transmitted disease inoculation study conducted from 1946-1948 in Guatemala was clearly unethical,” according to the joint statement from Clinton and Sebelius. “Although these events occurred more than 64 years ago, we are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health. We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices.” . . .

According to [Susan] Reverby’s report, the Guatemalan project was co-sponsored by the U.S. Public Health Service, the NIH, the Pan-American Health Sanitary Bureau (now the Pan American Health Organization) and the Guatemalan government. The experiments involved 696 subjects — male prisoners and female patients in the National Mental Health Hospital.

The researchers were trying to determine whether the antibiotic penicillin could prevent syphilis infection, not just cure it, Reverby writes. After the subjects were infected with the syphilis bacteria — through visits with prostitutes who had the disease and direct inoculations — it is unclear whether they were later cured or given proper medical care, Reverby notes. While most of the patients got treatment, experts estimate as many as one-third, did not.

The mindset that saw nothing wrong with this persists today in the broad acceptance of experimentation on human embryos.

HT: Webmonk

Obama’s stem cell policy overturned

President Obama’s stem cell policy allows human embryos to be destroyed so their stem cells can be “harvested.”  But a federal court has overturned that policy:

A U.S. district court issued a preliminary injunction on Monday stopping federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research, in a slap to the Obama administration’s new guidelines on the sensitive issue.

The court ruled in favor of a suit filed in June by researchers who said human embryonic stem cell research involved the destruction of human embryos.

Judge Royce Lamberth granted the injunction after finding the lawsuit would likely succeed because the guidelines violated law banning the use of federal funds to destroy human embryos.

“(Embryonic stem cell) research is clearly research in which an embryo is destroyed,” Lamberth wrote in a 15-page ruling. The Obama administration could appeal his decision or try to rewrite the guidelines to comply with U.S. law.

The suit against the National Institutes of Health, backed by some Christian groups opposed to embryo research, argued the NIH policy violated U.S. law and took funds from researchers seeking to work with adult stem cells.

via U.S. court rules against Obama’s stem cell policy | Reuters.

Old people are both wise and happy

Empirical research is finding evidence that old people are not only wiser than younger people  (a traditional belief) but also that they are happier too (which may seem counterintuitive):

Contrary to largely gloomy cultural perceptions, growing old brings some benefits, notably emotional and cognitive stability. Laura Carstensen, a Stanford social psychologist, calls this the “well-being paradox.” Although adults older than 65 face challenges to body and brain, the 70s and 80s also bring an abundance of social and emotional knowledge, qualities scientists are beginning to define as wisdom. As Carstensen and another social psychologist, Fredda Blanchard-Fields of the Georgia Institute of Technology, have shown, adults gain a toolbox of social and emotional instincts as they age. According to Blanchard-Fields, seniors acquire a feel, an enhanced sense of knowing right from wrong, and therefore a way to make sound life decisions.

That may help explain the finding that old age correlates with happiness. A study published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found a U-shaped relationship between happiness and age: Adults were happiest in youth and again in their 70s and early 80s, and least happy in middle age. A 2007 University of Chicago study similarly concluded that rates of happiness — “the degree to which a person evaluates the overall quality of his present life positively” — crept upward from age 65 to 85 and beyond, in both sexes.

via Researchers find that wisdom and happiness increase as people grow older.

Read the rest of the article for the details and the evidence that points to these conclusions.  But how can that be?  What about the breakdown of the body, the loss of faculties, the facing of death?  And yet, even as I grow closer to that stage, I can see it.

Tom Sawyer’s ADHD and other disorders

Anne Applebaum cites scenes from Mark Twain and concludes that if Tom Sawyer were alive today, we would medicate him into submission:

Try, if you can, to strip away the haze of nostalgia and sentiment through which we generally perceive Mark Twain’s world, and imagine how a boy like Tom Sawyer would be regarded today. As far as I can tell, that fight is not just “inappropriate behavior,” to use current playground terminology, but is also one of the many symptoms of “oppositional defiant disorder” (ODD), a condition that Tom manifests throughout the book.

And Tom is not merely ODD: He clearly has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as well, judging by his inability to concentrate in school. “The harder Tom tried to fasten his mind on his book, the more his mind wandered,” Twain writes at one point. Unable to focus (“Tom’s heart ached to be free”) he starts playing with a tick. This behavior is part of a regular pattern: A few days earlier in church (where he had to sit “as far away from the open window and the seductive outside summer scenes as possible”), Tom had been unable to pay attention to the sermon and played with a pinch bug instead.

In fact, Tom manifests many disturbing behaviors. He blames his half-brother for his poor decisions, demonstrating an inability to take responsibility for his actions. He provokes his peers, often using aggression. He deliberately ignores rules and demonstrates defiance toward adults. He is frequently dishonest, at one point even pretending to be dead. Worst of all, he skips school — behavior that might, in time, lead him to be diagnosed with conduct disorder (CD), from which his friend Huck Finn clearly suffers.

I am not being entirely sarcastic here: I have reread both “Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” several times in recent years, precisely because Twain draws such fascinating portraits of children whose behavior is familiar, even if we now describe it differently. As a mother of boys, I find this weirdly reassuring: Although ADHD and ODD are often dismissed as recently “invented” disorders, they describe personality types and traits that have always existed. A certain kind of boy has always had trouble paying attention in school. A certain kind of boy has always picked fights with friends, gone smoking in the woods and floated down the river on rafts.

In previous eras, such behavior was just as problematic for adults as it is today. Poor old Aunt Polly — how many times does she “fall to crying and wringing her hands”? To cope with Tom, she seeks names for his disorder — he is “full of the Old Scratch,” meaning the devil — and searches for ways to control him (“Spare the rod and spile the child,” she tells herself).

But if the behavior or actions of the children and the parents are familiar, the society surrounding them is not. Tom Sawyer turns out fine in the end. In 19th-century Missouri, there were still many opportunities for impulsive kids who were bored and fidgety in school: The very qualities that made him so tiresome — curiosity, hyperactivity, recklessness — are precisely the ones that get him the girl, win him the treasure and make him a hero. Even Huck Finn is all right at the end of his story. Although he never learns to tolerate “sivilization,” he knows he can head out to “Indian territory,” to the empty West, where even the loose rules of Missouri life won’t have to be followed.

Nothing like that is available to children who don’t fit in today. Instead of striking out into the wilderness like Huck Finn, they get sent to psychologists and prescribed medication — if they are lucky enough to have parents who can afford that sort of thing. Every effort will rightly be made to help them pay attention, listen to the teacher, stop picking fights in the playground. Nowadays, there aren’t any other options.

via Anne Applebaum – Tom Sawyer and today’s children: Same behavior, different treatment.