Fearfully and wonderfully made

From an article on the human brain:

A typical, healthy one houses some 200 billion nerve cells, which are connected to one another via hundreds of trillions of synapses. Each synapse functions like a microprocessor, and tens of thousands of them can connect a single neuron to other nerve cells. In the cerebral cortex alone, there are roughly 125 trillion synapses, which is about how many stars fill 1,500 Milky Way galaxies.

via Human brain has more switches than all computers on Earth | Health Tech – CNET News.

HT:  First Thoughts

Religion blocks consumerism

In another odd experiment, it seems as if religious people are less susceptible to buying things according to their brand, which to secularists is often a means of enhancing status and self-worth:

Prof. Ron Shachar of Tel Aviv University’s Leon Recanati Graduate School of Business Administration says that a consumer’s religiosity has a large impact on his likelihood for choosing particular brands. Comsumers who are deeply religious are less likely to display an explicit preference for a particular brand, while more secular populations are more prone to define their self-worth through loyalty to corporate brands instead of religious denominations.

This research, in collaboration with Duke University and New York University scientists, recently appeared in the journal Marketing Science.

There is considerable statistical evidence that consumers buy particular brands to express who they are to the outside world, Prof. Shachar says. From clothing choices to cultural events, people communicate their personalities and values through their purchases.

Prof. Shachar and his fellow researchers decided to study the relationship between religiosity and brand reliance. . . .

Researchers discovered that those participants who wrote about their religion prior to the shopping experience were less likely to pick national brands when it came to products linked to appearance or self-expression — specifically, products which reflected status, such as fashion accessories and items of clothing. For people who weren’t deeply religious, corporate logos often took the place of religious symbols like a crucifix or Star of David, providing feelings of self-worth and well-being. According to Prof. Shachar, two additonal lab experiments done by this research team have demonstrated that like religiousity, consumers use brands to express their sense of self-worth.

via American Friends of Tel Aviv University: Shopping Religiously.

I suppose this simply proves that religious people are not as “worldly.”  It also suggests how pathetic it is to be “worldly,” having to turn to corporate logos as a substitute for religious symbols.

HT:  <a href=”http://www.futurepundit.com/archives/007649.html”>Future Pundit</a>

Cure for the common cold–and more

British researchers have made a breakthrough discovery that may not only lead to a cure for the common cold but for viral diseases in general.  It hinges upon a discovery that the human immune system is even more comprehensive than anyone dreamed, that it can even work within cells:

In a dramatic breakthrough that could affect millions of lives, scientists have been able to show for the first time that the body’s immune defences can destroy the common cold virus after it has actually invaded the inner sanctum of a human cell, a feat that was believed until now to be impossible.

The discovery opens the door to the development of a new class of antiviral drugs that work by enhancing this natural virus-killing machinery of the cell. Scientists believe the first clinical trials of new drugs based on the findings could begin within two to five years.

The researchers said that many other viruses responsible for a range of diseases could also be targeted by the new approach. They include the norovirus, which causes winter vomiting, and rotavirus, which results in severe diarrhoea and kills thousands of children in developing countries.

Viruses are still mankind’s biggest killers, responsible for twice as many deaths as cancer, essentially because they can get inside cells where they can hide away from the body’s immune defences and the powerful antibiotic drugs that have proved invaluable against bacterial infections.However, a study by a team of researchers from the world-famous Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge has shown that this textbook explanation of the limits of the human immune system is wrong because anti-viral antibodies can in fact enter the cell with the invading virus where they are able to trigger the rapid destruction of the foreign invader.

“In any immunology textbook you will read that once a virus makes it into a cell, that is game over because the cell is now infected. At that point there is nothing the immune response can do other than kill that cell,” said Leo James, who led the research team.

But studies at the Medical Research Council’s laboratory have found that the antibodies produced by the immune system, which recognise and attack invading viruses, actually ride piggyback into the inside of a cell with the invading virus.

Once inside the cell, the presence of the antibody is recognised by a naturally occurring protein in the cell called TRIM21 which in turn activates a powerful virus-crushing machinery that can eliminate the virus within two hours – long before it has the chance to hijack the cell to start making its own viral proteins. “This is the last opportunity a cell gets because after that it gets infected and there is nothing else the body can do but kill the cell,” Dr James said.

“The antibody is attached to the virus and when the virus gets sucked inside the cell, the antibody stays attached, there is nothing in that process to make the antibody to fall off.

“The great thing about it is that there shouldn’t be anything attached to antibodies in the cell, so that anything that is attached to the antibody is recognised as foreign and destroyed.”

In the past, it was thought that the antibodies of the immune system worked entirely outside the cells, in the blood and other extra-cellular fluids of the body. Now scientists realise that there is another layer of defence inside the cells where it might be possible to enhance the natural anti-virus machinery of the body.

“The beauty of it is that for every infection event, for every time a virus enters a cell, it is also an opportunity for the antibody in the cells to take the virus out,” Dr James said.

“That is the key concept that is different from how we think about immunity. At the moment we think of professional immune cells such as T-cells [white blood cells] that patrol the body and if they find anything they kill it.

“This system is more like an ambush because the virus has to go into the cell at some point and every time they do this, this immune mechanism has a chance of taking it out,” he explained.

“It’s certainly a very fast process. We’ve shown that once it enters the cell it gets degraded within an hour or two hours, that’s very fast,” he added.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved human cells cultured in the laboratory and will need to be replicated by further research on animals before the first clinical trials with humans.

One possibility is that the protein TRIM21 could be used in a nasal spray to combat the many types of viruses that cause the common cold. “The kind of viruses that are susceptible to this are the rhinoviruses, which cause the common cold, noravirus, which causes winter vomiting, rotavirus, which cause gastroenteritis. In this country these are the kind of viruses that people are most likely to be exposed to,” Dr James said.

via A cure for the common cold may finally be achieved as a result of a remarkable discovery in a Cambridge laboratory – Science, News – The Independent.

Cancer as a modern invention

A study of hundreds of Egyptian mummies and other ancient evidence has found virtually no cases of cancer, which first seems to turn up at the advent of the modern world.   Here are some of the conclusions from researchers:

Cancer is a man-made disease fuelled by the excesses of modern life, a study of ancient remains has found.

Tumours were rare until recent times when pollution and poor diet became issues, the review of mummies, fossils and classical literature found.

A greater understanding of its origins could lead to treatments for the disease, which claims more than 150,000 lives a year in the UK.

Scientists found no signs of cancer in their extensive study of mummies apart from one isolated case

Despite slivers of tissue from hundreds of Egyptian mummies being rehydrated, just one case of cancer has been confirmed. This is even though tumours should be better preserved by mummification than healthy tissues.

Fossil evidence is also sparse, with just a few dozen – mostly disputed – examples, Nature Reviews Cancer journal reports.

Even the study of thousands of Neanderthal bones has provided only one example of a possible cancer.

And references to cancer-like problems in ancient Egyptian texts are more likely to have been caused by leprosy or varicose veins.

Researcher Michael Zimmerman, a visiting professor at Manchester University, said: ‘The virtual absence of malignancies in mummies must be interpreted as indicating their rarity in antiquity. This indicates that cancer-causing factors are limited to societies affected by modern industrialisation.’

The ancient Greeks were probably the first to define cancer as a specific disease and to distinguish between benign and malignant tumours.

But researchers said it was unclear if this signalled a real rise in the disease, or just a greater medical knowledge.

The 17th century provides the first descriptions of surgery for breast and other cancers, while the first reports of distinctive tumours occurred in the past 200 years or so.

They include scrotal cancer in chimney sweeps in 1775 and nasal cancer in snuff users in 1761.

Co-researcher Professor Rosalie David said: ‘There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer.

‘So it has to be down to pollution and changes to diet and lifestyle.

‘The important thing about our study is that it gives a historical perspective to this disease.

via Cancer ‘is purely man-made’ say scientists after finding almost no trace of disease in Egyptian mummies | Mail Online.

Maslow’s hierarchy has a new pinnacle of human achievement

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been a landmark of psychology, used in education and even church ministries.  Now some psychologists are revising his model, making the pinnacle not “self-actualization” but, in the words of a Christianity Today column by Elrena Evans, “something more self-giving”:

Psychologists are considering a shift to famed psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Long a fixture in the training of educators and workforce managers, Maslow’s pyramid argues that humans’ basic needs (food, water, air, sleep) must be met before they can begin to seek other, “higher” fulfillments. It makes sense: bereft of basic needs, people can’t concentrate on bigger goals. I saw this pyramid again and again when in college, minoring in education, used to stress that a child who feels hungry, tired, and unsafe is really not going to care about learning algebra, and with good reason.

Now, though, a team of four researchers headed by Arizona State University social psychology professor Douglas T. Kenrick is challenging the top tier of Maslow’s pyramid. They write in a paper recently published in Perspectives on Psychological Science that Maslow’s ultimate goal, the pinnacle of human achievement, is not “self-actualization” or the accomplishment of such higher-order functions as creativity, problem-solving, and morality. It is — wait for it — parenting.

via Her.meneutics: Why Parenting May Be Your ‘Highest’ Calling.

The reasoning is evolutionary:  Life’s biological goal cannot be self-focused, but has to be the perpetuation of the species.  Still, I think the re-focus is more in line with Christianity.   To get our moral thinking away from righteousness being just private conformity to rules and instead being an orientation to other people–loving and serving one’s neighbor– would be a big advance, and I’m glad if Maslow can help towards that end.

Indeed, the old hierarchy included “morality” but classified that as “self-actualization” rather than as loving and serving the neighbor.  Even non-parents can find the “pinnacle” of life in selfless service, since it  animates not just parenthood but all vocations.

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?


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