A Basic Biological Understanding of Cancer

The p53 gene engaged in DNA repair

The p53 gene is classified as a tumor suppressor gene, and is nicknamed “the guardian of the genome” because it will activate apoptosis if there is any DNA damage. If a mutation in the p53 gene causes impaired function or loss of function, other mutations can build up quickly, and a cancer will develop rapidly.

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When Change is Painful

In the novel Beloved, by Toni Morrison, a family is tortured by the past, and yet torn apart by change. In the beginning of the novel they live in isolation, attempting to ignore and forget the traumas that have haunted them for decades. They are ex-slaves who have trouble coping with painful memories, and with developing their own identities. They are petrified by the inability to accept their horrific past, and to build something new. The early reconstruction period was difficult for the ex-slaves, who suddenly had the legal and social right to live independently. Not only had they been culturally deprived of the knowledge and means to function, but traumatic memories created a paralysis in many groups. Morrison shows that the reconciliation of painful memories is itself a painful and arduous process, but it is absolutely necessary.

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Natural Evils and Artificial Ones

Sandman Vol. 5

In Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman (Volume 5), the epic plot centers around a young woman named Barbie as she travels through the dream world to stop “The Cuckoo” from killing everyone inside. Despite the morbid xenocide that takes place, we learn in the end that the Cuckoo is not in fact, evil, but that her actions are merely part of her nature. And in the same pages we discover that the witch, Thessaly, who is initially presented as a co-heroine, is actually wicked. This wrestling with the nature of evil is the principal revelation of the book. Though it principally focuses on a single moral lesson, its aesthetic and philosophical relevance lie far beyond this single plot. Gaiman deals with the many paradoxes of being human–the moral one only being the most prevalent.

Perhaps the difference between Thessaly and the Cuckoo, is that the Cuckoo’s perceived evil is in balance with Nature; by contrast, Thessaly, the witch’s ambition lies far beyond her reach. Thessaly draws down the moon in order to transport her to the dream world. She claims ownership, and demands his obedience. The moon warns her, “You have disrupted the order of things […] One day there will be a reckoning” (Gaiman 88). We do not know just how soon this reckoning will come.

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Looking Forward

Soon, I’ll have a couple essays from finals rolling through here. So stay posted and you’ll see some great criticism and discussion of Sandman Volume 5; the historical Jesus; and faith bases in schools. You might also get a few posts on physics, metaphysics, biology, theology, and philosophy.  

I am so excited for Jessi and I to start the rest of our lives together! We are getting married 29 days, and if we save up enough money this summer, we’ll be going to london for my master’s program. Then I will be writing a lot more frequently about science in particular. 

PANIC

Half cut vision searches aimlessly for an unknown hope.

Clenched fists’ clutch could render dust from brick.

Smother struggle like deep under water.

Lose grip like sand through an unclasped hand:

Each grain, a memory which painfully sticks in our clothes and does not wash out.

Abrasive on our delicate and vulnerable skin.

The suffocating coat weighed down in the ocean of tears.

Words cannot escape my cantaloupe throat.

Feeling like a giant shishkabob

Skewered on the rotation of the earth.

Damage wished into existence but never leaves the mind.

Holes left agape in one’s brain.

–Force shut down–

 

Why carry your baggage young augur?

Your coat of precious fleece and common cotton?

Is it not clear yet, that you cannot move?

Slide your arms (first) out with ease, and let your shoulders deep release. 

Genetic Determinants of Behavior

There has been a debate amongst the sciences since time immemorial. Artists of antiquity argued viciously over the source of inspiration. Some thought creativity was heritable, some thought it was a learned quality, and some thought it was the result of literal possession by spirits. Even in modern times, the humanities are split on the issue of ‘Nature vs. Nurture’; though the sciences call the debate ‘Genes vs. Environment’.

 

This debate is a bit archaic; we know that a combination of genes and environment are intricately entwined in human behavior. As Pinker explains in The Blank Slate, we can infer from common sense that genes do play a significant role in cognition. Parents can attest that their newborn children come into the world with different temperaments and talents. Children will learn human language when exposed to it, whereas pets will not. And most of us would say that the minds of men and women are not indistinguishable.

 

Contrariwise, it is also common sense that genes cannot be completely deterministic. Embryos still require a mother’s womb to develop in; and language acquisition still requires exposure to adult, native speakers. Our minds are preconditioned to develop certain ways, and at certain times. However, the structures and processes involved in cognition have a tremendous amount of complexity, leaving human behavior practically impossible to model. This paper will explore the extent to which genetic influences on behavior have been correlated.

 

Part of the problem in assessing genetic determinism is that a behavior which appears to be heritable does not mean that it is genetic, it could be tribal (learned within the family), or cultural (due to similar environmental experiences). Thus, conclusive studies typically must incorporate gene sequencing, though identical twin studies bypass this need. This produces another issue. We know from genetic studies with physiological traits that it is simple to find genes for traits when only one or two variations exist in the gene. But for neurology, many more genes can contribute to the expression of singular traits.

 

According to the Human Genome Project website, the genetic basis of many traits have been uncovered: right and left handedness, hand clasping pattern, arm folding preference, ability to move ears, recognition of pitch, stuttering, ability to curl, fold, or roll the tongue; anxiety, risk-taking, and novelty-seeking. Many diseases have simple genetic profiles. Some studies corroborate genetic influences in susceptibility to cancer, diabetes, other diseases, addiction, and alcoholism. There is also genetic evidence surrounding violence, intelligence, and sexual orientation. These issues tend to provoke controversy over social justice, therapy, eugenics, and legal defense. Are criminals responsible for their actions if their genes ‘made them do it’? Is it ethical to ‘cure’ sexual predispositions, or is it immoral? Do parents have a right to ‘engineer’ their children? The ethical extent of these considerations depends largely on the technology at hand, and the quality of the science conducted. As our technology grows faster, our understanding of the world grows with it. An inevitable increase in choices forces the development of new ethical questions about their use, and their effects. However, such ethical considerations are beyond the scope of this paper.

 

According to a study in Samoa, one evolutionary explanation for homosexuality is that a gene increases a sexual orientation towards men, regardless of the individual’s gender. Females with the gene have more children than women without the gene. This compensates for the men who choose to be celibate or homosexual, and eliminate themselves from the gene pool (VanderLaan et al p. 4). Theoretically, there is no reason for an opposite gene to not exist as well. Other explanations exist but have not yet been corroborated.

Genes correlated to violence have been sought for a long time, but whenever a study comes out the results are almost always debated. There are many small genetic correlations to violence, but each only composes a small fraction of the criminal population. It is known that men with XYY genes tend to be more aggressive and masculine. People with a particular variation of the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene have decreased dopamine levels and increased likelihood of criminal and delinquent behavior (Fox).

A ‘smart gene’ was purported to be found in rats in a study in 1942, conducted by Robert Tryon. He selectively bred his rats into groups which solved mazes more quickly and made fewer mistakes, and those that made more mistakes and solved mazes less quickly. After 21 generations, he claimed to have generated a ‘bright’ and a ‘dull’ strain of lab rats. However, while he showed that their performance was genetic, he was wrong to conclude that intelligence was genetic. As was pointed out by many critics, the behavior could have physiological roots rather than neurological ones, such as bad vision or weaker leg muscle.

Since then, genetic studies with ‘smart rats’ reveal that a variant of the NR2B gene increases memory capacity or speed in the hippocampus. This gene produces CaMKII protein, opening synapses for milliseconds longer, significantly improving short term and long term memory formation (ScienceDaily). However, learning does not necessarily equate to intelligence. The precise definition of intelligence is still widely debated in the scientific community.

The ‘staggerer’ mutation is a point deletion in the ROR gene, found in rats. It is responsible in cerebellum development and function (Steinmayr). It is a highly conserved region of DNA. This would make sense evolutionarily, because movement is a crucial survival component in phylum chordata.

One of the most helpful kinds of studies are identical twins separated at birth. This eliminates the need to conduct gene sequencing. However, this likewise still presents a challenge in sifting out genetic causes from environmental stimulus. James Springer and James Lewis (separated at birth) had each married women named Linda, and then divorced and married women named Betty.  They both became sheriffs, and both had skills in mechanical drawing and carpentry. They both had sons whom one named James Alan and the other named James Allan with two L’s. They both had a dog and named it Toy. Both drove pale blue Chevrolets. They both smoked Salem cigarettes, and drank Miller Lite. They were prone to migraines and were chronic nail biters (Never Say Always). Every study of identical twins separated at birth show some remarkable similarities.

What identical twin studies show in general is that style and preference are largely rooted in genetics. It was commonly thought that such emotional dispositions were more individualized and environmental, and is still thought to be so by many scholars. Twins themselves say that while they share eerie similarities, they still have different life stories, and unique identities. Twins express the same posture and dance the same way because of their physiological similarities. Monozygotic twins (fraternal) share 50% of their genes, but their behavioral similarities are commonly thought to be associated with conditions in the womb of the mother.

Clones offer the same advantages as twin studies, though less feasible. A herd of genetically identical, cloned cows still developed a distinct social hierarchy. Cloned animals exhibit the full spectrum of behavioral traits, from curious and inquisitive, to timid and shy (Singer).

Mutations of the FOXP2 gene creates significant language impairment. The majority of mental retardation syndromes are the result of genetic mutations (microcephaly, Down’s, PKU, cretinism, x-linked, and more).  Mutations in the AMT (10%) and GLDC (80%) genes cause glycine encephalopathy. Mutations in the SLC25A19 gene cause Amish lethal microcephaly. Besides genetic inheritance and random mutation, such syndromes can also be generated from mutagenic substances. Similar disorders can arise from poison or malnutrition during pregnancy or childhood.

Then there are the cases of feral children. A schizophrenic father locked his daughter, Genie, in a closet for the first 13 years of her life. She was strapped to a potty trainer, and forced to wear diapers. She was rescued by police in 1970, and had dramatically impaired mental capacity and no language capability. She eventually learned many words, but never learned proper syntax, or complex abstract ideas. This lead to the formation of the “critical period hypothesis”, that exposure to language is required before the age of 12 (Kasper).

In addition to the prominent roles of various environmental stimuli in language acquisition, other genetic factors must be involved. In Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, he explains the ‘verb-learning paradox’: “learning locative constructions in English is nearly impossible. Yet somehow children can hold back applying the wrong rules to words they have never heard. Their uncanny application of rules is something of a linguistic paradox, that children can learn the un-learnable” (41). Pinker goes on to dispute complete linguistic determinism, on the basis that it would require a near-infinite gene pool, and secondly because the abstract notions of things would have to exist prior to their invention. However, “there must be some innate concepts, like the keys on a piano, from which others meanings are constructed” (p. 92).

The Human Genome Project website lists some reasons why behaviors in general are in principle linked to genetics. Behaviors are often species-specific, behaviors often breed true, behaviors run in the family, and behaviors change in response to drugs that alter brain chemistry. The highly social primates share qualities of nurturing, cooperation, altruism, and facial expressions. Altruism can have advantages within societal contracts, making it’s net survival worth evolutionarily viable. Insect altruism is highly genetic. Though both insect and primate altruism are most highly emphasized in terms of kin selection. Acts of radical altruism in certain human individuals do not appear to have any evolutionary advantage, and this remains a puzzle for geneticists, but it might not be a genetically rooted phenomenon.

In Quantitative Genetic Studies, Christine Boake overviews many of the interconnectedness of environment and genes. She provides a whole chapter on how the size of an animal limits its expressive capacity. For instance, a large bird may have a more impressive display, but has less endurance in his courtship dances. Theoretically, this can create an evolutionary divergence which is accentuated by sexual selection, or by life strategies (185-186).

Migration has a wide diversity of environmental factors, as species often are moving north to south (or vise versa), across varied habitats, temperatures, and food sources. However there are prominent genetic effects on migration. Insects which can have wing mutations will obviously have impaired or nonexistent flight capacity. In Acrythosiphon pisum, the pea aphid, a lower population of grandmothers will reduce the number of offspring (161). In closely related species, one may show sensitivity to certain environmental conditions while others do not, and it is safe to assume that genetic mechanisms are at play. In garter snakes, and some mammalian species, antivenom capability sacrifices locomotor skill.

Territoriality in Drosophila melanogaster has been shown to have genetic bases. Individuals will be better at defending territories if they are born on richer food mediums, and they are more aggressive if they hatch with denser larvae populations. Sometimes territoriality interferes with performance. Territoriality requires high metabolic function, meaning that environments will naturally select for more or less aggressive populations depending on various conditions (191,194). There are strains of cannibalism in Tribolium confusum, the common flour beetle.

Science now knows that it is the interaction of biological mechanisms and their environment which is responsible for much of the complexity in the human and animal worlds. Advances in our understanding of human genetics are particularly troubling, not only because the results increasingly seem to narrow our sense of control in the world, but oppositely because the results remain baffling. Despite all of this empirical data which shows correlations between behaviors and genetics, biology has yet to develop a remotely satisfactory physiological model of transduction.

We are a puzzle-solving creature, and we are ourselves the most difficult puzzle we’ve encountered. To solve ourselves is initially depressing, but then we learn to manipulate that theory, and become something metatheory, the next piece to solve. This paradox is essential to the human condition and it surfaces in all worldviews as ontological explanations (in order to be consistent with the observed world).

 

References

Boake, Christine. (1994). Quantitative Genetic Studies of Behavioral Evolution. (Ed.). University Chicago Press.

 

Fox, Maggie. (2008). Study finds genetic link to violence, delinquency. http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/07/14/us-delinquents-genes-idUSN1444872420080714

 

Kasper, Loretta. (1998). SAMPLE FINAL EXAMINATION IN READING. http://kccesl.tripod.com/readingmatrix/samplereadingfinal.html

 

Never Say Always (2009). Identical twins who were separated at birth: Amazing similarities. http://lornareiko.wordpress.com/2009/10/08/identical-twins-who-were-separated-at-birth-what-are-they-like/

 

Pinker, Steven. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Penguin Group.

 

Pinker, Steven. (2007). The Stuff of Thought, Penguin Group.

 

ScienceDaily (2009). Smart Rat ‘Hobbie-J’ Produced By Over-Expressing A Gene That Helps Brain Cells Communicate. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/10/091019122647.htm

 

Singer, Emily. (2009). The Dark Side of Pet Cloning.  http://www.technologyreview.com/view/411834/the-dark-side-of-pet-cloning/

 

Steinmayr, Markus. Elisabeth Andre, Franc Ois Conquet, Laure Rondi-reig, Nicole Delhaye-Bouchaud, Nathalie Auclair, Herve Daniel, Francis Cre Pel, Jean Mariani, Constantino Sotelo, and Michael Becker-Andre. (1998). Staggerer phenotype in retinoid-related orphan receptor ⍺-deficient mice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. Vol. 95, pp. 3960–3965. Neurobiology http://www.pnas.org/content/95/7/3960.full.pdf

 

U.S. Department of Energy Genome Program’s Biological and Environmental Research Information System (BERIS). (2008) Human Genome Project Information.  http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/behavior.shtml

 

VanderLaan DP, Forrester DL, Petterson LJ, Vasey PL (2012) Offspring Production among the Extended Relatives of Samoan Men and Fa’afafine. PLoS ONE 7(4): e36088. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036088 http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0036088

Quantum Questions That are Bugging Me

Here are some questions mostly about quantum physics which I have a hard time figuring out, despite my research. I’m not professional, but I know basics. Please answer if you have any insights. 

1. If gravity is a result from the curvature of spacetime, what does the Higgs have to do with anything? It’s not really a graviton, it’s just causing vacuum friction somehow. So does it stick to spacetime, or to itself, or what? 

2. How are string theories even remotely testable? How are the existence of multiple universes testable? How are other dimensions testable? 

3. How do they measure particle spin (angular velocity)? 

4. How does the materialistic view of the brain explain experience? 

5. If subatomic particles pop in and out of existence, why do large objects maintain existence? 

6. Why can’t we see particles being affected by gravity? 

7. What is the size at which objects stop exerting quantum behavior? 

8. Why does energy have so many forms of energy carriers? 

9. What are the merits of copenhagen interpretation, versus hidden variable interpretations, versus interpretations which maintain classical physics and complete determinism, versus others? 

10. How will it ever be possible to have measuring without changing the measurement? 

11. What are the differences between the WIMPs? 

12. What are the theories what dark energy is? Basically all I’ve heard is the ‘chameleon particle’. 

 

My Extracurricular Book List

I need help. I’m wondering what order I should read my new books. It’s amazing how quickly a wonderful pile develops, and I waste time just staring at the covers wondering which to start reading. I need to come up with an arbitrary order. I figure I’ll do one from each group in descending order. If you like my list, feel free to suggest new reading.

Group 1. Theology

Velvet Elvis

Metaphorical Theology

Models of God

Group 2. Science

The Natural History of Whales and Dolphins

The Complete World of Human Evolution

Religion Explained

Psychology of Religion

Planet Ape

The Origin of Species

The Holographic Universe

Artificial Life

Weather

Group 3. Scientific Method

The Art of Scientific Investigation

Naturalistic Inquiry

Reading Empirical Research Studies

 

 

The Role of Authenticity in Truth

One of my favorite pastimes around campus is discussing other students’ thesis papers. I was conducting an interview with a teacher, Dr. Foltz, about the history of the class, and the range of topics he’s encountered. At our college, the thesis must articulate and explore a paradox unique to the individual. He and I discussed philosophy and science, but then he brought up something which I had never given much thought. He began talking about authenticity.

It took me back at first. The last decade of my schooling has been all about the pursuit of knowledge, in hopes of coming closer to Truth, the ultimate value of logic. Particularly western philosophy in its sciences, philosophies, and religion are ever chasing after this idea of objectivity, and its ambitious synonym.  His integration of many Eastern ideas in his biblical exegesis also through me for a loop, but it was refreshing. A few weeks later, I realize the enormous philosophical gift this is.

First of all, authenticity is a solution to the epistemological paradox. This paradox is nearly impossible to shake because it’s irrational; that is, because it is the dislocation of evidence from capital T truth. Even with all the evidence in the world pointing at a theory, you can’t know with absolute certainty. All philosophers have struggled with relativism, but it was Kant who really articulated this concern most magnificently, in his Critique of Pure Reason. The inductive line of reasoning (that which specifically looks at evidence) only infers causation from our experiences or measurements of events occurring in tandem, which not necessarily true.

While it is  reasonable to believe that Truth does exist, the logic of relativism means that it’s impossible to completely capture or see (traditionally relativism denies the existence of Truth, but it doesn’t have to). Our perspective shifts based on where we stand, so a bed looks smaller from a distance, and wider from the side. Thus, the spectrum of ideas in our world can still be consistent with Truth, as long as each individual is being authentic about what they believe.

Second of all, authenticity is vitally important to ethics. Just as many ethical theories place a higher importance on intentions than on actions or results, so the authenticity becomes a personal measure of intentions and truth. It’s legal, political, and religious implications are this, that there is no way to institutionalize or methodize a way to find intentions or truth. Instead it endorses humbleness and personal journey.

Lastly, authenticity has a vital spot in a third philosophical branch, aesthetics. The highly subjective qualities of taste and beauty require authenticity. The duplicity which Plato saw in art was because of its form, not because of any duplicitous intentions which art conveyed. Plato focused so much on the abstract, it’s incredibly ironic that he focused so much on the physical duplicity of media forms.

I have realized in writing this post, that logic is not actually about truth but about validity. Which is measured in the self-consistency of a set of statements in relation to one another. It has nothing to do with objective Truth. The sciences are really a chaotic mixture of induction (use of evidence), deduction (use of principles), and abduction (guessing, particularly in the synthesis, interpretation, and selection of theories). The guessing part is one component which most scientists don’t dwell on, but without it, we would not have any theories. These philosophical implications are actually good news, because we can personally assure our own authenticity. In centralizing the sojourn, we now have a touchstone for ethics, logic, and epistemology.

Slow Going

I am going to be graduating soon! This is exciting, and scary. I cannot wait to get into some type of journalism. Anything. I realize that a small-town newspaper is probably where I have to start off. But I’m hoping to eventually become specialized in scientific writing. Well, I know that I can take special stories which have to do with the things I’m interested in. It’s a bright world.