Category Archives: Science in Society

Progressing the Person and Policy

The English word “person” has a long and convoluted history. Though the word itself likely derives from the Latin, persona, referring to the masks worn in theatre, its meaning has evolved over time. One of the biggest conceptual overhauls came in the 4th century AD during a church council that was held to investigate the concept…

via Progressing the Person and Policy — Savage Minds

Advertisements

Artificially Intelligent, Genuinely a Person

It’s difficult to overstate our society’s fascination with Artificial Intelligence (AI). From the millions of people who tuned in every week for the new HBO show WestWorld to home assistants like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, Americans fully embrace the notion of “smart machines.” As a peculiar apex of our ability to craft tools, smart…

via Artificially Intelligent, Genuinely a Person — Savage Minds

Medicine, Technology, and the Ever-Changing Human Person

Though we often take for granted that humans are persons, they are not exempt from questions surrounding personhood. Indeed, what it means to be a person is largely an unsettled argument, even though we often speak of “people” and “persons.” Just as it’s important to ask if other beings might ever be persons, it is […]

via Medicine, Technology, and the Ever-Changing Human Person — Savage Minds

Of Primates and Persons — Savage Minds

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Coltan Scrivner for the month of January. Coltan will be writing a series of posts on personhood from different disciplinary perspectives. When I moved to Chicago for graduate school, one of the first things I did was go to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Just like with other zoos I’ve been […]

via Of Primates and Persons — Savage Minds

When DNA Isn’t Enough: Methylation, Forensics, and Twins

DNA evidence is often considered a “home run” in forensics. If you find readable DNA at the crime scene, and it matches a suspect, a correct conviction is almost assured. A DNA sample can often point to a single individual with ridiculous specificity – often 1 in a quadrillion or greater. But, what happens when someone else shares your DNA?

Monozygotic, or “identical” twins differ from dizygotic, or “fraternal” twins in that they come from the same zygote, hence, “mono”zygotic. In other words, identical twins come from 1 fertilized egg, while fraternal come from two. This means that Identical twins will share the same DNA, while fraternal twins will share as much DNA as any other sibling pair. There are, of course, many iterations of monozygosity depending when during development the split actually takes place. This nuance has led scientists in Germany to a possible solution to the issue of identical twin DNA.

During development, only a few cells are present. These cells begin to differentiate into the different tissue types that they will become. As these cells divide rapidly to produce the all of the daughter cells, mutations can occur in the DNA. If the mutation occurs earlier, it will be present in a larger ratio of the daughter cells, and will be more easily detectable during the twin’s lifetime. This differentiation of tissues also means that, the earlier the twins split, the less mutations they will have in common (and, thus, the more differences you can detect in their DNA). It has been suggested recently that, a handful of single nucleotide mutations, or “SNPs” can be found between twins. However, these SNPs aren’t so easy to find in a sea of 3 billion other nucleotides. To find these few differences and find them reliably, the entire genome of both twins must be sequenced several times over. In the case of the German scientists, their experiment results in 94-fold coverage, meaning they covered each of the 3 billion nucleotides 94 times. This must be done to ensure accuracy. At 3 billion nucleotides, a 99.9% accuracy will still result in 30 million errors. If anything, this shows how incredibly accurate our cellular machinery is.

At any rate, the scientists tested their new method on a set of twins, and it worked. In the end, twelve SNPs were identified between the twin brothers. Typically, one experiment is not considered to hold much weight in science, but this particular experiment is backed by strongly reinforced genetic theory, and the results were exactly what we would expect.

So, case solved, right? Well, maybe not. It turns out that this method comes with a hefty price tag – over $100,000. This is far too much to be practical in forensic case work, especially when you consider that about 1 person in 167 is an identical twin. Of course, this price will go down as DNA sequencing prices continue to plummet in light of newer, better technology. Still, it will be many years before anything like this will be affordable (a typical forensic DNA test costs in the neighborhood of $400-$1000). Furthermore, the instruments used in this method (Next generation sequencing), though typical in research science, have not been approved for use in court. That in and of itself can be a challenging obstacle to overcome, regardless of costs.

Perhaps in a few decades these issues will be resolved. Perhaps not. Either way, it might be a good idea to have a plan in the meantime. This is (hopefully) where my master’s thesis comes in.

DNA is composed of four nucleotides, commonly noted as “A T C and G.” Throughout life, a methyl group – a carbon and three hydrogens – attaches to some of the C’s in your genome. This is known as DNA methylation, which is a big component of the larger phenomenon known as epigenetics. As it turns out, these methyl groups attach randomly to the C’s, though some evidence suggests that environmental conditions may play some part in this. In any case, the attaching of methyl groups to C’s is different among individuals – even identical twins. In fact, studies have shown that newborns already exhibit DNA methylation discordance. Presumably, these differences would become more pronounced as time goes on. Not many studies have looked at this, but the ones that have also show evidence of greater discordance with age.

There is a potential issue with studying DNA methylation: it doesn’t occur uniformly among tissues. In other words, a blood sample and a skin sample from the same individual will show different patterns of methylation. Moreover, cells within the same tissue can show different methylation patterns. Though not insurmountable, these issues make methylation analysis a tricky subject.

To tackle the first issue of tissue discordance, one could simply match the type of DNA you take from the suspect with the type of DNA you have at the scene. The second issue of intra-tissue discordance is a bit trickier to tackle. For starters, we don’t know too terribly much about how DNA methylation works. Ostensibly, if methylation differences occurred early in development, then they would show the same pattern of proliferation as the SNPs that occur early in development. This means that the same DNA methylation pattern would be present in all of the daughter cells, and show up easily in a DNA sample from that tissue.

Another possible solution would be to take a statistical approach. This would involve looking at the methylation patterns several times and coming up with an “average” methylation. For example, let’s say there are 10 C’s susceptible to methylation in a particular DNA sequence. If I run 10 samples from a DNA swab, I might find the number of methylated C’s to be: 3, 4, 5 ,3, 2, 4, 5, 3, 4, 4. If you average these, you get 3.7 out of 10 possible methylated C’s. Thus, you might say that this DNA sequence shows 37% methylation. If you do the same thing for the other twin and come up with 5.5 out of 10 possible methylated C’s, you could say that the other twin’s sequence shows 55% methylation. Ideally, these number would be relatively reproducible, especially as you increase the sample number and/or number of potentially methylated C’s per sequence.

Compared to the SNP method, my project is less definitive. However, good protocols would still make the method definitive enough. Once you narrow the suspects down to two twins via normal DNA testing, you have two possible outcomes: a match between one twin and the sample at the crime scene, or inconclusive. At this point, you just need to differentiate between two people, not 7 billion. Thus, the required statistical power is much, much lower. The big difference between my method and the SNP method is the price. Whereas the SNP method costs between $100,000 and $160,000, my method could be done in-house for less than $5000. Furthermore, my method is performed using the same instruments as traditional DNA testing, meaning that the new instrumentation does not need to be validated for use in court.

So, while it will take some work, and my project is more of a proof of concept study, the use of DNA methylation in forensics is generating a lot of attention. One of the issues with methylation in my study, i.e., different patterns in different tissues, has been a major benefit to a different use of DNA methylation – tissue identification. The idea here being that if you can identify consistent methylation patterns among a tissue type, you can use those patterns to identify the tissue. Another aspect that is relevant to my project, the increase in methylation with age, has been vetted as a possible investigative tool. If you can identify level of methylation that are consistent with different age groups, you can potentially “age” a suspect just by their DNA methylation. Studies on methylation aging are few and far between, but preliminary results are promising, suggesting that age-based methylation analysis can get within +/- 5 years of an individual’s actual age.

As we learn more about DNA methylation, it will become more useful. This is true not only for forensics, but also medicine, since methylation plays an important role in turning genes “on” or “off.” This is particularly true in cancer, where abnormal DNA methylation seems to occur. But, before we try to cure cancer with methylation, perhaps we can perform the smaller task of telling two twins apart from each other.

*Also published in part at http://forensicoutreach.com/library/when-dna-isnt-enough-methylation-forensics-and-twins-part-1/

and

http://forensicoutreach.com/library/when-dna-isnt-enough-methylation-forensics-and-twins-part-2/

Is The Iran Nuclear Deal a Good Deal?

Last week, 20 months of negotiations between 7 different countries came to fruition. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed by the US, China, Russia, UK, France, Germany, and Iran. The Iran Nuclear Deal, as it has been popularized, is a groundbreaking event in diplomacy with one of the most volatile nations in an area of the world that is historically unstable. The JCPOA has many confused about not only the details, but also the general concepts of the plan. I will try to keep jargon low and explained, so that this post will, hopefully, dispel some of the confusion.

Here are some terms for those unfamiliar with the uranium enrichment process:
Isotope – A variant of an element that has a particular mass (number of neutrons + protons). Heavier and odd numbered isotopes tend to be less stable.

Uranium 235 – The uranium isotope that is easily split (fissile) to produce energy. Uranium ore contains 0.7% U-235.

Uranium 238 – A stable uranium isotope that is not fissile and is not used for energy. Uranium ore contains 99.3% U-238.

Plutonium 239 – A fissile byproduct of nuclear reactors

Heavy Water – Water molecules that contain Deuterium, which is a stable isotope of Hydrogen containing an extra neutron, giving it greater mass.

Low Enriched Uranium – Uranium with less than 20% concentration of U-235.

Highly enriched Uranium – Uranium with greater than 20% concentration of U-235.

Uranium Hexafluoride (UF6) – Uranium that is bound to 6 fluorides. This form of Uranium is necessary for enrichment with the gas centrifuges.

Uranium Dioxide – Uranium bonded with two Oxygens. This form of Uranium is packed into fuel rods and used as fuel for nuclear reactors.

Beta decay – A neutron can be seen as a proton and an electron combined. During beta decay, the neutron emits the electron (referred to as a beta particle, hence beta decay), which effectively turns the neutron into a proton, thus changing the element into a new element (one that is immediately after it on the periodic table). For example, if Carbon (#6 on the table) beta decayed, it would become Nitrogen (#7). This occurs in the atmosphere as a part of the Carbon 14 cycle.

The most common thing I’ve heard regarding the deal is that people are uncomfortable with the Iran having nuclear power “now.” This, I assume, stems from a misunderstanding of what the deal was designed to do. The JCPOA doesn’t give Iran anything; Iran has had a nuclear program for years, and has been enriching uranium to amounts that are pushing the boundaries of normal energy usage. The JCPOA will require Iran to do a few things to reduce the chances of them creating a nuclear weapon, which I will explain one by one:

  • Reduce their current uranium stockpile by about 96%
  • No Uranium enrichment beyond 3.67% for 15 years
  • Use only ~ 5000 of the lowest efficiency centrifuges (out of about 19,000) for the next 10 years.
  • Redesign the Arak heavy water reactor
  • No building heavy water reactors or stockpiling of heavy water for 15 years
  • Allow comprehensive and unprecedented international inspections of facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
  • Convert the underground Fordow nuclear facility into a nuclear, physics, and technology center where international scientists will also be stationed
  • Ship spent fuel to other countries
  • In return for the above tenets being met, economically crippling sanctions by the UN, EU, US, and possibly other individual countries, will be lifted.

Let’s start with the first – Stockpile reduction:

This one seems to be an obvious win. Iran has around 20,000 lbs of low enriched uranium (~5% U-235) stockpiled. With this provision in place, they would be reduced to 660 lbs of low enriched uranium on hand. The reduction would be done by either shipping the uranium out of the country or diluting it. Iran also held about 460 lbs of 20% enriched Uranium. Since January, 238.5 lbs of this has been diluted to less than 5% enrichment. A little over a pound was retained by the IAEA for reference, a fraction of a pound was taken by the IAEA for sampling, and the remaining 220 lbs is in the process of being converted into Uranium dioxide, which is used for fuel rods. Research reactors, like the one what Tehran, run on fuel rods with 20% enriched uranium. Iran’s Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant has no process line by which the oxide can be converted back to UF6 to be further enriched.

3.67% enrichment cap:

The percentage of U-235 (enrichment level) in your Uranium says a lot about your intentions. Uranium that is enriched to 3-5% is used in regular nuclear reactors for energy production. Uranium at 20% enrichment is often used for research and production of medical isotopes. Iran claims that it has enriched uranium to 20% in order to supply the Tehran reactor for production of medical isotopes. This is actually not an unreasonable claim. The last shipment of 20% uranium into the country was in 1992 by Argentina. This would last about 20 years at the most, so Iran does need 20% enriched uranium to continue production of medical isotopes that are used in everything from radiation treatment to medical imaging.

Cut in centrifuge use:

The details on the types of centrifuges and their usage are some of the more complex parts of the JCPOA. However, the main points are pretty straightforward. The gas centrifuges used to enrich uranium are a little different than the typical scientific centrifuge. These centrifuges use diffusion of gaseous UF6 (see terms above) to separate the lighter U-235 from the heavier U-238. This process isn’t too efficient, particularly with the old equipment that Iran would be required to use. Successful enrichment, even to 3.67%, requires an assembly line of centrifuges, where the products of one centrifuge becomes the reactants of another. Keep in mind that uranium ore contains less than 1% U-235. Under the JCPOA, Iran would only be allowed to use about 6000 of their almost 20,000 centrifuges. Is this enough to make a bomb? Sure. I suppose 600 would be enough. However, the point is to make is difficult – and overt – for Iran to enrich uranium to weapons grade.

Redesigning the Arak Heavy Water Reactor:

The details on this are vague as of now. Supposedly, the reactor core will be filled with concrete and then redesigned according to UN regulations with the help of international scientists. Claims are that this will help reduce the potential of Plutonium being produced in high quantities. I’m not entirely sure what kind of redesign would significantly reduce this potential, other than the fact that heavy water reactors do not require enriched uranium. Because the water is “heavy,” the reaction process is much more efficient. Heavy water already has extra neutrons, and so it is less likely to absorb the neutrons that are used to split U-235. Thus, your concentration of U-235 doesn’t need to be as high to achieve efficiency. A consequence of low-concentration U-235 is over 99% concentration of U-238. U-238 doesn’t split easily, so it tends to absorb neutrons, which will be in even higher abundance if the water isn’t absorbing them. When U-238 absorbs a neutron, it becomes U-239, which is unstable and beta decays (see terms for info) into Neptunium 239. Neptunium 239 is also unstable, so it beta decays into Plutonium 239, which can be used as fuel in the same way as U-235 if left in the fuel rod. However, Plutonium 239 can be removed as it is created and replaced with more Uranium. This is how Weapons grade Plutonium is stockpiled. Fortunately, this shouldn’t be a difficult thing for IAEA to monitor, as the inspectors will know how much should be present. Much of the success of this deal will fall on how well the inspectors do their jobs.

No stockpiling heavy water or building heavy water reactors for 15 years:

This follows the previous point. Not only will Arak be redesigned, but Iran will not be allowed to build or collect material (heavy water) to build a heavy water reactor for 15 years.

Inspections

This part of the deal is a bit vague as well. However, it is one of the most important aspects. Iran is essentially on probation right now, and the IAEA is its probation officer. If Iran does anything wrong, sanctions, the levying of which are the main reason Iran is trying to make a deal, will immediately go into effect. It would be counterintuitive for them to break the rules overtly, and should be relatively easy to catch if they try to do so covertly. IAEA inspectors will have the ability to inspect not only current reactors and research (not to mention the monitoring or uranium mining and import), but will also be able to inspect “suspicious” areas. There is an appeals committee, and it could take up to a maximum of 4 weeks if Iran claims the inspection unnecessary. However, let’s be real. The US and the rest of the world’s intelligence will be all over any suspicions of the IAEA inspectors. If it’s happening, especially on any scale that could be dangerous, we will find out. The last thing Iran wants is to be resanctioned and show that it cannot be trusted under any circumstances. Even a bad kid does what’s in his or her best interest.

Converting Fordow into a research center:

Fordow is a heavily fortified, underground nuclear reactor. Under the JCPOA, Iran will not enrich any Uranium at Fordow, will convert it to a research center, and will allow international scientists to be stationed there. So, not only will IAEA have inspection capabilities, but the world will have scientific eyes inside of this facility, further reducing any chances of covert, illegitimate activity.

Shipping off spent fuel:

Spent fuel rods are where you get Plutonium 239, as described previously. Under the JCPOA, Iran will ship spent fuel rods out of the country for the lifetime of the Arak reactor, and will not build a reprocessing facility (necessary to separate out plutonium) for 15 years.

Sanctions will be lifted:

Economic sanctions from the US, EU, and UN, as well as other independent countries, has crippled Iran’s economy. These sanctions include heavily restricted imports and exports on many things, including oil, which is one of Iran’s biggest exports. Additionally, Iran has over $100 billion in frozen assets overseas, and was banned from participating in the international banking system. The economic sanctions crippled Iran for many years, deteriorating the quality of life for citizens as collateral damage. The sanctions will be lifted as Iran continues to show cooperation, allowing Iran to prove to the rest of the world that is can be a legitimate part of world trade.

Iran has been in “prison” the last decade or so. They have been showing good behavior through diluting uranium stockpiles even before last weeks agreement was reached. They are now essentially on probation for 15 years. This can be analogous to a recently released prisoner. You don’t just set them free; they do their time and then you assign them a probation officer – in this case it’s the IAEA. If the person shows good behavior and a willingness to be a contributing member of society, they will be allowed more freedom. This is where Iran is at with the JCPOA. This is why it’s a 15 year deal. Iran has 15 years to prove to the world that they can be a participating country in global interactions. The world will have 15 years to learn about Iran’s capabilities and prepare in the event that they break their probation. But, just as a prisoner wants nothing more than to avoid going back to prison, Iran wants nothing more than to avoid sanctions. This deal gives us a chance to form a somewhat diplomatic relationship with a country that, in the past, has been difficult to negotiate with. ISIS is also one of Iran’s biggest enemies, and this diplomatic relationship might help curtail them, but that is a topic for another post. Will this fix all the problems in the Middle East? No. Is Iran our ally now? Absolutely not. Ultimately, this deal lowers the chance of Iran creating a nuclear bomb, gives them a chance to demonstrate their ability to cooperate and participate in global affairs, and is a step closer to stabilizing the Middle East.

For those of you who are still wanting to use military action against Iran (because the West’s military interventions in the Middle East have been SO successful in the past) instead of trying diplomacy first, please read the document in the link below. It is an assessment of the pros and cons of military intervention in Iran by one of the most well regarded and respected think tank organizations in the world.

http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/IranReport_091112_FINAL.pdf

Why Cultural Appropriation Matters

Cultural appropriation is a tricky topic to unpack and explain in a manner that keeps the attention of those who believe it to be “PC crap,” but also doesn’t dampen the significance of the issue. But we should try anyway.

I’ve no doubt played a role in cultural appropriation throughout my life, with no bad intentions or awareness that I was doing anything harmful. Growing up in okla humma, Choctaw for “Red People,” I was surrounded by Native American culture. Half of the cities I can name in Oklahoma derive from a Native American word or phrase in the language of one of the 67 tribes represented in the state. You can buy dream catchers and arrowheads at gas stations along the interstate, and Oklahoma museums have some of the largest Native American collections in the world. The designation of Oklahoma as Indian Territory in the 19th century laid the foundation for the incredibly complex and muddled mixing of unique cultures that white people typically lump into “Native American” culture. This amalgamated meta-culture, if you will, has been commodified into a staple of Oklahoma tourist attractions and local affairs. To those born here, the combined Native American culture is a frequent part of every day life, even though many don’t understand the significance of the cultural artifacts in their original context.

Continue reading Why Cultural Appropriation Matters

Evolution: The Missing Link in Medicine

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

– Theodosius Dobzhansky

Evolution is arguably one of the most widely supported and powerful theories in all of biology, and potentially science as a whole. It has been a dominant explanation for over 100 years. Once genetics entered the picture in the first part of the 20th century, Darwin’s common descent and Mendel’s inheritance were improved upon, greatly expanded, and solidified into the new synthesis of evolution. Consistently verified through genetics, paleontology, geology, ecology, microbiology, and many other fields of science, evolution has become a pervasively potent field of study. It has created huge disciplinary offshoots – including evolutionary biology, evolutionary genetics, and evolutionary anthropology to name a few – and has become the theoretical foundation for all of biology.

Some people today argue that humans are no longer under evolutionary pressures, and, thus, are no longer evolving. Though this seems to make sense superficially, it is simply not true. The first issue is that humans only live about 80 years; a mere snapshot of our species’  existence. It is difficult to observe phenotypic differences as a result of biological evolution in only a few decades. That being said, scientists have found some very recent biological changes have occurred, including the altered expression of the FTO gene. The FTO gene codes for a protein that regulates appetite. While it does not “make” a person obese (genes tend to predispose, not determine), it has been correlated with obesity. The catch? It seems to have only been expressed after about 1940, according to a study published just 2 days ago. The study (which can be found here) found that, after 1942, the FTO gene showed a strong correlation with increase BMI. Why, though, would a gene that has not changed suddenly become active?

The Environment

What did change in the 1940’s? Technology. WWII offered an incredible economic boost to the US that massively increased technological enterprise and was the main contributing factor the world superpower status that the US achieved in the 40’s. As technology increased, labor decreased. After all, the main purpose of technology is to make human life simpler. When human life becomes simpler, people become more sedentary. New technology also allowed for cheaper, higher calorie, over-processed food. This one will take a while to work out. The difference could be epigenetic alteration, novel environmental stimuli, or even another gene interacting with FTO. While more testing will be needed to show exactly what happened in the early 40’s that altered FTO expression, the fact that something did occur, likely stemming from environmental changes, still remains. Biological evolution doesn’t have to be the changing of DNA sequence; that is far too simplistic. Anytime phenotypic or genotype ratios change on a species-wide level, evolution is occurring. No population is in Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, and no population ever will be. Human wills continue to evolve biologically. While cultural evolution has exceedingly outpaced biological evolution, giving the mirage that biological evolution has “stopped,” the truth is that culture can either augment or stagnate biological evolution, depending upon the situation. A cultural change to drinking more milk may augment lactase persistence (and in fact, it did), while a cultural propensity to live in climate controlled housing year-round may slow other aspects of biological evolution. Nature doesn’t necessarily control natural selection; more broadly, the environment (cultural or natural) mediates evolution.

So, why is evolution important in medicine? Sure, doctors need to understand things like microbial evolution and how it plays a role in infectious diseases, but what about human evolution? How can a knowledge of human evolution impact medicine?

Cultural evolution has rapidly and drastically altered the human environment, thus changing how the human species evolves. More importantly, our environments have changed so aggressively that our bodies cannot keep up. (Before I go on, I have to make something clear. I am not a proponent of the Paleo Diet; if you’d like to know why, check out this post.) This means our bodies are often best adapted to the environments of the past (though these vary drastically). This has given rise to what are sometimes referred to as “mismatch diseases.” The list is extensive, but includes maladies such as atherosclerosis, heart disease, type-2 diabetes, osteoporosis, cavities, asthma, certain cancers, flat feet, depression, fatty liver syndrome, plantar fasciitis, and irritable bowel syndrome, to name a few. Some of these may not be actual mismatch diseases, but many of them likely are. Furthermore, many of these illnesses feed off one another, creating a terrible feedback loop. 100 years ago you’d likely die from an infectious disease; today, most people in developed nations will die from heart disease, type-2 diabetes, or cancer.

These diseases don’t have to be essential baggage of modernity. Anthropologists and (and some intrepid human evolutionary biologists) study modern day hunter-gatherer societies in order to glean information about the nature of our species pre-Neolithic Revolution. It’s important to note that these are not perfect models (cultural and biological evolution has still occurred in these hunter-gatherer societies), but are the best available. Interestingly, modern day hunter-gatherers don’t suffer from many of these mismatch diseases (This effect can’t be explained by longevity; hunter-gatherers regularly live into their late 60’s and 70’s. Though unusual to many of us, their lives aren’t as brutish as they are often portrayed). Diseases such as type-2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, osteoporosis, breast cancer and liver disease are rare among the societies. What’s more, myopia (near-sightedness), asthma, cavities, lower back pain, crowded teeth, collapsed arches, plantar fasciitis, and many other modern ailments are exceedingly rare. So what’s different? The easy answer is their diet, lifestyle, and environment. The difficult answer involves elucidating the physiological importance of certain social norms and biochemical processes of differing diets. Some very exciting work is beginning to arise in this field, dubbed “evolutionary medicine.”

Modern medicine and medical research focuses largely on treating problems, i.e., drugs and procedures that alleviate symptoms after the disease has manifested. While the cause is noble, and indeed necessary, it’s not enough. The childish logic of medical research creates a cycle of sickness-treatment that, in 2012, totaled almost $3 trillion in healthcare costs. Furthermore, the sedentary and Epicurean lifestyle in which many Americans live willingly feeds this cycle; among the less privileged, necessity feeds this cycle through the inability to afford healthy food, limited access to health education, and a sociocultural feedback loop that breeds its own vicious cycle.

There will likely never be a drug that can cure cancer (of which there are thousands of variants that can even differ between individuals who have the same variant), heart disease, type-2 diabetes, or many of the other previously mentioned noninfectious diseases. The rationale is akin putting water in your car’s gas tank and hoping additives will make it work as efficiently as gasoline. The car was built to run off gasoline. Similarly, your body has evolved to not eat an excessive amount of salts, carbs, and sugars (of which the different types, particularly glucose and fructose, do not have the same biochemical effects during digestion), sit for extended periods of time, wear shoes (particularly those with arch support; a common misconception is that arch support is good for you when, in fact, it weakens the muscles of the arch, leading to ailments such as collapsed arches and plantar fasciitis), read for several hours at a time, chew overly processed food, or many of the other things that people in developed nations commonly do, often times see as a luxury.

Modern medicine needs a paradigm shift. Funding needs to support not only treatments, but also investigations into prevention. The medical cause of diabetes may be insulin resistance, but what causes insulin resistance and how can we prevent it? Sugar may cause cavities, but what can do to prevent this? Shoes, even comfy ones, may cause collapsed arches, but how do we prevent this? The immediate response may be that this sort of prevention cannot be attained without abandoning modern technology all together. However, this isn’t the case, and it’s not the argument I’m trying to make. Research should focus on a broad range of interacting variable, including diet, work environment, school environment, and other aspects evolutionarily novel environments. Only after research from this evolutionary perspective takes place can constructive conversations and beneficial environmental changes occur. We don’t have to abandon modern society to be healthy; we just need to better understand how our lifestyle affects our bodies. Items such as smoking and alcohol are already age limited and touted as dangerous to health. Is junk food, particularly soda, any different? We don’t put age regulations on cigarettes or alcohol to protect bystanders. Instead, these regulations protect children who cannot be relied upon to make proper choices in their naivety. Should soda be under these same constraints?

If medicine and medical research does not undergo this paradigmatic shift and incorporate an evolutionary perspective, the outcome does not bode well for us. Medical costs will continue to rise with little room for improvement and greater opportunities for socioeconomic factors to play into the quality of healthcare available. This ad hoc treatment approach to medicine is not sustainable, and is not the best we can do.

A Case for the Coalescence of Science and the Humanities

To contemplate the nature of humanity, there must exist endeavors from both the sciences and humanities. Each branch of knowledge brings to the table its own unique perspectives, assumptions, and models of learning. The sciences teach us about the natural world and it’s functioning. From the microscopic investigations of DNA to the search for exoplanets, science has defined the latter part of the Anthropocene – the epoch in which the global ecosystems have been subjugated and forever changed by human activities. Science ushered technology into a dimension that was previously unimaginable, where there seems to be no end to the artificial extensions of our biological domains.

With its jumpstart from the 17th century Enlightenment, scientific inquiry and discovery has revolutionized our world. The Age of Enlightenment saw a rising of reason, skepticism, and individual thought from which there was no precedent. The Cambrian Explosion of scientific knowledge, the Enlightenment brought about scientific discoveries that rewrote the trajectory of human existence. Philosophes, freed from the dogmatic ideology of the past, drew up the blueprints of our future. However, as successful and revolutionary as the Enlightenment was, it proved unsuccessful at reaching the core of human spirit, unable to tap into the emotional side of human nature. In an attempt to fulfill the unsatiated desire to understand the core of humanity, the Romantic era was ushered in. The 19th century champions of creative arts filled the emotional gap left by scientific endeavors. Expressions of individuality, residues of the Enlightenment, flooded the arts. The importance of aesthetic value was stressed, and the human imagination was extended in all directions. Romantics attempted to divulge the secrets of the human experience, the continuum on which humans ride in the cosmos. A more focused and anthropocentric approach, Romanticism succeeded where the Enlightenment had failed, but failed where the Enlightenment had succeeded.

As science and the humanities grew increasingly complex, their existence seemed to be a fixed dichotomy, henceforth irreconcilable. Answering two fundamentally different types questions, the humanities and science are both essential to a holistic understanding of our existence in the larger cosmos. As our technoscientific advances increase at an astounding rate, our defining of the Anthropocene becomes ever more acute. Advances in science and technology drive our imposition on nature; our ability to repurpose the existing and to create anew are changing the landscape of Earth. To counteract the effects of science and technology on nature, we turn to… science and technology. Science shows us how to do things, however, it lacks in the ability to show us what we should do. This requires a taste of the humanities. The humanities represent the venture into and extension of our human continuum. They attempt to unveil and explain the idiosyncrasies of human thought, creativity, and overall existence. Much like the scientific endeavor, the humanities’ endeavor is a never-ending quest. There is always something new to discover that has the potential to shift our way of thinking or understanding.

As we penetrate deeper into the depths of nature, we must apply the knowledge and revelations from the humanities to our excursion. As we continue dominion over the Earth and extend our understanding of nature, we must give ourselves a course to follow. Because the humanities explore and explain our specialized place in the cosmos, they are in the best position to evaluate our intrusions upon nature. Questions of value cannot be answered by science. As prescient and imaginative as science is, it still follows the shadow of the humanities. Science fiction drives the frontiers of science. Our explorations into human nature and creativity are the precursors of scientific explorations. A coalescence of these two primary branches of learning is essential to our continued existence. Each serves as its own weight in the balance. To see the larger picture of our existence in the cosmos, we must turn to science. To understand our own existence and the intricacies from which it is fueled, the humanities are irreplaceable. To wisely advance in our existence, we must amalgamate the two into a functional framework.

Eschewing Scientific Curiosity in the US – A Slippery Slope.

NPR recently wrote a story titled, “When Scientists Give Up.” The story revolved around scientists that, in the middle of their career, decided to switch professions entirely due to issues with funding. Now, I am a bit biased when it comes to the importance of science, and I’ll be the first to admit that. However, I think it’s clear what role science has played, and must continue to play, in our society (unashamedly using this as a plug for a previous blog that I wrote concerning science in society, which can be found here). And, don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with a change of career, whether it’s due to poor job prospects or simply a change of interest. That being said, what on Earth is an individual who spent a minimum of 8 rigorous years at a well-respected school – gaining knowledge for a very particular career – doing switching careers at 40? On that same note, why is someone in whom the US has invested millions of dollars in grant money changing career paths? Clearly, there is something wrong with this picture.

Science doesn’t prove facts – it explains them. Science doesn’t prove evolution, science explains evolution; science doesn’t prove gravity, science explains gravity; science doesn’t prove that cells form the basis of life, science explains how cells form the basis of life. All of these things are already taken as facts (so, yes, evolution is a “fact” in the same sense gravity or cell theory are “facts.” It’s an observation that science attempts to explain in a systematic, reviewed manner). Now, if science never proves things, how long does it need to work on an explanation before it can be taken for granted? There’s no real answer to this question, though it does require a decent amount of time. The answer is more a function of how well it stands the test, rather than the how long. Gravitational theory has been standing for nearly 400 years, evolutionary theory, cell theory, and germ theory (that is, the theory that microorganisms can cause disease) for about 150 years. Does that mean that these theories have went un-amended? Of course not! That’s what science does: it pokes and prods at our ideas, refining them until they are able to stand the test – any test. As iron sharpen iron, so one scientist – or a large community of them – sharpens another.  Each of the previously mentioned theories were rather radical at their time, outside the common consensus and understanding of the time. Galileo’s ideas were so radical that he spent the last decade of his life under house arrest. All because he was trying to explain what he was seeing, and that explanation was regarded as too radical.

Money is a precious thing, not to be thrown around lightly (unless of course, it’s being blown on military-related projects, but that’s another story). Grant writing is tough, and the competition is incredibly fierce. As such, corporations that shell out grant money – hereafter referred to as “grantfathers,” a term I want credit for coining – are careful about to whom they choose to give. Unfortunately, it seems that more and more grantfathers are becoming conservative with their wagers. They’re spending their dollar playing the penny machines rather than the quarter-slots. While I understand the safe approach, it’s destroying the very essence and character of science. Yes, ideas must be rigorously tested and stand the test of time – even the boring ones. However, focusing only on this area of science, and ignoring the frontier-busting, trailblazing, imagination and passion driven areas of science is doing an injustice to the scientists, the field of study, and the country.

We didn’t get to where we are by playing it safe. Science – and by extension, technology – demands innovation. Innovation breeds errors. Errors, in the scientific community, breed precision. The current generation is afraid of failure. We are willing to stand up for a cause, maybe more so than most generations hitherto, but we are afraid to actually act upon the cause. This culturing of “skittishness” is driving science and technology into a plateau, shrinking the branches that emerge from the trunk of discovery. The innovation is there – the action is missing. But, who can blame them? You can only study what someone is willing to give you money for. In the modern field of science, you have to look out for numero uno, even if it flies in the face of everything you got into science for in the first place.

If government funding stays its conservative route, the future of the US as a leader in science and technology will grow dimmer and dimmer, overshadowed by more daring countries. Now, as a scientist, where will you go? Do you stay in the US, where funding is tight and sight is narrow, or across the pond, where funding, while still competitive, is more open-minded and nurturing of scientific curiosity? As the worlds’ greatest minds begin to reconvene outside of the US, our position as a global leader will diminish into something more second-rate. Once the scientists are gone, it will prove to be a difficult task getting them back. Students will seek degrees overseas, where the funding and mentors are to be found. The US has held this position for a long time, but is slowly slipping as king of the mountain. Once the avalanche starts, it will be difficult to reverse. If the way we currently handle pre-emptive tasks – such as fossil-fuel dependency or drug-resistant bacteria – says anything about how we will handle this issue, it may already be too late.