Archive for June, 2009

I looked out of my window yesterday evening and this caught my eye –


I’ve seen the sun and the clouds work together to do this regularly at this time of year and I knew I was in for a treat.




It brought back to my mind a C S Lewis story about a blind man who starts to be able to see, and having heard so much about light he asks people to show him light, but everyone points to light sources not to light itself.
When the clouds part slightly to let these great shafts of sunlight emerge it really does feel like we are looking at light itself. It’s great ART isn’t it?

Then once the show is over, and the sun has disappeared down behind the mountains, it does this little encore, throwing red flares up into the sky to bring a rosy glow to the clouds. Phew!

sunset flare

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I’m a great Bob Harris fan. I love his Radio 2 show on a Saturday night. Last night he played three tracks from an album entitled Songs Around the World, from a project known as Playing for Change.

Here’s one of the three he played (I could have posted ANY of them!) This music is JOYOUS. Is there any better way to show how the paradox of difference and similarity is so characteristically human?

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Human history, as best we know, dates back around 200,000 years. For 190,ooo of those years we were hunter-gatherers and for the last 10,000 we’ve had agriculture.

I suppose I’d read about the hunter-gatherer phase long since but the significance of it never really struck me, and certainly the fact that so much of human history was in that phase was something that really didn’t register. For some reason, I’ve stumbled upon a number of different references to this in recent reading. I was musing about what characteristics have been to the fore in the two phases, and I wondered if the hunter-gatherer phase demanded a greater focus on co-operation, whilst the agriculture phase led to ownership and competition. But maybe that’s too simplistic. These thoughts have been around for me during these crises of recent times – the economic, environmental and political ones. There’s a feeling just now that we could be witnessing the crumbling of whole global system, and it leaves us wondering what might emerge to take its place. Which characteristics are we going to need to deal with these current, and future challenges?

I don’t have the answers in place, but here’s a couple of interesting articles to throw into the mix. First off, I read a post on Deric Bownd’s blog. He titled the post “Civilisation has caused the decline of human health“. Well, that caught my eye! He was referring to a presentation by Ann Gibbons at an Americal Assoc. of Physical Anthropologists meeting. 72 researchers studied the data on the remains of 11,000 individuals who lived from 3,000 to 200 years ago in Europe. Here’s the conclusion –

…the health of many Europeans began to worsen markedly about 3000 years ago, after agriculture became widely adopted in Europe and during the rise of the Greek and Roman civilizations. They document shrinking stature and growing numbers of skeletal lesions from leprosy and tuberculosis, caused by living close to livestock and other humans in settlements where waste accumulated. The numbers of dental hypoplasias and cavities also increased as people switched to a grain-based diet with fewer nutrients and more sugars…After a long, slow decline through the Middle Ages, health began to improve in the mid-19th century. Stature increased, probably because of several factors: The little Ice Age ended and food production rose, and better trade networks, sanitation, and medicine developed… But take heed: Overall health and stature in the United States has been declining slightly since the 1950s, possibly because obese Americans eat a poor-quality diet, not unlike early farmers whose diet was less diverse and nutritious than that of hunter-gatherers.

So a bit of a mixed picture but an interesting analysis of the impact of agriculture on our species.

Then I read an article in the Independent on Friday. The article was subtitled “Scientists explain how altruism evolved over 200,000 years of conflict”. This piece described the work of Samuel Bowles, of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico who is challenging the common “Darwinian” theory that altruism is not a characteristic which would be selected for (the “selfish gene” theory) Bowles argues that during the time of hunter-gatherer tribes –

Warfare was sufficiently common and lethal among our ancestors to favour the evolution of what I call parochial altruism, a predisposition to be co-operative towards group members and hostile towards outsiders.

He argues that selection worked on groups, not just individuals and the groups which developed this “parochial altruism” did best. He does admit this is not the only possible explanation for altruism –

[The] willingness to take mortal risks as a fighter is not the only form of altruism… more altruistic and hence more co-operative groups may be more productive and sustain healthier, stronger, or more numerous members, for example, or make more effective use of information

Other scientists are supporting this challenge to the selfish gene theory, arguing that selection effects on groups may be more apparent in a species like humans because our species is a “cultural” one.

It’s interesting to take this longer view of human history. Such a change of perspective can help you see the wood for the trees I think. In particular I find this stimulates my thought about the relative merits of co-operation vs competition (as well as stimulating my thought about how we feed ourselves!)

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purple iris

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You don’t often see this shade of blue in the garden. Isn’t this poppy stunning?

blue poppy

In Scotland we have a lot of “bluebell woods” – here’s one near where I live…….

bluebell wood

bluebell wood

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Red is such an eye-catching colour in nature.

red growth

one red tree

happy red

background red

red wings

fallen red leaves

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If someone has an infection caused by a particular bug, and the doctor prescribes the best, most appropriate drug to kill that bug, what does the drug do?

The correct answer is “it kills the bug”.

The incorrect answer is “it cures the infection”.

You see, bugs and infections are not the same thing. Certainly a bug may “cause” an infection. You don’t get TB without the TB “bacillus” being involved. The TB bacillus can be isolated and grown in a laboratory, but it isn’t an infection until a person has it growing inside them. That might sound totally obvious but you’d be surprised how little doctors and patients think about this. There is no doubt that discovering the role of microbes in causing infection was a breakthrough in understanding and the availability of drugs to kill bugs is a real boon but the problem is thought often stops there. How do we help an individual to recover after the bug has been killed? Exactly how does a person repair their damaged body after an infection, and how can they increase their chances of defending themselves more effectively against future infections? How do we reduce the burden of infection on populations? Antimicrobials are only part of the solution, not the whole solution.

This is not a new thought. I’ve recently become a fan of Cabinet magazine (a magazine based on the idea of wonder rooms) and in the current issue there’s an article about Professor Max Joseph von Pettenkofer, a Bavarian chemist-apothecary who lived from 1818 until 1901 (when he shot himself in the head). He was a very colourful character who disputed the theory that germs cause infections. Koch and Pasteur’s discoveries were convincing the world that the cause of infections were microbes but Pettenkofer thought their theories were simplistic. He maintained that infection involved the interaction of three factors – factor x – germs, factor y – some condition of the region where the infection occurred, and factor z – susceptibility on the part of the patient. To prove his point, he conducted a very public, very dramatic experiment where he had a fresh culture of the germ which caused cholera (called at that time the “comma bacillus”) prepared in a laboratory. He then drank enough of this culture to kill a village and survived. (He claimed he did not suffer from the cholera at all but he did have stomach pains and some diarrhoea for a few days.) Despite this performance nobody was convinced. Pettenkofer ended up committing suicide. However, his conclusion that the way to prevent cholera was through sanitation to deal with factor y – the condition in the region, was actually spot on.

There’s a lesson here about the limits of reductionism. The simplest explanations are attractive, but in the real world, are often just too, well, simplistic. And there’s also a lesson about “this or that” or “black or white” ways of thinking. Often “and” is a better explanation than “or”. Narratives need not cancel each other out. They can complement each other and produce a greater, instead of a lesser, understanding.

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