The Science of Evolutionary Theology

My absence has been long. But, the good news is I’ve now got all my crap in my new house, quite a few boxes are even unpacked and I’ve even got one thing up on the wall. It’s progress. I got internet put into the house yesterday so now I’m able to blog and Tweet again.

Which brings me to my reason for this post. I came across this tweet today, retweeted by the satire and sarcasm account Take That Darwin:

Screenshot 2014-08-24 19.29.14

…come again?

Sad but true, this is not the first time I’ve seen this kind of complaint. Evolutionary biology is often a required course for many biological sciences majors. Makes sense, since evolution is one of the cornerstones of biology. It runs right up there with the theory of relativity in terms of importance to science. 

So why in the fuck are you majoring in biology when you have strong views against evolution?

I will admit, I’m connecting dots here. It’s rare for other majors to REQUIRE a class on evolution. Hell, I study molecular biology and I don’t even have to take one. So I’m assuming this chick is majoring in biological sciences in one form or another. And sorry chica, evolution is at the base of all biology. Just the fact that someone with strong feelings against the validity of evolution would study the subject blows my mind. What the hell did you think biology was about, pretty flowers and fuzzy kittens? How the hell do you think those flowers got so pretty and those kittens got so fuzzy?

Here’s a hint: EVOLUTION.

Sure, we as humans had a hand in a lot of it, artificial selection is a big part of a lot of the life forms we come into contact with in our daily lives (don’t let anyone ever tell you that the sweet corn you just bought is in its “natural” state, it’s anything but). Funny story though, Darwin discusses artificial selection in On the Origin of Species. Sure, we helped the evolution along but guess what: IT STILL EVOLVED. The next time you start chowing down on a banana, be thankful for EVOLUTION making it so that you aren’t choking on the seeds:

FYI

That evolution folks is a HUGE part of biology. So WHYYYYYY are you studying it if you have a big problem with it? Listen, I am totally cool with the idea of creationism, I have no problems with people who insist on its truth, and as far as I’m concerned lessons can be learned from both sides of the debate. However it does seem quite silly to me to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a degree whose foundation is built on a concept that you vehemently disagree with. Trust me honey, you aren’t going to be able to change anyone’s minds in your classes. You can voice your disagreement, but all you will get is rolled eyes and raised eyebrows. I am well aware that there have been creationist scientists and I have no doubt that there are creationist scientists still out there. What I will argue, however, is that creationist ideals have no place in biology. The earth existed far more than 6000 years ago. Dinosaurs did not live concurrently with humans. There is scientific evidence that proves both. Humans did not look the same 10,000 years ago – hell, they didn’t look the same 500 years ago (turns out, we were shorter. But that’s irrelevant). And we didn’t look the same 10,000 years ago because we evolved.

One thing that irks the crap out of me is that the most common argument against evolution is that it’s a theory. Le sigh. Here I will incorporate one of my favourite memes ever made:

You killed my father. Prepare to die.

Just to clear up any confusion, the definition of scientific theory (because that’s what we’re talking about here) is as follows, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method, and repeatedly confirmed through observation and experimentation.”

That means a theory explains an observed phenomenon, and it has been confirmed through repeated trials and tests. However, that’s not to say that a theory cannot be disproved. Were new evidence come to light that shows a theory to be false, it is accepted and people move on. Evolution, as of right now, has not been disproved. As a matter of fact, it has been repeatedly shown to be true. So stop saying that evolution is “only a theory” when arguing against it, because what you’re in fact doing (in addition to further proving that you have no idea what you’re talking about) is reinforcing the other side.

Listen folks, I’m no atheist by any stretch of the imagination, but I do also think that religious thought evolves just as life forms do. The protestant sects are a prime example of this idea – the Church evolved from its Catholic roots and formed different sects based on differing ideas in doctrine. Sure, it’s not quite on the same scale as biological evolution, but the evolution of ideas as society changes and adapts to changing environment and attitudes is still a relevant example to the point that I’m trying to make. I’m a huge South Park fan, and there is an episode where the concept of atheism and evolution are explored. Sure, it has a subplot involving Richard Dawkins having sex with a woman who used to be a man, but that’s beside the point. One of my favourite quotes of all time came from Stan during a class on the subject, when he asks “couldn’t evolution be the answer to how and not the answer to why?” In my opinion, creationism is the why, evolution is the how. God created the world because he wanted to, and evolution is the way things ended up the way that they are now. I’m of the honest opinion that evolution is all part of God’s plan. I may even be inclined to think that he’s the driving force behind evolution. I mean, it is within the realm of possibility, since everything is under his command. The Bible says that man was created in His image, but what the Bible fails to mention is what that image actually was. For all we know, God has flippers and a tail, a unibrow and a great big bushy beard. I think that this idea that God created man looking exactly like the European specimen so often seen in art is not a result of God making modern man in His image, but rather modern man making God in his image.

Now all I need to do is find me a church door to nail this thesis to. 😉

In the end though, I will say that though there is room for religion in science, I think that holding tight to creationist beliefs in biology is difficult at best. At worst, it can be debilitating to not only a career, but also a mindset and even happiness. I know that there is happiness to be found in God’s love, but I have a tough time believing that it is possible to be happy while studying something that you believe to be fundamentally wrong.  My dear Demetria, you are more than welcome to believe what you want to believe, but I will be honest in admitting that I truly don’t think that a biology classroom is the place for you. I think that perhaps now is the time to sit down and truly figure out why you want to go into the field, seeing as you have a serious problem with the crux of the science. I understand the desire to study God’s creations, but it is imperative to understand that science and the Bible don’t always see eye-to-eye. I urge you to consider the possibility that God is the driving force behind evolution. Then maybe you will be able to find peace between religion and biology.

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Common Variable Accuracy Deficiency

Lord Imp has recently gotten into watching House, and a couple of days ago he was chatting with me excitedly about watching an episode where a character was diagnosed with CVID. He was all giddy, telling me that he had it figured out 10 minutes in cause that’s what it sounded like. Bless his little heart, he tries so hard to understand the biology behind everything I go through. So I decided to watch it for myself to see what was up and to look at it from a different perspective now that I actually have the rare condition that was talked about.

From the get-go, I found myself wanting to beat my head on the keyboard. Who the hell calls toxoplasmosis a fungus? Idiot show writers who got their information off of Wikipedia, that’s who. Toxoplasmosis is caused by the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii. It’s a parasite. And P.S. I got that from Wikipedia, my microbiology textbook has been packed, didn’t think I was gonna need it until I moved…HA!

The slight fact that they’ve put toxoplasmosis in the wrong kingdom aside, let’s take a minute to talk about presentation. CVID will typically present as recurrent sinus, pulmonary and/or ear infections. Even House said that he wasn’t having the usual pulmonary infections. We’ll leave that point for a minute and allow the writers the benefit of the assumption that someone with CVID has issues fighting any sort of infection, no matter what kind. Where is the recurrence? Where is the pattern of frequent infections? He comes down with one fungal pneumonia and OMG, he’s got CVID! No, sorry folks, that’s not quite how it works.

He also has an extremely low T-cell count. Low T-cells and low B-cells. Sounds more like SCID to me. Which he wouldn’t have made it to kindergarten if had it. There are many reasons to have a low T-cell count, and it can spontaneously develop. According to Medscape, a T-cell deficit can cause a lack of communication between T- and B-cells, causing those B-cells to not reach maturity and leading to the Ig deficiency that is the hallmark of CVID. So that is entirely possible, although I call bullshit on their analysis that this miscommunication is the sole cause and reason behind CVID, seeing as I am a person with perfectly normal (and rather robust, as a matter of fact) T-cells at healthy levels.

And then there’s the testing. I’m going to leave the fact that they told the patient that he had AIDS before even drawing blood and doing a test, and focus instead on the testing itself. For starters, from what I’ve read on several sources, the AIDS test is going to be automatically a double-test when the ELISA comes back positive and it is followed up by a Western blot. House ordered a second test after the first positive, and that one came back negative. If what I am reading is correct, that Western blot should have caught the error, making another blood draw unnecessary. And why not run an Ig assay anyway since toxoplasmosis only progresses in immunocompromised patients? It’s a very inexpensive test, and since you were looking at someone with immune issues, ALL parts of the immune system should have been checked, not just one class. The hairy cell leukemia could have been ruled out with a simple complete blood count and flow cytometry of, funny story, cells in the immune system. AKA killing two birds with one stone. Half a dozen vials of blood in one draw (yeah, a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point) and a lot of the bullshit could have been avoided.

Now, back to the AIDS bit. Who in the HELL tells a patient they have AIDS before even doing a blood test?? I mean, that just BLEW my mind. That’s like, medical epic fail #1, telling a patient they have a socially stigmatizing and awful illness WITHOUT RUNNING A TEST. OMG I just can’t even wrap my tiny brain around it. That’s just….AAAAAAHHH!!!

Putting the ethics aside and back to the hair-pulling…

The Epstein-Barr virus as well as the epilepsy medication the patient was on as a child are both associated with CVID – on their own. I was unable to find anything saying that the combination was what was associated with it. And the phenytoin he was on seems to only cause temporary CVID, Pub Med had an article where they looked at a guy who developed CVID-like symptoms while on phenytoin – which reversed after coming off the drug. Many drugs can cause low Ig levels, this is not  uncommon at all. However everything I read said that phenytoin-induced Ig deficiency is extremely rare. And it looks to me like it’s impossible to have 30 years later since it appears to only be a temporary side effect of the epilepsy medication.

So then they put the patient on IVIG and BAM! All of a sudden he’s magically cured immediately. Oh, I wish it were that easy. It can take anywhere up to 6 months of continual infusions to get yourself to a point when you are feeling amazing – although after a lifetime of illness, a couple days after your first infusion you do see a noticeable difference. I’m also really confused how IVIG got his T-cells back to normal, too…yeah, if you’re deficient in it, that IVIG isn’t going to do you a damn bit of good, all it’s going to boost up is your IgG levels. Your T-cells are produced by your bone marrow and refined in the thymus, and if you don’t have any you either have some serious production issues going on, you’re on some kind of immunosuppressant, or you have one of a small handful of other illnesses. Either way, one round of IVIG is not going to get your T-cells up. Sorry, Charlie.

And the final, big question…Cameron is a FUCKING IMMUNOLOGIST. WHYYYYYY did she not open her mouth? Sure, Chase mentioned immunoglobulin deficiency and House shot him down, but COME ON. There are a rather large number of immunodeficiencies out there, you have a patient presenting an illness that a healthy person shouldn’t, hello this is your field! Does House own the hospital? No. You’re a doctor, you can order tests just as well as any other guy. I mean sure,  you would have to deal with House’s attitude problem, but he has a short memory, he’ll forget about it in the next episode.

So yes. This is my somewhat-educated, I-am-no-expert rendition of what I found wrong in the episode that I really can think of. I would just like to take this moment to say that all I had to do was use Google. How hard is it for a show’s writers to do? They had to have had a medical expert on the writing staff, you can’t begin to convince me that a medical expert would repeatedly refer to toxoplasmosis as a fungus. Unless there’s just some other organism that causes it. I’m too tired to do that much research. But I digress, everything I found was publicly and freely available, and not that hard to find. Come on, make it a little more accurate, folks.

But then again, it wouldn’t have been that dramatic had they done it the way it should have been done, and had they made it present the way that it should have. Would have made for an awfully boring episode…

Medicinal Anthropology

So, I finally got most of that reading assignment in 1491 done last night, and there was one big thing that struck out at me. At one point in our lives, we are all taught that disease played a big role in the European’s conquest of the New World, but this book put it into a whole new light. It also made me ask a lot of questions:

  1. What exactly killed all these people? We all know about the smallpox epidemic, and that there was measles and influenza in there as well. We all know that due to the high rate of exposure in Europe, the conquerors had relative immunity to them and therefore weren’t susceptible to the diseases. But we sequenced the genome of the plague a few years ago, so why is this considered a non-issue? Why is it not important for us to use the same techniques to identify the bacterium and viruses that took these victims? We know roughly when many of the epidemics took place, so theoretically we should be able to start poking around after remains have been dated. In my opinion, knowing precisely what it is that killed who, and more specifically what strains, is just as important to our history and to anthropology as knowing what caused the Black Death.
  2. Were the native populations suffering from some kind of immune issues? I think they were, and here’s why. Mann brings up a very interesting point in the book, that it is not in the evolutionary benefit for bacteria/viruses/whatever to kill their hosts. They want to keep their hosts alive so that they can mutate and continue to infect, thus continuing the species. So then why on earth did such a large number of natives die of these diseases? Some estimates are as high as 90% of the population succumbing to disease, that just doesn’t sound like good Darwinian form to me. Kill 9 out of 10 people, the remaining 1 is now immune, just doesn’t sound to me like a good idea for the continuance of the species. Conventional theory is that the populations were so susceptible due to the simple fact that they had never been exposed to the microbes, but I honestly think that it is a gross oversimplification. The book goes on to give a rather good basic description of the immune system for non-bio folks, which was when the light bulb went off in my head: what if the native populations were immunodeficient? What if the problem wasn’t that the natives lacked the appropriate antibodies to keep away the smallpox, they lacked the ability to make antibodies to fight the virus once it showed up? The virus wiped out everyone unable to form these antibodies, everyone with these immune system problems, leaving only those with the strong enough genetic makeup to go on and continue the species.

I really have a strong urge to go sequence some native genomes. Many PIDDs have known genetic markers, and have known mutations. I wonder if we were to sequence these genomes, we would find that the native populations had more issues going on than being the “virgin soil” that Mann calls them.

Who wants to help me write grant proposals?