Thursday, June 23, 2005

47. Second verse same as first

Words cannot describe the redundant dreadfulness experienced in the recent terrorist attack suffered upon London, England several fortnights ago. As I write, there are more questions than answers- especially considering the timing of the attack.

The implications of the attack are several-fold and in the days to follow, and as people come to terms with the devastation, the event will prompt political, economical and social consideration. I have neither the foresight nor the intelligence to consider even a fraction of the possible complications and repercussions that will be born out of this event. And, of course, accountability will be spread across a gamut of individuals and organizations- that will in return be spun into a montage of accusations and investigations.

My first thought, as the "dust settles," is what happened to hunting and killing the terrorists- as our President promised? Bush won the 2004 election in part because Americans said they feel safer with him as Commander-in-Chief. Though they did not attack America, the alliance with England has proved that terrorists cannot be eradicated and that, on occasion, they will succeed. I also anticipate that the administration will use the event to further negotiate their effort in Iraq, to promote the Patriot Act and to re-instill fear into the American people.

The first six months of the President's second term, in my opinion, has been nothing less than a disaster. I am not, in any manner whatsoever, blaming the President for the terrorist attack. However, taken in total, and in consideration of his campaign pledges to make this world a safer place, it is just a part of what I view as a completely infective start to his second term. Terrorism was the only major issue that the President, according to ABC News/Washington Post polls, had been receiving approval ratings greater than 50 percent (War 41%, Economy 43%, Healthcare 44 % and Social Security 35-37%). His overall approval rating in June 2005 was 43 percent.

His stance on Social Security, a priority for this term, has thus far failed miserably- even among many Republicans. Only 35-37 percent of Americans support his Social Security plan. Much of the distaste comes from the elderly and the poor.

The Downing Street memorandums have implicated the President on, what many have said from the beginning, his intent to invade Iraq at the first opportunity. Dated July 23, 2002, it reads, in part, "There was a perceivable shift in (American) attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjecture of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy..." On August 10, 2002, however, Bush said while golfing, I think that that presumes there's some kind of imminent war plan." Then two days before the war started on March 19, 2003, Bush again said, "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."

The war in Iraq is increasingly being scrutinized and has led, in part, to his highly unfavorable job approval ratings. So much so that- by a 49-44 percent margin- Americans now say that George W. Bush holds a greater responsibility for the war in Iraq than even Saddam Hussein. Finally, it seems, people have come to realize that this is Bush's war. In May 2005, insurgent attacks killed more than 80 U.S. troops and more that 700 Iraqis.

Even the President's political "genius," Karl Rove, has spent considerable time embarrassing himself with comments like, "...liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments, offer therapy and understanding for our attackers." Statements like that will not exactly help pull this country together. Especially when, in fact, 84 percent of liberals supported "military action" against terrorists and 74 percent supported "going to war" with the country most responsible for harboring terrorists.

Finally, (though there is more, such as campaign contributions, John Bolton, and foreign relations) early this spring/summer, the President's judicial nominations were met with such distaste by the Democrats for their conservative activism, that Senate Republicans had to threaten to change the rules in order to gain approval (the nuclear option). Previously, Democrats had approved nearly all of the President's nominations.

Let us hope, for the country's sake, that this ship rights itself and that the next three and half years are much better that the last six months. The President's next dilemma will be Supreme Court Justice nominations- something that he has been eagerly awaiting for over four years to do. The question now becomes- will he appeal to the moderates on both sides to assure confirmation or will he choose to repay his conservative base and further divide the country? This is the first of many questions that remain to be worked over the next few years.

In the meantime, let us send our condolences to those families in London that lost loved ones over issues that, seemingly, none of us really understand.

Thursday, June 9, 2005

46.This page will be history

While I was reading a book on mid-nineteenth century American history, specifically on abolition and the feminist movement, I wondered what it would have been like to live at that time. It was a moving time in our nation's history, one that focused around a number of events, most significantly, the recent signing of the Declaration of Independence, the separation of church and state, slavery, women's rights and the French Revolution. The country was in a deep period of conflict as it wrestled through civil rights, religion and government.

I then read the following passage as an editorial/letter to the editor, written in response to Lucretia Mott, a leader in the anti-slavery and women's rights movements who had just delivered an antislavery speech in Marysville, Kentucky. It was signed by "Slave-Holder," and reads,

"This bad women, whose infamous calling is a war against the Constitution of the United States, a sacrilegious condemnation of the Holy Bible, preaching disobedience and rebellion to our slaves, was allowed the use of the Court House for the propagation of her infernal doctrine...What will be the result of a visit from this female fanatic is not yet known; we should not be surprised however, if it were the prelude to a heavy loss on the part of the slaveholders of the country, as a score or two blacks were present to behold and hear this brazen infidel in her treason against God and her country."

My first thought was that, if they were both alive today (Lucretia Mott and the editorial writer, "Slave-Holder"), she might like to give him the, "How do ya like me now?" or "How do like them apples?" quip. But further reflection saw the analogous rhetoric that dampens our society today, and thought, with a few simple reference changes, that the editorial could very well have been written today. I then wondered, are things different, or are only the specific issues different?

"Slave-Holder" argues not directly for the institution of slavery, which he obviously supports, and has a financial stake in, rather he engages in malicious language, religious references, patriotic appeal and is furious that she was permitted to use her first amendment rights- ironically, precisely as they were intended to be used according to the Bill of Rights. He labels her "bad," a "female fanatic," a "brazen infidel" and her calling as "infamous." He then notes that she is "sacrilegious" as she speaks against (apparently his interpretation of) the Holy Bible, that she "preaches" disobedience and that her crusade is one against "God." His attack on patriotism includes a non-specific reference to the Constitution and the "treason" against her country.

In the times of today, several issues might generate a similar editorial/letter to the editor. The war in Iraq, abortion, gay marriage, the Ten Commandments, activist judges, Intelligent Design, the Patriot Act, even the movie Fahrenheit 911, all prompted passionate editorials/letters to the editor from, at times both sides, that challenged the Constitution, religion, education, government and civil rights. The problem, with these types of opinions, is that they are not intended to facilitate discussion or compromise, but rather to inspire fury- on both sides. This is all too common today in all segments of the media as everyone seeks attention- alas, whether or not the opinion contains the slightest segment of truth, morality or fairness.

As we write passionately on the issues of today, which one of us will be the "Slave-Holder," of the next century- whose opinion today reads of narrow-mindedness, racism, a disregard for civil rights and the selective use of religion? Editorials/letters to the editor make it into history books because they are written by "the people," and thus they are the best expression of society's values and attitudes. Moreover, they often detail the debate between opposing viewpoints and ideologies. Looking back in time, historians can appraise the fervor of an issue from the published opinions that describe it.

Editorials/letters to the editor are the chance to exercise our first amendment rights; however, recorded as history, they preserve our thoughts for future generations. Since most newspapers now require, and print, the name of the person submitting the opinion, the words we write do not hide behind the guise of anonymity and, consequently, we cannot assume that they are destined to slip into obscurity. Sometimes greater than the moment, they represent a time in history, the community in which we live and, ultimately, ourselves.

Thursday, June 2, 2005

45. Can't see why they don't see

Nature's caverns often survive void of light, alive only in the shadow of obscurity. The absence of light in these caves postulate many inquiries into the life that it encapsulates. For the contemplation of those that live in total darkness augments the discussions of biological adaptations while quenching the appreciation for nature's diversity. Adapting to life in the dark solicits answers to the question- does one need to see? And if one does not need to see- for it is dark and nobody sees- does, one needs eyes?

The answer to this question, for many species is no- and in fact, in living in darkness for millenniums, not only do they not see, they no longer have eyes. Many species, including insects, crustaceans, salamanders, spiders and fish, have lost their eyes through adaptations to their environment. Thus, the real question for scientists and other interested parties, is how does this happen? The answer is not completely certain and, furthermore, not quite as easy as one might think (noting the temptation to enter into Lamarckian evolution). This fascinating discussion takes place in the June 2005 issue of Natural History (Why Do Cave Fish Lose Their Eyes), and provides much of the material that I base my discussion.

Lamarck proposed a theory of evolution based on the inheritance of acquired characteristics. That is, if an individual, over the course of his or her lifetime, acquired a trait (or talent), that trait would subsequently be passed onto his or her offspring. The most famous example cited is the long necks in giraffes, which Lamarck would explain as generations upon generations of giraffes reaching and extending their necks to reach leaves in the tallest trees, and then passing along that characteristic to subsequent generations. The temptation in our question is to apply the reverse, to propose that species that do not use a specific characteristic are susceptible to losing it. As Luis and Monika Espinasa describe in the article, "Lamarck believed that unused organs shrivel until they disappear. In short, use it or lose it."

As we know now, our genes care not if we use a characteristic- only that the genes survive to be reproduced at rates that are statistically successful. Hence, natural selection is the principle of nature selecting the most successful genes based on reproductive and survival rates. Adaptations are the successful reproduction of mutations- genetic alterations that are tested in nature's arena of "survival of the fittest."

Understanding this theory, in light of regressive evolution (the loss of a trait such as the eyes in cave fish), one can easily argue as to what advantage there is in not seeing- when fish with eyes cannot see either. In other words, how can nature "select" eyeless fish over fish with eyes when it is rather obvious that neither has a reproductive advantage over the other? Humans also have these "rudimentary organs," such as the appendix and the coccyx, which in the course of our evolution proved to be of use to our ancestors, but matter not to us now as a matter of survival. Darwin himself struggled with the issue, writing, "It is scarcely possible that disuse can go on producing any further effect after the organ has once been rendered functionless. Some additional explanation is here requisite which I cannot give."

There are two types of rudimentary organs- embryonic and those that develop into adulthood. Gill slits are an embryonic example of ancient relationships that never develops as the embryo does. Deciphering evolutionary lineages through embryonic development is just one of the things that makes embryology so interesting.

The appendix represents a rudimentary organ that does develop and that through comparative anatomy can be studied to reveal evolutionary lineages, homology and purpose. Another interesting biological field, comparative anatomy provides diverse insight into vestigial organs. Many other mammals have functioning appendixes, that, to be fair and to make matters more confusing, must be sorted out between evolutionary relationships and convergent evolution.

Biologists today, according to the article, offer two hypotheses for rudimentary organs: pleiotropy and neutral mutation theory. Pleiotrophic effects are the alterations to multiple characteristics, inherently unrelated, by a single gene. The best example, also described in the article, is sickle cell anemia. As a mutation, deformed red blood cells survived in certain, primarily African, populations because the parasite that causes malaria could not survive in the "sickle" cells. However, the consequence is that this adaptation can lead to other problems such as anemia and organ damage.

Neutral mutation theory is the negligible effect of a mutation on an individual or species. Thus, since the mutation does not hinder survival, it continues to be reproduced generation after generation- increasing its likelihood in the population.

In a series of experiments, only possible in the last few decades, the differing theories were tested by switching the (eye) gene of an eyeless fish with the (eye) gene of a fish with sight during embryonic development. What they found is that the gene for the fish with sight produced an eye in the eyeless fish and vise versa. In other words, the gene for sight in the eyeless fish is functional and must be "turned off" by some other mechanism. This discovery essentially rules out neutral mutation theory.

Further to the pleiotrophic hypotheses, scientists have isolated a "master control" gene that "whose modified expression leads to blindness in cave fish." More interesting is the fact that the smaller the eyes were, the more taste buds are produced. Moreover, when a fish develops without eyesight, the bones in the skull shift, allowing for a bigger olfactory pit and larger olfactory epithelium. Hence it is likely that the non-existence of eyes, which in the natural environment of cave fish are useless anyways, offers the opportunity for an improved sense of smell- which can certainly be a competitive advantage.

In conclusion, the authors note the "classic example" pleiotrophic effect and summarize that, "Natural selection is not acting on cave-fish eyes; it is acting instead to increase the fish's sense of smell." In essence, evolution has said, on the issue of eyeless cave fish, that if in the process of amplifying some senses (which can be a competitive advantage), the fish loses its ability to see (which in this case is not a competitive advantage)- then the fish species is better suited to compete in its environment.

Nature, it seems, is always up to something- always looking for the slightest advantage and the most remote opportunity. And to appreciate nature's intricacies, scientific exploration celebrates in allowing us to not only ask the questions, but to also "see" what others cannot.