Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Problem of Purpose (part 2)

If there is no purpose for us to fulfill--if we are indeed here because the survivors of hecatomb after hecatomb (I love Steven Jay Gould) then we must question what all these genetic studies tell us. You know what I mean: the genetic studies telling us that we're "designed" to store fat, destined to get cancer, preordained to suffer mental illness, headed straight for addiction--that the few genetic diseases that we understand (sickle cell, cystic fibrosis) arose as adaptations to a new world order.

I don't mean to question the studies themselves. The studies are, more or less, quite sound: the melanocortin system's role in obesity is currently being teased out; single nucleotide polymorphisms of the MC receptor are believed to be responsible for the abnormal reward signals that lead to overeating. Nobody doubts the role of p53 in cancer--or any of the myriad pro-apoptotic genes. Epigenetics apparently has a bigger role in mental illness than genetics, strictly speaking, but there is definitely a genetic component to mental illness. The science is sound--genes, when they go wrong, definitely cause diseases.

But do they necessarily define who we are?

If you follow the "no purpose" argument to the logical conclusion, then the answer is yes: genes select themselves for the sole purpose of being passed down. They don't really care whether or not we survive the passing thereof. That's why otherwise nice men become assholes the moment a busty bleached blond bimbo walks into the room, why women feel obligated to make peace between warring factions, etc.

Or so the argument goes: genetics provides limitations within which an individual can succeed. Certain environments, certain societies, place certain emphases on which genes are prized, and these get propagated. So free will is really a myth.

Or is it?

You'll notice that, throughout this entire series, I've done my darndest not to justify leaning towards one side or the other (and I stated my bias in the beginning, so if I didn't succeed it wasn't for a lack of effort). The reason for this is twofold. First, if you're reading this, odds are you already have a good idea of where you stand on the whole evolution/creationism debacle and anything I write trying to persuade you that creationism isn't a science is just a waste of my time. Secondly, the goal of this series was never outright damnation of either side--to do that would run counter to my personal belief in God--but to ask why this debate is happening at all. Have I missed something? Undoubtedly I have. So please, comment, and let me know what your thoughts are on this whole thing.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Problem of Purpose (part 1)

As humans, we like to think that everything has a purpose. And certainly, nature doesn't contradict that view: peacocks' tails exist to attract peahens, cats have claws so that they can kill mice, birds sing to mark their territories and attract mates, humans have a big brain which enabled the species to develop advanced technologies, cockroaches--okay, maybe those don't have a purpose. The point is that animals exist in certain shapes and forms for reasons, presumably to better fulfill their "destiny", to live out their "purpose".

Except this assumes that some force (the Guiding Hand of God, perhaps?) was directing a small furry mammal to become say, a lemur, and then the lemur to become an ape, and the ape to become a human. It assumes that there was a reason for the animal to evolve along the lines it did.

Scientists make this mistake a lot, actually. Genetic studies purporting to demonstrate why we are genetically predisposed to becoming obese, the link between abnormal proteins here and Alzheimer's/schizophrenia/drug addiction there, and sickle cell anemia and resistance to malaria, must be very careful not to ascribe the selection pressures for a particular gene as the purpose for the gene's existence. Genes exist, solely because the vehicle they are temporally transferred in (living creatures) managed to live long enough to pass it on. No lemur decided, "Hey, this tree-climbing thing is sure getting hard out here on the savanna. I think I'll evolve bipedalism!"

The fact is, there really is no reason for anything to exist, other than the fact that it's not dead already. And this, I think, is one of the biggest problems creationists have with evolution.

It is a stark picture: you exist only because your parents didn't die before they had you. There is no purpose to your life, no "reason" why you were born in the body that you have and with the brain that was given to you. No wonder creationists have such a problem with evolution: it runs counter to everything religious and/or spiritual belief we might have concerning our existence on this planet.

Natural selection is the reason why we evolved the way we did--God, if He's indeed out there, didn't coax anything along except death, destruction, and mayhem. One could hypothetically argue that He, in His divine might, decided that thus would be the vehicle by which He created all life, but that doesn't really change the essence of the argument: natural selection is a harsh and fickle mistress.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


Is it possible to believe in both evolution and God? Of course. But let's not delude ourselves into thinking that one is a science.

There is nothing wrong with teaching creationism as literature, philosophy, or as an adjunct to history. These things are important to understand why we know what we know--the history of science oftentimes reads like a soap opera replete with test tubes, gun powder, dumb luck, unlikely coincidences, and few happy endings. The history of knowledge can be as instructive, if not more instructive, as the actual knowledge. For instance, the idea that the earth was round was first posited by the ancient Greeks, but the proof of that was only ascertained nearly two millenia later, with Magellan's trip around the world, when, against all odds, they failed to fall off of the edge. The question: why did civilization have to wait for Magellan to sail around the world? Why not earlier seafarers, like Vikings or the Polynesians? What sort of economics, political structures, technology, and belief systemsmade circumnavigating the planet possible to Magellan and not to, say, Arab traders?

Creationism has its place in education, but not in science classes. The objective of teaching science is to teach kids that "this is what we know the world is", "this" being how plants photosynthesize, how proteins are synthesized, what crystal structures are, where the Horsehead Nebula resides (in Orion, visible only during the winter in the Northern Hemisphere). The objective of teaching science is not to teach that "everything in the world is commanded by something we can't see, our instruments can't detect, our best searches can't find, but we know it's out there anyway". As I said yesterday, if you teach the first well enough, the second will fall into place.

So let's quit worrying about our kids turning into blasphemous atheists. Let's point out, instead, how feathers help birds fly, the plethora of properties the humble water molecule possesses, how geese know where north is. Because if you really want to cultivate an appreciation for life, you kinda have to understand what life is to begin with.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Faith and Science

The entire contents of this page say essentially one thing: science is anything but logical, and anybody who thinks otherwise is a fool.

The scientific method, perfected in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by enlightened thinkers such as Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, John Locke, etc., were really in search of God, or at least looking to get as close to the mind of God as possible. And in the four-hundred years since then, that hasn't really changed. Albert Einstein's more famous quotes reflect this Holy-Grail-like quest to understand what God is all about.

I would argue that faith is science, in that both hinge on the belief--because, let's face it, if there were such things as proof science wouldn't need to exist for us to know things--that there is something out there that will explain what we see here. Where they differ is merely in the tenants of belief: science has textbooks, faith has religious tomes. People have died for both, and just because we're in the 21st century doesn't make us any more immune to the prejudices of ignorance.

Not asking questions simply means that you're not thinking. That's true in religion and it's true in science and it's true in politics (which is partly why I'm leery of Obama--nobody's questioning him) and it's true in life. Evolution has holes in it, which creationists are all too happy to point out, but as far as I can tell, creationism also has holes in it. The big one being, "Why does there have to be a watchmaker?"

And there really is no good reason why there must be a higher power, only a purely internal belief that there is one, and that whatever it is, be it God or Allah or ancestral spirits or little gods of rocks and trees, has some stake in keeping you alive. That's the thing: we can't know anything at all for sure. If gravitational theory could be overturned (or at least, heavily modified), there's nothing to keep evolutionary theory from following the same fate.

But that doesn't mean evolution isn't real. It happens. We live with the consequences of it every day: our pets, our livestock, the MRSA strains of bacteria. We've reshaped the breeding habits of salmon and body lice. Environmental doomsday-ists like to say that so many species are going extinct every year, but I've yet to hear of a single study that purports to find out if there have been any new species arising lately. Part of the problem is that we have no baseline number for the number of species on the planet--a bigger problem, as Richard Dawkins explains, is that we have no real definition for "species", either.

Which, if you ask me, makes the whole creation-evolution debate moot. Whether you believe in God or not has no bearing on the fact that Nature is red in tooth and claw, even if the Sierra Club would rather have you believe it is pretty and fuzzy. Natural selection doesn't give a hoot about your belief in a higher power. Just ask the Darwin contenders.

I would like to end on this note: ironically, the more you study a science, the easier faith becomes. When you don't know much, it's easy to say that everything you don't understand is an act of God and leave it at that. But the more you know, the easier it becomes to believe that there is a God and He is indeed acting on the forces, because the perfection of life is so incredibly miraculous. However, as with all things, such faith must be earned. The difference between learning that God created the world, versus understanding why you believe God created the world, is that if you understand why you believe that, there is no danger that you'll change your mind.

Monday, July 21, 2008

On the road to nowhere

The question put forth on Sunday was "Why the 'need' for creationism?" but that really leaves out the bigger question, which is why people don't see the discrepancies between their attitudes towards creationism versus their attitudes towards every other science in which fiction seems more normal than facts.

There are hundreds of things we don't understand about our bodies, the world, the universe. We don't fully understand the delay between taking antidepressants and getting better. We haven't found proof of dark matter, but we're willing to spend millions building underground laboratories on a lark to see if it's there. And some people go their entire adult lives never understanding the basics of budgeting. Yet there's not much protest against antidepressants (protests tend to focus more on the correct administration rather than the concepts of depression), underground laboratories--if it doesn't involve anything cute and furry, it's not worthy of protesting--or rewriting the basic tenants of economic theory.

And yet, "There are gaps in the fossil record so that doesn't prove evolution happened at all!"

I don't want to call non-evolutionists intellectually lazy, but at the same time, their arguments for creationism speak of minds which are tired of answering the neverending "why". Can't fathom a few molecules coming together to make a protein? It wasn't so long ago that doctors couldn't fathom the idea of germs, either.

Or perhaps it's not so much laziness as it is an appreciation for the number of coincidences that had to have happened for us humans to be here today. After all, the meteor could have missed, the dinosaurs could still be around, and maybe we'd be eating ornithopter rather than chicken for dinner. There are a hell of a lot of things that had to go right for us to be here now, with all this technology, and that's not counting all of the decisions that could just as easily have gone the other way--decisions that led to wars, recessions, inventions, and discoveries. The miraculous in everyday living, indeed.

But I digress: what "need" does teaching creationism as a science fill? I've racked my brains for two days trying to come up with an explanation as to why people insist that adding a conclusion you'd come up with anyway if you studied any science and evolution long enough--that we don't know everything, that the universe is full of weird stuff we can't explain, that the possibility of a higher power starts looking better and better with every weird oddity you discover--would somehow make a difference in what natural selection means: lots of creatures dying unpleasant deaths, all fighting tooth and claw to pass their genes on to the next generation.

I think the main reason why evolutionary theory has been singled out for scapegoating is because it's not complicated enough. You don't see evangelicals of any religion standing outside CERN protesting their findings, but God help you (literally) if you so much as mention "evolution" in the wrong classroom. The problem with evolution is that it's so simple--and yet here we are, incredibly complex beings, able to divine gods and generals from thin air. Surely there must be something more to it. "Well, there's something called sex--"


Other fields, such as quantum mechanics, physics, and chemistry, remain relatively abstract in our everyday lives. When we encounter them, it's usually as a fun exercise--playing snooker--or as a convenience--using a spray cleaner. We see their development through mad-scientist caricatures and take it for granted that mixing dangerous chemicals is something normal people aren't "supposed" to think about--chemistry and molecular biology are complicated, too complicated to properly understand.

But we all understand sex. Whether it's an immoral act, a source of shame, or pride--we are all reminded of this basic biological need at some point. Grunting like some fell beast in the middle hardly becoming of an enlightened man--after all, we wear clothes and expound upon philosophy and existence. How could we possibly have gotten to where we are today by such a simple, and gross, thing?

Is life too complicated to explain by mere coincidence and sex? We'd like to think, our lives are. For an animal such as moose, sex is something that happens by mere coincidence of being within the known territory of a member of the opposite sex--these things are life. We, on the other hand, like a bit more control, beyond sex and coincidence, but if those are enough, why go further? Elaborate the complexity of life more than it is, and you're going on a road to nowhere, in terms of understanding life.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Every year it seems as if one state in the United States is hell-bent on getting intelligent design into the classrooms. And every year scientists shake their heads and bemoan the state of science education in the country, and wonder how the hell the US is going to maintain its standing as the place for scientific research.

The debate itself is nothing new--how something arises out of nothing is, admittedly, one of those things that science does a piss-poor job of explaining. The fact that it happened, though, is hardly evidence of divine intervention.

So why do people insist that intelligent design be taught alongside evolution?

Let's take a step back, first, and wonder why it is evolution has been singled out as the one aspect of science that people don't seem to want to believe when the evidence for it is right in front of them, and not, say, the Big Bang theory. Although there are some kerfluffles over the true origins of the Universe, it's not as if science teachers get reamed over teaching the Big Bang--at least, not yet. Or quantum theory, for that matter--being in two places at once? Apparently, it's not a problem for people to stomach, although they'll fight tooth and claw against being taught that small changes over time leads to big changes.

Let's also consider the seemingly contradictory belief amongst scientists that coincidences are just coincidences, even if you get a lot of them: There's a belief that bench scientists like myself like to call "the rule of threes". If you get an odd result once, you examine your protocol and make sure you didn't screw it up. If you get an odd result twice, you go over your methods with your supervisor, check and double check your reagents, make sure the equipment settings are right, make sure your tubes are labeled correctly, and so on. If you get the same odd result three times, you're onto something--possibly something big. (There are other rules of three--washing a beaker three times means it's clean, for instance, experiments performed in triplicate for some reason have more validity than experiments in duplicate. We scientists are not as rational as many people would have you believe)

The questions to be addressed this week include the meaning of divine intervention in intelligent design theory. Why does it hold so much significance to so many people, that we should not be the result of blobs of goo meeting other blobs of goo? That's the topic on the table this week--not so much the what, but the whys of the evolution versus creationism drama (and let's not sugarcoat it with the whole "intelligent design" title, please--it's creationism).

1) Why the "need" for creationism?
2) What is the role of faith in science?
3) Can, and should, evolution and creationism be reconciled?
4) and 5) Genetics, creationism and evolution--something's hitting a fan, and it's not going to be pretty.

For the record, I'm one of those "immoral heathens" who believes in evolution. But that, ironically, doesn't mean I don't believe in a divine entity who guides our lives. Blasphemy, you say? To quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." If I'm not the first to believe it, it must be true--and ain't that the truth?

The Interest List

A rundown of a few websites that I find interesting:

Spirituality - Just because this is a science blog doesn't mean I neglect that other half

Green living - literally

Girly stuff - not strictly for girls, but I've yet to see a heterosexual man daring to try any of this

Check out my recently-added Blog Roll (under Roll Call, because everybody else has a "blog roll" that'd just be borning). Most of my pet interests are under there--writing, science/medicine, personal finance (though I will not be blogging about that).

Friday, July 11, 2008

Phood Filosophy

This clip from CBS purports to detail the devastating effects of rising food prices on the poor. What came across (to me) was not so much the struggle to make ends meet, but more the sense of panic that somehow the food would "run out". In a way, this does make sense--when you're poor, food and money are more or less interchangeable, and the urge to hoard is especially strong if you have enough of neither.

And so the dutiful cameraman records images of people stocking up with entire pallets of canned beverages (presumably soda), boxes of frozen fish sticks or chicken nuggets, bulk quantities of prepared pancake mix and jars of applesauce and small closets' worth of Froot Loops.

But the point of all this is not to lambast the food choices of the poor. At the far more upscale Albert Heijn (a Dutch supermarket), I see people with far more money buying more or less the same sorts of things: soda and/or beer, frozen meat in stick form, pancake mix, jars of applesauce, loaves upon loaves of squishy bread (cereal isn't nearly as popular here).

People eat what they eat because it's available, and it's what they know. How we eat is far more a matter of comfort--emotional as well as financial--and availability, and far less a matter of taste and nutrition. It was the case before agriculture arose, and it's the case today. You can see it for yourself--if you go to a supermarket and watch how people shop, most of the time, most of their money will be spent on things that they consider "basics" in accordance with the culture they grew up in. Humans are largely conservative when it comes to their food repertoire.

And if you think about it, it makes sense--the old "if it ain't broke don't fix it" mentality. In the days of hunting and gathering, someone who found an edible plant probably ate it while it lasted, knowing that trying other plants nearby might result in nasty poisoning or general unpalatability. The requirements for food were (and still are) abysmally low: enough calories to make getting it a worthwhile effort, and isn't poisonous or rotten. Nevertheless these criteria limit our choice of plants, and the cost-benefit analysis (in the crudest sense of the word) of hunting means that going after deer will probably be more beneficial than wasting your energy hunting mice. Our sense of taste has evolved to facilitate the selection of edibles. Of the five flavors (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami), sweet taste signifies sugars, the preferred energy source of cells; sour indicates fermented, and therefore rotten, foods; salty tells us that the food contains the sodium that is so vital to fluid balance; bitter is the taste of many plant alkaloids; umami is the taste of protein, another vital component of our diet.

Most of the cuisines around the world tend to fall in the middle of the spectra of tastes, falling safely within a reasonably balanced combination of the flavors. There is a base flavor, if you will (rice) that gets augmented (lemongrass, lime), but generally speaking, no cuisine is exclusively sweet, salty, spicy, or bitter. I would posit that this has to do with "taste fatigue", whereby eating a lot of one particular flavor results in a kind of boredom with that flavor, and you stop eating it--variety is good. A more scientific analysis has to do with the lateral diffusion of crops (as opposed to longitudinal) means that the same types of food could be smeared across the Eurasian continent that Jared Diamond puts forth. Local variations of a theme (wheat, millet, barely, rice) might arise, but the idea that you could grow up grasses and eat their seeds was everywhere.

This tells us three things: humans are inherently conservative in their food choices. The second conclusion we can draw from this is that health has far more to do with lifestyle than it does with what you eat.

It might sound like I'm restating the obvious, but considering the legacy that Kellogg and Graham left, and considering how many books promise you that if you just follow such-and-such a diet plan you'll get a whole new life, perhaps it's not so obvious after all. The diet of a Mongolian yak herder is simply not healthy to someone working in a cubicle, and the diet of the average cubicle dweller is probably woefully inadequate to lumberjacks working the Siberian winter. You are what you eat, in the sense that the foods you like are a reflection of the culture you grew up in, but you are more what you do. You can see the truth of it especially in cultures that are transitioning from no-car to cars: in China, obesity rates, while still ridiculously low compared to the United States, have skyrocketed if you consider that as early as 15 years ago, nobody in China was fat. I've also observed it in Holland, too--traditional Dutch fare was the food of farmers, designed to fill you up with as many calories as was possible to cram into a bowl, but if you keep eating that when you're living in a city and the hardest thing you have to do is stop by the supermarket on your way home, well, the end shouldn't be so surprising.

The third conclusion we can draw from all this is that from Japan to Spain, the one universal thing about good food is that it's fresh. Whether you're eating Hollandse Nieuwe haring or edamame, fresh food is good food. I don't know what it is about, say, a homemade gelato made with fresh strawberries, that makes it tons better than the pink "stuff" sold in the supermarkets--a more intense, realistic taste, certainly, but there's also something richer and more satisfying about fresh food in general that's hard to place. Je ne se quois, indeed.

I'm tempted to say that there's a moral to all of this, but really there isn't. There can't be: food is such a basic need that any attempt to moralize on the topic would just sound idiotic, biased, most likely both. Still, I would encourage you to try new foods whenever you can. Try cooking old food in new ways. Expanding the horizons of your knowledge is, as I've always maintained, never a bad thing.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Processing power

The nice thing about writing on eating habits is that the English language is relatively unimaginative towards food: a raw diet is one in which you eat nothing but raw or only partially-cooked foods (heating food above 120 F is not allowed, under the theory that higher temperatures "destroy" enzymes within the food that allow you to better digest and use it. Macrobiotics is much the same, in that the belief is that processing a food in any way beyond cooking (what you would normally do at home) also tampers with the "essential" vitamins and somehow destroys the nutritive value of the food.

There are, as per usual, truths and untruths to this belief. On the one hand, it is known that some vitamins, vitamin C and folate amongst them, are inactivated by heat, and that many proteins are denatured when exposed to high temperatures.

Let's address the protein issue a bit further: proteins are essentially like a ball of tangled yarn. The analogy of dumbbells, joined end-to-end, which I used earlier to describe them, is still true, but rather than one long thread, they snake back and forth, in and out--like a ball of yarn. If you apply heat to them, they may unwind, and look like a long thin thread, but--and this is critical--the order with which they are arranged remains the same (if you have access to a protein lab, you can try this with serum, 8 M urea, and a circular dichroism spectrometer). But it is how the protein is coiled that gives it the specific properties, and furthermore, whether it remains coiled depends on things other than merely heat--the acidity of the environment, for instance, or the presence of salts and sugars. If you consider how food is eaten--seasoned, flavored to taste, chewed, swallowed--even the most raw diet is going to end up denaturing something.

The issue with "killing" the vitamins, is a more valid reason to eat raw food (though, as we shall see, it does not mean that you should switch your oven for a dehydrator). Vitamins, especially the more complex ones, are sensitive to heat, and many of the fatty acids that are touted today as being good for you are also highly susceptible to oxygenation, which turns them rancid.

What is oft forgotten about a raw diet, in the midst of the frenzy about feeling good and being healthy, is that the only reason such things are possible is because our food supply is reasonably safe--and that presupposes that random spinach and tomato contaminations are indeed random and not a sign that our food safety program requires a massive overhaul. There is some speculation as to whether cooking "evolved"--a hominid stumbling across a charred carcass and finding out that burned flesh is actually not that bad--or was invented, but either way, the point remains that humans have been cooking their food for at least 10,000 years, when the first civilizations arose. You don't stick with a fad that's not useful, and killing dangerous germs on your food is infinitely useful.

However, there is one thing that these diets get right: processed food isn't good for you. Making my own lentil soup allows me to tweak the flavors so that I get to taste what I like. Opening a can of lentil soup, on the other hand, means that I have bought into what a chef ten-thousand miles away, has decided I should like, and has added salt, sugar, and flavorings, accordingly. Processed foods are often stripped of their fiber, flavored with "things", preserved with "other things", and even colored and gussied up to look, if you think about it, nothing like food. I'm not really opposed to chemicals in our food--some of them are inevitable, after all--but it's probably better for you to eat less of them. It's the addition of fats, sugars, and salt, and the removal of fiber and vitamins that makes processed food unhealthy.

Or maybe we just need healthier palettes. A raw diet, like any other diet, is what you make of it. If you do your research, and follow good food safety rules, then odds are you won't make the New England Journal of Medicine under "Bizarre cases". I once considered going on a raw diet, and went so far as to purchase a cookbook (using my Borders Cash Back rewards). It was after a failed attempt at making nut milk that I decided that maybe raw is a bit more difficult than it seemed.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

It's Not Just Tofu Anymore

Vegetarianism actually shouldn't be a "fad". Or, if it is, then it's one of history's oldest and most universal, appearing in cultures as diverse as the ancient Greeks (Pythagoras) and intertwining itself into the very social fabric of India. As a practice, it is fairly uninvolved--eat things that don't require shedding blood. Of course, you could debate whether plants "bleed", but the reasons for going vegetarian don't always have to do with animal rights. Actually, many people do so for their health--I am a vegetarian simply because I have never liked the taste of meat. Still others do so out of concern for the environment, and the latest "thing" is to go vegetarian because $4/gallon gas is making meat too pricey to buy.

Veganism is a more recent development. People who are vegans don't eat animal products--not milk, cheese, eggs, butter, and some of the strictest won't use honey. This makes life tricky, to say the least, as recipes have to be tweaked and ingredients substituted, but today it's not too difficult, given the enormous numbers of food substitutes that are available.

Many of the websites on vegetarianism and/or veganism tout the health benefits of eating a diet that has less saturated fat. A vegetarian diet, however, is not necessarily a healthy one, and I will use my own diet the last week as an example of how to be terribly unhealthy while following a vegetarian diet: eating too many candy bars and cookies, drinking too many diet colas, skipping meals, only to buy a cone of French fries on my way home. To be fair, it was because I hadn't had the time to prepare meals in advance (ordinarily I make bean soups, vegetarian chili, and all manners of healthy good stuff to bring with me to work) that week, but it illustrates the point quite admirably: just because you're a vegetarian doesn't mean you're healthy.

Barring such extreme cases, it is true that eating more fruits and vegetables is good for you. But what about the claims, for instance, about protection against cancer and heart disease? There are too many factors to make such claims. The Japanese, for instance, are well-known for their healthy cuisine, but they also eat less, live in cities and not suburbs (thereby making walking a more effecient form of transportation than driving) and have a culture which makes it easy, in many ways, to know where you belong, thereby easing a great deal of stress. Food alone does not cause or cure cancer, though it can determine how your body responds to it. Getting the right nutrition can literally be a matter of life and death.

Today, nutritional deficiencies tend to be rare, thankfully. And for that, we can thank the manufacturers of vitamins and multivitamins, and the government, for mandating that bread be stuffed with extra folate. The food industry, always angling for that butter zone between health and zing, stuffs orange juice with calcium, and yogurts with vitamins A and D.

Which begs the question: is it better to eat some animal products and get your nutrition naturally, or no animal products and depend on vitamin-overloaded soy products and the like? We're not going to go into matters of taste--maybe, if I start a cooking blog.

And on this, the jury is still out. I've informally polled some vegetarian friends--their answers are mostly that "it's just what suits me". A few are lactose-intolerant, some thing eggs are meat and therefore don't eat them. Though there have been some studies suggesting that soy products interfere with hormonal balance, one must wonder if the farming methods employed by modern farmers have anything to do with it, as soy milk has been enjoyed in the Far East for almost 2000 years, and breast cancer rates are still far lower there than they are here.

It's something to think about, that's for sure--but paying attention to one's own health isn't exactly a bad thing. If anything, we've been doing far too little of it.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Laying down the lines

This is not, by any means, a complete summary of what we know about food and nutrition, nor is it meant to be. For the most part, I am merely defining what I mean when I refer to, say, carbohydrates, because going by what I've seen floating around on the Internet, there are some confused souls, to be sure.

With that in mind:

There are five basic food groups--carbohydrates, proteins, lipids (fats), vitamins, and minerals. (I did consider adding alcohol, but decided against it for expediency)

Not what you were expecting, were you?

The food pyramid that the USDA devised is still valid, for the most part, as a guide for what to eat to stay healthy. But from a nutritional point of view--the view your cells have of that apple you've eaten--all foods are made of these five things, but in different proportions.

I say "for the most part" because, in my opinion (and the opinion of just about everybody else in the world who doesn't drink 3 glasses of milk a day or eat meat) the milk and protein recommendations are still grossly exaggerated. But we'll see what the science has to say about that later.

Carbohydrates are, in a nutshell, sugars. At the molecular level, sugars look like rings--some have five links, some have six. And the most amazing thing is, depending on where they join together--which link of one sugar is joined to a link of another--they can take on different properties. Some are readily assimilated into the body. Others are wholly undigestible (fiber). Some soak up water--the starch that thickens sauces relies on this property.

Proteins are comprised of amino acids, linked together like a set of magnetic dumbbells. It is not the actual linkage that is important, though--it's what's attached to the handle of the dumbbell that makes a protein what it is (the side chain). The side chains play an important role in how the protein gets metabolized.

Lipids are the fats and cholesterol--the greasy bits. They are, essentially, long strings of carbon molecules. Carbon-carbon bonds are some of the strongest in nature, meaning that there is a great deal of energy stored in them. This makes lipids a valuable source of energy.

The most amazing thing about carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins is that the body can convert one to the other. A few steps, a few atoms added here or there, and voila--you have fat from sugar, sugar from protein, protein from sugar. These three groups comprise the main sources of energy for the body.

Vitamins are organic molecules that aid in the function of our body. Unlike the three listed above, they are not a major source of energy--rather, they are like the starter block of the wood fire--they get the fire started, but contribute little to the actual burn. But once the fire is out, and you need a new one, if you don't have enough starter, you might not be able to get it lit.

Minerals are inorganic substances (substances that come from the earth, and are not manufactured by living things). They have a diverse role in the body, too complex to cover here, but suffice it to say that it is amazing that trace amounts of a salt or metal can make the difference between sickness and health. Most minerals are only needed in trace amounts in the average diet of an average person in good health.

If you'd like to learn more about nutrition, you can start here. As I said above, the point of this is not to explain how these are integrated into a seamless picture of metabolism. The point of this is to lay out what I mean when I later say "vitamin" or the like.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Diets: of worms, fruits, and figs

The topic of the week has to do with diets. Not the kind where you lose weight--although, with some of the ones I'll be discussing, it's kind of hard not to--but rather the stuff you eat every day as part of a normal routine.

For the most part, we grew up being taught to eat a "balanced" diet, to include plenty of stuff from the "four" basic food groups and go easy on the candy and fries. The most extreme idea we might have entertained was going vegetarian, and then it was because we didn't like the thought of eating the piglets we oohed and aahed at in picture books. Then we started hearing about how Gwyneth Paltrow or some other celebrity is eating a "macrobiotic" diet, the benefits of veganism, the Bible diet, and all manners of advice on what we should eat and how we should eat it that will bring us health, propserity, happiness, and possibly that new svelte figure.

Why do we keep falling for this? It's not new--Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg made their names doing exactly this over one-hundred years ago. The phenomena of fad diets is particularly marked in America, but I don't think anybody in the world is entirely immune to the idea that you can make yourself better by changing what you eat: the food we eat becomes a part of us, so if we want to become better people we need to eat better food. In part, this is true, but as with all things that occupy the fringe between science and lunacy, the story is a lot more complicated.

But this isn't about the psychology of diets--this week I'll be talking about the diets themselves, what the science knows and doesn't know, and how our (mis)understanding of food and nutrition can literally reshape ourselves.

1) Crash course in food and nutrition
2) Vegetarianism/veganism
3) Raw diets/macrobioitics
4) What regional cuisines have to offer in terms of knowledge of food and health
5) Diets in history, why we eat what we do

Friday, July 4, 2008


After this week's vitriol and/or blasphemy (if you're truly devoted to the Green movement) it may come as a surprise to learn that I am actually entirely for conservation efforts, protecting ecosystems, reducing pollution, and just generally all of the principles behind it.

What I am trying to get at is that true environmental change will not come from swapping your bleach for a "plant-based ethanol" cleanser (just buy a bottle of bottom-shelf vodka--it's probably cheaper and does a better job). It means, above all, using less. You can't toss out what you don't buy, you can't waste what electricity you're not using, and you can't pollute with what you don't have to throw away. The rest, eating less meat, eating less "crap" (anything that comes out of a package) in general, being more aware of what you throw away, reusing what you can, and recycling, are all just icing on the cake.

It also means getting real about the changes you make in your life. We've swapped out most of the cleansers in favor of a homemade concoction. We make our own laundry detergent, and line-dry all of our clothes (well, that's actually because we can't afford a dryer...). The random-crap closet (I'm a rather artistic sort, so I need to keep my stuff somewhere) is organized using old house-paint buckets, scraped clean. Most of the furniture in our apartment was built, or inherited as gifts/cast-offs from relatives. We ride secondhand bikes. And the biggest meat-eaters around are our two cats.

Now, I don't expect everybody to do the same--though if everybody did the carbon emission problem would probably vanish overnight (relatively speaking, a few years in earth-time). But I think it's safe to say that what we do has a greater impact on the planet than the trendy yuppie who buys organic strawberries in the dead of winter and puts them in the trunk of his hybrid SUV. The environmental impact of that guy is more of a mixed bag, because he's got so many factors going both for and against him. Yes, his SUV is a "hybrid" (in that the battery is used to give more power to the engine), so it gets slightly better mileage. And let's not kid ourselves on how much gas it takes to move those organic strawberries from Argentina, either.

The point is, it all comes down to a matter of less--less stuff, fewer complications. Fewer complications, and the easier it will be to move us to a more planet-friendly place. Less really is more, in this case.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Unintended consequesces

This post is about cats.

The first cat is the one in the photograph, hours after I picked her up off the streets of Philadelphia. She is one heck of an unintended consequence of my living there.

The other cat story is "Operation Cat Drop", or WHO screws up big time. In a nutshell, in the 1950s, DDT, seen as the panacea against malaria, was applied everywhere there was a mosquito. The end result was that the WHO had to airlift cats to jungle villages in Borneo.

In retrospect, perhaps the connections should have been obvious. But because life as a whole is so interconected, it is hard to figure out which connections make the difference between plans working out, and plans failing miserably. I don't think, short of developing a time traveler, it will ever be possible to foresee every consequence of the things we do to the environment.

However, what we can do is drop the thinking, as much as we like it, that one single cause is the source of our misery, and one single thing can fix it. Ultimately, we can't know everything, and there will be cases where doing nothing is far worse than doing something, as uninformed as the action may be. But for the majority of non-emergent cases, accruing the knowledge of as many connections as possible will help us make better decisions about how to go about doing what must be done.

The other thing we can do is stop trying to "fix" things. Plans for adding changes to an environment usually go more wrong than letting the environment come back to balance by itself. For example, the forest fires in the western part of the US cause as much damage as they do, because more people live there, and because the US Forestry service once made it a point to put out every single fire, despite that the trees in the West evolved in such a way that they required fire to manage their growth. With their growth running rampant, a lightning strike would be like tossing a match on a pile of tinder.

The environment cannot be "fixed" like a car. If you fix your carbeurator, you don't accidentally ding your boss's car, and dinging your boss's car doesn't give your secretary a flat. Unfortunately, this is much the way biology works--or seems to, until we realize that there are connections between the cars that we just haven't seen yet.

The best we can hope for is to minimize our influence--stop polluting inasmuch as it's possible, quit meddling in the affairs of the forests, cease changing the course of rivers, desist with taking the life on this planet for granted. Conservation is essentially a conservative effort, in that the best thing we can do is as much nothing as possible--we don't cut down forests, we don't pollute. Of course, this isn't possible, as people have to eat, food must be shipped, money must be made, life must be lived. But minimizing our impact on the environment is something we can all make an effort at--and should. After all, who can resist doing nothing?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Delusions of Goodness

One of my favorite scenes is what I call the "Chemical Corridor" down the New Jersey Turnpike. It's captivating in its utter unnaturalness. It jars with every sensibility of mine in terms of aesthetics, stands against everything I believe in (to be addressed on Friday) in terms of natural products and nature, and is just inherently alien. I'd love to photograph it; alas, I've never been in a car standing still long enough to do so.

The Chemical Corridor is where many of the so-called "natural flavorings" are developed. It houses some of the largest companies which manipulate molecules to give you an experience of food which lies in conjunction with your expectations--fries are crispy, cookies are crunchy, chocolate is chocolate-y, and strawberry-flavored anything tastes like strawberries (source: Fast Food Nation). It is the heart of everything synthetic and unnatural.

Which begs the question of what exactly constitutes "natural"? On a molecular level, the vanillin in a vanilla bean and the vanillin extracted from waste wood are EXACTLY the same. The reason why genuine vanilla extract sells at a premium over the vanillin extract? Because it comes from vanilla beans. The example that Schlosser gives in his book concerns almond flavoring--extracted from the pits of peaches and apricots, it has trace amounts of cyanide. Mixing clove oil and amyl acetate, on the other hand, has no cyanide. But the first is a "natural" flavoring, and eagerly consumed, whereas the second ends up in cheap almond-flavored...stuff, for want of a better word.

Another issue with the terms "natural" and "unnatural" has to do with the connotation of purity, wholesomeness, and health. I'm staring at an advertisement for an all-natural body wash (we're going to ignore the fact that deriving some of the ingredients from plants is hardly a natural process) that uses safflower oil as the main cleanser. It has, as a side-by-side comparision, the chemical sodium lauryl sulfate, a chemical that is frequently used in soaps and shampoos. It lists the pros of safflower oil and the cons of SLS, and it's pretty obvious, at first glance, which one is better for you.

After a second glance (this ad really rankled me, and you'll soon see why) it becomes quite obvious that safflower oil is not, in fact, the main cleansing ingredient, as SLS is in conventional soapy products. It is, in fact, merely the agent by which the cleaning agents are carried. And there is nothing to substantiate the claim that someone with sensitive-enough skin wouldn't react to cleansers derived from coconut oil. Lastly, there is nothing to keep you from using the body wash to clean your garage floor, as SLS is. It wouldn't be very cost-effective, but you could, if you wanted to.

Of course, advertisers have to make the product look good--they have to sell a "lifestyle". When you get right down to the molecules, it really doesn't matter where it comes from--you take enough, it'll kill you. Tea tree oil is an effective mold-killer but it's also toxic to cats. I also find it smirk-worthy to note that nobody objects to drinking coffee or smoking cigarettes--the latter pours at least 60 carcinogenic compounds down your lungs. And the greens profess to be irked that the fumes from an occasional bleaching of the toilet bowl are irritating to the lungs....

The point is, "natural" is all in our heads. Sure, cleaning agents might be derived from plants, but does the "privilege" of coming from a plant necessarily make a molecule any more "natural"? The Green Guide recommends using plant-based ethanol as a stain remover--ethanol is ethanol is ethanol is ethanol. It's what gets you drunk; whether it comes from plants or distilling vodka doesn't matter a hoot, the molecular formula is still C2H5OH, and it still works the same way.

Maybe natural products are better for us. But first we have to quit deluding ourselves when we pick up a $5 bottle of all-natural spray cleaner, and realize that what we are paying for is the privilege of knowing that everything in that bottle was somehow derived from plants. It does not mean that the products are necessarily any safer, and it does not mean that the product is necessarily any better for the planet than, say, sodium carbonate (washing soda), which simply dissolves into comparatively simple ions. Let's take a good hard look at what's in the bottle first, before patting ourselves on the back.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Case Against Organic

Chemicals are everywhere. Since the dawn of time, we've used salt to preserve our meat, and later, saltpeter. Lye (sodium hydroxide) was once used to make soap--if you read the cautionary warnings, suddenly your average shampoo, laden with "chemicals", doesn't sound so bad. We've been making use of opium for five thousand years, and magic mushrooms ever since someone mistakenly added them to his soup.

So when the Greens declare a war on chemicals, what exactly do they mean? Gram for gram, the most deadly poisons are found in living creatures. Take jellyfish, for instance--we all know they sting, and that their stings hurt. But when they start "blooming", when massive numbers float through the oceans in packs, they can do serious ecological damage, on the scale of industrial disasters. I would be hard-pressed to seriously consider a ban on jellyfish, though.

This is not to say that pesticides and herbicides are, by any means, harmless. Organophosphates are NOT fun things to play with. But let's examine what chemicals have allowed us to achieve, and then ask whether we are willing to do without them, before we decide to ban them altogether (I know there is no serious talk about banning the use of pesticides and herbicides, but the most dedicated Greens probably wouldn't mind).

One of the main areas that Green folk like to stump about is organic farming, which is farming without any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. "It tastes better" and "It's healthier" are the usual claims; I've never been able to discern much of a difference. And maybe that has to do with the fact that I don't live in, say, California, so the spinach that was fresh off the organic farm has been sitting in the back of a semi for three days, so that by the time it reaches the store it tastes the same as the conventional spinach, grown closer to home (and therefore has no need to sit in a semi for three days). But regardless, it's hard to be against organic farming, until you think about what it means for your wallet:

Until the advent of modern farming (my definition of it can be found here), farmers were largely at the mercy of drought, plague, flood, hurricanes, earthquakes--anything that upset the growing process could be considered a natural disaster. The weather, alas, is neither predictable nor controllable, and that's doubly true now that global warming is such an issue. The fact that we have such an abundance of food and that it costs so little to the consumer, is testimony to the power these chemicals have that enable us to grow so much food at such low prices (farm subsidies help, too). Giving up chemicals would require giving up cheap food. And if you thought prices were high now...

Chemistry has played a role in EVERY aspect of human life, from the indium in your LCD screen that lets you read this, to the semiconductor that makes up the processor, to the tanning process that gives you a soft leather jacket, to the wine you drink and the clumping agent in the kitty's cat litter. Unless we're willing to go back to the Stone Age (because bronze involves smelting, and therefore charcoal, and therefore cutting down trees), we had damn well better come up with a much clearer definition of what we mean when we say "let's get the chemicals out of our lives".

And before I get reamed for this: I am not trying to say that organic farming is bad for the planet, or that pesticides and herbicides are good. Even I don't believe that. But when you start looking at the bigger picture, things get complicated--what if food is priced beyond the range of the poor? Maybe that's not a big deal in the US, where the deal is "food or gas", but it can be a big deal in poverty-stricken areas of the world, where there is no question--everything must go towards food. I am trying to point out that without a clearer definition of what we mean by "chemicals", the logic ultimately takes us to an illogical conclusion.