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April 11, 2003

Cannibals
Posted by razib at 05:18 PM




I have been interested in the prion approach to virus, especially in connection with brain degenerative disease.

I saw a the British documentary which first associated Alzheimer's with profound dementia and kuru-kuru. This documentary was aired back in the early '80's. It featured British missionary doctors in Africa, who discovered kuru-kuru among female tribe members who had eaten the brains of important dead males, like chieftans or clan leaders. The documentary showed x-rays of dead brain cells (the chief damage) of Alzheimer's, profound dementia, and kuru-kuru. The pictures were quite similar.

When the Mad Cow disease broke, I immediately rembered kuru-kuru, the "shaking" (not "laughing" per se) disease.

My question still is this: if this is a virus transmitted through direct ingestion of infected flesh, how can its presence be said to be dependent on the genetic condition of the eater? Innate resistance via genetic formation seems begging the question of the nature of virus.

As an evolutionary organism, are we simply the result of what we've been able to resist? This is philosophical, not medical. When an animal virus can affect humans, that means that, by definition, disease is so intelligent that it is a trans-species attack on all life, all living things. Again, this is philosophical, not medical. The definition of disease is at stake, here, in concept, it seems to me. The definition of life is also at stake.

Are we merely the result of disease resistance? Is this what evolves creatures in the world, their process and devlopment of resisting disease?

Parasitical "life" does reflect certain thought processes in the political arena, true, but, we must ask the biological question: primitive though it is, could virus be the first form of life? It would seem not. But, to say that it is attracted to organisms which cannot resist it, or, it develops precisely in those which cannot, is to beg the question.

That life forms would fall prey to superimposed life forms (parasite or virus) is a positively philosophical problem. That life is a contingency, we must recognize. But that life is contested by forms that feed on it, is, though medically apparently the truth, is philosohpically completely foreign to verbal consciousness, or language.

Posted by: David Yeagley at April 14, 2003 07:37 PM


David Yeagley asks:

As an evolutionary organism, are we simply the result of what we've been able to resist?

That would seem to be the implication here, at least in part.

It would be analogous to the susceptibility to sickle-cell anemia which appears in Africans and some Mediterraneans as an unfortunate and perhaps maladaptive side-effect of malaria-resistant characteristics which have evolved in their blood.

Posted by: Richard Poe at April 16, 2003 05:00 AM


Richard, thank you for responding. I am compelled on this particular subject. Defining life is a philosophical challenge. Medical science should long have been a contributor, but has been separated from philosophy.

To whatever extent we are the result of what we have resisted, to that extent we are NOT in charge. That is to say, life is not in charge. The life force is, to that extent, merely reactionary. This turns the theory of evolution upside down.

The big question is, reactionary to what? What other force is there that seems so fundamentally averse to life?

I had a professor at Emory University names Lawrence Alexander (since deceased from cancer).
He had an interesting question, regarding the evolutionary process: What's between the demons and the rocks? This was all about animism and man's penchant for the invisible, etc. Whence cometh this penchant, just a bi-product of consciousness? That would mean the human life form is inevitably self-deluded. Unless there's something between our thoughts and the basic substance of inanimate matter itself, the rocks.
Primitive peoples tend to be absorbed in animism. Are they therefore further away from the rocks? Are they the most advanced? Is Western man's complexity actually a regression?

Posted by: David Yeagley at April 16, 2003 09:45 AM


i've been busy, so can't contribute much-but i would like to add that i'm going to post on religion, and its "natural" state, pretty soon. when i was in college i got a minor that concentrated on german history, and one of the most bizarre incidents we studies was as follows: a prussian village in 1760 or so loses its pastor for a generation, and somehow ends up killing a bull, burying it and what not, in the hopes that the rains will come for the harvest. in the space of a generation these peasants had "regressed" to animism (the incident in covered in detail in a lutheran inquisitional document). to me this indicates that perhaps this is man's "natural" state.

Posted by: razib at April 16, 2003 11:58 AM


Ach du liebest Zeit! Sounds wonderful. I wonder if this 1760 story was the basis of "Lord of the Flies?" Who knows? Freud said we all need to go back there a bit. Jung said we're all there, still, in our minds.

Posted by: David Yeagley at April 17, 2003 09:49 AM


I could easily be persuaded that the modern mind is diseased. The jury will remain out though. I see Godless cites the Principia as the genesis of civilization. I love that as the epitome of the rationalist inquiry. Of course, if this inquiry ultimately leads to destruction of the species by nuclear explosions, biological agents, or genetic engineering, we (or what/who ever is left to contemplate) may well conclude that the modern mind was a severe maladaptation-(like really severe-has any other species ever offed itself?)This is of course speculation-perhaps utopia awaits.
Personally, I believe agriculture (and the subsequent ability to free up time for things like...thinking) will in the end prove to have been a drastic death inducing detour in our development.

Posted by: martin at April 18, 2003 10:41 AM


What is your take on this: the ancient Hebrew story (Genesis) puts agriculture before hunting and gathering. Evolution, of course, puts agriculture AFTER hunting and gathering. Why would the ancient Hebrew story reverse the order in this way?

What of this principle of degeneration? something evolution religiously avoids in principle. I think we may have demonstrated that degeneration is indeed an operative principle in the life force development.

Posted by: David Yeagley at April 18, 2003 05:36 PM