Friday, March 14, 2008

There's a war brewing, but it may not involve guns (or butter)

One of the advantages of living in the Nation's Capitol is that one can attend all sorts of intellectual happenings. You can see plays at the Kennedy Center (from PBS to your reality). You can hear just about any kind of music you want - I'm personally looking forward to the Japanese Tycho (sic) drums that will soon be a part of the Cherry Blossom Festival. You can go to the National Archives to learn about our past, and you can go to Politics and Prose to be regaled by the latest authors.

If you look hard enough, you can also find some really cutting edge science. I did so today, and while the title of the seminar might not appeal to the masses, it turned out that the talk was an evolutionary eye opener.

Delivered by Daniel Brooks from the University of Toronto, today's examination of marine parasites and their relationships to their hosts turned on a concept that parasites, and by extension other disease organisms, are really ecological specialists. They occupy specific micro-habitats, BUT they have the ability to exploit sort of similar micro-habitats in many related organisms. From that understanding, Brook lead us to examine, if this is true, how disease prevention and containment is not the best approach to emerging infectious diseases. He argues that we need to be looking at the micro-habitats and the organisms a host is related to in order to see what the next disease pathway might be.

Phew. I'm a fisheries oceanographer, so diseases and parasites hurt my brain ( and my eyes against the microscope). But the bonus - the reason I loved this talk so much - is what Dr. Brooks had to say about why humans don't follow this better pathway to elucidating emerging diseases.

His central thesis, drawing from paleontology, psychology, ethnobotony, and a whole host of other seemingly unrelated disciplines, is that humans can't take the complexity so we fail to act in the best possible way. He called it the "if you can't analyze complex patterns you are lunch" hypothesis. Basically, humans have evolved complex abilities to intuitively understand complex natural patterns and information. Yet at the same time, our ancestors learned to simplify complex interactions, so we didn't end up at the same watering hole as the jaguar at the same time. Basically, we have the amazing ability to both perceive complex richness in our surroundings, and deny the very existence of complexity because it makes decision making too hard. Hopefully I have that right.

How might this idea play out in modern human actions? Well, it might play out in denying that climate changes we observe are really caused by Green House Gas emissions. It might play out in launching war in a country whose history and ethnology you fail to understand because your ideology says the occupants of the country will switch to your ideology if you "liberate"them. It might play out in asserting that fathers are critical to children's development while at the same time refusing to acknowledge that modern divorce laws are designed to alienate fathers from the beginning.

In other words, the human capacity to deny the seemingly obvious is likely an evolutionarily hardwired trait. So we have to work, really hard, to overcome it. The war, which is already here, is really about which part of the brain, the denying part or the pattern recognizing part, will lead humanity into the future. I'm rooting for the pattern part.