Frailty -Thy Name is Woman?

There seems to be no end in the struggle to differentiate men from women. You’d have thought that by now, we would have settled the boundary disputes, agreed on who owns what, and set up market stalls on anything remaining. It’s all shared territory anyway. Of course, maybe that’s naive. Maybe there are fundamental discrepancies that admit to only superficial comparisons. Relativities…We are, when all is said and done, different from each other not in terms of value, or worth, or intelligence -or anything like that- but physiologically. And there’s the wonder.

That we complement each other seems so adaptive, so perfect… And yet, do others that interact with us -microorganisms, for example- see it the same way? Are infections as unbiased, fair and equal as we are striving for in our societal evolution? Human laws be damned -do they see us as the same, or do their rules change depending on our sex? Do they discriminate?

We’ve all sniggered about the unequal fury of ‘man colds’ and the like, but whatever evidence supported or rejected this contention has always been subject to the confirmation bias of those studying it. An article in the BBC News seems to have uncovered yet another layer of the Matryoshka doll:

They have reported on a 2016 article in Nature Communications by Ubeda and Jansen which suggests that ‘Viruses can evolve to become more aggressive in men than in women’. This has usually been attributed to hormonal differences, and the effects these might have on the immune response, and no doubt this does play an important role. But suppose one were to examine this from a different perspective?

‘Viruses have ways of spreading that are unique to women – such as to a child in the womb, during birth or breastfeeding.’ From the invading organism’s point of view, this is important. ‘Scientists at Royal Holloway University in London used mathematics to model whether this altered the way viruses behaved. Their findings suggest there may be an advantage to infections being less aggressive in women as reducing the risk of killing the mother increases the chance of infecting the child.’

They’re not meaning to suggest some form of microbial intelligence of course -other than that those who happen upon a better way to survive and more successfully propagate their kind will be able to continue passing on their genes. ‘”Viruses may be evolving to be less dangerous to women, looking to preserve the female population, the virus wants to be passed from mother to child, either through breastfeeding, or just through giving birth.”’ The Selfish Gene kind of thing -survival of the most adaptive.

All this is very interesting, but for me, it also raises the question of the nature of intelligence, and whether we have truly cornered the market. Without becoming unduly tautologically entangled, how should we define intelligence -and therefore decide who, or what, possesses it?

I suspect it is no longer sufficient to equate mentality (to use an obviously autological word) with brain size, and neuronal density… Or maybe even neurons –trees, for example, have interconnecting root systems, often associated with fungal networks, that are able to communicate after a fashion. Trees and plants are also often able to signal to each other about threatening insect infestations, allowing the production of defensive chemicals. But they live in a different Magisterium almost -they cannot run or hide, so another mechanism was required for survival in an ever-changing environment.

Humans, with our recently evolved Weltanschauung, tend to frame the capacity of other organisms in terms of our own, and their intelligence by what we judge they have accomplished in their own environment. The fact that they have been successful at survival has often been seen as irrelevant to the discussion. Whether an organism can reason –if we can ever peel away the inbuilt hubris implied by the word- is surely another way of saying, ‘learns from its mistakes and adapts appropriately’ -even if that is only in terms of the next generation enabled by the survivor. We have adjusted in our fashion, and they in theirs.

Still, I don’t mean to attribute our characteristics to microorganisms who could care less what we think. Sometimes, it is enough to survive and create the next generation; sometimes adaptation-whether over time and generations, or in one lifetime- can be seen as a goal achieved. So, is it too much to believe that there may be an effective strategy that is gender-modifiable? And is it too much to call it a strategy? Is this such stuff as dreams are made on…?

However much we hesitate to anthropomorphize an issue, a change of perspective is often heuristic. It may well lead to a new understanding and hence a novel approach to a hitherto unsolvable problem. Although this is purely speculative at this stage, the researchers in that article suggest ‘that eventually it may be possible to use drugs to trick viruses into thinking they were infecting women in order to make them less aggressive.’

What an exciting prospect that we may no longer feel a need to completely ignore gender in our dealings with the world -that we may finally be able to shed the guilt of being unable to meld the two into a seamless fabric, and feel embarrassed that, like a poorly executed pentimento, traces of the discrepancy continue to persist.

Recognition and concession of difference does not imply censure or stigmatization -rather, it invites a celebration of the unique patterns each can offer. A realization that a recipe with only one ingredient is uninteresting and bland. And, given the conjecture in the Nature and Communication paper, it’s an awareness of something suspected since antiquity: that our remedies oft in ourselves do lie.

Sometimes, like Robert Frost we just have to take the road not taken:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.


The Colour of my Baby

What a great idea: a bandage that tells you when what it is hiding, is itself hiding something –an infection.

I suppose it was an idea looking for a platform. When bacteria are growing, they often invent ways to keep doing just that. Sometimes they overwhelm by sheer numbers to defeat the body’s defences, at other times it’s toxins that break down tissues and help them invade. The body, for it’s part, has its own bag of tricks. In the end, infections are often simply a kind of parry and thrust contest –a fencing match, if you will.

Most bodies are not unduly challenged by wounds, however –keep them clean and cover them with some sort of dressing, and they heal. Antibiotics are seldom required. The problem, of course, is that sometimes the foes are not evenly matched. People on immune suppressants (transplant patients), or those with already compromised immune systems –whether from disease or immaturity (babies, for example)- may not be able to mount a suitable response to bacteria in a wound and are at risk of severe infections. These are the ones in whom a timely and appropriate antibiotic would be prudent.

Sometimes, though, antibiotics are used like soap: if it looks dirty, or if it might turn out to be dirty, why not use an antibiotic? Just in case. Well, the simple answer is that the body is usually pretty good at dealing with bacteria. After all, we are all exposed to bacteria from day zero. It starts with the journey down the obviously non-sterile birth canal, and progresses to crawling along things, tasting things… none of which could be said to be free of bacteria of some sort or other. Bacteria are what we do, where we live… Bacteria live in our mouths, in our bowels, on our skin. There are more bacteria in our intestines than cells in our bodies; we simply cannot get rid of them all.

Nor should we. I’ve written before about the benefit of these usually commensal creatures and the benefits they provide both for continuing health and development:

But let’s not be naïve about bacteria –they don’t give a fig about us -they are amoral. A bacterium prefers to live with others –family. They grow and prosper with no regard for boundaries or house rules. Without suitable checks and balances they would take over. Like pouring water in a cup -too much and it merely overflows the constraints and moves on. That’s an infection. That’s when the body may need some help.

The trick is obviously intervening when it is necessary, but monitoring when it is not. Why? Well, treating every wound, say, with an antibiotic might get rid of the truly sensitive bacteria, but leave behind those that don’t respond quite as easily or quickly. The result of the treatment may therefore be to select for those bacteria that don’t mind the antibiotic –the resistant organisms. That’s how it happens.

So in those people who may not be able to deal with bacteria efficiently, it would be helpful to know when –or if– to intervene. That’s where the bandage that changes colour when bacteria in wounds begin to proliferate and infect would be helpful. There are other ways, of course: the old Latin aphorism I was taught in medical school, for example: Tumor, Dolor, Rubor, Calor – Swelling, Pain, Redness (inflammation), Warmth (infection). But sometimes it’s nice to have another tool in the kit that may detect a problem earlier -before these signs are present. Or, in the case of a body incapable of even producing the signs- when an infection would be catastrophic.

Clearly a lot of work needs to be done to detect the mischief of different types of bacteria –they don’t all produce toxins, and even if they did, there would likely be differences in their structures that would have to be accounted for in the detection mechanism. But this may be the bandage of the future –a Facebook band aid that is constantly posting. Almost like refrigerators that tell you what you need, or coffee pots that turn on when they hear the toilet flush in the morning. A brave new world.

It is ‘a hit’, as Osric, a courtier, says of Hamlet’s thrust as he is dueling with Laertes, ‘a very palpable hit.’ Let us hope so.