Summer reading 1: Lauri Lebo’s “Devil in Dover”

Many of you probably followed the 2005 “Kitzmiller vs. Dover” trial in Dover, Pennsylvania closely. From its early days, with daily updates at the Panda’s Thumb to the publication of the ruling–“Kitzmas”— in late December, the trial was filled with drama and moments right out of the movies. From the defendants’ remarkable lying on the stand to Behe’s admission that his definition of a scientific theory included astrology, it seemed that each day was better than the last for the pro-science side, culminating in the stinging tongue-lashing doled out by Judge Jones in his decision in favor of the plaintiffs.

However, what was reported was only a small slice of the larger story, and Lauri Lebo’s new book, The Devil in Dover, brings us the rest. A journalist for the York Daily Record, Lebo grew up in the Dover area and has an intimate understanding of the local history and culture–and the personalities involved on both sides of the case, making “Devil in Dover” far more than just another recounting of the trial. (More after the jump…)
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Yellow fever: the American plague

The fever hit suddenly in the form of a piercing headache and painful sensitivity to light, like looking into a white sun. At that point, the patient could still hope that it was not yellow fever, maybe just a headache from the heat. But the pain worsened, crippling movement and burning the skin. The fever rose to 104, maybe 105 degrees, and bones felt as though they had been cracked. The kidneys stopped functioning, poisoning the body. Abdominal cramps began in the final days of illness as the patient vomited black blood brought on by internal hemorrhaging. The victim became a palate of hideous color: red blood ran from the gums, eyes and nose. The tongue swelled, turning purple. Black vomit roiled. And the skin grew a deep gold, the whites of the eyes turning brilliant yellow.

These symptoms played themselves out over and over again in Memphis, Tennessee, during the summer of 1878. Memphis in the 1870s was a mess. It was a city of contrasts: high society and formal dinners co-existing with extreme poverty. The city itself was filthy, swampy and overrun with mosquitoes during the warm months. Disease was rampant, and yellow fever was one of the deadliest. Molly Caldwell Crosby chronicles the 1878 Memphis outbreak, and the effect this outbreak had in history in The American Plague. More after the jump…

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“Twelve Diseases that Changed Our World”

I asked yesterday what readers considered the most important diseases in history. This was prompted by a new ASM Press book, Twelve Diseases that Changed Our World, written by Irwin Sherman.

As I mentioned, Sherman included many diseases readers expected–plague, cholera, tuberculosis, smallpox, syphilis, malaria, influenza, yellow fever, and AIDS. He didn’t include a few that popped up repeatedly in the comments–leprosy, measles, and typhoid (or typhus, for that matter). While I think a study of these could have been illuminating (especially leprosy, since much of the stigma attached to that disease still resonates even in modern society), Sherman notes than an exhaustive study of diseases would have been “mind-numbing,” and that wasn’t his goal in writing the book. Rather, the book is “…about the we have or should have learned from our past encounters with unanticipated outbreaks of disease and how such understanding can be put to use when future outbreaks occur.” More after the jump…including the diseases Sherman chose that most readers missed.
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Vaccine by Arthur Allen

Regular readers may have seen me mention on occasion my father’s rather large family. My dad is the youngest of a family of 13 children–12 of whom survived to adulthood. Before my dad was born, he lost a brother to complications from infection with chicken pox; he had a severe infection and developed a fatal secondary pneumonia at just a year old. This was back in the early 1940s, prior to the widespread use of modern antibiotics and certainly long before vaccination for chicken pox. Still, despite the availability of effective chicken pox vaccines today, people still knowingly expose their children to chicken pox-infected playmates at chicken pox parties rather than vaccinate, apparently oblivious to the fact that this “mild childhood illness” can cause severe disease, and even death.

This campaign against vaccines isn’t new by any means. In fact, vehement opposition to vaccination is as old as the procedure itself, as is thoroughly documented in Arthur Allen’s recent book, Vaccine. More after the jump.
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Danica McKellar’s “Math Doesn’t Suck”

It’s not a rosy picture for girls in math. As Barbie infamously framed it, girls should think that “math is hard.” While Mattel (rightly) received a lot of flack for that comment, the sad fact is that Barbie was reflecting the attitude many girls tend to take toward mathematics education: it’s difficult, it’s boring, and who needs it anyway? Surveys have shown that, while girls and boys in elementary school show similar attitudes toward mathematics, by junior high girls tend to have a negative attitude toward math, along with lower confidence in their ability to handle math problems. Of course, this also has a negative effect on getting women to enter (or stay in) science and technology concentrations in college, as all require at least some courses in mathematics. Therefore, women choose to opt out of these–in many cases, due to attitudes that began to develop during those Barbie years.

However, the news is not all bad. Studies also show that interventions can be made by teachers and by parents to retain girls’ interest in math. This can be done by encouraging and developing girls’ abilities, and helping them to overcome stereotypes of girls as “bad at math,” or that girls who are good at math are just “nerds” who will never get a date. Mathematician/author/actress Danica McKellar tackles the latter in her first book, Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail. More after the jump…
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The outbreak that shaped the course of history

One of the most famous stories in all of epidemiology revolves around the very birth of the science, in the midst of a London cholera outbreak in 1854. At the time, the scientific community was divided over the cause of cholera and other diseases. The majority of them accepted the miasma theory, the idea that disease was due to corrupted air (“all smell is disease,” noted sanitation commissioner Edwin Chadwick). This idea dates back to antiquity, and increased in popularity in the Victorian era. It’s a great example of something that logically made sense, even though it was wrong. 19th century sanitation reformers pointed out to disease outbreaks that occurred in areas that were filthy, and along with that filth came a terrible smell. It was thought that the scent was due to the putrefaction of the air, and that when this putrid air was inhaled, it resulted in the development of disease. Again, it made sense–when areas were cleaned up, disease frequently decreased–it seemed like a no-brainer. Though this was prior to the formulation of the germ theory of disease, some scientists (dubbed “contagionists”) believed disease was not acquired via miasma, but instead passed from person to person via some sort of unidentified particle.

Physician John Snow was one of the early supporters of the latter theory. His careful investigation of the 1854 London cholera outbreak was the beginning of the end of the miasma theory–and the beginning of modern epidemiology as well. However, the impact of the cholera epidemic extends much farther than just the eventual formulation of the germ theory of disease and the downfall of the miasma theory. In The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson tells the fascinating history of John Snow’s groundbreaking investigation, and how it still reverberates in the world today.
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Did Hitler have syphilis?

Syphilis is a disease frequently shrouded in many levels of mystery. It appeared suddenly in Europe in the late 1400s as a highly virulent and often fatal disease, a disease that could give Ebola a run for its money when it comes to sheer grotesque-ness. Victims may be covered with pustules from head to toe, diseased flesh peeled from their bodies, and patients may be in agonizing pain for weeks or months prior to death. However, after this inauspicious beginning, syphilis seems to have become less virulent, and instead shifted in presentation to more of the chronic disease that we know it as today.

Syphilis is caused by a bacterium called a spirochete: a twisted corkscrew-like organism named Treponema pallidum. The disease itself has been known by many names over the centuries, including “Morbus Gallicus” (“The French Disease”) and the Great Pox, to distinguish it from other diseases such as smallpox. It’s also known as “The great imitator,” due to the non-specific symptoms it frequently causes.

Illness caused by T. pallidum is typically divided into three stages: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Shortly after initial infection, a lesion may appear on the genitalia; typically, these will resolve on their own in another few weeks’ time. During the secondary phase, which can occur weeks or months later, a rash may appear on the body, typically over the extremities and frequently including the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Myriad other manifestations may also present at this point, making the diagnosis of syphilis (especially without the characteristic rash) difficult in the centuries prior to identification of the causative spirochete. Tertiary syphilis, then, would frequently manifest a year to ten years (but sometimes as long as 50) after the initial infection. This also was difficult to definitively diagnose, as symptoms could include effects in a number of bodily systems, including the cardiovascular, digestive, and nervous system. The best-known tertiary effect include late stages of neurosyphilis, which can result in blindness, dementia, and paralysis.

In times gone by, just like today, acquisition of sexually transmitted diseases carried a stigma. This stigma, combined with the difficulty of making an accurate syphilis diagnosis (especially prior to the 1900s, but even after identification of the causative organism, diagnostic tests could still show false negatives), has resulted in quite a bit of rumors swirling around famous historical figures: had they been infected with syphilis? Hitler is but one of the historical figures investigated in Deborah Hayden’s Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis. More below…
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Wells’ Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and ID, Chapter Seven: quote-mining, trivializing, and generally getting it wrong

The seventh chapter of Wells’ book could be summed up in a single sentence: “biology doesn’t need no steeekin’ evolution!” Wells argues that, because medicine and agriculture were already doing just fine prior to Darwin’s publication of Origin, clearly then, these fields (and others) haven’t benefited from an application of evolutionary principles in the time from 1859 to present day, and that Dobzhansky’s “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” is one big joke.

Wells focuses on medicine and agriculture because these are two fields that we all benefit from, and are more easily understood than biological disciplines that are a bit more removed from the common man. Animal and plant breeding and domestication is something that resonates more with middle America than the speciation events Wells describes in Chapter 5 (review of that yet to come), and certainly the great strides made in medicine are familiar even to those who don’t have much of an interest in the field. Wells claims that these fields have been “darwined”; that “Darwinists steal credit for scientific breakthroughs to which they contributed nothing,” and calls it a form of “intellectual larceny.” (pg. 80-81):

Generations of breeders have been darwined. Mendel has been darwined. Jenner and Semmelweis have been darwined. Fleming, Florey, Chain, and Waksman have been darwined. So have the real pioneers of modern biology. They’ve all been darwined. (pg. 81)

Wells claims this because, as I noted in the first paragraph, it is his contention that modern biology owes nothing to evolution, but instead, evolution owes everything to other fields.

Yet most of the fundamental disciplines in modern biology were pioneered by scientists who lived before Darwin was born. These pioneers include the sixteenth-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius, the sixteenth-century physiologist William Harvey, and the seventeenth-century botanist John Ray. They include the seventeenth-century founders of microbiology, Robert Hooke and Anton van Leeuwenhoek; the eighteenth-century founder of systematics, Carolus Linneaus; and the eighteenth-century founder of modern embryology, Caspar Friedrich Wolff. Even paleontology, which Darwinists now treat as theirs, was founded before Darwin’s birth by Georges Cuvier.

Of course, no one is making the argument that Darwin discovered biology! Wells doesn’t once mention, however, another famous quote by Ernest Rutherford: “In science there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting.” In the days before Darwin, biology was not united behind a common, unifying theory, and it was much like “stamp collecting:” figuring out knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but not having a puzzle upon which to place the pieces to form a more logical, coherent pattern. Evolution gives us this.

This is why some scientists are still dismayed that an understanding of evolution doesn’t guide some biology-dependent fields in the way that it should. Wells seizes on one such lamentation by quote-mining Harvard biologist Marc Kirschner:

“Over the last one hundred years, almost all of biology has proceeded independent of evolution, except evolutionary biology itself.” Although he lamented this situation, Kirschner acknowledged: “Molecular biology, biochemistry, physiology, have not taken evolution into account at all.” (pg. 80).

Of couse, as usual, putting the previous paragraph alongside Kirschner’s quote gives it the context needed to understand where Kirschner is coming from:

If anything, Kirschner and Gerhart hope their book will have an impact at least as substantial on their colleagues in biology. For too long, they say, researchers in its different domains-from evolutionists in the field to cell biologists in the lab-have remained isolated. ”I wouldn’t call it an antagonism as much as one not knowing anything about the other,” Gerhart offers.

So they’re calling for biologists to pay attention to disciplines outside their own niche a bit more, which makes a huge amount of sense (and even moreso if one realizes that Dr. Kirschner leads a department of systems biology, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to investigating biological research). Additionally, this article was written in the midst of the Dover trial, where Michael Behe–a biochemist who clearly feels that evolution doesn’t benefit his own work–was testifying.

So, what of Wells’ specific claims about medicine and Darwinism? I will address three here in more detail: hospital pathogens, antibiotics, and influenza vaccination, all of which Wells claims owe nothing to evolution.
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Viruses vs. Superbugs

On a recent episode of the drama House, the medical team finds that a patient improves from his illness when he’s infected with a particular species of bacteria, Legionella pneumophila. Though mysterious at the time because the cause of the patient’s illness was unknown, it was later determined that the patient was infected with naegleria, an amoeba. Legionella is an intracellular bacterium that just happens to naturally live in amoeba. Therefore, when the patient was co-infected with the amoeba and Legionella, the Legionella killed off the amoeba–using one microbe to attack another.

This strategy will sound familiar to those versed in the history of microbiology. Before the advent of antibiotic drugs, one method used to treat bacterial infections was to attack them with another microbe as well: with viruses called bacteriophage. In a new book, Viruses vs. Superbugs, Swiss journalist Thomas Häusler details the extraordinary history of this treatment method.
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