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Life in the Time of Corona

2150 words

(Disclaimer: None of this is medical advice.)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since December 2019, you should have heard the panic that SARS-CoV (which causes COVID-19—coronavirus disease) is causing ever since it emerged in Wuhan, China (Singhal, 2020). This virus spreads really easily—though asymptomatic transmission is thought to be rare, according to the CDC. There is one case report, though, of an infant who showed no signs of COVID-19 but had a high viral load (Kam et al, 2020). In any case, Trump flip-flopped from calling it a ‘hoax’ to taking it seriously, acknowledging the pandemic. “I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic“, Trump said. Ah, of course, It must have been just a facade to say it was a hoax. (Pandering to his base?) The ever prescient Trump knows all.

Speaking of prediction, Cheng et al (2007) statedThe presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the reemergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored.” Quite the prediction from 13 years ago—implicating southern China’s “culture of eating exotic mammals”, which is more than likely the origin of this current outbreak.

There has been some discussion on whether or not the coronavirus is “as bad” as they’re saying, which has been criticized, for example, for not bringing up the context-dependency of the numbers. The number of cases in the US, though, as of Friday, March 20, 2020, was at 15,219 with 201 deaths. The number of cases keeps increasing daily. As of 3/22/2020, America has had 26,909 cases with 349 deaths while 178 recovered. Ninety-seven percent are in mild condition right now while three percent are in serious condition.

The current recommendationssocial distancing, self-quarantining—are what we are doing to fight the virus, but I think we are going to need more drastic measures. Social distancing and self-quarantining will help to slow the spread of the virus, but the virus is still obviously spreading.

All of the talk about what to call it—Wuhan virus, Chinese virus, China virus, coronavirus—is irrelevant. Call it whatever you’d like, just make sure that whomever you’re communicating with knows what you’re talking about. (And, if you want to ensure they do, just call it “coronavirus” as that seems to be the name that has stuck these past few months.) I understand the want to identify where it began and spread from, but of course, others will use it for racial reasons.

The past few days there has been a lot of attention focused on hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and azithromycin. These are anti-malarial drugs; a trial was done to see if it would have any effect on COVID-19 (Liu et al, 2020).

For HCQ, there is an “expert consensus” on HCQ treatment and COVID-19, and they state:

It recommended chloroquine phosphate tablet, 500mg twice per day for 10 days for patients diagnosed as mild, moderate and severe cases of novel coronavirus pneumonia and without contraindications to chloroquine.

Chloroquine has been shown to reduce spread and infection of coronaviruses (Vincent et al, 2005; Savarino et al, 2006; Wang et al, 2015; Wang et al, 2020). Wang et al (2015) note that:

HCQ and chloroquine are cellular autophagy modulators that interfere with the pH-dependent steps of endosome-mediated viral entry and late stages of replication of enveloped viruses such as retroviruses, flaviviruses, and coronaviruses (Savarino and others ; Vincent and others ).

I don’t know what to make of such results, I am awaiting larger trials on the matter. There is some hope in using anti-malarial drugs in the hopes of curbing the disease.

The Chinese knew that this virus was similar to other SARS strains, their scientists were ordered to stop testing on samples and to destroy the evidence. (See here for a timeline of the case.) The scary thing is that this virus has symptoms similar to the common cold that we get every winter so some may brush it off as ‘just the cold.’ I came down with a cold at the end of January and I was out of commission for the week. Thankfully, it was not COVID-19.

Italy and China had a strong trade relationship, which seems to have cost Italy. Italy has one of the oldest populations in the world. Ninety-nine percent of corona deaths in Italy, though, had other health problems, such as being obese, having hypertension, previous heart problems, etc. Italy began locking down cities as early as two weeks ago, though they have reported a staggering 4,825 deaths. This, though, is to be expected when a quarter of the country is aged 65 and older with multiple comorbidities. So if it is that bad in Italy with a smaller population, what does that mean for the US in the coming weeks?

New York and New Jersey banned gatherings of more than 50 people, dining out, gyms, etc in an effort to curb the transmission of the virus. Then, Friday night at midnight (3/21/2020) only essential businesses were allowed to stay open—essentials include healthcare, infrastructure, food (no dining-in, take-out or delivery only), grocery stores, mail, laundromats, law enforcement, etc. In NJ, all businesses were ordered to close down except things like grocery stores, banks, pet stores, convenience stores, etc. This affected me (gyms closed) and so I cannot work. I preempted this a few weeks ago and found a job in logistics, but I got laid off on Friday due to the shut-downs of nonessential businesses (the shut-downs decreased my work). Now, I’m thinking about hunkering down until at least June. Due to what we know about the social determinants of health (Marmot, 2005; Cockerham, 2007; Barr, 2019) we can expect what is associated with low class (poor health, stress, etc) to increase as well.

This is only going to get worse in the coming weeks. I do see a decreased number of people out on the street, and I am glad that states are taking measures to curb the transmission of the virus, but I still see people not really taking it seriously. From the ads on the radio informing us about what is going on around the country in terms of death rate and transmission rate, they are strongly suggesting for people to stay home and to avoid public transportation. Obviously, in places that are enclosed and many people walk in and out in a timely manner, that is a great place for the virus to spread. ….what if we’re doing what the virus ‘wants’? Don’t worry, the evo-psychos are here to tell us just-so stories.

By this account, COVID-19 is turning out to be a remarkably intelligent evolutionary adversary. By exploiting vulnerabilities in human psychology selectively bred by its pathogen ancestors, it has already shut down many of our schools, crashed our stock market, increased social conflict and xenophobia, reshuffled our migration patterns, and is working to contain us in homogenous spaces where it can keep spreading. We should pause to remark that COVID-19 is extraordinarily successful epidemiologically, precisely because it is not extremely lethal. With its mortality rate of 90%, for example, Ebola is a rather stupid virus: It kills its host — and itself — too quickly to spread far enough to reshape other species’ life-ways to cater to its needs. (The Coronavirus Is Much Worse Than You Think)

Ah, the non-lethality of COVID-19 is to its benefit—it can spread more, it is an “intelligent evolutionary adversary” but it is causing a “moral panic” as well. The damage to our psyche, apparently, is worse than what it could do to our lungs. And while I do agree that this could damage our collective psyches, we don’t need to tell just-so stories about it.

When we come out of this pandemic, I can see us being very cautious as we go back to normal life (in places affected, people are still going out where I live but not as much). Then, hundreds of years later, Evolutionary Psychologists notice how averse people are to go outside. “Why are people so introverted? Why do people avoid others?” They ask. “Why are those who wear masks more attractive than those who don’t wear masks?” They then discover the pandemic of the 2020s which ravaged the world. “Ah! Critics won’t be able to say ‘just-so stories’ now! We know the preceding event—we have a record of it happening!” And so, the evo-psychos celebrate.

In all seriousness, if people do take this seriously, there may be some social/cultural customs changes, including how we greet people.

Cao et al (2020) conclude: “The East Asian populations have much higher AFs [allele frequencies] in the eQTL variants associated with higher ACE2 expression in tissues (Fig. 1c), which may suggest different susceptibility or response to 2019-nCoV/SARS-CoV-2 from different populations under the similar conditions.” Asian men smoke more cigarettes than Asian women (Ma et al, 2002, 2004; Chae, Gavin, and Takeuchi, 2006; Tsai et al, 2008). In your lungs you have what is called “cilia fibers’ and these fibers move debris and microbes out while they also protect the bronchus and trap microorganisms. COVID-19 attacks these same cilia fibers that degrade when one smokes. Therefore, the fact that East Asian populations have higher allele frequencies in ACE2 expression tissues along with higher rates of smoking may be why Asian men seem to be affected more than Asian women. In any case, smokers of any race need to exercise caution.

What if after the pandemic is over life does not go back to normal? What if life during the pandemic becomes the ‘new normal’ when the pandemic is over because everyone is paranoid about contracting the virus again? For introverts, like myself, it’s easy to lock-in. I have hundreds of books to choose from to read, so if I do choose to lock in for 2 months (which I am thinking about), then I won’t really be bored. But my thing is this: what’s the point of locking in when everyone else isn’t, the virus still spreads and when you finally go out the pandemic is still going on? The point of quarantining is understandable—but if everyone doesn’t do it, will it really work? Libertarians be damned, we need the government to step in and do these kinds of things right now. It’s not about the individual, but the public as a whole.

On the other hand, it is thought-provoking to think about the fact that the government is ramping up the drama in the news to see how far they can go with social control. What a perfect way to see how far the public would go if they got “suggestions” from the government. Just like the government is “suggesting” we be inside at 8 pm to mitigate viral transmission, for example, it’s just to see what we would accept and how far they can go until they make it mandatory. It is interesting to think about how all of the toilet paper, hand sanitizer, hand soap, etc are being sold out everywhere.

People in my generation have 9/11 to look back to as the “That’s when the world changed” time. Well, kids alive today (around 7-15 years old) are experiencing their “9/11”, as that’s when the world changed for them. But this coronavirus pandemic is not on a country level—it is on the world level. The whole WORLD is affected. So since our Gregorian calendar is based off the birth of Jesus, I propose the following: change 1-December 2019 AD/CE to BC (before Corona) and anything after December 2019 to AC (after Corona).

I hope that, looking back on the current goings-on now that we are not talking about high death tolls and that we can get this under control. The only course of action (for now) is to attempt to stop the transmission of the virus—which is to stop its transmission from human to human. COVID-19 can be said to largely be a social disease since that is how it is most likely to be transmitted, which is why social distancing is so important. Being social is how the virus spreads, so to stop spreading the virus we need to be anti-social.

If we do not heed these warnings, then we will permanently be living in the Time of Corona. Coronavirus will be dictating what we do and when we do it. No one will want to get sick but no one will also want to take the steps needed in order to eradicate the threat. This thing is just getting started, by the end of the month into the first few weeks of April it is only going to get worse. I hope you all are prepared (have food [meat], water, soap, etc) because we’re in for a hell of a ride. With many businesses closing down in an effort to curb the transmission of COVID-19, many people will be out of jobs—many low-income people.

The Hierarchical Nature of Living Systems, Species, and Race

2100 words

Biology is one of the most interesting sciences since, at its core, it is the study of life and living systems. The biological organization of living systems and the ecosystems these living systems find themselves in are interesting to learn about, since we can then discern different species and learn how and when to delineate separate species based on a set of pre-conceived measures. The classification of human races in these systems will be discussed, along with why human races are not different species.

The organization of living systems

Living systems show hierarchical organization, each system—from the physiological to the physical—interacting with each other. However, a key factor in the organization of these interactions is the degree of the complexity of the interactions in question. We can look at the organization of the biological world as hierarchical—that is, each level builds on the preceding level, so we get from atoms to the biosphere and everything in between is what we call “life” and also show how these complex, living biological systems live and exist due to the hierarchical organization of living systems. The point is, life does not have a simple definition, but all living systems share similar characteristics that can describe life. Biologists organize living systems hierarchically, from the subcellular level to the entire biosphere, and then study the interactions that occur which cannot be predicted from just studying the sum of its parts. This is why a holistic—and not reductionistic—approach needs to be taken when studying and describing living systems.

The hierarchy is:

The cellular level, which includes: atoms, molecules, macromolecules, and organelles; the organismal level which include: tissue, organs, the organ system, and the organism; the populational level which includes: the population, species, and the community; and finally the highest level, the ecosystem level which includes the ecosystem and the biosphere.

At the cellular level, we have atoms which are the fundamental elements of matter and are joined together by chemical bonds called molecules. large and complex molecules are called macromolecules, DNA—which stores hereditary information—is a type of macromolecule. Complex biological molecules are then assembled into organelles, where cellular activities are organized. A mitochondrion is, for example, an organelle with a cell that extracted energy from consumed food molecules. And finally, we have cells, which are the basic unit of life.

Next, we have the organismal level, and cells of multicellular organisms make up three levels of organization. Tissues, which are groups of similar cells which function together as a unit. Tissues then are grouped into organs which are structures of the body which are composed of many different kinds of tissues which act in a structural manner and as a unit. Then we have organ systems, such as the nervous system which is the sensory organs, brain and spinal cord, and the network of neurons that convey signals to different parts of the body.

Then we have the populational level. This includes the individual organisms which occupy various hierarchical levels in the biological world. A population is a group of organisms all living in the same place. Together, all populations of a particular kind form a species—members of a species must look similar and be able to interbreed. Then finally, we have the biological community which consists of all of the populations coexisting together in one place.

Lastly, we have the ecosystem level. This is the highest tier of biological organization (the lowest being the cellular level). A biological community and its physical habitat (such as soil composition, available water etc) in which it finds itself in and lives and competes with other organisms constitute an ecosystem while the entire planet is the highest of all levels of biological organization—the biosphere. All of these systems together can be seen as the hierarchical organization of living systems.

(See Mason et al, 2018 for more discussion of the above points.)

Organismal classification

Now, in these differing biological hierarchies, we find differing Eukarya, Prokarya, and Bacteria. The in-use classification system is the Linnean hierarchy. Differences exist between organisms, this is obvious. But it is a bit more tricky to classify these organisms and place them into like groups. Then, in the 1750s, Carolus Linnaeus came along and instituted a binomial classification system for organisms—the most commonly-known binomial being Homo sapiens—which was much simpler than the polynomial names

The hierarchy is as follows:

1. Species;

2. Genus;

3. Family;

4. Order;

5. Class;

6. Phylum;

7. Kingdom; and

8. Domain. Domains can then be split into Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. Domains are the largest taxons, being that they comprise every organism that we know of.

For example, our species is sapiens, our genus is Homo, our family is Hominidae, our order is primates, our class is Mammalia, our phylum is Chordata (with a subphylum Craniata), our kingdom is Animalia and our domain is Eukarya. This is our species’ taxonomic classification.

The traditional classification system—the Linnean system—groups species into genera, families, orders, classes, phyla, and kingdoms. Thus, these systems classify different organisms on the basis of similar traits, and since they consist of a mix of derived and ancestral traits, they do not necessarily take into account different evolutionary relationships.

There are of course limitations to the Linnean hierarchy:

1) Many “higher” taxonomic ranks are not monophyletic and so do not represent real groups (like Reptilia). For something to be a “natural group”, a common ancestor and its descendants must all derive from descent from a common ancestor, so any other type of taxonomic ranks are created by taxonomists, such as paraphyletic and polyphyletic.

2) Linnean ranks are not equivalent. Two families may not represent clades that arose at the same time, because one family may have diverged millions of years before the other family and so the two families had differing amounts of time to diverge and acquire new traits. So comparisons in the Linnean sense may be misleading and we should then use hypotheses of phylogenetic relationships.

What is a species?

It should first be noted that species are, indeed, real. New species arise when isolated organisms of one population become genetically/geographically isolated for a period of time. Over time, as the split population spends time geographically and genetically isolated, they cannot interbreed with the parent population and thusly attain separate species status. This is the received view, the biological species concept.

There are a wide range of species concepts and they all capture the differences that different theorists believe we should emphasize in our classification of organisms.

The phenetic species which appeal to the intrinsic similarities of organisms. The biological species concept which appeals to reproductive isolation (one version of the biological species concept is the recognition concept, which defines species as a system of mating recognition. The cohesion species concept which generalizes the biological species concept and it recognizes that gene flow isn’t the only factor that holds a population together and makes it different from other populations. The ecological species concept which defines species by appealing to the fact that members of a species are in competition with one another because of the need the same resources. And the phylogenetic and evolutionary species concept which define species as segments on the tree of life (the phylogenetic species concept, for instance, holds the term ‘species’ should be reserved for groups of populations that have been evolving independently of other populations.

Sterelny and Griffiths (1999) tackled this in their book Sex and Death: An Introduction to Philosophy of Biology:

While we think cladism presents the best view of systematics, biological classification nevertheless poses an unsolved problem. If we were to accept either evolutionary taxonomy, which builds disparity into its classification system, or phenetic taxonomy, which is based on the idea of nested levels of similarity, traditonal taxonomic levels would be quite defensible. Within those taxonomic pictures, the idea of genus, family, order, and so on makes quite good sense. If cladism is the only defensible picture of systematics, the situation is more troubling. From that perspective, these taxonomic ranks make little sense. Cladists do not think there is a well-defined objective notion of the amount of evolutionary divergence. That, in part, is why they are cladists. Hence, they do not think there will be any robust answer to the questions, when should we call a monophyletic group of species a genus? a family? an order? Only monophyletic groups should be called anything, for they are well-defined chucnks of the tree. But only science greets the question, are the chimps plus humans a genus? It has long been receieved wisdom in taxonomy that there is something arbitrary about taxonomic classification above species. These decisions are judgement calls. So cladists only show a somewhat more extreme version of a skepticism that has long existed. The problem of high taxonomic ranks would not matter except for the importance of the information expressed using them. Hence cladism reinforces the worry that when, for example, we consider divergent extinction and survival patterns, our data may not be tobust, for our units may not be commensurable. Unfortunately, it does this without suggesting much of a cure.

Where does race fit in?

Racehood is simple: A race is a group of humans that: Condition 1; is distinguished from other groups of humans by patterns of visible physical features; Condition 2: is linked by common geographic ancestry which is peculiar to members of this group; and Condition 3: originates from a distinctive geographic location.

So now all we need to do is go through four steps: 1) recognize that there are patterns of visible physical features which correspond to geographic ancestry; 2) observe that these patterns of visible physical features which correspond to geographic ancestry are exhibited between real, existing groups; 3) note that these real existing groups that exhibit these patterns by geographic ancestry satisfy C1-C3; and 4) infer that race exists.

Some may argue that the races are different species, citing the same patterns of visible physical features discussed above. However, if we are referring to the biological species concept, then the human races are not different species at all since all human races can produce fertile offspring with one another. Our genus, of course, is Homo, all of the human races are the same genus; though some may attempt to use the previously-discussed conditions for racehood as conditions for specieshood for humans, the most preferred method for delineating species currently is the biological species concept, and since all of the human races can produce fertile offspring then the human races are not different species.

In keeping with the classification system that is currently used today (see above), where would human races fit into our taxonomy? Falling within our species sapiens seems like a good start, and since the races can interbreed and have fertile offspring, then they are not different species but are the same species, despite phenotypic differences. Thus, human races would be within species but under subspecies. Using this line of logic, human races cannot be different species, despite claims to the contrary that human races are different species based on patterns of visible physical features which correspond to geographic ancestry. That’s enough to denote racehood, not specieshood.

Conclusion

The study of life—in all of its forms and in all of its environments—is one of the most important things we, as humans, can do. From it, we can learn where we came from and even—possibly—where we may be going. Once we understood the biological hierarchy and how upper levels are built from lower levels working together, then we were better able to understand how living systems act on the inside—cellularly and physiologically—to the outside—organismal and environmental interaction. From organismal and environmental interaction, speciation may occur. The highest level of the organization of living systems is the biosphere—and it is so because the living systems that are driven by the smallest cellular interactions interact with other species, the ecosystem and the biosphere.

Species do exist, but there are numerous species concepts—over twenty. One of the more popular species concepts in use is the cladistic species concept. In this species concept, a species is a lineage of populations between two specific branch points. The cladistic concept thusly recognizes differing species by differing branch points and how much change occurs between them (see Ridley, 1989).

The classification of different organisms into different species is pretty straightforward, though it falls prey to oversimplification since it only focuses on similar traits. Species exist, this is established. But races are not species, contrary to some beliefs. Different races can interbreed and, I would argue, that for there to be separate species, human races would not be able to interbreed. Yes, there are physical and morphological differences between races, but, as argued, this is not enough to denote speciation, but it is enough to denote raciation.