Thursday, October 29, 2020

Biophobia: one more example of our fear of Nature and of ourselves



A clip from "Dust."  They are a company specialized in airing short sfi-fi films. The quality of what you can see is very variable, goes from the boring to the silly, includes the very clever, and sometimes true gems. 

I thought I could inflict on you this clip not because it is especially good, but not so bad, either. It may be good as entertainment. It has distinct "1950s" feel and it could go in the same category as the old "The Creature from the Black Lagoon." What's strange is that it was made in 2020 and one could think we had overcome that attitude of old that saw non-human creatures as monsters. 

Here, we have a good example of the current wave of "biophobia" -- it is the story of a young woman who is bitten by a mosquito. Then, the mosquito flies to meet a subterranean monster who uses the genetic information contained in the woman's blood to create a clone of her.

As I said, not bad as entertainment but, as biophobia goes, this is the way many of us see the creatures that surround us. Creatures to be kept away from our bodies as much as possible, least we'd be contaminated. And, in the end, I think the clip has a logic that perhaps even its authors didn't realize: it is our fear of sickness, our fear of death, our fear of bodily decay. All amplified by the tiny monster we call coronavirus -- a name that brings a hint of  the crown that death used to wear in medieval iconography, a symbol of power.

All fears that have taken over our minds everywhere. And how the woman of the clip sees he double is as she sees herself as in a mirror. It tells us a lot of how we see ourselves nowadays. We are scared of our fellow human beings, a monstruous, innatural, unimaginable (up to now) feeling. It is, first of all, a sickness of the mind. We will not be healed we come to a pact with nature, only then we'll be able to understand who we are. Onward, fellow holobionts!



Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Braiding Sweetgrass


A contribute by Robinne Gray

When Erik asked me about potentially leading a book discussion, I told him there are two books that really rocked my world(view), one is Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass The other is Thomas Berry's The Great Work, which I'd love to revisit in 2021.

For those unfamiliar with this book and author, a little enticement: Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Potawatomi woman who is also a plant ecologist and professor in the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. So she is uniquely positioned to bring together two very different ways of engaging with the natural world in a way that (IMO) the world really needs. It helps that she's a wonderful writer, so her work is getting a lot of attention and inspiring many people. 

I'm a lifelong reader who hasn't participated in many book discussions because I'm stubborn and only want to read what I choose and when - and also because I don't always finish a given book in a timely way, and may be reading several books at once. An encouragement I offer is: Braiding Sweetgrass is a series of essays, so even if you make time to read one or two of them to get a taste, it would be wonderful to have you be part of our discussion of this rich work!  I've included a quote from the book below.

 Note: this text appeared in the discussion group "Gaian Conversations" kept by Erik Assadourian and is published here by kind permission of the author. If you are interested in joining the discussion group, write to Erik at info(thingything)


Monday, October 26, 2020

Where you could buy live lice in Florence, 50 years ago.


According to what I heard from the people who remember these things, I think I was able to locate where you could buy live lice in Florence to swallow to cure your jaundice. A typical holobiont thing to do. 

The old lady who sold these lice lived - I believe - in the house with the small arched door of this street called "Via Camaldoli." She was called "La Pidocchina," that is, "the little lady louse."

I didn't try to ring the bell to ask if someone in there still sold live lice. But, who knows?

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Truth about Lice Revealed. A new discovery about the human holobiont

 "Lice Capades," an episode of the TV series "South Park." Lice are being understood as an important part of the human holobionts and, who knows? One day they may be considered as an essential component of human health, just as gut bacteria. 


Today I had a little revelation on lice. I had been writing about some recent discoveries on the beneficial effects of lice on human health and I had reported a story that I heard from my wife about people swallowing live lice as a remedy for jaundice (hepatitis b). And of people in Florence selling lice just for that purpose. But I wasn't sure if it was a real story or a legend. 

But, today, I heard a talk by Maurizio Naldini, a Florentine journalist, who told several stories about the Florence of his youth. And, yes, he had met in person the woman who sold lice! It was true: people would buy lice in Florence as late as some 50 or 60 years ago. 

The curious thing about this story is that Mr. Naldini had no idea of why people bought lice and what they did with them. So, he listened with great interest to my wife telling him the story of lice being swallowed inside a wheat wafer to cure jaundice. 

In my case, hearing Mr. Naldini had a different effect. Now that I knew that the story was most likely true, then I could examine it more in depth. Of course, the idea that lice would suck out the bile of jaundice makes no sense. Swallowed lice (dead or alive) can hardly suck anything. But then, why would people do such a thing? 

Of course, there is a tradition for people paying good money to do the strangest things when they are sick and they think something can help. CBS has a list of the 15 most bizarre (and disgusting) cures ever invented, and it is surely interesting to learn about such ideas as placing a dead mouse in the mouth to cure toothaches or using crocodile dung as a contraceptive. But they don't mention lice!

Yet, even the most bizarre ideas have an origin and I think that the lice market of Florence had a justification, probably better than that of crocodile dung. It has to do with the concept of holobiont, the fact that the human body (just as that of most animals) is an incredibly complex assemblage of creatures. Most of them very small (bacteria and viruses), some a little larger (lice and others), and with the actual human organism as just one of the many, although surely the biggest. 

Now, holobionts exist, and if something exists it means there are good reasons for it to exist. Most of the creatures that populate the human holobiont are there for a reason. Maybe they are just harmless commensals but in many cases, they are useful symbionts. And that may well be the case of lice, too. 

I already mentioned a study that found "Unexpected Benefits from Lice." The little critters seem to boost the human immune system. But there may also be another benefit. You see, there are three kinds of lice inhabiting the human holobiont: the body louse, the head louse, and the pubic louse. 

Of these three, the only one that may be harmful to human health is the body louse. It may be because it is a relatively recent human parasite having developed in parallel with the use of clothing. But another study argues that the "good" head lice can be beneficial in stimulating the development of an immune response against the "bad" body lice. So, if you have (or have had) head lice, you are healthier.

Perhaps this is the key to the story of the market of lice in Florence. Ancient Florentines knew little about immunity, but they may well have noted that people who had head lice were less prone to have body lice. Perhaps even that head lice could help people get rid of body lice.  Lice don't jump around or fly, so moving from one body to another is not so easy. And so they would ask their friends and relatives if they could give a hand in passing lice to someone who was lice-deprived. Then, why not? Some enterprising people thought they might make a little cash by providing others with a commodity that was needed: lice. 

Maybe this was the origin of the legend that my wife told me. Once that lice were understood as beneficial, it was natural that they could be tested on other kinds of illnesses. Then, the placebo effect would convince people that lice were effective in curing jaundice. With the more enlightened (so to say) 20th century, lice of all kinds became anathema and a social stigma, But the idea that you could eat lice in a wafer to cure a rather stubborn illness such as jaundice remained for some time. 

It is an interesting story that goes in parallel with that of the discovery of the bacterial flora in the guts. Some people understood right away their importance and their beneficial effects, but others thought that it was not hygienic having bacteria in your guts and thought it was a good idea to get rid of them. Now, of course, you buy probiotic supplements just to get more good bacteria inside your guts. Who knows? Maybe one day it will be fashionable to buy head lice in a pharmacy in order to prime people's immune systems!

And this is the story. The more things you know, the more you discover. And so, onward, fellow holobionts!


Note: After publishing this post, I received a link from Jan Barendrecht to a paper that describes how swallowing lice was considered a therapy for several kinds of illness in Spain. But not just in Spain. The authors say that: 

Numerous authors show that using animal resources as therapy is a widely distributed atavistic practice [,], a fact that is demonstrated by the use of head louse against jaundice in distant geographical areas [,]. Its use is particularly common in the Hebrew culture. Izaak Walton in his famous book “The Compleat Angler” (published in 1653) records that the Jews were the first to say that swallowing live lice is a good remedy for jaundice []. For their part, the German rabbi Yair Bacharach (1639–1702), author of the collection of responsa known as “Havvot Yair” (“Villages of Yair”), indicates that the patient should take 8 lice taken from his/her own head–see Rosner and Bleich 2000 []. Ben-Ezra in 1949 recorded in Horodetz (one of the oldest Jewish communities in Russia-Poland) the introduction of lice in an omelette as treatment []. In Latin America there are also references to this medical practice. In this case, the remedy would have been brought by the Spanish conquistadors and assimilated by the Spanish American folk medicine in an eclectic form []. The recommended number of specimen to take in Chile, Peru, Guatemala and Argentina is 4 or 5 with examples found using measures such as a thimbleful [-].

Saturday, October 10, 2020

It is a Lion! It is a Goat! It is a Snake! No! It is a Holobiont!


Maybe 25 years ago, my friend Susan came from California to visit me in Florence. She saw the statuary piece of the Chimera of Arezzo and asked me what that was supposed to mean. I said, "I don't know for sure, but I'll find out." 

That involved much research, papers written, a blog created, and an entire book in Italian. And yet, I can tell you that I was yesterday night that understood what a Chimera really is. Just before falling asleep, I had this flash: here is it: A holobiont! So obvious!

And that's no mere definition: it opens up a whole new layer of interpretation of the chimera as a horizontal contamination of memes. Memes do replicate horizontally, just like bacteria do. Truly mind-blowing, I am still shocked by what I was thinking yesterday night. 

There will be more on this, but for the moment I just wanted to mention this discovery to you. Life is beautiful when you can think of such things!

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

How Your Gut Microbiome can make you Smart or Dumb


Deric Bownds discusses how fecal transplants from old mice to young mice have bad effect on the critters' mental abilities. Maybe the opposite is also true. And maybe it works also for humans.
It seems that your microbiome can make you smart or dumb. Holobionticity is a complex matter, indeed! 

Age related cognitive decline and the gut microbiome

by Deric Bownds

Haridy summarizes experiments by D'Amato et al. showing that fecal transplants from old mice to young mice result in the younger animals displaying learning and memory impairments. It would be interesting to expand this work to check whether transferring fecal transplants from young to older mice improved their learning and memory, as is the case with blood transfers from younger to older mice. Here are the background and results sections of the open source research paper



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)