Vaccines for whooping cough contain three to five protective antigens, the presence of which are critical to the vaccine’s effectiveness. But one of the antigens, pertactin, which had been present in almost all isolates of Bordetella pertussis in the US as late as 2010, is now absent from more than half of them, according to a paper published ahead of print in Clinical and Vaccine Immunology. Continue reading “Whooping cough vaccine antigen disappearing from bacteria in US”
- The full flight from Gainesville, Florida, was canceled, even though passengers could see their plane sitting on the tarmac
- The Delta plane that the Florida Gators’ chartered to get to Storrs, Connecticut, for a game had been grounded with mechanical problems
PUBLISHED: 09:45 EST, 3 December 2013 | UPDATED: 10:21 EST, 3 December 2013
Fifty passengers had their holiday travel plans disrupted on Sunday when Delta Airlines kicked 50 people off a full flight so it could use the plane for the Florida Gators basketball team.
Delta says it needed the plane to ferry the No. 15-ranked Gators to Storrs, Connecticut, for the team’s match-up against the UConn Huskies.
Furious passengers in Gainesville, Florida, were told their flight to Atlanta Sunday afternoon had been canceled – even though they could see their plane sitting on the tarmac.
Atlanta, GA (November 9, 2013)—Three new studies suggest that controlling dietary acid intake could help improve kidney health. Results of these studies will be presented at ASN Kidney Week 2013 November 5-10 at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, GA.
A diet rich in wheat flour and animal protein produces an acidic environment in the body that worsens with age as kidney function declines. This acid load can be detrimental to a variety of tissues and processes. Research suggests that consuming more fruits and vegetables—which are highly alkaline—may help counteract these effects.
In a new study, a team led by Nimrit Goraya, MD (Texas A&M College of Medicine) investigated whether consuming fruits and vegetables can protect the kidney health of individuals with hypertensive nephropathy, a condition in which damage to the kidneys occurs due to high blood pressure. In this study, 23 hypertensive patients received extra dietary fruits and vegetables, 23 patients received an oral alkaline medication, and 25 patients received nothing. One year later, kidney injury progressed in patients who received no intervention, but kidney health was preserved in those receiving fruits and vegetables or oral alkaline medication.
In another study, Eiichiro Kanda, MD, PhD (Tokyo Kyosai Hospital) and his colleagues investigated the role of dietary acid levels in chronic kidney disease (CKD) progression. The retrospective study analyzed data from 249 CKD patients in Japan. High acid levels were linked with accelerated kidney function decline, and patients with elevated acid levels had an increased risk of CKD progression compared with patients with low acid levels. The findings suggest that monitoring and control of dietary acid levels are necessary for the prevention of CKD progression.
Another study led by Deidra Crews, MD, FASN (Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine) looked to see whether the effect of dietary acid on risk of kidney failure differed by race in a group of 159 non-Hispanic black and 760 non-Hispanic white CKD patients who had an annual household income below 300% of the federal poverty guideline. Participants were taking part in the 1999-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Overall, 12.4% of participants (38.3% whites and 61.7% blacks) developed kidney failure during an average of 6.4 years of follow up. Blacks had higher acid levels than whites. They also had a 3-fold higher risk of developing kidney failure compared with whites after adjusting for factors such as age, sex, and caloric intake. Increased acid levels were more strongly associated with kidney failure among blacks than among whites. The findings indicate that among CKD patients with low socioeconomic status, the detrimental effect of high dietary acid levels on progression to kidney failure appears to be greater for blacks than for whites.
- In patients with hypertensive nephropathy, kidney health was preserved in those consuming extra fruits and vegetables, which are highly alkaline.
- In patients with chronic kidney disease, those with high dietary acid levels experienced accelerated kidney function decline.
- In chronic kidney disease patients with low socioeconomic status, the detrimental effect of high dietary acid levels on progression to kidney failure was greater for blacks than for whites.
“Fruits and Vegetables or Oral NaHCO3 Prevent Progression of Kidney Injury in Stage 1 CKD Due to Hypertensive Nephropathy.” (Abstract FR-PO816)
“Dietary Acid Load Is Associated with Chronic Kidney Disease Progression in Elderly Patients.” (Abstract TH-PO243)
Disclosures: Masumi Ai receives research funding from MSD, Co., and Kyowa-Kirin, Co. Masayuki Yoshida receives research funding and honoraria from Astra Zeneca, Novartis, Pfizer, MSD, and Bayer.
“Race, Dietary Acid Load and Risk of ESRD among Low Income Americans with CKD.” (Abstract SA-OR050)
Disclosures: Deidra C. Crews is a consultant for The Boston Consulting Group and receives honoraria from the National Institute on Aging and National Institutes of Health. Hal Morgenstern is a consultant for the Arbor Research for Collaborative Health. Rajiv Saran receives research funding from the Renal Research Institute, Forest Research Institute, and Arbor Research Collaborative for Health; and honoraria from Otsuka. Neil R. Powe receives honoraria from ABIM, ASN, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Vanderbilt University, Commonwealth Fund, Informed Medical Decision Making Foundation. The authors report funding from the Department of Defense.
ASN Kidney Week 2013, the largest nephrology meeting of its kind, will provide a forum for 14,000 professionals to discuss the latest findings in renal research and engage in educational sessions related to advances in the care of patients with kidney and related disorders. Kidney Week 2013 will take place November 5 – 10, 2013 in Atlanta, GA.
The content of this article does not reflect the views or opinions of The American Society of Nephrology (ASN). Responsibility for the information and views expressed therein lies entirely with the author(s). ASN does not offer medical advice. All content in ASN publications is for informational purposes only, and is not intended to cover all possible uses, directions, precautions, drug interactions, or adverse effects. This content should not be used during a medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Please consult your doctor or other qualified health care provider if you have any questions about a medical condition, or before taking any drug, changing your diet or commencing or discontinuing any course of treatment. Do not ignore or delay obtaining professional medical advice because of information accessed through ASN. Call 911 or your doctor for all medical emergencies.
Founded in 1966, and with more than 14,000 members, the American Society of Nephrology (ASN) leads the fight against kidney disease by educating health professionals, sharing new knowledge, advancing research, and advocating the highest quality care for patients.
EEV: Here is a quote to consider from Jeh Johnson
“The thing I’m most proud of about that verdict is that we got a largely inner-city jury to side with the billionaire corporation and not the underdog,” Mr. Johnson says
Jeh Johnson, 38
Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison, Partner
Where is Jeh Johnson now?
General counsel, U.S. Department of DefenseLearn more with Crain’s 40 Under 40 Anniversary coverage.
Updated October 12, 2012
Jeh Johnson originally wanted to be a politician. But then he found himself in a courtroom, and he couldn’t bring himself to leave.
Mr. Johnson is now one of Paul Weiss’ top trial attorneys, having won all but one of the 16 jury trials in which he has participated.
“I enjoy taking a very complicated case and reducing it to its simplest, easiest-to-understand and most appealing elements and making it a persuasive case,” says Mr. Johnson (whose first name is pronounced Jay).
One such argument—the successful defense of Armstrong World Industries Inc. in an antitrust case in Newark—was called “one of most significant defenses of 1994” by the National Law Journal.
“The thing I’m most proud of about that verdict is that we got a largely inner-city jury to side with the billionaire corporation and not the underdog,” Mr. Johnson says.
A native of Wappingers Falls, N.Y., he is a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta and Columbia University Law School. He worked at Paul Weiss in the mid-1980s, then joined the U.S. Attorney’s office in its public corruption section. After prosecuting corrupt politicians, cops and immigration agents, Mr. Johnson returned to Paul Weiss in 1992 and became its first African-American partner in 1994.
While his dreams of a political life are “on the back burner,” he has become an active Democratic fund-raiser.
By Philip Lentz
- 22:41 10 October 2013 by Debora MacKenzie
- For similar stories, visit the Epidemics and Pandemics and US national issues Topic Guides
“We are less safe.” So Tom Frieden, head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, announced on Twitter last week, as he prepared to send 8754 of his staff – two-thirds of the world’s biggest body of disease-watchers – home on furlough due to lack of government funding. It was part of the massive shutdown of US federal agencies in the wake of political intransigence in Congress over a budget.
“They protected you yesterday, can’t tomorrow. Microbes [and] other threats didn’t shut down,” Frieden added. But are we really less safe? And if so, how, exactly?
Obviously, this makes less difference if you live outside the US, but the uniquely global reach of the CDC affects us all in some ways. Even in the US, the effect may be subtle, because state governments have primary responsibility for public health. But they have always needed the CDC to marshal them in the face of any threat that crosses state lines – and sometimes even those that don’t.
That became clear earlier this week when CDC had to call back 10 of the people who run PulseNet, a computerised system for genetically tracking germs carried on food. US agriculture inspectors – deemed too important to furlough – had announced that chicken producers in California were the probable source of an outbreak of Salmonella that the CDC had been tracking since March, which has sickened 278 people in 18 states.
The affected states were tracking their own strains. But the PulseNet platform allowed the CDC to put the data together, and find that four of the seven strains of bacteria in the outbreak are novel, many have multiple resistance to antibiotics, and all came from chicken plants in California that have spread some of these bacteria before.
Nearly half the people infected have been hospitalised, twice the usual rate, suggesting these are nastier bugs than normal. Thankfully no one has died in the outbreak, though Salmonella can leave lifelong, debilitating after-effects.
James Wilson of Ascel Bio, an epidemiological consulting firm in Denver, Colorado, believes the CDC should focus its limited resource on the tuberculosis cluster left by a Nevada woman who died, along with her twin babies, of the infection in July.
Of 200 people who had contact with the woman and have been tested, 26 were infected. Nevada state officials had asked the CDC for help testing 140 babies who shared intensive care with the twins, says Wilson. But because of the shutdown, that is now on hold.
So is an investigation of evidence, published this week, that the mosquito-borne virus dengue fever has been spreading unrecognised in Houston, Texas, since 2002. Dengue kills 25,000 people a year across the tropics. It had been absent from the US since the 1950s – but sporadic cases recently have crept back into the south.
It is especially dangerous when people encounter one strain, then another, as this can trigger a deadly immune reaction. Worryingly, the Houston strain is different from one seen in Florida in 2010, meaning encountering both might now be a possibility if they have spread along the Gulf coast. Finding out if they have will require intensive surveillance of people and mosquitoes across the southern US, says Peter Hotez, head of tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Only the CDC can do that.
Outside the US, the CDC runs a network of 10 global disease-detection centres, of which eight are now closed. They are often the only modern epidemiology available in tropical countries where novel outbreaks could be brewing, such as the next flu pandemic, or something completely unexpected like MERS, the coronavirus that emerged in Saudi Arabia last year. The annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca is now under way, and the CDC would normally be first to help investigate any suspicious disease outbreaks in returning pilgrims across the world. But as long as the shutdown persists, it cannot.
The worst problem for the CDC, however, might turn out to be that nothing really severe happens while most of its staff are forbidden from coming to work.
Political ideologues committed to “small government” could claim that this shows that the world does not need a publicly funded agency like the CDC and its comprehensive disease monitoring and rapid-response capabilities. Yet as New Scientist has reported many times, rapid forms of travel, booming populations of humans and animals, ecological disruption and changing global climate add up to a myriad new disease threats waiting to happen. Electing to stop watching for them because of a political spat does not change that fact.
Posted By Katie McHugh On 8:56 PM 07/17/2013 In Politics
Former president Jimmy Carter condemned the effect U.S. intelligence programs had on U.S. moral authority in the wake of NSA revelations brought to light by leaker Edward Snowden, Der Spiegel reports.
“America has no functioning democracy,” Carter said at a meeting of The Atlantic Bridge in Atlanta, Georgia on Tuesday.
Carter also claimed there was currently no reason for him to be “optimistic” about Egypt’s internal conflicts and mused whether the standards The Carter Center applies to foreign elections could be fulfilled by U.S. elections, which he believes are plagued by confusing campaign rules and a lack of restrictions on free speech in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.
The former president continued that democratic developments — fueled by sites such as Facebook and Twitter — might be damaged by the NSA revelations, essentially strangling emerging democratic revolutions in the cradle by casting doubt on the social media juggernauts’ independent credibility.
Carter is a strident critic of President Barack Obama’s anti-terror policies. In 2012, he penned a New York Times op-ed calling the U.S. human rights record “cruel and unusual,” denouncing the Obama administration’s drone strikes, indefinite detentions and warrantless wiretapping.
“At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Carter wrote. “But instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.”
Carter also voiced support for Snowden in June.
“He’s obviously violated the laws of America, for which he’s responsible, but I think the invasion of human rights and American privacy has gone too far,” he told CNN. “I think that the secrecy that has been surrounding this invasion of privacy has been excessive, so I think that the bringing of it to the public notice has probably been, in the long term, beneficial. I think the American people deserve to know what their Congress is doing.”
Carter received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 to commemorate his “outstanding commitments” to human rights. Seven years later, Obama would receive the same prize — the Nobel Norwegian Committee decided to award it to him only 12 days after he assumed office in 2009.
Article printed from The Daily Caller: http://dailycaller.com
Sun, 3 Mar 2013 21:29 GMT
* Mississippi girl’s case is the first account of an HIV cure in an infant
* Doctors started treatment within 30 hours of the child’s birth
By Julie Steenhuysen
CHICAGO, March 3 (Reuters) – A baby girl in Mississippi who was born with HIV has been cured after very early treatment with standard drug therapy, U.S. researchers reported on Sunday, in a potentially ground-breaking case that could offer insights on how to eradicate HIV infection in its youngest victims.
The child’s story is the first account of an infant achieving a so-called functional cure, a rare event in which a person achieves remission without the need for drugs and standard blood tests show no signs that the virus is making copies of itself.
More testing needs to be done to see if the treatment would have the same effect on other children, but the results could change the way high-risk babies are treated and possibly lead to a cure for children with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
“This is a proof of concept that HIV can be potentially curable in infants,” said Dr. Deborah Persaud, a virologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who presented the findings at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Atlanta.
The child’s story is different from the now famous case of Timothy Ray Brown, the so-called “Berlin patient,” whose HIV infection was completely eradicated through an elaborate treatment for leukemia in 2007 that involved the destruction of his immune system and a stem cell transplant from a donor with a rare genetic mutation that resists HIV infection.
Instead of Brown’s costly treatment, the Mississippi baby’s case involved the use of a cocktail of widely available drugs already used to treat HIV infection in infants.
When the baby girl was born in a rural hospital, her mother had just tested positive for HIV infection. Because her mother had not received any prenatal HIV treatment, doctors knew the child was born at high risk of being infected. So they transferred the baby to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, where she came under the care of Dr. Hannah Gay, a pediatric HIV specialist.
Because of her high infection risk, Dr. Gay put the infant on a cocktail of three standard HIV-fighting drugs when she was just 30 hours old, even before lab tests came back confirming her infection. In more typical pregnancies when an HIV-infected mother has been given drugs to reduce the risk of transmission to her child, the baby would only have been given a single drug to reduce her infection risk.
Researchers believe this early use of antiviral treatment likely resulted in the infant’s cure by keeping the virus from forming hard-to-treat pools of cells known as viral reservoirs, which lie dormant and out of the reach of standard medications. These reservoirs rekindle HIV infection in patients who stop therapy, and they are the reason most HIV-infected individuals need lifelong treatment to keep the infection at bay.
After starting on treatment, the baby’s immune system responded and tests showed levels of the virus were diminishing until it was undetectable 29 days after birth. The baby received regular treatment for 18 months, but then stopped coming to appointments for a period of about 10 months, when her mother said she was not given any treatment. The doctors did not say why the mother stopped coming.
When the child came back under the care of Dr. Gay, she ordered standard blood tests to see how the child was faring before resuming antiviral therapy.
What she found was surprising. The first blood test did not turn up any detectible levels of HIV. Neither did the second. And tests for HIV-specific antibodies – the standard clinical indicator of HIV infection – also remained negative.
“At that point, I knew I was dealing with a very unusual case,” Dr. Gay said.
Baffled, Dr. Gay turned to her friend and longtime colleague, Dr. Katherine Luzuriaga of the University of Massachusetts, and she and Persaud did a series of sophisticated lab tests on the child’s blood.
The first looked for silent reservoirs of the virus where it remains dormant but can replicate if activated. That is detected in a type of immune cell known as a CD4 T-cell. After culturing the child’s cells, they found no sign of the virus.
Then, the team looked for HIV DNA, which indicates that the virus has integrated itself into the genetic material of the infected person. This test turned up such low levels that it was just above the limit of the test’s ability to detect it.
The third test looked for bits of genetic material known as viral RNA. They only found a single copy of viral RNA in one of the two tests they ran.
Because there is no detectible virus in the child’s blood, the team has advised that she not be given antiretroviral therapy (ART), whose goal is to block the virus from replicating in the blood. Instead, she will be monitored closely.
Dr. Rowena Johnston, vice president and director of research for the Foundation for AIDS Research, which helped fund the study, said the fact that the cure was achieved by antiretroviral therapy alone makes it “imperative that we learn more about a newborn’s immune system, how it differs from an adult’s and what factors made it possible for the child to be cured.”
Because the child’s treatment was stopped, the doctors were able to identify that this child had been cured, raising questions about whether other children who received early treatment and have undetectable viral loads may also be cured without knowing it.
But the doctors warned parents not to be tempted to take their children off treatment to see if the virus comes back. Normally, when patients stop taking their medications, the virus comes roaring back, and treatment interruptions increase the risk that the virus will develop drug resistance.
“We don’t want that,” Dr. Gay said. “Patients who are on successful therapy need to stay on their successful therapy until we figure out a whole lot more about what was going on with this child and what we can do for others in the future.”
The researchers are trying to find biomarkers that would offer a rationale to consider stopping therapy within the context of a clinical trial. If they can learn what caused the child to clear her virus, they hope to replicate that in other babies, and eventually learn to routinely prevent infections. (Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Jilian Mincer and Sandra Maler)
- 15 November 2012 by Kate Douglas
- Magazine issue 2890.
- For similar stories, visit the The Human Brain and Human Evolution Topic Guides
A FEW years ago, I attended a conference on animal behaviour in Atlanta, Georgia. The end-of-meeting party included a trip to the zoo and while we roamed freely between the caged beasts the conference organisers conducted a whimsical poll to discover what animals people thought were the “best” and “worst”. As you might expect the nominations were eclectic, but one name cropped up more frequently than any other – Homo sapiens. More striking still, humans were equally likely to end up in the “best” and “worst” categories. Some respondents even chose humans for both.
There is no getting away from it: Homo sapiens is both the basest of animals and the most noble. Ours is a species capable of horrific cruelty, genocide, war, corruption and greed. Yet we can also be caring, kind, fair and philanthropic – more so than any other creature. What lies behind this dual nature?
Our capacity for good and evil has exercised philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes, but today some of the most exciting ideas are coming from an understanding of our evolution. In recent years, researchers have addressed such thorny questions as: why would altruism evolve, how did human conscience emerge, why does it feel good to be nice, and what causes us to give in to prejudice and hatred? The potential power of these insights is intriguing. By understanding the kinds of environments that foster the saint rather than the sinner, we can try to create societies that promote our better nature. It’s not just a pipe dream. Some evolutionists are already putting their theories into practice.
The key to virtue is altruism. Anyone can do the right thing given enough incentive, but what distinguishes genuinely good deeds is their selfless nature – a rare phenomenon in the wild. Although colonial insects such as bees and ants can show an impressive level of self-sacrifice, the individuals are so closely related that helping others is tantamount to being selfish, at least in evolutionary terms, since it ensures the survival of their own genes. Relatedness can also explain why many birds, and some other animals, will help rear each other’s offspring. It is far harder to find generosity extending outside the family. Even our closest evolutionary cousin the chimpanzee is basically selfish, although in one experiment chimps displayed a small amount of altruism similar to that found in young children, being just as likely to pass an object to an unfamiliar chimp even if some physical exertion was required (PLoS Biology, vol 5, p e184). In a nice twist to our preconceptions, vampire bats offer one of the very few bona fide exceptions to the rule, sharing blood meals with their roost-mates (Nature, vol 308, p 181).
Yet humans do appear to behave selflessly. Since the 1980s behavioural economists have used games to assess our altruistic tendencies. First came the “ultimatum game”, wherein player A is given some money and told to split it with a second anonymous player B. If B accepts the split, both keep their share, if not, neither gets a cent. It is free money, so B should accept any amount no matter how small and A should offer as little as possible. But that is not what happens. Instead, in university labs around the world, the most common offer is 50 per cent, with an average of around 45 per cent. Even in a refined version of the experiment called the “dictator game”, where A can choose either to give half or 10 per cent and B has no option to reject, three quarters of people make the more generous offer. It would appear that humans are very nice (and not very logical).
But are we really? Generosity may flourish in the sanitised environment of the lab, but experience suggests that people behave somewhat differently in the messy maul of the real world. And, sure enough, the evidence for virtue is less convincing out there. In one study, collectors of sports cards offered dealers a fixed amount of money in exchange for their best card at that price. John List from the University of Chicago found that when the transactions were done under his watchful eye, dealers played fair, coming up with a card that was worth what the collector had offered. But when dealers were not told they were taking part in an experiment, many ripped off their customers. Such cheating was particularly rife when they were off their home turf, away from their day-to-day customers (Journal of Political Economy, vol 114, p 1).
Why be nice?
Anyone who considers humans to be the worst of animals will conclude that people behave well only if they think they are being watched, proving that there is no such thing as altruism. Another interpretation is that we simply need to redefine virtue in biological terms. After all, altruism cannot be without benefit for the do-gooder, otherwise it would not have evolved by natural selection in the first place. Working on this principle, evolutionary biologists have come up with a variety of explanations for human niceness.
The first possibility is rather disheartening. Traditional hunter-gatherer groups tend to consist of closely related individuals, with kin constituting around a quarter of the members (Science, vol 331, p 1286). Individuals who helped their close relatives ended up passing on more genes, including those pushing us to help our own flesh and blood. So, like bees in a hive, we have evolved strong nepotistic instincts and, by this argument, niceness to non-relatives is simply a case of overspill.
However, it takes time and energy to help others, so evolution would have favoured people who made fewer of these costly mistakes, unless the generosity provided benefits that outweighed the costs. Reciprocity might be one such reason to do right by others. It can explain the altruistic behaviour of vampire bats, for example: they starve to death after a couple of nights without a blood meal, so sharing with a roost-mate that is likely to return the favour is an obvious strategy to help them pull through tough periods. Humans live in groups, are highly dependent on others, and we remember who owes us a favour, so we are perfectly placed to benefit from reciprocal altruism. Indeed, it might explain why List’s sports-card dealers tended to play fairer on their home turf, where they are likely to bump into customers again.
It’s not just our immediate acquaintances we have to worry about when considering the judgemental eyes of others. Humans are incredibly nosy: we like nothing better than to watch those around us and then gossip about our insights to others. This is how reputations are made and destroyed – and reputations matter. Virtues such as generosity, fairness and conscientiousness are universally valued and people seen to display them are rewarded – others like these individuals, want to do business with them and are more sexually attracted to them. So a good reputation can boost your chances of survival and reproduction. Taking this to its logical conclusion, Christopher Boehm from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, argues that over the course of evolution rumour and hearsay may have forced us to become more altruistic – albeit in a biological self-serving sort of way.
Besides offering benefits for the individual, altruism would also have determined the way groups competed over resources. Those that pulled together would have beaten groups whose individuals were more selfish, ensuring their survival. This “group selection” has been a controversial idea, but it is increasingly being accepted as an important driving force behind the evolution of altruism, says Edward O. Wilson at Harvard University.
So we have ended up nicer and more caring than chimps. Even so, our egoistic tendencies must still be far stronger than our altruistic ones – after all, natural selection helps those who help themselves. Indeed, by becoming more altruistic, we created an environment where the selfish can enjoy the benefits of cooperative living – be it a share of mammoth meat or an equitable banking system – without paying the costs. Of course, if everyone did this there would be no cooperative group to begin with. That’s the dilemma our Jekyll-and-Hyde nature creates, but humans have evolved a few strategies to discourage free riders.
One is our seemingly innate desire to punish those who step out of line. People playing the ultimatum game will often reject mean offers from their partners just to see the Scrooges suffer, even if it means they both lose the prize. In another version of the game, people will even pay their own money to see selfish players punished for their stinginess. In the real world we commonly use gossip, censure and ostracism to punish minor misdemeanours, while the police, courts and prisons impose sentences to discourage more serious crimes. And although our prehistoric ancestors would have lacked institutions to enforce their rules, Boehm believes they used capital punishment as the ultimate sanction against free riders, based on his discovery that many modern hunter-gatherer societies have the death penalty. If he is correct, punishment has made our species a little bit less evil by removing the most antisocial genes from the human gene pool.
Fear of being punished is not the only thing that keeps our inner egoists in check. Often we are virtuous simply because it feels right. “You cooperate because it’s a good thing to do,” says Herb Gintis at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. He calls this “strong reciprocity” because we end up doing things that are not personally beneficial but will be good for society if everyone does them – things like voting and giving money to people in need. Gintis believes this urge is behind all moral acts. What generates it?
This is where conscience comes in – not the esoteric entity with religious connotations, but an evolved, subconscious risk calculator that helps us weigh up the pros and cons of different moral options. It works like this. We learn the complex social rules of our particular culture and they become linked in our brains with emotions such as pride and honour, shame and guilt, giving them moral significance. These are the scales upon which moral judgements are weighed, and they tip the balance in favour of virtue; vice may be in your better interests, but it is associated with negative emotions, whereas virtue prompts positive ones.
The pleasure we get from performing a good deed is probably induced by a cocktail of neurochemicals but one seems particularly important. Normally associated with feel-good activities such as sex and bonding, the link between oxytocin and morality was discovered a decade ago by Paul Zak at Claremont Graduate University in California. His experiments reveal, among other things, that people with more oxytocin are more generous and caring, and that our oxytocin level increases when someone puts trust in us. Zak describes oxytocin as “the key to moral behaviour”.
The mama-bear effect
So it would appear we have a neurobiological mechanism that tricks us into placing other people’s interests above our own. This makes us less selfish but, perversely, is also behind some of our most heinous behaviour. That’s because the flip side of niceness to members of one’s group is nastiness to outsiders. This xenophobia is underpinned by oxytocin too (Science, vol 328, p 1408) and is sometimes called the “mama-bear effect” because it mirrors a parent’s urge to defend her offspring against a threat. As a result, the very system that keeps people working for the good of others can promote atrocities such as racism, genocide and war.
One consequence of this evolved conscience is that our concepts of “good” and “evil” are not universally shared, but rooted in the values of our culture. Take fairness. In modern western cultures, we tend to equate it with equity – one for me and one for you – but other cultures have different ideas. When researchers took the ultimatum game to 15 traditional societies around the world, they found that the average offer of player A ranged from 15 per cent in one society to 58 per cent in another (New Scientist, 10 March 2001, p 38).
The fact that people adapt to the values of their culture makes morality a movable feast. What’s more we are all members of multiple cultures – from our closest family to the whole nation – so even an individual’s moral compass is not fixed. Undoubtedly, some people are more predisposed to virtue than others but in a toxic culture almost everyone is capable of evil, from bullying and corruption to torture and terrorism. On the plus side, the converse is also true: the right cultural context brings out the good in us. That may not seem like a revolutionary insight, but some people believe it could make the world a better place.
Perhaps the most prominent of them is David Sloan Wilson at Binghamton University in New York state. For the past few years he has been applying what we have learned about the evolution of morality to his home city. Like any city, Binghamton has neighbourhoods where antisocial behaviour is rife and others where people actively work to help each other. He has mapped these peaks and valleys of prosociality and found when people move neighbourhoods they adapt their behaviour to fit the local culture. This is exactly what you would expect, given the factors that influence our moral behaviour. “People may want to be prosocial but in an environment where others are not you lose out,” says Wilson. His conclusion is radical. “There’s no point trying to make individuals more prosocial, you need to increase the prosociality of the entire neighbourhood.”
That is exactly what Wilson is trying to do. One approach involves giving residents the opportunity to create parks on local wasteland. These serve both to improve the physical environment, which Wilson finds has a strong influence on moral behaviour, and provide a common goal to build cooperative communities. Another project aims to make the classroom more cooperative and appealing to underperforming students by implementing Nobel-prizewinning economist Elinor Ostrom’s principles of group cooperation. Wilson has also set up the world’s first evolutionary think tank, the Evolution Institute, to bring these ideas to policymakers worldwide.
Evolutionary insights underline the importance of other measures to promote virtuous cultures, too. One is to encourage transparency, since we know that being watched puts us on our best behaviour, if only to enhance our reputations. Also crucial is the rule of law, including swift and just punishment for non-compliance (New Scientist, 5 November 2011, p 42). Less obvious, but highlighted by the study of 15 traditional societies, is economic development. “Modern market economies promote freedom, dignity, tolerance and democracy,” says Gintis. Even globalisation presents an opportunity for good. People’s wider social and information networks mean that the boundaries between groups are breaking down, reducing our xenophobic tendencies.
It will be interesting to see how far evolutionary theory in action can bring out the best in us. What is not in doubt is that our worst side will remain. Evolution has made us both altruistic and selfish – good and evil – and we cannot be otherwise. “It’s impossible for us,” says Edward O. Wilson. “If virtue was the only evolutionary force we would be angelic robots.”
Good for me, good for us
In 2009, economist Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel prize for her work on the “tragedy of the commons” dilemma – investigating how a group of people can overcome their selfish instincts to share a common resource fairly and sustainably. Her rules for cooperation recognise that we have evolved to be both selfish and altruistic, and allow us to reconcile our individual interests with the common good. They are relevant for the successful running of any group sharing a common goal, from schools and neighbourhoods to government, workplace and family.
- The group and its purpose are clearly defined
- Costs and benefits are shared equally
- Decisions are made by consensus
- There is monitoring for misconduct
- Sanctions are mild at first, only escalating if required
- Conflict resolution is fast and fair
- The group has authority to manage its own affairs
- The group is well integrated with other groups
Kate Douglas is a feature editor with New Scientist
2009 study posted for filing
Penicillin and several other antibacterial medications commonly taken by pregnant women do not appear to be associated with many birth defects, according to a report in the November issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals. However, other antibiotics, such as sulfonamides and nitrofurantoins, may be associated with several severe birth defects and require additional scrutiny.
Treating infections is critical to the health of a mother and her baby, according to background information in the article. Therefore, bacteria-fighting medications are among the most commonly used drugs during pregnancy. Although some classes of antibiotics appear to have been used safely during pregnancy, no large-scale studies have examined safety or risks involved with many classes of antibacterial medications.
Krista S. Crider, Ph.D., of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, and colleagues analyzed data from 13,155 women whose pregnancies were affected by one of more than 30 birth defects (cases). The information was collected by surveillance programs in 10 states as part of the National Birth Defects Prevention Study. The researchers compared antibacterial use before and during pregnancy between these women and 4,941 randomly selected control women who lived in the same geographical regions but whose babies did not have birth defects.
Antibacterial use among all women increased during pregnancy, peaking during the third month. A total of 3,863 mothers of children with birth defects (29.4 percent) and 1,467 control mothers (29.7 percent) used antibacterials sometime between three months before pregnancy and the end of pregnancy.
“Reassuringly, penicillins, erythromycins and cephalosporins, although used commonly by pregnant women, were not associated with many birth defects,” the authors write. Two defects were associated with erythromycins (used by 1.5 percent of the mothers whose children had birth defects and 1.6 percent of controls), one with penicillins (used by 5.5 percent of case mothers and 5.9 percent of controls), one with cephalosporins (used by 1 percent of both cases and controls) and one with quinolones (used by 0.3 percent of both cases and controls).
Two medications—sulfonamides and nitrofurantoins (each used by 1.1 percent of cases and 0.9 percent of controls)—were associated with several birth defects, suggesting that additional study is needed before they can be safely prescribed to pregnant women.
“Determining the causes of birth defects is problematic,” the authors write. “A single defect can have multiple causes, or multiple seemingly unrelated defects may have a common cause. This study could not determine the safety of drugs during pregnancy, but the lack of widespread increased risk associated with many classes of antibacterials used during pregnancy should be reassuring.”
(Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2009;163:978-985. Available pre-embargo to the media at www.jamamedia.org.)
Editor’s Note: The National Birth Defects Prevention Study is funded by a cooperative agreement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Please see the article for additional information, including other authors, author contributions and affiliations, financial disclosures,
A soft, extendible band fitted around the chest may help to relieve cough in patients with persistent dry cough. Over the course of 1 year, Japanese researchers evaluated the antitussive effect of the chest band worn for 8 hours a day in 56 patients with chronic cough due to a variety of conditions. Results showed that 88% (n=49) of patients improved their cough scores, and 59% (n=33) were able to reduce the cough. Researchers conclude that soft chest band therapy for intractable, prolonged, and chronic cough is a safe and effective therapy. This study was presented during CHEST 2012, the annual meeting of the American College of Chest Physicians, held October 20 – 25, in Atlanta, Georgia.