Saturday, June 26, 2004

Ein ausordentlich starkes Kind...

You may have heard about the 5-year old German boy who is incredibly strong (c/o Tampa Bay Online, Matt Surman, 24 June 2004). The doctor that has had the most contact with him, Dr. Markus Schuelke, says he’s just “a normal boy.” The boy, whose identity is for now being kept confidential, has a dominant mutation in his myostatin gene. Apparently, he received the mutation from his mother, a former professional sprinter, though she had only had a recessive mutation (single allele). Although the myostatin mutation has been studied for a while in mice and cattle, this is the first documented case of it in a human.

Myostatin is responsible for limiting muscle growth. But because this Wunderkind has a crippled myostatin gene, his muscles are abnormally developed. One of the most exciting possible benefits of this mutation is, as the Genome News Network reports (Kate Ruder, 24 June 2004), for the reversal of muscular dystrophy. By suppressing the effects of myostatin, doctors may be able to restore atrophied muscle in MD patients. Awesome.

Now, although the TBO article implies that since the boy is normal, he won’t face any serious harm from this mutation, I read in another article (an MSN article you may have seen, but that I can’t get my e-hands on right now) that some doctors fear may suffer from some problems in the future. One problem I can think of off the top of my ignorant head is cardiac hypertrophy, meaning the boy’s heart muscles would get too big. Cardiac hypertrophy could in turn lead to general vascular hypertension, cardiac valve dysfunction, and congestive heart failure (CHF). CHF almost always occurs either in the right (RV) or left ventricle (LV). If it occurs in the RV, the major consequence is accessory edema (or, fluid build-up in your appendages, esp. lower). This is because when the RV fails – basically from sheer exhaustion – it can’t adequately eject the blood into the pulmonary artery. As the excess blood stays in the RV, it gradually leaks back into the inferior and superior vena cavae, the two big drainage vessels from the rest of the body. Eventually, you’ll start to see tissue swelling in the ankles, which usually results in “pitting edema” (you press the skin and a divot stays for a few seconds while the “soggy” flesh refills).

If, on the other hand, the boy has LV failure (LVF), he’ll suffer from a case of pulmonary edema. In LVF, the LV can’t adequately eject the blood into the aorta to the rest of the body. As the excess blood collects in the LV, it gradually starts leaking back into the pulmonary veins. Once back inside the alveolar capillary network (i.e., lung capillaries), this blood creates a fluid differential that pushes interstitial (i.e., between-cell) fluid into the alveoli. Basically, you start drowning from the inside on your own interstitial fluid. The main symptoms of this dysfunction are dyspnea (bad breathing) and a pink froth in your trachea and mouth. (Incidentally, you may not have caught it, but the pulmonary vessels are unique because they work opposite of the rest of the circulatory system: the pulmonary arteries are the only arteries to carry unoxygenated blood and the pulmonary veins, the only veins to carry oxygenated blood.)

Even recognizing this boy’s possible future problems does not erase the great benefits his mutation will have for the human race. And it’s just this serendipity that strikes me as sop funny – to put it mildly – about our culture’s obsession with cosmetic and therapeutic abortion. Imagine if this kid had been aborted, as the “inconvenience” he surely must be at times. By aborting as recklessly as we do, we are cutting out any number of unknown genetic windfalls. Maybe you’ve seen the political cartoon portraying a doctor advising a mother of ten children to abort. “It’s just another mouth to feed, the world is harsh, it may be deformed, you’ll be burdened even more, etc. Can’t you see it’s the best thing to do, Mrs. Beethoven?” Oh, ouch.

Feeding the fires of Moloch, er, defending abortion is especially silly for a convinced Darwinian. If you truly believe natural selection works so well – I mean, hey, it’s gotten us this far – why go tampering with it like some benighted gene gremlin? If gene research has taught us anything, it’s that long-term biological benefit is anything but skin-deep. That, in fact, is the basis for the dominant biological theories of ornamentation and courting behavior: even really lousy genetic suppliers can dupe a mate into copulating by looking good. A person could look perfect on the outside, or even be very sexually successful as agene transmitter – but she might nevertheless be housing a slew of nasty and worthless genetic flaws (that simply haven’t manifested, or won’t unless combined with other chromosomes).

But we modern humans think we are so superior to the silly ornamented, dancing birds and bees. They think they are helping their reproductive chances by choosing a strong or pretty mate. But how do they know that sly breeder isn’t a gene time bomb waiting to go off? They don’t know. But we do know better. They fool each other all the time, but we – yes, we who rule with that invincible hubristic trident of abortion, contraception and gene therapy – know better. Our ancestors may have been fooled by human ornamentation – status, clothes, wit, etc. – but we’re past such sexual illusions. We can read a person’s genome. We can see behind the veil. We can weed out unwanted offspring.

But the tragic irony is that, in the long run, we do not know any better. We are just as blind, in the long genetic course of things, as the most instinctual prancing peacock. By weeding out what is, in our sight, a bad fetus, we are eliminating an incalculably rich tree of genetic diversity and advantage. Of course, a convinced evolutionist would just retort that even our myopic abortive tampering is subsumed by the overarching majestic precision of natural selection, and that all will turn out well. Maybe so. But wielding the genetic trident as callously as we do, while also tooting the evolutionary horn as mindlessly as we do, is no more than a lot of bad acting in very bad faith. If evolution just works, let it work. But if it needs our petty tweaking, then the theory seems cheap. The only sure way to guide our path, with the trident of beautiful life in hand, is to entrust our collective genetic decisions to an elite think tank of genetic global designers. Enforced sterilizations. Trial-run pregnancies. Cosmetic abortions. Embryonic interior design. Is it headed that way? You can bet your puny trident rights.

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