"Natural Evil" May Be Broken Good
Things in nature we consider nasty are sometimes good systems that have broken.
Allergic shock: Our immune systems can sometimes turn on us and trigger a violent reaction like asthma or allergic shock. The culprit is a powerful antibody called IgE that is usually present in small quantities—100,000 times less than similar antibodies in the immunoglobulin family. Science Daily describes how IgE is regulated under normal conditions:
During evolution, our bodies have thus developed several self-restriction mechanisms around one of their most powerful immune “weapons,” IgE. Because a cell carrying IgE can no longer move, it can only survive for a brief period — just long enough to play a short-lived protective role against parasites, toxins and poisons. It then self-destructs by committing a sort of “hara-kiri” which strongly reduces IgE production and hence the triggering of allergies.
When this tightly-regulated defense weapon proliferates due to the breakdown of regulatory mechanisms, the condition “can trigger extremely violent allergic reactions.”
Friendly fire: The gut has a large population of mercenaries (gut bacteria) that aid in digestion. Certain types are normally beneficial—but when they multiply out of control, they become “too much of a good thing,” PhysOrg says. Most insects have Wolbachia in their digestive tracts. Normally, these microbes form a cooperative partnership, but “a single genomic change can turn beneficial bacteria into pathogenic bacteria, by boosting bacterial density inside the host.” How many human pathogens started out that way?
Derailed development: Birth defects are a tragic experience for many parents. Development from embryo to adult is a carefully-orchestrated process, but sometimes things can go wrong. Science Daily discusses how cells communicate when forming into tissues. They send signal molecules, such as Wnt, through protrusions in the membrane called filipodia. A researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology describes what can happen when these communication pathways are disrupted: “Distribution of these signal molecules has to be controlled precisely,” Dr. Steffen Scholpp, head of a research group of the KIT Institute of Toxicology and Genetics (ITG), explains. “Smallest changes of the concentration or the transport direction may cause severe damage, such as massive malformations during embryonal development or formation of cancer.”
Alligator defense: The possibilities for avoiding infection in filthy environments can be appreciated by studying alligators. “Alligators live in bacteria-filled environments and dine on carrion,” Science Daily says, “Yet this ancient reptile rarely falls ill.” Researchers at George Mason University want to find out why. They know that alligators produce antibacterial peptides that respond before the immune system can generate antibodies. Humans generate these, too; it’s part of “your generalized immune response to the world.” Monique van Hoek wants to see if we can develop treatments by understanding the alligator’s heightened protection from bacteria:
“The reason why we’re so interested in them: they are part of nature’s way of dealing with the onslaught of bacteria and viruses that we face every day. Every breath that you take, every thing that you eat, you’re constantly exposed to bacteria and your body needs to fend them off in some way.”
The article claims that “These reptiles have evolved with a formidable defense against bacterial infections,” but perhaps the main difference is in the activity level of innate systems that serve all animals, depending on their environment.
Friendly fungi: Think of fungus and you may picture moldy bread. Actually, a friendly fungus can help barley plants grow stronger with better yield. PhysOrg reports on good prospects for improving harvests of barley, the fourth leading cereal crop:
Botanists from Trinity College Dublin have made a breakthrough discovery that could save barley farmers sleepless nights and millions of Euro each year: naturally occurring plant-friendly fungi prevent crop-ravishing diseases from spreading, and also aid plant survival in testing environmental conditions.
Importantly, these amazing little organisms cause no harm to the plant roots in which they take up their abode. However, their gift of immunity against common seed diseases greatly reduces the need for farmers to spray environmentally damaging chemicals, which can affect ecosystems in a plethora of negative ways.
Cancer tipping point: One single DNA base mutation can cause chaos leading to cancer, Medical Xpress reports. This “cancer-specific mutation…has an unexpectedly deep and broad impact on the phenotypic properties of the cell.” Another article on Medical Xpress links melanoma metastasis to a breakdown in RNA editing of a certain enzyme.
What to do about cannabis? Mention marijuana, and you are likely to get a highly polarized reaction. We mention it here only because of increased scientific study reported in the news recently. Certainly, most decent citizens would not want to increase the density of lethargic, hallucinating pot-heads in society, but at some level, we should be curious about this plant. After all, it is just a plant. No plant is “evil” in itself. It can be used for bad or good; after all, humans produce cannabinoid compounds in the brain as part of the endocannibinoid system, “which is involved in appetite, mood, memory, and pain sensation.” The more we learn about cannabis dispassionately and scientifically, the better; but, surprisingly, after so many decades of controversy, there’s still not much known. A study from McGill University mentioned on Science Daily didn’t find the brain damage usually assumed to occur. Science Magazine published an article on “Everything you wanted to know about medical marijuana, but were too afraid to ask.” Obviously, good policy has to start with accurate information. There have been few clinical trials to date because of hurdles with law enforcement and problems with funding. If some applications in the future are found to be safe and effective, though, they probably will not involve smoking the stuff at parties.
Update 2/18/15: The BBC News expresses “cautious optimism” about upcoming new treatments with cannabis. While warning of the “promise, risk and controversy” about medical marijuana, the article describes a derivative compound that cured a girl suffering from acute epilepsy in 15 minutes.
We in no way support unrestricted marijuana use by that last article. We believe people should be in full control of their faculties; Medical Xpress reported that users of cannibis have 5 times the risk of psychosis. We can see, however, an application for the terminally ill; as stated in Proverbs 31:4-7. Leaders, lest they pervert justice, should not let any substance tamper with their alertness and judgment, the writer says, but “Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.” In cases like that, alleviation of pain is an act of mercy. We do it with medicines derived from other drug plants (opium), so it remains to be seen if marijuana processed for medical use is any better (or worse) in effectiveness. It wouldn’t hurt to know. Just make sure the ones doing the clinical trials do not have an agenda. As usual, follow the money. There have also been anecdotal reports of miracle cures from cannabis for certain rare conditions, like certain seizures; these deserve careful medical testing.
These articles show once again that “natural evil” needs some nuanced thinking. We tend to think of germs and bacteria as evil marauders out to cause pain and harm. But when God put a curse on creation as described in Genesis 3, it may not have required creation of new forms of pain. Part of it may have been a relaxation of controls. As these news articles show, many processes in nature involve pushes and pulls, forces and counterbalances, that are finely tuned. Living things are poised on a knife-edge of breakdown. Think of it this way: we have police, fire departments, and medics always at the ready, but what if a king, out of frustration for constant grumbling and disobedience, said, “Fine. Have it your way. No more free protection.” How long would it take for the townspeople to repent out of the suffering that would result, and scramble to find ways to protect themselves with bucket brigades and neighborhood watch programs?
God owes rebels no favors. Considering how blatantly immoral and defiant so many humans are these days, it’s amazing that God still sends rains, sunsets, and beauty at all. As Dr. Joseph Henson often remarked, considering the remarkable fine-tuning in the human body and the whole biosphere, “The amazing thing is not that we get sick. The amazing thing is that we are ever well.” Peter warned against taking the good things we have for granted. The Lord “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).