A post more picturesque than scientific

by John Holbo on October 7, 2005

There’s an interesting piece, "Molecular Self-Loathing", in the Oct 1-7 issue of The Economist. On a personal note, the degree of self-loathing programmed into my molecules is, apparently, this: I turn first to Lexington, notice there’s a cartoon of an aging hippie hitchhiking, thumb out; a car with a USA license-plate is passing him by. I read the whole thing. (To save yourself that trouble, do the following: say "He didn’t think that was so groovy", in a Monty Burns voice. Favorite line: "For their part, the Republicans have been trying to get beyond Richard Nixon’s ‘southern strategy.’")

The molecular self-loathing piece is about a novel theory that two eating disorders, bulimia and anorexia, may to some degree be autoimmune system-related. Correlations were found between "levels of autoantibodies to melanocortins": positive correlation with anorexia, negative with bulimia (no correlation for control groups.)

So what is a melanocortin? I dunno, but here’s what it says: "small protein molecules that carry messages between nerve cells in the brain. They are involved in regulating a variety of complex behaviours, including social interactions, stress responses and – most importantly in this context – food intake." So focus on them makes sense regarding eating disorders, clearly.

Now what determines levels of autoantibodies? Well, they are the little platoons of your autoimmune system. So when it attacks something, there are more of them. When not, less. It can attack things it’s supposed to attack, or – if things get out of whack – things it is not. (Possibly because the former have mimicked the latter.)

At this point insert all standard caveats about correlation and causality, I suppose, but the researchers are evidently exploring the possibility that levels of certain gut bateria, which are molecular mimicks, might effect ups and/or downs in autoantibody levels, which might effect melanocortin levels. So you might be able to treat eating disorders by killing (or nurturing) gut bacteria? I guess.

What makes this prima facie implausible is, of course, the understanding that eating-disorders "go hand in glove with particular personality characteristics which are not directly related to the disease. In anorexics, striving for perfection and conscientiousness … In bulimics, such trains include risk-taking behaviour and problems with impulse control."

But – I guess this is really what is being explored – there might be bacteria that might inflict a disorder on you only if you have a certain personality. They might drive your levels high enough, or drag them low enough, but (probably) only if you were already high or low. I hope there isn’t any bacteria that causes compulsive loves-to-hate-to-read-Lexington readers to, say, nervously scratch all their skin off. I should stay away from bacteria that affects lexingtocortin levels.

I guess the form of these hypotheses mirrors the Nobel-winning ulcer-cause theory. But again, I wouldn’t really know.

Why am I posting about things of which I know nothing? Because I turned to ask Belle: what precedent? There must be literary precedent. An SF story about diseases that strike only people with certain personalities? She correctly answered: Lanark. Yes! Alasdair Gray’s masterpiece. (Finally, a magical realism for phlegmatic Glaswegians!)

Our hero has arrived in the city. Medical examination mantadory. "We need records to identify you."

The medical room was in a hut reached by a passageway. I undressed behind a screen and was examined by a casual young doctor who whistled between his teeth as he wrote the results on my card. I was 5 feet 7 3/4 inches high and weighed 9 stone 12 pounds 3 1/2 ounces. My eyes were brown, hair black, blood group B (111). My only bodily markings were corns on the small toes and a patch of hard black skin on the right elbow. The doctor measured this with a pocket ruler and made a note saying, "Nothing exceptional there."

I asked what the hard patch was. He said, ‘We call it dragonhide, a name more picturesque than scientific, perhaps, but the science of these things is in its infancy. You can dress now." I asked how I could get it treated. he said, "There are several so-called medical practitioners in this city who claim to have cures for dragonhide. They advertise by small notices in tobacconists’ windows. Don’t waste money on them. It’s a common illness, as common as mouths or softs or twittering rigor. What you have there is very slight. If I were you I’d ignore it."

I asked why he had not ignored it. He said cheerfully, "Descriptive purposes. Diseases identify people more accurately than variable factors like height, weight, and hair colour."

Speaking of unscientific observations, I just happened to notice Lanark‘s Amazon sales ranking is currently as follows:

Today: #68,938 in Books
Yesterday: #418,873 in Books

I often glance at sales rank, out of the idlest of curiosities. It seems like some sort of index of something – some pulse of the literary culture. But this suggests that, once you get down to a certain level, the pulse probably just flutters and fluctuates? Well, anyway. Lanark is sure a hell of a lot better book than probably most of some 68,000 titles I could maybe mention. Come to think of it, Belle and I used to play a game, when we got the NY Times in paper form on Sundays. (Not convenient in Singapore.) Check the non-fiction bestsellers, and if half of them are plausibly books whose most important sentences are not falsehoods the culture’s autoimmune system is doing OK. In general the not-really-non-fiction to actually non-fiction ratio is the veridical malaise index. How do you rate the week?

Still bored? We did something pretty funny over at J&B. You can come see.



David 10.07.05 at 10:01 am

“There must be literary precedent. An SF story about diseases that strike only people with certain personalities?”

You could also try Giuseppe Rosato’s “Normali anomalie” (normal anomalies), in which – basically – various segments of the Italian population develop lumps.

From a recent review:

“The Berlusconi phenomenon, from a literary point of view, is a collection of Normal Anomalies. With this oxymoron the Abruzzese author Giuseppe Rosato synthesizes in his new novel’s title the double meanings of the story he tells us.”

Don’t ask me whether or not I’ve read it and recommend it though.




Daniel 10.07.05 at 11:44 am

the understanding that eating-disorders “go hand in glove with particular personality characteristics which are not directly related to the disease

Also hand in glove with particular sociological characteristics (and for that matter, economic ones). Count me unconvinced.


eudoxis 10.07.05 at 12:05 pm

And what do we know of the levels of melatonin and personality?

Think of this: breast cancer goes hand in glove with being female. (And isn’t femaleness a social construct?) Initial conditions are necessary but not sufficient. (Men have some mammary epithelium as well. Not all women develop breast cancer. etc.)

Anyway, there is already an established group of autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders. For example, there is a link between Strep and compulsive disorders, between lupus and behavioral changes, etc. The immune system can indirectly affect the brain in profound ways. (Also, we’re not supposed to have an autoimmune system, it’s an immune system gone haywire.)

I don’t suppose you wanted any comments on that part of your post.


Matt 10.07.05 at 3:16 pm

On the Amazon sales rankings- Volokh had a post some time ago (I can’t find it by a search I tried, but I didn’t try hard) where he said that just one or two sales a week can change a book tens of thousands of places when it’s in the lower levels like that one, so it might well have been just 5 or 6 sales or something.


John Holbo 10.08.05 at 12:52 am

eudoxis, good beliefs make me happy, so no I don’t mind standing corrected. Thank you for informing me that autoimmune system is inherently a failure term. I didn’t know that.


Rich Puchalsky 10.08.05 at 7:31 am

_Lanark_ was so awesomely flawed. I’ve never read a better book that I had so much difficulty in not falling asleep for through certain chapters. But certain chapters were brilliant.


Tim Worstall 10.08.05 at 8:18 am

Amazon sales rank (which I am obssessive over at present) apparently runs something like number 1,000 is selling 100 copies a week and number 100,000 about 1 or 2. Those are 2004 numbers BTW. So smal numbers of sales in one week can make extremely large movements. One I am tracking went from 320,000 to 5,000 as a result of a single blog post on a low traffic blog.


Adam Kotsko 10.08.05 at 11:15 am

Perhaps in the present situation, “autoimmune system” is the best way to describe the American intellectual scene.

For instance, I know that Thomas Friedman is an engaging and often quite beautiful writer — able both to spin an anecdote so convincing as to make the concept of “actual data” obselete and to performatively challenge the very concepts of “metaphor” and “analogy” in a way that puts the last fifty years of literary theory to shame — but the title of his book is demonstrably false.


washerdreyer 10.08.05 at 1:22 pm

It’s not the falsity of the title that’s problematic, it’s that if the world were flat, everything would be further apart, not closer together. While his book is about the world moving closer together.


Matt Weiner 10.08.05 at 2:24 pm

But while the title of his book is literally false, it implicates Teh True: namely, that what is within the covers is total B.S. (I assume. Don’t plan to read the thing.)

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