Warning Label

By Carl Zimmer | November 12, 2009 12:59 pm

This is definitely going into the swine flu talk! From Colin Purrington’s The Axis of Evo.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, The Tangled Bank

Comments (19)

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  1. Unbelievable Faith » Blog Archive » Warning Label | November 13, 2009
  1. Creationists should probably avoid doctors and hospitals altogether since so much modern medicine is based on the heresy of evolution right?

    We need a similar sticker for the people who claim to believe in science and evolution, but reject vaccines for wholly unscientific reasons. How about:

    Please do not administer flu vaccine.
    I do not believe that evolution applies to me or my offspring.

  2. Subwlf

    Well – there are other reasons too. I am allergic to thimerosal (which contains mercury). There are vaccines without it – but I find it best to avoid similar substances when the exact ingredient tipping off the allergy has not been pinpointed. Also, this flu is not particularly dangerous despite all the hype. Catching it and developing your own antibodies is still under the umbrella of evolution.

  3. For the tone of your joke, its clear you don’t know nothing about creationism. Really.

  4. CJ

    Eduardo,

    Care to elaborate?

    What more does one need to know? Creationists believe a fantasy that has no evidence.

  5. Canadian Lady

    Oh please. What a load. Viral mutation isn’t quite the same as evolution. We don’t see these viruses gradually turning into some other life form – they are still viruses, even after hundreds and hundreds of generations and dozens of mutations. Heck, they are even still FLU viruses, and they will still give you a form of the flu. How on earth is that evolution? If these viruses were evolving, wouldn’t we see them becoming more improved and likely more deadly, and wouldn’t we see the diseases they cause changing too? But we don’t. Flu is flu is flu. They’re still flu viruses, with all the characteristics of a flu virus.

  6. paul

    Carl, on a more serious note, I have a question about soap and evolution.

    We all know about how use/overuse of antibiotics has driven the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Why doesn’t soap do the same thing? Consider the following thought experiment. Everyone washes their hands, and does it correctly, so that most bacteria are slid off the hands. I don’t know what percentage of bacteria remain afterwards (wolfram alpha does not yet deal with handwashing, and I cannot quickly figure out what to google or bing to get a number for this; this page says you don’t want to remove all bacteria because that makes it too easy for other bacteria to recolonize your hands), so let’s suppose it’s 99.9%. That leaves 0.1% of the original bacteria on people’s hands, immediately after washing. These bacteria have a near virgin environment – bacteria free hands – in which to reproduce. Presumably other bacteria enter the environment before too long as people touch things, but by then the leftover bacteria and their descendants occupy a large part of that niche. This is repeated many, many times. As effective handwashing is repeated many times, one would expect that soap-resistant bacteria to evolve to become ever more soap resistant, until the predominant type of bacteria on someone’s hands is soap resistant. This would start on 1 person’s hands, but end up being passed around to others as they touch the same items, shake hands, etc.

    No one ever mentions this type of scenario. Is its neither possible nor likely? If so, why? Is it that soap-resistance is, for some reason, not something that can be evolved – it would require bacteria to develop in ways inconsistent with being bacteria – like developing little sucker pseudopods on their cell exteriors?

    Thanks

    This is repeated many times, each time, the bacteria that are left over from

  7. Revyloution

    Subwlf. I’m sorry you’re allergic to thimerosal (which contains trace amounts of mercury in less quantities than you absorb naturally and isn’t really pertinent to any discussion on thermerosal)

    I couldnt help but notice that you said ‘Catching it and developing your own antibodies is still under the umbrella of evolution.’. While factually correct, it belies a deep misunderstanding of the purpose of vaccines. The basic theory behind vaccinations is to create a herd immunity where the pathogen has a difficult time getting a toe hold. The population will still have a few members that catch it, but its difficult to spread.

    The real purpose behind vaccinations isn’t to protect an individual who gets the shot, its to protect those in society who might become seriously ill or die.

    Remember, there is no other medical discovery that has saved more lives than vaccinations. If not for vaccines, we would still have rampant diseases like Polio and Small Pox, and horrible flu seasons like in 1918.

  8. carl

    There’s been a debate about overuse in regard to antibacterial soap (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antibacterial_soap).

  9. Subwlf – an allergy is a valid reason in my book, and no reason for shame. It’s the people who claim to believe in evolution, and then a sentence and a half later are talking about the Lizard People who engineered eugenic flu viruses to take over the world that make me laugh out loud.

    I agree also with you on this, with a caveat:

    this flu is not particularly dangerous despite all the hype.

    You’re right so far, but that could change. Here’s my take:

    1) Occasionally very healthy young people are dying, apparently due to cytokine storms. So that’s always a cause for concern since we only usually expect to see this in the very young or old or immune-compromised population.

    2) The “season” started over the summer. Normal flu season starts in November. Interestingly, in addition to common wisdom about people being closer together in the winter, there is also a humidity related factor. The flu normally doesn’t like humid environments and the dryness of winter appears to let it survive longer “in the wild”. (side question: do the various parasites who live on our body consider us to be part of their “wild”?)

    3) The flu is “novel” in that there is no native immunity. More carriers = more infections = more deaths, bluntly.

    4) Flu is one of the fastest-mutating viruses we know about. It’s an RNA virus that lacks the normal error-correction routines. On average there is one mutation per each new copy of the flu virus. If it mutates and begins striking deeper in the lungs it will become more deadly and that could easily happen. Here is a fascinating read about influenza from a computer virus writer’s perspective (may not be all that accessible if you’re not “in the biz”).

    I agree with you that catching the flu is a natural way to build immunity and part of evolution. I was really aiming my jab at the anti-vaxxers who deny their kids MMR and realized after I posted it I should have taken out the word “flu” to make it mean what I really wanted it to. Those are the ones that, lacking an understanding of natural selection and herd immunity concepts, think their child won’t get sick if they don’t get the vaccine.

  10. Gah, I picked the completely wrong adjective in my post above:

    and then a sentence and a half later are talking about the Lizard People who engineered genocidal flu viruses to take over the world that make me laugh out loud.

    It was that -gen- root and the fact I’m only on my first cup of coffee. I mostly blame the caffeine deficiency.

  11. GoodOlWhatsisFace

    Paul -
    I believe there is a fallacy in your thought experiment. Line of reasoning is logical. However, I think the conclusion, that the bacteria left after hand-washing would be (more likely to be) “soap resistant”, is not necessarily relevant to what the bacteria do _inside_ your body:

    Soap itself is not used to kill the bacteria, per se (yes some probably get killed in this activity, but stay with me on this). I think soap’s main function is to _mechanically_ remove the bacteria from your hands: Your hands are covered with a naturally produced oil; the bacteria on your hands more or less live in that oil; soap dissolves the oil, and rinsing with water then removes it, thus taking (most of) the bacteria away with it.

    The bacteria population left on your hands, while it might possess some possibility of becoming more ‘soap-resistant’ over time, would not necessarily be getting bred stronger at attacking one’s immune system.

    Anti-B’s on the other hand, are engineered specifically to kill bacteria, not physically remove them from your body. So I think this is the case where evolution/odds-of-survivors-becoming-stronger-at-attacking-you plays out, which would not be the same as what hand washing does.

    Anyway I am not a biologist or chemist so I’ll welcome any criticisms or arguments against my logic!

  12. Kel

    I guess the only problem with such a measure is the necessity for herd immunity.

  13. paul

    GoodOlWhatsisFace:

    This explains some of what I asked, or at least what I didn’t know, in particular about the oily environment, and that the soap dissolved the oil in which they lived. I knew that soap functions mechanically, removing the bacteria rather than killing them.

    A perhaps nit-picking point. You mention bacteria “attacking one’s immune system. ” I thought the issue is that the bacteria attack various parts of the body and evade, or defeat the best efforts of, the immune system, not attack it. HIV, as I understand it, attacks the immune system.

    Anyway, it sounds like if we could breed bacteria that were soap resistant (& that did not attack our systems), it would almost be better for us, since they would occupy the niche and bacteria more dangerous to us would have difficulty occupying it.

  14. Actually I think it’s great effort to get rid of their cognitive dissonance but sadly contagious nature of the disease doesn’t make it worth. Like this one:
    http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1540477,00.html

    Why do I have feeling eschewing insulin, chemotherapy, pace maker et al is not gonna happen?

  15. amphiox

    Canadian Lady #5:

    Before one stands on a soapbox to spout off about some subject, as you have done, it is typically advisable to inform oneself about the subject, even if only a little bit, so that one can at least project the partial appearance of knowing what one is talking about. Otherwise, one sounds like a fool.

    Every single one of the examples you claim in your post to “not” be evolution actually IS evolution. (The generation of new taxa might be the part that attracts the most interest from laypeople, like the star on the Christmas Tree, or the flower on the orchid, or the tip of the iceberg, but it is actually only one small, small part of the entirety of what evolution is)

  16. hcj

    As far as the soap question I think it does a little more than mechanically remove the bacteria/oil. The surfactant actually acts to rip up/break apart the cell walls. Same thing with ethanol and other alcohols used in hand sanitizers. Bleach and peroxide do similiar things (i.e. shred the whole cell to bits).

    While you can develop a strain that resists antibiotics, chemicals that get inside the cell and muck things up to kill) you can’t really develop a resistance to having your whole being shredded apart.

  17. Canadain Dude

    Wow Canadian lady, your reply is pretty embarrassing, you think that just cause the flu gets stronger, means its going to inflict more damage? no its just harder for our immune system to kill, and trust me i had H1N1 it is much worse than the regular flu. Also, have you ever picked up a history textbook? Learn about the plague, please

  18. Brian Too

    @Paul 6,

    My understanding is that all organisms DO try to evolve immunity (or at least resistance) to any threat they face. How successful they are in that depends on how tied the organism is to the mechanism of harm they face and what evolutionary ‘choices’ are available to the organism.

    So why haven’t viruses and germs developed resistance to soap? Well for bacteria at least, I believe that soap is interacting with the cellular membrane which is composed of lipids. These are fats and soap is partially made of fat. This is one of the things that makes soap an effective cleaner. In order to develop resistance to soap the bacteria would have to evolve a cellular membrane that didn’t use lipids. Since every cell type I know of uses lipids in their cell membranes this is a deeply rooted and fundamental design aspect of all bacteria.

    In short this is a huge job for a bacteria to develop resistance. Just imagine how long soap has been available to people and in all that time there’s no resistance to speak of. This is just talking about plain, ordinary soap too–no fancy antibacterial stuff. Turns out that plain soap is almost always a better choice than the fancy antibacterials.

    Discover published a fascinating article on the mechanisms of soap. How exactly does it do it’s job?

    http://discovermagazine.com/1999/dec/feathand/?searchterm=soap

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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