“I think it’s a bit alive”

Viruses are technically not alive according to the standard biological definition of life. This is because left to themselves they don’t display any of the seven criteria required for something to be deemed living, which are respiration, reproduction, nutrition, movement, growth, sensitivity and excretion. However, neither are they really on a gradient between life and non-life whose denizens display some but not all of these features. They reproduce with the help of organisms by hijacking the machinery of the cell to make more of themselves, so I’ve tended to think of them as items (there’s a nomenclature problem here) which have a single characteristic of life, namely reproduction. True, they can’t reproduce alone, but the same is true of many sexual organisms, and in a sense viruses are not organisms at all, although they are organised so maybe they are. However, when they do infect cells they participate in life and tax their hosts in various ways, hence the fact that they’re often related to illness.

Partly because they’re not alive, the idea of calling viruses by the usual binominal system of genus + species such as Homo sapiens or Boa constrictor may be inappropriate. However, non-living things are classified, such as stars, minerals and elements, without strictly implying an evolutionary process, so they may nevertheless make sense, or at least some form of classification may exist. To me it seems feasible to track at least some of the phylogenetic tree of viruses by comparing their genomes, although presumably DNA and RNA would have to be done separately here unless the genomes turn out to be similar. It also appears that RNA viruses are in fact descended from early RNA-based organisms rather like bacteria which died out long before even the LUCA (last universal common ancestor) appeared. This whole issue is of course the “natural kinds” problem of philosophy: is reality already categorised into different types of things or is that just what we do to deal with it? This also applies to whether viruses are alive, as we have categories of living and non-living things. This may, however, be inaccurate and at this point I’m going to depart into what is often seen as ridiculous territory, because I’m panpsychist.

Panpsychism is the belief that the physical Universe is composed entirely of sentient entities. The reason I believe this is true is twofold. Firstly, there seems to be no way to account for consciousness except to view it as an innate property of matter or some even more fundamental part of the fabric of reality. Secondly, there’s always a temptation to draw a line around People Like Us and consign everything else to the Outer Darkness which doesn’t need to be considered, and it’s, so to speak, often strangely coincidental that the cis palar people are paler and of similar gender and so forth to the people drawing the line than those who are trans palar. In other words, my decision to be panpsychist is fundamentally ethical. Other species have no voice, other kingdoms even less of a voice and so on, so we can safely assert our power over them without them complaining and kid ourselves into thinking it’s okay. This prioritising of the ethical over the ontological, I think, reflects the idea that the Torah was created before the physical Cosmos and acts as a kind of blueprint for it, because that’s exactly the way we should be approaching life, and that “should” has priority over any “is”. This also addresses the is/ought problem of not being able to derive an ought from an is, because of course you can’t. It’s the other way round.

Akin to panpsychism is hylozoism, the belief that substance as such is always essentially alive – hyle – substance; zoön – animal. Hylozoism is not quite the same idea as panpsychism because it doesn’t follow from something being alive that it’s also conscious, and it’s also an older idea than panpsychism, perhaps even the original idea. Pre-Socratic philosophers regarded magnets and the wind as alive because they were active, for example, and whereas the processes driving those activities are a small subset of the processes occurring within things normally regarded as being alive, that division between the inorganic and the organic may be imposed by the human mind. It also relates to pantheism because all of reality could be conscious, alive and God. Since I come from the Abrahamic tradition, I don’t see the physical Universe as God but I do think this exposes a possible assumption made by some anti-theists when they claim everyone is born atheist. I don’t believe this is true. A child’s first experience of the world is usually of the parents, who are alive and conscious – parents are a child’s world at first, and that world is alive and conscious. In fact a mother is in a sense a baby’s God. It therefore makes sense to me that a child will initially view their environment as alive and conscious, and the way young children play seems to reflect that. I also think the concept of God often arises as a way of coping with separation anxiety. I can specifically remember doing this as a coping strategy when I was very young. Incidentally, simply because this is how the concept arises doesn’t invalidate it or even refute it – I see it as a mechanism placed divinely in the human mind to encourage theism. However, theism can in general be left out of this point.

All of this has a number of linguistic consequences because the way we talk about stuff influences the way we treat that stuff. There is currently a vegan campaign to refer to all animals by “she”, “he” or singular “they” rather than “it”. I disagree with this because it seems anthropocentric in view of the fact that many species are simultaneous hermaphrodites or reproduce asexually and it misses the opportunity to obfuscate gender in English by edging into “non-natural” gender. Hence it’s inappropriate to call many planaria or sea anemones something other than “it” because they’re hermaphrodite. Having said that, it does seem appropriate to use “who” rather than “what”, “that” or “which”, “someone”, “somebody” and the like because they’re common rather than neuter gender terms, and for me this extends beyond the animal kingdom to plants, fungi and living microörganisms. Eccentric though it may seem, unlike many vegans who find the usually disingenuous suggestion that plants are not sentient, being panpsychist I believe they are. There often seems to be a focus on the possession of a central nervous system as a sine qua non of awareness, but this allows, for instance, bivalves to be seen as non-conscious and therefore unable to suffer when in fact it isn’t so clear-cut. Bivalves respond to Cynthia’s pull, to the taste of water and sometimes they can even see, and simply because their neurones are differently-arranged doesn’t mean they aren’t conscious. Regarding the human body too, we are essentially embodied in our consciousness and hormones are sometimes neurotransmitters, similar processes to nerve conduction occur in other tissues and so forth, so whereas we may believe ourselves to be conscious brains in non-conscious bodies that may well not be so. Moreover, although we happen to have an apparent substrate for our consciousness based on fibrous cells carrying electrical charges and interacting via chemicals, it doesn’t follow that that’s the only way it can be done. It could be based on silicon chips, hydraulics or cogs and gears for all we know. Given that, the fact that plants respond to light, gravity and chemicals and communicate with each other, sending signals which indicate when fruit should ripen or if they’re being eaten by insects, for example, suggests that plants may as well be considered conscious. Bacteria too communicate with each other. They can, for example, make decisions based on the density of their population. But in order to avoid being paralysed by guilt, we should probably accept that we should minimise our suffering and killing while accepting that eliminating it entirely is practically impossible. Our specific immune response constantly annihilates bacteria and the plants we eat, though conscious, are fewer in number than the plants whose death we would be responsible for by being carnist.

Common-gendering and ethical language finally come unstuck at viral level. Before I go on, I want to consider what I mean by “level”. There is no chain of being. Nothing but God is at the pinnacle of creation (and God is of course uncreated). All the rest of us are equal. Hence the idea of viruses being at a lower level is distinctly dodgy. Even so, one thing they are is inanimate. Viruses are inanimate objects. They may be relatively sophisticated nanomachines which can infiltrate cells, but they are still not actually alive. Therefore the appropriate language for them is different. We do not kill viruses but destroy them, for example, and it’s entirely apt to use “it”, “something” and the like rather than “they”, “someone” and so forth. This still doesn’t answer the question of what life is though. The seven characteristics model doesn’t really work. For instance, many organisms are sterile their entire lives, whole phyla of animals have cell constancy – they never grow once formed and their wounds can’t heal – and so forth. Life applies more to an entire group of organisms than individuals. However, NASA defines life, for the purposes of looking for it off-world, as “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution”. I would actually take issue with this because I think non-chemical systems could also do this, such as collections of plasma (as in ionised gas) or artificial electromechanical devices which manufacture slightly imperfect copies of themselves.

At some point I will probably write something about the ecological catastrophe this is part of and the need for planned command-economy type solutions for this and other issues, but right now I’m just going to leave it there.

Thanos vs Gag Halfrunt

Spoilers for MCU and H2G2.

What is life? I’ll come back to that.

What is true evil? My understanding is that it’s deliberate or intentional cruelty or perhaps murder with malice aforethought on various scales. Then again, maybe there isn’t a scale because if human life is of infinite value, the sum of any number of infinities, even an infinite number, is still infinity. It’s been said that if you destroy one life, you destroy the Universe. Thus a serial killer is not worse than someone who murders a single individual. I don’t entirely agree with this because death has consequences. If an individual is a member of a social species, or even if they aren’t but are a member of a social group, there’s the fact that others will miss them or grieve their loss. A death is a loss to others in other ways too. I’ve long been probably inordinately sad that Douglas Adams died when he did, even though his main contribution to society was probably mainly on the creative side of things, and the same applies to Iain M Banks. But it might be more than that. In the ‘Friends’ version of ‘Days Of Our Lives’, when Dr Drake Ramoray fell down the lift shaft the only person who could’ve fixed his brain was him, and of course that meant he wasn’t going to fix anyone else’s brains from that point on either. It’s a substantial practical loss.

The social side of loss is also significant even when one is a member of a non-social species. Spiders tend to be cannibals, although I don’t know if that’s true of tarantulas. There are certainly many species whose individuals seem to have a binary attitude towards each other. If they’re of the same sex, they will fight and one may end up eating the other, and if they’re of different sexes they will mate. Other than that, they have nothing to do with each other at all, and it can go further than that with asexual or simultaneous hermaphrodite reproduction, where an individual can end up colonising a habitat previously devoid of members of that species or release clouds of gametes which combine with other individuals with no physical contact. These animals are not social, but they nonetheless participate in ecosystems and if they’re also companion animals in one way or another they’re ascribed extra value by humans with whom they come into contact. Some mammals and birds also have companion relationships, apparently sporadically, and of course symbiosis is almost universal. If we lost all our mitochondria, which are symbiotic organisms living within all animal cells, we would die in minutes.

My possibly more contentious claim is that human life is of infinite value, not because it isn’t but because it estimates our value above that of individuals of other species. Nonetheless I do do that, even though I’m vegan, because humans are moral agents and therefore have the potential to make a positive difference to the world, including the lot of other animals. Also, I have to be honest and admit that I’m somewhat speciesist.

So what’s all this got to do with Thanos and Gag Halfrunt? I’ll start by introducing them.

Thanos is a character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, unsurprisingly also present in Marvel Comics, who has recently come to the fore of public consciousness as a result of films such as ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ and ‘Avengers: Endgame’. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Marvel comics. My acquaintance with them amounts to Hulk and Fantastic Four strips my elder brother used to read and left behind at my grandmother’s house (yes I do have an elder brother although he isn’t at all in evidence), I assume dating from the 1960s. Of the MCU, though, I am somewhat more cognisant, though only somewhat. The crucial thing about Thanos is he’s an immensely powerful cosmic superbeing who collects a series of stones to fix in a gauntlet which he wears on his left hand and when he snaps his fingers, half of the beings in the Universe will cease to exist. His near-nihilism leads him to conclude that this is altruistic. There’s a meme called “Thanos Did Nothing Wrong” which makes the observation that the long-term consequences of such an act could be extremely positive in some ways. It also seems to be the case that the beings simply cease to exist, painlessly and quickly, so the only pain he causes them is the fear engendered by awareness of their imminent disappearance. I have to admit that I do have some sympathy with this idea, although I’m not clear how far along the “Great Chain Of Being” this extends. For instance, does it mean that half the gut flora disappear? If not, does it just apply to animals? And so on. Even so, this would clearly cause calamity on a cosmic scale, as is illustrated in the film as vehicles without drivers crash into each other and buildings, so the death toll is higher and the suffering caused far greater than the initial event. Any primarily sexually reproducing species with fewer than a crucial population is doomed to extinction through in-breeding and there will be wider repercussions for the ecosystem. Leaving that aside though, Thanos didn’t act maliciously and the immediate event involves no immediate physical pain. Literally speaking, the body count is zero because there are no bodies left. The problem, really, is that he has played God and arbitrarily extracted countless people from existence and has also gambled on the long term consequences being, on balance, positive. Thanos is just ripping off a cosmic plaster really.

There is in fact no population problem. There’s a consumption problem, but as I’ve been into previously this planet can in fact feed at least a trillion (short scale) people, although their quality of life and standard of living might be extremely low and the impact on the environment would be devastating. This brings me to the issue of Covid-19. It seems to have evolved partly because of over-consumption, and I only say “seems to” because to me the cause is uncontroversial and obvious, and the question has now become whether the system is flexible enough to adapt to this kind of thing, which will be the first of many such events. Nobody can really be happy about the situation, and the same applies to Thanos’s snap.

Gag Halfrunt is Zaphod Beeblebrox’s psychiatrist from ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’. It was he who signed the forms for the destruction of Earth and continued to track down the two human survivors, Tricia MacMillan and Arthur Dent in order to have them killed. This is a rather long and convoluted story, but it amounts to this. Millions of years ago a computer was constructed to calculate the answer to the Answer to Life, The Universe And Everything, which after several million years turns out to be forty-two, so a more sophisticated computer, Earth, has to be manufactured to work out the Ultimate Question, which makes sense of the answer. However, if this succeeds everyone in the Universe will become happy and psychiatry will no longer be needed, at least as Gag Halfrunt sees it, so he decides to have the planet and all its natives blown up by the Vogons.

For some reason the moral significance of this decision was lost on me for over four decades, but if you really think about it, this makes Gag Halfrunt potentially the most evil person in the Universe. There are other candidates for this in the H2G2 Universe, but he kind of takes the Ultimate Question biscuit for two reasons, one of which at first seems huge but could arguably be dwarfed by the other. Obviously it’s not terribly good to destroy an entire planet with every life form on it as such unless it leads to a greater good of some kind. This destruction is, at the same time, a lot smaller than Thanos’s snap because it “merely” involves the three thousand quintillion (short scale: long scale is three nonillion) organisms currently living on the planet. Moreover, although it takes two minutes for this to happen, during which pain and other kinds of suffering are considerable, which is a lot longer than Thanos took, after that there is in theory no more suffering for any organism on the planet ever again. This seems huge from our perspective. From the perspective of the Galaxy, however, it’s pretty minor because Earth as understood by most of Galactic civilisation is an insignificant planet out in the middle of nowhere, a bit like Neville Chamberlain’s view of Czechoslovakia. I seem to remember Ford Prefect saying there were a hundred million star systems in the Milky Way and of course this is only one Galaxy of an unspecified very large number. Scaling this to the size of Earth’s human population at that point, which was 4116 million at one point in 1978, this is equivalent to a disaster wiping out forty people, taking only humans into account (and the dolphins have all left and the mice are unharmed, so most sentient beings on the planet would be okay). Such an event happening in the developed world would be newsworthy, but unfortunately not if it had happened in one of the poorer parts of this planet, and since humans are effectively an uncontacted tribe, it doesn’t amount to much journalistically.

Although Earth seems insignificant, the planet is in fact possibly the most important in the Universe because of providing the Ultimate Question. Clearly this is a successful question because Fenchurch is described as realising what’s necessary to make the world a good and happy place even though she doesn’t know the Answer, but at the same time doesn’t enable her to stop the Vogons destroying the computer/planet. This means that Gag Halfrunt has succeeded in preventing the happiness of everyone in the Universe, perversely including even himself. From a utilitarian perspective, this is far, far worse than what Thanos did, and it more or less makes him the most evil person in the Universe. Despite this, he respects patient confidentiality. If the Ultimate Question had been calculated, the whole Universe could’ve ended up happy for over five hundred thousand million years. Instead, it presumably consists largely of unhappy people for the same period of time, with the exception of the Sheltanacs and maybe some others with no word for unhappiness.

As well as being evil, Gag Halfrunt may also be quite cynical and depressive, suggesting he has no insight into his condition. Is it therefore possible to plead mitigation to his guilt? Is he unable to see the big picture because of his own cluttered perspective? It is probably quite realistic to have a mentally-ill psychiatrist. Certainly in the realm of clinical psychology, speaking from experience as someone who bailed out of the subject twice at degree level, many people are motivated initially by the desire to understand themselves, often because there’s an elephant in their personal room such as depression. Whether psychiatry is the same is a somewhat different issue of course.

Leaving aside the question of responsibility, we see that Thanos is motivated by the desire to relieve suffering, though his perspective is nihilistic, but Gag Halfrunt is motivated by the desire to see suffering continue, although his perspective may be psychotic and have ideas of reference – “it won’t work for me even though it will for everyone else”. There are also a few other people who are ethically monstrous in the Hitch-Hiker trilogy, such as Wowbagger The Infinitely Prolonged who causes perhaps very mild suffering to everyone in the Universe individually. But ultimately, compared to Gag Halfrunt, Thanos did nothing wrong.

Dealing With Viral Upper Respiratory Tract Infections

Yes this is on the wrong blog but this one gets more views.

A few years ago, like many people who have a lot of contact with large numbers of children I used to get a couple of health issues on a regular basis. One was headlice, which were particularly regrettable since I’m vegan and really did not want to kill the animals living on my scalp. That’s another story for another place though. The other problem, more germane to the current unpleasantness, was that I constantly used to get colds in the winter. Now I’m a herbalist, so I believe in the soil and seed analogy that it isn’t just about the germs but also about yourself, the field in which the germs are planted. Nonetheless I decided to try an experiment. I would stop touching any part of my face or any mucous membranes without thoroughly washing my hands first. This proved to be, rather gallingly, amazingly effective and I didn’t get a cold for three years. The next one I got, if I recall correctly, was from someone sneezing on me. Since that time I’ve tended to avoid touching my face as far as possible. This is easier now I wear makeup because I have the extra motivation of not smudging or scraping stuff off. It also occurs to me that maybe there could be some kind of cosmetic-style antiviral face salve, although this wouldn’t help with the likes of nostrils and eyes of course.

So before I go further, I can’t emphasise this enough: don’t touch your face without washing your hands thoroughly. I can’t guarantee that I won’t get Covid-19 eventually, but so far I’ve had no symptoms. In fact that’s not strictly true but I’ll go into that later. The point is, I don’t have it and haven’t had it so far.

I don’t want to be seen as cashing in or taking advantage of this situation in any way. Put another way, I’m not taking advantage of this situation. I’m going to talk about viral upper respiratory tract infections generally and what to do about them. It’s said, of course, that Covid-19 is different and it is, and I’ll also go into that. In fact I’ll do that first.

Covid-19 is not influenza. It’s important to remember this. It does have things in common with ‘flu but there are important differences. Someone with ‘flu might start off with an upper respiratory tract infection followed by a lower respiratory tract infection, i.e. pneumonia, but that pneumonia will be due to a secondary bacterial infection and stuff can be done about that because bacteria are susceptible to antibiotics, or rather some of them are right now but many are not any more due partly to overuse, notably by animal farmers. Covid-19 can also become pneumonia, but this pneumonia is viral. It can’t be treated by antibiotics, and it’s when it becomes pneumonia that the risk of dying from it escalates, due to a process known as a cytokine storm, where as is usual with infections, the specific immune response becomes so vigorous that it can kill the patient. It has been rumoured that this happens particularly in people who are taking NSAIDs – the so-called “Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs” which are in fact cycloöxygenase inhibitors such as aspirin and ibuprofen. If this is true, it raises two questions. One is what effect foods and herbs which are high in salicylates would do, and there are one heck of a lot of those. The other is what happens if someone uses a real non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug as opposed to a cycloöxygenase inhibitor, i.e. something which isn’t a steroid but is anti-inflammatory for other reasons than interfering with that particular pathway. There are plenty of these, two examples being substances found in tormentil and Calendula. For some reason I don’t understand, most anti-inflammatories are either steroids or tackle a very specific step in one process leading to inflammation when there are plenty of other steps which could be addressed. Note that I’m not at all recommending using any kind of anti-inflammatory remedy, partly because it may be the actual process of counteracting inflammation that causes the problem, and also this is just a rumour right now.

Clearly a smoker is likely to be at greater risk of death from this virus. This is substantially because of the affect tobacco smoke has on the lungs. It paralyses the cilia in the respiratory passages which clean the lungs out and prevent foreign bodies including viruses and bacteria from reaching the lower parts of the respiratory system. It also causes the linings of the lungs to undergo a process known as metaplasia, where more specialised and refined cells are replaced by less specialised ones. This occurs in the kidneys in some inflammatory conditions,leading to kidneys which are less able to reabsorb waste products and excessive urination, among other things, and can also be seen on the surface of the body in the form of scarring. In the lungs it means ciliary epithelium is replaced by goblet cells, which secrete mucus and don’t clear the lungs. It’s pretty clear that this is bad news from the viewpoint of preventing the development of pneumonia, and it’s pretty obvious that a smoker will be more susceptible to the serious complications of this kind of Coronavirus.

This is where I’m going to have to get tentative. There is a herbal remedy which stimulates the mucociliary escalator: Inula helenium or elecampane. This is a plant in the daisy family after which the Compositae (I’m supposed to say Asteraceae but I won’t) polysaccharide which gives artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes their distinctive flavour known as inulin, is named. Elecampane looks like small sunflowers with finer rays, but then so do some pretty toxic plants and so once again, this is not a recommendation to go out and gather anything. It does seem to me that it’s uncontroversial to suggest that using a mucociliary escalator stimulant is likely to reduce the chances of Covid-19 becoming more serious, but you’d have to try it and it would be best to take it as soon as you start getting symptoms. And of course it might not work.

And this is where I get even more tentative – some might say dubious. There are herbal anti-virals. This makes sense when you consider that like most other species, plants go down with viral infections and can even be killed by them. Why would they not have mechanisms for warding viruses off? A short list would include some of the Echinacea species, Thuja occidentalis, Hypericum perforatum, Armoracia rusticana and Calendula officinalis. Of course the mere fact that they can counteract viruses doesn’t mean they’ll counteract this virus. Coronavirus is distinctive in various ways, for instance in being a single-stranded sense RNA virus with an unusually large genome. One of the plants I’ve mentioned, Armoracia, has a reputation for counteracting influenza viruses, which like Coronavirus are RNA viruses, so it seems possible to me that it would also work against Covid-19, although I don’t know because I don’t know how it works.

So I’m going to say that the way to deal with this would be to take Inula, Armoracia, Hypericum and Thuja as soon as you develop symptoms. Not Calendula because it’s anti-inflammatory and it isn’t clear why NSAIDs appear to make it worse. As in, that’s what I would do. But you should remember that this is not necessarily going to work and that prevention is better than cure. And this approach is more likely to work against other upper respiratory tract infections such as influenza.

Getting back to the question of symptoms, because I develop sympathy symptoms easily I do have some feeling of having symptoms but I would expect most people do right now because the virus is so much in our thoughts. I wrote a massive long paper about sympathy symptoms in the late ‘noughties and I’m confident that that’s what this is and that it’s not an actual viral infection.

So there you go: I was asked to blog about treating Covid-19, so here it is. I am absolutely not saying it would work but it’d be nice if it did wouldn’t it? Even nicer not to get it at all of course.

Secularism And Appropriation

A couple of years ago there was quite a well-known incident where a girl in America wore a Chinese-style prom dress and someone with a Chinese background complained that it was cultural appropriation. However, shortly after that a load of other Chinese people basically said “don’t listen to him, we consider it a compliment that you like our stuff”. This makes me ask whether there’s a kind of inferiority complex thing going on here where Chinese internalise the idea that their culture is not as good as the West in some way and end up being buoyed up by what could be interpreted as a condescending attitude, but I think this overcomplicates things rather.

To some extent I wonder if the very concept of cultural imperialism, as well as cultural appropriation, is distinctively Western. One of the many criticisms of Esperanto is that it has a distinctively European bias. I’ve recently discussed why this might not in fact be so, but it’s undeniable that it gets almost all of its vocabulary from languages originating in Europe which are members of the Indo-European language family. There’s been much concern and discussion of this apparent problem, and it is in fact the case that the Baha’i religion, though strongly supporting the cause of an international auxiliary language, has nonetheless been ambivalent about adopting this language because of the fact that Baha’i itself originated in Iran, to the extent that religions can really be said to originate anywhere. The fact that most Iranians are familiar with Indo-Iranian languages such as Farsi and Pushtu, along with Arabic, means that Esperanto vocab is indeed a bit obscure to them and makes it harder to learn than a hypothetical international language based on, say, Arabic words. However, there’s also considerable enthusiasm for Esperanto in the Far East, where a similar common vocabulary exists based largely on Mandarin, but this doesn’t seem to blunt enthusiasm for this apparently European constructed language, and that makes me wonder if as WASPish people we might be pussyfooting around an issue which is in fact quite imaginary.

Moving to personal experience, several years ago I made a video covering the Indian philosophy of Carvaka, which like much traditional thought in the Subcontinent is atheistic. Indian world views can be atheistic in a number of interestingly non-Western ways, one of which is the belief that the idea of God is unnecessary because karma can explain everything, such as why bad things happen to good people. A South Asia complained to me about talking about the topic of Carvaka at all, because they saw it as their stuff. It seems odd to me that a world view about the nature of reality should be owned by any particular cultural group, even the one which originated. Here in the West, although influenced by, for example, Indian and Greek atomic theory, we have atomic and nuclear physics and quantum mechanics, on whose principles much contemporary technology used all over the planet is based. On the whole we tend to assume atoms, electrons, molecules, radioactivity and the like just exist “out there” in the Universe and are neither culturally constructed nor our property, and in fact when a scientific phenomenon is patented, such as a particular stretch of the human genome or an anti-cancer compound produced by yew trees, it’s a very bad thing although in that situation it isn’t so much cultural heritage as a piece of apparently objective reality being squatted by a particular rich individual or organisation for financial gain.

This also happens with other cultural products, notably Yoga. Bikram Yoga is effectively squatted Yoga. Leaving aside the questionable moral character of Bikram Choudhury in other areas, to me Yoga doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing one can claim intellectual property rights on. Yoga is ultimately part of the structure of reality, in the sense for example that the three strands or gunas which interact to produce the physical Universe as we understand it are part of Yoga. Yoga, like nuclear physics, is just something which is “out there”, or rather “in here”, or maybe both, and may be manifested in terms of asanas, in other words Hatha Yoga, but that’s just the mushroom at the top of a massive subterranean network of delicate fibres which constitute the real body of that fungus, and Bikram Yoga is like a truffle dug up and served in a posh restaurant rather than the whole organism of Yoga itself. Recently when one talks about Yoga, there’s a tendency to be asked which kind of Yoga one does, meaning is it, say, Bikram Yoga, which always seems ridiculously specific and narrowly focussed on some kind of branding exercise. Yoga is a way of life including attitude, meditation, ethics, diet, health and probably a load of other stuff I’ve forgotten to mention, and yes I neglect Yoga but even I can appreciate that. It isn’t something to be packaged, or even, God forbid, practiced as an Olympic sport! That said, I do understand that Indians might be justly proud that they are intimately acquainted with it and wish to succeed in worldly terms when they may have been screwed in so many other ways. Maybe my disdainful attitude to this is a product of my privilege.

I was really into Yoga in my early teens, to the extent that my mother became concerned that I was adopting it as a religion. The usual rejoinder to that is to say that Yoga helps a Christian become a better Christian, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Hindu a better Hindu and so forth, and that if there seems to be a clash between one’s faith and Yoga it’s more likely that one’s approach to one’s faith is where one is going wrong rather than one’s devotion to Yoga. Even so, it is true that Yoga as discovered and developed by Hindus and Buddhists does appear to give it an Indian flavour. However, it’s also the case that outsiders seem to have the bad habit of lumping everything that comes out of India but for Jainism and Buddhism as part of Hinduism. Looking to the West, a parallel would be to say that the mainly Westernised scientific endeavour is distinctive of Christendom. There is an argument for that, since the Abrahamic religions have an idea that God is not part of the creation and imposes rules on that creation, rather akin to scientific laws, so it may be that an Abrahamic background to a culture would tend to push it towards science, but there are plenty of examples of mathematics, medicine and other technology which were first developed completely outside the Western World, such as the compass, the concepts of zero and place value and the use of drugs of non-living origin, to pick just three examples. Maybe it’s the confidence of an imperial legacy which enables us in the European-influenced part of the species to be free and easy with the use of science by other cultures.

I’ve said that Yoga helps make Christians, Hindus or Muslims better adherents to their faiths, but I haven’t mentioned non-religious people, probably because I think it goes without saying that their well-being would be similarly improved by the practice of that discipline. This is like mindfulness to some extent, abstracted from Buddhism but nonetheless easily applicable to mental health issues, or at least so it seems – I don’t have time now to examine the question of whether it’s successful or appropriate in that environment. Although some people do find the idea of doing Yoga a bit iffy in one way or another, for instance the focus on chakras tends to be criticised a lot from a supposedly scientific perspective and similarly many fundamentalist Christians and Muslims are quite strongly opposed to it, and I see those as very similar tendencies incidentally, in general it’s recognised and well backed-up by research that it’s good for you. In other words, the abstraction of Yoga which amounts to Hatha Yoga, Pranayama and the like is widely applicable and doesn’t make you Hindu or even religious. That said, it might be enlightening to bear in mind that the relationship between Hinduism and the culture is more integrated than perhaps Christianity is with its social surroundings, and therefore that Hindus who practice Yoga might be more open to the idea of spreading it far and wide. Not all spiritual traditions are like that, and not all adherents of spiritual traditions necessarily take particularly kindly to what they, perhaps rightly, consider to be other people nicking their stuff and playing with it.

Two types of head adornment come to mind at this point: the war bonnet and dreadlocks.

SPOILERS FOR WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE FOLLOW.

The war bonnet is the so-called “Indian headdress” used in a kind of Black And White Minstrelly way when people “dress up” as “Red Indians”. There used to be a character in the paranormal horror comedy podcast series ‘Welcome To Night Vale’ called the Apache Tracker, who was a white man of Eastern European lineage who wore a cartoonishly inappropriate and offensive Native American headdress. He was considered a pariah by the whole town because his attire was seen as shockingly racist. Later on, after having vanished for several months, he reappears transformed into an authentic Native American who can only speak Russian, and is still considered a racist git. He then saves a major character’s life while sacrificing his own and is buried out in the desert with an monument recognising his bravery which, however, no-one will see because it’s in the middle of nowhere, due to the ambivalence everyone feels towards an embarrassingly racist hero. The question has arisen among fans of the podcast of whether it’s appropriate to cosplay (dress up as) the Apache Tracker, and the answer is of course no, because it is clearly racist to do so except for a few individuals who have earnt that privilege within their own culture. This is because a feathered war bonnet is roughly analogous to the medal system we have in the military, feathers being earned only for acts of heroism. Aside from the question of ethnicity, wearing a war bonnet without being considered to have earned it is inappropriate and insulting. Its symbolism as applying vaguely to indigenous North Americans is also offensive as it only exists as a cultural artifact for the indigenous people of the North American plains and praries. As Europeans, we have the privilege of being ignorant of causing offence in this respect, but to return to the Black And White Minstrel example, at least blackface would be seen as unacceptable and deeply racist nowadays, and rightly so.

The other example is of course dreadlocks, and here I have a personal issue. In RastafarIanism, dreadlocks symbolise the Lion of Judah, based on a Bible verse, and it’s often seen as offensive when white people adopt them, which apparently takes quite a lot of effort. I do not personally have dreadlocks right now and have no intention of acquiring them, but to a limited extent, because I have what’s sometimes referred to as “3B hair”, due I suspect to my Berber ancestry, my hair will kind of dread if left to itself, though only very slightly. I don’t have any control over my genes or ancestry of course, and my rather fair skin, conferred by my Q-Celtic speaking ancestors who made a much bigger contribution to my DNA, I think makes it basically inappropriate to try to cultivate them. The Celts did in fact seem to have dreadlocks themselves according to Roman writers in antiquity, but that raises the whole morass of issues about whether being Celtic even counts as an ethnicity as opposed to just being “not-we” in some sense. I do, however, have considerable sympathy with the idea that I shouldn’t interfere with what God has made grow out of my scalp, which is why I didn’t have a haircut for a quarter of a century.

Now I said God. I could’ve worded that in another way. I could, for example, have made an appeal to nature, saying that there must be some kind of biological function to having head hair like this, and to having the usual human situation of hair which grows very long on the head but not in most other places on the body. For instance, maybe it protects the scalp from skin cancer. I don’t know. Or, I could just couch the choice of barnet in terms of personal taste: I just prefer my hair that way. But it is important to note that it does seem to come across as quite offensive to some Black people to try to get one’s hair to dread if one is not oneself Black, partly because of the badge of oppression and means of spiritual and cultural expression it has become.

I will now appear to go off on a tangent.

There’s this thing “out there” called the Qabbalah. I’m probably not telling you anything new when I say it’s centred around a diagram of ten spheres referred to as “sephiroth” joined together by a series of paths. It has similarities to chakras and correspondences are easy to establish between the two systems. The bottom seven sephiroth are Malkuth (Kingdom), Yesod (Foundation), Netzach (Eternity), Hod (Glory), Tiph’ereth (compassion), Gevurah (Strength) and Chesed (loving-kindness). I recently discovered that each of these can be linked to the Seven Laws of Noah, in order establishing courts of justice, chastity/sexual fidelity, non-stealing, not eating the limb of a living animal, not murdering another human, not blaspheming and unitarianism, although right now I can’t perceive if I’ve got those in the right order. Now I don’t accept Noachidism, which is an Orthodox Jewish idea of how Gentiles are told to behave, primarily because I perceive it as homophobic and placing rather too much trust in the actions of government per se, but I have seen an interesting and helpful connection between these. Besides this, it should also be said that the Qabbalah is meant to be reserved to men over the age of forty, so the fact that I’ve known about this at all might be seen as outrageous. That said, the general structure of the Tree Of Life does seem to be useful although I have my doubts.

This brings me to my main point, which will probably end up being expressed rather briefly. As you’ll probably be aware, Sarada and I have decided to observe, to some extent, the Jewish Sabbath. Many religious Jews and probably also secular ones consider this to be cultural appropriation and completely unacceptable. Other people find it odd to do this because they are themselves atheists. But the fact is that observing the Sabbath, to the extent that we do (there are plenty of things we don’t do of course), is spiritually efficacious in a similar manner to practicing Yoga, and the idea that we shouldn’t be doing this because it’s sacrosanct and reserved for observant Jews, for either religious or ethnic reasons, seems to me to be a needlessly self-sabotaging act. We should all be improving ourselves and making the world a better place for each other, theist or not, and whereas the Sabbath is practiced with religious and theistic trappings, just as Yoga can be practiced outside Hinduism and even by entirely non-religious people, so can the Sabbath be observed by non-Jews, and in fact if we choose to do it, we should observe it, because even for an atheist Gentile it would help them, for example, to become less materialistic, less greedy, more thoughtful, more emotionally bonded to loved ones, and crucially (forgive the pun) more welcoming to the Other in our midst. We all have a spiritual side although we may not call it that, and it’s always good to nurture and more fully express that side, and for us, just as it may mean doing Yoga, it means observing the Sabbath. The Sabbath is not a war bonnet.

The Start And The End Of The World As We Know It

I’m not sure how useful this post is going to be. It is kind of about Coronavirus but may not help with the current situation concerning Covid-19, which would be more usefully addressed by looking at the specific immune response. Really it’s more about context.

Coronavirus is not one thing. It’s also usually a normal and fairly benign virus which we’ve probably all had at some time in our lives. Something like one common cold out of five is associated with a Coronavirus. Note the capital letter, indicating that it seems to be a genus. It’s more a genus than a species, although being a virus it may not be straightforward to work out the level of the taxon. Species are popularly defined as breeding populations of organisms. Viruses may not even be organisms so putting them in species and genera boxes may not be meaningful in the usual biological sense, and since no sexual reproduction takes place among these viruses (or I assume any others), that definition of species probably isn’t helpful even if they are considered alive.

Just to get briefly into the classification of viruses, the Baltimore system divides them into seven classes based on their relationship with messenger RNA transcription. Some viruses are rather like animal cells in the sense that they have one double strand of DNA that writes itself into the system in a cell which is then involved in the machinery within that cell for manufacturing the usual products of that cell, and in this case is parasitic in the sense that it hijacks that process to produce more of itself. This involves the production of transfer and messenger RNA in a journey ending in a ribosome producing the necessary proteins from which the next generation of viruses is assembled. However, viruses lack the usual bits of equipment available in cells required to keep life going and have to use other cells’ bits. Some viruses don’t go as far as having actual DNA and just have RNA which is used more directly. Animal viruses can be in any of the Baltimore classes but other kingdoms are often only ever infected by a subset of those classes, such as the archaea which are probably the oldest surviving kingdom of intact organisms on Earth, or the bacteria. This is at odds with what I learned about viruses in the early ’70s, which was that plant viruses were RNA and animal viruses DNA, so I assume that was either wrong for the science at the time or discoveries have been made since then which proved that wrong. Another wrong piece of info I learned, this time in the 1990s, was that viruses only infected bacteria, flowering plants, arthropods and chordates. This is also not true and it’s a bit annoying that I was told this. Incidentally, chordates include most of the organisms popularly referred to as “animals” such as birds and mammals, fish and sea squirts etc, and arthropods are insects, arachnids, crustaceans and so on.

DNA viruses can have large or small genomes, or rather, their genomes have a wide range of different sizes. RNA viruses tend to have smaller genomes, but Coronaviruses are unusual because they have the largest of all viral genomes at, I think, 30kb. The size of genomes is measured rather like computer memory as kilobases, megabases and so forth, which are counts of the number of what would be rungs on the DNA double helix ladder. The actual information carried by a single DNA base and its companion would ideally be equivalent to two bits of computer data but in practice a lot of redundancy is built into the system and the information is organised into three-base codons, each corresponding to a specific type of amino acid, but some acids can be produced by more than one codon. Some codons also serve as “punctuation”, like full stops. There are twenty-five different “signals” stored on these three-base codon sets, so in fact a three-base group amounts to somewhere between four and five bits of digital data even though the maximum possible data stored per codon is theoretically six bits. This redundancy presumably reduces the chance of errors in transcription and damage caused by mutations undergone by single base pairs. These will tend to be screened out if they occur on the third base pair of a codon, with a few exceptions. A few amino acids, such as arginine, are encoded by just one codon. Also, not all amino acids in a living organism are encoded at all by this system: levothyroxine, the thyroid hormone, for example, is just manufactured by the machinery within the cell’s cytoplasm with no codon for it specifically on the DNA, and a couple of selenium- and tellurium-based amino acids are sort of encoded but unusually, and there are plenty of examples of this, another one being the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid, which signals on the “calming” side of the autonomic nervous system in humans.

All living species, not counting viruses as living because they can’t function outside living systems, use DNA to store their genomes. Some viruses, though, use RNA instead, another example being the polio virus. RNA is an inferior medium for genome storage compared to DNA for at least two reasons. One is that it mutates more quickly than DNA, and another is that it tends to separate spontaneously, so it’s a bit like the wax cylinder stage of sound recording compared to more recent media in that it’s a bit primitive and cruddy. The fact that it mutates a lot means that most RNA genomes need to be smaller than DNA ones so they aren’t destroyed pretty quickly by lethal mutations. The fewer genes the better really. This is what makes Coronavirus odd.

The situation we see nowadays, with all actual organisms using DNA for their genes and a number of viruses using RNA instead, suggests something about the first life on this planet which is quite hard to quantify. It’s pretty evident that tracking back a population it will generally have found either to have branched a lot until it stems from a single ancestor, or, if reproduction is sexual then you get the “two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents” situation until the number of ancestors an individual member of a species appears to have is greater than the total population of that species back then because increasing numbers of ancestors occupy more than one place on the family tree. On the whole, a healthy species which reproduces solely sexually will have a fairly large gene pool to draw on and low population species of this kind will usually be on their way out because there will be too many genetic defects. This applies, for example, to the last few mammoths, who lived on an island off Siberia in the Arctic Ocean and had all sorts of major health problems because there were so few of them and they were all kind of mating with their cousins. It also means, incidentally, that in all probability left to themselves the most intelligent human population on the planet would be those of recent sub-Saharan Afrikan descent because that population is the most genetically diverse. Anyway, a species which only reproduces asexually, for instance amoebae splitting in two, has an easily-visualised family tree which just consists of a series of doubling branches stretching back over, in the case of that particular kind of species, probably more than an aeon. Humans, although they have the reverse branching feature, will also have a gradually growing “cone” of population where more and more of the ancestors turn out to be the same people, and of course this implies that when a sexually reproducing species appears it must be a fairly gradual process involving a whole population changing into a form where it wouldn’t be able to breed with its ancestors. For humans, one important feature of the impossibility of having children with other apes, as well as the obvious social taboo and wisdom of disgust we experience at the idea, is that two of our pairs of chromosomes have merged, meaning that chimpanzees and bonobos have four dozen chromosomes but we only have forty-six, so our gametes, which only carry one of each pair, can’t merge neatly.

In each case we get a branching family tree stretching into the future, and of course if you go far enough back you reach an individual organism referred to as the “LUCA” – the Last Universal Common Ancestor, granny of us all, a microscopic bacterium-like individual who lived somewhere between 3.48 and 4.28 aeons (an aeon is a thousand million years) ago in the Palaeo-Archaean Period, although a molecular clock model, relying on an estimate of how fast DNA changes, places it a little earlier shortly after the formation of the planet 4.6 aeons back. This organism had a DNA genome and therefore all the RNA viruses are likely to originate from ancestors which were around before it existed. This means those viruses must be particularly distant relatives and also particularly ancient, which leaves us with a quandary: if viruses are like the first biological things on this planet, how can they have existed in that form given that they’re all parasitic on organisms? The answer seems to be twofold.

One is that RNA viruses are much reduced parasitic forms of non-parasitic ancestors, which were more like bacteria. Looking at animals who are parasitic today, or plants for that matter, you see a general reduction in organs compared to their free-living relatives. Tapeworms are blind and have no internal digestive systems but their relatives the planarians have proper digestive systems and eyes which see. Tapeworms absorb digested food from their environment directly through their skins, since their environment is a digestive system already. Viruses are the same. They’re the ultimate parasites. Just as a tapeworm can dispense with her/his (one end is female, the other male and they mate with themselves) digestive system and most of the sense organs, a virus can get rid of practically all the machinery of the cell it used to be and just rely on another cell to do its living for it. Prior to that, it would’ve been a larger infective agent which probably resembled a bacterium or archaean more closely, except that its genome was made of RNA and consisted of fragments rather than the large pieces all organisms have today.

DNA viruses come in when considering the origin of DNA-based organisms such as archaeans, bacteria and their descendants, including ourselves, other animals and plants. These are thought to have started off as RNA-based organisms who were infected by the innovative DNA viruses and had DNA-based genes transcribed into their genomes until they consisted entirely of viral DNA, but functioning in cells as they’re understood today. We are all basically really, really ill, in a sense – everything we do and are is the result of devastating DNA viral infections in the Archaean Period. By the way, I will explain some of the words I’m using at the end. Therefore the world of life before the LUCA was one with primitive bacteria-like organisms who had bits of RNA floating around separately inside them carrying their genes. Some of these became parasites and are the ancestors of, for example, Coronaviruses, and some of those viruses evolved DNA instead of RNA because it’s a more reliable storage medium for genes, and those viruses then infected the microbes who were left with the RNA genes, making them into DNA microbes and ultimately giving rise to the LUCA.

Hence if we think of this particular Coronavirus as marking the end of the world, which I don’t think it is – I’m envisaging it as roughly as serious as the 1918 Spanish ‘flu epidemic though of course I may be wrong – it has a kind of neat symmetry to it. The world started off with RNA life forms, then DNA life forms evolved via viruses, leading to bacteria, archaea, plants and animals, including humans, then an RNA virus takes out the humans (I hope not) and maybe sometime way down the line in the future, I wonder if RNA viruses will take out all life and things will go back to how they were in the beginning. But this is not the end, even if the human race were wiped out completely and I don’t think it will be.

Clearing up a couple of words I’ve used.

The Archaean Eon is the second geological period in this planet’s history. The formation of Earth itself is referred to as the Hadean Eon and carbon-based minerals have been found which indicate that they were the results of biological activity. The Archaean is immediately after that, lasting from four to two and a half aeons (note the different spelling) ago. The incidents referred to, the “RNA World”, as it’s known, would’ve been happening in the Hadean and Eo-Archaean, i.e. the beginning of the Archaean.

As for the similarly-named Archaea, these are one of the three great domains of life. The plant, animal and fungal kingdoms, among other organisms less well-known, are the Eukarya, which are organisms consisting of cells with separate nuclei and cytoplasm. The bacteria are the third group and superficially resemble the Archaea. Through a microscope Archaea will tend to look like little rods or spheres almost indistinguishable from many bacteria, but their biochemistry is very different, they’re never involved in disease processes and they tend to engage directly with non-living substances to survive, and also tend to thrive in extreme conditions which would kill other living things native to this planet today, such as boiling water, extremely acidic environments or very salty or cold ones. However, there are also plenty of Archaea just hanging out in what we’d think of as fairly comfortable conditions such as our own digestive systems, the upper layers of the ocean and the soil.

I’d like to finish with something of an apology. I realise this is all kind of tangential to the pandemic situation but unfortunately the “muse”, as it were, took me in this direction today and I’m trying to get to grips with the other thing but it’s proving to be a bit complicated. I hope the next post will be more relevant.

God Told Me To Do It

People who are shall we say enmeshed in certain spiritual traditions are wont to express themselves using the accoûtrements of their faiths whether or not the establishment figures associated with those traditions would officially sanction what they’re doing. Also, many people hailing from Christendom will tend to take the name of the Lord in vain, as the phrase has it, regardless of their belief system. My father, for example, is a lifelong atheist and doesn’t really swear at all nowadays, but when he used words Christians would regard as blasphemous he would’ve said something like “God almighty”. It doesn’t mean someone believes in God, just that they have picked up “swearing” from other people who, if you trace it far enough back, will ultimately include a theistic majority. This has certain consequences.

Rather than tell all about people I know personally, I’m going to use Ian McEwan’s novel ‘Enduring Love’ as an example of what I’m going to say next. This novel’s central character attempts to rescue a child in a runaway hot air balloon with some random bystanders. One of the other people hanging onto the ropes doesn’t let go until the balloon is so high that the impact of his fall kills him. One of the other adults involved develops limerence for him in spite of not being romantically or sexually drawn to men and claims that it’s God’s will that they be together despite not being religious or theistic. This is not unusual, for someone fitting the criteria for a psychotic disorder to attribute their motives to God, whether or not they have any history of being religious.

Moving to the familiar Islamophobic and racist stereotype of a heavy-handed miscreant shouting “Allahu Aqbar” before committing a violent atrocity, it can be clearly understood that such a person is merely expressing the fact of their religious background and is not representative of Islam any more than McEwan’s stalker would be of Christianity. I see such behaviour as manifesting mental illness and only being connected to Islam through circumstances. This is not to say that there aren’t religious leaders or other figures who exhort violence, but this is widely distributed across many spiritual traditions, as is pacifism. Having said that, there’s little doubt in my mind that a nominally Christian anti-abortionist shooting a doctor outside a clinic believes herself to be doing God’s will – that “God told me to do it”.

Within many religious groups such as churches, there just will be people who have mental health issues. Certain anti-religious people would go further than that and claim that by definition any theistic religious group is psychotic because they’re clearly delusional. However, within such a community most people would be able to distinguish between people who are just the rank and file in the pews, as it were, and those who are diagnosable as psychotic. Then again, there are people who are simply mistaken. For instance, a particular person may believe that God is telling them to go to a neighbourhood where there aren’t many churches and establish one, but if it turns out that most of the congregation at such an establishment isn’t local despite apparently appropriate processes going on to bring them there, it seems probable that they’re not being called to do that. That doesn’t mean they’re insane. It does probably mean they’re delusional, but delusions are a normal part of life. A similar example might be a manager working in a marketing department who believes her employer will sell more products if high pressure sales techniques are employed, and continues to do so after a long period where this hasn’t succeeded. This too is delusional – it might even be the same person – but that isn’t in itself a sign of psychosis.

We all have delusions. There’s a sense in which there are no solid objects, because the apparent rigidity of a particular item is in fact caused by the mutual repulsion of electrons in it and the other bodies approaching it. In fact it consists almost entirely of empty space, insofar as space is empty. Generally we know this but continue to ignore it since it has little impact on our lives, but there will inevitably be plenty of people who are unable to accept that solidity is illusory in spite of all the evidence brought to bear on the matter, and those people would have that delusion. But it’s a fact of life. It isn’t something which ought to lead to someone having therapy or medication to address the “problem”. Likewise, high pressure saleswoman and church planter mentioned in the previous paragraph may have more consequential delusions which by definition persist in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary and even have considerable impact on their and others’ lives, but even they don’t really count as psychotic. Likewise, within a church there may be people who make quite remarkable claims very poorly supported, and some of those would match the criteria for a diagnosis of some kind. On the whole a parishioner claiming alternately that there is no God and that they are God themselves at intervals of a few minutes very probably is mentally ill, to pick one example in my experience. Then again it’s important not to miss the deeper significance of that claim to the person concerned or to those who hear him. Christians are charged to treat everyone as if they’re Christ, i.e. God according to standard Christian belief, and Quakers recognise the divine spark in us all. Given that, maybe the more problematic part of this man’s behaviour is when he claims there is no God. The rest of the time he’s right, in a sense: he really is God. So is everyone else though, in that sense. He might disagree with that bit.

One factor taken into consideration by psychiatrists when addressing the question of delusion is whether the person concerned is behaving unusually in the context of their own cultural background. I think it was the Aztecs who would welcome an honoured visitor to their homes by killing and cooking their dog, partly because dogs were food animals to them I presume. If this happened in an Anglo-Saxon Protestant community, this would probably be considered unusual and could possibly lead to being sectioned. A more subtle example turns up in the distinctly dodgy ‘Fatal Attraction’, where a stalker kills and boils the household rabbit. Shearing the film of its questionable sexual politics, it remains an interesting example of psychotic behaviour. Rabbits are a normal part of some Britons’ diets. A family might even keep rabbits for the ultimate purposes of killing and eating them, and like many species it’s fairly common for them to eat their own children under stress. Even so, breaking into a hutch and putting the inmate in a saucepan on a hob when the rabbit has been construed as a companion animal by the household is unusual and may lead to police or medical action.

Nonetheless I’m in no doubt that right now God is telling me to study the Talmud. This is in spite of me not being remotely Jewish or interested in conversion to Judaism, as I’ve said before. I also feel that since I began the current cycle of Daf Yomi (a seven and a half year study cycle of the Talmud Bavli covering one double page (Daf) per day (Yom)) with a large number of other people who are, admittedly, mainly Jewish, further events have confirmed that I’ve made the right decision. One of these is Sarada’s interest in the National Day of Unplugging, an annual digital detox which took place last Friday and Saturday from sunset to sunset. This is linked to a more widespread campaign called the Sabbath Manifesto, whose principles are as follows:

Avoid technology.
Connect with loved ones.
Nurture your health.
Get outside.
Avoid commerce.
Light candles.
Drink wine.
Eat bread.
Find silence.
Give back.

A friend pointed out that the time period involved in doing this happened to match the Sabbath, something which I hadn’t noticed until they mentioned it. Add to this the fact that Daf Yomi happened to start the Shabbat section on the same day and I’m given pause for thought on the question of divine intervention, and in fact yes, I do believe that this confirms that God is telling me to do this. Daf Yomi is not aligned in such a way that Shabbat will start to be studied on the Sabbath as far as I can tell. Nonetheless this apparent fact does present me with a problem.

There are respected authorities within Orthodox Judaism who claim quite emphatically that Gentiles must not study the parts of the Talmud or Torah which don’t cover the Seven Laws Of Noah. These are the seven principles seen as being handed down to Noah and his descendants after the Flood and are of course much more limited than the 613 commandments of the Torah and their further exposition in the Talmud. In fact so strongly do some people feel about this that it’s said that a Gentile who studies the Talmud is worthy of death. One concern in particular is the issue of picking and choosing from the Torah and through doing so, kind of making up one’s own religion, and I can definitely see that point although I would also say that it isn’t an issue confined just to non-Jews studying the Torah. And looking at that list, although I would argue with some points as stated such as drinking wine, of which I don’t really approve and don’t consider it to be very inclusive of, for example, recovering alcoholics as stated (in fact it can be broadened), I can certainly see the spiritual efficacy of doing all of those things, and it is in fact being emphatically (there’s that word again) recommended for everyone and not just religious Jews. Likewise the pursuit of Daf Yomi by non-Jews is also recommended by some religious Jews, presumably if one feels called to do so.

The Torah itself gives examples of people who were called to do seemingly absurd and impossible things which those around them would’ve condemned or seen as eccentric. Just to interject a note here: there’s no need to take these literally for them to work as examples of this. God told Noah to build the Ark, Abraham to sacrifice his firstborn son and Jonah to preach to the Ninevites. This is what God does. Moreover, it’s possible to look past the issue, approach it psychiatrically and point out that it’s currently impractical for me to attend a place of worship, so it shouldn’t be surprising if my spiritual impulses become manifest in an unusual way, which serves a purpose in my spiritual life. It is also feasible, as is claimed by some religious Jews, that God calls Gentiles to do things other than what the Jews are called to do, just as they would claim the Kohanim are called to avoid dead bodies but nonetheless funeral customs are required, or that women and men are charged to behave differently (for instance women are not expected to follow time-constrained mitzvot). I would naturally dispute this last one on the grounds of sexism, but I am of course an outsider.

Nonetheless I’m placed in a difficult position. I “know” that God is telling me to study the Talmud, and I’m aware that following much of what is alleged, for example by Maimonides, to be out of bounds to Gentiles is what God’s telling me to do, meaning that there’s an implicit criticism in my behaviour of those who claim that we’re forbidden to do this. Nonetheless I don’t feel any doubt at all that God is, for whatever reason, telling me to do this, and it also seems clear to me that, for example, following the Sabbath to some extent both draws me closer to God and helps me to serve others in my world, and to be a better person as it were. So why should I ignore what God’s telling me? Why should I pull away from God? Why should I disobey God’s command to me to study the Talmud? Of course, such certainty may seem frightening and disturbing, and perhaps insane, to many, but much of what God tells people to do just is like that. In the end, for whatever reason, I’m compelled to do this because God is telling me to do it, for the sake of my relationship with the divine, the Creation and the creatures within it. Yes it’s clear that much Jewish opinion is completely hostile to this decision, but it isn’t my choice but God’s, and I would hope that was food for thought for those who would condemn me.

And just to finish, no, I am absolutely neither ethnically nor culturally Jewish. I do have Jewish ancestry through my father’s side, very very remotely, and I have Jewish relatives by marriage, but that isn’t why I’m doing this and I’m not attempting to appropriate Jewish culture or play at being Jewish in a white person’s dreadlocks kind of way. God is telling me to do this. I don’t know why, but I can assure you it’s true, and that claim doesn’t make me mad.

Coronavirus And Living With Uncertainty

A Coronavirus strain is currently making itself known in the human population ofthe planet. It is of course entirely unclear what the risk is to most of thepopulation, but this is probably because it’s equally unclear to the experts.Therefore we are all having to live with uncertainty right now. I can relate to the need for certainty, to be sure, but like all people I’m used to particular things which I know I can’t be sure about nowadays. For instance, although I’ve been caring for my father for something like four years now, I don’t know how long this will go on for or really what will happen after his death, or after I stop doing so because, say, it becomes impractical to do so. I managed to persuade myself a few days ago that I had a mild case of this disease, which is unusual for me as I’m usually the opposite of a hypochondriac. My motive for this belief is that I want certainty, and I want it to be out of way so I can function socially as normal. It’s a manifestation of my tendency to meet trouble halfway. It does make sense to plan and it gives one a sense of agency, and I am in fact doing this, but we need to expect the unexpected. All of us need to do that.

One of the first things I learnt in clinical practice was that textbook cases of chronic illness are the exception rather than the rule, leading me to the opinion that it’s actually quite surprising that there seem to be such things as specific diseases at all as opposed to people’s bodies just doing a load ofarbitrary stuff. It’s also apparent that rare diseases are simple and common diseases are complex. This might. though, merely be apparent rather than actual because it could just reflect either the amount of research that is conducted into common diseases compared to rare ones or the way medical education is organised. It may be deemed less important to understand a mucopolysaccharoidosis than diabetes mellitus for example.

This can be applied to the Covid-19 situation. People infected by the virus clearly do respond in various ways in a currently fairly unpredictable manner.It may be relatively mild, involving a feeling of being vaguely under theweather, or it may be fatal to even pretty healthy people in the prime of life.More predictably, people with serious chronic conditions such as diabetes mellitus are quite likely to die, as are the elderly, and these two facts inject a bit of uncertainty into my own life due to my status as a carer. Our problem is that we just don’t know.

One thing I want to make clear about Covid-19 is that although Coronavirus is the genus of virus (not sure which level of taxon it is but I think it is a genus rather than a family, order or something else), there are countless varieties of that virus. 10-30% of cases of the common cold are associated witha Coronavirus and SARS is another example, and there are a couple of other known infections with which it’s involved such as MERS, a Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome passed on by camel milk. The reason it’s called Coronavirus is that electron micrographs show a circular shape with a ring of club-shaped projections around the outside, which makes it look like a crown. In fact it’s more like a grain of pollen in shape, being spherical and studded with the projections imaged through those microscopes. It has some similarities with the polio virus, and is an encapsulated virus. This means it has a layer of oily substance surrounding it on the surface like a cell membrane withoutwhich it can’t function. This is why soap and water are effective atneutralising it: they remove this layer by pulling it off ino micelles, i.e.the little globules of fat and oil which soap creates when it cleans. Many other viruses are not like this. Coronavirus is a single-strand positive sense RNA virus. This probably needs explaining. Animals store their genes in double strands of DNA, only one side of which is transcribed when the gene is active. This side is called the “sense” side, and the other side is called the “antisense” side. Before a gene can become active, its sense side needs to be copied onto another nucleic acid called RNA which then makes its way out into the main body of the cell and is converted to a protein by “playback heads” called ribosomes. Because Coronavirus is both sense and single-stranded RNA, it can act immediately on the machinery of the cell and reproduce itself without writing itself onto the host’s DNA as many other viruses do (HIV being one example), and I’m guessing that this gives it a shorter incubation period and possibly also gives the illnesses with which it’s associated a single phase, unlike many other viral diseases which have a longer incubation period followed by two phases, one non-specific and connected to the virus reproducing within cells and the othermore distinctive and associated with the virus making its way out of the cells into the bloodstream and elsewhere. This direct use of RNA may be an example of a survivor from an initial “RNA World” before the appearance of DNA, where a simpler system of inheritance with fewer stages existed alone, perhaps more than four thousand million years ago.

This particular virus is manufactured via the Golgi apparatus, whose function is to coat protein in globules of oil, so clearly this is what makes the encapsulated virus particles. The finished product is around one hundred and fifty nanometres in diameter and therefore a mask which excludes them would have to have pores that size or smaller.

A wide range of animals can be affected by the virus and therefore it was initially thought that Covid-19 was associated with pangolin disease because the genes seemed to have a lot in common with the pangolin Coronavirus. Pangolins are scaly “anteaters” who are in fact fairly closely related to carnivores such as weasels, walruses and cats. They remind me of pine cones and are used in traditional Chinese medicine. They’re also seriously endangered and are tradedinternationally although this is illegal. It would have been particularly annoying if Covid-19 had been caused by that. More recently, however, it appears that it’s more to do with civets, who are often described as cats but are in fact viverids, closely related to meerkats and known partly for kopi luwak, an expensive strain of coffee made from beans found in their droppings. One thing which is fairly clear is the origin of the strain from a “wet market” in Wuhan, i.e. a market used to trade living animals. It follows from that thatin a vegan world, Covid-19 would never have happened, and it’s also notable thatthe rules of kashrut found in Judaism would have prevented it too. It’stherefore deeply ironic that some conspiracy theorists have come up with ananti-Semitic hypothesis of its origin, though not surprising, sadly. In fact conspiracy theories are rife because we want to fill the uncertainty in with our own projections in a kind of mass confabulationary exercise.

One of the problems with containing the pandemic is paradoxically the lack of virulence in most people. If this virus had killed people off rapidly it would’ve had less chance to spread. What it in fact seems to do is infect a number of other people before it becomes apparent. However, there may be two strains, one more virulent than the other, and the doctor in his thirties who died may, I imagine, have ended up with the more serious version. If that’s true, this variety could be confined to the Far East.

Like the Dunning-Kruger Effect, it’s possible for polarised opinions to develop on the nature of the risk each of whose adherents are able to use a pathologising psychological narrative of the other. One side could see it either as an unjustified moral panic, perhaps even deliberately planned to distract from other issues. The other could see the situation as played down to avoid panic, like the idea that if an asteroid really was headed for us and about to wipe out all life on this planet, we wouldn’t be told. There’s merit in both these perspectives. The first reminds me of the Mount St Helens eruption and is known as “normality bias”. Normality, or “normalcy” for some reason, bias is the tendency for people to believe that things will carry on as they always have and leads to failure to prepare for potential disasters. When Mount St Helens erupted four decades ago, a number of people decided not to move out of their homes because they were unable to believe that the catastrophe was likely, and consequently died. The trouble with applying this to the Covid-19 situation is that we don’t know how serious the threat is. There may not be a group of people with an accurate estimation of how bad it could be. At the other end of the scale are people who think this is the end of our existence as a species. This too seems out of proportion. Considering that the human race survived the Black Death, it seems unlikely that this will wipe us all out. It is true that certain governmental measures are likely to be taken because of this situation, such as the army stepping in to replace the police and the banning of large-scale public gatherings which it must be at least tempting for Boris to put in place, and that we could get used to that and become more accepting of it being imposed for less justifiable reasons. All that can be said about that is that it would be convenient. Entertaining the idea that the Coronavirus is in fact a bioweapon of some kind may be tempting as a way of anchoring its occurrence in something that seems real, but just because the idea appeals doesn’t mean we should conclude that it’s true. It may be a dangerous distraction to attempt to theorise.

All I can say really is this. Like most people who spend a lot of time with groups of children, I used to get several colds a year, particularly in the winter. One year I decided I wouldn’t touch any mucus membrane with my hands unless I’d first washed them thoroughly, and that whole year, compared to the year before, I didn’t get a single cold. Bearing in mind that some Coronaviri actually are cold viri, it’s probably worthwhile to do that. Having said that, I’ll probably keel over and die in a couple of weeks anyway because of sod’s law, but at least I’ve put that out there.