Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue #156                                                  April 20, 2004
                 A Publication of The Nature Institute
           Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (

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Quotes and Provocations
   Tales of Wholeness: Television, Antidepressants, and Junk Food
   Medicine and the Environment
   Re-engineering the Personal Resume
   More on the Columbia Monkeys
   Desperate Choices


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                         QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS

Tales of Wholeness

Three news items bearing in different ways on the use of psychotropic
drugs in treating children:

** For children at ages 1 and 3, every hour per day spent watching
television increases the risk of attention deficit problems (as measured
at age 7) by about 10 percent.  That's the conclusion of new research
reported in the April issue of Pediatrics.  Noting that previous studies
have documented the "deleterious consequences of excessive television
viewing, including violent behavior and obesity", the researchers now
suggest that we should add another concern:  "young children's exposure to
television as a medium during formative years of brain development" may
increase their "subsequent risk of developing ADHD" (Attention Deficit /
Hyperactivity Disorder].

This report is being widely hailed as significant.  The odd thing, it
seems to me, is that the research took so long to happen, given the level
of social concern about ADHD and given the intuitive obviousness of a link
between television and the disorder.  (The study did not require several
years to conduct; it was based on an already-existing data set known as
the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.)  An editorial in Pediatrics
called the study "important and long overdue".

** A study reported in the April 10 issue of the British Medical Journal
strongly discourages the prescription of antidepressants (Prozac, Zoloft,
Paxil) for patients under eighteen.  The researchers concluded that the
marginal benefits of the drugs are not worth the risks posed by the side
effects.  As the editors of the journal summarized the matter:

   When used in children, antidepressants carry a high risk of side
   effects and limited benefits, and their use cannot be recommended.
   [The researchers] reviewed the seven randomised controlled trials
   analysing newer antidepressants, and found that reporting of results
   was often misleading, downplaying serious adverse effects and
   overstating benefits; the studies' methods were questionable, and
   placebo effects may have played a significant part in the final
   findings.  Pharmaceutical companies funded at least three of the four
   major trials, which may be failing to disclose increased suicidal
   activity related to the use of these drugs.  Biased reporting and
   overconfident recommendations may be misleading doctors, patients, and
   families, say the authors.

A New York Times report on the research added this:

   "If the drugs were highly advantageous over placebo, then you'd live
   with the risks," Jon Jureidini, a child psychiatrist in Adelaide and
   the study's lead author, said in an interview.  "If the drugs were
   completely safe, then you might argue that there's nothing wrong with
   giving something that's only slightly better than a placebo."  However,
   Dr. Jureidini said, neither is true, so antidepressants should not be
   prescribed for children and adolescents except in extreme
   circumstances.  (April 9, 2004)

This, of course, is just one more salvo in the back-and-forth battle
between proponents and opponents of antidepressant prescriptions for
children.  Dr. Graham Emslie, a University of Texas psychiatry professor
(and consultant to pharmaceutical companies), responded to the new study
by saying, "I wish the effect of these drugs was bigger, but at least
there's some effect.  Some of these kids are severely depressed and we've
got to do something".

Which hardly helps us decide what we should do, or what risks we should
consider acceptable.  The argument of the researchers writing in the
British Medical Journal is precisely that, so far as these antidepressants
are concerned, the risks are not worth the benefits.

** On an entirely different front:  several years ago the Appleton Central
Alternative High School in Wisconsin, cooperating with a local bakery
called Natural Ovens, began offering students free, fruit-based drinks and
whole-grain bagels every morning.  These replaced their traditional diet
of caffeinated soda, candy and toaster pastries.  Encouraged by the
results, the school built a kitchen and hired two cooks.  So now lunch
includes not only meat (often poultry or fish) but also fruits and
vegetables, whole-grain breads, and a fifteen-item salad bar.

Appleton is a high school for at-risk students with truancy, discipline,
and academic-credit problems.  While so far as I know there has been no
formal study of the nutrition program, the testimony from school staff (as
reported in the Pure Facts newsletter, Oct., 2002) is remarkable:

Mary Bruyette, a teacher:  "If you've been guzzling Mountain Dew and
eating chips and you're flying all over the place, I don't think you're
going to pick up a whole lot in class".  She goes on to say, "Our biggest
problems now at the school are parking in the parking lot and student
tardiness.  I don't have the disruptions in class or the difficulties with
student behavior that I experienced before we started the food program".

Deb Larson, a school counselor:  "I don't have the angry outbursts, so
instead we get to deal with the real issues that are underlying and
causing some of the problems in the kids' lives".

Dr. Thomas Scullen, the school district's superintendent:  "We have kids
who have a lot of problems and [yet we] got through the whole last year
without an expulsion.  Drop-outs dropped to non-existent.  Kids came to
school.  They have learned that with healthier foods it's going to make
them a better person.  It keeps them more focused and makes them happier".

Currently the entire school district of 15,000 students is converting to
the new program.  Says Scullen, "The program will sell itself on its own
merits, given the time".  And Appleton principal LuAnn Coenen adds, "I
can't buy the argument that it's too costly for schools to provide good
nutrition for their students.  I found that one cost will reduce another.
I don't have the vandalism.  I don't have the litter.  I don't have the
need for high security".

Actually, the anecdotal reports from Appleton look suspiciously rosy to
me.  Programs such as this, which seem to produce noticeable results, tend
to be one-sidedly reported and over-hyped as single-cause solutions to
complex problems.  Nevertheless, there is something as intuitively obvious
about the importance of children's diets as there is about their exposure
to television.  So the odd thing again is that programs such as Appleton's
haven't been tried earlier, and rigorously evaluated.  We could scarcely
wait to experiment with billion-dollar programs introducing computers in
the classroom.  Can't we be bothered to find out whether the elimination
of junk food from kids' diets might yield an educational pay-off?

A nutritional program at another youth facility, this one a prison, helps
to confirm one's intuitions.  Here's a report in The New Statesman (Feb.
16) by Britain's former environment minister, Michael Meacher:

   In the UK, the high-security Aylesbury Young Offenders Institution in
   Buckinghamshire for 18-year to 21-year-olds has carried out an
   experiment on the institutional diet.  Some 230 prisoners, typically
   serving long sentences for serious offences, took part.  Half of them
   received daily nutrient supplements containing 28 vitamins, minerals
   and fatty acids; the rest were given placebo pills.  The trial was
   "double blind" so that neither the prisoners nor their guards knew who
   was given the real pills and who got the dummies.

   Those taking the placebo showed no reduction in violence, but the group
   given the nutrient pills committed 37 percent fewer violent or other
   serious offences than in the equivalent nine-month period before the
   trial.  Significantly, when the trial was completed, the violence
   quickly returned to previous levels.

The experiment is now being extended to another Young Offenders facility
in Scotland.

Medicine and the Environment

A few notes from diverse places:

** An article in Nature (March 4, 2004) asks why several dozen new
infectious diseases have emerged in human populations over the past three
decades.  The answer, we're told, is summarized in a remark by medical
researcher Peter Daszak:  "Show me almost any new infectious disease, and
I'll show you an environmental change brought about by humans that either
caused it or exacerbated it".

Written by Tony McMichael of Australia's National Center for  Epidemiology
and Population Health, the Nature article is a review of Six Modern
Plagues: And How We Are Causing Them.  The book's author, Mark Jerome
Walters, looks at Lyme disease, Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, West Nile
fever, mad cow disease, antibiotic-resistant Salmonella DT104, and
HIV/AIDS.  All six, according to Walters, are "parables of the unintended
consequences of careless human disruption of the natural systems that are
our home".  For example, the widespread use of antibiotics to support the
force-fed, artificially accelerated growth of livestock has resulted in
the emergence of Salmonella DT104 and many other antibiotic-resistant

Walter's conclusion is that (in McMichael's words) "as we continue to
change our ways of living, our environmental encroachments, our long-
distance contacts and our food production methods, so we create
opportunities for the genetically fleet-footed microbial world".

I suspect that most of the human-caused conditions providing an opening
for infectious organisms are damaging and unhealthy in other terms as
well.  (Our methods for raising livestock are a prime example.)  In this
sense -- and despite all the usual rhetoric -- the disease organism is not
so much the "enemy" with which we do "battle" as a helpful signal we
should be paying close attention to.

** I'm sure some readers have been puzzled by my occasional jibes against
the knee-jerk, vaccinate-for-everything mentality prevailing in the U.S.
medical establishment.  The February issue of the Journal of Allergy
and Clinical Immunology may help you understand my skepticism.

There's a well-known "hygiene hypothesis", according to which early
infections protect against later illness and serve the general
requirements of health, in part by strengthening the immune system.  Now
researchers have tested this hypothesis with regard to allergies.  They
found that every fever an infant develops during its first year reduces
the likelihood of allergic sensitization during the seventh year.  Among
the test subjects, the odds for sensitization were 50.0 percent if no
fevers had occurred during the first year, and 31.3 percent if two fevers
had occurred.

The researchers say that their study "provides direct support for the
hygiene hypothesis".  It complements earlier work showing that children
who grow up with pets have fewer allergies, and that childhood exposure to
dirt and germs reduces the risk of asthma.  All this underscores the truth
that the body's activity in response to the conditions and substances it
encounters is the crucial thing for health.  By contrast, materialistic
habits of thought have taught us one-sidedly that the mere presence of
germs in us is the decisive thing, and that getting rid of them -- rather
than fostering an active and integral response of the whole organism -- is
the road to health.

Even more superficially, "getting rid of them" means getting rid of the
symptoms that point to them -- and so, for example, we routinely dampen
fevers with anti-pyretic medications.  The body is thereby denied the
opportunity to mobilize its own, health-sustaining resources, and the
germ-killing task is handed over to antibiotics.  Then we wonder why our
bodies, reduced to such passivity, become weak and susceptible to chronic

The resort to chemical agents acting on our behalf is, by the way, the
internal, physiological analogue of our handing over of external functions
and capacities to machines.  Our desire to give up our own flesh-and-blood
activity for the neat comprehensibility and reassuring automaticity of
algorithms ("Take this pill twice a day and your symptoms will disappear
in three days") apparently runs deep.  But, of course, the lesson of the
allergy study is that the algorithm isn't really so neat after all.

** In an April 6 New York Times essay, James Gorman cites the
common view of the technologically altered human being as "a cross between
RoboCop and the Borg".  But then, noting that the hardware to fulfill this
vision is "still on back order", he goes on to suggest that the real leap
into the posthuman future has been biochemical, "mediated by proton-pump
inhibitors, serotonin boosters and other drugs that have become permanent
additives to many bloodstreams".

U.S. consumers, he says, spent $163 billion on drugs last year.  Fifty
years ago the leading over-the-counter drugs were Bufferin and Geritol,
and the prescription drug business was tiny.  Today we see the
medicalization of conditions ranging from sexual dysfunction to childbirth
to anxiety to death, grief, and mourning.  And this medicalization is
directly related to the burgeoning supply of drugs looking for markets.

In North America, the use of antidepressants and other drugs affecting the
central nervous system grew 17 percent last year alone.  Pre-schoolers are
now the fastest-growing group of children receiving antidepressants.
Americans take so many drugs that "some researchers ... are worried about
the effects on the environment.  What does it mean if the sewers run rich
with Zoloft?"  But that's another item.

** If you want to know about drugs in the larger environment, read the
reportage in Stephen Harrod Buhner's The Lost Language of Plants.  When
we take a drug, Buhner notes, 50 - 95 percent of it is typically excreted
chemically unchanged (unmetabolized).  Moreover, the chemical by-products
(metabolites) of these drugs "tend to be more persistent in the
environment, and are sometimes more powerful in their actions, than the
drugs from which they derived".  Many pharmaceuticals are designed to
resist breakdown so that they can retain effectiveness in the body.
Writes Buhner,

   Researchers have tracked one plume of contaminated ground water from a
   landfill at Jackson Naval Air Station in Florida that has been slowly
   moving underground for more than twenty years.  It still contains such
   drugs as pentobarbital, meprobamate, and phensuximide -- a barbiturate,
   a tranquilizer, and an anticonvulsant.

Such contaminants do not come only from bodily excretion.  They also come
from pharmaceutical companies whose manufacturing waste is passed into
municipal treatment systems, incinerated, or taken to landfills; from the
extensive waste stream of hospitals; from households and pharmaceutical
manufacturers who throw out unused or expired drugs; and from illegal drug

This helps one to understand where, for example, the 150,000 pounds of
clofibric acid (a cholesterol-reducing drug) in the North Sea might have
come from.  The drug also shows up in the rivers of Europe, and returns to
the residents of Berlin in tap water concentrations between 10 and 165
parts per trillion.

But this is just one of numerous drugs entering the environment.  Perhaps
the greatest worry has to do with hormonal and hormone-disrupting
chemicals, which have been shown to interfere disastrously with the
biological development of organisms at exceedingly low levels.

   Chris Metcalf, a researcher at Trent University in Ontario, Canada,
   detected estrone (a type of estrogen) levels in waste-water effluent up
   to 400 parts per trillion and the synthetic hormone ethinylestradiol
   (from birth control pills) up to 14 ppt.  (He found anticancer agents,
   psychiatric drugs, and anti-inflammatory compounds as well.)  Metcalf
   exposed Japanese medakas (a type of fish) for 100 days to
   concentrations typical of wastewater streams.  At concentrations of 0.1
   ppt of ethinylestradiol and 10 ppt estrone the fish began to exhibit
   intersexual changes (showing both male and female characteristics).  At
   [1 part per billion] all the males transformed into females.

The threat to the biosphere from the various chemicals that disrupt
hormone-regulated processes is perhaps greater than the threat posed by
the largely unknown (though potentially disastrous) effects of changing
atmospheric composition, and has alarmed many scientists dealing with the
problem.  But the issues scarcely register on the radar screens of the
mainstream media.  It is far easier to create a media sensation over
deaths from SARS or bird flu (although neither of these has caused
anywhere near as many deaths as the common cold) than it is to work up any
concern for "low-level" pollutants that fail to present us with clearly
labeled corpses.

Re-engineering the Personal Resume

You can add resume fraud and resume fraud-detection efforts to the various
technological arms races spawned by the digital era.  Web sites offering
fake degrees have been with us for a while, but now some people are paying
hackers to enter their names in class-list databases of bona fide

But that's a felony and there's no need to go to such extremes.  A Reuters
story ("Resume Fraud Gets Slicker and Easier", Feb. 9), relates how web
sites will not only provide degrees, grades, and transcripts, but now will
also give you an 800-number that employers can call to "verify" your
education.  According to Reuters,

   The background search firm ADP Screening and Selection Services, in a
   2003 study, found that more than 50 percent of the people on whom it
   conducted employment and education checks had submitted false
   information, compared with about 40 percent in 2002.

If the numbers are sound, that's a 25 percent increase in one year.  Not
surprisingly, some 80 percent of companies are said to have resorted to
counter measures, checking the backgrounds and criminal records of their
employees.  How could they not?

The resume challenge is just another one of the many indications of what
happens when social transactions are increasingly mediated by technology.
Whether you're talking about privacy invasions and defenses, or censorship
and efforts to outflank it, or copyright piracy and its prevention, or
commercial assaults against children and the attempts to protect children
from them, or plagiarism and plagiarism detection, or the spam and virus
wars, or the increasingly automated battles for "mind-share" fought in
pop-up windows and other media spaces -- in all these cases the conflict
is more and more taking the form of escalating encounters between my
technology and yours, software against software, hardware against
hardware.  Or, which is the same thing:  the conflict is less and less a
matter of my having anything directly to do with you.  So normal social
constraints play less and less of an inhibiting role, and the insults to
human decency become more extreme every month.

The peculiar, non-technological demands placed upon us by this
"technologization" of social transactions seem to me the great missed
story of the digital era.  We can scarcely avoid being caught up in the
various technical arms races that are changing the character of modern
life.  But the clear implication is that the hope for saving human society
depends on our complementary advances in the art of being human together
whenever and however we can manage it.  I have no greater penchant for
this work than the next person.  But I do know that the opportunity for it
exists at every moment, and the first requirement is not for some sort of
doing in an external or programmatic sense.  Rather, the need is to bring
a different, more inner, more attentive, more meditational dimension to
whatever else we doing.

In the case of an employer evaluating a job applicant and resume, the only
ultimate security lies in a practical habit of deep, soul-searching
attention and communicative skill that enables one to read the other
person (and allows oneself to be read) at a level where deception is
nearly impossible.  An ambitious goal?  Certainly.  But it is exactly the
kind of goal we are required to pursue if we would, at least with part of
ourselves, step outside the ultimately futile terms of those technical
arms races.

More on the Columbia Monkeys

You will remember the story in NF #152 about the grotesque experimentation
on baboons at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons.  I
quoted from a letter by Columbia emeritus professor of history and
education, Douglas Sloan, in which he cited the well-documented and
"probably criminal meanness" shown by researchers.

I would like to pursue this story from a rather different angle.  Sloan
received a letter back from Glenn Peterson, an associate vice president
for communications at the university.  I am not free to publish that
letter, but, with permission from Sloan, I reproduce his response below.
It interests me above all because of the way it confronts what you might
call the "PR disease".  This affliction is now reducing our language, and
the public discourse based on it, to a level at which truthful and noble
conversation becomes nearly impossible.  It seems to me that any citizen
concerned to preserve at least some vestiges of genuine culture today has
a clear responsibility.  It is to pronounce almost every statement coming
from the various political, commercial, and academic officialdoms
"unacceptable", and then to demonstrate by example what an honest
conversation might be like.

Have you ever imagined how electrifying it would be at a news conference
to have just one exchange between a president and a reporter in the spirit
of a living-room conversation where they actually addressed each other in
a moment of uncalculated openness and honesty?  It would jolt everyone
awake as if from a dream.  We would be reminded we can actually speak
together about the issues we face, and can hope for better understanding
through such discussion.

Here is Sloan's letter:

   Dear Glenn,

   Thank you for your letter of 28th January 2004 replying to my earlier
   letter to President Bollinger expressing dismay at the cruel animal
   experimentation conducted by researchers at Columbia University.  I
   have delayed answering, knowing that my letter carries no influence and
   would, nevertheless, require some time and energy to write.  However,
   the matter has continued to weigh on me, and I have decided that, if
   only to get it off my chest, I must respond.

   It is difficult to take your letter of reassurance seriously.  I
   realize that in writing it you were simply doing what you are paid to
   do as a good public relations person for the University.  This means,
   however, that your letter has to be a near official statement of
   Columbia University's policy, which ought not to go unexamined.

   There are several reasons I cannot find the University's position, as
   stated in your letter, either serious or credible.  In the first place,
   you assure me that the University took immediate steps "as soon as" it
   became aware of allegations regarding the abusive treatment of animals
   in its laboratories, that it launched a thorough investigation, and
   that this has "resulted in modifications to our animal care program."
   Several things in this require some analysis.  The university persists
   in still speaking of "allegations," although these presumably turned
   out to be more than allegations, since, according to your letter, they
   induced the University to undertake "modifications" to its "animal care
   program."  Why not say outright, "The allegations proved to have
   substance and we undertook the necessary modifications?"  Why not
   reveal in your letter what the concrete modifications were, since it is
   now well known what the abuses were, and there is no way to judge the
   adequacy of the modifications without being able to compare them
   concretely with the abusive situation?  Furthermore, it is not at all
   clear that the university acted "as soon as" it became aware of the
   abuse of the animals, since there is considerable public evidence that
   the University resisted facing the matter at all until its treatment of
   the animals became increasingly public.  Even then there is evidence
   that the University has done everything in its power not to remedy the
   situation but to dampen public awareness of it.  The fact that you use
   the Orwellian euphemism, an "animal care program," to describe what is
   patently an animal experimentation program further underscores the
   University's evasiveness.

   This kind of bureaucratic attempt to becloud the issue and to avoid
   responsibility is, as has become well-known, widespread behavior on the
   part of American universities.  A number of studies have shown that
   universities almost never pursue reports of scientific research
   misconduct with sufficient zeal for fear of hurting their reputations
   and their funding.  (See the 2003 work by Daniel Callahan of The
   Hastings Institute, What Price Better Health.)  I had hoped that
   Columbia University would be different.

   In the second place, the University's playing on hyped-up hopes for
   medical cures is a common ploy of the scientific/medical community
   every time it gets into trouble or needs money.  But it is a tactic
   that is wearing thin, and one that plays on some of the worst fears and
   hopes of people, a tactic that is unseemly at best.  In this case, it
   is truly low-level because it is used to justify indifference, sadism,
   and shabby science.  Knowing the university reward system, as I do, I
   can't help but wonder how much of this research, and its accompanying
   disregard for the suffering of the animals involved, was driven
   primarily by the desire of the researchers to get a publishable
   article, come what may to the animals, or to the discovery of medical
   cures for that matter.

   The appeal to promised medical breakthroughs by means of this kind of
   research is all the more reprehensible in light of mounting research
   which shows not only that the mistreatment of animals in medical
   research laboratories is extensive and severe, including in AAALAC
   [Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal
   Care] laboratories, but, also, that the research itself is almost
   wholly unnecessary.  It has been shown that nearly all animal medical
   research is useless in that it either reveals nothing not already known
   or that could not be known in other ways.  (See, for example, Gary L.
   Francione, Introduction to Animal Rights, 2000.)

   Thank you for your response.  I cannot say it has alleviated my
   disappointment in Columbia University.   If there is more to be said
   that would demonstrate, and not simply assert, that Columbia has
   forthrightly assumed its responsibilities and taken real steps to
   prevent further mistreatment of animals under its aegis, I should
   certainly welcome learning of it.

   Sincerely yours,
   Douglas Sloan
   Professor Emeritus of History and Education

Related Articles:

"In the Service of Science", in NF #152, about the Columbia baboons:

"How Technology Dumbs Down Language", in NF #73:

"Can We Learn to Speak Again?", in NF #80:

Desperate Choices

I love a good cup of coffee.  Sipping it, of course, is part of the
pleasure, but even better is the productive mental focus I enjoy for the
next several hours.  If coffee is addictive, I suspect it has partly to do
with this wonderful clarity of mind it seems to induce.

Addiction to coffee, however, is one thing I will never have to worry
about, since I was forced to give up the drink some time ago due to its
progressively worsening effects.  A gastrointestinal tract reduced to
screaming chaos was not the worst of it; there was also the frightful,
torso-rattling syncopation of my heart, a severe arrhythmia that typically
set in during the middle of the second night after drinking a cup.
(Arrhythmia is not a condition I otherwise suffered.)  Nowadays my coffee-
drinking is restricted to a consolatory cup of decaf once every few weeks
or months.  More often than that and symptoms begin to creep in.

But what if I could continue drinking coffee without obvious penalty?  How
should I think about that wonderful gain in mental clarity?  I have
encountered at least one authority who has suggested that the gain likely
comes at the expense of my native powers of focus and attention.  I
cannot testify for or against this contention, but it concerns me for two
reasons.  First, I am convinced that our growing ability to mobilize and
intensify our inner powers -- and above all our power of attention, which
comes as close as anything we know to the core of our selfhood -- tends to
be more important for our own future and that of the world than any of the
specific things we do.  I say this despite great distress at my own
frustratingly inadequate -- and apparently worsening -- ability to
concentrate my attention.

In the second place, it seems all too clear that we do pay a penalty for
many of the chemically induced powers we seek.  Copious amounts of alcohol
may give some people courage to do what they otherwise could not, but can
we say that alcohol enables the individual, in any fundamental sense, to
stand more firmly and resolutely, more courageously, within himself?  When
we use drugs to stay awake far beyond our normal limits, or to build up
exceptional bodily strength, or to calm our nerves, or to gain a momentary
burst of energy -- does it not stand to reason that all these "credits"
drawn over and above the organism's normal capacity to deliver must sooner
or later be paid for?  Is there ever a net gain in such instances?

Well, yes.  At least some of the chemicals at issue here are naturally
occurring substances found in foods.  This may remind us how often we are
advised to eat broccoli or oats or apples or sunflower seeds for better
health.  But surely better health increases the body's ability to
"deliver" -- and without exacting a penalty.  If broccoli, then why not
coffee beans or chewing tobacco?

The obvious answer, for many of us at least, is that these latter
substances do not improve our health.  But some cases are much less clear.
I've been told, for example, that carrot juice also boosts one's mental
acuity for a time.  If this is true (and again I cannot vouch for it), is
it a matter of drawing credit that must be paid back with interest?  Or is
it a matter of better health?  In any case, some improvements in our
capacities most certainly are a matter of better health.

This sort of question, it seems to me, is the crux of the issue.  What is
the difference between a gain that signifies greater health, and one that
comes at the expense of health?  We are terribly ill-equipped to answer.
We know that, depending on the individual, different foods (and different
amounts of them) have all sorts of identifiable effects.  They may cause
indigestion or heart palpitation.  They may make us dull-minded and sleepy
or else nervous and given to "climbing the walls".  But beyond the more
obvious effects, we hardly pay attention to these qualitative aspects of
food.  This cuts us off from the greater part of what could be a
scientific understanding of nutrition and the human organism.
Conventional science largely restricts its interest to the carcinogenic or
other disease-related implications of various substances in food -- and
even these connections are pursued in a rather wooden, statistical, and
non-qualitative fashion.

The upshot of it all is that the relation between food and the health of
the individual human organism is, in its positive sense, almost a complete
blank spot within science today.  Indeed, whatever we might be talking
about when we speak of "good health" is almost a complete blank spot.  The
reason is that one cannot begin approaching such a global, evaluative, and
qualitative concept as "health" except with the qualitative methods that
science prefers to avoid.  And if we cannot speak meaningfully of health,
how can we speak meaningfully of whatever is "unhealthy"?

So in asking about the health of the organism, we find ourselves operating
within a sphere of ignorance -- although it is less a necessary ignorance
than ignorance by choice.  When it comes to questions about the whole (and
health means nothing if not the balanced, harmonious, challenge-
surmounting, integrity-maintaining activity of a whole), a one-sidedly
analytic science has simply deprived itself of the necessary tools for

All of which brings me around to the letters about Attention Deficit /
Hyperactivity Disorder in the last issue of NetFuture.  In particular, Jon
Johanning, whose son is on Ritalin, felt himself the object of moral
finger-pointing as he read my earlier essay (NF #154) dealing with ADHD.
I greatly sympathize with his eloquently presented case.  It is extremely
difficult to point out a broad pattern of societal abuse without seeming
to accuse many who, by virtue of their deeply considered and conscientious
choice, do not belong to the pattern.

Nevertheless, the abuse is there and is prevalent enough that it needs to
be pointed out in the most forceful way.  A great deal in our society
conduces to the belief that drugs are being properly used if they solve
immediate problems (Billy is now easier to take care of) without obvious
and damaging "side-effects".  Such abuse makes it easier for us to avoid
resolute action in dealing with underlying causes -- for example, in
removing children from the destructive influences of television.

But to say all this doesn't do much to help parents with a crisis on their
hands -- which, I think, is very much part of Johanning's point.  It's one
thing to consider the sources of personal damage in society and quite
another to manage the results of the damage. I wish to emphasize that I
could easily imagine myself in Johanning's position, making exactly the
decision he has made.  In fact, I have in the past found myself involved
in seemingly insoluble situations where I have strongly urged the use of
psychotropic drugs by adults.  And I have seen the almost impossible
challenge posed by some children today.

So we must, with Johanning, consider the plight of the individual who,
against a backdrop of desperation and unavoidable ignorance, is weighing
drug use for himself or a loved one.  The most important thing here, it
seems to me -- and a prerequisite for progress in understanding -- is to
keep hold of the fact that we are acting out of desperation and
ignorance.  This should force us into a stance of continual openness and
learning.  It should force us to investigate all possible alternatives.
Such alertness shouldn't be difficult -- not when, like Johanning, we have
admitted to ourselves, chillingly, that we can't fully know whether or how
the drug we are administering is altering the developing brain of our

The fact is that the "science" of psychotropic pharmaceuticals today is
largely a matter of trial and error, not understanding.  Bathe the brain
cells in this or that chemical soup and see what happens.  If the effects
are useful -- and if there is no damage of an immediate and obvious sort
-- then put it on the market.  And don't be overly bothered by the fact
that every organism responds to unfamiliar substances in global and
unpredictable ways that could never be understood through narrowly focused
and extremely limited experimental trials.  Given the reality of the
situation -- not to mention the inevitable history of pharmaceutical
catastrophes -- it would be pathological if our sense of desperation in
using these drugs ever gave way to routine comfort.

Much of this applies to our consumption of food as well.  There is, of
course, the difference that food (apart from its contaminants) does not
present us with substances previously unknown to living organisms.  And
there is also the fact that millennia of human experience lie behind the
use of traditional foods -- experience presumably rooted in an instinctive
wisdom not unlike what we find in the animal kingdom (even if, among
humans, this wisdom has now been lost).

But despite these protections, we eat today largely in ignorance.  For
example, we understand little about the terms of biochemical
individuality.  And when we resort to exotic foods, or drastically change
the quantities of particular foods we eat, we are hardly in a better
position than when we take Ritalin.  Just look at the huge costs to the
individual and society of our prodigiously disproportional consumption of
sugar and salt.

Sugar and salt, of course, have been very well studied.  But what about
the extraordinary amounts of exotic or highly specialized substances being
poured into the American public by the supplement industry?  If these
substances indeed have the powerfully beneficial effects advertised, then
you can be sure that, depending on the amounts, the timing, the condition
of the consumer, and the entire context of use, they can also have
powerfully detrimental effects.  Until we have a science that can raise
what once was an instinctive and organic wisdom to the level of clear,
conscious understanding, the most important thing we can do is to
acknowledge the darkness within which we are forced to make our choices.

The other thing I want to mention comes from my Nature Institute
colleague, Craig Holdrege.  He points out that digestion and nutrition are
no more a matter of transferring "things" (substances) from out there to
in here than education is a matter of transferring "things" (bits of
information) from out there to in here.  What counts in both cases is the
activity we engage in to break down, transform, and synthesize what we
take in.  The adequacy of this activity is what spells health or ill-

You can recognize the same issue where people talk about disease in a
thing-like way -- as something we have and then try to get rid of.  Thus
we overlook the importance of our activity, including that of our immune
system, in working with illness.  It is now increasingly suspected that
weaknesses of the immune system may result from its lack of "exercise"
due to the modern get-rid-of-it syndrome.

In Holdrege's view, one avenue along which we might begin learning to
assess the healthy or unhealthy qualities of the substances we ingest
leads to the question:  do the substances "have their way with us", or do
they allow the organism to unfold its own creative activity in the process
of breakdown, transformation, and synthesis?  Alcohol, for example, works
its magic upon us by almost immediately passing into the bloodstream
unchanged.  It takes possession of us more than we take possession of it.

There are doubtless other ways of looking at the matter as well.  But we
can be quite sure of the general principle:  health is revealed in the
qualities of our activity and in the balance between what we take in and
our ability to work creatively and harmoniously with it.

It is easy enough to recognize this when we look at the individual's
social interaction with the surrounding world.  Stimulus and challenge
from outside is crucial.  By providing material to work with, it enables
the individual to express and transform himself in relation to it.  That's
what life is about.  But when the stimulus becomes overwhelming,
compromising the individual's ability to integrate it into the ever-
renewed and ever more capable unity of his own self, then the situation
may become damaging.  What we need is to bring this sort of understanding
-- which is not so foreign to us within the psychological and social
domains -- down into the domain of physiology and biochemistry.  Here,
too, we have to do with external stimuli (whether food or drugs) and with
our ability to integrate these stimuli through our own unitary activity as
a physical organism.

Which reminds us again of our ignorance.  It's an ignorance we will not
easily rise above so long as we view the organism in non-integral
(mechanistic) terms.  Our science gives us a far greater ability to crank
out "solutions" with particular and immediate effects than to understand
the full, contextual implications of what we are doing.  The terror of it
is that sometimes, in our extremity, we find ourselves with little choice
but to accept these pharmaceutical offerings despite our ignorance.

Related Articles:

"On Treating Hyperactive Children with Drugs" in NF #154:

Letters to the editor in NF #155:


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