150 – “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists!”

Posted on August 10, 2012 by

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US President George W. BUSH, in an address to a joint session of Congress on 20th September 2001 uttered this essentialist statement. He was borrowing from a very long religious[1] and philosophical[2] tradition. It has become inspiration for modern political thought, particularly that of Leo STRAUSS[3] in the US.

A principle discussion among political scientists is unlikely much to move original positions; and logical analysis will possibly arrive only at the conclusion that the axiom cannot be decided upon. No wonder philosophers and political scientists have chewed on this bone for millennia.

There is alternative way of addressing the problem, however,. This is Popperian “falsification”[4] – one provides a counterexample from the real world to invalidate the essential statement and its dogmatic core. I’ve just come across a beautiful one – for it shows how subtle biological reality can be. If biology is subtle, imagine how much more culture is.

While I was growing up the “thing” for managers to have was peptic ulcer – the stress syndrome. Disgusting antacids were swallowed; bleary diets were followed; operations were performed; the victims were pitied – and respectfully admired for bearing up under the “white-collar man’s burden”.

Then the Australian physician Barry MARSHALL arrived. Ozzie-fashion he took the no-nonsense view that an infection is an infection – an ulcer had to have bacterial origins, as unlikely as the acidic stomach environment was for bacteria. And sure, he found Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori to its friends) which he swallowed whole, so as to get himself the infection and prove his point – no one would have believed him otherwise (anyway, who said scientists were rational?). Since then peptic ulcers have disappeared under a barrage of antibiotics. While two or three generations ago 80% of Americans hosted the bug, now less than 6% of US children prove the positive for it[5].

Later on, researchers studying H. pylori realized that the bug helped regulate the level of stomach acids, doing himself as well the host some good. In fact H. pylori is full of good intentions: its gene cagA secretes proteins telling the human body to ease up on the acid. As often with “do-gooders” it got a poor reception. Many humans were allergic to cagA – and developed stomach ulcers as a result – hence the bad press for H. pylori.

But this was enough of the good deeds H. pylori has in store for mankind. The endogen hormone ghrelin determines how much we eat: ghrelin tells our brain to go for it. Well, H. pylori help regulate (i.e. reduce) gastric ghrelin. No more adjuvant bug, no sense of fullness, and we overeat. When children are treated with antibiotics for ear infections their intestinal flora changes, and the body loses part of its bacterially driven ability to regulate ghrelin. No wonder children are becoming obese.

What to the beady scientific eye seemed at first simply a pathogen – an enemy in G. W. BUSH terminology- turned out to be a commensal (a welcome guest at the table) or even an adjuvant. We just did not look close enough, yelled “pathogen” instead and grabbed the best available sledge-hammer on hand. We “had” to do something against peptic ulcers, did we not, in accordance to our well-worn principle: “be a man, just do something, you can think about why later”[6].

“A simple truth may hide a complex one” is the message from this medical tale, and we may be well-advised not to cut the process of understanding short: who knows the truth no longer seeks the truth.

The article I quoted goes further, though. We all have an ecosystem in our guts that contains roughly 3.3 million “loose” genes in as many species of bacteria, as against our very own 20-25’000. The more we understand our “inner ecosystem” the more the boundary between “Us – Homo sapiens” and “them – bacteria” becomes blurred. We feel that we are “in control” and at the seat of consciousness. But who knows for real? The bacterial genetic material may well be calling enough shots to make our biological identity a pretense.

I have no answer to this conundrum, of course. But I know enough already that any deep “speculation” about the essence of humanity, our soul, our destiny, and other transcendental stuff is in urgent of postponement until we know more. Why argue from ignorance? There might well be a world of essentials out there somewhere, but first we have the mountain range of material reality to cross. Let scientists work away, and philosophers and others who assert that they know (what they in fact don’t know) take a swim among the millions of bacteria who may be affecting our person surreptitiously.

I’ll do so gladly – for I’m a lazy bummer: why decide what can be postponed?

Starting, of course, from the Manichean cleavage of the world in “them” (bad) and “us” (good). Pass the bowl of consequentialism please.


[1]           An example of a religious source is Iran’s Zoroastrism (~1200 –1000 BC) with its dualism of truth and light vs. darkness and evil. See e.g. : Michael AXWORTHY (2008): A history of Iran. Empire of the mind. Basic Books, New York; or Richard G. FOLTZ (2004): Spirituality in the land of the noble. How Iran shaped the world’s religions. OneWorld, Oxford. This dualist view was taken up by various religious movements, including Christianity ((Mark 9:40).

[2]           Greek thought might trace this statement back to Parmenides. See e.g. Karl R. POPPER (1998): The world of Parmenides. Essays on the presocratic enlightenment. Routledge, London.

[3]          See E.g. Robert KAGAN (2008) : Neocon Nation: Neoconservatism, c. 1776. World Affairs, Spring.

[4]           See Karl R. POPPER (1968): The logic of scientific discovery. Routledge, London.

[5]           Jennifer ACKERMAN (2012) : The ultimate social network. Friendly bacteria that live in our bodies and on our skin profoundly affect our health. Scientific American CCCVI, 6 June.

[6]           By treating microbes as pathogens we have traded success in a limited number of acute cases against widespread disruption of humanity’s inner ecosystem. Reversing such collateral effect will, in the end, cost us more – in human terms – than we ever benefited from the cure.