Thursday, 25 August 2016


Renee Descartes (1596-1650) is widely held as the 'father of modern philosophy' and I think rightly so. He has the exalted distinction of being the first savant of high philosophic capacity to arise since the subjugation of the Greeks to Rome- a gap of nearly 2,000 years!
Descartes was born in France to parents of some means and received the liberal education of the day; very much in the scholastic mould. This entailed a great deal of Latin grammar and theology according to the Angelic doctor, St Thomas Aquinas. And although much of his thinking is thought of as 'modern' he still retains much which delineates the 'Medieval Schoolmen' even though he despised the system as a whole.
Philosophy of the period was dominated by the 'Schoolmen': friars who upheld ancient doctrines and adapted those doctrines to support their religious views and dogma. The preeminent position of the scholastics was based on the philosophy of Aristotle. Aristotle was the last of the great ancient Greek philosophers and when his philosophy was rediscovered in the West during the Middle Ages his wisdom was revered beyond any other ancient sage. Aristotle had much to say about everything and most of what he had to say, except in the guise of logic and ethics, has been subsequently found to be wrong. Therefore, in the late 1600 century, every new discovery in science and philosophy had to compete and ultimately supplant some form of Aristotelian doctrine. And as Aristotelian philosophy was considered the only system compatible with the Catholic Church, the revealing of contrary knowledge and doctrine was akin to heresy, at least in France, Spain and Italy.
Descartes was a true example of the gentleman, amateur, polymath. Not only did he pontificate on matters philosophical he also made important discoveries in science and mathematics (coordinate geometry). In philosophy his greatest contribution centred on his ability to dismiss certain aspects of established metaphysical systems which were exclusively ancient. He disregarded swathes of the philosophy which had preceded and began to construct an intellectual edifice of his own, from scratch. Alas, he couldn't overcome all his prior learning and could not help but fall back on elder teachings in the final analysis. His philosophical synthesis was not necessarily better than ancient Greek ponderings but at least it was different and what's more had a ‘modern’ flavour. Thus it provided an intellectual spur for those who followed, to do better. And more importantly, it was not totally saturated in Aristotelian metaphysical concepts.
Cartesian Doubt
He began with the notion that we could not trust our senses. What if everything was a dream? What if a malevolent demon of immense power was deluding us- imposing a virtual reality which became our ultimate reality? He considered this a grave problem which in turn conjures up its own demon of solipsism (if you are of a sound mind you might wish to review an old post of mine on this very problem). Descartes' solution was to consider his consciousness, or more importantly his thoughts, inviolable from tampering (is this actually the case?). This is something that could not be faked if he truly existed. And thus he came up with his famous: ‘I think therefore I am’ (cogito ergo sum). Whether this is a viable premise is certainly debatable. However, it typifies the awakened and brash intellectual confidence which is the hallmark of the high renaissance period.
Descartes argues, from his first established premise, that things which we conceive very distinctly and very clearly are also true. From here he argues stepwise adding successive layers to his conceptual model. For all his intellectual confidence and innovation he maintains an element of sceptical doubt which can only be dispelled by proving the existence of God, or at least the Christian conception of the deity. Descartes' 'proofs' of God are not very original or even convincing to the modern mind. Once Descartes has proved God's existence, to his satisfaction at least, the rest of his philosophy falls into place. As God is good and not deceitful He would not delude his creation or allow an evil demon to deceive and therefore we must possess physical bodies.
The principle of Cartesian doubt starts with great promise but ends by foregoing its initial and laudable principle. Descartes, for all his supposed rationalism, finally falls back to the default: 'God did it'. If he had been born a century later I think he would have thought differently but ultimately he was a man of his time: born with part of his mind entrenched in the medieval world and the rest striking out into new and unchartered intellectual territory- a strange dichotomy tis true. With our modern mind set we struggle to grasp why a man of such intellectual gifts could have thought so logically and yet seemed unable to relinquish certain entrenched dogmas.
Perhaps we should not judge Descartes too harshly. He was born at a time of great societal and intellectual flux. In particular, the great influence of religious thought was starting to lose its vice like grip on intellectual endeavour and men of intellectual quality, but only just. It must have taken prodigious powers of concentration to break with engrained academic systems. It is thanks to intellectual pioneers such as Descartes and others (I’m looking at you Galileo) that we think the way we do today (some of us anyways), unfettered by the irrational and the poverty of religious strictures.

Sorry, couldn't help it. This post was way too sensible. Arse.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Zombie Genes

Geneticists usually concern themselves with gene expression in living organisms. This makes perfect sense. What is the point of checking out genes when you are dead? Received wisdom suggests that all genetic expression stops when an organism dies. Of course when you die, and I'm talking about brain death, not all  cells in a body die immediately. After death cellular activity starts to wind down as cells deplete oxygen and energy resources. Some cells can be alive several days after death.

Work on Zebra fish and mice have shown some startling and largely unexpected results. Just an aside, Zebra fish and mice are often used for genetic research because both these species have been studied for a number of years and their respective genomes are well characterised. Researchers looked at a number of genes involved in various cellular processes such as the inflammatory response, the immune response and genes involved in development and cancer. Some of these genes were still active four days after death. Individual cells are not aware of the organism's death but they do 'sense' that something is amiss and this triggers a stress response. In other circumstances this response is adaptive and useful and helps to combat physiological and metabolic challenges. Therefore, the up regulation of genes involved in the inflammatory response should come as no surprise. What did surprise the scientists was the 'switching on' of genes usually only expressed during early development. These are genes that are active during foetal gestation and during the critical developmental stage just after birth. Normally these genes become dormant during the rest of the organism's life. The expression of these genes, in death, appears paradoxical. 

Also of interest was the observation that certain genes involved in some cancers are switched on. This has important implications for donor organs and may explain, to some degree at least, why recipients of donor organs have an increased cancer incidence. However, it has to be acknowledged that the anti-rejection drugs designed to suppress the immune system have an important role in the development of cancer in transplant patients. Even so, an understanding of genetic events during death can help to mitigate, at least, some of the cancer related problems associated with organ transplantation.

Genetic post-mortem changes could help establish the time of death in murder cases. Genetic expression profiles follow a well defined sequence after death which could allow the highly accurate determination of the time of death, even within minutes. This of course has utility in the medico-legal world. 

We are indeed living in interesting times. The increase in our genetic knowledge and technology is occurring at a giddy pace. As a geneticist in the twilight of his career I'm well aware that I will miss out on most of the wondrous advances happening, on almost a daily basis, in my profession. Tis nearly time for me to retire and spread out my dotage in the home for 'Bewildered Cytogeneticists'. A new generation is poised, and eager, to takeover and replace weary old bones. Now, isn't that the sad truth- or is it?  


Thursday, 18 August 2016

Tipton Olympics

Tipton Olympic Team

Let us not forget that while the Olympics are in full swing in Rio De Janeiro there is an equally prestigious event occurring in the ancient, quaint and picture perfect town of Tipton. And indeed, the Tipton Games has an equally ancient pedigree as the Olympic variety except it is nowhere near as old.
In a cunningly fashioned nook in Mr Khan's warehouse for water damaged hose pipes there exists a collection of artefacts belonging to a bygone age when Tipton was ruled by the mad Saxon king, Flaxen 'The Addled'. According to a crust embossed vellum ledger scrupulously preserved, the mad king, in 927AD, inaugurated the 'Tipton Games' (Tiptoniad).......   
In those days the most popular event involved piling the skulls of fallen enemies into neat pyramidal forms. The contestant who forged the highest pyramid, without slippage, was deemed the winner. Clearly this sport is no longer considered compatible with a civilised society and was banned by the Human Rights Commission in 2008. The 2004 'skull piling’ gold went, to the chagrin of the insistent locals, Mr Mohammed bin Headlopping. Subsequently the quadrennial Tipton Games has had to tone down its more atavistic events. Thus, the planting of the gypo's head on a pole has been replaced with netball. Of course, there is still room for manoeuvre concerning the more robust sports. The placing of rabid ferrets down a tethered and ankle tied trouser leg is still a very popular event. The winner automatically passes into the final round of the ‘frothing at the mouth and water aversion’ triathlon.
This year's Tiptoniad has not been without controversy. In a particularly inauspicious moment, Shagger, the event's most treasured mascot, pissed on the eternal flame thus dousing the guttering, febrile flicker in a trice- ‘Bad Ferret’. And as usual the Eastern bloc counties have been banned for having a team full of drugs. If they hadn't partaken beforehand they would have been harder to spot.
The Olympic swimming pool fell short of expected standards when the partially decomposed corpse of the local itinerant, filthy Eric, came first in the final heat of the free style event. It is conjectured that escaping gas from his bloated, decaying body, propelled Eric to a well deserved gold. However, Eric later disgraced himself by dissolving into a puddle of bubbling ichor while being propped up on the winner's podium by a sharpened stick. 
The Tiptoniad has always been an easy target for those making political statements and this Tiptoniad was no exception. Protesters calling themselves Tiptonites against Discruminition against Bad Spellas with Tourettes or, W.A.N.K for short, have emblazoned slogans throughout the Olympic village. The following epigrams have been insinuated into the minds of casual passer-bys and athletes alike: ‘We wont equal rites for bad spellas with Tourettes, wen do we want it- cnut'; or, Tourettites are peple too, dozy twat' and 'Who you regardin farht bollox?' 
But all is not grave despond. The Tipton team have managed to scoop up 'gold' (and filthy Eric) in all the events involving bodily fluids and the production of noisome gasses- 'Go Filthy Eric'. Later this week what's left of Eric's corpse will be paraded through Tipton High Street in a box, on a skate board, propelled by Shagger. 'Go Shagger' Arse.


Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Martin Scriblerus

As my diligent readers will have noticed I've added a new badge to my site: 'Martin Scriblerus'. Actually I didn't add it personally I leave that sort of thing to my partner in this enterprise, the good Dioclese. 

The group is a loose federation of bloggers united in fellowship and mutual support. We are not united by philosophy or any 'ology' for that matter. We simply enjoy writing and expressing our thoughts and opinions in a world gone mad. I would venture to say that most of the 'merry band' are libertarians but I'm wary of classification as I suspect that most of the crew will defy being placed in a box limited by dimensions- ever tried to herd cats? If anything, we are about free expression and thought and give scant regard to those who would impose restrictions on our ideals and hard won freedoms whether it be governments or other individuals.  

I know most of the other members as I often frequent their blogs for enlightenment and comment. The blogging world can be a small place especially if you seek quality. The blogs I read are a diverse bunch although the authors have some characteristics in common: they write well; they make me think harder; they are not afraid to express strong opinion and they make me smile.

Anyway, I'm starting to ramble and digress. I suggest you check out the site for yourselves. And if you run a blog of your own, sit tight in anticipation of an email. You just never know........




Sunday, 14 August 2016


Must have dropped off in the wash
As I glance down at my naked, pert and perfectly honed torso I am bleakly reminded of vestiginous (not a real word and not to be confused with vertiginous which is a real word. Please excuse the digression) things and the power of redundancy in the human body. I have been blessed/cursed with a supernumerary nipple. A perfect nipple in every anatomical degree except it is additional and placed in my midriff . Now if you think two nipples on a man are a waste, then three nipples is just wanton extravagance. And what tone of nipple rouge matches my complexion? Not as bizarre as it sounds. Some form of nipple grease is essential when I'm out running otherwise my nipples chafe something awful on my running top. There is nothing worse than sore bleeding nipples and as I have three the pain is multiplied accordingly. Although tis true that pain and pleasure are closely related; ecstasy or agony? Only you can be the judge.

So why do men have nipples? Evolution is supposed to sort out this type of thing, isn't it? A biological scalpel which ruthlessly 'cuts' out the unnecessary and useless leaving a well designed and perfectly adapted organism. Well that's the popular view, anyway.  

So it is all down to a universal template. Anatomically speaking men and women are not all that different especially during the early embryonic stage of development. Until about 6 weeks into development male and female embryos are virtually indistinguishable. At 6 weeks into the pregnancy the SRY gene, on the Y chromosome, kicks in causing the differentiation of testes in the male embryo. The testes in their turn produce the hormone testosterone which unleashes a cascade of developmental changes culminating in the production of male genitalia. The default setting is always female and without testosterone the embryo will automatically become female. There is a condition called testicular feminisation where the foetus is chromosomally and genetically male, but because the primordial genitals are insensitive to testosterone they develop along the female pathway. Although technically 'male' these individuals are outwardly female in external appearance and psychosexual behaviour. 

So it seems that males have nipples because females do. Clearly there are obvious advantages for females to have nipples. Males simply come along for the ride. While the presence of nipples in males confers no evolutionary advantage it has no detrimental effects either. And thus there is no selective pressure to alter the male developmental plan, male nipples in the evolutionary sense, are here to stay. 

By the way, the acquisition of an extra nipple is a medical condition called polythelia. Nuff said

Friday, 12 August 2016

What do you call a mouse with an ear on its back?

I received a phone call from an irate patient today. Apparently he took exception to a chromosome report I had authorised. We never issue reports directly to patients however, patients have a legal right to their medical notes including laboratory results and therefore are allowed to pester their doctor for a copy. Genetic reports are rather specialised, resplendent with technical notation and well larded with scientific jargon. Like most professionals we take great pride in keeping lay folk ignorant and in awe. Consequently most people struggle with our arcane scribblings. Even experienced clinicians require advice and further interpretation from a geneticist, on occasion. The wise patient is advised to seek specialist help from a clinical geneticist trained to interpret the scientist's endeavour, but not all patients are wise or even patient. 

The report in question was relatively simple and uncontroversial and there was little in it to raise ire in most folk. The offending item: We are unable to exclude the presence of subtle chromosome abnormalities. Bland and innocuous enough I thought. However, the patient had seized on our usual caveat, ran it up the flag pole and concluded that they were afflicted with a subtle, unique and occult chromosome abnormality. I tried to explain that this was just a standard ‘rider’ we place on normal reports and in no way implies that the patient has a genetic abnormality. I did consider mentioning that all diagnostic tests are subject to inherent limitations, and in this instance, chromosomal analysis was not really warranted as the patient was suffering from anxiety, well at least according to the referral form. In fact, as far as I’m aware, there is no genetic test available for anxiety. If indeed the condition has a genetic basis it is highly likely that the genetics involved are complex, convoluted and subtle with a hefty dose of environmental factors dumped into the turbulent mix. Wisely I held my counsel. Inwardly I wondered why a competent physician would have referred a patient with ‘anxiety’ for chromosome testing, but as the patient continued to rave I was starting to guess. I suspect that the harried doctor had simply ordered the test to placate his patient. Chromosomal testing looks fancy and genetics is perceived as a powerful tool for solving everything these days. I sympathised with the poor doc. An awkward patient mollified with a procedural placebo, or perhaps not in this case. Feed a mad person and you just end up with a fatter mad person.

I blame the media and the internet. The media has seized on the ‘new genetics’. Clever scientists can now diagnose and cure all that ails us. A brave New World is about to descend and envelope all (not gypos though) in a cacoon of soft light and wonderment. Everything will be tainted with a clinical freshness and rich old white men will live forever (? surely some mistake). And then there is the netty phenomenon, where any halfwit can trawl the web to garner information on anything. Information of variable quality and dubious provenance impinges on third class minds to the detriment to all within hailing distance. The devil is not in the information itself but how we sift it and ultimately how we interpret it.  

My caller had now moved on to explaining how the government had cloned an invincible army of soldiers which were about to be unleashed on the Middle East. My mind started to wander/wonder and I began to sketch out on my notepad an archetypal invincible cloned soldier. When I finished I noticed a distinct resemblance to my good self, even down to the third nipple and noble brow. My mind was meandering and I was no longer listening to the caller’s rant until he mentioned something about mice with human ears attached to their backs. Feeling mischievous I intervened and said this research was geared toward curing deafness in mice. I thought this was a suitable juncture to put down the phone. I’m hoping that the termination of our conversation would act as a prompt for the caller to partake of his appropriate medication and in the correct dose. I was certainly ready for mine.


Look, I've invented an ashtray with a built in 'eep'

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Bad Grampa Part II

Grampa lets me burn stuff 

My golden haired daughter dropped off her offspring the other day. She said she was going shopping and would be back in an hour- but we both knew it was a big fat, mendacity. I winked at my six year old granddaughter and she winked back. And so we had a wonderful granddaughter-granddad bonding session. We read books, watched videos and performed some amateur chemistry. At one point I taught her to write ARSE with the fridge magnets. Her mom came back after three hours full of fripperies and sundry items. True to form my beautiful granddaughter showed mom her fridge magnet extravaganza. Eyes rolled and I received 'the stare'. "That's the last time I leave you with Flaxena" (not her real name), she hissed. Humpph! But we both know this is not the case as my daughter loves to shop and Flaxena's father is a real piece of shit. Next time I'll teach her some more addled wisdom and lore. One day my daughter will thank me for my diligence. And anyway, Flaxena is a smart little basket and can see through 'Mad Gramps' eccentricity to profit from my distilled sagacity, even if it interspersed with a few moments of frank insanity. Arse.

This sort of thing tends to travel through the generations. Read this and weep: Bad Grampa.