• Editor's Note

    The New Germ Theory

    Judith Hooper's article "A New Germ Theory" (February Atlantic) sheds speculative light on one of modern medicine's great failings -- its disregard for evolutionary theory as an organizing principle for wellness and disease. Paul Ewald and Gregory Cochran are certainly correct that fitness costs should be factored into all theories of etiology. What is apparently missing from their simplistic analysis is an understanding of adaptation. The environment in which we live now is very different from the one for which we are evolutionarily adapted, and coping with this environment produces great stresses on organ systems. If a child grows up confined to a four-foot-high box and as an adult walks with a stoop, it is not necessary to posit an infectious pathogen to explain the posture. A more troubling aspect of Ewald's fitness blitzkrieg is the idea that homosexuality is a result of an infectious agent acting during development. Apparently ignored here are the contributions to evolutionary biology of W. D. Hamilton, E. O. Wilson, and R. L. Trivers, which provide a much better basis for understanding homosexuality, as a phenomenon of inclusive fitness.

    James T. Martin

    Re Paul Ewald's "new germ theory": how could the postulated population of microbes, notably chlamydia, be so superabundant as to cause heart disease, cancer, diabetes, schizophrenia, and other chronic diseases in such large numbers of people? Underlying this conjectured scenario is an inexplicably universal state of severely diminished immune competence.

    The new germ theory also falters in its attempted application to emotionally determined illnesses, including anxiety diarrhea, ulcerative colitis due to severe repression of guilt, and cachexia resulting from prolonged depression.

    The new germ theory further fails to account for the staggering array of inborn metabolic errors, which are the consequences of genetically linked enzyme deficiencies. Specific examples: metachromatic leukodystrophy, a brain disease involving lipid accumulation due to a missing sulfatase enzyme; porphyria, the derangement of heme metabolism that precipitated the insanity of King George III; and the Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, in which mental retardation, chorea and athetosis (movement disorders), and self-mutilating behavior result from the lack of a transferase enzyme. Gene therapy, not antibiotics or other anti-infective drugs, and not vaccines, offers promise for correcting or preventing these disorders in the distant future.

    Vincent W. Franco

    The impetus behind Paul Ewald's work is the realization that many common diseases thought to have a genetic basis should have been weeded out of the genome long ago, based on their cost to the individual carrier's reproductive success. Ewald raises such examples as schizophrenia, atherosclerosis, ulcers, Alzheimer's, and cancer, and infers that infectious agents, with their own evolutionary agenda, must be invoked to fully explain the prevalence of these afflictions.

    This conclusion flows from the presumption, which has been fashionable for a generation, that natural selection takes place on an individual level, and almost never group against group. When evolution is regarded as an individual process, it follows that any gene that negatively impacts fertility should disappear quickly from the genome.

    But suppose that the fitness of the community is a controlling factor. Cancer and heart disease tend to attack the aged with a vengeance and spare the young. If weakening with age is a group-level adaptation that assures turnover and diversity in an evolving population, then susceptibility to geriatric diseases may be an indirect result of group selection.

    How viable is the proposition that group selection looms so large on the evolutionary landscape? Although many evolutionary theorists hold group selection in contempt, the judgment of those who have studied the question most closely is mixed. A growing body of theory and fieldwork supports the viability of group selection. And great phenomena of nature remain mysterious to those who cleave to the exclusively individual view: the prevalence of sexual reproduction; the breadth of genetic diversity within and among species; the ordering and chromosomal structure of the genome, which appears to be highly optimized for the efficiency of adaptive variation. These phenomena all have plausible, straightforward explanations in terms of group selection, whereas individual selection theory strains to encompass them.

    Joshua Mitteldorf

    To a physician long interested in microbiology, "A New Germ Theory" brought up the interesting question of scientific information and timing. What causes information to be set aside and what determines when its time has finally come?

    In 1946 I was a first-year resident at the New York Hospital when the senior attending physician, Constance Guion, called to tell me that she was admitting a patient who was suffering with an acute, painful peptic stomach ulcer.

    Dr. Guion instructed me to start the patient on "that new antibiotic, aureomycin," the forerunner of the modern tetracycline family of antibiotics. "But Dr. Guion," I expostulated. "I thought you said she had an ulcer. Why would you want to treat her with an antibiotic?"

    Dr. Guion replied, "The latest research over at Mount Sinai shows that 'peptic' ulcers are actually caused by germs; now do as I say and give her the aureomycin."

    The patient went home three days later free of symptoms.

    Paul Fremont-Smith

    Paul Ewald argues that homosexuality takes a "fitness hit" because it is nonreproductive and runs afoul of natural selection. But sociobiology has suggested a conflicting theory -- that homosexuality is a plus factor, because child-bearers with gay family members have the extra help of these generally (but not always!) nonparents to aid them in their child-rearing. Furthermore, Gregory Cochran's comment about grandmothers not being "hampered" by babies suggests that being reproductive takes a fitness hit of its own.

    Carl L. Jech


    James Martin and Carl Jech both refer to "inclusive fitness"theories in evolutionary biology to account for the continued prevalence of homosexuality despite its obvious fitness costs. In particular, a theory known popularly as the "good uncle" theory -- elaborated by E. O. Wilson -- holds that gay men may indirectly perpetuate their genes by helping to raise their (genetically similar) nephews and nieces. Although this may be an appealing theory, it is inadequate to explain the facts. To counteract a whopping fitness cost of around 80 percent, gay men would have to be very, very good uncles indeed -- especially given that they share with nephews and nieces only 25 percent of their genes. Simple calculations show us that in order to compensate for not reproducing, a gay uncle's investment in a sibling's children would have to be twice as strong as a parent's. If this were the case, it could not have escaped our attention. But there is no evidence that gay uncles are any more devoted than other uncles. (Mr. Martin inaccurately suggests that Paul Ewald has ignored the work of Hamilton and Trivers; both scientists have been major influences on Ewald's theories.)

    As for group-selection theories, cited by Joshua Mitteldorf: If the benefits of altruistic behavior were to the community as a whole, rather than concentrated in close relatives, the genes responsible for altruism would not prevail. The selection on which his arguments are based must be extremely weak relative to selection acting at the level of the individual or close relatives.

    Regarding Vincent Franco's observations: There are plenty of germs around, and reduced immunity is not required for infection. A number of organisms infect nearly everyone -- Epstein-Barr, for example -- and many infectious organisms do not induce curative immunity, such as Helicobacter pylori, the herpes viruses, and HIV. Lesch-Nyhan syndrome and other inborn metabolic disorders certainly exist, but they are rare, typically afflicting one person in 50,000. They are not the main cause of disease.

    Paul Fremont-Smith's letter is fascinating. One wonders what Constance Guion knew and how she knew it -- and who dropped the ball.

    What Is Intelligence?

    In his analysis of conceptions of intelligence ("Who Owns Intelligence?," February Atlantic) Howard Gardner makes an effective case -- against his own theory. He argues that "emotional intelligence" is a misnomer for the degree to which people are sensitive to emotions in themselves and others, and that this is better termed "emotional sensitivity." I couldn't agree more -- but where does that leave Gardner's "interpersonal" and "intrapersonal" intelligences? It makes more sense to view these as personality traits, like emotional sensitivity, than to view them as aspects of intelligence.

    I enjoy watching Barry Sanders play football and Tara Lipinski skate, but what they display is better understood as athletic ability than as "bodily-kinesthetic intelligence," as Gardner would have it. Stuffing into "intelligence" the wide range of athletic, musical, and other abilities and traits that Gardner proposes to include only serves to stretch the "elastic band" of the term to the point where it is flaccid and incoherent. My prediction would be that the twenty-first century will see the endurance of "general intelligence" and the passing away of Gardner's theory into the history of ideas that didn't quite work.

    Jeffrey Jensen Arnett

    I think that Howard Gardner's claims about the breadth of intelligence are plausible, but he misconstrues the position of the supporters of the "g" factor, or general intelligence, on this issue. They can go along with Gardner's claim that intelligence is actually a broader thing than what we have traditionally thought about and measured. Their claim is not, as Gardner implies, that there is only one intellectual faculty but that however many dimensions of intelligence there are, one's intelligence along each dimension correlates with one's scores along all the other dimensions. This correlation is the evidence for a "g" factor. Thus their claim about the existence of a "g" factor is consistent with Gardner's claim that intelligence is a broader thing than we have traditionally thought.

    Greg Feirman

    Jeffrey Arnett raises questions about the extension of the term "intelligence."Clearly, others have used the term "talent"where I speak of "intelligences."I have no objection to speaking of seven or eight talents. I do object to honoring some capacities, such as skill with numbers or words, as "intelligence"while demoting others, such as skill with music or spatial information, to mere "talent." Understanding oneself or others is not a personality trait: it represents a capacity to compute information about the realm of human beings.

    Greg Feirman attributes to most psychometricians a more moderate position than they actually hold. My misgiving about the statistical "g" is that it emerges when one administers a battery of short-answer tests. Perhaps a certain speed or flexibility at responding to diverse items is being tested. I prefer to assess individuals in "intelligence-fair" ways -- for example, assessing interpersonal intelligence by observing individuals as they interact in situations. We simply do not know whether "g" would disappear if each intelligence were assessed by means of an appropriate non-short-answer test.

    China and Tibet

    Peter Hessler's article "Tibet Through Chinese Eyes" (February Atlantic) deeply upset me. Hessler approvingly portrays idealistic young Chinese who settle in Tibet to help "the indigenous population." Does he include those Chinese who have been responsible for the genocide of 1.2 million Tibetans since the 1950s? With such friends who needs enemies?

    Hessler is wrong about facts large and small. He claims that prior to the Chinese invasion of 1951 "there were no public schools in Tibet, whereas now there are more than 4,000." He fails to note that Buddhist monasteries functioned as schools for the general population -- until the Chinese destroyed more than 6,000 monasteries. Hessler quotes an unnamed foreign observer as saying that the population is 2.5 million, whereas in fact it is above six million. Hessler also makes a point that China spends a lot of money in Tibet, but the country was self-supporting before the Chinese invasion. China's Stalinist development policy in Tibet has cost a lot of money, but the benefits for Tibetans have been slight. Does Hessler include the costs of the huge military internal-security presence in Tibet as something helpful to the population?

    Howard Park

    "Tibet Through Chinese Eyes" is factually accurate and valuable. However, Peter Hessler uncritically repeats the Chinese propaganda that Tibet has two million people. It actually has six million -- China partitioned Tibet in 1959 and publicly refers to only the Tibetan Autonomous [sic] Region as "Tibet." So when China and Tibetans speak of Tibet they are not referring to the same entity.

    Although the article gives human faces to the Chinese civilians who, through economic incentives, are being moved into Tibet, it has a major weakness. Hessler fails to describe the positive value of Tibetan civilization -- what it offers to the world. He thereby fails to indicate the depth of the tragedy of China's obliteration of Tibet. And although a people's right to self-determination is sufficient justification for support of Tibetan freedom, without some cultural understanding the article remains incomplete. Consequently, Hessler appears to equivocate. He seems to say, "Yes, China is imperialist; yes, China has committed horrible crimes in Tibet; but, in fairness, China is spending money and investing!" Would he be equivocal about Nazi activities in Vichy France if they had been good for the economy? Or if the United States conquered Mexico (based on some dusty claim stemming from the Republic of Texas) and thereby improved living standards? Is investing money progress?

    Frank J. Howard


    Although I agree that it is valuable for Americans to study Tibetan culture, there is some risk in viewing this as a "resource"; no society should be placed under glass for the enjoyment of others. My conversations with ordinary Tibetans indicated that although they are certainly upset by the enormous damage that has been inflicted on their culture, they also have no desire to return to the brutal conditions of pre-1951 Tibet, in which 95 percent of the population was illiterate and the average life expectancy was thirty-six years. Americans who take for granted electricity, education, and medical care should avoid making blanket dismissals of Chinese progress in Tibet, and we need to accept that Tibetans, like people everywhere, welcome modernization -- even some of the modernization that comes from China.

    Whites and Jazz

    In his review of Richard M. Sudhalter's Lost Chords ("Black and White Intertwined, "February Atlantic), William H. Youngren writes, "The skewed logic of record executives [in the 1920s] dictated that black audiences would accept only jazz whereas white audiences wanted polite dance music." This generalization may be largely true as regards black audiences, but it is wrong regarding white audiences.

    Record executives realized they could sell plenty of hot numbers by black bands to white record-buyers. In the late twenties Victor, the world's leading record producer, issued a series of "hot dance" records featuring some of the great black orchestras -- those of Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, Benny Moten, Earl Hines, and King Oliver -- along with some recordings by white jazzmen such as Eddie Condon and Jack Teagarden. These hot-dance discs were aimed at a broad market, not just black record-buyers. Other record companies also directed some of their recordings by black bands at a white audience and, like Victor, did not confine their black artists to "race" labels that sold only in African-American neighborhoods.

    Paradoxically, the record companies also knew they could sell ordinary dance tunes played by black bands to white audiences. Thus it was not only white bands with jazz credentials that were "forced to record wretched pop tunes." Black bands, too, recorded their share of pop tunes. In the mid-twenties, when the incomparable Louis Armstrong played with Fletcher Henderson, this group recorded, along with classic jazz standards such as "Copenhagen" and "Sugar Foot Stomp," dozens of popular songs, such as "Swanee Butterfly" and "I'll See You in My Dreams," aimed at the same white audience that danced to its music at the Roseland, in midtown Manhattan.

    Eugene Kramer

    Eugene Kramer has caught me in a reckless overstatement, which I welcome the chance to correct. I should not have said that 1920s record executives thought "black audiences would accept only jazz whereas white audiences wanted polite dance music." Sudhalter, on pages 303-304 of Lost Chords, refers more moderately to the record executives' assumption "that 'hot' jazz, in common with the blues, was best received by black record buyers, . . . and that whites, by contrast, preferred their 'jazz' on the polite side."

    What led me to overstate was, I think, Sudhalter's later assertion that records by black bands were "most often . . . not even distributed in communities where whites lived; white fans (or musicians) looking for new releases by Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, or Bessie Smith had to go to black neighborhoods to find them."

    (I would, incidentally, remind Mr. Kramer that on each of the three separate masters of the Henderson "I'll See You in My Dreams" is a smashing solo by "the incomparable Louis Armstrong.")

    Editors' Note

    A reader has pointed out to us that the photograph labeled "Isoroku Yamamoto" on page 53 of the March Atlantic is misidentified. The photograph came to us labeled "Admiral Yamamoto." It is actually a photograph of Admiral Yeisuke Yamamoto.

    The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; May 1999; Letters; Volume 283, No. 5; pages 10-16.