A Brief History of the Bible (part 2) – by Dean Anderson


In my last article, I talked about the history of the Hebrew Bible, from its beginnings in the legends and propaganda of the Canaanites to its eventual form as the holy scriptures (but not a single book) of the Jewish religion. This time, I am going to talk about the New Testament.

Once again, I must stress that I am not attempting to provide any academic scholarship of my own here, merely an overview of current opinion designed to spark interest. As always, there is active debate about much of this, and I would encourage those interested in more detail to read up on the subject further rather than taking what I say as (if you excuse the pun) Gospel.

Part 2: The Writing of the Bible – The New Testament

Unlike the Hebrew Bible, which was written and compiled over a almost a millennium, the vast bulk of the New Testament was written over a much shorter period of time – about a century and a half, from the mid 1st Century to the end of the 2nd Century. Much like the traditions about Moses writing the Torah, there are strong traditions about the writers of the New Testament books. These traditions are usually little more than just tradition, but they are often taken for granted.

One of the biggest questions regarding the New Testament, particularly regarding the Gospels, is that of the nature of Jesus. Was he a real person? If so, how much of the biographical detail in the Gospels is correct? Did he actually say what the writers of the Gospels claim he said? Are the stories of miracles mere exaggerations? Or descriptions of the actions of a successful charlatan and faker? Or merely stories with no basis in historical reality? In truth, many of these questions are now unanswerable. We can only talk in terms of probabilities and possibilities – or in terms of faith, not in terms of proof.

Circa 40 CE: Collected Wisdom sayings

At this time (or slightly later), an individual or group in the vicinity of Galilee writes down the collected sayings and wisdom of one or more itinerant preachers or philosophers. Some of this wisdom has clear influence from the Cynic school of philosophy; other parts are more eschatological in nature – talking about the coming “Kingdom of God”. Whether these sayings were from a single individual or a whole group of teachers is impossible to say, but if they are from a single person then this person is the closest we have to an historical “Jesus” – although we do not, of course, know whether that was actually the person’s name. We no longer have any copies of this document, although the text of the sayings is preserved in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Because this document is inferred to be the source of the sayings in Matthew and Luke, it is called the “Q” document (which stands for “Quelle” – the German for “source”).

Circa 50-60 CE: Paul the letter writer

Meanwhile, a small sect or cult is growing up around the Mediterranean. One prominent member called Paul – who claims to have had some kind of revelatory experience from God – starts writing letters to the heads of the sect in other cities giving them advice, often arguing with them over theological matters, and generally acting as one of the de-facto leaders of what is growing to become a fully fledged religion. The letters written by Paul that we have include those to the groups in Corinth (1 and 2 Corithians – although since 1 Corinthians mentions a previous letter to them these numbers are somewhat misleading), Philippi (Philippians), Ephesus (Ephesians), Galatia (Galatians) and Rome (Romans). These letters – which seem clearly intended to be read aloud to the congregations as teaching aids rather than being personal letters to the leaders of the groups – form the backbone of the New Testament and indeed of Christianity itself.

Interestingly, these letters include none of the sayings associated with Jesus and no indication that Paul knows anything about his life. While there are a few references which may be indicators that Paul is referring to a flesh-and-blood Jesus, there is no indication that he is talking about someone who actually physically lived in Judea a couple of decades ago. Indeed, when he needs to make theological points such as those about dietary laws he ignores Jesus’s explicit teachings on the subject and instead quotes the Hebrew Bible for support for his viewpoints.

This apparent lack of biographical knowledge about Jesus, coupled with similarities between Paul’s rather mystical and spiritual worldview (focussing far more on the “Holy Spirit” than on Jesus’s life) and the spiritual views of his Hellenistic contemporaries (Paul was from Tarsus – in modern day Turkey now, but part of the Hellenistic world at the time) is unusual to say the least. The religion of Paul and his contemporaries has its emphasis on direct divine revelation as a source of truth rather than word-of-mouth news that has passed from eyewitnesses to events and people who have heard Jesus speak. Indeed, the whole preaching career of Jesus seems irrelevant to Paul. Only the spiritual sacrifice is relevant. It is clear that Paul’s religion is a far cry from modern Christianity.

When reading in the traditional order – with the Gospels first and then Paul’s letters – is seems obvious that Paul is talking about the person that one has just been reading about the life of. When read in chronological order, though, where Paul’s letters come first without the Gospels having “set the scene” the ambiguity and lack of reference to any biographical details of his Christ are much more apparent.

His apparent ignorance of the biographical details of Jesus’s life is one of the main points of support that proponents of the “Jesus Myth” theory (the theory – albeit a minority one – that there was no historical Jesus and that Christianity started as a purely spiritual religion) have.

Circa 65-80CE: The first Gospel

Around this time, someone in an unknown location wrote the Gospel of Mark. It is not known where this person lived, but given the abysmal knowledge of Palestinian geography displayed by the routes that the author claims Jesus took at various times he clearly didn’t live there.

The anonymous author of the Gospel (the name “Mark” is just tradition) talks of a human Jesus who walked around Galilee, and is the earliest work we have that provides such biographical additions to the story. By writing this Gospel, the author has combined the spiritual Christ of Paul’s religion with a story of a local teacher giving out wisdom similar to that collected in the Q document.

Interestingly, we seem to see a development in theology here. Although Mark gives Jesus an explicitly earthly existence, he gives no details about his life before his baptism and preaching career, and the baptism scene itself implies that he only becomes special and becomes the Son of God at that point when the spirit descends (in the form of a dove) into him. This seems to indicate that the author’s beliefs were those of an Adoptionist (a belief – later declared heresy – that Jesus was God’s son only by adoption, and not by divine conception and virgin birth).

Similarly, originally the Gospel of Mark ends with no resurrection and no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. It has Jesus cry out on the cross and “give up the spirit” (the spirit that descended into him at his baptism) and then die and get buried. Again, this fits more with the theology of Paul’s more spiritual religion than with modern Christianity.

It seems to be a development from Paul’s purely (or almost purely) spiritual theology where there is no biography for a human Jesus and it is not entirely clear whether Paul even believed that there was one, into a theology where a purely spiritual Christ descends into a purely human Jesus at his baptism and then leaves as it experiences his death.

Whether Mark thought he was writing about a real person, or whether his story of Jesus was supposed to be didactic allegory in nature rather than historical biography, we cannot tell. Similarly, if he was talking about the Q teacher, it is not clear whether he believed this teacher to be the person that Paul’s Son of God was based on or whether he was consciously combining the two traditions – Paul’s spiritual (and possibly human) Christ and Q’s teacher – into one like a modern New Ager combining Native American Shamanism and European Tarot to produce an amalgam which satisfies them spiritually.

Circa 80-120 CE: More Gospels and theological development

Within a couple of decades of Mark’s Gospel being written, we get to the writing of another couple of Gospels – those of Matthew and Luke. Again, these names are only traditional, the works themselves are anonymous.

These both clearly base themselves on Mark’s gospel, but both add many extra sayings and teachings to Jesus from the Q document. Since the Q document does not contain context for much of the teachings – only the sayings themselves – both authors add their own contexts which are sometimes mutually exclusive and involve Jesus making the same speech in multiple places.

By this stage, the Son-of-God-as-a-human theology has become well established, regardless of whether the first Christians believed that – and both Gospels add two important elements to the Jesus story: they both provide a story of a divine impregnation and virgin birth (an essential element in most saviour stories), although unsurprisingly (since both of them are writing about a century after the alleged events) both of them give mutually contradictory dates for this, and rather than just end on an empty tomb, both give stories of Jesus rising from the dead and appearing to various people.

Circa 90-200CE: Internecine squabbling and pseudoepigraphy

By now, the Christian church is getting well established, although there is a wide variety of beliefs ranging from the purely spiritual Docetists who believe that there was no human Jesus, just an illusion of one (by now the Gospels have been around long enough that even those believing in a purely spiritual Christ seem to accept that there at least appeared to be a human Jesus) through to Adoptionists at the other side believing a purely human Jesus and a separate spiritual Christ.

As the religion grows, there is much squabbling between the various groups – the writings of the early Church Fathers such as Irenaeus are testament to that. All the groups are trying to claim that they are the True Christians and that the others are all deluded at best and evil at worst (just like many of today’s groups still do, of course).

In order to support their claims, many of these groups either edit existing scriptures to match their theology (such as the insertion of 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 – the famous “Unequally Yoked” passage – into one of Paul’s letters) or simply writing new letters and claiming them to be authentic.

Indeed, during this period there are myriad Gospels (including: Gospel of John – the only other one included in the Bible, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Judas, Gospel of the Saviour, and many others) epistles (including: James, 1-3 John, 1-2 Peter, Jude, 1-2 Timothy, and Titus – all of which are included in the Bible, and many others) and apocalypses (including: Apocalypse of John – included in the bible as “Revelation”, Apocalypse of Paul, two Apocalypses of Peter and two Apocalypse of James) none of which are by who they claim to be by and all of which are attempting to push the theology of one group or other as the theology of the founders of the religion.

200CE-400CE: Less writing, more arguing

Although there is still the occasional new book written, such as the blatantly fake “Acts of Pilate”, by now it is getting harder to pass off new books as being authentic. However, many of the earlier fakes have been around for so long that it is no longer clear (if it ever was) which books are fakes and which are genuine.

By this stage, the conflicts between the competing sects of Christianity are more political than theological, and this culminates in the Nicene Creed in 323CE (followed by the Constantinople Creed in 381CE) which officially defined which subset of Christianity would be considered orthodox and which subsets (i.e. all others) would be considered heretical.

At the start of this period, there was no fixed canon – people simply disagreed over which of the books written over the past couple of hundred years were genuine and/or authoritative. We have little information about how quickly a single canonical set was agreed on, but within three years of the Constantinople Creed Damasus’s Latin Vulgate Bible was first produced, and that contained the standard list of 27 books that we are familiar with today. In 405, Pope Innocent I ratified this canon of 27 books officially.

Next Month:

Next month I will discuss the translations of the Bible, and how the Bibles we have today are related to the ancient texts.

So you want to be a Scientist? – by Octavia


Okay, so it’s not likely that Mr. Spock is going to turn up sending messages to our computers, moaning (in a very restrained and sexy way) about stone knives and bear skins. We can dream, though…

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) does more than dream. It’s actively looking for Mr. Spock and his non-humanoid we-don’t-need-to-break-out-the-latex-noses-this-time cousins. (Think Horta.) There’s a fuckload of stars out there, and we’re discovering planets circling round more and more of them all the time. The more there are, the higher chance we have of finding out that we’re not – to mix SF metaphors – the only bags of mostly water out there. (Horta excepted.) The chances of coming across them, though, are highly increased if we are actively looking.

SETI uses radio telescopes to scan the sky for narrow bandwidth radio signals. This is based on the idea that aliens out there looking for life with their own version of the SETI programme are likely to do it in the most logical efficient way possible – concentrating power into one very narrow frequency range not only saves on power (Spock’s blood is green for a good reason, you know) but also makes it more likely that the creatures on the other end of the signal can fish it out of al the background noise. This type of radio signal doesn’t occur naturally, so if it’s out there are we haven’t made it, then something else has.

Analysing all that data is like looking for a tribble in a toy store. Previous SETI projects used large supercomuters, until in 1995 a bright spark called David Gedye thought he could sucker a whole lot of folks like us into doing said analysis for them. In effect, internet-connected home computers would download raw data, and analyse it in screensaver mode. Whenever the computer is needed again, the analysis is put on hold until the human computer hauls itself out to the big scary world of the outdoors and leaves the machine to get on with it.

SETI@home is a particularly good example of “So You Want To Be A Scientist (With No Effort Whatsoever)” as it doesn’t require the slightest bit of mental effort on behalf of the researcher (yes, take the fancy title. It’s all the reward you’ll get until your computer finds Uhura and convinces her to do a naked fan dance for you). All you need to do is follow the easy instructions to download the software to your computer, and then you can leave the house and get blind drunk in the knowledge that, by tearing yourself away from Kirk/Janeway time-travel fanfic porn, you’re sacrificing yourself to science. Go, you! You virtuous thing, you.


Watercolours – by judanne

It's Home

It's Home

Rural Apex

Rural Apex

Yi's Backyard

Yi's Backyard




Community Profile: David B

davidbHey David, thanks for being this month’s victim! So, on with the questions… How did you find out about online freethought communities, and what’s your favourite thing about them?

Shortly after I got a new computer with a modem, more years ago now than I care to remember, I web searched for atheism, and stumbled upon a discussion board called ‘The Godless Zone’ (Don’t be shy)’ and dived in. Sadly, the hosting company went belly up, and a succession of moves led to it losing a lot of membership.

Following that I came across IIDB, where I stayed until events there led me to leave. Then I looked around for somewhere I could really feel at home for some time, was led to Talk Rational.

There are a couple of things that I particularly like about message boards, one being the opportunity to learn from people better informed than myself, the other being able to interact with people of similar interests. They are somewhat lacking in small town life. While on-line communities, and also my reading of boards dedicated to ex-mormons, ex-JWs etc have not changed my atheism, they have made me a better informed atheist, and also a rather more militant one, having seen so much evidence of the harm religions can do.

What board or fora are we most likely to find you in and what will you be talking about?


I talk about a wide variety of things, but if I have a particular bee in my bonnet it is superstition, in which I include religion, quack medicine, clairvoyance, mystical apprehension of the universe through meditation etc. This particularly because many years ago I was convinced that Transcendental Meditation was the answer to life’s problems. A long story, but wrong!

I find the science (including evolution of course) fascinating, but I learn more than I contribute to these fora.

If you had to spend your life marooned on a tropical island with three people that you’ve met online from this community, who would they be, and why?

I’ll be strikingly unoriginal, and pick Christina – we have a lot of culture in common, back from the 60s. Dylan and Dead for instance.

Nialler, to have someone to endlessly contemplate World cricket teams to play Mars, an all time England team to lose to an all time Australian team, and other variations on that theme.

There’s so much choice, but for the third I think I’ll go for someone I don’t know as well as the other two. Rathpig. On a desert island his farming skills would come in useful, he’s a sharp guy with a broad general knowledge, and an admirable grasp of invective.

Which freethought or humanist thinkers have most inspired you?

Dennett, for one. In my youth I fell for the trap of failing to see how atheism did not lead inexorably to nihilism. Which was one of the reasons for my exploration of meditation. Reading ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ led me to see a reality in concepts like morals, beauty, truth by viewing them as emergent processes rather than things.

Robert Carroll of http://skepdic.com/ fame. A guy who really does his homework, and reading his site has led me to understand better a lot of the traps that I fell into when I was a meditation proselytiser.

And again Hofstadter, whose somewhat speculative writings on the nature of mind I find difficult but very rewarding. Reading, and sometimes re-reading him, leads me to feel that I fail to quite grasp life, the universe and everything in a more sophisticated, better informed, way.

What’s your least favourite religious verse, and why?

There’s so many! But Matthew 10.37 ‘He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me’ is in my opinion a good example of classic cultism.

If you could get rid of one stupid anti-freethought argument, what would it be? Why do you hate this one above all the rest?

‘You can’t prove that there isn’t a god’ used as a justification to believe that there is one. So many people seems to find that Russell’s Teapot, or for that matter the IPU are not demolitions of that argument, and I find that frustrating.

Invisible Pink Unicorn or Flying Spaghetti Monster?

FSM, obviously! Beer fountains!

So what is it you do with your life when you’re not hanging around here, anyway?

I read pop science books, and watch a load of science documentaries on tv. I live in a beautiful area, and enjoy walking and being out in the wonders of nature, and I also enjoy the atavistic pleasure of foraging for wild food.

What’s your favourite book, and why?

Again so many! On the pop science front, then ‘GEB’ by Hofstadter springs to mind, but outside that genre I will soon reread (yet again) ‘Bevis, the story of a boy’ which is an idealised account of the boyhood of a minor victorian writer called Richard Jefferies. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Jefferies

What’s the most embarrassing song you sing and dance to when you’re absolutely sure no-one else is around?

Oh Gawd! ‘Dare’ by Gorillaz I suppose, though I am generally too embarrassed to dance even alone.

What’s the one thing you want to do with your life before shuffling off this mortal coil?

There is a phenomenon that occurs under certain storm and tide conditions in my local harbour called ‘the run’, in which there is a resonance to the waves leading to the harbour filling and emptying in a matter of minutes. To the extent that I have seen the motion of the water pull a boat under by its aft mooring ropes. I have a couple of examples down on dvd already, but nothing big. I want to capture one bigger than I have yet seen on dvd.

Coming across a grove where there is a glut of prime quality chanterelles would be good, too.

What’s your poison? How much of it is needed to drive you under the table?

Red wine, these days. Much more than a bottle is enough to give me a hangover.

Lucky #13: Who do you nominate to be interviewed for next month’s issue?


In Memoriam: Clark Adams – by epepke

Clark Adams: A Personal Memory

clarkTalladega is a strange place. Famous mostly for its speedway and the movie Talladega Nights, which may have been inspired by the name, it’s an old Alabama town. It has a traditional town square with old brick buildings, slowly being emptied due to competition from the new WalMart. There is a nice old school for the deaf and blind, and an old auditorium where I once saw James Randi speak. South of town, past Quonset huts punctuated by cow flop and gas stations where old timers really do sit and talk all day, an unexceptional side road leads off past propane tanks, churches, and the homes of ministers who extort services from local businesses, saying “Give this one to God.” Then a miracle occurs. A five-pointed star on the side of the road marks a turn to Lake Hypatia, of the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Alabama Freethought Society. A beautiful lake is surrounded by Freethought Hall, a library, a pavilion on the lake, and a monument to Atheists in Foxholes. It is there that I met my friend Clark Adams for the first and last times.

Clark and I go way back. In the days when giant reptiloids roamed the earth and 5 MHz was a fast clock, we communicated using a system called USENET. Clark moderated the alt.atheism.moderated newsgroup. He induced me to come to Lake Hypatia one year, when electronic communication was novel enough that those of us from the newsgroup wore name tags with our mail address. I spoke the next year, and it has become a tradition since then.

Clark was a self-identified conference junkie, attending half a dozen or more conferences each year. He spoke on many subject, though his favorite was Atheism and the Media. He was annual MC at the annual Fourth of July Advance at Lake Hypatia, and that is where his talents really lay. Freethought is full of prima donnas, and Clark worked best just below that level. He was a marvelous constructor of social networks. Given any two big names in freethought, the chances are that Clark had a finger in getting them together. Yet he was not an elitist and promoted and facilitated relatively unimportant people like me. He was self-deprecating, never acknowledging that he was generally the most important person in the room.

Clark was also a charter member of the board of the Internet Infidels and played a larger role in establishing that than is generally recognized. It was the story of Clark’s life to do more good than was acknowledged. As the newsgroup became obsolete, I focused my attention on that. Once, when I had a large hassle with the moderation and management a few years ago, Clark stepped in to calm the waters. In retrospect, I realize that I was right, and it was a mistake on his part. Ironically, the hassle arose from a conflict over the suicide prevention policy, which I felt in my bones was badly broken. I wish I hadn’t been right about that one, and I regret having allowed myself to be mollified by Clark and the psychologist who reassured me that everything was under control.

Anyone who ever rode while Clark was driving will not soon forget the experience. He was to the road much as Godzilla was to Tokyo. Clark drank more diet soda than anyone alive, and he ate enough boiled shrimp at the Chinese Buffet to keep several fisheries open. It has been said that he never drank alcohol, but I’ve seen him sip from a beer in his hand. Only sipped, though.

Clark never got hung up on whether one called oneself an atheist, agnostic, freethinker, secularist, or even Bright. He was an easy and comfortable friend and the kind of enemy that one cannot help but like despite the enmity.

His life with his family was not a particularly happy one. His brother is a fundamentalist, and his parents and other relatives at least believers. I met many of them at his memorial and found them friendly and respectful. One even bought a Lake Hypatia T-shirt to wear there. I even hugged his brother. After we spoke of Clark as our emotions moved us, one said to me that she had never attended a memorial with such an open outpouring of emotion. I explained that, as freethinkers, we said what we felt rather than what we felt was expected. One told me, in reference to what I said, that she liked my style. This still puzzles me, and I do not think that I had a style; I just said what I felt. Nevertheless, I found the family likeable, but clearly, an insider’s experience is different from an outsider’s.

Clark and I married on the same day of the same year, he to a wonderful girl, I to one who turned out not to be so wonderful. His marriage lasted far longer than mine, but it did end, though Clark didn’t go around telling people. I remember feeling incredibly happy that Clark had found someone so wonderful; he always seemed to remind me of myself in my early, lonely years. I know from personal experience how deep the scars of loneliness and sexual privation can run. I have healed myself, but Clark did not give himself the chance.

One week in May, 2007, Clark went to see one of his favorite comedians. He collected his materials, helium which he had researched on the web as a means of suicide and a delivery system, wrote his note, and ended his life.

Reactions to a suicide are generally of two kinds. First there is a feeling of shame and guilt, constant obsession with what one could have done and what signs one should have looked for. This is, of course, pointless and dangerous, but people do it anyway. Even more pointless and dangerous is the abreaction, which is to assert that nothing could have been done. This is frequently tainted by the Medical Model of psychiatry, which sociopathically reduces a man’s life to a soup of chemicals in the brain. Even worse is a third kind, common amongst freethinkers, opportunistically to use a suicide to argue for the right to end one’s life and the nobility of so doing. While there are many valid arguments for self-euthanasia, in this context it is ghoulish, pure and simple.

In fact, of course, there were abundant signs, but there’s no use in crying over spilt blood. We do have the capacity for reason, however, and we should think about such matters, not simply feel useless guilt and quickly turn to pseudoscientific denial to make ourselves feel better. All the psychiatrists will tell you to seek closure, which means a return to the status quo. The trouble with this is that Clark’s death shows that the status quo is broken.

Suicides are always tragic, but many are understandable. The old person with cancer who decides on a quiet death may even be supportable. The young person, full of hormones and separated from the family for the first time, is at least apprehensible.

Clark’s, however, is not. One can come up with reasons, but there exists no possibility whatsoever that, in a proper universe, a man like Clark would have killed himself. Therefore, the universe is not proper. QED.

Nietzsche advised against putting one’s trust in otherwordly hopes. As freethinkers, we should know this instinctively, but for some reason, we don’t. There is absolutely no reason why loneliness, despair, desperation, and self-loathing should exist at all. Nothing in the laws of physics requires it. We have these things only because we choose to have them and for no other reason. The other choice, the choice of happiness, is possible, and it is much more fun. As a culture, we are steeped in suffering, but culture is largely ignorable. Turn off your television set and go out and play pool or ride a roller coaster or get laid. People will be angry with you and try to get you down, but that’s their problem. Nietzsche again: “Truly, I did this and that for the suffering, but it seems to me I did better when I felt better joys.”

From Walt Kelley, we have met the enemy, and it is us. We can as easily be our own allies and friends with only the will to do so.

Sarpedon’s Weird Science

Body Parts

Continuing on our odyssey through the human body, we are now ready to discuss tissues and organs, having dealt with the plucky little cells last month.

Bridging the gap between cells and larger structures in the body, this study reports insight into limb formation in growing embryos. It shows that certain molecules, called FGFs, form on the ends of the limb buds of the embryo. These molecules serve to guide the growth of new cells along the future length of the bone. The genes that control this growth, as well as the involved molecules themselves are similar to ones that are involved in the regeneration of the limbs of amphibians. This is significant because the healing of wounds in adults uses the same molecular tools as the growth of the limbs in embryos; thus if these three phenomena could be linked, it may lead to a new range of treatments for lost limbs.

Now on to muscles and organs of circulation:
This article details how the muscles interact with the circulatory system to increase blood flow when needed. The key to this interaction lies in the ‘Extracellular Matrix’ or ECM, which is a structure of proteins that exists between all body cells. Once thought to be a mere liner or glue that holds the cells together, scientists have found that the ECM is a key carrier of signals. This signal is neither chemical nor electrical, but purely mechanical: the flexing muscle changes the shape of the protein matrix, which causes a the dilation of nearby blood vessels, increasing blood flow.

This is of interest to the researchers because they have also identified a chemical which duplicates the effect, which may lead to treatments for poor circulation, but is also of broader interest, because it shows another avenue for information to be carried between cells and organs, in addition to nerve signals and chemical means.

Human’s ability to smell odors has long been thought to be one of our weakest senses. However, scientists have long wondered why, seeing as we don’t seem to have significantly impaired smelling equipment relative to other mammals. This study seems to give some explanation; our sense of smell is not highly developed because we lack incentive to use it to its fullest.

The scientists took two similar odors, described as ‘grassy’, and exposed the test subjects to them. The subjects were unable to distinguish them at first, but acquired the ability to tell one from the other when it was accompanied by electric shocks. This ability was retained after the shocks stopped. So it is clear that the human sense of smell can be trained if there are the right incentives to do so.

Speaking of the nose and sinus, it’s for more than just smelling; it also acts as an early warning for the immune system. Viruses and other pathogens are detected in the sinuses, and this leads to a faster response by antibodies.

Unfortunately, this benefit comes with side effects. The immune system’s response can lead to inflammation of the nasal passages, runny nose, headaches, difficulty breathing, etc. Indeed, asthma and allergies are considered to be the result of the body’s overreaction to non-dangerous stimuli. This article describes how scientists are working on combating the side effects of this process, while not interfering with the desirable immune system response.

Speaking of inflammation of the breathing apparatus, there has been much written in recent years about the enormous increase in children diagnosed with asthma. And here’s another one! This one talks about a correlation that has been found between density of trees in the immediate vicinity, and a lower rate of childhood asthma cases. The exact cause has not been determined. Mostly, it seems that increased exposure to pollens reduce immune system overreaction.

Judging from these articles, the greatest threat to human health is the human immune system. That isn’t true, but check out this article, that explores the role of White Blood Cells with the spread of cancer throughout the body (Metastasis).

Cancer cells can fuse with White Blood Cells, exploiting the latter’s ability to move throughout the body via the blood stream and penetrate other tissues. As with most things in the body, you have to take the good with the bad.

To round out the month, here are some random articles:
This one has a study that shows a link between stomach size during middle age and risk of dementia in old age. Note; this link is for abdominal size, NOT total body fat. The theory is that fat in close proximity to the bodies organs, as is abdominal fat, causes a greater flow of toxins into the bloodstream, which effects the brain.

Here’s one I thought was interesting enough to include, even though it’s not strictly a ‘human’ organ issue. Desert gazelles can actually shrink their livers and hearts during dry spells. This reduces overall metabolic activity, resulting in reduced needs for food, water, and (less importantly) oxygen.

And lastly, here’s a stride in improving the diagnosis of intestinal disorder that is sure to improve people’s health while making them feel uncomfortable; a robot that crawls through the colon under its own power, and searches for malignant polyps and Sarah Connor.

So, after three months or so of human body science, I think I’m ready to move on to a different topic, at least until some more news builds up. So, don’t miss next month’s edition which will focus on High Energy Physics, with a special interest in Particle Colliders.

Oh My – by judanne