Devil’’s Chaplain an Eloquent Advocate

A DEVIL’S CHAPLAIN: Selected Essays. Richard Dawkins. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003. ISBN 0 297 82973 4.

We Dawkins fans have been waiting since “Unweaving the Rainbow” in 1998 for this. Unlike its predecessors, it is not written around a single theme, but is a collection of Dawkins’s comments and reviews of the past 25 years, on a variety of topics, reflecting his wide-ranging interests and passions. His editor, Latha Menon, has arranged 32 of these into six groups and a final letter to his ten-year-old daughter on “Belief”. In addition to a general Preface, Dawkins has written a short introduction to each group.

The first essay in group one, which gives its name to the title of the book, is based on a quotation from a letter of Darwin’s: “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature”. This is a mixed bag of topics, ranging from the lunacies of crystal gazing and postmodernism to an enlightened public school headmaster of 100 years ago, with, between these extremes of sense, the Great Ape Project.

In the second group, collected under the title, ‘Light Will Be Thrown’, we are back with Darwin and evolution. ‘The Infected Mind’ is a passionate denunciation of monotheism, after which Dawkins cools down by means of four eulogies for friends and heroes.

Much is made, especially by biology’s enemies, of “hostility” between Dawkins and SJ Gould. A whole section of the book is devoted to this; reviews of Gould’s books, comments on his philosophy, and correspondence between them. It is a lesson in how to combine professional disagreement over details with warm respect and friendship in personal matters. The author grieves for Gould’s early death as for a fellow fighter for truth.

The final section has a geographical flavour. “Out of Africa” applies to Homo sapiens in general, and to Dawkins in particular, and he relishes that. Many of us parents must wish we could write as eloquently to our children as he does in the coda to the book. Fortunate Miss Dawkins!

Existence of ESP confirmed

It’s often claimed either that science doesn’t have the tools to identify ESP, or that scientists have a prejudice against the whole idea. But American researchers have recently confirmed that certain individuals are indeed able to detect an energy field given off by living creatures in the absence of any other sensory cues. The only thing is, those individuals are young paddlefish.

This large, shark-like species lives in the muddy waters of the Mississippi, filtering plankton from the water with its gills. Young paddlefish use sensory organs on the sword-like “paddle” which extends in front of the mouth to detect prey animals (mostly small crustaceans) individually by the electric fields they produce. Some marine sharks, and the duck-billed platypus, have similar abilities. Still no sign that Homo sapiens can work this particular trick, however.

New Scientist, 7 April


If I Could Talk to the Dead Animals

Pet psychic Carol Schultz of Chicago has been gaining a lot of international attention, with identical reports featured in June editions of the Cairns Post and Evening Post. Journalist Marilynn Marchione seems to have written the piece with eyebrows permanently raised, as Schultz talks of her ability to speak with dogs, cats and horses, even if they’re dead. She even reads cats’ paws! Yes, it’s true! The article goes on to tell of a dog trapped in a cat’s body – it didn’t help that he was named Duke. Schultz also helps people get in touch with their departed loved ones – one woman who had had two dogs die recently wanted to know why they needed to leave her.

Consultations cost $35 for an email consultation, $50 by phone, or $75 plus travel for a personal visit. That’s US dollars.

Evening Post, 16 June, Cairns Post, 5 June

Seagull healed

Not to be outdone by the Americans, New Zealand also has its resident pet psychics. Paul and Victoria Woodward of Upper Moutere charge only $15 a session to lay hands on an animal and unblock its energy channels, which is a lot more reasonable. Victoria Woodward says animals seem to know the healing could help them.

“I’ve even treated a seagull, I didn’t touch him, but he got close enough for the treatment to work and simply flew off when he’d had enough.” How she knew the bird was ill (or male), or had been healed, she didn’t say.

Nelson Mail, 8 May

Open wide, please

The British Dental Journal reports that an acupuncture needle, inserted into an anti-gagging point on the ear is just the thing to overcome fear-induced nausea during a visit to the dentist. Some patients are so apprehensive, according to Dr Janice Fiske of the Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’ Dental Institute, they develop a gagging reflex, which causes their jaws to clench. The needles were tried on 10 subjects, and it worked every time. Without the needles, six could only bear to open their mouths after sedation. Now if they could just come up with something to deal with a fear of needles…

Evening Post, 14 June

Aromatherapy all in the mind

The placebo effect (see Editorial) was in the news again with a report on a team of German and Austrian scientists, who found that oils used in aromatherapy improve mental ability – but only if you believe they do. The team, led by Josef Ilmberger of the Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich, sprinkled water onto surgical masks worn by volunteers, then tested their reaction times. Essential oils used to promote alertness, such as peppermint, jasmine and ylang-ylang, were then sprayed on the masks of some of the volunteers, while others had water, and reaction times were again tested. No difference was found in reactions in subjects treated with oil or water, suggesting the oils do not have a direct influence on the brain when inhaled. However, when asked to rate how stimulating, strong or pleasant they found each liquid, those subjects who gave high ratings showed small improvements in their reaction times. Ilmberger concluded the effects of essential oils on basic forms of attentional behaviour were mainly psychological.

Dominion, Evening Post, 20 April

Exorcism goes awry

One of the grislier news items of recent times concerned the death of 37-year-old Joanna Lee in December. Pastor Luke Lee was committed to trial for Ms Lee’s manslaughter in June after allegedly strangling her during an exorcism. Neighbours heard screams and chanting prayers from the Auckland house, but didn’t think anything of it, as such noises were common. Six days after the exorcism, police found Ms Lee’s fly-blown body, still lying in bed while members of Pastor Lee’s Lord of All church prayed over her, occasionally wiping her body with alcohol to keep the smell at bay. Lee told police she had been sick and was sleeping.

“We are innocent. God knows. If we pray, Joanna will come back. God knows,” Lee said.

Church members said in written statements that Lee regularly performed exorcisms on them, one noting that for a small man he used a lot of force. Most of his 30-strong congregation was gathered from Queen St on Friday nights, though many who did join quickly became disturbed by Lee’s aggressive behaviour and left again. Joanna Lee, who had arrived from Korea six weeks previously, was described by church members as “a very smiley person”.

Dominion, 12 June

“Yeti” hair passes genetic test

British scientists on the trail of the yeti have found some of the best evidence yet of the existence of the mythical Himalayan creature – a sample of hair that has proved impossible to identify.

The hair was gathered from a tree in eastern Bhutan, and matches no known animal, raising the strong possibility that it was from an unknown species. An “official yeti hunter” led the expedition, working on the documentary series To the Ends of the Earth, to an area where he was convinced an animal was at large, and collected the hair from a hollow in a cedar tree.

Bryan Sykes, professor of human genetics at the Oxford Institute of Molecular Medicine said the hair wasn’t human or bear, or anything else they’d been able to identify.

“It’s a mystery and I never thought this would end in a mystery. We have never encountered DNA that we couldn’t recognise before.”

Of course, it may not have come from a large hairy primate. Wonder if they compared it with Fiordland moose hair?

Dominion, 3 April

A considerable easing of international tensions

There has been a considerable easing of international tensions since the dark days of the mid-twentieth century. John Riddell thinks he knows why.

Take Two Dictators and Call Me in the Morning

AT the end of World War II, a man called Adolf Hitler killed himself. His followers then took his body and burnt it. The water in his corpse was heated and turned to steam. Also, the combustion process itself artificially manufactures water by combining some of the hydrogen in his body with oxygen in the atmosphere. The importance of these grisly facts will of course be obvious to anyone familiar with homeopathy.

The water given off by his cremation must have risen into the air and become increasingly diluted with the mass of the rest of the planet. Now the mass of the earth is about 5.98×1024 kilograms. And the mass of Adolf Hitler, pre cremation, about 100 kilograms (plus or minus 50kg). Now if the mass of Adolf was evenly diluted with the whole earth, that becomes a dilution of 1 part Adolf per 5.98×1022. In homeopathic terms this is extremely potent. This is approximately a potency of 22X, that is a 1:10 dilution repeated 22 times. Of course in reality, some parts of Adolf will be much more concentrated than this, but on average it would be reasonable to expect that each glass of water you drink is going to be a very powerful homeopathic Hitler. Now the exact consequences of drinking small amounts of Adolf over a long period of time have not yet been determined. However, we might make some predictions based on homeopathic theory.

The way homeopathy is supposed to work is that by exposing yourself to very dilute amounts of chemicals that produce certain symptoms, you will stimulate your body’s defences and prevent those symptoms from happening. For example, a chemical that produces chest pains might be diluted to produce a homeopathic remedy that protects you against chest pain.

So we might look at some of the things that were caused by Hitler. The effect of people all over the world taking a highly potentised dose of Adolf should, if homeopathy works, be a reduction of those symptoms for which Hitler was famous.

Now Hitler was intolerant of Jews, Poles and Homosexuals. As predicted by this theory there has been a marked improvement in the treatment of these three groups by people around the globe. Similarly, Adolf was also well known for starting and waging wars. While Hitler was in charge of Germany, there was a world war. Since then, there has not been a world war. More confirmation of the hypothesis that a homeopathic Hitler remedy has been of benefit to the world.

But then my brother has just pointed out that perhaps it is a case of a biodynamic effect, as opposed to homeopathic. Rudolf Steiner, bless his tiny wee brain, thought you could get rid of thistles by wandering round the paddock pulling all the flowers off. Actually, that will work, but it was what he did next that was strange. He took the flowers home and burnt them and then sprinkled the ashes around the farm. He never worked out that the reason there were fewer thistles the next year was because somebody kept pulling the flowers off.

Some followers (why do they always have followers?) of Rudolf thought this might work with possums. They caught a few possums and cut off their testicles. I don’t know if the possums were alive at the time. They then burnt the testicles and sprinkled the ashes around the bush. According to them, the remaining possums moved out of the area. I can’t see possums giving up their genitalia without a fight, so I assume they killed them first. After all, they couldn’t have them go back to the bush saying “Watch out for the guy with the knife” But then again, maybe that’s what made the possums move out.

So when they burnt Adolf, it is fair to assume they didn’t remove his testicles first. Which means Hitler’s cremated testicular dust got blown around Berlin. From that day to this, there hasn’t been another fascist megalomaniac in charge of Germany. Perhaps there is something to this Biodynamics business after all?

New Ideas on Old Life

The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals, by Simon Conway Morris. Oxford University Press.
Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth’s Earliest Fossils, by J William Schopf. Princeton University Press.

The Burgess Shale has attained iconic status among those interested in the early history of life. It has been the subject of several books, most notably Wonderful Life, by Stephen Jay Gould, who portayed the Burgess fauna as one with a broader range of phyla, or major animal groups, than exists today. The eventual dominance of the vertebrates, he argued, was dependant on the contingencies of history, and could not have been predicted from their minor status in the Cambrian.

Morris, who has done much of the groundwork on the Burgess Shale and other Cambrian soft-bodied faunas, argues that more recent findings indicate that the diversity of Burgess phyla has been overstated, and in fact show the basic unity of groups which today we consider very distinct. The Halkieriids, for example, appear to link the molluscs, annelids, the Burgess animal Wiwaxia, and even the brachiopods.

William Schopf, on the other hand, has devoted his life to the Precambrian. A mere 30 years ago, almost nothing was known of the first three quarters of the history of life. The problem was, says Schopf, we were looking in the wrong places. Once the right kind of rocks were identified, a range of single-celled and other simple fossils were discovered, including his own record-breaking find of three and a half billion year-old cyanobacteria in Australia, the oldest fossils known.

Schopf was also brought in to advise on the purportedly fossil-bearing Martian meteorite, and he explains clearly why these structures are most likely non-biological.

Both books are highly readable accounts by leading authorities in their fields. Recommended reading.

The Omen

EVERYTHING was roses and buttercups until that fateful day. An omen, it was, for sure. In July, on Friday, only 17 days before the 13th, we had born on our humble dairy farm a calfie. She had four legs, nice black and white patches, a cute butt and two heads, four eyes, four ears and two tongues.

Continue reading

Roswell Autopsy

Post-mortem on the autopsy or autopsy on the post-mortem?

Post-mortem undoubtedly. There could hardly be a deader duck than the supposed Roswell autopsy film, whatever species of being or inanimate object we saw being carved up.

I will leave to others discussion of the murky provenance of this film, and the many anachronisms said to infect it. Instead, I offer some thoughts on biological aspects.

The cadaver pictured, if genuinely extra-terrestrial, represents perhaps the most important piece of biological material ever to come into human possession. To merely carry out the crude dissection shown would be only the tiniest beginning of any investigation which researchers of fifty years ago would have carried out. One might almost say that anatomists, histologists and biochemists, both then and now, would kill for the possession of a few grams of the “meat” on that slab.

By the late 1940s, the essential similarities of all terrestrial life-forms had been established — the aqueous environment necessary for cellular activity, the universal genetic code of nucleic acids, the cellular machinery of proteins built up from a few L-amino acids, the resemblances in energy metabolism, and many other features. Were the object the body of a genuine extra-terrestrial, I cannot conceive that the medical and scientific people involved in the autopsy would not have seized on this, the first opportunity in human history to investigate such a thing, and make a thorough microscopic, chemical and biochemical analysis of what they had in the hand. If the autopsy was genuine, where is all this information? Are we to believe that someone has been sitting on it for nearly fifty years, when publication, either official or by a “leak”, would yield instant fame and fortune?

Some knowledge of extra-terrestrial biology could be expected to confer an advantage on those holding it, by offering a different perspective on how we ourselves work. There appears no evidence of this in American research publications; scientists in the US, as everywhere else, are groping at the frontier between the known and the unknown, using only our knowledge of Earth-based biology.

Should mankind ever have the opportunity to investigate extra-terrestrial life-forms, scientists the world over would say with Wordsworth “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive …”. The prospect is vastly grander and more exciting than anything seen in the Roswell “autopsy”.

Physical and Financial Health?

On Thursday, 19 August 1993, the Christchurch Press carried a full-page advertisement for the initial New Zealand opening of the “Matrol Opportunity”.

The product, Matrol-Km, was described as “a unique nutritional supplement comprised of a synergistic combination of 13 botanical ingredients that produces an unusually powerful bond at the molecular level”. It was developed over 60 years ago by Dr Karl Jurak (PhD, University of Vienna, 1922), originally for his own use.

We were told that the product “has been tested in the most demanding laboratory in the world — the human body — for over 70 years”. The goal of the company “is not to see how many distributors we can sign up. Our goal is to impact world health. [italics original] Matrol is unique in that its distributors are emotionally tied to its product. They are unwavering in their commitment to use the product daily and reap its health benefits on an ongoing basis. Which means that each distributor is his or her own best testimonial!”

In case the rather vaguely described health advantages of the product weren’t enough, the ad pointed out that Matrol offers “one of the most generous compensation plan[s] in the network marketing industry“. This seems to be 25-40% profits, plus additional 5% commissions on sales made by “supervisors”> under you.

I was intrigued enough by the claims of an unusually powerful molecular bond to attend the evening meeting. Unfortunately the nature of this bond was not mentioned at the meeting, although the herbal ingredients were.

Matrol-Km consists of a dark-coloured, admittedly unpleasant-tasting liquid, which you are supposed to take daily for at least a month to be assured of achieving health effects (although some persons respond inside a day), and which you can then expect to take for the rest of your life. This costs $NZ90 per month per person, unless in self-defense you become a Matrol reseller to obtain wholesale discounts.

The health benefits were not much specified at the meeting. Phrases used included “extra energy”, “better sleep”, “look younger, feel younger”, “clarity of mind”, “an insurance for good health”. I was impressed by the frequency with which speakers talked of having encountered Matrol-Km at financial and/or emotional low-points in their life. We were reminded that the product is for both physical and financial health, and there was to my mind considerable intermingling of the two concepts.

The bottles themselves (one month’s supply, 946 ml), give an admirably thorough list of ingredients, presumably in order of diminishing concentration: water, caramel, potassium citrate, glycerophosphate, calcium glycerophosphate, magnesium glycerophosphate, potassium hydroxide, potassium glycerophosphate, iron glycerophosphate, followed by 13 herbs, plus traces of clove and peppermint oil as flavourings. The mixture, which is non-alcoholic, is preserved by paraben and methyl paraben. Below, I’ve summarised the Matrol claims for each herb as given on a sales pamphlet, and the descriptions given by S. Talalaj and A.S. Czechowicz in their book Herbal Remedies: Harmful and Beneficial Effects.

(1) Chamomile flowers (Matricaria chamomilla).

Matrol: consecrated to the Egyptian Gods; used by Romans for nutritional properties; used to make a tea; high in calcium, magnesium, iron and trace minerals.

T&C: active ingredients are matricine, a volatile oil (1%) containing bisabolols and chamazulene… Also glycosides apigenin, apigetrin, rutin, coumarins, and flavonoids. Pharmacological action: anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic (“cramps”), carminative (anti-farting), sedative, antiseptic, vulnerary (promotes wound healing). A “therapeutically valuable remedy” with mild calming effect useful in treatment of nervous conditions, excitement, and restlessness… Harmless even if taken over a prolonged period.

(2) Saw palmetto berry (sabal, Serenoa repens).

Matrol: N American Indians made tea from berry, which contains many primary nutrients and elemental minerals.

T&C: Active constituents are oestrogen-like steroidal glycosides. Low-toxicity plant, but its use should be discussed with a medical practitioner because of the oestrogen-like effects. Has been used to treat chronic cystitis, might show beneficial effect in treatment of benign enlargement of prostate.

(3) Angelica root (Archangelica officinalis).

Matrol: regarded as holy plant, chewed regularly by Laplanders, rich in essential oils, calcium, vitamin E and vitamin B-12, which is rare in vegetation.

T&C: Active constituents are volatile oil, furanocoumarins, resin, bitter principles, and triterpenoids. Relatively safe in moderate curative doses. (“Fresh root is extremely toxic and is used as a homicidal poison among Canadian Indians.”) Pharmacological action is to increase gastric secretions, antispasmodic, diuretic, sedative. Has mainly been used in treatment of indigestion and flatulent colic… stimulates the appetite in anorexia nervosa, also used for treatment of cystitis and urinary inflammations. Decreases muscular tension and exhibits a mild sedative action….

(4) Thyme (Thymus vulgaris).

Matrol: Signifies graceful elegance in Greece, bravery in European chivalry. Abundant in thiamine, also B-complex, vitamins C and D, and trace minerals.

T&C: Active constituents volatile oil (2-3%)… Also tannins (10%), saponins, flavonoids. Harmless when used in a low dose (oil highly toxic when digested in ml quantities). Pharmacological actions are antiseptic, anthelmintic (intestinal worms), astringent, expectorant, carminative. Has been used in treatment of cough, whooping cough, bronchitis, dyspepsia and stomach disorders, occasionally as anthelmintic.

(5) Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata).

Matrol: cultivated and used by Indians of Virginia (US). Plentiful in nutrient complexes, especially calcium and magnesium.

T&C: Active ingredients indole alkaloids (0.1%) including harmine, harmaline and harman. Also flavonoids, steroidal substances, cyanogenic glycosides and saponins. Harmless if used in a low curative dose, but should only be used under medical supervision. Reputation of being an effective sedative.

(6) Gentian root (Gentiana lutea).

Matrol: popular in Europe as mid-day tea. Rich in B-complex nutrients, vitamin F, niacin, inositol and many trace elements.

T&C: Active constituents are bitter glycosides, also alkaloids, flavonoids, tannins and mucilage. Harmless in low therapeutic doses, but should be avoided in cases of acute gastritis, stomach ulcer, and haemorrhages in gastro-intestinal tract, also by patients with excessive number of red blood cells. Not advisable in breast-feeding women because breast milk may become bitter. Popular bitter gastric stimulant, used as appetizer, to increase gastric secretion in dyspepsia, and to relieve flatulence, also useful for gall-bladder dysfunction and liver problems.

(7) Licorice root (Glycyrrhzia glabra).

Matrol: used anciently in China, Greece. Contains vitamin E, B-complex, biotin, niacin, pantothenic acid, lecithin, manganese and other trace minerals.

T&C: Active constituents are triterpenoid saponins… also flavonoids, oestrogen-like steroids, coumarins, tannins and volatile oil. No adverse effects in low curative doses. Pharmacological action as anti-inflammatory, expectorant (loosens phlegm), anti-spasmodic (cramps), demulcent (eases irritation of skin and lining of digestive tract). Popular remedy mainly for gastric ulcer. Shows beneficial anti-inflammatory effects, reduces gastric acid secretion and promotes ulcer healing. Also used for cough, bronchitis and allergic skin disease.

(8) Senega root (milkwort, Polygala senega).

Matrol: valued by N American Indians for its refreshing mint-like flavour and for many nutrients. Rich in magnesium, iron and other trace minerals.

T&C: Active constituents are triterpenoid saponins (up to 10%) including senegin… Also sterols, resin, and methyl salicylate (oil of wintergreen). Toxic when used in an excessive dose, may cause vomiting diarrhoea, vertigo, visual disturbances, and inflammation of the oesophagus. Should be avoided during pregnancy and G-I inflammation or stomach bleeding. Mainly used to treat cough and chronic bronchitis, often in combination with ipecac, or in combination with other plants as an asthma remedy.

(9) Horehound root (Ballota nigra).

Matrol: member of mint family, praised 4 centuries ago by Gerard for its usefulness. Rich in Vitamins A, E, C, F and B-complex, also contains iron and potassium.

T&C: Active ingredients are flavonoids, “bitter principle” and volatile oil. No adverse effects reported. Used for dyspepsia, flatulence and anti-emetic in pregnancy.

10) Celery seed (Apium graveolens).

Matrol: in use for centuries from Central Europe to East Indies and South America. Seed contains a group of useful organic compounds called phthalides, also vitamins A, B, and C, and iron.

T&C: Active ingredients are volatile oil (3%) containing mainly limonene and selinen, also flavonoid glycoside apiin. A low toxicity plant, but excessive doses should not be used during pregnancy. Mainly used to treat inflammation of urinary tract and cystitis, regarded as an effective urinary antiseptic. Also used to treat arthritis, rheumatism, gout, asthma and bronchitis.

(11) Sarsaparilla root (Smilax officinalis).

Matrol: used by early Americans as “spring tea”. Spanish Conquistadors recorded its [unspecified] legendary qualities. Contains vitamin C and B-complex.

T&C: Active ingredients are steroidal saponins… and parillin. Also tannins, resin and sterols. A low toxicity plant, but excessive dose or prolonged internal use should be avoided. Should not be used in cases of kidney disorder. Pharmacological action is carminative, diuretic, diaphoretic (causing profuse perspiration), antirheumatic. Once had a great reputation in the treatment of rheumatism and skin disease, especially psoriasis.

(12) Alfalfa (Medicago sativa).

Matrol: revered by ancients as “King of Plants”, an excellent source of easily assimilated vitamins and minerals. Contains 14 of the 16 principal mineral elements and all known vitamins, but is especially rich in some amino acids and vitamins A, D and K, and iron.

T&C: Active constituents are oestrogen-like isoflavonoids, alkaloids, carotenoids (provitamin A), and vitamins B1, B2, K, C and D. Also coumarins and mineral salts of calcium, potassium, iron and phosphorus. Excessive doses taken internally can cause flatulence and diarrhoea. Long term application can produce reactivation of systemic lupus erythematosus and produce skin ulceration. Excessive doses can also produce an oestrogen-like response. Pharmacological action as anti-anaemic, nutritive. Mainly used as a nutrient for convalescent patients.

Note that this is just about the only case where the Matrol literature agrees with Talalaj and Czechowicz.

(13) Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale).

Matrol: Rich in vitamin complexes, choline, a B-vitamin, and a main component of lecithin. Also contains vitamins A and C, and essential linolenic acid.

T&C: Active ingredients are taraxacin, inulin (a fructose polymer), potassium salts, and vitamin A. Harmless. Used for liver ailments and gallstones.

The remarkable thing about the Matrol descriptions is that they concentrate, rather boringly, on the mineral and vitamin contents of their herbal ingredients.

Minerals and vitamins are easily obtained, in relatively cheap multi-purpose vitamin pills, if not in our ordinary diet. In any case, Matrol-Km must contain more potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron in the form of a glycerophosphate complex than would be contributed by the tinier amounts of herbs. What is special about herbs is their content of pharmacologically active ingredients. I would be flabbergasted if the grossly impure (oops, “complexly formulated”) mixture of chemicals in a given herb is optimal for a particular treatment.

Why doesn’t the Matrol literature mention the pharmacology of their herbal ingredients? Perhaps that would amount to making medical claims. Does Matrol-Km contain enough herbal content to have a pharmacological effect? If so, the foregoing list suggests there could be something beneficial for everyone, although the bitter stomach-stimulating actions of gentian would seem to be fighting the stomach-soothing actions of licorice.

One might be concerned at the oestrogen-like properties of a number of ingredients. Since oestrogens are used in hormone-replacement therapy for menopausal women, could this account for some of the beneficial effects of Matrol-Km? Is it safe for a man to take it? Where is the medical study that shows this mixture is safe for lifelong ingestion? (I’m not even asking for evidence about efficacy!)

After studying the list of ingredients, I’m personally convinced that the original mixture of Dr Jurak might have been useful. In fact I’m going to pick up most of the herbal remedies at the health-food section of the supermarket next week, just to have on hand as cheap try-it-and-see remedies in case mild episodes of the pertinent illnesses arise, say, on a weekend.

I dare say it will cost far less than $90, and I’ll use just the herbs that seem appropriate to a given requirement rather than a shot-gun mixture.


Hail Guns?

Several of my friends are orchardists, and two of them lost their crop last year due to a hailstorm.

The hot topic at present is “hail guns.” Do they work? How do they work?

There seems to be a dearth of real information on the topic. The manufacturers make extravagant claims but it comes to mind that not too long ago mankind was firing arrows and cannons at the clouds just as confidently.

Does anyone out there have the answers?

Phil Spencer, Westbank, Motueka

OOS and 6000

(1) It hurts me to write this, but as a sufferer from RSI (now called “Occupational Overuse Syndrome” or OOS) I was annoyed by Dr John Welch’s description of it (Skeptic 27) as “essentially a conversion disorder” and a “delusion.” I can assure him the pain is no delusion. In my case it arose after I began transcribing long interviews (fast, repetitive typing, unlike creative work), and that is precisely what you would expect from an analysis provided by the ACC in terms of the metabolism of oxygen by the muscles.

I am grateful for the publications on ergonomics, which have helped me; pity about the forests, but there are plenty of worse ways they are used (such as those that clog my letterbox every day).

Stress and boredom may well be factors, but in my case, disabling pain is likely to have an effect exactly the reverse of “helping [me] sort out [my] … financial problems.”

(2) All power to Phil Spencer and the celebration of the Hexamillennium, but has he taken into account the lack of a year zero (which is going to drive the world crazy at midnight on December 31, 1999, just one year too soon)? The change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar? And the day that was lost when the sun stood still during the Battle of Jericho?

Congratulation to whoever typed out all those little slips saying “4004 BC”: I hope it didn’t give you RSI (OOS)

Hugh Young, Pukerua Bay

It was Bernard Howard who typed 300 little “4004 BC” slips and pasted them in every issue. We wish him well with the ACC. — Editor

Monkeying with Your Private Parts.

Rejuvenation! The wish of many a tired old man, and not so old: to regain the physical and sexual vigour of youth.

During the early decades of this century it was widely though not universally believed that such a rejuvenation, a turning back of the clock, could be achieved. It was thought that the secret of youth lay in the primary sex organs, so transplantation of the testis from young to old was the method adopted. In the 1920s a dozen or more surgeons around the world were ministering to this fervent desire by grafting the testes of young animals into those patients who could afford the fee.

We now know that this operation was quite useless, yet the surgeons and their hundreds of patients were on the whole convinced that the latter were indeed made to feel younger and fitter. Since that time we have discovered what formidable barriers the body raises against the introduction into it of “non-self” tissues. Material even from close relatives is rejected, and only in very recent times have methods been found for breaching the body’s defences to allow the intrusion of carefully matched foreign organs. This type of operation still makes newspaper headlines. Grafting between different species, using the techniques of sixty or more years ago, is impossible; rejection, the complete killing of the graft, would have been very rapid.

We have here, then, a most powerful example of the placebo effect, so a closer look at these events would follow naturally on Bill Morris’s article on the subject in the previous issue (Skeptic 27).

To set the scene, the medical background to the activities of the gland grafters, we note that as the century began the science of endocrinology was just beginning. The powerfully acting secretions of the endocrine glands were slowly being discovered and studied. First, the effect of extracts of thyroid glands on cretinism and myxoedema, then in the early twenties the anti-diabetic action of the pancreas extract insulin.

Gland Extracts to Restore Virility

It seemed a natural extension that an extract of the testis gland should restore flagging virility, and some unsuccessful trials along these lines took place. (when a hormone was, many years later, isolated from testes, and named testosterone. it was found not to have the effect sought.)

Seeking a more successful way of using the sex gland, surgeons looked to grafting. It was known at that time that cornea and bone could be transplanted from one person to another; it was not then realised that these successful grafts were rare exceptions — rather they were taken to indicate that grafts between people of any organ were possible. This view was strengthened when the discovery of blood groups enabled doctors to avoid the disasters which attended many of the early attempts at blood transfusion. The fact that some skin grafts did not “take” was ascribed to less-than-perfect technique, and many apparent “takes” were only the growth of the recipient’s own skin, and not the graft at all.

So the grafters got to work, initially on animals, and then on human patients. The usual technique was to excise the testis from the donor animal, open the scrotum of the recipient, and to place either the whole donor testis, or a slice, close up against one of the recipient’s testes, and then to sew him up again. In most cases the implanted tissue appeared to persist over time, giving the impression that the graft had “taken”. From our present standpoint we view this effect as the result of the rapid invasion of the graft by host cells, so the apparent “extra” gland was merely inactive host tissue.

Some of the earliest transplants into humans (1919 on) were carried out on those well-known experimental subjects, the residents of US gaols. These were man-to-man transplants, the “death row” of the prison serving as a regular source of fresh donor material. Dr Leo Stanley, chief Medico at San Quentin Prison in California, was the leader in this work, and carried out many transplants into “volunteer” prisoners during the 1920s. He and his patients were generally pleased with the results, and he impressed his fellow physicians sufficiently that several of them underwent the operation themselves.

In spite of this, there is no doubt that the most famous of the testis grafters was Serge Voronoff, a Russian émigré doctor of great wealth and charisma, active in Paris from the 1880s until the Second World War. Already in his 50s, and with a successful and fashionable medical career behind him, he turned in 1919 to the work that made him famous, his rejuvenation treatment. Lacking access to human material, he chose as donor animal the chimpanzee.

Believing that human grafts were possible, he picked on man’s closest relative as being the most likely to provide a transplant acceptable to the recipient’s tissues. Despite the expense (the chimpanzees alone cost a small fortune, as they each had to be caught in Africa and brought safely to France), he had many patients.

Voronoff’s fame during the 1920s arose not only from the “success” of his grafts, but also from his copious output of books on the subject, which he continued to publish long after the operation had passed out of favour. He had had from the outset critics who doubted the efficacy of the testis grafts, but it is uncertain whether, judged by the knowledge of the time, they had more reason for their skepticism than Voronoff had for his optimism.

The two British doctors’ journals took differing views: the Lancet was consistently critical of Voronoff’s medical claims and reviewed his books unfavourably, while the British Medical Journal was generally more approving.

Perhaps surprisingly, Voronoff’s undoing came not from a medical but a veterinary quarter. Emboldened by his success with human patients, he returned to his earlier interest in animals, and put his talents at the service of French agriculture. In 1924 he secured the use of a flock of sheep at an agricultural station deep in the French colony of Algeria. Some of the young rams of this flock received a testis graft, others were left unoperated. On reaching maturity, the operated rams were found to be heavier, and yielded more wool, than the unoperated controls. Not only this, but the progeny of the grafted rams also gave more wool.


Conclusive proof! Surely this evidence would silence those who had doubted. The animal results could be assessed objectively, unlike the confidential and subjective observations on the human patients. So groups of veterinarians and agriculturalists were invited to inspect the “super sheep.” All but one of the international visiting parties were quite convinced; only the British put their fingers on the fatal flaw in Voronoff’s case.

Translated into present-day statisticians’ jargon, he had failed to randomise his young rams at the start of the trial. It is as if we judged the winner of a race by noting who first crosses the finish line, without ensuring that all competitors started from the same place at the same time.

Knowing now that these grafts must have been rejected, we can only conclude that Voronoff had, perhaps unconsciously, selected the better quality rams for the transplant group, and that this superiority had carried on into the animals’ maturity, and to their offspring.

Voronoff’s claims for the superiority of the offspring of his grafted rams implied “inheritance of acquired characteristics;” thus, all unwittingly, he had strayed onto the battlefield between the Lamarckians and the Darwinians. So, by his sheep experiments, he widened the area of interest in his work beyond the medical, attracting the attention of veterinarians, agriculturalists and finally general biologists.

By 1930 medical opinion was already turning against him; the scrutiny of the non-medical scientists hastened this process. By their nature, his human operations were very private, confidential affairs, the results of which were quite inaccessible for objective assessment by others.

When the fad for this operation died down, and its uselessness was realised, the practitioners were widely ridiculed, and reviled as quacks and charlatans. This was incorrect and sadly ungenerous; with few exceptions these surgeons were sincere men who wholeheartedly believed in what they were doing. Voronoff himself defended his work until his death in 1951.

A Change of Glands

That is not quite the end of the story of the gland-grafters. At the same time as testis transplants were going out of fashion, as described above, endocrinology was discovering more and more hormones produced by the body’s many glands, and these were available for “treating” a wide range of disorders.

The pituitary gland, in particular, was found to have a special role in controlling the activity of other glands (it was at one time called “the conductor of the hormonic orchestra”). Injection of cells of the pituitary, then, could be used by unscrupulous doctors to treat whatever glandular deficiency the patient could be persuaded he had.

The leading practitioner, Dr Niehans, a Swiss, was active until the 1950s, and counted Top People (from Hollywood to the Vatican) among his patients. None of his injections could have been of any use.

What lessons ought we to learn from this story, this false turning in medical science? Firstly, we see that misguided enthusiasts can be as dangerous as unscrupulous quacks. Furthermore, we should all subject our enthusiasms to rigorous self-scrutiny.

If Voronoff had kept better records of his operations, and taken a more objective view of the results, he might eventually have seen his error. Had he invited a histologist to examine his early sheep grafts he might have been convinced that they had indeed been rejected by the host. From the patient’s viewpoint, a person unhappy with his present state of health, having undergone a very expensive and uncomfortable operation, carried out by a charming, confident and persuasive surgeon, can almost be guaranteed to confirm whatever outcome of the operation the surgeon suggests to him.

A last thought: in a period which delivered to women the suffrage, protective labour laws and power-driven domestic appliances, the “rejuvenation” movement was almost entirely male-oriented. No-one seems to have considered whether anything could be done to help the post-menopausal woman who longed to be twenty again.

I am indebted for the information in this article to The Monkey Gland Affair by David Hamilton, London: Chatto & Windus, 1986.