Monday, January 24, 2011

Paradigm Shift

Today I thought of asking the question. What is a paradigm and how do they happen? First you have to agree that a paradigm is a mental construct. It is not really a feel-able, touchable smell-able entity. It is viable only in the brain. It is a kind of a mental note.
For instance if a person were to state, “This is a new paradigm!” What does that person mean? Is he referring to a product or the meaning of the product as it relates to social interaction between us, Homo sapiens? Is paradigm-shift therefore a referential construct?

On a very small-scale, there is an understanding between humans; for instance between me and you, the reader, unless you disagree, in which case you are entitled to your voice as always and carry your own paradigms in your head, but just in case you do agree, then wouldn’t you accept that individual concepts in my brain are personal and therefore differ from the concepts in your mind. So, then we have small-scale paradigms within each one of us. Large scale ones are those where several people agree to agree and small scales ones are within the confines of the invisible castles of our existences where others may agree to disagree.

The next question arguably would be what makes a large-scale paradigm happen? How do large groups of people agree to agree and therefore tenably create this phenomenon that all viewers of that phenomenon consent to force a frame shift in the concepts of belief. Let me give you an example so that we can go from the abstract to the real.

Imagine the building of the wheel. According to archaeologists, it was probably invented in around 8,000 B.C. in Asia. The oldest wheel known was discovered in Mesopotamia and probably dates back to 3,500 B.C. The wheelbarrow was first invented in ancient Greece. Two building material inventories for 408/407 and 407/406 B.C. from the temple of  Eleusis list suggest such timelines. This circular object made of troglodytic material used by our ancient ancestors changed the game of mobility. They were able to traverse distances in search of food and water and a better life through migration on land, move material and foodstuff and engage in trade. The spread of civilization may have been on the primitive wheels made of wood. That, you would agree would be considered a paradigm shift since it made large scale changes in human migration which then added diversity within communities as different groups with varied cultures met and got assimilated into the whole. It made for progress; there were more hands on the till as more people were involved with hunter-gatherer operations as communities to keep their home fires burning and better fed families began to emerge with more robust children.

                                            Antique Spinning Wheel

The thrust for survival in other species made the primitive man invent weapons to protect himself and his creed from invading forces of these predatory animals. In doing so he was also able to lord over the animals for his own survival. The use of the flint for an arrowhead, spearheaded the beginnings of hunting and gathering. This ancient tool dates back to 7000 BC and might also be considered a paradigm shift on an evolutionary scale.

                                                  Flint Arrowheads (circa 7000BC) 

As certainly as the growth of the human population began to excel, in its climb the ladder of the evolutionary tree, to conquer the mantle of the “intellectual-knowing species” so too did the dynamics of the littlest of creatures change. Every species wants to survive, thrive and procreate. It is within the DNA of every living organism that it must procreate and replenish. Darwin spoke about the “Survival of the fittest” and he was right as we find that 3 species go extinct every hour and the planet has been in that mode for the known history of life cycles of species as evidenced by the fossil data. Those that survive, well they have the wherewithal to counter all attacks from predatory forces and those that don’t, perish into the pages of the fossil data. The survivalist attributes must continue even to the littlest of all creatures including viruses and bacteria.

Man and his intelligence came to understand that disease at least in the earlier phases of humanity was linked to unseen critters that would invade the body and cause illness and death to the humans. The recognition of these little “critters” and then how to deal with them was, you would agree a paradigm shift. Martinus Beijerinck discovered viruses as “infectious agents” in a bacteria free culture medium in 1898 and not until 1935 did the first electron microscopic picture of the TMV (Tobacco Mosaic Virus) was seen by human eyes.

                                          TMV (Tobacco Mosaic Virus)

So as humanity would, do as it does best, instigate scientific curiosity and in doing so demand a means of circumventing the “raids” of these “little critters” on the human body. The fever previously treated with “blood-letting” had morphed into poultices and ingestible materials from the apothecaries. Given the new tools of the trade another paradigm shift was to occur shortly.

And it did. Along came the likes of Louis Pasteur who discovered the germ theory of transmission followed by Edward Jenner who discovered cowpox vaccination abolished smallpox, followed by Alexander Fleming who discovered Penicillin from a fungus for treating bacteria. These great men were pioneers for they raised the bar on human intellect and helped increase human longevity.

As insight into the chemical structure of penicillin was discovered another shift was to become a reality. Companies starting with one or two individual members/workers grew into pharmaceutical behemoths creating the next greatest antibiotic and antiviral agent that they could devise in their labs. This was and is all for the good and preservation of humanity. And this is as it should be. But there lurks, somewhere another shift in the making that might be seismic in might and catastrophic in casualties, just beyond the horizon. We don’t see it but it is there. It might be in the form of a mutational change in the very structure of the virus or bacterium that may render us helpless, due to the promiscuous and profligate use of antibiotics, antiviral agents or, it may be another zoonotic illness that might transgress the limit of one species and jump to the humans as HIV did, or it might be a virus cultured in a laboratory mutating in a tiny Petri dish that finds its way from the sealed airtight confines and travel outside to make the human its host. We just don’t know when this might occur, but occur it will. Remember the movie “The Andromeda Strain!”

The 1918 Influenza epidemic is a perfect example of large-scale human life loss from a virulent and mutant virus that wiped out millions of its victims. We already have seen the emergence of MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) and VRE (Vancomycin Resistant Enterococcus), resistant TB and a killer Poliomyelitis in an Indonesian city of Cidadep. The list goes on. The shores are inviting and the uninvited guests are arriving.

Speaking of viruses they are the self-starters and very smart in their survival since they constitute the largest population on this planet. If you saw the movie “War of the Worlds” the concept of exposing an alien population to the lethal attacks of this tiny entity (flu virus) can bring down aliens and their space ships.

 It can do the same with the human race if it arrives in a different form with different “clothing” that human immune defenses cannot identify. The virus and bacteria mutate to survive just like we create newer “anti-agents” against them for our own survival. And the battle goes on. The one with the better abilities will win.

Another surreptitious and incipient paradigm shift that has occurred over the millennia is the cohabitation by the viruses within the humans. The bacteria do it in the human GI flora, skin and elsewhere where they provide beneficial effects for their hosts and survival for themselves. The viruses have inserted their DNA within the humans and that resides in our chromosomes as “junk-DNA” or Introns. Thus embedded within the human genome they have modulated the human history.

                                                  DNA Double Helix

                                                         RSV transfection

Viral oncogenes were first defined in RSV, (Rous Sarcoma Virus) which transforms chicken embryo fibroblasts in culture and induces large sarcomas within 1 to 2 weeks after inoculation into chickens. In 1976 Harold Varmus, J. Michael Bishop, and their colleagues,  showed that a cDNA probe for the src oncogene of RSV hybridized to closely related sequences in the DNA of normal chicken cells as the culprit for the sarcoma induction. 

Direct evidence however for the involvement of cellular oncogenes in human tumors was first obtained by gene transfer experiments in Robert Weinberg’s laboratories in 1981. 

The genomic revolution had begun. A paradigm shift in how we view disease was taking shape and treatment of disease would never be the same.

The human history details shifts in human thinking and behavior. Paradigm shifts occur either at a slow steady state or as a veritable “bolt from the blue.” This bolt is placed at the doorstep of humanity by an outside-the-box-thinker. Galileo’s heliocentric view in agreement with Copernicus was one giant step. Newton’s Laws of Motion inspired physics, Edison’s electricity, Alexander Bell’s telephone, Einstein’s theory of relativity are all seismic upheavals in the understanding by us of ourselves and the planet we inhabit. These would be called in today’s lingo; “Game changers.”

It would not be correct if I did not mention two individuals who have transformed the recent landscape of how we interact and communicate and how we all view and relate to each other. These two have the distinction of spawning an industry that helped initiate the DARPA project precursor to the Internet boom; Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple and Bill Gates, the former CEO of Microsoft Corporation. They wrote on their blank slates and transformed us from writing on paper to clicking keyboards and sending mail via postal service to instant gratification with written communication, to video conferencing and cloud computing.

The massive shifts that are in the making through technology will change culture, humanity and our view of the world in very short order due to the availability and thrust of the computing power. We are reaching the massive 100 trillion megabyte storage-and-use capacity (Hans Moravec) of the human brain. Moore’s Law that governs the transistor density on the silicon chip has proven to be correct with a doubling in the power of the chip over a eighteen month period. The increase in capacity also helps when multiples of the processors are placed in parallel, the computer ability to evaluate large scale data increases by distributing the processing load over several processors simultaneously and the added Artificial Intelligence software based on logic gates helps computers in assisting humans in the decision making process. Von Nuemann’s envisioned his robots would create tinier replicates of the machine-self and that is how our DNA is envisioned to ride across galaxies via anthropomorphic adaptation.

Anthropomorphic changes is another intermediate scale shift that lurks closer around the corner. It is the incorporation of the “non-self” machine with the “self”-human. 

This integration has been in place for a few decades now and continues to get more sophisticated. Besides bionic limbs, choclear implants for hearing and insertion of electrodes in the occipital part of the brain where visual references are interpreted, there are bilateral sub-thalamic part of the brain implants for the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease and artificial patch boosters to support the heart in the patients waiting for a heart transplant. Meanwhile the military is using exo-skeletal supports for humans to make them jump higher, run longer and crush materials without the use of human muscle strain.  Brings to mind the movie “Avatar.” Soon smaller contraptions will be added to achieve similar abilities. The human and machine merger is destined to reshape humanity sooner than later.

Recorded human history is adorned with the “peaks and valleys” of human thinking. Such is the way of life. Such is the destiny of the human organism. If we don’t destroy ourselves, we will populate other celestial bodies. These are the large-scale paradigm shifts in the affairs of human beings yet to unfold.

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