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Scientific Fiction and the Boundaries of Experimental Inquiry

Terminator Two came out when I was 7, and has been one my favorite movies ever since. I think it’s in part the strong female lead, Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton), a misunderstood warrior tasked with saving humanity from machine take over.  It’s also T2’s critique of science as an ambiguously constructive tool, capable of tremendous life saving feats and inciting existential disasters. It’s like the story of Frankenstein scaled up with car chases for a 1992 audience. 


I think of this sometimes when I am doing my nutrition homework. Based on the number of references I cited this semester, I read over 300 scientific papers, some more than once. Maybe 30-40% of those involved testing on animals. 


These peer reviewed reports reference little creatures with words like “dispatched” and “specimen,” describing their accommodations as “metabolism cages.”  Once, I googled “metabolism cage” and got a heartache. It’s very easy though, to practice cognitive dissonance, facilitated by all the objectifying language and impulse to find answers.


Microbiome research and its connection to so many chronic conditions is one of the most cutting edge realms of discovery in nutrition science.  Yet, it is still in its early years, so many of the latest studies involve animal experimentation; in vivo they call it. 


One recent study on osteoarthritis involved inducing mouse arthritis through surgery. The reluctant martyr mice went under the knife feeling just fine, then awoke with a painful knee ache.  They were also intentionally fed crappy food and some of them crappy food +prebiotics. Eventually these critters were dispatched and dissected, their intestinal linings examined. This all in an effort to see if maybe there could be a reduction in severity of human knee aches through restored gut microbiomes, well fed with fiber. That’s quite a sacrifice (albeit, involuntarily) the mice are making for us. I always wonder, how many dead animals are there behind each hypothesis strong enough to test on humans? There should be a rodent shrine in front of every medical building for their species’ contributions to scientific achievements. They are truly the unsung heroes of modern medicine. 


I watched another film recently, The Old Guard, that re-stirred these questions on science and sacrifice. Another strong female (Charlize Theron) fights a pharmaceutical company conducting tortuous medical experiments in an effort to find the fountain of youth, (and bottle it for sale, of course).  


If only it were just science fiction.  A long dark history of medical experimentation extends beyond nefarious mouse mills, which alone would be ethically questionable.  The Tuskegee Syphilis study, is one such nightmare of one too many, where the quest for knowledge outpaced consideration for the humanity of study “subjects.”   Six hundred black men in Alabama with syphilis were observed from 1932-1972 so scientists could understand what happens when people have syphilis and don’t get treated. This line tells it all, “compensation for participation included hot meals, the guise of treatment, and burial payments.” 


 Just finished with my first year in graduate school, I stand in both awe of nutrition science as an illuminator of connection and with mild horror at aligning with a tradition of medical experimentation that pursues knowledge at whatever cost. The Old Guard resonated with me because, at the heart of the story, there’s a miraculous mystery, a group of people who appear to live forever. That mystery inspires ferocious curiosity. Why do they live so long?  This probing path of inquisition looks like god’s work to some and exploitation to others.  Institutional science spends billions of dollars annually trying to answer questions like this. Are all the resources and dissections worth it? 


The osteoarthritis study was actually an incredible revelation, the first of its kind to prove a connection between dietary fiber intake and reduced inflammation in the joints (in vivo). Eating prebiotics triggered a cascade of positive protective effects in mice previously ridden with inflammation, sealing their gut barrier and down regulating their immune response. Reading this study helped map out a strong hypothesis relating gut health to joint health.  It’s helping advance our outdated hypothesis of osteoarthritis as simply a result of mechanical stress. And yet, there were metabolism cages! And dispatching! 


Scientific understanding oddly can honor life by spotlighting the very miracle of it all while unabashedly denigrating it. The biochemical story of vitamins and minerals reveals how, without taking in trace amounts of the earth’s crust (magnesium), metabolizing sunshine (vitamin D), eating foods from the ocean (iodine), and plant colors (beta carotene) we lose our power, we wither. The powerhouse of the cell, the mitochondria, maybe one of the most important organelles, are some kind of ancient symbiotic bacterial entrepreneurs who took up residence in animal cells and never looked back. Now they’re responsible for making everything in our bodies go. Not to mention the vast kingdoms of “animalcules” in our guts and elsewhere, orchestrating much of how we think and feel. The web of relationships are wild and awe inspiring. 


Right now, nutrition science isn’t even that stellar at finding answers using its own rules. My graduate program emphasizes the importance of “evidence based interventions” which of course, who can argue with that? But when we define evidence as provable through a very particular, narrow process, a randomized control trial, this makes it very easy to study drugs and very hard to study diets (with the same precise results). The study of food and how it works in our bodies is tremendously complex because of these layered relationships. The health of the soil matters, how fresh the food is, how calm the person is when eating the food, whether they have enough stomach acid, what their gut bacteria status is, what combinations of foods they ate, whether they drank coffee or tea with their meal, and so on. It’s dizzying and maybe impossible to quantify in the way science wants to quantify. 


So here I am in this paradox, where science is helping me see more clearly the ties that bind while actively harming other species (and sometimes humans) so that we can have less harm for other humans (and in some cases more money). Don’t get me wrong, I understand the necessity of death. I trap and kill mice in my pantry attempting to catch a snack. But like abandoned roadkill or dolphin by-catch, there’s something senseless and demoralizing about raising creatures as test subjects. I’m also questioning the grounds for the inquiry in the first place. The osteoarthritis mouse study for example; we know crappy food does bad things to our bodies, including making our joints ache. What if we spent that billions on getting people access to good food and restoring the lands to grow it on? Or maybe even just half of it? 


There’s a funny Jamie Oliver video where he’s trying to scare kids away from eating chicken nuggets. He hacks up a chicken carcass and blends it in a food processor while they watch him. He then breads and fries this skin/bone/muscle paste. Confident he’s entirely disgusted his audience, he ventures, “who still wants to eat chicken nuggets?!” All of the kids shoot up their hands. Franken foods are now beloved, even when we bear witness to the  grotesque process of their construction.


The scientist in Mary Shelly’s novel, possibly the first work of European science fiction, obsessively reconstructs a monster from his memory but once brought to life is disgusted with his own creation.  I wonder if we will ever look back ever on this era of experimentation, scientific discovery, and research and think, we went too far? Will our descendants ever say, why was there so much blood sacrifice to answer simple questions, like what to eat and how to heal?

A "hot cheeto" recently found lone ranging on Trouble st.