Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll

The mantra of the over-indulgent, self-important, anti-establishment college students of the 60's (I graduated in 1968), serves as a preview of this course. The mantra is now jaded by the increased awareness of environmental health hazards in life. However, it also covers some of the principal concepts in environmental toxicology.

Sex and drugs, which were once heralded in rock and roll as harmless diversions, are now recognized as potentially lethal. While AIDS was unknown in the 60s, even grammar school students know about lethal viruses today. Similarly, thalidomide has gone from being a wonder drug to a universally banned mutagen. (It is now being reconsidered as a medical treatment for some severe diseases, including leprosy.) These changes in perception, along with other widely publicized reports of pathogenic organisms (e.g., E. coli) and toxic chemicals (e.g., DDT), have contributed to the increased awareness and interest in environmental toxicology in the 90s.

Although today's students are much more aware of environmental pathogens and toxicants than previous generations were, many appear to feel less capable of addressing those problems. This feeling of helplessness is evident in the nihilistic lyrics of modern rock and roll (e.g., Sting's "I don't believe in science"), which contrast with the lyrics of their parent's generation (e.g., Martin Luther King's "We shall overcome"). Of course, at that time, it was also naively assumed that modern medicine was poised to eradicate disease.

The points of this, admittedly banal, analogy are that (1) the seriousness and complexity of environmental pathogens and toxins are now common knowledge and (2) everyone needs to recognize their potential to address those problems. This is especially true for women of child-bearing age (many pathogens and toxins are sexist); parents of young children, parents-to-be, and children of aging parents (many pathogens and toxins are ageist); travelers (pathogens and toxins do not respect nationalities); the poor (many pathogens and toxins thrive in impoverished environments); and the immunosuppressed (which are, by definition, easy targets for pathogens and toxins). In summary, the failure of pathogens and toxins to adhere to contemporary standards of political correctness must be acknowledged and treated accordingly.

The Red Queen

Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature

Perhaps the most remarkable connection between the 60's mantra and modern toxicology is that the primary reason for sex may be to combat pathogens. This hypothesis has been detailed in Matt Ridley's (1993) The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. The title is from Lewis Carroll's (1871) Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, in which Alice meets the Red Queen and begins running beside her.

The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything. "I wonder if all the things move along with us?" thought poor puzzled Alice. And the Queen seemed to guess her thoughts, for she cried, "Faster! Don't try to talk!"

(Carroll, 1871)

The concept was initially promulgated by Van Valen (1973), who reportedly had his manuscript rejected by "the most prestigious scientific journals" (Ridley, 1993). His idea was that sex provides a means for the human gene pool to rapidly change in order to remain competitive with pathogenic microorganisms. Based on this concept, human nature (including our perceptions of beauty, love, nurturing, and aggression) has primarily evolved to keep our species "running in place" with rapidly evolving pathogens. Fortunately, I have no expertise in this controversial, but intriguing, area.

The Dose Defines the Poison


The Solution to Pollution is Dilution

If you want to upset an "environmentalist", simply state "the solution to pollution is dilution". While I am not sure what an "environmentalist" is, it seems many self proclaimed environmentalists are adamant that any amount of a toxin, no matter how small, is too much. This perception is in direct conflict with the preceding adage that "the dose defines the poison". As previously noted, the adverse effects of toxins diminish as their concentrations decrease and there is a threshhold concentration below which the adverse effects of a toxin are inconsequential. This can be achieved through dilution, which has proven to be an effective means of reducing or eliminating the adverse effects of contaminants.

Cadillac Desert

The problems of water scarcity in the west were chronicled by Marc Reisner (1987) in Cadillac Desert. These were recently (1997) televised in a PBS series with the same title. Some of the early politics involved with water problems in California were also the theme of the Academy Award winning film, Chinatown.



Carroll, L. 1871. Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Macmillan, London.

Reisner, M. 1987. Cadillac Desert. Penguin Books, New York, NY, 582 pp.

Ridley, M. 1993. The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. Penguin Books, New York, NY, 405 pp.

Van Valen, L. 1973. A new evolutionary law. Evolutionary Theory 1: 1-30.



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