Immunology-- Isnt it maaaagikaaaaal??

A few months ago, Kathryn Applegate wrote a couple posts on the adaptive immune system. Its relatively inoffensive. Just the bland 'science' Im used to hearing from theists, flavored with dull gender normative stories and analogies containing her husband and toddlers and clothes/shoes.

And then at random points within the sterile descriptions of science, Applegate insists her personal choice of deity has something to do with said sterile science. No evidence or explanation why she is talking about her deity. Hysterically, her posts could be summed up as "Look at all these totally natural processes that have evolved over time. ISNT GOD AWESOME?!?!", as if that god was necessary for... completely natural... evolved... processes... *squint* I mean if she randomly started talking about "Gods goodness" at a scientific conference, the audience would stare at her in horror, but shes writing for BioLogos, so, I guess they encourage random gratuitous God insertions there, or something.

I dont really care though. The science is fine (superficial, which she acknowledges, but fine), and if she dimly and dully wants to mash the mangled corpse of her god into that science, I dont really give a crap. Everyone has to have hobbies.

But you know who does give a crap?

Intelligent Design Creationists, thats who!

Caroline Cocker, who was featured in EXPELLED! (even though she wasnt EXPELLED. lol, "details"!), decided to take Applegate to task for her immunology posts... by writing an even duller rendition of Applegates posts... with more "OMFG GOD IS SO AWESOME!"... and less science... Im not linking to that shit. Google it if youre dying to read it.

Whenever things get complicated in one of my posts, I usually resort to lolspeak. While the details are complicated, usually I can get the general idea across using non-intimidating analogies and humor.

Whenever Cocker reaches a point in her post talking about a complicated aspect of B-cell maturation, she either a) flatly talks over the audience, or b) tells the audience that the process is perfect (trust her on this), therefore Christian God. So I can only assume that she completely lacks the ability to explain even basic science to a general audience (how did she do it as a professor?), and doesnt know this topic as well as she should, given her education (how did she do it as a professor?).

Look, folks, let me fr*me antibody production a different way:

There are a limited number of 'antibody genes' in your genome, and yet we apparently have the ability to make countless different antibodies to react to countless different pathogens and diseases. How does this work out?

First, you can combine the different gene segments in different ways. You break DNA with an enzyme you stole from retroelements and domesticated for this purpose millions and millions of years ago. It gets 'fixed' by some Gomer Pyle enzymes "HUR DURRRR! I HALP!" which makes a ton of mistakes 'fixing' everything. Yes, these mistakes contribute to the diversity of our antibodies, but there is sooo muuuuch cell death along this 'perfect' path ('non-productive rearrangements'). This is not a precise, streamlined process. Its "Ummmm hurp de durp! Do this wurk?" with a trail of dead B-cells in its wake-- 90% of the B-cells you make die. Some are just flat-out fuck-ups, but some are killed because they think you are a pathogen. If its not killed, you get autoimmunity. Look at how perfect that process is. And the death of a 'self-reactive' B-cell? Its biochemistry, not magic.

And even if during these initial 'perfect' steps you dont have autoimmunity, another way your immune system creates more antibody diversity is via somatic hypermutation (more 'HURP DERP! I HALP!' enzymes). There are no 'is this me?' safety checks in this process, which is why molecular mimicry can lead to autoimmunity. PERFECT!

B-cells are also a good example of the creativity of genetic drift-- you have antibodies that kinda-sorta recognize anything, from Ebola to microscopic monkeys from space. But if those antibodies are never actively selected for via an infection, they just hang out (junk B-cells).

You can get more antibody diversity because you have different variants of the same antibody, each better at one trick (neutralizing virus) than another (activating complement), because of gene duplication and divergence, aka, basic genetic evolution. Some duplication events didnt evolve into anything useful.


My extrapolation from this information is that the process looks deliberately engineered for generating a diversity of antibodies rather than something that could be used as evidence for the mechanism of evolution because it displays the "power of randomness".


I really have no idea why Creationists are so fixated on the immune system as 'proof' for the existence of their choice of deity. Yeah, its really freaking cool, but its a goddamn mess! Its a waste, and can ironically lead to disease itself.

If some simple theist sees pareidolia in her morning toast or the immune system, I dont care. Its stupid, but I dont care.

But dont present this stuff as a beautiful, wonderful, perfect, unexplained mystery to the general public. That is a fucking lie. It is deceptive and cruel for someone with a PhD in immunology to misrepresent science that way to further her personal political agenda. Some Ivory Tower tart pretending that she speaks to God on High, translating The Wonder of The World to non-scientist peasants. Disgusting.

EDIT: Completely independently, Kevin has a post up on the 'quirks' of our immune system. In fact, he has a whole series up on the basics of immunity! "GEE!" she said loudly, "WOULDNT IT BE NICE IF WE HAD AN IMMUNOLOGIST HERE AT SCIBLOGS?"

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This is a perennial problem I see among immunologists - even the non god-toting ones. When you study the immune system in isolation, and separate yourself from the pathogens, it's easy to look at all the ways the immune system is great at what it does, and forget all the ways that it's completely fucked up and all the ways that pathogens seem to easily subvert it.

The mammalian immune system is such a perfect example of the imperfections of the evolutionary process, and the waste inherent in evolutionary arms races - it makes sense that you would have obscure the problems in order to make the goddidit argument.

Some forget that the immune system can be a total asshole if it gets bored, ergo, allergies.

By Katharine (not verified) on 14 Oct 2010 #permalink

Speaking of the immune system.

My girlfriend is Malay, and she was in Malaysia recently. She has lupus - nothing too bad, she's not hooked up to a dialysis machine or anything. But still, chemo once every three months, not fun.


Her parents took her to an 'alternative therapy' place. They conned her into buying a 150rm (USD$50) bottle of salad dressing (Udo Erasmus Oil - WTF) before I could talk to her.

However, they wanted to sell her a monthly injection of transfer factors for - wait for it - $1,300rm. That's USD$420 a month. Quick search online and I discovered that a) transfer factors are marketed as a 'dietary suppliment', and b) the do kinda have a role to play in the immune system, but c) no-one can really tell me why injecting extra transfer factors does anything good for you.

So between a) and c) it was more than enough for me to come down very hard against them. Eventually she started to loose interest, more due to cost than anything else.

Anyway, on to my point.

My point is: I had a look around online, and the science behind what a transfer factor actually does is a bit opaque to me. It's something I'd love to hear you talk about at some point if it ever tickles your fancy.

Kevin-- Yeah, a lot of pathogens are smarter than our perfect intelligently designed immune system. microbes>GOD, lol.

Kathrine-- I love personifying stuff. I really do.

Mast cell: Ugh. Whaddayouwant to do?
B-cell: Ugh. I dunno. Whaddayouwant to do?
Mast cell: Wanna screw with this dumb fucks eyeballs?
B-cell:... Yeah, okay. Then I wanna run by Jims and get some pot.

Daniel-- *wince* That phrase isnt in my immunology textbook, and Ive never heard of it, and PubMed doesnt know what to do with it. I know 'transfer factor' has a Wikipedia page, but Im thinking it might be total crap too.

So essentially, the immune system is just another example of "The Panda's Thumb" ?

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 14 Oct 2010 #permalink

Fuckin immune systems! How did they evolve?

It tends to piss me off the way a lot of woo merchants go on about the immune system and how their particular magic "strengthens" it, and all our problems are because nasty poisons weaken it. It's even more widespread than references to quantum this and that.

Awesome post! Well done!

By HurpyDurpy (not verified) on 14 Oct 2010 #permalink

And pity the poor T cell progenitor, as it heads to the thymus with only a 5-10% chance of making it out alive. Kevin's posts are great, there should be an immunologist on here.

By Richard Jefferys (not verified) on 15 Oct 2010 #permalink

Re: transfer factor
I found this on the Memorial Sloan Kettering site. Immunology isn't my strong point so I am hoping you may be able to explain a bit more, ERV.

@Daniel: hope she didn't go for it. From what I am finding, it doesn't work for very much (and most of the studies listed are 20+ years old).

@ Brian - the same way everything else did: piecemeal. With incremental improvements, that were immediately overshadowed by pathogen counter-evolution.

This is simple. The Immune system adapts through evolution. They have to say that the intelligence came into play to set up the dominoes just right before the immune system could work through random processes combined with selection. Since the immune system proves that random changes can lead to "new information" it kills the entire creationist argument going back to Paley's Watchmaker. The immune system is shrouded in inconvenient facts.