July 8, 2011
Open letter to be posted on nobabies.net

Aviva Presser Aiden
c/o Harvard Medical School
25 Shattuck Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02115
Dear Dr. Aiden:

I much envy you your opportunity to go to Harvard Med with a degree already in genetics and an interest in epigenetics.  Congratulations on the grant from the Gates Foundation, but that is not the occasion of the letter.  It is rather the mention of you in the article about your husband.  (Eric Hand Word Play NATURE vol. 424 no. 7352 June 23, 2011 page 437)  Let me begin by remarking on that work.  I majored in English before going to Harvard Med myself and my father was an English professor, so of course that is what drew me to the article in the first place.

He once told me that there were numerous textual variations in literature that even the most scrupulous scholars overlooked.  They had been found by photographing two different versions and projecting the two versions optically so that a single letter or punctuation change became conspicuous.  I later saw how accurately my older brother, also an English professor, was able to scan text, and how fast.  One of the things that amused my father was the announcement that there was more than one author of Genesis; a computer had proved it.  He pointed out that this had been known for years, but the fact that a computer could now do what scholars had already done, and had already thought of doing, had attracted lot of attention.  It was just a matter of counting words.  Once you ask the question, then you may get answers.  I myself became suspicious that the text of the very Ten Commandments had been tampered with and the meaning profoundly changed.  A word count supported the idea.  I do not know and do not much care how widely known that is.  For me it was a side issue.

My father developed his own quantitative technique for judging the technical quality of a poem.  He would look at the grammar that accomplished each line.  If the grammar was varied it meant better work than if some single grammatical construction dominated.  By this measure he found Dryden superior to Keats, who was the darling of the day.  

So your husbands work is in a field I think very well of, that of studying and also thereby preserving thought from the past.  At present most of us sort of see history through a wide angle lens with a distortion that exaggerates the importance of the very recent. 

To get to business, I have intense memories of Harvard Medical School.  I had many good friends but also a very distressing feeling that something was wrong that I should be able to figure out.  It took decades and many false starts before I ran it down.  By that time I no longer had the resources that had been mine in medical school nor much future to work with.  So let me tell you what I found, and perhaps if the same vibrations trouble you in the same place you will do a better job of heeding them.

My first inkling was during an afternoon lab when one of the instructors brought around some genealogies.  They were originals from a man whose name I have forgotten but which I’m sure you know.  He wanted to prove that human genes followed Mendelian laws, so he walked around Appalachia asking people about their families.  The etiquette of the time was that you were always willing to talk about family, and they had big ones, knew them well, and had a substantial amount of consanguinity.  He demonstrated that things like, I believe, color blindness and feeblemindedness followed genetic laws just as he expected.  Well and good.

But people looked at his results and said, “Aha, inbreeding causes feeblemindedness.”  Well there was no control.  Had there been he probably would have found out what Charles Darwin’s son found out: at that place and time it actually had a protective effect, modest but definite.  Of course from this perspective we can see that the presumed benefit came from reducing the (horrific) burden of Rh incompatibility. 

When I looked at the charts I thought, “Hmm, some of those traits are not good.  There ought to be a way to screen for them.  On the other hand, those are big families.  I guess consanguinity increases your fertility.  Of course we are in the middle of a population explosion, so that isn’t important, but it’s nice to know that if there is ever a problem having enough babies, the cure is so simple.”  Bear in mind I speak of consanguinity traceable over a few generations.  At the time and since, “race” has been a big issue along with other kinds of designations of large groups, none of which seem to be of any biological significance but all of which carry enormous emotional freight. 

It was about 10 years before the fertility in the developed world fell below replacement, where it has remained ever since.  Many countries are in a low grade panic, but nobody seems to be willing to talk about the only cure that would be effective. 

What was obvious to me then has now been well documented in the literature, both in humans and in animals. 
R. Sibly et al., Science 309 607 (2005) 
A. Helgason et al., Science 319 813 (2008)
R. Labouriau, A. Amorim Genetics 178 601 (2008)
R. Labouriau, A. Amorim Science 322 1634 (2008)

Failing to follow the hunch I had then is probably the greatest failure of my life.  I have been trying to play catch up, but with little success.  If you want just a little more, check out the poster I presented in Vancouver last March 18 or so where it is posted on Nobabies.net.  Ignore the computer simulations.  They are flawed and I now have better.  The rest of it I’ll stand by.  If you wish to see this discussed above and beyond the call of sanity, the rest of the site beckons.  The mechanism of the infertility sets in far to fast for it to be due to DNA mutations; it is surely some epigenetic mechanism that evolved to deal with the evolutionary and speciatory paradox I outline at the beginning of the Vancouver poster. 

Good luck with your cell phone charging project.  When you return to the quadrangle, if the same ghost whispers to you as whispered to me, maybe you’ll be able to respond better than I did.


M. Linton Herbert MD
HMS ‘68

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