Saturday, December 15, 2007

To war or not to war

By Carol Gee

"Pheromones Identified that Trigger Aggression between Male Mice." This is the headline just in from the NIH News. The National Institutes of Health are in the business of basic research. I would call the findings just announced as very basic (emphasis mine). To quote:

A family of proteins commonly found in mouse urine is able to trigger fighting between male mice, a study in the Dec. 6, 2007, issue of Nature has found. The study, which is the first to identify protein pheromones responsible for the aggression response in mice, was funded in part by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), one of the National Institutes of Health. Pheromones are chemical cues that are released into the air, secreted from glands, or excreted in urine and picked up by animals of the same species, initiating various social and reproductive behaviors.

"Although the pheromones identified in this research are not produced by humans, the regions of the brain that are tied to behavior are the same for mice and people. Consequently, this research may one day contribute to our understanding of the neural pathways that play a role in human behavior," says James F. Battey, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., director of the NIDCD. "Much is known about how pheromones work in the insect world, but we know very little about how these chemicals can influence behavior in mammals and other vertebrates."

. . . [Stowers] "a bar code of individuality for each mouse. And we don't know whether the proteins are actually coding for aggression per se, or whether they're serving as a general cue of individuality for a male."

If the latter is the case, it could help explain why, unlike the males, female mice don't show aggression when with a male. In addition to investigating this question further, the team plans to explore how receptor neurons sift through all of the cues in the environment to detect the relevant cues to influence behavior and how those sensory neurons are connected to the rest of the brain. They also hope to learn more about the neural pathway itself — whether one pathway in the brain is dedicated to one behavior, or whether there are general pathways that can lead to a range of behaviors, which may be modulated by a specific pheromone.

. . . The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases.

I am a elder female mouse, non-aggressive, though my readers at the opposite end of the political spectrum might disagree. Since I was in high school I have been fascinated with why men go to war. I read cheap novels and short stories about dogfights in the sky. I also read "From Here to Eternity," by James Jones (1951); "The Naked and the Dead," by Norman Mailer (1948), and "The Cruel Sea," by Nicholas Monsarrat (1951). And I remain fascinated; so far I have written 446 S/SW posts containing the word "war".

The question about human pheromones is very pertinent here, according to Science News Online and, of course, Wikipedia. As a mental health practitioner, over the years it became much more clear to me how much of human behavior is deeply entrenched in biology. That awareness makes me feel both discouraged and encouraged about the discovery of aggression pheromones in male mice.

Discouragement arises at the possibility that humans may be hard-wired with aggression proclivities. Today's news from the Middle East would certainly argue for that position. However, unless built-in aggression is nature's form of population control in the face of limited natural resources, I just cannot allow myself to believe that we are destined to be at war forever on this teeny little planet.

Recent news from The Financial Times, about an agreement on how to proceed with global cooperation to mitigate threatening climate change, is very encouraging. I feel relieved because I believe that information is power. And I feel more encouraged when I remember that one of our most endearing human qualities is to respond to "our better angels" within. Have a good weekend.

(Cross-posted at South by Southwest.)

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