Herbaliser
April 5, 2006 7:47 AM   Subscribe

As we know,the internets are not short on herbal information. While looking for a way to un-numb my teeth, I came across a veritable cornucopia of herbal knowledge, complete with formulae. Step inside for an interesting essay...
posted by ashbury (45 comments total)
 
This is Anarcho-Herbalism! The sort of herbal medicine popular these days (presented to us by the media and so-called green capitalists as yet another exciting fad) has brought with it very little thought of a new way of healing. The plants, reduced to capsule form or, worse, to their "active ingredients", are just new tools to work with in the same body-machine that industrial medicine sees people as being. They become no different than pharmaceutical drugs or a scalpel blade: something to pry into the body-machine with and use to mess around with the parts. Except of course much less effective, because the herbs have been taken out of the system of healing in which they have their strength.

Oh, and here's a toothache remedy, which I'm not going to use because my numb teeth is caused by a cold.
posted by ashbury at 7:48 AM on April 5, 2006


See also Quackwatch, which has been fighting the good fight for years.
posted by QuietDesperation at 8:03 AM on April 5, 2006


Offering a real alternative health care system will help to calm some people's fears about returning to an anarchistic, Earth centered way of life. There is a false security in the men with the big machines, ready to put you back together again (if you have enough money). What is ignored is the fact that industrial society causes most of the dis-eases that people fear.

I hate this claptrap. The assurance that I will not die of smallpox or be crippled by polio is not false. What is false is this nutjob's belief that turning back the clock on medical science promotes any kind of health at all. It is earth centered, however, in the sense that you'll probably end up buried in it much earlier.

Extra points off for the hyphen in "disease."
posted by QuietDesperation at 8:09 AM on April 5, 2006


This is an anarcho-herbalist commune - we take turns being a sort of 'apothecary' for the week, dispensing whatever sort clap-trap we personally feel may work. However, all dispensations of that person must be ratified by a simple majority of members still alive after a year, or in the case of a Real Illness, a two-thirds majority is required.
posted by unixrat at 8:13 AM on April 5, 2006


One of the websites I found while researching this stuff did mention that everything has its time and place. To paraphrase: "Herbs and whatnot might be very good at some things and at some times, while medical drugs might be better at other times and for other things. To rely completely on one or the other is foolish, and not recommended." Advice I wholeheartedly believe in.
posted by ashbury at 8:17 AM on April 5, 2006


Of course the results of the scientific method are not going to help you 100% of the time, but there's no way to know when the results of the guess-n-imagine method are going to fill in those gaps.
posted by rxrfrx at 8:22 AM on April 5, 2006


"...an anarchistic, Earth centered way of life..."

Personally, i'm looking for an anarchistic, center-of-the-Earth way of life, where i'm as healthy as a Morlock.
posted by tpl1212 at 8:25 AM on April 5, 2006


Don't forget to alternate your holistic herbal healing with prayer.

And to make ashbury's advice even more specific: herbs and whatnot are very good for tea or chicken stock, when you need tea or chicken stock, while medical drugs might be better at other times, such as when you are sick. To rely completely on drugs when you need to make some chicken soup, or on tea when you have septicemia, is foolish, and not recommended.
posted by rusty at 8:26 AM on April 5, 2006


QuietDesperation, no offense meant personally, but on this topic you are utterly full of shit. You may not wish to use natural remedies yourself, but promulgating the whole "turning the clock back on medical science" view of them just screws over those of us who do.

For example: I had a very bad accident 4+ years ago and shattered my elbow. It grew together all to hell while in its cast. My old school moron of a surgeon made things worse...hell, he was so dumb he couldn't even anesthetize me correctly (I woke up and gagged on my intubation tube during the first of 2 surgeries...lovely). The physical therapists were stumped after months and months of effort, and threw up their (functional) hands. Looked like my arm would never straighten out of its own volition again.

Hey -- guess who got me an additional 20 degrees worth of (really crucial) mobility after all the modern medicine had failed? My acupuncturist. With a couple of needles, and a machine designed to send electrical charges to the underlying muscle.

But if people who hold your opinion had their way, I wouldn't even be allowed to seek treatment from an acupuncturist. Mine was targeted by the state medical board for "prescribing." (She'd suggested a patient look into supplementing her diet with vitamins). Her to the board examiners: "Oh, so some 18-year-old at GNC can tell you to take vitamins X, Y, and Z, but I can't do the same?" Nope. And this is a woman with a multi-year professional degree in not only acupuncture but also Chinese herbal medicine! Pimply-faced GNC kid hawks vitamin C to you? Ok. Trained medical professional who gets results where others have failed? (and not just with me, either). Nope. The fertility and pain management experts at the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic have consulted with her, but legally, she can't even suggest you take a multivitamin. Nice.

You may not like what these people are doing -- if that's the case, don't do it yourself! But casting aspersions on their efficacy is unfair and leads to the kind of idiocy I've referenced above...
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:33 AM on April 5, 2006


(i have a feeling this won't end well...)
posted by slater at 8:33 AM on April 5, 2006


The world is painted in shades of grey.

My article is better and, I think, funnier.

http://mfdh.ca/writing/commissions/articles/Headache_Hunt.html
posted by CheeseburgerBrown at 8:41 AM on April 5, 2006


Probably not, Slater, but in case you couldn't tell, I've got some pretty strong opinions on this topic. I may have massive surgical scars on the surface and more scarring underneath the skin than you can imagine (picture: Titanic-sinking iceberg, only scar tissue), but at least I can move my freaking arm. Thanks, acupuncture.

And on a more general note: jeebus. It's like abortion. Don't like 'em? Don't have one. And DON'T restrict my right to have one, either. Anarcho-herbalist communes be damned.

By the way, I apologize, QuietDesperation. Shouldn't have taken it out on you...
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:41 AM on April 5, 2006


the herbs have been taken out of the system of healing

.


huh?
posted by CynicalKnight at 8:42 AM on April 5, 2006


Ah. Not the herbs I was thinking of...
posted by quarsan at 8:43 AM on April 5, 2006


bitter-girl: my comment wasn't directed at you per se. Just the thread & topic in general ;)
posted by slater at 8:43 AM on April 5, 2006


Hey CheeseburgerBrown -- if a hole in the skull really *could* cure migraines, there'd be a line down the block at the awl-and-hammer store.

(Speaking as someone who gets real migraines, and not just the fakey kind people like to pretend are migraines for extra sympathy).
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:44 AM on April 5, 2006


bitter-girl: I believe acupuncture has been scientifically researched extensively, pubmed has 11,000 articles on acupuncture.
posted by delmoi at 8:52 AM on April 5, 2006


bitter-girl: did you ever sue anyone over this? Or try too? From your description it sounds like you might have a case, I don't know.
posted by delmoi at 8:54 AM on April 5, 2006


Herbs cure cancer.
posted by hortense at 9:22 AM on April 5, 2006


herbs are chemicals, often the chemicals used to MAKE drugs -- without extract of horse urine. While herbs, like pharamaceuticals, aren't foolproof, they do come with a body of collected knowledge as well -- so much so that they merit their own Physician's Desk Reference. So somewhere, a few western doctors and chemists have at least taken time to see what plants can actually kill you and what plants can help you, with the intention of applying their use.

I don't think all herbalism is crap, I think that assumptions about herbalism are crap. "Herbs are natural and therefore safe," stands up just as well as a snakebite from a rattler being natural and therefore safe. But, just as the plants can harm you, they can help -- if you take the time to know a darned thing about them, and few people have the time, let alone access to the training required to do it well. It's a challenging paradox in the medical world, because with the volumes of information flying at doctors all the time, they have to delegate understanding of chemical interactions to pharamacists, and with the older school doctors, throwbacks to herbalism could possibly undo portions of their careers and life-work.
posted by medea42 at 9:32 AM on April 5, 2006


1) Analyze plants and find useful molecules ; salicin was first extracted from willow bark , Digitalis Purpurea is used to obtain drugs that help heart. Both are deadly if not used properly and that's the problem with DIY herbalist

2) Slap a brand name on it like Bayer's Aspirin , which isn't but common acetylsalicylic acid from salicin

3) Suggest that if it is not brand name Aspirin then it must Not be !quality" acetylsalicylic acid, whatever the quack you think quality means.

.... ?

4) Profit !!

Point being that while quackery is common in any field of any knowledge, that doesn't imply that fields frequented by many quacks are necessarily useless themselves.
posted by elpapacito at 9:35 AM on April 5, 2006


A herbalist friend of mine says 90% of the claims about herbal remedies are bunk and 30% of those are harmful and/or dangerous. It's not "alternative medicine", it's just medicine.

On preview, pretty much what medea42 said.
posted by Foosnark at 9:50 AM on April 5, 2006


delmoi -- yes, there was a lawsuit -- filed against the cause of the accident, not the doc.

Wanted to sue him, though, and had plenty of reason. Lessee...the time he physically forced my arm in front of my physical therapist because he thought I was being dramatic nearly resulted in fisticuffs between the two of 'em (she was appalled, the fact he got caught by the state medical board self-prescribing Vicodin after conveniently accusing me of being drug-seeking because I'd asked him the difference between the pain meds my primary care guy prescribed and the ones he chose post surgery #2, the waking up on the table, the faxing my presurgical blood test info to my work fax instead of the lab (I have no idea to this day how they got that number), you name it. He was a veritable barrel of laughs, that one. Here's the kicker: he wasn't some schmo, he was the head of his department at a major research and teaching hospital.

My lawyer didn't want to file against him in case the other case went to trial and we needed him (it didn't, we settled). By that time, it was too late to file. Sigh.

Medea42 -- if qualified people like my acupuncturist were allowed to practice without major interference (see above), we wouldn't have to take the time to sort out the valuable info from the bad.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 10:17 AM on April 5, 2006


Regarding acupuncture, this quote from Bob Parks, a physics professor at the University of Maryland, seems to make a lot of sense:

"You need a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study with good statistics to find out what works and what doesn't. And double-blind is hard to do with needles. But it wouldn't matter, I still wouldn't believe it. The trouble is, it's silly. Acupuncture, complete with "meridians" that connect acupuncture points, and moxibustion – which applies heat to the acupuncture points, predate vivisection by thousands of years. Well, by 2004 they've looked: no features of our anatomy correspond to any of this stuff. They discovered acupuncture before it was known that blood circulates, or that germs cause disease. But is there anything acupuncture doesn't treat? The Wednesday New York Times reported that "acupuncture is moving toward the mainstream." Mainstream what? When a stage magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, I may not know where the rabbit came from, but I know it's not magic. It's not science either."

It should be noted that although some people recover from their ailments after acupuncture, some people get better after receiving placebo pills as well.
posted by MotorNeuron at 11:52 AM on April 5, 2006


MotorNeuron, I'd be interested in work that shows that "no features of our anatomy correspond to any of this stuff." I've always assumed that acupuncture isn't 100% BS, and the parts that work are the parts where the "meridian" corresponds with a relevant nerve. (This is of course more relevant to pain relief and movement problems... it seems fairly implausible that acupuncture can fix metabolic problems or help you quit smoking any more than prayer or sugar pill)
posted by rxrfrx at 12:01 PM on April 5, 2006


rxrfx,

I don't have a study to back up the specific claim you pulled from the quote. You've got me on that one.

I did do a quick search for "acupuncture double blind" and found some studies regarding migraines and one testing the effect on osteoarthritic pain. The consensus seems to be that there is no evidence that acupuncture works on tension headaches, migraine headaches or osteoarthritic pain.

Perhaps acupuncture works in a very specific situation, but I can't find anything reputable to support it (anecdotes, aside).
posted by MotorNeuron at 12:38 PM on April 5, 2006


It should be noted that although some people recover from their ailments after acupuncture, some people get better after receiving placebo pills as well.

We denigrate the placebo, and yet, do we have any medicine as powerful as "just a placebo"? Most diseases heal themselves. While most ehtnomedical systems focus on amplifying the placebo response, Western biomedicine tries very hard to identify the single most powerful method of healing we've ever found, and systematically eliminate it.

I cannot accept that this is a wise course.

Getting back to the original post, however, modern medicine traces its roots back to herbalism (diverging only with Paracelsus' research into minerals in the Renaissance, really). Most of our drugs are made from isolating the "active ingredients" in herbal remedies. Of course, the fallacy of reductionism is that by focusing on only one aspect--does this compound cure this malady?--one easily misses the complications involved. Plantain seeds are a laxative; its leaves get rid of diarrhea. You see this kind of balance a lot in growing plants; after all, the same compounds in plantain seeds that make humans have to go have effects on the plant, too. All organisms have to achieve a certain amount of balance to stay alive. Isolating the active ingredients in herbal remedies has often led to terrible side-effects. Though aspirin was derived from willow bark, chewing willow bark doesn't have nearly as many problems as taking an aspirin.

After all, humans are two million years old, and modern medicine is only a few hundred, and we didn't all die off before reaching that stage, so obviously we managed to get by somehow. Is it really so radical to think that evolution works?
posted by jefgodesky at 1:27 PM on April 5, 2006


Evolution only "works" in that sense if you don't care about individuals dying (and, for that matter, sick and useless individuals). And we most definitely do care.
posted by rxrfrx at 1:31 PM on April 5, 2006


Yes, there are small molecules in some plants that have therapeutic potential. However, the vast majority of these are not well characterized and, indeed, there are other small molecules also present which may have undesireable effects.

My beef with "naturalism" and "herbalism" and the distrust of modern medicine isn't so much that people will believe anything they want to believe - my problem with this kind of behavior is when they apply it to their children.

I've heard many first-hand accounts of parents who either know just enough to be dangerous or who have completely unfounded (other than that they read it on the web or a relative told them so) beliefs that they refuse the proper medical care for their children and insist on treating their ill child the way they want. It's unfortunate that in a vast majority of these cases the "alternative" treatment is either ineffective or detrimental to the child's health.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 2:12 PM on April 5, 2006


Evolution only "works" in that sense if you don't care about individuals dying (and, for that matter, sick and useless individuals). And we most definitely do care.

I don't follow. Herbs and humans co-evolved, one would expect herbs to alleviate various conditions. Humans would adapt to make use of compounds in herbs, and herbs might adapt to be useful to humans so that we'd help spread their seed. So, based on evolution, one would expect herbs to work as remedies--and what do you know! They do! We're not talking about alternative medicine here. Herbal remedies are still the cornerstone of our own pharmaceutical industry, being a large-scale exercise in trying to improve upon evolution, with mixed results.

So, I'm not sure where you get anything about "caring about individuals dying" in that....

Yes, there are small molecules in some plants that have therapeutic potential. However, the vast majority of these are not well characterized and, indeed, there are other small molecules also present which may have undesireable effects.

Right, like anything you eat or ingest or inhale. We co-evolved with herbs. We developed enzymes and other methods to block harmful chemicals, and ways to make use of other chemicals. Both our adaptation to herbs, and herbs' adaptation to us, expects us to ingest the whole plant, not just the "active ingredient." That's why our pharmaceuticals--mostly based on herbal remedies and extracting "active ingredients" out of them--have so many side effects that herbs don't. But just like our own pharmaceuticals, using herbs carelessly or ignorantly can lead to very bad consequences. Medicine is inherently powerful stuff, and any kind of medicine taken recklessly will lead to a bad end.

My beef with "naturalism" and "herbalism" and the distrust of modern medicine isn't so much that people will believe anything they want to believe - my problem with this kind of behavior is when they apply it to their children.

Hmmm, that's interesting, because my beef with such blind faith in biomedicine isn't so much that people will believe anything they want to believe, but that they force others to do the same. Not just children, but that score is indelibly burned into my memory. My earliest memory was watching my younger brother very nearly die from meningitis--which he got from a meningitis vaccine.
posted by jefgodesky at 2:38 PM on April 5, 2006


Bittergirl - I lived in Hong Kong for almost two decades, and had abundant exprerience with acupuncture and Chinese herbalists. I know some of the stuff works. But, as has been implied elsewhere, there is no such thing as alternative medicine - there is only medicine that works, and medicine that doesn't. There are herbal cures that work, and there are people studying the effects in a scientific manner. What I object to is the belief that scientifically-based medicine is somehow misguided, and "alternative" cures work on the "whole" person. This is claptrap, sorry. By maintaining the fiction that there is a mystical reason for the cure, alternative practitioners keep from having to justify their track record.

Acupuncture seems to be, on occasion, the right thing for the wrong reason. There is absolutely no reason to believe that meridians or chi exist. The needles might be stimulating the skin in some way that eases certain conditions. It's great that it helped your arm, and someday we'll know why, but it wasn't because the needle was stuck in a certain meridian that let chi flow better to your arm. In fact, it's been found that the placement of the needle doesn't seem to matter much.

There's also the issue, raised above, that herbalists often don't know exactly what they're doing (a side effect of their resistance to the scientific method) and so have a hard time controlling dosages. Some herbs are powerful, and you can never tell exactly how much medicine is in a given leaf or piece of bark.
posted by QuietDesperation at 2:39 PM on April 5, 2006


Hmmm ... I agree with you that "alternative medicine" is pretty useless. There's medicine that works, and medicine that doesn't. Acupuncture seems to have some effect. Herbs work for very good reason; most of our pharmaceuticals are derived from herbal remedies. Ultimately, there's just medicines that work, and medicines that don't.

But scientifically-based medicine is every bit as misguided as any other ethnomedical system, and comes up with therapies that fall in the "don't work" category as much as any other. No, there's nothing necessarily mystical about "alternative medicine," but any epistemologist worth his salt knows that science, reason and especially reductionism are not the all-powerful, godlike powers we sometimes make them out to be. Don't get me wrong--they're powerful tools. But they are fallible, and quite often, things work and we can't figure out why(at least, yet). Or, something seems like it works, but we've ignored some crucial factor--just look at the gory history of how we discovered blood types and Rh factor.

Herbs have been used for as long as there have been animals, by societies that have as high a percentage of surviving patients as any modern hospital. In most cases, we know exactly why they work. In many cases, our attempts to create a concentrated pharmaceutical ends up with a remedy significantly inferior to the plant itself. Not always, but it's not uncommon to go that way.

As far as herbalists who don't know what they're doing, you're right. They're every bit as dangerous as a licensed medical doctor who doesn't know what he's doing. There's plenty of malpractice to go around, and I don't know of any ethnomedical system that has a corner on that market.

There's another experience that might be coloring my perception here, an equal-and-opposite to my earlier memory of my brother's near-death experience. It involves a group camping trip, where we pitched our tents a bit too close to a bee hive. A lot of stings came out of that weekend, and some people had brought various over-the-counter cremes with them. I was making poultices out of mud and plantain leaves. Those sporting my ugly little poultices had significantly less swelling and reported less pain than those who used the cremes.
posted by jefgodesky at 2:49 PM on April 5, 2006


jefgodesky, "every bit as misguided"? I don't think so. Doctors are the first to admit that they are fallible, and that cures don't work for everyone, and that therapies that they used to use have sometimes proved not effective. But that is the point - over time things that don't work are abandoned. You site the "gory history" of the discovery of blood types. But that history has led to the ability to replace human blood in those who have been severely wounded, saving their lives. This could only happen because knowledge is accumulated and tested. Once it was discovered that you don't mix type AB and type O, no one did it.

However, I read a study demonstrating that acupuncture cannot cure tobacco addiction. So, you'd think that acupuncturists would stop offering treatment to smokers. But you'd be wrong. I have never heard an acupuncturist, reflexologist, or herbalist say "we used to use x to treat y, but we found it doesn't work." Science, at least, has a method of recording and learning from past mistakes.

And as for the "licensed medical doctor who doesn't know what he's doing" being dangerous, you're absolutely right. That's why medical licenses exist, and why some get taken away from time to time (perhaps not enough, but have you ever heard of an acupuncturist whose license was taken away because he didn't cure patients? Doesn't happen).
posted by QuietDesperation at 3:03 PM on April 5, 2006


I don't think so. Doctors are the first to admit that they are fallible, and that cures don't work for everyone, and that therapies that they used to use have sometimes proved not effective. But that is the point...

I agree, the constantly improving nature of science is its greatest strength. Discarding and discounting all of the previous accumulated knowledge of the past few million years and starting the whole project of human knowledge over again from scratch, though, was probably its greatest weakness. Both are systemic consequences of the very nature of science, of course, and that's why I don't think that science is the best, only or One True Path to knowing things.

Every ethnomedicine is "misguided" in some ways, and dead-on in others. For example, scientific medicine will never be able to really make good use of the placebo response, the way that, say, a shaman can (Winkelman, 2002). The role of shamanism is anathema to everything scientific medicine stands for. Shamanism requires the suspension of intellectual rigor and skepticism. But that means that scientifically-based medicine must systemically ignore the single most powerful healing force humans have: our own psychology. So, insofar as it is systemically incapable of using that, it is "misguided." But shamanism is "misguided," too--it's incapable of the kind of rigorous investigation that scientific medicine is capable of.

However, I read a study demonstrating that acupuncture cannot cure tobacco addiction. So, you'd think that acupuncturists would stop offering treatment to smokers. But you'd be wrong. I have never heard an acupuncturist, reflexologist, or herbalist say "we used to use x to treat y, but we found it doesn't work." Science, at least, has a method of recording and learning from past mistakes.

I'm not sure how much you can conclude about the nature of a different ethnomedicine from its modern practitioners. My understanding is that in China, where acupunture is accepted, improvements are more readily accepted, as well. Obstinence is usually a symptom of defensiveness; driving them "underground," as it were, may have a lot more to do with that than the practices themselves.

Also, I'm sure we can all recite a long list of studies, with a matching list of studies that concluded the precise opposite, and match them up like nucleotide bases of DNA. So, I don't see any reason immediately why an entire profession needs to retract a claim based on a single study.

And as for the "licensed medical doctor who doesn't know what he's doing" being dangerous, you're absolutely right. That's why medical licenses exist, and why some get taken away from time to time (perhaps not enough, but have you ever heard of an acupuncturist whose license was taken away because he didn't cure patients? Doesn't happen).

Not an acupuncturist, but I do know of such things happening to herbalists. There is such a thing as licensed herbalists. If you want to control for practitioners who don't know what they're doing, licensing and public accountability could go a long way, but that would first mean admitting that scientifically-based medicine, as powerful as it is, may not be the miraculous answer to every single possible malady, and that sometimes, other solutions might work just as well, or even better. It would mean letting these "alternative medicines" out of the underground. It doesn't mean giving up science, but it does mean giving up some of our blind faith in science, and admitting that it's not always the only or best answer.

Is that something we're prepared to do? I don't think so. That means that the problems with "alternative medicine" will likely continue, not because of the inherent properties of the approaches themselves, but because we've pushed them underground in the first place.

Kind of reminds me of the question of legalizing marijuana....

Winkelman, M. 2002. "Shamanism as Neurotheology and Evolutionary Psychology," American Behavioral Scientist, 45(12):1873-1885. [PDF]
posted by jefgodesky at 3:22 PM on April 5, 2006


I had a similar experience to bitter-girl.com. After an Aikido accident I lost the ability to fully open my arm (dickwad of a sensei with short man syndrome pulling a pin/hold too far, too fast because he thought I was "showing off" my flexibility). A gentleman I'd met in our Aikido community was also an acupuncturist, and oddly enough, health insurance would cover the treatment. So I gave it a try for about a month. Miraculously, two years later my arm was fine.

F'ing Amazing!
posted by Sparx at 7:49 PM on April 5, 2006


We co-evolved with herbs. We developed enzymes and other methods to block harmful chemicals, and ways to make use of other chemicals.

Not really.

We co-evolved with pathogens and parasites.

The small molecules from plants? Mimickry. Coincidence.

Many natural poisons are alkyloids. Alkyloids taste bitter to modern humans. Ancient humans who didn't find the taste of alkyloids distasteful died from eating poisonous plants.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 5:14 PM on April 6, 2006


Every animal on the planet co-evolved with herbs, and use herbs medicinally. What, humans were the only animals to abstain? You're right about the bitterness, but I was referring to the usefulness of herbs in treating disease.
posted by jefgodesky at 7:29 PM on April 6, 2006


Give me a "for example."

Point out a specific plant that is an effective therapy for a specific human ailment.

I don't feel that you understand what co-evolving means.

Plants (and other lifeforms) produce small molecules. Some have some function, many do not. If a particular plant produces something that benefit's it's fitness (ie., makes it more likely to reproduce) then what that plant produces will tend to persist.

Being benedicial to human health has nothing to do with that plant's fecundity. Unless humans intercede and artifiicially cultivate that plant.

The only way that a plant can "co-evolve" with humanity is if the persistence of said plant has to do with humans wanting that plant to persist.

By that accounting, mentally retarded cattle and brain-dead chickens have "co-evolved" with humanity.

The primary selection factor for plants producing biochemically active small molecules are pest/pathogen control and competition against microorganisms/other similar plants. The majority of useful small molecules from plants are in the areas of attracting insects/animals in distributing that plant's genomic information, preventing other plants from using that plant's resources, or to prevent other organisms from taking energy from that plant.

jefdogesky - I liked some of your early posts; lots of energy and willfullness. Lately, though - you're really revealing your shortcomings.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 10:45 PM on April 6, 2006


Point out a specific plant that is an effective therapy for a specific human ailment.

Willow bark is where we first discovered salicylic acid--aspirin. Of course, aspirin causes stomach trouble--but not willow bark. Aspirin isolates salicylic acid and puts it into a concentrated form, but willow bark also contains other chemicals in the bark which counteract the troublesome side effects of salicylic acid.

Why is this? The only reasonable expectation is that willow co-evolved with animals. Perhaps exposing the inner bark can be helpful? If that's so, then providing an effective remedy for animals can be an excellent way to achieve that.

Being benedicial to human health has nothing to do with that plant's fecundity. Unless humans intercede and artifiicially cultivate that plant.

Not always, especially if it acts in a sufficiently general way to be effective for many different types of animals. Squirrels don't artificially cultivate trees, but they've still co-evolved with them very closely. In this case, I would suggest that many medicinal herbs adapted to the prescence and actions of animals by providing effective remedies, and that this explains why it is so common for an herb to not only include chemicals that treat a specific ailment, but also other chemicals that counteract the side effects of the treatment.
posted by jefgodesky at 8:03 AM on April 7, 2006


The only reasonable expectation is that willow co-evolved with animals.

I don't believe that that was what happened. The salicylic acid in willow bark is not there because willow trees co-evolved with humans.

It's there because plants produce many small molecules, some of which are beneficial to it and some that aren't. It's a coincidence that salicylic acid has pain relieving and anti-inflammatory properties in humans.

The chemical structure of salicylic acid is reasonably simple and all of it's substructures are common simple organic molecules.

How does it benefit a plant to be a remedy for animal ailements? The animal eats the plant. How does that benefit the plant? How does the plant know that it has beneficial properties for an animal?

It's not like fruit - water and sugar laden vessel that houses seeds. Animals are induced to eat the fruit (as it is nutritional) but it benefits the plant because the animal disseminated the seeds. Fruit bearing plants with more palatable fruit will have more of its seeds disseminated in a further range than a fruit bearing plant with non-palatable fruit. Hence, the fruit bearing plants with "better" fruit get selected for.

Co-evolution suggests that two or more organisms exert selection pressures on each other, and those selection pressures will drive the evolution of both organisms.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 10:52 AM on April 7, 2006


The salicylic acid in willow bark is not there because willow trees co-evolved with humans.

Obviously not with humans, but it did co-evolve with another animals. We share enough biology in common with those animals for modern pharmaceutical companies to test drugs on them. It might be better to adapt to "mammals" as generally as possible, rather than any specific species.

It's a coincidence that salicylic acid has pain relieving and anti-inflammatory properties in humans.

Willow bark is by no means alone. There is an enormous catalog of such plants, and in most cases, the plant contains many other inactive ingredients which counteract the side effects of the active ingredient when it is isolated. How do we account for such an unlikely outcome if not by evolution?

How does it benefit a plant to be a remedy for animal ailements? The animal eats the plant. How does that benefit the plant? How does the plant know that it has beneficial properties for an animal?

It depends on the plant. Sometimes it is as simple as spreading seed. Going back to the willow example again, eating the bark exposes the inner bark. This can have a number of consequences, any of them could be beneficial. If it is not, and if we assume salicylic acid is crucial to willow bark's proper functioning, would natural selection not quickly yield a willow with salicylic acid, but without the various chemicals that counter-act the stomach trouble it causes? The fact that it has not suggests that there is an advantage to having the bark eaten, and suggests that those counter-acting agents evolved to make the bark a better remedy for mammals, in order to encourage them to eat the bark.

Co-evolution suggests that two or more organisms exert selection pressures on each other, and those selection pressures will drive the evolution of both organisms.

That is precisely what I'm suggesting. An animal with a slightly different body chemistry, such that it responds to chemicals in plants that it can eat to alleviate illness, will certainly have an evolutionary advantage over those that do not--it has medicine when it gets sick. At the same time, I think the widespread trend of so many plants possessing not only chemicals that happen to be pharmaceutically useful for us, but also accompanied with a very precise balance of other chemicals to minimize side effects, suggests that they have been evolving to make themselves more effective remedies for animals. I'm not a botanist, so I can't say for certain, but I can think of a number of ways in which many herbal remedies could benefit the plant.
posted by jefgodesky at 11:58 AM on April 7, 2006


You can believe what you want. I guess it's not hurting anyone.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 12:22 PM on April 7, 2006


It seems to make far more sense than simple coincidence. I can't even calculate the probability of that, but it must be astronomically small, because it's not just willow--you see this same pattern in literally thousands of plants.
posted by jefgodesky at 1:01 PM on April 7, 2006


Small molecule libraries.

100's of thousands of distinct small molecules. There are millions arrayed in libraries scattered across all the different pharmaceutical companies. Uncountable more have not yet been isolated.

Alpha-gal ceramide is from a sea sponge. It is a potent activator of human natural killer cells, an immune population best known for it's ability to kill virus infected cells in our bodies.

Are you suggesting that sea sponges co-evolved with humans?

It's a coincidence. There is no guiding force, evolution or no.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 2:20 PM on April 7, 2006


I'm not saying that there isn't a certain amount of coincidence--you'd expect there to be, with so much life on the planet. But does alpha-gal ceramide in sponges have the delicate balance of counter-measures found in willow bark, or plantain? This is so common that many herbalists go a little overboard and claim it's universal. It's not quite that, but I can see where their exuberance comes from. You're saying that not only is it coincidence that so many plants have medicinally useful chemicals, but that the same plant so often contains just the right mix of other chemicals to cure the ailment and counter-act most of the side effects? That seems difficult to believe.
posted by jefgodesky at 2:24 PM on April 7, 2006


« Older What about Bob?   |   As goes Massachusetts so goes the nation? Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments