Skepchick Quickies 1.14

  • Treating agony with ecstasy – “In the first FDA-approved trial evaluating the street drug’s therapeutic applications, it proved phenomenally successful at treating PTSD.” From Steve.
  • Men more evolved? Their Y chromosome is – “A new study comparing the Y chromosomes from humans and chimpanzees, our nearest living relatives, show that they are about 30 percent different.” From Surly Johnny.
  • Trial begins for accused in abortion doctor slaying – “The trial of the Kansas man who admitted killing one of the nation’s few late-term abortion providers began Wednesday, after the judge agreed to open part of the jury selection to media” From PrimevilKneivel.
  • Google Earth helps find El Dorado – “For nearly 500 years, explorers have hunted in vain for a lost city— now with Google Earth, it may have been found.” From Sydney.


Amanda works in healthcare, is a loudmouthed feminist, and proud supporter of the Oxford comma.

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  1. @Kimbo Jones: Since when does “different” = “more evolved”?

    I think that’s exactly what it means. The mistake is to put a value judgment on “more evolved” to mean “better.” The changes could be fairly trivial or even regressive like the inability to hear babies crying in the night or the inability to pick up dirty underwear.

  2. yeah, I think neither “more evolved” nor “different” really captures it (while not being entirely wrong).

    “More adapted” might, or something to do with the rate of change in the chromosome. It’s kind of hard to sum up in a headline.

  3. What they’re trying to convey is that the human Y chromosome has evolved away from the chimp Y chromosome more so than our other chromosomes have.

    So not better, not even “more adapted” necessarily, just different.

  4. Well, it became more different through greater adaptation over a shorter amount of time. I think the opposition to that kind of language in the headline has more to do with the public perception of what “evolved” and “adapted” mean than the science in the article.

  5. @davew: No it doesn’t mean that. It means they evolved into a different niche, necessitating further change to the chromosome than apes. I’m not referring to value judgements – just the simple misunderstanding of the concept of evolution that something different in humans from animals means that we’re “more evolved”. No we’re not. We’re just different.

  6. It’s not necessarily adaption. In fact, it could be a *lack* of selection (because there are few genes to selection on) that causes higher rates of genetic drift on the Y chromosome.

  7. It would seem to me that a higher y difference could be expected. If a man has a mutated y and a boy is born, the mutated Y is passed along. If a female has a mutated x and a girl or boy is born, it is possible the nonmutated x was passed along.

  8. @Kimbo Jones: not ‘to’, ‘from’.

    We share a common ancestor with chimps. Humans and chimps have an overall genetic overlap of 98%. Most likely this means that we share those same 98% of genes with whatever the common ancestor is, meaning an overall change of about 2%. The Y chromosome has a 70% overlap meaning it has changed/adapted/evolved more than the rest of our genetic code. You’re confusing “more adapted” with “better adapted” and assuming I’m comparing it to other species when I am comparing it to the rest of our genes.

  9. Great. Now when scientists want to move on from fruit flies to testing genetic mutation on humans, the guys will be the first candidates. And due to the higher rate of mutation, there goes my hopes for GATTACA being our future society.

    @Bjornar: [Moment of Concentration and Squinting] Dammit, still no optic blasts.

  10. Ecstasy successfully treats PTSD? What a shocker.

    Really… I understand why they have to do the research; so they can have solid data to back it up, but explaining it in an article like this would come as a shock to the rest of us is just silly. It’s a street drug…. and very popular for the very reason that it makes you feel good. A shocking result would have been if it DIDN’T help PTSD.

  11. @Kimbo Jones: No it doesn’t mean that. It means they evolved into a different niche, necessitating further change to the chromosome than apes. I’m not referring to value judgements – just the simple misunderstanding of the concept of evolution that something different in humans from animals means that we’re “more evolved”. No we’re not. We’re just different.

    So I’m not sure I understand what you are saying. Do you mean that “more evolved” really doesn’t mean anything and we shouldn’t use it? I could go along with that.

  12. @Kimbo Jones: “more adapted” to the sexual selectivity of women. I cannot find the citation right now but something like ~85% of women have successfully reproduced over the history of our species, the figure is like 40% for males. Other things being equal, this should constitute a strong selective pressure on males to evolve at a faster rate than females, at least with respect to this particular aspect of environment.

  13. @swordsbane: Um, just because something “makes you feel good” doesn’t mean it’s going to treat something as severe and complicated as PTSD. PTSD is very hard to treat. Hell, alcohol can make you feel good, but that doesn’t mean it can be used to treat PTSD.

    I, personally, did not think it was a given that it would help treat PTSD, though I’m glad the results seem to be very, very successful. That said, I still don’t think it will help everyone.

    As someone who has taken ecstasy, many years ago, I can say, also, that not everyone reacts to it in the same way. It gives me severe panic attacks (I’d spend hours in the bathroom, certain I was going to die, while everyone else was having a grand ol’ time).

    If I for some reason suffered from PTSD, I would refrain from using ecstasy to treat it, because I had some bad reactions to it. Granted, it was the “street” ecstasy and therefore not as controlled, but that wouldn’t stop me from likely having a panic attack and worsening the PTSD if I were given ecstasy in that situation. Even the thought of it makes me feel ill (I’m getting nervous just thinking about it!). Certain music used to set off panic attacks because it would bring me back, which thankfully doesn’t happen any longer, but that same music still makes me queasy, and causes my palms to sweat. Along with the fact that it makes me have a panic attack every time, I also had a very traumatic experience with ecstasy (I puked for 12+ hours straight and was 100% certain I was going to die), another one that wasn’t much better (I was very ill, though not quite as bad), and combine that with an abusive ex-boyfriend who would coerce me into taking the drug, well, I’m sure using it to treat PTSD on me would be a big mistake.

  14. @marilove: I, personally, did not think it was a given that it would help treat PTSD, though I’m glad the results seem to be very, very successful. That said, I still don’t think it will help everyone.

    I agree.

    To be clear the X isn’t used to treat PTSD it is taken in the clinic to make the talk-therapy more effective. Apparently it provokes strong emotional reactions so you can get through “stuff” faster. (I say this as a person who has never done X or talk therapy.)

  15. @marilove: Alcohol is a depressant. It doesn’t make you feel good as make you numb and remove you inhibitions. It has quite a few case studies of angry drunks and depressed drunks. Given what it does to your brain, I would be surprised if it helped PTSD.

    However, the fact that different people react to ecstasy differently isn’t the point. Ecstasy is a stimulant and doesn’t just make you happy but makes you euphoric. Not to minimize your own reaction to it, but you are the exception rather than the rule. It is still not surprising that it could be made to help PTSD (under controlled conditions of course). It was DESIGNED to combat depression, even if the people who first designed it probably weren’t biochemists or doctors or even scientists.

    I’m not trying to minimize PTSD either, my grandfather suffered from it (when it was still called battle-fatigue) and I know what it does to people.

    Still, the only thing about this study that I find surprising is the degree to which it seems to help. I wish them luck, and on a related note I can’t help thinking that it would be much easier to do this kind of research if we weren’t so paranoid about illegal drugs.

  16. @davew: You are correct! I was just being overly simplistic. :)

    @swordsbane: Cocaine and meth also make you feel euphoric, but I highly doubt either would be good for PTSD.

    I’m also not the only one I know to have had a bad reaction to X. I’m also not the only one to get very ill from it (while others that took the same pill were fine).

    It’s great that it helps, but people just need to realize it’s not going to be a cure-all, and it’s not going to help everyone who takes it. I guarantee not everyone is going to have a positive reaction to it, and it may even harm some. (Of course, there’s always that risk when you take any kind of medicine, especially for mental disorders.)

    All I know is it that, while I felt euphoric in a way (and it always felt artificial, and was always colored with a background noise of anxiety), it would ebb and flow, and just like positive feelings are enhanced when on X, so are the negative feelings. Just like any bad trip, once it starts, it’s really hard to stop, and it tends to intensify before it gets better. I was positive I was going to die (yay major panic attacks!) on more than one occasion, and I just can’t imagine having PTSD while going through a bad reaction from the drug.

    So hopefully people who have PTSD don’t start buying X off the street (say, if they don’t have health insurance, and considering how our government treats Veterans and how often sexual assault victims are ignored, that’s pretty likely).

    With all that said, it’s awesome that it helps and seemingly so effectively, and I do agree that this kind of research would be easier if paranoia wasn’t so common. But you also can’t forget that they can be very harmful, and you really don’t know how someone is going to react to it.

  17. @davew: That’s right. It’s not necessarily used as a treatment. One of the symptoms of PTSD is a kind of emotional shutdown that occurs whenever memories of the traumatic experience arise. Thus, therapists may ask the client to relive the event in as much detail as possible AND to try and feel the emotions associated with it. This emotional release helps them “move on” psychologically, and learn to put the trauma in perspective, thus lowering their PTSD symptoms. This is the reason MDMA appears to work well, because it heightens emotion and lowers that “emotional wall” that many PTSD sufferers have put up around their memories. In general, therapy for PTSD that “opens up” these emotional blockades is very promising (with or without MDMA).

    @marilove: Your experience is not that uncommon. I had several friends who felt this way after taking X many years ago. I never touched the stuff myself, I just smoked lots of weed, and then got really paranoid. :-)

  18. Street ecstacy these days is almost never MDMA. More likely it’s a cocktail of LSD (or a similar hallucinogen), some sort of speed, and some other drugs with maybe a small amount of actual MDMA in there somewhere(according to an aquaintance of mine who used to sell the stuff).

  19. @marilove: Actually stimulant ADD/ADHD drugs have been shown to have some effectiveness in treating depression and related disorders and some forms of anxiety. The problem for treating PTSD is often that it really isn’t a specific thing but a collection of reactions and responses to all manner of distressing singular, multiple or chronic incidents. As a specific diagnosis many in the psychiatric community do not even support PTSD as a diagnosis because it is often nothing but a general catch all where a more specific diagnosis or multiple diagnoses’ would likely lead to more effective treatment and a better description of what the individual is dealing with. Garrison22 may set me straight if I’m too far off on this.

  20. @davew: Yeah, “more evolved” is pretty much a nonsense term.

    @Magnus H.: So as long as there’s a description of what we’re “more adapted” to (and compared to what) I have no problem with that terminology. But by itself, though, it sounds just like “more evolved”.

  21. @Kimbo Jones: I read the article yesterday and it seemed to me the better phrase would have been more susceptible . As in, DNA that is more susceptible to the environmental and reproductive influences that lead to genetic adaptations.

  22. @Kimbo Jones: I wouldn’t consider “more evolved” a nonsense term. A species or group being “more evolved” than another just means it has undergone more genetic mutations since they diverged from their most recent common ancestor. “More evolved” does not mean better more advanced or anything like that. For example, Chimps are more evolved than humans: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19426006.000-chimps-are-the-most-refined-ape-of-all.html.team
    And if I recall correctly from my Mammalogy class, ruminants are the most evolved group of mammals.

    So even if men are more evolved than women, they are still not more evolved than a cow.

    Also, like Magnus H. said, I would think this suggests women have more influence on the evolution of men than men do on the evolution of women.

  23. First medical marijuana, now medical Ecstasy?
    Interesting. Might this be a new trend in medicine? Formally illegal drugs now being see as providing benifits? Might have some postive social impacts as well.

    Which the rapidly evolving Y chromosone, I wonder where this will lead the male of the species, if anywhere?
    Too bad male behavior doesn’t evolve as rapidly.

  24. Street ecstacy these days is almost never MDMA. More likely it’s a cocktail of LSD (or a similar hallucinogen), some sort of speed, and some other drugs with maybe a small amount of actual MDMA in there somewhere(according to an aquaintance of mine who used to sell the stuff).

    True, except for the LSD part, since most blotter sold as LSD isn’t even LSD anymore. It’s more likely to be a psychedelic amphetamine like DOC or DOI. Ever since Pickard got busted, (real) LSD availability has dropped 90% (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Leonard_Pickard ).

    Ecstasy tablets often have mCPP + TFMPP instead of MDMA, or they have small amounts of MDMA adulterated with DXM, ketamine, meth, or caffeine. Just browse one of the pill testing sites (pillreports.com, ecstasydata.org) to get an idea of the most common adulterants. 4-methylmethcathinone (mephedrone) is the hot new adulterant, because it works really well (similar effects to MDMA) and is still legal in many countries.

  25. @Kimbo Jones: Again, you’re focusing on the “to” when everyone else is talking about the “from”. You’re arguing against something that no one has brought up.

    We’re talking about how much a particular chromosome has changed from that of a common ancestor as compared to other chromosomes.

  26. @James Fox: True. There is still some controversy over the PTSD diagnosis, but with regards to treatment, the most promising appears to be a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy, whereby the individual relives the event over and over with the therapist pushing them to remember every last detail and confront their negative emotions. Very “hard-core”, almost RET-like. Seems to be working for some, tho.

    That being said, this is NOT my area of expertise, so I cannot take anyone to task for being skeptical.

    BTW, there is a theory gaining support that childhood ADD/ADHD is simply a form of depression and that’s why stimulant drugs work so well to counteract the symptoms. Interesting.

  27. @Garrison22: Interesting given there is more and more brain research about specific neurological functioning that is specific to ADHD. Good thing we have science when theories abound.

    I read an interesting article yesterday reporting some new research concerning PTSD and wounded veterans. The clear evidence was that those injured vets who were given morphine quickly after their injury had a significantly lower incidence of PTSD. Pain sucks.

  28. @mikerattlesnake: This “to/from” thing I’m not getting into – we’re talking about the same thing. What I’m saying is: with evolution specifically, certain phrases are particularly guilty for misleading people into thinking evolution has a goal. I understand what evolution is, you apparently understand what it is, but the average person reading the article who learned about creationism in science class might not know what it is. That’s why I’m annoyed with the phrasing – it helps unintentionally continue a misunderstanding for the sake of having a provocative headline. Keeping science accessible and interesting may require some simplified half truths at times, particularly for headlines, but when it’s something that’s a common misconception about a topic that’s so (sigh) controversial, I think people should be more careful to be clear.

  29. @Kimbo Jones: arguing against it’s use in that manner is one thing, saying that the phrase itself is meaningless or completely incorrect in a discussion with other people who understand the science is another thing.
    I just feel like, until now, you were having a different discussion than the other people involved (mostly because you kept mentioning other species and asking what we had evolved to).

    I agree with your point, but still contend that it’s a hard concept to condense into a headline. I’m all for less sensational headlines, though, and would be happy with something like “Y chromosome shown to be more adapted from ancestral species than other human chromosomes”.

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