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Pathfinders: More Monkey Business

Following our remarks of last December’s Pathfinders regarding the long-established link between status in a group and levels of stress, immunity levels and heart disease, a new study of macaque monkeys seems to have established in which direction the causal link travels (BBC Online, 10 April). There probably aren’t many people confidently predicting that monkeys with naturally poor immunity, bad hearts and high levels of stress would somehow as a result end up at the bottom of the social pecking order, but so far it hasn’t been possible strictly to rule this out. The new study however appears to do just that. It shows that while an examination of the activity level of immune genes gives a reliable estimate of an individual’s social level, a change in that individual’s social rank will spark off a change in the activity levels of the immune genes, more activity corresponding to higher status. The conclusion, in other words, is that ‘status drives immune health, rather than vice-versa.’

‘Though the findings might seem to suggest that low social rank, or a decrease in social rank, can lead to reduced immune health, the team said it was "encouraging" that the effects can be counteracted by a change in the social environment’. While this is quite easy with monkeys, by changing the order in which they are introduced into a group – later arrivals being lower status – the question of how to do this in human society is politically somewhat more complicated. Since capitalism is essentially a hierarchical pyramid in which roughly 99 percent of humans have relatively low status and therefore by implication poorer health, the conclusion for a socialist is easy. Pro-capitalist reformers will have a struggle to figure out a workable solution, however.

Not that socialism will be an instant panacea for all human ills. A separate study last year revealed that ‘Infant stress in monkeys has life-long consequences’ (BBC Online, 18 August, 2011). Baby rhesus monkeys who had been separated from their mothers at birth continued to show signs of anxiety, depression and anti-social behaviour even three years later, suggesting that early trauma caused irreversible changes in the brain. Similar effects have been found in humans, with childhood stress or maltreatment being linked to a raft of adult health conditions including mental health problems, aggression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. ‘It appears that stress in childhood, for monkeys and humans, can lead to behavioural and health problems that can only be partially repaired in later life’, the article states. From a socialist point of view the conclusion to draw is that the early years of socialism will be a period of withdrawal symptoms and recovery, with some effects caused by capitalism continuing to be long-term.

Golden profits of the sun
At a cleared site near the town of Caderache in France stand concentric rings of gigantic blocks that look like a modern Carnac or Stonehenge. These blocks, so enormous they have to be constructed on site in a purpose-built factory, are in fact electro-magnets, designed to be cooled to within a few degrees of absolute zero. Suspended above some of the coldest things in the galaxy will be one of the hottest things in the universe, a plasma ring shaped like a doughnut, a new sun on Earth.

This is ITER, an experimental fusion reactor, likely to be one of the most expensive science projects in history and therefore a joint collaboration of all the great powers, whose siting has been a bone of contention for a decade and whose completion is still decades away. ITER is being built to answer two key questions: how to contain a sun when no known element can withstand the heat, and how to extract a net surplus over the energy required to fire it up. The holy grail of this experiment is relatively clean and abundant energy that can among other things solve water shortage problems with large-scale energy-hungry desalination, but which more to the point cannot be held hostage by foreign powers.

A recent book on future technologies (Abundance – see review on page 22) curiously doesn’t mention fusion at all in its section on energy. Much of the optimistic discussion revolves around collection processes (eg solar) and storage or conversion (eg batteries, hydrogen etc), but without ever considering the problems. Solar energy, for example, is of less use in northern countries and particularly questionable in an age which is debating whether to seed the stratosphere with sulphur in a bid to create global dimming in order to offset greenhouse warming. Solutions involving hydrogen as an energy vector or sodium as a battery component take no account of the cost of producing these hard-to-get elements. Of the methods of generating new energy, biomass is too land-hungry, wind and tide may have unforeseen effects on weather patterns, fossil is too dirty and fission too risky. Every solution brings new problems. Extracting shale gas deposits by hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ is currently causing concerns over polluting water tables, but somewhat worse is the recent discovery that it is destroying the very same underground shale fissures currently being earmarked for carbon capture and storage (New Scientist, 28 March).

Not that these are necessarily insurmountable obstacles. From a socialist perspective a judicious mix of small-scale energy production, collection and conversion systems may do very well, especially given the new parameters of an environmentally friendlier social system. But such DIY technologies may not necessarily be the most profitable solution for capitalism. Anybody can fit a few solar panels, run a compost generator or hoist a windmill, but it takes states and multinationals to build nuclear fusion plants. The power, for the ruling class, resides in being able to fence off what people need and supply it at a premium price, while depriving people of alternatives. Fusion potentially offers that chance for fat profits.

This raises a question for socialists. Often this column goes along with the straightforward assumption that what capitalism invents, leaving aside its obnoxious military research, socialism can usually find a use for. But would socialism really want or need to run hundreds of mini-suns, at a huge ongoing cost in maintenance and risk, to say nothing of the gamma-riddled waste which, though not comparable to fission, would still be considerable? Caderache is an attempt at a capitalist solution to a capitalist problem, but even if it succeeds, whether fusion technology would be considered necessary to socialism is not by any means a given, and will be one of the things socialists will have to think hard about.