Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Ask a Moron: How Important Was Syphilis In History?

This news story got me thinking:
In a comprehensive genetic study, scientists have found what they say is the strongest evidence yet linking the first European explorers of the New World to the origin of sexually transmitted syphilis.

The research, they say, supports the hypothesis that returning explorers introduced organisms leading, in probably modified forms, to the first recorded syphilis epidemic, beginning in Europe in 1493.

I'm going to go a bit off the rails here but here it is: If this is true, would it be possible to attribute the vast discrepancies between Europe and the Americas in 1493 to differences in the prevalent diseases among their leadership? Could Europe's vast dominance in art, science and technology came from more rational political leadership resulting from relatively common syphilis in one place and its nonexistent in the other? I think it is possible.

First, it seems likely that syphilis, if it existed only in the Americas, would have been very common. The limited understanding of medicine in ancient times would have provided no way to prevent the spread of sexual diseases or even understand what they were. Also, circumstantially, if the first explorers came back with it after (probably violent)limited relations with the natives, the odds of their contraction must have been quite high. (If anyone knows any

Next, let's consider the effects of long-term syphilis:
Neurological complications at this stage can be diverse. In some patients, manifestations include generalized paresis of the insane which results in personality changes, changes in emotional affect, hyperactive reflexes, and Argyll-Robertson pupil.

It is generally accepted that these personality changes are often violent or, at best, erratic and prone to seemingly insane decisions. Al Capone was famously afflicted and much of his insane, violent behavior could be at least somewhat blamed on this condition:
Records suggest an association between Capone's declining neurological condition and an increase in high-risk behaviors. Prison, criminal, media, and medical records from the National Archives and other sources were studied to identify relationships to current research data describing neurological abnormalities of prison inmates. Healthcare providers can play a critical role in identifying at-risk youths, potentially reducing the incidence of high-risk behaviors associated with both crime and infectious disease transmission.

What does this have to do with political leadership? Tons. In (pre)tribal societies it is well-documented that the leaders had more um... leeway when it came to exercising sexual options with the female tribe members. It is therefore likely that these men were at far higher risk to contract sexually transmitted diseases as they had more partners.

Consequently, If the rate of 'Al Capones' in the leadership of American tribes was higher through history than in Europe up until 1492, could that erratic leadership have contributed to the marked difference in technological and social development? I'm not saying it did. I'm not even saying it was likely. I'm just saying it is a neat thought and I'd love to see someone much smarter than me discuss the idea.

(Published under Ask A Moron even though nobody asked. Sorta like a reminder to fucking ask me something. Thanks in advance.)

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