How Did Ancient Medics Determine the Medicinal Properties of Substances?

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iStock

Drew Smith:

For the most part, they didn’t. At the dawn of the age of scientific medicine (the mid-19th century) there were only a handful of remedies that we would recognize today as safe and effective.

But why? Our ancestors were not dummies, and did not require scientific methods to create sophisticated and effective technologies. The Romans built what is still the largest unsupported dome structure in the world 1800 years ago. Gunpowder, in concert with metallurgical advances, steadily developed from a Taoist elixir to a city-destroying technology by the 1600s. Sailing technology created worldwide trade networks even earlier. Scientific methods would have sped the development of these technologies, but were not required. Trial and error—plus lots of time—sufficed.

Yet traditional medicines largely suck. Hundreds have now been tested in clinical trials. Few show any benefit at all, and even fewer show a benefit comparable to modern scientific medicines. There is little evidence that the remedies of 1800 CE were any more effective than the remedies of 1800 BCE. Moliere’s quip in 1673 that “More men die of their medicines than of their diseases” was very much on the mark.

This is a mystery, at least to me. Unlike other sophisticated modern technologies, such as jet aircraft or telecommunications, medicines are largely discovered rather than invented. They don’t rely on an entire edifice of previous scientific discoveries.

In fact, effective medicines sometimes come and find us. The ancient Nubians drank a beer (more like a gruel, really) fermented by Streptomyces bacteria. It was so loaded with tetracycline that their bones fluoresce under UV light. Tetracycline is a very effective broad spectrum antibiotic that can be used to treat plague, TB, diarrheal diseases, and respiratory, skin, and urinary tract infections. Tetracycline beer, used judiciously, could well have slashed infant mortality, leading to a Demographic Transition in Central Africa in 400 CE.

But it didn’t.

The ancients were also capable of creating, not just finding, sophisticated medicines. Bard’s Salve, resurrected from a 10th century Saxon text, is an effective remedy for wound infection in mouse models.

More surprisingly, every component—and the precise process for producing it—is required in order for it to work. This is a clear example of an effective ancient medicine that answered a critical medical need. Its formulation was written down, allowing it to spread and be improved upon. Instead it was forgotten.

Why?

I’m sure there is no single answer, but I will posit this: In a Malthusian world, effective medicines were a liability, not an asset.

Up until about 1800, everyone in the world, to a first approximation, was a poor subsistence farmer. Despite substantial technological advances, like the ones I described above and many others, the standard of living of the world’s population advanced not at all. Any improvement in agricultural technology, such as the horse collar and improved plow designs, led to increased food production but subsequent population increases ate up any gains in living standards.

We think of historical plagues as disasters, but they were in fact a great benefit—at least to the survivors. Life expectancy increased after the Black Death of 1350:

So did wages:

Fewer mouths to feed and a scarcity of labor leading to increased bargaining power led to more resources per person and a more equitable distribution of those resources.

In our modern innovation-driven economy, we consider more people to be a good thing.

We fret that declining birth rates will cause economic growth to stagnate. But prior to 1850, a growing population meant growing poverty.

Saving lives—particularly the lives of economic sinks like small children—did not make societies stronger. This is not to say that parents did not mourn the loss of their children. They did. But societies operated under what was a reverse Tragedy of the Commons, where what was bad for the individual was good for everyone else.

I think our ancestors were perfectly capable of making effective medicines. They chose not to, not out of perversity or ignorance, but because those medicines would have caused more suffering than they prevented. Medicine was not intended to cure; its role was to provide comfort. It was a form of social support, not unlike religion. Looked at from that perspective, traditional medicines are very effective. They did exactly what their creators intended them to do. I’m not sure that we can always say the same today.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Why Do Ants Die After the Queen Dies?

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iStock

Eduardo Fox:

A fundamental fact about social Hymenoptera (wasps, ants) that most people, including entomologists, are unaware of: They cannot live without their larvae.

Next time you see an ant’s nest, a bee hive, or a hornet’s nest, remember: That structure is essentially a neonatal ICU!

Why? Look at an ant’s body below:


Clker.com via Quora

Did you notice the waist? I tell you: The individual’s stomach is located after the thin waist. That means an ant cannot eat solids.

Now, take a look at an ant’s larva (a & b, below):


Notice the waist? There’s none. It means larvae eat solid food!

So, this is what happens: Ants are working hard together in that nest mainly to bring up hundreds of babies. They come out to get food and bring it back to the nest, then they chew it up and place it on their larvae. Larvae will swallow and digest the food for them. Especially protein. Larvae secrete nutrient-rich liquids back to the ants, which is their main source of amino acids and fatty acids.

Who lays eggs to produce larvae? Queens.*

What happens when queens die? No eggs, hence no larvae.

What happens when there are no larvae? Bad nutrition, ultimately no reason for the nest. Ants gradually get disorganized, and after a few weeks they die.

Wasps and more "primitive" ants can more easily produce a new queen who will be the next mated female in the hierarchy. However, if none of them is fertile enough and mated, the nest won’t last long. Bees work differently.

* Important technical notice: Queens normally live longer than workers. Nowhere in this answer did I mean to imply that larvae can somehow enable workers to live as long as queens!

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

How Much Is Game of Thrones Author George RR Martin Worth?

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

by Dana Samuel

Unsurprisingly, Game of Thrones took home another Emmy Award earlier this week for Outstanding Drama Series, which marked the series' third time winning the title. Of course, George RR Martin—the author who wrote the books that inspired the TV show, and the series' executive producer—celebrated the victory alongside ​the GoT cast.

For anyone who may be unfamiliar with Martin's work, he is the author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, which is the epic fantasy series that led to the Game of Thrones adaptation. Basically, we really we have him to thank for this seven-year roller coaster we've been on.

At 70 years old (his birthday was yesterday, September 20th), Martin has had a fairly lengthy career as an author, consisting of a number of screenplays and TV pilots before A Song of Ice and Fire, which, ​according to Daily Mail he wrote in the spirit of The Lord of the Rings.

 Cast and crew of Outstanding Drama Series winner 'Game of Thrones' pose in the press room during the 70th Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 17, 2018 in Los Angeles, California
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

Martin sold the rights to his A Song of Ice and Fire series in 2007, and he truly owes the vast majority of his net worth to the success of his novels and the Game of Thrones TV series. So how much exactly is this acclaimed author worth? According to Daily Mail, Martin makes about $15 million annually from the TV show, and another $10 million from his successful literary works.

According to Celebrity Net Worth, that makes Martin's net worth about $65 million.

Regardless of his millions, Martin still lives a fairly modest life, and it's clear he does everything for his love of writing.

We'd like to extend a personal thank you to Martin for creating one of the most exciting and emotionally jarring storylines we've ever experienced.
We wish Game of Thrones could go ​on for 13 seasons, too!

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