Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

If they can send a man to the moon . . .

Actually I've used that title before. Anyway, they're still working on the urgent public health problem of baldness, this time in the general realm of regenerative medicine. That's all about how newts can grow new limbs and hearts, so why can't mammals? Basically, we don't have the progenitor cells needed to regenerate tissue, and in the case of people afflicted as I am, that happens to be hair, which is not exactly tissue but it's a similar idea.

Obviously, baldness isn't actually a health problem.

I take that back. If "health" means a state of well-being, then it is whatever makes you think you are well. But if bald men feel unwell, it's because of their worries about how others see them. This same problem comes up with short stature -- which has become a disease now that hormones are available to make children grow taller -- and homosexuality, which used to be a disease but is no longer, because social attitudes have changed. Originally, as a matter of fact, calling homosexuality a disease was seen as a step forward for homosexuals, because it's better to have a disease than a moral failing. In Leviticus, baldness may or may not be a moral failing depending on specific criteria. Simple male pattern baldness seems to be exempted, but if the priest were to make a misdiagnosis, a bald man could end up driven into the desert to die:

40 “A man who has lost his hair and is bald is clean. 41 If he has lost his hair from the front of his scalp and has a bald forehead, he is clean. 42 But if he has a reddish-white sore on his bald head or forehead, it is a defiling disease breaking out on his head or forehead. 43 The priest is to examine him, and if the swollen sore on his head or forehead is reddish-white like a defiling skin disease, 44 the man is diseased and is unclean. The priest shall pronounce him unclean because of the sore on his head.

All this is banal, but there is a deeper point. Our well being is partly a function of how our physical and behavioral characteristics are regarded by others. It is socially as well as biologically determined. Exactly how unhealthy a person is who has, say, difficulty walking, or who stutters, or has a benign but visible tumor, or a so-called paraphilia, is determined by the rest of us and the environment we create. We could create a lot more health by investing in cultural change, in many instances, than in biomedicine, even before we get to the problems of social class and material resources.


kathy a. said...

which of these is unlike the others?

i'm all good with the bald, and with being short, and with lesions -- well, we all have them, and there are some i don't want. but they aren't moral failings.

but "paraphelias"? this is something that gets "diagnosed" when an offbeat sexual orientation collides with somebody else's autonomy, not to mention the criminal law. if old shoes turn you on, cool -- just don't tell me about it. if you got caught with the neighbor's goat, that's a different story; the goat, and the neighbor, are likely to not view that as a real good excuse.

C. Corax said...

I assume the lesions the Bible is getting all huffy about are either leprosy lesions, or from a disease that isn't leprosy but they call it that anyway.

Anyway, being judged on our looks and thus having your failings undermine your self-confidence--and sometimes your health--is old news to women.

C. Corax said...

That shoul read "being judged on YOUR looks..." I'm not wearing my glasses and can't see the screen as I type.

Cervantes said...

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Skin Diseases in Leviticus is usually translated using the term "leprosy," but it does not refer to what we today call Hansen's Disease. It just means it's unclean, defilement, abomination, whatever. There are many different conditions that would correspond to the various "leprosies."

Paraphilia gets diagnosed if somebody is unhappy about it -- probably due to stigma -- or a therapist otherwise thinks it's relevant to a person's broader psychological problems. It doesn't have to collide with someone else's autonomy.

If a person commits sex crimes, whether or not it is helpful to put a disease label on them is a separate question.

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