What is blogging for, anyway? Posturing on the internets, vying for position, trying to prove to others that we have optimal genetic material in order to further the chances of our offspring. I'm not a member of a boy band, so I duke it out in my own niche of esoteric intellectuals…
Adagio from Concerto Grosso Op 6. No. 8 in G minor (I could listen to this piece over and over forever, really…)
Why do we build cities, compose music, or make necklaces from the teeth of conquered foes? Status.
Status means something even besides being able to purchase that Hermes scarf or diamond pendant. It could mean everything with respect to how our immune system and health functions. In agricultural times past, aristocrats were often head and shoulders taller than the peasants due to better nutrition. And it is no accident that a human-species friendly diet will bring about improvement in appearance, and therefore in confidence and status.
Let's get down to the nitty gritty with some primate studies from PNAS. A high-powered journal self-assured enough to be free access. Or lowbrow enough for the masses. You decide. Social environment is associated with gene regulatory variation in the rhesus macaque immune system.
These guys don't pull punches. Right at the top of the intro is the following: "In settings in which hierarchies are strongly enforced or subordinates have little social support, low dominance rank can lead to chronic stress, immune compromise, and reproductive dysregulation."
Don't forget that we are the children of all the winners, generation after generation, for millennia. The joke is on us that evolution is a Red Queen, and we are not compared to the forebears, but to the winners' descendants, decade after decade. Hierarchy can determine levels of glucocorticoids, serotonergic and dopamine responses, and sex steroid hormone regulation. These changes exist in the absence of differences in resources available to primates of different ranks, suggesting that rank alone can lead to the physiologic response.
It's not just primates, of course, whose genes and immune system are affected by hierarchy. Bees and ants and whatnot are heavily affected by gene-expression profiles dependent upon the role the bee is expected to play, workers, reproductive workers, or queens. While we are not insects, strong ties between diseases and social status probably indicate that status plays a role in our human immune function.
In the study I linked, researchers checked immune function and gene expression of a set of monkeys. Just by looking at the expression of immune cells (CD4 T cells, CD8 T cells, B cells, and monocytes), they could correctly rank-order the monkeys with 80% accuracy. Low ranking females have a low proportion of CD8 cells, if you must know.) Low-ranking monkeys also have a hyperactive hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (seen in humans under stress as well), and have reduced response to chemical signals to shut down the cortisol response. The researchers were able to link DNA methylation to monkey dominance as well. Methylation is how DNA signals are hushed up or not in the process of epigenetics (or changes in gene expression due to environment).
So dominance in monkeys is highly associated with changes in the genome in certain areas, in the endocrine system with stress hormone responses, and in the immune system with inflammatory changes. Apparently the researchers were able to track shifts in dominance with shifts in these immune and genetic findings, suggesting that the rank comes first, followed by the epigenetic changes.
If the findings can be extrapolated so far as humans, that means there is always a chance to beef up your immune system by becoming more cool. There's always room for another blog, and more niches of hierarchy to climb every day. Welcome to the 21st century.