Thursday, October 14, 2010

Lessons from Biosphere 2

As I mentioned in my last post, the first Biosphere 2 closure experiment in 1991-1993 was rough going. Considering the circumstances (starvation, suffocation, split factions) and the poor management, I find it incredible the eight humans sealed inside finished out the two years at all. Biospherian Jane Poynter reports the overarching issue that divided the crew into four against four was respect for science versus respect for the project and the two year closure goal. To be honest, she put it far more politely than I ever could. As in the last post, much of my information here is from her book, The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2

When problems began in the Biosphere 2, most notably the lack of food and the disappearing oxygen, the management tended to want to keep such issues a secret from the public. In addition, management's position was for the Biospherians to "make it work" no matter what. It lead to extreme decisions such as when the team's doctor, who was also the oldest crew member by several decades, began to have periods of incoherence and collapse with the low oxygen levels and informed the management that he felt he would not be able to attend another crew member in need, they were originally told that oxygen would only be piped in if it was suspected the crew could survive no more than two days, or there was an immediate medical emergency.

(Interesting side note - the Biospherians did not experience typical low oxygen adaptation despite an extremely gradual drop in levels over many months. Normally, if we go to higher altitude, within a few days to weeks our bodies adapt by making more red blood cells, so we are capable of carrying more oxygen in the blood. The Biospherians did not make more red blood cells, probably because they were so malnourished. Instead their hemoglobin changed shape slightly so that it could carry oxygen at lower oxygen pressures.)

Perhaps because I'm a doctor, or maybe because I've watched too many episodes of Star Trek, when I read about the refusal of management to pump in oxygen at the request of the team doctor, I was amazed. I might have said something unladylike, such as, "What the #%=$?". The rigid dedication of management to "nothing in or out" threatened not only the safety of the crew, but the entire experiment. And, frankly, as long as you keep what goes in or out to a necessary minimum and keep track of all the tons of gas or calories of food, does it really matter scientifically if the shakedown cruise of Biosphere 2 needed a little help from the outside?

Eventually, reason prevailed, and oxygen was pumped in. But the split in the crew was already a firm barrier. What I consider the sensible side wanted to share the news with the public and get the finest scientific minds working on the problems. The closure or bust side seemed to exist in an unscientific and philosophical logjam where a rigidly defined successful mission was the only possibility, or everyone be damned.

How it all happened involves a little history of science and some psychology. See, in science there is a bit of a hierarchy. The hard sciences such as chemistry and physics are seen as more tangible and real than soft sciences such as ecology or even evolutionary biology. Biosphere 2 was a big crazy ecology experiment with no control run by non-scientists. The management were leaders of the Synergist movement - literally traveling adventurers who had weekly meditation, philosophy meetings, and theatre troupes. The charismatic head of the Synergists and leader of the Biosphere 2 project was John Allen. I can't make any diagnosis of the man, having never met him, but I can say that charismatic leaders of international groups who demand weekly meetings where the leader himself gives lectures, or increasingly angry and pointless rants, as Jane describes, will tend to be on the narcissistic side.

One prominent feature of narcissism is splitting. That is, picking some people to be your best friend, and other people to be the scapegoats to be shamed and kicked out so the group is all better again. You all went through it in middle school, on one side or the other. Again, from Jane's book, John Allen's reaction the the reality that the Biosphere 2 Agriculture would support only 80% of the crew's needs was to fire the crew chief and two others (including Jane Poynter) a few weeks prior to the beginning of the first closure experiment. Jane and another crew member were reinstated after John's rage passed. I'm just giving one example - there are many more. Suffice it to say that when one is managing an isolated group of people, where splitting into factions is the norm (according to Mir and Antarctic mission histories), having management that actively promotes fear and splitting, and denies the Biospherians free counseling that had been funded through an arranged experiment, is just a super bad idea.  Things became so dire towards the end that the Chairman of Psychiatry from the University of Arizona was called in to interview everyone to make sure no one had lost touch with reality.  No one had.  The Biospherians were resilient folk.

So don't let yourself be sealed into an unproven ecological chamber at the whim of a charismatic group leader! But that's not why I'm writing this blog.

I'm writing this blog because evolutionary medicine is Biosphere 2. Our bodies are a hugely complex ecosystem with no control. The evolutionary paradigm has too many variables to be properly studied in a hard science sort of way. Another key vulnerability of narcissism is a predisposition to insecurity.

Cardiologists are near the top of the medical hierarchy. They have EKGs and interventional medicine and pacemakers and Lipitor. They get paid a lot and use electricity and hard science.

Psychiatrists are near the bottom of the medical hierarchy. Our only procedures are shock therapy (not a popular one) and transcranial magnetic stimulation. We may use some electricity but our science is psychology and exceedingly soft. Not too many people can describe what it is we actually do.

For contrast : "Dr. Kelly my cardiologist looked at my EKG and my blood tests, and he told me to take Lipitor, and he told me to eat margarine with plant sterols in it."

"Dr. Deans my psychiatrist asked me a lot of really nosy questions. She told me to eat pasture butter and became nearly incoherent with rage when the subject of plant sterol margarine came up."

But that is no reason to be insecure. What makes me hopeful for the future of evolutionary medicine is the apparent absence of a guru. We seem to be okay with making theoretical mistakes and being wrong from time to time. We don't let insecurity and unknowns force us in to positions of no return. We rely on science, but it must be science based on some nominal biological plausibility.

Arrogance and rigidity will destroy soft science, as it eventually destroyed the sealed experiments of Biosphere 2. The second closure experiment ended prematurely after federal marshals were called in to evict the management at the behest of the investors.

Columbia University took over management of Biosphere 2, followed by the University of Arizona. One of the first things they did was allow flow through of air and to divide up the key ecosystems for more careful, controlled study.

Such smaller experiments are useful, but it is important not to forget the big picture. Think for yourself. Study, and question. The more authority you have, the more important the lessons of Biosphere 2.


  1. If psychiatrists are near the bottom, surely then nutritionists are at the bottom of the medical heirachy?! I think you would have more luck getting a doctor to perform a certain test than I would! But I'm not bitter...

  2. "We rely on science, but it must be science based on some nominal biological plausibility"

    Very nice comment when it comes to sorting out what might be credible among so much science output, especially epidemiology.

    I enjoy your writing.

  3. you just sparked my head for a blog post!! i do have this bias that any psychiatrist needs to be overly schooled in anthropology & malnutrition

  4. We seem to be okay with making theoretical mistakes and being wrong from time to time. We don't let insecurity and unknowns force us in to positions of no return. We rely on science, but it must be science based on some nominal biological plausibility.

    Perhaps this is because we don't have funding. Once we get a few million dollar grants, we may become more attached to our (lucrative) prejudices. Or the sycophants will become attached to us ...

  5. So true. It is easy to be honorable when there is nothing at stake but my honor!


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