Saturday, June 17, 2006

Dirty people and the marvels of Tibet

This post is about dirt.

There's an Irish children's song on an old Clancy Brothers album that we love. It goes:
Ahem, ahem,
me mother has gone to church.
She told me not to play wit' you
because you're in the dirt.
It isn't because you're dirty.
It isn't because you're clean.
It's because you have the whooping cough
and eat margerine.
One of my favorite books is this one:
Narratives of the mission of George Bogle to Tibet and of the journey of Thomas Manning to Lhasa
by Clements R Markham, Sir; George Bogle; Thomas Manning
First published: London, 1876
Reprinted: New Delhi, Manjusri Pub. House, 1971.
Why? It's a history of the high Victorian era and like others of its type is ambitious to tell a good story, is based on primary source documents, and being first to tell the tale, doesn't have to account for others' interpretations of the same material. It gives a facinating account which is at once adventure story, travel narrative, and a revelation about how British imperialism functioned in a part of the Indian sub-continent when still relatively unformed. It's also a rare find: not a book you'll come across in the second-hand stores or even most libraries.

Bogel was young, courageous, and -- an anti-archetype -- surprisingly empathetic with the peoples he encountered. Though his goal of economic penetration was largely unrealized, he succeeded in striking a friendship with Tibet's principal secular and religious leader, the Panchen Lama. As presented in the history, his letters and journals are full of detail, but also express his wonder: "When I look upon the time I have spent among the Hills it appears like a fairy dream," he wrote. Bogle was envoy of the East India Company. Manning was one of the many intrepid travelers who sought to go where none of their kind had previously been. He became the first Englishman to enter and study Lasha, Tibet's capital, and its inhabitants.

Markham explains in the preface:
It has long been known that the first British mission to Tibet was sent by Warren Hastings in 1774 under Mr. George Bogle, that a great friendship was found between Mr. Bogle and the Teshu Lama, and that intercourse was then established between the Governments of British India and Tibet. It is less generally known that the only Englishman who ever visited Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and saw the Dalai Lama, was Mr. Thomas Manning, an adventurous traveler who performed that extraordinary feat in 1811. No account has hitherto been published of Mr. Manning’s remarkable journey. These two gaps in the history of intercourse between India and Tibet have now been filled up. His family in Scotland has carefully preserved the whole of Mr. Bogle’s journals, memoranda, official and private correspondence. These valuable manuscripts, after having been judiciously arranged, were placed in the hands of the present editor. These consisted of journals, memoranda of various kinds, and on many subjects numerous bundles of private letter including correspondence with Warren Hastings , appointments, minutes of conversations and official dispatches. The whole of this voluminous mass of papers had to be carefully read through and annotated before any attempt could be made to arrange a consecutive narrative of the mission. Mr. Manning appears o have hastily jotted down his first impressions, day by day, in a rough notebook, which was copied out fair by his sister. He was a man of learning and great ability, and was well able to have written a good account of his remarkable journey. He never did so. His rough journal was placed in my hands. Thus an account of the visit to Lhasa of the only Englishman who ever entered that famous city is now presented to the world. This account of the important mission of George Bogle to Bhutan and Tibet has been gathered partly from journals, partly from official dispatches, and partly from private correspondence; and it is now presented for the first time in a connected form. That of Mr. Manning’s extraordinary journey to Lhasa is from a fragmentary series of notes and jottings, which alone remain to bear testimony to a feat, which still remains unparalleled.
What about dirt?

One of the things that struck Manning about the peoples of Tibet was their dirtyness. A caring man who wished to promote health and well-being, he tried to clean them up, but encountered resistance. Their aversion to a good wash might be put down to scarcity of water much of the year in the high plateaus. Or to the heavy layers of clothes they wore even while within doors. But, as the following AP news item seems to show, their dirtyness might also have resulted from Darwinian selection.
Rat study shows dirty better than clean
Fri Jun 16, 10:56 PM ET


WASHINGTON - Gritty rats and mice living in sewers and farms seem to have healthier immune systems than their squeaky clean cousins that frolic in cushy antiseptic labs, two studies indicate. The lesson for humans: Clean living may make us sick.

The studies give more weight to a 17-year-old theory that the sanitized Western world may be partly to blame for soaring rates of human allergy and asthma cases and some autoimmune diseases, such as Type I diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. The theory, called the hygiene hypothesis, figures that people's immune systems aren't being challenged by disease and dirt early in life, so the body's natural defenses overreact to small irritants such as pollen.

The new studies, one of which was published Friday in the peer reviewed Scandinavian Journal of Immunology, found significant differences in the immune systems between euthanized wild and lab rodents.

Co-author Dr. William Parker, a Duke University professor of experimental surgery said: "Your immune system is like the person who lives in the perfect house and has all the food they want."

Parker said he hopes to build a 50-foot artificial sewer for his next step, so that he could introduce the clean lab rats to an artificial dirty environment and see how and when the immunity was activated.

That may be the biggest thing to come out of the wild and lab rodent studies, Platt said: "Then all of a sudden it becomes possible to expose people to the few things (that exercise the immune system) and gives them the benefit of the dirty environment without having to expose them to the dirt."

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