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Brain’s superiority isn’t a no-brainer

The human brain is overrated.

The proof is simple.

If it were “all that,” as my kids used to say, wouldn’t it allow us to out-think living things that don’t have a brain?

And if that’s so, how do we explain the fact that we’re on the verge of being out maneuvered by bacteria?

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sounded the alarm about CRE-resistant bacteria.

The C in CRE stands for carbapenem. It’s an unusual word, but it just describes a kind of antibiotic one of my sources called the “last line of defense” in the arsenal against these bacteria.

The bacteria involved are in our bodies all the time. But they’re mostly in our guts, where they do us no harm.

They develop resistance to antibiotics in people who are treated with antibiotics for a long time. They then pass that resistance on to the next generation of bacteria, making it more likely that the offspring will survive.

But it’s trickier than that, according to the March 5 edition of a chirpy little publication the CDC calls its “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.”

The report says the bacteria have come up with ingenious ways of fighting off the antibiotics, including producing enzymes that effectively disarm the antibiotics. Scarier than that, they can pass that quality along not only to their own offspring but to other families of bacteria, making them potentially just as dangerous.

Without antibiotics that can fight them, the resistant bacteria are lethal, killing 40 to 50 percent of the patients who get the bacteria in their blood streams.

All this makes CRE-resistant more elusive critters than the staph infection MRSA more of us are familiar with.

Now back to the brain.

The bacteria have managed to defeat our strongest antibiotics without establishing research laboratories, of course. They have done it without the use of super computers, without the help of even the kind of computer the average working stiff can walk into a store to buy.

And they have done it all, of course, without brains, much less human brains.

Those who read this column regularly may recall a column last fall about weeds — about how without the help of research institutes, sciences or brains, they, too, are managing to outsmart the herbicides we’ve developed to keep them off our cropland.

I wrote about them because agribusiness companies don’t have new varieties of herbicides to kill these weeds. It’s the reason they’re pulling the old herbicide 2, 4-D off the shelf.

The CRE-resistant bacteria have scientists worried for the same reason: There are no new varieties of antibiotics in the pipeline that can defeat them.

That makes for two significant problems our brains have yet to solve.

Of course, there’s the chance that we will think our way out of both of these corners. We often have. But there’s also a chance we won’t. That’s why the CDC, in particular, is urging hospitals, long-term care facilities and public health officials to prepare to manage CRE-resistant microbes the way we managed diseases in the pre-antibiotic days: by not allowing them to spread.

Regardless of whether we eventually solve these problems, they present a clear argument that the brain is overrated.

And, as I see it, it’s our own fault.

Most of us consider human beings to be the crowning achievement of either evolution or creation. These two explanations often do battle with one another, but for most people, they have this much in common: Both reserve the top spot on the planet, if not the universe, for us.

And because the brain is the organ we generally think most clearly sets us apart from others, we get particularly big-headed about it.

But what if the brain is instead more like a tool —albeit a powerful and fabulously sophisticated tool — that helps us survive?

If that’s so, then we can think of bacteria and weeds as possessing have different tools: shorter lives that allow them to turn over their generations more quickly because of speedier access to changing genetic material.

This probably oversimplifies matters, but it may take us a step closer one truth: That claiming a superior status for human beings based on our brains is far from being a no-brainer.

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