Recently a defense lawyer in a famous case asked the judge to sequester the jury. His reason? He felt the adverse publicity from a certain TV courtroom commentator with a celebrated sneer would so prejudice the jury that his client couldn’t receive a fair trial.
Which might bring up an interesting discussion of the power of the media. Instead, it made me think of that many-faceted word: sequester.
In Latin, sequester can mean a mediator to settle disputes. But it has another meaning, probably more apt for how we use it – a depository.
Now that makes sense. We deposit a jury in some nice, isolated place (never, of course, a cheap, ratty hotel), safe from outside influences. We forbid them to read the paper or watch TV news that might talk about the trial. They may be miserably bored, but they are safely ignorant of what is going on in the outside world.
But sequester has other meanings, particularly in a biological context. For instance, it can be what you do with infected patients to keep them from infecting others.
Taking it one step deeper, sequester can mean medically isolated from the rest of the body. A tourniquet may be used to keep all the blood from pouring out of your body. But if you have something nasty, like a snake bite, a tourniquet can also be used to sequester the contaminated blood and lymph from the rest of you. Sequestration is also used to isolate infected areas of your body.
Deeper still, on a microbial level, if you have gotten something nasty inside you, your body may sequester it, sort of wall it off, to try to keep it from harming you. On the flip side, some bacteria and the like can take over certain cells to sequester themselves and avoid detection by the immune system while they go on happily reproducing.
But one can go even deeper, to the molecular level. I recently attended a lecture about poison frogs. Turns out they are fairly common. There are large numbers of different kinds of these frogs in lots of different places in the world. They all secrete poisons onto their skin to discourage (at least!) predators. They’re usually tiny little guys who would probably be ideal meals if it weren’t for the poison.
All well and good. But what I didn’t know was that they can’t produce the poisons on their own. Their favorite diet contains things like ants and millipedes. Now these insects are just chock full of nasty chemicals. So the frog has to execute two tasks: First, he has to have a gut that is immune to the poisons in the bugs he eats. But second, he has to figure out how to isolate those poisons, keep them from being broken down in his digestion, and then sequester them somewhere where they will be useful.
Which he does by storing them in a set of glands on his skin that can spurt out their contents when the frog feels threatened.
There are frogs in zoological setting whose forebears were captured many generations ago. Since then, they have been fed zoo diets lacking the poisons they found in the wild. Result? Nice, safe frogs which exude no poisons whatsoever.
But let me stretch the technical definition a bit.
Consider the flamingo. It eats crustaceans that contain chemicals called carotenoids. The flamingo’s digestion breaks down the carotenoids and extracts carotenoid pigments, which are of no nutritional use at all. But they dissolve nicely in the fats that are deposited (i.e. sequestered) in the flamingo’s growing feathers, making a dull bird become brightly colored. The more colorful, the more likely to find a mate.
So sequestration, in both the technical and in this wider meaning, is a pretty useful idea. But I think I see a problem.
Sequestration is merely a matter of storing something over there, where it might be useful or at least do no harm. It happens a lot in nature. One more proof, some would argue, for Intelligent Design.
But while I’m all for the idea of a benevolent deity, I have a bone to pick with nature’s overuse of the concept of sequestration.
We know fat is necessary for metabolism. And we all know that too much of it, say around our internal organs or in our vessels, can be a very bad thing. So when we acquire too much of it, our body tries to protect us from our own bad habits. It works to shield us by sequestering all those lipids somewhere safe, away from those organs and vessels.
Wherein lies the problem?
Just this: We are a sexually dimorphic species and Intelligent Design says that the fact that we are built differently must be all to the good. But could someone explain to me why a truly benevolent God would choose to sequester the male fat into enormous guts while women get it on their hips and thighs? Surely a nice, even distribution would be both more efficient and more attractive.
I wouldn’t want to imply that God is a mean-spirited sort, punishing us this way for our over-indulgence. But the only alternative I can see is that if this represents Intelligent Design, then we have an aesthetically challenged deity.