The Immune ‘Setwork’: Our Body’s Other Brain, and What It’s Telling Us

clonal selection from wikipediaMost of my readers know that, a year ago, I was diagnosed with severe ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease. The disease has no known cause or cure, and flares up irregularly, usually provoked by stress. It is one of a large group of chronic diseases, including arthritis, diabetes, lupus, endometriosis, MS, chronic fatigue syndrome, asthma, allergies, and Crohn’s disease, all of which are manifested by recurrent hyperactivity of the immune system, usually producing cell or tissue death and related inflammation, as a ‘storm’ of cytokine messenger proteins urges the body’s T- and B- immune cells to run somewhat amok in an over-response or mis-response to a perceived threat. [Cytokine ‘storms’, interestingly, are also apparently produced by pandemic influenza (both human and poultry forms).]

The treatment for the symptoms of ulcerative colitis generally entails high doses of steroidal or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. More recent treatments include probiotics (live bacteria ingested to replace the deficient ones in the gut), prebiotics (oligosaccharide carbohydrates that encourage growth of gut bacteria a.k.a. ‘colonic flora’), omega-3 (inhibits the body’s production of leukotrienes and prostaglandins implicated in inflammation), and drugs that attempt, clumsily, to regulate the immune system’s (over-)response.

There is some compelling (but, alas, not irrefutable) evidence that this family of diseases, many of them nearing epidemic levels in affluent nations, are caused by chronic exposure to a combination of environmental toxins in our air, water, soil and food. The newest theory implicates the body’s reaction to oxidants contained in preservatives, oils, gasoline, plastics, cosmetics and a host of other man-made products and wastes. This ‘oxidative stress’ is exacerbated by strenuous exercise. This is paradoxic because exercise is the principal means by which sufferers of these diseases manage the emotional stress in their lives, and because these diseases are catalyzed ( i.e. flare-ups brought on) by chronic high levels of emotional stress.

Since our society is incapable and unwilling to deal with environmental toxins (part of what I ranted about in Monday’s post), sufferers must attempt to mitigate the stress in their lives, to reduce the need for their immune system to go into action (and hence, often, overreaction). Easier said than done.

My quote from Varela’s work in my post last Sunday has got me thinking about how the immune system ‘works’ and how it might be malfunctioning in the skyrocketing number of immune system hyperactivity disease sufferers. His point is that the immune ‘system’ is actually a combination of:

  • a relatively simple, mechanistic system (called clonal selection, illustrated at right, by which stem cells form into lymphocytes ready to respond to many types of antigens, and then, when they actually encounter antigens, neutralize them and clone themselves to be ready for reinfection by the same antigen), and
  • a more complex, dynamic network (a learning, evolving, self-regulating network with the intelligence to, as Varela puts it, “know and select what it should pay attention to”)
He calls this a ‘second generation network’, but there should be a name for a combination of a system and a network, integrated together. Since there isn’t one, I’m coining one: a setwork. This is what millions of years of evolution has produced in our bodies, and it makes sense for the same reasons that we have both a system that acts without thinking (instinct) and a network that learns what to pay attention to (intelligence) in our brains — our mental setwork. The two work better than either would work alone.

Now, as Stewart & Cohen explain in Figments of Reality, we are “a complicity of the separately-evolved creatures in our bodies organized for their mutual benefit i.e. we are an organism. And our brains, our intelligence, awareness, consciousness and free-will, are nothing more than an evolved, shared, feature-detection system jointly developed to advise these creatures’ actions for their mutual benefit. Our brains, and our minds (the processes that our neurons, senses and motility organs carry out collectively) are their information-processing system, not ‘ours’.”

I think it is enormously helpful, in order to ‘get outside yourself’ and see the purpose of setworks, to appreciate that you’re not ‘you’, but merely a reflection of their (the organs in a bag of water that you call your body) evolving survival setworks.

If the purpose of these setworks (mental and immunological) is to protect ‘you’ (in the interests of ‘their’ survival) the next question is: from what? Valera’s and his colleagues’ answer would appear to be, ‘others’, ‘not-them’, based on an evolving collective understanding of who ‘they’ are. This is heavy stuff, but it follows logically from an understanding that setworks, by their nature, have intelligence, and therefore are capable of such understanding (recent studies suggest the immunological setwork is at least as intricate and complex as the mental one). That understanding of ‘other-ness’ informs them, as Varela says “what to pay attention to”. In a very real sense, then, our bodies, through the immunological setwork, have evolved a culture — a code of behaviours that are, and are not, acceptable, the contravention of which is dealt with harshly. This is a culture that we are not even conscious of (because consciousness is part of the other, mental setwork).

Darwinian principles would suggest that this body culture’s ‘reasoning’ (these are strange words to use in this context, eh?) is driven by interests of survival — if it weren’t, it wouldn’t have survived and we (and ‘they’) wouldn’t be around to debate the issue. So then we have to ask: Whose survival? Is it the survival of each individual organ (driven by selfishness), or the survival of the whole organism that is ‘their’ body (altruistic survival)? The answer to this, intuitively, is the same as it is in the culture we are more familiar with (our social culture) — there is a constant tension between both. The interests of both must be balanced, because they are co-dependent. When there is a strong conflict between these interests, it will ultimately be resolved in favour of the survival of the whole. I suspect that the immunological setwork has ‘learned’ and ‘knows’ this and acts accordingly (again, because if it didn’t we’d be extinct).

This got me thinking about Gaia (as organism of all-life-on-Earth). “Nature always bats last”, so just as in ‘our’ bodies, serious conflicts between the culture/interests of the whole organism and the culture/interests of its component ‘organs’ will ultimately be resolved in favour of the greater whole. Is Gaia, then, the immunological setwork of Earth?

So what happens when there is a breakdown in these self-regulatory setworks, when selfish behaviour of constituent organs overpowers the interests of the collective organism? We see this in cancers, in immune system failures, and (I would argue) in civilizations.

The answer to this is obvious and exciting: Such breakdowns are inherently self-defeating and unsustainable. They will ultimately fail. So why do they occur at all? Why after millions of years of painstaking evolution would these costly errors still occur? The answer: They occur deliberately. Setworks learn by trying lots of slightly different experiments to see what works a bit better, and what doesn’t work. This is what evolution is all about. Cancers, immune diseases and civilizations are all learning experiments reacting to stresses that must either be adapted to (if possible) or defeated (if not). What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

These diseases are our setworks’ fire drills, practices in seeing ‘what if’ the organism adapted this way, or this way, or maybe this way. The types of stresses our bodies are used to adapting to are things like being chased by cougars. We developed ‘fight or flight’ responses to such stresses because they worked. Those without them got eaten. Those with them survived and passed them on. Our bodies, I would suggest, are furiously trying things out to see what adaptation might cope with these new environmental stresses: the massive, ubiquitous antibiotics and industrial chemicals we ingest constantly. They’re trying to evolve our bodies so that, no matter how much of these poisons we ingest, our setworks will have a way of dealing with them that will keep the organism healthy.

The problem, of course, is timing. We had millions of years to learn to cope with the stresses of hungry predators (and we have adapted wonderfully to them). But we’ve only had a few hundred, at most a few thousand, years to learn to cope with the modern stresses. The cancers and immune diseases (and perhaps mental illnesses) we get are clearly not the best adaptations, though we won’t know whether they’re on the right track or not until we’ve had a few million years to let them, and other experiments, evolve. That is the natural pace of things. Unfortunately, we don’t have a few million years. These changes are happening way too fast. And when environmental changes occur faster than setworks’ ability to adapt to them, the result is called Extinction.

Perhaps Gaia will learn from the mistake of “letting the apes run the laboratory for awhile”. Perhaps the next evolution, after our extinction, will be a creature with a smaller brain, or at least without an opposable thumb, one that will evolve ‘culturally’ at a pace that its physical evolution can keep pace with. Almost assuredly, this next invention will have a much greater tolerance for chemicals and antibiotics than our maladjusted bodies. Perhaps, before we disappear, we will start to see some signs of what that next invention will be.

Or perhaps it’s already here, flying or buzzing around us, and we’re just too preoccupied with current stresses to recognize it.

Image: Clonal selection, the mechanistic, system component of immunity, from Wikipedia

Categories: Health, and Complexity

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6 Responses to The Immune ‘Setwork’: Our Body’s Other Brain, and What It’s Telling Us

  1. Bharat says:

    Hi Dave, It’s very significant that you bring up the concept of individual vs collective, in the context of evolution. The classic notion of evolution is that of survival-of-the fittest, and it’s all about individual adaptability etc. But i have been arguing for sometime, that from eastern philosophy point of view, the recognition of the individual about it’s embeddedness and intricate relationship with the collective, is perhaps the next step of evolution. Is it possible that the symptoms we have been seeing in the last few decades about threat of ecosystem collapse, immune system breakdown etc, are *hints* for humans to recognize the importance of the *whole*, as opposed to the overemphasis on *self* which is the dominant principle today. Whether we take those hints and act accordingly, i guess will be answered in the next few decades. Evolve in recognition of the collective or perish.It’s very interesting you talk of “I” merely being a reflection of organs’ evolving survival setworks. so, what is this “I” consciousness ? Is it an illusion ? Can we have a radically different kind of life putting this “I” consciousness in it’s place ? Incidentally, iam reading a fascinating book which deals with this question. Dialogues of J.Krishnamurti with Professor Allan Anderson. JK argues that this “I” consciousness is nothing but the content it has collected since birth. The memories, the experiences, the struggles, etc etc. He questions what will it be like if we can “empty” the content !! How would it be if we face the reality without the screen of past content ?! Anyway, iam saying all this because we seem to be arriving at the age-old philosophical question that is dealt with mostly in the east — What is this “I” consciousness ? What is it’s relationship with the collective ? Does dealing with these questions have a bearing on current environmental sitution ? I think so.

  2. John Graham says:

    Hi Dave, I’ve been reading and enjoying your blog for a few weeks.I may be a little behind here. I think I understand why you say evolution ultimately favours the collective over the individual..(in highly “cultural” species at least?) because, in retrospect, the cultures that haven’t learnt to survive, have, well, not survived. However, I don’t see how that translates to Gaia, because, as far as I know, there’s only one Gaia, no Gaia has ever died out (so far). Gaia is undoubtedly very resilient…but that’s not due to selection pressures ie extinctions of Gaias (is it?). So I wonder how appropriate is the metaphor of Gaia experimenting and learning from mistakes. Gaia’s individual survival is surely no more guaranteed than humankind’s.If, after human extinction, a successful new species (I’m not sure what you mean by “the next evolution”) will be “one that will evolve ‘culturally’ at a pace that its physical evolution can keep pace with”…isn’t that due not to Gaia learning, but to simple statistics? – our freakish cultural learning will be as unlikely after us as it was before.Let me know if I’m off-track.

  3. Janene says:

    Hey Dave –oooh…. evolution stuff. You’re triggering *my* fight or flight response :-) So excuse me while I critique a little harshly. I just can’t help myself…The answer to this is obvious and exciting: Such breakdowns are inherently self-defeating and unsustainable. They will ultimately fail. So why do they occur at all? Why after millions of years of painstaking evolution would these costly errors still occur? The answer:They happen because, given a long enough time line, anything that CAN happen, will. One of the most ‘harmful’ (from a scientific understanding level) mistakes in evolution is this projection of intentionality. Thee is no direction, no reason for adaptations to occur. They occur simply because *they can*. If they work, great. They survive. If not, well…. they don’t.We developed ‘fight or flight’ responses to such stresses because they worked. Those without them got eaten. Those with them survived and passed them on. This is exactly what I am talking about. We ‘developed’ these responses because it happened to happen. We STILL have them because they worked….Unfortunately, we don’t have a few million years. These changes are happening way too fast. And when environmental changes occur faster than setworks’ ability to adapt to them, the result is called Extinction.Yes and no. It’s all correct, except that we don’t know that the result will be extinction, because the only thing that needs to happen for our species to survive is for some humans to return, culturally, to a lifestyle that works. The question is whether the system that is Gaea kills the ‘cancer of civilization’ quicker than than we kill ourselves. I think the chances of that are pretty good… humans are pretty damn resilient creatures, while civilization is pretty damn fragile.Almost assuredly, this next invention will have a much greater tolerance for chemicals and antibiotics than our maladjustedbodies. Perhaps, before we disappear, we will start to see some signs of what that next invention will be. Do you really see humans as maladjusted? I look att he problems we have with chemicals and antibiotics being a strength in the long run. After all, we are talking about *complex* systems running afoul of merely complicated (if even) responses to disease. Metaphorically, it is no different than the functionalism of a monocrop farm compared to a permaculture garden. The former, quite fragile, the latter, quite resilient. And like permaculture, our bodies are quite able to respond well when given the opportunity to redevelop (or re-establish) that complexity….Janene

  4. Janene says:

    That first large paragraph should be split…. the second half being a quote of what Dave wrote… don’t know how the format got screwed up, but hopefully it makes sense….J

  5. laodan says:

    In your conclusion you posit that the re-balancing of the side-effects of modernity shall be concluded in favor of Gaia the whole, The apes, its rebellious constitutive particles being mutated into submission to the whole…. I suggest that there is another way of seeing this drama unfolding. It relates to our civilizational axioms and I concur with Bharat’s comment that points to “the importance of the *whole*, as opposed to the overemphasis on *self*”. The civilizations of the East indeed rely on the recognition of the place of the atoms in their constitutive “whole” (as in animism for that matter) and in consequence the practical knowledge developed in the East describes the working of reality as the whole in action (a systemic ensemble theory). This constrats with the religions of the word that gave the axiomatic foundations of the European civilization and its focus on the self and his responsibility to obey the diktats of the creator which ultimately led to the possible emergence of modernity and its founding principle: the reason of capital that over the centuries developed into its ideology of rationalism that cuts reality into its constitutive parts. Science is then being financed by capital in the hope to discover the workings of reality at the micro-level… that could then be applied in new marketable offers to be put on the market… In Tao “all have 2 sides” like 2 sides of a coin. And “all change” as the tension, resulting from the balancing of the interests of the 2 sides, accumulates into chaos where eventually appears a point of bifurcation leading to… ,well, change towards harmony. (no good, no bad)Gaia has innumerable particles and the “apes presently running the laboratory” are only one of this multitude. The re-balancing of a particle gone out of order happens at the level of its own sub-ensemble and not at a higher systemic level. The human entity functions as its own polar system: individual particles and societal groupings. And what do we observe presently? Human societal groupings (societies) have completely lost their capacity to auto-regulate. They have been overtaken by a mechanism that lays out of the will of their human particles (rationalism – reason of capital). The loss of auto-regulation at the level of the human ensemble will not go far, for, the adjacent ensembles will freeze it in its steps leading it in chaos till it reaches a point of bifurcation where humanity rediscovers societal auto-regulation through the interaction between its polarities.In other words the whole is permanently in harmony. Harmony is its constant.Disharmomy is a creation in a sub-ensemble and it will ultimately wiped out in the process of rebalancing of the polarities in that particular ensemble.

  6. Pearl says:

    There’s a chapter that covers immune and thought and body in Field Notes on the compassionate life : a search for the soul of kindness /if you haven’t read it already.

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