The Humanity-as-Cancer Metaphor

source: note that OWID has been accused of misrepresenting some data to support the optimistic “the world is getting better and better” ideologies of their colleagues such as Bill Gates and Steven Pinker

Since I started this blog I’ve often referred to the growth and destructiveness of the human species as analogous to a cancer killing a human body. I was recently asked whether I thought it was a reasonable metaphor.

Of course every metaphor has its limitations, and can be dangerous when the degree of equivalence or parallel is overstated. Some of the writers and students of history and human nature whom I most admire, like John Gray and Ronald Wright, seem to think humans are inherently, biologically, and by our very nature, rapacious and destructive, and uncaring of the rest of life on earth.

I think it’s useful to look at the metaphor through the lens of the Gaia hypothesis and what it really means to be part of a whole-earth organism that perceives (not conceives) of itself as such. My sense is that all forms of life on earth strive ‘unconsciously’, instinctively, and evolutionarily to protect and sustain Gaia, the collective organism — just as the cells in our body, while appearing to be self-serving, are actually in service to the whole body organism.

My take is that it makes no sense evolutionarily for a species like ours to have emerged with qualities that mitigate against the health, balance and stability of the entire earth-organism, and Gaia, after all, has had billions of years to get the experiment of evolution functioning properly and sustainably. If we are indeed analogous to cancer cells, then that suggests to me that there must have been a miscoding somewhere along the way, an evolutionary misstep. I have argued that it might have been the unique entanglement of the human brain’s ‘left’ and ‘right’ processing functions which made us, a few hundred thousand years ago or so, in a word, crazy. Confused, disconnected and misdirected in our behaviour, just like cancer cells.

My sense is that other creatures have not evolved a sense of self and separation, for the simple reason that they don’t need one to thrive, and never have. They therefore do not conceive of any particular danger to ‘themselves’ as ‘individuals’ that must be addressed and overcome. (That’s not to say they don’t have survival instincts, but I’d argue those instincts are not about ‘them’.)

Non-human creatures are, I think, just part of the whole-earth organism, and they would no sooner think that a jaguar eating them was ‘wrong’, than a worn-out cell in the body would think that the autophagy-inducing proteins (ATGs) that recycle such cells and reuse the still-useful parts elsewhere in the body organism, were ‘wrong’ and needed to be fought and defeated.

So if we have in fact become an apparently rapacious and destructive species, I think it’s a combination of that screwed-up wiring of our brains, and the (consequent) endless stresses of modern civilized life, that have made us deranged. Tragic, but not evil.

Looking at the chart above or at the most recent ecological, climate and economic data, it’s hard to be optimistic about whether our species, like a fast-spreading cancer, will indeed ‘kill’ the host body (Gaia) — ie render it unfit for life. Given the diagnoses from credible scientists like Jim Hansen, the prognosis does indeed seem grim. That would seem to make the cancer metaphor even more pertinent, and even prophetic.

I do believe civilization’s near-term collapse is inevitable, and that human population will soon (end of this century at the latest) return to levels close to what prevailed a century ago, and thence to levels a millennium or so from now comparable to our population two millennia ago — and possibly even to our species’ extinction after a few more millennia. Still, I would be surprised if Gaia is unable to find a way to perpetuate life of some kind on this planet. In the 4.5 billion years since life first emerged, there have been many near-extinctions and very close calls, but life has prevailed.

How does that fit with the metaphor? Well, consider the case of spontaneous remission from cancer. Cancer usually results from errors in cell replication creating cells that fail to follow the instructions that ensure they will contribute positively to, and in balance with, the rest of the body’s cells, organs and tissues. The body has immune and other mechanisms whose function is to ‘correct’ those errors in various ways, resulting in the destruction of the cancerous cells and the prevention of new ones from forming.

So, following our metaphor, the ‘spontaneous remission’ of Gaia would not, metaphorically, be the sudden awareness of humans as to our devastating impact on the planet, and radically changing our behaviour and numbers accordingly. Cancers do no ‘cure themselves’.

No, the metaphoric equivalent of spontaneous remission for our planet would be Gaia acting powerfully and urgently to rid the earth-organism of the menace of the cancer destroying it — ie the human species. And, I think it could be argued, that is exactly what she is attempting to do.

It might not be necessary for her to completely eliminate all humans on the planet. A small number in areas where they do not do a lot of damage is manageable. And, especially if she can find a way to eliminate the ones with the entangled brains and leave the more harmless ones without that horrible debilitation, she might even accommodate whole thriving communities of humans that contribute positively to the health of the whole-earth organism, and show that John Gray and Ronald Wright are too harsh in their assessment of humans’ inherent nature.

I think that’s enough on that metaphor.

I could pose another question: In light of all this, who or what actually possesses ‘consciousness’? using a metaphor that would provide a rather unorthodox answer to that question. But I’ll save that for another day.

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6 Responses to The Humanity-as-Cancer Metaphor

  1. Renaee says:

    How bout one whole or single consiousness, with billions of creatures/organisms with senses, receptors and brains that are portals for this one consiousness. Some who think they are a separate consciousness, but labour under a massive delusion or trick of the brain. Some who have woken up and see that they are not individual or separate, just part of the one functioning.

  2. Venkataraman Amarnath says:

    The Sentinelese tribe living in North Sentinel Island have no contact with outside world and they may survive while we vanish. The Government of India strictly prohibits anyone, particularly Christian missionaries, entering the island. One of a few things I am proud of the government of my birth country.

  3. Vera says:

    Um. Yes, but…

    Never doompill.

  4. Brutus says:

    To speak of blind, dynamic processes such as evolution, cancer, or Gaia as having purpose, agency, awareness, or consciousness is a non sequitur. Similarly, does gravity have a purpose? I’d say not. The questions are nonsensical. Cancer and virus metaphors have their adherents, but as you say, they have limitations. Suffice it to say that humans, in their relatively brief time (on an evolutionary timescale), have arguably done more damage to the biosphere than any other species and are indeed rendering the planet uninhabitable. The black pill is conjecture as to what happens when it’s all irradiated in the absence of functioning nuclear agencies. That dark prophecy is mentioned infrequently by doomers but looms heavily in my imagination.

    Your other question is an age-old philosophical quandary that has proven unanswerable, though not for lack of trying. The materialist position is that human-style consciousness is unique and unrepeatable without the biological structures that enable it in us. More imaginative concepts suggest some sort of panconsciousness that humans (and others) merely tap into, but the evidence is weak (IMO). I don’t have a useful metaphor for consciousness.

  5. FamousDrScanlon says:

    That other metaphor.

    Medea hypothesis

    The Medea hypothesis is a term coined by paleontologist Peter Ward[1] for a hypothesis that contests the Gaian hypothesis and proposes that multicellular life, understood as a superorganism, may be self-destructive or suicidal. The metaphor refers to the mythological Medea (representing the Earth), who kills her own children (multicellular life).

    In this view, microbial-triggered mass extinctions result in returns to the microbial-dominated state it has been for most of its history.[2][3][4]

    Possible examples of extinction events induced entirely or partially by biotic activities include:

    The Great Oxidation Event, 2.45 billion years ago, believed to be responsible for the mass poisoning of anaerobic microbes to which oxygen was toxic,[5] and for the Huronian glaciation that resulted from the reaction of methane with oxygen to form carbon dioxide (a less potent greenhouse gas than methane) and subsequent depletion of atmospheric carbon dioxide by aerobic photosynthesisers[6]
    The Sturtian and Marinoan Snowball Earth glaciations, 715 to 680[7] and 650 to 632.3 million years ago,[8] respectively, resulting from the sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide during the Neoproterozoic Oxygenation Event
    The Late Ordovician Mass Extinction (LOME), 445.2 million years ago to 443.8 million years ago, suggested by some studies to have been caused by glaciation resulting from carbon dioxide depletion driven by the radiation of land plants[9]
    Euxinic events, such as during the Great Dying, 251.9 million years ago,[10] and the aforementioned LOME,[11][12] caused by sulphur-reducing prokaryotes that produce hydrogen sulphide

    The list excludes the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, since this was, at least partially, externally induced by a meteor impact.
    Current status and future extinctions

    Peter Ward proposes that the current man-made climate change and mass extinction event may be considered to be the most recent Medean event. As these events are anthropogenic, he postulates that Medean events are not necessarily caused by microbes, but by intelligent life as well and that the final mass extinction of complex life, roughly about 500–900 million years in the future, can also be considered a Medean event:

    Plant life that still exists then will be forced to adapt to a warming and expanding Sun, causing them to remove even more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (which in turn will have already been lowered due to the increasing heat from the Sun gradually speeding up the weathering process that removes these molecules from the atmosphere), and ultimately accelerating the complete extinction of complex life by making carbon dioxide levels drop down to just 10 ppm, below which plants can no longer survive.

    However, Ward simultaneously argues that intelligent life such as humans may not necessarily just trigger future Medean events, but may eventually prevent them from occurring.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Hah! That’s priceless, DrS. Sounds like a glass-half-full-or-half-empty debate, if this discussion can stand one more metaphor. It’s fascinating to me how close the planet has come on several occasions to becoming lifeless, though I suppose were it not for the near-misses we wouldn’t be here to talk about it. Maybe extinction events are just accidents. Maybe the emergence of what we call ‘life’ was just an accident. Or we could always go meta and ask what life is, really, and what if anything is the boundary between it and non-life. But then we’d risk starting a debate about the dreaded c-word.

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