Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Sympathy for the cancer cell

Cancer is arguably one of the worst diseases we've ever had to deal with as a species. Without going into too many details, it's almost perfectly suited to the times we live in and to our lifestyles nowadays. Add to that the sheer complexity and variability of all the various types of cancer and it's not hard to see why we're having such a hard time with it.

So here's the thing, obviously we as human beings are super mad at cancer cells. They're the worst, they've clearly lost the plot - They're being selfish and stupid and they're putting everyone in danger in the process. Maybe we shouldn't be so quick to judge though; their only crime is selfishness and that's not something we sentence people to death for in our societies (a la chemo-therapy for the cancer cell). What's going on here, and could there be something we could learn from the choices the cancer cell is making.

What's so great about being multi-cellular anyway?

But first what is the game really, what are all these cells doing together in the first place? For several million years cells pretty much did their own thing. But life's pretty rough for a single cell (living the single life) out there in the world. Ordinarily, living things are always looking for unoccupied niches to move into and "being bigger than the biggest thing around" is almost always a winner. Thing is that there are physical limits to how big an individual cell can grown[2] and so eventually getting bigger means a bunch of cells have to clump together and assume a single group-identity; Now, as a group, there's more organisms to eat and less of them that can eat you! (yaay!)

Being multi-cellular also has a bunch of other benefits:
  • You can become hardier, by having the outside cells become tougher to protect the insides.
  • You can also live longer, because little bits can die and be replaced.
  • Individual cells can also start specializing and "following their dreams" because of the increased safety available. [1]
This is a great deal for most cells which is why some single cells try to cheat and hide themselves within a multi-cellular organism. Bacteria and viruses are constantly trying to invade and chill out in the relative safety of the organism and have a bunch of kids. After a while this starts to threaten the larger organism so we have police-men cells (our immune system) who go around evicting these interlopers.

All of this is to say that having a group identity is a very particular kind of contract. There's great benefit, but at some point each individual is asked to consider the fact that they're part of a larger system and sometimes that means sacrificing themselves for the greater good; Everyone from the white-blood-cells all the way to the humble skin-cell defend the organism with their lives to keep the game going.

Are well-behaved cells just 'goody-two-shoes' then?

Maybe all the "good cells" in the organism are doing their duty because they're just heroic and noble and high-minded individuals? Or conversely maybe they're just scared and brainwashed and kept together by fear of being alone...

Mercifully, I don't think it's either of those things. When a new individual - a baby - is born, that organism is formed from the division of a single sperm and a single egg making a single zygote. That means that every cell in the baby is equal to every other cell and they all trust each other implicitly. Importantly, they also have equal value to each other; no portion of the organism can survive without every other bit doing their job - it all needs to go together. The cells don't need to compete with each other, because they all have the same general aspirations and 'values' that govern them.

In that sense, maybe self-centered selfishness really is the worst crime of all because the cancer cell essentially rejects the original bargain. Most cells divide about fifty times and then self-destruct and give way to their children to continue on. Importantly, it's not that they "die" per se, it's that they self-destruct after a point. This is necessary because the process of division introduces errors in the cell (kind of like aging) and if it were to continue dividing indefinitely, it would start to proliferate increasingly crappier cells. This is the final clause in the contract, that eventually the cell allow itself to be replaced. 

Cancer cells are different though, cancer cells are functionally immortal. They ignore the self-destruct signal and just continue to divide. Essentially that's what a tumour is, it's like over-population on a cellular level. The tumour then grows bigger and consume more resources and space until eventually the larger organism is threatened. (This is obviously a gross oversimplification but bear with me.)

We clearly see the error of the cancer cells ways but personally I can't help but sympathize. If you had immortality literally at your finger-tips, would you not atleast consider taking that path regardless of the consequences? "Death is pretty final", it must be saying "Why should I have to sacrifice myself for people I've never met!"

Immortality used to be much easier to come by...

Nobody wants to be considered a "loser".

Once upon a time it was enough to live a good life and have children (if you wanted to) and raise them to be decent and send 'em out into the world. Maybe a gold watch when you retired, if you were really lucky. Children are a kind of an immortality in a way; life might feel boring after a while and the child is basically you, except it's eyes are fresh and it can find wonder in things that have perhaps lost their shine. Then after you die they can carry forward the memory of you. Even without children, a life of contemplation and grace used to be it's own reward and was something to be aspired to for it's own sake.

The game has changed and we're held to vastly different standards these days. Regardless of your aspirations, there's always someone better or more successful than you. Even if your goal is to help people, you might never be as influential as a Bill Gates, for example. When an author dies, his fans might pay him tribute in some way. Entire nations might weep at the loss of a musical legend. Even the passing of a businessman leaves his enterprises behind to continue his legacy.

What has really changed nowadays is that we're aware of the process of history being made and so to "win" nowadays is to have one's name recorded in the book of our species. Now maybe that drive to achieve produces the odd Elon Musk or two but there are no rules for whose name gets written down in our collective consciousness. So if the object is to win at any cost, more often than not you're going to get people who're obsessed with winning even if it means the larger organism is at risk. For the cancer cell to win, it doesn't care that the game itself might end - winning is the only thing on it's mind.

Reconciling with the cancer cell...

Villainizing the cancer cell won't really solve anything. In a sense we all have a bit of that cancer cell within us. It's fears and insecurities are very much the fears and insecurities of our time and we as an organism need to figure out how to deal with it so that the larger game can go on. 

We are the most advanced species we've yet found, and we're sitting on this planet and teasing apart the secrets of the very universe itself. Our imaginations and our reach could potentially take us far out into the cosmos to learn new things and discover new beauty and truth. Yet at this moment in our history it could all be undone, because we've been told we need to be Rich and Famous And Beautiful AND Healthy AND Successful AND influential AND And and...

Right now we're playing a finite game, where we're playing to have Winners and Losers. We need to start playing the Infinite game, where we play so that the game keeps going.[3] Isn't that more fun anyway? How boring the universe would be if there was nothing happening and nobody playing... we might be insignificant chemical scum on some tiny planet but yet we dream of distant quasars!

What does this mean for the individual?

None of this is going to change overnight, sadly. But we could individually reconnect to our sense of who we are, to then maybe re-embrace our collective identity.

For myself that means a process of really thinking about the work I'm doing at any moment and why I'm doing it and what I'm working toward. I mean, we live in a society and we find ourselves with the actual opportunity to be happy; how tragic it would be to give all that up to chase some phantasm of "glory".

What if we were to just really think about what our best contribution to humanity really is, as a combination of skills and interests and passions and then work toward that? Maybe in the absence of the pressure for glory, we might actually have a shot at achieving greatness.

Sources and further readings:
[1] Why are you multicellular? : 'It's Okay To Be Smart'
[2] The most important moment in the history of life : 'It's Okay To Be Smart'
[3] Why we play the game of life : Shots of Awe

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