Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Reflections on immune systems: biological and geopolitical

In his provocative book, Blessed Unrest, How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World, (Penguin, New York, 2007), Paul Hawken includes a quote from Gerald Callahan’s book, Faith, Madness, and Spontaneous Human Combustion,* as a lead into the chapter entitled, Immunity:

“Our immune system, and only our immune system, prevents us from becoming everyone else all at once. We are who we are only because we defend ourselves every moment of every day. And who we are is everything. We are pieces of others. Portraits painted somewhere between our brains and thymuses. We are the dirt we’ve eaten and the sons we’ve sung. We are the light of the stars and darknesses old beyond imagining. We are at once spontaneous fires and sacred water. We are faith and forgiveness. We are our own deaths and we are the eternal thoughts of others.” (Hawken, op. cit. p. 139)

Hawken, himself, then writes these words about the core of immunity:

“At the core of immunity is a miracle of recovery and restoration, for there are times when our immune system is taken down. Stress, chemicals, infections, lack of sleep, and poor diets can overwhelm the immune system and send it into a tailspin. When that happens, old diseases can resurface while protection from new ones breaks down. Pathogens burgeon and seem to hold sway, and a moment comes when death lurks at the threshold. At that point, given the odds and circumstances, something extraordinary can happen that really shouldn’t: the immunological descent slows and halts, our life hangs in the balance and we begin to heal as if stumbling upon Ariadne’s thread#, a comeback that rivals the climax of a Hollywood plot. How the disoriented and muddles immune system reverses course and recovers is not well understood; some would say it is a mystery.”

Timing a revisit to the human immune system, in the midst of a pandemic that specifically attacks our immune system, when we have few therapeutics and as yet fewer vaccines, seems like another quixotic and irresponsible gesture. Another potentially specious inference that the immune system might have even the most remote connection to an epistemological crisis, only begs questions about the cognitive competence of this scribe.

One of the most difficult of tensions to sustain, (especially in our consciousness) is the highly stable and secure connection of biology to cognition. When we are thinking philosophically, about abstractions, the ephemeral, the spiritual and the intellectual we are often not connecting the dots to/with the complexities and nuances of our biology. We are engaging in what has come to be known as the objective exercise of analysing, theorizing, experimenting, tabulating, curating, interpreting and then repeating the process attempting to disprove something called the null hypothesis…that a proposed correlation between two forces does NOT exist, for example.


Our attempts to curtail the spread of COVID-19 naturally involve the generation, or search for, or the implanting of antibodies that will fight the potentially lethal virus. The sunrise of at least two vaccines currently seeking approval in the U.S. and eventually in Canada (Pfizer’s and Moderna’s) comes glimmering through the cloud layer in which we have all been struggling for the last nine months at least. There are other research pilgrims deeply engrossed in the pursuit of additional vaccines, (Russia’s Sputnik-V, for example, and Johnson & Johnson’s) and their safe arrival, along with effective clinical trials, can only add to the reservoir not only of rescuing vials, but also of enhanced hope, trust, confidence and relief.


In our public debates, including the many highly provocative and cogent pieces of editorial/theoretical/economic/social/cultural thought, too, we have adopted primarily an objective perspective. We argue and dissect numbers; we parse specific causes; we detail both the potential and the limits of specific legal directions in our aggressive attempts to assign blame, and to lift public contempt from public servants, including elected officials. Our geopolitics, our political philosophies and perspectives, our affiliations and traditions, while not necessarily articulated in each and every discussion, nevertheless, impinge each of our engagements over both what is in need of amendment, and what is working.


Our perceived (and therefore projected) capacity to work together in pursuit of a resolution of this pandemic, while limited, shows at least that some are willing to collaborate, and to share therapeutics and vaccines with those who can least afford them, yet whose compliance is clearly needed, regardless of their geographic location. However, there is a cogent passage in Hawken’s book that points to a reality that one strains to discover in the public discourse about how to address the pandemic and any other serious and potential existential threat. Drawing the analogy between the human body’s immune system and the complicated collection and collaboration of individuals and organizations determined to protest and rescue the planet seems to be Hawken’s plea. Here are his words:


History demonstrates all to eloquently that no ideology has ever amounted to more than a palliative for any dire condition. The immune system is the most complex system in the body, just as the body is the most complex organism on earth, and the most complicated assembly of organisms in human civilization….The movement, for its part, is the most complex coalition of human organizations the world has ever seen. The incongruity of anarchists, billionaires funders, street clowns, scientists, youthful activists, indigenous and native people, diplomats, computer geeks, writers, strategists, peasants and students all working toward common goals is a testament to human impulses that are unstoppable and eternal….This is the promise of the movement: that the margins link up, that we discover through our actions and shared concerns that we are a global family…The ability to respond to the endless injustices and hurts endured by the earth and its people requires concerted action and hinges in part on understanding both our function and potential as individuals and where we fit into a larger whole. Antigens dot the surface of our body’s cells like lapel pins that proudly proclaim, “It’s me, don’t hurt me, I am you.” Viruses and invasive diseases have their own antigens that warn the body that a “not me” has arrived. Millions of different kinds of antigens tag the different microorganisms and cells that find their way into the body, especially detrimental ones. With almost perfect symmetry, millions of different antibodies, proteins that can lock on to antigens as neatly as a key to a hasp, neutralize these invaders while simultaneously signaling for help. This is the beginning of the immune response, the ability of the body to maintain the self, to be a human rather than a petri dish for opportunistic microorganisms. The hundreds of thousands of organizations that make up the movement are social antibodies attaching themselves to pathologies of power. Many will fail, for at present it is often a highly imperfect and sometimes clumsy movement. If can flail, overreach, and flounder; it has much to learn about how to work together, but it is what the earth is producing to protect itself.

For much of medical history, the immune system and brain were considered two completely separate entities. Over the past two decades, science has mapped the many interactions between the two, demonstrating that each affects the other, right down to what we are thinking.  Gerald Callahan, associate professor of immunology at Colorado State University, has upper the ante, stating what may be obvious from an evolutionary view:

the brain is part of the immune system. (Callahan, op. cit. p.63) The immune system predates the brain by a good billion years. While the immune system responds to microscopic threats, the brain defends against risk that is too big for our natural immunity to handle. ‘The mind is for bears, coral snakes, sharks, snapping turtles, wife beaters, and Buicks,’ explains Callahan. The immune system addresses organisms that have been around for billions of years: the brain confronts relatively newer dangers. (Hawken, op. cit. p. 163-164)     


To extend Hawken’s metaphor a little further, while we are all aware that our body’s immune system functions pretty much autonomously, dependent on our taking care of our body’s and our mind’s and our heart’s and our spirit’s health and well being. There is, however, an authentic and pressing question as to whether the “immune system” of the choir of nations, the intricate, fragile, and almost invisible complex of the movement (for both social justice and environmental security) will continue to forge similar and inextricable ‘nerve links,’ ‘ligament and muscle, brain and emotional links’ as a global people remains.

Hawken counsels: To come together we must know our place in a biological and cultural sense, and reclaim our role as engaged agents of our continued existence. Our minds were made to defend our selves, born of an immune system that brought us to this stage in our development and evolution. We are surfeited with metaphors of war, such that when we hear the word defense, we think attack, but the defense of the world can truly be accomplished only by cooperation and compassion. Science now knows that while still in diapers, virtually all children exhibit altruistic behavior. Concern for the well-being of others is bread in the bone, endemic and hardwired. We became human by working together and helping one another. According to immunologist Gerald Callahan, faith and love are literally buried in our genes and lymphocytes, and what it takes to arrest of descent into chaos is one person after another remembering who and where they really are. Hawken, op. cit. p. 165)

Living in the cloud not merely of uncertainty, but outright denial of the truth, especially with respect to:

§  the legitimacy of the American election,

§  the fatality and lethality that is the current occupant of the Oval Office,

§  the seeding and breeding of incestuous media outlets that seem determined to spread the trump virus (Newsmax and OAN, Prager university for starters) the willing, facile and sycophantic submission of the 74 million

§  the brain-and-body anesthetizing of the Republican party, especially those elected to both Senate and House of Representatives

§  the tsunami of cash currently reported to exceed $200 Million, for whatever devious, nefarious and destructive purpose trump might devise

§  the politicizing of all aspects of COVID-19

§  the de-facto sabotage of the legitimate operation of government by trump acolytes, including blocking Biden’s team from legitimate acquisition of needed national security data

§  a global scene of refugees, starvation, geopolitical conflict, nuclear tensions, abandonment of the Open Skies treaty, the insurgency of cyber crime and the national and global economic impact of COVID

It would be reasonable for sceptics and cynics to dispute much, if not most, of what Hawken and Callahan are proposing. For others, including this scribe, the analogy of the biological immune system to the social, political, scientific, philanthropic, and philosophic/ethical “movement” that currently sizzles like high-intensity electricity through the veins and the arteries, the minds and the hearts, as well as the trust accounts of too many people and individuals to be either ignored or defamed.

Life, including both the capacity and the profound desire, indeed absolute need, for each of us to grow our conscious awareness of who we are, where we are in the universe, the nature of this moment, and the potential (for both high-wire fall and even higher flight) for grasping the reins of opportunity, offers each of us a most epic opportunity. That opportunity will melt like the wings of Icarus if we exaggerate our false hopes, as a way of abdicating our shared responsibility. What comes to mind, however inappropriate it might seem to some, given that it was uttered by a prospective assassin in a Shakespearean tragedy. Uttered by Brutus, immediately prior to his complicit participation in the murder of Julius Caesar:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves,

Or lose our ventures                                    (Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3, 281-224)

It is not the death of a single man whose fate lies in the balance, in our time. It is the survival of the planet, and the civilized complex systems by and through which we might both envision and erect a new morning of hope, aspiration and a future for our grandchildren and their grandchildren. Hawken and Callahan are only two of the requisite prophets’ voices whose guiding stars we need to lock onto, through the enhanced capacity of our personal and our collective telescopes.


*Gerald N. Callahan, Faith, Madness, and Spontaneous Human Combustion: What Immunology can Teach us about Self-Perception (New York: St. Martin’s, 2002) p. 227

#Ariadne’s thread refers to the string she gave Theseus to escape the labyrinth. Ariadne’s thread is now anything that guides you out of a difficult situation.

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