...And I'll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it... -- Bob Dylan

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Possibility of Cancer in our Genes

I'm going to write something here that would likely prompt many people to call me negative, a cynic, a dark and joyless creature.  So before I write it, I want to plead with any such reader (or one who would be sympathetic to such claims) to not judge too quickly.  I want to be considered, or rather I want my words to be considered, not as a negative assessment or a cynical vision of doom and dread, but merely as one possible vision of reality.  And if a reader is able to hear these words with an open mind as such, I hope that she/he would furthermore be able to grasp the implications of hearing what I have to say as a possible truth of our existence.  I, for one, have been thinking a lot about the implications of this version of reality, and it makes me wonder if we human beings are capable of grasping and accepting as truth something that makes all claims of cynicism or negativity moot – namely, that reality is far worse than we are capable of imagining.  In other words, perhaps it is not me who is biased toward negativity, but rather it may be that just about everybody else who thinks about the state of the world is hopelessly blinded by unfounded optimism and hope.  Perhaps the lenses in our eyes are, as a result of our own evolution, themselves rose-colored – no need for glasses.

Without further prologue, here is what I'm going to say:  I'm wondering if we human beings are Gaia's cancer.  I'm wondering if our mission on Earth – intentional or not, conscious or not – is to kill the Earth.  If we think of the Earth as a living organism, as the Gaia Hypothesis suggests, and all living creatures and organisms and species as various cells that make up this living Earth, there is good evidence to suggest that we human beings are the cancer cells in this big organism.  I know that Edward Abbey and others have made striking metaphors suggesting that we human beings – those in the industrialized world, anyway – are like a cancer, for we consume our surroundings at an unsustainable rate only to feed our irrational “growth.”  Those are powerful analogies, for sure.  But what I've been pondering is not metaphor – it's not that I think we are like cancer, I suspect that we are cancer.  Take a moment to ponder that: you and I and everybody we know, young and old, mean and kind, stranger and friend, are all cancer cells with a mission to consume our host before our host's own immune system kills us off.

I admit I'm in over my head.  To ponder this possibility, one has to understand what cancer is – not cancer the metaphor but cancer the disease that kills people, and I'm not sure I really know what it is.  I do know that cancer is identified as a condition in one's body in which certain cells, probably acting on bad information, start growing faster than all the others and consuming more resources doing so.  They also tend to multiply quickly, and either kill off or transform other cells in the host's body with which, if all information was good, they should be more or less harmoniously interacting in a way that benefits all – cells and host.  Given that basic knowledge, it is rather easy to see the metaphor relating to the way we humans in the industrial world treat this world that could be thought of, in this metaphor, as being like a living host.

But what is cancer, really?  These rouge cells are acting on information that apparently is not entirely random.  The information that they are getting from their DNA is surprisingly common, tends to be passed from one generation to the next, and exhibits many somewhat predictable patterns.  This suggests to me that cancer is not any type of substance or chemical or anything like that – cancer is information.  It is information that has made it way into, or developed within, the human genome (among other genomes.)  It is information that instructs cells to act in a particular way, just as other information contained in DNA does.

So, if the Earth actually is a living organism, perhaps we humans simply have bad information in our genes that predispose us to rape and plunder, extract and pollute, grow and consume, and gobble up countless other species on our own road to ruin.  Perhaps we do all this not so much because we don't think we have any other choice – perhaps we don't really have any other choice.  Perhaps our consciousness or our intellect gives us reason to pause and reflect, and try to do better.  But at the end of the day, we can't seem to stop extracting and consuming, etc. – we just find different ways to do so.  If we understand this precept, the most relevant question is whether we'll kill our host before our host kills us.  The secondary question is the one I started out with: are we capable of accepting this as our destiny?  Perhaps part of our “cancerous information” instructs us to believe that this couldn't be possible – we are divine creatures on a divine mission and we simply can't believe that the human race, in all its supposed grandeur and glory, is simply a disease that is best killed off as quickly as possible.

I don't like being dark or negative (though I admit cynicsm is often fun,) but I'm not sure I can find an easy way out of this one.  Do I believe what I wrote above to be true?  I don't think so, because if I did I'd probably be filled with much deeper despair than I seem to be.  But as the rational arguments against this proposition seem to crumble more every day, I wonder whether my more optimistic belief is just a symptom of this bad information I've been given.  I can't dismiss this possibility.

To any who have read this far: thank you.  I don't like being alone here.  I'm well aware that when people write or talk about things as “negative” as this, they usually try to conclude on a positive note, try to instill a little hope in the face of despair.  I want to resist the temptation to do so, for I fear it might diminish the chances that readers will be capable of fully accepting the possibility of this proposition (I don't expect readers to accept it, just accept that it is possible.)  But at the same time, I feel compelled to offer one hopeful thought in the context of this possible reality.  That thought is that if we are indeed cancer, and can accept it as an ontological truth, then we also might have the capacity to transcend our programmed mission.  We might have it within us to choose to live differently than we feel accustomed to living, and to intentionally work to balance our relationships with all other species and our host organism with the goal of a harmonious and stable relationships among all.

We might.


  1. Dear Ken,
    I think similarly as you about this, though I act on my thoughts less than you. I find myself growing more and more impatient with myself as well as my fellow humans, their behaviors and rationalizations. If we are not EARTH's cancer, we are her weeds.
    The only thing decent I offer EARTH is compost and I am able to be kind to her hens. When I pedal by and admire her bounty and resilience, I am restored somewhat.
    She will overcome us but not before we destroy many of her loveliest creations. And then she will arise again but the sun or some other astronomic force will have its way with her in the end, no?
    People I fear, find me offensive, self righteous and consider many of my actions useless (using a thermos, drinking only water and putting it in a reusable container, not using a paper towel to dry my hands, making a vow not to drive for long stretches of time)but I always confess my own hypocracy. I am sick and sad and sometimes would like to be one of the optimists you mention. I do not find my kind divine; they disappoint and frustrate me with their talk of how it has been going on for thousands of years, how it is not in our hands, how we are forced to work all day at our jobs and therefore must purchase fast food for our children, how our children cannot walk because the streets are unsafe for them, etc...
    As a world population, we could refuse to drive, not pay taxes, barter among ourselves, grow food and share our bounty for mutual benefit...but how do we convince others to join us?
    You have tried in your way and sacrificed much as other ascetics before you. I admire you and wish you well. Keep Willow close; protect her from the cougars.

  2. I replied earlier to this entry and have thought about it on and off all day.

    I feel that some peoples have lived in harmony with the earth but were/are conquered by others of a more violent disposition. Now, some try, some deny and some feel that change is hopeless. However, as you suggest, it is our calling to learn to give back to Gaia. I do not view this as negative, just challenging given that few know how to do so. Others do not yet hear EARTH calling them.

    As you know, I admire your efforts to learn. Permaculture holds many answers. Having animals around helps create soil to give back and to nurture the things that feed us. Taking the time to walk and find wild foods along the way is wise. Getting a support group would probably be helpful as well.

    How do you feel that you are progressing on becoming non cancerous? I remain carcinogenic, so very carcinogenic! How can I live with myself? How do others do so?

    There are people right now in India who garden beneath alder trees, never killing them but sculpting them to allow light and to give the soil nitrogen. Their neighbors continue to slash and burn, creating deserts.

  3. I'm afraid I don't feel like I'm progressing all that well, for I still rely on my car too much (and my computer!) And for what it's worth, you are doing lots (as you mention) on your path toward becoming non-carcinogenic. Chickens, bicycle, walking, water containers, etc. It's hard to do these things when it seems as though we're swimming against the culture. Thanks for the story about the people in India. There is so much we in the "developed" world can learn if we have the courage to admit we can do so.