A few days ago, I was reading the blog Question Everything by George Mobus and had a revelation. He had a great thought provoking post as to whether or not humans and civilization do truly act like a cancer. He made the argument that when you look at all we have done in the arts and science and the fact that human population rates drop with affluence, it is not fair to compare us with cancer.
I enjoyed the argument for the fact that I like to see my dominant paradigms flipped on their heads just to try them on for size. In doing so, however, I was reminded of a seemingly repressed memory. I was in college and in need of some money, so I applied for a job in a lab doing work on a cancer project. I was not going to be the brains. I am always the last picked for that job at recess. My work consisted of going into a lab for 4 hours three days a week and processing about 80 cancer samples with control nearby tissue per day. The one thing that I can say from a personal standpoint is that: Cancer is Beautiful. There were blue ones with red coral like projections running through them, every shade of pink and red surrounding little red dots, and some that looked like a green truffle with black webbing. The control samples were almost always some shade of brown.
Why the Asterisk?
The first reason is that it was the most soul sucking lab I have ever been in. The main lab had five chemical or laminar flow hoods, which made standing in the room sound like working near an airport. Further, the risks of working with unknown cancer samples compelled me to wear full cheap surgical protective gear, which was not very comfortable. It was the antithesis of an isolation/deprivation chamber. In that space, thoughts in my head went to die. The only solace was in starring at the novelty of the coloration and shape of the latest cancer samples.
The second reason is that I am constantly reminded when thinking about Emergy to define the scale and system boundaries that are pertinent to the current topic. In this case, I had no access to the people or organs that these cancers were taken from. It was so easy to see the beauty in the cancer, but hard to see the beauty in a one centimeter section of liver or kidney control tissue. The cancer was scaled perfectly to the sample collection constraints, but the control tissue and people were not.
Why does human activity so resemble cancer?
Both humans, cancers, and all life use information systems. This means they evolve information to utilize excess energy. One finding of the study was that cancer had greater information per cell than control tissues, whether measured in genomic DNA or RNA transcripts. Humans create extra information cycles from fossil fuels, while cancer uses excess energy from the body. They both change their modalities when energy resources get scarce. I believe that before cancers completely destroy a tissue or human being, they are probably busily evolving to stop the damage they are doing. There is even some evidence that 35% of breast cancer and maybe up to 95% of prostate cancer can resolve themselves. And they are both able to create beauty. For cancer beauty in the shapes and colors they can make, while humans make it in the arts and science.
One aspect of humans that sets us apart is that we have the ability to create models of the future and act on them. It does not seem likely that many other organisms, cancer, or DNA has this ability. For them it is a trial by fire, for us we should be able to predict the fire and be proactive. But even with this special ability, the similarities still are nagging. It may be that the ability to create accurate models and act on them is too great for our species on a societal level. If this is true, then we may be stuck using a second aspect that sets us apart; the ability to prevent depreciation of learned information.