Terror Cells

Terror Cells

by Barbara Ehrenreich

“It took science until 2012 to officially acknowledge that nonhuman animals possess feelings and consciousness. It may take a bit longer for biology to admit that the cells in our bodies are not simply automata, that they possess, if not consciousness, at least some sort of agency. As recently as 2008, an article on the confusing taxonomy of macrophages proposed that a new, “more informative” classification “should be based on the fundamental macrophage functions,” which are defined as “host defence, wound healing and immune regulation.” What about macrophages’ role in abetting cancer—or in instigating life-threatening inflammatory diseases? What “functions” do these activities represent? The “wisdom of the body,” which supposedly keeps the body unified as a single sustainable organism, does not always apply at the microscopic level, where an individual cell can sabotage the entire operation.

Natural selection should weed out cellular traitors, you might think, since people who are vulnerable to cancer, autoimmune diseases, and pathological inflammation—at least at early ages—are less likely to reproduce. The truth is, though, that we do not know for sure what natural selection means at the cellular level. Often, when a person with cancer is subjected to chemotherapy, some of the cancer cells survive through what can only be called natural selection. A victory at the cellular level may mean defeat for the organism.

This is madness, of course. But then, who are we, as human beings, to be appalled by the irresponsible “decisions” of our body’s cells? We too are biological organisms, supposedly doing our best to survive and promote the survival of our kin. And we too, like rogue cells in our bodies, can be murderous, suicidal, and systematically destructive of our physical habitats. We, of all creatures, should appreciate the perversity, as well as the clockwork precision, of biology.”

From The Baffler

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