Malady - A Planetary Cancer
The crew of spacecraft Earth is in virtual mutiny to the order of the universe.
How does a species that has developed thinking, reason, foresight and choice come to behave in such short-sighted ways? We like to think of ourselves as the most intelligent species on this planet, but are we really that intelligent?
How intelligent is a species that can understand it is destroying the ecosystem crucial for its existence -- and then continues to destroy it? Any individual who behaved in such an irrational manner, without any care or respect for its own welfare or that of others, would be classed as insane.
Such behavior has close parallels with cancer. When cancers become malignant they can grow very fast, and with no regard for the rest of the organism. They are a part of the body, yet in many respects behave as if they were completely separate. They are also somewhat stupid; if a cancer is successful it may kill its host, and hence itself.
Similarly, the human population has been growing rapidly, and with little regard for its environment. We are part of the earth's biosphere, and totally dependent upon it, yet we behave as if we were quite separate from it. Our cities eat into the countryside, eradicating natural ecosystems, spreading deserts of sand and concrete. We allow our toxic wastes to flow into our surroundings, poisoning other species with hardly a thought. And we too are somewhat stupid; if we continue along this path we are likely to cause irreversible damage to the biosphere, and will probably destroy ourselves.
But the parallels go deeper than surface appearances and behavior. When we look at what underlies cancer and at what underlies humanity's malignant tendencies, we again find remarkably similar patterns.
In essence cancer can be thought of as a programming error. The genes in the heart of every cell are essentially a set of chemical programs that give instructions on how to construct various complex proteins which determine the cell's structure and behavior. Virtually every cell in your body contains the same set of instructions, but only those appropriate to that type of cell and its current phase of development are switched on at a given time.
Occasionally sets of instructions that should be switched off are turned on, or vice versa. This can happen for a number of reasons.
- Radiation from space, nuclear reactors, or medical treatments may damage the control sequences -- the switches in the gene.
- Toxic chemicals in the air, in water, or in food, may produce changes in the molecular information.
- Or a virus may enter the cell and insert itself into a gene, disrupting its sequence of instructions.
Guided by an inappropriate set of programs, the damaged cell no longer acts in harmony with the rest of the body. It becomes what is called a "rogue" cell.
Generally the results are benign. But if instructions to grow and reproduce are turned on the rogue cells can begin multiplying without limit. This is the beginning of malignancy.
A Virus in the Mind
Humanity's malignant tendencies likewise stem from an inappropriate set of programs. However, because we have moved on from biological evolution to cultural evolution, the programs that now influence our behavior and development are to be found not in our genes but in our minds. They are our attitudes and values -- the way we see life, the way we see ourselves and what we think is important. It is these, not our genes, that determine most of our decisions and day-to-day activity.
The biologist Richard Dawkins calls these thought patterns "memes". The ideas we have about fashion, the values we hold about right and wrong, the beliefs we have about work and leisure, the value we put on money, our assumptions about the purpose of life: these are all memes. Like genes, memes reproduce as they pass from one person to another. A hundred years ago the meme of using computers to help us in our work did not exist. Today it has spread to everyone; the idea is firmly implanted within us all. Memes are the basic unit of cultural hereditary, and like the genes in a cell, bind us together into a cohesive society.
Some memes are useful. Ideas about how to raise children in a loving manner, and reduce the incidence of childhood trauma, are very valuable and can improve the long-term quality of life in a profound way. Others may be less useful. A meme that undervalues people of different cultures, races or class can spread contempt and strife through society. Such memes are like a virus, they not only spread from one person to another, they can also make society as a whole sick.
This is what lies behind the malignant aspects of modern culture. In much the same way as a virus in the cell can cause programs in the gene to be switched on or off at the wrong time resulting in cancerous cells, our minds have become infected with a belief system that has switched on memes that might have been useful at an earlier stage in our evolution, but which are totally inappropriate in the modern world. We may, for instance, take the attitude that our own benefit comes before that of others. We may value our material possessions more for the status they bring than for their utility. And we may believe that financial or political expediency is more important than our long-term welfare.
It is these outdated mental programs that lie behind much of our self-centredness, short-sighted decisions and less than intelligent behavior.
How has this happened? Where did this dysfunctional self-interested thinking come from?