Can cancer teach sociologists about cohesion?


Normal (non-cancerous) cells have specific jobs to do. Brain cells do brainy things, heart cells bungee-jump all day, skin cells enjoy a good suntan (good job if you can get it) while kidney and liver cells strain toxins and bladder cells hold the strained nasty stuff  (someone’s gotta do it). Normally they all do different jobs, but when they turn cancerous, they they devolve and throw all of that specialization aside. They become anti-social, do not perform the task specified in the blueprints of DNA, but rebel and go it alone. They try to evade the monitoring mechanisms that would shut them down and attract blood vessels to themselves to avail of the easy resources. Cancer cells give up being a high level technical worker in the body and become instead selfish in the lowest form of life – all they want to do all day is eat, excrete, reproduce, act disorderly, crowd out others, use up resources (see more on this at the Exploratorium).

Many things can cause cancer: radiation, chemicals, viruses, etc. Viewed this way, cancer is not really a disease but a normal survival reaction of cells in the body to stress factors. Like Maslow pedicted for humans in his hierarchy of needs, when the stressed cell’s survival is threatened, they also give up being highly advanced cells – brain, heart, liver, kidney, skin, etc. – and take a step downward to a lower function. Their environment, strong in one of the stress factors (for example, by providing only a low oxygen environment) only gives them this choice – or they must die. Cancer is the reaction of cells to various factors that will cause their death if they do not devolve to a lower, cancerous state.

What struck me are the similarities of how cancer is formed in the body and how underclasses are formed in human societies. Just like the cells, we are all happy to do what we’re good at, and we all need a bit of stress to keep us on our toes. On the other hand, if someone works but can’t get ahead, is under incessant stress for survival, doesn’t get respect for who they are then the person can lose hope…and at this stage they turn suicidal or (usually, since the survival instinct is so strong) “cancerous”. Since we tend to discriminate against whole groups, we create a much bigger problems. For example if the US black guy is going to be arrested irrespective of having committed crime or not, it is a very rational decision that he might as well enjoy the benefits of crime (notice how at this stage we have already created a positive feedback loop). If large enough numbers of these blacks behave in this rational way, this will normalise the anti-social behaviours among them (and at this stage we’ve managed making the problem very hard to solve). Take a quick look at all “problem” groups like pirates of the sea, blacks in US, the Gypsies and Romanians of Europe, Aboriginals in Australia, crime syndicates, terrorist groups. Begging, street prostitution, unemployment, drug/alcohol abuse, self harm, antisocial behaviours like racism and violence, rigid class systems are all symptoms of a community with social justice, not criminal justice, problems. Look at the “problem” countries of Africa and the Middle East. Ask yourself  how much were they stressed before they largely gave up to become the underclass (only attempt this if you know about the horrors of colonisation, geopolitics and cultural mutilation).

“If I were a Palestinian I would have joined a terrorist organisation.”
Ehud Barak, Israeli prime minister and minister of defence

When imagining treatments for cancer, we come up with destructive methods of limited effectiveness and large side effects. Similarly the “non-problem” ones of the society are drawn to treat the failures in societal cohesion by slashing and burning (whether using shortsighted law, vigilante action or worse).  But just like cancer is not a disease but a normal reaction to stress, mass crime/unemployment/health issues are not a disease to be eradicated, but normal reaction to disadvantage. We will always have troubled individuals sliding down very easily, and we can talk about how much support is warranted before turning to the heavy hand of law, but when whole groups descend into the unproductive region, the issue must be with the environment (simple probabilistic argument).

You prevent underclass by ensuring the reward is given for the effort, reduce the reward of uncooperative behaviour and increase the reward for cooperative behaviour. For example, you don’t feed cancer patient with sugar, because that encourages cancer-cell growth and similarly you don’t hand out money to people unnecessarily, as that alters the effort/reward ratio and encourages the formation of unproductive, unmotivated underclass. Ditto for rewards: if you price the cleaner at lowly $10/hour, you’re not rewarding the higher level behaviour and create conditions for the societal cancer (especially if the CEO at priced at $5000/hour). Often we don’t have to fix things – to prevent cancer, we just have to remove the factors (chemical/radiation load) that cause it and provide factors that discourage it (the good enzymes, oxygen, antioxidants, etc.), and the body takes care of things by itself better than any man-made fix can. Similarly, to prevent underclass forming in our societies, make it worthwhile for groups and individuals to stay productive and use their specialisation, and society benefits from the diversity, not paying for it.

You still want to treat the symptom? Slash and burn the cancer and criminalise the underclass? Take chemo for the tumor and be tough on crime? Sit on your rock, Sisyphus, and lift your gaze for a moment.

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