3 Oct 2011
Aggressiveness as Adaptation
“But what if life itself is evil?”
~ Vasily Grossman in “Life and Fate”
I wrote earlier about cultural stem cells. “Cultural stem cells” and “cultural tumors” (as I call them) may offer us interesting hints about biological ones. Fascism and some forms of organized crime for instance exhibit a kind of evolutionary meltdown across multiple evolutionary systems: economic, political, military, journalistic, legislative, religious,… For instance a single clan may govern a whole country, control politics and the economy, while having total military power. In the Nazi regime it was called Gleichschaltung. According to Victor Klemperer, it was the word for the process by which all organisations and associations existing in society were equalized and brought in line, opposing political parties and trade unions were suppressed or dissolved. In ancient times it was common that a clan may govern a region, while having complete religious, economic and military power. The ancient Egyptian or Minoan civilizations are an example. In modern times this is no longer the case. There is a separation of powers, the normal division of branches is into an executive, a legislature, and a judiciary branch. Church and state are usually separated.
In cultural tumors this clear separation seems to be missing. Religion and government are intertwined (for example in certain forms of fascism, nationalism or communism). Religious, legislative, military, economic, poltical, scientific and media systems are no longer clearly separated, because mass media is controlled, rights are repealed, science is suppressed, and elections are faked. A cultural tumor spans like an ancient precursor cell multiple evolutionary systems. It is like a relapse into earlier, more rudimentary and ancient forms of cultural evolution, with a lower degree of differentiation and specialization. William Gibson said “the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”. The past is also here – and it’s also not evenly distributed. In each society there are small pockets which are very innovative, especially in new areas, hot spots, or melting pots, but there can also parts which are very conservative, antiquated or ancient. Usually these backward system parts are harmless: there is a reason why they have been replaced by more innovative ones. But they can be very dangerous, too, if they become very selfish and aggressive.
Since an ancient “cultural tumor” spans multiple systems, it will face many hostile reactions from multiple directions, like economic sanctions, political boycott, .. A cultural tumor is a crude mixture of many systems – political, religious, economic, military, etc – and it has to cope with reactions from many different systems. An environment usually reacts hostile to alien invaders, it may block nutrition supply, or attack them in multiple ways. An example are the economic sanctions on Japan from the USA just before WWII, which in turn was a reaction to the invasion of Japan in China. Franklin Roosevelt insisted on an oil embargo which triggered the subsequent attack on Peal Habor. Japan survived this threat in the short-term by extreme aggressiveness, like Germany it invaded and attacked even more regions to ensure the access to resources during WWII. In the long-term, it lead of course in both cases to the total destruction of the whole country.
I think the aggressiveness of some invasive, malicious tumors can be seen as an adaptation to a hostile environment. Only a hostile, aggressive system can survive in a hostile, competitive environment, where it has to face attacks from many different directions. Life itself only “survived” so long in the hostile environment of the early Earth where everything was subject to erosion and decay, because it is based on aggressive replication and reproduction. In this sense, replication is an adaptation against decay, dissolution and the ever increasing entropy.
What does this tell us? If cancer is an evolutionary disease, we can look at other evolutionary system for clues. The body is a highly differentiated, complex biological system. There is an protective immune system, a controlling nervous system, a digestive system, a circulatory system, and a reproductive system. If a biological tumor is similar to a cultural one, then it may span multiple systems as well. It uses similar genes, but they are connected and combined in a different way. It is likely a relapse into earlier forms of biological evolution, with a lower degree of differentiation and specialization. No approach is too absurd if it helps to gain us new insight about this terrible disease in order to fight it.