I am cancer: Multi-level selection and thinking for the good of the whole
Almost daily we hear of some new environmental disaster. Humanity is fundamentally altering every aspect of our biosphere from the quality of the air on the highest mountain to shards of microplastic in the deepest sea valley.
I want to explore the idea that you, me and the rest of the human race are, in fact, Gaia’s cancer. And while those words may fill you with disgust, revulsion and scepticism, please stay with me because I want to also show you why that might be the best thing that has ever happened to the planet.
Let’s begin with parts and wholes.
Who are you?
You are already a community. And so am I. Your body is approximately 43% human with roughly 30 trillion ‘human’ cells (carrying your DNA) and 39 trillion microbial cells. Let’s pause and digest (sorry!) that for a moment.
Your microbial cells consist of bacteria, viruses and fungi (fungi!) that pervade every part of your body — on your skin, your mouth, your hair, your ears and your nose. They are in every orifice, and in every nook and cranny of your gut. This biota, this thriving forest of organisms, is part of who you are. It is actually kind of silly to say that cells with your DNA are ‘you’ and those without are ‘not -you’ because in fact every aspect of your functioning — all your mental and physical health, is dependent in part on the thriving of this ecosystem within and upon you. You are, literally, an ecosystem consisting of 1000’s of species and trillions of micro-organisms.
Within this ecosystem, there is continual and reciprocal evolution between your genes and your microbiome. Your gut biome determines your genetic and epigenetic makeup (see, for example, Allen and Sears, 2019) and your genetic and epigenetic makeup determine your gut biome. You are in a continual process of co-evolution with your bodies ‘guests’. And this entire system of reciprocal influence, of self-organisation, has been selected for both in deep history and in your development at the whole organism level. You are a group that has survived.
You are an organism right? Now let's shift a level. Earth consists of trillions upon trillions of organisms working together to create a living planet. Why would we not think of Earth as an organism? Gaia, if you like, a collection of co-evolving systems each influencing the other, just as in the microbiome. It is literally no different. The only difference is that we identify with our own bodies. It is just a failing of human cognition that we cannot also recognise ourselves as a living part of a larger organism. A bit of biota. But just know that is a failure of imagination not a property of the world.
Back down again to the cellular level. I want to make another point. Cancer cells can be seen as selfish cells. Cells that profit themselves at the cost of the whole organism to which they belong. Looked at in the short term, and from the perspective of the cancer cells, a ‘malignant’ tumor is HEALTHY, it is thriving and growing. But looked at from the point of view of the whole organism, it is imminent doom. Left to grow, cancer cells ultimately kill their ‘hosts’. Growth of the part, without care for the whole, brings destruction of both the whole and the part.
Humans have spread like cancer through the body of Gaia. We distort the tissues of Gaia like tumor stretching beneath the skin. We leave raw, open wounds on her body. We have replaced rich living diversity, with homogeneous strip malls. To a dispassionate observer, how could we possibly appear as anything other than a tumour? We have benefitted ourselves as a species at the cost of so many other species.
Notice how you feel as you read these words. As I write them, I find myself feeling not only revolted and disgusted, but also like I am doing something wrong, something illegitimate. This is my species I am talking about! I am a good person. You are no doubt a good person. Almost everyone I know I would also call good. Certainly my children — they are not cancers are they? And what the hell am I doing anyway making this comparison anyway? Surely we don't need any more negativity. How could seeing the human race as a cancer be helpful in any way?
But just sit with me a moment. What if we allow ourselves to feel the needs and the pain in this moment?
What … if … I … am … a … cancer … on … Gaia?
I notice I can hear this question two ways, and it depends upon how I view cancer. If I view cancer as a ‘bad thing’ then I can only experience this question as a kind of attack upon myself. One that I will quickly reject, or at least slowly forget as I move on with my life and other ideas.
But what if I see cancer as just a process, a process that has, itself, been selected for by life itself. A process of unchecked growth leading to eventual collapse. An inevitable consequence of the self-organising process we call life.
Imagine you ARE a cancer cell. Why should you not thrive, why should you not give birth to others like you? Surely that is the natural order. Ohh, this is getting creepy again.
Now imagine we might bring compassion to that cancer cell. Surely it too is simply doing what it does best, living its life within the realms of its awareness.
We too are blameless. We are an evolving process and it is hard work developing the perspective to become self-aware of our role as cancer.
Rest… just for a moment. Feeling what it is like to be here, right now in this body with this awareness. Appreciating the majesty of living systems.
Feel it just a moment longer. The human race is a cancer upon Gaia.
Now gently, could you possibly unhook for a moment from the fear and disgust of cancer? Could you feel its energy, its pulsing, vibrant life. Could you begin to accept its place in the family of things?
What might we do with this perspective? Cancer lacks awareness of its own role in killing its host. We have no such limitations. What if we could allow ourselves to feel the pain and shame of knowing we are cancer, but instead of curling up in denial, we used it to motivate our own transformation?
We must begin to think for the good of the whole. Self-loathing and despair won't help us or our host planet. Only stepping into our responsibility will help.
This is our moment to find new stories where we take our place in the family of life. Neither ignoring our co-existence nor placing ourselves somehow above or apart from it. This story, this metaphor (although it hardly feels metaphorical to me right now), might be one that de-centers our own needs. What might it take for us to live on and in the family of life as an honoured and honourable part of a greater whole, no more nor no less deserving of life than other species?
Allen, J. and C. L. Sears (2019). “Impact of the gut microbiome on the genome and epigenome of colon epithelial cells: contributions to colorectal cancer development.” Genome Med 11(1): 11.