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Cancer of the Cell, Cancer of the Mind

Otto Heinrich von Warburg delivered a speech at the annual meeting of Nobelists at Lindau, Germany, in 1966 regarding a theory of cancer initially postulated in 1924. That theory, coined the “Warburg Hypothesis,” was that the proximal cause of cancer is a change in cellular glucose metabolism from aerobic respiration to anaerobic fermentation. This fermentation occurs despite adequate oxygen pressure. Fermentation of glucose, along with the greatly shortened generation time, uncontrolled division, and lack of specialized cellular structures characteristic of cancer cells are reminiscent of the prokaryotic phenotype. Thus, the Warburg Hypothesis generated speculation on cancer as a condition where cellular insult causes the reversion of a eukaryotic cell to its primitive roots of prokaryotic metabolism, and in the process shirks the normal controls on growth. The cancerous cell perceives that the environment cannot support its energy intensive eukaryotic metabolism, and its uncontrolled division continues unmolested by the apoptotic program usually terminal for rogue cells. The result, practically speaking, is a lump of quasi-prokaryotic cells growing within normal eukaryotic tissues. If unchecked, these primitive, deranged cells will kill healthy ones and eventually the entire organism, not unlike an infection. Cancer of the body is a malignant growth, but according to Warburg, cancer of the cell is a process of reversion.

Some of the defining features of the human animal are abstract thought and introspection. The civilized human has extended these characteristics; manifesting abstract plans through long term projects of delayed of gratification. Major cultural achievements, whether of art, building, scientific discovery, or philosophical development all require the mental tools summarized in the trivium of the medieval university: comprehension of the nature of things (grammar), removal of contradictions and extension of grammatical knowledge through deduction and induction (logic), sharing this knowledge and contesting it with that of others (rhetoric). It may seem that the onwards and upwards direction of cultures is inevitable, like the aerobic respiration of eukaryotic cells, but primitive reversion is possible in all advanced systems. Not all societies have progressed equally, and even within advanced cultures the first things to be lost in an emergency are the higher order functions of reason, cooperation, and respect for individual rights. A movie theater represents dazzling techno-cultural achievement, but the trampling to death of the weak in a mad dash out of the door when someone yells fire demonstrates the precarious knife-edge on which cultural achievement rests.

Consider the behaviors surrounding the recent presidential election. Droves of mostly young people participated in unclear and at times violent protests. The dovish of the two candidates was repeatedly referred to as “literally Hitler.” An overriding theme of this electoral cycle was that the messenger is the message. For example, anything Donald Trump said could be and was interpreted as bigotry of one form or another, yet pointing out that the most nakedly bigoted, totalitarian, or pro-war proclamations by Hillary Clinton were so elicited raised eyebrows as if to ask “what are you talking about, she can’t be bigoted or hawkish, she’s a woman.” Likewise, Black Lives Matter activists can tweet that they want to kill white people with impunity, while Milo Yiannopoulis is accused of hate speech for suggesting that the statistics used to arrive at a 77% gender pay gap between women and men are misleading. One might wonder how such obvious contradictions can be held, and I submit the answer is a cancer of the mind. An environment perceived as insufficiently abundant for higher order mental and social interactions has caused a reversion of the capacities of many to a tribal, pre-reasoned state where factors like identity and appeals to emotion are more persuasive than facts and evidence. The very existence of fact and logic has been attacked as patriarchal and racist in some college classrooms. This is the absolute triumph of Daniel Kahneman’s System I thinking (quick, error-prone) over System II (deliberate, reasoned) on display. It requires little imagination to see what a growing number of unreasonable, violent, and tribalistic members of society will do to their surrounding normal citizens and society at large. Cancer of society is a malignant growth of anti-social members; cancer of the mind is a process of reversion.

What environmental stressor could be causing this reversion, when we in the Western world live in such historical abundance? Looking back at the Industrial Revolution, many historians attempt to describe it as a time when the lot of the average person was reduced for the enrichment of a few “robber baron” industrialists. Child labor, dirty and unsafe working conditions, low wages, generally conditions that modern Western people would consider intolerable, are explained as the effects of industrial capitalism. What these historians fail to describe, as R. M. Hartwell wrote in his 1971 classic “Industrial Revolution and Economic Growth,” is that these same conditions were present, often worse, prior to the Industrial Revolution. The most recent data suggests a doubling of real wages during the first half of the 19th century; this in the face of an historic growth in population thanks to a precipitous drop in the death rate. Turning on its head the question of how this positive episode could elicit attack, it is progress that stirs the pot of complaint, not stagnation. Hartwell on this phenomenon:

The new attitude to social problems that emerged with the industrial revolution was that ills should be identified, examined, analyzed, publicized, and remedied, either by voluntary or legislative action. Thus evils that had long existed—child labor, for instance—and had long been accepted as inevitable, were regarded as new ills to be remedied rather than old ills to be endured.”

The possibility of wealth, rather than the certainty of penury, inspires populations to disdain the progress they are enjoying. Might social complaints accelerate as progress too has accelerated during the 20thcentury? Even so, the level of hysteria and persistence of absurd logical contradictions surrounding Trump’s election requires another ingredient, that being ideology.

The ideological umbrella sometimes referred to as Marxism, formed of the political writings of Karl Marx and his influences like Rousseau and Hegel, has had several iterations. One of his claims, that the rich become so from extracting surplus value from the labor of their employees, is a belief that likely substituted for the lack of evidence available to historians seeking to vilify industrial capitalism. If the rich extract their wealth from the poor, and the Industrial Revolution produced more rich men, then the standard of living of the lower classes must have fallen in kind. Most self-identifying Marxists of the current age might be better described as Marx apologists; their economic and political thought has diverged in substantive ways from that of Marx’s original writings. In the clearest way possible, original Marxist doctrine has been proven wrong. His political writings were not, as many believe, economic or scientific in nature. They were a description of social history through the previous and current economic orders, and a prediction of the future and final economic order that would mark the “end of history.” Specifically, as capitalism displaced feudalism, so to would communism displace capitalism, producing greater wealth in a democratic and egalitarian fashion. The communist regimes of the 20th century, backwards and walled-in blood boxes that they were, put economic Marxists on the defensive. His lens of social analysis, seeing history as dialectic between opposing forces of oppressed and oppressor, jumped from the sinking ship of economic Marxism and was adapted into the various critical studies fields of the Frankfort School. Rather than capitalist and proletariat constituting analytic categories, race, sex and gender, religion, sexual orientation, and whatever else a leftist academic can come up with are divided into oppressor and oppressed classes. Thus we arrive at the source of the modern cancer of the mind.

If you follow social media accounts about Brazilian jiu jitsu you might have seen this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdrzBL2dHMI from a Fox Chicago news report on a martial arts school where the instructor claims to be able to knock people out with his “chi.” Interestingly, while demonstrating the technique on his students, an attendant EMT claimed that the victims showed physiological effects characteristic of shock. When the martial arts instructor attempted his chi knockout on students of a nearby bjj school, however, it didn’t work. He said that athletes tend to be “resistant.” What I take away from this episode is that the belief in their instructor’s ability to deliver a no-touch concussive strike produced physical effects. Now consider what many university critical studies classrooms, their social media outgrowths (Buzzfeed, Jezebel, Salon), and what Brett Veinotte calls the “Bureau of Comedy” (The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, etc.) are teaching. The lessons are sometimes explicit, but often implicit. It is suggested that America is more racist than other countries, or that the minority experience here is worse than other places around the world. If someone doesn’t use your preferred pronoun such as ze or zir, or recognizes your otherkin identification like wormself, they are committing violence against you. Anyone who questions political movements emanating from critical studies hates you and wants you put in a concentration camp. As a woman, you will likely be raped on a college campus, and if someone makes a pass at you or puts their arm around you, you are being raped. What physical effects could internalizing and believing all of this have? I would be surprised if a scan of the deeply washed brains of gender studies students didn’t show effects characteristic of damage or trauma, especially after experiencing an event like the election of Donald Trump. This brain damage, potentiated by Western freedoms to say and do what you want and the wealth afforded to spend vast amounts of time unengaged in productive activity, causes this cancerous mind reversion. What remains to be seen is the extent to which post-modern tribalism grows, and how it is ultimately dealt with. Is there a way to repair these damaged minds, akin to restoring aerobic respiration in cancerous cells, or will the Trump administration and the reactive movement behind it choose a route closer to the cut/poison/burn techniques of today’s oncologists?