Saturday, January 24, 2015

Chaoskampf, Cancer and Conspiracy

The Cancerous Chaos Beast: the mythology of the mundane and banal

For the second time in as many weeks we find evangelical atheist Larry Moran "warming" his heart in a perverse nihilistic sort of way with news that  randomness once again has a big influence in the affairs of this world; the first time it was random drift as one of the important engines driving evolution, this time its about 50% of cancers being caused by nothing in particular but a bit of bad luck. All this is very much in line with Larry's vision of an acausal world largely driven by meaningless forces, empty of purpose.  Funny part about it is that I'll have admit he may well be right about this; from spontaneous corruption of genetic information in cells to stray cosmic rays and background radio activity, such influences are unlikely to be traceable to any deeper causes. I also think he may be onto something when he says that this is a message that many people do not want to hear; the implication is that there is human resistance to accepting that meaningless, goalless forces can play a large and decisive role in life. Moran quotes David Gorski, a quote I reproduce below with my emphases in bold:

It’s understandable that humans crave explanation, particularly when it comes to causes of a group of diseases as frightening, deadly, and devastating as cancer. In fact, both PZ Myers and David Colquhoun have expressed puzzlement over why there is so much resistance is to the concept that random chance plays a major role in cancer development, with Colquhoun going so far as to liken it to ” the attitude of creationists to evolution.” Their puzzlement most likely derives from the fact that they are not clinicians and don’t have to deal with patients, particularly given that, presumably, they do have a pretty good idea why creationists object to attributing evolution to random chance acted on by natural selection and other forces.

Clinicians could easily have predicted that a finding consistent with the conclusion that, as a whole, probably significantly less than half of human cancers are due to environmental causes that can be altered in order to prevent them would not be a popular message. Human beings don’t want to hear that cancer is an unfortunately unavoidable consequence of being made of cells that replicate their DNA imperfectly over the course of our entire lives. There’s an inherent hostility to any results that conclude anything other than that we can prevent most, if not all, cancers if only we understood enough about cancer and tried hard enough. Worse, in the alternative medicine world there’s a concept that we can basically prevent or cure anything through various means (particularly cancer), most recently through the manipulation of epigenetics. Unfortunately, although risk can be reduced for many cancers in which environmental influences can increase the error rate in DNA replication significantly, the risk of cancer can never be completely eliminated. Fortunately, we have actually been making progress against cancer, with cancer death rates having fallen 22% since 1991, due to combined efforts involving smoking cessation (prevention), better detection, and better treatment. Better understanding the contribution of stochastic processes and stem cell bio
logy to carcinogenesis could potentially help us do even better.

So why does this pique my interest? It's because it has tell-tale similarities with the human tendency toward paranoia and conspiracy theorism; conspiracy theorism is the imaginative multiplying of the machinations of sentient entities behind the scenes thought to be engaged in deception and/or acts against us. The motive for conspiracy theorism seems in part down to an unwillingness to accept that mundane and banal factors often have a big role in fortune; we may be tempted to feel that that fortune is worthy of grander narratives to explain it, narratives whose star turns are evil Machiavellian agents. This can have the effect of dignifying and mythologizing human struggles against the chaotic and the random. Personification of human woes can be cathartic because it provides a sentient target that anger can be directed toward. Cancer, with all the difficulties in its successful treatment, is prime material for conspiracy theorism. And yet this is in spite of the fact that in Western Christian tradition, the concept of Satan has a close association with  idea of the chaoslkampf, the beast who emerges from the abyss of chaos, the seething cauldron of randomness.  Not really very heart warming stuff I would have thought!

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