If humanity is a cancer, what does that mean for our place within the wider universe? Are humans detrimental to the system we live in?
In a previous article published in Culturico, I discussed the detailed reasons for which humans resemble a cancer.
As I explained, a cancer arises when a cell in an organism acquires specific mutations that allow it to become carcinogenic. These malignant cells can proliferate and are insensitive to death signals. They divide and divide, taking up all available nutrients, stimulating the formation of blood vessels in order to be supplied with even more nutrients, and when they acquire additional mutations they can even migrate and invade a different organ.
I also described similarities between humans and cancers. Like a tumor, we are a truly proliferative species, and with the use of our advanced intelligence (which I like to consider as a “mutation”), we are trying our best to escape death. The development of medical drugs and the advancement of medical technology contribute vastly to elongating our lives. We use more resources than what our host, the planet, can offer. And like a cancer, in the future we may be able to migrate and devastate other planets as well.
We are a cancer. I left the readers with this conclusion, a brutal one perhaps. Something that leaves you with a bitter taste. Something that offers no hope.
But is the fact that we are a cancer necessarily bad?
We are accustomed to thinking of cancers as something that kills us, and something that kills us is obviously something bad for us. Are deaths from cancer bad for the species, or the ecosystem, though?
To answer these questions, we must take a step back and look at some of cancer’s features in more detail.
Tumors arise when the genetic material contained in each cell (i.e. the DNA) accumulates mutations. Each mutation can constitute a contributing factor to transforming a normal cell into a malignant cell. Obviously, a mutant cell is not necessarily able to give rise to a tumor – it depends on which genes get mutated. As mutations accumulate with age, it follows that tumors have a higher chance of developing the older we get. For this reason, cancers generally arise after the conclusion of the human reproductive phase, meaning that the traits that favor the emergence of tumors can be inherited. Evolutionary pressure cannot erase cancer. We are fit for this world – in evolutionary terms – even if we develop tumors.
What if we could cure all types of known cancers?
In this case, we may hypothesise that our lives would last even longer, but how much longer? Sooner or later, given the continuous accumulation of mutations within the genetic information of our cells, new types of cancer would arise. Given that they would arise as the result of additional mutations, we could predict them to be even more aggressive than those we are generally dealing with at the moment.
If we could cure all known cancers, we would probably live for 10 to 20 years longer on average, and this would be detrimental for the ecosystems we belong to.
If we could instead completely eradicate cancer at the root (i.e. impeding mutations from arising), the detrimental consequences would be exacerbated, with devastating effects. If scientists keep designing efficient and functional medical devices that could replace organs when they cease functioning, we could potentially live forever.
The consequence would be the overpopulation of our planet and the eradication of all of its natural resources. We would likely be constantly at war, in strong competition for what’s left. Most of what we know would be erased and destroyed.
Considering what has been discussed at this point, is cancer a good thing?
Cancer kills its host, and this protects the host’s “overstructure”, the system it lives within. I am not implying here – or in any other point of this article – that cancers function as protectors of the planet, in the mechanistic, finalistic meaning of the word. Religion must not be used as a possible reasonable explanation for this. However, cancers do protect the planet from complete devastation.
Schematically, cells are the building blocks of an organism, and a series of organisms across multiple species compose an ecosystem. When cells, the foundation of this multi-dimensional Matryoshka doll, acquire those characteristics that transform them into a cancer, they kill the organism and save the ecosystem (Figure 1).
This perturbation – the emergence of a tumor – alters the system acting two layers above in the dimensional scale – the ecosystem.
Is this the case for other dimensional realities?
The answer is affirmative, and I am going to describe other examples to convince you. Please follow me in this voyage across dimensions.
We discussed how a cancer cell helps maintain the ecosystem’s homeostasis – the sum of the dynamic forces that keep all of its components in equilibrium – by killing individual organisms, which would otherwise constitute a variable that can alter the system if not properly controlled. We discussed that cancer cells arise from mutations of the genetic information stored in DNA molecules. The DNA constitutes a code that specifically allows for the production of proteins, with a specific tridimensional conformation, able to perform a specific function within a cell.
The production process of a protein is called “translation”, and the tridimensional formation of a protein’s shape is termed “folding”. Even when the DNA sequence that defines the structure of a protein is correct (i.e. there are no mutations), other events can cause its shape to be altered, including translational errors (errors in the machinery that performs this task) and various stresses (such as oxidative stress). We define this event as “protein misfolding”.
Misfolded proteins can accumulate in a cell for different reasons, for instance due to a defect in the translational machinery (the ribosome) or to a problem with the apparatus that should dismantle imprecisely folded proteins.
In this rare and yet randomly possible scenario, different chemical reactions take place to eliminate a cell via apoptosis. In other words, when things stop working – and the presence of accumulating misfolded proteins is the triggering signal – a cell commits suicide. As misfolded proteins can be pretty dangerous (remember: altering the shape can alter the function of a protein), cell death allows the organism to be safe, for instance from the emergence of cancer.
As in our previous example, a sporadic perturbation – the accumulation of misfolded proteins – alters the system acting two layers above in the dimensional scale, the organism; and as before, it guarantees its stability (Figure 2).
Let’s take a step further. I would like to describe another example, which requires the reader to dig deeper into our dimensional journey. We are now reaching measurements in the order of hundreds of picometers (roughly the size of an atom, specifically a hydrogen atom).
After our Universe was born, two types of atoms predominantly existed: hydrogen and helium. In its initial, post-Big Bang life, the Universe was empty of stars. One accredited hypothesis is that stars started forming because of local, small-scale fluctuations of temperature distribution, a substantially stochastic event, inherent to the functioning of the Universe. These fluctuations started forming more dense clumps, which would gradually create a force we all know about: gravity. Gravity would then be the force responsible for locally pulling in even more matter and causing the formation of stars.
Stars, once formed, caused “atomic transmutations”, changes in the atomic structure that led to the formation of all the other elements we know of, including carbon and oxygen. These atoms would then become necessary (though not sufficient!) for the formation of organic molecules and of life itself.
As for our previous examples, a destabilizing perturbation – gravity and the formation of stars – alters the system acting two layers above – the molecular level, allowing for the formation of complex molecules.
A side note, however: there’s obviously a difference between this last example and the first two. These complex molecules – including organic molecules – were newly formed. The perturbation of the system in this case helped generate something new, not to maintain something that already existed, such as organisms or ecosystems.
From these examples we can learn a general concept: an ageing system generates random spontaneous perturbations (that we can generally refer to as “mutations”), that regardless of the dimensional scale completely alter the system as it is known.
Within each dimensional system, evolutionary stochastic processes are actively shaping the structure of larger dimensional layers. Cancer after all can be seen as an evolutionary process.
We can now go back to our world, and to our original question. We are a cancer: is this a good thing?
To keep our discussion simpler, we can assume that the planetary ecosystem is our “overstructure”, the system we are part of. In this context, our advanced intelligence is the mutation that transformed us from animals living within nature (without asking questions about it) to humans thinking outside of nature, capable of interpreting and analysing our place in nature. In other words, as for our previous examples, we are also the result of an ageing system, in this case the biological evolution of species: the longer a system runs, the higher the chance a destabilising perturbation of that system will arise. Randomness allows a destabilising factor to emerge, when a system ages. We are the destabilising factor within our system.
If everything works similarly in different dimensions, the open question is: what is positioned two layers above us humans in the dimensional scale?
Is it our planet, the Solar System, our galaxy, or something we can’t even comprehend?
Does our destructive, carcinogenic behavior offer a protection to an overarching system we belong to?
Here is where logical reasoning terminates, and where I feel like the Wanderer above the sea of fog. After all, our intelligence, however advanced it could be, might not be the right instrument to answer these questions, but only to ask them.
Now I ask the reader to make one last effort.
Imagine an epithelial cell, a cell of your skin. Now imagine it can possess advanced intelligence, as you do. It can think, reason, dream. It can even build a tool to look outside, and discover the surrounding space: a telescope. What would this intelligent cell see? It would probably understand it belongs to a system, the human body. This cell, observing your feet, could name them as “planets”. They rotate and move stereotypically around the cell. “There is day and night”, and the system behaves cyclically. “When it’s dark, the structure we are bound to changes its position”. When it’s dark, the cell knows you are going to lay down, but it doesn’t know what “you” are. The cellular astronomer would also see other human bodies, with its telescope, and think: “Oh, this is another system, and it works rather similar to mine”. As we, humans, see other galaxies.
At this point the inductive cell – which generalizes concepts based on its experience – thinks it has learned how the Universe works. Or at least, how a part of it works. “Tomorrow, when the light goes on, our system will rise again”. But tomorrow the system – a man’s body – will not rise, killed by a stroke in the night. And the cell will die with its host.
Our inductive nature makes us think we can understand and comprehend the systems we live within, just because we can deduce how the Universe has formed or predict its future.
We are bound to our dimension, and even if we can look outside and abstract out conclusions, tomorrow a little kid could be bursting the balloon with a needle, and the balloon is our Universe.
We are a cancer. And this may be good, or not. We will probably never know. But if other dimensional realities teach us something, and if we make the right assumptions in believing our dimensional world works the same way as the microscopic world, then our destructive nature may actually be important for something, something we don’t comprehend.
Federico Germani is a passionate and enthusiastic geneticist and molecular biologist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He is the founder and director of Culturico. He brings awareness to the broad public of how the scientific publishing system works. He believes in multidisciplinary approaches, as opposed to narrow-minded – limited – ways of looking at reality. This is why he reads and writes about topics ranging from science to international relations, and from society to philosophy.