Every Curse, a Blessing; Every Blessing, yet, a Curse: Cancer, Evolution, and Political Development

An old adage says “Every tool is a weapon,” and the implications of this wisdom are evident to anyone with a realistic understanding of the art of politics.

But it is not only in politics that powerful things prove themselves to be two-sided swords, with handles that command and blades that cut. For in all things, it seems there are certain general principles that hold true. In medicine, and biology in general, there are ample examples of this tendency. I share here insights from an article recently published in the New York Times.

After quickly cross-checking with several friends of mine who are on the track towards medical school, I have confirmed that the following depiction of cancer is reasonably accurate. I would paraphrase, but Mr. Johnson’s words need no embellishment:


“…there are reasons to believe that cancer will remain… most resistant. It is not so much a disease as a phenomenon, the result of a basic evolutionary compromise. As a body lives and grows, its cells are constantly dividing, copying their DNA — this vast genetic library — and bequeathing it to the daughter cells. They in turn pass it to their own progeny: copies of copies of copies. Along the way, errors inevitably occur. Some are caused by carcinogens but most are random misprints.

Over the eons, cells have developed complex mechanisms that identify and correct many of the glitches. But the process is not perfect, nor can it ever be. Mutations are the engine of evolution. Without them we never would have evolved. The trade-off is that every so often a certain combination will give an individual cell too much power. It begins to evolve independently of the rest of the body. Like a new species thriving in an ecosystem, it grows into a cancerous tumor. For that there can be no easy fix.

These microscopic rebellions have been happening for at least half a billion years, since the advent of complex multicellular life — collectives of cells that must work together, holding back, as best each can, the natural tendency to proliferate. Those that do not — the cancer cells — are doing, in a Darwinian sense, what they are supposed to do: mutating, evolving and increasing in fitness compared with their neighbors, the better behaved cells of the body. And these are left at a competitive disadvantage, shackled by a compulsion to obey the rules.

As people age their cells amass more potentially cancerous mutations. Given a long enough life, cancer will eventually kill you — unless you die first of something else. That would be true even in a world free from carcinogens and equipped with the most powerful medical technology.”

The implications of this are stunning. 

In a world where ‘cancer’ is a scary word to most, the word immediately connotes the last unconquered pinnacle left for modern medicine to master. We have all seen flyers soliciting donations to contribute to “finding the cure for cancer,” but it appears that this is not simply difficult but literally impossible- for the process by which cancer occurs is the same process by which a healthy diversity of genes in our species is ensured, the same process by which we have adapted and will continue to adapt to changes in our environment. It is a hearth in the home- the provider of the blessings of warmth, the heater of food and spirits, yet if untended and unkept, a blazing inferno which will destroy the abode and all within. 

If it really is true that cancer is like no other condition which medicine attempts to combat, but rather is written into our very human condition, then it appears that it is necessary for us to accept a truth that is awkward and uncomfortable for we moderns to accept: that the source of our dynamism can be the source of our destruction, that we cannot conquer death but must be resigned to our fate. Enlightenment models of perpetual progress face a roadblock. 

In all actuality, I don’t believe this is too hard of a concept to accept- most religions are founded on premises that life is unperfectable anyhow, and the only truly disappointed individuals would probably be enlightened positive futurists eagerly awaiting the Singularity and eternal physical life- but it is if anything an unspoken truth which is often buried under the optimism and progress-worship which pervades our culture. 


But if it is so easy to accept that one day we will die, and that everything we do in life will be a mix of positive and negative inputs, and positive and negative outputs, it would certainly be wonderful if the elites driving information and thought in research and academia would acknowledge that. The very naming of certain academic journals of international affairs- the Journal of Peace Research* is one of the more obvious titles- suggests very tellingly that a do-gooder optimism exists among many in the academe, and that the notion that human rights, democratic governance, economic development, international stability, and Kumbayah memorization all come with each other, with no serious side effects, dominates thought among the movers and shakers. This latter conglomerate is mere progressive politics masquerading as objective social science research, and the friends of Mankind would do better to acknowledge the pain and corruption inherent within human life than to simply wish for more agreements and fewer questions. The idea of a golden model of socio-political development, rising slowly from squalor and terror to a shining city upon a hill, laughs in the face at annals and annals of historical evidence and the wisdom of the ancients.

I am none to attempt to summarize history into a few short sentences, but my point is this- the shining cities of the present day are built upon the blood and sweat of the vanquished, and so are the rotting ruins of old. Stroll through any high-rise banking district, any commercially viable zone studied by economists a world away, and take note of the glamor and cleanliness of your surroundings. Chances are, more likely than not, you are not more than a few short miles (oftentimes a few short blocks) away from unimaginable squalor, living conditions so rancid that one no longer questions why, over the course of the 20th Century, all those with the financial means fled the cities to the suburbs. Development comes with a cost, but only part of that cost is capital. The part that is human is always much higher indeed, and it is never paid in full up front- though that tends to be terrible indeed. But in the process and aftermath of development, maintenance never fails to exert a high toll, and those who fault capitalism for “keeping the rich rich and the poor poor,” while not right, are neither wrong.

But it is not only in economics that the cost of development is easily discernible. There are certain principles which must be attained before any civilized development is imaginable, and the most ephemeral and epic of those is order. And the story of the search for order is the oldest in the history of mankind, the very stuff of politics. I will not even go into modern notions of sovereignty and self-determination and legitimacy, for although those are interesting debates, they do not cut to the root of the problem (indeed, they becloud many who use them as the primary avenue to solve problems of power.) The basic object of study ought always be the nature, division, and balance of power in any given situation, and in every situation this is an ugly sight. Let us take, first, the most modern, developed, advanced nations of the early 21st Century- for our purposes, these include the United States, most of Western Europe, and Japan. Rule of law generally commands the respect of the masses, and governments hold their respect by popular sovereignty. But what is the unspoken truth behind the existence of these regimes, the single biggest pillar upon which they rest? Why, it is Weber’s definition- the monopoly of force! Hobbes’s Leviathan is alive and well in the cores of the civilized world, as strong-state institutions (possessing massive militaries, intelligence and law enforcement apparatuses, and most importantly, the means of national redistribution of resources and labor) provide the backbone of order in the world’s valleys of democracy. To be clear, healthy civil society and established cultural norms render politics more tolerable in all these places, but let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that these regimes could survive upon the cultural norms and civil society alone, if they lost their instruments of hard power. The Machiavel himself stressed that, if both love and fear cannot be maintained, then love must go.

The other strong states which, possessing hard power but lacking the accoutrements of civil society and cultural agreement, are more suspect to the ire of their peoples, are nonetheless reasonably secure in themselves: China and Russia come to mind first, as well as dozens of other reasonably well-to-do powers which, though facing occasional internal tumults, are able to put them down with ease. Their machinery of state survives, if in an ugly fashion.

But what of those states and societies around the world where Leviathan does not reign supreme?

A brief survey around the globe at the beginning of 2014 shows the price of anarchy: Syria, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Mali, Nigeria, Sudan and South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Congo and the Great Lakes of Africa in general, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Caucasus, Myanmar- in the last year all of these lands have suffered the price of anarchy. Not long ago Sri Lanka, Kyrgyzstan, the Balkans, Mexico, Colombia, and yet more familiar names joined them on that litany. The empirical evidence, on the surface it least, is clear: strong states with developed institutions, and preferably strong internal cohesion, are the best defense against anarchy.

Yet what is the result of the natural development of such states?

Look to the East, where a game of thrones rages silently across the vast steppes and mountains of Asia, and the stormy surges of her seas. Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Russia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Myanmar, Malaysia, the United States, Australia, and to a lesser extent the Central Asian republics, engage in strategic competition which at the turn of the century most thought to be henceforth unthinkable. The strongest of these powers, and sometimes the most vivacious, have occasionally come close to rows if not blows, and no international organization seems capable of staying their hands. The South Asian tensions between two halves of a dismembered body carry on, as New Delhi and Islamabad, prospective for new opportunities as America leaves the Hindu Kush, plot and plan. Meanwhile the cradle of civilization convulses in the midst not only of stateless sectarian massacres, but of great-power maneuvers and geopolitical shifts of enormous scope. The Saudis and Israelis form a new axis against the rising arc of the resurgent Persians, while the Turks, nestled on their peninsula, grow silently, awaiting their day. And in Europe, where the modern state as we know it was conceived, no fewer than two contests of great scope draw onward. The Russians, for their part, extend their influence to the lost gems of their modern and ancient empire, twisting arms to protect their underbelly from the adventures of unborn conquerors. And the dream of a united Europe, one whole from the Black Sea to the Baltic, from Gibraltar to St. Petersburg, fades as it becomes painfully clear that the mechanisms of the union are becoming little more than tools for German power. In reaction, radical movements rise up across France, Italy, Greece, Hungary. Poland, for its part, works to secure its own domain, while the insular Brits remain aloof from the rubble of the mainland, pondering their next move. 

The very institutions meant to guard against internal anarchy tend to perpetuate it outside themselves, in the broader context of the community of nations. Moreover, it is not clear that anything can be done about this, as the history of Earth reveals, if nothing else, that the seeds of war are planted as firmly in the human breast as the kiss of death itself. 

Couple this inevitability with the sobering realization that war has driven probably about one-third of our innovation in all of our history (another third has probably been driven by trade, and the last third, by various factors, none anywhere near approaching the sheer criticality of war and trade) and it begins to appear obvious that the human tendency towards competition and bloodthirstiness engenders another human tendency, toward order and peace. Yet the attainment of these blessings at one level does not preclude the return of competition and bloodthirstiness at another, higher level, nor their expungement from our blood. And further discover, that trade is perhaps as critical to our social and political life as is war, and realize, then, that we are both social and competitive creatures, seeking both to coexist with others, and preserve our own existence at others’ expense. A dizzying complexity fraught with contradiction and thoroughly unreasonable, incompatible motives and actions- this is human life. Reason is there, but it does not rule, and though it may seem to rule individuals, and at times drive or even pervade policy, it does not rule at any higher level. 


I hope my analogy is clear. Just as cancer is integral to the process of evolution, so are war and weaponized injustice endemic to the process of political development. There is no escaping it. And just as all human exploits are finally subject to death, so all collective human exploits are ever subject to the grips of the imperfection which taints our existence. A general and collective principle, likely unjust in the worldview of most, though one which could easily be said to “build character,” seems to be at play here. Striving brings temporal blessing, but is ultimately doomed to decay. The natural motion towards order brings with it a creative destruction as terrible as the chaos which preceded it. Yet amidst the inferno, life goes on.


1- It still weighs on me that I have neither the time nor energy to pursue biology alongside politics. A long time ago I might have chosen the former over the latter, but did not, and this has influenced every aspect of my thought. At present, I have time to keep, at best, a crudely amateur interest in the various biological and ecological fields, and this is sufficient for pondering the metaphysical implications inherent to science. I hope, however, that I find in my future time and opportunity to indulge that curiosity more.

2- Of war, there is more I can say; for consistent with the general principle of curses and blessings, blessings and curses, there are various benefits, unseen gifts, that come with war, along with all its horrors. But that is another inquiry.


*I have no problems with the Journal of Peace Research, and am not acquainted with its publishing practices. I merely use it for the implications of its naming; I could just as easily have used any number of dozens of other, similarly Whiggishly named academic and professional journals.

One response to “Every Curse, a Blessing; Every Blessing, yet, a Curse: Cancer, Evolution, and Political Development”

  1. theworldreallyismoreinterestingthanitseems says :

    It came to my attention that there is a fundamental difference in the nature of cancer and the nature of war; whereas cancer is assuredly a malfunction in a closed system where all entities and cells ought to be working together towards the good of a greater whole, no such teleological aim necessarily unites the human community, and it is somewhat harder to portray war as so dramatic a malfunction as cancer. The analogy is imperfect.

    However, I do not think this is sufficient to undermine the thesis of my argument.

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