Ever listen to The Moral Maze, the BBC Radio 4, Michael Buerk-chaired ‘discussion’ program, featuring intellectuals arguing over the ethicality of topical issues? It’s sometimes rather snooty; cantankerous types picking rows, preying on the slightest potential slip-up, the smallest hole, the tiniest oversight, the merest hint of non sequitur. I sometimes have to turn the volume up, as the sound becomes somewhat muffled – due, one might presume, to where some of the partakers like to stick their heads. Don’t know about you, but I get the impression that I wouldn’t relish the company of some of these people, who would seemingly take belligerent dinner-party umbrage at anybody risking the mildest of politically incorrect jokes.
Last night’s program was fairly typical. But an interesting metaphor was ventured: that the current global financial situation has come about because of a cancerous philosophy – i.e. uncontrolled growth. And, thus, society is afflicted with a terminal disease. Well, it kind of works. What concerns me, however, is that it is suggestive of social Darwinism.
I once heard cancer described as natural selection at the cellular level. Evolution has furnished us with genes that function best when we are young and reproductively active, but which can go awry as we age and accumulate mutations. Cancer takes hold because a cell becomes unshackled from the control checks on its cell cycle and attains a reproductive advantage over its neighbours, evading the regulatory surveillance of the immune system, which usually quickly eliminates such rogue entities. Yes, it can arise as a consequence of man’s activities (smoking, radioactive fallout), but that is because evolution has not equipped us to withstand indefinitely the environmental insults we now subject ourselves to.
I dislike the occasionally espoused religious view that goes something like… cancer is an inevitable side consequence of God’s lighting of the evolutionary blue touch paper in order that humans could evolve themselves. Like, yes, okay, we can’t argue anymore that evolution is bogus, but it must still be a purposeful, direction-ed progressive process with us God-imaged humans as its inevitable pinnacle. Cancer is thus explained away as the price we must pay; the cross we have to bear. I’m not sure how this should qualify as consolation for those with inherited predispositions who succumb early, or to those who just get it through sheer bad luck.
Do we really want to apply this cancer metaphor to describe the slack regulation of the money markets, which has allowed rogue bankers/traders/mortgagors (‘genes’) to bring about monetary growth advantage for particular financial concerns (‘cells’), leading ultimately to malignant effects (‘cancer’) on society? This implies either that we should just accept the economic collapse as a natural, largely inevitable process brought upon us by those who are fitter/stronger; or that cancer is a by-product of directed purpose. Religious authority figures have voiced their disapproval of the immorality at work. Whether or not they buy the cancer corollary, I don’t know. They shouldn’t, because there is a subtle but important distinction: evolution – and cancer for that matter – is a-moral. It happens for no anthropomorphic reason; whereas the current economic circumstances have arisen as the consequence of human agency.
I think we have to be careful with metaphors like this. It’s easy to be persuaded by them, and they take root in our psyche (consider Frankenstein, which would actually be more apt in this context – we unleashed a ‘monster’ of our own making, but which we could not control and it has turned on us). Evolution provides the framework for understanding biology (and when discussing cancer, we’re discussing biology). It should not, however, be used as – or to describe – a philosophy for politics and economics. Otherwise, science is misappropriated and, ultimately, blamed for human folly.