Peace and Struggle: Machine or organism

 The Vienna-based International Peace Foundation recently brought to Singapore "Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace," its strange model of spreading the ideals of "peace" through lectures by Nobel Prize winners in various scientific fields. When I walked into the lecture hall on the central NTU campus I saw a half-filled auditorium bathed in the sound of Patti Smith singing the words "People have the Power" over and over again. In the opening speech by the director of the International Peace Foundation, Uwe Morawitz noted that the program was an independent contribution to the UN's "Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence" (what is a "culture" of peace???) and claimed that in Thailand their program was heard by 160,000 people. I assume the irony is not lost on Mr. Morawitz that Thailand is currently under a military dictatorship, that took power in a coup on 22 May 2014.


The centerpiece of the event, and my reason for attending, was the lecture by Nobel Prize winner in Medicine or Physiology Bruce Beutler, who would talk on "The Global Struggle Against Infectious Disease." After some brief statements about the significance of infectious disease (the difference between life-expectancy in 19th centry Britain and today), Beutler got to talking about his own research on immunity. Beutler is particularly known for his research on endotoxin, or lipopolysaccharide (LPS), the research in which he discovered the so-called "Toll-like Receptors" through which the mammalian immune system senses the presence of microbial infection.


Beutler also described his ongoing research into the genetic basis for immunity. His experimental system consists of irradiating mice to generate random chromosomal abberations, breeding them until the team locates specific phenotypic failures in immune response, and then linking the phenotype to a genetic basis through genome sequencing of the mutant mice. He said that he hoped, by identifying all of these parts of the immune response, to ultimately develop a model of the immune system as a whole.


He understands the immune system, he said, on "the model of a machine, like a pocketwatch." "We are machines ourselves."


When I later asked him about why he chose the analogy of the machine for understanding the immune system of a living being, he looked around at the crowd and said, "I think we are all biologists here, right? Well, anyway, all biologists are mechanists." He admitted he didn't know why he chose the particular pocketwatch anology,1 but repeated that the organism is a machine, "a weird kind of machine, with lots of distributed parts, but a machine."


Historically and philosophically, Buetler's claim is highly diputable and possibly disingenous. If there is a specific biological idea, it is "the biologist's acceptance in one way or another of the indisputable fact that life, whatever form it may take, involves self-preservation by means of self-regulation."2 As Canguilhem has shown in his critique of the application of Cartesian mechanism to the living being, the organism differs from the watch because it can fall sick: mechanical engineering has no science of pathology. Most importantly, the watch ticks and tocks only within the homogenous physical laws of the universe, but the living being always constitutes its own milieu or environment through the activity of sense perception and evaluation.3


Buetler's science is ineed a mechanical one, both in object and in practice. He even attributes the organism's ability to sense infection to a cog and gear response of binding sites and protein folds. But how does the immune system operate as a whole to regulate the homeostasis of the organism and to adapt to the state of being sick? When asked by Dr. James Best, a professor at Nanyang Technological University's medical school, about how the various parts of the immune system work together, he admitted he knew little about it.


His experimental system is equally mechanical, a drudging through millions of lab mice to identify the range of gene segments that code for proteins involved in immune system function. We learn nothing about how the parts of the immune system interact nor about how the immune system operates in a dynamic relation to a changing pathogenic and parasitic environment (see Lederberg4).


In this regard one of his catch-phrases acquires a secondary meaning. For when he announced bombastically that "the human brain has become the ultimate immune organ," we must remember that for Beutler immunity is a great machine. We can therefore see that he understands scientific and medical thought as itself part of a social machine, a great mill that turns the gears of individual minds in the meaningless grinding of ever greater bodies of knowledge.


It is no surprise to me that there is concordance between this mode of scientific practice and the engineering of "bridges" for a "culture of peace." The idea that hearing Nobel Prize winners in medicine, physics, or chemistry talk about their research will "facilitate and strengthen dialogue and communication between societies in Southeast Asia with their multiple cultures and faiths as well as with peoples in other parts of the world to promote understanding and trust" bears witness to a remarkable faith in a Science that lies somewhere above the world of interests, wills, and power. As if the advance of science was the work of a machine, and not a living being.


"The claim of science to dissolve living beings, which are centers of organization, adaptation, and invention, into the anonymyty of the mechanical, physical, and chemical environment must be integral--that is, it must encapsulate the human living himself. We know well that this project did not appear too audacious to many scientists. But we then must ask, from a philosophical point of view, whether the origin of science does not reveal its meaning better than the claims of certain scientists do. In a humanity to which, from the scientific and even the materialist point of view, innate knowledge is rightly refused, the birth, becoming, and progress of science must be understood as a sort of enterprise as adventurous as life. . . . But if science is the work of a humanity rooted in life before being enlightened by knowledge, if science is a fact in the world at the same time as it is a vision of the world, then it maintains a permanent and obligatory relation to perception. And thus the milieu proper to men is not situated within the universal milieu as contents within a container. . . . "5

We should ask Beutler: In the "global struggle against infectious disease," who is struggling? And for what?

1 We could tell him: it comes from Descartes.

2 Canguilhem, "The Question of Normality in the History of Biology" in Science, Reason, Modernity: Readings for an Anthropology of the Contemporary: 154.

3 Canguilhem, "The Question of Normality in the History of Biology" in Science, Reason, Modernity: Readings for an Anthropology of the Contemporary: 156-157.

4 Joshua Lederberg, "Infectious History." Science.


5 Georges Canguilhem, "The living and its milieu" in Science, Reason, Modernity: Readings for an Anthropology of the Contemporary: 190.