The Myth of Immunity

OK – so here’s the thing: Everybody know that the “immune system” is essential for keeping us healthy. When it works well, the immune system fights off viruses and bacteria and toxins and keeps our insides working like they should.

But just about anything you read – from kids books to medical school texts – describes the immune system as a vigilant army, poised at the borders of the body ready to blow up anything that tries to get inside.

Well, that’s just not the case – real life is a whole lot more subtle than that. What we call the immune system works at least as much by cooperation and intelligent negotiation as by the kind of violent, militaristic action that’s usually cited.

In fact, we really shouldn’t call it the immune system at all because no living thing on Earth has ever actually been immune from its surroundings. If you closely study living cells you’ll discover that some of the most amazing biological machinery – like the tiny mitochondria that manufacture the chemical energy we need to run our bodies – actually began as external, independent bacteria that entered our ancestors’ bodies and weren’t destroyed. Instead they were tolerated, cultivated, and over eons of time fully integrated into our cells. They became a fundamental part of us and we literally couldn’t survive without them.

Our ability to live and thrive in the world, to have enough energy to develop complex structures and brains and nervous system, to have the physical energy needed to experience thoughts and feelings and write poetry and do art and explore science and build civilizations has its roots in an ancient bacterial infection! Imagine how different life would be if we had truly been “immune” from our surroundings.

So if the “immune system” really isn’t about immunity, then what is it?

In my experience, this set of complex and amazing biological capabilities should actually be called our “integrity system” because that’s exactly what they provide. Isn’t that what every living thing wants? To be able to maintain the biological integrity it needs to live in an environment crowded with other living things, each of which is also trying to maintain its integrity so it can express its own capabilities and purposes?

Life tends towards symbiogenesis – the generation of cooperative, symbiotic relationships. This aspect of life and evolution has been almost totally ignored, except by a few visionary biologists like Dr. Lynn Margulis at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She and her son Dorian Sagan (Margulis was married to the astronomer Carl Sagan) have written wonderful books on the subject and I recommend starting with Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution (Basic Books, March 2000, ISBN-13: 978-0465072729). It’s a great read and lays bare some of the more delightful inner workings of a cooperative world teeming with symbiotic relationships rather than the violent, “dog eat dog” picture we commonly associated with Darwin’s correct but incomplete “survival of the fittest” or Tennyson’s luridly compelling “nature red in tooth and claw.”

So I’ve coined the term “immunecology” to highlight the fact that the integrity of our bodies arises primarily from ecological principles and activities – not from biological warfare. I could have called it something like “integrecology” but that sounds awful and ignores the important fact that pretty much everybody is familiar with some aspects of the immune system.

Immunity + Ecology = Immunecology

One last thing before I end this post which I’ll amplify the next time I write…

It’s obviously also true that parts of the immunecology really do work by blowing stuff up. We have amazing systems for detecting “non-self” – that is, things that are not a natural part of the body like viruses and bacteria and parasites and molds and toxins. We maintain a stunningly comprehensive internal encyclopedia of our own cell types, that is, things that shouldn’t be blown up. The body is engaged in a constant dance of protecting “self” and laser-targeting “non-self” to chemically isolate or destroy the stuff we don’t want inside of us. It’s all quite amazing.

But why, if these features were first discovered at the end of the 19th Century and explored throughout the 20th, did we stop there and proclaim “Aha! We’ve discovered the universal source of all disease?” Why didn’t we press further and continue to uncover the complexities and subtlities and weave them into a broader understanding of the living ecosystem within each of us? For one thing, that would have given us a much better understanding of chronic, degenerative and auto-immune conditions and how to treat them.

The reasons turn out to be as much a matter of ego, politics and money as anything in the scientific domain. And to this day, we’re all paying the price through the massive, collective blind-spots shared by nearly the entire medical and biological establishments.


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