Up@dawn 2.0

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Medicine and the Unknown

Sciencea 'fight against the mysterious unknown'deals with measurable phenomena, and what is measurable may lack certainty. Although science best expands what we know about the world, "Knowledge is, by its nature, always incomplete," so there will always be a realm of the unknown. That is the realm in which creation occurs. When it comes to medicine, the unknown breeds fear and the creation of misinformation. It's all too easy to rely on one's 'Negative capability' and "dwell in uncertainty" when what's at stake is so vital: human life and health. For instance, the narrator in Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year is, after his failed attempt to unveil the mechanism of disease transfer, left with merely "improbable theories and pure speculation." Many feel similarly about weighing the benefits versus the risks of vaccination. Both disease and vaccinations "serve as metaphors for foreign others." Our evolved behavioral immune system underscores this self-nonself dichotomy. In order to protect ourselves, we associate otherness with the threat of disease. The most common understanding of immunity is that the immune system acts to distinguish self and nonself and then to "eliminate or contain the nonself within protective barriers." However, there is another understanding, called the Danger Model, in which the immune system fears dangerous beings, including the self, rather than others as a whole. The immune system works with a system of body tissuesthe body's "multiple selves"to achieve this end. Just as the body must find balance among its many parts which function collectively, we must also find balance living among other organisms. Moreover, we each constitute an important feature of the social body, and so "we are each other's environment." We must not let our natural, and protective, fear of the unknown, in the form of otherness, taint our sense of community as human beings. Indeed, our bodies belong not only to ourselves: "Immunity is a shared space."

Reference: On Immunity by Eula Biss
Word count: 320

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