I'm guessing most of you have heard humanity being compared to a virus.
A virus that consumes its host. A cancerous plague. The human-virus equivalency, let’s call it. Most popularly pronounced in The Matrix, when Agent Smith tells Keanu Reeves’ Neo:
“Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment; but you humans do not. Instead you multiply, and multiply, until every resource is consumed. ... There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern... a virus..”
And it doesn’t not make sense. After all, whatever we haven’t yet destroyed of Earth is increasingly in danger of being destroyed by technological advancements. We have every indication that technology is accelerating our probability of existential annihilation. Colonizing Mars is not a fanciful adventure. It’s a race against human extinction. This isn’t news.
“It’s important to get a self-sustaining base on Mars because it’s far enough away from earth that [in the event of a war] it’s more likely to survive than a moon base”
That’s SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Musk has also stated his reason to colonize Mars as simply:
“The continuance of consciousness as we know it”.
This is a common view - if human consciousness is to continue in the long term, we must find another host planet to live off - because Earth is not going to last.
I don’t disagree. But it is very cancer-y.
I could go hard on convincing you of the increasing existential risk we face due to technological innovation, particularly unregulated artificial intelligence (Musk’s World War 3 concern) and breakdowns in consilience, but that’s not what this piece is about. So here’s a link to Nick Bostrom, someone with far more expertise on the matter.
Instead, I want to illuminate a strange realization I had around the human-virus equivalency.
While the metaphor of humanity-as-a-virus has made the rounds, it has yet to be elevated above rhetorical trope. Yes, I could extrapolate from the Freudian notion of the supposedly innate “death drive” and say that, at scale and over time, our seeming compulsion towards self-annihilation could be described as cancer-like in the aggregate. (To steel-man “death drive”, think of it as an innate desire to return to the one-ness of the inert, dead state). But all of this tells us too little about the era’s extractive behaviors.
And then other night it suddenly hit me:
Apoptosis. Or, rather, our seeming avoidance of it.
“Apoptosis" means "dropping off" in Greek, referring to the natural process of leaves falling from trees in winter. In multicellular biology it refers to the immuno-regenerative process of discarding damaged cells. Apoptosis is what keeps multicellular organisms healthy and regenerative – specifically, it is the process of programmed cell death. It puts the “re” in regeneration.
So what? What does this have to do with the human-virus equivalency?
Cancer cells avoid apoptosis.
That's right. They avoid programmed cell death. That’s what makes them cancerous. Instead of integrating death for the good of the whole, cancer cells avoid apoptosis, self-replicate – and destroy the whole. The cancer cell refuses to integrate death.
I’m sure you now see where this is headed. But don’t let me convince you - convince yourself. Does mainstream culture exhibit an avoidance of its own mortality*?
(*Mortality here meaning death consciousness, not death itself.)
Are we integrating mortality at the behavioral and psychological levels, or are we, like cancer cells, avoiding it?
It is no secret that industrialized society is universally obsessed with “life-expansion”. “Old people homes” to hide our dying. Plastic surgery to hide our aging. Vitamins and diets galore. The “Wellness Industry” is now valued at roughly 5 trillion. That’s about the GDP of Great Britain and Canada combined.
But there is another aspect that makes the case gravely, inescapably compelling:
The curious disappearance of existential initiations.
From the Aboriginal Walkabout to the Native American Vision Quest to the Senegalese Kore to the Grecian Eleusinian Mysteries, existential initiations or “death initiations” were a near-ubiquitous feature of the cultures of antiquity. Part of becoming an adult or a realized person. Facing the void. Moving thru the bleakness of dissolution and living anyhow. Building a warm relationship to the unknown. Celebrating the beauty of transience. Integrating death.
Since the dawn of industrialization, existential initiations have gone conspicuously missing from culture.
Cancer’s avoidance of programmed cell death makes it extractive and cancerous. Could a similar avoidant state have the same effect on humanity?
Superimpose cancer’s avoidance of apoptosis onto industrialized humanity, and how neatly our own cancer-like behavior falls to reason. Could there be a connection between the disappearance of initiation and the magnification of our extractive aspects?
I am sure I am not the first to consider this. But whatever investigation this has been given is not yet nearly enough.
If this avoidance theory is correct, our psychological avoidance of death would itself be responsible for our unconscious drive towards it. This, in turn, would mean that the death drive, which was previously thought to be a phenomenon intrinsic to life, may actually be a classically Jungian example of neurosis - a neurosis caused by avoiding our mortality to begin with.
What a tremendous irony it would be if avoiding our mortality posed the gravest threat to our collective survival.
If true, the good news is in the simplicity of the answer:
Re-integrate mortality. Re-integrate death consciousness. Bring back the existential initiation.
This might seem, at first, like an impossible and irresponsible ask. Quite the opposite. It’s already happening, and in the most responsible ways describable. First, and perhaps most touchingly, I have met multiple people recently training to be death doulas. As the birth doula supports the mother to birth, the death doula supports the dying to death. You all are absolute heroes. Next, psilocybin is being used for end-of-life palliative care. That’s an existential initiation - a little on the late side of life, but a step in the right direction. Next, the extraordinary death-integration work of outfits like Yer Going 2 Die, and Stephen Jenkins’ Orphan Wisdom (register for his upcoming seminar Die Wise here - I’ll be there) are confronting the issue head on, while the return of sacred initiation within tribal settings is re-flourishing in groups like Pacha Mama and Sacred Sons. There is, without question, a movement budding.
And, finally, there’s one other thing.
I live in New Orleans. If you’ve ever been here or seen images of brass bands parading down the street in jubilant celebration and thought “my, what a joyous people”, know this - that parade of sheer jubilation is called a 2nd line. It was given that name because it backs up the 1st line. You know what the 1st line is? THE FUNERAL PROCESSION. That’s right -
The very foundation of our jubilee is a celebration of transience. A celebration of the life that was lived.
An integration of death by the life of those in the street. A void dance. A sheer act of regeneration. Of apoptosis.
Apoptosis. Greek. Referring to the natural process of leaves falling from trees in winter.
And here it is spring.
Have you considered how cultural traditions as the Day of the Dead in Mexico, normalize our relationship with death, make it a part of life, and how that might influence peoples’s view of living life?
Another way humanity is like a cancer is the way our economic operating system is based on compounding interest - nonstop growth without decay. The holders of $ have an unfair advantage over goods and labor, which lose value over time. If we could emulate an ecosystem and incorporate death and decay into the monetary mechanism, it could level the playing field so the holders of money no longer have the unfair advantage. Then we might have a shot at finding balance before it’s all gone. An example is a demurrage (decay) mechanism in money. Here’s a Tedx talk I did on the concept: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=s0K65v_V8Sg