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Immunology in perspective

Among students of science, in contrast to those who do science, the dominant discussion revolves around the degree to which scientific interpretations are subject to extra-curricular influences, specifically, to what extent are facts independent of the larger political context in which science resides. (Political refers to the economic costs and benefits measured as improved health, productivity, military defense, etc.; promotion of ideological commitments; corporate advancement; social flourishing, and the like.) The question is not just applicable to understanding how science makes its truth claims, but represents a general quandary: Scientists, historians, lawyers–all citizens–constantly face the task of drawing the line around credible disputes over the standing of facts and their meaning, which ultimately determines their status as “true.” This matter is posed throughout our culture. Indeed, in whatever endeavor we engage, assumptions are made about the reality of our perceptions and the comprehension of our understanding. This question is the basic philosophical challenge that under-girds all forms of knowledge.

In regards to science, I will unpack this matter in two parts. First, a dictum: facts assume their meaning only within the theory or model in which they are placed. The movement of the stars have one understanding in a Ptolemaic universe and a very different one in a Copernican. This point places the foundation of the factual in a tentative position. This is not a weakness, for such skepticism is the basis of acknowledging the fallibility of scientific pursuits and the basis for the never-ending search for truth. The second dimension of this issue concerns the more ill-defined problem of how the social context in which science is embedded influences truth claims. In some sense this is a trivial point: Funding of research is determined by the economic costs and benefits measured as improved health, productivity, military defense, etc.; promotion of ideological commitments; corporate advancement; social flourishing, etc. But the question is the degree to which science is subject to less well-defined extra-curricular influences, i.e., how does science refract its larger political context–political in its broadest connotations.

Putting aside the most egregious examples (Nazi racial science, Lysenko genetics, creationism), immunology illustrates this problem quite clearly: First, the self/nonself distinction that governs contemporary immune theory draws directly from commonly held notions of personal identity. Immunologists configure such identity in diverse ways, but, most obviously, immunity has been conceived as a discriminatory function. Given its historical development as a clinical science and the persistent demands of treating disease, immunologists have focused their study of the immune reaction in terms of its most activated state–rejection of the other (which in turn defines the self). After all, the response to pathogens, if successful, by-and-large requires immune assault. The very language of warfare percolated into immune-talk with the discovery of infectious diseases. And the same terminology was then applied to autoimmune phenomena and immune tumor surveillance.  Only in the context of evaluating the control mechanisms of this prominent arm of immunity was immune tolerance considered. And the notions of personal identity have been extended to the language of cognition (e.g. lymphocytes “see” antigens, possess “memory,” and “learn”), which makes the most direct reference to human being.

However, another subtle human orientation structures modern immunology, one less dominant than that marshaled by host defense, but nevertheless growing in influence. If we step outside the clinic, we recognize how immunity serves as the critical mediator of the organism’s interactions within its environment. The immune system is basically a cognitive faculty, an information processor: The immune system perceives the world essentially as do animals employing olfactory and taste sensors, i.e., through molecular coupling of substances to specific receptors. The signals of such interactions are then processed in an ascending hierarchy of controls, and like the nervous system, the immune system responds to, or ignores, the universe it perceives. Simply stated, the immune system is like a mobile brain, and most of its work deals with mediating the animal’s intercourse with its environment, external and internal. And those interactions must invoke mechanisms to tolerate assimilative exchange.

About 20 years ago, those interested in this domain of immune function began calling their research, eco-immunology. The field is growing in many directions, but because of funding priorities such investigations are still largely tied to the defensive orientation of immunology’s origins. But we require a more expansive view, for the immune system serves both to differentiate the ’self’ from the “other,” and to provide the gateway for assimilative, co-operative environmental relationships. The current interest in the microbiome, the holobiont, and symbiosis more generally is an expression of a biology that is moving from an insular organism-centered science to an ecological orientation, subordinating individuality to the communal.

Just as immunologists responded to the immediate problem of treating infectious diseases, the turn towards ecology is a response to a complex medley of challenges that have shifted focus from the individual patient to his larger environmental context. Although immunology is, in fact, a member of the environmental sciences viewed strictly with scientific criteria, that focus has remained subordinate to the clinical scenario. And in drawing away from an insular orientation, ‘contextual’ immunology has asserted a compelling theoretical re-orientation. On this view, immunology is again reflecting broader cultural influences about personal identity, namely, immune theory (in part) derives its current ecological concerns from the larger political and social milieu in which individuality has been re-conceived. When considering immunology’s Zeitgeist, immunologists who have joined, what I call “the ecological imperative,” have developed a heightened sense of the world defined not in terms of insular individualism, but rather in terms of a more “global” perspective. The focus on identity remains, but it has undergone a significant modification with deep repercussions for immune theory.

Two pervasive forces stimulating this re-alignment are at play: 1) the environmental crisis (if not a catastrophe) has placed us in a collective mind-set, and 2) the massive socio-political challenges arising from economic globalization and mass capitalism have displaced our private identities based on liberal political precepts with a growing cultural compass. The political consequences (e.g., the traumas of social-religious xenophobia, populism, resurgent nationalism, fundamentalism) and economic disruptions are obvious. These reactions to the blurring and redefining of identities testify to the power of these influences.

So, I see these pervasive forces insinuating their effects in the fundamental ways we conceive the world and our own identities. To the extent that immunology is the science of identity, the heretofore governing precepts of defining and protecting individuality are undergoing a shift to an ecological or contextual perspective. Recognizing how these social forces impact on our orientation to the world, our ways of understanding notions of selfhood, has become a constituent of immunology’s theoretical orientation: comprehending the establishment and maintenance of symbiosis; discerning the organization and regulation of the ‘resting’ immune system; discovering the mechanisms of tolerance that govern normal surveillance and exchange each reflect a contextual orientation and are commanding increasing attention.

Shedding notions of autonomy has deep repercussive effects, and the ecological imperative that has seeped into immunology reveals much about our thought collective. Simply, because of globalization and the growing environmental crisis, we have become more aware of the larger context in which we live. This is true not only in politics or economics, but also in science.  Immunology is a vivid case in point of science and its supporting culture in dialogue.

Featured image: Applied immunology. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 

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