Friday, January 15, 2021

Cancer Cures and the Fermi Paradox

Bloomberg Opinion says mRNA Vaccines Could Vanquish Covid Today, Cancer Tomorrow. I haven't run the article past the Slog's technical advisor (who, in 30 years of vetting breathless popular science articles I've sent him, has never failed to reply other than: 1. "Empty clickbait!", 2. "Banal...we've long known that!", or 3. "Maybe, but the risks far outweigh the benefits!").

But I sincerely hope it's not true.

I've made the point before, but this time I'll weld it to my theory about the Fermi Paradox, first proposed here, concluding:
Scientists keep trying to explain the Fermi Paradox - the absence of evidence of advanced civilization in the Universe. What is the X Factor obliterating civilizations before they can build Dyson Spheres, capturing the totality of a star's energy, or find a way to communicate over the void with brutes like us?

Comfort and wealth, baby. That's the perilous X Factor. Comfort and wealth.
Here's how I reached that conclusion:
The world has perpetually seemed to be going straight to hell just as it's gotten fabulously better and better. Why? Because we're spoiled princesses increasingly vexed by smaller and smaller mattress peas. We're Mrs. Howells endlessly piqued by poor picnic weather and inattentive servants. This explains why the merely wealthy are beginning to foment class warfare for unfettered access to the trappings of super-richdom. This cadre fights not for bread and shelter for the disadvantaged, like their righteous forebears, but for their right to smart watches and Beemers.

When our grandparents urged us to "count our blessings", it wasn't so much an endorsement for Positive Thinking as a means to regain perspective.

Humanity has persevered over illness and lions and warlords; famines, droughts, and extreme poverty, and its pain has only grown in the process. Comfort and wealth will prove an indefatigable challenge.

By the time we're down to our very last Nazi (some geezer raving and saluting from his electric scooter), we'll all be so unhinged by his presence that we'll jump in the ocean and drown en masse like lemmings.
Few have noticed this societal turn, as blatantly extreme as it is. It's especially evident around New Years, when fabulously blessed people surge with bitter complaints about their wretchedly insufferable existences. We recently took stock of our latest excruciation: in 2020, we were forced to wear masks for a few months, couldn't celebrate holidays with our extended families, and had an asshole president who upset us by saying unpleasant things. This is what passes for extreme suffering in 2020 (and some weird amnesia blocks us from recognizing how we've kicked each wretched year out on its ass for time immemorial). Our ancestors chortle bitterly.

The other view is that, after an unbroken chain of improbably honorable presidents (including even cocky George W Bush - and his stupid, wicked war and gruesome VP - who we now frame more clearly, much as we'd reframe Trump if we ever wound up under a Duterte, much less a Pol Pot), we had one more typical of the ignorant, narcissistic, racist assholes who've run things for time immemorial - bringing us, somehow, to our pinnacle of inconceivable wealth, comfort, and security. And we faced down the scariest societal predicament short of war and are, happily, mostly all still here, with geniuses coming to our rescue, having hyper-accelerated miraculous vaccines. Meanwhile, we are far more comfortable, safe, and secure, than any person has ever been, and enjoy all of human knowledge, entertainment, art, and global communications via slabs of glass in our pockets.

It's true that some good businesses have, alas, closed (along with a multitude that mulishly failed to innovate), creating stress, inconvenience, and discomfort for some. But the notion that we can expect our lives and careers to proceed in unbroken lines of assured success is a fabulous delusion courtesy of the overflowing gift basket of privilege here in Paradise. In this worst case scenario - global pandemic - you may have been forced to close your dry cleaning business and give up your Netflix subscription - and perhaps move to a slightly smaller apartment - while you regroup. That's the 21st century's version of Dickensian affliction.

Needless to say, critical care health workers have been though the full Dickensian wringer (I brought Thai food to my local ER a bunch of times; wish I could have done more), but, as I wrote:
The people bitterly complaining about 2020 - who are the same people who whined about 2019, 2018, 2017, etc. (an unbroken chain of unsatisfactory suboptimality) - are not the ones in ICUs with tubes down their throats, nor are they the health care workers bravely attending to them. Those folks are all busy. They have no time for whining on Facebook. People confronting actual problems don't reflect over their disappointment. Whining's the exclusive domain of the comfortable.
So let's return to the prospect of these vaccines potentially curing cancer and other scourges. If so, it's not good news. In 2017, I posted "Cure Cancer, Kill Social Order", which I'll reprint below
We appear to have turned a corner, where cures for many forms of cancer may finally be within sight. This is very bad news. I'm not sure humanity will survive it.

First, it helps to understand that "cancer" is another way of saying "dying of old age". If you don't develop actual disease (a heart attack, a stroke, flu, malaria, etc.), or get eaten by a lion, then, congratulations, you've won, and will live long enough to be taken down by the normal processes of old age, which usually involves tumors and other familiar signs of DNA break-down, like a calculator running on depleted batteries.

I'm talking about prevalent cancers, e.g. liver, prostate, etc. Rarer and earlier-onset forms of cancer are exceptional, and I'm certainly rooting - and contributing - for their cures ASAP.

Why is there so much cancer now? The Whole Foods crowd will attribute it to those nasty chemicals everywhere. But the actual reason is that many of us are finally living long enough to get cancer. And that's a win. Cancer's not a scourge. Mortality is the scourge, and cancer is a symptom.

Removing cancer from human society would change everything. We're well aware of the mounting problems of financial inequality, though it's seldom pointed out that it skews toward the elderly. Society counts on parents dying and passing stuff on. But that process has been seriously disrupted by people living into their 90s the way they once approached their 70s. That's like wedging in a whole extra generation, and meanwhile our inflation-adjusted income and standard of living have, for the first time ever, gone stagnant. There's less upward mobility in the workplace, college grads are listless and blocked, and it can't possibly be coincidence that so many 70 and 80 year olds are holding the reigns of control (Reagan was a shocking and precarious 70 when he took office, yet no one had serious trepidations about Trump and Clinton both being that same age).

We've messed with our churn, and curing cancer will mess it up way, way more. If, twenty years from now, 95 year olds hold on to their jobs and their assets, consider the fate of 70 year olds (much less 25 year olds), finding themselves caught in a half-century holding pattern, perhaps many of them still living in mom and dad's basement. The pitiful experience of England's Prince Charles may turn out to have foreshadowed a looming new normal.

Who knows; we might manage to shift our social norms to adjust to this radically different framework. But history shows that far less massive shifts can be enormously destabilizing. This is not good.

I touched upon a similar point in this posting from last year. Here's an excerpt:
You may have noticed some tension in our body politic these days, on both right and left. Income inequality is a huge, toxic problem, poisoning society in all sorts of ways. Same for power inequality. As the Olds enjoy greater and greater lock on both, and maintain that lock for longer and longer, there will come a tipping point when the imbalance becomes parsed in these terms. Youngs aren't going to like it. The energy and momentum of Occupy Wall Street, and the anger of Bernie and Trump's followers may be recalled as minor foreshadowings once a generation is clearly seen as refusing to step out of the way.
Comfort and wealth have shown themselves to be the perilous X Factor. Cure cancer on top of that, and we're finished.


plam said...

Lots of things kill people besides cancer. Pneumonia is pretty common among older people. As is heart disease (didn't get you, but it does get many). And dementia.

What's strange is that it's not quite clear how better medical treatments have affected lifespan.

James Leff said...

Obviously cancer is not the sole killer among seniors. But pneumonia is ≈50-100k/year and I would argue cardio advances have already contributed to lopsided demographics, and thus inequality.

But cancer (the most common types mostly affecting seniors) is not disease, it’s old age. It’s cellular degeneration. Curing it would foundationally skew the generational churn and I cannot imagine it would be a sum positive in the end. A cancer cure would be the biggest be-careful-what-you-wish-for I can think of. And it would be the cherry on the sundae of the countless societal ills that mystify everyone but can be quite easily explained by clear-headedly recognizing that we’re a society of entitled aristocrats. Wealth and comfort will be the death of us, and a cure for cancer would be the coup de grace.

Blog Archive