Eula Biss on the Science and Social Dynamics of Health as Communal Trust – Brain Pickings

by Jeremy

Months after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring awakened humanity to the delicate interdependence of nature, Dr. King awakened humanity to our fragile dependence on each other. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality [and] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” he wrote from his cell at the Birmingham City Jail.

Immunity, Interdependence, and the Shared Root of Our Safety and Our Sanity: Eula Biss on the Science and Social Dynamics of Health as Communal Trust

When Robert Hooke looked at a piece of cork through an early handcrafted leather-and-gold microscope in 1665, he named the strange irregular “pores” of its honeycomb-like tissue structure cells, after the small adjacent spaces in which monks spend their voluntary solitary confinement. It would take another two centuries for scientists to discover that cells are the basic biological units of life, that they are in constant osmotic communication with one another, and that they replicate themselves to become new cells, each a whispered word from the language in which life talks to the future.

RobertHooke Micrographia cork
Cork structure from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, 1665. (Available as a print.)

Biological and social, our interdependence is a defining feature of our civilization, not only of our species and all living species but of life itself — life the physiological process and life the psychosocial phenomenon. “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” Walt Whitman exulted in the golden age of chemistry — the new science he saw as “the elevating, beautiful, study… which involves the essences of creation.” Meanwhile, the development of cell theory was revolutionizing biology, making this philosophical field as old as Aristotle and even newer science that illuminated the essence of life. Cells became to biology what atoms were to chemistry. Biology ushered in the revelation that every cell belonging to me as good — as healthy, as vital, as fit for replication — belongs to you.

That delicate interdependence of life and lives, with its tangled roots in biology and cultural history, is what Eula Biss explores in On Immunity: An Inoculation (public library) — a book of penetrating and poetic insight, drawn with that rare scholarship capable of correcting the warped cultural hindsight we call history; a book of staggering foresight, conceived in the wake of the H1N1 flu pandemic, yet speaking with astonishing prescience to the complex epidemiological realities and social dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic unfolding more than five years after its publication.

For Biss — the daughter of a medical scientist and a poet — even her biological inheritance as a universal donor with type O negative blood becomes a potent metaphor for the mechanism of vaccination, a lens through which to view the permeable membrane between the biological and social realities of immunity. With an eye to the blood banks that collect her donations to save other lives, she writes:

If we imagine the action of a vaccine not just in terms of how it affects a single body, but also in terms of how it affects the collective body of a community, it is fair to think of vaccination as a kind of banking of immunity. Contributions to this bank are donations to those who cannot or will not be protected by their own immunity. This is the principle of herd immunity, and it is through herd immunity that mass vaccination becomes far more effective than individual vaccination.

It is a rather unfortunate term for an unassailable scientific principle — we humans, especially in this culture of rugged individualism nursed on the Emersonian ideal of self-reliance, bristle at thinking of ourselves as members of a herd. In our long history of thinking with animals, herd animals have been the butt of our derogatory metaphors for mindless conformity.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep
Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep

And yet inside the unfortunate linguistic container, an unfaltering biological reality resides: On large enough a scale, even a fairy ineffective vaccine that fails to produce immunity in some individuals will slow down the spread of infection in the community; as the virus fails to replicate itself in more and more new hosts, the vaccine will eventually halt it altogether. In consequence, even such a mediocre vaccine will protect all members of the community, even those for whom vaccination has not worked as intended on the individual level. This is why it is more dangerous to be vaccinated amid a largely unvaccinated herd than the other way around. Biss writes:

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