Nonself Help: How Immunology Might Reframe the Enlightenment

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The classical immunological paradigm is predicated upon the body's ability to recognize and eliminate  "non-self".  However, the "self/non-self" model has yet to facilitate any resolution of the field's major concerns, and may thus prove to be of limited use. Merely discarding it is no solution, as the juxtaposition of "self" and "non-self" persists in research, in clinical settings, and in everyday practice despite the best efforts of theoretical immunologists.  Instead, the very conception of "selfhood" may prove to be key. Replacing immunology's prior and persistent "self" with less static concepts derived from non-Western contexts not only resolves immunology's famous paradoxes, but offers a new and more accurate model that allows immunology to reframe what may become an outmoded Enlightenment construct of "self". In such a new paradigm, immunology's well-known system of protection and defense is replaced with a view in which non-self becomes not only the body's enemy, but its primary mechanism for the creative assimilation of difference. This incorporative model-in which the 'immune system' functions more as a search engine than as an expeller of difference-- both resolves outstanding paradoxes, and complies more accurately with contemporary knowledge and research practice.

Cultural Anthropology has published many articles on the history and anthropology of science, including, Mette N. Svendsen "Articulating Potentiality: Notes on the Delineation of the Blank Figure in Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research" (2011), Celia Lowe "Viral Clouds: Becoming H5N1 in Indonesia", Michael M. J. Fischer "Four Genealogies for a Recombinant Anthropology of Science and Technology"(2007), and Deepa S. Reddy "Good Gifts for the Common Good: Blood and Bioethics in the Market of Genetic Research" (2007).

Cultural Anthropology has also published articles on conceptions of self and personhood. See, for example, Arafaat A. Valiani "Physical Training, Ethical Discipline, and Creative Violence: Zones of Self-Mastery in the Hindu Nationalist Movement"(2010), Tomas Matza Moscow "Echo: Technologies of the Self, Publics, and Politics on the Russian Talk Show" (2009), Nancy Ries "Potato Ontology: Surviving Postsocialism in Russia" (2009), and Julie Livingston "Suicide, Risk, and Investment in the Heart of the African Miracle" (2009).

About the Author

A. David Napier, "A. David Napier." October 19, 2012 via .

A. David Napier is currently Professor of Anthropology at University College London, and Lead on its Science, Medicine, and Society Network. His work has focused on concepts of personhood, the cultural construction of otherness, theoretical immunology, law and anthropology, and applied medical anthropology. His books include Masks, Transformation and Paradox (1986), Foreign Bodies: Performance, Art, and Symbolic Anthropology (1992), The Age of Immunology: Conceiving a Future in an Alienating World (2003), and The Righting of Passage: Perceptions of Change After Modernity (2004).

Interview With the Author

Q: You mention that the self/nonself immunological paradigm does little to rectify major concerns within the field. Can you expand what some of these concerns are? What is problematic about the usage of the self/nonself model?

A: You have to have some kind of compatibility to get infected by a virus. Because of this, many evolutionary biologists are increasingly focusing their attention towards examining the transformations of normal cell genes because these cells possess the ability to combine with ourselves.

The second problem is that we talk about viruses as if they are infectious agents when they actually aren’t. Technically, they can’t invade us because bring life to viruses. They are drifting bits of information. Viruses can remain inert indefinitely. Thus, the whole question of why viruses invade us is problematic because we treat them as living things.

Q: What’s behind your argument for thinking about the immune system as more like a Google search engine than a defense mechanism?

A: I introduced this idea of the immune system as a Google search engine because your body produces millions and millions of cellular variations with the idea that one of these might match and be able to respond to a future threat. Some theoretical immunologists see this as problematic, because it suggests that the body is producing an almost infinite number of random variations in anticipation of an unknown viral threat.  Instead, it now seems to make more sense to think that the body is producing these variations to assess its boundaries, its limits. When you are vaccinated, for instance, your body is being introduced to new information that allows it to generate a response.

Q: How does this new selfhood concept differ from the self/nonself model? What are the advantages of employing a different selfhood approach? You mention that selfhood models drawn from Non-Western contexts may better represent how immune cells function. What are major differences between outstanding Western models and these new Non-western concepts that are novel for modern science? What is problematic about an Enlightenment construct of self? 

A: The emphasis of the Enlightenment model is on the body’s recognition and elimination of difference-- as a prior, persistent, and autonomous thing that needs to be defended from its environment. The Enlightenment encouraged this notion of defining yourself by yourself and not through the eyes of others. In other cultural settings, the self is viewed different. I am in favor of using a different concept of the self in which people define themselves more socially; and today immunologists are now also posed to define the self more symbiotically. So, now they too, I would argue, could benefit from thinking about what they do from the standpoint of. Other notions of the self derived from Non-western contexts. In many Non-western settings, you are more likely to see an integration of the self with others and the environment more generally. 

Q: Why is the inclusion of an environmental component considered to be important from a biological standpoint? 

A: Because defining the self through its interactions with others much more accurately reflects the manner in which cells and viruses symbiotically relate. This interaction is key; because in fact what the body is doing is going out and retrieving viral information-- going out and engaging viral information and trying to adapt to it. The idea of completely cutting yourself off completely can be very detrimental, as we see time and again when an isolated group is decimated by an otherwise harmless virus. You actually have to engage the other thing. If you don’t engage the other things, you have no way to adjust to it. Think about how many viruses physicians and nurses are exposed to every day of the week while working in hospitals. They don’t always get sick because their bodies are always changing.

Q: How could the incorporation of other forms of selfhood influence research practice? How do other notions of selfhood, as you say, ‘comply more accurately with contemporary knowledge and research practice’?

A: The field of modern immunology evolved after World War II out of microbiology and the curing of infectious diseases, such as polio. As a result, many of the public health projects have since focused on attempting to eliminate viruses. Viruses can give way to infectious diseases that we give to one another; but viruses themselves do not infect us the way organisms do.

The practice of modifying cellular information as a way of attending to diseased cells took a pretty long time to get started because we thought of viruses as infectious, and therefore focused more on eliminating them than on modifying other cells to attend to the infectious outcomes of those diseased cells. It took a popular recognition of the importance of stem cell research to start this important conceptual change. Here, you are taking uncommitted cells and modifying them, using compatible cells to do the necessary work.

Responses to A. David Napier's "Non-Self Help: How Immunology Might Reframd the Enlightenment"

Clough, Paul. 2012. 'Immunology, the Human Self and the Neo-liberal Regime'. Cultural Anthropology 27(1): 138-143.

Fischer, Michael. 2012. 'On Metaphor:  Reciprocity and Immunity'. Cultural Anthropology 27(1): 144-152.

Marcus, George E. 2012. 'The Viral Intimacies  of  Ethnographic Encounters:  Prolegomenon to a Thought  Experiment in  the  Play of  Metaphors'. Cultural Anthropology 27(1):168-174.

Moulin, Anne Marie. 2012. 'Immunology, a Dubious Ally of Anthropology?: A Comment on A. David Napier's 'Non Self Help: How Immunology Might Reframe the Enligtenment'. Cultural Anthropology 27(1):153-161.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 2012. 'The Other Who is Also Oneself: Immunological Risk, Danger and Recognition'. Cultural Anthropology 27(1):162-167.

Stoller, Paul. 2012. 'Immunology and the Between'. Cultural Anthropology 27(1):175-180.

Additional Readings

Cohen, E. 2004. "Myself as an Other: On Autoimmunity and 'Other' Paradoxes." Journal of Medical Ethics 30: 7-11.

Cohen, Melvin. 1998a. "The Self/Nonself Discrimination in the Context of Function." Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 19:495-504.

Napier, A. David. 2003b. The Age of Immunology: Conceiving a Future in an Alienating World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pradeu, Thomas and Edgardo D. Carosella. 2006. "The Self Model and the Conception of Biological Identity in Immunology." Biology and Philosophy 21(2):235-252.

Sontag, Susan. 1990. Illness as Metaphor, and AIDS and its Metaphors. New York: Doubleday.

Tauber, Alfred. 1994. The Immune Self: Theory or Metaphor? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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