Cooperation as a Cure for Cancer

What cells can tell us about a fairer society.

Creosote’s Revenge

Greed is cancerous. That's not an insult — it's an observation. In the environment that is the human body, individual cells work together for the common good — survival and reproduction. That works pretty well as intended, until a few selfish cells decide that they want more. They shirk the rules that dictate how much they should replicate — how much space and resource they should take for themselves — and multiply out of control. These greedy few become tumours. Most are benign, but some are malignant. In other words, cancerous.

The end result of cancer is, of course, the death of the entire body — the collapse of environment. For all their short term growth, the cancerous cells in their ivory malignant tumours perish along with the system itself.

This somatic evolutionary view of cancer — in which the breakdown of multicellular cooperation happens because of the drive of individual cells to proliferate — bears resemblance to the Tragedy of the Commons — an economic concept that describes how the gradual over-exploitation of a commonly owned resource causes the entire resource system to degrade and fall apart. This is the predominant reason cited for the necessity of either top-down hierarchies that dictate how resources are utilised, or private ownership, where resources are divvied up to be owned and managed separately — the equivalent of a return to isolated, single-celled organisms in a primordial soup of selfishness.

Recent attempts to better understand cancer are borrowing another models from economics — Game Theory, originally developed to understand interactions between people — in order to understand the interactions between cells. The aim of this research is to develop treatments that exploit the ways in which cancerous cells compete with each other, or, to prevent them from competing in the first place, by maintaining healthy cooperation with other somatic cells. The interactions between cells can tell us something about the interactions between people.

The Nucleus of All Evil

These descriptions, of both cancer and society, are highly simplistic and the analogy drawn between them needs to be adapted before it can be useful.

The 'few greedy' model falls apart when our collective involvement in consumer society is taken into account. It is not a few greedy people who are involved in over-consumption, but hundreds of millions. What we are dealing with is the integral of greed, not just outliers. It is not a few cells that have become cancerous, but varying degrees of cancer in pretty well every cell in the body. The line separating benign and cancerous runs not between tumours but right through every cell's nucleus.

There is an abiding idea in certain schools of thought that the solution relies on educating (or indeed, reeducating) people to think more cooperatively and eschew their individuality.

These top-down attempts at change fail because their core assumption — that humans are entirely malleable — is deeply flawed. Yes, we are a highly adaptable species, but we aren't just impressionable minds, but a complex of cell societies, organisms and micro-organisms in concert, genetic and environmental feedback loops, competing wills and desires.

Clearly, the desire for more is adaptive — it has been selected for over many generations. It exists right the way from individual cells to entire societies. There is a simple logic that underlies this fact — you are more likely to survive if you have the desire to proliferate, even at the expense of others, especially if resources are scarce.

However, the view of resources as inherently scarce is itself an exploitative one. It doesn't take into account the fact that many basic natural resources can be sustainable and even generative if managed effectively. If we can pull this off, we aren't doomed to a cancerous collapse.

A Commons Sense Approach

The idea of commonly owned resources carries with it a sense of economic promiscuity that can be uncomfortable — everything belongs to everyone else. A pneumatic approach to property if ever there was one. But it is that very possessiveness — the notion of ownership — that can undermine the successful management of a collective resource.

One underlying feature of an effective commons is the understanding that it is not ownership of the resource that is being regulated, but access to it. This approach, of access over ownership, not only works well for nature's resources but also (theoretically) underpins emerging decentralised digital networks — no one owns them, but anyone can access them according to rules and principles.

To best utilise a commons, we should see ourselves not as owners of the system, but as the custodians of it. That sense of a duty of care, to give back — in maintenance, protection and preservation — can be as natural as the urge to consume. There must be a duty for every right, a give for every take.

I first came across this idea when I played rugby at school. During matches against other schools, we would wear a special match kit. Each position has a designated number in rugby, unlike say, football. Our coach would always remind us before a match that we were not owners of the shirt, but custodians — it was our responsibility to play that position to the best of our ability. We discovered that we craved meaningful responsibility and that led us to being semi-finalists in the national competition that year. By appealing to our sense of responsibility, instead of our sense of reward, we were able to work together more effectively.

In her Nobel prize wining work, the economist Elinor Ostrom extensively researched commonly owned and managed resource systems around the globe. She teased out the principles that allowed these commons to be maintained and even become more abundant over time. These are:

  • Clearly defined limits of usage.

  • Unambiguous rules.

  • Effective monitoring.

  • Gradual sanctions for rule-breakers.

  • Conflict-resolution mechanisms.

  • Wide-scale participation in governance.

  • Relative autonomy from higher authorities.

To anyone who has been interested in the development of decentralised systems, a number of these, if not all, will be familiar.

The ‘trustless’ systems of recent digital tech — blockchain and its use cases in cryptocurrencies, NFTs and smart contracts — offer new tools to help us handle the flow of digital and physical resources, building off of the success of protocols like Open-Source and Creative Commons licenses.

It all comes down to how we define growth — instead of looking at growth on the individual level we can start to measure it at the level of the common resource. When that becomes richer and more plentiful, that is how we know we are moving forwards. Instead of growing individual tumours, we can start developing the body.

An Appeal to Bettering Nature

There is nothing inherently wrong with competition. It is one of core the driving forces behind the development of life itself — without disparity and selection there would be no life to speak of. However, looking forwards, it's clear that there are problems facing humanity and beyond that cannot be solved by an economic model that relies only on the self-interest of individuals. Competition, as in nature, still has a place in society — common access does not work in every instance. In Ostrom's own words, 'there is no panacea!' But competition alone is not sufficient. Markets driven only by individual growth can solve certain problems at the cost of profits. Collective problems will require collective solutions.

Hitachi's report on Co-Creating the Future looks at some of the ways in which a collective approach to innovation is becoming more prevalent, as it becomes increasingly clear that the siloed approach of research and development can't bring about the necessary rate or quality of problem-solving.

'We are living in a much more complex world, it is simply too big for a single organisation to take on. You need multiple perspectives and different capabilities to come together to actually have a chance to attack and address some of these issues.'

- Patrik Sjöstedt, General Manager EMEA of the Hitachi Insight Group.

Collaboration and shared ownership are becoming more prevalent. The trend towards outsourcing and decentralisation will continue. The questions that arise are how robust will these systems be and how equitable? The 'sharing economy', more often than not, internalises profit to the platform and externalises risk the the ‘gig’ workers. This creates a commons for the users and assets for the owners. These imbalances aren't necessarily problematic — but they are carcinogenic if they get out of control.

Fundamentally, if we can agree on cooperative methods to manage ecological resources in a way that will sustain their natural abundance, then the threats caused to us all by imbalances — in natural and societal systems — can be avoided.

If there is any room for optimism, perhaps it stems from the fact that even cancerous tumour cells cooperate with one another. If those greedy cells can learn to work together more effectively, there's no reason that we can't either.

Further Reading

Desirable futures Our common senses — Sens Fiction

Chigira M. (1993). Selfish cells in altruistic cell society - a theoretical oncology. International journal of oncology.

Archetti, M., Pienta, K.J. (2019). Cooperation among cancer cells: applying game theory to cancer. Nat Rev Cancer.

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