The Herd, the Hive, and the Human Spirit: Eula Biss on Immunity, Sanity, and Health as Communal Trust

When Robert Hooke looked at a piece of cork through an early handcrafted leather-and-gold microscopic lense in 1665, he called the unusual irregular “pores” of its honeycomb-like tissue structure cells, after the little surrounding areas in which monks invest their voluntary holding cell. It would take another 2 centuries for researchers to discover that cells are the basic biological units of life, that they are in continuous osmotic communication with one another, and that they reproduce themselves to become brand-new cells, each a whispered word from the language in which life speak to the future.

Cork structure from Robert Hookes Micrographia, 1665. (Available as a print.) Biological and social, our connection is a defining feature not only 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 great comes from you,” Walt Whitman exulted in the golden age of chemistry– the brand-new science he viewed as “the elevating, stunning, study … which includes the essences of production.” The advancement of cell theory was reinventing biology, making of this philosophical field as old as Aristotle an even newer science that brightened the essence of life. Cells ended up being to biology what atoms were to chemistry. Biology introduced the discovery that every cell belonging to me as excellent– as healthy, as essential, as suitable for duplication– belongs to you.

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

That fragile connection of life and lives, with its twisted 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 uncommon scholarship efficient in correcting the distorted cultural hindsight we call history; a book of incredible foresight, developed in the wake of the H1N1 flu pandemic, yet talking with impressive prescience to the complex epidemiological truths and social characteristics 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 own biological inheritance as a universal donor with type O negative blood ends up being a powerful metaphor for the system of vaccination, a lens through which to see the permeable membrane between the social and biological realities of resistance. With an eye to the blood banks that gather her donations to conserve other lives, she writes:

Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the SheepAnd yet inside the unfortunate linguistic container, an unfaltering biological truth resides: On large enough a scale, even a fairy inefficient vaccine that stops working to produce immunity in some individuals will slow down the spread of infection in the community; as the virus stops working to replicate itself in more and more new hosts, the vaccine will eventually halt it completely. This is why it is more dangerous to be the vaccinated animal amid a mostly unvaccinated herd than the other method around.

If we picture the action of a vaccine not just in regards to how it impacts a single body, however likewise in terms of how it impacts the cumulative body of a community, it is reasonable to think about vaccination as a sort of banking of resistance. Contributions to this bank are donations to those who can not or will not be protected by their own resistance. This is the principle of herd resistance, and it is through herd immunity that mass vaccination ends up being much more reliable than individual vaccination.

A vaccinated person surrounded by bodies that host illness is left susceptible to vaccine failure or fading resistance. Donations of blood and organs move in between us, leaving one body and getting in another, and so too with immunity, which is a typical trust as much as it is a personal account. Those of us who draw on collective resistance owe our health to our next-door neighbors.

It is a rather regrettable term for an undisputable scientific principle– we human beings, particularly in this culture of rugged individualism nursed on the Emersonian suitable of self-reliance, bristle at thinking about ourselves as members of a herd. In our long history of thinking with animals, herd animals have actually been the butt of our derogatory metaphors for meaningless conformity.

With an eye to the origin of herd immunity theory– a theory established in the 1840s by a doctor dealing with smallpox, which has taken manyfold more human lives than any other transmittable illness in the history of our species and which has because been gotten rid of– Biss proposes an option, both more poetic and more precise, to the imperfect term that so perfectly describes the biosocial truth:

Herd immunity, an observable phenomenon, now seems implausible just if we think about our bodies as naturally disconnected from other bodies. Which, of course, we do.
The very expression herd resistance suggests that we are cattle, waiting, maybe, to be sent out to massacre. And it welcomes an unfortunate association with the term herd mindset, a stampede toward stupidity. The herd, we presume, is silly. Those of us who avoid the herd mentality tend to prefer a frontier mentality in which we imagine our bodies as separated homesteads that we tend either well or badly. The health of the homestead next to ours does not affect us, this thinking suggests, so long as ours is well tended.
Possibly the principle of shared immunity may be more attractive if we were to exchange the metaphor of the herd for a hive. Honeybees are matriarchal, environmental do-gooders who likewise happen to be entirely synergistic. The health of any individual bee, as we understand from the recent epidemic of colony collapse, depends on the health of the hive.

Diagram of bee anatomy by French artist Paul Sougy, 1962. (Available as a print.) Biss prices quote a succinct summation by her daddy, a medical professional:

Nobody person has actually done more to weaken this vital mutuality of protection than Andrew Wakefield– the British gastroenterologist who, in the 1990s, contaminated the hive mind with his causal claims linking vaccines and autism. Taking advantage of the reasonable human impulse towards concretizing blame for amorphous and unclear problems, the theory went viral before several subsequent studies unmasked his results, prior to it was exposed that Wakefield was spent for his research by a lawyer readying a lawsuit versus a vaccine maker, prior to the General Medical Council of the United Kingdom concluded its investigation with the decision that Wakefield had actually been “reckless and dishonest” in performing and publishing his work.

Vaccination works by employing a bulk in the defense of a minority.

Despite the scientific and ethical denunciation of Wakefields study, its ideological meme had actually currently spread beyond retrieval. (Richard Dawkins coined the word meme in 1976 by obtaining from biology– a word that came alive once again a quarter century later in the context of “viral” material on the internet, which has its own roots in epidemiology.) A quarter century later on, echoes of Wakefields disproven falsehoods bellow with powerful vocality. That group of voices is often referred to as the anti-vaccination movement, however I discover the term movement exceptionally ill-suited– such groupthink is not in movement but fixed, frozen in time and frozen with fear, scared in the cultural amber of a time prior to the Age of Reason and lashed about by the exact same mistakes of magical thinking, willful loss of sight, and confusion of causation and correlation that made our middle ages forefathers take comets for indisputable prophecies of future events and left-handedness for unassailable evidence of possession by the Devil.

Art from The Comet Book, 1587. (Available as a print). Biss is more generous in her own assessment of anti-vaccination:

Those who went on to use Wakefields inconclusive work to support the idea that vaccines cause autism are not guilty of ignorance or science rejection so much as they are guilty of using weak science as it has always been used– to provide false credibility to a concept that we wish to believe for other factors.

Writing soon after the birth of the Occupy movement– the self-described “99%” launching “a continuous worldwide protest of capitalism”– she considers a buddys half-joke, half-koan about vaccination as a matter of “occupy body immune system,” and reviews the basic ethical syllogism of anti-vaccination as a political stance declaring to object the capitalist forces behind contemporary medication:

Resistance is a public space. And it can be occupied by those who pick not to carry immunity. For some … a rejection to immunize falls under a more comprehensive resistance to commercialism. But refusing resistance as a form of civil disobedience bears an upsetting resemblance to the really structure the Occupy movement seeks to interrupt– a fortunate 1 percent are sheltered from danger while they draw resources from the other 99 percent.
[…] We are warranted in feeling threatened by the limitless growth of market, and we are warranted in fearing that our interests are secondary to business interests. Refusal of vaccination weakens a system that is not actually typical of capitalism. It is a system in which both the problems and the benefits are shared across the entire population. Vaccination enables us to utilize the items of capitalism for purposes that are counter to the pressures of capital.

Emissary by Maria PopovaIn a lovely antidote to the terrible human propensity towards cynicism– that inefficient and touchingly misdirected effort at self-protection, that particularly virulent pressure of cowardice to which our culture has actually grown progressively congenial as it has actually grown progressively restless with the sluggish and vulnerable work of nuance– Biss includes:

That so many of us discover it totally plausible that a vast network of researchers and health authorities and doctors worldwide would willfully harm children for money is evidence of what capitalism is really taking from us. And industrialism has already impoverished us culturally, robbing unmarketable art of its value.

If we imagine the action of a vaccine not simply in terms of how it impacts a single body, however also in terms of how it impacts the collective body of a neighborhood, it is fair to think of vaccination as a kind of banking of resistance. This is the concept of herd resistance, and it is through herd resistance that mass vaccination ends up being far more effective than private vaccination.

Contributions of blood and organs move between us, exiting one body and entering another, and so too with immunity, which is a typical trust as much as it is a private account. The very expression herd resistance recommends that we are livestock, waiting, possibly, to be sent to massacre. If we were to exchange the metaphor of the herd for a hive, perhaps the principle of shared resistance might be more appealing.

Enhance On Immunity– a redemptive and salutary read in its entirety– with Virginia Woolf on health problem as a website to self-understanding and Bessel van der Kolk on the science of how our minds and our bodies assemble in healing, then revisit Adrienne Rich on resisting commercialism through the arts of the possible.