[Don’t be too put off by the title of this post. It looks highfalutin. It may be, but the text isn’t.]
It’s a truism to say that our lives are finite and that we go through stages of development and change. But, it seems, sometimes we need to be reminded of obvious but possibly unwelcome realities. I’m sure we all understand that we follow a path of change starting at birth and ending at death. In between we move from infancy to childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood, and then to old age. Of course, not all of us get to go through every stage. For some of us, the stages get cut off and we die young or accidentally. We may contract a disease at any age that proves fatal. Governments document all of these things with vital statistics and publish all kinds of data on birth rates, types of mortality, morbidity*, et cetera. British Columbia offers a lot of this information online. Statistics Canada also gets into the act and publishes a lot of health related statistics. It’s not an exaggeration to note that we are obsessed with our health and wellness. How much of the internet is dedicated to health related websites? The woo flows freely and the sales of every magic potion, miracle diet, and supplement imaginable are on offer. And there is overwhelming evidence that at every turn we find ways to deny death. As I’ve often noted, one of Ernest Becker’s most salient observations is that the twin pillars of evil in our world are death and disease.
Our entire medical system is set up to discover and ‘fix’ any human organism that doesn’t conform to what we consider normal for any stage of development. It is often unsuccessful in that endeavour, but it doesn’t like to discuss its failures.
Pathology as I use it here describes a condition of abnormality (non-normality), a structural and functional situation wherein things have gone wrong in an organism. The underlying assumption of pathology is that organisms all have a normal condition, and if things cease to work as they are supposed to according to medical science, then they are considered pathological, or at least the cause of their malfunction is searched out and an attempt is made to restore the organism to normality. Medicine, and in fact, our whole culture, decided a long time ago what normal humans should look like and how they should behave. Yes, we all live and die, but pathology isn’t really interested in those realities. A pathological perspective is only interested in bringing a diseased organism back to normality.
Science and medicine have analyzed and dissected the human body in great detail especially over the past five hundred years. Leonardo da Vinci, born in 1452 was adept at dissection, and he led the way for countless others who carried on the tradition. Later, biologists analyzed the human body from many perspectives, broadly using anatomy and physiology as major categories, but focusing on systems (cardio-vascular, endocrine, etc.), organs, cells, and their functioning. I’m no biologist so I won’t pretend to understand the intricacies of the investigation of human biological life. However, it’s clear that our organs (heart, liver, kidneys, et cetera) are of great interest to medicine, particularly if and when they cease to function the way they are supposed to.
As a quick aside, a major sociological school used (and still uses) what Emile Durkheim calls the organismic analogy. He suggests that society is much like the human body. He argues in his dissertation Rules of Sociological Method that there is no organic equivalence between human organs and social systems, but broadly, they share the same epistemological underpinnings. Human organs work in concert for the good and survival of the whole. That’s easy enough to understand. He then argues that human social systems, politics, family, economy, education, et cetera, must work in concert for the good of the whole society. Social pathology occurs when any one or other of the social systems that make up society fail to fulfill their function. The result is that the whole society is ‘sick’ or malfunctions. The problem with this perspective is that it’s not especially easy to find ‘a society’. From my point of view, societies are not be confused with countries or nation-states. They are not necessarily equivalent.
It’s easier to identify an individual human being than a society, or so it seems, until we ask the question: Is an individual human being a stand-alone organism? My answer is no. I could not and would not exist without air, food, water, et cetera. These elements are not necessarily a part of me, but they are essential for my life so excluding them from an analysis of what I am as a human is highly misleading. It suggests that we are somehow separate from the world that surrounds and sustains us. This is a foundational part of the individualism that characterizes our capitalistic world and it’s wrong.
So, broadly, we are captured by a world view that focusses on the structure and function of our organs in a biological sense and our social structures in a societal sense. This is why people often argue that what’s ‘wrong’ with our society is that the family isn’t doing its job, the economy is failing us, education is behind the times, and other simplistic criticisms. Figuring out how to fix it is another thing entirely.
In terms of the human body, if medicine finds that the heart is weak or not working properly, it tries to ‘fix’ it, that is to restore it to its presumed former state. It may conclude that a weak heart will have deleterious effects on the kidneys, and it may even find that a weak heart will threaten the organism as a whole. In contrast, an evolutionary perspective expects the heart to weaken as it ages. It expects that lungs will lose their ability to process oxygen. It expects that over time, muscles weaken, no matter what you do to counteract it. It expects death because death is built right into the model, unlike functionalism whereby death is left unconsidered or considered a clinical failure.
It’s true that an evolutionary perspective has made substantial inroads in science and even in medicine. It hasn’t in sociology, although it’s coming along**.
An evolutionary perspective follows the logic I present in my recent post: LIFE vs My Little Life. From this perspective, birth and death are normal human events. Death, especially, is not considered a defeat, it being an essential part of life. No death, no life. It’s as simple as that. That doesn’t mean we have to be happy about it. Just the amount of effort the human species has spent on denying death, on convincing itself that death is not the end of life, is testament to how unhappy we are with death and dying.
I don’t want to die, but I don’t have a say in the matter either.
*morbidity refers to the incidence of ill-health in a population.
**see my (slightly outdated) dissertation on the topic published on this blog.