Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Theory of Chronic Pain

A social and evolutionary theory of human disease and chronic pain

By Denis G. Rancourt

We like to nurture a species self-image where we are radically different from ants and bees. The idea goes like this. Ants and bees are automatons completely governed by chemical and physical signals and each individual in the colony has its place which determines its physical body characteristics, adapted to the function of its class.

We distinguish these colony insects from mammals which we project have much higher degrees of individuality. We like to think of herds or packs of mammals as individuals who “choose” to come together and cooperate. We generally don’t admit body characteristics of individuals as being associated with class in societal dominance hierarchies.

But humans, primates and ants and bees may be much closer than we care to admit, then we are easily able to perceive.

There is an area of scientific research which points to just how wrong we may be. It is the study of the effects of a dominance hierarchy on the health of the individual. It turns out that in mammals and birds, for example, the health of the individual, barring accidents of nature, is primarily due to the individual’s position in the society’s dominance hierarchy [1][2][3]. Here, one needs to stress “primarily”, as in by far the greatest determining factor -- having a direct bio-chemical and physiological impact [1].

The dominance hierarchy in packs of monkeys, for example, determines fertility, resistance to disease, vigour, and longevity of the individual [1].

Now the dominance hierarchy as individual health determinant discovery is a paradigm-establishing discovery in medicine (if medicine is ever able to recognize it! [3]), akin to plate tectonics in the Earth sciences, Newtonian mechanics in physics and evolution in biology, but it naturally leads to a follow-up question: Why?

Is there an evolutionary advantage, for mammals say, to suffer severe individual health effects from the intra-species dominance hierarchy? Otherwise, how has individual health vulnerability to dominance hierarchy survived on the evolutionary time scale? Is there a use or a need for individual health vulnerability to dominance hierarchy in terms of species survival, or is it simply a remnant of pre-insect-divide or colony-forming cells evolution?

A first glance would suggest that the human species, for example, cannot possibly benefit from having individual health materially and negatively affected by society’s dominance hierarchy. But is this the correct conclusion?

I think not.

What is the most successful nervous-system-bearing animal species on Earth, in terms of both number of individuals and total biomass, and in terms of its transformative impact on the biosphere? Answer: Ants [4]. And the most successful large mammal? Humans [5]. Both live in highly hierarchical societies.

What is the sustaining biology of a highly hierarchical society of mammals? The individual must accept his/her place. All-out competitiveness of equal individuals (like a bar fight) is a recipe for disaster and does not lead to a highly stratified hierarchy. Pumped individuals who are and feel equally strong do not spontaneously organize into a stratified dominance hierarchy.

The built-in individual health vulnerability to dominance hierarchy is the biological (bio-chemical-metabolic) mechanism that sustains a positive feedback able to spontaneously generate a highly stratified dominance hierarchy.

If you are and feel sick from being dominated, you are not going to fight back. You are going to accept your place. The species is happy to have hoards of unhealthy individuals who will die young having spent their days doing the grunt work. What better way to stratify a successful species?

The impact on individual health also plays another key role, in addition to providing the feedback for stratification. It provides a needed mechanism of self-destruction for individuals who grow out or fall out of docility and compliance.

In a highly stratified society, individuals who cannot function must be eliminated, or they become a destructive force against the hierarchy. The police and jails would never be enough to achieve this without the built-in individual health vulnerability to dominance hierarchy.

As soon as the individual wants out and senses that there is no out, the individual self-destructs -- rather than go on a destructive rampage, most of the time. This is called cancer and heart disease. It prevents the destructive rampage of the disillusioned individual and provides a natural end at the completion of the individual’s cycle of utility to the hierarchy, to the species.

No wonder anarchists are so few and far between! But as with any positive feedback-driven system, it is inherently unstable [6].


[1] “The influence of social hierarchy on primate health (Review)” by Robert M. Sapolsky, Science, vol.308, p.648-652, 2005. (and references therein)

[2] “Anti-smoking culture is harmful to health -- On the truth problem of public health management” by Denis G. Rancourt, 2011.

[3] “Is establishment medicine an injurious scam?” by Denis G. Rancourt, 2011.

[4] “Is the burning of fossil fuel a significant planetary activity?” by Denis G. Rancourt, 2010.

[5] “Collective intelligence does not imply individual intelligence -- Technology does not come from geniuses” by Denis G. Rancourt, 2011.

[6] “Institutions build hierarchy between politico-cultural re-normalizations” by Denis G. Rancourt, 2011.

Denis G. Rancourt is a former tenured and full professor of physics at the University of Ottawa in Canada. He practiced several areas of science (including physics and environmental science) which were funded by a national agency and ran an internationally recognized laboratory. He has published over 100 articles in leading scientific journals and several social commentary essays. He developed popular activism courses and was an outspoken critic of the university administration and a defender of student and Palestinian rights. He was fired for his dissidence in 2009. His dismissal case is in court hearings that will extend into 2012.


LaoLong said...

Very interesting Dennis. I am in serious pain of a chronic nature right now though and am not able to both finish reading this article and complete a number of other tasks I have yet to do this evening before retiring to what will probably be another restless attempt at sleep but I am now following your blog and will both finish reading this and browse the rest of your blog as time and energy permit. You know me as 緯華龍. Cheers

gyg3s said...

"As soon as the individual wants out and senses that there is no out, the individual self-destructs -- rather than go on a destructive rampage, most of the time."

You may find Mark Ames' Going Postal of interest: it looks at the destructive rampage aspect.

Anonymous said...

While the article you link to is interesting, it by no means attempts to understand why these things occur and merely serves to report the acts committed.

Even if you don't agree with the analysis, a good place to start is with Sigmun Freud's "Civilization and its Discontents".

In short, it provides a psychological analysis of how the ID (a human's natural tendency to do whatever is necessary to satiate desire for something, either necessary for sustenance or pleasure) interacts with the EGO (appraisal of ID impulses) and constrained by the SUPER EGO (value judgement of EGO appraisal).

The thrust of the book is that when an individual's EGO (rationalization) and ID (impulse) do not conform to the SUPER EGO (irrational societal constraints - note: all societal constraints are irrational insofar as the ID and EGO are concerned), then the destructive nature in a person turns inwards. This way, the natural and normal human impulse for destructiveness is satiated when the means are not available to unleash the destructiveness in society.

However, this does not mean that individuals don't possess an inherent nature for wanting to live in societies. They do. It is only societal CONSTRAINTS which inhibit ID impulses that are rejected by the individual. People who act out their ID impulses correlate with low to non-existent SUPER EGOs. These people are usually classified in the Cluster B personality disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM), which includes classifications for being anti-social, narcissistic, borderline, and histrionic. What is interesting to note is that the DSM itself acknowledges itself as a tool for societal control of individuals in that the diagnostic criteria of the "disorders" have to be evaluated by the standards of an individual's culture within which he/she lives. If taken as an absolute standard, then a significant proportion of immigrants would be classified in Cluster B just for observing customs and having a cultural outlook that clashes with the new society that they find themselves in.

Canada likes to pride itself as being multicultural and fostering multiculturalism as a free and open society. At first glance, this would seem to negate the whole DSM scheme. But by observing Freud's analysis involving the ID, EGO, and SUPER EGO, the individual is DOUBLY constrained: the individual becomes ghettoized and locked into a subculture. They cannot leave the subculture because that would be a denial of who they are and, therefore, create inner tension prompting the ID to destructiveness. Furthermore, they cannot integrate into the dominant culture because they are not from the dominant culture. They can observe the law, be good citizens, etc. But deep down, they are not part of the society. So what do they do? They attempt to change the native laws to conform to their own subculture. For example, the (successful) altering of the RCMP uniform to conform to Sikh headware to accommodate the strict observance of never cutting one's hair. Another recent example, the (failed) attempt by Muslims to have Canada recognize Shariah law. In this particular case, you had Muslims on both sides, i.e., some in favour and some against. But what is common to both groups is that the individuals identified themselves as Muslims - something that is not part of the traditional Canadian history. What do you think the ID response would be by those Muslims who are against Canada implementing Shariah law if you were to force them to stop being Muslims and the Muslim community that wants Shariah law expelled them from the subculture for not being "true" Muslims?