Immune Systems, Individual and Social

I listened to Russ Robert’s interview with Moises Valsquez-Manoff (on Econtalk) yesterday on my drive to pick up my daughter. The conversation was about recent studies showing the role increased hygiene plays in the rise of allergies and auto-immune diseases. Apparently in at least some cases parasites (hookworms and malaria are two examples given) influence the human immune system to tolerate the presence of the “guest.” The immune system is weakened enough to allow the parasite, but no so weakened that the hose succumbs to the invader. This weakening benefits the host by turning it away from things that are not harmful (allergens in the case of allergies, and the host’s own body in autoimmune diseases).

I’m not a biologist, but here’s my understanding of how immune systems work. Taken most simply they have two functions. First, they differentiate between the body and the not-body. Put another way, a healthy immune system polices the boundary between what is me and anything that would be seen as a threat. Proper function here has two parts: successfully identifying real threats, and letting be anything that is not a threat. Second, having made this identification, the immune system seeks to neutralize the threat. When the immune system is successful in its identification of threats and in its attempt at neutralizing threats, the body lives on to fight another day.

Individual organisms have immune systems. I believe social systems have immune systems also – well, at least functions analogous to immune systems. A healthy social system has agents/routines/practices in place that differentiate between what is of the system and what is not. The healthy social system will also have a way to neutralize what it takes to be a threat so that the system can continue.

Let me shift course a bit. In a healthy social system there is bonding social capital that holds the system together. It binds member to member and makes the group cohere. The social immune system is one aspect of this form of social capital. The concept of social capital, popularized recently in the work of Robert Putnam, is actually of ancient vintage, first theorized by the medieval scholar Ibn Khaldun as what he called asabiyya.

Like some immune systems, the social immune system can fail to function well. As to the first task, it can fail by missing an attack from outside, or misfire by taking part of the social body as an outsider. As to the second task, the failures are more complex. Something correctly identified as a challenger can overcome the social system, destroying social cohesion. It can also rewrite the system’s ‘DNA,’ the ideology of practices, beliefs, and institutions that make it what it is. It’s also possible that the social immune system might practice overkill, committing evil against the invader (which is usually the people in whom the invading idea inheres). Xenophobia can be seen as the social immune system run amok. Akbar S. Ahmed has illustrated this last form in his discussion of the hyper-asabiyya of groups like Al Qaeda.

I know all this is very rough so far. I’m still working through these ideas, so bear with me. My goal is to think through the current chaos – and lack of social cohesion in the United Methodist Church and other mainline churches. If social systems have something like an immune system, and a church is an instance of a social system, what might it look like for a church to have an immune system? The Inquisition might come to mind. My assumption is that that would be an example of an immune system gone awry.

What if the social immune system is like the individual (biological) immune system? What if an absolutely strong immune system is actually bad for the organism as a whole? Complete social cohesion, even to the degree of xenophobia not only keeps others out (sometimes violently), but also keeps the system from achieving its goals. Take the church, for example. The church is called explicitly to philoxenia (hospitality), the exact opposite of xenophobia. To the degree we totally reject that which is foreign we fail in our mission. On the other hand, the church does need an immune system. There are threats that would deChristianize the church (the push toward xenophobia itself being one of them). How do we strike a healthy balance here?

What do you think of this use of metaphor? Is it useful? How can we develop it further?

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This entry was posted in Al Qaeda, Clash of Civilizations, Politics, Robert Putnam, Samuel Huntington, Social Capital, United Methodism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Immune Systems, Individual and Social

  1. Daniel says:

    I don’t know. Probably not a helpful metaphor when applied towards people in the church – as you say, we want to be hospitable, to welcome. Maybe better when applied towards ideas – but the problem (as with the real immune system) is one of recognition. What counts as an unhelpful idea, how do you know which ideas you should eradicate?

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