Monday, May 21, 2012

Cancer: The call of the wild

The other day someone asked me: "What is cancer exactly?"  I responded: "It's the call of the wild."

Cells in your multi-cellular body are in a very odd, almost "un-natural" state -- they aren't reproducing as fast as they could.  In fact, sometimes they even kill themselves.  From an evolutionary perspective, this is very, very odd.

We multi-cellular creatures are both new and rare in the grand scheme of things.  Almost all life on Earth is and was single-celled and, leaving aside the complexities of living in colonies, the typical cell simply makes copies of itself as fast as it possibly can limited only by its ability to acquire food.  Holding back or, even more radically, killing oneself is completely anathema to a cell.  If cells were politicians, "reproduce as fast as possible" would be their only platform.

The evolution of multi-cellularity required that collections of cells work together and this implies that some of them give up the right to reproduce in favor of others.  That is, a random cell in your body, say on your finger, is giving up the right to produce descendants but by doing so it "hopes" that it is increasing the chance that its nearly identical cousin cell (your sperm or egg) will reproduce.  As implied above, that is no small request of a cell.  Everything in a cell's history prepares it to, indeed demands, that it make copies of itself as fast as possible.  Yet, in multicellular creatures such as we, all the cells except a lucky few are being asked to halt that directive.  In a sense they have signed a contract: "I forgo the right to reproduce so that my nearly identical cousin will survive."  The vast majority of the time the contract is upheld.  Until it isn't.  And when cells don't respect the contract anymore, we call that cancer.

In other words, cancer is the call of the wild.  A cancerous cell is reverting back to what its ancestors have always done -- reproduce.  A cancerous cell is, in effect, saying: "To hell with the contract, I'm reverting to what worked for my ancestors.  It worked for them it will work for me." Of course, they're wrong, but they don't know that, they're just "stupid" cells after all.

It's a miracle that we strange multi-cellular creatures are here at all -- multicellularity requires the most incredible yet tenuous compromise in the history of the world.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

In this week's New Yorker, Joan Acocella has a nice piece summarizing the competing philosophies of language analysis known as the "prescriptivists" versus the "descriptivists".  The otherwise fine article is glaringly lacking an important piece of analysis: Google.

Language is a form of collective memory.  We use a word or a grammatical form because it *communicates* which implies some sort of an agreed upon form, i.e. memory, between transmitter and receiver.  The state of a language is encoded in the distribution of usage throughout the population.

It used to be the case that there was only one of two ways to measure this collective memory.  Either, one, you listened to a sampling of the language around you or, two, you used a reference source which usually claimed to have done this sampling for you.  Both measurements are prejudiced.  To a large degree, the argument between the prescriptivists and the descriptivists falls along these measurement lines.  Either you listen to what's around you which is biased by the circles you inhabit (which you admit as a descriptivist) or you believe in a reference which is biased by the writer's opinions (which you may or may not admit as a prescriptivist).

But now there is a third way.  You Google.  Not sure how to spell something?  You type in your pathetic phonetic attempt and Google politely asks you if you meant to spell it differently.  There's no arguing prescriptivist or descriptivist with Google -- Google is impartially telling you what the collective memory has to say about this.  Google is *both* prescriptivist and descriptivist.  It is both prescribing a usage and describing the mode of the sample.

Google of course also has biases --  toward the young, wealthy, and techy.  But compared to one's everyday selection bias or the bias of a dictionary (especially the dictionary's temporal bias), it is the paragon of impartiality.  I argue that from now on Google and its inevitable successors will define the language much more than the dictionary did and in a way that is de facto fair.

Anyway, to consider the issue of modern language usage as this New Yorker article does without considering how Google shapes the modern landscape seems to me to be exceedingly antiquated.