Note: This article is based on a presentation made on 25 October 2021 at the Congreso de Salud Socioambiental organised by the Instituto de Salud Socioambiental, Rosario, Argentina
It is a very fundamental truth that many seem have forgotten in the times we live in. That, most ordinary mortals have no choice except to live with the bodies they are born into, till they die.
And yet, from a casual survey of asking people what they know about the body it is clearly the biggest blind spot in the entire existence of most human beings. Even in an age where there is a surplus of information of all kinds everywhere, most people – who are not medically trained- show no interest in the functioning of the human body. This lack of curiosity about something that represents us so intimately and is the very expression of our being alive is puzzling and also disturbing.
The fear and loathing surrounding the body and its contents is of course historical, with one of the oldest taboos in the history of medicine being against conducting autopsies of the human body. The body was the repository of the human soul, and should not be disturbed, claimed the theologians – across religions. And those who disobeyed would be punished by God and His representatives on Earth.
Today the world of science has explored every nook and corner of the human body, down to its genetic and molecular levels. There are still many mysteries to be solved, of course, but none is taboo or considered beyond the reach of human beings. And yet, when it comes to many citizens around the globe, ignorance of the body continues, propelled by a mix of factors, ranging from fear to sheer laziness.
The mind as dictator
Exploring the human body is not a journey for the weak-hearted, surely. The intricate pathways, the secret chambers and crevices, the undulating pipes opening and contracting like a python about to swallow its prey. The bacteria, mucus, blood, pus, and other body fluids that we are culturally trained to dislike so much, are all there. Just the sight of the hot fuming acids that digest everything we eat could be enough to make your stomach churn! Who in his/her right mind would want to enter the human body to find out what it is all about?
In my view, there are even deeper reasons than disgust for the human reluctance to show curiosity about the human body. This has to do with the hierarchy between the mind and body, a master-slave relation that has historically emerged in the course of human evolution itself. When we went from being primates on all fours to becoming bipeds, our hands invented tools and our brains got sharper. The development of the mind gave us the ability to manipulate the world around us– and, it seems, since then, the very idea of what constitutes ‘intelligence’ has changed.
The mind proclaimed itself the monarch and became the dictator ruling over the body and all bodily functions. From Plato onwards, self-appointed sages in different societies proclaimed the superiority of ideas over action. ‘I think, therefore I am,’ René Descartes famously declared of the ability to think as proof of one’s physical existence. In the process, he inverted the simple truth that it is the existence of the body that makes the mind possible.
The devaluation of the body and celebration of the mind in so called ‘civilised’ human societies has had severe consequences. One social consequence of this twisted logic has been the way the we have valued the intellectual more than the one who does manual work and who invests his/her body in production. In India, this approach had given rise to the caste system and in the global version of the caste system today the high priests of finance, media and other ‘software’ are in absolute power while farmers and workers, who perform the most essential tasks using their bodies have been pauperised. At their core both feudalism and capitalism are about exploiting other people’s bodies in the name of abstractions such as religion, culture, markets and profits.
In the field of health the most obvious result is that as we become more articulate, clever and cunning with our thoughts and words our bodies become more and more vulnerable every passing day. We have come to a point where we ourselves have begun to feel that the health of our bank account balances and social media profiles is far more important than our physical existence. Live on Facebook and Dead in the real world – has become the motto of our times.
Another serious consequences of the fear that prevents a large section of the human population from valuing their own bodies and learning more about it is the big gap in knowledge that has emerged between them and the medical professionals.
This leads many to blindly believe in the power of doctors to cure and rush to see them for every small ailment. On the other hand when the remedies don’t work or their illness turns out to be complicated they become unhappy and critical of the medical profession itself.
Understanding this story is essential to demystify the world of medicine for millions of ordinary people, who may be without medical training but can surely take back control over their bodies from the hands of both God and his/her messengers!
The huge gap between doctors and patients very often also leads to abuse of power. In some countries, not a day goes by without news reports of medical malpractices, in particular the prescription of unnecessary diagnostic tests or expensive medicines to patients in order to make them pay more.
If patients were more knowledgeable about the basics of health, medicine and disease and less driven by anxiety and fear they could help correct this imbalance of power between them and medical professionals. An alert and informed patient can help doctors do their jobs better too and contribute to the overall health of entire societies by spreading the right messages all around.
For physicians, the first principle to follow after the age-old dictum of ‘Do No Harm!’ is ‘Know Thy Patient!’ This calls for a different training of doctors and other medical personnel to help them understand and empathise with the diverse contexts and backgrounds patients come from.
However, one has to accept that medicine is a complex subject for several reasons. On the knowledge front also the challenges can be daunting, though not insurmountable. While there are debates and dissent within every natural science none of them are as divergent and serious as the ones in medicine. Dealing as it does with issues of life and death, medicine is easily the most complex of all human disciplines.
There are still too many mysteries of the human body that are yet to be properly understood. Leave alone finding a cure, the mechanisms that underlie the onset of diabetes, cancer or even common hypertension are still not fully explained by modern medicine giving rise to ‘alternative’ therapies and counterclaims by rival medical streams.
Another important factor that obscures everyone’s understanding of health, disease and medicine is money and the dubious role it plays, with spending on health contributing a big part of regular expenditure of every citizen and resulting in the amassment of huge amounts of wealth by the medical industry, particularly drug companies. The lure of money is such that the profession attracts many charlatans, both in the traditional and modern sectors. The situation indeed is so bad that researchers, regulators and practitioners alike are willing to tailor their prescriptions and therapies to suit the needs of the market today and have compromised even the science part of modern medicine.
Medicine and health are also not just about our individual bodies but larger collectives – from the collective of humans to also other species and indeed all of Planet Earth itself. The health of the individual and that of the collective are inseparable and not just for sentimental reasons but because that is the scientific reality. The human body and the Planet Earth are synonyms – while the scales are different, qualitatively they are both the same.
We contain multitudes
Before I elaborate on that, let me clarify here that to overcome the fears, prejudices and other obstacles that prevent one from exploring the human body and seeing it for what it really is, the focus has to move away from negative lens of disease. The body and human health is not just about the problems and ailments we are all subject to but also the phenomenal capabilities of this technological miracle, that has evolved over millions of years.
There is simply no end to the amount of joy that can be derived by studying and understanding the body’s amazing functions most of which we are barely able to replicate or fathom.
The terrain inside the human body is also one of immense beauty. Any of you who has seen scanned electron microscope images of what is inside our bodies will accept that – bizarre as it may sound – there are rivers, mountains, forests, marshlands, rolling meadows and deserts inside us just as they are outside us on the planet. And, why not? For, after all, the human body is a product, in all its fine and intricate details, of Mother Earth itself, along with other species and elements of Nature.
To anyone who is familiar with evolutionary science, the reasons for this deep connection between the composition of the human body with both the living and non-living forms outside, are very obvious. Given the fact that all life has evolved from single-cell organisms over the last 4 billion years, it may be concluded that we still contain within ourselves, the imprints of countless species that shaped us into what we are today.
The bacteria, fish, amphibians, plants, the early primates–and who knows what other species–have all contributed to the making of the human body. Every genetic mutation, every little shift in behaviour that helped survival, has been passed on to us over millions of years. And, all these, along with the so-called ‘inanimate’ elements like fire, soil, water and sky. And, of course, the rest–the iron content in our haemoglobin, the zinc and magnesium in our diet, the oxygen we breathe and the carbon dioxide that chloroplasts turn into food with the help of sunlight.
What I want to point out is very straightforward. There is no difference really, in modern scientific terms, between what we as human beings are made of and the world outside us. In fact, even the terms inside and outside themselves would not make sense, given the enormously porous nature of the body, whether it be the elements of nature or microbial living organisms.
For example, looking from the scale of the bacteria inside us, there is no such thing as the ‘human body’ at all. For them, the experience of inhabiting our bodies is probably not very different from that of our space travel. At the same time, if we see the world outside us through a decent telescope, we realise that we too are indeed microbes in the larger context of the universe, considering the enormous difference in scale. In other words, we are at once microbes and planets, depending on who is doing the ‘looking’.
What all this points to is the deep connections among humans, the planet and other species – we are manifestations of one another, and our origins and destinies are identical. That is why when we wound the planet grievously by excavating its treasures – the gold, mineral and oil; destroy its ability to breathe by converting forests into urban wastelands; poison its waters with toxic wastes, and exterminate other living organisms, we are, in fact, doing all this to our own bodies.
This brings us to the subject of Planetary Health, a concept coined by the 2015 report of The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health. The Commission explicitly recognized that human health and the health of our planet are inextricably linked, and that our civilization depends on flourishing natural systems, and the wise stewardship of natural resources. With natural systems being degraded to an extent unprecedented in human history, both our health and that of our planet are in peril.
Climate change is an obvious consequence of human actions that is coming back to harm the health of human beings around the world.. However, what is needed today is not another set of technical solutions that look at ‘climate and health’ but a broader planetary health perspective that is also social, cultural and even spiritual. In a sense the idea of Planetary Health is something that indigenous people around the world have been practising on a day to day basis for centuries.
This is especially so in the Andean region, with their concept of Mother Earth. At its core the indigenous view is that humans need give up their belief we are the only ones species entitled to live – all others are to be enslaved or driven to extinction.
There is no life possible on Earth without other species, especially invisible living organisms such as bacteria. The exclusive focus of human beings on their own welfare is not just deep ingratitude to the contributions other species have made to our existence and survival but also foolishness on an apocalyptical scale.
If they don’t live, neither will we, as a species – for, we are part of the same web of life where every difference we construct artificially between ‘them’ and ‘us’ adds only one more brick to the tombstone of humankind itself. If one were to take the Marxist idea of ‘working class’ from an ecological and indeed indigenous perspective we would have to acknowledge that this term should include not just humans, but all other species on our planet and Mother Earth itself!
From the perspective of human well-being and health the implication is that we have to see the planet as an inseparable extension of our own bodies. What is done to Mother Earth is also done to each one of us individually and just as we would not tolerate any poisoning or assault on our own selves we have to defend the planet too with equal determination and commitment.
That is the realisation that holds the key to revolutions of the future – in our social, political and economic systems. And through that a revolution in the field of health too.
Satya Sagar is a public health worker and journalist who can be reached at [email protected]