Condemned cells

Sex and the Origins of Death

February 20, 1998

Sex and the Origins of Death makes a catchy title and because William R. Clark is an immunologist of some repute I was looking forward to reading this slim stocking filler during the Christmas break.

Before I had started reading, I noticed in the publishers' fly-leaf panegyric that Clark was responsible for the title At War Within: the Double-Edged Sword of Immunity, and this dampened my initial enthusiasm. It reminded me of John Dwyer's oeuvre, The Body at War, a book that indulges some of the most patronising nonsense that I have ever read.

In this and myriad similar books, non-sentient systems like nature, earth, evolution and the immune system are personified. And like the protagonists in Dwyer's metaphorical war, all are driven to goals and have good or evil intentions. In such tales, infectious organisms play the role of Saddam Hussein; they are amoral baddies and the sworn enemies of the square-jawed T-cell cavalry that battle valiantly against overwhelming odds.

Against such prejudgements, Clark was going to have a tough job convincing me that he had something worthwhile to contribute. My fears were partly allayed when Clark, talking about programmed cell death (PCD is the hook to which his thesis is anchored) boldly stated: "It would be easy to anthropomorphise the suicide we see in cells and we mustn't do that." But sometimes he just cannot help himself. He has cells making decisions as they think fit rather than responding to their environment.

In one extraordinary diversion into the bizarre he explains the role of programmed cell death in the development of the nervous system as a more practical option for an organism than designing and building a new system from scratch. Does he think we or, even more ridiculously, the developing embryo, have a choice in what sort of nervous system we get?

Apoptosis figures prominently in Clark's research. The term is used to describe the anatomical events that follow the initiation of programmed cell death. It is a process that results in the systematic trashing of the cell and it is so complete that there is rarely any residual evidence at the scene. Clark ranges in his discourse from the death of a cell through the basic biology of classification to modern molecular biology, immunology, medicine and ultimately metaphysics.

He is clearly at home in these diverse fields and has a readable style that in general informs without condescension.

In particular he lacks the arrogance that is often perceptible in this sort of "science for the common man" book. Although it is a short piece it has high information content and I enjoyed it enough to read several of the chapters over again. I would guess he is medically qualified or he has enjoyed too much ER, because his dramatisation of the dreaded myocardial infarction and consequent cerebral ischaemia has scriptwriter written all over it.

With regard to the meaning of life, which seems to be the question Clark is trying to get a handle on, I would guess that he has not consulted as widely as he could have done. Any student who has been introduced to the work of Gilbert Ryle would be able to point out that he is looking in the wrong place.

Ryle described it thus (Concept of Mind, 1949): on being shown the Bodleian library and the various colleges of Oxford a tourist was heard to remark, "But where is the university?" His assumption that the university was a building like the others he had seen was Ryle's prototypic category mistake. Clark knows that the nature of existence transcends the brain, its cellular components and certainly the DNA at the root of the process. He knows that understanding what makes a cell live and die will not help him with the ontological question at the heart of his inquiry. His book then is an attempt to weave molecular analysis into a unifying view of the human condition and as such is an impossible task.

In Ryle's nomenclature, this is a category mistake. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the majority of this book. In particular, I found the summary of the debate on the medico-legal definition of death poignant in that Clark's knowledge of the death process at the molecular level in a single cell could not help him in this matter.

Richard Lake is research fellow in immunology, department of medicine, Queen Elizabeth II Medical Centre, Perth.

Sex and the Origins of Death

Author - William R. Clark
ISBN - 0 19 510644 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £16.99
Pages - 190

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