Social and Cultural Lives of Immune Systems

By James M. Wilce Jr | Go to book overview
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Chapter 13

Reflections on embodiment

Laurence J. Kirmayer1


Suppose that a medical journal carried two articles reporting two different cures for scrofula: one by ingestion of chicken soup and the other by a king’s touch. Even if the statistical evidence presented for these two cures had equal weight, I think that the medical community (and everyone else) would have very different reactions to the two articles. Regarding chicken soup I think that most people would keep an open mind, reserving judgment until the cure could be confirmed by independent tests. Chicken soup is a complicated mixture of good things, and who knows what effect its contents might have on the mycobacteria that cause scrofula? On the other hand whatever statistical evidence were offered to show that a king’s touch helps to cure scrofula, readers would tend to be very skeptical, suspecting a hoax or a meaningless coincidence, because they would see no way that such a cure could ever be explained reductively. How could it matter to a mycobacterium whether the person touching its host was properly crowned and anointed or the eldest son of the previous monarch?

(Weinberg, 1992, 63)

Why is chicken soup a more plausible healing agent than the King’s touch? This passage by a Nobel laureate physicist reveals a common reductionist bias in explanations of the causes of disease: the chemistry of chicken soup has more obvious links to the tubercle bacillus than does the symbolic gesture of the touch of a specific human being. But why shouldn’t a king’s touch be even more antibacterial than chicken soup - at least in a feudal society where its symbolic power can inspire, ennoble and empower the peasant who receives that favored touch (Bloch, 1989)?

In his scenario, Weinberg misplaces the causal action in infectious disease, privileging the mycobacterium as the locus of infection and healing. But the proximate “cause” of a disease is not simply the virulence of bacteria - it includes the host organism’s immune response. On most occasions, bacteria


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