Jul/Aug 2018 Reviews & Interviews

Natural Causes: Life, Death and the Illusion of Control

Natural Causes: Life, Death and the Illusion of Control.
Barbara Ehrenreich.
Granta. 2018. 256 pp.
ISBN 978 1 78378 491 2.

Review by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! Barbara Ehrenreich has a reached the grand old age of 76 and is quite prepared to die. She is damned if she's going to let the medical profession subject her to any more demeaning tests and procedures. And she is scornful of all the industries which promise renewed youth, health and "wellbeing."

Her research and her arguments are extensive, and as a scientist she knows a great deal and shares (perhaps too much for comfort) her inside knowledge of the treacheries of our bodies and their cellular mechanisms.

Forget the ardors of "working out" unless you enjoy them, as she does. Forget the restrictive diets that deny you such pleasures as butter on your bread or the relaxing glass of wine with your dinner. The grim reaper will get you anyway, as even some of the most ardent fitness gurus have discovered. Rockefeller Foundation director, John H. Knowles, for example, who argued most illnesses are self-inflicted and due to excesses of eating, drinking, and sex, died at the age of fifty-two.

Forget the idea that you are responsible for your own life, says Ehrenreich. Your body is actually a site of perpetual warfare, and harmony and wholeness within the body is a myth. Cells like macrophages (about which she is a scientific expert) while posing as "the good guys"—the "garbage collectors" of the body—can turn traitorous and aid and abet cancer cells in their invasions. "Their M.O. as a killer," she writes, is "brutal and thug like."

Even such seemingly normal things as pregnancy and menstruation are actually the result of chemical warfare within the body. Pregnancy, says Ehrenreich, is the result of a maternal/fetal "arms race." And she quotes evolutionary biologist Suzanne Sadedin, who writes that "Far from offering a nurturing embrace, the endometrium is a lethal testing-ground which only the toughest embryos survive." Menstruation, too, is far from "the gentle autumnal-sounding process of shedding an endometrial lining." It is actually "a killing field" resulting from chemical release of immune cells which "devour" the endometrial lining of the womb.

Ehrenreich loves to give cells and bodily processes human characteristics for dramatic effect. It is a habit of anthropomorphizing she acknowledges but which is usually taboo for a scientist.

She is quick, too, to dismiss theories with which she disagrees but which, if one researches further, are still being usefully adapted and debated. James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, for example, which posits Earth as a self-regulating system in a long geological time-frame—a version of which still drives ecological research—is dismissed by Ehrenreich because it has not immediately "corrected" the results of our "profligate consumption of fossil fuels."

Ehrenreich provides copious footnotes to support her arguments. Unfortunately, the one I followed up out of interest in the topic refers to a "Mrs Mindfulness" blog about Microsoft research, which suggests the attention span in humans is now shorter than the attention span of a goldfish. This led me to search further for the original research report, which was not scientifically valid. I also discovered that goldfish are now used in memory research because of their remarkably good memory skills.

Ehrenreich's book is a very readable, often funny, acutely perceptive polemic by a woman who has completed a doctoral degree in cellular immunology. Ehrenreich, however, strays far beyond her professional expertise when she ventures into the ancient and complex philosophical debates on mind, body, and consciousness. She claims, for example, that the concept of self—"the capacity for introspection and internal questioning"—originated in the late 16th, early 17th centuries. Aristotle's teachings and the philosophical writings of Early Greek philosophers seem to have passed her by.

This book, however, proves a valuable counterbalance for the many commercial and medical pressures assuring us we can live longer, look younger, and stay "strong, fit and healthy" well into our dotage if only we exercise, meditate, eat special diets, and allow our medical specialists to persuade us they are miracle workers.

Her suggestion that with the help of psychedelic drugs like psilocybin (magic mushrooms) we can abolish our present-day obsession with self (that "monstrous self that occludes our vision"), find "some unity with the universe," and accept death with equanimity, is surely going a step too far.


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