A synopsis of "Scientific Revolutions"

In 1970, Thomas Kuhn wrote about "scientific revolutions". Such revolutions are rare. Some are slow to evolve, like the theory of drifting continents, and some evolve faster, like the move from Newton's to Einstein's physics – but even that took many years to become the dominant belief among physicists. Older examples include the move from a flat to a spherical earth and the move from an earth centred universe to a sun centred solar system. Lavoisier demolished the rickety concept of combustion (called phlogiston – a substance that was supposed to have a negative weight) and replaced it with oxygen. Perhaps Darwin's "Origin of the Species" could be described as a Kuhnian shift, moving as it did from a Genesis style of creation to a process of gradual evolution by the survival of the fittest organisms. The result of such revolutions is that scientific thinking around the respective subject is turned upside down. Each of these areas of science are built upon many observable facts. These could be compared to the bricks of a building. But a pile of bricks can be made to make a rickety unstable building or restructured into a robust and stable structure. In this analogy, the building is what you see when you stand back from the individual bricks and look from a more revealing perspective. Our interpretations of how the "bricks" are put together goes wrong when we make "hidden assumptions" (called Bacon's idols). These are difficult to recognise but become plainly obvious to all in retrospect. In the complex sciences like biology and medicine, where there are so many variables, many things have to be taken for granted from the start. Mathematicians are far less kind to such idols; it is customary for them to subject even apparently obvious concepts to a rigorous scrutiny.

An article just published in the Southampton Health Journal entitled "Morphostasis: A Revolution?" (and a sequel about to be published (1)) shows that the whole concept of an "immune system" is almost certainly flawed. The main presumption has been that we learn to recognise what is part of self while we are a babies in the uterus and then regard anything that turns up later as foreign. We have assumed (because that is the illusion it creates) that we have an "immune system" that sets forth to find, kill and remove foreign organisms. An American scientist, Polly Matzinger, has for the last 4 years, been pointing out the absurdities that this conventional belief in a self/non-self discrimination produces. The morphostasis concept goes further and opens the path to a rapid resolution.

Morphostasis is a jargon term for the process whereby a body and its component tissues are regulated to maintain a constant form, size and shape. When the concept of an "immune system" is abandoned for a "morphostatic system" it resolves the problems. Virtually all human illnesses can be understood better with the new concept. It immediately makes it more apparent what may be the causes of such diseases as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and tuberculosis to name but a fraction. The process of aging also becomes clearer. In understanding the causes we should be able to move quickly and clearly to effective therapies.

So what is the big difference? Well, a "morphostatic system" doesn't look around for interlopers, it doesn't check the identity of all the antigens in a human body to make sure that they are part of self and not part of some foreign organism. No – a morphostatic system starts with this simple idea. First and foremost, the thing that is completely undesirable is a spilt cell; secondly, cells that are not communicating are more likely to be a danger so the morphostatic system pays particular attention to such cells and puts them under extra scrutiny.

In morphostasis, the principle aim is to tidy up spilled tissue mess. Now, the bugs that make us ill nearly always make a mess in our own tissues. They damage the body's own cells and spill their contents. The memory part of our immune system simply remembers the most unusual bits and pieces of this mess and uses this memory to concentrate a much faster removal of similar mess on any fresh encounter. When it finds and utilises bits of bugs to make this discrimination it does so simply because disease making organisms cannot help but make and be part of a mess. Bugs that live quietly with us and that don't make a mess, don't evoke a memory response.

So why, if it's so revolutionary, is it not yet generally accepted? That is the strange thing about Kuhnian revolutions. They occur only after the most severe general resistance to change. Scientists believe that they are clear headed thinkers but history tells us otherwise. They are more sensitive to heresy than people with rigid religious beliefs. And still we haven't learnt this lesson. Furthermore, when the revolution arrives it is traditionally "silent" (2).

  1. Cunliffe J. From terra firma to terra plana – danger is shaking the foundations: paradigms of the immune system". 1999 Mar 52:213-219
  2. Kuhn web site

(This was written around 1999-2000.)