The Immune System as a Model for Problem-Solving

By Sarah Townsend, Ph.D

Our society struggles to come up with effective solutions to new problems. Our established bureaucracies can handle common, predictable problems such as traffic accidents but are often ineffective when presented with novel, unpredicted problems such as suicide bombings. The model of the immune system shows us that in order to respond effectively to new problems, we need access to many, many potential problem-solvers. We need our base of potential problem-solvers to include such a wide variety of people that the solutions to even the most unexpected problems will be present within that base and available to society. In addition, we need effective ways to promote the most successful problem-solvers to lead our collective response.

The immune system provides a valuable model for mounting effective responses to novel challenges. The immune system defends us against disease organisms, even when the organisms are new to us as individuals or as a species. We have two parts to our immune system: one ancient and one modern. The ancient immune system responds to general injury and to predictable challenges. This is our first line of defense against disease, and many kinds of animals have similar systems. The modern immune system, on the other hand, responds to both predictable and novel challenges. This ability to respond to unpredictable challenges has been essential to the success of the vertebrates in adapting to new environments.

The modern immune system's strategy for dealing with novel challenges, a strategy that has been refined through 100 million years of evolution, can inform our strategies for public problem-solving. The modern immune system's ability to respond to novel problems depends on developing and maintaining a vast base of potential problem-solvers. Our bodies contain billions of immune cells known as T cells and B cells. Each individual cell recognizes and responds to a different thing - each has a different specificity - so there are billions of possible things that the system can recognize. For example, there are cells within your immune system that can recognize flu, others that can recognize pneumonia, and others that can recognize polio. In fact, the variety of things your immune system can recognize is so vast that there are cells that can recognize your own tissues, and even cells that can recognize synthetic chemicals that don't exist in nature.

One of the wonders of biology is way that the immune system cells each come to be different from the other so that they recognize different things.
T cells and B cells have a special, tightly-regulated ability to rearrange and mutate parts of their DNA. Remember that each cell in our bodies contains the same DNA set that we inherited from our parents. Most of our cells strictly protect the integrity of their DNA - this is essential for life. For example, the DNA that contains the instructions (codes) for insulin must be kept precisely intact or we will die. This integrity of the DNA is sacrosanct, so it was a huge shock to researchers to discover that immune cells actually break and patch together and mutate certain bits of their DNA. Immune cells rearrange the parts of DNA which code for the receptors that allow the cells to recognize different things. The rearrangement and mutation of the DNA differently in each cell provides the diversity of receptors which recognize different things, and so accounts for the huge repertoire of specificities in the whole system.

The way the immune system responds to novel challenges is to maintain this essentially infinite array of potential problem-solvers - billions of T and B cells each with a different specificity - then use selective mechanisms that allow the successful problem-solvers to lead the response. When an organism infects the body, the few T cells and B cells that recognize parts of that organism are promoted by positive selection mechanisms to quickly proliferate and become active to rid the body of the organism. The system also uses negative selective mechanisms to delete or inactivate cells that could harm the body. The positive and negative selection mechanisms are both complex and rigorous; they harness the potential of the vast repertoire of immune system cells.

The members of our society can be seen as analogous to the individual T cells and B cells of the immune system; each person is a potential problem-solver. If we put in place effective selection mechanisms to allow the unknown successful problem-solvers to rise to the fore and lead the response, then we free ourselves from needing to predict the problem and know the solution in advance. Our access to our vast human repertoire of potential problem-solvers thereby frees us from the limitations of our leaders.

When we leave problem-solving to our elected officials or hired experts, the range of possible solutions available to us is necessarily limited, no matter how talented and imaginative those people may be. In contrast, when we open the problem-solving process to all members of our society, we tap into a huge resource of potential solutions. By this reasoning, it is to society's particular advantage to include all citizens, including historically marginalized people, in the problem-solving processes of civic life.

This strategy recognizes and values unusual people who can hold unusual solutions; unusual people are essential to the completeness of our repertoire of problem-solvers. As in the immune system, the broader the base of potential problem-solvers, the more likely it is that we will be able to respond to novel, unpredictable challenges.

Sarah Townsend is one of the one million problem-solvers currently living in Vancouver. She has done extensive laboratory research in Immunology and is on leave from the faculty of medicine at UBC. She's currently coming to grips with some physical limitations and has time to ruminate on the value of celebrating our various human quirks.

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