Apoptosis and Suicide

'Suicide is contrary to biology' is an oft heard statement, expressed in different ways. This statement, unqualified as such, is somewhat erroneous, because suicide is, in fact, a very common phenomenon in biology at the cellular level. It is known as 'apoptosis', programmed cell-death. In the natural state it occurs only for the development and preservation of the organism. And if we are to believe the positivists of the 19th century, society is the next step in the integration of life, and society assumes a role akin to that of an organism, and individuals that of a cell. Hence, we also find programmed individual-deaths for the preservation of society (kami-kaze, for instance). Apoptosis which is not for the purpose of preservation of organism is triggered as a result of some pathology, due to some injury to the cell. To anthropomorphosize, the cell shouts "I can't take it anymore!!" and pop goes the apoptosis. Similarly suicide which is not for any higher purpose, is a result of some psychological injury to the individual. The human also yells 'I can't take it anymore!!' and does something self-destructive.

Another parallel could be drawn. Some cells apoptose because they were inherently abnormal (had some DNA defect, for example) and it is nature's way of weeding them out. Now, what i am going to suggest is purely theoretical, and is not an established scientific fact. Some individuals commit suicide because there is something inherently defective about them. Some genetic basis for depression or bipolar disorder, maybe. And they are drawn to suicide just like an abnormal cell is drawn to apoptosis; nature's way of weeding them out.


Kunwal said…
I like the fact how your writing has gained in precision over the last years. One can see that you think with a clear sharp mind. :)
Abdul Sami said…
so suicide is justified and natural?

most people who commit suicide claim to be 'different'... could this difference be the 'dna defect'...

others who commit suicide have had the joy/curse of being able to think too much... a state of mental hyperness (for lack of a better word)... and it is oft that their thoughts drive them to the brink...

yet we have cases of hitler... he committed suicide but not before he had given to society something that cannot be undone... for once was it society that said 'i have had enough' and got rid of him?
Awais said…
@ Kunwal

Thank you :D

@ Abdul Sami

Though the moral implications of such a point of view would be significant and a matter of great controversy, i did not attempt to touch the moral aspect in this post. So, the post was not meant to project the view that suicide is justified, or that it should be encouraged.

The word natural is somewhat ethically misleading, because most diseases are 'natural', and yet we do our best to treat them and prevent them. So, even if suicidal tendency is shown to be 'natural', it would not imply in any way that attempts should not be made to 'treat' this tendency.

And of course, i didn't intend that this comparison with apoptosis would be able to explain all cases of suicides. The psychology of suicide is very complicated and many different motivations and reasons exist behind it. I was attempting to suggest that a certain significant portion of these suicides could be explained by this analogy. I am sure many exceptions would exist.
Abdul Sami said…
of course.. and it did make a very interestin read... and i do agree with the theory u presented... liked it even...

just that i hav been very close to that 'edge' of life myself... !!!
Awais said…
I am glad you liked it :)

'...just that i hav been very close to that 'edge' of life myself...'

Oh, i guess that somewhat explains your interest in the suicide motivated by 'mental hyperness'. Believe me, i can relate to it to a degree as well.

Have you seen the movie The Hours? It's based on the suicide of Virginia Woolf. The movie offers great psychological insight. I am sure you would like it.
Uni said…
You know... these are the ways they try to justify deviant behavior in society (like homosexuality)..

But as you said, these things cannot justify particular actions.. especially if those actions are known to go against the

"natural order of things"

Good read :)
Abdul Sami said…
hmm... i may hav seen it (weird as it is, i hav seen a lot of movies without knowin the name... lol)... but i will put it on the list of movies to see !!!

thanks :) !!!
tahir said…

I think humans don't kill themselves (in a controlled and regulated manner) in
response to some "stimulus" to maintain the "development and normal functionality" of society...

So what kind of analogy were you talking about? And how were kamikazes able to "preserve" the society? And what about traumatic cell death?...Are you suggesting that it is some form of apoptosis?..

And your blog is super :)
Awais said…
@ tahir

I did not say that humans kill themselves 'in a controlled and regulated manner'. I said we 'find programmed individual-deaths' which is something entirely different. And neither did i write "development and normal functionality" of society, i wrote 'preservation of society' which again implies different things.

Programmed individual-death simply means that an individual intentionally decides to kill himself i.e. suicide. 'preservation of society' means that that individual believes that his action would be of some advantage to his society. Now this advantage could be direct, or indirect e.g. through the destruction of the society's enemy. And that is what Kami-kaze intended to do. They were Japanese suicidal aircraft attacks on the allied forces during the Second World War. They were meant to protect Japan by damaging the enemy in the time of war.

Another example could be the suicide attacks by the Taliban... they are planned, progammed individual deaths for the purpose of preservation of Taliban society. Now whether that actually helps in preservation is a different matter, but the intention with which it is done is clear.

There are broadly two types of cell-death... one is 'necrosis' in which cell is killed by an external factor. The other is 'apoptosis' in which a cell kills itself. Apoptosis can be triggered by an external factor, or it maybe a normal process, e.g. during embryogenesis, but the common thing in them is that the cell kills itself.

I hope the matter is somewhat is somewhat clear to you now.

And thank you for appreciating the blog :)
tahir said…
Thanks for the elaboration...

Actually this analogy (Similarity between Apoptosis and Suicide in human society) that you suggested in this post seems to me to be incorrect...

Consider, what you said,

[In the natural state it occurs only for the development and preservation of the organism]

Also, apoptosis is an 'essential' part of the normal cycle of cellular replacement. So it is a 'must' for an organism for its development and preservation as you said..

But for human societies (compared to 'organisms' in this post) something like APOPTOSIS isn't 'essential or a must' for their development and preservation.

About kamikaze:
Also, it seems from the definition of APOPTOSIS that cells (individuals) that commit 'suicide' (or go through
apoptosis) don't kill other organisms (societies according to your post) in doing so...
F. said…
"To anthropomorphosize, the cell shouts "I can't take it anymore!!" and pop goes the apoptosis."
Haha! Good one!

The idea you suggested about suicide...I think I read something like it, in an old issue of Time. Or in my psychology books? :/

Either way: "Breeds there a man..." by Asimov.
You have got to read it.
Awais said…
@ tahir

Yes, the two points that you have raised are valid. Suicide is not essential for human society like apoptosis is for an organism (though such suicides may be seen as 'vestigial' co-relates of apoptosis) and apoptotic cells do not damage other cells in their death unlike the suicidal blasts on humans.

But analogies are rarely 100% perfect, when comparing two phenomenon of two different levels. For instance, an analogy very commonly mentioned in Biology textbooks is 'Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny', i.e. there is similarity in the embryological development and the evolutionary history of an organism. This was previous thought to be a law ('biogenetic law'). Now it is known that it is not strictly accurate and hence not a law. Embryos do reflect the course of evolution, but that course is far more intricate and quirky than the law stated. But despite the numereous differences, there are certain similarities between the two, enough to admit that an analogy exists.

Hence, for an analogy to be valid it doesn't require a complete absence of differences, but whether there is sufficient similarity between the two.
Mayhem said…
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call.

It's easy enough to do it in a cell.
It's easy enough to do it and stay put.
It's the theatrical.'

Good one. I liked your theory about apoptosis. And I guess everyone in this life has one way or another come close to committing suicide. It's just a matter of how strong you are!
And, sometimes that 'strongness' can drive you to the brinks of insanity. Then what is the use of that life which is 'just no life at all'?

'And I, a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.'

Between, if you have time do read 'Sylvia Plath', 'Anne Sexton' and 'Virginia Woolf'.
Besides, there are two movies based on suicides; 'The Hours' written by Micheal Cunningham and 'Sylvia Plath'.
@paratracker said…
Some suicides are motivated by relief from physical (rather than mental) pain and accumulated suffering.

Perhaps, such a motivation for suicide could be considered to be a macroorganismal manifestation of apoptosis.