Sunday, April 21, 2002

Narcissus and Immunology

The cover of the Science magazine issued on 12 April 2002 shows Narcissus gazing at his reflection, as depicted by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573 - 1610). This picture is used for the special section "Reflections on self: Immunity and beyond." The following explanation is given on the contents page of the issue:

As the story from Greek mythology reminds us, and as discussed in this issue, effective recognition of self is important to general survival and to successful immune surveillance, reproduction, community structure, and philosophical integration of the individual.

Reading the above explanation, I thought that "effective recognition of self" meant narcissism, because Narcissus highly valued his own reflection. Then the special section seems to say that narcissism is good for a biological reason. Is this right? The introductory article of the section, "Self-discrimination, a life and death issue" written by Stephen J. Simpson and Pamela J. Hines, however made me notice that my thought was wrong.

Narcissus could not notice that his reflection was his own image, and fall in love with it. However, he was unable to be loved by it, was exhausted and died. So what he did was not the effective recognition of self, but non-recognition of self as such. To work well the immune system has to know which are the cells of own body and which are not. This is what is meant by "effective recognition of self." -- Caravaggio's painting was not cited to praise narcissism. --

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