Update: check this out on contagious tumors (the story titled “Devil Tumors”) which I heard on NPR yesterday. It’s a Cronenbergian.

Someone I recall reading years ago, I think it was Lewis Thomas, suggested that one possible etiology for heart disease that we may have overlooked is infection. I was reminded of this upon reading this morning that obese people may be obese because of a viral infection that causes cellular differentiation in adipose tissue, as many as 30% of them. This made me wonder, in my amateurish way, if it might turn out that “metabolic syndrome,” insulin resistance and, ultimately, type 2 diabetes are not be traceable to the same cause. That’s right: adult onset diabetes might be contagious.

We find notions like this difficult to get our heads around. There is still a tendency to think that certain conditions are either hereditary, and thus a part of the person’s nature and destiny, or an ethical failing on their part. Psychological explanations for asthma and stomach ulcers dominated medical thought about these conditions until it was discovered that one was caused by a normal immune response to an abnormally clean environment, and the other was caused by bacterial infection. (Even more terrifying is recent research suggesting that schizophrenia may be transmitted by a parasite through contact with cat feces.) It seems likely to me that a predisposition to regard conditions caused by undiscovered infectious agents as caused by ethical shortcomings instead delays discovery of the infectious agent.

The interesting question, then, is: why do we have a desire to blame ourselves and others in this way? Is it that the thought that your very nature might be changed by being sneezed at by a stranger on a bus too terrifying? Is it that, as Nietzsche said, “man would rather will nothing than not will?”


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