The title of this book is unusual given its content; the subtitle Evolving The Cognitive Immune Self is more revealing. In this book, Cohen presents a novel way of looking at the immune system, based on a clearly explained conceptual framework which is accessible to anyone with an interest.
Though the thesis of the book centres around the immune system, the first half ignores it completely and focuses on the concepts of individuality, causality, evolution, and cognition, building to the definition of a cognitive system.
According to Cohen, cognition is an operational strategy – it doesn’t require awareness. So a system, like the immune system, can be cognitive if it:
- Makes decisions based on options
- Has an internal image of its environment contained within it
- Self-organises by changing internal images and structures based on experience
This framework (which Cohen explains much better than I do here) is applied to the immune system in the remainder of the book, specifically contrasted against the currently dominant theory in immunology, clonal selection theory. The role of the immune system in maintenance as well as defence is highlighted, and the therapeutic implications of adopting the cognitive framework are explored, for example in treating autoimmune disease.
I enjoyed this book immensely. No previous knowledge is assumed at any point in the text, so the logic flows uninterrupted. In addition, it’s organised in a lovely way that mimics hyperlinks, making it easy to link concepts or refer back to relevant sections. Before reading Tending I was plagued by the limitations of linear communication compared with the non-linear way we think and synthesise ideas, but the format of the book addressed my frustrations at just the right moment.
As I read more immunological papers, I continue to be struck by the innovation shown in Tending, and would certainly recommend it to anyone seeking a unique viewpoint on the immune system – or just a fascinating read!