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Clinical and Developmental Immunology
Volume 13 (2006), Issue 2-4, Pages 133-142

The Conservative Physiology of the Immune System. A Non-Metaphoric Approach to Immunological Activity

1Departamento de Bioquímica e Imunologia, ICB, UFMG, Belo Horizonte, MG, Brazil
2Departamento de Farmacologia, ICB, UFSC, Florianópolis, SC, Brazil
3PROCEP – Hospital Pró Cardíaco, Rio de Janeiro, Disciplina de Reumatologia, Fac Medicina, USP, São Paulo, SP, Brazil
4Departamento de Morfologia, ICB, UFMG, Belo Horizonte, MG, Brazil

Copyright © 2006 Hindawi Publishing Corporation. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Historically, immunology emerged as a biomedical science, concerned with host defense and production of anti-infectious vaccines. In the late 50s, selective theories were proposed and from then on, immunology has been based in a close association with the neo-Darwinian principles, such as random generation of variants (lymphocyte clones), selection by extrinsic factors (antigens)—and, more generally, on genetic determinism and functionalism. This association has had major consequences: (1) immunological jargon is full of “cognitive” metaphors, founded in the idea of “foreignness”; (2) the immune system is described with a random clonal origin, coupled to selection by random encounters; and (3) physiological events are virtually absent from immunological descriptions. In the present manuscript, we apply systemic notions to bring forth an explanation including systemic mechanisms able to generate immunological phenomena. We replace “randomness plus selection” and the notion of foreignness by a history of structural changes which are determined by the coherences of the system internal architecture at any given moment. The importance of this systemic way of seeing is that it explicitly attends to the organization that defines the immune system, within which it is possible to describe the conservative physiology of the immune system. Understanding immune physiology in a systemic way of seeing also suggests mechanisms underlying the origin of immunopathogeny and therefore suggests new insights to therapeutic approaches. However, if seriously acknowledged, this systemic/historic approach to immunology goes along with a global conceptual change which modifies virtually everything in the domain of biology, as suggested by Maturana.