Rethinking Growth: “Cancer is urgent. The loss of Earth’s resources can feel less so”

An artist and a cancer researcher talk growth

Rabobank Artist-in-residence, Arne Hendriks, considers the question “What is growth?” with opinion leaders from different fields of knowledge. This time: What can economists learn from cancer research?

Growth from an economic perspective means progress, but in cancer therapy, growth means death. Hendriks talks to Geert Kops, Professor of Molecular Tumor Cell Biology at the University of Utrecht. He also oversees a research group at the Hubrecht Institute.

Arne Hendriks: I want to know what growth is. Like other people, for most of my life I thought I knew what it was, and that in principle it was good. Now I just don’t know anymore. And that’s why I’m talking to different people – both inside and outside the bank – to try to find some answers.

The destructive way we have arranged our economies is often likened to cancer. This is not a pleasant message to hear, but it is something that I as an artist and artistic researcher can work with. Because if it is true, then perhaps we need to look at the economy and at cancer researchers in a different way. In 2017, I organized a series of dialogues between economists and cancer researchers based on the idea that they could learn from each other. Geert Kops was one of them. While the principle of continuous growth is prized in economics, in cancer research, growth is something that must be fought – in particular, growth that has gone off the tracks. At the same time, I believe that when cancer research looks at developments in the economy – such as all the practical ways of stimulating growth through innovations, financial injections, and reinterpretations of regulations – there are patterns and ways of doing things and thinking about things waiting to be discovered, all of which can lead to new insights, including at the level of the cell.

Geert, what is growth?

Geert Kops: Growth might well be defined in biology as the ‘default state,’ the standard situation. Without growth, there is simply no evolutionary process possible. Pure evolution is based on growth, on propagation. You have to be able to take one organism that possesses a successful trait and make ten out of it. The fact that you and I are talking here is a direct result of growth. I cannot imagine anything within the evolutionary process in which growth is not essential. There used to be environments in which there was no growth, but now there are none.

Within the discipline of economics, growth means progress too. Growth is the holy grail. But we have also concluded that this preoccupation with growth has very damaging consequences. It can be compared with cancer, as the cliché goes, in the sense that it grows for its own purposes and no longer in relation to the whole. You and your team conduct research on cell division and how this relates to cancer. What have you discovered?

A human body goes through approximately 100 trillion cell divisions in his or her life. But sometimes things go wrong. Usually that doesn’t cause a problem because the cell can repair the damage itself. But every now and then the daughter cell ends up not being viable and is eliminated. The situation only becomes problematic when the damage cannot be repaired and the cell does not die. That’s when cancer can arise.

I want to figure out how this works and whether, for example, it is the reason why cancer occurs or whether it is a symptom of the sickness. In around 70 percent of all types of cancer, something goes wrong in the splitting of the chromosome during the process of cell division. A chromosome is the part of a cell that contains genes; it consists of DNA and proteins. A healthy cell would be killed by the faulty splitting of a chromosome, but cancer cells simply ignore it and continue dividing.

These mistakes made during cell division are advantageous for cancer cells. It enables them to quickly change the genome (the genetic makeup of the cell) and thus to easily acquire new traits. You could see cancer as evolution on a drastically shortened timescale.

You are a molecular cell biologist, and you say that you try to ‘understand cells from a molecular perspective.’ What exactly do you mean by this?

If you know how molecules in a cell work, you can understand how life works. I look primarily at the allocation of the genetic material that is divided into chromosomes. In this genetic material there is what you might call an instruction manual that a cell needs in order to function well. Before a cell divides into two, it copies this information so that both cells have equal information after the division.

Cells consist of amalgamations of all sorts of molecules which in turn can perform a wide range of activities. Some molecules can ‘walk’ over structures in the cell, others can ‘cut’ and ‘copy,’ and still others can transform, as a result of which a new activity comes into existence. These cell activities are strictly regulated: they must cut here and not there. And these activities are all ‘mindless’: there are mechanisms that ensure that A occurs at a certain place before B occurs. This is what we try to understand for one specific process: cell division. We want to find what makes it possible for all the components of a cell to duplicate.

What do you mean when you say “mindless cell activities”?

That’s physics, laws of nature. A cell does not ‘think.’ From our human perspective, we may think that a cell guides certain things or that it has a ‘free will.’ But ultimately they are just molecules and atoms that execute mindless actions. When you take this reasoning far enough backwards, you can say that you and I are the result of these ‘mindless processes.’ By that I mean not only the way our body grows as a result of hormones, but also the origin of our human characteristics.

For example, human willpower or thought patterns are emergent characteristics of underlying molecules and their interactions. They don’t have any of their own elementary particles or structures. If you try explaining that outside the discipline of physics, then you enter the realm of religion. As a scientist, that is not my territory. That does not mean that ‘mindless’ cells are unable to make something beautiful. Just look at our ability to create: it is ultimately because of these cells that we have Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

”In the end, you and I are the result of ‘mindless processes’”

- Dr. Geert Kops, Utrecht University

I can identify with that. There is always something ‘mindless’ about the way I inquire into something. I feel drawn to what the painter Karel Appel once said: that he just “messes around a bit.” Ultimately my hope is that the concept of growth can create ‘paintings’ as powerful as Appel’s personal investigations into paint and expression. The fact that you used this specific word, ‘mindless,’ has a liberating effect on me. I hope it will have the same effect on this collective inquiry into the significance of growth. Is the scientific method also ‘mindless’ in origin?

There are some great scientists who have indeed said exactly that. Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist and chemist, said that an important aspect of scientific investigation is to conduct the strangest possible experiments then allow oneself to be surprised by the results. In essence, this is mindless – it’s hit or miss. When you hit the mark and something happens that you don’t understand, that’s when intelligence comes into play to take notice of that moment and investigate it.

Yes, I understood that our bodies have mind-boggling control and balance mechanisms that ensure that a cell does not divide itself further once it reaches a stable, healthy situation. This state is also known as homeostasis. The economy also has control and balance systems but these are usually directed at fostering growth. The steady state – the economic counterpart of anatomical homeostasis – is not high on the economic agenda. In society we see more rather than less deregulation, while a cell is precisely a regulated system.

Healthy cell activities are indeed strictly regulated. In a multicellular organism, a cell that is next to the heart cell, for example, is not allowed to do anything ‘odd’ because then the whole system could fall apart. In our bodies, which are multicellular mechanisms, developments are continuously being held back: a mechanism is constantly putting on the brake. It is only cancer cells that don’t pay any attention to that mechanism. When you look at a tumor or the tissue from which a tumor can arise, you see continuous deregulation – that is, a single-celled organism that does what it wants.

“Children adapt more easily to new situations than we do – so do cells”

- Dr. Geert Kops, Utrecht University

When it comes to the economy, we constantly talk about growth, and I wonder if we are using the right word, a word that we’ve borrowed from nature. There is so little nuance when we discuss growth. This is because we have a pretty small vocabulary when it comes to what growth is exactly. You can say that it is ‘increase’ or ‘accumulation,’ but these words are so quantitative. I’m looking for something more enriching so that we have more instruments at our disposal when considering growth. Do you think growth is a good word for the field in which you work? 

When I talk about growth, what I am actually referring to is replication. In science, you need to be very specific about what you say. You shouldn’t use the word growth when you actually mean replication. This is a mistake that can happen. Colleagues will talk about cell growth but they actually mean cell replication. Pure cell growth is when a cell becomes two to ten times larger before splitting. And there is a limit to that growth. Replication is when one cell becomes two cells, then four, eight, and so on. In theory, this process does not have any limits. 

For biologists, replication means surviving, and it plays a key role in adaptability. If only one entity remains in a biotope and that entity does not replicate itself and if nothing changes in the environment, then adapting becomes tricky. Our children adapt much more easily to new situations than we do. The same holds for cells. Perhaps there is an interesting parallel with the economy here: that you need a certain kind of growth to create variety in the system, which enables you to cope with new challenges.

Dr. Geert Kops


One of the strangest paradoxes in the relationship between cancer research and the economy is that the latter leaves more room for the influence of human desire. Economics is more like an ideology than an exact science, and this is perhaps why it draws upon our imagination. A cancer researcher always comes back to the cell when trying to solve the enigmas of growth, while the economist can only rely on perceptions of human desire. The paradox is that the same principles currently responsible for many destructive ideas within the economy can also be the solution when we begin to embrace other ideas.

That’s the difference between social sciences and exact sciences. Exact sciences are bound by laws of nature. The knowledge acquired in social sciences such as economics is more bound by context: the influence of values, emotions and politics. Perhaps this is what makes that knowledge somewhat relative. Exact scientists are never satisfied until they understand the next step. I don’t know if that is the case with economists, but I can imagine that they may be reluctant to dig too deep. They might run into structures that they, or we as a society, prefer not to see or know about at that moment. Or other interests may be at stake. Exact sciences are completely the opposite: we have another aim, which is to understand something very precisely.

”With economics, I think we are just starting to ‘go deep’”

- Arne Hendriks, Artist-in-residence

I always say that it’s great that you guys try to understand and unravel cancer, and that it’s also important to share that knowledge with other disciplines. Because you and other cancer researchers go into such depth and go right to the core of the matter, much more so than other disciplines. With economics, it feels to me as though we are just starting on this process.

You’re searching for a collaborative method across disciplines, but that is difficult because scientists are so exact in their methods. And every scientific discovery raises new questions. The more specialized, the different worlds become, the more difficult collaboration will be. And all parties must be prepared to lay bare everything about their disciplines. There is an inherent competition between scientists, for we have to compete with many others to raise funds for research. At the same time, science is honest. The best scientists know that when you share, you create synergies. Evolutionary and molecular biology, psychology and archaeology offer more and more insights into how humans have developed over millions of years. Those kinds of laws are familiar to economists as well.

Ultimately there has to be a drive among economists to experiment and to ‘want to know.’ This drive should also exist in society. As soon as we talk about cancer, everyone immediately takes it seriously. But when there is deforestation in a country far away or when an island is at risk of becoming uninhabitable due to rising sea levels, these are problems that are too remote for us, even though we as humans are responsible for these problems and can influence change. Perhaps we can even ‘cure’ these problems. Cancer is something urgent, but for many people, the depletion of the earth’s resources is not as immediate.

Who is Geert Kops?

Professor Geert Kops studied general biology at the University of Utrecht and obtained his doctorate doing research on molecular tumor cell biology. He did postgraduate research in California, before returning to Utrecht in 2005 as Professor of Molecular Tumor Cell Biology. Kops oversees his own research team at the Hubrecht Institute, which conducts research on the occurrence of cancer. The results of Kops’ molecular research form the basis of further applied research into cancer. Kops is also scientific director of the Oncode Institute, an independent institute committed to converting fundamental insights into cancer as efficiently as possible into better and more affordable care for the patient. The professor describes his personal life as preoccupied with living sustainably. “Just like many other people, I have begun to ask myself whether there is an end to how much we consume. That is why I am now a vegetarian, for example, and why I also try to economize on the amount of energy I use.” Kops is the second professor in the Netherlands – after Professor of Sustainability Gail Whiteman in Rotterdam – with a sustainable professor’s outfit: an eco toga made of recyclable material.

Artist-in-residence: Arne Hendriks

Growing, getting bigger, is positive – that’s what we learn from an early age. For eight years, artist Arne Hendriks (born 1971) has been researching why, and turning the proposition around: what if we didn’t always want more and more; what if we were to strive for less? With ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ Hendriks asks fundamental questions about our obsession with growth – down to our own height. He works with examples of people, animals and living systems as sources of inspiration. Banking4Food Innovation Centre, Rabo Foundation and Kunstzaken invited Hendriks to work on his research at Rabobank. Recently, in the middle of his exhibition, he talked to opinion leaders from various disciplines about the question: What is growth? For more information about his project, The Incredible Shrinking Man, see www.the-incredible-shrinking-man.net.

The published interviews in the ‘Rethinking Growth’ series are a collaboration between Arne Hendriks and writer Jens de Jongh.