Washington Monument

Modern Medicine will be the death of us all

This article could be considered callous for people with and loved ones of those with genetic disorders. Before going off on me, understand that I had a congenital defect that was potentially fatal and was surgically corrected when I was young. I don't know if it is hereditary, so quite possibly I could be talking about myself.

I was wading through the debate over stem cells, which appears to be gearing up for another battle. The media focuses on the obvious political and moral questions concerning the beginning of life and associated issues. However, there are deeper problems that the public hasn't seen or heard. Chief among these is the question, "Will this derail our inevitable path to extinction?"

We benefit from a civilization that insulates us from the daily struggle of life. Not the “dog eat dog” struggle that corporate executives are fond of talking about. Not even the dangerous lives of miners, steel workers or test pilots can compare to the truly elemental challenges that humans faced that only recently in evolutionary terms. Food is abundant. We are safe from nearly all animal predators unless we choose not to be. Our daily living environment has been tamed. Diseases that have plagued mankind for centuries are cured with a pill. However, it is these very advances that may kill us. In the short term it will bankrupt us. In the in the long term, we are a toast. Allow me to remove my tinfoil hat and explain.

Our technological advancements have derailed Mr. Darwin. The evolutionary process in human beings has come to a halt. Yes, mutations are still occurring, possibly even at an accelerated creased rate. However, natural selection has essentially stopped. We have very few true forces that challenge our survival. A heat wave or cold snap simply means a larger electricity bill. The struggle for sustenance has been reduced to waiting in line at the drive thru. Our sexual preferences aren’t based on the likelihood of offspring; rather it’s more crucial to have showered recently. And what limitations we have can be managed long enough to produce children that inherit those same problems.

To see how things are supposed to work, we need to look at nature. In the wild, two gazelles are born. One is perfectly healthy; the other has a genetic defect that affects its ability to evade predators. Evolutionary theory would hold that the healthy animal would live longer and have more offspring than the unhealthily one, which may never reproduce at all. Thus the stronger animal would have made a contribution to the evolution of these species, while the weaker one was removed from the gene pool. Only the strong survive. This is Darwin’s theory of natural selection in a nutshell.

In the past, people in of compromised abilities died early and did not reproduce. Natural selection worked with only the strong surviving. Through our control of our living environment, abundant food production and use of medicine, we have routed Darwin. Natural selection has stopped. The challenges to survival that remove the weak from the evolutionary path are gone. Thus, the strengthening of our species is no longer occurring. Short of environmental mutagens affecting our lives, we have gotten as far as we are going to go. And the current state of medical science is setting us up for our downfall.

The problem is that we are quite successful in providing a quality life span for individuals with persistent medical issues. Additionally, our current state of technology provides for the management of many chronic conditions rather than curing diseases outright. People are living longer (We will ignore the coming storm of obesity for now) and living with genetic and viral conditions that would have eventually killed them. And they are having children that inherit these problems. In effect, the weak gazelle is living far longer than it should and reproducing.

In the short term, this is good thing. Pain and suffering should always be eliminated. People should be provided with the best quality of living that is possible. However, like most things in life, there is always a cost. And we are seeing it with increased health care costs. This is not to say that decisions should be made whether individuals are are worthy of saving or not. The point is that our research is focused on disease management rather than disease cure. One could make the argument that the drug companies that stand to profit more by long term drug regiments. Look up the history on H. Pylori for more background on this type of thing. But this is only a small part of the blame. More likely is the fact that we are at a fragile point in medical science. We know just enough to manage these problems, but not enough to cure them.

Unless we make significant strides in the repair of genetic defects and blocking of viral transmissions, the gene pool will be come weaker. It is conceivable that some point in the distant future that there will not be a single person born without some form of serious long term medical condition. Simply managing these conditions wont solve the problem. It only passes it on to the next generation.






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