Monday, April 23, 2012

Survival of the un-fittest

I'm glad that I happen to be alive at this particular time in the earth's history.  Check out the dramatic improvement in life expectancy over the past 12,000 years.  

This is really amazing.  If I were alive during any other time period, odds are I would probably be dead by now.  And even more than the improvement in quantity of life, I'm most pleased about the  dramatic improvement of quality of life.  I love all of my first world pleasures.

But this story isn't all roses!  As a realist, I understand that the dramatic improvements we've made over the past couple of centuries surely cannot continue at such a rapid rate.  Just like a booming economy cannot continue forever, the increase in life expectancy has to level off sometime.  And like economic recessions, I wouldn't be surprised if we experience a recession in life expectancy at some point in our future.  Maybe we'll even see a major depression.  It's just the way nature works.  You can't expect to disrupt a system that has been stable for millions or billions of years and expect it to continue forever.  

Sometimes at work I actually reflect on serious issues (shocker, I know).  The key word there is sometimes.  I have to keep it to a minimum because it makes my brain hurt if I think too much.  

But I've often wondered if we're doing humanity as a whole a big disservice by keeping everyone alive at all costs.  

Think about it.  Before we learned to thwart nature and keep people alive for so long, it was all about 'survival of the fittest.'  Only the strongest, fastest, and smartest people survived into adulthood.  

If you happened to be weak, slow, and dumb, this kind of system obviously didn't work well for you.  But for mankind as a whole, the system worked very well.  In fact this whole concept was what has kept the entire human and animal kingdom in check for billions of years.  It has provided a beautiful natural balance that has worked so well for hundreds of millions of years.  

What modern medicine has done is to allow the weak, slow, and dumb to live much longer lives.  It helps the strong, fast, and weak as well, but too a much lesser degree than it helps the weak, slow, and dumb. 

Nowadays most people live long enough to reproduce, which is a big change compared to previous millenia.  Not just the strong, fast, and smart get to have all of the fun anymore - for better or worse, now anyone can procreate!  

And most take advantage of that opportunity.  This means that more of the weak, slow, and dumb genes are being passed on, essentially diluting the human gene pool more and more with each successive generation.  Eventually we'll hit a steady state, but overall the gene pool will not be as strong, fast, and smart as it has been for tens of thousands of years.  

So I naturally wonder if, 1000 years from now, our progeny will be really pissed off at us.  As a whole, they will be weaker, slower, and dumber than ever before!  And this is not a cheap problem to have.  Medically speaking, the strong, fast, and smart are cheap - these are the ones that will live to 100 years old without much help from the medical establishment.   

But the weak, dumb, and slow are terribly expensive to keep alive.  They consume much more healthcare resources than their genetically superior peers.  And if the healthcare debate in the US has taught us one thing about Americans in the past few years, it's that the healthy don't like paying to keep the unhealthy alive.  This could be a real problem.

Furthermore, by keeping people alive for so long, there will be many more old people than young people.  The population distribution will be skewed unfavorably - much like we are seeing today in Japan.  There simply won't be enough young people to support the old.   

What will this all mean?  If there aren't enough resources to care for an aging, unhealthy population, then they will just start dying off.  Life expectancy will start to decrease.  And like we are seeing today, it will cost so much that it may be economically devastating.

Keep in mind that all of the great dynasties of the past have all failed.  The Roman, Byzantine, and Egyptian empires all failed for different reasons.  Could it be that the great American dynasty could crumble as a result of the econimic burden of caring for an old, unhealthy nation?  

It's probably not as far-fetched as you think it is.  We're already in debt up to our eyeballs in this country, and healthcare spending is a large part of our financial woes.  Read my first blog post for a more detailed explaination of this problem.

Now don't get the wrong impression of me.  I'm not arguing for the creation of a genetically superior race of humans (please nobody try that horrible experiment again).  But I just can't help but wonder about the unintended consequences of the era of modern medicine.

I'm all for modern medicine because it benefits not only me, but most those in my life.  I guess we're not as "fit" as we would like to think we are!  We probably would have been weeded out long ago. 

But at what point should we give up our individual desires for the benefit of the human race?  By putting the indivudual above the species, we may be doing the species a huge disservice.  But by putting the species above the individual, we're not doing the individual any favors.  So which is better, improving the life of the individual or sacrificing the individual for the betterment of the species? 

Tought question, and I don't have an answer.  All I have is a freaking headache from thinking about it too much.  Why do I get sucked into this stuff?

Look, here's my take on the whole thing.  Nature had a pretty good system going before we started mucking with it and making people live so long.  But I kinda like my life the way it is, and I really don't want to go back to the prehistoric way of living. 

Am I a selfish bastard for thinking like this?  Of course I am.  And so are you!  We all are, because we have it pretty easy.  I'm not sure any of us would give up our first world pleasures for a loin cloth and club (actually that doesn't sound half bad - hmmmm I'll have to reconsider).  

I guess I figure that things will even out with time.  Mother Nature always seems to win.  As long as we don't accidentally screw up the human genome beyond repair or completely destory our environment (both real possibilities), I think we'll be ok.  I don't think the future will be a rosy as we think it might be, but the species will continue on.  And who knows, maybe once we've come full circle we'll actually enjoy being out in nature, running around naked and living off the fat of the land.


  1. Great post doc! The movie Idiocracy kinda touched on the same thing. The premise is essentially: what if the dumbest procreated increasingly more than the smartest? What would the world look like in 500 years? It gives a glimpse of our world if the fears from your post come true!

    1. Thanks for the link - haven't seen the movie, but surely looks like my kind of film!

  2. I think you could directly correlate the survival of the unfittest with the rise of socialism. But which came first?