It was bound to happen. As humans, we are just too smart, too industrious, too impatient and too egotistical to leave our fate to Nature alone. Since we began uncovering Nature’s secrets at least 60,000 years ago, we have attempted to use them to control our own health. Yarrow. Opium. Horsetail. Ragwort. Hollyhock. These and the myriad plant medicines that followed became pre-modern diureticsstimulantsastringents and anti-inflammatories, aimed at extending the quality and/or length of human life.

Before Hippocrates cleaved medicine from metaphysics to form a separate profession, the sacred and the profane co-mingled, and those who spoke for the gods were also entrusted to wield the healing powers of plants for their communities.

Indigenous and tribal societies had many names for them. Shaman. Lên đồng. Jhakri. Táltos. Curanderos. Abijiya. Baqshi. Dahia al-Kahina. There were hundreds of them, all wearing the tricorn hat of gatekeeper, sage and medicine wo/man, all at once.

This early foray into influencing our own health and wellbeing, beyond running from things that saw us as a meal, marked the beginning of the end of human evolution.

Over the centuries, what used to kill us became manageable. Once it did, evolution’s role in human thriving—historically encoded into our DNA, and significantly impacted by epigenetic (environmental) factors—began taking a back seat to human behavior, learning and ingenuity.

What drove this shift was obvious. It was our desire to live, Nature be damned.

Baycrest Vaccination Clinic © Anthony Fieldman 2021

A Faustian Bargain

In our bid for immortality (or at least as long a life as we could eke out from our bodies), we struck a Faustian bargain.

We traded a genetic process for a mechanical one. Or, if you prefer, a natural one for a scientific one. In doing so, we—not Nature—became the providers and arbiters of life.

What drove this change—apart from our desire to live longer, personally—was our morality. As the philosophy of ethicscame to be, then influence our feelings about one another (thanks, Aristotle), our values evolved, and we chose to apply our outsized creativity to keeping everyone alive as long as possible, no matter what Nature had thrown at them.

We decided — nobly — that all lives were valuable, not just the ones who could make it on their own without slowing down the tribe in ways they could ill-afford.

This was a seismic shift away from Nature’s own unemotional, roll-of-the-dice, the-survival-of-the-ecosystem-outweighs-the-survival-of-the-individual approach to genetic mutation, in which some outcomes are death sentences, while others are tickets to long life.

The uniquely human concept of maximizing all lives at all costs extends to extremes that are debated vigorously, defended violently and aggressively legislated, today. Lightning rods such as abortioneuthanasiaDNR (do not resuscitate) orders, forced careeugenics (oh, yeah; we used to do this—a lot) and other Sophie’s Choices are all mired in emotional complexity precisely because they get at the heart of a person’s or society’s moral and ethical beliefs.

I am not taking a position about any particular moral stance or outcome. Rather, I’m attempting to paint a picture about why we do what we do, and the trade-offs implicit in those decisions.

Once we decided that Nature no longer got to choose who lived and died, we took up the mantle for ourselves, to the extent that our science and our efforts would allow it.

Darwin Who?

Since we began doing this, the very definition of Darwinian “fitness” has mutated beyond recognition. Before there was medical science, people who suffered from certain genetic or physiological traits had few if any means of overcoming them. As a result, many of them died before they could pass their genes on to offspring who would sustain them.

Bad mutations died with their hosts.

This is a manifestation of Darwin’s principle of Survival of the Fittest, aka natural selection. It is not an emotional, moral or ethical concept. It’s simply how the Nature works—the basis on which we and every other species evolved. Darwin’s principle still governs everything on Earth, with just one glaring exception.

Us.

In the 21st century, our erstwhile biological drivers of “fitness” are no longer dominant. What’s far more influential is our access to medical resources, which in turn necessitates access to adequate financialeducational and interpersonalresources, upstream. That is, we need to be able to afford care, know what we need and where to find it, have both within reach—where connections matter—and be supported by our families, colleagues and neighbors, on whom we often rely to maintain a climate of health. For those with chronic illness, the need can be lifelong.

Simply put, wealth, intelligence and resourcefulness have replaced biological fitness wholesale as the “new evolution”.

That’s because biological evolution remains the passing of genes on to future lives. Regardless, the more we meet today’s qualifications of “desirable”—which were once biological, but increasingly sociological—the more successful we will be not only at extending our own lives, but in creating new ones.

“Desirable”, of course, changes from culture to culture, and from era to era. Still, today, “the new evolution” is an amalgam of man-made concepts and inventions, never to return to the state of the world that Darwin first uncovered.

Photo by Xu Haiwei on Unsplash

Final Thoughts

Our species’ survival is now largely dependent on a constellation of pharmaceuticals, prevention practices, medical intervention, social support and prostheses. These have largely taken the place of strong genes, healthy living and good fortune—or at the very least, can do the trick in their absence—to ensure that as many humans as possible live as long as possible.

Human morality has spoken.

Now, whatever hand we are dealt, there are external means of making up for our biological or environmental shortcomings, if we can afford it.

Along the way, we have lost our understanding and appreciation of evolution’s continued influence over our lives, whether or not our hubris makes us feel otherwise. That is, our understanding of human physiology, and the interaction of our bodies with the environment around and within us, is still—to be crass—piss-poor.

We are not one thousandth as sophisticated as Nature.

As evolutionary biologist Paul Ewald has observed:

“Evolutionary biology is so firmly integrated with the rest of biology that it is not possible to mark a boundary between them. But modern medicine has been a peninsula. It is broadly and firmly connected with most regions of biology. . . but has just a few thin bridges traversing the gulf to evolutionary biology.

There are probably many reasons for the paucity of bridges. One stems from the inadequate appreciation of the pervasiveness of evolutionary principles. From secondary school through medical school, the fundamental relevance of evolution to all human life has often been ignored or even suppressed.

We believe it is important for the public, as consumers of medical services, and for medical practitioners themselves to have a greater appreciation of the medical implications of evolutionary biology. At its cutting edge, evolutionary biology has serious consequences for our understanding of human health and well-being — consequences that we ignore at our peril.”

As long as we remain biological creatures, whose every organ interacts in some capacity with the external environment through our air, food and water, mostly, biology can still kill us, as we’ve seen writ large with COVID-19.

True, our tools are formidable. With the advent of A.I.gene-mapping and advanced technologies, humans are adding powerful weapons to our arsenal against unwanted biological factors that diminish our prospects of survival, and thriving.

Still, we risk becoming Icarus—thinking ourselves omniscient, and burning our wings in hubris’ blaze. Only in this case, our “feathers and wax” represent the gaps in our knowledge, in spite of our Icarian confidence.

As renowned evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr pointed out:

“The most frequently asked question in mechanistic biology [functional medicine] is “how?” whereas the most frequently asked question in evolutionary biology is “why?”

To truly appreciate the nature of biology one must know the remarkable difference between these [things].”

We have largely lost the “why” in our bid to cheat our evolutionary inheritance. While there are countless people alive today as proof positive of human ingenuity, we have so far failed to ask the “why” behind the “how”.

“How” is concerned with mechanics; outcomes. “Why” is concerned with contextual understanding, including causes, whether or not there is a practical application being studied.

All of which conspires to keep our horizons close to our feet, rather than farther afield, where we may build a better appreciation for Nature and her complex gifts. Often, it seems, our short-term decisions carry long-term, and deadly, consequences.

Solve malnourishment? Check. Now more people die every year from obesity than from underweight.

Signs of the “modern medical peninsula” are everywhere. We see it with iatrogenesis, which can inadvertently sicken up to one third of hospital patients, with something that had nothing to do with their original ailment. In the eerily-named Your Health Care May Kill You, none other than the NCBI reports:

“Recent studies of medical errors have estimated errors may account for as many as 251,000 deaths annually in the United States (U.S)., making medical errors the third leading cause of death.”

We see it with adverse side effects of drug interactions, which can turn salves into impairments. We see it when we scientifically control—aka isolate— singular variables in a person or a medicine, effectively blinding ourselves to both our own inherent complexity and the the inter-relationship between things.

My brother (the doctor) complained that in his profession, “We treat diseases, not people”. He wrote:

“Our labeling can degenerate further as someone moves from being a ‘person’ to a ‘patient’ to ‘the fibroid in room 8.’ I watched this metamorphosis with interest during my own hospitalization. One day I was a person; the next I was a brain tumor. A month later I was a medical student. A week later I was Cisplatin and Cytoxan in 513.”

My brother had a rare window into what it was like “to be on both sides of the knife”, in his own words.

His point was, we often miss the larger picture.

As the late E.O. Wilson—who died just last month—famously said:

“The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.”

In Wilson’s comment, we could just as easily replace the word “emotion” with “biology”. We are at the precipice of a post-Paleolithic point of no return.

God is a bottle, a syringe and a mechanical limb.

For now.

Soon, our full-tilt commitment to creating and implementing life-extension tools—tools that amplify our physiology and even our consciousness—may soon lead us to abandon our biological shackles altogether, in favor of silicone-and-carbon-fiber immortality.

Time will tell. It’s more than likely this will come to pass. Forget uploading our biological brains to the cloud. As long as consciousness can be reasonably simulated, we’ll bite.

If science can trick a loved one, it may well be “good enough”. The Turing Test—aka the Imitation Game—defined the idea that a machine could pass for human, in some regard. Fast-forward 70 years, and we are on the precipice. Our little black mirrors are just the appetizer. Already, we prefer their company over that of analog interaction. As I wrote for CodeX in Digital Oblivion:

“Globally, humans now spend on average seven hours a day staring at a screen. That’s 43% — nearly half — of our waking hours. For Fillipinos, it’s eleven hours, or 68% of their days. The Brazilians and South Africans (63% each) aren’t far behind.”

As soon as virtual reality gains the content, technology and market saturation—all of which are imminent, and in some ways already here—our biologically sensory world will lose its pull, until it’s a pixelated memory.

At that point, we will fully accept that a simulacrum of our loved ones—or new “friends” who were never biological to begin with (hello, Tamagotchi 2.0!)—evolution’s transformation will be complete.

Ex-Machina. Archive. Alita. Total Recall. Blade Runner (both of them). Free Guy. Finch. And now Swan Song. Today’s ideas become tomorrow’s blueprints.

Those who are alive right now may live forever, if you can afford the ticket to ride (see: “Adequate financialeducationaland interpersonal resources”, above—aka “modern evolution”). We will inherit a multiverse full of A.I. beings indistinguishable from today’s flesh-and-blood family and peers, to keep us company and simulate the richness of a “real” life.

We have been on a 60,000 year journey to get here. We may have a few decades, or even a century, left. When we slip the surly bonds of our biological prisons, illness will no longer exist. It will cease to plague us.

At that point, bum genes won’t matter.

As one of my readers wrote just today, in response to another article I wrote about controlling Nature itself, through our food systems:

“Human history is one long attempt to escape the howling wilderness of Nature and its seeming chaos, unpredictability and indifference.”

Perhaps that urge, more than any other force, will convince us to take the leap past the “howling wilderness of Nature”. Past genetic mutation’s Russian Roulette. Past the fear of dying. Past the suffering that befalls all of us at some point. Past mortality itself.

This is not science fiction. This is human ingenuity in action, aimed at one thing only: winning the game.

Buyer beware.

http://www.anthonyfieldman.com
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