Future of Humanity: Breeding Illness?

Doctor, patient, Family DoctorWe as a species are one of the most caring animals on the planet. Like most primates we look after our young, teach them life skills and protect and care for them. But we don’t just stop there, we keep going right into a child’s adulthood, and caring for them even after then. We not only look after our young, our altruistic behaviour makes us look after other people, who we may not even know. This is demonstrated in our giving to charity, helping others in trouble and the fact that we have a society. If we didn’t respect each other, our society and civilisation would soon crumble. This altruistic behaviour is to be admired, for as a species it allows us to develop and grow into the species we are. It has given rise to medicine, it has generated industry and created  welfare systems. Altruism and a caring attitude is absolutely necessary for our existence. But has our caring, medicine and humanitarian attitude caused our existence to change, and change the face of our evolution. Is our love changing the power of survival of the fittest on us?

Evolution, using the tool of natural selection with the template of survival of the fittest, has given rise to many wonderful and exotic animals, plants and fungi. It has also evolved ourselves. Evolution was the “hand” that sculpted the human race, and those that were not suitable for the job of surviving in the harsh world, then they were soon snuffed out, and their genes lost. Evolution is a powerful force that pushes a species into a more adapted and equipped species. But has our invention of homes, medicine and health care stopped the force of evolution.

The answer is no. The human race continues to evolve. But our evolution may now not be about the survival of the ‘fittest‘ anymore. Going back just over 100 years ago life expectancy was much lower, with 45 being a good innings for men. And in addition to that child mortality rates were much higher, with 140 births in every 1000 dying in 1990 in the UK. These figures are drastically different today with less that 6 deaths in every 1000 of births. But this has an impact on todays society and health.

Going back those few hundred years ago, life was much harder. Coal mining, hard labouring and physically demanding work was the common job. In addition medicine and health care was barely leaving the nest, and was not quite up to the modern flight of todays health systems. So in the pre 1900, life was much harder than it is today,a nd the general life expectancy wasn’t as good. But at the same time, tragically, the sick, weak and genetically ill would not live very long, and as a direct result their genes would not be spread back into the gene pool. This process of natural selection, where the ill, infirm and genetically ill are removed due to their inability to cope.

One simple example is this, asthma. If in the prehistoric world you had asthma, you would not live very long for many obvious and simple reasons. The first being you probably wouldn’t live past childhood, as an asthmatic fit would take your life, as there were no inhalators or any other medical aids. Further still, assuming an asthmatic survived just into adulthood, then they wouldn’t be able to outrun a predator, or effectively chase prey. This system of natural selection was still going on into the early 1900. SInce there was no medical care, or any form of true knowledge regarding health at that time, asthmatics, disabled, psychologically ill and all manners of illness would of snuffed those individuals who were physically not strong enough to survive.

Since then however, people with conditions, such as those mentioned above, have thankfully been kept alive and safe by modern civilisation and the wonders of modern science and medicine. This does mean though, that the force of natural selection via the survival of the fittest does not truly affect the human species, in this somewhat classical sense regarding physical fitness. Since people with a genetic tendency to asthma, mental illness and genes with genetic illnesses like Huntington’s disease are living longer, and are able to live a complete and fulfilling life, they are able to pass on their genes which create weaker lungs, psychological illness, or any other myriad of genetic or physically related illness. This means that the gene pool which was once being narrowed to genes which were strong and resilient to these affectations of the body(loosely speaking, and ignoring mutations), are being mixed with other genes which can lead to a tendency to develop these illness.

So it would seem that slowly, since our sexual selection doesn’t account for illnesses like asthma, we slowly breed into the gene pool genes which carry a trait which is not physically productive. So it would seem that as a species we are breeding children and future generations to carry genes which can cause all manner of genetic based illness, and also create children which may have a lower resilience to external illnesses like Flu or the common cold. This isn’t a an oversight either.

We have domesticated animals, to go with our personal domestication. In this process we see animals which are themselves becoming more sickly due to our breeding strategies and our personal selective pressures, like fur colour, texture or muscle quality. We as a people when breeding animals, like cows or sheep, don’t care for the health or longevity of an animal, purely its aesthetics, like wool or milk production. But as a result we are breeding into their species genes which cause heart defects, bone problems, circulatory issues and a whole textbook of other hereditary issues, not to mention weakened immune systems.  We see this most commonly in the domestic dog.

Many dogs are so over bred now, looking for the perfect snout or ears, that many now suffer particularly nasty illnesses. One instance of this is with breathing issues in Pugs, Boxer dogs and other stout nosed dogs. Wolves, their closest ancestor, do not have this problem. This is the same for hip displasia, ocular issues, skin conditions and bone issues, the most common being arthritis. None of these are found in abundance in the life of wild wolves. The reason is that those with the illnesses soon die before being able to breed. However with dogs, they breed to our command, and live long enough to breed thanks to veterinary science. This same thing is happening to humans. Since the 1900 the causes of death by cancer have tripled in the UK alone. Asthma and issues regarding respiration have increased as well.

Now this isn’t all linked to genetics, and natural selection being thrown out of the window. Some is linked to the lives we lead, with people driving instead of walking. More pollution. However, considering the smog of the 1800’s in London, our air is a bit greener than then. But a large portion of illnesses are related to genetic issues, which can only be passed on by the parents giving those genes which are more susceptible, or are responsible for those illnesses. But is our breeding changing our evolution in a different way, instead of the physical world of heart and respiratory conditions, but in the evolution of our minds. Again i think yes. I think we are selecting as a species more intelligent people. We as a people are getting smarter, and much better at innovating and designing. So it seems that physical pressures of natural selection, are shifting to psychological pressures of natural selection.

So what is happening is that what was once necessary in natural selection for humans, our ability to run fast from predators or for prey, is now being converted in to our psychological needs, to develop machines to do the running for us. Our evolutionary pressures are changing, and as a result our evolution is falling on another track, to develop us more psychologically, but also more socially and domestically. Animals have evolved in the wild to cope with predators, and to hunt prey (even if berries). But under domestication, dogs and cats have been able to live longer lives, but are living more relaxed lives, and their evolution is being dictated by us, for our needs of an animal which can hunt, herd or just be a lap dog. This as a result can lead to defective genes. Just is the same with humans. We are breeding ourselves to be more a relaxed people, who are more intellectual, forward thinking and socially inclined. This means the strains of the natural world are shirked off, as medicine is able to do that for us. The physical world is cared for by our governments, our homes, or councils and our health service. We can be more focused on the mind.

I also want to note now, since i am getting close to the end of this post, that at no point do I want people to now shun the ill or infirm. This is not what this post is about. I do not care about eugenics, or breeding a race of fit and intelligent people. If you haven’t worked out from previous posts I’m a humanitarian, and all people deserve the right to life, and all should be treated equal. What this post is about is showing that evolution doesn’t have to be just a physical thing, it is a mental thing as well. And that evolution has selected our bodies, but we are now selecting (which is still evolutionary sexual selection) minds that are capable of fuelling a modern world. So we no longer are prey to the pangs of the world, like drought disease and famine, as man has mastered these things, to stop those physical afflictions  happening.

The future of  humanity may be potentially a body which is susceptible to illness, but evolution will kick into check those illnesses which do have a huge power on us. This is shown in Africa where certain people are immune to AIDS. Evolution has found an answer for a severe issue. So Nature is still working for us, even if it looks like we are creating a race of sicker people. Medicine, natural selection and survival of the fittest will reign supreme in our existence. So we can get on to work with our lives, safe in the knowledge that medicine will help the short term suffering of asthma, and natural selection will work out the cure. Survival of the fittest, in the sense of the strongest and most “fit,” may not be a driving force. But the fittest mentally, and the fittest regarding health, will be selected for. And as Darwin said, life has been, and is being, evolved.

Statistics for UK regarding health and life expectancy. 

P.S. The difficulty in trying to find a good photo for this post wasn’t easy.

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6 thoughts on “Future of Humanity: Breeding Illness?

  1. Great choice of photo. One thing you did not mention is that we are starting to understand how genes work, and may in the near future be able to take charge of our own inherited traits. The human genome project was a huge step forward. With advanced forms of gene therapy, we may even be able to change our genetic makeup, not through sexual selection but after we’ve been born. I read recently of a new anti-viral drug that goes into every cell in the human body, recognizes a protein specific only to viruses, and destroys the virus. If we are able to do that, we may someday be able to change any particular gene in a living human body, effectively curing such conditions as hemophilia and having a profound effect on gerontology and longevity. What that would mean for the future of humanity I don’t know. The implications are profound and mind boggling. This is certainly an exciting time to be alive.

    • THank you again Harmless for a very interesting and well thought out comment. I was tempted to include genetic engineering, but i decided that considering my last post damning GM foods, i felt it not right to bring it up again with regard to human change. Sadly in america genetic selection does happen, with the over paid paying for designer babies. I personally am not a fan of genetic manipulation. I am absolutely glad we know all about our DNA, but manipulating it is not in my opinion a good thing. We have come about out of billions of years of evolution, i don’t see why we should manipulate it. There are a lot of ethical problems with it, and its a place i don’t think id like to argue for.
      The drug you talk about sounds absolutely fascinating, and sounds like another amazing step forward in medical science. I have a feeling though that a drug cannot change the genetic structure of a person, in a controlled and precise way. The reason i say that is because the genetic code is comprised of extraordinarily similar nucleotides, with there only being 5 different ones. And since all DNA is comprised of only 4 of these, it is there order, in a specific strand of DNA, curled up in a chromosome, that deals with a specific thing. So following, a drug couldn’t do it. And after birth would be extraordinarily tricky procedure, to change every piece of DNA in the trillion of cells of in the body. And we know that if DNA is modified in the human body, Or any body of an animal, it develops cancer. And that could be a huge problem. So at conception would be the best time to do it. Modifying the zygote that is produced. But again, it does seem unethical, because it raises issues of where do we stop at changing the DNA. Selecting eye colour, size, hair texture etc should be left to the original function of genes. I think our meddling can only be bad, with narrowing the gene pool, isolating and removing unwanted genes. This should be left to the work of evolution, not man. But then again I’m a strict evolutionist, and i think it should all be left to nature. For the simple fact i have seen some terrible things humans have done to animals through genetic selecting, like weak bone structure, poor circulation etc. And i think that meddling with genes could, and would almost inevitably lead to a eugenics programme of sorts. Almost remind me of the novel the time machine, where there are two races of people, the thick slow and short people, and the tall think pale intelligent people. Im not saying that this is what would happen, but it does raise large ethical issues.
      But yes, thank you for your comment, and i most certainly agree that this truly is the best time in history to be alive. Our discoveries and knowledge have never been better, and our exploration of the cosmos, our understanding of our history is the best it has ever been, and we are making advance every day. SO yes, we are really living in a golden age of science.

      • I certainly agree about the levels of difficulty involved. But we do know exactly what specific genetic changes cause cancer. It turns out there is a series of mutations required before the pre-cancerous cells turn malignant. It’s not like every genetic change is going to cause cancer.
        The thing is, we used to understand the human body based on metaphors – first fluids and humors, then as we got into the industrial age it was levers, pumps and valves. Now we are looking at the human body at the chemical, electrical and molecular level, or even the informational level. What we can achieve with this kind of sophistication is going to be amazing. I hope I live long enough to see it.
        I don’t share your concerns about ethical issues. My eldest son is a hemophiliac. I can’t really think of an ethical objection to curing him, or to preventing this genetic condition from continuing on to further generations. If you see an ethical problem with this, please tell me about it.

      • Thank you again Harmless for your rebuttal. I agree with you on knowing what causes cancer, and that sadly UV light can do it, which people don’t seem to realise. And yes our knowledge of Cancer grows day by day. And no, not every genetic change is going to cause cancer, I’m well aware of that. My point was to do with adult genetic engineering. A clash of two different genetic materials can cause issues, like skin grafts etc. I also know its a slightly different topic, but it follows the same principle. The body likes itself, and any change to its structuring can lead to immense complications at all levels of the biological system. And yes our understanding of our body has progressed magnificently. I remember reading a very early victorian journal who described, as you said, the body being of forces and energies. And of course progressions from then to todays wonderful knowledge. And yes, I’ve never thought of the body to be anything more than chemistry and physics.
        With regards to haemophiliacs, i agree, treating it is most essential. And there, there can be no ethical objection. This also applies to Huntington’s disease, and the other genetic disorders. I completely concur there. But its when it comes to people engineering children, not just to be healthy, but to be designed in a way that they want. I find that ethically unsound. If we could remove illness by genetic manipulation then theres not to much wrong with that. What does concern me, is genetic integration, and aesthetic manipulation. I tried to put that in the first comment, but i wasn’t clear enough, so i apologise. My concern is splicing genes form other beings into our genes, like they’ve done with animals and agriculture, which can lead to dire problems. I don’t want to live in a world of genetically enhanced humans. this doesn’t include removing faulty genes, or integrating those genes in humans which are good, it includes integrating “foreign” genetics. I dont like the idea of manipulating peoples genetic structure, like face shape, hair colour, eye colour and skin colour. We are human, and should relish in our differences. Not engineer children to be the perfect creature they can imagine. For all children are perfect, and just as fine as they need to be. Natural selection and evolution has worked well for all this time, i think our messing with it, with regards to selectively choosing what we want causes issues, with regards to designer babies. The issue is drawing that line in the sand. what is on the other side of that line that we do not cross. So its the legal issues as well, its the policing of it. There has to be a line in the sand as to what is acceptable, and what is not. I have ive made myself clearer than my first comment. And i am also sorry to hear about your son. And i wish him the best of luck and success with his life.

  2. survival of the fittest means that those that are adaptable live long enough to breed.

    people often confuse “fit” with physically fitness – but it just means, whatever can adapt (aka be fit) for a changed environment or condition

    that said, with our medical advances and ability to control infant mortality rate – there’s simply more people, more breeding and more mutations that end up not being selection factors and spread through the population

    since humans aren’t prey and we have modern medicine to deal with the things that used to kill up – small pox, polio and transmissible diseases

    cancer used to be rare because people died of other things before cancer development in their bodies

    so, now that we’ve controlled TB, leprosy and other things, the harder and rarer diseases are the new normal diseases

    • Thank you for your post again. I am completely aware of the terms survival of the fittest, but purposefully construed further meaning from language. My point was that because we have medicine to keep us alive for so long, our survival of the fittest may be the sickest. In a sense that, since we are able to stop illness threatening life, like asthma, we keep the sickness in the pool. So the survival of the fittest, may not be the ‘fittest.’ Look at lions, the survival of the fittest is the fittest lions, or the most cooperative. That was merely my point, that our caring behaviour and our medicine is allowing faulty or sickening genes to thrive. So as a species we could potentially become a sicker race, because our survival of fittest factor is almost reduced to zero due to us controlling natural selective pressures, like disease. But as Harmless said, there is always genetic engineering to remove these faulty genes. But thats a short while yet before that happens. And in it i also wanted to highlight our selective pressures and how evolution may be changing us. And i completely agree with the disease statement, that some have been eradicated, and the more trickier ones are left.
      Thank you for your comment.

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