Medical and technological advancements have led to a drastic reduction of worldwide infant mortality and an increased life expectancy. Because of this, far more people are able to reach reproductive age, thus maintaining “unfit” genetic traits in our population that would otherwise be weeded out by natural selection. Considering the consequences of these issues and devising solutions for them can help us overcome the future unsustainable costs for national healthcare systems.
Up until about two centuries ago, humans lived shorter lives than today (30-40 years versus 70 years) and infants often struggled to survive, even in very advanced regions of the world.
However, the mortality of infants and people affected by diseases has drastically dropped following the advent of antibiotics, the generation of functional and effective drugs, and advancements in biomedical engineering technologies and in surgical practices.
These are doubtless great achievements for our society.
At the same time however, our world is facing unprecedented population growth, partially due to the worldwide increase in life expectancy. This indirectly causes huge costs for national healthcare systems.
On a theoretical basis, a large population is not problematic if people are healthy and wealthy. In this idealistic scenario, people live well and autonomously until they suddenly die.
However, the reality is rather different: while human lives last increasingly longer, the time spent fighting diseases during these lives is also increasing. In the Western world, the presence of several diseases is increasing in our population (for example melanoma skin cancer (1)), as many are associated with ageing.
At the current time, an increased number of newborn babies, unable to survive at any other time of human history, are brought into this world and then guided through their early years thanks to medicines, including antibiotics.
In evolutionary terms, just one century ago a tremendous number of currently living individuals would not have been able to reach reproductive age. This implies that “natural” forces are – statistically speaking – not selecting against “weaker traits”. Rather, “anthropic” forces are currently shaping the future of the human species.
To put it in very simple words, humans are becoming weaker and weaker at a very fast pace.
With available technology and knowledge, we do not hesitate to take action to save lives, moved by the human feelings of compassion, care, and love for others.
But this possibility comes at a cost: statistically, those “saved” human beings may have an increased tendency to develop diseases later on in their lives, making them more and more dependent on medical technologies and drugs. Future generations may become even weaker, solely relying on anthropic technology to survive our natural world. Unfortunately, these last assertions are difficult to prove, as we are all the subjects of an enormous human experiment, with results yet to be revealed.
If this turns out to be true, it will have a double effect: firstly, it may force our research to maintain a very fast rate of new discoveries, constantly producing more efficient drugs, discovering new molecules, and developing new technologies; secondly, curing people may become even more necessary, and thus even more costly. With an enormous population, this could turn out to be extremely problematic, especially considering that humans will already have to pay a vast price for their environmental negligence.
The topic of this article is a very sensitive one, that is open to misinterpretation, as often, in history, people considered as weaker have been marginalized or even persecuted. For this reason, we have to clarify some important aspects of the argument:
- Every life is important, and valuable: what has been said so far simply reflects a realistic scenario. Nobody should make the huge mistake of thinking that weak people are a burden for our society.
However, we should be fully aware of the consequences of our actions. The more we move away from a natural world and the more we manipulate the system we live in, the more consequences we have to expect. We are an explorative and smart species, but we have to understand that these features may not be fit for the world we live in, and may be disadvantageous for our species in evolutionary terms, as they might lead to our extinction (read more on this).
- If saving lives and allowing people to live happily and healthily is our primary goal, why should we care so much about the costs?
We should care because the benefits could only last for a very short time. Any short-term benefit may indeed translate into a long-term catastrophe.
Healthcare costs are among the major economic burdens for countries. Increasingly, older populations require the nation states in which they live to have a very efficient and well-maintained healthcare system, but even advanced countries are currently struggling to keep up the standards. If the costs exceed a certain threshold, we can imagine states investing less money on healthcare, hospitals, and research. Eventually, the decreasing levels of infant mortality may rise again, and the life expectancy of individuals may drop considerably.
What should we do?
Everybody believes that saving lives is the best thing to do. And indeed, this is certainly the best thing to do.
The short-term consequence of it is rather simple: we are saving lives.
However, we should also discuss the long-term consequences and raise awareness about the fact that our species might be getting weaker over time and more and more dependent on our intellect and technology.
Our society is characterized by an infinite trust in our intellectual abilities to bring progress and solutions in order to overcome any difficult situation.
We are unable – as history has proven many times – to see the big picture, the long-term consequences of our actions. The immediate reward of any technological advancement overshadows the damaging potential of it. When this is unveiled, we are forced to think of other solutions to overcome the issue (this has been proven true in several cases, from the development of atomic energy to the use of asbestos).
We may indeed be able to solve this problem by increasingly progressing our knowledge and understanding of nature. But by relying only on these methods, we cannot be certain of success.
In conclusion, governments should be investing considerable amounts into research. At the same time, a worldwide “scientific ethics” body should be established to continuously discuss the long-term consequences of the use – or misuse – of any sort of new technology.
- Ali, Z. et al., “Melanoma epidemiology, biology and prognosis”, EJC Suppl., 2013.