When humanity and homo sapiens clash

I should be studying (as always) before heading off to Latin Mass this afternoon, but I had an odd series of ideas yesterday that need hashing out in words. This is what tends to happen when I have a couple of days off from the ridiculously hectic schedule of medicine….

We’ve spent the past 148 years trying to work out the ramifications of Charles Darwin’s dangerous ideas. If all the living creatures around us are the products of natural selection, then, likely, so are we. The mechanism behind the variation which enables nature to select for the fittest is simple enough: changes in DNA produce changes in proteins that result in changes in function. These changes are almost always deleterious, but at least theoretically, a change in protein structure could enhance efficiency or produce new functions. Over time, as creatures encounter changing environments and compete with each other, various changes in their genetic material are selected for and maintained down the generations. It’s an elegant theory, one that can explain how the vast array of biological life came to be. Yes, it has problems, particularly with explaining large-scale changes and speciation, but I’m not interested–at least not in this essay–in exploring the whole evolution-vs.-creation controversy.

But what about the timescale of evolution? How fast can things biologically change? Organisms with short generation times or error-prone genetic replication systems can evolve remarkably rapidly. Take, for example, the production of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Or, if we consider viruses to be alive, the champion evolver is the constantly changing HIV virus that stays one step ahead of our immune systems. A bacterial species that doubles in number every couple of hours can adapt genetically to almost any environmental change. But what about us? Our 70+ year life expectancy and long generation times mean that it would take thousands of years to produce the same changes that bacterial populations undergo in a matter of days. Are those changes possible? Sure. They’re even likely.

However, mankind throws a wrench into the mechanism by being creative. We think, ponder, discover, invent at a rate that far surpasses generational genetic changes. While Cro-Magnon Man and I are, on a genetic and biological level, essentially identical, our worlds are radically different, not because of biological evolution, but because of our abilities as sub-creators. Our bodies cannot keep pace with our minds–especially not with the rapidly accelerating rate of technological change over the past hundred years. What ramifications might that have? There are countless possibilities: I’ll focus on a few.

The human body, for all the vast array of diseases to which it is subject, is a finely tuned machine. Left to its own devices, it is fairly good at healing itself and fighting off any number of microscopic and macroscopic invaders. We creators think we can enhance things, though. Sometimes we can, but not without unforeseen consequences. Why is it that there is an epidemic of allergies and autoimmune diseases in the developed world? I pin the blame on two advances: hygiene and immunization. Would I take either of those back? Of course not, but our immune systems, from a biological angle, are intended to combat bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, etc. If we have a lower burden of those, I suspect that immune cells have a higher chance of attacking things that they shouldn’t–like things in our own bodies–or are hypersensitive to external things that shouldn’t be a bother–like cat dander. I wouldn’t trade millions of bothersome allergies for millions of deaths from infection, but the principle holds: we’ve short-circuited a slow evolutionary process and have to face the reality that our bodies react to our creations in less than ideal ways.

Allergies and autoimmunity are physical examples of what happens when we meddle with our biological selves, but what about the costs of modern technological society on a more abstract level? I have, as usual, more questions than answers. Is our modern plague of depression, anxiety, and mental illness the result of, quite simply, not having to deal daily with what our ancestors bravely faced: death or survival? Are we consumed with ourselves because we’re insulated from stark reality? Do we fear death more, and as a result quixotically seek physical immortality, because we can push the reality of our mortality out of our minds for extended periods of time? Are we losing belief in God because we surround ourselves with our own creations? Has our incredible store of knowledge about things led to a paradoxical loss of understanding of ourselves?

The problem is the same whether you believe that we are the special creations of God or the result of millions of years of evolution–or both. It is undeniable: we biologically cannot adapt at the same pace at which modern human society is changing. Genetics won’t allow it. We’re cavemen in modern garb (with apologies to Geico). Does that mean I want to turn back the clock and return to the Stone Age? Far from it. Modern medicine and science have changed our lives for the better. But we ought to step back and think about why we react as we do to modernity. Look beyond the technology that surrounds us to the fact of death. Look past the anxiety that can consume us and accept that, despite appearances to the contrary, we really can’t control everything. We have just postponed and disguised the inevitable by our creations. Know thyself, not just the world around.

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