Our Approach Toward Living Is Killing Us
In modern times, science has bled us of our evolutionary biological ability to live, unaided. While this speaks to our ingenuity, there is also a massive hidden cost.
It’s paradoxical. There’s no other way to describe it. The one thing that life guarantees us, other than being born, is that we will die. Between these two events, our lives unfold. The problem is that until science came along, our attitude toward dying was healthy. We knew it would happen, at some point. We accepted this fact. We planned for its eventuality. We built narratives that drew death into life’s other rituals, framing them in a larger context. We were grateful for the time we were given. And we carried on.
To do otherwise was as fruitless as it was misdirected.
Today, the world looks very, very different. We wage war against Time itself, as it pertains to our decay and death. We are panicked about the possibility that we, too, might die. And so, we throw everything we possibly can at denying the signs or specter of our own aging and decay—let alone acute existential threats—in the hopes of cheating or at least forestalling the inevitable.
I get it; nobody wants to die, and we have an arsenal at our disposal to make us look and feel as though we are in control of our own demise. But. The investment we now make in building a healthy relationship with the “big immutable truth” has dwindled to approximately zero.
Which is the issue.
Last May, I mused about death in a piece called Playing God. Then, I wrote:
“Our relationship to all three topics [health, sickness and death] is broken, and for most of human history, it wasn’t. We used to live like every other animal that unchecked evolution created, and death was accepted as part of the story we wove about meaning. As a result, we used to be okay with it instead of devastated — as though we had no idea it was coming, when in fact it’s the one thing we’ve always known would. Our broken relationship to sickness and death is both a human failure to accept that we are creatures of Nature, ebbing and flowing with the rest of the ecosystem beyond our absolute control, and a governmental failure to safeguard people’s right to choose a great number of things related to one’s living, and dying.”
In that article, I focused on governments’ and religions’ unwillingness to recognize the primacy of dignity in self-determination; that they overwhelmingly mandate and enforce ideological biases, rather than respect that one’s death — more than anything else — is something no outsider to one’s inner life should have the right to judge uninvited, let alone legislate.
Although nothing’s changed since then, I’m interested in probing a different dimension of life on Earth. Specifically, our compulsion to medically stave off death for as many people as science will permit, for as long as possible; and why this decision, while noble and human, is short-sighted, because for as long as we remain biological, our actions are tantamount to loading up the proverbial camel’s back without consideration for the straw that will break it.
Losing the Forest for the Trees
Think of forest fires. These are normal, healthy aspects of arboreal self-maintenance. Canada — one of the world’s emptiest, and most tree-covered places — prizes its forests economically and ecologically. The government’s Natural Resources Canada website explains that “forest fires, insect and disease outbreaks, among other threats are all part of the natural life cycle of the forest, and most often helps the forest to renew itself.” It further highlights the removal of old and weak trees, and reductions to overcrowding, as keys to improving the health of the ecosystem — the whole.
Where Man has moved into or alongside forests, destroying parts of them in the process, we have waged war on Nature itself to prevent fires, in order to protect our investments. Just look at California or Australia, today; both seem to be perennially on fire. There’s a clear reason for this development. In standing in Nature’s way, we are loading up the camel’s back. Inevitably, the forests will burn, because they were designed to. They must. The death of individual trees — and even swaths of the forest itself — are prerequisites to safeguarding the longitudinal health of the ecosystem — once again, the whole.
Life — by which I mean every single living organism on Earth — is a relentless and unending succession of perpetual mutations, in which only one thing carries any meaning whatsoever — survival. But. Survival isn’t measured by the individual. It’s measured by the system amidst which the life of the individual unfolds, over time.
The expression “survival of the fittest” has been severely perverted. Coined by Herbert Spencer to adapt and apply Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to human societies, Herbert wrote things that we would consider heretical today:
“All legislation which assists the people in the satisfaction of their natural wants — which provides a fund for their maintenance in illness and old age, educates their children, takes care of their religious instruction, looks after their bodily health, or in any other way does for them what they may be fairly expected to do for themselves, arises from a radically wrong understanding of human existence. It wholly neglects the condition of man’s earthly being, and altogether loses sight of one of the great and universal laws of creation.
[It] defeats its own end. Instead of diminishing suffering, it eventually increases it. It favours the multiplication of those worst fitted for existence, and, by consequence, hinders the multiplication of those best fitted for existence — leaving, as it does, less room for them…”
You’re disgusted, right? Of course you are. It’s 2021, not 1851.
He’s also not wrong. Our disgust isn’t that we think he’s crazy; it’s that we think he’s heartless.
Last year, an appraisal of Spencer’s life by Smithsonian Magazine, to mark his 200th birthday, acknowledged that many scholars and the public at large considered his views “an odious misapplication of Darwinian thinking in defense of political doctrines that range from callous to heinous,” before going on to further elucidate that it is the misunderstanding of his views that has led to some of the world’s most infamous eugenic experiments and destructive capitalist impulses.
Spencer’s views were far less grandiose than, say, Hitler’s. He was saying, effectively, that the attempt to prevent nature from taking its course weakened the prospects of society as a whole, not unlike forests, or any other multi-organism system. He argued that “suffering, although it harms the individual, benefits society at large; it is part of Nature’s ‘plan’ and leads to improvement over time.”
He was referring to genetics. I’ll get to that toward the end.
Spencer’s crime, in truth, was his unwillingness to become swayed by emotional ties to any one outcome, or person, in the near term. Rather, he was unwavering in his focus on the larger implications of our decisions: what lay down the road, rather than in front of us.
Therein lay his “odiousness”.
A Modern Scourge
The world went into hiding a year ago, most recently. The last time this happened, in 1918, 50,000,000 humans perished — about 3% of the global population. Those who survived didn’t do so because of science, which was frankly still nascent, but because their biological systems were able to mitigate the pathogenic onslaught, thereby establishing a symbiotic relationship in the process — by default.
I know it’s weird to think of surviving disease as a partnership, but it is. Pathogens survive by claiming people whose systems succumb to them, while people survive by having systems that can survive the onslaught. In each case, genes are passed onto the next generation of bacteria or humans, who will then presumably stand a better chance of surviving a similar battle. In a continual contest for survival, random genetic mutation, either innate or epigenetic (influenced by the environment), conspires to keep the contest interesting. Nature, if anything, doesn’t sit still. It is in a continual state of adaptation, testing, and reinvention. None of it is guided, but mutation doesn’t need a hand to guide it. All that matters is, will this mutation change the outcome?
The fact that Nature is relentless is the key point I’m trying to make. For as long as we remain biological, our biology will continually be tested, just as it is, today.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thus far infected 107 million (or 1.4% of humans), of whom 2.3 million (or 3/100ths of 1% of us) have died, as of this writing. And while we’re still dying, the death rate is slowing, because science has created a number of short-term mitigations and salves. It’s likely — to channel the late Hans Rosling, author of the uplifting Factfulness — that we will fare increasingly better over time at surviving, as science advances, reaching more corners of the world.
So, humans may yet prevail over Nature because we, too, adapt alongside it — if not biologically, then at least, intellectually — creatively.
But the fact remains: Nature will continue its relentless onslaught against us, because like a forest that burns, Nature has determined that humans must, too.
Let’s run two scenarios. In Scenario 1, a pathogen plows through humanity unchecked, and as happened in 1918, 3% of us die. Eventually, the pathogen claims everyone it can before running its course — which means running out of “food”. 97% of humans go on, without fear of dying, because something in their biology has proven able to “win the bacterial contest”. In Scenario 2, a pathogen begins much the same way, but science intervenes, sending humans into hiding, enlisting an army of researchers, laboratories, health care workers, couriers, cooks, militaries and politicians to mitigate the impact of a virus, unopposed. Thus just 1/100th of those who perished in Scenario 1 succumb. Like today.
Which is better?
Well, obviously, the 250 million more humans who remain alive in Scenario 2 win, as do their families and those whose lives benefit from their presence and contributions. Science, too, wins, because humans learn more about how to fight Nature through collaboration, overcoming innate xenophobia and selfishness to reach across sovereign borders and combine our resources in the name of mutual survival — because we must, to safeguard that outcome.
Said another way, in Scenario 2, the “trees” win.
But what of the other 97% of the “forest” — the humans who’d have fared well regardless, biologically, and who may now suffer, or die, in the mid- or long term, from job loss; or decimation of their retirement (food, medical, housing) funds; or loss of income due to lack of customers, thereby threatening food and shelter security, or the education of a generation, thereby cheating their future prospects. What about those who couldn’t visit dying loved ones, and so they did, all alone?
What about those — here’s where it gets crazy — whose biology would’ve survived the pathogenic battle just fine, but whose lives will be at risk next time, when the pathogen mutates in the body of someone science kept alive, into a super-pathogen that can naturally overcome not just 3% of the population, but 10%, or 20%, or 50% of it? That is, when, like a forest whose cyclical fires have been kept at bay for long enough, we have set the stage for a conflagration that would decimate the entire forest, much as is happening in the literal forests today?
That—to continue the forest metaphor—if we forestall its burn for long enough, the accumulation of tinder and fuel that would’ve normally been cleared out regularly, and thus contained, now provides the next fire with enough material to rage until nothing stands?
This is how Nature works, whether or not we like it.
At what point do we consider the long-term impacts of our actions, and that by keeping disease at bay, we are quite possibly accelerating or empowering its adaptation, seeding the conditions that will allow it to plow through a population rife with people who have little to no biological equipment to innately resist it?
At what point do we consider ourselves complicit in longitudinal human death?
You’re deeply offended, at this point, I know. I’m still just asking questions.
Darwin himself decried Herbert’s use of “survival of the fittest” as cross-purposes with his own research. It’s funny, because Herbert’s inspiration was Darwin. In his “Sympathy Hypothesis,” Darwin wrote:
“Those communities which include the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.”
Sympathy, to Darwin, meant empathy, altruism, or compassion. He called compassion “the almost ever-present instinct” that leads to the long-term success of not just humans, but any species.
Yet Darwin himself refused to entertain “what ifs”, projecting future potential outcomes of each survivalist move. He kept to his “swim lane” of observation of what was, not what could be. For that, we have the world’s chess grandmasters, able to see as much as 15–20 moves ahead and calculate multiple permutations with each move that could lead to very different outcomes: their (game) survival, or death. These grandmasters are quantum thinkers, allowing each potential “truth” to live out its life in their heads, and formulate a number of contingency plans along the way.
In the end, there is no solid answer to my question about the long-term impacts of keeping as many people alive at all costs. Either 250 million people are alive and can rejoice due to science, or perhaps millions more will perish in the future because of that move. Certainly, the real costs to jobs, health, and future wellbeing are all measurable, and being measured daily. With that said, it is not difficult to see how the impact of our global actions today, with regard to COVID-19, will challenge — if not destroy — future lives, both qualitatively and decisively.
Back to my initial thoughts: we have turned our backs on death itself and excluded it from our engagement with life. In doing so, we have robbed it of all meaning, so that death has become, in our perverse narrative, a failure of human ingenuity to prevent its manifestation, rather than the foregone conclusion that it always was, before we interpreted it.
Our relationship with death bears little resemblance to either our own history, or today’s reality for those who still live beyond science’s reach.
Draco-Thracians laughed and celebrated at funerals and cried at births. They believed birth brought newborns “into a world full of sorrow,” while death released them to rejoin their god, Salmoxis. Today’s Jains aren’t much different: they throw a Mahotsava to celebrate the “new life” the departed will find and live, in reincarnation. The 3-day Japanese holiday Obon returns spirits of ancestors to the family home, every August. To these cultures, as others, life is a cycle, not a line with a finite beginning and end; and so, there is nothing to mourn. Pretty much all indigenous cultures feel the same way. Death is not to be mourned, because it is neither final, nor are those who passed fully gone.
The stinging irony is that 86% of humans alive today subscribe to one religion or another that for which the concept of an afterlife is a central tenet. Life, on paper, is a cycle. We accept this for every non-human organism on the planet, in bloody reality (just look at what we do to cows). The sticking point, as it were, is us. So, as I wrote in May, “it would seem we either don’t truly believe what we purport to, or else our corporeal brains are incapable of reconciling the abstraction of ‘eternal life’ with the flesh-and-blood pain of ‘here and now.”
Moreover, there are those who still live hand to mouth, for whom science is a foreign concept.
UC Berkeley anthropology professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes, the author of the book Death Without Weeping, writes, “Motherly love is something of a bourgeois myth, a luxury for those who can reasonably expect, as [the women in Brazilian favelas that she spent 25 years studying] cannot, that their infants will live.” We can read her work two ways. It’s either tragic that the world’s extreme poor have no access to life-saving practices; or it’s freeing that for them, death is not only everywhere, it is woven into the narrative fabric of their existence, by necessity. And so, they fare better in accepting it than we do.
In the modern West, full of researchers, hospitals, governmental interventions, laws and enforcement, and most importantly, money, sickness, disease and death are all “about as taboo as subjects get,” I wrote in May. “They’re not part of the national discourse, or curriculum; there’s no broad agreement, and judging by a half-century of personal interactions, it seems most individuals are neither comfortable speaking about them, or are too emotionally invested to do so without making it deeply personal. Sickness, disease and death are, sadly, conversation enders.”
In fact, when the holy bible of medicine, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, designates grief as a mental illness, which it has, it’s time to wake up to reality.
It’s our relationship to death that is broken.
What to Do?
Science will not stop plowing ahead, in a bid to control Nature. We all know it! Our nature won’t allow that. Nor will we stop being, as Darwin observed, compassionate creatures, doing everything in our power not only to slow or stop our own decay, but that of everyone within our sphere of influence (at least, the ones we like). Our immediate survival depends on our compassion, too. But neither will Nature stop throwing challenges at us, pathogenically. In fact, bacteria are Nature’s reigning evolutionary champions. For one, they grow in just 20 minutes, in lieu of 20 years, for us. That means, in 20 years, bacteria have spawned 525,000 generations to humans’ one — enough for helpful mutations to spread and become dominant. Second, they can share DNA, even across species. That includes mutations that would normally kill one bacterium but let another pass by, unharmed. Thus advantageous mutations spread quickly, horizontally.
So how, then, might this influence our thinking about death and evolution?
As I said, we’re not going to stop fighting nature, in spite of the fact that it will outpace us for as long as we remain purely biological creatures. With that said, our relationship to dying could use a rewrite. We can look to history for that: begin new narratives that accept it will happen, and focus on how best to use the time on Earth we have, to do good, and make our peace.
But like a forest left unable to burn itself, whose next inevitable fire clears not only the annual brush, but a decade or more’s worth, killing trees that would’ve otherwise remain unscathed in a smaller blaze, a human population that “cheats death” for too long will also fall prey, eventually, to a super-pathogen. COVID-19 is the latest. We have recorded 282 of them since the first, in Babylon — one for every 11.4 years, on average.
Just 700 years ago, the Black Death handed human history its most lethal plague. In all, one third of Europeans died, and a quarter of all humans. It took 200 years for the world’s population to return to its pre-plague numbers. That’s a lot, when measured in individual lives, and even generations. At the same time, it’s nothing, in the arc of humanity.
Still: there’s a lot to chew on. Our relationship with death has turned it into a mental illness. Our unwillingness to weave it into the narrative of our lives conspires to blind us to the full measure of our actions, in the quantum realm. A life saved may mean a thousand lives ruined, for those to whom the costs are enough to overcome them. And a population for whom scientific fortitude replaces biological fitness is a population waiting to be overcome in spectacular fashion, the first time our efforts fail.
Nature always wins.
A fascinating thing happened after the Black Death. Pathogenic genomic surveillance expert, and Director of the Global Health Initiative at the Broad Institute, Dr. Bronwyn MacInnis, Ph.D., explains that the fraction of Europeans with a mutant version of a gene called CCR5 jumped from a prevalence of 1 in 40,000 to 1 in 10, within just one human generation. That’s a four thousandfold increase in prevalence. Outside of Europe, the mutation frequency remained low.
It turns out that the genetic resistance that European survivors gained from handing down the mutated CCR5 gene that helped them to survive an apocalypse has also increases their natural genetic resistance—700 years later—to HIV, which has claimed 35 million lives, so far, as another one of the deadliest plagues in history.
What she’s saying is, Europeans are less likely to succumb to HIV today than non-Europeans, because the Black Plague conferred an evolutionary genetic advantage to them, 700 years ago.
That ain’t nothin’. And it’s a quantum leap.
Dr. MacInnis’ conclusion? “Without all of this death, evolution is just too slow. Too slow to be helpful in the short term, or even for generations and generations to come.” She adds, referencing a future in which science can alter human DNA, including our ability to fight disease genetically, “Until then, we’ll have to [let] nature and time run their course.”
Today, science and biology are still mostly at odds. Modern societies wage laboratory wars against pathogens in the short term, while humans pay the ultimate price of their own fitness in the long term.
Bluntly put, science has largely put the brakes on humans’ evolution, where Nature is still running full tilt. That attitude, I believe, has sealed the fate of humanity. Without science, henceforth, the outcomes of Nature’s evolutionary game will become increasingly catastrophic. At some point in the mid-term, humans will have no natural defenses against organisms that have undergone millions of generations of evolution, in the interim.
we are already too clean. It’s a funny thought, but our avoidance of all things pathogenic has already led to a dramatic rise in allergies, skin conditions, autoimmune diseases and inflammatory bowel disorders, according to most scientists who study these things, in the U.S. and the U.K.
It’s time to rewrite our narratives, or change our tactics. But until that chapter of human history is written, it’s time to reconsider the impact of our actions on biology. Look what we learned about the wolves in Yellowstone, when we re-introduced them long after our early attempt to eradicate them. We are not “above” evolution: we are part of it. So, until our cerebral cortexes are uploaded into a silicon server and we ‘shed our mortal coil’, we need to engage in the hard work of re-establishing our relationship to sickness and death, because, in my view, we are going about it in the wrong way.
And for our hubris, we are setting up future generations for a hell of a ride.