Technological and medical advancements have made our lives much easier than those of our ancestors, and we are beginning to pay the price: humanity is getting weaker generation by generation. If we carry on like this, we will become fully dependent on our gizmos and gadgets; leading us down a path of perpetual decline and making us more vulnerable to future catastrophes.
Imagine a population of cavemen. The environment in which they lived was such that only the fittest survived and reproduced. Any cavemen with major shortcomings would not get the opportunity to pass on their genes. In the modern era of medical and technological advancement, we are able to accommodate these shortcomings to such a degree that almost everyone has the opportunity to pass on their genes, regardless of how fit they are. Here are some examples:
- A caveman with poor eyesight would have been a useless hunter; today, any squinty schmuck can make do with a pair of glasses.
- A colour-blind caveman would have been unable to identify poisonous plants or insects; today, any black-and-white Barry can walk into a McDonald’s without risking the consumption of life-threatening foods (unless he eats a fillet-o-fish*).
- Strong, confident cavemen would have had more reproductive success; today, social mechanisms such as arranged marriages mean that any Willy the Wimp can find a partner.
- A prehistoric couple with fertility problems would not have been able to give birth; today, Mr Slow Shooter and Ms Scrambled Eggs can have as many kids as they want with the help of fertility clinics.
- A deaf caveman would not have been able to hear the approach of predators; however today, some couples are choosing to have deaf children ON PURPOSE via embryonic screening. Human society has progressed to a point where some parents can morally justify the decision to impart a disability to their children!
All of these examples illustrate how we are bypassing natural selection. Harmful gene variants will continue to accumulate in our population as we continue to combat their effects via medicine and technology. Eventually we will reach a point where no human is able to survive without some sort of medical intervention. One day a catastrophe such as a nuclear winter or asteroid impact could cause society to collapse, and future humans would find it difficult to survive in this post-apocalyptic anarchy.
The only way to avoid this predicament (without invoking a dangerous eugenics movement) is to use genetics engineering to remove harmful gene variants from humans, and potentially introduce useful ones. Unfortunately, genetic engineering is not on the table at the moment, as discussed by this controversial article:
Given the current social stance towards germline editing: it doesn’t look like we’ll be implementing population-wide editing any time soon. The human genome is like a toddler. It’s acceptable to show a healthy level of interest; but if you start fiddling around with it people are going to respond negatively.
Humanity is getting weaker, but it’s not something we need to worry about. Evolution is a gradual process, so it will take hundreds of years for humanity to become significantly weak, by which time genetic engineering technology will be more than capable of getting us out of the situation.
*Disclaimer: the insinuation that the McDonald’s fillet-o-fish burger is life-threatening is a joke and is not factually correct. Please do not sue me.