A Little Perspective From the Deep Past

The growth in health, welfare, and wealth of 18th century Europe was a glittering spire when set against any measure of the grand history of humanity. A pinnacle set abruptly at the end of a very long, very gentle upward slope. Consider that, as noted at In Search of Enlightenment:

Prehistoric human remains have never revealed individuals older than about 50 years of age, and humans had a life expectancy at birth of 30 years or less for more than 99.9% of the time that we have inhabited this planet.

Disease, parasitism, pain, suffering, and a short life is the unvarnished and absolutely natural human condition, absent our marvelous talent for progress. That talent, compounded over the course of history, ensured that the 18th century was a time of great change and increasing life spans. But by the year 1900, those earlier heights of medicine and wealth were shown to be mere foothills and swamps of ignorance in comparison to the new knowledge won by scientific and medical pioneers. Fast forward another hundred years, to our present age, and 1900 now seems like a dim echo of a pastoral past, a quaint era of ignorance, crude medicine, lives cut short by untreatable age-related disease, and earnest poverty - all captured for posterity in fading black and white photographs.

Yet even with all this layered history of progress to look back on, there are a great many people who think that the results of our present medical technology represent an apex of sorts. They think we stand at the top, or somewhere near it, here and now. You don't have to go far to find folk who believe that the healthy human life span will not be greatly increased any time soon, for example. To my eyes, that is a point of view that just hasn't been thought through.

These things have to be looked at in context. This is a roaring age of progress, and each new generation stands that much higher upon the spire we are building.

Comments

But this assumes that advances in medicine will continue, which is an unlikely outcome if the world's last major medical market economy (the US) converts to government run health care.

Letting people die is much cheaper than developing new drugs and treatments which are almost always initially expensive, if for no other reason than the cost of proving them safe and effective.

Posted by: Lina Inverse at May 10th, 2010 4:52 PM

You make it sound as if the only place in the world contributing to the development of medicine is the US, and that the criteria for this to happen is to bleed individuals dry with the cost for treatments.

That is a red herring. Those developing medical technology will always get paid, and this payment is the incentive to continue the development.
Also even if all direct research into medicine were to halt immideatly we'd still have all other fields of science marching on as usual, the cross-disciplinary benefits derived from these other fields are very significant, it is in fact the main driving force as medicine mainly is a derivate science: the adaptation of other technologies to promote and maintain health.

Posted by: none at May 11th, 2010 3:11 AM

Molecular nanotechnology is likely to provide a revolution in medicine in the next several decades.

Posted by: Thomas Mazanec at May 11th, 2010 4:37 AM

Technological and medical progress only benefited the wealthy minority in the past, and also in the present and the future, unless in the future we will also have social progress -- meaning social medicine which is free for everyone who needs it.

Reason, you are right that humanity is still at the bottom of medical progress because maximum lifespan has not increased yet. We, humans, are still in dark ages of desease, aging and death.

The more we know, the more we realize how much we don't know. Progress must be measured by the final goal that we want to achieve. The final goal is immortality and we are still veryyy far from it.

Posted by: nikki at May 12th, 2010 4:58 PM

The 18th century was the century from 1700 to 1799.

Posted by: kevin at May 16th, 2010 10:35 PM

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