THE 55: Further Introductory Notes
If you are a person who is instinctively inclined to skepticism, and is not an evolutionary biologist, let me give you an alternative way of approaching the 55 Theses.
Repeatedly in the history of our species, we have come up against key technological limits. The first proto-humans developed the core adaptation of technology some four or five million years ago. That is, they were the first species to adopt the use of hand-held tools, extensive food preparation, and the like to escape the basic animal niche based on built-in weapons and raw foods. Ever since, our evolutionary history and our biological fitness have been determined by our use of technology.
For the first few million years of our evolution, we were chiefly gatherers and scavengers, subsisting on a varied diet. We obtained access to food by using digging and cutting implements, and we fostered our digestion of that food by cleaning, pounding, cooking, and otherwise preparing it. During that time we evolved an increased capacity to digest starches, probably from the consumption of underground storage organs, like cooked tubers. We evolved adaptations for walking efficiently and handling our tools effectively.
Next our immediate ancestors spent one or two million years evolving adaptations for hunting, which was added to our already diverse repertoire of behavioral adaptations for finding food. During this period, we became markedly more intelligent than all other animals for the first time, in part because we could get the nutrients to build and sustain large brains. During this period our bodies adapted to high levels of meat and animal fat consumption.
Quite recently, evolutionarily speaking, some human populations adopted the systematic cultivation of grass species, like wheat, and the husbandry of other mammals for their milk. Such populations were then strongly selected for physiological adaptations to an evolutionarily novel diet.
This is a complicated evolutionary history, with three significant changes of direction. Taking this complex evolutionary history into account requires a deep understanding of how natural selection does, and does not, produce effective biological adaptations. Such adaptations, and their limitations, determine human health.
Unfortunately, these evolutionary foundations for human health have been generally neglected by most biologists. The medical establishment has been dominated by the reductionist cell-molecular wing of biology, which has had limited interest in evolutionary research, and even less understanding of its results. Thus extremely crude views of the evolutionary foundations of human health have prevailed in medical schools, and in the practice of medicine. On the other hand, the very few evolutionary biologists who work in the universities of our time have paid little attention to the foundations of medicine. There are too few of us, we generally feel, so we focus on sustaining the flickering fires of our field against the prevailing intellectual darkness of present-day biology.
The consequences of this failure to engage with the evolutionary foundations of human health are all around us. Modern-day medicine is effective when it is confronting threats that are not complicated evolutionarily, such as mechanical injuries and some acute infections. But it has singularly failed to address the majority of ailments that now impinge on the world’s population, from the new epidemic of type 2 diabetes to rampant cardiovascular disease and cancer. Against the chronic diseases of our time, medicine has tried remedies from the palliative to the heroic. But cure and prevention have been generally wanting.
The result is an economic and political calamity. Few of the industrialized economies have a fiscal solution for the tidal wave of aging and impaired adults that is hitting them. When a large fraction of adults cannot work because of chronic disease, their retirement from the work-force and the expense of their ineffective medical treatment are not affordable.
The only way to escape this aging tsunami is to bring about a radical solution to the medical problems of aging, where the insight that this is the key systemic problem facing most countries is spreading rapidly at this moment. The problem facing us now is how to achieve this solution.
Molecular and cell biologists propose that we increase the resources devoted to their ad hoc scrambling after a solution to the aging problem. After decades of failure to make much scientific progress, they want even more resources to continue down their path of futility, where aging is concerned.
At the same time as the reductionist biological orthodoxy has singularly failed to scientifically solve the problem of aging, evolutionary biology has made rapid, radical, and sustained progress with the same scientific puzzle. Preventing us from bringing evolutionary biology’s scientific resources to bear on the practical problems of human aging, as the reductionist biomedical establishment has done, will ensure economic and political catastrophe.
In the 55 Theses themselves, I outline an alternative view of health based on evolutionary research. In the ancillary explanatory material that accompanies these theses, I attempt to provide means of unpacking and understanding the 55 for those who are not evolutionary biologists. Once the 55 have been discussed widely and openly, we can see if the current vested interests can be circumvented in order to rescue our health and our political economies.