Does Medicine/Social Class Screw up Evolution?

Evolution in its most basic sense is survival of the fittest, correct? So why is it that we treat illness and defects, and let humans procreate that wouldn’t naturally be able to?

You could argue that medicine and science are part of our evolution, and I would probably agree. But is there any evidence that we might be doing some damage to our species because we’re no longer allowing people with disease and defect die, and instead allowing them to procreate and have offspring.

Is this increased diversity with somewhat malignant DNA improving or hindering our species?

Also if science and medicine are part of evolution because of how it enables humans to beat nature, what about money? Money is also a big factor on whether you end up procreating, or at least in deciding who you get to mate with.

How much is our social class system affecting our evolution?

The trap you fall into is unstated, but it’s there - you’re assuming there is some sort of goal or direction to evolution. But really, there’s no such thing. We continue to evolve, as and when we will. That’s how evolution works. It never, ever stops.

But for our species, are the results beneficial or not? That’s more of a valid question.

I’d say not at all detrimental, or it is, in fact, beneficial. Most every person with a genetic defect who is allowed to live by medical means, is a modern western citizen. As such, one would hope they were in a position to contribute that little bit extra to society overall, in a way their dead corpse wouldn’t. So the nett benefit is non-zero. And it is those modern Western societies that provide for the overall survival of our species in a way other societies couldn’t - by getting us the hell off this doomed rock in the future.

Now, the alternatives, as I see them, are either passive or active eugenics. It could be argued that eugenics would be a benefit, but I have one simple answer to that:
Steven Hawking. Case closed.

Not really, that’s more of a political phrase from social darwinists. What evolution is about is the propagation of genes that are good at getting themselves reproduced, over and over. The family of skinny weaklings who look out for each other and make sure that their progeny survive long enough to have children themselves are more successful in evolutionary terms that the tough, muscular family that kills its weaker children and in the long term produces fewer children or dies out.

Because people are of a higher moral order than their genes. And because evolution is a description of how biology works, not a moral imperative. Interfering with evolution by saving the sick is no more immoral than interfering with gravity by standing up.

Not much; human culture changes so fast that such fine details aren’t likely to have much effect on evolution. The fact that human societies always have one has an effect I’m sure; but something that changes again and again over the generations like the specifics of that system are likely to just be noise.

Or genetic engineering. What we are looking at is an eyeblink of history ( on the timescale human evolution works on ), after modern medicine lets people live who would otherwise die, and before genetic engineering simply erases those defects.

Modern medicine isn’t going to affect our evolution, because it won’t have time.

Why do you hate near sighted people?

There’s no good reason to look at nature for morality. In “nature”, if you break a leg, you’re going to die - probably painfully and slowly, unless some predator comes along that manages to speed the process up by a bit. There’s no upside to that.

As for evolution; it’ll still work. It may not be working in the direction that you personally prefer, but if we don’t need natural 20/20 vision in our modern society, then people who need (and can get) glasses are every bit as fit as the people who don’t. Evolutionary fitness is relative to the environment, it’s not some absolute standard.

To that I would say we are certainly not making those future gene engineers’ lives any easier. :wink:

We’re a product of evolution, but we don’t have to co-operate with it. Alleviating suffering is more important to most of us than some vague notion of our genetic fitness as a race.

In any case, genetic fitness is only relevant in the context of a species’ environment. For example, I suffer from a common genetic defect, I am quite badly short-sighted. In a hunter-gatherer society, this would be a significant handicap, and would impact my ability to find food, avoid predators and catch prey. It would be less of a problem in an agricultural society, my eye-sight is good enough to successfully hunt a carrot.

Plenty of diseases don’t give a rip how ‘fit’ you are. Polio, for instance, seemed to strike anyone. Can’t see how developing a cure affects evolution in a case like that.

Looks like you’re a recent member of this board, so I’ll add that we typically have this debate every year or so. You might want to search for some earlier debates and see how they went.

Let’s compare humans and chimps, our closest relatives. There are about 6,000,000,000 humans on the planet. There are about 100,000 chimps living in the wild. Which would you call the more successful species? Seems like the “bad” genes aren’t crowding out the “good” ones in our species.

There is no absolute “fitness” that evolution is pushing us toward–it’s an entirely environment-dependent function. Ten thousand years ago, the environment did not include chemicals that were delivered externally and discouraged bacterial and viral infection. Now we do. If some humans are biologically programmed to take advantage of that new environment–by not wasting as much energy, time, and risk in investing in these unnecessary features–they are fitter creatures if they reproduce more, ipso facto. Even if they’re poor scrawny nerds who are allergic to everything.

For instance, in a more drastic case: places where anti-malarials have been introduced probably show a decrease in the sickle cell allele, because genetic populations respond to changes in the environment and the benefit of increased resistance no longer outweighs the cost of putting energy into creating defective red blood cells.

Talking about us escaping evolution engages in the naturalistic fallacy–it privileges some imagined true environment over our actual one that’s arisen from human interaction. On top of that, it treats the environment before human introduction as something static, when it really was a constantly changing.

“Survival of the fittest” is, strictly speaking, a tautology. “Fitness” in this sense means success at surviving.

And you are correct that medicine and science factor in. Human evolution reflects survival in particular environments (and responses to any changes therein), and the environment in which modern humans live includes medicine and science. These factors affect different populations unequally, but that’s true of just about any environmental factors.

Yeah, and think about those bows and arrows-- letting people who live who can’t kill mammoths with their bare hands. Bad evolution!

In all seriousness, though, the more diverse the gene pool, the better we will be off as a species when confronted with a changed environment. Who knows what genes will end up being important when the next environmental disaster hits.

We treat illness and defects because it is morally right to do so. To fail to do so when we have the ability would be morally wrong.

Arguing against medical treatments (or anything else) because they “screw up evolution” is as inane as arguing against airplanes because they screw up gravity.

The quality of a a human being is determined by the choices that he or she makes and the quality of a society is determined by the collective choices that the members of that society make. Genes have no effect on a society, positive or negative.

No, there is no such evidence. By every conceivable measure, humans have gotten physically healthier as medicine has progressed.

You can’t screw up evolution. Evolution is random and is not directed toward a goal. Saying evolution is getting screwed up is like saying a random sequence of coin tosses is screwed up by getting five heads in a row.

We’ve been taking care of people who can’t take care of themselves for a very, very long time. There’s evidence that we were doing that 530,000 years ago.

There are 6.7 billion of us. That’s very good evidence that what we’ve been doing is good for our species.

Rather than think of evolution as survival of the fittest, remember, no one is fit enough to survive an asteroid impact, or a fifty year solar storm.

Evolution is replication of the survivors. No plan, no goal, no measure of the benefit of your genes, just that those that survive, reproduce. Sure, in good times, there is a bias in favor of some group of characteristics. But the bias is just statistics. Reproduce, get lucky, rinse and repeat. Wait a few hundred thousand years or more, call the result fitness.

Humans have intelligence, and the list of things that probably won’t entirely wipe us out is much smaller than it once was. On the down side, there is a new thing on the list. Us.


No. Evolution in its most basic sense is “change over time”. Specifically, it is the change in genotype of a population over time. There is no “better” or “worse”, no “higher” or “lower”; it’s all change.

Since all the good questions and answers have been taken…


As opposed to the male with the biggest and brightest set of tail feathers? Or the male who dances the best? Or the male who is best able to intimidate other males? Or any number of other methods used to choose mates?

And this assumes that A) You are correct, that money is a prime factor in mating (which isn’t true) and B) that this is a hard barrier that is never transgressed against (either through hanky-panky going on between the ‘classes’ or more formally through marriage). Neither of these assumptions is true. Even in the hard caste systems there is SOME level of gene transfer between the classes (even if it’s just young nobles screwing around with girls from lower classes, or vice versa).

Depending on what you mean by ‘our social class system’ I’d say it has had a profound effect on the success of our species (and on our earlier ancestral forerunners), and has certainly shaped our evolution. There is archeological evidence that, due to the cooperative nature of our species, that in many cases individuals who would have died were they part of other species instead were kept alive by the community…and were able to contribute. Understand, that in the human species there are other ways to contribute than simply propagation. Knowledge is our biggest asset, after all…and every individual, regardless of what defects they may have been born with has the potential to add to the sum of human knowledge, or to contribute to the human community. Look at someone like Stephen Hawking, for instance.

Our tool use, the emphasis on knowledge passed down and ever increasing…these are humanities strengths, and have certainly had an impact on our success as THE dominant species on this planet, as well as on our own past and future evolution.


Very good answers from everyone.

It seems to me that we created medicine out of our highly evolved brain, and that therefore advanced medicine is simply an offshoot of evolution itself. So it can’t screw it up – it is part of it.

I agree with most of what is said, but lets focus on the more social aspect of the question.

What about the third world where we have people who are relatively capable humans, who are now struggling to survive in a modern world.

Obviously there is not much difference between them and us physically, but in their social class (education, finance, etc). Their society has not yet evolved. Sure there is probably a little spill over from our society to theirs in the forms of technology, medicine, and good will, but is this just evolution at work or a failure of the system.

If this system is failing doesn’t that mean it needs to evolve and change?

I would think that if the system does need to change then we will run the risk of extinction. At least one level of extinction. Possibly the collapse of civilization (or at least some of them).

I agree completely with this, but today I really don’t see it. All I see is greed, materialism, and fascism.

In the past those who were disabled might have been left behind because the burden would have been overwhelming. Later as we began forming small communities and settling down into one area, tending to a person who was hurt was much easier, but still impossible to help those outside of the community who were too far away. In modern day we have all the technology we need to send massive amounts of food, water, and medicine to those who need it… but it rarely happens. I can only shell out so much of my own money, but I think we can all agree that the richest 1% in the world could easily feed those who need it.

So why? There is obviously some support for these people, and I bet much of it does come from the wealthy, but consider me and many others I know who pitched in $1000 for Haiti which is 10-30% of our annual income. Compare that to Goldman Sachs who donated $1 million (About 1% of their annual profits).

The point? These people probably are doing a lot of good, but they don’t do nearly enough. They chip in with a big number that will greatly trump what most any other individual could throw in the pot. But in the end, it’s the average person who ultimately gives the most. I just think we talk about morality, and doing the right thing, but have no idea what that means.

All societies evolve. They just don’t evolve in the same way.

What system? How do you define “fail”? The human population is exploding-- especially in the 3rd world. One might ask if our Western Culture is “failing” when we see plummeting birth rates, sometimes below the replacement rate.

Again, I’m not sure what “system” you’re talking about.

The problem with getting aid to people who really need in the 3rd world is often the very governments that are supposed to helping them. How do you aid people in Somalia when you can’t reach them, or when you send aid and it falls into the black hole of warlords and bandits? It’s not the West that is failing, it’s those very places that need the aid. But even still, those places tend to have higher birth rates than Western/Developed countries.