A problem that vexes economists and (soon) politicians is what will be done with all of the extra humans. It appears that we are running out of ways to keep people busy. In America, the labor participation rate remains stuck at all-time lows. Technology promises to eliminate the need for many jobs. Even growth industries like health care are ripe for technological upheaval. Much of what a doctor or nurse practitioner does can be automated. Getting a physical at a local kiosk is not far off. Accounting and engineering can and will be done by robots at some point. That’s the claim of this book, anyway. I’ll just note that predictions about the future tend to be hilariously wrong.
I will say, however, that life would be truly vibrant if our more vibrant citizens dressed like this:
The Luddite Fallacy is nothing new. The counter to that is we have arrived at a time of genuine plenty. In the West, no one is going without food, unless they do so willingly. Medicine is universally available, even if the delivery mechanism is unnecessarily expensive. Violence is slowly ticking down and plague appears to be unlikely. In other words, the big things that have threatened humanity have been conquered. So much so that most of the human population can avoid work entirely. With further technological improvement, a very small number of people will be able to provide for the rest of humanity. The great challenge facing humanity over the next century will be how to organize ourselves in world without work or want.
That’s the argument anyway. I’m not entirely sure I buy that, but I do think we are headed to strange new turf. This story is what should get everyone’s attention.
Scientists have used the genome-editing technology to cure adult laboratory mice of an inherited liver disease by correcting a single “letter” of the genetic alphabet which had been mutated in a vital gene involved in liver metabolism.
A similar mutation in the same gene causes the equivalent inherited liver disease in humans – and the successful repair of the genetic defect in laboratory mice raises hopes that the first clinical trials on patients could begin within a few years, scientists said.
Given the state of medicine, the big challenge to extending human life is almost entirely genetic. The ability to fix these defects in our genome means, barring accident or environmental issues, humans could live to the maximum of their natural life. Better understanding of aging, which is moving along quickly, means living an extended youth. Whether or not human lifespans can be extended much beyond 100 years is debatable. Still, living to 100 in peak physical condition is a good deal, given the alternatives.
That sounds great, but here’s something else we know from genetics. Roughly 50,000 years ago modern man emerged on the scene. Humans were physically and behaviorally human. Up until last week, scarcity was the rule for humanity. In fact, evolution depends on it. Competition for food and mates is what drives the whole process. It is not just what makes us human, it was necessary for there to ever have been humans. Just as important, it is what we are designed for as a species. All of our physical and behavior wiring is geared for a world of competition for food and mates.
Just as economists puzzle over what to do with all the extra people, we should also puzzle over what happens when all of those extra people are suddenly in a world for which they are poorly designed. I think the legion of wide bodies at your local Walmart is one obvious result of plenty. Food is cheap and plentiful. By that I mean the amount of calories available to even the lowest status human in America is astronomical compared to just a few generations ago. I recall hearing stories from my grandfather, who was born in 1910, about living on one small meal a day during The Depression.
Another possible result is the falling birth rate. Liberals like to claim this is due to low infant mortality rates and high wealth. This is ridiculous, but that’s to be expected. Others, like David Goldman, point to cultural decay. Having children is about celebrating the present and past. It is a gift to the future from those thriving today. That comes from culture. The old saying about proud societies is they are ones where old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit. A strong and confident people wish to be remembered and the way to do that is through children. Otherwise, why bother?
An alternative may simply be confusion. For 49,900 years, humans had to have children as soon as they could. Every signal from their environment was triggering that urge. Now all those signals are scrambled. It is no wonder the receiving end would misinterpret these new signals. Just as obesity results in plentiful food, plummeting fertility rates may result from the lack of status and competition for mates. It’s not just the lack of babies; it is the lack of sex. Like people who work in a candy factory not liking candy, humans in a world of cost and objective free sex on demand may simply turn away from the most basic of urges.
This may sound ridiculous, but studies of the Khoisan people in Africa show us that humans quickly adapt to their environment. The hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari are the world’s “oldest people” according to geneticists. That means they are closest to the “original people” who are the foundation stock for humanity. Because they walk everywhere, women have one child at a time. If they have twins, the mother smothers one newborn. Carrying two children is too difficult so they can never have more than one small child at a time.
If you’re inclined to think a world without work or want is Eden, again consider the Khoisan. Until outside forces them forced them onto farms, they were able to gather and hunt for enough food in about 20 hours per week. Attending other needs like food preparation, tool making and so forth took up another 20 or so hours. That means the Khoisan were working far less per week than most other peoples on the planet. They also had a murder rate of Detroit, including fratricide, and they were in constant conflict with other groups.
I have no idea where it is all heading. Predicting the future is a lousy business, but we are looking a lot like Panda Bears. While we have no natural enemies and plenty of food in our environment, we have stopped having sex and children. Archaeologists in the far away future will dig through the remains of our time and call us Panda Man, the human species that simply had no reason to carry on.Having arrived at the end goal of evolution, we looked around and decided it was not worth the effort.
Our future is going to be very strange.