Federico Germani, PhD (Molecular Biology), University of Zurich; Founder of Culturico
Within the animal kingdom, we are the only species on Earth that evolved a particular feature: sophisticated intelligence. In evolutionary terms, the random emergence of this trait favoured humans over other species and helped them survive the natural environment until now.
We have always used our intelligence to improve the quality of our lives. The technological and scientific revolution that began in the 20th century has drastically changed the way we live. Surgical advancements, the discovery of penicillin, the development of vaccines, the production of efficient drugs to tackle cardiovascular diseases, are all elements that have contributed to drastically prolong our lifespan. The success of the Internet and the wide spread of personal computers, together with the invention of cell phones – and more recently smart phones – have enormously quickened communication between distant people. This revolution has had an important impact on our ability to move from one place to another, thanks to the invention of rapid trains and the broad diffusion of airplanes as a means of transport.
However, are these societal advancements really something we benefit from?
For example, increasingly efficient transportation has quickened our movements, but as a side effect they have also augmented our work requests. As we have more time available, we are also expected to work more, produce more, and do more. Given that communication has also become tremendously fast, we are expected to quickly translate daily requests into final products. Our goods should be packed and shipped to the other side of the world, and they should arrive quickly at their destination.
The introduction of technology causes irreversible transformations to our society, changing the expectation of how much we can do, and in how much time. People’s expectations and standards change with changing technology, and the process seems to be unidirectional.
Most people may think that the technological revolution has brought immense benefits. After all, it has sped up our connections, allowing us to more easily explore exotic locations during holidays, to reach out to friends within seconds, and to live a longer life next to the people we love. However, it doesn’t seem to improve our mental wellbeing. Indeed, this quickly moving world is having drastic consequences for our minds. In ancient times, humans had to procure their own food by fishing, hunting, and farming daily. At the end of the day they could see their efforts translated into a meal, fulfilling the purpose of the day. As our intelligence became our most important physical attribute – we obtain food without having to chase our prey – we started to feel detached from the natural world. Food, safety, procreation and sleep: these were the main concerns of a primitive human being.
Mostly because of the techno-scientific revolution, we now spend time on sending emails, watching YouTube videos, or doing some other non-concrete activities. Or, when we still do practical activities, we are required to produce just a tiny part of a final product, to be sold somewhere we ignore. Eventually, after a day of work, we go to the supermarket and buy ourselves pre-cooked and packaged food, and we don’t even remotely understand how it came together. There is nothing left of our primordial nature. We feel anxious for tomorrow’s presentation at work, but not for tomorrow’s meal. A very different problem, because the former is more fictitious, the latter more practical and natural.
The stress due to physiological struggles – e.g. finding food or a shelter – has been replaced by anxiety, caused by our modern lives. Anxiety is indeed a modern psychological disorder that is not associated with a direct cause. Anxious people often do not understand why they feel stressed, and therefore have no clear solution to the problem. Not finding a shelter or food is a cause of distress, but not of anxiety, as it is solved within seconds once a solution has been found.
Although technology doesn’t seem to bring benefits for our wellbeing, most people might think that progress in medicine has – at least – drastically improved our lives. Indeed, as previously mentioned, the last century has certainly seen huge progress in this field: life expectancy has dramatically increased in the Western world, and it is currently on the rise in the developing world as well.
But does an increase in life expectancy really improve our society, or does it cause irreparable damage to it?
Our most intimate nature is to generate progeny. By elongating our lives, we are primarily lengthening our senescence period, the post-reproduction time. But is this time of our lives really important? If reproduction is the natural unique meaning of our lives, we should not try to live forever. If we instead assume that our biological existence has simply no purpose, we still shouldn’t try to live forever, as prolonging life would be meaningless.
Medicines are something that keeps us alive and well, but they just postpone something that will inevitably occur: death. For instance, cancer is an ageing-related disease, which means that the longer we live, the higher the likelihood we will develop a tumour. Even if technology and medicine could find solutions to eradicate terrible diseases such as cancer, we won’t escape death. And in the remote scenario we could manage to live forever, this would likely lead us to extinction, as we would eventually overpopulate the planet and deplete its vital resources. Further, the people overpopulating the planet will be old and likely weaker than previous generations, with fewer resources to offer and a lot of resources to consume.
Scientific and technological progress may eventually turn against humanity itself: our individualistic desire to counter our nature and live forever may irreparably damage our society.
What is the purpose of doing science then?
Most of us believe that science should be used to seek progress. However, as we have discussed, the modern conception of progress is something that changes our perspective on what is necessary for us to live and that prolongs our lives for no purpose.
The second reason is curiosity, the driving force that pushes us to find answers to our existential questions: what are we made of? What is the Universe composed of? What is the meaning of our lives? Is there a divine entity?
The two reasons – progress and curiosity – are strongly interconnected. Curiosity is indeed the driving force that stimulates scientists to make discoveries and generate new knowledge, thus shaping our comprehension of reality.
The main difference between progress and curiosity, though, lies in their purpose. The goal of curiosity is to answer questions. When this happens, its purpose is reached, and a new question leads the way for further research. The knowledge generated through curiosity doesn’t necessarily need to be translated into technology. Modern inventions are thought to be the purpose of doing science, possibly the only valid reason to get to know the unknown.
Instead, we should only speak of “progress” when it is driven by curiosity. Only then, new knowledge would be generated without necessarily impacting on our society.
People find these ideas hard to digest. Why should we give up the potential we have to improve our lives?
The first reason is that our lives haven’t really improved: as mentioned before, we still suffer from physical diseases, and we experience the rise of psychological ones, such as anxiety and depression, clear signs of our dissatisfaction for the quickly evolving technological society we live in. Not to forget: we still (luckily) die.
The second reason is the fact that humans are not the center of the Universe. We have always represented ourselves as the privileged species, the gifted one, the most important one. We have believed – and we still do – that we are the finest work of a divine creation, the closest to the grace of God.
But the truth is that we are nothing “but dust and shadow”, as the Latin poet Horace wrote.
We are just a tiny living component of an enormous Universe, and it may be just one of many. Whether we live a few years more or less, it may eventually be irrelevant, as the Universe will survive the existence of humans, until its expansion will be so great that nothing will be ever changing, and nothing will happen, forever.
Science should be about curiosity, and curiosity alone. We may save one life less, but we would preserve our natural world, and humanity itself, deep in the years to come.
This vision is certainly utopian. But it is something that we should at least discuss.
About the author:
Federico is a geneticist and molecular biologist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He grew up in Senago, a town near Milano, Italy. Because of his interest in geopolitics, geography and social sciences, he studied International Relations at the University of London. He is a former swimmer and swimming instructor. He believes that sports educates people in thinking critically.
Featured image: Ron Oldfield’s image of Didymosphaenia geminata, which was a finalist in the award for Eureka science photography. Australian Geographic.
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