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Has Modern Medicine Bested Evolution?

The past four human generations have seen their lifespans extended more than the preceding 8,000 generations, but what are the implications of living so much longer?

What’s the Latest Development?

A new study published by the National Academy of Sciences puts the human lifespan, which has has seen greater gains in the last four generations than during the preceding 8,000, in an evolutionary context for the first time by comparing modern human lifespans with ethnographically researched hunter-gatherer tribes. The study shows “that human mortality has decreased so substantially that the difference between hunter-gatherers and today’s lowest mortality populations is greater than the difference between hunter-gatherers and wild chimpanzees.” 

What’s the Big Idea?

The advances made by modern medicine and industrial farming have given our species a kind of security never imagined by nature. While nobody would wish to return to a lifestyle of disease and famine, the implications of our scientific advancement are curious: “What is the underlying explanation for this extraordinary plasticity? Why does the human genome give humans a license to drastically reduce mortality by nongenetic change? Are other species capable of comparable levels of plasticity? For how long will life expectancy continue to rise and by what means?”

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