Is Human Laziness Human Nature?

For most of human history, it’s been recognized that we tend to follow the path of least resistance. We go to comical lengths to avoid work of even the most trivial sort. 

Is Human Laziness Human Nature?

For most of human history, it’s been recognized that we tend to follow the path of least resistance. We go to comical lengths to avoid work of even the most trivial sort. One of the classic examples of this quirk of human behavior is Eric J. Johnson and Daniel Goldstein’s study on organ donation rates. They noticed that the organ donation rates in countries like Austria, Belgium, France, and Hungary are many times greater than those in Denmark, the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. Why is this? Is it because of some cultural difference in how each of these groups of people values human life?  Or, perhaps it’s caused by differing religious beliefs in the sanctity of the human corpse? We can come up with dozens of such stories. It turns out, however, that “the path of least resistance” explains this massive difference in donation rates. Countries with high, nearly unanimous, donation rates have opt-out systems, which require applicants to take action to not participate in their donation programs. Those with low donation rates? The opposite. They have opt-in systems that require citizens to actively enroll. In both groups, people take the path of least resistance – and we see the results clearly in the stats.   


Checking a box on a driver’s license form, or making a quick phone call to enroll, isn’t much work, but it’s something – and, as you can see, this small amount of effort can be the difference between a “brave and selfless organ donor” and “a petty miser”. However, before we throw up our hands and bemoan this seemingly unfortunate feature of human nature, we should ask some questions: Is this an inevitable feature of our biology? Or, is this something that we can modify, and even eliminate, in due time?

In the developed world, infant mortality was still a massive problem as recently as the early 1900s. However, improved nutrition, medical technology, and a variety of other factors have allowed us to largely do away with this tragic staple of the human experience. Similarly, an improved understanding of biology, new training protocols, new shoe/equipment technology, and better nutrition have allowed modern athletes to do things that were unheard of 50 or 100 years ago. By improving the environment we develop in, we have consistently gotten bigger, faster, stronger, and smarter (as the Flynn Effect seems to show).

This tendency to follow the easiest, friction free path might be similar. An organism that is barely able to maintain homeostasis, because of a lack of health and ability to efficiently produce energy, is not one that is likely to weigh the pros and cons of the available options and put off instant gratification in the service of a greater plan. Perhaps our seeming laziness is due more to biological dysregulations caused by inadequate prenatal nutrition, interference by environmental toxins, or other unfortunate perturbations during critical developmental windows. What we may see as immovable features of a human nature might actually be symptoms of biological problems that, up until this point in history, we haven’t had the ability to remedy at scale. Providing a truly nurturing environment at scale is a problem that we have only begun to solve, but with the mindpower of seven billion people (and a bit of luck), I think it’s a problem we can tackle. Our freedom depends on it.  

Image: Possan

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This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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