11/06/2012 12:47 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2013

A New Breed of Humans?


From advanced, minimally-invasive surgical techniques to mapping the human genome, medical advancements that would have been unthinkable a mere 50 years ago are shuttling us toward a ripe old age -- but at what cost? While no one can argue that medicine and technology have changed our lives in many ways for the better, there is still a significant trade-off between the years left in our lives compared with the life left in our years.

At the core of this debate is the fact that advancements have been made so quickly, and have had such a significant impact on the human body that in the last century, the shape and size of the body itself has changed in an attempt to adapt to this unprecedented onslaught of physiological impact. This is according to a new paper published by Robert W. Fogel and Nathaniel Grotte, at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Spanning 300 years of height and nutrition data, the authors have poured their findings into what has culminated as a new and modern form of evolution, known as "technophysio-evolution."

Their research shows that as humans, our ability to control our environment has reshaped how we grow, how much we eat, and much more. These factors, in turn, affect future generations, as the previous branch of the family tree works hard to give their children what they didn't have, in terms of better nutrition, better medical care, and a better quality of life.

They note that, "The average adult man in 1850 in America stood about 5 feet 7 inches and weighed about 146 pounds; someone born then was expected to live until about 45. In the 1980s the typical man in his early 30s was about 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighed about 174 pounds and was likely to pass his 75th birthday."

Granted, huge gains in sanitation, disease control and population were also factors. Fogel notes, "Before the 19th century, most people were caught in an endless cycle of subsistence farming. A colonial-era farmer, for example, worked about 78 hours during a five-and-a-half-day week. People needed more food to grow and gain strength, but they were unable to produce more food without being stronger."

Today, the pendulum has swung to the opposite end of the spectrum; we no longer have to fear cholera and smallpox, but instead, an over-abundance of nutrient-deficient foods has led to other life-threatening concerns, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

And it's not just our bodies that are changing.

Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, author of ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century, claims that the "gadget-filled, pharmaceutically-enhanced 21st century" is changing our perceptions of ourselves. Greenfield notes that, "[i]ncreasing numbers of people already take Prozac for depression, Paxil as an antidote for shyness, and give Ritalin to children to improve their concentration." She continues, "But what if there were still more pills to enhance or "correct" a range of other specific mental [and personality-related] functions?"

Our brains are already changing in response to electronic stimuli. Whereas our ancestors may have feared being a saber-toothed tiger's lunch, today's young people try to understand and make sense of the world through a Facebook wall post or a YouTube video. Their world is perceived and experienced through the magic of the touchpad. So much of their personal information is shared and stored online that it is literally affecting them at the neurological base.

Studies on today's teenagers have already started to show that communication skills suffer, abstract thinking is weakened and they have a significant decrease in attention span capacity. Perhaps all the years of modern day mom's harping that "too many video games will damage your brain" was closer to the truth than we realized.

With all these changes in modern medicine, technology and our bodies' ability to adapt and change along with it, are we in essence creating a new breed of humans? Will our children and grandchildren reach centurion status, fueled by requisite cocktails of medication, implants and bionic parts, in "assisted living facilities" where their quality of life is spent home-bound and bed-ridden?

While it remains to be seen whether or not future generations will wholly embrace technology at any cost, it is worth remembering that there is no gene, pill or pluggable apparatus that can create the will to live. Do humans want longevity at all costs, or are there matters of the heart, mind and spirit that dictate beyond the physical if we thrive and survive? Can we become a new breed of bionic humans, with replaceable parts that keep us breathing for the sake of doings so? Or, is there some other drive within us that makes us uniquely human?

For more by Georgianna Donadio, MSc, Ph.D., D.C., click here.

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