Quite recently I put up an article here on the site entitled Why Mark Zuckerberg’s Mission to “Cure All Diseases” is Somewhat Misguided. In that post I made the case that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the organization that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife founded together, is built on a flawed premise. Mark Zuckerberg seems to be under the belief that we, given sufficient investments in medical research, will soon be so knowledgeable about the human body and its associated diseases that we will be able to develop drugs and advanced medical technologies that allow us to “cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century” – the goal of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
The average Joe who doesn’t know much about health, nutrition, or medicine probably feels very hopeful and excited about that idea. He may even believe that we will actually soon be able to cure all human diseases. To an evolutionist such as myself, however, Mr. Zuckerberg’s journey towards curing all diseases seems more like a fairytale than a story that is grounded in reality and science. I get the impression that Mark Zuckerberg thinks the key to eliminating modern disease is to invest billions in research projects that aim to “decipher” the human body, and then use the knowledge derived from those projects to develop new drugs and medical technologies. I think this belief is based on a flawed understanding of how the human body is put together and functions.
I applaud Mark Zuckerberg for his efforts. Furthermore, I think the medical research he’s investing in will make us more knowledgeable about the human body. I do not think, however, that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will reach its primary goal, at least not if it continues on the same path as it’s currently on. I don’t mean to be the bearer of bad news, but I have to say that there’s little doubt in my mind that the initiative will come up short on that front.
The human body is not a machine
The reason I decided to put up another article on this topic today is that I came across a post on Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook page which states that one of the major medical projects that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is currently investing in aims to assess and map the properties of all the different cells that are found in the human body. While this project is certainly fascinating and interesting, I doubt it’s going to get us much closer to curing all of the diseases that plague us. It may aid our efforts in preventing and treating certain “non-complex diseases”, but I doubt it’s going to get us very far in terms of combatting the major diseases of our age.
To illustrate why this is the case, I thought we’d take a look at how the human body is put together and functions. First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that the human body is a very complex, living system. It’s not a computer or some other type of machine. It’s not built by engineers. If a computer stops working, the problem may simply be that one or two of its components are kaput. By replacing those components, you can probably get the computer to work just fine again.
This principle does not apply to a body. In most cases, if a body ceases to function as we want it to function, we can’t simply go in and replace a single component and get it up and running at full capacity again. If your liver is damaged and diseased, a liver transplant can certainly help you get back on your feet again; however, it’s not going to remedy the underlying problems that made your liver deteriorate in the first place.
Because that’s the thing: the various parts of the human body don’t operate in isolation; they are all connected in various ways. If one part of the body is malfunctioning, then other parts are undoubtedly malfunctioning as well.
We should rethink how we approach the prevention and treatment of disease
At this point it should be pretty clear that we can’t drug ourselves to good health. It’s not possible, seeing as the health of an organism is determined by a myriad of interactions occurring between its genome and its environment. It’s impossible to get a full overview of those interactions and manipulate them with a drug or a conventional medical procedure. Drugs can effectively reduce the symptoms of some diseases, but they can’t control the full spectrum of genetic expressions occurring inside the cells of an organism. Ultimately, it’s this gene expression profile that determines how the organism looks, functions, and behaves.
By itself, this should lead us to rethink the idea that the key to making us healthy and resistant to disease is to invest billions in research projects that aim to “decipher the human body”, and on the basis of the knowledge derived from those project, develop new, advanced drugs and medical technologies. The problem with this idea doesn’t stop there though. It extends to other facets of human health as well.
The human body did not evolve in isolation. We didn’t undertake our evolutionary journey on our own; we were accompanied by many other organisms, including trillions of microscopic ones. The invisible organisms that colonize the body of each and every one of us interact with our genomes and shape how our bodies work.
These microbial ecosystems are not static structures that can be molded into a particular shape via a drug or tools and then be kept in that shape for an indefinite period of time. Rather, they are dynamic, highly complex systems that constantly change in response to changes in the environments in which they reside.
Every meal you eat, every lotion you put on your skin, and every pill you swallow are likely to affect one or more of the microbial communities that are present on your body, slightly shifting their composition. The same is true for many other behaviors that we humans regularly engage in.
Seeing as an overwhelming number of human diseases and health problems are either largely or partly driven by imbalances within human-associated microbial communities, it goes without saying that not all diseases can be effectively treated with a drug. No pharmaceutical drug or medical apparatus can block all of the impacts that diet and lifestyle behaviors have on the proximate environment of the human body. Hence, they can’t control the working of the complex microbial systems that accompany us on our journey through life.
Not only does the Mark Zuckerberg Initiative seem to pay little attention to these things, but it seems to neglect the fact that the human body is a product of evolution. Instead of looking back and asking how we got where we are today and what constitutes the natural, evolved state of Homo sapiens, much or all of Mark Zuckerberg’s focus seems to be on the future and how we can scientifically program our way out of our problems.
We’re not going to find the answers we’re looking for if we’re asking the wrong questions
I would argue that the people who are currently in charge of deciding which projects the Mark Zuckerberg Initiative is investing in aren’t asking the right questions. They’re not asking questions such as: Why has the prevalence of numerous chronic humans diseases skyrocketed over the past couple of decades? What can anthropological research tell us about what constitutes the evolutionary norm with regards to the health status of members of Homo sapiens? What can we learn about health and medicine from studying contemporary humans who live in a manner that is similar to that of ancient humans? Why has evolution shaped the human body in such a way that it’s susceptible to disease? Why has mainstream medicine failed to knock out obesity, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic health disorders? What are the evolutionary mechanisms that underlie the development of conditions such as depression, anxiety, and myopia? Why are wild animals fairly lean and mostly free of chronic ills, whereas domesticated animals are fat and sick? What can evolutionary science tell us about how we should go about preventing and combatting infectious diseases and acute illnesses?
These and many, many other questions are not on the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s radar, at least that’s the impression I’ve gotten from reading about the types of medical projects it’s investing in. To me, it seems like the approach the Chan Zuckerberg initiative has chosen for their task of curing all diseases is similar to the approach that a company such as Facebook uses to solve computer-related problems. It can seem like the folks who are in charge of the initiative are under the belief that the key to curing all human diseases is to try to “decode” the human body and then design advanced new medical apparatus that target single cells or receptors in the body. It’s possible that the reality is somewhat different; however, I think there’s little doubt that this is indeed one of the main approaches of the initiative, as evidenced by the fact that it’s now investing in medical research that seeks to elucidate the properties of all the cells that are found in the human body.
Again, I want to applaud Mark Zuckerberg for his willingness to invest in medical technology and his commitment to curing disease. I don’t question that his project may bring some good to the world. The medical research Mark Zuckerberg is investing in will undoubtedly make us more knowledgeable about the human body. Moreover, it can aid in the treatment of some conditions, in particular infectious diseases and rare disorders that develop as a result of single genetic mutations. With that said, I think much of the money he’s put into his medical initiative could have been better spent on other medical-related projects than the ones the initiative is currently investing in, for example projects that emerge out of the questions I listed above.
Finally, I’d like to mention before we wrap up that I do think that many of the diseases and health problems that plague the modern man can be “cured”. I do not think, however, that they can be cured with a drug. You can’t drug a body to good health. It doesn’t work that way.
What about gene editing or manipulation? Can we change our genomes in such a way that we don’t get sick? It’s certainly a fascinating thought to think that we can; however, it’s not something that is likely to happen, at least in the near future. Major diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type-2 diabetes don’t develop as a result of single genetic mutations, rather, they develop as a result of genome-environment interactions that involve numerous different genes, found both within the human body’s cells and the cells of the organisms the human body interacts with. Also, I have to add that I’m personally very skeptical of using genome editing as a general approach to preventing disease. History has shown us that we humans tend to get into trouble when we interfere with the processes of nature. We’re much better off working with nature, as opposed to against it.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s that a damaged body differs markedly from a damaged machine. Modern technology doesn’t allow us to undo billions of years of evolution, regardless of how much we may want it to.