First published on on Sept. 15, 2014
In response to the question: What health issue will millennials have to deal with that their parents didn’t?

I feel bad for the Millennials. Born into a golden age of human biological history that started after World War II, they could witness its end – if they live as long as their parents.

The first threat is illustrated by President Calvin Coolidge’s 16-year-old son, Calvin Jr., who one day in 1924 made the trivial mistake of not wearing socks while playing tennis on the White House court. A week later, he was dead. Penicillin and other highly effective antibiotics did not yet exist, so the infection that started in a foot blister spread unstoppably throughout his body. The President’s ability to summon the world’s best medical brains and care mattered not at all.

Today, antibiotics are losing effectiveness faster than new ones are being discovered. For 70 years the antibiotic safety net has kept our mistakes and bad luck from becoming fatal or crippling. Long may it endure, but don’t bank on it.

The second threat is illustrated by Richard Preston’s gripping novel, The Cobra Event, in which a single malevolent individual invents, manufactures, and distributes a new virus combining the contagiousness of the common cold with the lethality of smallpox – all from within his city apartment. Whether the requisite technology and knowledge is available today is immaterial. It will certainly be available in 30 years, given the still-accelerating pace of the biotechnology revolution. What happens then, when brilliant, but socially frustrated teenagers start engineering human viruses instead of computer viruses?

It is deeply ironic – and tragic – that the same tools that hold so much promise for advancing medicine and preserving human life could so easily kill most of the planet’s human population. Preventing this catastrophe is the strongest justification I’ve heard for the National Security Agency’s intrusive information monitoring.

Biotechnology and the Lifetime of Technical Civilizations

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Popeye Arm

Published on January 29, 2018