Wednesday, 16 January 2013

What is a disease? Or, living in a madhouse


What is a disease?

It's an interesting question.

The most obvious answers would be along the lines of something which reduces functionality, or which causes pain, being a disease - but these are not really tenable biologically.


Biology is not about performing a function, nor is it about remaining pain free.

For example, parasites don't really perform a 'function' - and there are an awful lot of parasites in nature. All of the viruses are cell parasites, for a start - and you can just work-up from them. In a sense, all animals are parasites on plants.

And much of biology is about deliberately risking, even self-inflicting, pain - for some over-arching purpose. For example, stags and bull elephants will fight and sometimes die to become the dominant male; spawning salmon will swim up river until they die of exhaustion.


Of course that thing which all these living creatures do - what all parasites do, what all animals that risk pain and death do - is reproduce.

Reproduction is the imperative, in the sense that it is only the entities that successfully reproduce which we are in a position to talk about.

So, the bottom-line definition of disease must be along the lines of 'that which impairs reproduction'.


When it comes to humans, it is the effect on impairing reproduction which most conveniently unites all solid examples of disease - and this applies to both to physical and to psychological diseases such as schizophrenia, psychotic depression, dementias.

Because (real) diseases which do not kill prematurely, or cause suicide, will (on average) reduce reproductive success either by premature death, or by some other means such as the effect on sexual selection - as when skin diseases make an individual unattractive/ repulsive and unable to attract a long-term mate.


All of this is a prelude to a consideration of the fact of sub-replacement fertility on average in every developed nation in the world; and grossly sub-replacement fertility in some groups (the wealthiest, the most intelligent, the least religious) - and especially among women of these groups.

Is this evidence of disease in such societies and such specific groups?

Yes of course it is.


Does it make any difference that the sub-fertility is chosen rather than a result of incapacity?

No it doesn't - the same applies to psychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia, melancholia and any illness which leads to suicide - these are instances of chosen low fertility.

Especially among women - since any fertile woman can conceive if she chooses to get pregnant, and in modern society almost all babies born will survive to an age when they themselves can reproduce.

On strict biological grounds, when chosen sub-fertility happens on average in a group over a generational timescale, it must be due to psychiatric disease.


So is modernity a disease?

Of course modernity is a disease, a psychiatric disease; and a very severe psychiatric disease at that - since it has the same effect as a severe psychiatric disease in generating very significant chosen sub-fertility.

Indeed the severity of modernity as a psychiatric disease is likely to be more extreme than in most psychiatric patients, since the prosperity and conditions of the average citizen in a developed nation are vastly better for child rearing than the average severe psychiatric patient - and yet reproduction is rejected.

So the conclusion seems inescapable that in conditions of modernity there is conclusive objective evidence of endemic, near universal, and very severe psychiatric disease.

Look around - that is what we see almost everywhere. We are living in a madhouse!


Note: I suppose I should add what I believe to be the nature of the severe, endemic psychiatric disease that afflicts modernity: it is addiction. Moderns are addicted to distractions - pleasurable distractions for preference, but lacking pleasures then any kind of distraction will suffice. Addicts orientate their lives around getting the drug they crave, ignoring normal human instincts, imperatives, aversions. We resemble the 'wireheaded' rats that press a lever to stimulate the pleasure centre in their brains - a compulsion that over-rides eating, drinking, sex, sleep... 



George Goerlich said...

This would clarify why mainstream behavior is not only wrong, but also completely illogical and irrational - quite consistently so.

It appears while this mental disease clearly harms the general populace, it allows a parasite class to make use of, manipulate, and live off the host. The mental patient's behavior is nowhere restricted, but everywhere encouraged, supported, and misrepresented as healthy.

Donald said...

It seems to me that it is an instantiation of the good to reproduce (marriage, children, family) but for humans this must be kept in perspective or subordinated to the higher good of our immortal nature/salvation. Thus polygamy/serial monogamy/fornication whilst perhaps (in certain circumstances) increasing biological reproduction, are at odds with ultimate destiny and thus must be suppressed. Similarly monasticism is a higher, otherworldly good some are meant to pursue at odds with the biological good.

I'd be interested in your thoughts Bruce.

Catherine said...

I'm not sure I follow the definition. Choosing not to reproduce has been a part of Christianity from the beginning - it's even recommended in the Bible. By your definition, wouldn't convents be dangerously contagious madhouses?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Donald - I'm writing from a Christian perspective, so that is implicit. But while individuals are of course called to celibacy, this is never the case for the society as a whole. Voluntary suppression of reproduction at a societal level is pathological - when it is not straightforwardly sinful. In our society the pathology is a consequence of sin (I mean un-repented sin).

You seem, perhaps, to be worried that I may be saying that because sterility is sinful then fecundity is virtuous - but that is (obviously!) not true and nonsense'; or else the likes of Genghis Khan (a mass rapist with millions of modern descendants) or Sultans with harems would be regarded as thereby virtuous!

As I have said before, a society or group which is voluntarily sub-fertile over a generational timescale is sick, wicked, or both - and that applies to supposed Christians as much as anyone else.

Any Christian groups (and this would include *most* self-identified Christians) who find themselves in this situation urgently need to repent and reform.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Catherine - see my response to Donald.

Nick B Steves said...

You have established that sub-replacement fertility is a disease--a pathology. And may grant that sub-replacement fertility (along side of material abundance) is peculiar to modernity. But you haven't shown that modernity, qua modernity, is a disease. It may be, but this doesn't show it. I suspect that sub-replacement fertility is more a symptom of some other pathology. That pathology could be modernity, but that depends on how you define "modernity".

Bruce Charlton said...

NBS - well, I can't get *everything* into a short blog posting ;-)

But it is very striking how all the versions of modernity (Anglosphere, European, Russian, East Asian...) lead to this same outcome.

The primary cause is secularization, I suspect - at any rate devout traditional (and Patriarchal) religiousness is the only known antidote.

Thinking said...

Fascinating, as was your previous thoughts on chronic disease being caused by chemical poisoning.

Is it possible the primary nature of the disease is instead a kind of chemical poisoning, in food, water, directly through drugs, perhaps also through viruses and parasites? Many people appear to be weakened in will, thought, and body and even if they avoid addiction, it doesn't mean they are truly healthy enough to attract a viable mate and live healthily in the modern world.

Anonymous said...

Philosopher Philip Devine here remarks:

"Decadence, as I understand it is a cultural phenomenon, that of a community that has lost the capacity to transmit itself, biologically and culturally. Of all the writers in the Western canon, Thomas Mann had the best sense of the meaning of decadence. For his sensibility was on both sides of the question. We see decadence in The Magic Mountain as a temptation to lie down in the snow and die, in Buddenbrooks as the decline of a family and, most frighteningly, in Death in Venice as a passion for a beautiful and multiply unattainable boy. And he provides a succinct definition: “wrestling … with life to attain death”