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  • Writer's pictureH. Paul Putman III, MD

The Survival Pledge 4: Live and "Help" Live

(The Survival Pledge is an eight-point plan to refocus each of us on taking responsibility for our own thoughts and behaviors in ways that benefit ourselves and others, supporting peace and non-violence.)

If I wish to continue to exist as long as possible, I will help others to exist as long as possible in the hope that my own existence might be prolonged.

Not everyone at every moment wants to live as long as they can, but most people do, most of the time. Societies formed and have been successful largely because they enhance the survival of individuals and their reproduction.[1] In ancient cultures, banishment was a death sentence. Utilizing division of labor and working together for safety, food production/distribution and health care, we are more likely to live a longer life if we contribute our skills and rely on others for support in other areas.

Even at the basest level, emotional and physical contact with others is biologically essential for survival. Infants mostly isolated from normal human touching and nurturance, despite otherwise adequate care giving, may suffer from Failure to Thrive or Faltering Growth Syndrome. First identified as marasmus in 1897, but formalized as hospitalism by Renee Spitz in 1945,[2] this stimulus deprivation results in death or growth failure, and can be slowly reversed (by reintroducing human emotional nurturance, contact and nutrition) in only 50-75% of infants. One third will go on to suffer cognitive or intellectual impairments and one-half behavioral impairments later in life. Especially as the effects of communicable diseases were drastically reduced by public health measures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, individual human life expectancy is enhanced by the efforts of supportive, surrounding humans from birth.

Furthermore, our understanding of human population biology is a foundation for viewing the history of human civilization. Early models by Malthus[3] and Verhulst[4] describe how a given population will begin with an aggressive growth curve that becomes limited when resources that support its survival become scarce. The curve then metamorphoses into a periodic cycle that is fairly stable given static resources and fixed methods of accessing and distributing them. The population increases then decreases, only to increase again, with regular predictability and within predictable measures, as long as limitations remain unchanged.

Steven Pinker illustrates, however, that this sigmoid, logistical cycle is not fixed, for the predictable curve has been altered by new solutions to limitations and new behavioral responses to situations, repeatedly and increasingly frequently.[5] Therefore, attempts to extrapolate current trends into future predictions are increasingly doomed to failure, as with The Population Bomb[6] in the recent mid-century[7]. Our increasing skill in solving some population problems, though far from complete, is lengthening projected lifespans and still allowing more people to be sustained. The application of sustainable development[8] to current problem-solving efforts seeks to continue this pattern and protect future generations.

The size of our population can determine human behavior, whether it be “Be fruitful and multiply” in Exodus or “One family, one child” in a post-Maoist People’s Republic of China. Competition for resources has largely influenced our behavior with others, be it space, food, ports, high ground or college admissions. In attempting to be the “fittest” for survival, humans have often pitted the needs of subpopulations against those of our human population at large.

A successful population, as we wish Homo sapiens to be, must support its development through the nurturance and support of its individuals while exercising stewardship of its resources. This includes managing conflict within the population and managing its size so that individual members are not threatened by new threats (as from inadequate resources, toxicity or war) until solutions are ultimately found. Inadequate sanitation, food, space, water, shelter and the presence of violence will threaten the survival of the individual and ultimately, depending on the severity, the population.

We can unconsciously follow a common biological path, the same as all other living beings, or we can use our conscious minds in attempts to manage our behavior and population, leading towards a safer, more stable equilibrium within our currently available resources.

By enhancing the survival of others, an individual may be strengthened. In fact, a few individuals might enjoy longevity even if taking no action to help others: a mass or herd effect may carry them and they will benefit even if they are not contributing, should a sufficient portion of the remainder of the population be actively supporting it. Conversely, another might meet an untimely accident or fatal illness that actually is a result of contact with others. In general, though, for the largest number, populations will support the population members until the point at which the demands of the population outstrip its resources, even if this limit is ultimately temporary. I can therefore support my population and my own existence by nurturing the society, including helping it wisely husband its resources and reduce interpersonal conflict. In order to succeed, we will need contributions from our best minds, leaders and productive citizens.

Twenty million people were killed in World War I, included in another forty million casualties. Those surviving are often referred to as the Lost Generation in the United States, the Generation of 1914 in Europe and The Generation of Fire in France This is a stark example of how a significant loss of population members leaves a large gap in the in the succession of generations that a population relies upon. While many forward steps were taken in the Twentieth Century to secure our human population, such as sanitation, immunization, and workplace safety, many challenges also appeared. Who among the Lost Generation might have found cures for cancers, developed a new economic model or shown diplomatic skills that averted war?

As I support the survival, health and productivity of other members of my population, I strengthen not only its biodiversity (increasing the chance for survival of the species) but also increase the odds that one or more people will emerge to solve each problem challenging our existence. Solutions to disease, education, conflict, resource allocation and even the pursuit of happiness will be more likely to be found.

People do need each other to survive and we need to support each other’s survival in specifically effective ways in order to promote survival of the species. Evolutionary biologists have identified gene-culture coevolution: mores or memes adopted by cultures that are passed on to successive generations, just like physical genes would be, and that help carry the population into a particular future.[9] Well done, this will only enhance the survival of each individual. Quid pro quo – helping you, helping our population, largely also helps me.

If I wish to continue to exist as long as possible, I will help others to exist as long as possible in the hope that my own existence might be prolonged.

[1] Robert Boyd, and Peter J Richerson. “Culture and the evolution of human cooperation.” Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences 364, no.1533 (2009): 3281-8. doi:10.1098/rstb.2009.0134 [2] Eleanor Shaheen et al., “Failure to Thrive—A Retrospective Profile,” Clinical Pediatrics 7, No. 5, (1968): 255-261. [3] Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on The Principle of Population, As it Affects The Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Goodwin, M. Condorcet and Other Writers (London: J Johnson in St. Paul’s Church-yard, 1798) Accessed September 21, 2021. [4] Pierre-François Verhulst "Recherches mathématiques sur la loi d'accroissement de la population" [Mathematical Researches into the Law of Population Growth Increase]. Nouveaux Mémoires de l'Académie Royale des Sciences et Belles-Lettres de Bruxelles 18: 8, 1845. Accessed September 21, 2021. [5] Steven Pinker, “Chapter 10 – The Environment,” in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Penguin Books, 2019). [6] Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968) [7] Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t (New York: The Penguin Press, 2012), 212-213. [8] Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. UN Documents. United Nations website. Accessed September 21, 2021. [9] Mark Pagel, Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation (New York: Penguin Books, 2012)

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