The end of illness – thank you Facebook!


It seems that as a result of a donation of $3 billion from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Ms. Chan, we can anticipate the end of disease. To be precise, they say that their goal is "to treat, prevent or manage" all the diseases to which we are subject by the end of the century.  They are promising to spend $3 billion over the next ten years.  But last year they said they had decided to bequeath 99% of their fortune (estimated at $55 billion) not to their children, but to charitable purposes able to benefit humanity in general.  I suppose therefore that this promise must be taken into account in their grand vision. But since they are not exactly old, we have to hope that they will have a fairly short life expectancy - for the greater good, of course.

Clearly, $3 billion over 10 years is not much in the great scheme of things. In fact it is not much more that his total annual remuneration from Facebook. And through the ten-year period it is much less than the taxes that Facebook would pay if they did not engage in complex tax avoidance.  But the Zuckerberg family prefers not to give money to various governments in tax.  They have decided instead to make their own decisions as to how their money is spent.  And so they are spending this donation, in the first instance, on the creation of a research centre at the University of California, modestly called - "The Chan Zuckerberg BioHub".  They have the intention of bringing together experts everywhere.  It will be a centre of excellence where they can do fundamental research to find how the human body works.  An important part of this will be the creation of new tools seen as necessary to do so and therefore the experts will be a mix of both scientists and engineers.  Maybe a bit like the group of friends in 'Big Bang Theory'.   Or perhaps more like the immensely important Francis Crick Institute recently opened (2016) in London - the largest biomedical laboratory in Europe.  Obviously, Zuckerberg and Chan see the existing international cooperation between so many universities and charities in so many countries and hundreds of billions of dollars spent each year by the pharmaceutical industry as something of an irrelevance and so put in the shade by this new initiative.

The idea of defeating disease is a very old dream. It is a dream that we have never believed can become a reality in our lifetimes or even in the foreseeable future.  But maybe we should look more carefully at the evidence. According to a recently published book "Progress" by a Swede, Johan Norberg, we have seen incredible progress in our ability to fight disease. I say it is 'incredible' because, mostly, people are not willing to accept such good news.  But according to the research that he has done, research along the lines of the book "The Better Angels of our Nature" by Steven Pinker, the progress we have made in just two hundred years is extremely impressive.  It informs us that by any measure - food, poverty, health, longevity, infant mortality, and even violence - life is much improved for the vast majority of humanity.  During the two centuries after the Enlightenment, science and agrarian and industrial progress have together created a very noticeable difference and this improvement is continuing and accelerating.  But this is not how we see the world.  According to various surveys, when asked about extreme poverty or famine in the world in comparison to the situation 200 years ago, 75% of respondents thought it had actually increased over the years.   In fact, of course, it is now half of what it was.  Only 5% of the British and 6% of Americans think that the world has improved.  As noted by Norberg, "...there are more Americans who believe in astrology and reincarnation than in progress."  Progress, however, over these two hundred years has been spectacular.  In 1815, life expectancy in Europe was only 33 years and almost half of the British population lived their lives in abject poverty, a poverty seen now only in sub-Saharan Africa.  Famine was normal and not a shocking news item.   Yes, six hundred thousand people did die in the twentieth century as a result of famine, but in the nineteenth century the figure was 30 million. What a difference!

1815 is, of course, a long time ago. But we don’t have to go back that far.  In 1980 only one half of the world’s population had access to clean water, but now it's 91%, with all the improvements in health that such a change has brought.  In this twenty-first century, i.e. the last 16 years, global mortality from malaria has fallen by 60%. Polio is almost defeated and would now be defeated except for the resistance to vaccines by idiotic religious leaders, particularly in Pakistan.  The epidemic of Ebola was not allowed to spread in the way that black plague did in centuries past. Indeed after a hesitant start by the authorities, Ebola is now very much under control.   And even survival times after cancer - a disease that changes its genetic make-up in response to treatment - show a considerable improvement.  So in general we have made a lot of progress to free us from the worst effects of disease.  And it is clear that philanthropy has had a significant role in making this change.  But it has been in partnership with private enterprise and the state - not least because of the grant of tax exemptions to encourage philanthropists.

However, there is another factor – the other side of the coin. Fortunately, along with the reduction in infant mortality and increases in life expectancy, we have seen a decrease in the birth rate. But according to experts, there will still inevitably be a peak population of around 10 billion.   40% more mouths to feed than today.  I'm not convinced, therefore, that to concentrate exclusively on the defeat of disease is very wise, even if it is feasible. It may be that conquering disease will result in a further minor reduction in the birth rate, but we shall inevitably see an increase in the number of people who survive into old age.  And they will not be productive.  So it seems to me that there is a problem, a problem that can be solved only with either mandatory euthanasia on an incredible scale, a world war, or, what we must all hope for instead – a major increase in food production.  For this we shall need a program of genetic modification of crops and possibly of animals.  But this sort of programme is not at all popular among ecologists and liberals in general, and therefore does not have the same 'cachet' for the super-rich and their philanthropy.

Now, there is no one who will criticize a philanthropist for an attempt to abolish disease. It comes into the same category as YouTube images of kittens.  But someone who promotes genetic modification in order to abolish hunger is likely to be labelled a Frankenstein.  And I'm sure that would not be an attractive outcome for the Zuckerberg family.   Even worse, it would of course have a major effect on the price of Facebook shares and so the fortune ultimately left to good causes.  So does that mean that it will be left to the tax-payer to pick up the cost of this essential but unpopular research?  In which event we'd better make sure that the Facebooks of this world actually pay some tax!

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