This post is part of my series on the belief in progress. This blog post deals with the evidence for a positive trend in the existence of useful medical practices. Some of these practices have developed through evolution and some through human enterprise. However, I am looking at the techniques themselves not who uses them or how they were developed.
Our medical 'knowledge' is growing:
In order to look further back in time than the existence of homo sapiens its necessary to regard knowledge as just correct information. That information will normally be implicit not explicit within an organism.
10 Billion years ago: There was no life so there could not be any medicine.
2 Billion years ago: Rudimentary organisms now exist. Viruses probably already exist and so the first useful information about them will be encoded in counter measures that these simple organisms employ. One of these techniques (the destruction of double stranded RNA) may have evolved at this point.
1 Billion years ago: Plants have probably already evolved a large variety of antibacterial agents. Similar agents today act against features typical of bacterial cells. Often the cell walls of bacteria are attacked. The strategies employed by these agents represent a store of information on the vulnerabilities of bacteria.
Note that most (if not all) of our antibiotics were not invented by humans but copied (with slight modification) from existing compounds already found in nature. This illustrates what I mean by implicit knowledge.
1 Million years ago: Our ancestors have developed fire which is a relatively effective way of sterilizing the food they consume.
5,000 years ago: Tribal communities (of which most of the world is still part) have huge stores of communal knowledge concerning plants effective in the treatment of various ills. Many of the remedies do not work or are only partially effective but still there is much useful information possibly already including the uses of quinine and aspirin.
100 years ago: Detailed anatomical drawings have been performed of the human body. The germ theory of disease has allowed developments such as sanitation, sewers and elementary hygiene to dramatically increase the quality of medical care and hugely decrease the need for it. These benefits overwhelming accrue in the industrialized world but the average quality of medical care is still highly than previously attained.
Now: Gene chips amongst other similar developments have increased the pace of medical and biological advance by a large factor. Neuroscience is just beginning to gather pace.
We are still far from curing all major infectious diseases. The evolution of new antibiotic resistance genes is challenging our ability to find new antibiotics (or even bacteriostatics). Never the less we've never been in a better position to rise to these challenges as we are now.