On the train journey back from Sheffield yesterday I started thinking about the exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s Anatomical Drawings I saw recently at the Queen’s Gallery (http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/exhibitions/leonardo-da-vinci-anatomist?_$ja=kw:%2bda%20%2bvinci%20%2banatomy|cgn:Leonardo+Da+Vinci+Anatomy_BMM|cgid:3927870788|tsid:5255|cn:Leonardo+Da+Vinci+Exhibition|cid:96471668|lid:30613026571|mt:Broad|nw:search|crid:14023613828&gclid=CLTT5sTm87ECFY8mtAodY2gAGg – well worth a visit if you are in the area) and what would have been the impact on the development on medical science if his drawings had entered into the public domain rather than been hidden out of sight for four centuries. The detail and understanding of how the body works is astonishing but it must have been a gruesome and gory process to achieve it.
Of course, medical knowledge and anatomical understanding didn’t really advance for two millennia, mired in religious dogma and over influenced by the theories of Gallen and Aristotle. At best, the medics made little difference to their patient’s welfare; at worst, they hastened their demise. Purgatives and regular bleedings were the order of the day – they say Britons shed more blood in peacetime than they did in times of war.
Nowadays, the balance has gone the other way and medical advances are such that for most problems there is a cure or at least a way to help the patient prolong their life. I can’t help thinking that the pendulum has swung too far and is now starting to provoke serious debate about what is more important, quality of life or longevity.
Taking a step back, the world we live in is finely balanced. In many environments we have seen the problems that can be caused by deliberately or inadvertently upsetting the ecological balance. We seem to think that we need to restore ecological balance amongst flora and fauna whilst at the same time cheerfully ignoring the serious damage we are causing to our own ecological environment.
The world’s population is now in excess of 7 billion. Medical science and charitable good works are extending people’s life expectancy and negating some of the effects of famines and epidemics. At the same time we have caused incalculable damage to the world’s climate which in turn is going to impact our ability to feed and sustain our booming population.
The drought, the worst in half a century, in America’s corn belt is the latest of a series of major climatic disaster which is going to have
a profound impact on the world’s economy. Wheat and corn prices have already soared by 40% and stocks of maize are already dangerously low. This comes at a time when demand for food is rising because of population growth and rising incomes in previously undeveloped countries. Meat consumption, for example, in China has quadrupled since 1978 and is now at 50kg a head compared with the per capita figure of 80kg inn Europe. It takes 7kg of maize to produce 1kg of beef and if Chinese consumption rates reach the current European levels, as they are predicted to do in 2030, the demand for food will double.
Food prices will inevitably rise and shortages will be more common. Poorer countries will be unable to afford to feed their population, with all the inevitable social unrest that that will cause. It is not a happy prospect.
It is timely then to remember my first clever bastard, Thomas Malthus (pictured). In his book, An Essay On The Principle of Population, first published in 1798, he warned that the power of population is infinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man and that sooner or later population would be checked by famine or disease.
Thomas, your time may have come.
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