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What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger?

r.mabe's picture


History is an account of the past. More specifically, it is an account of human progress. Today, the world we live in is defined by technological advancement. It is no longer a process of natural selection that determines who survives and who does not. Instead, technology, in combination with advances in modern medicine, transforms who we are into more abundant, more productive, and more efficient people, whose life expectancy has continuously increased. Humans, like all living organisms, have physical and mental limitations. However, our advancements allow us to overcome many of these limitations. 

Our current state is similar to a man who makes $20,000 a year but goes out for steak every night, always smiling while he hands the waiter his shiny plastic Visa, racking up debt he doesn’t have to face at the moment. Humans have physical limitations, but the brain has picked up the slack. We have advanced so far that we create substances (gadgets, machinery, grocery stores, cell phones, automobiles, and the list goes on) which all work to reduce human limitation. 

The existence of modern man would not be possible without technology and modern medicine: There’s pain reliever for headaches, adderall for ADD, happy pills for sad people, normal pills for crazy people, sleeping pills for insomniacs, pills that lower cholesterol, and keep you awake, calm stress levels and lower blood pressure, pills to cure the common cold and erase the rash on your chest, pills to prevent you from getting pregnant, and to help you lose weight, pills to give you an erection and pills to change your sex. Have a problem? You’ll be fine, as long as you take these pills 1-3 times daily with a full glass of water. There’s a pill for everything. Modern society is reliant on medicine--when something goes wrong we go to the doctor and he gives us a prescription that will make us better, we have come to expect instantaneous solutions to all of our problems. But do these supplements always lead to improvement? Or, are we perhaps pushing the limits too far? Are they permanent solutions or merely temporary? Might they, in fact, create more problems than they fix?

In order to answer some of the questions posed above, it is necessary to limit the scope of what my paper will examine. Hence, I chose to focus on how antibiotics are used in two specific ways in our society. One example is the common practice of administering antibiotics to livestock, specifically the American hog industry. The second example I will discuss is the use and distribution of antibiotics among the human population, focusing on penicillin in particular. 

Pigs were domesticated from wild boars beginning about 9,000 years ago, making them one of the earliest domesticated animals. Our domesticated friends have served us well--loyally, even happily. But that just wasn’t enough in the twenty-first century--farmers have been looking for ways to improve the pig since the early 1900s. They found ways to completely transform the familiar barnyard animal into a fragile, miserable mutation.  The modern pig does not resemble Wilbur, Babe or any of the other happy, healthy, friendly pigs we know, love, and imagine.  The modern pig does not live outside. He does not get down and dirty--he does not play in the mud. He actually never goes outside at all. 

In 1987, the National Pork Board launched an ad campaign revealing that pork had transformed and was now, as the familiar slogan puts it, “the other white meat” (1). In attempt to appeal to a rapidly increasing audience of health conscious consumers, primarily mindful of fat content, the National Pork Board redefined pork. The marketing campaign took pork, which in nutritional studies is usually put in the “red meat” category alongside beef, and presented it as a lean, healthy source of protein comparable to chicken or turkey (2). The advertisement campaign was remarkably successful; a tracking study, conducted only seven months after the campaign was launched, showed that consumer association of pork as a white meat increased by 163% (3).  As the study concludes, the 1987 marketing campaign had tremendous impact on consumer attitudes concerning pork (3).  

Yet, how did pork transition from being a red-meat to white-meat in less than a year? Was it simply because consumers had inaccurate information about pork? In 1988, economist Glenn Grimes partially attributed the increase in pork consumption to the advertising campaign which marketed extensively on both state and national levels. However, Grimes insists that the “second element in this equation has been the improvements in pork quality, including leanness, over the last decade” (3). Pork advocates failed to mention this. On the contrary, they asserted that pork had simply “suffered from years of stereotyping” and all they had to do was reposition pork in the eyes of the public (3). 

The National Pork Board led consumers to believe that they had somehow been mistaken about pork, but in actuality they gave pigs a complete makeover. They reengineered the pig, transforming it into a creature, more like a machine than a living organism, designed to better fulfill human needs in the age of consumerism. (I guess the meaning of “improve” depends on whether you are a pig or not).  At the root of pig improvement is the desire to increase productivity. For example, in the last decade alone, geneticists have made astounding modifications in the growth, structure, and life cycle of hogs. Scientists have shaved 12.9 days off the time that it takes a pig to reach market weight, they have increased the loin size by 1.9 cm, they birth 1.56 more piglets per litter, and the meat that people can eat from a pig has increased by 1.04% (1). 

American farmers have been looking for ways to modify the pig since the 1930s when they started experimenting with artificial insemination. In the 1940s scientists discovered that freezing sperm preserved it for later use; they could prolong semen by adding antibiotics and other chemicals to it (4).  From there, it was only a matter of time. In 1990 only 7% of hog breeding used artificial insemination. Yet, in 2006, artificial insemination accounts for more than 90% of breeding on large hog farms. The rate of increase in artificial insemination is a result of the vertically integrated megafarms that emerged as industry leaders in the 1990s. Quickly dominating the industry and making artificial insemination the norm, these “big operations aimed to maximize their efficiency by producing standardized pigs, which grew at predictable rates and produced predictably uniform meat. To make a standardized pig, these companies needed standardized genetics, which they could most easily distribute in the form of semen” (1). Standardized genetics allow hog farmers to provide their customers with a uniformity that is absent in nature. Uniformity also provides brand recognition and loyalty, “you know what you are getting when you buy our pork because it always tastes the same” (1).

The modification of hogs is beneficial in some respects, such as increasing productivity and therefore generating a larger profit, but it is also very problematic. Because modern pigs are genetically uniform, they are extremely vulnerable to infection. And, since they live in such close quarters, bugs spread quickly; if one pig gets sick it’s likely to kill half a heard. In attempt to protect pigs from the increased risk of infection, farmers began using antibiotics.

In 1943, following the emergence of penicillin, microbiologist Selman Waksman, discovered a miracle drug “ streptomycin.” Although the new drug proved to be effective against many human diseases, Waksman had originally been working on developing drugs for livestock. As farmers began using the antibiotics, they noticed that not only were the animals healthier but they were also growing faster on the same amount of feed (4). For this reason, most contemporary farmers put small amounts of antibiotics in the feed.  In fact, 90% of pigs today receive antibiotics in their diet (1). Farmers primarily use antibiotics for three reasons: to prevent disease, treat disease and promote growth. 

The use of antibiotics on pigs, as well as other livestock, is extremely problematic and controversial since pathogens develop resistance to drugs over time. Moreover, the antibiotics that are given to pigs are often the same antibiotics used on people. The excessive use of antibiotics is an invitation for antibiotic resistant bacteria to develop.  A meat industry coalition, called the Coalition on Animal Health, admits “that the use of antibiotics in farmed animals accounts for some antibiotic resistance in humans, but they maintain that reducing the use of antibiotics in animals will increase the amount of foodborne illness” (2). The United States still uses antibiotic growth promoters that were banned in the European Union. Furthermore, the E.U. is slowly phasing out the use of antibiotics in agriculture altogether (2). 

The modern pig, the improved pig, the pig we have genetically transformed cannot survive outside and is very susceptible to infection. We basically stripped pigs of everything that makes them a living creature, perhaps most fundamentally, we have taken away their ability to survive anywhere except the sanitized jail they live in. They are born to die. They have no defense mechanisms, no means of survival, they are so vulnerable that if they were set free into the world, they would get an infection practically the moment they stepped out of the barn.  

The effects that the use, and overuse, of antibiotics have had on pigs leads to vital questions surrounding our own use of antibiotics. Penicillin is largely considered to be the first antibiotic discovered. Although initially discovered in 1928 by Scottish scientist Andrew Fleming, penicillin was not widely used until the second world war. Upon emerging into the medical world, penicillin was considered to be a miracle drug because it had the ability to fight infected wounds--the war injury with the highest rate of fatality. However, only four years after drug companies began mass producing penicillin in 1943, microbes showing resistance began emerging (5).

The first bug to battle penicillin was staphylococcus aureus. Medical researchers have and are currently retaliating with derivatives, but antibiotic resistance spreads quickly and the microbes build up resistance to antibiotics faster than we can discover new ones. Additionally, it has to do with survival of the fittest---when antibiotics enter the body, they kill defenseless bacteria, leaving behind those that are strong enough to resist. These resistant microbes multiply and soon become the dominant microorganisms. Thus, a new strain emerges that is stronger--which is why more and more microorganisms are able to develop resistance to multiple drugs (5). 

Resistance to antibiotics spreads so quickly that some experts believe that we may be approaching the end of what seemed like an endless supply of antibacterial drugs. Even though new antibiotics are being developed all the time, they believe that it is only a matter of time before we have played all of our cards: “it should be noted...that humans have only had the upper hand over bacteria for a handful of decades - we have no right to expect that situation to last forever” (6). 

Yet, some experts believe that all we need to do is find another super drug like penicillin and we will have the upper hand again (6). However, if you take into account the short amount of time that it took for microbes to become resistant to penicillin, this line of thinking doesn’t seem logical. Shouldn’t we stop wishing for a magic potion and adapt to the best of our ability? Do we really think that we are immune to natural selection? It seems that in our attempt to defeat and overcome nature, we are just making her angry and creating more infection to fight off. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before we are out of time, options, and antibiotics. 

We are trying to defeat nature, overcome, rise above evolution and natural selection and survival of the fittest. But bacteria is winning. Perhaps this is because they do still function according to natural selection and we are trying to live outside of it. When we run to the doctor for antibiotics to cure a minor infection, we may be better off fighting it off ourselves and building up resistance. Why don’t we stop using hand-sanitizer and wash our hands with non-antibacterial soap? Why not raise animals on the land that they were meant to stand on? Do we really want to get to the point where everything looks like a sterilized factory or  roll by each other in our individual bubbles? Human contact? No, I cannot have human contact, you might have germs.

It seems like the pork industry is confused. In 1986, they launched “Pork. the other white meat” campaign in order to recast the role of pork in American society. But, 20 years later, they have found that the meat has become too lean, kind of mushy, and has a sour taste. People want pork to taste how pork is supposed to taste. It seems like the answer we are being given is: go back to the basics. Simplicity is elegance. You came from nature, you are part of nature, go back to nature. We can look at the state of the modern pig and learn rather than ignoring the situation--is it worth it? Do we really want to end up in a remotely similar position? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger--we don’t really seem to believe that anymore; perhaps in this day and age it only applies to pathogens. What seems necessary is that we build up resistance and tolerance to the germs around us rather than running or sterilizing everything in sight. 


[1] Johnson, Nathanael. “Swine of the Times.” Harper’s Magazine 1 May 2006: 47-56. Research Library. ProQuest. Bryn Mawr College Library, Bryn Mawr, PA. 3 Oct. 2007  <>.

[2] Ornelas, Lauren and Juliet Gellatley. “When Pigs Cry: A Report on the USA Pig Industry." Viva!USA. <>.

[3] Quirk’s Staff. “Tracking Study Shows Pork Ads Effective.” Quirk’s Marketing Research Review. April <1988.>.

[4] “Farming in the 1940s.” Living History Farm. Nebraska. <>.

[5] Lewis, Ricki. “The Rise of Antibiotic-Resistant Infections.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Sept. 1995. <>.

[6] “MRSA ‘superbugs.’” BBC News. Feb. 2005. <>.






Paul Grobstein's picture

beyond natural selection?

"We are trying to defeat nature, overcome, rise above evolution and natural selection and survival of the fittest. But bacteria is winning. Perhaps this is because they do still function according to natural selection and we are trying to live outside of it." Nice line, which in turn raises an interesting question .... is there a place for aspiring to do what natural selection hasn't so far? If so, how does one decide when and what?