Monday, March 7, 2011

He's not dying, Jim.


You know you’re a Trekkie when reflecting on some social phenomenon makes you say, “Y’know, this reminds me of that episode when Kirk and Spock ….”

“The Mark of Gideon”: Instead of politely asking Capt. Kirk for a sample of his blood, the leaders of the insanely overpopulated Gideon cook up a bizarre scheme to expose a beautiful girl (was there ever any other on that show?) to a deadly disease (Vegan choriomeningitis) Our Hero carries. You see, sterilization doesn’t work, and they hold love and the creation of life sacred (so birth control isn’t an option), and they live in a germ-free environment that gives them long lives. As a result, they must reintroduce disease to their planet, so they can naturally reduce the population and shorten life spans. After Kirk grumps a bit about being used as a pawn, the beautiful girl’s life is saved … so she can return to the planet as a 23rd-century Typhoid Annie.

Third season? How did you guess?

Because so much of the teleplay is spent on Kirk and Spock figuring out the puzzle—one of the recurring flaws of the original series—the show doesn’t get us to think about the Gideonites’ dilemma and its implications for us. The whole point of setting a story in the future is to make us reflect on the present.

I remembered this episode the other day while reading the February 21, 2011 TIME cover story “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal”. The central focus of the story is on “The Singularity”, the year that technological progress “becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history”. Written in your standard Popular Science style, it’s chock full of gee-whiz predictions, mild cautions and allusions to deep philosophical challenges.

The overall tone, though, is a grim determinism—the kind that serves as the technocrat’s favorite substitute for a moral compass: “There’s nothing we can do to prevent it, so we may as well reap all the benefits we can.”

Of course, when the world economy collapses and the tech and R&D companies are turning off the lights because the funding isn’t there, I’ll refrain from sending them a copy of the article. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about.

One of the gee-whiz developments the article reports that took place just recently was when scientists at Harvard injected some aging mice with an enzyme called telomerase and found they’d finally discovered the Fountain of Perpetual Youth. This interesting revelation was followed up by some insights from British biologist Aubrey de Grey:

People have begun to realize that the view of aging being something immutable—rather like the heat death of the universe—is simply ridiculous …. It’s just childish. The human body has a bunch of functions, and it accumulates various types of damage as a side effect of the normal function of the machine. Therefore in principle that damage can be repaired periodically. This is why we have vintage cars. … The whole of medicine consists of messing about with what looks pretty inevitable until you figure out how to make it not inevitable (p. 47).

So okay, who doesn’t want to live as long as technology makes possible? Except, as Vincenzina Santoro reports, aging is already presenting a problem. By 2050, the over-60 crowd is expected to make up 1/3rd of the population in developed countries, and that there’ll be two over-60s for every child under 15.

Santoro also writes, “On a social level, the elderly in developed countries are already beginning to experience the same fate as that of unwanted unborn children. Euthanasia is the elder equivalent of abortion. Both processes terminate life. One is a victim who never lived to be born and the other an individual who lived too long.”

Unfortunately, she doesn’t give us much more than that bald assertion. Right now, euthanasia is voluntary (really?) in Belgium and the Netherlands. Other countries content themselves with raising the age limits on their public pensions and scrambling for higher returns on the investment of their funding.

Of course, telomerase would make it possible for the over-60s to be healthy enough to continue working well into their hundreds, which would relieve a lot of retirement and safety-net programs. Like the Tin Woodsman said, O joy! O rapture!

The fact is, I can envisage any number of dystopian futures where all the technological benefits spoken of by the TIME article become true … only for Man to find out that they aren’t without consequences. I’m especially touched by the article’s childlike assumption that virtual immortality will be available to everyone, not just the wealthy atheists who are scared to death of death. And I can easily see some geneticist ironing out the “bugs” in the human DNA strand, and someone else figuring out a little later that the bugs were supposed to be there all along.

Speaking of Star Trek episodes: Anyone remember “Space Seed”? The episode that gave us the evil superhuman Khan Noonian Singh and the Eugenics Wars?

(By the way, Dr. de Grey, astrophysicists aren’t all convinced there’s enough “dark matter” in the universe to prevent heat death.)

When I say I can’t see why we want to infinitely prolong our material lives, I say that not just as a Catholic Christian who wants to be with God but as a semi-skilled laborer who, at the age of 47, is realistically looking at another 23 years (minimum) of work, fearing the possibility that Social Security will have collapsed before then, and irrationally hoping that he wins the Mega-Million lottery before the dollar collapses.

And I’m wondering why we can’t divert all that funding from making life longer for the rich to making life better for the less fortunate. Instead of creating an artificial life-cycle by killing those who live too long, why don’t we just accept natural death as part of our lot?

2 comments:

  1. Acceptance of death implies a shift in focus as the one in Life's checkout lane realizes there might be more to the universe than "me, me, me". Perish the thought but there may actually be a God who isn't too impressed about our juvenile fixation with ourselves.

    So youth is to be prolonged and Death avoided at all cost. For proof, check out how much of our present culture centers around recapturing a wrinkle-free phiz.

    On a related note, isn't that dimple on Cher's chin what actually used to be her bellybutton several facelifts back? Does Madonna realize her backup dancers could be her granddaughters? Let's not mention the Rolling Stones latest tour and whether or not there's a handicap access ramp leading to the stage. Trying to grow old gracefully is a lot less ridiculous than these examples (Disclaimer: this all comes from a guy whose wife is always mistaken for his daughter. Sue me.).

    If you want to see a good spoof on the fixation we have with eternal youth, rent "Death Becomes Her".

    Good post. Keep 'em coming.

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  2. Well, if there's anyone who could use some telomerase, it's Keith Richards. Whenever I see him, I hear in my head: "Ooo, the mummy strikes!" Yeah, I see the Regenerist and Olay commercials playing all the time; the youth-worshipping aspect of our culture is far harder on women than it is on men. I mean, look how long Sean Connery was regarded as a sex symbol!

    One of the hard things about coming into Christianity from someplace else is finding the proper respect for death, not only in the economy of salvation but in the role of human life. It's at once an abomination and our birthright, something to embrace and something to avoid. We don't inflict it on others save in direst need, and yet there are times when we must meet it directly and willingly.

    I think I did see Death Becomes Her when it first hit the theaters, but that was ... what, twenty years ago? I will have to see it again, if it's the movie I'm thinking of.

    Keep reading, Subvet! And I always appreciate your thoughts!

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