Biology, Technology, Vanity

by Jonathan Wallace

Both my parents were doctors, and I have spent a lot of time hanging around hospitals. One thing that was driven home rather harshly during my father's penultimate illness was that doctors are trained to regard the human body exclusively as a machine. Any measures that will extend its life are to be taken, at almost any cost. Frequently it is forgotten that the machine has an inhabitant, a mysterious ghost which the doctors neither know how to create or repair. This ghost sometimes becomes a serious inconvenience in the process of repairing the machine.

My father, who was to die of cancer less than two years later, went in to the hospital for an angioplasty. A decision was made on the spot to perform a triple bypass.

Surgeons, of course, have the reputation of being talented but very difficult people. The one who operated on my father never told us that there was any possibility of a psychological reaction to surgery. This is a well-known risk. My father weathered the operation successfully and we left him near midnight in the critical care unit. Sometime later that night, he began to rave and had to be restrained. He was in the hospital for weeks after before he came back to himself and could come home. I was left with the image of a physician saying, "The operation was successful but the patient is raving and chained to the bed."

Stirring on the edges of our perception today are developments that will finally make the body into a clay that can be molded in any way we wish. With complete control over the body's longevity and genetic make-up, we will confront more poignantly than ever the spectacle of the soul as an inconvenient passenger, an obstacle to our feats of construction.

Telomeres of Our Misfortune

Reading the New York Times over breakfast the other morning, my wife exclaimed:

"In the near future, everyone will live 300 years-- and we've probably missed it."

I picked up the paper and read an account of recent discoveries concerning the telomeres--the "ends" of DNA that assist in copying. Everytime a cell is replicated, the telomeres become shorter, until they wear out entirely. This creates a limit to the number of times most cells of the human body can replicate. Though it is not the sole limit on human life, this so-called "Hayfield" limit plays a significant role in setting an end point beyond which humans cannot live.

Since certain cells, such as sperm and egg cells, produce a chemical called "telomerase" which spares these cells from wearage on the telomeres, scientists are now investigating whether this chemical can be used to give us the much longer life spans which impressed my wife.

Today it appears that any technological thing that can be done, will be done--the "technological determinism" of the terminally resigned. I have written elsewhere that we owe it to ourselves to conduct a dialog with any new technology to determine whether it is consistent with our morality and goals for ourselves. We should be able to renounce a technology from time to time when it flunks this test.

If we solve the problem of the wearing out of the machine, and can all live three hundred years, what will we have accomplished? No human work aside from nuclear weapons inspires quite so much foreboding. We already, through better medicine, have learned to live much longer, but cannot answer the question why one would want to do so. During a recent visit, my grandmother said, "I'm one hundred years old and I can't die." She sits all day long in a room in a home for the able elderly, sometimes with the television on and sometimes off.

In most good things we naively believe that more is better. After helping unload books at a fair in grade school, another volunteer and I were invited each to select a book for ourselves. I found a thin book I had been wanting to read, and my companion instinctively took the fattest book he could find, though he would never read it.

Of course when we read the obituaries we scan first for the age. If the deceased lived to be 95, we feel satisfaction; if 33, dread and pity; if 51, anxiety. But merely measuring years tells us nothing about the quality of the individual's life. In Joseph Losey's film The Go-Between, we witness the story of a young boy whose actions contribute to a tragic outcome. In an epilog to the movie, the young boy is a man in his seventies; we have the sense that nothing else has happened to him; he has spent the empty decades revolving around the tragedy of childhood.

Before I was thirty it occurred to me that I had had almost all the basic human experiences. Life, like software development, has a spiral methodology: perhaps I understand things better on the third swoop. But at some point, that knowledge is as complete as it needs to be. Extreme longevity will not make human life so profound that thirty swoops will be required for a fine comprehension.

So the question remains, what to do with the time? Would the symphony written by Mozart in his two hundredth year have been ten times more poignant and masterful than the 40th symphony in G minor? What is the book James Joyce would have written at age 300 to establish that Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake were the work of a juvenile?

Our culture believes that it takes fifty or sixty years for a human to reach the "top of his game"; that is why we usually elect presidents in that age range. But we also know that there is no authority figure more dangerous than an elderly one, who (through a personal application of the Second Law of Thermodynamics) has come to believe that he is infallible, that everything is lawful, and that his ends justify all means. All Grand Inquisitors are men who have lived too long. As John Henry Newman wrote of Pope Pius in 1870, "We have come to a climax of tyranny. It is not good for a Pope to live 20 years [in office]. It is anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no-one to contradict him, does not know facts, and does cruel things without meaning it." [Source: Garry Wills, "The Vatican Monarchy", The New York Review of Books, February 19, 1998.]

In his latest and best novel, Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling draws an adept portrait of a society dominated by the extremely longlived: there is no risk, no art, really no life unless one breaks free. His elderly are not evil; they are simply rigid, monomaniacal, profoundly cautious. In a society toploaded with the longlived--even more so than today--there will be no youth. There will be young people, but they will not be youthful.

To the researchers offering us the potential for centuries of life, we should before accepting, pose the question, "Why should we live three hundred years?" If the only answer is "Because we can," then let's decline the gift.

Clones of Regret

Through-out history, we have struggled with the desire to regard other people as things or as property. At the pinnacle of our achievement is the realization, brokered by our compassion, that other people are ends in themselves, not means.

In the dialogue we should have before adopting a new technology, we would determine what it will do for us and whether we need that thing done. Who are the customers? Regarding human cloning, one can imagine a series of scenarios, from the poignant to the vain and vicious. Since these include the creation of children for those who cannot conceive, and even for the bereaved, it is impossible to say that the technology should not be pursued. However, humans being what they are, it is likely that cloning will be put to more vain uses than compassionate ones.

Most of the time we forget that human clones already exist: identical twins, born from the same egg, are clones of one another. There is an extensive literature on the struggle these twins have with identity. Parents who dress them identically and otherwise stress their sameness can create serious problems. Some research has remarkably shown that identical twins separated at birth may grow up more alike than those raised together. This underlines the hard work a human being must do to differentiate himself from a clone with whom he shares his world.

Commonplace human cloning will give rise to a whole new pathology of identity problems, anger and violence. In general, we all seek as early as possible to stress our differences from our parents. The fantasy many children have of having been adopted or switched in the hospital is an expression of the desire not be a repetition of one's parents. Through-out our lifetimes, we struggle to be regarded-- and to regard ourselves--as ends, and not as someone else's means to the realization of dreams that have nothing to do with ours.

Human clones are and will be separate people, of course. But it will be a very natural weakness not to regard them as such. Instead, this whole field of technology encourages profound selfishness and vanity. Throughout human history, we have sought immortality through participation in a genetic lottery--by mixing our genes with those of a stranger and looking for glimmers of ourselves in the result. Cloning offers the opportunity to avoid the randomness of the lottery and create an exact copy of ourselves. Anyone who sets out to do this will be extraordinarily prone to regard the result as property rather than a person.

Genetic engineering ups the ante even further. When we can create clones who, rather than being exact copies of ourselves, represent the person we wanted to be--copies who are a little taller, have blue eyes, and lack the dangerous predisposition to heart disease or obesity--we will likely regard them the same way we do animals we breed or machines we engineer. The fantasy of Pygmalion will have come to be.


Life extension and cloning are both technological tours de force which may leave the patient raving and in chains.