The cover of The Postmortal is one of the coolest images I’ve seen in a long time. Death impaled by his own scythe – be not proud, indeed.
The idea behind Drew Magary’s great new book is simple: aging, as it turns out, is caused by one gene. Shut that gene off and you stop aging; accidents and disease are still a problem, but you’ve cured death by natural causes. Now compound that discovery with the fact that any person who gets the Cure simply stops aging. People don’t become younger, they just don’t get older, frozen at their “Cure age.” What happens next?
In an effort to find out, Magary takes us through the life of John Farrell, a New York lawyer who gets the Cure for aging at the age of 29 in the year 2019. From that point on, things go rather poorly for John and the rest of humanity. As one might expect, curing aging doesn’t cure social ills, over-population, ennui, or a host of other human hangups. Mark Frauenfelder has an excellent synopsis of the book over at boingboing.net, and I share his opinions about the book’s bleak tone and high quality.
Magary’s argument through the text is essentially this: death creates meaning. Not mortality, but guaranteed natural death due to aging. The idea that no matter what you do, how you live your life, the concept that you will be born, mature, grow old, and die creates human meaning. Magary has a point: from the riddle of the Sphinx to Tyler Durden to the final books of Harry Potter, aging and death seem to be at the epicenter of human thought. I don’t deny him that at any moment any one of us could meet a tragic end. Life is precious in part because it is not meant to last.
But here is where I struggle. The Postmortal is not about a post-mortal society, it is about a post-aging society. Lots and lots and lots of people die in Magary’s vision. In fact, he seems to argue that in the absence of death, people will not only seek death but will create circumstances that create death and thereby, create meaning. It is only when Farrell’s life is most in peril that he finds purpose in existence. But Farrell is never immortal, no one is. So my question is: is the process of aging as meaningful as the condition of being mortal? Read More
Dying is a touchy subject. Euthanasia makes people upset. Whichever side of the debate you are on, you are caught between the hard place of human suffering and the rock of informed autonomous free choice. Euthanasia is really a debate about not dying of natural causes. For so long, we’ve understood death to be only OK if it was natural or demonstrably accidental. Anything else was murder, manslaughter, or war. Not only God, but we humans, have set our canon against self-slaughter. “Voluntary active euthanasia,” as Daniel Brock denotes it, is not natural, nor is it demonstrably accidental. Thus, we instinctively categorize it as morally wrong.
Instead of attempting to root out the source of that instinct and investigating whether or not voluntary active euthanasia actually violates morality, many use the blurred line created as reason enough to oppose a chosen death. Ross Douthat of the New York Times argues that Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian’s efforts to provide assistance to those suffering created a moral slippery slope:
And once we allow that such a right exists, the arguments for confining it to the dying seem arbitrary at best. We are all dying, day by day: do the terminally ill really occupy a completely different moral category from the rest? A cancer patient’s suffering isn’t necessarily more unbearable than the more indefinite agony of someone living with multiple sclerosis or quadriplegia or manic depression. And not every unbearable agony is medical: if a man losing a battle with Parkinson’s disease can claim the relief of physician-assisted suicide, then why not a devastated widower, or a parent who has lost her only child?
Note that Douthat doesn’t consider Parkinson’s a medical disease. But more to the point – Douthat’s argument is that we don’t know what degree of suffering makes the choice to die morally palatable. Degree of suffering is the wrong criterion. None but the sufferer can define it and it can never be truly communicated. What is at stake here is not only the free and informed choice of the dying, but our very understanding of what it means to “die of natural causes.” Read More
Halloween is a-comin’ and this Sunday brings us AMC’s The Walking Dead. In honor of that, we’re discussing The Ethics of the Undead here at Science, Not Fiction. This is part IV of IV. (Check out parts I, II, & III)
Before I get onto the other exciting questions, a quick recap: a zombie pathogen could not be a “live infection” (i.e. rabies/Rage), but would be a re-animation virus: infection-death-reanimation. Bodily fluid transmission, non-regeneration/growth, and slowed decay were also key features of my hypothetical zombie pathogen. A zombie is a corpse with the appearance of life. The distinction is between brain-death and brain destruction. A zombie is brain-dead. In reality, it is the pathogen which is alive, hijacking the corpse. When one damages the corpse sufficiently, the pathogen has nothing left to “hijack” and therefore the zombie is de-animated.
With these key points answered, we can answer a whooooole bunch of other questions about what a zombie is and isn’t. Answers after the jump! Read More
Halloween is a-comin’ and this Sunday brings us AMC’s The Walking Dead. In honor of that, we’re discussing The Ethics of the Undead here at Science, Not Fiction. This is part III of IV. (Check out parts I, & II)
Are zombies really dead? How do we know? People are often reported “clinically dead” only to be revived later. If it is moving, if it reacts to stimuli like a food source or sounds, and if metabolic processes are in play, how can we call a zombie dead?
The most basic definition of life is the ability to have “signaling and self-sustaining processes” as the all-knowing Wikipedia tells us:
Living organisms undergo metabolism, maintain homeostasis, possess a capacity to grow, respond to stimuli, reproduce and, through natural selection, adapt to their environment in successive generations.
Zombies do indeed undergo a qualified form of metabolism, sort of maintain homeostasis, and definitely respond to stimuli. Alternately, zombies do not grow, reproduce, or go through natural selection. So much for a clear answer there.
Consider the following: When we “kill” something, we are implying that our action has made an “alive” thing “dead.” We commonly refer to “killing” zombies. Therefore, a zombie is alive until it is killed. Not quite, some might argue, a zombie is undead. Undead is a special word that describes an entity which was once alive in the full meaning of that word, then died, and was then re-animated (e.g. a zombie). The zombie was not re-vivified, that is, brought back to life, but its bare biological systems were re-started. Read More
Halloween is a-comin’ and this Sunday brings us AMC’s The Walking Dead. In honor of that, we’re discussing The Ethics of the Undead here at Science, Not Fiction. This is part II of IV. (Check out parts I, & III)
Before we can start investigating whether or not something that craves brains has a mind or should be pitied, we need to define just what, exactly, we’re talking about when we talk about zombies.
I’m going to start by ruling out the 28 Days Later zombies and the voodoo/demonic zombies of Evil Dead. First, the name of this blog is Science, not Fiction, which means any religious hokum is right out the door. Demon possession, souls back from Hell, and voodoo are not going to be considered in this investigation. On the other end of the spectrum, in 28 Days Later anything infected with “Rage” becomes a “fast” zombie. In essence, Rage is rabies only way, way scarier. Thus we aren’t dealing with the “undead” so much as the violently insane. So non-fatal pathogens don’t count either. If the pathogen doesn’t first kill you, then re-animate you, then you aren’t a zombie.
Which leads us to the next question: how does the pathogen work? I am not denying here the multitude of variations and nuances among zombie plague viruses, so we have to come up with a generic, realistic version to have our discussion. Zombies generally meet three important criteria. They are 1) stimulus-response creatures that seek flesh 2) continually decomposing and 3) contagious via bodily fluids. If we can explain, reasonably, how and for what reason a pathogen might cause/allow these conditions, we can describe a realistic zombie pathogen.
Halloween is a-comin’ and this Sunday brings us AMC’s The Walking Dead. In honor of that, we’re discussing The Ethics of the Undead here at Science, Not Fiction. This is part I of IV. (Check out parts II, & III)
Zombies are everywhere! Zombieland, Shawn of the Dead, and 28 Days Later in the movies; World War Z and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on the bookshelf; Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising and Resident Evil in your video games - not to mention the George A. Romero and Sam Rami classics in your DVD collection. And this Sunday Robert Kirkman’s epic The Walking Dead lurches from the pages of comic books onto your television thanks to AMC.
Where ever you turn, zombies are there. We can’t seem to get enough of the re-animated recently departed. But why do we love these ambling carnivorous cadavers so?
Zombies are horrifying. An outbreak would almost certainly lead to global apocalypse. Unrelenting, unthinking, uncaring, undead, they are a nightmare incarnate. They remind us of mortality, of decay, of our own fragility. Perhaps worst, they remind us of how inhuman a human being can become.
Zombies are familiar. Refrains of “Brains!”, guttural groans, and mindless shambling instantly trigger the idea of a zombie in our mind. We all know, somehow, that decapitation – that is, destruction of the zombie brain – is our only salvation. I bet you’ve dressed as one for Halloween. Every time “Thriller” comes on you probably dance like a zombie. Some mornings I feel like a zombie. Even philosophers talk about zombies. We know zombies. They are hilarious, they are frightening, they are part of us. And that is why we love them.
But have you ever asked yourself: is a zombie still a human? is a zombie dead, really? can it feel pain? does a zombie have dignity? Has the question ever popped up in your quite-live brain: is it ok to kill a zombie? Could a zombie be cured? If you could cure it, would you still want to? In honor of Halloween and our culture’s current love affair with brain-eating corpses, I present The Ethics of the Undead, your universal guide for answering all of your most pressing zombie questions. Stay tuned for posts throughout Halloween weekend!
I had hoped for a good response to “The Most Dangerous Idea in the World,” but I must admit I did not expect the slew of comments, responses, and the huge Reddit thread that it triggered. You critiqued my stance on religion, on economic equality, on the value of suffering and death, on the benefits of technology, and on the “you support eugenics? what!?” level. The value of any idea is how well it stands up to public scrutiny and debate. So allow me to put up my rhetorical dukes and see if I can’t land a few haymakers on your many counterpoints.
There were five big counterpoints to transhumanism that emerged from the comments. For the sake of clarity and brevity, I have paraphrased each.
1. Transhumanism is new-age, techno-utopian, “Rapture of the Nerds” pap.
2. Transhumanism will split society between rich transhumans and poor normals.
3. Without death, there will be overpopulation, insufficient resources, we’ll all get bored and bad old people will never go away.
4. Eugenics is bad. Period.
5. What if I don’t want to be transhuman?
And now, my answers:
Considering cryonics? Before you sign up to freeze yourself — or just your brain! the whole thing (you) might be overkill–after you die so that you can be unfrozen and then un-deadened in the future, you might want to consider your current relationships. As it turns out, a lot of those who plan to go into cryonic suspension when they are “deanimated” have trouble with their loved ones, primarily wives. In Kerry Howley’s NYT Magazine piece “Until Cryonics Do We Part” about Robin Hanson, a George Mason University economics professor and forward thinker, and Peggy Jackson, a hospice worker and Hanson’s wife, we get a glimpse of the tension wanting to live forever can cause. You see, Hanson wants to cryonically preserve his brain, and Jackson thinks that idea is a bit absurd.