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Living forever isn’t what it’s cracked up to be: James Miller

Posted 6/13/18

The desire to live forever is often the attribute of a madman. At least, that’s how it’s portrayed in countless works of fiction.

Think about every movie, play, novel and television …

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Living forever isn’t what it’s cracked up to be: James Miller

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The desire to live forever is often the attribute of a madman. At least, that’s how it’s portrayed in countless works of fiction.

Think about every movie, play, novel and television show written about the quest for immortality. Who pursues it? Not good-hearted heroes, of course, but dastardly villains fixated on dominating the world until the end of time.

So, wouldn’t it make sense that scientists are still researching ways to prolong life indefinitely despite numerous warnings from artists? W.H. Auden warned that poets rarely have an impact on the maniacal impulses of the powerful. No string of beautiful prose or wildly imaginative parable can stop the ineluctable march of scientific progress.

A team of Yale scientists recently presented a major breakthrough: a means for keeping the brain of a pig alive after the death of its physical body. Nenad Sestan, a scientist on the team, announced the development at a meeting of the National Institute of Health last month. His colleagues had collected more than 100 severed pig heads from a slaughterhouse and hooked them up to a machine called the “BrainEx.” This device was able to keep the gray matter within the pig brains oxygenated, sustaining a loose definition of “life” for four hours.

And just like the first time someone threw a slab of raw bacon into heated-up grease, scientists may have stumbled upon man’s great forbidden want: everlasting life.

Sestan described the experiment’s success as “mind-boggling” (a strangely apt description) and “unexpected.” He has submitted the research for publication and we’ll learn more when the scholarly article is eventually released. For the time being, the talk of the science community has been about this Frankenstein-esque scheme to wring life out of the dead.

Of course, the usual platitudes about how any information sussed out of the pig brain experiment will be used to advance medical research are being deployed, including sad sap stories about granny’s sick old lungs being made new again. Steve Hyman, the director of psychiatric research at the Broad Institute, claims that the advance shouldn’t be viewed as a pathway to endless life. It is “not remotely possible” to transplant a living brain into a dead corpse, he assures us.

Are we really expected to be so stupid? Must we trust scientists to check themselves when on the cusp of finding a way to prolong life, maybe indefinitely?

If scientists had moral scruples about pushing boundaries, we’d have never ended up with the atomic bomb. But science contains its own indomitable logic. It is perfectly capable of operating effectively outside the realm of ethical consideration ­— hence why sinister fields like euthanasia and phrenology have been supported by supposedly enlightened minds.

In a recent edition of the journal Nature, a group of 15 scientists attempt to describe the moral dilemmas that arise when experimenting with brain tissue. Together, they address the complicated questions of who “owns” living brain tissue, what to do with discarded animals once their brains have been scrambled, and how a brain surrogate properly gives consent.

These are all morally messy concerns that, if we’re honest, are likely low on the priority list of most scientists. The original Yale team didn’t show much concern for animal well-being when they revitalized pig brains only to snuff them out again. Pigs are not dumb creatures. They think and feel just like any child. They’re emotional and form affectionate bonds with us and each other.

Yet they were treated like disposable tissues, tossed away once their man-made purpose was served. How a man treats animals is a good indicator of how he eventually treats people, and these scientists showed a willingness to mold life into a simple candle, to be lighted and extinguished at will.

Animal cruelty aside, the large moral question remains: What is life when it can be extended in perpetuity? I’d argue: not much. Life is precious because it’s finite — at least, corporeally speaking, it is. Our earthly experience may not go with us to Paradise, or Hell, or whatever awaits us once the synapses cease firing. To extend our consciousness beyond its natural lifespan flattens the value of worldly life.

Then there is the theological pretzel created by keeping brain tissue alive. God isn’t going to welcome someone home whose mind still exists on Earth. For a Christian, or any believer, death isn’t an end, but a beginning for eternity at rest. Thus, the motivating factor behind keeping brain tissue alive isn’t a care for life, but a fear of death as the ultimate stopping point.

Practically speaking, it’s not at all clear that endless life will be the Holy Grail it’s cracked up to be either. Nottingham Trent University ethics and philosophy lecturer Benjamin Curtis cautions that even if our brains are maintained outside a living body, we should be wary, lest we “spend the foreseeable future as a disembodied brain in a bucket, locked away inside your own mind without access to the sense that allow us to experience and interact with the world.”

That’s not exactly living your best life. It’s hardly a life at all, in fact, but rather a facsimile of one, an ersatz existence that just barely clings to the full definition of living. “Death is not the dying. Dying is life, its last revenge upon itself,” declared the demonic apparition Loving in Eugene O’Neill’s Days Without End. Dying is what gives meaning to life. It completes the circle.

The sooner we accept life isn’t forever, the happier we’ll be with the present. Scientists, I imagine, won’t be so easily persuaded. Their limit-testing experimentation is bound to really break the natural order of things eventually. Pig brains are only the beginning to a nightmare only previously dreamt about by the darkest minds of science-fiction writers.

James E. Miller, a native of Middletown, works as a digital marketer in Northern Virginia.