Dr. Stephen Mason has generously composed the following article for ImmInst.org. Thanks!
LOOK AT IT THIS WAY
By Steve Mason
We make some of our greatest gains
When we see old things
In new ways
SCARED A DYIN?
There's a line from that classic tune "Old Man River" that goes: …tired
a'livin but scared a'dyin. Interestingly enough, that probably sums up the
feelings of a significant share of the population. As the average age goes
up, an ever-greater number of people are finding that their lives have become
decreasingly joyful and increasingly fearful. The aging process, during
which our minds and our bodies deteriorate to mere shadows of our former
youthful vigor, should prepare us for death. But it doesn't. People still
fight for life, however unsatisfactory, just as the condemned criminal fights
to file yet another appeal. And there's a kind of parallel there since, if
you think about it, aren't we all really on Death Row?
Religion is a dead end - literally. The notion that one dies and things get
better is so patently absurd that virtually no one with all his screws tight
takes it seriously. Oh they may pretend to believe in a better place in the
sky but for most, when the chips are down, no treatment is too costly and no
procedure is too painful not to try to keep them from their final reward.
And think about it, if they really took all that streets of gold business as
fact, why would they so resist putting themselves in harm's way? If I
honestly thought I had a ticket to Paradise in my pocket, I'd be working on
being outa here!
So in the end, people invariably turn to science and technology: Forget what
I said about a heavenly father and stem cell research…what can you do to keep
me alive right now? And that brings me to my topic - what can be done?
Let's begin by dispelling the myth regarding an ever-increasing life span.
If, a century ago, people lived only until 40 and now they regularly last
into their 70's progress is being made right? Wrong. What has happened is
that more babies are being kept alive. Think about it statistically. If one
half of the newly born infants didn't survive their first year but then the
other half lived on to reach the age of 80, the mean age would be 40. This
is not far from the facts of a century ago. Indeed, the typical adult who
reached maturity may actually have lived longer back then as a result of
having gone through what amounted to a weeding out process. Most of the
Founding Fathers lived long lives and Michelangelo almost made it to 90. In
fact, the Bible mentions three score and ten (70 years of life) as an
average…and that was two millenium ago. Very simply, the longer you live the
longer you can expect to live. A 25-year-old male, for example, had a
72-year life expectancy at birth while men who have already made it to 65 can
look forward to seeing their 81st birthday.
Of course it would be silly to deny that advances have been made. Most of
these, however, turn out to be decidedly low tech and passe science. Things
like central heating, pasteurized milk, clean water, closed sewers and
adequate nutrition account for most "modern" gains in the battle against
death. Getting the jump on just a handful of previously deadly diseases
(measles, pneumonia, diphtheria, whooping cough and tuberculosis) made a big
difference too. But even at that, Americans spend the most on health care
yet rank only 24th in life expectance compared to other industrialize
nations. People in Australia, France and Sweden live 73 years to our 70 and
in Japan they typically make it all the way to 74 and a half. Too much
weight and too little exercise may explain this discrepancy but even if all
diseases were eliminated…it would add only about ten years to the average
The fact is, we die as a result of a built in, preprogrammed, hardwired aging
process. Exactly how this process took us from healthy adults to senile
seniors was something that might only be guessed at 50 years ago. One of the
theories, the Hayflick Limit, said our cells contained a kind of counter.
They reproduced just so many times and then stopped. An inevitable downhill
slide followed. Today, it looks like Hayflick was on the money. The actual
mechanism may be compared to a shoelace. Each cellular division wears a bit
off the plastic end until, when that magical three score and ten is reached,
all the plastic is gone and the lace itself begins to unravel. The details
of just how this happens (and how it might be prevented from happening) are
covered at great length in many other places so I won't bore you with all the
complicated chemical interactions…even though your life depends on them.
Instead, I'd like to explore the man-in-the-street's reaction to his possible
The man in the street hasn't a clue. The notion that death might have a cure
is not part of his thinking. Old habits are hard to break. He pays his
taxes and he expects to die. Indeed, some philosophers have suggested that
life is of value only because of the alternative. Personally, I'm more of
the object in motion tends to want to stay in motion school of thought. This
made it especially difficult for me to comprehend a caller to one of those
late night talk radio shows where I happened to be the guest. The discussion
had gotten around to cryogenics and the possibility of freezing and then
eventually thawing out the current crop of terminally ill. Starting with a
"Yea but" the man on the phone said, "if George Washington could have been
frozen and brought back today…what would he do for a living? Being a General
would be out - he would know nothing of nuclear weapons - and he couldn't
even fall back on his surveying experience because all surveyors today have
to belong to a union." So here I was offering everlasting life and here was
this cretin concerned with union affiliations. But he was the rule and I was
the exception. Just ask around and you'll see what I mean. With the
possible exception of Ponce de Leon, most men (including those in
policymaking positions) simply can't conceive of a Fountain of Youth. And
yet, what fools these mortals be, when immortality is just around the
And it is. A crash program similar to the one that put a man on the moon in
a decade can, I firmly believe, cure death. But without the will, there is
no way. Physically we are very, very close. Emotionally there are still
many miles to go before we agree to avert the sleep of death. And even you
probably doubt my word. How can Mankind possibly beat the Grim Reaper?
Well, genetic engineering is one promising avenue. Now that we know our cells
have a reproductive limit, simply change that limit. We know the mechanism
of the malfunction and we have the tools to fix it. Neither of these, the
cause nor the possible cure was ever know before in the thousands of years of
Human history since exiting the cave. Identifying the nature of the beast is
in itself an incredible leap forward.
And there's one final thing to consider, the way two or more people will so
often discover the same thing at the same time. This makes it difficult for
future generations to give credit where it's due. Who figured it out first
exactly? The reason I bring this up is because there are actually several
approaches to immortality (or at least a greatly extended life span) that are
close to fruition. Along with the most promising, genetic engineering,
there's nano technology which is supposed to have a greater impact on our
world than computers by 2015. You can easily see how being able to
manipulate individual cells is going to have an extraordinary effect on the
nature of living things. And too, with those computers doubling in power and
halving in price every couple of years, the day when you'll be able to
download your brain can't be far away. As luck would have it, the
breakthroughs may well come together with researchers at this lab getting
cells to make perfect copies forever and researchers at that lab skipping
biology altogether and moving directly into human minds mirrored in machines.
LOOK AT IT THIS WAY
There will be lots of questions to answer. Will life lose its meaning in the
absence of death? There will be lots of problems to solve. What will we do
on an already crowded planet if people keep getting on but stop getting off?
But the bottom line: Hey Buddy…yours may well be the last generation to die.
Think about that.
Dr. Stephen Mason is a psychologist living in Southern California. He is a former university professor, syndicated columnist, talk radio show host and comedy writer for Joan Rivers. He is a member of MENSA, a recipient of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal's Citizen Sane award, and once appeared as a centerfold in Playgirl magazine. Currently, he serves as Media Affairs Director of The Lifestyles Organization. Address comments and column suggestions to him directly at DrSBMason@aol.com.