"Death may no longer be inevitable," writes Dr John Harris, Professor of Bioethics at Manchester University, and a member of the Government's Genetic Commission. I never expected to read such words written by a serious scientist in my lifetime.
Of course, no one is suggesting the imminent demise of the Grim Reaper, Male life expectancy since 1900 has increased by about 25 years. Announcing the results of the Human Genome Project this week, Bill Clinton gave young Leo Blair an extra 25 years on the spot. Others are already talking about 150 years, the more exuberant 1,000. The abolition of mortality is now semi-officially envisaged on some distant horizon. It will be achieved by meddling around with genes, which will improve the quality of life as well as its quantity.
Many will greet this putative victory over death as a potential triumph. I believe that it would be a tragedy. For death has a purpose, and without it, our lives on earth would be meaningless and devoid of value.
This is not the popular view of death. The decline of religious belief in western Europe has contributed to uncertainty of what becomes of us after it. We fear the unknown, and death itself may hurt. Mortality militates against the desire to control our own destinies. A predictable death, as in terminal illness, seems no more palatable than the surprise demise of a heart attack. Life is fun and, even when foul, preferable to the alternative. There were relatively few suicides in the extermination camps. The neo-Darwinists see us as robots whose defining genes are simply selfish survival mechanisms. We are programmed to avoid death. No wonder we recoil from it.
But do we? Should we? Will we? If death is no longer inevitable, will it acquire some attraction? Perhaps our distaste for it is coloured, if not caused, by its supposed inevitability. Imagine if death were a choice. Would it lead to a breakdown or to a strengthening of the brotherhood of man? I suggest the former. The earth's resources are finite and would concentrate in the hands of the super-vital, super-aged, to the chagrin of their great, great, great grand-children. Who can doubt that, even today, children are often ambivalent about their aged parents' continued existence? Governments, and the dictators we seem to have forgotten about so swiftly, would soon be busy organising "forced retirement". Life would quickly become nasty, brutish and long.
Crammed together like sardines, and competing with our own progeny for limited space and material resources, we would be alive, but dead from dŽjà vu. Everything of value would have died except for us... fun, excitement, love, hope, sex, pleasure. It seems certain that our desire for life would not long outlast the knowledge that our wish for immortality would soon be eternally gratified.
Mistrust and fear of death depend on another assumption that may not be true. Is life really good? Optimists, answering yes, would point to (say) beauty, love, the joy of children, or the kindness and moral goodness of man. Research into happiness is narrowly on the side of those who say that, on balance, they are contented. In our cultural climate, to admit that life is unpleasant is construed as a sign that we have failed in it. But the last century saw horrors unlike any the world has known.
But if life is, on balance, bad, and eternal life as unattractive as it is insupportable, what then of death, the great deliverance? When no longer natural and inevitable, might it at last be considered good? For believers in G-d and Heaven, how can it not be a wonderful thing to die?
In truth, death defines our life as a full stop does a sentence. Death alone, by providing an ending, makes sense of our birth and the drama of life in between. We have a limited time to plan our legacy, to play to the best of our ability the cards we have been dealt. Death gives value to our times. Those who have brushed with it, and survived, talk of its pleasantness, and yet return from the brink born again, determined not to waste now precious years. They see purpose and meaning in those things they had taken for granted and are determined to leave their mark of goodness on the microcosmic moment of forever that is human existence. A surfeit of life will sicken our appetite for it. Rationing it naturally sharpens our desire to leave our echo in eternity. Will somebody tell the scientists that death is not our enemy? It is our friend.
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