17 June 2010

The destroyer of minds

This posting was inspired by this one over at DemWit, which I do strongly recommend you read; it has its own point to make which is different from my point here, and does so very powerfully. It excerpts a 1955 novel on the Civil War, mourning the loss which the war's death toll inflicted on future human creativity. Some of those who were killed might, had they lived, have gone on to be great scientists, artists, or humanitarians; because they died young, their contributions are forever lost to civilization.

It occurred to me, while reading DemWit's post, that the same is true of death from any cause. Until a few generations ago even the most civilized regions were regularly swept by epidemics and famines which killed millions; the great genocides of history killed millions more. How many geniuses did we lose before they had a chance to achieve?

The world has come far since then, yet people still die. Because we have become so good at eliminating other causes of death, the great majority of human deaths now happen because of aging. Millennia of religion and traditional thinking have brainwashed us into thinking of death from old age as more "natural" and less tragic than death from other causes, although disease, starvation, and violence are just as much a part of the natural world as the aging process is. Yet this kind of death robs humanity of talent just as surely as death in wartime does -- mature talent rather than potential talent, but the loss is, if anything, all the greater for that.

MacKinlay Kantor, the author of the novel DemWit cites, died in 1977 at the age of 73 -- not even a particularly short life by the standards of that time. If he were still alive today and still young and vigorous, how many more great novels might he have written, novels which we will now never read? If the Civil War had not happened, all of the soldiers killed by it, whose deaths Kantor mourns, would still be dead now -- dead after longer lives, yes, but still dead, their full potential still unrealized because they had only seventy or eighty years in which to develop it. How much better if they had not only survived the war, but were still with us.

Imagine if Beethoven or Tchaikovsky were still alive and working, having experienced and absorbed the vast increase in range of cultural influences and available musical instruments since their time. What music might they then have written that, in fact, we will never hear? If Shakespeare had lived through and seen all the history and cultural development from his day to ours, what great works might he be writing at this very moment?

Worldwide, aging kills more than forty million people each year -- almost as many as the entire death toll of World War II.

Given the state of our scientific knowledge today and the pace of technological innovation, I'm confident that billions of people now living will never suffer the terrible scourge of aging and death. But it can't come soon enough. Not when every year's delay costs us forty million.

Links to previous posts on this topic



Blogger Leslie Parsley said...

Your post and all the links call for revisiting time and time again, so I have bookmarked it along with BJ's article. One or two non-adversarial questions come immediately to mind but I really need to read what has been previously written and THINK about it. You are one deep thinker, Mr. Infidel, and I often find myself struggling - and often failing - to keep up.

17 June, 2010 07:47  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

TNLib, thanks for the kind words! I know this sounds like a radical idea to most people -- it's become an integral part of my way of thinking because I've been studying the issue for years. The FAQ does deal with some of the questions I regularly run into.

And DemWit's post is definitely worth reading. We are so hypnotized into a sort of bovine passive acceptance of death as a "normal" part of reality that we really need reminding of the terrible losses it inflicts.

17 June, 2010 09:02  
Blogger Tim said...

Thanks for the posting, I can't comment now as I have a lot to think about. This is something that will take a little time.

17 June, 2010 16:27  
Blogger Sue said...

Infidel do you work in the medical or science field? You are saying in our lifetime we will find the fountain of youth?

You are a deep thinker Infidel, but I also think you are a scientist :-)

17 June, 2010 18:06  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I'm not a working scientist (but my father was, so I grew up with a deep knowledge of it). Medical technology is of profound interest to me, so I've studied it for years and in particular have tried to learn as much as possible about its immediate future.

You are saying in our lifetime we will find the fountain of youth?

Absolutely, yes. But it will not be a fountain. It will be stem cells and genetic engineering and brain-computer interfacing. It will not be magic. It will be technology. It will be real.

17 June, 2010 19:45  
Blogger Unknown said...


I found your post extremely intriguing. Your thoughts on the human acceptance of death are interesting. I do not believe in what could have been, but that does not mean I don't often consider it. As a professional musician with a degree in music composition, your paragraph on Beethoven and Tchaikovsky struck a chord with me, if you'll pardon the pun, as I too have often wondered about it. But I do believe in the now and in what will be. If there was no death, then, along with all of the creative geniuses and phenomenal philanthropists, there would also be all the Hitlers, the Attilas, and any other tyrant or evil person who was at one time in power. Food for thought!

I am going to follow your blog as I am curious to read more about your thoughts and insights. Even though I don't agree with you, (as I am not an atheist) I am one of those people who feel that if their own beliefs are not stretched and tested by others, then those ideals and traditions are not worthy to be believed in.


~Sunny Insomniac

17 June, 2010 22:48  
Blogger B.J. said...

First, I must say that it is very humbling that something DemWti wrote inspired Infidel into deep thinking.

Honestly, my first thought is: the world would be a very crowded place, possibly with such an exhaustion of resources as to lead mankind into a state of cannibalism and a reversal of civility and creativity.

There was an article in Omni magazine once about that inevitable microcosm of society found in what occurred on Easter Island.

That’s what I get for reading Omni!

In the meantime, can we hurry this along, dear Infidel? A friend dragged me around shopping for eight hours yesterday, and it was one of the singular most tiring days of my life – aching muscl4es topped with a acid reflux attack. I fell on my couch and slept for nine hours! Think what I could have accomplished in that time!

Thanks for the mention. I do have deep thoughts about this that involve the loss of minds like, for example, James A. Michener’s.

And, selfishly, I pray that some gifted researcher will discover a cure for blingdness.


18 June, 2010 04:04  
Blogger Sue said...

How long do you think a person should live? If a 90 year old is healthy and happy they could live on for many more years with this science you refer to. Sounds fabulous. For me it makes me think of my sister who died at age 37 from leukemia, and my dad who died at age 60 from prostate cancer. This is my reason for being so hard on the research for cancer cures. For someone like me it is too slow coming, for you it is medical breakthroughs that are exciting. Does that make sense?

18 June, 2010 05:07  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Sunny & BJ, thanks for visiting. I appreciate the kind words.

Concerning Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, I actually think it's possible that in the future we may develop technology to restore people who have died, even people who died a very long time ago. So it's possible that the geniuses of the past might live again someday. That's a very different issue from curing aging, though, and we would be unwise to depend on it.

About Hitler, I would point out that when he died, it was not of old age -- so even if aging had been cured in his time, he would not still be with us today. Extremely violent people have a tendency to die of things other than natural causes.

Even if an ageless world decided not to apply the death penalty to people like Hitler (or lesser murderers, for that matter), they would presumably be locked up somewhere, not running around loose.

Hurry it along, that's what I've been saying for years. I know what you mean by feeling the effects of aging. No one should have to suffer that.

As for the over-population issue, I addressed it in the FAQ.

Blindness develops for a variety of different reasons, but I actually expect to see cures for the commoner ones fairly soon. For example, macular degeneration has already been cured in lab animals using stem-cell therapy. Had it not been for the delays in progress caused by Bush's ban on funding for stem-cell research, we might even have had a cure available for humans already.

18 June, 2010 05:19  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

BTW .... I read this yesterday actually ... but nice posting and I agree!

Later Guy ........

18 June, 2010 05:30  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Sue: How long do you think a person should live?

However long he or she wants. If someone is satisfied with the 80 or 90 years they would typically live with today's technology, or with the 40 or 50 they would typically have lived with 1900's technology, or with the centuries that will be possible with the technology of 15-30 years from now, it should be up to them. Me, I'm not planning on ever giving up.

For someone like me it is too slow coming, for you it is medical breakthroughs that are exciting.

I understand it may seem slow, when you or someone close to you is suffering from a debilitating condition. Unfortunately technology isn't like magic. It takes hard work, often years of it. But the pace is clearly accelerating. A few years ago the NCI set a goal of eliminating death and suffering from cancer in the US by 2015, for example, and the way things are going, I think the chances of meeting that goal are good.

18 June, 2010 06:00  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Actually if I may add .... I am MORE than just in agreement here ... I am so confident of what will come as far as human longevity (or at least what the human will be) that I would bet a paycheck on it! :)

18 June, 2010 06:30  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RC: You notice I'm not betting against you there.....:-)

18 June, 2010 06:56  

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