We Are All Dorian Grey Now


If someone on the street stopped and asked you what you thought was the meaning behind Oscar Wilde’s novel A Picture of Dorian Grey you’d probably blurt out ,like the rest of us, that it had something to do with a frightening portrait, the dangers of pursuing immortality, and, if one remembered vague details about Wilde’s life, you might bring up the fact that it must have gotten him into a lot of trouble on account of its homoeroticism.

This at least is what I thought before I sat down and actually read the novel. What I found there instead was a remarkable reflection on human consciousness all the more remarkable because in 1890 when the novel was published we really had no idea how the mind worked. Wilde would arrive at his viewpoint from introspection and observation alone. His reflections on thought and emotion are all the more important because many of the ways his protagonist becomes unhinged from the people around him, and thus cursed to a fateful demise, are a kind of amplified intimation of what social media is doing to us today. Let me explain.      

The science writer and poet, Diane Ackerman in her book An  Alchemy of the Mind list three ways evolution has “played tricks” on us: 1) We have brains that can imagine states of perfection they can’t achieve, 2) We have brains that compare our insides to other people’s outsides, 3) We have brains desperate to stay alive, yet we are finite beings that perish. (p. 6). Although the novel is not discussed by Ackerman,  A Picture of Dorian Grey explores all three of these “tricks”, though the third one, which is perhaps often thought to be the main subject of the novel is in fact the least important one in terms of the story and its meaning.

The whole tragedy of Dorian Grey begins, of course, when Dorian looking upon his portrait by Basil Hallward dreams he could exchange his own temporal youth for the youth frozen in time by the painter:

… if only it were the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that-for that- I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the world I would not give! I would give my soul for that! (25-26)

What drives Dorian to make his “deal with the devil” is his ability to imagine something that cannot be- his own beauty frozen in time- like the dead portrait- while he himself remains living. Of course, the mark of maturity (or sanity) is being able to tell the difference between our dreams and reality and learn somehow to accept the gap. What this devil’s wager brings Dorian will be a failure to mature though this will not mean that he will not experience the other emotional manifestation of aging that emerges if one fails to grow with experience- that is degeneration and corruption.

If we do ever master the underlying mechanisms of aging, especially cognitive aging, this question of maturation and development seems sure to come up. We may all wish were as good looking as when we were 19 or as deft on the basketball court, but few of us would hope for the return of the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence or the lack of foresight we had as children. Many of these emotional changes from youth to middle age and older are based upon our accumulated experience, but they also follow what seems to be a natural maturing process in the brain. What we lose in reflex- time and rapid memory recall we more than makeup for in our ability to see the big picture and exercise emotional control. Aging in this sense, can indeed be said to be healthy.

These changes are certainly a factor when it comes to the relationship between aging and crime. Not only do the rates of crime track chronological age with the majority of crimes committed by young men in their late teens and early 2o’s, but rates of recidivism for those convicted and imprisoned plummets by more than half for those 59-69 years old versus 18- 24 year olds.

What does all of that have to do with Dorian Grey? More than you might think. In the novel it is not merely Dorian’s physical development that is arrested, but his emotional development as well. The eternal youth goes to parties, visits opium dens, visits brothels and does other things that remain unnamed. He does not work, does not marry, does not raise children. He has no real connection with other human beings besides perhaps Lord Henry Wotton who has introduced him to the philosophy of Hedonism, though even there the connection is tenuous. Dorian Grey gains knowledge but does not learn, neither from his own pain or the pain he inflicts on others.  Had he been arrested he would make the perfect recidivist.

Yet, it is in Ackerman’s second trick she thinks evolution has played on us: “having a brain that compares our insides to others outsides” that the real depth of The Picture of Dorian Grey can be found, and its most  important message in light of our own social media age. Indeed the whole novel might be thought of as a meditation on that simple, but universal, trap of our own nature. But first I must discuss the question of empathy.

Dorian manages to ruin almost every life he touches. His first romance with the poor actress Sibyl Vane ends in her suicide, his blackmail of Adrian Singleton leads to his suicide as well. He will murder Basil Hallward the person who perhaps loved him most in the world. There are countless other named and unnamed victims of Dorian’s influence.

What makes Dorian heartless is that everyone around him becomes a mere surface, a plaything of his own mind. It was his cruelty to Sibyl Vane that led to her suicide. Hallward who plays the Mephistopheles to Dorian’s Faust explains the actresses death to him this way:

No she will never come to life. She has played her final part. But you must think of that lonely death in the tawdry dressing- room simply as a strange fragment of some Jacobean tragedy, as a wonderful scene from Webster, or Ford or Cyril Tourneur. The girl never really lived so she never really died. To you at least she was always a dream a phantom… (103)

To which Dorian eventually responds regarding the girl’s death:

It has been a marvelous experience! That is all. I wonder if life has still in store for me anything as marvelous. (103)

We might reel in revulsion at Dorian’s response to the death of another human being, at his stone- heartedness in light of the pain the girl’s death has brought to her loved ones, a death he bears a great deal of responsibility for, but his lack of empathy holds up a mirror to ourselves and might be something we need to be more fully in tune with now that our digitally mediated lives allow us to so much more easily turn real people into the mere characters of our own life play.

There was the tragic case of Rebecca Sedwick a 12 year old girl who killed herself by jumping from an industrial platform after repeated bullying from her peers including multiple incitements by these young women for the girl to kill herself. The response of one of the bullies to the news of Rebecca Sedwick’s death was not horrified remorse, but this message which she posted on FaceBook:

Yes I know I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself, but I don’t give a f—k.

Two of the bullying girls had been arrested and charged with felony harassment, though the charges have now been dropped.

In addition to this kind of direct cruelty there is another form of digitally mediated cruelty where people are willing spectators and sometimes accomplices of heinous acts: snuff films, pornography with some participants unaware that they are being filmed, especially the epidemic of child pornography. Deliberate cruelty to animals is another form of a digitized house of horrors as well.

This cruel pixelization of human beings (and animals) can strike us in seemingly innocent forms as well, as the media critic Douglas Rushkoff wrote of our infatuation with reality TV in his Present Shock :

We readily accept the humiliation of a contestant at the American Idol audition- such as William Hung, a Chinese American boy who revived the song “She Bangs” – even when he doesn’t know we are laughing at him. The more of this media we enjoy the more spectacularly cruel it must be to excite our attention…. (pp. 36-37)

On top of this are all the kinds of daily cruelty we engage in with our simulations- violent video games, or hit shows like “The Walking Dead”.

Is all of this digital cruelty having an effect on our ability to feel empathy? It appears so. Researchers are starting to pick up on what they are calling the “empathy deficit” a decline in the level of self-reported empathetic concern over the last generation. As Keith O’Brien wrote in The Boston Globe:

Starting around a decade ago, scores in two key areas of empathy begin to tumble downward. According to the analysis, perspective-taking, often known as cognitive empathy — that is, the ability to think about how someone else might feel — is declining. But even more troubling, Konrath noted, is the drop-off the researchers have charted in empathic concern, often known as emotional empathy. This is the ability to exhibit an emotional response to someone’s else’s distress.”

Between 1979 and 2009, according to the new research, empathic concern dropped 48 percent.

The worst case scenario that I can think of is that we are witnessing an early stage of the shift away from the non-violent society, we, despite our wars, created over the 19th and 20th centuries. A decline that Steven Pinker so excellently laid out in his Better Angels of Our Nature.  

Pinker traced our development of a society incredibly less violent and less accepting of violence than any of its predecessor. We appear to have a much more developed sense of empathy than any society in the human past. One of the major players in this transition from a society where cruelty was ubiquitous to one where it invokes feelings of revulsion and horror Pinker believes was the rise of reading, of universal literacy and especially the reading of novels.

Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the the world from that person’s vantage point. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could not experience firsthand, but you have stepped inside that person’s mind and are temporarily sharing his attitudes and reactions.

Stepping into someone else’s vantage point reminds you that the other fellow has a first-person present-tense, ongoing stream of consciousness that is very much like your own but not the same as your  own. It’s not a very big leap to suppose that the habit of reading other people’s words could put one in the habit of entering other people’s minds, including their pleasures and pains.

What visual/digital media fails to give us, what still allows even bad novels to give great films a run for their money, is any real grass of characters internal lives. The more cut off from other’s internal lives we become, the more they become mere surfaces with which we can play the “film” of our lives the only internal life we’ll ever know with certainty to be real.

This failure to recognize other’s internal lives is like the flip-side of “having brains that compare our insides to other people’s outsides” to which I will now after that long digression return. Perhaps all of the characters in The Picture of Dorian Grey mistake the surface for the truth of things. This is the philosophy of Lord Wotton, the origin of Dorian’s dark pact, and even infects the most emotionally attuned character in the novel, Basil.

In one scene, Basil comes to warn Dorian about his growing public infamy. It is a warning that will eventually lead to Bail’s murder at Dorian’s hands. The painter cannot believe the stories swirling around about the unaged man who once sat in his studio and was the muse of his art. Basil gives this explanation for his disbelief:

Mind you, I don’t believe these rumors at all. At least I can’t I can’t believe them when I see you. Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed. People talk sometimes about secret vices. There are no such things. If a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the moulding of his hands even.  (149-150)

Basil believes Dorian is good because his outside is beautiful, or he confuses his own virtue with Dorian’s appearance. This mistaking of outside with inside is the curse of the FaceBook generation.  As Stephen Marche explained it in his article Is FaceBook Making Us Lonely? we have put ourselves in a situation where we are constantly confusing people’s lives with their social media profiles and updates where we often only see photos the beautiful kids making crafts- not the temper tantrums, the wonderful action packed vacation- not the three days in the bathroom with the runs, or the sexy new car or gorgeous home rather than the crippling car and home payments.

In other words, we assume people to be happy because their digital persona is happy, but we have no idea of the details. We should be able to guess that, just like us, the internal lives of everyone else are “messy”, but this takes the kinds of empathy we seem to be losing.  We are stuck with a surface of a surface and are apt to confuse it with the real. To top it all off we have to then smooth out our own messiness for public consumption, or worse fall into a pit where we try to dig out of our own complexity, so we like the personas of others we mistake for real people can be “happy”.

Here’s Marche:

Not only must we contend with the social bounty of others; we must foster the appearance of our own social bounty. Being happy all the time, pretending to be happy, actually attempting to be happy—it’s exhausting. “

So what of the last of Ackerman’s tricks of evolution that “we have brains desperate to stay alive, yet we are finite beings that perish.” Although it might seem surprising, the exploration of this desire to be immortal is the element least explored in A Picture of Dorian Grey.

The reason for this is that Dorian is not so much interested in immortal life as he is in eternal youth, or better the eternal beauty that is natural for some in their youth. A deal with the devil to live forever, but be homely, is not one vain Dorian would have made.

Dorian is certainly afraid of dying, he is terrified and sickened by the fear that Sibyl’s brother will kill him. But in the short space between the appearance of this fear and Dorian’s actual death there is no room to explore Wilde’s thoughts regarding death.Dorian does not live forever, he dies a middle aged man.

A new radio series The Confessions of Dorian Grey does explore this theme barely developed by Wilde, imaging a Dorian Grey who lives rather than dies and takes his corruption through different times periods after the fin-de siecle. I look forward to seeing where the writers and producers take the theme.


In the back of my version of A Picture of Dorian Grey is a wonderful essay The ‘Conclusion’ to Pater’s Renaissance  by Wilde that is really about what it means to be alive and to be conscious and the place of art in that. Wilde writes:

… the whole scope of observation is dwarfed to the narrow chamber of the individual mind. Experience already reduced to a swarm of impressions, is ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us, or from us to that which we can only conjecture to be without. Every one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world.  (226)

Wilde wanted to grab hold of the fleeting impressions of life for but a moment and locate the now. Art, and in that sense “art for art’s’” sake was his means of doing this a spiritual recognition of the beauty of the now.

What ruined Dorian Grey was not the or sentiment or truth of that, though Wilde was exploring the dangers implicit in such a view. The black box nature of our consciousness, the fact that we create our own very unique internal worlds, is among the truths of modern neuroscience. Rather, Dorian’s failure lie in his unwillingness to recognize the “dream of a world” of others was as real and precious as his own.

Caves, Creationism and the Divine Wonder of Deep Time

The Mutiliation of Uranus by Saturn

Last week was my oldest daughter’s 5th birthday in my mind the next “big” birthday after the always special year one. I decided on a geology themed day one of whose components were her, me and my younger daughter who’s 3 taking a trip to a local limestone cave that holds walk through tours.

Given that we were visiting the cave on a weekday we had the privilege of getting a private tour: just me, the girls and our very friendly and helpful tour guide. I was really hoping the girls would get to see some bats, which I figured would be hibernating by now. Sadly, the bats were gone. In some places upwards of 90% of them had been killed by an epidemic with the understated name of “White Nose Syndrome” a biological catastrophe I hadn’t even been aware of and a crisis both for bats and farmers who depend on them for insect control and pollination.

For a local show-cave this was pretty amazing- lots of intricate stalactites and stalagmites, thin rock in the form of billowing ribbons a “living” growth moving so slowly it appears to be frozen in time. I found myself constantly wondering how long it took for these formations to take shape. “We tell people thousands of years” our guide told us. “We have no idea how old the earth is”. I thought to myself that I was almost certain that we had a pretty good idea of the age of the earth – 4.5 billion, but did not press- too interested in the caves features and exploring with the girls. I later realized I should have, it would have likely made our guide feel more at ease.

Towards the end of our tour we spotted a sea shell embedded in the low ceiling above us, and I picked up the girls one at a time so they could inspect it with their magnifying glass. I felt the kind of vertigo you feel when you come up against deep time. Here was the echo of a living thing from eons ago viewed by the living far far in its future.

Later I found myself thinking about our distance in time from the sea shell and the cave that surrounded it. How much time separated us and the shell? How old was the cave? How long had the things we had seen taken to form? Like any person who doesn’t know much about something does I went to our modern version of Delphi’s Oracle- Google.

When I Googled the very simple question: “how old are limestone caves?” a very curious thing happened. The very first link that popped up wasn’t Wikipedia or a geology site but The Institute for Creation Research.  That wasn’t the only link to creationist websites. Many, perhaps the majority, of articles written on the age of caves were by creationists, the ones that I read in seemingly scientific language, difficult for a non-scientist/non-geologist to parse. Creationists seem to be as interested in the age of caves as speleologist, and I couldn’t help but wonder, why?

Unless one goes looking or tries to remain conscious of it, there are very few places where human beings confront deep time- that is time far behind (or in front) of thousands of years by which we reckon human historical time.  The night sky is one of these places, though we have so turned the whole world into a sprawling Las Vegas that few of us can even see into the depths of night any more. Another place is natural history museums where prehistoric animals are preserved and put on display. Creationists have attempted to tackle the latter by designing their very own museums such as The Creation Museum replete with an alternative history of the universe where, among other things, dinosaurs once lived side-by-side with human beings like in The Flintstones.

Another place where a family such as my own might confront deep time is in canyons and caves. The Grand Canyon has a wonderful tour called The Trail of Time that gives some idea of the scale of geological time where tourists start at the top of the canyon in present time and move step by step and epoch by epoch to the point where the force of the Colorado River has revealed a surface 2 billion years old.

Caves are merely canyons under the ground and in both their structure and their slow growing features- stalactites and the like- give us a glimpse into the depths of geologic time. Creationists feel compelled to steel believers in a 5,000 year old earth against the kinds of doubts and questions that would be raised after a family walks through a cave. Hence all of the ink spilt arguing over how long it takes a stalagmite to grow five feet tall and look like a melting Santa Claus. What a shame.

It was no doubt the potential prickliness of his tourists that led our poor guide to present the age of the earth or the passage of time within the cave as open questions he could not address. After all, he didn’t know me from Adam and one slip of the word “million” from his mouth might have resulted in what should have been an exciting outing turning into a theological debate. As he said he was not, after all, a geologist and had merely found himself working in the cave after his father had passed away.

As regular readers of my posts well known, I am far from being an anti-religious person. Religion to me is one of the more wondrous inventions and discoveries we human beings have come up with, but religion, understood in this creationist sense seems to me a very real diminishment not merely of the human intellect but of the idea of the divine itself.

I do not mean to diminish the lives of people who believe in such pseudo-science. One of the most hardworking and courageous persons I can think of was a man blinded by a mine in Vietnam. Once we were discussing what he would most like to see were his sight restored and he said without hesitation “The Creation Museum!”. I think this man’s religious faith was a well spring for his motivation and courage, and this, I believe is what religions are for- to provide strength for us to deal with the trials and tribulations of human life. Yet, I cannot help but think that the effort to black- hole- like suck in and crush our ideas of creation so that it fits within the scope of our personal lives isn’t just an assault on scientific truth but a suffocation of our idea of the divine itself.

The Genesis story certainly offers believers and non-believers alike deep reflection on what it means to be a moral creature, but much of this opportunity for reflection is lost when the story is turned into a science text book. Not only that, both creation and creator become smaller. How limited is the God of creationists whose work they constrict from billions into mere thousand of years and whose overwhelming complexity and wonder they reduce to a mere 788,280 human words!  With bitter irony creationists diminish the depth of the work God has supposedly made so that man can exalt himself to the center of the universe and become the primary character of the story of creation. In trying to diminish the scale and depth of the universe in space and time they are committing the sin of Milton’s Satan- that is pride.

The more we learn of the universe the deeper it becomes. Perhaps the most amazing projects in NASA’s history were two very recent one- Kepler and Hubble. Their effects on our understanding of our place in the universe are far more profound than the moon landings or anything else the agency has done.

Hubble’s first Deep Field image was taken over ten consecutive days in December of 1995. What it discovered in the words of Lance Wallace over at The Atlantic:

What researchers found when they focused the Hubble over those 10 days on that tiny speck of darkness, Mather said, shook their worlds. When the images were compiled, they showed not just thousands of stars, but thousands of galaxies. If a tiny speck of darkness in the night sky held that many galaxies, stars and—as scientists were beginning to realize—associated planets … the number of galaxies, stars, and planets the universe contained had to be breathtakingly larger than they’d previously imagined.

The sheer increased scale of the universe has led scientist to believe that it is near impossible that we are “alone” in the cosmos. The Kepler Mission has filled in the details with recent studies suggesting that there may be billions of earth like planets in the universe.   If we combine these two discoveries with the understanding of planet hunter Dimitar Sasselov, who thinks that not only are we at the very beginning of the prime period for life in the universe because it has taken this long for stars to produce the heavy elements that are life’s prerequisites, but that we also have a very long time perhaps as much as 100 billion years for this golden age of life to play out, we get an idea of just how prolific creation is and will be beside which a God who creates only one living planet and one intelligent species seems tragically sterile.

To return underground, caves were our first cathedrals- witness Lascaux. It is even possible that our idea of the Underworld as the land of the dead grew out of the bronze age temple complex of Alepotrypa inspiring the Greek idea of Hades that served as the seed through which the similar ideas of Sheol held by the Jews and revved up by Christians to the pinnacle of horror shows with the idea of Hell.

I like to think that this early understanding of the Underworld as the land of the dead and the use of caves as temples reflects an intuitive understanding of deep time. Walking into a cave is indeed, in a sense, entering the realm of the dead because it is like walking into the earth’s past. What is seen there is the movement of time across vast scales. The shell my daughter’s peered at with their magnifying glass, for instance, was the exoskeleton of a creature that lived perhaps some 400 million years ago in the Silurian Period when what is now Pennsylvania was located at the equator and the limestone that was the product of decay the shells inhabitant’s relatives began to form.

Recognition of this deep time diminishes nothing of the human scale and spiritual meaning of this moment taken to stop and stare at something exquisite peeking at us from the ceiling- quite the opposite. Though I might be guilty of overwinding,  it was a second or two 400 million years or perhaps one might say 13 billion years in the making- who couldn’t help thanking God for that?

The Longevity Crisis


When our most precious and hard fought for successes give rise to yet more challenges life is revealing its Sisyphean character. We work as hard as we can to roll a rock up a hill only to have it crush us on the way down. The stones that threatens us this time are two of our global civilization’s greatest successes- the fact that children born are now very likely to live into old age and the fact that we have stretched out this old age itself so that many, many more people are living into ages where in the past the vast majority of their peers would be dead. These two demographic revolutions when combined form the basis of what I am calling the Longevity Crisis. Let’s take infant mortality first.

The changes in the pattern of infant mortality rates from 1900 until today is quite simply astounding. In the US a child born at the beginning of the 20th century had a 10% chance of dying before the age of 1. In some cities the rate of infant deaths was as high as 30%. By the end of the 20th century this rate of infant deaths had declined by over 90%. For all of human history up until very recently families that wanted children needed to shoot for high numbers. Many of their children would likely die before they had even learned to speak. More would likely die before reaching age 5.

As late as 1920, 30% of Americans still worked on farms which gave additional impetus to have large families. This combined with the lack of effective birth control (“the pill” wasn’t widely available until 1960) meant that average household size was large- around 4 children- though this was down from the average of seven children per household in the 1800s.

Everything about this story leads to the outcome that the number of children born per woman eventually shrinks. The compression has already happened almost everywhere and in some places such as East Asia including China, Japan and South Korea and in Europe it is happening much faster than in others.

Ultimately in terms of the sustainability of our species this decline in the birth rate is a very good thing. Demographics, however, is like a cruise ship- it is hard to turn. In the lag time the world’s population is exploding as societies are able to save the lives of children but continue to have nearly as many of them. We are living through the turning. As this incredibly cool video graphic from the Economist shows it took humanity roughly 250,000 years to reach 1 billion of us in 1900, but thereafter the rate of growth skyrocketed. There was only a little over a century between our first billion and second billion. 40 years later in 1960 we numbered 3 billion. Only 14 years after that we reached the 4 billion mark and the time between adding another billion would shorten to about a mere dozen years with 5 billion reached in 1987, 6 billion following 12 years later in 1999, and 7 billion a dozen after that in 2011.

Thankfully, the rate of population growth is slowing. It will take us 14 years to pass the 8 billion mark and 20-25 years to reach what will perhaps be the peak of human population during this era-  9 billion in 2050. Though comforting we shouldn’t necessarily be sanguine in light of this fact-  we are still on track to add to the world the equivalent of another China and Europe by the middle of the century. Certainly, these people will, with justice, hanker after a middle class lifestyle putting enormous pressures on the global environment. Add to that the effects of climate change and it seems we are entering a very dangerous and narrow chute through which humanity must pass.

Making the chute even narrower will be the fact that the transition from a high birth rate to a low one is occurring under equally unprecedented conditions regarding human longevity. As pointed out by Ted C. Fishman in his Shock of Grey a person born in 1900 had an average life expectancy of 49 years. By 2000 we had turned that into almost 77 years diligently increasing the average human lifespan by between 1.5 and 2.7 years per decade. (p.14)

It needs to be stressed here, however, that the vast majority of these gains in life expectancy are the result not of keeping the old alive, though we have gotten much better at that, then making sure children survive. The fact that many less children die today skews the average life expectancy upward. These were relatively “easy” gains technically speaking and involved public investments as much as anything else: better sanitation, clean drinking water, routine vaccinations, diet and antibiotics.

Fishman has a neat way of giving us perspective on what the achievement of 80 year longevity means for our species by putting it in terms of life years. At merely the same rate of longevity increase as we have today the world’s population in 2050 will have lived around 500 billion years more than had they be born in 1900! (p.14) That number, 500 billion, not only reveals the extent of the environmental challenges we face, but gives us an idea of the depth of human experience and creativity we might gain. Our longevity and numbers seem to add time to the universe itself.

If you want a jaw-dropping visualization of humanity’s demographic rollercoaster, not to mention a humbling perspective of your own existence within the warp and woof of being and not being, you can get little better than World Births and Deaths in Real-Timea real time simulation of reported human births and deaths created by software developer Brad Lyon.

Aside from the sheer environmental impact of what in the near future will be our increasing human numbers there is the question of how we deal with the transition to what are in essence old societies. Take a rapidly aging country such as Japan. By 2050 Fishman sees the percentage of the Japanese population over age 65 to be a jaw dropping 40%. (p. 145) The dependency ratio, that is the ratio that measures the number of workers per dependent children and elderly is expected to reach 1:1.  We have never seen a dependency ratio like that, and Japan isn’t even the worst. Cities such as Shanghai are projected to have a percentage people of over 65 as high as 60%. As a result of its draconian 1 child policy China faces the real danger of growing old before it gets rich.  

In Europe too we are seeing the emergence of elderly societies. Fishman again captures the problem quite well writing of Europe where no country is getting proportionally younger and in the worst of the lot, Spain, especially:

Translate the numbers into an estimate of how many people need help with their basic needs, and Spain begins to look like a country that is literally handicapped. Unless medical advances deliver millions of people from infirmities they are now destined for, one out of every six to eight Spaniards will need help with walking, going to the toilet, or doing some other activity that we take for granted until it becomes too difficult. (114)

When transhumanists and their opponents debate the former’s wish lists of medical and technological breakthroughs: radically increased healthy longevity, regenerative medicine, cognitive enhancements, cyborg technologies, advanced AI and robotics the dispute is normally centered around the question of human enhancement and the empowerment of healthy individuals.  My guess is that in the long run, however, the development and deployment of these technologies will have occurred not in the interests of the minority of healthy individuals that want them, but because without the use of such technologies societies will simply cease to be functional.

For our survival not as individuals, but as a society, we desperately need technologies and medical breakthroughs that keep the elderly functional and contributing for as long as possible. We need a major investment in regenerative technology, and major research into arresting especially neurological decline. We need cheap and effective exoskeletons that will allow the elderly to retain mobility well past their 65th year, and robots to do much of the work we may no longer be fit to do. The deployment of such technologies will need to be global because the Longevity Crisis is global and will hit especially hard those societies which remain poor.

We also need to avoid losing the gains in longevity we have made in the past century.

If you’re in the mood to be freaked out there’s nothing better than this recent Frontline documentary Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria. To bring up my oft quoted Orgel’s Second Rule “Evolution is cleverer than you are” as shown in this documentary bacteria who are the true lords of the earth are busy outsmarting us. Our overuse of antibiotics and our obsessive compulsive craziness for things like antibacterial dish soap is threatening us with a surge of resistant bacteria that could reveal our seeming defeat of communicable diseases in the last century- which has added to our numbers of both young and old- tragically temporary.

It was this defeat over communicable diseases that transformed death into primarily an experience of the old whereas in all ages prior it was terrifying precisely because of its randomness and especially its impact on the young- a thief in the night- the Grim Reaper and his scathe.

We might also eat our way into shorter longevity. Quoted by Fishman, one of the top thinkers on longevity outthere-  S. Jay Olshansky- thinks that today’s generation of diabetic children have a good chance of living shorter lives than their parents. (205)In the West we haven’t seen that since the late Middle Ages when longevity declined by a decade from 48 to 38 years.

As Olshansky points out in his The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging simply continuing the trend of increasing longevity we have now is likely to prove difficult.

… adding 80 years to the life of an 80- year- old person is far more difficult than adding 80 years to the life of an infant. The implications for life expectancy are obvious. As life expectancy climbs beyond its current level (80 and older) death rates must fall at a progressively faster pace to achieve even small gains in life expectancy.

This is the stark reality of entropy in the life table. Increasing life expectancy in a population already long-lived is like walking up a hill of increasing slope while carrying a stone of increasing mass.

Gains in life expectancy are already slowing and entropy in the life table ensures that gains in the future will be even slower.  (p. 87)

Olshansky is especially well known for popularizing the idea of the “longevity dividend”. He wants us to focus our medical research on finding ways to slow biological aging. Olshansky does not see this refocusing as a means to transhumanist ends- neither radical longevity let alone biological immortality strike him as realistic goals, and one might add as did Kevin LeGradure launching off the recent Pew survey on the subject that the goal of radical longevity is not one the public is hankering for in any case.

Rather, what Olshansky wants us to do is find ways to slow aging so that we can compress the time frame in which human beings suffer terminal illnesses. Longevity isn’t the goal here, but the delay of chronic and debilitating diseases many of the elderly are under current conditions doomed to suffer. Increased average lifespan is a secondary effect. For those interested primarily in increased longevity the promise of shortening the length of frightening and devastating illnesses such as Alzheimer’s is a potentially politically broadening selling point for increased public funding for longevity related research. Indeed, our very success in holding off death in the middle aged and those in their 60s and 70s demands, on grounds of compassion, that we attempt to compress the timeframe in which people suffer the new types of very emotionally and physically painful diseases of aging that our success has inadvertently created.

As noted, we have been extremely effective at rolling back the death of children from threats such as infectious diseases. We are also extremely effective at saving the middle-aged, say a 59 year old who suffers a heart attack. Yet, the sisyphean nature of reality always manages to strike back. A person saved while a child by antibiotics or as an adult through heart surgery- threats to life that would have killed the person quickly- has the chance now of dying from Alzheimer’s diseases an extremely crippling and expensive condition that might take a decade or more to result in death.

Alzheimer’s is especially frightening- not merely for the way it robs the individual of their identity and is therefore one of the most tragic of diseases both for the sufferer and her loved ones, but because of the scale of the disease. Olshansky predicts that on current trends the US will have 16 million Alzheimer’s sufferers by 2050. That’s over 3 million more people than live in my beloved Pennsylvania or as many people as there are in the country of Australia.

The longevity gains we had in the past were largely the result of investments in public health. It was our devotion to one another as fellow citizens and human beings that gave us the miracle of hundreds of billions of more human life years. When as they should be these are years of love and wonder, insight and creativity, and, we can hope -wisdom.

Ensuring that the majority of us can remain healthy and productive with our increased years will require perhaps even greater public investments, many of them in technologies transhumanists have long held dear. Above all, continuing the gains we have had in longevity by both avoiding going backward and increasing longevity will take both shoring up our public health capacities so that we can avoid the return of pandemic killers. (The most galling effect of the recent blockheaded government shutdown was that it compromised the essential work of the CDC in preparing for a potentially devastating flu outbreak.) As the Frontline documentary points out public sector investment is necessary to deal with issues such as bacteriological infection because the market does not find research into necessities such as new antibiotics profitable.

The very complexity of the problem of figuring out how to slow the process of aging going forward will likewise demand massive public investments into areas little touched by today’s medical researchers refocusing our efforts on understanding the underlying mechanisms of aging rather than just trying to come up with cures for specific diseases. At the same time we will have to ensure we fully support the development of the young or society will have poisoned itself at the root, along with ensuring that the benefits of medical and technological advances are shared both within our societies and globally. We can make it through the Longevity Crisis and beyond but only if we do so in the spirit of a supportive family- young, old and in the space between.

Finding Frankenstein a Home

Frankenstein Cover

Percy’s epic poem, Prometheus Unbound is seldom read today while his wife’s novel,  Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus has become so well known that her monster graces the boxes of children’s cereal, and became the fodder from one of the funniest movies of the 20th century.

The question that always strikes me when I have the pleasure of re-reading Frankenstein is how could someone so young have written this amazing book? Mary Shelley was a mere twenty-one when the novel was published and the story she penned largely to entertain her husband and friends has managed to seep deeply into our collective assumptions especially those regarding science and technology. Just think of the kinds of associations the word “frankenfood” brings to mind and one gets a sense of how potent as a form of resistance against new forms of technology her gothic horror story is.

What is lost in this hiving off of the idea of the dangers of “unnatural” science for use as a cautionary tale against using a particular form of technology or exploring a certain line of research is the depth and complexity of the other elements present in the novel. I blame Hollywood.

The Frankenstein’s monster of our collective imagination isn’t the one given us by Mary Shelley, but that imagined by the director James Whale in his 1931 classic Frankenstein.

It was Whale who gave us the monster in a diner jacket, bolts protruding from his neck, and head like a block. Above all, Whale’s monster is without speech whereas the monster Mary Shelley imagined is extraordinarily articulate.

Whale’s monster is a sort of natural born killer his brain having come from a violent criminal. It is like the murderous chimpanzee written about in the weekend’s New York Times a creature that because we can not control or tame its murderous instincts must be killed before it can harm another person. Mary Shelley’s monster has a reason behind its violence. He can learn and love like we do, and isn’t really non-human at all. It is his treatment by human beings as something other than one of us- his abandonment by Victor Frankenstein after he was created, the horror which he induces in every human being that encounters him, that transforms the “creature” into something not so much non-human as inhumane.

There is a lesson here regarding our future potential to create beings that our sentient like ourselves – the technological hopes of the hour being uplifting and AI – that we need to think about the problem of homelessness when creating such beings. All highly intelligent creatures that we know of with the remarkable exception of the cephalopods are social creatures therefore any intelligent creature we create will likely need to have some version of home a world where it can be social as well.

The dangers of monstrousness emerging from intelligence lacking a social world was brilliantly illustrated by another 19th century science-fiction horror story- H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau. In Mary Shelley’s novel she gives us insight into the origins of evil in the absence of such a world. Because it cannot be loved, Victor’s Frankenstein’s creation will destroy in the same way his every attempt to reach out to other sentient creature is ultimately destroyed with the creature telling his creator who has left him existentially shipwrecked:

“I too can cause desolation.”

Mary’s Shelley’s creature isn’t just articulate, he can read, and not only everyday reading, he has a taste for deep literature, especially Milton’s Paradise Lost which seems to offer him understanding of his own fate:

Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every respect.  He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his creator, he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from, beings of a superior nature: but I was helpless and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition: for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me. “ (Chapter 15, p.2)

In some sense Mary Shelley’s horror story can be seen as less of a warning to 19th century scientist engaged in strange experiments with galvanization than a cautionary tale for those whose dehumanizing exploitation of industrial workers, miners, serfs and chattel slaves might lead to a potentially inhuman form of revolutionary blow back.  The creature cries to his creator:

Yet mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery: if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear; and chiefly towards you my archenemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguisable hatred. “(Chpapter 17 p. 1)

Yet, these revelations of the need for compassion towards sentient beings were largely lost in the anti-scientific thrust of the novel by which Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus and its progeny has become one of our most potent cautionary tales against hubris.  A scene in Whale’s Frankenstein where the doctor is speaking to a fellow scientist who lacks his ambition for great discovery sums it up nicely:

Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond. Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or what causes the trees to mount, or what changes the darkness to light? When you talk like that people call you crazy. But if I could discover just one of these things- what eternity is for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.

This bias against trying to answer the big questions isn’t merely an invention of the film maker but a deep part of Mary Shelley’s novel itself. Victor Frankenstein is first inspired not by science but by medieval occultists such as Cornelius Agrippa. Exchanging these power and knowledge aspirations of the magicians for run of the mill science meant for Victor:

“I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth.” (Chapter 3, p. 3)

Victor would not let this diminishment of his horizons happen:

So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein, – more, far more will I achieve: treading the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation. (Chapter 3)

His ultimate goal being to create-life anew, a road not only to biological immortality but his worship:

A new species would bless me as creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as should deserve theirs. “ (Chapter 4, p. 4)

It is here, I think where we see that Mary Shelley has turned the tables on her husband’s Prometheus giving him the will to power seen in Milton’s Satan whom Percy Shelley in his tale of the Titan had tried to find an alternative for. Scientists would oblige Mary’s warnings by coming up with such horrors as the machine gun, chemical warfare, aerial bombing, nuclear weapons, napalm and inhumane medical experiments such as those performed not just by the NAZIs, but by ourselves.

At the same time scientists gave us anesthesia, and electric lighting, penicillin and anti- biotics along with a host of other humane inventions. It is here where the emotional pull of Mary Shelley’s divine imagination loses me and the anti-scientific nature of her novel becomes something I am not inclined to accept.

The idea of hubris is a useful concept some variant of which we must adopt the exploration of which I will leave for another time. In crafting an updated version of the tale of the dangers of human hubris Mary Shelley has dimmed under Gothic shadows some of the illumination of the Enlightenment in which she played a large part. Warnings against following our desire to know is, after all, the primary moral of her novel. As Victor tells the polar explorer Robert Walton who has saved him:

Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier the man is who thinks his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become more than his nature will allow (Chapter 4, page 2)

Walton on the basis of Victor’s story does prematurely end his polar exploration, perhaps saving his crew from mortal danger, but also stopping short an adventure and as a consequence contracting the horizon of what we as human beings can know. Many of the lessons of Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus we need to grapple with and take to heart, yet this refusal to ask or take upon ourselves the danger of attempting to answer the deepest of questions would constitute another very different, though very real, way of losing a elemental component of our humanity.