January 21, 2005

Make Peace with your Biology (Adbusters #57, winter 2004)

Shot five times by a psychotic neighbor less than 100 feet from me, the German shepherd’s fur was drenched with blood. Bravely, he refused to fall before running back to his master, my friend Jeff. As we laid him down and comforted him my heart raced, but then I touched the dog and felt his calm. In mortal pain he remained quiet and still.

Since that moment I have embraced the certainties that life includes suffering and that fear can’t prevent it. But as science feverishly works to insulate humanity from the agonies of its existence, I’m increasingly in the minority. Discomfort is being engineered out of life as we slowly replace our biological faults with technological solutions. Pain and suffering are the next design imperfections to be “cured” out of man, and with biotechnology’s power to tinker with genetics, we may not even stop there.

But while our gadgetry may fool us into thinking that we can become immortal or suffering-free, therein lies a trap. “Modern medicine is a negation of health,” wrote Ivan Illich, a philosophical critic of modernity’s promises. “It makes more people sick than it heals.” His 1975 book, Medical Nemesis, challenged the “good” of doctors and technologies, as the ability to postpoine death creates artificial hopes. With our life expectations raised beyond reality and our capability to deal with suffering diminished, the inevitable failure of medicine can cause us to suffer more than we would without it.

For 20 years Illich lived with a large tumor growing on his head. True to his beliefs, he refused medical treatment and eventually died as a result. He had accepted fate and had pushed radical positions for a techno-crazed world, like the right to die without diagnosis, and the creation of an “art of suffering.” But brave people like Illich have all but disappeared. Our aversions to suffering and death have grown exponentially and we’ve handed our faith over to modern day saviors in white lab coats.

While moral and ethical arguments against biotechnology are shared by many secular critics, the position is often framed as spiritual or “religious” - as an accusation that people are “playing god.” Though it’s true that only a god could do what we’re attempting to achieve with medical science, no god ever would.

Ask yourself: what “god” switches genes between animals to make them more productive for agriculture? Removes genes so cattle will grow more ribs and offer more for our plate? Engineers pig organs to transplant into people? Kills human embryos while harvesting them for their reproductive stem cells? The answer, of course, is none. Whether you believe in a god or not, equating the Frankenscience we’re practicing today with the work of a creator is nothing short of an insult. It is technological man alone who seeks to deny the burdens of human existence with such meddling.

So arises this century’s next battle - between believers in science and believers in the increasingly forgotten intangibles of human courage and human struggle. “[O]ne cannot think of human life as a problem to be solved without dehumanizing it,” says Leon Kass, chairman of the US president’s Council on Bioethics. “We really try to defeat death, yet in coming closer to our goal we find all humanity diminished as we lose engagement with higher aspirations or the loves and longings that awareness of mortality produces.”

What do you lose when your life becomes more valuable than any other life in history? When your death is something you can’t accept? When pain makes you cower in fear? You lose what every human before you aspired to: the selfl ess desire to sacrifice for a future generation.

To remain human in our techno world is not to admit defeat or remain behind in some darker age, but instead to accept limits and embrace our biology. Sadly, that is a radical position today. Like everything around us except nature itself, we are destined to suffer, toil and die. But a life with those rough edges is far better than a synthesized life without. Leon Kass: “There are things worse than suffering and dying, such as despair, self-hatred or losing connections with the people who matter to you.”

I think that’s what the dog understood as he ran back to his master, his best friend, before he allowed death’s slow tumbling wave to finally begin washing over him.

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