Breaking up with death
Humanity has a complicated relationship with death. Will technology one day enable us to break up with it completely?
For all my love of science fiction, I try to avoid stories Iike H.P. Lovecraft's Reanimator that deals with the reanimation of the dead. The thought of taking dead decaying bodies and manipulating them with medicine and technology until they come back to life, is disturbing. Not only does my vivid imagination conjure up morbid images with foul stenches and ghastly sounds of bodily juices dripping, I also find myself horrified and indignant at such desecration of the dead. Surely, the deceased should be laid to rest, not resurrected and defiled.
The fact that our world isn't populated with the un-dead today is surely evidence that I am not alone in this line of thinking. But while the act of reanimation may not have much mainstream acceptance, the idea of the dead coming back to life certainly remains a source of cultural fixation. We only need to look at recent examples in modern pop culture, like (spoilers!) the resurrection of Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, to see this in play.
It wasn't all that long ago that reanimating the dead was a subject of fascination in science too, as researchers sought to push at, and break, the taboo. A famous example is that of Giovanni Aldini, an Italian physicist of the 1800s, who became mesmerized by electricity at a time when the technology was still enveloped by an aura of magic and mystique. Aldini was particularly passionate about the potential for electricity to breathe file back into the dead. In an early example of sensationalized public engagement, he electrocuted the body of a freshly executed murderer in front of a live audience. The show, which saw the corpse demonstrating an unearthly flailing of limbs, left onlookers shocked, and helped Aldini attain the Copley Medal of The Royal Society.
Yet, Aldini's work pales in comparison to the sort performed by researchers in the early 1900s. The American biologist Robert E. Cornish, for example, claimed to have revived the fresh corpses of two dogs – after strangling them to death with his own hands - by seesawing then, to induce blood circulation while injecting drugs as part of his 'Lazarus' project. He later attempted to secure the corpse of an executed convict to try his methods on humans, but was thwarted by prison bureaucracy.
It may be tempting to see these experiments as acts of irresponsible, mad science of bygone days. However, just last April, Bioquark Inc., an American biotech company, prompted the popular press to resurrect the 'Lazarus trial' moniker when it emerged they had been green-lighted by regulators to recruit clinically-dead patients, to test new techniques intended as a first step towards reversing brain death.
Ultimately, the trial did not seem to go anywhere; Bioquark suspended patient recruitment after just seven months. One could take this to be a sign that the fascination for resurrecting the dead is waning. lt's certainly difficult to identify any research in this area over recent decades: perhaps due to increasingly rigorous ethical guidelines.
That is not to say, however, that we are leaving Death alone. If anything, messing with it through science seems more popular today than it ever has been. In a 2014 interview in The Telegraph, Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, gave this take on the idea of dying. "You can accept it, you can deny it or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it."
Thiel's attitude is emblematic of a growing transhumanist movement around the globe to overcome death and achieve immortality through new innovations. And therein lies a step-change in our thinking since the time of Aldini. The question today is no longer about how to reverse death, but how to prevent it from happening in the first place.
There is no doubt that the technology to do so is now a firm possibility. For example, it is now realistic to speculate that developments in nanotechnology ,night one day allow nano-particles bots to carry out constant repairs within our bodies, extending then, well past their ·use-by' dates. Progress in cellular biology, meanwhile, may be putting us on the cusp of overcoming senescence, the natural degradation of cells over time that is at least a key part of ageing.
But, perhaps we should be asking ourselves whether tryino to make death obsolete is actually a good idea in the first place. In this, I find myself agreeing with Ray Kurzweil, a futurist, who once mused, "Death gives meaning to our lives. It gives importance and value to time. Time would become meaningless if there was too much of it."
In having a finite amount of time. we are forced to grow, to try at our ambitions and to embark on journeys before it is too late. It is confidence in finding the meaning in life, not resurrection or extension, that can truly face up to death’s taboo.