Michael Kingsley – diagnosed with Parkinson disease at the age 42 – wrote an utterly fatalist, sad&straight and death conscious essay entitled Mine Is Longer than Yours on the last boomer game he calls competitive longevity published in the New Yorker. This piece is the dark counterpart of the recent Wired Kurzweil coverage on Mr. K.’s enormous efforts of being prospectively healthy as long as to reach next generation life extension technologies.
In contrast to that, Mr Kingsley, who underwent deep brain stimulation and lives with wires in the brain and batteries in the chest, seems to be somewhat restricted in the age of web to “switching your subscription from Newsweek to Time”. Still, “longevity is not a zero-sum game” – he admits.
Mr. Kingsley is pretty ignorant about any non-selfish motivation behind life extension (he is a political journalist by profession):
“Extending your own life expectancy is the most selfish motive imaginable for doing anything. Do it, by all means. I do. But for heaven’s sake don’t take a bow and expect applause.”
The future for people with Parkinson’s is unclear, but in a good way, because that future is getting better. New drugs are coming along all the time. The demographic power of the boomer generation, as it enters the Parkinson’s years, will spur more research and new therapies. And, of course, there is the promise of stem cells. John McCain has voted against President Bush’s near-ban on stem-cell research, so the ban is likely to be lifted whatever happens in November.
The lost years are maddening, especially since the opposition to stem-cell research, if it isn’t purely cynical, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. The embryos used in stem-cell research come from fertility clinics, where it is standard procedure to create more embryos than are needed and to dispose of the extras. (For that matter, this is standard procedure in the method of human reproduction devised by God as well.) Thousands of embryos live and die this way every year, and there is no fuss. President Bush even praised the work of fertility clinics in his speech announcing the restrictions on stem-cell research. You cannot logically be against stem-cell research on the ground that it encourages what happens in fertility clinics, and yet be in favor of, or indifferent to, fertility clinics themselves. And yet for seven years that has been my country’s official position.
Earlier in the text he summarizes his philosophical stance:
Yes, life is unfair, and never more so than in how much of itself it gives to different people. Deaths of young adults are mourned with special pain, and the very, very old are celebrated. But any age between about sixty and ninety doesn’t rate a second glance as you flip through the obituaries. Anywhere in there is a normal life span, even though the ninety-year-old got fifty per cent more life.
What’s more, of all the gifts that life and luck can bestow—money, good looks, love, power—longevity is the one that people seem least reluctant to brag about. In fact, they routinely claim it as some sort of virtue—as if living to ninety were primarily the result of hard work or prayer, rather than good genes and never getting run over by a truck. Maybe the possibility that the truck is on your agenda for later this morning makes the bragging acceptable. The longevity game is one that really isn’t over till it’s over.
Between what your parents gave you to start with—genetically or culturally or financially—and pure luck, you play a small role in determining how long you live. And even if you add a few years through your own initiative, by doing all the right things in terms of diet, exercise, sleep, vitamins, and so on, why is that to your moral credit? Extending your own life expectancy is the most selfish motive imaginable for doing anything. Do it, by all means. I do. But for heaven’s sake don’t take a bow and expect applause.