Completely unknown views from Star Trek -- and the Flood!

Is immortality bad?

Leon Kass's new appointee to the President's Council on Bioethics, Diana Schaub offers a few thoughts (of which I supply a couple of excerpts, but I seriously suggest reading the whole thing):

[D]irect and general age retardation....[]... holds out the truly radical promise of combatting senescence and extending the maximum human life span now fixed at 122 years. According to the report, it's only this last approach that raises the most significant physical, social, and moral consequences. Now, the whole business is not as science-fictiony as it sounds. Age retardation is already being pursued with quite remarkable results in animals. Through genetic manipulations, researchers have achieved a sixfold increase in the life span of worms. Genetic manipulations coupled with caloric reduction have produced a 75 percent increase in the life span of mice.

So now would be the time, before a dramatically extended human life span is on the horizon, to conduct some thought experiments aimed at ascertaining whether longer life holds promise or peril for us. The report does this by speculating about possible transformations in our outlook on life and death, our level of commitment and aspiration, and our familial and societal relations. It struck me while reading the report that science fiction has always been a good source of these sorts of thought experiments, and perhaps also that science fiction could help informing the sort of public opinion that will be necessary to stave off some of these developments.

Dr. Schaub's "science fiction" consists of a couple of "Star Trek" television episodes ("the original series, of course, not any of the second-rate sequels"): "Miri", and "Requiem for Methusaleh."

OK. Is that all science fiction has to offer in the way of life extenstion or immortality? Two Star Trek episodes?

Well, so much for science fiction, I guess....

From science fiction lessons Dr. Schaub moves to more traditional material (the Great Flood):

My years watching Star Trek have left me receptive to the view that mortality is, if not precisely a good thing, then at least the necessary foundation of other very good things, and that there is something misguided about the attempt to overcome mortality. Still, one can’t help but wonder "what if…?" Knowing that Mr. Kass has recently published a book on Genesis, I have just one question. We are told in Genesis that the earliest generations of men, through Noah, had lifespans closer to a millenium than a century. We also know that things ended rather badly for them. While Star Trek’s "Methuselah" reforms, the Biblical Methuselah was done away with in the Flood. Would greater longevity for modern man result in the same incorrigibility? Or do we have more resources now-psychological, political, religious-for dealing with the consequences of longer life? Antediluvian man was unfamiliar with death. Perhaps our sense of mortality is sufficiently well-established to allow us to delay the actual blow. So long as we still die, and we know we still die, no matter how far in the future that date is, won’t we still have the experience the poet speaks of: "But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near"? And if so, if time still presses us, won’t the salutary human responses to death perdure? Wouldn’t even long-lived men walk the now well-worn paths of transcendence: procreation and poetry, philosophy and faith? Since the quest for immortality will never be satisfied through an ageless body, won’t human beings still seek participation in the eternal?
I'll leave the science fiction research as well as the Biblical research to more capable bloggers than I, but I would be willing to bet that somehow, somewhere, there are brighter views of life extension to be found than in the sources cited by Dr. Schaub.

I'll move on to the more important issue of credibility.

Gary Farber cites an additional report that Schaub has "effusively praised Kass and his work." This intrigued me, because what started me along this vein was Kass's op-ed in the Washington Post, in which he states that Diana Schaub's "personal views on the matters to come before the council in the coming term are completely unknown."

Um, OK.

Ronald Bailey (at Reason) takes a very different view -- noting that Dr. Kass was sitting at the same panel when the above remarks about Star Trek and the Flood were made.

I have no idea whether there are any previous academic connections between Drs. Kass and Schaub, but I see that Dr. Schaub received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago:

Dr. Schaub earned her bachelor’s degree with highest honors from Kenyon College in 1981. Her master’s degree and doctorate are from the University of Chicago. Prior to entering academe she was assistant editor of The National Interest magazine in Washington, D.C.

She is a member of the American Political Science Association, the Society for Greek Political Thought, The Montesquieu Society, and the National Association of Scholars.

The University of Chicago, of course is Kass's home turf. I don't know whether the two knew each other there, but as to Dr. Schaub's views being "completely unknown" to Dr. Kass, consider the following:

In October of 2002 at the American Enterprise Institute Book Forum featuring "Human Cloning and Human Dignity," the report on human cloning by The President’s Council on Bioethics, Diana Schaub, associate professor of political science at Loyola College in Maryland and a participant in the forum made the following statement: "Cloning is an evil; and cloning for the purpose of research actually exacerbates the evil by countenancing the willful destruction of nascent human life. Moreover, it proposes doing this on a mass scale, as an institutionalized and routinized undertaking to extract medical benefits for those who have greater power. It is slavery plus abortion."

Dr. Kass, in his remarks, made this troubling comment: "Yes, new lives would be created, and on a mass scale, purely to serve other people’s purposes. And, yes, such innocent, nascent lives would be willfully exploited and destroyed. But, I am not sufficiently confident about the ontological or moral status of a five-day-old embryo to speak in such abolitionist terms."

Says Reason: "Such a forceful statement must have caught Kass' attention."

Such understatement!

It more than caught his attention; it provoked his response! Dr. Kass, after hearing the views of Dr. Schaub, publicly positioned himself as being to the "left" of her. (I use the term "left" with great caution, as I smell at least a hint of an aroma of a credibility issue....)

(The above is taken from the Republican National Coalition for Life's website, which is against even the current moratorium on "cloning for biomedical research" as "unacceptable" because "all cloning is "reproductive" and "it must be banned.")

ED NOTE: The web site linked in the Reason piece characterizes the Kass response as a response, and not as "remarks":

Dr. Kass, in his response, made this troubling comment: "Yes, new lives would be created, and on a mass scale, purely to serve other people's purposes. And, yes, such innocent, nascent lives would be willfully exploited and destroyed. But, I am not sufficiently confident about the ontological or moral status of a five­day­old embryo to speak in such abolitionist terms."
I can't account for the difference, but Kass was there, he heard Schaub, and he understood her views sufficiently to carefully craft what strikes me as a political response.

Reason concluded that Kass

simply cannot with a straight face make the claim, as he does in Washington Post, that the "personal views" of Schaub and Lawler are "completely unknown" to him.
Oh yes he can! That's because Kass is one of our nation's leading advisors!

On ethics!

To answer the question of whether immortality is a bad thing, that might depend on what is meant by such terms as "views" and "completely unknown."

Maybe "completely unknown" actually means that which is cleverly obfuscated (even by the obfuscator, to himself) and glossed over with reference to classical philosophers who never asked to have words put in their mouths.

That shouldn't be too hard to do. "Especially for an ethicist."

UPDATE: Thank you Glenn Reynolds! (Who was just kind enough to linked to my ice cream post). Earlier in the same discussion, Glenn linked to Ramesh Ponnuru, who says that the Council

now seems likely to turn to the subjects of neuroscience and the treatment of the age.
Is "treatment of the age" among the "matters to come before the Council"? If that means life extension, I'd say Dr. Schaub's views can hardly be called "completely unknown."

posted by Eric on 03.03.04 at 06:24 PM


I read your post with a "Kassed" iron stomach!

Oh..My..God. Look, I loved Star Trek when I was a kid. And I still love science fiction and mythology. But, I have to take exception when they are used as cautionary tales for the crafting of state policy. Kass loves to quote Hawthorne and Huxley, and that IS kinda classy, but stooping to Star Trek is just plain goofy.
We should seek timeless wisdom from Hollywood
scriptwriters? Sheesh. Besides, if you are going to use Star Trek for backup, you shouldn't cherry-pick. Not to trespass on Lileks turf, but
don't Vulcans routinely live to 200? Didn't Leonard McCoy live to be 137? As long as we're
playing "Lets Pretend" could we try to do it right? She tasks me. Science Fiction is chock full of tales that assume progress will keep right on marching on. And in those tales, characters who live a great deal longer than we do persist in striving valiantly, and even dying bravely. Maybe we here in the real world are equally capable? Not to hear them say it.Given a longer life, we will automatically default to the lowest common denominator. Crabbed, peevish,cowardly and grasping. I don't buy it.
If we absolutely MUST look to imaginary friends for Federal Policy Guidelines, can we fer chrissake have a wider selection on the table?
Lazarus Long, Louis Wu, Cordelia Vorkosigan, Honor Harrington, Pham Nuwen, the list of long lived SF characters just goes on and on.
Is La Professora even aware of this? Probably.
It just really chaps me to see a literary field of such astounding variety reduced to a weedy
little monoculture plot. It would be funny, if
real lives didn't hang in the balance, but they do.



J. Case   ·  March 6, 2004 12:24 PM

Well done Justin!

(If only I could get this guy to start writing regular posts for this blog.... Name your price, Justin!)

Eric Scheie   ·  March 6, 2004 12:45 PM

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