Last Christmas, my friend and I fled the house on Christmas day. He drove into our favorite supermarket’s parking lot. It was rather alarmingly full; the supermarket was open. On the 25th of December! (This, dear Dutch politicians, was in Sweden, so don’t sweat your Calvinistic pants off.) I asked why he’d driven here. We didn’t really need any groceries. ‘Because we can!’ he answered happily.
Scientists probably don’t do things just because they can. (‘But WHY would you want to grow ears on mice?’
– ‘Because we can! Plus, doesn’t Vincent look cute like this?’) Scientists do what they do clarify, to find out, to explain, to structure, to ascertain, to detect, to define, or to improve, to change, or even to question.
Because of science, children born today may easily live to a hundred. Life expectancy increases because medical problems are solved, and we are getting better and better at slowing down cell decay. This is the result of many studies and experiments. Probably all conducted for better reasons than ‘because we can’: to cure prostate cancer maybe, to grow new healthy cells to replace faulty ones, or to find a better way to suppress chronic pain. Why would we use old-fashioned painkillers if there are state of the art drugs? It would be stupid not to. It’s called development. Bloodletting was once very popular, but now we have better methods. So we use them, because we can. But does that mean that we always must?
If we can get older than Methuselah, does that mean that we have to? And what if I don’t want to? Personally I don’t see much use in ever increasing life expectancy. (Most old people I know complain that they have seen it all. Been there, done that, and why would they want to buy the t-shirt? They’ve got more clothes than they can possibly wear and these days shirts are not what they used to be anyway.) But the same friend who went shopping with me on Christmas day would gladly live to a thousand, because he’s afraid to die. I say it’s just avoiding the unavoidable, he says its development. He doesn’t really want to be old though. He’s hoping scientists will find a way to pause life at 20, so he would be in his twenties both physically and mentally for the rest of his life. For ever pushing off having to border by one day, one more day, time and time again. For ever and ever.
I have no urgent death wish myself, but to live on and on? No thanks. What if the grand total of all this clarifying, finding out, explaining, structuring, ascertaining, detecting, defining, imbored 800 year old twenty-somethings refusing to die, denying new humans a chance to be born? And to what use except ‘because we can’? Wanting the best, longest, most fulfilled life you can have is understandable. So is fear of death, but is the solution really to stretch the limits of life? I think not.
My friend’s ‘because we can!’ sounded funny and snappy in that parking lot. But we didn’t need to be there, we didn’t want anything from the shop, and once in there I felt rather silly and empty. The same goes for stretching life expectancy to the max. It sounds good, but is it really necessary? Many children are afraid of monsters under their beds, but most of them outgrow their juvenile fears. Many people never outgrow their fear of death though, and they use science as their safety blanket. With the blanket, they can defy or even conquer death. I say it’s time to grow up, face our fears, and have the guts to die.
Because we can.