Monday, March 29, 2010

The Jellyfish, The Frog and The Man

Normally when I think of why it is better to be a human than a jellyfish, I think of the uniquely human ability of abstraction, and how that abstraction can lead to creativity. When I think of what would be better about being a jellyfish than human, I think about the naivety of jellyfish. It is likely that he doesn’t experience the same existential crisis of acknowledging his own mortality. For a person it is very hard to live in the present, as the past and future always intrude, with the future ending with us in ashes. There were two science stories last week that put into question the whole idea of mortality. The first was actually about a type of jellyfish. The jellyfish discovery was provocative, even though it is indisputable.  This certain type of jellyfish is biologically immortal. Like all living beings, he goes through cell aging, and cell death, but unlike us he repeats the lifecycle. So the jellyfish becomes old, then young, then old an infinite number of times. Of course he could die by other means, like getting eaten, or environmental destruction, but this particular jellyfish will not die of old age.

The other story this week was the release of a TED Talk about suspended animation. This is worth watching.  Like the jellyfish finding, this story finds that our notion that all living things die, is not strictly accurate. We know that seeds can be in a state that is like death, but can come to life when planted.  Certain frogs can stop all metabolic function during the winter. They actually freeze, then in the spring thaw out and hop away. The TED Talk speaks about how this type of suspended animation and reanimation is possible in humans through adjusting oxygen levels and temperature. So it is possible to suspend life, and start it up again.
These two cases (eternal jellyfish and reanimation) are not the same for an obvious reason. In the case of the jellyfish, life is continuous, where the reanimated frog (or person) has a period of time which more closely resembles death. They both do make us reconsider how we view the present and the future. While many of us live neither as the jellyfish or the frog, this is not the case for a large part of the population who (I imagine) can relate very closely to one of these templates of existence. The jellyfish school is perhaps best exemplified by the gerontologist Aubrey De Grey. De Grey is the long bearded, Oxford educated scientist, who is spending his life and intellect on immortality. He is widely criticized for this, not because his science is questionable, but for more ethical reasons. In fact his science may be too new to yet know if it is valid, but it is not pseudoscience. He has real theory, and performs real experiments in labs around the world. Many of us like hearing him speak, because this is a voice of reason talking about something so unreasonable. What a mess the world would be if we all lived forever? Still the prospect is exciting, as the unknown of death is a haunting one. His ideas are in essence to make people like the eternal jellyfish. And, he would probably argue, the jellyfish is immortal but doesn’t seem to overwhelm the planet with its presence.

The other common school of thought is one that I relate to the reanimated frog. Many of the world’s major religions think of life as being in a state similar to the frozen frog. This is of course not how they would describe it, but how I think of religious belief in an afterlife. These people feel that a more full existence happens after the one where our bodies are alive. Therefore, for the moment, our bodies are essentially waiting for the spring to come so that our souls can be awakened in heaven.  The obvious difference between the religious person and the frozen frog is that while both views seem magical, the frog’s condition is strictly material. There is no extra implied force, location, or spirit involved. What is the same is the cycle of life, death and new life.

These two views leave out much of the world, even while being analogous to the cases I mention. Buddhists for instance embrace emptiness, which is basically uncertainty about death, as does the Jewish faith. Both of these admit a certain amount of ignorance, but don’t go all the way, since both have resurrection or reincarnation stories built into them. Stories of course or not wrong, or even unscientific, as they can be viewed metaphorically. Still they can lead to a hope that is not completely unlike the hope to either be like the jellyfish or like the frozen frog. Maybe there is nothing that can be done about this. Perhaps we are stuck by our own neural structure to think about the future in one of these ways. We try to look to nature, and to our intuition to connect the dots from the past through the future. For me as I naturalist, I tend to think that everything is causal. Our present is on a course that was determined by our past, and if we knew all of the variables, we could extend that to the future. We can’t know all of the variables, so this lack of counter causal free-will , for the most part, doesn’t change the way we make decisions. What it does do is change the way we think about the ultimate future, or death. It is metaconscious. If we think of our past as our birth, our present as just a point on a line, and our death as being the place that the line ends, it is very different than considering either the line continuing forever (like the jellyfish), or having a break in it (like the frozen frog). So just by hearing these stories I am in that unique state of being human; abstracting to understand the future rather than living in the present.

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