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Genetic Linkage

Summer Reading for Bioethicists: End-of-the-World and Death Books

Like Alvy Singer, Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall, I’m obsessed with books about the end of humanity, which sometimes involves the end of the world, and sometimes just that of Homo sapiens. Midsummer is a good time to contemplate how bioethics would come into play in such unlikely scenarios, which raise issues of utilitarianism, justice, paternalism, death and dying, and misuse of technology.

I prefer the human-wrought disasters to the more celestial imagined ends, such as the film “Asteroid”, which was so bad that my husband dubbed it “Hemorrhoid”. My favorite, after many years of wallowing in these depressing depictions, is "Swan Song," by Robert McCammon, in which survivors of a nuclear holocaust stagger about, drinking wolf’s blood to avert starvation. I can still picture, practically smell, when 6-year-old Swan picks the first apple to grow after a nuclear winter. Another favorite is “The Road,” in which Cormac McCarthy recounts the journey of a father and son as they traverse post-apocalyptic terrain, searching for others. What led to the destruction of society? How does it rebuild? Is a messiah, like Swan, essential?

I also savor novels that alter the human life cycle, tweaking age cohorts. “The Children of Men,” an excellent book by P.D. James and a terrible film, envisions a world with no more children. Time ticks down to the inevitable end of our species, with the drama centering around a pregnant woman. That’s a scenario that would welcome reproductive cloning!

Dean Koontz’s “The Taking” creates an opposite world, where young children and their protectors are the sole survivors of attacks by giant mutant fungi. (Alas, Koontz didn’t realize that fungi are actually more closely related to people, evolutionarily speaking, than are plants, which would have bolstered his story.) In contrast to Koontz’s world is
“Death With Interruptions,” by Nobelist Jose Saramago. The first sentence says it all: “The following day, no one died.” While Mr. Saramago gives new meaning to the phrase “run on sentence,” the sociological and bioethical consequences of eternal life are chillingly evoked: “… families are left to care for the permanently dying, life insurance policies become meaningless, and funeral parlors are reduced to arranging burials for pet dogs, cats, hamsters, and parrots.” A variation on the anti-death theme is “The Brief History of the Dead,” by Kevin Brockmeier. He imagines a world in which dead people hang around, in an alternate space, until they’ve been forgotten, with the glitch of a sudden deadly viral pandemic.

“The Passage,”
by Justin Cronin, appealed to my geneticist side: Evil researchers infect a dozen criminals bound for death row with experimental viruses that turn them into vampires called ‘virals.” Alas, they escape and ravage the Earth, killing 90 percent of the population and rendering most of the survivors vampires who do not have contracts to do TV shows or films. Fast forward 100 years, and a population bottleneck has left a world run by virals, with only the original 12 genomes among them. Brilliant.

I found my latest favorite death book in a thrift store on Martha’s Vineyard, a bargain indeed at 50 cents. “The Methuselah Enzyme,” by Fred Mustard Stewart circa 1970, has a simple set-up: Three couples head to a spooky mansion/clinic in Switzerland. One member of each couple is wealthy and older (an aging movie star and her young stud; a bitter father and hippie son; a business man and trophy wife), and the head of the clinic, Herbert Mentius, is going to reverse the aging process in the elders using the enzyme Mentase, which anyone who has ever watched The Twilight Zone realizes he is going to extract in some convoluted, contrived way from the pineal glands of the younger of each pair. All of this is necessary because it is 1970, and recombinant DNA technology and gene patenting are still in the future. Stewart’s mechanism for aging is remarkably believable: double-stranded DNA breaks due to accrued oxidative damage. The main characters debate whom they will allow to receive Mentase once they figure out how to synthesize it – the wealthy, like themselves.

Ahead of his time, Stewart makes the protagonist the young trophy wife, who is put to sleep for 3 days under false pretenses and her head opened without her knowledge so the doc can suck out her pineal gland:

“Ann thought about what she had learned. … The key word had been ‘’extraction.’ If the Methuselah Enzyme had to be ‘extracted,’ what was it extracted from? Humans? Young humans, presumably. In fact, herself?”

These works of fiction that are perhaps not as well known as GATTACA or Brave New World nevertheless also touch on timeless bioethical concerns. Can a few decide the fates of the many? How do we ration a limited health-related resource? Does perceived societal benefit trump individual need? Should we interfere with reproduction?

Happy reading!

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