The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Winter 2018

"Modern Medicine: On the Pursuit of Immortality" by Wei Gu


The development of modern medicine has boosted human self-perception to the point where mankind is more eager than ever to take control of their own lives. Some scientists believe the time is ripe to prepare to aim at immortality. New medical innovations such as cryonics are unprecedentedly welcomed by the public. According to member statistics of Cryonics Institute, whose objective is to achieve “life after revival, with renewed youth and extended lifespans”, the institute’s membership has experienced a steady 7% increase from 2006 [1]. Some scientists, who have taken up the responsibility to aim at the dream of the mankind, are exploring nanotechnology as the key to immortality. Through examination of the history of medicine, we will see the success human beings have had so far has boosted the sense of self-importance, leading modern medicine to travel to a snare where crisis of selfhood understanding awaits.

New medical discoveries have transformed people’s understanding of the self, which in turn has kindled an ambition to pursue immortality. Before Western medical scholars in the seventeenth century studied the structure and behavior of human bodies through observation and experiment, they believed that animals, humans and the universe were broadly comparable. Dissecting human bodies was widely forbidden because it was proclaimed unethical by the Roman Law, so Greek physician Galen introduced the practice of exploring anatomy through dissecting apes and other animals [2]. In this period, medical knowledge regarding illness and cures centered around a hypothetical system called Humorism, which posits that human body consists of four basic substances, with imbalances leading to disease. It was not until 1543, when Andreas Vesalius challenged this model, and 1628, when William Harvey published his findings of blood circulation based on reasonable hypothesis and reproducible experiments, that scholars realized that traditional ethical and religious views had restricted the development of trustworthy medical knowledge and curing practices [3]. The achievement of Harvey marks a new era where medical practitioners began to make new discoveries of human anatomy based on direct observation of human bodies, facts and logics. Gradually, the differences between humans and animals became more obvious. People no longer felt the “age-old connection” as they began to understand themselves as an entirely unique system of complexity [4]. The feeling of uniqueness triggered increasing ambition to take control of the lives. This has been reflected through several post-Renaissance trends: increased interest in longevity, decreased dedication to religion, and decreased awe of the natural world [5]. As formerly morally contentious medical technologies such as vaccines, medical anesthesia, and organ transplantation were developed and accepted into general medical practices, modern medicine became enveloped by utilitarianism, which leads to “ignor[ing] many important moral values” [6]. Some scholars even seem to believe that a theory is worth a try as long as it can lead to extension of the important life.

After cryonics was first proposed in 1962 by Robert Ettinger, multiple cryonics institutions were quickly established over the next ten years. Ettinger believed that anyone who proclaims a lack of desire for unlimited life is simply “wearing a mask” which can be lifted by phrasing the issue “just a little differently”. If one could hardly refuse penicillin in the case of a severe infection, and one would be unlikely to refuse a serum if it was guaranteed to add twenty vigorous years in life, then one would not refuse a perfected serum that guaranteed immorality [7]. While his first two conditions seems reasonable, some may find his leap to the conclusion to be far-fetched.

By simplifying immortality to extending the length of life by twenty years infinitely, Ettinger dismissed the significance of the difference between living longer and living forever. People must acknowledge that their current perception of meaning of life lies in its finiteness. Being mortal is the number one characteristics as a biological being and the ultimate source of human inspiration for art, science and religion. By being mortal, human beings are driven to be creative. “Life is built around avoiding the simple, inevitable truth that you’re going to die” Dr. John Wynn said so in one of the last TEDMED 2011, “Fear of death can push us to build things, connect with others and create beauty” [8]. If people really achieve immortality, literature and religious works would only be subject of ridicule; science would cease to develop, since the dominators of the world only need to wait for other beings to understand them. People often take for granted the longer they live, the happier they are, but if everything surrounding them is not to be meaningful anymore, what then is the meaning of living?

With more knowledge of human body and advance of science, human beings are more eager than ever to take control of their own lives. It seems that science is the new religion, and as long as a new theory is in agreement with it, it does good to human beings. However, it is dangerous to tamper with science, ignoring the fact that human beings along with all living creatures are created to seek the meaning of life in the context of mortality. Before attempting such experiments intertwined with ethical dilemma, we must first have a resolution on the side of ethics, otherwise the capital and effort invested into these projects are only doing fruitless labor.


[1] Cryonics Institute n.d. “Understanding Cryonic.” Accessed February 23, 2018.

[2] Vesalius, Andreas. 1543. On the Fabric of the Human Body: An Annotated Translation of the 1543 and 1555 Editions. Basel: Karger.

[3] Harvey, William. 1628. On The Motion Of The Heart And Blood In Animals. Translated by Robert Willis. South Australia: University of Adelaide.

[4] Waal, Frans. 1997. Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape. California: University of California.

[5] Classroom n.d. “How Did the Renaissance Change European Culture & Society?” Accessed March 10, 2018.

[6] Ubel, Peter A. 2001. Why It’s Time for Health Care Rationing. Cambridge: MIT

[7] Ettinger, Robert. 1962. The Prospect of Immortality.

[8] Wynn, John. “What is society’s secret pact with medicine?” TedMed. 2011.


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