Our Beauteous But Destructive Heritage of Myth, Legend, and Stories

I have to say that I agree with this fellow when he makes the following point:

"It is my contention here," Ball writes, "that all of the current debates about human embryo research, stem cells, cloning, genetic modification, and bioethics and biotechnology generally, regardless of whether they have any direct link to the creation of artificial humans, cannot be interpreted without understanding the cultural history of that idea and its relation to themes of 'naturalness'. Only by examining the old myths, legends and stories and the ways that they have been modified and mutated by the ages can we grasp the fears and preconceptions that teem beneath the surface of these discussions."

Do people mistrust what their legends and tall tales tell them to be wary of, or does myth, ancient and modern, merely reflect a deeper set of human viewpoints? I suspect a little of both. The article quoted above looks primarily at the biotechnology of building humans, but our grand cultural heritage of stories is also of great importance when it comes to longevity science. We are headed towards the development of ways to defeat aging - and eliminate the consequent frailty and death by age-related disease - and yet so many people and so many myths welcome and romanticize aging and death.

You may or may not be familiar with the Monomyth, but it should nonetheless be obvious that tales which reflect widely shared aspects of the human condition have a great and enduring power. Coming of age, attaining independence, romantic entanglements, challenge and adversity, victory over the odds - and an end to the tale in aging and death. We might say that every story is the story of the Fall: the golden past, the imperfect present, the uncertainty ahead. This is a mirror held to human lives as our millennia-long culture knows them: an age of health and triumph followed by a slow, knowing decline into the darkness we know nothing of. Aging and death are potent ingredients for authors, playwrights, and theologians, and were no less potent for the elders and shamans who came before them.

"Every story is the story of the Fall" - except the one that matters, the one we're all writing together with quills of science, will and toil in the real world. That story is a grand arc of irresistible rise, of the defeat of obstacles and surpassing of limitations to our true potential. But you wouldn't know it from the myths that we find most comforting, as illustrated by their widespread nature.

The tales that audience members like will prosper, and this has always been the case, all the way back to fur-clad audiences of a few dozen, cave-dwellings, and burning branches to ward off the cold. Stories evolve, their characters and plot points like genes, and the relentless evolution of stories under the selection pressure of audience approval has given us a vast body of legends whose plots appeal viscerally to nearly every human. In turn, bodies of myth also serve as a form of education, still widely used by tutors, parents, and elders to teach their children - directly or indirectly - what it means to be human in their society. What do people do to survive and prosper? How does life progress? What are the rightful ways to act towards one another? And so forth.

This is an age of progress and biotechnology. Yet we folk who might be the first ageless humans stand atop a bone mountain. Its slopes are the stories of the dead, created, told, and appreciated by people who knew their own mortality. It is an enormous, pervasive heritage, forged by an army of billions, and no part of our culture or our endeavors is left untouched by it. This is one part of the hurdle we must overcome as we strive to convince people that a near future of rejuvenation biotechnology is plausible, possible, and desirable.

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