Seeking perfection in the New Year

Posted: Dec 29, 2003 12:00 AM

Father Time is not as unforgiving as he used to be. Men and women in their 60s, so the gerontologists tell us, are younger than ever if they have lived "right." (Now they tell us.) But "right" may be in the eyes of the beholden.

"Chronologically, you might be 65, but be 55 or 60 physiologically because you have engaged in good eating habits and socialization and have a religious background that is protective," says Dr. Charles A. Cefalu, director of a new geriatric medicine program at the Medical Center of Louisiana in New Orleans.

Alas, the opposite could also be true: "You may be 65 chronologically but look 80 because you have smoked, haven't exercised enough and haven't kept blood pressure and cholesterol under control."

As Bill Cosby puts it, "I am what I ate and I'm frightened." But he looks at some of our absurd health tradeoffs. Consider the gent who steps outside at the dinner party to smoke when it's 12 degrees below zero. He might die of pneumonia, but at least he keeps others from inhaling secondhand smoke.

Knowledge is not always liberation and dreading how we decline is enough to scare most of us to death. The progress of biotechnology now holds out the promise of an ageless society, and that raises a new set of moral questions for what Leon Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, describes as "widespread human desires to look younger, perform better, feel happier, or become more (nearly) perfect."

In a symposium at the American Enterprise Institute, he asks listeners to reflect on the good, the bad and the mischievous applications of high-tech enhancers in our pursuit of happiness.

"We want longer lives," he says. "But do we want them at the cost of living carelessly or shallowly with diminished aspiration for living well, or by becoming people so obsessed with our own longevity that we care less and less about the next generation?"

The question is not an academic one, though it lends itself to philosophical speculation over concepts of hubris, humility and human dignity. The scholarly discussions range from Genesis to "Star Trek."

Diana Schaub, a professor of political science at Loyola College in Baltimore, takes the theme of human limits from Jacques, a melancholy figure in Shakespeare's "As You Like It," who speaks of the inexorable ripening and rotting of all living things: What would happen if we could change such limitations?

Estimates of the outer limits of mortality, as currently calculated, halt at around 122 years. But science, through genetic manipulation, has already managed a sixfold increase in the life span of worms. Scientific laboratories are crawling with flies, mice and worms that are living far beyond their original life spans.

Reduced fertility and extended aging seem to be biologically linked with some lower orders of insects and animals as well as humans. Procreation also has a cultural component for homo sapiens.

For the first time in our history, increased health, better contraception, the expanded ability to earn money and enjoy other life-fulfilling experiences in childbearing years have encouraged couples to put off having families, often in a mistaken belief that they can start a family later. This contributes to a decrease in birthrates and an extended childlessness for many men and women in their middle age.

Early episodes of the television drama "Star Trek" offer philosophical parables for our time on the theme of longer lives. One is called "Miri," short for Shakespeare's Miranda, who spoke the famous line, "O brave new world that has such people in it."

In the "Star Trek" episode, the crew of the Enterprise comes upon a planet where a "life prolongation project" has had disastrous results. Children on the planet age one month for every 100 years until puberty, when a virus kills them. The culture is one of perpetual immaturity, with behavior suggestive of "Lord of the Flies."

In "Requiem for Methuselah," another episode of "Star Trek," the Enterprise confronts Flint, who is 6,000 years old, born in 3,834 B.C. (The original Methuselah died in the Flood at 969.) Flint has lived a thousand different lives because of his capacity for continued tissue regeneration, but he is as cold and brittle as his name.

Art and beauty could not mellow his misanthropic impulses; a bitter old man, he has seen too much of life. Not until he is rendered mortal and recognizes that he will die can he feel love and compassion for his fellow man.

Mercifully, Father Time will make his usual exit this week, and we get the symbol of a new baby for the new year. Here's hoping it's a good one.