This past week I picked up a copy of The Immortal Cell, written by gerontologist Michael D. West, founder of Geron Corporation and, later, CEO of Advanced Cell Technology (ACT). Geron and ACT were quite significant in the early development of human embryonic stem (HES) cell research. In West’s personal account of the history of the field, there is much to grab the reader’s attention, perhaps none more so than the conclusions he reached one afternoon as a young baccalaureate while reflecting upon death. As he recounts (p.30),
“I realized that it was simply not in my nature to accept death or be defeated by it. The call wasn’t even a close one. I could never again resign myself to laying my loved ones down in the grave. It was crystal clear to me what I had to do. I had to defeat death.“
Interestingly, West presents this life-changing experience on the back-end of a discussion of how he came to surrender his belief in man as a special creation to an evolutionary account of human origins. This juxtaposition raises some interesting questions:
Can evolutionary theory truly accommodate West’s intense loathing of human suffering and death? On what account can these be viewed in negative terms if they come part and parcel with the evolutionary process?
Does West’s crusade against death entail the notion that human evolution has somehow reached its pinnacle?
If West et al conquer death, how might human evolution proceed? If people are going to live forever and the resources to support them are finite, then it would seem that the instinct for self-preservation would demand a halt to reproduction. Ironically, a core feature of the evolutionary process – reproductive success – will have to be resisted, or so it seems.
Setting aside the consideration of a campaign against death within an evolutionary paradigm, on what points may Christians agree and disagree with West in his view towards death?