29 November 2012

Jellyfish Dreams

Before this piece gets started I just wanted to try out a preface: when we think about immortality, regeneration, replication (a la Blade Runner?), living forever, and so on.  What are "we" thinking about?  The below excerpted piece is a fairly balanced piece that "thinks" about immortality via a jellyfish.  What we seem to leave out is that the "mind" is not the body--that is, rather, that the identity we call "I"--the "I am" of God even--is a construct within the body that we plan to keep immortal.   So if we can "replicate" the brain, will it alter the "I"?  If we can be immortal, and in a sense, replace the structures that "house" us, by routine processes, will our "minds" be "identical" within the regenerated structure?  Does it matter to anyone?

The immortal medusa is the most miraculous species in the entire animal kingdom,” he said. “I believe it will be easy to solve the mystery of immortality and apply ultimate life to human beings. 
--Shin Kubota at Kyoto University
a stove boat will make me an immortal by brevet. --Ishmael

An email from a friend (h/t focus) directed me to an intriguing article about the "immortal jellyfish" and the man who appears to be the only scientist on the planet studying it.  This jellyfish appears to "reverse" it's "aging."  Of course, the thrust of this would be to point toward making ourselves immortal I suppose.  Or, as there are other organisms discussed, all simple organisms, like the jellyfish or sponges--no brains.  Here is the central point:

“There’s a shocking amount of genetic similarity between jellyfish and human beings,” said Kevin J. Peterson, a molecular paleobiologist who contributed to that study, when I visited him at his Dartmouth office. From a genetic perspective, apart from the fact that we have two genome duplications, “we look like a damn jellyfish.”

This may have implications for medicine, particularly the fields of cancer research and longevity. Peterson is now studying microRNAs (commonly denoted as miRNA), tiny strands of genetic material that regulate gene expression. MiRNA act as an on-off switch for genes. When the switch is off, the cell remains in its primitive, undifferentiated state. When the switch turns on, a cell assumes its mature form: it can become a skin cell, for instance, or a tentacle cell. MiRNA also serve a crucial role in stem-cell research — they are the mechanism by which stem cells differentiate. Most cancers, we have recently learned, are marked by alterations in miRNA. Researchers even suspect that alterations in miRNA may be a cause of cancer. If you turn a cell’s miRNA “off,” the cell loses its identity and begins acting chaotically — it becomes, in other words, cancerous.

Hydrozoans provide an ideal opportunity to study the behavior of miRNA for two reasons. They are extremely simple organisms, and miRNA are crucial to their biological development. But because there are so few hydroid experts, our understanding of these species is staggeringly incomplete.

“Immortality might be much more common than we think,” Peterson said. “There are sponges out there that we know have been there for decades. Sea-urchin larvae are able to regenerate and continuously give rise to new adults.” He continued: “This might be a general feature of these animals. They never really die.”

Now, I'd have lots to say about this but the p oints I'd make are basically the points made in the body of the piece by this "naturalist" himself.  I did respond to my friend via email [additional for post]:

Here is, I suppose where "science" and "hubris" collide, or perhaps the promethean (dark or light) collides with the natural.

If I again point to HDT or Darwin or Agassiz perhaps...and this is a VAST difference I think...as reference to examine this particular instance of "observation" as it is written and conceived we can see that there is a motivational drive that doesn't not exist in our great naturalists...that is biological continuance...physical immortality.  Though I must quickly point out that the very xtian notion of salvation includes the actual body and there are massive tomes devoted to determining the actual "age" of the body you will get to inhabit in heaven.

Thoreau does not use nature, nor does Darwin, nor does Aggasiz.  Rather they think about it.  Perhaps they wish to understand it...perhaps they wish to see patterns.  But a pattern is perception finally and possibly only in the mind [and so as liable to corruption by convention and/or habituation as anything else].

Our age, with its very powerful optics seeks to manipulate the "heavens" in the seeds.  Every single parable or story that I know of screams against this.  Why?  Because "god" does not want to be discovered?  But if discoverable then surely "he" wants to be found.  And off to the metaphysical races.

What we know, more and more, is that our greatest achievements are accidents and that the "use" of our discoveries leads to, and often is motivated by, destruction.

More often even than this--brilliance has insight (a flash) and then this is lost to convention and becomes [a compounding] error.

Anyway, this is from the scientist of jellyfish:

“Turritopsis will be kept forever by the present method and will . . . contribute to any study for everyone in the future.”

He has made other significant findings in recent years. He has learned, for instance, that certain conditions inhibit rejuvenation: starvation, large bell size and water colder than 72 degrees. And he has made progress in solving the largest mystery of all. The secret of the species’s immortality, Kubota now believes, is hidden in the tentacles. But he will need more financing for experiments, as well as assistance from a geneticist or a molecular biologist, to figure out how the immortal jellyfish pulls it off. Even so, he thinks we’re close to solving the species’s mystery — that it’s a matter of years, perhaps a decade or two. “Human beings are so intelligent,” he told me, as if to reassure me. But then he added a caveat. “Before we achieve immortality,” he said, “we must evolve first. The heart is not good.”

I assumed that he was making a biological argument — that the organ is not biologically capable of infinite life, that we needed to design new, artificial hearts for longer, artificial lives. But then I realized that he wasn’t speaking literally. By heart, he meant the human spirit.

“Human beings must learn to love nature,” he said. “Today the countryside is obsolete. In Japan, it has disappeared. Big metropolitan places have appeared everywhere. We are in the garbage. If this continues, nature will die.”

Man, he explained, is intelligent enough to achieve biological immortality. But we don’t deserve it. This sentiment surprised me coming from a man who has dedicated his life to pursuing immortality.

“Self-control is very difficult for humans,” he continued. “In order to solve this problem, spiritual change is needed.”
The piece ends with jellyfish breeder saying: “Nature is so beautiful,” Kubota said, smiling wistfully. “If human beings disappeared, how peaceful it would be.”

I think the key here is our truly astounding arrogance in the face of our ignorance.  Why doe the "key" to immortality in a sponge or jellyfish hold the same "key" for the human?

And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.
The piece does try to leaven this dough with "art" (if songs about jellyfish count).


I know that anytime we talk about immortality and our literature regarding "living forever" or "mastering nature" we turn to Frankenstein.  But there was a fairly recent novel called The Book of Lost Things that had an interesting section in it.  It's set in a kind of fairy tale land and at one point our boy hero happens upon a kind of scientist, a kind of Baron von (but a woman), who has a liquid that allows her to "meld" body parts that are severed...cut off your hand, pour this liquid on, stick the hand back on, good to go.  So, because, as our jellyfish man says above, the human is rather warped in the noggin (there's likely a very good reason not to be immortal), this Baron von has been combining the human heads of children with various animals in order to create a more cunning animal to hunt.

This seems a pretty good cautionary tale applicable to our dreaming of immortality.

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