The Long View 2005-08-23: The Perfection of the Species

The image in the header is the image John referenced in his joke about contributing to the state of perpetual surveillance. The man in the image is Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, scourge of the Boers and one of the few generals who thought the Great War would be long.

I appreciate John's simple computation of the average tenure of each Supreme Court Justice in groups of ten. It is a simple thing in now, and in 2005, to look up such information to double-check something like now Chief Justice John Robert's 34-year old speculation that the framers of the Constitution hadn't anticipated how long people live now.

Justice Roberts made a common mistake, which is thinking increasing average lifespans means that adults live 20 or 30 years longer than they used to. There is some increase for adults, but almost all of the change in the average was driven by changes in deaths under the age of 5.

Something that struck me just now is that I've seen a lot of things on the subject of average human lifespans that assumes that childhood mortality was as high in Classical times or earlier as it was in early modern Europe. However, we know that what we now call childhood diseases are mostly recent things, largely within the last 2000 years or so. The human disease burden has slowly been getting worse, which might mean that childhood was somewhat less dangerous before the arrival of measles and smallpox.

The Perfection of the Species

Supreme Court Nominee John Roberts had some thoughts many years ago about limiting the terms of federal judges, and was foolish enough to put them on paper:

The Constitution "adopted life tenure at a time when people simply did not live as long as they do now,'' Roberts wrote in an Oct. 3, 1983, memo to White House Counsel Fred Fielding that is now on file at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library..."A judge insulated from the normal currents of life for 25 or 30 years was a rarity then but is becoming commonplace today,'' Roberts wrote. "Setting a term of, say, 15 years would ensure that federal judges would not lose all touch with reality through decades of ivory tower existence.''

Term limits for judges may or may not be a good idea, but I had my doubts about the premise of Roberts' critique. The great increases in life expectancy we have seen over the past two centuries chiefly relate to infant mortality; the older you get, the less dramatic the increases become. Certainly it is not the case that maximum human longevity is increasing. How does this relate to the Supreme Court?

On Wikipedia, I found a list of the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States in chronological order of appointment. Then I took the average of the terms of service of each group of ten. In the list of these averages set out below, the date is the end of the period in which each group of ten was appointed:

8.9 yrs

(John Marshall appointed)
20.9 yrs

19.2 yrs

19 yrs

14.3 yrs

13 yrs

15.4 yrs

13.3 yrs

17.3 yrs

20.6 yrs

20.6 yrs

The average tenure for the first ten justices was indeed short, but that had little to do with longevity. The Supreme Court was new and not very prestigious in the early days of the Republic. The justices tended to quit in order to move on to better things. It was only during the tenure of John Marshall as Chief Justice that the Court acquired an authority comparable to that of Congress and the President. There then followed a long period during which justices stayed on the court for about as long as they have since the beginning of the final quarter of the 20th century. The composition of the current Court is uniquely old, but again, that's not biology: the continuing Roe v. Wade controversy has blocked the normal turnover of the Court.

John Roberts was probably correct if he thought that the current, long tenure of Supreme Court justices is contrary to the expectation of the Founders, but not for the reason he cited. The Founders probably did not expect that justices, once appointed to the Court, would cling to their office for the rest of their lives.

* * *

Recently I saw Gattaca, a film released in 1997 about a near-future world (though not quite so near as our own, evidently) in which pre-natal genetic enhancements and genetic testing in general put people who are conceived naturally at a considerable disadvantage. The story is about one such Invalid (accent on the second syllable) who steals the genetic profile of a supernormal in order to qualify to pilot the first manned spaceship to Titan.

Gattaca has a reputation as an underappreciated minor film. I can only agree. It comes close to the ideal of science fiction played on a bare stage. The sets are subdued Modern; there are no special effects. As for the cast, no less a person than Gore Vidal has a bit part as Director Josef of the Gattaca organization. He even turns out to be the murderer, though the murder is a red herring. There were several real actors, too.

Since I saw this film, I have been trying to track down a quotation that I am almost sure comes from Tolkien. It runs something like this:

No, I have never much liked the idea of spaceflight. It seems to be promoted mostly by people who want to turn the whole world into a big train station, and then to establish similar stations on other planets.

The journey to Titan (which we do not see) is just a Maguffin, like the statuette in The Maltese Falcon, but it leaves the film hollow, intentionally so. It is not at all clear why the impeccably dressed and immaculately clean personnel of Gattaca would want to do something as crudely industrial as explore another planet. As for the colonization of Titan, we must ask whether the universe really needs another planet covered with office parks and Ikea furniture. Indeed, does it really need any?

The character of the hero is defined by his determination to belie the projection for a mediocre future that his real genetic profile suggested, including a high probability of an early death from heart failure. Though fraud was necessary to allow him to compete for his ambitions, he fought against his fate chiefly through study and exercise. A friend of mine in high school received a similar prognosis. He became the first fitness fanatic I ever met. He died at 28.

* * *

Incidentally, Gattaca is available in Esperanto. So are 14 other films: look here.

* * *

Speaking of near-future paranoia, I have done my bit to bring about a world in which no public moment goes unrecorded; my condominium now has security cameras. To ensure that no one forgets this fact, I made this poster [BIE I put this in the header] to remind everyone to be good.

Speaking of graphics, the Latin Mass folks at Holy Rosary Church asked me to do a simple webpage for them. So, I did this[BIE link removed, since Holy Rosary Church isn't really the point here. A fine chapel though, as I verified]. The sound file of the Magnificat is surprisingly good, considering the microphone we were using; the church has wonderful acoustics.

That page is supposed to be uploaded to the parish website. No doubt it will be, eventually, but getting the authorization is harder than authorizing that expedition to Titan.

* * *

"Nothing Burger" is a good characterization of the whole embryonic stem-cell controversy. Even if omni-potent stem cells turn out to have clinical applications, it is hard to imagine a goofier way to get them than by harvesting them from embryos, cloned or otherwise. In any case, new techniques should soon return the subject to its deserved obscurity, as we see in The Washington Post:

Scientists for the first time have turned ordinary skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells -- without having to use human eggs or make new human embryos in the process, as has always been required in the past, a Harvard research team announced yesterday.

So are we done with the subject? Not quite:

Because it involves the fusion of a stem cell and a person's ordinary skin cell, the process leads to the creation of a hybrid cell. While that cell has all the characteristics of a new embryonic stem cell, it contains the DNA of the person who donated the skin cell and also the DNA that was in the initial embryonic stem cell.

The Post notes this, however:

They do not mention that several teams, including ones in Illinois and Australia, have said in recent interviews that they are making progress removing stem cell DNA from such hybrid cells...Some even suspect that the new technique for making personalized stem cells would still work even if the "starter" stem cells' DNA were removed before those cells were fused to the skin cells.

Nonetheless, embryonic stem cells have become like ethanol fuels to some people: it's something they want the government to subsidize whether it does any good or not:

"I think we have to keep our eye on the ball here," [John Gearhart, a stem cell researcher at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions] said. "If this stuff proves to work, that's wonderful. But we're just not there yet, and it's going to take a long time to demonstrate that. Meanwhile, other techniques already work well. So let's get on with it."

By all means; but the useful research has little to do with the public polemic.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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