Dr. Craig Bowron has done as much as anyone to explain why we’re all about exaggerating what medical science and the coming biotechnology can possibly do to extend particular lives. We’re living longer than ever on average, but that’s not because much of anyone is getting into three digits. And we’re much less accepting of the thought that death necessarily completes every natural life. Although we, on one level, think that it’s a mark of sophistication to say that Darwinian naturalism explains it all, we’re less on board with the Darwinian thought that nature intends each of us to be replaced. Each of us has a hard time thinking of himself or herself as a biological being.
One reason, Dr. Bowron explains, is that move from the farm to the city has removed the fact of natural death from our lives:
Another factor in our denial of death has more to do with changing demographics than advances in medical science. Our nation’s mass exodus away from the land and an agricultural existence and toward a more urban lifestyle means that we’ve antiseptically left death and the natural world behind us. At the beginning of the Civil War, 80 percent of Americans lived in rural areas and 20 percent lived in urban ones. By 1920, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, the ratio was around 50-50; as of 2010, 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas.
For most of us living with sidewalks and street lamps, death has become a rarely witnessed, foreign event. The most up-close death my urban-raised children have experienced is the occasional walleye being reeled toward doom on a family fishing trip or a neighborhood squirrel sentenced to death-by-Firestone. The chicken most people eat comes in plastic wrap, not at the end of a swinging cleaver. The farmers I take care of aren’t in any more of a hurry to die than my city-dwelling patients, but when death comes, they are familiar with it. They’ve seen it, smelled it, had it under their fingernails. A dying cow is not the same as a person nearing death, but living off the land strengthens one’s understanding that all living things eventually die.
Another reason is that our mobility, our productivity (based, in part, on all able-bodied adults having become wage earners), and our affluence have both made it possible and often made it necessary that the young not live with the old. The “multigenerational home” has almost disappeared:
Mass urbanization hasn’t been the only thing to alienate us from the circle of life. Rising affluence has allowed us to isolate senescence. Before nursing homes, assisted-living centers and in-home nurses, grandparents, their children and their grandchildren were often living under the same roof, where everyone’s struggles were plain to see. In 1850, 70 percent of white elderly adults lived with their children. By 1950, 21 percent of the overall population lived in multigenerational homes, and today that figure is only 16 percent. Sequestering our elderly keeps most of us from knowing what it’s like to grow old.
It’s not like we intentionally banished the old from our lives because they bring us down by bringing death to mind. But it really has become true that the young do know less and less and about being old and less and less about death and dying. They don’t have the experiences that would cause them to be realistic about death. I’m not saying death isn’t bad; it’s just that it’s not the worst thing. And, of course, it’s the least avoidable thing. (Plenty of Americans pretty much avoid taxes.)
It’s true, of course, that each unique and irreplaceable person is more than a biological being. But it’s equally true that each person is a biological being, who gains a good deal of his or her freedom and dignity by living well (meaning, to begin with, living truthfully) as a being born to die. Who can deny an urbanized, techno-sophistcated population is singularly alienated—although, of course, necessarily far from completely alienated—from the natural facts and the accompanying natural longings and passions of birth and death?
We’re the animals burdened and elevated by knowing the truth about our biological destinies. And we torture the old, as Dr. Bowron says, when we resist biological death too much. We degrade the young when we get them to buy into biotechnological fantasies about the possibility or goodness of liberation from the distinctive joys, miseries, and personal destinies of who we are by nature.