Author Archives: Alicia Walker

Immortality: no longer fiction?

The great unknown associated with dying has resulted in a societal fascination – no, obsession – with death. Death is everywhere from our newsfeeds, to our music, to our literature and movies. Yet as frequently as death comes up in our lives, so does its opposing force: immortality.

From legends of the fountain of youth throughout history, to religions which qualify the afterlife as a form of “eternal life”, to fantasy shows like Game of Thrones, in which characters die and resurrect left and right, we are just as enamored by the concept of evading death as we are exploring it. Science fiction has toyed with the idea of immortality through technology since the beginning of the genre. However, in a time when we are maybe 20 years from roads exclusively populated by self-driving cars, some people have claimed that immortality through science may no longer be fiction.

One such individual is leading ‘futurologist’ Dr. Ian Pearson, who predicts that humans could outlive the restraints of physical bodies by the year 2050. This estimation refers to proposed virtual reality worlds where people could upload their consciousness before their bodies fail. Personally, I’m more fascinated with the idea that genetic engineering could slow or even reverse cellular ageing, making biological immortality a plausible concept.

For my non-sciencey counterparts out there, gene editing is the phenomenon in which scientists locate a problematic gene in an organism, use enzymes to snip it out, and replace it with the functional or desired copy of the gene. The most popular and groundbreaking system for gene editing at this time is CRISPR-Cas, which I’m sure lots of you have heard of. At this point, genetic engineering research revolves around diseases and disorders which could be greatly reduced or even eradicated with this technology. However, when most people hear ‘genetic engineering’, they think about ‘designer babies’ and dystopias like that portrayed in the 1997 film GATTACA (10/10 would recommend). Because of our society’s focus on the fantastic applications of this technology, it’s not surprising that there is talk of regenerative medicine as a means of achieving immortality.

The ethics of gene editing is a hotly debated topic, both for the discomfort it stirs up in the general public, as well as more imminent scientific concerns. A group of prominent scientists urged for a ban on all human genetic engineering in the U.S. in 2015. This general ban did not pass, but genetic engineering of humans is tightly regulated in the US. It is for this reason that I disagree with claims that immortality through genetic engineering could be achieved in our lifetime. Many people are rightfully hesitant to consider messing with nature by ridding the world of mitochondrial disease, for example, which we already have all the essential parts to do. While I think our society is capable of the technology required for this kind of science, I don’t think humans will be able to accept a life without death anytime soon.


Coco: How Pixar uses Mexican culture to talk to kids about death

Miguel and Hector duet in a scene from Coco

This past Friday night, my Disney-obsessed best friend dragged me to watch Coco with her at Harland Cinema. Okay, okay, you got me, she didn’t have to drag me; I totally wanted to go because I, too, am Disney-obsessed. Coco is about a boy named Miguel and his family in Mexico celebrating ‘Día de Muertos’ – day of the dead – which is the night when souls can cross over from the spirit world to visit their living relatives. In the movie, Miguel flips the script and is sent to the Land of the Dead while he’s still alive to learn about the value of family. This animated movie is intended for a young audience, so I was pleasantly surprised that, besides being visually stunning, it successfully presented some mature topics with nuance and wisdom. These intense themes range from spousal resentment to old age and dementia, but for class we’ll focus on death and the concept of staying connected with those that have left this world.

In the world depicted in Coco, a person’s soul lives on in the Land of the Dead after they die. Each year on Día de Muertos, a bridge is constructed between the spirit world and the living world. Souls whose families remember them fondly can cross over this bridge to see their descendants once again. If a soul is not remembered fondly, and therefore not pictured on anyone’s ‘ofrenda’ – a ritual altar where the living place offerings for their ancestors – then they are not allowed to cross the bridge. This was the case with the soul of Miguel’s great-great-grandfather Hector, who was said to have abandoned the family and was ripped out of the photo with his wife and now elderly daughter Coco. The only problem for Hector initially was that he missed out on seeing Coco each year, which was devastating for him. However, his true problem arose due to Coco’s failing memory; when the time comes that everyone who remembers a soul during his/her life has died, the soul suffers “the Final Death”, disappearing from the Land of the Dead forever.

I find this concept to be the most intriguing part of the movie. Mexican culture very clearly embraces death as a natural part of life, as indicated by its festival to reconnect with deceased loved ones. However, the Land of the Dead in the movie is vivacious and doesn’t feel very different from Miguel’s living world. Yet the presence of this ominous final death shows that even cultures which encourage acceptance of human mortality still have a fear of death. This stirs up the question about what it is we are actually afraid of: is it the fact that the souls disappear into the unknown after their Final Death? Many fears stem from the unknown, such as nyctophobia (fear of the dark), or xenophobia (fear of foreign people or situations). Such can be said about a fear of death. However, there is a discrete point at which the souls in Coco experience the Final Death, which is when there is nobody left in the living world who remembers them. This suggests that perhaps fear of Final Death really is about a societal terror of being forgotten. With the rise of social media has come an increase in the prevalence and desire to live in the public eye. For people who prioritize fame in life, surely being remembered after death is also of serious concern.

Regardless of what property of death is so scary, Coco does an excellent job of creating a platform for parents to talk about death with their kids in a more approachable way, and to introduce them to a culture which has a healthy relationship with mortality.