Potions of Youth

Mock-starvation pills, cultured organ replacements, and sapphire vasculoids aside, it is evident even from Ronald Bailey's jovial, optimistic, go-for-it! summary of current longevity research ("Forever Young," August/September) that true near-immortality will come only when scientists figure out how to make our bodies stop producing free radicals.

That's like wishing for someone to figure out cold fusion. It's all very captivating, but there's no reason to be shouting that immortality is just around the bend. Scientists have to be optimistic if they are to win grants and investment money, but Bailey could stand to be a little less gullible.

What is interesting is his final rant regarding conservative arguments against longevity research. Bailey is right to laugh at pundits who say that life without death would not be life. Life is life, whether tempered by the knowledge of death (as with Homo sapiens) or not (as with other species, or so we think).

At the same time, the idea that awareness of our mortality causes us to be better people is worth serious consideration. Indeed, great philosophers have addressed this question in some depth.

Take the classical-modern philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. In The Tragic Sense of Life, he writes that "consciousness and finality are fundamentally the same thing." Could he be right? Could every moment of conscious thought be ordered by its ineluctable end? In fact, isn't that exactly how we experience life, as a series of finalities? What would immortality do to that? Would we recognize ourselves? Bailey acts like these are silly questions.

Unamuno says that we should all run out into the streets crying about our mortality, that death is what makes us love one another. What if he's right, and without death we would all be insufferable, like the sadistic Greek gods from Star Trek? What then?

I'm not against radical longevity; let the future take care of itself, I say. Let science do its thing; it will anyway, whether or not U.S. presidents and senators endorse it. But let's not be too quick to worship the God of Technology, until we know its fruits.

April Susky
Anchorage, AK

In "Forever Young," I read once again the idea that severe calorie restriction can extend human life spans. And once again I did not read anything about the major downside to severe calorie restrictions—and I don't mean hunger pangs!

Eating less than two-thirds of the normal baseline calorie requirements produces a number of effects in humans. The first, of course, is weight loss. But you don't just lose fat, you lose lean body mass.

Weight loss slows as the metabolism adapts to continued energy deficiencies. The decrease in metabolism results in hypothyroidism. So people who severely restrict their calories may live longer, but they will suffer from weakness, lethargy, fatigue, depression, diminished libido, and inability to concentrate.

Can you imagine living decades with those symptoms? A life like that would seem like hell on earth.

Gregory Tetrault, M.D.
Chesapeake, VA

Ronald Bailey replies: April Susky is right that so long as humans retain anything like our current metabolisms, handling free radicals is the problem to be solved by aging research. We can't wish them away, but as detailed in my article, researchers are already devising techniques and therapies aimed at preventing and repairing the damage they cause. The result may not be immortality, but it should significantly lengthen life.

As for my "rant" against conservative opponents of longevity research, I do not say that they (and Unamuno) don't have a valid point about how the knowledge of our mortality sometimes inspires our better natures. It does. I do say that fear of death doesn't just motivate us to "love one another." If it did, we mortals wouldn't be so busy killing each other. The point is certainly not to worship technology, but we must also not so fear it that we outlaw scientific research that threatens the fixed ideas of human nature and human destiny propounded by some more timid souls.

Finally, Gregory Tetrault doesn't dispute that severe calorie restriction may boost practitioners' life expectancies, but he is absolutely correct about the discomforts suffered by many who try it as a way to boost their longevity. The point of living is to enjoy it; just enduring is not enough.

Sins of the Fathers

Thomas Szasz's otherwise well-argued article, "Sins of the Fathers" (August/September), suggests that there is no difference in the level of obsession between sex offenders and others. He quotes a study showing that the rearrest record for sex offenders is 52 percent and for all other violent offenders it is 60 percent.

As someone who has reviewed scores of studies, I must say that one should not base their argument on just one, given that the data vary greatly from one study to another. Most important, if one relies on reoffense rates, rather than rearrest rates, the figure for sex abusers is much higher. The reason is that most sex offenses go unreported, as many are within families.

Amitai Etzioni
George Washington University
Washington, DC

I have often wondered why Thomas Szasz chose to make psychiatry his profession, when he is so clearly uninterested in human psychology. Rather, he seems to have made a career of proclaiming that the mentally ill, and those who care for them, are malingerers or worse. Amazingly, everyone but Szasz is always wrong and immoral.

As a child psychologist, I insist that my profession is characterized by professionals who are not only moral but caring, actively seeking not to bestow blame but to find a way to make things better. Out of their concern for morality, they seek to learn how children learn to be more moral people. A good example is the work of Fritz Redl and David Wineman in Children Who Hate and Controls From Within.

Psychoanalysis gave us the concept of the superego (conscience) and its more flexible successor, the rational, reality-centered ego. It is worth remembering that despite all efforts to discredit Freud and his followers, we have found no more comprehensive theory to guide us in raising children ready to accept, and not rebel against, thoughtful morality.

But I will agree with Szasz in his concern about nomenclature. In particular, the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III-R contains diagnostic codes for both sadism and masochism. These are established concepts about which there is a wealth of literature. Yet both inexplicably disappear from DSM-IV. Are we to suppose that sadism and masochism are now to be considered normal? In these troubled times one may well wonder, but at any rate psychiatry owes us an explanation. Or does the APA agree with Szasz that if we can label a behavior "immoral" there is no need to understand it?

Perhaps we should convert all our psychiatric facilities to prisons? Oops, I forgot: We already did that.

Nancy Rader
Acton, MA

The deconstructing Myth of Mental Illness author has obviously never known a child molester: Of course they don't "treat themselves as if they had a disease before they are apprehended."

Szasz demonstrates the black-and-white thinking characteristic of an ineffective, know-it-all, "tolerant," politically correct meme—rampant in academia—in his inability to hold two thoughts at once: Sex with children is both a crime (immoral) and an illness requiring definition and treatment. It's both the ill person's problem and ours.

S. A. Silva
West Hollywood, CA

Thomas Szasz replies: In "Sins of the Fathers" I argued that, as adults, we ought to resist impulses (obsessions, compulsions) to harm others, not use psychiatrists to make excuses for our failures to do so. The nonreporting of sex offenses in the family has nothing to do with this issue.

Understandably, child psychologists insist that they do good. I have documented (elsewhere) that they do evil and therefore maintain that child psychology (psychiatry) is child abuse.

Psychiatrists and those who believe their mendacities claim that mental illnesses are brain diseases, on a par with neurological diseases, such as Parkinsonism and stroke. There is not a single neurological disease that is also a crime.

Technology and Genius

Charles Paul Freund poses a provocative question in the subtitle of "Traces of Genius" (August/September): Is art sullied by technology? He seems to think it never is. Yet the practice he examines—the tracing by painters of photographs (or other optical images) projected directly onto a canvas—is cheating, plain and simple, and the resultant work is not art. In Freund's view, such tracing enhances art. Unfortunately, he offers little more than misinformation in support of his argument and succeeds only in distorting art history.

To cite the most egregious example, Freund makes much of the fact that recent studies have established that Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), who may well be America's greatest painter, "actually 'traced' photographic images" in the manner described above. Readers might well infer from Freund's account that this was Eakins' practice throughout his long and distinguished career, even in the making of his widely acclaimed portraits (mostly of people he admired). That is not the case.

Eakins did indeed use photographs for reference (a legitimate practice) from about 1872—but he also utilized live models, costumes, and props, and drew upon a deep knowledge of perspective and anatomy. He did trace on occasion. As I note in my review of the recent retrospective of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (see "What's New" at www.aristos.org/editors/booksumm.htm), Eakins preferred to work from life, and there exists no evidence that he traced from projected photographs in creating any of the portraits, or that he traced in any works at all after about 1885.

At the end of his article, Freund claims that science (including optics) was the key factor underlying the explosion of great art from the 15th through the 17th centuries and has remained so ever since: "The evidence is on every gallery wall, and it becomes more visible each year."

In fact, much acclaimed art these days is not on walls at all! And the "evidence" in today's galleries points mostly to charlatanism, not to "genius." In one recent instance, the alleged artist rigged the electrical system in an otherwise empty gallery so that a bare light bulb (that technological marvel) hanging from the middle of the ceiling went on and off every few minutes.

Louis Torres
New York, NY

Charles Paul Freund observes that some art critics are uncomfortable with technology's supposed debasement of the creative process. Their discomfort is based on a myth that creativity is some sort of spiritual ability that defies rational explanation. In reality, creativity is nothing more than the ability to combine unrelated but existing things in new ways. Creative genius is marked by an exceptional ability to do this. In other words, the creative individual neither creates ex nihilo, nor is strictly a product of the environment. Creation is the result of interaction between the individual and the environment.

According to this logic, a caveman, no matter how smart, could not have conceived of a 747. As we have seen in the history of aviation, the first known concepts of flying machines were based on the emulation of birds. Eventually moving wings gave way to fixed wings, "flapping" propulsion to rotating fixed blades powered by the newly developed internal combustion engine, and the first real aircraft was born. Certainly the men who developed subsequent advances such as monocoque construction, jet engines, and supersonic flight were creative and even geniuses, but the process is more evolutionary than revolutionary.

In art and music as well, one can appreciate the genius of the work yet still discern the pre-existing elements from which it was built. Jimi Hendrix, for example, is known for his complete reinvention of the sound of the electric guitar in modern popular music. As revolutionary as he was, and as unique as his playing still sounds, all the elements of it were present when he started to be noticed in the late 1960s. His note choices and phrasing are largely based on the blues and the R&B sounds of musicians like Curtis Mayfield, and he certainly could not have made the otherworldly sounds he is best known for without the era's new technologies, such as the wah pedal, the Univibe, and Octavia effects.

It may be distressing to some who feel a need to worship heroes to think of creation in this manner, but it does not diminish the significance of the accomplishment or the respect due to individuals who exhibit exceptional ability in this regard. What this understanding provides is the knowledge that creativity is a skill which we can all strive to improve, and that our efforts to do so will ultimately make the world a more interesting and hopefully better place to live.

Jim Nelson
Via e-mail