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Disease

Complexity: 
Medium

The heroes of my youth were the great healers of humanity. While it’s true that in those days I could be seen with other American boys paying homage to the likes of Elvis Presley and Joe DiMaggio, I rendered them only lip service. My real—if somewhat secret—devotion was reserved for a pantheon of great medical pioneers like William Jenner, discoverer of the smallpox vaccination; Robert Koch, who identified the tuberculosis bacillus; and Ignaz Philipp Semmelweise, who crusaded to save women from childbirth infection by teaching doctors to disinfect their hands. I avidly studied the life stories of these saviors and dreamed of becoming like them by slaying some modern scourge—leukemia, say, or coronary thrombosis. In my eyes there was no higher calling than to wage war on behalf of humanity against disease and death.

I entered college intent on medical studies, but a little over a year later abandoned that aim. I had not been fatally disheartened by my encounter with other premed students, profiteers eager to mint gold from disease. A book, rather, had destroyed my vocation and my faith.

Mirage of Health: Utopia, Progress and Biological Change is a pioneering study of medical history written in the late fifties by a physician named Rene Dubos. His conclusion devastated me: Progress toward some utopia of health is an illusion. Disease will never be “conquered.” Disease is so inescapable a part of our human condition that today’s remedies inevitably become the agents of tomorrow’s ills.

Using an abundance of historical evidence, Dubos shows how the diseases we suffer from arise out of the complex social, political, and economic dynamics of our particular society; as society changes, our ills change with it. Some diseases fade away, and others, out of the inexhaustible bounty of material nature, rise to take their place.

In modern industrial societies, as Dr. Dubos points out, we no longer suffer and die from smallpox, typhus, typhoid, diphtheria, and the other microbial plagues of the past. We have made “progress”: We suffer and die instead from cancer, coronary heart disease, emphysema, and mental disorders (with their attendant drug abuse and suicide).

According to Dubos’s analysis, even my boyhood heroes, those unswerving foes of deadly microbes, had little to do with the disappearance of infectious diseases. These afflictions were retired mainly by the social and economic reforms that followed industrialization. At the same time, that same process was ushering in a whole new set of scourges. And even those old diseases are by no means “conquered,” Dubos warns. They are merely held at bay (at a high price), and they can reenter human history any time the conditions are right.

I was undone by Dr. Dubos’s lesson. Medicine at once underwent a catastrophic devaluation in my eyes. I wondered why that should be. Dubos, of course, never claimed that medicine was useless, a waste of time. True, it may not save humanity, but it can save humans. That ought to be enough, I argued with myself. I could still live by ideals, modest though those ideals might be. Surely, real heroism lies in doing humbly what little good one can, without some fantasy of wide-screen, Hollywood heroics, soundtrack booming in the background. Be realistic: There are no saviors of humanity, because humanity will not be saved, and that’s that.

Still, I could revive no enthusiasm for medicine. The truth of the matter was that at heart I badly wanted to be saved from disease and death altogether, and I had possessed a real faith that scientific progress would, at the end of its struggle, win just that for all of us. To me it had been a foregone conclusion that through science and technology nature would be eventually conquered and tamed, made entirely serviceable to us, and we would live without worries in a manmade paradise on earth. Although I had never spelled out this conviction to myself, it had insensibly become my true faith, my religion.

How was it a religion? Religion and science—like faith and knowledge—are supposed to be opposites. Yet somehow science itself had be-come a religion—call it “scientism”—an ardent faith that progress in science and technology will so improve upon man and nature as to rid earthly life of all ills. This religion was—and still is—the true faith of America, the spiritual motor that drives its enterprises.

Where had I absorbed this religion? I had bowed before no altar, recited no creed, sung no hymns, enacted no rites. However, this religion does not need special buildings or ceremonies. As the true religion of America, it is woven completely into the fabric of life. I had absorbed it all along from my parents and teachers and friends, from the Cub Scouts and the Boy Scouts, from museums and theme parks, from My Weekly Reader and Reader’s Digest and Life and Post and Popular Mechanics. I had soaked it in from “Meet Mr. Wizard” and the unending iteration of corporate commercial slogans (“Progress is Our Most Important Product” and “Better Things For Better Living Through Chemistry”), from the biographies of my medical heroes, not the least from my hoard of science-fiction paperbacks.

The faith that formed America was a creation of the so-called Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Eager to extend Newton’s success in describing nature in rational, mathematical form, a coterie of European thinkers battled to dethrone traditional religion and morality and replace them with empirical science and natural reason as the valid guides for human activity.

Unenlightened and superstitious Christians believed in a future millennium, a thousand-year kingdom of God on earth that would start with the prophesied second coming of Christ. That belief had to go. Yet the savants of the Enlightenment replaced it with their own secularized faith, their man-made millennium: Steady progress in science and enlightened reason would gradually bring the natural and human world totally under rational scientific control. Nature and society will be consummately engineered. Free from drought and flood, poverty and crime, disease and even death, man will have established on earth the kingdom of God—without God.

This was my faith, and I had lost it. Science would not save us; there was no “progress.” That explained my strong reaction to Mirage of Health.

In the years since I read that book I have come to recognize the striving for release from material nature, the struggle against disease and death, as profoundly and essentially human. It’s a struggle we cannot avoid. Even though we may be unaware of it, it drives and shapes our lives. For this reason, even popular culture is about serious things. It is not mere whimsy that leads people to describe Joe DiMaggio as a baseball “Immortal,” or makes them believe that Elvis Presley could not possibly have died. Operating with more sophistication, Enlightenment thinkers set themselves against religion, but they merely replaced salvation through Christ with salvation through science. They could not free themselves from the desire for transcendence, the urge to go beyond the limits of nature into everlasting life.

We are all transcendentalists at heart. The problem is that most of us are foolish ones, whose various schemes for liberation are doomed from the outset. We persist in worshiping idols and gods that fail. We engineer projects for salvation that only increase our bondage. Nature can send mile- high sheets of ice flowing over continents and level cities with a twitch, yet we embark on a quixotic war to conquer her. An ant-hill has as good a shot at it as “advanced civilization.” Or consider this: Survival is the primal urge of life, and for millions of years all organisms have struggled for survival, just as we now struggle. Now, look at the record. Where are the winners? In all of history, has anyone survived? The death rate is one hundred percent. It is a foredoomed attempt, but we cannot help ourselves.

We must be transcendentalists, but what makes us invest and reinvest in foolish, impractical schemes? Let me suggest the reason. At the root of our foolishness lies a dumb insistence in trying to actuate a self-contradiction, make real an absurdity: We want to transcend material nature, become free from her control, while at the same time we want to continue to enjoy and exploit her.

This was the answer I discovered. After my crisis of faith, I studied philosophy and religion for years; it was, in effect, a quest for successful transcendentalists. And I thought that I had finally discovered them at the vital center of the great spiritual traditions of the world. In spite of their differences in culture and style, they seemed unanimous in this: They agreed that to succeed in transcendence we must become free from the mentality of enjoyment and exploitation. All of them recognized the systematic endeavor to gain mastery over the mind and senses, to extinguish material desires, as necessary for real salvation or liberation of the spirit. These successful transcendentalists understand very well that material nature binds and controls us precisely through our desire to enjoy and exploit her. That desire is, there-fore, our ultimate disease. Cure that disease, we shall become free from disease and death altogether.

Eight years after Dr. Dubos destroyed my faith in material progress, Srila Prabhupada initiated me into the path of bhakti-yoga, transcendental devotional service. I was attracted by the magisterial way Srila Prabhupada exposed what he called “the illusory advancement of civilization.” On the street a Krishna devotee had handed me a tract containing these simple but impressive words of Srila Prabhupada: “We are trying to exploit the resources of material nature, but actually we are becoming more and more entangled in her complexities. Therefore, although we are engaged in a hard struggle to conquer nature, we are ever more dependent on her. This illusory struggle against material nature can be stopped at once by revival of our eternal Krishna consciousness.” Srila Prabhupada hadn’t done the research of a Dr. Dubos, but somehow he understood it all. His clarity astonished me.

Attacking the idols of scientific progress and other ersatz religions, Srila Prabhupada did not compromise in presenting the truth—if we want transcendence, we must become free from material desires. He was the only contemporary transcendentalist I’d encountered who did not offer any cheating religion, an accommodation with material ambitions for cheap popularity among the foolish.

My heroes still are those saviors who wage war on behalf of humanity against disease and death: Srila Prabhupada, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, Srila Rupa Gosvami, Thakura Haridasa, Madhvacarya, Narada Muni, and many others form my pantheon. These heroes have won the war against death because they have mastered the actual science of transcendence and delivered it to humanity.

In the meantime I credit Dr. Dubos with a good deal of prescience. Events have proven him uncannily accurate. Even as researchers in high-tech laboratories feverishly sought the “magic bullet” to destroy cancer, a brand-new plague erupted, surprising almost everyone. Studies predict that Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome will have claimed about 400 million lives by the middle of the next century. Like horror films that spawn even more ghastly sequels, some old-fashioned diseases have begun staging spectacular revivals: A new, drug-resistant version of Koch’s bacillus threatens a tuberculosis epidemic in North America, where a remake of the scarlet fever microbe is implicated in a run of deadly cases of sudden, massive septicemia. Pediatricians report a steady rise in children with chronic bronchitis and asthma, apparently the result of pollution. Indeed, a family of new afflictions of the immune system, all apparently related to manmade chemicals in the environment, has led to the establishment of a new medical specialty called clinical ecology. Some studies show that in the industrial nations up to forty percent of all diseases are “iatrogenetic.” That means “caused by physicians.”

In Pittsburgh recently, a man survived seventy-one days on an implanted baboon’s liver, which was still in good shape at autopsy. Transplant technicians are planning farms where genetically engineered animals will grow crops of organs for use in humans; biomedical engineers are machining body parts out of space-age plastics and microchips. They’re promising immortality by the end of the next century.