One of the most interesting implications of Google’s recent restructuring into Alphabet is the extra space and resources it grants to the kind of research and development projects Google calls “moonshots.” One such project is the recently launched anti-aging “moonshot” called Calico Labs. According to their website, Calico (short for California Life Company) works to understand the biological processes of aging in order to develop “interventions that enable people to live longer and healthier lives.” (The 2013 Time Magazine cover story on Calico is titled “Google vs. Death.”)
As this article by Max Anderson (featured in a previous Culture Briefing) showed, the question of aging and radical life extension is a current favorite of Silicon Valley’s “Technorati.” In Anderson’s view, the debate over radical life extension technologies needs to be enhanced. “Maybe,” Anderson says, “it’s time for more conversation between faithful thinkers and thinking techies and a shared project of building a better future.”
This week we highlight the recent work of physician and writer Atul Gawande, who gets a passing glance in Anderson’s article. Though Gawande is not an explicitly theological thinker, he is a keen observer not only of trends within the practice of medicine but also the social pressures on the vocation of medicine in our time.
Gawande’s writing takes up the tension between two imperatives within medical practice—namely, the impulse to heal and the impulse to simply be present when a cure is absent or highly unlikely. When all goes well, these two impulses travel together: medical professionals are present to their patients precisely as they make use of all the knowledge, skill, and virtue they possess in order to heal them. But, as the subtitle to Gawande’s seminal 2010 essay puts it, “What should medicine do when it can’t save your life?”
This is essentially the question of Gawande’s recently published book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Here we present two pieces on that book: an interview with Gawande from the Guardian and an episode of PBS’s Frontline that examines Gawande’s own attempt to balance the impulse to fix and heal and the need to, at times, “let go.” Though Gawande has not issued the final or conclusive word on the matter, we recommend his work to you as a wise and learned description of the tension medicine both experiences and perpetuates in our time.