Saturday, August 08, 2009


"Good morning," said the little prince.
"Good morning," said the merchant.
This was the merchant who sold pills that had been invented to quench thirst. You need only swallow one pill a week, and you would feel no need of anything to drink.
"Why are you selling those?" asked the little prince.
"Because they save a tremendous amount of time," said the merchant. "Computations have been made by experts. With these pills, you save fifty-three minutes in every week."
"And what do I do with those fifty-three minutes?"
"Anything you like..."
"As for me," said the little prince to himself, "if I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked, I should walk at my leisure toward a spring of fresh water."
You will remember this episode from Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince. I was thinking about it last evening as I was popping my daily pills -- the cholesterol pill, the blood pressure pill, the stomach-acid pill. And I'm wondering, "Why do I have a nervous tummy? Why high blood pressure? Why high cholesterol?" Maybe, I thought, I should be spending more time walking toward a spring of fresh water -- metaphorically speaking.

I mean, why not? I am retired. The pension check and social security appear in my bank account every month. Why not settle back and relax? Why this perceived need to be busy all the time? What's to worry?

A hundred years from now, historians will look back and see the 20th century as the time when scientists discovered that the human self is a biochemical machine. The 21st century will be the time when we learn how to make the machine do pretty much anything we please. We are entering the age of pharmaceutical design. Chemical compounds will be tailor-made -- pieced together with the help of computers from vast molecular "libraries" -- to bind to specific sites on specific molecules in the human body, to bring about some desired effect. It all comes down to geometry, fitting one molecule to another, tab A into slot B.

Almost no one wants to admit that we are biochemical machines, but we pour out our treasure for drugs that enhance sex, prevent wrinkles, grow hair, relieve stress, control body weight, augment memory, delay senescence, induce euphoria, improve muscle tone, whiten toenails, or add fifty-three minutes a week to our lifetimes, while Big Pharm cheers us on. We confirm with our pocketbooks what we are reluctant to admit intellectually: the biochemical self.

Are we more than biochemical machines? Yes, I think that we are, in the sense that no existing or imaginable algorithm can express the full complexity of our bodies in interaction with their environments. As when we walk at our leisure toward a spring of fresh water.