Fountain of Youth 

by Jordan Pennells

You know how it feels like the powerful intensity of sunlight is burning your retinas when you first step outside? This painful experience forcing your eyes into a sly squint is caused from interesting physiology involving photoreceptor cells of the retina. They contain membrane-situated proteins called Rhodopsin, which are capable of detecting light. Following exposure to bright light, enzymes are released within these cells, which cause the internalisation and recycling of Rhodopsin molecules, regulating the cell’s sensitivity to light. When walking back inside, your vision shimmers as your eyes adjust to the lower visual intensity. The delay in the adjustment of yours eyes is the time taken to re-synthesize and transport the Rhodopsin proteins back to the surface of the cell.

This is the feeling I experienced every time I walked into the exclusively bright pink room of my daughter, Lucy.

The grind of the work day was over, a grind of pepper had seasoned my homemade meal, and the last job for the day was the deceptively difficult task of soothing the overly active mind of a child, to a state where sleep becomes possible. This task had gradually become more achievable, night by night, through the development of my storytelling abilities.

Armed only with my typically analytical mind, without the crutch of a colourful storybook in my hands, I sat down at the foot of the bed to continue my fancifully concocted tale. Lucy’s eyes were wide with wonder and anticipation, wholeheartedly believing I was the greatest storyteller in the history of mankind; albeit naïvely. She clutched at her mainstay pink unicorn toy, providing invaluable character inspiration which could be used to invoke the emotional response to the rhetoric I intended of posing at the end of the story; a concept of complexity beyond her years which I was curious to glean from her innocent mind.

“Okay Lucy, last night the Strawberry Princess found the jittery Jelly Wizard in his underground home, but the moment the Princess mentioned the Fountain of Youth, the Wizard fainted with shock and went into a long slumber, just like you. After sleepily waking up, he noticed the Princess was still waiting patiently, her strawberry pink hair glowing slightly despite the dimly-lit chamber they were standing in. Fighting back his anxiety about the question she had asked last night, the Wizard delved deep into his scholastic mind to recall the history and whereabouts of the long-forgotten Fountain of Youth. The Princess listened eagerly as the Jelly Wizard, with his eyes glazed over and his stare seemingly in another realm, recounted all his knowledge about the Fountain of Youth.

“I know not of a creature in history to bathe in the water of the fountain. An ancient scroll once told me that whomever comes in contact with the liquid of the fountain will not age a day from that day onward. Sickness will not touch them, their lifespan will be greatly increased and their beauty will stay perennially pristine.”

The Princess’ eyes sparkled with desire, not daring to utter a word in fear of disrupting this recount.

“Rumour has it, a series of great challenges faces any adventurer seeking this prize; this involves interconnected tests of knowledge, invention and morality. If I am correct, the first test is simply the knowledge of the whereabouts of its sacred ground. Only after many years of research of ancient scrolls in dingy libraries have I acquired this discovery. I shall spare you the details of my deduction, but whispers have it that one must venture to the edge of the Rainbow Forest, which holds many dangers, and perform the following dance.”

I proceeded to flail my arms around widely without any sense of pattern or rhythm, which was greeted by a beautiful peal of laughter from Lucy.

“But of course, I would never recommend seeking out the Fountain of Youth; it has been known to corrupt even the purest of hearts, such as your own, that contains even a drop envy circulating within it…..”

However, as the Jelly Wizard finished his story and drifted back to reality, he looked up to see an empty room with the door slowly closing after itself. The Princess didn’t need to entertain the warnings of a conservative old man.

Travelling around the kingdom is made easy when you’re a princess, especially when you have open access to the Royal Flying-Pig Drawn Carriage. Despite its name, the edge of the Rainbow Forest had an ironic dullness to it, like a greyscale filter applied to whoever sets their eyes upon it. This was most likely a defense mechanism to deter inexperienced adventurers from the secrets hidden within. The Princess perfectly reenacted the Wizard’s dance, prompting the trees to part ways and reveal a narrow path snaking into the forest.

Envisioning the mirage of a grandiose fountain, a watermark now fixed in her sights, the Princess strode forward with the overconfidence and oversight of youth. A gradient of beauty was before her, with colours concentrating every step she took towards the heart of the forest. Time flashed by in an aesthetic blur and before too long, she broke into a circlet of trees surrounding a very purposeful clearing. The encircling of trees was too perfect to be unintentional.

The Princess’ focus shifted to the second challenge, with the Wizard’s hints still echoing in her ears. Her ruminating mind questioned what the connection between knowledge and invention could possibly be. The place she had been led to was the Rainbow Forest, but how could one invent a rainbow? What even was a rainbow?

In a stroke of genius, the Princess reached for a book that every child in the kingdom is given during their learning years, and an item she would never be caught without. Her Wholly Sci-ble. This book contained an explanation for the entirety of magical phenomena within the world.

“A Rainbow is formed when sunlight hits many droplets of water in the sky. Sunlight is naturally made up of all the colours of the rainbow, but all these mixed together form the white light that we are used to. Different colours look that way because they move differently, depending on the frequency of their wavelength. So when the sunlight mixture hits a droplet of water in the sky, each colour reflects off it at different angles, allowing for the separation of colours to be noticed by us in the form of a rainbow”.

The Princess allowed a moment for this information to sink in…. A moment later, she yelled “Shuemly flumly”, which was of course this world’s version of ‘Eureka’. She looked around the clearing to find a series of objects she could use to mistify water without mystifying herself in the process. In the middle, there shimmered a collection of silvery, silken hair-like threads next to a crystal clear pool of water. The Princess wove a tight mesh out of the silken fibers, connected it with a straw-like appendage fashioned out of the leaves of the surrounding trees. Taking in water for the pool to the full capacity of her mouth, she blew with all her force through her mistifying invention.

The sky filled with a blinding array of liquid diamonds, constricting her pupils and forcing her eyelids shut. As her eyes drifted opened and the visual aura subsided, she realised a new object had materialised underneath a dazzling rainbow. As the Fountain of Youth had materialised in front of her, so had a range of possibilities within her mind. Contrasting the purity of the garden that her adventure had led her to, her psyche had instantly twisted into a grievous, impatient force hungry for everlasting beauty.

As she began to approach, airborne droplet of water from the fountain settled on her face, noticeably soothing every spot they touched. The only apparent blemish on this otherwise pristine monument was a grimy plaque; which was, however, being slowly reconsecrated by the magical liquid. An irregular, seemingly purposeful jet of water exited the top of the fountain and splashed over the plaque, revealing its message:

Congratulations, fair adventurer. Here lies the long prophesied Fountain of Youth. Bathe in these waters and you will be clad with unwavering beauty and longevity. To reach this point, you have shown great feats of intellectual strength, but the last challenge will test a different kind of strength. This forest is the home of the only known band of unicorns in this realm; they rely on the fountain’s water as sustenance for their life force. Bacteria living on mortal creatures will taint these waters, sending the brains of unicorns that drink here to mush. You must now answer a question rooted in morality; are you willing to sacrifice the existence of this rare, majestic creature for your own personal enhancement?

Angels and demons were rioting within the Princess’ mind. The plaque certainly wasn’t lying about the existence of unicorns, the silken hair woven in her invention proved that to be genuine. It was shocking to all at once discover the serenity, and subsequently the fragility, that marred the existance of this creatute. All the while, the seed of envy was growing within her.

Her body subconsciously edged closer, closer, closer to the edge of the fountain. She stood on the edge of a precipice in her mind, knowing what she could miss with not taking action, not know where the slippery slope down the figurative cliff face led. The Princess closed her eyes and slowly reached out her hand…

I took a pause in this moment of suspense to register Lucy’s reaction at the climax of the story. However, despite my magnificent storytelling abilities, she had fallen into a peaceful sleep that was quite at odds to the nature of the tale. The poor girl, she mustn’t have understood half the words that I used.

Tucking in the sheets around her, I decided it was about time I retired to the study and started on the real world story that was being featured in my company’s scientific magazine next month. This bedtime story had been a very effective catalyst for thought on the topic I had being tasked to write about; the bioethical issues for the use of biotechnology towards human enhancement in the future. I sat down at my desk and began writing the introduction to this piece.

For many years, an undeveloped technological climate has instilled a myopic view upon genetics; where genes have historically been characterised by their pathological counterpart. BRCA1 is ubiquitously known as the primary Breast Cancer causing gene, not the DNA damage remediating gene as is its function in the normal state. Taking the completion of the Human Genome Project as the starting point for this inversion of thinking, we now know the sequence of the ‘normal’ human genome, which gives us the opportunity to not only provide therapy to genetic ailments, but potentially bestow genetic enhancement in the form of beauty, personality, intelligence and longevity.

In the field of Biotechnology, and ultimately for life in general, we are standing upon a recently materialised precipice. Racing advances with respect to genetic knowledge has opened the world up to a range of new possibilities, but it is time to briefly step outside of the realm of science and assess the moral implications that could be steaming our way. The debate continues as to whether or not we should exercise our new-found knowledge.

Proponents of genetic technologies (Bostrom 2008) have philosophically advocated that there are no compelling reasons, blurring the moral line of genetic enhancement by drawing parallels between current and potential enhancement techniques; we attend school and tutoring for intellectual enhancement, exercise at the gym for physical enhancement and have the freedom to choose a sexual partner to ultimately select the genetic composition of our children. Bostrom even goes as far as to say that depriving children of adequate access to enhancements that are central to the improvement of their life can be deemed morally negligent.

However, bioconservatives (Pijnenburg, Leget 2007) argue that developing life enhancement technologies is morally unjust, when there is already such a significant divide between life expectancies in the 1st world (70-80 years), and that of 3rd world countries (~40 years). How can we morally afford to invest in research to extend the lives of those who have more already?

The human race is currently standing on the edge of the metaphorical Fountain of Youth. But by no means do humans have hearts pure enough to evade the corruption that this leap of power could provide.

So, should we bathe in the waters of genetic technology?

 

Sources:

Bostrom, Nick and Rebecca Roache. “Ethical Issues In Human Enhancement”. New Waves in Applied Ethics (2008): 120-152.

“How Do Our Eyes Adjust To Changing Light? – Life’s Building Blocks”. Medium. N.p., 2017.

Pijnenburg, M. A M and C. Leget. “Who Wants To Live Forever? Three Arguments Against Extending The Human Lifespan”. Journal of Medical Ethics 33.10 (2007): 585-587.

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