Tom Sutcliffe: I would rather not see my future, thanks

A bus may get us long before we get to where science told us we were going

Share
Related Topics

'The best thing about the future", Abraham Lincoln said, "is that it only comes one day at a time". One day, the future was going to place Abe in fatal proximity to John Wilkes Booth, but he did not have to live with that knowledge. And this has long been a universal charity of human existence: that we can't know in detail what lies in store for us.

It is, though, a charity that is steadily being nibbled away by the advances of science. The other day there were reports that scientists had identified a genetic marker which would make it possible to say how quickly a given person would age (and therefore die).

that chimed in my mind with something I'd seen on stage a few days earlier, in Tamsin Oglesby's play about ageing and dementia, Really Old, Like 45, at the National. In one powerful scene Monroe, the head of an institute conducting dubiously ethical research into ways of treating an ageing population, is confronted with the fact that a scan of his own brain has revealed the predictive markers of disease. He doesn't have Alzheimer's yet, but now he knows that he will one day get it – and his research suddenly has a pointedly personal application. The future has made an early down-payment in ways that Lincoln couldn't have imagined.

Oglesby's scene is an extrapolation from a current fact: that you can do a genetic test to find out whether you are likely to succumb to Alzheimer's, well before any symptoms make themselves known. And one of the first things to say about this – and the new discovery about ageing rates – is that they are only refined and special cases of a universal harshness in human existence; that we all know what's coming in the end. Anyone who takes these tests will be able to discern looming and upsetting shapes in the murk that lies ahead. But they haven't suddenly been placed in an entirely different category to the rest of us, who will also lose our faculties and die one day. And this raises the obvious question: if you could buy such a test over the counter at Boots, would you? What exactly would you gain?

The ability to do something about the result is usually offered as the significant factor here. Since there is currently no cure for Alzheimer's and only unverified ways of forestalling it, it's generally regarded that there's not a lot of point in knowing. If you have the gene for early death, on the other hand (or high cholesterol, to take a far more common example), you can take some meaningful steps to bend your fate in a more favourable direction. And certainly there will be people for whom nothing less than a knock on the door by a bloke with a scythe will be necessary to get them to change their habits.

But even in these cases I wonder whether the trade-off makes sense. The problem is that you will have exchanged a common (and therefore more bearable) uncertainty for an entirely delusive certainty that threatens to overshadow the life you have left. And you may not be able to rid yourself of the feeling that you are making sacrifices now (these things usually do involve sacrifice, otherwise everyone would be doing them already) for a dubious return in the distant future.

This isn't to argue that it doesn't make sense for us to look after our health, incidentally, only that it might be wiser to do so because of what it delivers today and tomorrow – not in 20 years' time. After all, John Wilkes Booth, or a bus, may get us long before we get to where science – in entirely good faith – told us we were going. The unavoidable thing about life – and possibly the best thing, too – is that you can only live it a day at a time.

This poster was asking for trouble

Political posters have always been a honeypot for graffiti artists. Indeed you could argue that if one doesn't get defaced at all, anywhere, it hasn't done its job properly.

But there is a fine line between provoking a response and the glorious satirical caption-competition which the Conservatives have unleashed with their "Year for Change" campaign. Has a general election poster ever provided a more inviting blank canvas for contrarians and mischief-makers than this one?

The funniest spoofs are to be found online, at mydavidcameron.com . I'm fond of the one that replaces the original copyline with "They took away my tie and shoelaces. But they forgot to lock the cell". And there's also a jolly number in which the slogan "We can't go on like this. Get me an airbrush!" is accompanied by a notably twerpish portrait of Cameron.

Mydavidcameron.com is running a competition to find the best one and the current leader in the voting when I looked is an unaltered image with the line, "Some of my best friends are poor". My favourite, though, is the one that substitutes Cameron with Tim Nice-But-Dim from The Fast Show, which is only behind by a narrow margin. Remember, people died for your right to vote. Don't waste it.

Discrimination laws can go too far

Listening to Sir Mota Singh defend the right of a north London schoolboy to carry a five-inch knife to school, on the grounds that wearing the Kirpan is an article of faith, I was struck by his use of the word "discrimination".

This was intended to frame the matter as one of religious liberty rather than school discipline and safety. And behind it was the assumption that all forms of discrimination are indefensible. I don't think this one is, though. I approve of the idea that my children's schools will discriminate against pupils who carry knives – however heartfelt their reasons for doing so and however unlikely it is that they would use them. If the Kirpan truly is a ceremonial object – constructed in such a way that it can't be used to stab – then there shouldn't be a problem.

But if it's a knife it shouldn't be allowed in. The mistake is to think that the enforcement of such a rule (and the tactful insistence on a sensible compromise by religious authorities) must always represent a humiliating triumph of secularism over religious faith. It doesn't. It simply asserts that there are places where the values of a civil, shared society – indifferent to individual convictions – come first. Everyone has an interest in that – and minority religions in particular will find it a far better protection of their liberties than a prickly insistence on being exempted from rules that discriminate against nobody because everyone is included.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A pack of seagulls squabble over discarded food left on the beach at St Ives on July 28, 2015  

Number of urban seagulls in Britain nearly quadruples: Hide food and avoid chicks to stay in gulls’ good books

Tom Bawden
 

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head