Beloved Immortals: Science, Miracles and ‘Jellyfish Time’

Jellyfish don’t really move so much as they just float. The water moves, and it rouses them into action; their gelatinous bodies rise and their tentacles fall like ribbons after a strong wind. Jellyfish are never in a hurry; they don’t run up stairs, or push their way onto a crowded train. Jellyfish change the way I experience time; when my thoughts slow down, I’m suddenly awake to the world in a different way. There are animals in this world who light up dark water with their bodies, with their green fluorescent protein! My mind gropes for a better word than “magic,” but it’s the only word that keeps surfacing.

This sounds, I realize, deeply unscientific. You will allow me this indulgence, perhaps, because I am a scholar who studies theology—theories of divinity. I traffic in ideas that hover uncomfortably close to magic. This is the work that I do and I’m simply not qualified to think much about, for example, how their complex anatomy responds to our polluted oceans. Thank God there are scientists to take care of that!

If only it were that easy. The reality is that scientists dream, too. Some of them dream a lot. And some of them dream about what kinds of sacred information the jellyfish are feeding us as they languorously troll their tentacles through the water. Some of these dreams, I’ll readily admit, are actually rather captivating.

The novelist Nathaniel Rich recently published a charming story in the New York Times about one such scientist. Japanese researcher Shin Kubota, Rich tells us, is the only scientist who maintains a captive population of the jelly called Turritopsis dohrnii, also known as the “immortal medusa” or, more simply, the “immortal jellyfish.” This species is able to—crudely speaking—reverse the aging process, returning to its earliest stage of development, and Kubota is the man who watches them do this. Tirelessly. His research (conducted through Kyoto University’s Seto Marine Biological Laboratory) is designed to observe their death-defeating transition over and over again.

It would be childish—perhaps a bit naïve and “non-scientific”—to imagine that these little creatures have been drinking from the fountain of youth, that they stand at the pearly gates that open onto to eternal life. But this is, more or less, what Kubota seems to find so intriguing about the immortal jellyfish. He’s in awe of their ability to defeat death. This, it seems, is the glue that keeps Kubota dedicated enough to his jellyfish to drag them along on international conferences and to drive eight hours in a day to make sure that he’s home at night to feed them. What Kubota sees in the jellyfish, he tells Rich, is “the most wonderful dream of mankind.” He earnestly believes that if we learn the immortal jellyfish’s death-defying trick, we will be able to “evolve and become immortal ourselves.”

I would like to keep telling you about Kubota, his love of the jellyfish, the songs (the odes!) he writes in their honor. But if I retell Rich’s story, I won’t do it justice. Instead, I want to suggest that Kubota is a rather paradigmatic example of that dreaming scientist. Kubota’s scientific research is, in fact, extremely monotonous, and his claims highly debatable. But his sense that they are feeding him extremely powerful information seems to generate a devotion within him that might better be described as religious.

Cancer, The Great Icon

I can’t help but like Kubota as a character. Rich’s tale makes me want to visit this guy in his laboratory, take a walk along the beach where he searches for evidence of sea creature activity, watch him sing karaoke at an academic conference. And yet, something about Kubota’s story leaves me unsettled. Call it my inner rationalist or my inner existentialist. Call it what you like, but I’m wary of a scientist who harbors (and who publicly exposes) such passionate feelings about something like immortality. There’s something a little madcap about a science that gets biological with its immortality. I’m a little uncomfortable about what this does to (and with) our actual world.

What is biological immortality? To be fair, it’s not the promise of a paradisiacal garden. Neither is it the ultimate, or final, defeat of death. Instead, biological immortality has to do with aging. An organism that is biologically immortal does not age. We primarily age (the theory goes) because the cells that comprise us age. At some point, the telomeres that protect the genetic information in our chromosomes get shorter. When they get too short, the cells (which lack this protection) stop dividing. We no longer produce the cells that our skin, bones, or blood need to help us recover from the wear and tear of everyday life. As creatures comprised of mortal cells, we too eventually terminate.

The original, great icon of biological immortality is arguably the cancer cell. This was the first organism that, scientists realized, was not subject to the “Hayflick limit” that makes our human cells mortal. The cancer cell (as long as it’s not killed by some external form of trauma) can live forever. The cancer cell was perhaps science’s first creaturely immortal. This magical power of the cancer cell has been deeply inspiring for researchers in hot pursuit of biological immortality. How does the cancer cell do it? scientists have wondered. Can we make our somatic cells do the same thing?

The cancer cell, as creaturely immortal, does not inspire much reverence in me. Setting aside the fact that it just seems perverse to want to learn the survival strategies and “tricks” of a notorious killer, the cancer cell as icon of biological immortality already has a dark history of its own. The first line of immortal cells used in medical research came from the body of Henrietta Lacks—a poor African-American woman in Baltimore, who never gave researchers permission to use her cells in research. Her children lived without health insurance while her cells generated millions (and probably helped to drive up health care costs as well).

Human beings are adept at exploitation—especially humans who feed on capitalist systems of economy. When something begins to resemble a resource (even the human body, an animal, or a cancer cell), we are often quick to make indiscriminate and unethical use of it. As I see it, the quest for biological immortality turns to real creatures in the world and asks: how can we make use of you? How can you help us live forever? Biological immortality may indeed be a new form of immortal longing, but it appears to put us in the tired old position of making Faustian bargains.

I suppose I worry about the possibility that the jellyfish might be turned into some such terrible icon. We will hold up the image of a creature that has no sexual organs and no complex digestive system as our bright sign of the future, while we simultaneously hold it captive to our whims and mercies. And yet I also have a strange sense that Kobuta might be the sort of starry-eyed scientist who won’t allow this to happen. Of course, I can’t know this. I don’t even know Kobuta. But I am moved by his sense of humility.

Science’s Little Miracles

As hungry as Kobuta is for knowledge about jellyfish, he confesses to Rich that the human species doesn’t really deserve to uncover the jellyfish’s secrets. Humans, he says, haven’t really learned to love yet. They’re too violent. They can’t love one another, and they certainly don’t love the world. “If everyone learns to love living organisms, there will be no crime. No murder. No suicide. Spiritual change is needed,” he tells Rich. The revelation of the jellyfish’s secret is contingent upon our moral transformation.

I don’t share his confidence that the secret to eternal life will be mediated to us through the body of a jellyfish; to be frank, I’m not really convinced that the secrets of eternal life will be mediated to us at all. In that sense, Kobuta and I peer into the world of the jellyfish from very different vantage points, though not because he is a scientist and I am a theorist of things divine. Rather, because he sees the jellyfish as something that drinks from the fountain of youth and I see it as a sign of some kind of magic. But is the gulf between us really so deep?

In his book The Constant Fire: Beyond the Religion vs. Science Debate (University of California Press, 2009), the astrophysicist Adam Frank borrows the term “hierophany” from historian of religion Mircea Eliade to describe the strangely spiritual things that science produces. Science, he argues, is a “spiritual endeavor” (like almost any human thing, I might argue). We need the language to speak about this, and Frank attempts to provide it. He contends that science produces something like little miracles, the eruption of “the sacred” into the fabric of reality.

I’m not going to get deeply into Frank’s speculations here, but I want to suggest that perhaps Kobuta and I see—in the jellyfish—a kind of hierophany. This isn’t to say that I consider them sacred (that term always feels a bit loaded, to me), and I don’t want to suggest that Kobuta does either. But hierophanies do have something to do with time. Eliade considered the sacred to be a different dimension of time. Sacred time was not “profane” time (days, weeks, months, years). Rather, it was understood to be an infinite, primordial sort of time. Hierophanies were the phenomena that appeared between sacred and profane dimensions of time. They were what connected them. Here, in our profane stretch of days, the hierophany was an interruption of our diurnality.

For Kobuta, it would seem, the jellyfish disrupt his sense of time by serving as proof that a biological body can become immortal. For my part, they just slow me way down, they shift my attention. But, in each case, this jellyfish temporality serves as a kind of interference. Watching them can change the way we think, the way we feel. Meditating on a jellyfish, I’m suggesting, can elicit a kind of transformation. You may not find them included on a list of “religious things,” but perhaps that has more to do with our lists than with the jellyfish.