How Fast Are You? How Dense? Random Thoughts on Value
In a 1979 essay entitled ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’, Harold L. Morowitz, a professor of Molecular Biophysics at Yale University, set out to determine how much it would cost to ‘build’ a human being – or rather, what would be the going price for the raw materials which constitute a human body according to current (1979) costs of these materials. Six Million dollars is not a lot of money now – it wasn’t that much then – and the essay takes it’s name from the popular science fiction television adventure series starring Lee Majors in which our hero has been ‘re-built’ with special ‘bionic’ components to make him a more effective crime fighter and, coincidentally you understand, a more hunky television presence according to 1970’s standards. Three years later, in 1982, the footballer Diego Maradona was sold to Barcelona for just under six million US dollars (5,460,000 to be precise, and much of which may very well have been spent on his very expensive hand…sadly, a few years later, he was spending this much on bling and cocaine…) and in 2001, the great French player, Zinedine Zidane, was sold to Real Madrid for, get this, $106,000,000. A hundred and six million dollars. That’s a hundred million dollars more than our imaginary Six Million dollar man who is not all he seems anyway – as we shall see. Nowadays, to continue this indulgent yet instructive footballing comparison, you would be pushed to buy half an hour with Christiano Ronaldo for this amount (I’m guessing now).
Morowitz itemizes all the ingredients of the human body and found out their purchase price – remember that these are 1979 prices and remember too that these are for sale from an unnamed biochemical company whose profit motive in a capitalist economy is also a factor in the pricing – these aren’t the prices God, for example, would have to pay when he’s engaged in ‘busy work’. This will give you an idea; “Hyalurinic acid was $175 a gram, while bilirubin was a bargain at $12 a gram. Human DNA was $768 a gram, while collagen was as little as $15 a gram … the real shocker came when I got to follicle-stimulating hormone at $4,800,000 a gram”. There’s a lot more. An awful lot.
After some calculation, and mindful of the fact that the human body is 68% water which, if you get it out of a tap is close to free (although getting it out of a bottle of expensive mineral water could really mess up the calculations), Morowitz works out that the price of a gram of human body is $245.54. He multiplies this by his own body weight and discovers that the price of a human body (his, anyway – mine would be more because I’m fatter) in terms of raw materials is….$6,000,015.44!!
But wait! This initial accounting doesn’t take into account the cost of assembling the stuff into cells, tissues and organs. Leaving aside the small fact that doing this was impossible in 1979 and it still is – although the science of cloning has regrettably (for my argument anyway) complicated the picture – there is still the matter of the phenomenally sophisticated and, yes, expensive equipment which would be needed to even contemplate such a project. I could go on. (Really, I could go on). Morowitz suggests that the true cost is likely to be closer to billions, even trillions of dollars. In 1979.
Obviously the ‘labour’ of putting it all together, unknowable and ineffable if you believe in some kind of God, or time-consuming to put it mildly if you believe in evolution, is a crucial factor. Humans do not come flat-packed from IKEA but need assemblage, self-organising or, well, organising. The raw materials must be put together – either by processes of evolution through natural selection or by design. William Paley, writing in 1809, suggested that if one ‘found’ a watch, one could infer the existence of a watchmaker – the whole basis of the ‘intelligent design’ argument. Which has got nothing to do with anything other than demonstrating that a significant part of the overall costings are, well, iffy.
The missing ‘ingredient’ here is, of course, thought or consciousness, and who would be crazy or arrogant enough to put a price on that?
The missing ‘ingredient’ here is, of course, thought or consciousness, and who would be crazy or arrogant enough to put a price on that? Well, as it turns out, all sorts of people, organisations and other social, cultural and political entities are only too willing to do this, from the various prizes for inventions and contributions to knowledge including patents and Nobel prizes to the money to be made from inventions like Coca-Cola, iPods and Twiglets. And this is a long time before we can discuss how much the Sistine Chapel is ‘worth’, let alone a pop song, a film clip or Crazy Frog.
Various organisations are only too interested in all aspects of this subject including The Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, Intelligent Futures in Seattle amongst others and of course, the Tyrell Corporation. Their interests are themselves various – from issues of creativity, intellectual ownership and copyright, warfare, the sex industry and good old-fashioned profit.
Morowitz ends his essay with this thought from Alfred North Whitehead, that great philosopher of science, “the human body is an instrument for the production of art in the life of the human soul” (p.6). Now we’re getting somewhere, because the human soul, as we know from the 2003 film starring Sean Penn and also from the work of Duncan MacDougall, weighs 21 grams, (or “three fourths of an ounce”, as MacDougall wrote in 1901) …however, not knowing how much a gram of ‘soul’ costs (let alone where one could buy it – Motown, possibly?, or how one would get it home – on a ‘soul train’?..), this doesn’t help us in our calculations as to how much it would currently cost to build a human being – not just the squishy bits, but the bits that invent, make and create. Is it even possible to say how much the soul weighs? Is it like asking how much the internet weighs? Or the Higgs Boson? (this is a trick one for all you experimental physicists out there since the Boson is the ‘thing’ (I’m getting technical now..) which actually gives everything in the universe mass and therefore its very own weight). Or even Higgs himself, for that matter? Or God? MacDougall’s ‘observations’ are controversial to say the least – his ‘sample’ was only six people dying of tuberculosis – and have never been independently verified or repeated. Additionally, when he himself ‘repeated’ his ‘observations’ on dying dogs (some of whom he is suspected of actually killing), he found that, unlike in the human sample, there was no weight loss at all and he therefore concluded that dogs don’t have a soul. How likely is this?
It should go without saying that the internet came to my rescue. After simply typing into Google ‘How much does the human soul cost’ (as you do), I came across an on-line article by a man with clearly too much time on his hands called Walter Hickey in which he works out exactly that through the analysis of various examples where the human soul has been exchanged for money, favours, talent or something else. You may have already guessed that these are all examples of ‘Faustian’ pacts – deals with the Devil whereby the Devil gets your soul in exchange for something you want really, really badly.
It’s worth reading, but the most telling (if not exactly scientific) example comes from – wouldn’t you know it? 1979!! Exactly the year when Morowitz was doing his sums – and incidentally the year which gave us roller-blades, post-it notes and the Sony Walkman. In 1979, the Charlie Daniels band recorded a song called ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’, a fine old song in which the Devil bets the hapless ‘Johnny’ a fiddle of gold for Johnny’s soul for whoever can play the fastest fiddle.
I won’t bore you with the details (Johnny loses, natch, in a classic three-act story arc) but Hickey works out with all kinds of clever adding-up, that the fiddle of gold, according to the prices of the day for that particular precious metal, the usual mass of a fiddle and so on, would have cost 167,000 USD!! (US Dollars in this instance) (He even helpfully gives us the 2013 price by factoring in the increase in the price of gold – 540,000 USD, since you ask).
There are other examples – Robert Johnson, the ‘King of the Delta Blues Singers’ sold his soul for what would amount to 241,789 USD in 1932 if we are to believe the story.
There are other examples – Robert Johnson, the ‘King of the Delta Blues Singers’ sold his soul for what would amount to 241,789 USD in 1932 if we are to believe the story. There are more examples with varying degrees of greed and stupidity and downright silliness, all of which give Hickey the overall average of 2.8 million US Dollars as the exchange rate for a human soul. We might even find it instructive that Homer Simpson once sold his soul to Devil Flanders for one donut (1USD = 1 US Donut, in this instance), retailing at $1 from Dunkin’ Donuts but I don’t think we should allow this ‘outlier’ to complicate our calculations. But this is all slightly unsatisfactory, since there is no real way of providing a benchmark platform for the Devil’s valuation of these various souls, and there is no evident or accountable regulating body – an ‘OffDevil’, perhaps.
Duh. My mission to put a price on the human body (soul included) is clearly unravelling into all kinds of silly examples, metaphysical speculation and ill-advised rummaging in the grey areas between theology, philosophy, culture and science – basically, I seem to be getting nowhere fast.
Christiano Ronaldo’s legs are ‘worth’ 144 million (interestingly, this is nearly 10 million dollars more than his transfer fee from Manchester United to Real Madrid. In other words, his legs are worth more than he his…go figure.), whilst David Beckham’s legs only rate a measly 70 million.
OK. So, let’s approach the beast from another direction – how much does it cost to insure a human being, given that risk analysis and insurance are some kind of indication as to worth. Well, the US Risk and Safety Analysts reckon that, taking all things into account (“all things”…I doubt it.. but anyway..) 5million USD (forget the donuts, we’re back to dollars now) is the going price. The soul itself has never been insured so far as we know, but body parts are regularly insured and, although the amounts and parts are indicative only of an insane contemporary value system, they again might shed some light on the subject. If you were to lose both of your legs (God forbid) you could expect to be reimbursed to the tune of between $ 266,030 – 356,300 US, unless, of course, your legs were of special interest (to anybody except yourself, obviously). Charlie Chaplin’s legs were insured for 20,000 US dollars, Marilyn Monroe’s for only 10,000 and Betty Grable’s legs would have rated a payout of 14.8 million in today’s money. Christiano Ronaldo’s legs are ‘worth’ 144 million (interestingly, this is nearly 10 million dollars more than his transfer fee from Manchester United to Real Madrid. In other words, his legs are worth more than he his…go figure.), whilst David Beckham’s legs only rate a measly 70 million. Mariah Carey’s legs are reportedly insured for one billion dollars (although some reports claim this is actually for her bum which would make it one of the 1,645 billionaires currently registered on the planet). The model Heidi Klum’s legs are variously insured for 1 million (left) and 1.2 million (right). Why? I promised I would never tell – unless it was for money (it’s to do with a scar…). A prosthetic leg can cost anything from 5,000 to 50,000 dollars (or presumably more if you want to run at speeds exceeding 60mph which Lee Majors apparently needed to on a weekly basis back in 1979). Talk about a bum deal! Well, OK, if you insist, I will – Kylie Minogue’s bottom is insured for 5 million whilst Jennifer Lopez’s is a mighty 300 million!! And, just to prove that it’s not all obscenely stupid, monumentally greedy and morally vacuous – Van Halen’s David Lee Roth had his penis insured for 1 million US dollars whilst Tom Jones has had his chest hair insured for 7 million. Words, for once, fail me.
So. Where are we? Precisely nowhere, I think. A recent and psychologically very clever advertising slogan for Stella Artois claimed it was ‘reassuringly expensive’ which, if you deconstruct it, inadvertently tells you everything you need to know about capitalism without having to understand Marx’s Theory of Surplus Value.
If we need an answer to how much a human life actually costs, the organisation ‘Free The Slaves’ might also be in a position to help us. In 1850, in the American South, a slave would cost 40,000 USD whilst today the average figure for 2014 is only 90 dollars! Much cheaper, you see – things really are getting better!! And, to subvert the Stella Artois punchline in answer to the question ‘how much is a human being worth?’ we are in a position to respond, ‘depressingly cheap’.
I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that these issues of value, creativity, science and life itself will play out in surprising, entertaining and strange ways. In the words of cyberpunk writer, mathematician and philosopher, Rudy Rucker – “How fast are you? How dense?”