SOMETIMES you see a crossroads very clearly.

The same vehicle, on either path, will take you to very different destinations, even fates.

I saw one this week for Scotland, concerning the question of how to think about and act upon, matters of life and death.

Two items in my recent media diet are the forks in the road. The first is the latest population report from the National Records of Scotland, out this week.

The life expectancy gap between a child born into the richest 10%, and one born into the poorest decile, is 13 years for a boy, and 9.6 for a girl. Both genders, while they’re actually alive, are also robbed of 20-odd years of good health, if they’re brought up in the lowest 10th of income.

And as I was absorbing this shameful information, the same evening, I idly sat before a BBC4 documentary called “The Immortalist”.

The subject of the film, Russian internet billionaire Dmitry Itskov, is investing his fortunes in the digitisation of human consciousness and character – so it can be uploaded to a machine, human-like or not. And as long as the power stays on, he believes he’ll thus secure eternal life, for himself and humanity.

The extreme polarisation here is striking. On one side, the 99% trade a decade or so of lived years among themselves, distributed between their middle and working classes.

On the other, the immortalists of the 1% (including horrors like Trump’s pal Peter Thiel, Rupert Murdoch or the Google founders) are hoping to hack themselves into another hundred, or even a thousand years of existence.

But more than that, I’m fascinated by the way that big science can be so differently deployed, according to the ethics and values of its deployers. Because there is big science involved in the understanding of life extension, whatever end of it you’re looking at.

My own usual response to such Scottish health stats (and this also goes for the recent terrible drug deaths report) is straightforwardly socialistic. The needed redistribution of assets and life-chances can happen with a different political administration when we vote for it. We don’t have to wait on any major scientific advance.

But an interview with Strathclyde University’s (and ex-Chief Medical Officer of Scotland) Harry Burns, for Australia’s Radio National earlier this year, provides an even deeper justification for such actions. It’s about how biology and history interact.

There is, according to Burns, a generational “cohort”, born in the 60s and early 70s, and centred around the old industrial areas of Scotland, which is at the root of the majority of poor health outcomes across the country. Not just for their own lifespans, but for those of their children and grandchildren.

How do we know this? Burns cites research which says that even if heart disease (the biggest killer) was massively reduced amongst this group, by banning their cause (cigarettes and fatty diets), they would get only one extra year of life.

It turns out that the majority of this cohort’s deaths come from “drugs, alcohol and violence (whether accidental violence or deliberate violence) and suicide”.

The Nobel-prize winning (and Scots-born) economist, Angus Deaton, studying the American ex-industrial rust-belt, calls these “deaths of despair”.

In Scotland, Burns locates the beginning of this process to the deindustrialising and decanting of working populations, in the central belt areas of the sixties and seventies.

Because “parents lost a stable existence,” says Professor Burns, “that instability was communicated to the children. And at that age, it’s very clear that uncertainty in childhood leads to an increased propensity to experience stress, to inappropriate behaviour, to emotional lability, to being anxious or fearful or aggressive, and so on.

“And these are all factors that can lead to significant behaviour problems, increased risk of suicide, and so on, and increased risk of offending behaviour that ends up in prison.”

This research comes under the title of ACEs – Adverse Childhood Experiences. Informed by the field of epigenetics, ACE reveals that poor nurturing can trigger genetic conditions, which then pass down to subsequent offspring. So how to “break the cycle”, as Burns puts it?

Already in this, we can see where the crossroads between the mortalists and the immortalists becomes dramatic. Many of the same scientific fields are being used, except to entirely different ends.

For example, neuroscience tells Burns that bedtime stories, exuberant play, mindfulness and more confident parenting can actually “stimulate new brain cell growth”. This gives kids extra mental resources to help them reduce whatever self-destructive behaviours they might have inherited.

But for immortalists like Itskov, or Google’s Chief Scientist Ray Kurzweil, neuroscience is the key to extracting conscious minds from their biological bodies altogether. Leave all those irritating, fleshly traces of socio-economic inequality behind. Let’s just exist as pure, computational thought-patterns.

The Netflix series Altered Carbon lays out the consequences of this kind of future. A dystopia where centuries-old “virtual elites” wilfully exchange one perfect body for another, regarding themselves as a different species from the hordes massing below.

So one path of this mortal crossroads heads towards the benefit of the vast majority of humans. In a country like Scotland, that means living stable, purposeful, meaningful lives, under economic and social conditions which support the flourishing of parents and children.

The other path leads to the ultimate inequality – a super-class who are already adopting prospective life-lengtheners (like gene therapies, stem cells, blood transfusions from the young, and other regenerative medicine solutions), in order to maintain their power and assets.

My final thought is that these issues add yet more urgency to the question of an independent Scotland. One which doesn’t just benefit its own people, but also the wider world.

We seem to be in the midst of a minor stramash about indy strategy (tin hats tightly affixed). The worst impact of this might be that it distracts from the kinds of excellence that we should be founding the indy case on. And a great example of this is the multi-disciplinary work of Harry Burns and others, on the deep causes of both illness and wellness.

Scotland was one of the forgers of modernity and the industrial era. Accordingly, we bear all its hidden injuries.

Therefore, we are one of the best placed to plot a way out of, and beyond, that epoch.

It could be a sustainable zero-carbon economy; or communities given the powers to directly shape their conditions; or parents and carers that consciously “break the cycles” of harm from our past. But a better, “second” modernity has always been the possible goal of Scottish independence. We’ve only seen glimmers of it under devolution. Yet it’s there.

Radical life extension may well become readily available, as a gene edit, a popped pill or a downloaded “connectome” (you never know). But better that this possibility emerges in a society where egalitarianism, and maximising the potential of the vast majority, is a deeply rooted assumption, and everyday practice.

We’ll handle those new crossroads when we come to them – hopefully as a progressive, thoughtful, independent nation.

The Immortalist is currently available on BBC iPlayer. Harry Burns’ interview with ABC Radio National is here.