Jueves 12 de Junio de 2008, Ip nº 233

Becoming immortal
Por Bryan Appleyard

Within a few decades, we might reasonably expect to have extended life to 150 years or more – the first human to live to 1,000 may have already been born. But, does death give meaning to our lives? Where do we go from here?

Developments in a number of scientific disciplines suggest that we may soon be able to increase life expectancies from the 70- to 80-year range already seen in the richest countries to well over 100 and, perhaps, to over 1,000. We shall, in one sense, have made ourselves immortal.

We shall not be immortal in the sense that we cannot die; plainly we could still be killed in a car accident or by a cosmic event such as an asteroid striking the Earth. But we could not be killed by disease or age, our bodies would be immune to infection, dysfunction or the ravages of time. We would be medically immortal.

Some say this will happen quickly within, perhaps, 30 years with the first clear signs that we are on the right track appearing within the next decade. Others think we are at least a century or two away from attaining medical immortality. Some consider it completely unattainable. But the majority of scientists and thinkers in this area now consider life extension and even medical immortality possible and likely.

Not long ago, most would have said it was out of the question, that death at or well before the absolute maximum age of something like 122 was inevitable.

Cancelling the debt

The basis of this shift from unattainable to feasible is not generally understood. It involves a transformation in our conception of human biology and an expansion of our capacity to intervene in its workings that may yet prove to be at least as momentous as the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin or Einstein.

But Copernicus to Einstein is not the only tradition that is at issue here. There are also the traditions that run from Buddha to Mohammed and from Plato to Wittgenstein, the traditions of religion and philosophy.

Our relatively brief lives and our routine proximity to the deaths of ourselves and others are the foundations of everything we have ever thought or believed. Neither religion nor philosophy necessarily promises immortality, but each offers ways of coming to terms with or giving meaning to death and, therefore, life. If death is to be postponed indefinitely, then both religion and philosophy face fundamental crises.

Of course, many other traditions of politics, art, commerce and culture are also at stake. In truth, it is difficult to think of any aspect of human life that would not face similar crises.

What, for example, would be the meaning of the greatest works of the human imagination to a medical immortal? Shakespeare's sonnets may be said to be about the brevity of life and the painful transience of human love and beauty.

But if we lived for 1,000 years or more in a condition of youthful health and vitality the postulated life extension technologies promise to hold us permanently in our late twenties then would we come to see these poems as the curious remnants of an antique world rather than urgent expressions of the deepest truths of our predicament? Would any art of the past survive this revolution with its dignity intact? Would there be any art of the future?

Many may think that, as they suffer from no illusions, fantasies or sensitivities, new life extension technologies are nothing but good news, simple additions to the portfolio of benefits delivered by modern technology. But their worlds are also threatened.

For example, the language of relationships is the vernacular of our contemporary, secular life. What would our precious relationships look like to medical immortals? Love itself would have to be redefined. Romantic love depends for its very meaning on the promise that it will last forever. But 'forever' now means no more than, say, 50 years, the average span, in other words, of the human life from falling in love to death. If falling in love actually meant a commitment for 1,000 or more years, then 'forever' starts to take on a new meaning. Love is suddenly relativised, its significance thrown into doubt.

There remains, of course, love of self and surely in that context life extension must be an unalloyed good. Life extension must mean extension of the self and the cultivation of the self is, alongside relationships, the supreme contemporary preoccupation. But even here there are problems.

How much cultivation of the self can we take? There will only ever be so many gadgets to buy, so many days we can spend at the gym or beauty parlour though these may well be unnecessary activities in the new world order so much sex we can have, so many cars we can drive. Perhaps medically immortal selves will seek alternative spiritual or intellectual diversions as the wealthier mortal selves, disillusioned with getting and spending, already do in increasing numbers.

Maybe these will see us through the long centuries of life. Or maybe none of these things will matter as we shall not be just one self in the future but many.

The supreme challenge of science

The human brain already struggles to cope with the memories of 80 years, what would it do with those of more than 1,000 years? The average 50-year-old can only fleetingly put himself in the mind and imagination of his 10-year-old self, would a 500-year-old even be able to see it as the same self? Perhaps medical immortals will simply have to resign themselves to amnesia, to becoming serial, forgetful selves.

Would medical immortals go to war? Would they form nations? Would they be democrats? Would they go shopping? Would they destroy the environment? The promise of extreme longevity is, according to your temperament, either a threat or a wish that nothing whatsoever will remain the same.

It is the supreme challenge of science. Arguments about the impact of science and technology upon ways of life are tediously familiar. To the church, Galileo threatened orthodoxy; to the romantics, the Industrial Revolution threatened the rural paradise and the authenticity of craft; to the religious, Darwinism threatened the faith; to the pacifist, nuclear power offered only more terrible wars; to the environmentalist, economic growth threatened global destruction; to the conservative, bio technological enhancement threatened a destruction of human nature.

But life extension to the point of medical immortality condenses all these conflicts into a single issue. All the ambivalence we feel about scientific progress is condensed in the question: do we want much longer lives?

Death, I was sure, gave meaning to life, at least the only meaning we could imagine. Like Wittgenstein, I would wonder to what puzzle immortality was the solution. Subsequently, I found that my curiosity began to get the better of this philosophically pure position. Lying on my deathbed, would I refuse the treatment that would take me back to my late twenties and perfect health? This, surely, is the one offer nobody could refuse.

Ultimately, the pursuit of life extension or medical immortality is a continuation of the ancient pursuit of the conquest of death, either by giving it meaning or by survival in this life or some other. It is the scientific version of the oldest human aspiration, which is either to evade oblivion or to embrace it with the consolatory knowledge that one's life has acquired significance.

Shakespeare, as usual, found the single exact word to capture what is at stake here. The word is 'owe'. Feeble in Henry V says 'we owe God a death'. For Feeble, to be born is to be indebted. Our death settles the account. This feels like a profoundly true statement. I shall now try to work out why it is. Or why it isn't.

The pay off

In recent years, a fundamental shift has taken place in our attitudes to the ageing process and to the possibility that human life can be extended, perhaps indefinitely. This is what historians of science call a 'paradigm shift', a basic change of perspective comparable to the revolution in physics brought about by relativity and quantum theory in the early twentieth century or, more appropriately, to the transformation of biology that followed the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859.

This shift has not yet penetrated the lay imagination. The contemporary boosters for immortality are, as a young anthropologist from New York observed to me, pioneers, the advance guard of a revolution which will, if they are right, change human history. Indeed, it will change that history into something post human, into a new and, so they claim, 'higher' order of consciousness. The immortal beings a thousand years hence will look back at us with uncomprehending pity. How could we endure the misery of such brief lives and the chaos and confusion of our unreformed animal natures?

If the immortalists are right, this transformation of the human has already begun. There is now a significant industry consisting of many brilliant and often evangelical individuals, all of them driven by the conviction that the human body can be improved, perhaps perfected.

The rapid growth of biological knowledge since the decoding of DNA in 1953 as well as fundamental conceptual changes about the way we view the human body has led us to a new perspective on our lives and deaths. Ideas are now in the air which promise or threaten to increase human life expectancy significantly.

Is there any limit to this process? The most ardent advocates of life extension say there is not. The body is a machine like any other, they claim, and can be fixed. In the next few decades, we can reasonably expect to extend life expectancies to 150 or beyond. People will be then living long enough to benefit from yet more advances in medical technology that will extend their lives still further.

Ultimately, the forward movement of technology will outstrip our own forward movement through time, and death, the old enemy, will have been vanquished.

As a result of this 'escape velocity' effect, the first human to live a thousand years, it has been said, may have already been born.

This is what has fired the imaginations and enthusiasm of the immortalists. If, they say, such momentous developments really are imminent, then we must get on with not just anti-ageing but also anti death research as quickly as possible. Medical research aims at merely stalling the dying process, it must be about conquering death. Lives are at stake. This is not simply a scientific project, it is a cause, the justice and urgency of which is made evident daily by our own wrinkling skins and aching joints as well as by the death throes of our loved ones.

Materially fortunate but spiritually troubled

There is also a slightly less noble, more specifically contemporary impulse behind all this. The possibility that we are within reach of these technologies has placed a set of those alive today in a tricky and frustrating position. This is the baby boomer set, those born in the years after World War 2. I find myself a member of this materially fortunate but spiritually troubled cohort. In the West, especially in the United States, these people –something stops me saying 'we' – have enjoyed health and prosperity unprecedented in human history.

But now, aged between, say, 45 and 60, they are facing decrepitude. In the 60s, they sang along with The Who 'I hope I die before I get old' but those that survived now find this hope dashed.

"As baby boomers age and their parents die," observe Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang in their book Heaven: A History, "death has become a hot topic. In Europe, and perhaps even more in the United States, there is now a consumer market for products that speak to our fantasies about life after death."

Boomers confront old age and the prospect of the freedoms and luxuries they have enjoyed being snatched from them as death, the great leveller, consigns them to rot in the same earth as less fortunate generations. Yet now, they are told, we may be within two or three decades of the technology that will postpone and may ultimately save them from this fate. So many things have been fixed in the post war era, from polio to computer crashes, why not also death?

But, for the baby boomers, the window of opportunity is both tantalisingly close and frighteningly distant. "A small minority of older boomers," tease Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman, boomers both, in their book Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live For Ever, "will make it past this impending critical threshold. You can be among them."

It is hard not to feel the pressure of such offers, hard not to find oneself considering the purchase of countless dietary supplements and a blood pressure machine.

But, if we can achieve life extension in humans within 30 years, then the boomers will have to wait until they are between seventy five and ninety. They will have first to survive and, secondly, maintain a reasonable degree of bodily health as the technologies may not work on the decrepit. To die a year or a day before the membership lists open, to be among the last to die 'young', would be intolerable.

"That," as one boomer scientist put it to me, "would suck."

Eternity on offer

Since the 70s, wealthy boomers have tended to be fussy about their health, exercising, dieting and taking supplements. But those who know about the possibility of life extension have gone much further.

I have encountered self prescribing doctors using drugs to keep their blood pressures and cholesterol levels at phenomenally low levels, scientists taking up to 250 supplements a day and exercising furiously and, most extreme of all, calorie restrictionists living on only two thirds of the food intake once thought necessary. Not much of a life, you may say, but, on the other hand, if it works as planned then one day they will be able to abandon all these punishing regimes and live it up as they did in the sixties.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. city of Scottsdale, Arizona, I saw the huge Dewars – stainless steel Thermos flasks – in which heads and whole bodies are kept deep-frozen. These are the people who have been frozen on death in the hope that future technology will thaw them out and fix whatever it was that killed them. This is, perhaps, the most literal way of leaping the temporal gap between now and the biologically more adept future.

Eternity is on offer. Well, perhaps not quite, as Austad makes clear: the medically fixed body will still be a physical, destroyable presence in the world. Yet perhaps Austad is overly pessimistic because, with the prospect of effective immortality before them, people might go to greater lengths to avoid fatal accidents. They will have more to lose. He may also be pessimistic because he underestimates just how far the technology can go.

Nanotechnology – engineering at the level of the nanometre or one millionth of a millimetre – could either make our bodies more accident proof or it could reconstruct them. Taken to hospital after a car crash, you would have billions of tiny machines injected into your bloodstream to repair the damage.

On the other hand, 1,200 years may be optimistic because it is just too long. We might grow bored. Friendships, marriages and love might die. Children might come to seem a futile consolation. Memories and feeling would fade. Perhaps, long before the accident, we would choose to pay God back.

Dealing with death

So would immortality either medical or actual be a good or a bad thing? The question is worth asking now not just because of the technology, but also for three other reasons:

* The very fact that the possibility is seriously being considered tells us something about the age in which we live and its aspirations, its ideas, in fact, of heaven.

* Secondly, the desire for some kind of immortality has been a consistent feature of every human society. Our version of that desire is but the latest episode in a long and distinguished but admittedly bloody history.

* Thirdly, death is the issue and that is a particular problem for secular, materially successful societies. As two very percipient writers on the subject – Philippe Aries and Geoffrey Gorer – have shown, our contemporary way of dealing with death is the least adequate in human history. We have invented a new way of dying, surrounded by strangers in hospitals and nursing homes, and fear any reminder of death and decay.

"They clearly no longer had any guidance from ritual," wrote Gorer of his embarrassed friends who turned away from his expressions of grief at the death of his brother, "as to the way to treat a self confessed mourner."

That was in 1965. Today Gorer might have noted how we distance decay even more brutally by mocking the old, the only group that can now be openly and cruelly abused. The jokes seen daily on television at the expense of the old could not be made at the expense of blacks, Jews or Muslims. But we are not afraid of the old in the same way we are of those other groups. We don't fear their wrath, we fear their condition their smell, their wrinkled skin and their sexually undesirable bodies and so we laugh because admitting to our fears would be counter therapeutic.

In a way, the pursuit of medical immortality is just a further extension of this strategy of evasion. Aries ends The Hour of Our Death, his great history of death, by defining two distinctive modern attitudes. The first is denial, the second is that of "a small elite of anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists" who wish to 'humanise' death: "Death must simply become the discreet but dignified exit of a peaceful person from a helpful society that is not torn, not even overly upset by the idea of a biological transition without significance, without pain or suffering and ultimately without fear."

Aries dreamt of secular rituals for a secular Utopia. Fair enough. But, surely, a far more bracingly secular dream is to render all such rituals unnecessary, to banish death, to join the charge of the immortalists against the old foe. This is the third modern attitude that has emerged since Aries published his book in 1977 to deny death not by averting our gaze but by finding the cure.

The price

But what would be the price of that cure, the cost of buying ourselves out of the debt to God? Is it worth paying? It is easy to say no, that it is good that people die to make way for new generations, the love of our own children gives transcendent virtue to such a sentiment. But if, on your deathbed, the offer was seriously made, how would you respond?

Perhaps you would say you did not wish to live on old and decrepit. But, if this new technology works, that will not happen, you will be rejuvenated, returned, ideally, to the condition you were in your late twenties and you would be maintained at that age until killed by an accident or by your own hand or forever. Why not, therefore, take the pill?

After all, as Michael West of the U.S. biotech firm Advanced Cell Technologies put it to me, "We can always die, it's easy to die." Shakespeare's Juliet said much the same: "If all else fail, myself have power to die."

But to understand the full significance of this offer of medical immortality, it is necessary to go back to the basics of the human condition. Every human that has ever lived has lived with the knowledge: I must die. Not just dying but also knowing we must is the defining characteristic of the species. Humans Homo sapiens are animals that know and the thing they know with the most certainty, dread and incredulity is that they must die.

Ancient Greeks called humans 'mortals', partly to distinguish them from immortal gods, but also to distinguish them from the whole of the rest of creation. Animals and plants were thought not to die because they were not individuals. And, beyond the earth, the cosmos persisted in timeless, changeless stasis. All of nature was immortal. Man alone rose up, decayed and died. He was not just a mortal, he was the mortal. "Man," wrote W.B. Yeats, "has created death."

Later generations may have shed those views of animals and the cosmos, but the central human predicament that we must die and know about it remained. Religions sometimes promised a life beyond death and, occasionally, some suggested that not dying at all was a possibility.

But, on the whole, humans, once past childhood, have always lived with the certain knowledge that they must die. They acquire this knowledge because of the spectacle of others not merely dying but also growing old. Nothing can be more certain than death; with every passing year, our bodies provide the evidence.

Pondering death with incredulity

Human civilisation is a response to this knowledge. The moment the ape became introspective, he began to ponder his own extinction with rank incredulity.

Some graves of Neanderthals were decorated with flowers, and Palaeolithic burial mounds were far more enduring than the homes of the living. We do not know exactly what such things meant, but we do know they meant that there was no possibility of mere blank acceptance of extinction.

Later, of course, the marks became less ambiguous. Every temple, shrine, church, monument and memorial testified to a conviction that death was not a complete cessation. Even if the individual was lost, the civilisation continued. Indeed, there has probably never been a book written, music composed or picture painted that does not concern the matter of death and the possibility of some kind of immortality. No human society has ever been indifferent to death and none has ever been able to accept with any kind of equanimity the apparently obvious meaning of the word: the total extinction of the individual.

Self consciousness thus seems to be a trap. It makes a world that seems external to itself. Yet that world, the world as seen by the seer, is destined to vanish utterly. We cannot even console ourselves with the thought that it continues for others because the world I see is the world defined by my self consciousness alone. It dies with me. The idea is beyond belief.

This incredulity even survives the sight of the death of others. As Tolstoy observed in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, "the mere fact of the death of an intimate associate aroused, as is usual, in all who heard of it, a complacent feeling that it is he who is dead, and not I."

What is extraordinary is the fact that the complacency is real and the advice is necessary when death is so obviously all around us. We need these constant reminders because our incredulity at the possibility of our own death makes our capacity for denial limitless. But denial is not just a matter of egotism, blind faith or the inability to face reality, it is logically consistent.

Sigmund Freud observed that, fundamentally, no man believes in his own death. It is not a thing in his world.

An absolute impossibility dominates our lives the replacement of this something by nothing. What could nothing possibly be? In fact, nothing, the abyss, is really only a concept of the modern era. Until recently, our incredulity succeeded in defeating our reason and insisted on establishing something that was not nothing. Nothing did not exist in the past; there was, instead, the vast panoply of meanings and monuments.

Spanish American philosopher George Santayana made the point more elegantly: "Confidence in living forever is anterior to the discovery that all men are mortal and to the discovery that the thinker himself is a man. These discoveries flatly contradict that confidence, in the form in which it originally presents itself, and all doctrines of immortality which adult philosophy can entertain are more or less subterfuges and after thoughts by which the observed fact of mortality and the native inconceivability of death are more or less clumsily reconciled."

Everybody dies, therefore I must die. This being inconceivable, we invent immortality and these inventions are civilisation.

But science threatened these inventions by describing a physical universe that not only had no need of God but also had no need of us. We flickered into and out of existence with the same empty brevity as a shooting star. Science drew our attention to what seemed to be the undeniable facts of the case.

"You're born, it's a great ride and you die. That's it," as James Larrick, doctor and micro biological entrepreneur, put it to me. Or, more accurately for most people, life is hard, then you die.

Abolising death

Now, however, science is saying these may not be the facts of the case. Death may no longer be the one clear fact of life. It can be postponed indefinitely, maybe even abolished. What happens then to people who have defined themselves by death?

Probably they cease to be human. Some, like Francis Fukuyama and Leon Kass, are appalled by the prospect of abandoning our humanity. Others, like the thinkers in the World Transhumanist Association, welcome the idea. What, they ask, is so great about being human, being driven mad by dreams made impossible by the dying animal to which we are tethered? Nature, as Ray Kurzweil observes, is 'dramatically suboptimal' so why not just fix the human condition? It is hard to argue when our paradoxical civilisation is built not just upon death but also upon the sustenance of life.

"All the scriptures are pretty clear," said Aubrey de Grey, one of the leading scientists in this area, "hastening death is deprecated and, if something is killing people, we are more or less instructed to do something about it."

"In any consistent program of meliorism," wrote immortality historian Gerald Gruman, "the prolongation of life must have a significant place…"

To the meliorists I have met, the word 'significant' does not do justice to their commitment to the simple cause of not dying. In their eyes, the prolongation of life has become the only serious project for our species. The immortalists are looking for the big pay off, not the settling of the account with God, but the revelation that we owe him nothing and we never did. All deals are off.

That we now face a rapid and fundamental transformation of the world through science and technology, I do not doubt. This transformation may be unambiguously catastrophic, involving either environmental collapse or the destruction of our civilisation through the use of our advanced weaponry. Or it may be ambiguous, involving technologies of human life extension and/or transformation through biology or computer science. Either way, something has started to happen.


There is one ingenious calculation of how long such a person would live. The gerontologist Steven Austad studied death rates among children of about eleven, the age at which people are least likely to die since they have survived the perils of childhood and have yet to suffer the deteriorations of age. They are rather like medical immortals in that they are most likely to die as a result of an accident. The death rates of eleven year olds should, therefore, be comparable to those of immortals. Using death rates in eleven year olds, Austad calculated that a medical immortal would have a life expectancy of 1,200 years. Austadhas also bet US$500 million that somebody living in 2001 will still be alive and sentient in 2150; it is a wager he says he is 'feeling very good about'.

  03/06/2008. Cosmos Magazine.


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