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The future of immortality.

Death is natural, but not everything natural is good. There is a time-honored tendency to erect an altar to nature while simultaneously rebuking human civilization for its ingenuities. We choose to imagine the natural world as a sort of Disney character filled with benevolence and tenderness, and in doing so we evade the more brutal, red-in-tooth-and-claw reality. The scavenging life of the earliest human ancestors who tread the narrow threshold between survival and extinction is forgotten--the winters that drove them into caves, the mortal combat with wooly titans of yesteryear, the young aspirations of a being who could hope for twenty, maybe twenty-five, years of life.

On nature's stage, Homo sapiens seemed destined for barely a speaking role, and so it might have been had we stuck to the script. With no claws, no fur, no poison sacs or natural armor, the naked ape was headed for early and permanent retirement: a dead-end of evolution. Instead, this vulnerable being made use of the only asset that distinguished it from its unforgiving environment: a three-pound organ housed within a delicate skull. And with this tool it enacted a legacy spanning from the first flint knife to the surgeon's scalpel, forever remaking the world to suit its needs. With its meteoric ascension came an increase in longevity.

Today the average health-conscious human being can expect to live seven or eight decades; Kamato Hongo, the oldest living woman, celebrated her 116th birthday in September while the record holder, a French woman, attained 122 years. But the most fascinating development transcends dietary findings or exercise regimens. A new threshold has been reached; a new script stands ready to be written. The first "immortals" are coming.

Brent Jones doesn't exist but one day someone like him most likely will. He wakes up each day with the perspective that tomorrow is forever because he is forever. Yesterday he celebrated his 800th birthday though he looks barely more than thirty. He has lived longer than the entire history of the Roman Empire. Ironically, he may well have seen new empires come and go the way the modern American witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union or the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The biblical character of Methuselah is alleged to have reached the age of 969; Brent has already marked his electronic calendar for a special celebration when he himself reaches this milestone. Perhaps he takes a weekly dose of youth drugs, or maybe his own genes have been permanently engineered to keep him perpetually youthful. Whatever the tool, Brent is the living example of Homo sapiens' most enduring dream: he is an immutable being. Barring a cataclysmic event or horrendous accident (which is the cause of an overwhelming number of deaths), he may never die.

Perhaps someday soon, scientists will learn how to extend the human life span indefinitely. To a growing number of scientists and commentators this is neither wild dreaming nor science fiction. The mechanics of aging and death are being laid bare in laboratories around the world. One of the frontrunners in this field is evolutionary biologist Michael R. Rose of the University of California at Irvine. In 1980 Rose managed to breed "immortal" fruitflies by matching and mating long-lived specimens. While an average fruitfly lives several weeks, Rose possesses flies (albeit only a few survivors) that are still alive from his original experiment twenty-four years ago.

"At very late ages, aging stops and never comes back," he says. "You suddenly hit this point where not only the rate of mortality slows but the increase in mortality stops completely. This discovery was so radical that a lot of people, myself included, didn't believe it."

Of particular interest is that Rose's surviving flies aren't feeble immortals quivering at the bottom of their jar. Instead, their daily metabolic rate is the same as normal flies and their total metabolic rate is far greater. The Holy Grail of this research will be to discover what enzymes are allowing the insects to enjoy these stellar life spans and then find an equivalent dose for human beings.

"I don't think there's an absolute limit on the human life span," Rose said. "The better biotechnology research and development you've got, the longer people will live. I think this is one of the most exciting things in all biology."

It will also be a difficult thing. According to Rose (whose latest book, Methuselah Flies: A Case Study in the Evolution of Aging, was published in April 2004 by World Scientific Publishing Co.), this fountain of youth won't be linked to any one factor but rather to many. "The answer won't be one enzyme. It might be sixty-two enzymes plus DNA treatments. There won't be a single answer. It will owe to many things." When asked about the likelihood of a real-life Brent Jones Rose responds, "I firmly expect that to be achieved despite the U.S. Congress."

And this is just the beginning. As the human genome gets mapped like the surface of a fascinating alien world, attention has fallen on two genes that seem to be managers of the death process. Named Mortality 1 and Mortality 2 these genes appear to be responsible for ordering the body to wither and die.

The Grim Reaper is truly under the microscope.

In the seventeenth century the poet John Donne wrote: "Death shall be no more; death, thou shall die." The eventual human application of Rose's research may fulfill this prophecy. It may bring to life a dream as old as civilization. And its possibility will inspire a debate so thunderous that the abortion and stem cell controversies will pale in comparison.

Time Enough to Last

Aside from our artistry and innovation, humans hold one other trait that no other animal possesses: we know we will eventually die. Knowing this, we've quite naturally been preoccupied with it since the dawn of awareness. It forms the thesis statement for the oldest story known--the adventures of Gilgamesh, the Mesopotamian king who, having lost a friend to the underworld, goes out in search of immortality. Along the way he meets many characters who advise him to turn back from his quest. "Gilgamesh!" one tavern-keeper berates him, "The life you are seeking you cannot find! When the gods created man, they fixed death upon him!" Undeterred, Gilgamesh presses on until, against all odds, he finds the secret of eternal life ... and then loses it. With bitter irony the last chapter in his self-entitled epic is known as "The Death of Gilgamesh."

Death was an obsession for the brilliant Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who devoted much time in his Meditations to proclaiming that "human lives are brief and trivial; yesterday a blob of semen, tomorrow embalming fluid and ash" so much so that it seems the cry of a man trying desperately to convince himself. The great philosopher king only lived fifty-nine years--nineteen as one of the most enlightened rulers of the Roman world. Many of his sentiments echo those of Gilgamesh's detractors: carpe diem, seize the day, for tomorrow we die.

The ancient Egyptians' interest in eternal life is well documented and formed the basis for their mummification rituals. But in China, too, the self-proclaimed First Emperor Ch'in Shi Huangdi was so obsessed with finding immortality that he sent thousands of explorers to seek it out. When their efforts failed, he commissioned a full-body suit of pure jade to be his funeral cerements (jade was believed to have magical powers of rejuvenation.) It was also in China that the philosopher Confucius, mourning the fatal illness of a favorite student, gave a stirring cry to heaven and asked twice, "Why should such a man have to die? It must be destiny!"

Twenty-three centuries later, Confucius' declaration may find an unforeseen answer: "It isn't destiny, master. People do not have to die."

Mortality has been the natural muse for most artists, while science often finds itself the object of suspicion. The scientist is traditionally envisioned as one of the coldhearted intellectuals of Nathaniel Hawthorne's works--a veritable monster who breaks ancient laws by tampering with life itself. Hawthorne was one of many American romantic writers who, eying the birth of the Industrial Age with fear, set the tone for anti-science sentiment. Edgar Alien Poe was quick to snap that science was a prying vulture, and English novelist Mary Shelley, in Frankenstein, provided the single greatest metaphor for the new era: the kilns of the Industrial Revolution becoming a steel womb for monstrous, soulless, immortal creations.

In some ways these fears are justified. The mushroom cloud of Hiroshima was a monster exceeding even Shelly's haunted imagination. Yet as its hellish glow faded we glimpsed the better fruits of scientific progress. We cracked the fundamental code of life and called it DNA, we took raw matter and made computers, and twenty-four years after the horror of Little Boy and Fat Man--roughly the lifespan of our Cromagnon progenitors--we gasped at the marvel of human beings walking on the moon.

Even then, we heard the protests of those who felt we were cheating the natural order. "If God wanted us on the moon," one elderly lady told an interviewer, "he would have put us there!" And naturally, this philosophy ignored the fact that, if humans stayed where they were put, caves would be their houses and mud their beds. The disciples of Gaia forgot that when nature gave us drought we diverted rivers with irrigation; when disease infected our cities we applied medicine; and when winters threatened to freeze our blood we tamed fire like little Prometheuses.

More and more often the word immortality is heard in media and scientific communities alike--and it isn't referring to an afterlife. Yet we still hear the same detractions: "If we were meant to live forever we would have been born that way!"

Our hypothetical Brent Jones, however, will be living in a world where people can be born that way. The real ethical question is not over the act of tampering with nature--we've done that our entire history--but with the ramifications of such penultimate tinkering. Yes, people will say, we can build a race of immortals. But should we? And at what cost?

Time in a Bottle

The first chorus of objections will hail from a familiar source: the crowds of major political parties and religions. Not surprisingly, immortality will make strange bedfellows in every social strata, country, ideology, and faith. The protests will be familiar, paralleling the vociferous objections that were bandied about when it was first suggested that the Earth wasn't flat, that the sun was at the heart of the solar system, that humanity evolved from earlier primates. After all, religion's greatest strength is in providing hope for a life beyond the one we have now. But if science suddenly could give eternal life, then scientists would become the new priests, handing out eternity in pills rather than prayers.

Churches, mosques, synagogues, and shrines won't accept this quietly.

But immortality may still be coming. The desire to retain youth is not a modern impulse. As we've seen it's an ancient one and, given the chance to retain it forever, quite suddenly, Hamlet's "undiscovered country" becomes a place we'd rather not discover at all. Today the cosmetics industry offers an array of makeup, concealers, moisturizers, and other treatments to make wrinkles go away. Is it likely that the consumers who fuel this global market will back off if eternal youth comes in pill form? Certainly no law will dissuade this; if governments ban the fountain of youth it will simply be moved to black market menus.

Not just theologians but secular opponents will raise their voices, too. The fear of overpopulation is the most immediate quandary. With a family already more than six billion strong, a race of immortals would inevitably strain the planet's resources to the breaking point, even if we assume that child bearing--already optional--would become less frequent as women may choose to wait centuries for motherhood. We can't expect to rape the earth dry to support a swelling populace.

What do we do?

Jackie Gleason offered a suggestion in the Honeymooners: "To the moon!"

Interest in the space program has surged in recent months, and the prospect of constructing permanent settlements on the moon and Mars has found its way into the political spotlight. This is hardly new. Just as prehistoric people spread from the fertile crescent into other lands, the gulf of space will be crossed with new caravels and new colonists to settle new worlds.

Should there be a ceiling for human population? Once the biggest city on earth was Gilgamesh's own realm of Uruk, housing 70,000 individuals. Then came Alexandria with a bustling 600,000. Today in New York City there are twenty million people; while the nations of China and India contain one billion each and growing. Historically, we've always expanded to alleviate pressure. In this regard it seems unlikely that the future will be any different.

There's something else to consider as well. If forever pills went on the market tomorrow, not everyone would take them. A great many people are perfectly content to cash in their chips and go forth to whatever fate they believe awaits them--be it pearly gates, Valhalla, or the happy hunting grounds. Even among new immortals there will likely be people who, after a full life of two hundred or two million years, will decide that enough is simply enough. Death may be as optional as hair dye.

General social upheaval is the next and biggest concern. What do you do when a company has an immortal board of directors? Or when you're married to someone for nine centuries and finally become bored with it all? Or when you have a senator who has lingered in the government for five thousand years? The introduction of term limits will be the bare tip of the iceberg to address these concerns. The sanctity of marriage--already a highly-charged political issue--will vanish entirely in a world of ageless beings and instead become something more akin to a business contract, with both parties negotiating a term of service. "Till death do us part" will fade into antiquity.

To be sure, with the possibility of immortality the fabric of society may be stretched and pulled until it breaks and will have to be rewoven. It wouldn't be the first time. History has always been the crucible through which humanity passes, reshapes itself, and emerges. That the future will continue this trait is no surprise.

Even the scientific community could raise hated objections. Immortals, some would argue, could represent an affront to and the end of evolution. Yet this also is nothing new. The brutal sieve of natural selection is something we spite every time we take medicine or buy glasses for nearsighted children. We don't surrender to nature. We fight back.

Not just biological evolution but creative and social evolution as well may be under threat. Will immortal nations enter a state of torpor, devitalized by a lack of ambition and innovation? Will artists find all the muses dead? Or will limitless horizons be seized with new force and passion? Will a poet's lament not be over death but, like the ageless elves in the Lord of the Rings, be over the vastness of eternity?

Happily Ever After?

"There is no such thing as not dying," the philosopher Yang-tsze once told a student. When the student then asked if it was wise to try and extend one's lifespan as much as possible, Yang-tsze replied, "one hundred years is more than enough. Why would I wish to protract the pain of living through a longer life?"

It's a somber but valid point even now. Life isn't always pleasant, even if we subtract the dread of dying from the equation. If eighty years is difficult to cope with, how would Brent Jones handle eight hundred? When he's scrambling to pay bills or succeed in love while the newscasts show him the latest wars, disease, and human cruelty from around the solar system, does there ever reach a point when he decides to cancel his dose of eternity? Or do he and his society crumple into apathy? In Anne Rice's vampire novels, the immortal bloodsuckers have a habit of getting stuck in their old ways of life. The result is a decadent community that never changes. Progress is arrested. Dreams are replaced by stale nostalgia. Could this be our future?

It remains to be seen whether the naked ape who dreamed of forever and stands to harness it will survive, after all. If the doors of this brave new world swing wide, everything will be transformed. On the one hand, we might perish like bacteria in a petri dish. On the other, an undying race might achieve a perennial Golden Age even the most inspired Greek poet dared not imagine. If we reflect on the wonders and experiences that an immortal might have seen for the past five thousand years of civilization, we might be galvanized to see what the next five thousand have on the menu.

Either way, the immortals are most likely coming. "Everything fears time," an Arabic expression goes, "but time fears the pyramids." One day we might add, "and the people who built them." There may be people alive right now who could live to see endless sunrises. Dreaming of this reality for so long, humanity won't back away when the creeping dawn of attainment can already be seen brightening the horizon.

Brian Trent is a professional journalist, essayist and novelist. He lives in Waterbury, CT and can be reached at
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Title Annotation:research into extending human lifespan
Author:Trent, Brian
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:May 1, 2004
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