Who Wants To Live Forever?
When I was 5 years old I watched the space shuttle Challenger disintegrate over Cape Canaveral. Subsequent investigation into the cause of this tragedy found that it had occurred due to a vast number of factors, but was ultimately blamed on a broken o-ring that had fallen bellow recommended temperature limits before launch. This, combined with a perfect storm of circumstances aligning against them, resulted in the loss of all seven astronauts. Broadcasting the launch live in schools was supposed to be showing the first teacher put into outer space, but instead exposed thousands of children to the horrifying reality of terrifying, inevitable, and catastrophic death. Parents attempt to shelter their children from such tragedy, but people simply couldn't know how complete and vivid a disaster could be.
I remember lying awake at nights, for a number of weeks, at the age of 5. Knowing I would die. I did not like a single thing about death and I tried to think of a way out of it. I grappled with the grim inevitability of ending up in a box, underground, forever. Finally I invented a solution that would let me sleep. I believed that one day in the unknown future, it would be a vaccination. Like all vaccines, it would probably hurt. It would probably be a large needle or one of those ominous looking small pox guns. It would be filled with what we need to survive forever. Medical science is not there yet, but it is neither science fiction. There are researchers working on perfecting this simple but miraculous idea: inoculation against death. But before we examine the contemporary research devoted towards ending biological death, we must ask the question that has plagued us since the dawn of time. We will let this question drive us forward, as we explore the complexities in a scientific, cultural, and historical context.
Why can’t we live forever? The Oxford English dictionary says immortality is eternal life or the ability to live forever. It is a concept that has been explored and researched as outright fiction, myth, religion, and science. The very concept behind an immortal soul is what drives the daily lives of billions of people, but it is also a very tangible and foundational goal. Indeed, the whole of medicine could be said to be fighting a perpetual and losing battle against mortality. A war of attrition that always ends the same, but does need to? As we understand more about the complex nature of human genetics, what becomes clear is that mortality is merely a matter of cellular decay, and that eventually we might control this decay. In the future, tools may allow us to mitigate the effects of aging to ensure that natural death is eliminated from the other millions of ways we otherwise perish every day. Fiction or reality, it is the centerpiece of many cultural systems, and can be researched perhaps most interestingly from the standpoint of those individuals who single themselves out in history as seeking immortality.
One of the most powerful stakeholders in this issue has always been the religious figures that have presented themselves at all points throughout history, promising eternal life for either the body, or soul. The Egyptian pyramids were believed to be devices that facilitated eternal communion between a divine ruler and the Gods. Research now points to a more communal belief system that included a place in the afterlife for the thousands of workers who toiled in completing these wonders. In writing, The Egyptian Book of the Dead can be thought of as a complex formula for immortality. Another religious example of foundational immortality is Jesus of Nazareth. Believed by many as reality, Jesus claimed absolute control over life and death. Indeed, it was his personal ability to overcome death that is argued as the ultimate proof of his divinity. All writing, from faith based to fiction, from ancient history to present, has had a singular fascination with the subject of immortality.
The tale of Gilgamesh, thought by many to be the first piece of written fiction, is about a king striving for immortality. More contemporary examples are Mary Shelly’s, Frankenstein, Brahm Stoker’s Dracula, Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Grey and Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. There are also mystics standing at the border of literature and faith, like Aleister Crowley and L. Ron Hubbard, figures that have not only shaped literature by exploring immortality, but also created and influenced entire religions.
Another stakeholder taking a different approach to immortality was Genghis Khan. His long term strategy for longevity, and as a result of his conquests, 200,000 of the 2,000,000 Mongolians in the world can trace their lineage to him. On a genetic level the great Khan lives on in a more intangible way. In another example, Stalin hired a Ukrainian pathophysiologist, Alexander A. Bogomolets, to research a means of extending his life. Bogomolets published his findings before dying at the age of 65. This apparently angered and depressed Stalin a great deal. It is also a cautionary tale to researchers to take frequent breaks and get some sun.
To bring this historical context forward, a modern stakeholder in longevity is Kim Jong Un. His father, Kim Jong Il, funded an entire research department to invest in extending his life to 100. In their online article, CNN contributor Paula Hanckocks details this difficult task in a nation whose average lifespan is 64. This average is typically a full decade younger than their southern Korean counterparts, and 36 years short of their stated goal. Their efforts failed to reach that goal for Il, but according to those within the program, his preferred method of rejuvenation was to receive “…blood transfusions from citizens in their twenties.” These young people were carefully selected and fed nutritious and fortifying foods before the transfusions to ensure maximum effect. A modern vampire dictator, more frightening by far than fictional counterparts. After all, Dracula didn’t have access to either daylight, or nuclear weapons.
These examples range from the cautionary to the extraordinary, but emphasize how important the subject has remained to our human experience. People deal with their mortality different ways. For some, there is a passive acceptance that sane individuals must embrace, understanding that eventually, no matter what, we will die. Everyone dies. All that lives, must die. Everyone who has ever and will ever be will eventually not be. It is something we shake hands with, and move beyond, or ignore entirely, wrapped in the bliss of ignorance.
In the modern age, however, it is also know that medical science has used technology to vastly increase the average life span. The cruelest and most devastating diseases of past centuries have fallen to the efforts of medical experts, using vaccination, education, and research to extend the lives of billions. One theorized panacea of medical science has been lab grown replacement organs, cultivated from host tissue. It has been the dream that has always remained just out of reach. Through science we can make mice glow, clone them, grow ears on them, make them transparent, but we cannot make them immortal. Yet. One of the most promising experiments actually has to do with something incredibly disturbing, the breeding of headless mice.
In 1996 William Shawlot and Richard Behringer of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston created 125 headless mice by “knocking out a gene” in embryos. Only four of them survived to birth, and with no nostrils or mouth to breathe through, nor a brain, for that matter, they died immediately. Alone, this experiment may seem sad and cruel, until I tell you about Dr. Sergio Canavero, a member of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group. What a neuromodulation group does sounds complicated, but it isn’t. Head transplants. The barrier to feasibility has always been the reconnection of spinal tissue. Scientists have been putting heads on things that don’t belong as far back as 1908, in the case of Charles Guthrie, who fused multiple dog heads to single body.
Dr. Canavero cites the more recent 1970 experiments of Robert White, who successfully transplanted the head of one rhesus monkey onto the body of another. The problem is that we cannot reconnect spinal cords. It is the same reason that paraplegia and quadriplegia are almost always permanent conditions. Canavero maintains previous barriers to spinal cord fusion can be overcome with a $13,000,000 procedure, and that the ability to cut with next generation of blades and methods can bridge the gap. The bioethics of such a procedure are extremely controversial. The moral inequality of near-immortality for a select few super rich individuals, and short, painful lives for most.
Theoretically, future relationships could involve consenting couples purchasing and bringing to term cloned, headless babies. Artificial wombs could then play host to the body. Vitamin D exposure and electrodes could build muscles in incubation, and a successful head transplant means that you, at whatever age, return to youth. The cycle of building new bodies continues, locking in a predictable and controlled population. Flying car accidents and suicide are our fears, the barriers of natural death defeated. This theory could be considered amoral by many, insanity to others, but it is within the realm of possibility within our lifetimes.
Rather than a grim future populated with headless babies being born and placed in a tube to grow, medicine has also focused their efforts on the root cause of death: the end of cellular mitosis. We are made up of about 37.2 trillion cells, and every time they die, the very end of our genetic codes fall off the end in structures called telomeres. When too many telomeres fall away, a cell can no longer remember how to replicate, and the end result is aging and death. What science tells us, as a hopeful counterpoint, is that there are species that are free of these set genetic rules. Biologists chose immortal to designate cells that are not limited by the Hayflick limit, the point at which cells no longer divide because of DNA damage or shortened telomeres.
There are certain species that can break this limit, either by returning to a younger stage, in the form of the “immortal jellyfish”, Turritopsis dohrnii or more practically bacteria, which replicate through the process of binary fission, and outnumber the number of human cells in your body at any given time. Either example could provide a crucial key to cellular immortality. If we can end senescence, biological aging, through chemistry, then everyone could live forever. An example of this research is the Spanish National Cancer Center in Madrid. There, they tested the hypothesis that by increasing telomerase, a naturally forming enzyme that helps maintain the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes, one could prevent cells from dying. It was found that those mice which were genetically engineered to produce ten times the normal levels of telomerase lived 50% longer than the control group. Though not immortality, how would another 50 years of functional existence in the middle of your life sound? Another example of research, and source of telomerase, are embryonic stem cells. Scientists are also learning how to self produce stem cells, which carry with them the possibility of perpetual bodily regeneration.
We’ve seen how extraordinary individuals and medical science have worked together to investigate and explore the limits of human longevity, in fiction, and in reality. But a more important stakeholder to consider in this discussion is the planet. Scientists have claimed that the planet may be able to support up to 10 billion people, but present unsustainable global policies show how we struggle to equitably provide for 7 billion. We are currently using resources at a planetary deficit, burdening future generations with our waste and depleted biomes. Moreover, those resources we do extract are wasted by virtue of inefficiencies in the systems to which they belong. Natural gas, for instance, which can be used for home heating and cooking, is burned off of oil wells as an unwanted byproduct, while we inject vast quantities of un-researched chemicals into watersheds to harvest this self-same gas.
What of the future generations, which will be forced to live with the byproducts of our consumption? What of their claim on the future, and how would our living exponentially longer lives impact their resources? Furthermore, who are we, in the first world, to claim hold of longevity through mass prescription, when there are others on our planet who struggle merely for clean water and safety? These are huge moral questions that cannot be answered here, but what is clear is that a sustainable solution for resource consumption must exist if we are to be able to survive and progress.
The Global Footprint Network provides research about how we consume planetary resources at a future deficit. Currently, we are consuming 1.5 planet’s worth of resources, and the trend is continuing upward. At this rate, our planet will be diminished below carrying capacity, and science has show how this often results with population collapse. Already the impacts of the largest extinction event since our last ice age is beginning to be seen, in our fisheries, our endangered biomes, and in our continued depletion of dwindling freshwater reserves. It begs the question of how we expect to provide for a further 3 billion people? The World Heath Organization extensively monitors the quantity and reason for deaths around the globe. Between 2000 and 2012, a top ten list was compiled of the top causes of death. The top five are as follows:
1. Ischaemic heart disease 7.4 million
2. Stroke 6.7 million
3. COPD 3.1 million
4. Lower respiratory infection 3.1 million
5. Tracheabronchus cancers 1.6 million
As we can clearly see, most of the top killers are disease. Suppose that tomorrow an “immortality pill” was developed and distributed all across the world. Further suppose that, in the most extreme cases of medical distress, a person could be given an entirely new body. This could potentially cure disease and death. This assumes then, that 7 billion people would stay at their age forever, and only die by unnatural causes, and that these people would want to have families, who themselves would benefit from the latest in longevity technology.
To stop natural death, through whatever means, would be to anthropogenically skew development of our planet off of any known or speculated charts. We have already, through our carbon emissions, changed our climate system to something that has not been monitored in 400,000 years of ice cores. The planet has never had a carbon dioxide content of 400 parts per million before we put it there. This number is meaningless without understanding that it represents a parallel line of progression with global warming.
What global warming portends is nothing short of global catastrophe. If the Greenland ice mass melts, for instance, it means entire nations are submerged under water. As a call to action and plea for attention the Maldives government called a summit underwater, using scuba tanks to express how utterly destroyed their entire nation will be, all resting only 2 meters above sea level, in the face of impending climate change. Yet nothing changes. Global emissions are escalating, not diminishing, despite great strides among the commercial sector to transition over to wind and solar based power solutions. A burgeoning and finite fossil fuel industry has no sustainable solution to the massive impacts of CO2, and Mercury emissions from petroleum use. Electric cars are financially unavailable for the vast majority of the population, and overall, things look grim. We are without reliable solutions to unsustainable population growth. The stakeholder here is not only all of us on the planet, but all of our children, and theirs.
What we consider in our line of questioning is nothing less than if and how humanity will survive in harmony with the only planet we have. My concern, like those of so many, is whether the impossible dream of eternal life can be achieved sustainably, ethically, and equally. On the surface, the question of who wants to live forever seems simple to answer. Everyone wants to live forever, but it has always been impossible. I believe that there is no impossible, merely improbable, and that along a long enough timeline, the improbable is inevitable. I truly believe that one day science will allows us to remain earthbound and healthy for as many days as we want. A more important and compelling question is, should we live forever? Do we deserve to? Or have we become so divorced from nature that these questions are meaningless?
What is known is that those that live longer, healthier lives are able to do more with those lives. More important than any individual, those that live longer have more time to pass their knowledge to the subsequent generation that, so armed, rides on the shoulders of giants. By doing so, humanity can reach for the pinnacles of achievement. To the very stars themselves. Looking at the milestones of human progress, I believe that the timeline will have entries I may never live to see, but that some day it will see an end to disease and death. What this could mean is beyond measure.
In closing, and as a warning to the future, we must beware for dictators and despots who would distort and pervert science towards inequitable and unnatural ends. The direction of research towards individuals, and not humanity as a whole, betrays the fundamental notions of equality and justice. In Mary Shelly’s immortal work, Dr. Frankenstein was hunted, hated, and killed by his creation. Shelly’s fiction cautions our reality against monsters that live and rule among us, blind to the anguish of so many who long for an end to suffering and death. We wait for that cure with optimism and impatience. Some of the greatest people I know are living.
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