An Argument For Immortality.
I have had more exposure to death than most people. This is largely because of my six years in service to a funeral home. Though not a professional mortician, I acted as an assistant to a funeral director, friend, and colleague. I did so because I thought that I would be good at it, and I was. This work taught me many valuable lessons, but two things became very clear, life is short, and life is weird. Everything that I could explain to you, about what I hope to achieve through my life, and work, should be accepted in concert with these dual truths. If I could show you these dead, and tell you their stories, then you would understand why so much of what I do can seem meaningless. What I hope to achieve, through my work, is to explain it in cogent terms. The depth, and beauty, and wonder of every minute we are alive, and interacting, and making a stand against the chaos all around us. What I believe, and what I hope to prove in this essay is that one day science and medicine will achieve their ultimate goals and defeat both disease, and death. One day, perhaps even in our lifetimes, science will unlock the mystery of our genetic code, and alter it to end biological death, while medicine works to repair virtually any injury the body can sustain.
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 eliminate this decay. In the future, tools will 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. Medical science has already used knowledge and 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 example of longevity research is the leap forward that transplant technology has taken. As recently as November of this year, Will Lautzenheiser, a 40 year old quadruple amputee, received a double arm transplant. The previous year, a similarly disabled veteran of the Iraq war received a dual transplant. On July 30th of 2013, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston grew a human-like ear from animal tissue. We stand at the door of being able to replace organs and limbs, but why stop there? One of the most important developments medical science has worked towards is lab grown replacement organs, cultivated from host tissue. It has been the dream that has always remained just out of reach. Yet we are on the cusp of achieving nearly regenerative effects. With the exponential advancement and social penetration of 3-D printing, the very real possibility of printing out a new liver, or kidney, seeded and built with your own tissue, is both a fantastic prospect, and a seeming inevitability.
Another emerging development at medicine’s disposal is nano-technology. By reducing the size of computers and servos, doctors may soon have the ability to navigate and repair the human body from within. Standing at the forefront of this science is Google. According to the Wall Street Journal, the company that archives and manages the world’s information is creating
“…tiny magnetic particles to patrol the human body for signs of cancer and other diseases…”
Through all of this experimentation, the unsung hero is the mouse. 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 is also one of the most disturbing, the breeding of headless mice. In 1996 William Shawlot and Richard Behringer of the University of Texas M.D. 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 head transplant 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 monkey onto the body of another. The problem has always been 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 successful spinal cord fusion can be overcome with a $13,000,000 procedure. He cites the ability to cut with next generation of precision blades, sharper than anything before them, and surgical methods which can bridge the gap. Beyond the bioethics of such a procedure, which are obviously extremely controversial, take a moment and consider getting a head transplant? Getting in a traffic accident, falling unconscious, and waking up on a different body. Or what if I just want a new body? Perhaps a woman’s, this time?
The larger implications of this possibility are staggering. Imagine cloned bodies, held in relative stasis, awaiting heads from ailing individuals. Potentially, victims of terrible destruction, quadruple amputees, for instance, could be given a second chance at a functional life. Burn victims, those crushed by trains, untold, catastrophic trauma that before was a certain death sentence is now within the parameters of control within medical science. Even those shot in the head are not beyond saving, any more. Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai stands as a testament to the power of medical science being stronger than a Taliban bullet.
Moving towards the surreal, theoretical 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 would be our fears, with the conventional barriers of natural death defeated. This thought experiment could be considered amoral by many, insanity to others, but whatever moral qualms exist around it, 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 divide, 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 result is aging and eventual death. What science tells us, as a hopeful counterpoint, is that there are species that are free of these set genetic rules. Biologists choose 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 break this limit, either by returning to a younger stage, in the form of the “immortal jellyfish”, or more practically, bacteria. Bacteria outnumber human cells in your body at any given time, and they replicate without genetic information loss through the process of binary fission. Either example could provide a crucial key to cellular immortality. If we can end senescence, biological aging, through chemistry, then everyone could live indefinitely.
An example of this research is the Spanish National Cancer Centre 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 immortal, how would another 50 years of functional existence in the middle of your life sound? Another example of game changing longevity research is embryonic stem cell science, which seeks to find an infinite source of telomerase within our own cells. Scientists are also learning how to self produce stem cells, which carry with them the possibility of creating any cell, and thus believed to be the lynchpin to perpetual bodily regeneration.
Society is working towards a day when we can live indefinitely. Live for as long as we want to, beyond the fears of inevitable death. Unique to our species, our lives would have the individual and communal longevity to research the most difficult of problems, and build the most magnificent of things. If nature has given us 100 years, what could we do with 1,000? What sort of beings would we be, at that level of existence? What knowledge could be gained with such an amount of time to experience, and learn, and develop? If Shakespeare had been given 104 years, instead of his 52, what works might he have created?
What would you do? With 1,000 years of life? Would you risk it, traveling the most dangerous places you could? As advanced as medical science is, there will never be a way to return to life from tiger poop. There is no immortality, no matter what anyone may tell you. You could drown at sea, or be lost in space. The chaos of the universe will always find a way to put an end to us, but I believe it is within our grasp to transcend the borders of nature, as we have done so often in the past. I believe that brave, sometimes strange researchers, have pioneered us here, into the strange unknown because they had a vision. Head transplants or cellular regenerative medicine, nano-robotic repair cyborgs or tube grown uni-humans, the road to immortality stands before us as real as it has ever been. Now it is to us to take it.
The caution and counter-argument is whether we deserve such a gift? If such a thing could or would ever be shared equally and fairly? In the future of longevity research, everyone should be allowed a place at the fountain of youth, not just the elite of our society. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, a balance must be achieved with the planet, before such an endeavor could come to fruition. We are burdening future generations with diminished biomes that are the result of unsustainable development practices. We are extracting reserves of energy created over millions of years, and consumed within two hundred. At 7,000,000,000 people we cannot seem to find the room to live, and strive for happiness without running into others who seek to stop us. Behead us, or enslave us, or otherwise distract us from our simple goals of happiness and peace. Maybe, if endless, life would finally have the value that it never has been entitled to. As a life should be valued, like a piece of priceless art, or test aircraft. As it is, life is cheap, and short, and weird, and it is to us to change it for the better. The rest is waiting on science, and keeping our eyes on the prize of global peace and prosperity in our lifetime.
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