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immortality

The Quest for Immortality: Would You Want to Live Forever?

A big part of our culture, the global culture that is, lies in the process of aging, of growing old.  It’s difficult to edify, just how much of our lives are dedicated to understanding, worrying about, coping with and trying to defeat the aging process.  The sands of time, as they say, never stop flowing.  And far be it for me to start a discussion on the direction and essence of time.  No, I’ve something much more complicated to talk about today.

Senescence.

No, that’s not some new anti-ageing cream.  That’s the very contrived and scientific word for growing old.  More specifically it describes the gradual biological deterioration of cellular function, which in most living things means that after maturation, the entity in question experiences increased mortality in step with the passage of time.

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It is senescence that causes your wrinkles and grey hairs and your stubborn spare tire, indirectly that is.  It is the unavoidable process that allows the direct causes of those maladies to come about.  And it is that unavoidable process that some people wish to…avoid.

Since the beginning of time, it seems, mankind has sought the key to immortality.  Whether that be through the fountain of youth – one of Sir Isaac Newton’s favourite musings – or, more recently, through the efforts of the transhumanist society, who see things in a slight bit more realistic terms, but we’ll get to that.

Senescence doesn’t apply to all living creatures though, amazingly enough.  There are certain taxa, mostly plants, but some animals as well, who do not suffer from an increased mortality as they age.  In fact there are some forms of life that undergo a defined decrease in mortality the older they get.  These rare creatures, as they mature from whatever prepubescent or larval form they initially hold, retain the ability to revert back into a pre-mature state of being, which by-passes the process of senescence altogether.

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Some species of crab and lobster have this ability, as do a few others in the genus arthropoda, and there are several species of tree, fungus and shrubbery that exhibit an impressive resistance to time’s assault.

The reason for this highly coveted ability isn’t well understood.  In fact, the reason for the reason for this ability is something of a mystery too.  How it works, senescence that is – or biogerontology, if you prefer – is somewhat understood, in that there are many highly complex and hotly debated theories of senescence on the books at the moment, from Gene Regulation Theory to Chemical and/or DNA Damage theories.  It’s generally accepted that there is something inherent to biology that affects the efficiency of cellular replication throughout the lifecycle of any creature, it’s just, what that something is, isn’t readily agreed upon.

Here’s where it gets really interesting.

Medical science has studied this process and its attendant features for decades, in pursuit of both cosmetic cure-alls and more humane means of improving the length and quality of life.  Human life that is.  Some have taken that effort up as a sort of mantra, and have labelled their cause transhumanism.  That is, whatever your preconceived understanding of the term may be, a concerted effort to defeat the sands of time and the effect they have on the human body.  In short, they – transhumanists that is – wish to find a way to achieve immortality.

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That’s a loaded word though, among a loaded sentence for that matter.  We aren’t talking about the science fiction, romanticised notion of immortality.  We aren’t talking about the Q from Star Trek, much as they might appreciate the sentiment.  We’re talking about extending the lifespan of humans to an indefinite degree, through various technological and scientific means.

Quite often the goals of transhumanism are thought of in terms of cybernetics, a merging of technology and biology in an effort to find some permanence of life, though there are other means on the table.  A new documentary film making rounds through the film festival circuit, The Immortalists, chronicles the quest of two transhumanist advocates and scientists as they seek out answers to the problem of senescence and ways to achieve immortality.

These men, William H. Andrews and Aubrey de Grey, whom are showcased in the film, approach the problem from drastically different positions.  Andrews has studied biological methods of achieving a similar reversing of increased mortality, in much the same way as the species mentioned above.  He believes that an artificial extension of telomeres in our DNA are the answer.

In the simplest terms, telomeres, which are the caps on the ends of DNA strands, appear to shorten as we age.  Some researchers believe there is a direct correlation between this telomere shortening and senescence, and it follows, at least according to Andrews, that halting and/or reversing this shortening process will inherently alter or stop the aging process.  He is currently seeking means to develop chemical medications that will reinforce telomeres, in effect making the patient immortal, of a fashion.

De Grey however, is taking a more space-age approach to the issue.  He is calling for funding to further his research into medical nanotechnology.  More specifically, he believes the answer is to develop and deploy microrobots that will work in the patient’s blood stream to repair and even replace damaged or aged cells, effectively, though artificially, sidestepping the aging process.

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This research is already being done, but not for the purpose of achieving immortality.  Several scientists at various universities and even pharmaceutical companies are attempting to use nanotechnology to combat cancer and even AIDS/HIV.  It seems a natural extension of the research, and de Grey is appealing to the interests of Silicon Valley elites in an attempt to fund his research with specific transhumanist goals in mind.

In keeping with the title of this post, however…would you want to live forever?

Notwithstanding the fear we all have regarding death, are there valid reasons to want to extend the human lifespan to such artificially great heights?

There are certainly lots of reasons why we shouldn’t do this.  Overpopulation is already an incredibly huge problem, do we really want to exacerbate that by eliminating the one part of life that mitigates our impact on this planet?  (Death, I mean.)  There’s also the issue of quality of life.  Whether poverty, war, strife, or mental illness are symptoms of the overpopulation issue or not, they will certainly not be solved by prolonging the suffering of people over centuries, or even millennia.  An eternity in squalor isn’t exactly an attractive idea, but this gives way to another issue, one you may not have considered yourself.

Who would be given the privilege of eternal life?  Would this be a luxury afforded only to the elites of our society?  If history is any indication, the answer to that question is a resounding yes, but what effect would that have on the already egregious divide between the so-called social classes?  Would we end up with a ruling class of immortals, lording over a lower class of slaves?  This line of reasoning becomes frightening fairly quickly, and though I’m not given to fear mongering, I can’t help but see this as a likely outcome.

Transhumanism is, or is supposed to be, a movement of equality.  It’s supposed to be the pursuit of immortality for the benefit of all mankind, but, and even now, the movement is slowly becoming something of a shadow of the earlier notion of eugenics.  Some have said that eugenics was a pragmatic effort to shore up the genetic potential of humanity in the face of what, at the time, was perceived as genetic flaws in our population.  The real flaw, however, was always in thinking that those who are different are somehow less worthy of survival.  This same flaw seems to be present in certain aspects of transhumanism.

It is said that this is an exciting time to be alive, and I couldn’t agree more.  I’m not sure, though, that we’ve overcome the baser inequalities that are inherent to our species, and until we do, efforts such as the quest for immortality will always be marred by the pursuit of power and money and flawed ideology.  We seem to be headed in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go.

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  • Podwinkle

    Beautiful article Martin…I think one of the big problems transhumanists have is directly rooted in their name. The “trans” prefix seems to immediately set people’s jaws and raise their hairs… maybe “evohumanists” would set a kinder, gentler tone to the debate…

  • http://dailygrail.com/ Red Pill Junkie

    Great insights into an issue I’ve been devoting what little gray matter Nature endowed me with.

    On the one hand I completely agree with your suspicion that the transhumanist ideal could severely widen the gap between the have & the have nots. Which is why you can find a lot of transhumanist advocates among the same people making it to the Forbes list.

    But on the other, I wonder if I’m not reacting the same way some Christian fundamentalists did with regards to blood transfusions or heart transplants, who viewed those medical advances as an abomination & affront to God’s ‘divine plan’.

    Having said that, one of the things I would like to see discussed more, is the differences between transhumanism, and I what I –and maybe others– choose to call transindividualism: using technology to transcend the limits of not only senescence, about also egoistic individuality. Something I touched upon on this little essay <——shameless plugin :P

    Readers will notice I chose a scene from The Fountain for the banner of my essay, which IMO kind of mixes the immortalists goals, with a final acceptance of ego death as the natural way in which the Universe flows.

    I mean, we're all here right now because a star died billions of years ago. What makes us think we're more special than a star? ;)

  • mathrock

    This and also Ted Chu on Mar 22 2014 on coast to coast always reminds me of the silver samurai from “the wolverine” movie, and that scenario with the old man trying to regain his youth and causing trouble because of it doesn’t seem very unlikey in the future if we progress with this quest for immortality. Does anyone know what i’m talking about?

  • http://dailygrail.com/ Red Pill Junkie

    I do. The old man, who seems very wise at the beginning of the movie, turns into a selfish brat by the end.

    Then again, I’m sure that many Transhumanists would counter-argue by stating how much we would have benefited if Einstein had lived a couple more decades… or centuries.

    Such a tragic sentence to poor Al… seeing all your friends grow old & die, while he has to carry the burden of immortality so we can reap the fruits of his genius… hmmm, there’s a sci-fi novel there!

  • Zeno

    Transhumanism in no way views biological humans as less-worthy of survival, and to say so is to fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of transhumanism. The purpose is exactly the opposite of what you propose, it is that every person deserves to live as long as they want. The movement to end senescence in no way says that anyone is less worthy of survival; how could a movement whose goal is to end aging-related death be in any way promoting the idea that some people are LESS worthy of survival? This makes no sense.

  • Zeno

    I am sick and tired of movies portraying people who are reaching the end of their natural lifespans yet don’t want to die as villains. The common mentality of movies is that, once you reach a certain point of your life, you essentially deserve to die. “Oh he had a good run,” makes me cringe every time I hear it, because it treats death as something colloquial and lighthearted, when it is nothing less than the termination of a consciousness’ existence.

    From Star Trek, to Wolverine, to various sci-fi films in between, achieving immortality is seen as some sort of evil that only greedy, selfish humans who have a sense of self-preservation would ever attempt. Ironically, every time someone is portrayed as seeking immortality, they are shown as being forced to take away something from someone else. This is creating a culture that is centered around the idea that anyone looking for immortality is selfish, and won’t just die once they reach “their time”.

    It is cruel to suggest that someone should die for any reason, regardless of what that is. Movies are trying to show that achieving the end of senescence is only for immature people who can’t come to terms with death. Death is not something to come to terms with; that is a submissive position which accepts the termination of human existence as an acceptable part of human existence. It is an arbitrary position that upholds a status-quo of destruction. It is the equivalent of watching someone drown, and accepting it, because in this sick universe, everyone has to “drown”, and so people rationalize it in their minds. They even come to view it as evil to try to save ourselves from the water.

    I refuse to drown. I vow my best to save others from the water, at least those who want it. I vow to do this, regardless of everyone around me who swears that it’s “natural to drown, and everyone drowns, and we all have to drown one day,” because that’s simply not true.

  • http://www.paranormalpeopleonline.com/ Martin J. Clemens

    You seem to have stopped reading half-way through. You at least missed where I said that ‘Transhumanism is, or is supposed to be, a movement of equality.” The entire point of this post is the highlight the FACT that our society is both founded on and is prone to accentuate the divide in social classes. If you think for one second that those without the financial means to contribute to the development of overcoming scenescence will be afforded the same access to the result, then you are naive.

  • http://dailygrail.com/ Red Pill Junkie

    “when it is nothing less than the termination of a consciousness’ existence.”

    And you’re absolutely certain of this, because…?

    I actually think it’s MORE cruel to try to force a patient into staying alive as long as medically possible, without bothering to check if the extension translates into a decrease in the quality of life. I hope the legalization of euthanasia arrives faster than the end of senescence… if it arrives at all.

    Christopher Ryan said in one of his podcasts: “Life is a party, so one should know when to gather your coat & say good-bye.”

  • J.Griffin

    Transhumanism is entirely subjective-
    there is no binding code or ethics to it.

    It is a philosophy that can be manipulated or exploited like any other.

    Your reasoning is flawed and your definition is incomplete-
    transhumanism entails much than just the issues of life extension.

    Many transhumanists are quite outspoken on the areas of
    eugenics and social engineering.

    NOT good.

    In theory,many things are fine…
    in practice,
    they can turn into nightmares.

    Hitler was quite fascinated with such things-
    what modern dictator wouldn’t be?

  • kurt9

    Has it ever occurred to you that we seek neither to dominate or to be dominated? Perhaps we seek nothing more than autonomy from those who do not share our objectives. Please tell me that you do not question our right to autonomy.

  • Eric Lowe

    Okay ppl odviously this is his/her opinion. Also you say that now wait till its possible, sure itll be available to everyone for a while but just like everything else in the world it will be obtained and controlled by his/her elite society if you say any different you are a troll.