By Khaled Diab
Religion has been promising us eternal life after death for millennia, can science deliver us immortality right here on earth – and do we want it to?
4 July 2009
Death is up there with sex on the euphemism scale. When someone breathes their last, they don't simply “die”. They pass away, go to a better place, meet their maker, give up the ghost – and more colourfully, bite the dust, push up the daisies or, with a hangman's macabre wit, kick the bucket. Why do people have so much trouble mentioning that unmentionable state? It is, as the morbidly glib never tire of reminding us, as natural as life. In fact, considering that we spend more time dead than alive – we may live to be 100 but we are classified as ‘dead' forever after – it is perhaps a more natural state.
In addition to the grief and the sense of loss death conjures up, we, as a species, are scared to death of dying and so would rather not talk about it, in case that ancient superstition is true and we tempt fate and draw the unwanted attentions of Death. Well, fingers crossed and hearts crescented that the Grim Reaper or Azrael do not read The Guardian.
Our fear of and fascination with death have been the lifeblood of religion since time immemorial, and have left us with some of human civilisation's most impressive monuments. Religion promises us that death is not the end, but the beginning of a life immortal – if we're good, we go to heaven or are reincarnated as a higher being, and if we're bad … then hell hath no fury like a god scorned!
In the absence of faith, death takes on a whole other dimension. I feel a strange sense of emptiness and humility that, one day, I will only ‘live on' in the consequences of my actions. Without the prospect of heaven and just an endless, empty void to look forward to, life, at first sight, can seem like hell. But since we're not going to be sentient of it, it's actually a pretty good prospect, especially since we're all likely to suffer eternal damnation according to one religious tradition or another.
After killing God and condemning humanity to death after death, can science fill the heaven-sized void left in our conscience? One scientist, Aubrey de Grey, is on a one-man mission to end the greying of the human condition and herald in the age of immortality.
The secret to becoming immortal lies not in some mysterious elixir of life but in the power of regenerative medicine. His ‘strategies for engineered negligible senescence' (SENS) are based on rather the same concept as renovating or restoring an old house. Perhaps inspired by the religious significance of the number seven, De Grey has identified “seven deadly assassins” in our bodies – including our immune system – which, if combated, will allow us to live indefinitely.
Once a treatment for these seven deadly bodily sins has been developed, all that needs to occur is for a patient to spend a couple of months in hospital undergoing stem cell, gene therapies and vaccinations. Once they've checked out, a 60-year-old patient will have, say, the body of a 30-year-old, making them in theory immortal but not indestructible. This means that we would be left with the mind-boggling situation in which my mother could be physically younger than me.
Despite the eccentricity of his dream, De Grey is, in fact, not the first to tread this path. In fact, a humble jellyfish seems to have discovered the keys to eternity. Like an underwater Benjamin Button, the Turritopsis Nutricula is able to turn back its body clock and become a juvenile once it mates.
So how long will it be before we can become jellyfish-like immortals? According to De Grey, we will reach what he calls the “human longevity escape velocity” within 25 years. “We have at least a 10% chance that we'll not get there for another 100 years,” he also cautioned in an interview with the BBC's Focus magazine. Not surprisingly, much of the scientific community is not impressed with De Grey's pseudo-prophetic promises of immortality.
Of course, there is a certain appeal to the idea of turning back your biological clock for real and having a second stab at youth but with the experience of age. But even if it were possible, would such an Everland be a utopia or a dystopia? Well, at first, such expensive technology is only likely to be available to the very rich and will act as a futuristic substitute for Botox and cosmetic surgery. Imagine what it would do to the class struggle if the more arrogant members of the upper crust not only acted like gods but lived like demigods?
Even if such treatment eventually becomes available on the NHS, it raises profound questions. Should people's lives be extended indefinitely? If not, should society or the individual choose when to pull the plug? Should a 250-year-old physical teen be treated as an adult and served alcohol or not? Would society take long-term threats, such as the environment, more seriously because people will actually live to see the consequences? Does living so long rob future generations of their right to life? Would you like to live in a society without death?
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 2 July 2009. Read the related discussion.