Sunday, November 09, 2008

Scientists: Lets Move a Little Faster on Immortality

Why is no one talking about immortality? How come it isn't on the agenda? How come all this progress on decoding the genome and sequencing our DNA is going on all around us, and the cutting edge of speculation on future gene therapy all revolves around changing our babies eye color, and stuff like that? Aren't we really close, theoretically, to being able to fool the body into not aging?

My layman's understanding of aging is that our cells are all capable of regenerating, but after age 25 or 30 or so, some genetic instruction kicks in and tells the cells to start failing at reproduction every once in a while. Eventually, the failure rate increases and we start to show visible signs of aging. Finally, some major organ fails catastrophically and we die. In theory, if we could suppress the genetic instruction that causes aging, we could generate healthy cells forever and be perpetually 25.

Is it really that simple? Probably not. But where the hell is the research? Where are the foundations? Where are the charitable trusts? The clock is ticking over here. I need this now.

Here's the truth of it, and it's been bugging me for a while. For some strange reason, there's a social taboo against pursuing this goal. The pursuit of immortality - it's uncouth. It shows poor character. It's a moral failing.

Well no. No it's not.

At what point does "I don't want to die." go from being a reasonable and universally shared feeling to being a tragic character flaw? 60? 70? 80? You know those movies where the old man on his deathbed has a twinkle in his eye and comforts the child by saying "Don't worry son, it's my time." That's some Hollywood bullshit right there. I think Woody Allen had the right idea when he said "Rather than live on in the hearts and minds of my fellow man, I’d prefer to live on in my apartment."

There is nothing wrong with wanting to keep living. The naysayers caution "Do you REALLY want to live FOREVER? Wouldn't that be boring? Wouldn't life lose all meaning?" Well, I'll let you know. Or probably I won't, cause you'll be dead. Suicide is always there if I change my mind, right? Let me tack on another 100 years to my current lifespan, and then I'll reassess the situation.

Again the naysayers: "What about the overcrowding of the earth?" Me: If a vasectomy is the price, then sign me up. No problems there. After those two arguments are rebutted, the anti-immortality guy realizes most of his ammunition is gone, and the remaining arguments he tries to field are really vague and wishy-washy. "What about the hubris? What about tampering in God's domain? What about the need to refresh the species with new blood? What about death giving meaning to life? What about..." And here is where I just slowly turn the volume dial down to mute. So, really, there's no ethical problem with a pursuit of immortality.

Which brings us back to the original question: why aren't we all over this shit? Why isn't there a Newsweek cover story on this all the time? Shouldn't we be talking about it? Do you have any idea how significant a development this would be? This is a real monkey-throwing-a-bone-upwards moment in the history of our species. Conquering death! This is evolution man! If we achieve immortality, (and don't just insist, categorically, that it isn't possible) then I will argue that it is the third most important moment in the history of mankind, after 1) the dawn of civilization and 2) Enlightenment. This would be the third milestone on the road to wherever it is we're going. And theoretically, it's within sight. It could happen in our lifetimes. And no one's talking about it! All because of this foolish social taboo.

I've looked online in the past for any guidance on this, and the difficulty is separating the legitimate thinkers from the cranks who want to sell you miracle tonics and stuff like that. Here is one organization that I think is fairly legit, and it provides links to other good sources.

The champion of the current legitimate immortality movement seems to be this man, Dr. Aubrey de Grey.

You see, immediately, my pessimism. To me, his beard and shirt say only one thing - that I may as well shop for a casket and burial plot now. And this is his publicity photo! Do you realize that he appears to be lying down? I'm screwed, man!

Look, Dr. Aubrey de Grey could be a genius, I don't know. But if he wants my donation, if he wants to get his act together, he'd better take some cues from 1960's NASA to set my mind at ease. How about a lab coat? A starched shirt? A tie? A shave? A crew cut? A clipboard? Anything!

I'm not usually in the habit of making predictions. My political predictions for this year (see the January 2007 archives) were spotty. My digital piracy prediction (that one day all music and all film will be free and there's nothing anyone can do about it) is still in the balance. But I'm ready to make a new prediction: immortality will eventually be the most important issue on the planet. Because the power to achieve this isn't in some distant future - it's coming soon. Mother nature never anticipated humans achieving this level of fundamental meddling. We're going under the hood of human existence and we can make whatever changes we want.

You heard it here.


Ben said...

You're absolutely right. This will become the biggest issue of our generation.

When will that happen? Some say when we get strong results in laboratory mice, which could be as soon as seven or eight years given adequate funding. When that happens all those who say this is impossible will have to eat humble pie, and we can get on with the job of deciding whether pursuing life extension is the right thing to do (hint: it is).

In the meantime, I disagree about Aubrey. I don't want my scientists in lab coats - I want them committed, creative and correct, all of which Aubrey is. As a result he's done more to bring public attention to this idea than anyone else. Your understanding of the science of aging is very basic, as is most peoples. I encourage you to read more about the work of the Methuselah Foundation and their SENS plan and exactly HOW they intend to defeat aging. The substance of their arguments are convincing, irrespective of what anyone may say about appearances, which is as it should be. Make your decisions as to whether you support them based on that fact, and just forget about the beard.

Danny said...

yeah why the hell aren't we talking more openly about this? I live in south america, yes it does have something to do with it, in class i mentioned i would prefer to have a gene test with my future partner so we know if our children would be open to some diseases. i got looked wrong, not very open on that...