Death is Probably the Most Profound Reality of Our Lives. During Recent Times, We have Defeated Several Fatal Diseases. But Can We Counter the Challenge of Death; Can Humankind Achieve Immortality?
AROUND 200 BC, Qin Shi Huang, a Chinese emperor, assigned a servant named Xu Fudong with an immensely tedious task. His assignment was to search the “Elixir of Life” that could grant the emperor an eternal life. So the servant set sail eastward with thousands of young boys and girls, never to set foot on the Chinese soil again.
Legend says that the crew never returned as they were seeking for an impossible mission and reappearance as a failure meant nothing but execution at the hands of the emperor. Legend also says that these men and women accompanying Fudong settled in what we today know as Japan.
What happened to the emperor? Well, the same as what happens to every mortal— he died— ironically, at the age of 50 years only. Qin Shi Huang, best known for building the Great Wall and later destined to be the founder of Qin dynasty as well as the first emperor of a unified China, was not the only one fanatical about immortality. As you will see later in this article, humans of the third millennium are quite zealous about the idea of defeating the inescapable anticlimax called death.
Though the medieval science — replace that with pseudoscience in the twenty-first century— of alchemy is often thought to be aimed at turning ordinary metals into gold, another clandestine goal of the mysterious endeavor was to discover the elixir of life, a remarkable potion that would stop the ageing process and grant eternal youth.
But stopping the ageing process does not imply immortality. Immortality means living forever. Can we eliminate the fearsome onslaught of death from our existences? Can we even slow the ageing process? Is immortality a realistic goal?
Though humans are the only creatures obsessed with immortality, scientists have identified certain other living organisms having seemingly infinite lifespans.
The Immortal Species
It is evident from scientific research that compared to humans and animals, certain plant and fungus species have extremely long life spans. For instance, a tree belonging to a certain species of bristlecone pines found in California has been claimed to be more than five thousand years old — the oldest known living organism on earth.
In the animal kingdom, tortoises are known for the longevity of their lives. A tortoise living in India’s Alipore zoo set a record that won’t soon be broken — it survived for 250 years. Though this number is more than twice any age modern humans have ever attained, it is a naught compared to the pine tree of California.
In addition to their many biological differences, plants age differently compared to animals. As animals age, their individual cells wear out and die, their metabolism ceases to exist, and they no longer perform their biological functions like division and creation of new cells.
On the other hand, when certain plant species lose their effective cells due to ageing, their remaining cells get extra effective. For instance, the plant develops an ability to pump water higher into the trunk — that is why you find ancient trees so tall. For such plants, most likely reasons for death would be diseases, insect attacks, or storms, but rarely a natural death. However, this unique ability pertains to only a few special plant species; others die on annual basis, leaving seeds for the next spring.
Another way trees are different from animals is that they lead two lives: one above ground and the other below. Whereas trunks and leaves can live a span of 40 to 140 years, their roots— the underground life— can be as old as 80,000 years. Likewise, vast fungus colonies that live underground have been thought to be many tens of thousands of years old.
Anomalous tendencies towards aging are also revealing in some members of the animal kingdom. Biologists have found certain jellyfish species that can reverse their aging, and actually disassemble their bodies back into their immature form so they can start growing all over again. Well, that is an idea closer to incarnation rather than immortality but still a smart capability.
Though there are no known animals or humans to have entered the “immortal” league of old trees, biologists have debunked the secret of long-living plants. In reality, it is not the actual plant itself that stays alive for thousands of years, but its natural clone. In case of long-lived trees, a shoot grows into a new tree, remains connected to the old tree, and the old tree dies.
Though the new tree is genetically identical, is it really the same individual? Scientists tend to stick with strict biological definitions of immortality, and in this case, that plant is considered immortal.
As a matter of fact, these so-called immortal trees are cheating at immortality. Despite the apparent longevity of their ages, they can die due to storms; insect attack, or worse still, humans can flip them down using their state-of-the-art machinery. Thus they are not immortal; though they may claim to be amortals — dying through accidents but not due to ageing.
We certainly haven’t discovered any individual organisms that are millions of years old. Immortality doesn’t just mean living for a couple thousand years; it means living forever. Let us now look at death from a technology perspective.
A Technical Issue
Through the course of human history, death has been accepted as an unavoidable reality. Various religious dogmas have sanctified death as a metaphysical experience. While Abrahamic religions treat death as a transition to an afterlife, Hinduism promotes the idea of multiple lives. Thus death has been typically acknowledged as a normalcy, opening a way to reincarnation and subsequent entry into heaven or hell.
As a consequence, until quite recent times, the real causes of human death were deemed of little significance. However, in the twenty-first century, we are able to ascribe any human death to a set of medical conditions. A few examples of these conditions include heart failure, lungs cancer, brain hemorrhage etc. Being familiar with the precise causes of death, its persona is now changing from a metaphysical experience to a physical or technical issue.
By the same token, when people die in road accidents or plane crashes, we set commissions to find out the causes of the catastrophe. So often we end up with the conclusion that there were some technical failures behind the accident, that it could and should have been evaded, and we resolve to avoid such happenings in future.
If death is a technical problem, it should have a technical solution. Just like we make schemes to improve on road accidents and plane crashes, can we prepare remedial action plans for tackling medical conditions that lead to ageing or even death? In fact, we have already made some attempts in this realm.
For instance, if the heart stops pumping, we can revive it with medicines and electric shocks. In the worst case, we can even implant a new heart. Heart disease is the leading cause of premature deaths worldwide, followed by cancer and other chronic medical ailments.
Another leading cause of death in old people is ageing. Many old people, when they die, are free of any medical ailments; their body systems are functioning as normal. For such deaths, the underlying technical issue is ageing or gradual deterioration of biological systems.
Today, about two-thirds of all deaths are from old age. The scientific name for ageing is senescence and it can occur in two ways: in the first type, old cells of the organism lose the ability to divide and create new cells. Thus as worn out cells die, they are not replaced by new cells. It is analogous to a fuse slowly burning down over its lifetime.
The second type of aging happens to the whole organism. It means the whole body is unable to keep itself alive. And with cells dying and not being replaced, things only get worse. Eventually, the whole system gets out of order and even otherwise healthy people develop chronic diseases and ultimately die.
The exact reasons behind ageing are still being studied. There are many concurrent theories. One of them suggests that cells are not able to divide and create new cells due to imperfections in DNA replication. This is typically associated with free radicals — highly reactive substances that can damage DNA and cells, leading to cancer, cardiovascular problems and diabetes. Another viewpoint is that oxygen itself rusts or oxidizes the body tissues.
Looking at statistics on life expectancies over last hundred years, it seems we have done a fairly good job at tackling the technical problems behind ageing. Until very recently, our average life span was around 45 years. Today, we can claim a world average of more than 70 years. Our next target could be hundred years, but there are some fallacies to be rectified.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the global life expectancy was less than 40 years, primarily because people died early due to malnutrition, incurable diseases, violence etc. Today, we have nearly eliminated famines, pandemics, and wars; so people can live on to approach their natural age. Even a century ago, those who survived hunger, ailments, and violence lived up to eighty years. As a matter of fact, we have not defeated ageing; we have just reduced the likelihood of premature deaths.
So we have understood and tackled some of the technical problems behind premature deaths and we are still studying ageing. But how far can this endeavor take us? Though contemporary doctors are already treating these diseases as technical problems, can they overcome them? Can we defeat the death-related technical issues by investing time and money in researching cancer, germs, genetics and nanotechnology? After say fifty years, will we able to claim an average life expectancy of more than 100 years. Possibly; but a number as big as 500 years is probably out of our league.
A Bunch of Immortalists
In 1964, a physics teacher named Robert Ettinger proposed the idea of freezing a body so that it could be revived later by advanced technologies. This unique but still impractical idea is called cryonic preservation. Since then, a couple hundred people have been cryonically preserved.
The first person to be frozen in this way was James Bedford on January 12, 1967. Since then, dozens of cryonics organizations and societies have been established around the U.S. Today, the biggest cryonics organization is the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, where Bedford is still frozen. Alcor has nearly 100 frozen patients at its headquarters in Arizona, awaiting their highly unlikely reincarnation.
On September 18, 2013 Google ventured into a unique enterprise. Along with Arthur D. Levinson, an American businessman, Google founded a company called Calico (California Life Company). The major objective of this organization is to tackle ageing, and consequently increasing human lifespans. Calico works through a multidisciplinary team of experts from medicine, drug development, molecular biology, genetics, and computational biology.
By dint of the rapid development of fields such as genetic engineering, regenerative medicine, and nanotechnology, some experts suggest that humans might overcome death by 2200. Some devotees of immortality even maintain that anyone possessing a healthy body and a wealthy bank account in 2050 will have a solemn chance for being immortal.
These immortalists propose that just like preventive car maintenance schemes, every ten years or so you will walk into a clinic and receive a revival treatment that will not only cure illnesses, but will also regenerate decaying tissues, and upgrade brains, hearts and other body limbs. Before the next treatment is due, doctors will have already invented a surplus of new medicines, upgrades, and gadgets to augment your effective lifespan.
Is Immortality a Realistic Goal?
Regardless of whether humans achieve or fail to achieve immortality, the notion will provoke numerous what ifs in human psychology, society, and economy.
Irrespective of our religious idiosyncrasies, almost all of us follow some form of ethics in our daily lives. A large part of these ethical commitments stems from fear of death. Immortality or absence of death falsifies incarnation and judgment against sins, and hence there remains no strong reason for religious piety or social righteousness — end result could be a societal fiasco.
Immortal or rather amortal humans would be the most anxious people in history. We mortals take risks with our lives on daily basis, because we know they are going to end someday. So we do many daring things like going on hikes in the Himalayas, or for surfing over precarious ocean tides. Being amortals, we will be hesitant in taking even small chances like crossing the street or trying a new type of food; we will be way too skeptical about our surroundings.
Amortal professionals will not retire at the age of sixty. Today, we learn a profession in teens and twenties and then spend the rest of our life in that line of work. Though we still learn a few tricks of business in forties and fifties, but the last decade of our career is usually a downhill, waiting for retirement. What will be the retirement age for an amortal? And if your boss will not retire, how will your professional growth occur? And where will the new graduates be employed?
In the domain of national and international politics, the results might be even creepier; especially in the non-democratic countries, where a ruler is expected to rule until death. So if the monarch will not die, how will the crown prince be crowned? There could be a political anarchy.
Although average life expectancy has doubled over the last hundred years, it would be overambitious to deduce that we can double it again to 150 in the coming century. Any hopes of eternal youth in the twenty-first century could lead to a bitter disappointment; it is not easy to live knowing that you are going to die, but it could be far more frustrating to believe in immortality and be proven wrong.
Death is Inevitable
Fear of death is the most dreaded sensation shared by all humans. From ancient emperors to modern scientists, many have tried their hands on immortality. In fact, the pursuit is still ongoing. But death is mandatory as it ensures the natural balance of life.
No matter how much efforts we make, we cannot achieve immortality. Immortality means living forever, a life without death. Even if we achieve an unlimited life expectancy— a body without expiry date — we will still be amortals, not immortal. We can still die in a natural catastrophe or an accident.
Immortality or amortality are merely crazy dreams. Death is inevitable.