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Do I want to live to be a hundred? Maybe, but on one condition…
Jim Johnson


Robbie Williams might sing about wanting to be old before he dies, but I’m not sure I’d agree with him there. I’d much rather never get old and never die, or would that be asking too much? You only have to watch a few TV commercials to see how obsessed society is with staying young. There are countless products on offer that promise to delay the signs of ageing, or that can keep us healthy and prolong the vigour of youth. Religion has helped previous generations cope with the idea of old age and death by guaranteeing an eternal afterlife. But in Western society today religion no longer satisfies, people are starting to look for a less spiritual solution, like the prospects of immortality on Earth.

What’s the point of death anyway? Asexual organisms like bacteria never die of old age; they just go on multiplying by division forever. Richard Dawkins’ theory of the Selfish Gene helps us to understand this issue. He argues that humans and all other organisms are merely ‘survival machines’, designed by our genes as a means for their own perpetuation. Millions of years ago genes first began constructing simple organisms to aid them in the competition for limited resources. As time went on, due to the pressures of natural selection these survival machines became progressively more complex - they evolved. Genes are out for themselves, humans are just one of the many machines they have created to serve their purpose. Of course we mustn’t think of them as having a conscious will to survive, they are just a collection of chemicals after all. Nevertheless, since their arrival, self-perpetuation is what drives them. By getting their survival machines to reproduce, they are increasing the chances of their own continued existence.

Sexual reproduction evolved as a better way of reshuffling genes. Sexual organisms had an advantage over asexual ones as sexual recombination allows evolution to occur at a much faster rate, so natural selection favoured its development. But to keep up in the race, death also became part of the equation. Rapid evolution isn’t helped if existing survival machines carry on living, competing for precious resources with their offspring. It is the reshuffling step that is important for genes, so programming their survival machines to die became the standard method of staying competitive in evolutionary terms. A longer life span means a slow rate of evolution. Redwood trees for example, have changed little since the age of dinosaurs, which means they are susceptible to extinction. They are not able to adapt quickly enough to changes in their environment. Our ancestors on the other hand had shorter life spans, allowing faster adaptation to conditions, if they hadn’t, humans might not have evolved yet.

But now we have arrived. Evolution has produced an organism that unlike all the others has worked out what’s going on. We are autonomous, sentient beings and can understand that we are going to grow old and die. Other animals may see death around them but can they ever make that jump and appreciate that they’ll be there too one day? Such ignorance must be bliss. We know it and we fear it. Medicine has been our weapon against old age. Human life expectancy in the developed world in particular has been gradually increasing over time. But now we’ve hit on a new idea. There is no reason why cells couldn’t go on rejuvenating indefinitely, just as there is no termination of life programmed into asexual organisms. Death used to be an evolutionary requirement, but that’s not essential for us anymore. All we need to do is work out which genes trigger the process and stop them spoiling the party.

If it seems hard to believe that rather like Bladerunner’s replicants, we are programmed to die, we can look at some evidence. Humans can suffer from a disease of premature ageing known as Werners’ progeria. Children who are born with it age at an abnormally rapid rate. They can be only eight years old but biologically equivalent to eighty, and will die of an illness associated with old age. This tells us that genes hold the secret to the process of ageing and that they can make mistakes, terminating an organism well before it has had a chance of reproduction. There are many examples in nature of genetic self-destruction, which are far more clear cut than our own. Salmon, for example, spawn, then die; they transform from healthy fertile fish to old and decrepit almost overnight. A certain type of cicada exhibits similar dramatic self-destruction. It lives for seventeen years as a larva, then emerges as an adult, mates then immediately dies. Convincing proof that ageing isn’t a process of wear and tear. Life spans are as long as genes require, ageing comes from within.

Surely it is only a matter of time before we learn how to switch these genes off. Personally I hope that if it’s going to happen, then it happens soon. How annoying would it be to have grown bald and wrinkly, just about to go in for your first hip replacement when scientists announce that they can stop people ageing. Great if you’re twenty or thirty something. But if you’re sixty then you won’t enjoy eternal youth, you’ll be an immortal OAP. Not only that, but in time you’d become a bit of a freak. As subsequent generations never allow themselves to age as far as your generation had, you would remain the only living examples of old people, relics from a past when humans were still servants of their genes.

What are the costs of immortality? Population crisis will obviously be a very serious complication. It is bad enough now, the carrying capacity of the Earth is being severely stretched, but if people stop dying we can only exacerbate the situation. Pensions won’t exist any more; they’d be no reason to stop work if you never aged. Imagine that, having to work forever! What about boredom, would we get fed up with life, going through the same routine, day after day, with no end in sight? What would happen to our senses of ambition and purpose? They’d be no need to hurry and do things; we’d have all the time in the world. With longer life spans we’d be exposed to more risks, we’d be more likely to get shot, have a fatal road accident, or suffer various nasty illnesses during our lives. Death, when it happened, would probably be violent or sudden, or as a result of disease. Not a pleasant thought to live with.

Immortality would create immense problems for society. The trouble is, who will stop to think of the consequences? If somebody offered you eternal youth would you decline in the interests of the human race and the planet as a whole? Accept a future of deterioration – becoming less able, less attractive and more susceptible to disease - when you didn’t have to go through all that. Medical research scientists already view old age as just another disease, when they develop a cure, how many of us won’t want to be treated?

©Jim Johnson


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