might sing about wanting to be old before he dies, but Im not
sure Id agree with him there. Id 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.
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 mustnt 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.
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 isnt 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 hadnt, humans might not have
But now we have
arrived. Evolution has produced an organism that unlike all the others
has worked out whats 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 theyll 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 weve hit on a new
idea. There is no reason why cells couldnt go on rejuvenating
indefinitely, just as there is no termination of life programmed into
asexual organisms. Death used to be an evolutionary requirement, but
thats not essential for us anymore. All we need to do is work
out which genes trigger the process and stop them spoiling the party.
it seems hard to believe that rather like Bladerunners 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 isnt
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 its 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 youre twenty or thirty something.
But if youre sixty then you wont enjoy eternal youth, youll
be an immortal OAP. Not only that, but in time youd 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
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 wont exist any more;
theyd 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? Theyd
be no need to hurry and do things; wed have all the time in the
world. With longer life spans wed be exposed to more risks, wed
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.
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 didnt 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 wont want to
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