Radical Life Extension: Is Immortality Almost Within Man's Reach?
Who Wants to Live Forever?
Everyone knows, or at least probably figures, that scientists and physicians are working constantly on improving our quality of life and extending our expected lifespan.While they strive to find cures for life-threatening diseases, they also try to find ways to stop diseases that diminish our enjoyment of life or in some way lead to limits on our activities or cause restrictive disabilities. This is a battle that has been going on for centuries and in the last several decades it is a battle man has been beginning to win.
A child born in 1960 in the United States had a life expectancy of 69.8 years but by 2008 this had increased to 78.4 years -- an increase of about 8 1/2 years or more than 12%! It has been a steady increase so if things continue to follow this pattern, life expectancy would reach 100 in a little over 50 years. Many researchers believe this is a distinct possibility, but some feel this is way too conservative as advances in medicine and genetics may soon make it possible for humans to live hundreds of years, without aging in the traditional sense and with those years filled with good health and a high quality of life.
Radical Life Extension
This field of study, known as rejuvenation biotechnology, is not particularly new but is by and large unknown to the general public and a subject of great debate even among those working in the field. The goal of this work is a significantly longer lifespan often referred to as radical life extension or extreme longevity. Make no mistake -- we are talking about hundreds of years here. How would you like to live to be 500? 1000? Immortal?
Researchers in genetics have already extended the life of the male nematode worm by six times its natural length. To do this, scientists identified the genetic triggers for aging and switched them off. In the case of the nematode, it meant living months instead of weeks, but this would be like a human living about 470 years -- more than four centuries or about twice as long as the United States has existed as a nation!
While this may be a very complex procedure, clearly science has reached a point where it may soon be possible for this to be achieved on a wide scale. Especially considering that the Human Genome Project which fully mapped humans DNA was completed in 2000 making it only a matter of a short period of time before scientists will identify the genetic triggers in humans that cause us to age. At that point, it will just be a matter of flipping the switch.
Not Enough Time on Your Hands?
It is almost too fantastical to think about. In this day and age when there never seems to be enough time to get done everything you need and want to do, the idea of extending life can be very attractive. That novel you want to write? Take your time! you have centuries! Want to visit the Middle East? It might take a couple of centuries of saving but you will make it there someday. Can't wait until the auto industry gets those way cool hover cars on the market? Just hang around a few decades! Trips to the moon, that dream house, the family of 36 kids -- the possibilities are endless!
And frightening -- hundreds of years working to earn money for all those dreams, decades of boredom after all the dreams have been fulfilled or still cannot be reached even with all that extra time, the daily grind that keeps on and on and on... I saw a poll once that indicated the vast majority of people are afraid to die yet almost no one wanted to live forever. At least not on Earth anyway. But that's a subject we will address a little later.
The Practicality of Virtual Immortality
Before we go too far, we need to think about how drastically extended lifespans will affect not only the individual but also society as a whole. While it would be wonderful if extending everyone's years of healthy living indefinitely resulted in a perfect societal utopia, or a heaven on Earth, that is not the likely outcome. Pursuing extreme longevity is in a sense tampering with Mother Nature and there are sure to be repercussions.
Society is based in part on a balance that is created by nature. High unemployment rates aside, generally the global community is supported by a certain percentage of workers among us who do a certain percentage of work. If you increase the number of available workers without significantly increasing the workload, you will soon see an epidemic of unemployment. Obviously increased unemployment will translate into increased poverty. But this is just the tip of the iceberg lettuce.
With more children being born everyday but no one passing away, the population will not-so-slowly increase. As this happens, there will be more demand for food. On the one hand, it is likely we could adjust for this to some degree, but there is a limit. Sooner or later we would reach it. And it is not just food. All natural resources would be consumed more and more quickly as the population grew -- fossil fuels would dwindle, land for housing would disappear, forests would be stripped away, we would run out of the metals needed to make just about everything. Clearly there would be a lot of problems that need to be worked out.
The Religious Ramifications of Eternal Life on Earth
And with those scary thoughts, let's now get back to question of who wants to live forever. Or more specifically, where do you want to live forever? Certainly if science is able to give man virtual immortality, the world's religions will be hard pressed to incorporate this new reality into their beliefs. At this point, most religious leaders would probably say it is not possible, that the only path to eternal life is through _________ (insert the name of your chosen deity here). That's fine for now, but what about once radically extended lifespans are the norm?
Of course, the argument could be made that freedom from diseases and the ravages of aging is not true immortality. People will still die in car accidents. People will still be murdered. Some will choose to end their own life. Soldiers and civilians will still be lost to the madness of war. So it could be said that that it does not matter how many years we have the potential to live, for even if those years are infinite, that does not mean we have eternal life.
But still, when the religious teaching of the past tell us things like "the wages of sin are death" and then we find a way to violate most of the commandments without dying, how is that going to affect the number of people following any given religion? And religion is just a starting point for the philosophical discussion? What would you do with criminal sentenced to life in prison? What about a child born with a significant birth defect? Or would birth defects become a thing of the past as well?
Where Do We Go From Here?
So how far away are we from these startling advances? Some scientists say so far way that there is no point talking about it. Others say we are only talking about a few decades before we start seeing major advances. Then there are a few, like SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) Foundation chief scientific officer Aubrey de Grey who believes we will begin to see the benefits of some aspects of anti-aging research in a the next decade or two.
De Grey's research has less to do with tinkering with genetics than manipulating our physiology to halt or reverse the effects of aging, but the ultimate goal is the same -- a longer, healthier life. And though many scientists disagree with his theories and time estimates, he is a well respected scientist who certainly knows what he is talking about. So it really seems that longer lifespans are just a matter of when more than if .
Extended Research: Check Out These Sites for More Info
- Biogerontology Research Foundation
The Biogerontology Research Foundation's purpose is to alleviate the suffering of the elderly due to aging.
- Campaign Against Aging
Campaign Against Aging's mission is to educate the public about the human aging process, increase public awareness of the efforts to combat aging, and raise funds to support medical research to defeat aging.
- Immortality Institute
The Immortality Institute is a non-profit organization whose goal is "to conquer the blight of involuntary death".
- Methuselah Foundation
Methuselah Foundation is a non-profit medical charity dedicated to extending healthy human life.
- SENS Foundation
The SENS Foundation works in advancing rejuvenation bio-technologies under the leadership of their chief scientific officer, noted author and theoretician Aubrey de Grey.
The Perfect Life
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