Immortality's not all it's cracked up be
WOULD you like to live forever? No, I mean really. To become immortal, freed for all time from the fear of dying? Hasn't it been the impossible dream of mankind since the dawn of time? Now some clever people are starting to talk as if it could be possible after all.
WOULD you like to live forever? No, I mean really. To become immortal, freed for all time from the fear of dying?
Hasn't it been the impossible dream of mankind since the dawn of time? Now some clever people are starting to talk as if it could be possible after all. But is it a dream - or a nightmare?
The clever person at the heart of the talking is an amiable 41-year-old Cambridge University boffin called Aubrey de Grey.
His taste in shirts and facial hair may be stuck in the hippy era (he has possibly the longest real beard I've seen), but his ideas are distinctly futuristic. Of course, hippies always were believers in Utopia.
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De Grey is the leading expert in the scientific field he calls biogerontology, and he defines his goal as nothing less than “a true cure for human aging”.
The idea that growing old is not the inevitable and natural course of events, but a condition we can be cured of, goes against pretty much all we've believed about life up till now. In very many senses, growing older and ultimately dying define our lives and our existence. What would be without them? It's impossible to say for sure, but it doesn't sound all good.
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Human life expectancy, at least in the wealthy West, is possibly now greater than it's ever been. And Dr de Grey believes the first person to live 1,000 years may already have been born.
He predicts that in about 30 years genetic therapy will be available that will not just slow a person's aging, but actually reverse the process. So in theory someone who is now a child and will be middle-aged then, will be able to live indefinitely as a “young”, fit adult.
Well, not quite indefinitely. Over the course of a few centuries some unavoidable accident is likely to cut short the life of even the most perfectly un-aging genetic specimen.
You might reasonably expect, though, that people who have everything to lose might be more careful about things like smoking, driving or walking in front of buses. So accidents might be fewer.
The first and most obvious drawback to the indefinite postponement of death is the spectre of catastrophic overpopulation. De Grey has an answer.
He suggests that in the future people should be given a choice - either live forever young yourself, or have children.
How simple and convenient. And how likely do you think people are to accept that?
What, in fact, would be the point of living interminably without children? It sounds like a charter for the supremely selfish.
The achievement of endless life doesn't seem to me the pinnacle of human progress De Grey believes, but merely its end.
De Grey suggests that people who expect to live for centuries would take better care of the world. Perhaps. But who exactly will these people be?
You can pretty much guarantee that the anti-aging therapies will be available only to those who can afford it - which means wealthy Westerners, predominantly Americans. Do we really want these people to inherit the Earth?
And what of the rest of humanity? What are they to make of it all?
Will it mean the end of war, famine, poverty - or will it make these things worse?
The perceived prize for the winners would be that much greater, and the loss so much more that conflict would surely be bitter.
How would you feel about knowing you'll live long enough to see the next Ice Age, the next major meteor strike on the planet, the next world war?
How can De Grey and his fellow fantasists be sure all their work won't simply be swept away by a pandemic of as-yet unknown disease?
And on this Good Friday, is it fair to question whether lengthening our stay in this world is simply postponing our arrival in the next? There are surely those would say so.