IMMORTALITY — The Science of Living Forever

One of the oldest dreams of the human race is the achievement of immortality. Ancient Chinese alchemy has long searched for the secret to immortality, while in western alchemy, the search to transform the ‘base’ into ‘gold’ has ever been a quest for the transcendent. Similarly, the mythological allegories of the fountain of youth and the Holy Grail also have elements of immortality running through them. The ancient Greeks envisaged a kind of immortality where an individual would be remembered for all eternity by future generations, thus living forever by the awe and reverence of our remembrances.

There is no doubt, whatever your conception immortality and whatever time, place or culture you may hail from, it is a certainty that at some point you have flirted with the idea of living forever. Well, the days of merely ‘flirting’ with the idea are perhaps almost over. Modern science is making great strides in biology, biotechnology and computer science with staggeringly important discoveries being made every year — discoveries that may just be leading us into an immortal future. Before we can look at the relevant scientific evidence we need to clear up our understanding of ‘immortality’ — what is it, what exactly do we mean by ‘immortal’?

IMMORTALITY, WHAT IS IT?

At a language level, we can see that the word ‘immortality’ is formed from the word ‘-mortality’ plus the prefix ‘im-‘. Mortality means, “the ability to die” and the prefix “im-“, is a negation. So the first stab at a definition for immortality could be, “the lack of ability to die”. But, on closer inspection, this definition is too broad and imprecise. The inability to die says nothing about our ability to age or regenerate our bodies.

Imagine the horror of not being able to die, yet ageing infinitely into a less and less usable body. Imagine that after 10 000 years every bone in your body was broken, no hair on your head, completely blind and the worst case of senile dementia in the universe — This form of immortality would be a curse and not a boon at all.

Ok, so there’s more to it than simply ‘not dying’, the kind of immortality we usually imagine includes other ideas — ideas like living forever with a robust and healthy body that forever regenerates itself and maintains a peak physique. Our new conception of immortality includes a lack of ageing or degeneration over time, immunity to disease and the ability to recover fully from physical and chemical traumas that might afflict us from time to time.

This last conception of immortality is the kind of definition modern science is trying to achieve. Presently there are three main strategies for achieving immortality scientifically. The first strategy currently being pursued is through the biological sciences, which hope, through genetic engineering and pharmaceutical intervention to be able to reverse and stop the ageing process.

The second strategy being pursued is through biotechnology and the use of cybernetics and Nano-biological computing systems to try to achieve the same thing.

The third strategy being pursued is purely technological in nature and tries to do away with the ‘frail’ human body altogether whilst keeping elements of our psychology, identity and memory intact.

In the next section, we will take a look at each strategy in turn to get a clear picture of what is happening and how much progress has been made to date.

THE SCIENCE OF IMMORTALITY — 3 STRATEGIES

STRATEGY 1 — BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES + MEDICINE + AGRICULTURE

The dominant strategy used by modern western scientists thus far has been based on a biological, medical and agricultural centred approach. The idea was to treat or cure disease with modern pharmaceuticals; improve nutritional quality, quantity and availability; and treat trauma as best as possible via surgery and rehabilitative care. Arguably, the aims of this approach were more modest than the extremely ambitious goal of striving for immortality, but it is the same need or desire which motivates the development of this strategy — the desire to live longer and healthier. Scientists were simply happy to extend the average expected human lifespan. Nowadays, however, this strategy is being taken to the extreme with some research being focused on the development of biological, medical and genetic techniques to limit or stop ageing altogether.

There are three main aims of this strategy:

  1. Remove the causes of cellular ageing
  2. Grow and replace organs as needed in the case of failure or trauma
  3. Cure all disease and illness via medicine, nutrition and lifestyle

Many different hypotheses are currently been actively researched to explain the causes of cell death. One of the most promising of these is research into telomeres. A telomere is a small sequence of genetic material (DNA) inside each cell. Each time the cell divides, the telomere gets a little bit shorter, until, after many cell divisions, the telomere reaches a certain critical shortest length and the cell will then begin to naturally die. You can think of the telomere as a sort of biological clock that records the age of cells in terms of the number of divisions it has undergone. The shorter the telomere ‘tail’ the older the cell. At the critical length, the telomere programs the cell for death. This cell death is natural and necessary for survival. If our cells weren’t programmed to die then we would develop all sorts of growths and tissue imbalances — cancer.

Research programs across the world have been trying to work out a way to lengthen telomeres safely, without causing cancer and the results have been mixed, but promising. Telomerase is an enzyme that acts on the telomere and serves to lengthen it, so research into telomerase has been a dominant feature of this strategy. If our cells can’t die due to time-based effects than our bodies could potentially exist indefinitely –age-related degeneration could be a thing of the past.

Advances in genetic science and research into stem cells have also made progress in leaps and bounds which also allow us to grow organs and tissues for people and then transplant those organs. You may have heard or seen the rather macabre images of lab mice with whole ears or noses growing out of them, this is the key research that may allow for the human race to replace damaged, old or degenerated organs as needed.

Problems facing this approach are the fact that currently, lengthening telomerase runs a high risk of causing multiple global cancers. Another factor that still needs to be solved is whether cells will age but not die, thus sentencing humans to an immortal life in a useless aged and decrepit body. Time will tell if this strategy will be successful at stopping the ageing process.

STRATEGY 2 — BIOTECH, NANOTECH & CYBERNETICS

In this strategy, we are no longer simply looking to chemically, pharmaceutically or medically help the body to become immortal. In this strategy, research is trying to create little machines, smaller than our tiniest cells that roam around in our bloodstreams and tissues, fighting viruses and bacteria, repairing cells and regenerating tissues.

It may sound like science fiction, but believe me this will be a reality one day. Tiny Nano-sized robots could in theory edit cells at a molecular level, which means that even DNA could be altered, shifted and repaired in real time. Nano sized robots that are capable of safe and controlled interactions with the body are still far off, but the latest research has been extremely promising.

With nanotechnology we would never suffer from disease, decay, degeneration, ageing or any other physical affliction. Our bodies may in fact literally be able to regenerate themselves using atoms and molecules from the environment.

Alternatively, the science of prosthetics has also come a long way and with new materials emerging from Nano engineering becoming more and more cheaply available each day it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine replacing large parts of the human body with cybernetic prosthetics.

The modern cyborg is no longer merely relegated to the realm of cheesy ‘b’ grade science fiction movies — it may become a reality for us in the not too distant future. Replacing body parts with intelligent, functioning mechanical systems makes it really easy to maintain, repair and replace those parts.

Ultimately, the problems currently facing this strategy are many and diverse. How do we safely program Nano-bots to function in the body? Do we even know enough about health, disease, ageing, biology and death to know what to program the bots to do in the first place?

Advanced prosthetics are amazing — look at Oscar Pistorius’ functional legs that allowed him to run the 100m faster than I ever could — but how far are we going to push it? Would we make replacement brains? Is that possible? We still need to know what we are doing before we can program biologically smart machines and we would still be vulnerable to electro-mechanical environmental effects.

This approach shifts the goal posts; however, the clear ambitious winner is the research into Nano-technology. If these problems are solved there is a really strong case for immortality in the near future.

Strategy 3 — Beyond Human

If the source of our mortality is the ‘frail’ human body, then why don’t we just do away with it? This is the ultimate form of immortality and is the basis of a whole movement in modern western society — transhumanism.

Ask yourself the following question: If my memories, conscious experiences and sensory perceptions are simply the result of highly complex neurological activity, then surely I can simulate this activity using software that performs computations on appropriate hardware? Could I perhaps download my functioning brain into a digital framework that simulates my brain, right down to the atomic level?

Some researchers believe that this may be possible, given enough computer power. Just recently, scientists were able to completely simulate a part of a rat’s brain (right down to the molecular level). Eventually, we will have computers that can simulate entire human brains and nervous systems.

Would it be possible then to give rise to digital consciousness? Perhaps, futurists like Raymond Kurzweil and others predict that we should have cheap, widely available and cost effective computing power that will be able to do this in the very near future.

Such a technological achievement would have very serious implications for humanity as a whole. Without a biological body we would be immune to all disease, ageing and limitations, provided that there was always a suitable device to run our software, we would always be ‘alive’. This strategy is the most ambitious possible since it transcends what we know about being human — it is trans-human in nature.

If you don’t believe that human consciousness is the sum total of our nervous system’s functioning, or you don’t believe that human consciousness could arise out of mere computation, then this strategy may not be appealing. Also, it may be difficult to really grapple with the meaning of ‘alive’ when the playing field becomes so utterly alien.

If we could upload our consciousness into a digital space then perhaps real A.I. is also possible. The short term problems with this strategy are simply a matter of scaling — we need more computing power and then we need to simulate an entire human nervous system — this is definitely possible. But, we can’t be sure that consciousness would arise from such simulations at all. Essentially, humanity would become immortal ‘ghosts in the machine’ and it remains to be seen if such a thing is possible.

If you liked this article then leave share or leave a comment below. Your feedback is valuable to us. We recommend two great follow-up articles “Neuroplasticity — Your Amazing Changing Brain” and “Hacking Your Brain — 13 Natural Supplements to Boost Performance

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