Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Who Wants to Live Forever?

Scientists have reversed the aging process in mice. They say that they're still miles away from doing the same on human beings, but doesn't it get us all dreaming! Now that the option seems to be approaching, we have to ask ourselves – do we want to live forever?

Ronald DiPinho, professor of medicine and genetics at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, reveals in a Nature article that his lab has reversed the aging process in mice by restoring the enzyme telomerase, which protects chromosomes. ABC also reports it, and certainly much more media coverage will follow.

The treatment made shrinking brains grow back to full size, gray hair got its color back, and so on. Mice of an age comparable to our 80's returned to the health state of middle age, in a rejuvenation process that seemed to be complete. In mice. What would happen to human beings given the same treatment remains to be seen.

I'm no biologist, but I have no trouble imagining a near future where human aging is arrested, or even reversed. We have already managed to increase our life expectancy from about 20 to almost 80, mainly by just eating better. Refined science might very well be able to extend this many times over. Anyone can become Methuselah.

Not that I expect it to happen while I'm still around to benefit, but even so: It's time we start asking ourselves very seriously: Do we want to live forever?

Spontaneously, we would hurry to say yes, especially if that prolonged living were with reasonable health and vigor all through. But there is more to life than mere survival. We need to enjoy it. At length, that can be a problem.

I find my own major drive to be curiosity. As long as I'm curious, and find new things to explore or old things to penetrate even more, I want very much to go on. But if the future lacks surprises, if each day will be insignificantly different from the ones preceding it, then I would lose the lust to get out of bed in the mornings (it's already kind of a problem, now and then). Just vegetating is not enough.

The world is grand. It contains more than can ever be experienced and digested completely. Still, sunrises are what they are, seasons turn with limited variation, little food is tasty enough without being flavored by hunger, even the finest wines become bland when not accompanied by thirst. Society, its politics as well as its entertainments, shows its patterns more clearly by time, and becomes increasingly predictable. Sex, too, runs the risk of becoming mere physical exercise.

I don't know how long life can keep on being interesting, but that's the ultimate timer for human life. When we are no longer intrigued by it, we might as well fade away.

Big Brother
For society as a whole, longevity might prove to be more of a danger than a blessing. Those who have power and loads of money will do all they can to stay alive. They already do, and have been obsessed by this since the time of the Pharaos and the first Chinese Emperors. The more you have, the less you want to leave it behind. Not that worldly things necessarily make you happy, but because they influence you that way.

When people who have seized power or amassed fortunes don't die, the most likely thing is that their power and fortune grow as their age does, or even exponentially to it. Liberation will take forever, the reasonable distribution of wealth will be halted indefinitely. We may quickly arrive at a society very close to Metropolis, or Orwell's Big Brother society of 1984. For many things, a time limit is salvation.

Perhaps a future society will find new solutions to the new problems arriving by longevity. Perhaps people will discover that there is so much more to life than meets a tired old eye, they will never get fed up with exploring it. Mankind is an ingenious species. For every problem, we come up with more than one solution, like the reemerging heads of the Hydra.

That, I'd like to see. So, I have to admit that I would not be that hard to convince, if offered the telomerase cure.

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