One day you are going to die, and that… sucks. The truth is you, me and every other human on this planet have been marked for death since the minute we were born. But this is hardly news. Death is just the price we must pay for being alive, right?
Although we’ve been socialized to accept death as an inevitability and live our lives knowing that its looming shadow will one day catch up with us, many of us might never really come to terms with it. Then without warning, death snatches someone close to us and we are forced to think about the frailty of our short and fragile existence and its unavoidable end. But as you likely have realized by now, humans don’t simply accept the hand they’re dealt. Throughout our evolution as a species, we’ve come up with ideas, beliefs and theories that attempt to shine a light deep into the cold, dark abyss of death to give ourselves a hope of continued living and everlasting existence.
We’ve fought death, both mentally and physically, but so far, it is still winning, and by a landslide. Around 90% of humans that have ever existed are dead. All hope is not lost, though. Thanks to advancements in technology we now live longer, healthier lives. And if science and anti-aging efforts continue progressing, who knows, maybe one day we might become immortal.
The whole concept of immortality is almost as ancient as that of death itself. We’ve been dreaming about living forever since we discovered that we most certainly won’t. But depending on who you ask, immortality could mean different things. The most prominent and acceptable notion of immortality is that of the soul. While we still don’t have a scientific definition of the soul or evidence that it even exists, the idea of an immortal spirit that lives forever in the afterlife has been part of our teachings since Ancient Egypt and Babylon, and to a certain extent still remains a common belief among most people today.
The premise is simple. While the body may wither and dissolve, the energy contained within our soul travels to another realm and continues living eternally. Death is not the end, it is merely the transfer of our energy from the realm of the physical to that of the spiritual. But what about an immortal body or, in other words, biological immortality? Advancements in science and technology have been successful in increasing life expectancy dramatically over the decades.
Since the Age of Enlightenment, the human lifespan has been on the rise. In the past 60 years, it has increased from around 52 to 72 years. It’s also expected to keep rising as we develop more cures for terminal diseases and come closer to reversing the effects of the biggest obstacle on our road to immortality: Aging.
As we grow older, we lose our strength, mobility and senses, our main survival characteristics. This process of deterioration with age is known as senescence, and it might just be the only thing stopping us from reaching immortality. Well, once we’ve found cures to all our terminal illnesses as well. While senescence is a phenomenon observed in most species, a few don’t have it, meaning that as they grow older they don’t show any loss of these survival characteristics. Lobsters can reportedly live over 100 years, the Aldabra giant tortoise 255 years, and the Greenland shark over 400 years. Why nature has selected these species, and a handful of others, to display negligible senescence is still an evolutionary mystery, but their existence could be key to increasing our life expectancy in the future.
Although these animals live really long lives, they are still not technically immortal. To see what that might be like, we have to turn to the freshwater polyps called Hydra. Hydras are small jelly-like invertebrates with a remarkable approach to aging. They are largely made up of stem cells that are constantly dividing to make new cells while discarding the old ones. This constant flux of new cells allows Hydras to rejuvenate and remain forever young, making them potentially immortal. This does not make them unkillable, but it does mean that they do not experience any form of debilitating aging or senescence.
Humans also have stem cells that can repair and even regrow parts of our body, like our livers, but we are not like the Hydra. Our complicated multi-cellular structure requires different types of cells to perform different functions, most of which are not stem cells. Sadly, as those cells age, so do we. So the question now is, can we stop these cells from aging?
Well, the science isn’t certain yet. But some scientists hypothesize that we can engineer negligible senescence by repairing the damage that aging causes. This is the basis of SENS, the strategies for engineered negligible senescence. There are also some scientists who have recorded promising results with another approach called partial cellular reprogramming. In 2006, a study by Drs. Kazutoshi and Shinya Yamanaka showed that by controlling just four master genes, it was possible to reprogram cells. Then in 2011, a team of French researchers first reported cellular rejuvenation using these four master genes and were successful in reversing the effects of aging in single cells. While this is definitely an accomplishment, it only worked on isolated cells in a dish. So, more testing and development in the field is needed before we can finally declare ourselves conquerors of death, or at least of aging.
With the exponential leaps we’ve been taking forward in both science and technology, experts predict that our life expectancy is only going to keep rising, and who knows, maybe in a not-so-distant future we’ll be able to reach negligible senescence and increase our life expectancy to over 200, 500 or maybe even 1,000 years. Immortality could well be within the grasp of humankind sooner than we might think. But is this really something we want to do? If you could, would you want to be immortal?
In the finale of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the film’s villain, Walter Donovan, is desperate for eternal life and must choose from a table laid out of many false grails. He chooses foolishly and instead of receiving the gift of immortality, he instead ages rapidly and eventually turns into a skeleton that collapses to dust. The equally nefarious Dr. Elsa Schneider tries to remove the grail as well and ends up falling to her demise. These characters’ motivation for immortality was so great that they were willing to die for it, as ironic as that might seem. Even after the knight who guards the grail warned them that the cost of living forever meant they would have had to live all their days in that one temple.
The allure of eternal living is tempting, for sure. If nothing else comes of it, it could at least provide an escape from the cold and relentless grasp of death and save us from the unknown of the afterlife. But more than escaping death, living forever also means we’ll get to experience everything, and watch the Universe unfold in front of our very eyes. We’ll have endless time to spend with our loved ones, and we’ll be able to learn skills and pursue all our passions, in a way we never could within a finite existence. When you look at it like that, immortality seems amazing. But when you look through rose-colored lenses, red flags appear white. You see, the clutch of immortality is, well… eternal. And eternity is a long time.
The first problem that immortality would pose is the disruption of the natural order. While we may not exhibit senescence, the world around us would. And as death is an essential part of any healthy ecosystem, our continued, never-ending existence would disrupt the natural flow of the world. Earth would no longer be able to sustain our growing legion of immortal humans, and its resources would eventually dry up, forcing us to relocate to other planets destined to have the same fate as Earth the moment we set foot on them.
This scarcity of resources, which to an extent we are already facing in our world today, will only add to the social divide between classes and end up making the rich even richer and the poor hopelessly poorer. Any society ruled by a system of classes is bound to experience social rifts, but a never-ending time that sees no reshuffling of power, even after generations, could lead to ceaseless struggles culminating in wars and revolutions that could thrust humanity into a vicious cycle of endless dystopian living. And that’s not even the whole story. Let’s say Earth can sufficiently provide for our universal existence and we somehow manage to stave off social dilemmas that are bound to arise with the passage of time. Will our lives at an individual level have any meaning? What motivations would we have to chase our dreams, to create, to achieve?
Think about it for a second. Would we truly go in search of our purpose in life had no expiration date? Immortality has the potential to change our fundamental views on relationships as well. What would it mean for monogamy if we can actually live forever? Would the notion of “happily ever after” and “together forever” still be as romantic when death is not an option? What would happen when even death cannot do us part?
The search for “the one” could easily become the search for “the one right now” as people begin gravitating toward not getting married at all, or our society becoming a lot more comfortable with the idea of multiple marriages throughout a lifetime, knowing that spending eternity with one person is harrowing no matter how much you love them. Family and children would also be affected by being immortal. The idea of bringing children into the world is in itself an attempt at immortality through continuation of a legacy. What incentive would people have to bring children when they themselves can live forever?
Would there be a sense of urgency to procreate and extend our family lineages? Immortality would force generations to think twice before bringing their offspring into the world, and younger generations would find it difficult to succeed their parents and grandparents in society, because the absence of senescence means the old will have the experience and the energy. How would the young ever thrive?
Death is a healthy and natural phenomenon that is an essential part of nature. As much as we may hate it, knowing that our time here on Earth is finite provides us with a sense of urgency that adds value and meaning to life. Taking risks to better our lives, following our sense of adventure and knowing that all of this will one day end adds immeasurable value to our existence that immortality could strip away rather ruthlessly.
In his essay The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality, the philosopher Bernard Williams compared living forever to being trapped at a never-ending cocktail party. The party might be interesting and fun to begin with, but soon enough it would become tedious and boring, especially if it were inescapable. Williams argued that we need new experiences in order to have reasons to keep on going, but after enough time has passed, we would have experienced everything that we would find stimulating. And once we get to that stage, what’s the point of living anymore?
Pop culture, literature, philosophy and psychology are filled with anecdotes warning us against the curse of immortality. But why do we keep on needing to be reminded? And why are our best scientists still working on prolonging our lives and bringing us closer to eternal biological living? At its core, our desire to be immortal stems from our fear of death. Immortality may come with a whole bunch of caveats, all of which Hollywood could create an endless score of movies warning us against, but the reason we keep searching is that deep down, many of us do not want to live forever. We simply do not want to die.
The fear of death is deeply ingrained in our psyches and perhaps a part of it comes from the feeling that our life is being taken away from us. The harsh reality is death either comes too soon in the prime of our lives or too late when we are withering away in a hospital bed. Because of this, death seems more like a personal attack on our own agency, creeping up on us without our consent and robbing us of our most prized possession, our life.
This lack of control brings about an understandable reason for our desire to be immortal. Maybe what we are seeking isn’t an eternal life where death is a mere afterthought or a mythical creation of our imagination. Maybe what we truly desire is to control when we ourselves choose to die.
“Let us die young, or let us live forever.”
Whether science can bring us closer to achieving negligible senescence and living a life free from our understandable fear of death, there is one thing that will always remain true in our current finite existence. It is the brevity of our life that ultimately gives us agency to pursue our goals and achieve them.
Mortality is an excellent motivator and it’s the reason our lives have individual meaning. “Life is short” is one of the most overused clichés. Yet as tacky as it sounds, it incites some sort of urgency in us, a profound contemplation on our limited, finite time on this planet, and there is something magical about knowing that we will not exist forever. Who knows? Maybe chasing an immortal existence is what will ultimately strip us of the true meaning of being alive.
And maybe our grim notion of death and its inevitability are not as bleak as we always make them out to be. After all, there are far worse fates than death.