The Future of Immortality
This article that was originally published ten years ago in our January 2005 newsletter.
Our society’s youth orientation has created a consumer culture devoted to prolonging our vitality and lives. Perhaps someday soon scientists will learn how to extend the human life span indefinitely, which may lead us to create a race of human “immortals.” This will inevitably change our attitudes towards family and aging, not to mention our understanding of life itself. Are we prepared to answer the questions this possibility will raise?
This question is raised by Brian Trent in his article, “The Future of Immortality,” in the May/June, 2004, issue of the Humanist.
“Death is natural, but not everything natural is good,” he says. There is a time-honored tendency to erect an altar to nature while simultaneously rebuking human civilization for its ingenuities. We choose to imagine the natural as a sort of Disney character filled with benevolence and tenderness, and in doing so we evade the more brutal, red-in-tooth-and claw reality. The scavenging life of our earliest human ancestors who tread the narrow threshold between survival and extinction is forgotten–the winters that drove them into caves, the mortal combat with wooly titans of yesteryear, the young aspirations of a being who could hope for 20, maybe 25 years of life
“With no claws, no fur, no poison sacs or natural armor, the naked ape was headed for early and permanent retirement: a dead-end of evolution. Instead this vulnerable being made use of the only asset that distinguished it from its unforgiving environment: a three-pound organ housed within a delicate skull. And with this tool it enacted a legacy spanning from the first flint knife to the surgeon’s scalpel forever remaking the world to suit its needs. With its meteoric ascension came an increase in longevity.”
Brent Jones, says Trent, doesn’t exist, but one day someone like him most likely will. He wakes up each day with the perspective that tomorrow is forever because he is forever. Yesterday he celebrated his 800th birthday though he looks barely more than 30. He has lived longer than the entire history of the Roman Empire. He is the living example of homo sapiens’ most enduring dream: he is an immutable being. Perhaps he takes a weekly dose of youth drugs, or maybe his own genes have been permanently engineered to keep him perpetually youthful.
Perhaps someday soon, scientists will learn how to extend the human life span indefinitely. To a growing number of scientists and commentators, this is neither wild dreaming nor science fiction. The mechanics of aging and death are being laid bare in laboratories around the world. Evolutionary biologist Michael R. Rose of the University of California at Irvine has bred “immortal” fruit flies. While an average fruit fly lives several weeks, Rose possesses flies that have lived 24 years and still have a daily metabolic rate which is the same as that of normal flies. Trent says, “The Holy Grail of this research will be to discover what enzymes allow the insects to enjoy these stellar life spans and then find an equivalent dose for human beings.” Or it might be 62 enzymes plus DNA treatments.
As the human genome gets mapped, attention has fallen on two genes that seem to be managers of the death process–Mortality 1 and Mortality 2. These genes seem to be responsible for ordering the body to wither and die. The Grim Reaper is truly under the microscope. It may bring to life a dream as old as civilization.
Death was an obsession to the brilliant Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, who devoted much time in his Meditations to proclaiming that “human lives are brief and trivial; yesterday a blob of semen, tomorrow embalming fluid and ash.” The ancient Egyptians interest in eternal life is well documented and formed the basis for their mummification rituals. In China the self-proclaimed First Emperor Ch’in Shi Huangdi was so obsessed with finding immortality that he sent thousands of explorers to seek it out. When their efforts failed, he commissioned a full-body suit of pure jade to be his funeral cerements (Jade was believed to have magical powers of rejuvenation.)
Can we build a race of immortals? At what cost? But should we? Trent asks.
The first chorus of objections will hail from a familiar source: the major parties and religions. They will parallel the vociferous objections bandied about when it was first suggested that the Earth wasn’t flat, that the sun was at the heart of the solar system, and that humanity evolved from early primates. After all, religion’s greatest strength is in providing hope for the life beyond the one we now have. But if science suddenly could gives eternal life, then scientists would become the new priests, handing out eternity in pills rather than prayers.
Today the cosmetics industry offers an array of makeup, concealers, moisturizers, and other treatments to make wrinkles go away. Is it likely that consumers who fuel this global market will back off if eternal youth comes in pill form?
Secular opponents will raise their voices, too. The fear of overpopulation is the most immediate quandary. Already more than six billion strong, a race of immortals inevitably strain the planet’s resources to the breaking point. The prospect of constructing permanent settlements on the moon and Mars has found its way into the political spotlight. Would there be a ceiling for human population?
There’s something else to consider. If forever pills went on the market tomorrow, not everyone would take them. Many people are perfectly content to cash in their chips and go forth to whatever fate they believe awaits them–pearly gates, Valhalla, or the happy hunting grounds. There will likely be people who, after a full life of 200 or two million years, will decide that enough is simply enough.
General social upheaval is the next and biggest concern. What do you do when a company has an immortal board of directors? Or when you’re married to someone for nine centuries and finally become bored with it all? Or when you have a senator who has lingered in the government for five thousand years? With the possibility of immortality, the fabric of society may be stretched and pulled until it breaks and will have to be rewoven. Even the scientific community could raise objections. Immortals could represent an affront to and the end of evolution. But this is nothing new. We don’t surrender to nature; we fight back. Not just biological evolution but creative and social evolution as well will be under threat. Will immortal nations enter a state of torpor, devitalized by a lack of ambition and innovation? Or will limitless horizons be seized with new force? Will a poet’s lament be not over death but be over the vastness of eternity?
Life isn’t always pleasant, even if we subtract the dread of dying from the equation. If 80 years is difficult to cope with how would Brent Jones handle 800? With newscasts showing him the latest wars, disease and human cruelty, does there ever reach a point when he decides to cancel his dose of eternity? If the doors of the brave new world swing wide, everything will be transformed. We might perish like bacteria in a petri dish. Or an undying race might achieve a perennial Golden Age even the most inspired Greek dared not imagine.
Either way,” says Trent, “the immortals are likely coming… There may be people alive right now who could live to see endless sunrises. Dreaming of the reality for so long, humanity won’t back away when the creeping dawn of attainment can already be seen brightening the attainment.”
This article that was originally published 23 years ago in our January 1992 newsletter.
I was recently requested to moderate a panel of religious leaders discussing “The Spiritual Aspects of Death and Dying.” The panel was composed of representatives from four different denominations. I was challenged by the opportunity, but could find no resource material on the subject of humanistic spirituality. Apparently humanists have discarded the use of the term, along with the words prayer and religion because they have such strong connotations of mysticism. I refuse to give orthodox religions exclusive use of these poetic terms so I did a little research and found resources and definitions that I find humanistically comfortable.
In the book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, the author Harold Kushner refers to the French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s 1912 publication “Elementary Forms of the Religious Life” in which he suggested that the primary purpose of religions at its earliest level was not to put people in touch with god, but to put them in touch with one another. Religious rituals taught people how to share with their neighbors the experiences of birth and bereavement, of children marrying and parents dying. There were rituals for planting and harvesting, for winter solstice and for the vernal equinox. In that way, the community would be able to share the most joyous and the most frightening moments of life. No one would have to face them alone. (Page 119)
As a humanist I find that definition of religion completely compatible with the social passion of Humanist Manifestos I & II
A recent issue of “The American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care” (Sept/Oct 1991, Page 17) Thomas Welk says:
It is important to make a distinction between spirituality and religions. In explaining the issue of spirituality it becomes necessary to emphasize that this is the most central, deepest and most complex of human needs. It is often referred to as the integrative, creative function. It is our way of making sense, meaning, and significance out of life.
In the same issue of the magazine (page 33) another author, Richard Dershimer, writes, “I used spirituality in the secular sense, that is, humans turning their attention away from worlds beyond and toward this world and this time without, necessarily, recourse to religious creeds or doctrines. The spirit can be described as that force within each person that fosters good, the just, the beautiful and the truthful in life. It is both mysterious and consciously concrete, but it results in maximizing human awareness and connection to life.”
After finding this material on religion and spirituality and with the late Harold Scott’s definition of prayer, “The expression of the highest of human aspirations.” Recalled to consciousness, I was able to comfortably accept the offer of moderating the panel on “The Spiritual Aspects of Death and Dying.”
Happy New Year everyone! I hope your all well and enjoying the holidays. It gets kind of busy for me, because as many of you know, I bake a lot of cookies this time of year; but I do enjoy sharing them with others during the holiday season. Even if it means rolling out a couple thousand! I’ll be bringing some to our January meeting also.
Last night, New Year’s Eve, I called Flo Wineriter, to wish him a happy 90th Birthday. He sounded good and said he was feeling a bit better. He will be spending much of his time in St. George but will visit back here in the Salt Lake area monthly.
Humanists of Utah owe much to Flo. He was one of the co-founders of Humanist of Utah and served as President for many years. We greatly appreciate his wisdom and leadership, his knowledge of humanism, and that through the years and that he is always friendly to all. So again, Happy Birthday and Happy New Year Flo. As we were saying good bye, he told me to go out and make Humanists of Utah successful again this coming year. I told him we would do our best.
We have a good start this year as our January 8th general meeting will feature Dr. Jay Jacobsen as our speaker and of course some of those cookies I’m always bragging about and good conversation to go with them.
Then in February we will host our 8th annual Darwin Day with Humanists of Utah. This year we will be hosting the event at Eliot Hall. We are hoping to have astronomy as the theme, and I am currently working on finalizing our speaker. This year Darwin’s birthday, February 12th, actually falls on our usual second Thursday meeting day. It is an event I always look forward to because of my love for science. I always enjoy celebrating and advocating for science on Darwin’s birthday.
Our chapter will also have several opportunities to participate in events throughout the year, such the Utah Pride festival, street fairs, and perhaps the state fair as well. But participation in some events will only be possible if we get a few more members to volunteer to help. Please give it some consideration.
It would also please me to just hear from some of the membership. Wayne would love to include a letter or book recommendation or tell us about an interesting web site.
One possibility to get something going with members might be to start a new recommended book list. In the past we have had a printed list, but it hasn’t been updated in a few years, so maybe we can start a new one. Which reminds me that our web site is being upgraded, and a recommended book page can surly be one of the features. Anyway, Think about your favorite books and let us know.
Bye for now and see you next week for our January meeting, and bring a friend.