The Future of Immortality
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
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.”
Bruce Miller’s Prayer
Bruce Miller, besides being Board Member Cindy King’s father, is a humanist counselor in San Luis Obispo, California. He also subscribes to this journal and gave a generous contribution to our essay contest. Here is his reworking of the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed:
Fellow humans who labor in the halls of learning,
glory be to the process of education
and the scientific method.
May truth, forever changing, reside in the human mind
as we struggle to understand ourselves.
May I have the strength to replace old assumptions when
confronted with new evidence.
May I be judged not by past beliefs,
but by my willingness to change.
May truth, based upon faith in logic, probability, rational
thought, and verification through replication be the basis
for renunciation of absolute authority and the source of
For all people, forever and ever. Amen.
I believe in the theory of probability based upon mathematical principles and in the discovery of knowledge through the scientific method. I believe in the power of the human mind as it has evolved over time. I believe in the development of life through the process of evolution and in the modification and generalization of truth as it is discovered through the examination of facts. I believe in the renunciation of dogma as it is handed down by unquestioned authority. Thence, I shall be judged by my actions and my beliefs as they rest in faith based upon inquiry, openness, tolerance, and the uncertainty principle and may I dwell in the house of skepticism forever and ever. Amen.
At our December dinner social Flo Wineriter discussed his recent humanist presentation to a Jordon School District teachers’ conference on religion. One of the ideas he was asked to discuss with the teachers was his response to the question “What would be different in Utah if your members represented 70% of the population?”
Among the changes Flo presented to that conference were: public education would be tuition free through a college degree, sex education K-12 would emphasize responsible sexual expression, and public housing would be available for the homeless.
Flo asked those in attendance at our meeting to share their thoughts on how Utah would be different if humanists dominated our culture. Several societal improvements were expressed including: higher degree of tolerance, Utah would be a political blue state, families would have fewer children, there would be better funding for children’s day care, liquor would be sold commercially,
The audience responded with laughter when Flo summed up the suggestions saying, “Ironically, Utah would be heaven on earth if humanism dominated the Utah culture.”
In conclusion Flo said the exercise demonstrates the philosophy of humanism is much more than simply a non-belief in the supernatural.
Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior
- Associate yourself with persons of good character. It is better to be alone than in bad company.
- Think before you speak.
- Accept corrections thankfully.
- Be not obstinate in supporting your own opinion.
- Do not repeat news if you know not the truth thereof.
- Speak not evil of the absent.
- Do not reprove or correct another in anger.
- Do not curse or revile anyone.
- Let your conversation be without malice or envy.
- Yield the place in front of the fire to the latest comer.
- Jog not the desk on which another reads or writes.
- Speak not injurious words either in jest or in earnest. Scoff at none although they give occasion.
- In disputes, give liberty to each one to present his opinion.
- Be attentive when others speak.
- Always submit your judgments to others with modesty.
- Do not undertake to teach your equal in an art in which he is qualified.
- A man should not preen himself about his achievements, his wit, his virtue, and much less about his wealth.
- When a man does the best he can, yet succeeds not, do not blame him.
- Do not express joy before one who is sick or in pain.
- If anyone comes to speak to you while you are sitting, stand up, even though you may consider him to be your inferior.
- Show a good example, particularly before the less experienced.
- Do not give advice unless you are asked.
- Be not curious to know the affairs of others.