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The God quest: why humans long for immortality

We can’t stop craving eternity.

When on his travels Gulliver discovers that among the inhabitants of Luggnagg live the Struldbrugs, born with a red spot on their foreheads indicating that they never die, he is delighted. “Happy nation, where every child hath at least a chance for being immortal!” he exclaims.

It is true, says Gulliver’s interpreter in Jonathan Swift’s novel, that long life seems to be the universal desire and wish of mankind. But that is just because of “the common imbecility of human nature”. Then Gulliver learns that the Struldbrugs, thoughimmune to death, are not protected from old age, and he is horrified. “No tyrant could invent a death, into which I would not run with pleasure, from such a life,” he decides.

The strange thing about our dreams of immortality is that they persist even while so many of the stories we tell about them end badly. The Immortal in Jorge Luis Borges’s story of that name ends up wearily treading the world in search of an antidote to the elixir of youth that, in his foolishness, he sought out. This ennui with eternity is shared by the characters of Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time novels and the immortal Q in the Death Wish episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

Even if the ravages of age are not physical, they are moral, as the perpetually youthful Dorian Gray discovers when his ageing portrait records his soul’s corruption. When Odysseus elects to return home to Penelope rather than remain in an island paradise with the beautiful nymph Calypso and become immortal, we suspect that he has chosen well.

But still we can’t stop craving eternity, which is why many religions have found “life everlasting” such a powerful recruiting tool. This irreconcilable conflict – experiencing the sadness, frustration and ­discomfort of the ageing process, yet knowing the folly of wishing it away indefinitely – is precisely why we need myths. Yet myths may be fed, not banished, by science. Once scientists researching the biology of ageing – biogerontology – found that some of its depredations can be slowed, a quasi-scientific cult of technological immortality was inevitable.

Myths live on by disguising themselves in the apparel of modernity. So it is fully to be expected that immortality today is a business offering to tailor clients’ diet regimes, that it is expounded at conferences in PowerPoint presentations, that it announces itself with words such as “telomere extension” and “immune regulation”. This is distressing to serious biogerontologists, who worry that funding of their careful work on age-related disease and infirmity will seem boring in comparison to supporting folks who promise to let us live for ever. They are right to be concerned but sadly theirs will ever be the fate of scientists working in a field that touches on fabled and legendary themes, where both calculating opportunists and well-meaning fantasists can thrive. Age-related research until recently has been rather marginalised in medicine, and the gerontologist Richard Miller of the University of Michigan suggests one reason for this: “Most gerontologists who are widely known to the public are unscrupulous purveyors of useless nostrums.”

 

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For an introduction to this bioger­ontological mythology, I recommend last year’s documentary The Immortalists, which profiles two of the most vocal advocates of scientific immortality: the computer scientist Aubrey de Grey and the biotech entrepreneur Bill Andrews. Yet the film shows that these men aren’t lone mavericks with unconventional ideas about ageing and its abolition, but participants in a complex and self-supporting network of techno-myth. And as is the case with, for example, human cloning, nutrition and the surprising properties of water, there is no convenient partitioning here into respectable and cranky science. In consequence, the immortality market can’t simply be eliminated by the appliance of science; it needs to be understood as a cultural phenomenon.

Ageing is partly genetic but there are no “ageing genes” – merely ordinary genes that may cause problems in later life. Age-related conditions such as heart failure, dementia and cancer typically stem from an interplay between genes and environment: we can inherit predispositions but environmental factors such as diet and pollution affect whether they manifest. (Research that was widely reported early this year as showing that most cancers are due to “bad luck”, irrespective of environmental influences, in fact had a more complex message.)

It is surprising, perhaps alarming, that we know so little about ageing. We get old in many ways. For instance, some of our cells just stop dividing – they senesce. While this shutdown stops them becoming cancerous, the senescent cells are a waste of space and may create problems for the immune system. Cell senescence may be related to a process called telomere shortening: repeated cell division wears away the end caps, called telomeres, on the chromosomes that contain our genes. Although shortened telomeres seem to be related to the early onset of age-related disease, the ­relationship is complex. It is partly because cancer cells are good at regenerating their telomeres that they can divide and proliferate out of control. Cells also suffer general wear and tear because of so-called oxidative damage, in which reactive forms of oxygen – an inevitable by-product of respiration – attack and disrupt the molecules that sustain life. This has made “antioxidants” such as Vitamins C and E, and the compound resveratrol, found in red wine, buzzwords in nutrition. But the effects of oxidative damage and antioxidants are still poorly understood.

These factors and others can interact with each other in complex ways. A group of UK experts called the Longevity Science Panel, funded by the insurers Legal & General, concluded in a 2014 report: “There is little consensus on which mechanisms of ageing are the most important in humans.” Biogerontologists don’t even agree about whether the ageing process itself is best considered as a single effect, or many.

Extreme ideas always fare best in areas where less is known. Which brings us to the star of The Immortalists and the self-styled poster-boy of the scientific-immortality movement: Aubrey de Grey. It is easy to see why the media like him. With his ponytail and Rasputin beard, his piercing eyes and dishevelled appearance, his delight in real ale and naked sunbathing and his mesmerising articulacy, the 52-year-old de Grey is every inch the prophet, a John the Baptist offering technological salvation. It is hard to know how much of this impression is calculated but it exerts a compelling effect that has won over some respected biologists, even if they insist they don’t fully buy his theories. The archetypal magazine article presents him as a colourful maverick, a self-taught biologist with a Cambridge degree in computer science, up against the scepticism of stodgy biogerontologists. De Grey knows how to wield this narrative to advantage, insisting that all he wants is to debate with a closed-minded community.

This, his critics have come to realise, is a game they can’t win. As a group of leading authorities in the field wrote in the biology journal EMBO Reports in 2005, in response to an article published there by de Grey:

Journalists with papers to sell or airtime to fill too often fall for the idea of a Cambridge scientist who knows how to help us live for ever with telomerase, allotopic mitochondrial-coded proteins and marker-tagged toxins. To explain to a layman why de Grey’s programme falls into the realm of fantasy rather than science requires time, attention and the presentation of detailed background information . . . anyone who is tempted to do so is easily cast as a Luddite, an enemy of creativity and noble ambition, and someone whose prissy reluctance to confront de Grey’s ideas might prevent us from living for ever.

 

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Is Aubrey de Grey a charlatan? For all the artful self-promotion, he genuinely seems to believe not only that he is on to something but that his ideas are of humanitarian importance. He is nothing if not sincere in thinking that to slow and ultimately reverse ageing is an obligation that science is failing dismally to fulfil. He regards old age as a disease like any other: it is scandalous, he says, that it kills 90 per cent of all human beings and yet we are doing so little about it. De Grey calls his quest a “crusade to defeat ageing”, which he regards as “the single most urgent imperative for humanity”. Death, he says, “is quite simply repugnant”, and he equates our acceptance of it in elderly people with our past casual acceptance of the slaughter of other races.

To many, the ethics face quite the other way. Don’t we die off to make room for our children and aren’t there already too many of us? De Grey’s response reveals a lot about the man. Imagining procreation as simply our best current shot at immortality (for isn’t this, in the end, all that our genes are after?), he argues that the desire to have children will wane once we can live for ever. And who is to say that future technologies won’t give the planet a far greater carrying capacity than it has at present? Such optimism can be alluring.

How does de Grey think we will stop our bodies from ageing? He proposes a seven-point plan called Sens (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) that, in his view, picks off all the processes by which our cells decline, one by one. We can get rid of unwanted cells, such as excess fat cells and senescent cells, by training the immune system or triggering the cells into eliminating themselves. We can suppress cancer by silencing the genes that enable cancer cells to repair their telomeres. We can avoid harmful mutations in the handful of genes housed in our energy-generating cell compartments called mitochondria by making back-up copies, to be housed in the better-protected confines of the cell’s nucleus, where the chromosomes reside. We can find drugs that inhibit the degradation of tissues at the molecular level. And so on.

His detractors point out that almost all of these plans amount to saying, “Here’s the problem, and we’ll find a magic ingredient that fixes it.” If you think there are such ingredients, they say, then please find just one. He is looking. With inherited wealth and venture capital backing from the likes of PayPal’s co-founder Peter Thiel, de Grey maintains an institution in Mountain View, California, called the Sens Research Foundation, with laboratories to investigate his proposals. But he insists that the criterion of success isn’t a steadily increasing longevity in model organisms, because Sens is a ­package, not a series of incremental steps. No one criticised Henry Ford, de Grey says, because the individual components of his cars didn’t move if burning petrol was poured on them.

Some critics are outspoken. The neurobiologist Colin Blakemore of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study appears in The Immortalists calling de Grey’s views “foolish” and “naive”, and denouncing his proposed remedies for ageing as “dangerous snake oil”. De Grey is confident that the ranks of such critics are dwindling – but that might be because they are wary of even giving him the respectability of debate. “I think giving any publicity to crackpots like de Grey and his ilk is distinctly bad for the field. It makes it harder for people outside the research community to take ageing research seriously,” said one gerontologist I contacted, who asked to remain anonymous. “I do not, however, particularly want to get drawn into character assassinations of Aubrey, or my take on the more extremist views,” said another.

 

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Regardless of what the Sens Research Foundation does or does not achieve, the immortality business seems certain to thrive. There will never be a shortage of customers for places such as the physician Terry Grossman’s Wellness Centre in Golden, Colorado, which offers personalised plans for lifespan extension, any more than there was ever a shortage of kings and emperors happy to fund alchemists seeking the elixir of life. (In The Immortalists, de Grey and Andrews are shown competitively working out at Grossman’s clinic.) The market sustains conferences such as Global Future 2045, held in New York in 2013 – an event bizarre even in a country sometimes eerily blind to its own strangeness. Experts in artificial intelligence and genomics rubbed shoulders with “quantum consciousness activists”, “self-realised Siddha masters”, “human enhancement trailblazers” and with the guru of this arena: the billionaire inventor of computer and music technologies, Google’s futurist and “singularitarian immortalist”, Ray Kurzweil.

Kurzweil’s concept of the Singularity provides the immortalists with their equivalent of the Resurrection: a moment in the foreseeable future when computer technology and artificial intelligence, biotechnology and nanotechnology will all converge to make it possible for us to download our minds and attain virtual immortality. Like de Grey, Kurzweil is holding out for this moment with a carefully designed regime of exercise and diet.

There is a symbiosis of fantasies at play here that flows into the currents of the so-called transhumanist movement, the truly eschatological branch of technological futurology. Transhumanists maintain that the destiny of humanity is to merge with technology, whereupon immortality will be just one superpower among many. Trans­humanism brandishes a handful of motifs with totemic significance, Kurzweil’s Singularity being perhaps the most revered. Its prophets are the spurned visionaries of every field: de Grey for ageing, Kurzweil for artificial intelligence, the maverick guru Eric Drexler for nanotechnology. They cite each other’s predictions to support the feasibility of their own. A horror of looming mortality pervades the field in ways that are all too easy to map on to the preoccupations of religious millenarians of former times.

Kurzweil and Grossman’s 2009 book Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever describes a programme of diet, exercise and vitamin supplements that should sustain you until the Singularity takes over. In their future vision, Drexler’s nano-robots maintain our memories and repair our cells. If it takes a little longer, you can always preserve your body or brain cryogenically (we don’t know how to avoid serious tissue damage – yet!), as de Grey and Kurzweil intend to do. The Soviets tried it with Lenin in 1924, as John Gray explains in his 2011 book on early 20th-century efforts to cheat death, The Immortalization Commission. The technology didn’t work; Lenin turned green.

 

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The hope of medical immortality may be false but it raises moral and philosophical questions. Is there something fundamental to human experience in our mortality, or is de Grey right to see that as a defeatist betrayal of future generations? Do we value life precisely because it passes? “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom,” Psalm 90 proclaims. And is there an optimal span to our time on earth? These are pertinent questions for even the most sober gerontologists, because the truth is that the ageing process can be slowed, and we can expect to have longer lives in the future and to remain well and active for more of that time.

For instance, it has been known for decades that rats and mice live longer, and stay healthy for longer, when given only the quantities of a well-balanced diet that they need and no more. This so-called caloric restriction seems to slow down ageing in a wide range of tissues. No one knows why, but it seems to point to a common mechanism of ageing that extends between species. Some researchers think that with caloric restriction it might be possible to extend mean human lifespans to roughly 110 years (with the occasional Methuselah reaching 140).

Others aren’t persuaded that caloric restriction would be effective at all for slowing ageing in human beings – studies on rhesus monkeys have been inconclusive – and they point out that it is a bad idea for elderly people. “If we can understand how to uncouple the benefits of a low-calorie diet from its detrimental effects, we may be able to develop therapeutics that have broad impacts on many age-related diseases,” William Mair of the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health tells me. “I think in the long term this is an achievable goal.”

Couldn’t we just make an anti-ageing pill? There are candidates. The drug rapamycin, which is used to suppress immune rejection in organ transplants and as an anti-cancer agent, also has effects on ageing. It stops cells dividing and suppresses the immune system – and increases the lifespan of fruit flies and small mammals such as mice. But it has nasty side effects, including urinary-tract infections, anaemia, nausea, even skin cancer. So it won’t be used as a routine anti-ageing drug unless a milder version can be found. Other drugs are under trial. One developed by the anti-ageing company Sirtris in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and now undergoing clinical trials with GlaxoSmithKline (which bought and then shut down Sirtris) aims to switch on a class of proteins called sirtuins, which some researchers believe are involved in the cellular processes of ageing. The red-wine compound resveratrol is thought to activate sirtuins, although exactly what they do in ageing is still unclear and controversial. GSK seems to be hoping for drugs that can combat age-related diseases; the aim was never anything as broad as an “anti-ageing pill”.

Other researchers think that the answer lies with genetics. The genomics pioneer Craig Venter, whose company Celera privately sequenced the human genome in the early 2000s, recently launched Human Longevity, Inc together with the spaceflight entrepreneur Peter Diamand. It aims to compile a database of genomes to identify the genetic characteristics of long-lived individuals. There is generally no evolutionary driving force for “longevity genes”, because animals don’t usually die of old age in the wild – they get eaten, suffer disease or injury, or fall off a cliff. Old age among animals happens mostly in zoos and domestic pets.

But “during times of food scarcity, organisms can switch their ageing rate, turning off growth and turning on stress defences and self-maintenance, to maintain themselves for better times”, as Mair, the Harvard expert on ageing, explains. “So ageing rate can be altered. And animals in this self-protecting state are not just long-lived but protected against diseases of old age, from cancer to Alzheimer’s to diabetes.”

Whether Venter will find genes responsible for the exceptional longevity of some individuals, and whether they would be of any use for extending average lifespan, is another matter. “His approach has some serious conceptual limitations,” the Michigan gerontologist Richard Miller tells me. “I think he’s radically overestimating the degree to which the ageing process is modulated by genetic variation.”

To read one script, we are on the cusp of a revolution in ageing research. Google has recently created the California Life Company, or CALICO, which seems to be seeking life-extending drugs. The hedge-fund billionaire Joon Yun has launched the $1m Palo Alto Longevity Prize to bring about the “end of ageing”, so that “human capacity would finally be fully unleashed”.

But the Longevity Science Panel, composed of scientists rather than venture capitalists, had a much more sobering message. To get a substantial increase in lifespan – an extra decade or so, say – we would need to find ways of slowing the ageing rate by half (which the panel deemed barely plausible given the current knowledge) and apply that treatment throughout a person’s life from an early age. If you’re already middle-aged today, even major breakthroughs are barely going to make any difference to how long you will live.

As for the immortalists, a few specialists are prepared to be blunt. After reading a March 2005 article on Aubrey de Grey in Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Technology Review, Miller asked the magazine to forward a letter to him. It began by explaining that Miller “was hoping that now that the ageing problem has been
solved, you might have time to help me in my publicity campaign to solve a similar engineering challenge, one that has been too long ignored by the ultra-conservative, fraidy-cat mainstream scientific community: the problem of producing flying pigs”.

Jonathan Swift would have approved of the satirical critique. Had the laws of Luggnagg not forbidden it in Gulliver’s Travels, the narrator attests that he would have been glad to send a couple of the immortal Struldbrugs back to England “to arm our people against the fear of death”. The fantasies spun about scientific immortality, rather than being showered with scorn, should be met with some sensitivity to that fear, and an acceptance of the myths it will always engender. But the immortalists, striving for eternal life with dietary supplements and techno-fables, will serve well enough as our own cautionary Struldbrugs. 

Philip Ball’s latest book is “Invisible: the Dangerous Allure of the Unseen” (The Bodley Head).

This article appears in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn