Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Death is not a part of life

Aubrey de Grey sporting a beard you could lose a ferret in
Is ageing inevitable, are we all doomed to die? Seems like a silly question. Of course we are all going to die. It is part of the biological condition. All living organisms age, senesce and eventually cease to exist. Tis the natural order of things, or is it?

Aubrey de Grey is an English scientist who disagrees. He contemplates the ageing process as a disease and therefore a challenge begging for a cure. For him the problem is best tackled from the perspective of engineering. Examine all the aspects of ageing and fix them. Stated baldly this turns ageing into a technical problem like fixing a car. But of course biological systems are unbelievably complex, unlike the Renault Megane. He argues if we can discover all the individual components of the ageing process, biological engineering can provide a solution. The engineering perspective is critical. Scientists would have to understand all the intricate mechanisms of the ageing process; this approach could take centuries. The engineering approach is much simpler. Identify the problem and fix it. But herein lays the problem. The reason why we age is unclear. There are many theories of why we age but frankly we are still unsure why biological organisms should age and die at all. While it is true that many of the degenerative processes are well understood, this doesn't answer the central question of biological death.

Aubrey de Grey is an optimist. He believes that there are people alive today who will live to be over a thousand. If we can engineer a solution to death then 'we' (notice the quotes) can live forever. He believes that the engineering problem is about to be solved within the next thirty years. A combination of drugs and nanotechnology will keep our bodies rejuvenated and essentially immortal. The only limit to lifespan will be chance accidental causes- or perhaps suicide. Will living a thousand years be too great for anyone to bear?

There are some, like de Grey, who believe we are on the verge of a solution to the ultimate question. All they need to do is stay alive long enough to reap the rewards. They are prepared to undergo extreme privation today in order to live for an infinite tomorrow. They fast, take supplements and subsist on a healthy life style. They hope to buy time now and eventually be part of the immortal club.

I suspect de Grey is a dreamer. I also suspect the problem of ageing wont be 'fixed' soon, if ever. I'm hoping I won't be around when that day arrives. Man has always dreamed of immortality, but when that day comes, will he cease to be man? If nothing else, life is defined by death. Humans are the only sentient creature which contemplate death and understand that we are ultimately doomed. It haunts our waking days and is present when we watch our parents die. In this regard we are all on the great conveyer of life, waiting in turn to drop off at life's terminus.   

And what of the ethical and moral dimensions? Who will benefit and drink from the chalice of immortality, if it is ever found? The child in the slum of Soweto or the urchin in the Glasgow tenement? Whatever the science and engineering involved you can be assured it will come at a cost; the pharmaceutical and nano-tech companies will want their gelt. I suspect the elixir of life will be restricted to the usual suspects- rich, white, old men. With a burgeoning world population, is it morally sound for a select few, the elect, to live for a 1,000 years? Many would answer this question in the negative. But what has morality to do with money and big business.

Earlier I raised the question of  how this would affect our ultimate humanity. Would our memory fade with time, would we forget what happened 150 years ago? Would reality become a succession of 'lives'? The problem inherent in extreme longevity is enough to make a mortal's head spin.

Underpinning all this is a blithe assumption that most of us would choose life over death. However, when the question is asked, the majority of folk say, nay. A recent survey of 30,000 people found that less than 1%  wanted to live for an eternity. What we do want is to live disease free and healthy for as long as we live. You could argue this view might change on the death bed. If dying and offered a pill conferring immortality, would you take it?

De Grey is an idealist and like many idealists he means well. There is almost a childlike enthusiasm in his proclamations. His fanaticism is also apparent. De Grey is a  man driven and has dedicated the last 10 years of his life perusing the 'dream of gods'. In many respects he resembles the ascetic religious fanatic. Earnest, abstemious (although he is fond of beer) and extremely zealous. It is as if he can transform the world by his will and by the vigorous application of technology. In this respect, he resembles Steve Jobs. We need men like de Grey, men like him often have an impact on society, and often in ways they don't expect. De Grey is a clever man and tis a shame he hasn't harnessed his talents to real life problems rather than shackle his formidable intellect to the unobtainable stars.

No comment necessary



  1. I have to say the thought of living forever scares me witless not that I had many wits to start with, but I really dont want to be on this nasty evil god forsaken scum hole any longer than fate decrees.
    I would never seek to end my own life unless I had an incurable or degenerative illness but the changes I have seen in my lifetime are depressing enough without seeing any more degeneration and society collapse. I may be an idiot but I am not a glutton for punishment.

  2. Some books on this subject you might like :

    "Time Enough for Love" by Robert Heinlein - the story of Lazarus Long, the first man to never age

    The Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. When rejuvenation becomes reality, people's brains become clogged up and have to be reset to avoid overload with memories

    Eon / Eternity and sequels by Greg Bear : Particularly interesting in the way they deal with life an death. People can be corporate or virtual, their minds stored electronically within computers. They can experience real life either in organic or robotic bodies and because they can be copied, can have partial copies and be in more than one place at once, combining their memories when the partials are recombined.

    Interesting concepts. If you can download into a computer, then the question is really what is a human being and what is consciousness? Where do we go when we sleep for example?

    What is the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything? I'm with Douglas Adams on this one. It's 42.