Death and taxes, these are the inevitabilities of life. If there are two things in life you cannot escape, then those two have your number, heck, they’ve got everyone’s number. Science fiction and fantasy have often dealt with themes of immortality and man’s quest to cheat death. A simple Google search for sci-fi novels dealing with immortality will soon unveil a wealth of lists and must-reads. Sci-fi is quite obsessed with the idea of living forever and it makes sense. While we all accept that death is a part of life, how many of us truly accept it? Sure, we can intellectualise the idea but we cannot truly understand it, and this is because none of us actually know what happens when we die. There are claims as to what to expect. All the major religions of the world dictate to their followers exactly what comes after death and there are those who even claim to have been to the other side. However, there is no uniform certainty and I think for this reason more than the others, we fear death and we’ll do all in our power to avoid it.
What amazes this writer about sci-fi is how much of the subject matter is prescient. Many readers refer to sci-fi writers as modern day prophets; people who have looked into the future and revealed it to us under the guise of fiction. Well, fiction it seems is getting a lot closer to becoming a reality as scientists have started theorising and finding ways in which the aging process can be slowed, reversed and possibly halted.
One Goal, Many Ways
There seems to be a major focus on the concept of immortality and from various angles, too. There’s so much focus on immortality, that it’s safe to say that we’re going to get there by various means and possibly in the end, what will be an amalgamation of the different technologies. Some of the ideas expressed by those involved sound a little more outlandish than the others, but all seem to make sense on one or more levels.
Let’s talk about the discourse that says that if you’re born after 1970, you have a chance at immortality. Quite the bold claim, and one that’s been made by a futurologist by the name of Dr Ian Pearson. Pearson believes that if you can make it to the year 2050, you have a chance at immortality, and that the only thing that at this point would be able to cash in your chips would be a nasty disease. Pearson focuses on two methods through which we can achieve immortality. The first is by way of renewing one’s body parts, and the second is by living in android bodies. The first method includes genetic engineering and the replacement of body parts with bionic ones, with 3D printing being one of the ways to create such parts. The second method theorises that your mind will be capable of being uploaded into a cloud and then placed within an android for further exploration. The idea is that upon death, you’ll live on because your mind would have been digitally mapped and stored on a hard drive, ready to then be moved into an android body.
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De Grey’s Take
A man who has kicked up a real hoo-ha is Dr Aubrey De Grey, who recently and famously said that the first man who will live to be 200 years old has already been born. You’ve really got to love the sheer dramatic intensity that these futurists employ when making their statements. It’s nothing short of grand, but that’s not to deny the credentials of those making these statements. Dr De Grey is a faculty member of the Singularity University, a biomedical research charity based in California, whose main aim is to create new therapies designed to remedy the aging process by undoing and repairing the molecular and cellular attributes of aging. De Grey reckons this kind of technology could be available in the next 20 years and already exists in the form of stem cell and tissue engineering.
Nature has often provided the best answers and the best blueprints. Why we as a species have not chosen to mimic nature more often in terms of our industrial applications is beyond me. Scientists have discovered that many animals have found ways, or one could say that they have evolved to become equipped with ways to stave off death. Animals and creatures that have showcased prolonged living include whales, rats and bats, although that’s stating it quite broadly. Specific species have shown a resilience to age, and in saying that, the range mentioned is not exclusive, but they’ve been studied extensively.
The bowhead whale lives to at least 150 years, and as long as 210 years. Scientists marvel at the fact this is a creature living out in nature, not requiring medical attention, or being privy to the benefits of human society. Joao Pedro de Magalhaes, a leading microbiologist on aging at the University of Liverpool and a man well beyond the realms of a doctorate, believes that these animals are naturally protected from age-related symptoms. De Magalhaes reckons that by studying these whales and other creatures with similar biological traits, he and his colleagues can make new medical breakthroughs that will slow the aging process. He goes on to say that nature changes the lifespan of certain species all the time, so the question then becomes, how? And by extension, how can it be applied to human beings.
The bowhead whale provides but one example. The mole rat lives to be 30 years and the Brandt’s bat, weighing no more than a sugar cube, clocks in at 40! Scientists have narrowed the lack of aging for these two creatures down to the fact that their cells cease with any growth once their bodies reach a certain density and this in turn stops the growth of any tumours.
Many of those involved (scientists, microbiologists, academics, intellectuals etc.) in the quest for the fountain of youth are hopeful, and their justification is quite simple; if you look at the state of medicine 120 years ago and compare it to where it’s at today, the optimism becomes very apparent.
Is it okay for man to live to be 200? I don’ know. What are the ramification of such a feat and what are its widespread applications? How long before immortality becomes a reality? Maybe this is what will be needed if we’re serious about the conquest of space. Like any new technology that gets introduced and integrated into society, I guess we’ll just have to take it as it comes.
Reggie Washington is an
avid follower of pop culture,
reads regularly and has
been known to churn out
a decent article
every now and then.