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Three Score and Ten
The immortality threat.


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John Derbyshire

James Boswell, during his London socializing, once found himself in the company of an aged peer of the realm. Never at a loss for a conversational opening, Boswell asked the old boy whether, looking back on his long life, he could see any pattern or purpose in it. No, replied His Lordship, it had all been “a chaos of nothing.” This came to mind when I read those news stories about recent advances in the understanding of aging, and hopes for dramatically extending human life. (For a sample of the stories, see here, here, and here.)

Now, in the first place, I am skeptical, not to say cynical, about science-news stories of this kind. My skepticism comes from having read too many of them over too many years. We have been on the point of conquering the aging process, to my certain recollection, since at least the 1960s; for about as long, in fact, as we have been on the point of generating affordable electric power via nuclear fusion. I can remember reading this stuff in the science magazines my high-school library subscribed to. Reading the same stories now, 40 years on, I can’t help but smile in disbelief.

It’s possible, of course, that this time there might be something to it. One of these researchers has quadrupled the lifespan of a nematode by altering a key gene. Hey! There are also a couple of different issues to be untangled here. There is, for instance, the Tithonus Option — that is, the possibility that all that can be prolonged is the decrepitude that every one of us sooner or later falls into if we live long enough. I doubt anybody really wants this. If we are going to live to be 150 years old, as some of these stories promise, we want it to be with joints, eyes, lungs, and brains in full working order.

And then there is the economics of it. Just look at how most people live. Some time in our late teens or early twenties we get a job. Probably it is a job for which our enthusiasm will soon fade, or which we never cared about much in the first place. We peg away at it for 40 years or so anyway, to bring in enough money to pay for things we do care about — our families, our hobbies, our retirement plans. Then we quit, and spend a few years gardening, or fishing, or hot-air ballooning, or just watching TV, reading spy fiction, and taking a cruise once in a while. Then we die. “A chaos of nothing,” indeed. Now, if our lifespan is to go to 150, and in good health, how will it be filled? By working longer? How many of us want that? Most people work to live, they don’t live to work. So then, instead of a 40-year working life followed by 20 or 30 years of retirement, we are to have a 40-year working life followed by 80 or 90 years of retirement? How on earth shall we pay for it? And in any case…90 years of fishing?

As you can probably tell by this point, I’m agin the whole thing. I don’t want to live to 150, not even in good health. I believe, in fact, that the idea of prolonging life is awful in and of itself. Imagine a world full of old farts! You may say: Ah, yes, but they will have the bodies of 30-year-olds. Come on — that’s the worst kind of old fart. Old-fart-hood is a state of mind, and no amount of fiddling with genes is going to change that.

It is mainly young people who make the world go round. In their ignorance, and heedlessness, and ridiculous over-confidence, they push forward in enterprises that the calm, wise, worldly, old farts know for sure will all end in tears. And lo and behold! Once in a while the old farts are proved wrong, and that absurd enterprise opens up a complete new chapter in human history. Take away that first, fine, careless rapture of youth, or suffocate it under the negativity and cynicism that will permeate a world full of sesquicentenarian old farts, and history will stop. I have a friend, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, who left Taiwan in his twenties to seek his fortune elsewhere. Why? I asked. Why did he leave Taiwan? “Because,” he replied, “there was a phrase I got sick of hearing. Sick, sick, sick! And I didn’t want to hear it any more.” The phrase, I learned on further inquiry, was indeed one that Chinese people hear rather a lot when growing up: Wo nianji bi ni da! — “I’m older than you,” with the understood implication that nothing you say or do could possibly be very interesting or important. You’ll be hearing that a lot in this not-very-brave new world of 150-year lifespans.

In fact, the only thing less appealing to me than a doubling of the human lifespan is outright immortality. I know, of course, that this is an age-old dream, and that millions of hours of human ingenuity have been given over to the search for an elixir of life. (At least one Chinese emperor was fatally poisoned by taking an “elixir” some court alchemist had brewed up for him.) Immortality has been a recurrent theme in science fiction; and I think it is revealing that it has been one of the less successful ones. Not even the greatest of the sci-fi masters have been able to make immortality attractive. Nor have moviemakers been able to do much with it. The only people who really have anything interesting to say on this topic are the religious teachers, who tell us that life is already eternal, and death merely a transformation from one state of existence into another.

Unfortunately very large numbers of people, perhaps a majority, no longer believe that. I don’t mind confessing I have a lot of trouble with it myself. To be sure, it seems a very hard thing, an unbearable thing, for the injustice of this world to go unamended, for this fantastic spark of awareness to be extinguished, for this little window through which the light of the whole universe shines to be shuttered up forever. And yet, I remember an auto accident I was in once, when my car was broadsided by another going too fast to stop at a light. I was coming up to that light from the cross road, thinking about the day’s work…. And then someone was fitting a neck brace on me, and saying take it easy with him there, his foot’s trapped, and the windshield in front of me had an interesting starburst-shaped pattern of cracks all over it. It must have taken a while — ten, fifteen minutes — for the emergency squad to get there. In those minutes, I was conscious of… nothing.

If the other guy had been going 20mph faster, I suppose would have been killed. Then presumably I would have been conscious of nothing forever. Wouldn’t I? It doesn’t seem particularly improbable, though of course no-one can prove this kind of thing one way or the other, and as a person trained in math I am very well aware that infinite quantities have properties that finite ones do not have. In any case, the cold-thinking part of my mind can’t see anything very unlikely about the idea of permanent black extinction, total nothingness, Larkin’s “huge and birdless silence.” I can’t bear to dwell on it, though. Who can? Well, Larkin could — he wrote half a dozen poems along the same lines; but he was a very odd person.

Yet, even without any vision of an afterlife, even with nothing more to hope for than a long sleep, I think most of us feel that there is something fitting about leaving the world after seven or eight decades of stumbling around in it. I can remember overhearing my grandmother, in old age, saying to my mother: “I’m weary, our Esther — so weary.” (As well she might be after raising 13 children.) Enough is enough. Do what you like with the body: Pump it full of hormones, smooth out the flesh, brighten the eyes, sharpen the reflexes and oil the joints: The person, the core of myself that knows my own history, that has been sorting and weighing and accumulating and negotiating, loving and hating, anticipating and regretting, for 70 or 80 years, will get weary at last. Biochemistry will never be able to do anything about that.

Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas,
Ease after war, death after life does greatly please.
— Spenser, The Faerie Queene, 1.ix.xl



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