Do You Want to Live Forever?
As humanity trying to reach the so-called ‘Elixir of life’ through science, Vincent Plant discusses his thoughts on immortality.
It seems like everyone is talking about immortality. In 2013, Google launched Calico, a company with the aim of “solving death”, wanting “people to live longer and healthier lives”. The Coalition for Radical Life Extension aims for “physical immortality”. These things may seem more realistic in our present day than ever before, but how desirable is such immortality? Let’s take a step back.
We may be getting ahead of ourselves. When the biochemist Isaac Asimov wrote his Foundation series, set over twenty thousand years from now, he gave one character a lifespan of 81 years. The stories were first published in the 1950s, when the average life expectancy was 46 years.
Asimov’s prediction serves as a caution, suggesting that we might only extend our lives by a few decades in the next few millennia. One (controversial) new paper suggests that human lifespan might plateau at 115 years.
Nearly half of a person’s healthcare costs is spent in the last third of their life, a figure that will only increase in health-span lags behind the lifespan increase.
However, some researchers say that it’s premature to argue that an age limit exists, meaning that the door to potentially infinite life extension still hangs ajar. The “human longevity revolution” may continue for a while yet.
Immortality (in whatever form it might arise) could deal a severe blow to virtually all religions, which would potentially find themselves hard-pressed to adapt. After all, the afterlife and reincarnation are not compatible with human immortality. Given that 84% of the world’s population follow one religion or another, this may see society shaken to its roots.
Then there’s health. Calico’s promise to solve death doesn’t say anything the healthspan- the proportion of your life spent in good health. For thousands of years, the fear of ageing has haunted our society. In Greek mythology, the lover of Eos, goddess of dawn, was granted eternal life but not eternal youth, meaning that he was reduced to “babbling senselessly” thanks to the sheer weight of years pressed upon him.
If research was truly to try and extend lifespan, they would have to extend health-span too to see any real benefit. Nearly half of a person’s healthcare costs is spent in the last third of their life, a figure that will only increase in health-span lags behind the lifespan increase.
My own feeling is that humans see death as part of the natural order of things. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to extend our lives, but when it comes to actual immortality rather than simply living longer, people tend to feel uncomfortable.
We should focus on increasing our lives and the proportion of our lives that we’re healthy for, rather than far-flung dreams of immortality. We’re already seeing great successes; scientists speculate that the first person to live to 150 is already alive today. Let’s focus on one achievement at a time rather than letting our success go to our heads.