Immortality

Some jelly fish may be immortal. Probably not these. Photo by Wal N. Monterrey Aquarium.

Now we live in a new time, with a somewhat different sense of time. Our life expectancies are increasing by about two years per decade, or about five hours per day, according to the standard estimates of scientists who study human life spans. That is to say, for every day we live now, we are given the gift of another five hours to live later on. While the time runs out today, time pours in tomorrow. It is almost, but not quite, like the gift of an afterlife.

Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality, Jonathan Weiner

Is it any wonder then that a Google search of  “immortality” yields over 8 million “results,” and even if a few of those million belong to the word metaphorically, that’s still a lot! Of course, the human race has been looking for endless life for a long time now: mummified pharaohs and elaborations on the marvelous notion of paradise. Religious doctrines that promise a heavenly reward. Nevertheless, it’s not a surprise that immortality should be an especially hot topic now when science has already promised and delivered so many miracles.

Besides Weiner’s book, I recently ran into a selection from another recent and fascinating book on the subject, The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death. It seems that a number of worthies—psychics, eugenists, spiritualists, scientists, Victorian thinkers and wise men—struggling to deal with the consequences of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory at the end of the 19th century, spent years searching for the science that would prove Darwin’s science wrong. If evolution was a fact, then human beings, like the rest of the earth’s species, would some day die, and as a species they might even become extinct. Beginning in the early 20th century, tens of thousands of documents from a number of countries, were produced, purporting to be messages from the beyond. They seemed to re-enforce one another, and what they apparently showed was that the dead, and especially dead scientists, had taken on the job of fashioning a new human being who would bring salvation to the world. A new messiah-child was even identified. Unfortunately, his life turned out to be rather ordinary.

The West was not the only place where the search for immortality took on a peculiar form at the start of the last century. In the Soviet Union intellectuals and artists (even Gorky) proposed that a new race of men would someday emerge from a series of catastrophic events in nature. In the meantime, they had to cope with the death of their most valued human being: Lenin. “Lenin,” said the poet Mayakovsky, “even now is more alive than all the living.” The funeral commission set up to plan Lenin’s internment was renamed the immortalisation commission.

The great leader was embalmed and a special refrigeration system was designed to preserve him while the world waited for the crisis that would end death and dying. Despite the visible deterioration of the body, it was repeatedly re-enbalmed. Lenin’s suit was changed every 18 months. When the Nazis approached Moscow, the dead leader was evacuated first. The living had to wait. Lenin, says Gray, “outlasted the Soviet regime.”

Today, of course, we all know about cryogenics: a few of our wealthier citizens have had their bodies frozen in preparation for a future resurrection. But according to some pundits and scientists, we may not have to wait very long. British futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that at the rate science and new technologies are advancing, “I and many other scientists now believe that in around 20 years we will have the means to reprogramme our bodies’ stone-age software so we can halt, then reverse, ageing. Then nanotechnology will let us live for ever.”

Another British scientist, Ian Pearson (and he has very impressive credentials!), announced a few days ago that “…realistically by 2050 we would expect to be able to download your mind into a machine, so when you die it’s not a major career problem. If you’re rich enough then by 2050 it’s feasible. If you’re poor you’ll probably have to wait until 2075 or 2080 when it’s routine.”

Apart from my irritation at the same old division between rich and poor, the question is “Do we really want to live forever?”
Weiner is quoted in the New York Times Book Review:

The trouble with immortality is endless. The thought of it brings us into contact with problems of time itself—with shapeless problems we have never grasped and may never put into words. Our ability to exist in time may require our being mortal, although we can’t understand that any more than the fish can understand water. What we call the stream of consciousness may depend upon mortality in ways that we can hardly glimpse.


Time is all about beginnings and endings. Can we, can the earth itself, live outside of time?

Apparently, one creature already does. The turritopsis nutricula jellyfish cycles from a mature adult stage to an immature polyp stage and back again. It regenerates itself over and over again. Because they’re able to bypass death, their numbers are spiking and they’re spreading.

I don’t know about you, but that gives me pause for thought.

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2 thoughts on “Immortality

  1. Fascinating! I, too, have admiration and respect for David Brooks, even if he sometimes drifts off into Republican-speak. I think he’s especially good on The News Hour. And, I’ve seen and photographed those same, immortal jellyfish (aren’t they actually sea nettles?) at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Maybe we’ll all be working for them someday.

  2. I just saw a Nova program that dealt with the subject of long life and immortality. It dealt with the growing of new organs to replace damaged parts. And the FOXO gene which apparently assures one of a long life. Since only about 10% of the population has the ideal form of that gene, they suggested that gene therapy might give us all that advantage.
    They had a cartoon about that immortal jellyfish. They showed the jellyfish changing forms and they said it could live forever. But then a big fish came and ate the jellyfish. So the added “at least in theory”.
    Its really hard to picture a society with lots of people hundreds and thousands of years old. Would anyone want to reproduce? How could the poor Earth support so many people if they did?

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