Published November 1, 2010
Long for This World:
The Strange Science of Immortality
By Jonathan Weiner
Ecco, 320 pages
Most science writing really is dominated by the Great Man theory of history,” wrote Pulitzer Prize winner and Columbia School of Journalism professor Jonathan Weiner in a 2005 article for the New York Times. “I can see that just by glancing at the books on my own shelves…. Even the great scientists honor the great.” In his new book, Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality, however, Weiner breaks with this tradition, spending much of his energy discussing one Aubrey David Nicholas Jasper de Grey. A gerontologist (one who investigates the biological nature of mortality) and an aspiring immortal, de Grey is alternately known as someone who has been exiled from the scientific community, a serious researcher, an eccentric drunk, and a stubborn optimist. He thinks it preposterous that anyone born today might ever have to die a natural death.
As singular a figure as de Grey might be, in the universe of everlasting-life research he is not such an improbable authority. Discussion of immortality takes one into the depths of science and bioethics. And there Jonathan Weiner finds that “each view is curiouser and curiouser.” The story of man’s quest for immortality, in fact, had taken on color and quirkiness long before de Grey. Weiner starts out the book by recounting the history of the field. Nearly 4,500 years ago, an Egyptian physician wrote the world’s first medical text. On the back of his papyrus, the doctor listed ingredients for an anti-wrinkle cream ostensibly proven to remove signs of aging. The reader learns that the ancient Greeks, Chinese alchemists, and Christopher Marlowe all sought after or explored longevity. Francis Bacon even collected recipes for long life, at least one of which required the horn of a unicorn. No less a figure than William Butler Yeats endured a vasectomy so he could transfer the power of life from his potential children to himself. These kinds of interesting and arresting facts permeate the book.
But the quest for immortality, even before the present age, is also more than the bizarre obsession of unscientific fantasists. Elie Metchnikoff, a Russian biologist who won the Nobel Prize in 1908 for his work in immunology, actually coined the term gerontology. He drank sour milk every day because he believed that we are poisoned to death by bacteria in our intestines. While the prescriptions of early gerontologists might have lacked sophistication, the newly specialized field led to incredible achievements in extending the human life span. Professor Weiner reminds us that the average life expectancy during the Stone Age was about 20 years; during the height of the Roman Empire, it was 25; during the Middle Ages, it was 30; during the Renaissance 33; by 1900 it was 47; and today it is 76.
In order to extend life even further, one must understand the process of aging at the cellular level. The science here is difficult, but it is also where Jonathan Weiner is at his best, clearly and cogently explaining the cryptic biology behind our mortality. A human cell is made up of different parts, or organelles, that perform different tasks. The mitochondria, for instance, act as the powerhouse of the cell—they produce adenosine triphosphate, which the cell uses as fuel to carry out its regular tasks. As cells age, they perform their jobs less efficiently, fail to clean out garbage that accumulates in between organelles, and run a greater risk for genetic mutations and cancer.
Which brings us back to Aubrey de Grey. Building on this understanding of cellular degeneration, he has come up with seven primary causes of aging. He argues that if each of these problems can be fixed, humans will become immortal. Consider two of the most difficult challenges: the eventual failure of cells’ mitochondria and the propensity for some cells to mutate and become cancerous. De Grey has invented some creative solutions. The mitochondria are understood to work so hard in creating energy for the body that occasionally they overheat and destroy mitochondrial DNA (mitochondria contain their own DNA). De Grey suggests moving the mitochondrial DNA from the mitochondria to the cell’s nucleus, where conditions are far safer. “With less than ten million dollars and within five years—or certainly ten years,” he brazenly claims, “I could make mice that did not have any mitochondrial DNA.”
De Grey’s solution to the cancer problem is even more elaborate. Each cell’s DNA contains telomeres, structures that sit at the end of each chromosome and protect it from corrosion. As cells get older, telomeres wear away. Telomerase, an enzyme that repairs telomeres, also depletes with age. Cancer cells, unlike healthy cells, seem to have an unlimited supply of telomerase and can multiply indefinitely. De Grey plans to eliminate the human gene for telomerase, which would prevent cells from becoming cancerous. In order to stop our cells from aging, however, we would have to regrow our organs after the cells’ telomeres became too short. De Grey predicts we may be only 10 or 20 years away from using this type of therapy.
As Weiner points out, de Grey may be overconfident about his intrusive therapies, but scientists are actually within reach of significant life-extension capabilities. In a recent article for Scientific American, Harvard University’s Konrad Hochedlinger writes about reprogramming a body’s cells to give them the potential of embryonic stem cells. This would allow us to regrow organs using any cell in the body. The possibilities for healing would be nearly limitless. Hochedlinger claims that “it is optimistic but not unreasonable” to assume that human testing can begin within 10 years. Moreover, he believes that this particular avenue of biological research will “become the modern Fountain of Youth.”
If he is right, the question is not whether we will add years to our life but whether we should chase these extra years and, by extension, immortality. In “L’Chaim and Its Limits,” a 2001 essay published in First Things, Leon Kass points out that “under modern secular conditions in which more and more people believe this is the only life they have, the desire to prolong the life span (even modestly) must be seen as expressing a desire never to grow old and die.” So, is material immortality a good thing? The attempt to answer this constitutes the most interesting part of Weiner’s book.
One may oppose immortality for a variety of reasons. “The longer we live,” Weiner points out, “the smaller the families we choose.” In developed countries, for example, Weiner claims that couples are having fewer and fewer children. If this trend persists, we may face a highly unstable society in which few people work and most are old and retired. Dramatically increasing longevity also raises questions of fairness and equality. Who will be able to pay for immortality treatments? Perhaps only the wealthiest members of society will have access to them, or powerful and dangerous dictators might even take steps to secure their own immortality.
The prospect of everlasting life will also force us to face new psychological quandaries. Weiner describes an experiment conducted by Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen. Subjects of different ages were asked to consider two posters and choose the one they liked more. One read “Capture those special moments”; the other read “Capture the unexplored world.” Older subjects largely chose to capture the moments, while the majority of young people opted to explore. But when Carstensen first presented her subjects with the prospect of moving far away from their loved ones and then told them to choose one of the posters based on these new circumstances, both the younger and older groups showed a new interest in capturing those special moments. Being aware of how much time we have with those we care about changes how we approach life. What’s more, an increase in human life span would not necessarily increase the pleasures of life. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be the case. It is because of our mortality—because of our knowledge that the end exists—that we are able to enjoy and appreciate the beauty of nature, music, writing, art, and family. The transience of our time on earth forces us to drink in every moment.
However, bioethicists and gerontologists offer serious objections to anti-immortality arguments. Even today, they note, it takes time for every medical treatment to disseminate. That everyone does not receive the same products at once does not mean we should stop producing medications. Should that understanding not also apply to immortality treatments? And families are having fewer children in industrialized societies even though we’re not immortal; that problem is with us, no matter what we decide about everlasting life. With regard to our common sense of humanity, de Grey argues in an editorial for Rejuvenation Research that it is simply callous to let someone die of old age. “To suggest that the value of a life varies with how long it has already been lived” will come to be viewed as “an indefensibly ageist stance,” he asserts. Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank, maintains that we won’t be any less human for living longer. “I don’t think one can make our humanity dependent on the length of our life,” he says. It is unlikely that our having extended the human life span since the Stone Age has caused us to enjoy life less than our ancestors.
Yet these adept rationalizations fail to erase a certain fundamental uneasiness at the prospect of immortality. As one becomes familiar with both the biological and philosophical implications of everlasting life, one is slightly less dazzled by the sci-fi horizon just around the bend than disquieted by it. That we are proposing to take apart and remake the constituent elements of the most exquisitely complicated machine in the known universe seems not to figure quite prominently enough in the gerontologist’s mind. Against the circumscribed backdrop of modern medical science, a shuffling of the cellular deck in order to relocate the mitochondrial DNA is a wondrous feat; when contrasted with the precious biological and evolutionary mysteries that comprise our bodies, it feels more like a crude transgression.
How certain should we be that these excavations and augmentations will not produce dangerous, unforeseen effects on so perplexing a structure as the living organism? While modern technology has assuredly bestowed unimaginable gifts upon modern man, the case of immortality science creates conditions uniquely suited to hubris and overreach. For here, the chasm between what we comprehend and what we desire is gargantuan, even for science’s greatest men.