I have a friend, Adam, who’s convinced he’ll live forever. To the casual observer this might seem unlikely. Adam smokes and drinks and drives a bit too fast. He’s also aging, his biological clock ticking toward a date with the Grim Reaper. It’s a date he doesn’t plan to keep.
In the future, Adam says, death will be a thing of the past. He only needs to live long enough to benefit from upcoming life-extension treatments, and providing he isn’t shot, crushed, blown up, or infected with an otherwise fatal disease, the sand in his hourglass will never run out.
Adam is something of an outlier when it comes to matters of life and death. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, the average American is quite happy to shuffle into the great beyond after 90 odd years, with the majority of those surveyed (56 percent) claiming they would personally refuse treatments that, if they existed, would slow the process of aging and prolong their life to 120 years or older. Even with a U.S. population that is aging rapidly, a large margin of those surveyed suspect that longer lifespans would not only strain the country’s resources but only be available to the wealthy. Other aging surveys have produced similar results–one found just 15 percent of the public in the United Kingdom want to live forever, with the rest prioritizing quality of life over longevity. Meanwhile, transhumanists and scientists seeking a cure for aging find this stubborn acceptance of death from old age enormously frustrating; there’s even a snarky label for it: deathism.
“People have made their peace with aging as this inevitable thing,” said Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a biomedical gerontologist and chief science officer of the SENS Research Foundation in Mountain View, Calif. “The way they cope with it psychologically is to put it out of their minds, and the only way they can do that is by constructing arbitrarily idiotic reasons why aging is actually a blessing in disguise.” The SENS Research Foundation, founded in 2009, aims to change the way we treat age-related disease by developing, promoting, and ensuring widespread access to rejuvenation biotechnologies.
Dr. de Grey is something of a rock star in the longevity movement–and not just because of his ZZ Top beard. He believes it’s possible to repair the molecular and cellular damage that occurs throughout our lives, thereby preventing age-related frailness and diseases. As long as the therapies to restore damaged human tissue are continually reapplied (when we have them), we can maintain a state of negligible senescence and live to over 1,000 years old. The researcher likens it to keeping a classic car on the road–although some models were only designed to last 15 or 20 years, careful, regular maintenance means they still run perfectly well today.
“The thing about rejuvenation is that it buys time,” de Grey explained. “So even if you have a panel of therapies to repair damage that is pretty good, pretty comprehensive, but not 100 percent comprehensive, you’re still going to postpone the ill-health of old age by a certain amount, and you’ve got all that time to figure out what to do next.”
Skeptics believe the claims made by researchers like de Grey are drizzled with snake oil. Government funding for the development of life-extension therapies lies somewhere between limited and nonexistent, and many prominent gerontologists–people who study the social, psychological, cognitive, and biological aspects of aging–have openly criticized the science underpinning SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence), calling it completely without merit.
Nevertheless, the longevity movement has acquired a powerful ally in its war against aging: Silicon Valley. Google has pumped over half a billion dollars into Calico, which was founded in 2013 to develop therapies for age-related diseases. Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, is also committed to the cause, funding de Grey’s research. And in 2014, Joon Yun, founder of the Palo Alto Institute, announced a $1 million prize designed to “hack the code” of aging.
Headline-grabbing breakthroughs involving telomeres, the protective caps on the end of chromosomes that are linked to aging, and animal trials of so-called “miracle drugs” like Rapamycin, have already convinced some people that we’re only a few decades away from much longer lifespans–including my friend Adam. But even if de Grey or some other researcher does manage to hack aging, they might struggle to convince people it’s a good idea to take their treatment–and that’s partly because of our cultural inheritance.
“Death destroys a man: the idea of Death saves him,” said E.M Forster. Among the world’s greatest writers and philosophers, that’s a pretty typical view. Death is feared, yet also revered as the engine of human achievement. It lurks behind every novel, painting, sculpture, or political act. It’s part of the reason our children exist, why we roll out of bed every morning and attempt to mold something meaningful from our short time on Earth. We ignore it, despise it, long for it in certain circumstances–and it’s difficult to imagine life without it. But that hasn’t stopped a lot of artists from trying.
The tension between our desire for immortality and fear of what it might entail lies at the heart of every civilization. The Epic of Gilgamesh, often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature, revolves around Gilgamesh’s wish to live forever. In Greek myth, Eos convinces Zeus to grant her lover, Tithonus, eternal life–but forgets to request the eternal youth add-on, so poor Tithonus ends up an immortal, babbling, weak old man longing for death. Jonathan Swift riffs on the same idea in Gulliver’s Travels, imagining a race of immortals called struldbrugs, who cannot die but continue aging. At the age of 80 they are declared legally dead, and their heirs inherent their estates.
Similar warnings about the perils of immortality abound in popular culture. Remember that rapidly aging Nazi in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, who chooses “poorly” from the selection of cups on offer? How about Guy Pearce in Prometheus, traveling halfway across the universe in search of life-extension therapies, only to end up being swatted like a bug by a big, gray alien god. “Every king has his day,” Charlize Theron’s character says shortly before his brutal death, “and then he dies. It’s inevitable.”
Immortal characters often succumb to a crippling case of ennui–a seen-it-all, done-it-all fatigue that lasts for eternity. That’s particularly true of vampires, who not only live forever but do so by stealing the life of others. Think of Louis in Interview with the Vampire, bemoaning the immortal’s lot. Or more recently Tom Hiddleston in Only Lovers Left Alive, alone in a dilapidated house in Detroit, listlessly noodling with his recording equipment.
In short, our culture seems to suggest that if we radically extend our lifespans, we’re destined to become hedonistic demigods, kill ourselves, or wind up watching Friends repeats until the sun burns out. But de Grey, who has little time for the idea that an increased lifespan will inevitably lead to increased enervation and tedium, quotes a remark made by one of his friends in response: “If I’ve got a choice between Alzheimer’s at 80 or being bored at 150, I know which one I’d chose.”
“Anti-immortalists,” as they’ve been called, express another concern of which de Grey is equally dismissive: that only the rich will benefit from anti-aging treatments, creating a toxic society where the privileged live forever and the rest of us “¦ well, don’t. Given the astronomical sums currently spent on treating the diseases of old age–heart disease, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and the other grim conditions that afflict people when they reach their latter years–the economic argument alone would make universal access to anti-aging treatments a no-brainer, according to de Grey. Eliminating the disease of aging would allow the elderly to continue contributing to the economy and relieve their descendants of the burden of care.
There’s also, he argues, a strong electoral incentive for governments to offer anti-aging therapies universally. “If this [living longer] is something that’s the number one concern for voters, you’ve got to do it. I often refer to what Bill Clinton said–”‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ It’s really all that matters, because people care about their prosperity more than they care about anything else. This won’t be true anymore.”
Nevertheless, it would be odd if the Silicon Valley moguls who’ve pumped billions into anti-aging research weren’t among the first beneficiaries of any resulting treatments; no one, surely, is so altruistic that they’re willing to pass along the cup of eternal life before they’ve had a sip. One tech titan and philanthropist, however, believes all this money would be better spent solving other problems facing humanity. “It seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer,” Bill Gates said last year during a Reddit AMA session, echoing another complaint made by people who find the quest for more life morally suspect.
The pressure millions, or even billions, of sprightly centenarians will exert on finite resources is another reason cited for not extending our lifespans. It’s a concern that some in the longevity movement counter by suggesting we’ll all be star trekking across the universe by then; de Grey, quite rightly, thinks this is nonsense. “But there are plenty of good answers,” he added. “One which is pretty obvious is that fertility rates are falling all the time “¦ so the rise in population from the elimination of aging would be much more modest than people think.”
Immortality is perfect fodder for thought experiments–which is probably why it crops up in so many books and films. Questions beget questions, spiraling off into a thousand possible futures. How would the economy function if we no longer needed to retire? Will “til death do us part” mean a thousand years or more? What would it be like to hang out with your 300-year-old great-great-great-great grandmother? Would culture and innovation stagnate without the fresh ideas and rebellious attitude of youth? How would we punish crime?
It’s impossible to answer these questions with any degree of certainty. We simply won’t know what a world without aging will be like until we’re living in it. As de Grey pointed out, it’s also important to remember that anti-aging treatments are not the only technological advance likely to cause widespread disruption in the future; automation, for example, could free us from the need to work, profoundly altering the economy well before the arrival of extended lifespans.
“You can’t look at individual technological breakthroughs of the distant future in isolation, on the assumption that everything else will be the same,” said de Grey, “because it won’t.”
How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Vital Signs section, on the future of human health. Click the logo to read more.