Are we getting ever closer to immortality?

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The scientific and technological advances of recent years have led some pioneers to think that we can defeat death. How will we do it? What will happen in a society of immortal beings?

One of the great dreams of human beings is to defeat death. There are numerous examples, from mythology to literature, of characters who have tried to defeat the Grim Reaper and play at being God. Nowadays, there is an increasing amount of research into extending life to previously unimaginable limits. Will it have some kind of consequence, like in ancient legends or modern science-fiction novels?

Since a few years ago people have started talking increasingly insistently of transhumanism. According to this theory, technological and scientific progress will enable us to beat the limitations of our bodies. In theory, we are already transhuman: we wear glasses, hearing aids, pacemakers, etc. Moreover, the possibility of curing illnesses thanks to gene editing is starting to become a reality.

However, the aim of transhumanism goes beyond this: reaching posthumanity, a state in which the human being is able to control its own destiny and overcome the problems of physical life.

In this sense, the body can become simply an accessory: some of the most famous transhumanists, such as Russian multimillionaire Dmitry Itskov, suggest that we will end up registering our conscience in a digital format to be able to transfer it to different avatars. According to this visionary, it is something we will achieve as early as 2045. For this reason, he has christened his ambitious project with this figure.

Uprooting the ‘death gene’

Another guru of immortality is Cynthia Kenyon, molecular biologist and vice-president of Ageing Research at Calico, Google’s biotechnological focus (Sergey Brin, one of the search engine’s founders, is another of the magnates who is investing most heavily in this ‘Holy Grail’ search).

In 1981, Kenyon discovered the repair mechanisms of DNA. In 1993 she doubled the lifespan of the C. Elegans species of worm by mutating a single gene, called the ‘death gene’. Her research has managed to lengthen the life of laboratory animals by more than 30%.

With or without this gene, there are specimens that seem to have properties which make them special in the race of life, from the so-called water bear, which can survive in the most extreme conditions, to the axolotl, the lobster or the naked mole-rat. The latter, a kind of rodent that lives in the Horn of Africa, fascinates scientists because it does not suffer cancers. Recently, it has been discovered that however long they live they do not age: their risk of death is the same whether they are four or twenty years old, something which in human beings multiplies as we pass each decade.

Other researchers have opted to skip a few steps and do research directly on their own bodies. Like the American Elizabeth Parrish, executive director of the start-up Bioviva. Two years ago she announced that she had undergone a gene therapy treatment which rejuvenated her cells by two decades. In order to escape the strict regulation by the US medication agency, the FDA, she travelled to Colombia to go through the experiment.

The treatment consisted of injections of genetic material that allowed the telomeres to be lengthened. These are areas of DNA at the ends of the chromosomes whose length has been associated with cellular ageing. Parrish put herself through the experiment at 44 years old, which means that she will have to wait a few decades to verify the success of her therapy.

Living more than a thousand years

Someone who hoards all the quotes and front covers referring to transhumanism is, however, a person with an exotic image and name: Aubrey de Grey, with his long beard, looks more like a character from The league of extraordinary gentlemen than a scientist.

This gerontologist is a director of SENS Foundation Research, an institution that carries out research on the problems associated with ageing with a wider perspective than that of the next treatment to fight Alzheimer’s or cancer, illnesses that De Grey himself affirms will not be cured because they are simply manifestations of age: neuronal or genetic degradation.

Nonetheless, he has blind faith in the fact that medicine will be capable of repairing bodily harm and he states that it is more likely that we will live a thousand years than 200 or 300 when this is achieved. De Grey is also co-founder of the Methuselah Foundation (in honour of the biblical character who managed to live for almost a thousand years) together with Paul F. Glenn, Cycad Group technological capital risk funds magnate.

Scientific backing

According to Antonio Diéguez, professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of Malaga and author of the book Transhumanismo. La búsqueda tecnológica del mejoramiento humano (Transhumanism. The technological search for human improvement), these projects, although “they don’t completely lack rational basis”, need some scientific backing which at the present time is not so clear.

For example, the possibility of moving the conscience from one body to another. “The notion of mind and conscience that lies beneath this kind of affirmation is quite debatable”, he comments. “It conceives of the mind as a kind of software that can be shifted to different hardware and continue functioning normally”, something which is “far from being evident”.

But… could we live so long?

Life expectancy has increased significantly in the 20th Century. In Spain, for example, in 1919, when the first public pensions system was created and the age of retirement was set at 65 years old, life expectancy was under 50.

Now it is around 83 and only Japan beats us in terms of longevity. But it should be taken into account that this increase is due in large part to the reduction in infant mortality. If we eliminate this factor, the increase in longevity in one century has been 20 years, which is not bad at all.

On the other hand, according to a demographic study in 40 countries carried out by the Albert Einstein College in New York, although more and more people are living beyond 100 years old, life seems to have hit its limit at 122 years. This was the age at which the longest living person ever to exist, Jeanne Calment, passed away. This French woman died in 1997. Twenty years later nobody has beaten her, in spite of the general increase in the number of centenarians.

What will we do when we are immortal?

Antonio Diéguez seems critical of the utopian world with which the gurus of transhumanism sell their ideas. When will a person who has a life expectancy above, say, 300 years retire? “Obviously no welfare system is ready for something like this”. He adds: “Not only would we have to keep working for many more years, but extremely strict birth control measures would have to be put in place” and “we would have to change our profession every so many years, because it doesn’t seem that the same job can satisfy for hundreds of years”.

For him the idea of a society of immortal beings is “a dystopia, in short, not very comforting”. He is unclear on whether the ills of mankind would be solved: “Transhumanists tend to think that social problems will have technological solutions; they are, therefore, more or less involuntary promotors of a technocratic society in which little space remains for political deliberation over central issues”.

There is also a sense of a rift in society. “Access to these bio-improvement or ciborgization technologies will be restricted to those people who can afford it”. And he concludes: “It is highly doubtful that society could offer adequate opportunities to all individuals who have been technologically improved. Not everyone can be intellectuals, successful writers or great artists, sportspeople or scientists. The level of personal frustration could be very high”.

It is possible that, as Aubrey de Grey says, the person who will live more than a thousand years has already been born. What is not clear is in what kind of society they will live their extended life.

Por Marcos Domínguez

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