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Grim News for Immortals

By Michael Cook

A recent paper in Nature has cast a wet blanket over the dreams of immortality researchers.

An analysis of global demographic data by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine suggests that the limit to human lifespan is about 125 years. Maximum lifespans around the globe kept rising until the 1980s, but they seem to hit a plateau at about 120.

The longest-lived person on record is Jeanne Calment, a French woman who died in 1997 at the age of 122 years and 164 days. Twenty years later, her record of longevity is unbroken.

The study, which was based on two international lists of the world’s oldest people, has created a controversy. On statistical grounds it was dismissed as “a travesty” by German demographer James Vaupel.

And gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, who has been working for years on rejuvenation biotechnologies, told Nature News: “The result in this paper is absolutely correct, but it says nothing about the potential of future medicine, only the performance of today’s and yesterday’s medicine”.

De Grey believes that it’s possible for people to be effectively immortal – at least to live long enough to be struck down by a lightning bolt rather than fade into senescence. He envisages lifespans of more than 1000 years.

Other scientists argue that ageing should be classified as a disease rather than as a life event. In other words, death would be treated as a medical failure than as something natural and expected.

The 125-year limit is unpopular in Silicon Valley. Google has launched a venture to “cure death” called Callico. Russian businessman Dmitry Itskov is determined to celebrate his 10,000th birthday; Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison says that a passive acceptance of mortality is “incomprehensible”. According to Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal: “Almost every human being who has ever lived is dead. Solving this problem is the most natural, humane and important thing we could possibly do.”

The ethical question is whether immortality, or at least indefinite life extension, is a goal worth striving for.

The first issue is to clarify what it is. In a culture with a Christian background, immortality is an afterlife with God. This is not what immortality activists mean; most of them are atheists and agree with Woody Allen: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”

Second, would it be fair? It seems unlikely that immortality will come cheaply. Society might be divided between rich immortals and poor mortals, or worse, between rich immortals and poor immortals who live like the “struldbrugs” in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels: shrunken, toothless, blind, deaf, drooling, demented, and unable to die.

Third, would there be room? If people started hanging around for even 300–400 years, unpredictable demographic pressures would emerge. If birth rates stayed at replacement, global population might rise to unsustainable levels. But birthrates could also fall so that children would become rare. The structure of society would change as well if immortals hogged all the top jobs.

Fourth, and probably most importantly, would it be fun? Would it be fulfilling? What life experiences could possibly keep people interested in living for hundreds of years? Could relationships survive?

The immortality activists tend to gloss over this question. There will always be new books to read, they say, new music to listen to, new cities to visit, and new sports to play.

But after a while, even novelty could pall. The fundamental law of economics is that the price of an abundant good falls. If years are abundant, we might value them less – both our own and others. Immortality could lead to bizarre and dysfunctional behaviour.

Immortality is always depicted in literature as a curse, as in Tennyson’s poem Tithonus about a Greek youth whom the gods granted unending life without unending youth. “After many a summer dies the swan / Me only cruel immortality / Consumes”.

Perhaps life is like rum-and-raisin ice cream: you can never get enough of it, but too much can give you an almighty stomach ache.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge, an online bioethics newsletter.