Immortality: The Eternal Search

Immortality: The Eternal Search

In just about every culture, across the world and throughout time, humankind has invariably sought a single thing: eternal life. Ancient mythologies are strewn with tales of dashing heroes and cunning tricksters who achieve it, and with mystical artifacts that can bestow it. Historically, immortality has defined both the arts and the sciences. Immortality was the goal that drove alchemists to experimentation, and it has inspired writers and storytellers across the globe. To this day, it permeates the world of modern scientific discovery, and scientists from every field are constantly working towards that singular, lofty goal: cheating death.

In mythology, immortality belonged in the domain of the gods. Many pantheons didn’t possess inherent immortality. Instead, it was achieved through the consumption of an assortment of magical fruits and beverages, usually reserved for the gods alone. The Greek gods drank ambrosia, believed by some scholars to be a type of honey. The devas of Hindu mythology had Amrita, or the nectar of immortality, which is brewed from the ocean itself. On the third day of the third lunar month, every thousand years, the Xian of Chinese mythology celebrate the “Feast of Peaches”, a banquet dedicated to the peaches of immortality. And, of course, there are the golden apples that grant everlasting life to gods of the Norse pantheon, protected by their keeper, the goddess Idunn. Occasionally, one of the gods would see fit to bestow immortality upon a mortal by letting them partake in their forbidden fruit, such as in the well-known story of Heracles. Usually, the mortal in question was a great and famous hero, making this method of immortality slightly out of reach of the average citizen.

With the food of the gods being ruled out as a source of eternal life, humans set about trying to create their own. One of the ultimate goals of both Chinese and western alchemy was trying to fabricate an “elixir of life”, a potion that would allow people to live forever. This led, arguably, to the development of the first incarnation of the scientific method. Many Chinese emperors commissioned alchemists to seek the elixir, often with a great number of people and substantial resources at their disposal. According to a popular legend, an alchemist called Xu Fu, along with a thousand young men and women, was sent across the sea to discover the elixir and ended up discovering and settling in Japan instead. The basis of Chinese methods for developing the elixir of life involved the consumption of long-lasting or non-tarnishing metals and minerals, such as jade or gold, as well as sulfur, mercury and arsenic. Ironically, quite a few of these substances are toxic, and at least one emperor is confirmed to have died from ingesting lethal doses of them, while many are suspected to have.

Western alchemists were preoccupied with the creation of the philosopher’s stone, a legendary substance capable of turning base metals into gold. It was also believed to be able to create an elixir of life, the reasoning being that as it was capable of turning inferior metals, such as lead, to gold, believed to be the purest metal, it could possibly do the same with human flesh.

Turritopsis dohrnii, also known as the immortal jellyfish, is one of a very select list of organisms known to be biologically immortal. This means that although it can still die, usually by disease or predation, it is not susceptible to death by ageing. The species achieves this through a process called transdifferentiation. Basically, this means that while its cells are differentiating, or changing from one form to another, they are altered and turned into new types of cells. Therefore, when the mature jellyfish, the medusa, is faced with stress, either environmental or physical, or is at risk of succumbing to age or illness, it is capable of reverting quite rapidly to its juvenile form, the polyp. Inspired by the unique transdifferentiation method of these jellyfish, scientists have been researching ways that this process could be used to create stem cells in order to repair damaged human tissue. Potentially, this technology could be used to turn back the hands of time for humans, allowing us to reverse the process of ageing.

This is far from the only way in which modern scientists are endeavouring to create biological immortality in humans. Another method, in a seemingly direct homage to the alchemists and their elixir of life, is through the use of substances, both natural and artificial, that are known to increase the life expectancy of an organism. One such substance is the enzyme, telomerase. Telomerase forms caps on the ends of chromosomes, which help to protect them from deterioration. The caps suffer wear and tear as we age, with the damage eventually leading to cell death. Researchers believe that increasing the amount of telomerase in the body could prevent this, and experiments at the Spanish National Cancer Centre on mice have shown that the animals which were genetically engineered to produce ten times the average level of telomerase lived up to fifty percent longer. The leader of the research team, Dr. Maria Blasco Marhuenda, told New Scientist magazine that the enzyme was capable of turning, “a normal, mortal cell into an immortal cell”. She added, “I think it is very hard to extrapolate data from mouse ageing to human ageing.” But she was optimistic that this approach could eventually be used to increase the human lifespan.

With the constant development of technology that has marked the twenty-first century, it was inevitable that at least some of this would be dedicated to the quest for immortality. Several promising areas of research demonstrate the potential uses of technology in prolonging human life, ranging from nanotechnology, to “mind-uploading”, to cryonics (think Fry in Futurama), to human cloning, to the transferral of human consciousness into new, robotic bodies.

Nanotechnology deals with dimensions less than 100 nanometres, with a particular focus on the manipulation of individual atoms or molecules. Robert Freitas, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing in California and nanorobotics theorist, wrote a detailed technical study of a hypothetical medical nanorobot, called the respirocyte. Respirocytes are microscopic red blood cells that perform the same functions as real red blood cells, only with over two hundred times more efficiency. As red blood cells transport and store oxygen, then in theory, if an adult human were to replace all of their red blood cells with respirocytes, they would be able to survive a heart attack for several hours, enabling them to seek help. They could also dive underwater for hours on a single breath, sprint for fifteen minutes without breathing and greatly reduce muscle fatigue. Freitas has also proposed microbivores, a nanorobotic white blood cell that could hunt and attack pathogens, bacteria and cancerous cells. He believes that nanotechnology will eventually make the human body a self-sustaining system, with the ability to live on indefinitely.

What can be defined as a cyborg is a little unclear, but having nanorobots replacing blood cells would almost certainly qualify, as would many of the other technological methods of life extension. What people would generally consider to be a cyborg, a human with mechanical implants or body parts, technically already exists, with organs having the potential to be replaced with robotic replacements or enhancements, such as pacemakers. Lately, an increasing amount of research has been devoted to taking this a little further, transferring consciousness into an entirely robotic replacement body. According to their website, the overarching goal of the 2045 Initiative, a community of researchers in the field of life extension, is “to create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality”. The group’s founder, Dmitry Itskov, first plans to create a robot capable of being controlled by a human brain, then to actually transplant a human brain into a robotic body and, finally, to eliminate any surgical procedures by uploading human consciousness straight into its new, entirely mechanised, body. Itskov aims to have all phases of his plan, the Avatar project, complete within the next thirty years, by 2045. As prosthetic limbs capable of being controlled by the human brain have already been developed, it looks like phase one could be a real possibility in the near future.

As for the next phases, researchers around the world have already made relevant breakthroughs. Interest in transferring human consciousness — our unique thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations and the individual awareness we have of them — has been going on for quite some time. Our consciousness exists within our neurons, or brain cells. When they fire in certain patterns, it causes the recollection of different memories, emotions and sensations. The OpenWorm organisation is dedicated to creating the first virtual organism in a computer, believing that in order to fully understand the human brain, we must first be able to comprehend a simple worm. You can’t get much more simple than Caenorhabditis elegans, which has only 302 neurons, which are already thoroughly mapped and understood. Recently, its nervous system was successfully transplanted into a Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot. This was achieved by reverse-engineering its neural networks using computer software and using User Datagram Protocol packets which fire neurons in response to environmental stimuli so that the robot is able to react in a similar way to the living organism. One of OpenWorm’s founders, Timothy Busbice, said in a recent interview with Gizmodo: “What we found is that rather than just random, crazy movements by the robot, it actually responded to its environment in the same manner as the biological worm.”

As clinical intervention makes biological immortality more and more of a possibility, it inevitably leads to a whole range of questions, ethical, medical, philosophical, religious and moral. Issues to consider include increased intensity of problems related to overpopulation, which would make radical life extension unethical. Other potential issues include the economic drain and social disparities that would arise, the nature of human personality over an extended period of time, and whether physical immortality would even be desirable. It is a common plot element in fiction to have immortal characters be rather angsty about the whole situation, which is perfectly understandable when you consider that they have watched everyone they love grow old and die. On the other hand, some philosophers and experts in medical ethics argue that as long as a person believes that life is still worth living, it is our moral responsibility to protect their life, even going so far as to continue with the development of life-extension programmes in order for everyone to have a choice.

It’s easy to understand why we as humans experience anxiety about death. We all possess the basic knowledge that life will end and, with this constant awareness of our own mortality gnawing away at the back of our minds, sometimes our only defence mechanism is denial. Some argue that both attempts to engineer ways to prolong life and our obsession with health and fitness are manifestations of our fear of death. Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, says to live for its own sake is to not live at all. “Since the beginning of time (or close), men and women have sought immortality. They have sought to live as the gods do — eternally and in bliss,” he writes. The difference between humans and the gods, in Edmundson’s view, is that the gods were not content with merely being alive. “Gods live forever in order to make things, to create where there was nothing, and to enjoy the fruits of their creation.” In this vein of thought, people should try to live as meaningfully as they can, rather than wanting to prolong life simply for the sake of continuing to exist. Wanting to live should inspire motivation and ambition, rather than being the end goal.

This article first appeared in Issue 20, 2015.
Posted 12:41pm Sunday 9th August 2015 by Amber Allott.