Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Bookplanet: review of one of those books that say we're on the threshold of living forever

Long life and happiness

REQUIEM FOR METHUSELAH, ONE of the last episodes of the original Star Trek series, finds Kirk and Spock face to face with a human immortal, known only as Flint. Born in 3834BC, Flint was mortally wounded in battle on the plains of Mesopotamia, or so he believes; instead of dying, his body miraculously repaired itself, and continued to do so for millennia. Flint has been nothing if not busy: he has married dozens of times, travelled the galaxy, and possesses an interplanetary library and art collection that were - well, to die for.

Yet, as he tells Kirk and Spock, immortality has not cured his essential malady: the hard emptiness of his soul, made more painful by his isolation from the arc of mortal existence. "Loneliness," he observes, "is like thirst. It is a flower dying in the desert." Flint's tragedy is that the flower can never quite die.

The colourful characters who populate Bryan Appleyard's engaging How to Live Forever or Die Trying would undoubtedly envy Flint. Whether hard-nosed scientists or well-read proselytisers, they claim, often convincingly, that advances in medical technology will soon solve the "problem" of death. In a century or so, our planet could be teeming with Flints, which prompts some questions.

If we lived for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, would we be wiser, kinder and happier, as the "immortalists" claim? Or would we still find ourselves mired in our "mortal" failings, only with much more time to get things wrong?

Even the most optimistic immortalists are hard-pressed to predict how the breakthrough to create radically increased human lifespans will come. But they believe such a moment is imminent, and their case goes something like this: near-exponential advances in science and technology are knocking down one assumption after another about how, and when, the human body must return to dust.

Accompanying the leaps in knowledge is a new, albeit controversial, attitude among some scientists. We are all merely machines, say immortalists like Cambridge University researcher Aubrey de Grey. We can be repaired, rebuilt; with the right maintenance regime, we can be made to run indefinitely. De Grey and others say that, given what science now knows and what it is coming to understand, there is nothing fundamentally inevitable about ageing, or dying.

Appleyard gives them a fair hearing, and expresses a kind of muted enthusiasm for the science, much of which is indeed astonishing. He wisely does not attempt to predict when, or even if, the recipe for longer-lived humans will be perfected, even if others do: writer and inventor Ray Kurzweil, who downs nearly 100 supplements a day, claims the big shift will come around 2045.

Most importantly, throughout How to Live Forever or Die Trying, Appleyard brings the story back to more profound issues, most of which can be summed up in a question that de Grey, Kurzweil and others take as a given: if we could extend our lives for centuries or more, would we want to? "The highest human emotions are predicated on death," Appleyard writes. "If we live forever, not only will our particular loves die, love itself will die of thirst, a thirst for death." No doubt Flint would agree.

In tackling both the science and philosophy of life and death, Appleyard runs down a few blind alleys: his exploration of near-death and out-of-body experiences, for instance, feels overlong. But, on the whole, he has fashioned a thoughtful, essential meditation on an idea that promises to reside in the zeitgeist for some time to come, and he ends where its successors must surely begin. In a society where life is no longer framed by death, would we still be human at all?


At 4/19/2007 7:28 PM, Blogger Dr. Leonid Gavrilov, Ph.D. said...

Thank you for your interesting post!
I thought perhaps you may also find this related story interesting to you:
Longevity Science: SENS


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