“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying,” Woody Allen once said. “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” Born today, he might have got his way. A few serious scholars suggest that, by 2050, some humans will become a-mortal – meaning that, accidents aside, they could live on indefinitely.
Is it really possible?
Theoretically, yes. An organism could survive until the end of time. “There is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death,” said theoretical physicist Richard Feynman during a 1964 lecture. Scientists have discovered microbes that have survived deep beneath the seabed for 100 million years. There are Greenland sharks in our waters today that are well into their sixth century. When injured, the Turritopsis dohrnii, also known as the Benjamin Button jellyfish, turns back into a polyp and starts life all over again. The Namib Desert is home to the world’s oldest and ugliest plant. It grows just two leaves, but two leaves that cannot die – they have been growing steadily since the beginning of the Iron Age, when the Phoenician alphabet was invented and David was King of Israel.
What are the scientists up to?
With the help of drugs and genetics, engineers have doubled the average life expectancy of Caenorhabditis elegans nematode worms. If you tweak their genes, they live longer. If you give them the drug rapamycin, they live longer. Even if you starve them, they live longer. The same goes for mice. For the first time in history we are learning to bend and break the rules of life, says the historian Yuval Noah Harari. In his bestselling book Sapiens he talks of how nanotechnology experts are developing a bionic immune system composed of millions of nano-robots, which would inhabit our bodies, open blocked blood vessels, fight viruses, kill cancerous cells and even reverse ageing processes.
So who’s taking it seriously?
The gods of Silicon Valley. “All of them,” says Giles Coren in The Times, “Bezos, Musk, Branson, first they have to stash away billions, then they have to buy an island, then they have to colonise space, and then they have to live for ever.” As James Dean said, “Immortality is the only true success.” Fifty-seven-year-old Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and the world’s richest person, is believed to have “steered a significant chunk of his $200bn fortune” into Altos Labs, a start-up dedicated to reversing the ageing process through reprogramming genes, “with a view, no doubt, to making immortality eventually available on Amazon. Though presumably only to Prime members.”
What else is going on in Silicon Valley?
The goal of Google’s super-secret biotech branch Calico is “solving death”. Its co-founder Sergey Brin, 48, says he has no plans to die. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, 53, is pouring millions into extending life (particularly his own) and has reportedly expressed interest in injecting himself with the blood of young people – apparently, he is the type to find anyone who looks over 40 “alarming”. Ray Kurzweil, 73, head of engineering at Google, is said to take at least 100 pills a day, and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, 44, eats just a few meals a week. The meal-replacement shake Huel, which has all the essential nutrients, has become popular with those seeking longevity. Its loyal fanbase of “hueligans” have given up on the joys of eating. Kingsley Amis wouldn’t have approved. “No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home in Weston-super-Mare,” he once observed.
How long are we going to have to wait?
Within a century or two, it’s feasible this will be science not science fiction, predicts Harari. For now, we’ll probably have to make do with “gradual advances in medicine, which, hopefully, every 10 years allow you to gain another 10 years of good health”, he says. We have already achieved things that were once inconceivable. Only 170 years ago, doctors were routinely sawing off limbs without anaesthetic. Since then, average life expectancy has jumped from 25 to 40 years old to about 67 all over the globe, and to about 80 in the developed world. Our rate of progress is ever more rapid. Those born today can expect to live to 120.
But would we really want to live forever?
“What if you find that living for ever is not everything you had hoped it would be,” wonders Coren. That dictators never die and society stagnates – the old never making way for the new. “That your friends and family all die around you and you are beset by a sense of pointlessness and solitude as perpetuity stretches before you, all the way to the end of time?” To many, the sweetness of life is in its brevity. In Jorge Luis Borges’s short story The Immortal, a Roman soldier stumbles upon a “secret river that purifies men of death”. After drinking from it he bitterly regrets it. He realises that death imbues life with value, whereas, for immortals, “nothing can occur but once, nothing is preciously in peril of being lost”.
🐢 “Tortoises get old without getting elderly,” says Andrew Steele in his book Ageless. Their risk of dying is the same at birth as it is at death. Perhaps the decline of our bodies, like theirs, is avoidable. Harriet, the giant tortoise discovered by Charles Darwin who lived until 2006, “was pretty much as sprightly at 170 as she was at 30, at the height of Queen Victoria’s reign – which is to say, not very; she was a giant tortoise, after all”.