Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality - Jonathan Weiner (2010)
Part III. THE GOOD LIFE
Chapter 11. THE TROUBLE WITH IMMORTALITY
When we consider the problem of aging, and imagine that we might be able to cure it, that alternating current we feel consists of longings and dread. We are afraid of what we wish for; and most of our fears, like our hopes, have always cycled in us.
In Jewish legend, the Phoenix lived in the city of Luz. God had spared the city after Adam and Eve fell from grace because he wanted just one place on Earth to be safe from the Angel of Death. Neither Death nor Nebuchadnezzar with all his armies could storm the walls of Luz. Its citizens lived without war, flood, famine, fire, or fear. Their histories were miraculously complete; nothing was ever lost—not one hair, not a single name. There was no gate in the city walls; otherwise, everyone on Earth would have come pouring through. The only entrance was a secret passage through the hollow trunk of an almond tree that grew outside the wall. (Luz is Hebrew for “almond.”)
Luz was the last secret patch of Paradise, almost a Heaven on Earth. King David, who had sung, and played on his harp, so many mournful psalms about mortality; and who had slept with a young girl in his old age to try to rejuvenate his cold, failing body—King David lived on in the city of Luz, singing psalms to Heaven, presumably with no more lamentations. All the great ones of the past were still there, living on and on, forever as they had been. Every man and woman of Luz was like the Luz bone, the coccyx—according to legend, the very last bone to decay in the grave.
And yet, every now and then one of the immortal men or women of Luz would suddenly say goodbye, escape under the wall, go out through the hollow trunk of the almond tree, and wander out into the world. The wise men of Luz wondered why these people left. The wise women of Luz talked about it into the night. They concluded that some citizens of Luz must grow tired of living—bored with immortality. Why else could they possibly want to leave the city of the immortals?
Alas, after the bored and the restless passed through the cave below the city and crawled out through the hollow trunk and walked away, no one ever saw them again. They were met by the Angel of Death, who buried them in the fields.
“People are always worrying about boredom,” Aubrey de Grey told me once, “and it’s a complete joke. I could perfectly well live till I was a million years old and I would never get bored of punting.” And that may well be true. But it’s also true that dreams of immortality have led to terrible nightmares of boredom ever since people began writing down their thoughts.
“Consider how long you have done the same thing,” says Seneca;
“a man may wish to die not because he is brave or miserable, but because he is discriminating.”
Francis Bacon repeats the point in his essay “Of Death”: “A man would die, though he were neither valiant nor miserable, only upon a weariness to do the same thing so oft over and over.”
For one of Darwin’s early supporters, Ernst Haeckel, the mere thought of such heavy boredom was more than enough to outweigh his immortal longings. In Riddle of the Universe, published at the turn of the twentieth century, Haeckel writes, “Any impartial scholar who is acquainted with geological calculations of time, and has reflected on the long series of millions of years the organic history of the earth has occupied, must admit that the crude notion of an eternal life is not a comfort, but a fearful menace, to the best of men. Only want of clear judgment and consecutive thought can dispute it…. Even the closest family ties would involve many a difficulty. There are plenty of men who would gladly sacrifice all the glories of Paradise if it meant the eternal companionship of their ‘better half’ and their mother-in-law.”
There may be plenty of women who would make the same sacrifice.
The Czech writer Karel Čapek wrote a play on this theme, The Makropulos Affair, first performed during the winter of 1922 at the Vinohrady Theatre in Prague. The heroine is Elena Makropulos, an opera singer, 342 years old, who has aged through boredom into “frozen, soulless emptiness.” Čapek, who wrote what we would now call science fiction (in his play R.U.R., he coined the term “robot”), defended his tragic portrait of Elena in a note to his audience. “Does the optimist believe that it is bad to live sixty years but good to live three hundred? I merely think that when I proclaim a life of the ordinary span of sixty years as good enough in this world, I am not guilty of criminal pessimism.” (Čapek died at forty-eight.) The Czech composer Leoš Janáček turned the play into an opera about the boredom of eternal life, and the philosopher Bernard Williams made it the basis of a celebrated essay, “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality.”
“Who the hell wants to live forever? Most of us, apparently; but it’s idiotic,” Truman Capote writes in his essay “Self-Portrait.” “After all, there is such a thing as life-saturation: the point when everything is pure effort and total repetition.”
You can have a horror of death and a dread of eternal repetition. Woody Allen seems to suffer from both. He once said, “As long as they are mortals, human beings won’t be totally relaxed.” And he said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.” But he also said, “Eternity is a long time, especially towards the end.”
In fact, for some people, even the life span we have now is boring; they already feel they are too long for this world. To fill the time they act like the gods on Olympus, manufacturing excitement; or like the restless souls in Luz, testing the edges of mortality. Olympus was for the ancient Greeks, as Luz was for ancient Jews, an eternal reward for some of the greatest heroes, including Hercules, who struggled all his life with the problem of mortality. Hercules rescued Prometheus from his chains on the cliff. Hercules fought with Geras, who represented hideous Old Age. Hercules wrestled with Death himself, to rescue the wife of Admetus. When the poison of the Hydra killed him in the end, he was allowed to ascend to Mount Olympus. There Hercules married Hebe, the goddess of youth. But what did the immortals do all day every day on the eternal mountain? They squabbled like mortals; they relieved their boredom by watching the mortals down on the plain. Not even the Greeks could imagine a way to escape the tedium of immortality.
Tortured mortals tie their brief time on Earth into knots. The seven deadly sins take them to the edge of the city of life, or out of it. All kinds of craziness lift us out of time, and then return us home, feeling almost reborn (if not necessarily refreshed). Even people who lead outwardly calm lives find paths to the edge. The most petty, trivial idiocies can yield that strange thrill of having flirted with the Angel of Death, just beyond the Luz tree. Procrastination is not one of the seven deadly sins, but those who work hard at it do sometimes achieve a near-death experience.
Of course, as an argument against immortality, the problem of boredom cuts both ways. Most of us have learned to deal with it already. And we all know people for whom boredom is not an issue in life—or at least, people who finesse the issue with brio again and again. A while back, a guest came to dinner who had made a brilliant success of seven careers, beginning with law, journalism, and politics. He’d served as a senior vice president at a bank and as the city manager of one of the biggest and hardest-to-manage cities in the United States. It was no Luz, and it wasn’t boring. Now he spent more and more time with his grandchildren, although he’d begun yet another career on the side, as the founder and president of a humanitarian nonprofit organization. Sitting on my terrace above Broadway, he picked up a book I was reading at the time, The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker; opened it at random; and read a passage aloud:
A person spends years coming into his own, developing his talent, his unique gifts, perfecting his discriminations about the world…. And then the real tragedy…that it takes sixty years of incredible suffering and effort to make such an individual, and then he is good only for dying…. He has to go the way of the grasshopper, even though it takes longer.
My guest laughed. He was sixty.
I said, “I’m glad you’re laughing.”
People like that might find good things to do if they had a thousand years. On reflection most of us can think of at least a few things we’d like to do. A playwright wrote to me after we talked about it. At first he’d been horrified by the thought of boredom. Now he allowed, “Time to read everything would be one of the consolations of immortality.”
But I think boredom may be merely an intimation of much deeper fears about our oldest dream. Most immortalists assume that we would attain a state of maturity, presumably of young maturity, and stop there for centuries. In other words, if we engineer a state of negligible senescence, we will cease to travel through the seven ages of man. We might choose to stop at the third age, the age of the lover, “Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad / Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.” Or we might linger at the fourth age, the age of the soldier, “Full of strange oaths, sudden and quick in quarrel, / Seeking the bubble reputation / Even in the cannon’s mouth.” Elena Makropulos, the opera singer, spent 300 years at the age of forty-two.
Wherever we stopped, the fact of having stopped there would do strange things to us, because none of life’s stages makes much sense in itself; each makes sense only in relation to the next and the next, only in a series. Without the sense of a progress through life, life is a kind of stasis. Identity itself is stasis, or it would not be identity. My guest on the terrace had come as close as anyone I know to having a series of lives, hopping from one to the next—but he’d kept his family and friends, and he’d kept himself. That is, he’d been recognizably himself in every one of his careers. Our character is fixed because we do so much imprinting in our first, second, and third ages. In our first age, we imprint on language. In our second age, we imprint on music. In our third age, we imprint on the work of a lifetime, if we’re lucky; and on the love of a lifetime, if we’re very lucky. And after that? Then, the working out of the plans. It’s all arranged, in some sense. Life after those first three ages feels like an unfolding, a development, although we do have to build the particulars of each new stage with infinite labors and pains. As we grow and live and choose, always with a sense of discovery, we build on the givens; we work from our first premises, pursuing those first loves. The rest of the seven ages are, in effect, a playing out of an identity that has become, in most ways, permanent and indelible.
So how would it work out if we had a thousand years at one of those seven stages? In life as we know it, each stage is a waypoint on the way to the endpoint. A huge part of the action and the drama in the seven ages comes from the sense of an ending, the knowledge that all these ages must have an end. “Immortality, or a state without death, would be meaningless,” argues Williams, the philosopher, in his essay “The Makropulos Case,” because “death gives meaning to life.”
Again, we’re talking here only about the deepest problems of existence. They make even the philosophers shrug, or crack jokes. In his essay, Williams quotes Sophocles: “Never to have been born counts highest of all”—and the wry old Jewish reply, “How many are so lucky? Not one in ten thousand.”
Nevertheless, it is true that most of us wend our way through the seven ages with a sense that we are making a journey in the world. Each of us feels like one pilgrim on one journey, lost or found. That is why Dante could capture each of his characters in a single image, in the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso. He saw the people he had known in his native Florence as they were in eternity, quintessentially themselves. (The critic Erich Auerbach calls Dante the great poet of the secular world.) If each of those Florentines had lived in the flesh for an eternity, or even for a mere thousand years, could any of them still say they had been true to their first loves? Would their lives have retained any shape at all? Elena Makropulos’s problem wasn’t being forty-two, Williams writes. “Her problem lay in having been at it for too long.” She was bored because “everything that could happen and make sense to one particular human being of 42 had already happened to her.” At least, everything that could happen to and make sense to a woman of a certain character had happened. Her character had long since formed; her destiny had been formed by her character. Nothing remained but to live it out over and over again, like an endless performance of exactly the same song. We are performers of the self, we are playwrights of our lives, and we need death to bring down the curtain, or the play will go on too long; the story will lose all shape and cease to be a story at all.
In short, we are afraid that we will gain a world of time and lose our souls.
During my summer in London I looked up Martin Raff, a distinguished biologist at University College. Raff was an energetic, charismatic man whose talk was powerful medicine for the metaphysical hangover that I got whenever I talked with Aubrey. Raff leaned farther in the opposite direction than anyone I’d ever met.
Raff trained as a doctor and then switched to biology. After a celebrated research career in cell biology—during which he did valuable work in immunology; explored the structure of cell membranes, the growth of young neurons, and the lives of stem cells; and won many prizes and honorary degrees—Raff retired in 2002, a little before his sixty-fifth birthday, because he felt that when it was time to step down one should make way for the next generation. As he said in his retirement speech, he could never understand why people would want to live beyond their allotted time. He had worked at the National Institute for Medical Research, in London, when the institute was directed by Sir Peter Medawar, the originator of the evolutionary theory of aging. Raff didn’t want to be like Medawar, who had fought against retirement to the end.
Raff himself had been happy to retire, he told me, although I knew that he’d enjoyed a charmed career as a scientist. Among other things, he was known for his studies of a cellular process called apoptosis. Our cells are constantly receiving signals from cells around them and from their own innards. Somehow these signals tell them when it is time to go. When that time comes, they die. A cell that fails to die can start a cancer, but almost all cells do heed the signals. Apoptosis is cell suicide.
One morning, we had tea. Raff is tall, lanky, gray, lined. He wore eyeglasses with wireless rims, sandals, jeans, and an old, comfortably tired, faded button-down shirt. He had never heard of Aubrey de Grey. When I showed him a copy of Aubrey’s journal, Rejuvenation Research, he turned the pages with a small, fond, indulgent smile as if to say, “We were all young once.” He cackled softly here and there as he skimmed Aubrey’s opening editorial. He read aloud: “Aging has been with us for a long time. The idea that it will be with us forever has ceased to be tenable.”
“Oh,” said Raff.
I’d put out croissants from a pastry shop in England’s Lane. When I apologized for handing him a chipped cup, Raff laughed and told me not to worry. He said, “England is the Land of Chip.” I saw a chance to press the topic that we had met to talk about, and quoted W. H. Auden:
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
Raff simply laughed again, as if I had just handed him, as a gift, the perfect riposte. He quoted a few lines from one of his favorite songs, “Anthem,” written by an old friend of his, the poet Leonard Cohen:
There is a crack—
That’s how the light gets in.
Over tea, Raff told me that he did not see aging as a very interesting biological problem. In his view, the problem was solved. After all, he said, a hydra doesn’t age. (He meant the real hydra, the cnidarian, the modest little pond creature with the waving tentacles—not the mythical Hydra, the monster that Hercules slew.) The reason that a hydra does not age is that its cells do not hang around for very long. The cells are always being newly generated and sloughed from the tips of the tentacles. If all of our cells and macromolecules were turning over, then we would not age, either, because the oxidative damage to those cells and molecules would vanish. “But unfortunately it ain’t like that in most animals—or plants, for that matter,” Raff said. “And I would be pretty pessimistic that you could stop oxidative damage or defend against it forever. It seems quite unlikely.”
And he did not find that thought depressing. “You do have a sense of what your life is, and what you want it to be, and what at the end you’d like it to be,” he said. “And whether you’re able to do it is really just luck. I mean, at every level it’s luck. Because, you know, you have to have the right genes, you have to have the right environment. Your kids have got to be not knocked over by cars. There are just so many imponderables that are out of your hands.
“And so at the end of your life you have to build into it the slowing down. Because no matter what you do, unless you’re a hydra, you’re going to slow down. And once you think of that, then you need that end to be incorporated into your life plan. I think it’s helpful to have a plan. You’ve got to be very very lucky to be able to carry out the plan. It’s all luck. But nonetheless.
“The end of life is just as important as any other stage in life. Of course, it’s something most people fret about. And to spend a lifetime or even a third of your lifetime fretting about it is bad. You don’t want to be fretting about anything. You want to be looking forward to everything.”
In his retirement, Raff hoped to promote certain causes that were passions of his. One of the dearest to his heart was euthanasia. Raff believes it should be easier in our society to help people die with dignity. His impatience with immortalists and his passion for euthanasia are attitudes that dovetail with his science, although when I asked him about it he said that he thought his work on cell suicide and his work on euthanasia had no connection with each other.
Some years before, a close friend of his, Gavin Borden, the publisher of the textbook Molecular Biology of the Cell, which Raff helped to write, developed cancer. Raff became closely involved with his friend’s treatment, and when Gavin was near the end, in agony, he asked Raff to help him commit suicide. When Raff’s parents were very old, two happy and highly accomplished people, still in fairly good health, they decided that it was time for them to go. With their sons’ blessing, they committed suicide together.
Raff told me both stories at length. Because euthanasia is illegal in Florida, where his parents lived, and in New York, where his friend Gavin lived, they were both horror stories: lawyers, doctors, obstacles of a dozen kinds; anguish, torment, involuntary confinements, a shotgun under an invalid’s bed.
When he was done, there was a long silence between us. At last, Raff sighed. “So that’s what I meant when I said you have to be lucky. I mean, it’s a crapshoot whether you end up in their position. But surely what anybody would want is the assurance that when the time comes, and you want to end it, you’ll be in a position to do it. Then people could stop worrying.
“I mean, if you ask people, most people are not afraid of death. Most people are afraid of dying—of terrible dying. That’s what they’re afraid of. And justifiably so. I don’t know what percentage of deaths are awful, but in my time as a doctor it was high. And I’ll bet it’s still high.
“I don’t understand why more people don’t feel the way I do. I wouldn’t want to extend my life for a second!” Raff said. “I wouldn’t want to go backward—not for a year, let alone twenty years. But people are very different. I remember Peter Medawar—he had stroke after stroke after stroke. It was just horrible. In the end he was bedridden, he was blind…. And he still wanted to live.”
Raff said he would feel wretched if someone told him that he could now live 500 years. “That would be one of the most acutely depressing things anyone could say to me. My life has been terrific; I’ve been spared most of the awfulness—not all of it, but most of it. But I see life as stages. And the goal is, in every stage, to like it, to be lucky enough, to be healthy enough, to get through it with pleasure, and always be looking forward to the next stage. And when you get to the next stage, it doesn’t disappoint you but actually turns out to be better! And then, that would include death! Why not? Why not have a life where you’re looking forward to every stage, it always is better than you think, and even the end is just as good as you had been hoping? Why would that not be a goal?”
As a boy, he told me, he’d loved football, basketball, ice hockey, skiing, tennis, and sailing. Now he’d made a list of a hundred-odd things he hoped to do in his retirement, and he was happy about them all, including his campaign for euthanasia, and his preparations for dying.
Raff was flabbergasted that not everyone else in the world shares this ebullient view of life. He himself had made the most of each stage. He would never cry, like one of Shakespeare’s bitter kings, “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” But he doubted that he could keep on being so lucky if there were, say, seventeen ages of man.
“Now if you have this view of it, to extend life to five hundred years—you’re asking a lot, now!” Raff laughed a mortal laugh. “You know, it’s just too long to carry on this kind of thing.”
So we worry that the regime of the self can go on too long. That is one of the chief reasons why we resist the idea of a cure for aging—why the question of desirability is as complicated for us as the question of feasibility.
And then of course we have to consider not only the seven ages of man, but also the ages of humankind. In history, too, regimes can go on too long. This is true in science and art, where each wave of great ones makes way at last for the next. The German physicist Max Planck said, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” This is often paraphrased, “Science advances funeral by funeral.” Most Young Turks of science like that quotation, including Aubrey de Grey, but it is a strange one for him to trumpet, if you think about it.
Then consider what a cure for aging would mean in politics. If emperors could live forever, we might have no freedom anywhere. At the moment they are merely figures of romance in which we see our own struggles writ large—reminders of what the situation is for all of us, no matter how we try to defy it.
In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare gave the queen of the Nile one of the greatest death scenes in the history of drama. “I have immortal longings in me,” she cries in the last act, just before she finds the asp in the basket of figs and holds it like a baby to her breast.
In the East, one of the great examples of immortal longings in high places is Emperor Wu, who was to China what Julius Caesar was to the Roman Empire. Wu presided over China’s greatest expansion, during the Han dynasty. Like Caesar, he was a celebrated writer. One of his prose poems, “Autumn Wind,” ends, “Youth’s years how few, age how sure!”
According to legend, Emperor Wu set up bronze statues of immortals at his palace, holding pans to catch the dew from the moon and make an elixir of immortality. He did rule China for more than half a century, but he grew old at the same rate as his subjects and died in 87 B.C. Centuries later, after the fall of the Han dynasty, in A.D. 233, Emperor Ming sent his court chamberlain to cart away the earlier emperor’s statues, pans and all, and set them up at his own palace. It is said that as the statues were hauled toward the carts, they wept.
Some of China’s greatest artists have celebrated those legends, notably Li Ho, who had the short life of a lyric poet, from the years 791 to 817. Li Ho laments the failure of our quest for immortality without feeling the least guilty about it. His poem about the weeping of the bronze immortals is all pathos, autumn winds, and withering orchids. “His pessimism,” the translator and scholar of Chinese poetry A. C. Graham observes, “has none of the ambivalence which one expects in a Western artist obsessed by original sin, who is at least half on the side of the destructive element because he finds it at the bottom of his own heart.”
“This is why I fear research into aging,” writes David Gems, a gerontologist at University College London who is one of the most prominent researchers in his field. If biologists could have done for the dictators of the twentieth century what they can now do for roundworms and flies—double their life span—then Mao Zedong might still be alive. Mao would be in the middle of his life, as Gems says, “and might not be expected to die a natural death until 2059.” Joseph Stalin would still be alive, too, and perhaps going strong. You can argue that dictators seldom die of natural causes. But giving very bad men very long lives would not be good for the world. Thousand-year Hitlers, thousand-year Reichs. Gems sometimes remembers the words of Winston Smith’s torturer in George Orwell’s 1984: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” “This ‘forever,’” says Gems, “is what biogerontological research has the potential to achieve.”
The regime of the self can go on too long, and the regime of the ruler. We can even worry about the regime of the species.
Virginia Woolf watched a moth die on her windowsill one morning as she was writing at her desk. “Oh, yes,” it seemed to say, “death is more powerful than we are.”
We already overcrowd much of the planet. We bestride and consume it, present and future. We eat so much more than our share that the generations following us will inherit a very poor place to live.
If a cure for aging became available to the rich before the poor, which is the way the world always turns, then the unfairness of life might become absolutely unsustainable. How would our world of haves and have-nots go on spinning if the haves lived for a thousand years while the children of have-nots went right on dying hungry at the age of five? And what would happen to the rest of the living world? Would the other species on the planet, the other earthlings, have even less? Woolf pitied the moth on her windowsill. The poet Robert Burns felt for the field mouse revealed by his plow. How often would we pause to look beyond ourselves, or stop the plow, if we lost that fundamental connection with the rest of life—tenuous as it is already—and loosed the bonds of age?
We want a good long life. We also want a good life. It’s hard to see how members of our species could have both for very long if more and more of us had to make do with less and less. Still, the adventure of living another five hundred years on a planet as over-burdened as ours would be, if nothing else, an antidote to boredom.
Maybe, just maybe, we would tread more lightly on the Earth because we would each preserve one body, one piece of human equipment, instead of continually having to replace it. In that sense, thousand-year lives would be the ultimate in conservation. We might even grow up faster as a species if we lived long enough to pay the price for our species’s sins in our own skins. But when we talk about the health of the body and the health of the planet, we deal in goods that are difficult to reconcile.
The skin-in people, the molecular biologists, explorers of the interior, worry about the body. The skin-out people, the evolutionary biologists, students of the rest of the living world, worry about the biosphere. They worry outward. And in the end, we need both. We won’t be long for this world unless both stay healthy. Although it was written in a different connection, there is a beautiful passage in one of the papers of William Hamilton, the theorist of the evolution of aging, that speaks to our situation. “Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of the realization of possible conflict within the genome is a philosophical one,” Hamilton writes. “We see that we are not even in principle the consistent wholes that some schools of philosophy would have us be. Perhaps this is some comfort when we face agonizing decisions, when we cannot ‘make sense’ of the decisions we do make, when the bitterness of a civil war seems to be breaking out in our inmost heart.”
And then we have decisions that bear on the human genome itself. In the Gospel according to Luke, in the King James version, Jesus asks, “And which of you with taking thought can add to his stature one cubit?” This line is rendered, in the New International Version: “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” And Jesus caps his question: “Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” A cubit for the ancients was the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, about twenty inches. Now we live in an era when we really can add a bit, if not quite a cubit, to our stature, with the help of human growth hormone (HGH). This hormone adds inches to the stature of thousands of very short children every year. In the same way, in our lifetimes, or the lifetimes of those children, we may figure out how to add years to our lives by slowing aging. Oddly enough, HGH has been taken for that purpose ever since 1990. There’s no solid evidence that it works. Even so, it is sold by antiaging companies, hawked everywhere on the Web, and recommended by the controversial American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, although biogerontologists denounce the academy and its claims.
What happens when we have real antiaging pills that pass the tests of clinical trials? As bioethicists have begun to note, this is a problem that would make all of our bioethical debates to date look small. What are the bioethical problems that have exercised us in the last ten or twenty years? Stem cells. Cloning. Gene therapy. The privacy of genetic information. Steroids. All of these problems matter in themselves, but all of them would be subsumed in the transformations of society and human nature that would be wreaked by a significant success with the human life span. And then will come the option of changing the genome itself. We will add or subtract genes to lengthen our lives, until there is no going back, because no human beings alive (however long they may live) will ever be human in the same way again. Then there will be no escape from Luz.
The regime of the self, the regime of the ruler, and the regime of the species. If we are going to survive to enjoy a good portion of the future, our health and happiness depend on a great deal of luck with them all. We all know this, and it is part of the alternating currents of hope and dread that we feel when we listen to the engineers of longevity. It’s a mad regime that tries to make itself immortal at the cost of the world around it; as mad as a regime that surrenders life and throws it away.
There may even be some hidden likeness between the skin-ins who try to conquer aging and death, and the skin-outs who are willing to let the natural world conquer them. Either the will to power or the will toward submission can be carried to a pitch that is near madness. In all the annals of the surrender to nature in the writings of naturalists, Hamilton’s essay “My Intended Burial and Why” is probably the most extreme. It is beautiful, too, in its own way. “I will leave a sum in my last will for my body to be carried to Brazil and to these forests,” he writes. “It will be laid out in a manner secure against the possums and the vultures just as we make our chickens secure.” That is, his body should be enclosed in a coop to keep out the larger carrion-eaters. He bequeathed it, instead, to the Coprophanaeus beetles. “They will enter, will bury, will live on my flesh; and in the shape of their children and mine, I will escape death. No worm for me nor sordid fly, I will buzz in the dusk like a huge bumble bee. I will be many, buzz even as a swarm of motor-bikes, be borne, body by flying body out into the Brazilian wilderness beneath the stars, lofted under those beautiful and un-fused elytra which we will all hold over our backs. So finally I too will shine like a violet ground beetle under a stone.”
The trouble with immortality is endless. The thought of it brings us into contact with problems of time itself—with shapeless problems we have never grasped and may never put into words. Our ability to exist in time may require our being mortal, although we can’t understand that any more than the fish can understand water. What we call the stream of consciousness may depend upon mortality in ways that we can hardly glimpse.
Not long before he died, I paid a call on the eminent molecular biologist Joshua Lederberg, who, toward the end of his life, had helped lead the science of gerontology. In his twenties he’d done work in genetics that won him a Nobel Prize. In his eighties, he had been invited to serve as the chief scientific adviser to the Ellison Foundation, which became, at his suggestion, one of the world’s largest private supporters of gerontological research. We met in his office in Founder’s Hall, at Rockefeller University, where he had once served as president.
Lederberg still had a strong, alert stare, but his steps were feeble now. He used a walker to move around the desk and greet me. His beard and his gravity gave him a famously rabbinical look; he was descended from rabbis on both sides, and his mother could trace her family tree back through a long series of rabbis and rabbinical scholars all the way to Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch—the Great Maggid, who led the Hassids of Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century.
“Did the Maggid live a long life?” I asked him.
“I have no idea,” he said brusquely. “Elie Wiesel might know.” Lederberg said he’d never thought much of the idea of glorifying one’s heritage by tracing one’s distant ancestors. “So we go back. After Methuselah, then what?”
We talked about the evolution of aging, and soon got into very deep water—or else very shallow water, because one realizes, in conversations like this, how shallow all our precepts and percepts may be.
“But exactly what is it that’s being conserved, when you talk about immortality?” Lederberg asked at one point. “Do you want to freeze your identity or are you willing to die a little bit to let innovation creep in?”
Some part of you dies every second, he said, as your neurons go one by one. And a certain number of neurons are also born every second. That’s part of neuronal turnover. “And the whole corpus of our memories, our recollections, changes from instant to instant. If we could do it, exactly how much of that do we necessarily need to conserve?”
He gave me a long level stare. “In other words,” he said, “how much immortality do you want?”