Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality - Jonathan Weiner (2010)
Part I. THE PHOENIX
Chapter 2. THE PROBLEM OF MORTALITY
Sitting in the Eagle that summer, watching Aubrey try to sell me the conquest of aging, I sometimes thought, What a piece of work! He seemed to have almost limitless energy. Even after a whole day of talk, he still acted out every phrase. “Hard to know,” he would say, with fevered miming of deep thought, eyes darting hither and yon. Then he’d fix me with a piercing pointed stare, or bow forward steeply, bringing the upper portion of the beard alarmingly close to the open mouth of his pint. The lower portion of his beard was safely out of sight, and I could imagine it brushing the floor.
He was given to mind-dumps, as computer geeks call them, which means the tipping and dumping of his entire stock of ideas from his cranium directly into yours with the help of all those gestures—the monkey and the organ-grinder and the music all in one.
What a piece of work!
But then, who can be cool about the problem of mortality? There is a heat around this topic from which we can never insulate ourselves. We are all mortals. It’s our own body heat we are feeling. We can never cast a cold eye on life and death no matter how we try.
I’ve followed this science off and on for a quarter of a century. I was still a young man the first time I went to the New York Public Library, on Fifth Avenue, to read a little about the quest and its long history. I sprinted up the stone stairs between the stone lions, Patience and Fortitude, and looked up immortality in the card catalog, and thumbed through an almost endless series of titles on time-yellowed cards. I can remember a mystical sensation, browsing the old titles in those marble halls, a feeling of joining mortal souls throughout the ages in the investigation of this possibility of possibilities—the cure of cures, the conquest of conquests, the outwitting of all the powers that be. It was in the vaulted Reading Room that I first became acquainted with the plans for immortality proposed by Francis Bacon four centuries before us, and by Roger Bacon almost four centuries before him, and by many others far, far back before that.
About 4,500 years ago, when the first pyramids were going up, an Egyptian physician composed the world’s first known medical text, beginning with injuries of the head and working down. The original of that treatise is lost, but part of it survives because a second scribe began to copy it onto a papyrus scroll more than a thousand years later. This second scribe copied forty-eight of the case histories, reached the chest, and stopped there, with more than fifteen inches blank at the end of the scroll—leaving off “in the middle of a line, in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a word,” according to one frustrated Egyptologist.
On the back of the papyrus is a prescription (in sloppier hieroglyphics, an Egyptian scrawl) for antiwrinkle cream. The recipe calls for large quantities of some exotic fruit or nut that scholars can’t identify. Its flesh should be “bruised and placed in the sun.” Then, after a great deal of husking, winnowing, sifting, waiting, mixing, evaporating, drying, packing into jars, scooping out of jars, washing in the river, and drying in the sun, the stuff is to be ground with a mortar and pestle; boiled; jarred again; and transferred to a vase of costly stone. When smeared on the face, the cream will remove all signs of age. “Found effective myriads of times.”
That is how it has always been with us. From the beginning, the hard work of the prolongation of life; and the dream that is always as close as the far side of the papyrus, the dream of eternal youth.
Across the Mediterranean Sea, at about the time the Egyptian doctor was writing the original of that medical treatise, there was a man called Gilgamesh, son of Lugalbanda, who ruled as the fifth king of Uruk, in Sumeria. Gilgamesh became the hero of what is now the world’s oldest surviving epic. Again about a thousand years passed before a scribe made a copy of the story that has survived. In the epic, Gilgamesh loses a friend, his comrade in arms, Enkidu. He suffers nightmares in the desert, and he goes searching for the secret of triumph over death. An old man who has survived the Great Flood and discovered the secret of immortality offers to tell him the secret if Gilgamesh can keep his eyes open for one solid week. But Gilgamesh closes his eyes at the last second. Then, out of pity, the old man tells Gilgamesh where to dive in the river for a weed that will give him immortality. Gilgamesh dives and finds the weed, but a snake on the riverbank steals it from him when he gets to the shore. So twice Gilgamesh has the answer in his hands and each time he loses it. In the end, all he gets to keep is the tale.
The problem of mortality appears in every mythology as one of the prime facts, if not the prime fact, to be explained; and in the West we have often blamed ourselves. In Hebrew Scripture, almost the first act of our first ancestors is to overreach, to pluck the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. This is our original sin, for which God threw Adam out of the garden, “lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” As with the Epic of Gilgamesh, we know where this story is heading from the beginning. Adam’s name in Hebrew means clay or earth; and as soon as he and Eve eat of the fruit, God condemns them: “You are dust and to dust you will return.”
We had it in our hands! We had it in our mouths! We could taste it! And then we lost it forever.
The ancient Greeks told the story of Prometheus, the Titan whose name meant “Forethought.” For Prometheus’s disobedience in stealing fire for our ancestors, Zeus chained him to a cliff, and punished all of humanity with old age and death. The Greeks also told the cautionary story of Tithonus. According to some traditions, he was a brother of Ganymede, the child whom Zeus kidnapped and made cupbearer of the gods. Eos, the goddess of the dawn, fell in love with Tithonus and begged Zeus to make him immortal, too. But she forgot to specify that Zeus should keep Tithonus from declining as he lived forever. Her lover grew smaller and more shrunken in body and mind until he was nothing but a cricket or a grasshopper. In the end she put him in a little cage.
Immortals lived up on Mount Olympus, mortals lived down here on the ground. A Titan like Prometheus might try to save us; a god might swoop down and kidnap one of us; but most of us were mortal and moribund and we had to accept our fate, as one great soldier reminds another in the Iliad:
Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
Now the living timber bursts with new buds
And spring comes round again. And so with men:
As one generation comes to life, another dies away.
A history of our ideas about the conquest of aging was published by Gerald Gruman in 1966, and it is still one of the standard works on the subject. Gruman divides thinkers on the problem of mortality into “prolongevists,” who want to extend our life spans, and “apologists,” who try to reconcile us to our fates. In the East, Gruman says, there were fewer apologists than in the West. About eighteen hundred years ago, the great Chinese alchemist Ko Hung wrote treatises on this subject. Ko Hung was known as Old Sober-Sides. He was a prominent politician who fell in love with the idea of science and the promise of immortality. Why shouldn’t we try to conquer aging, he asked: “We may perhaps be unable to make up our minds to believe that our lives can be prolonged or that immortality can be obtained, but why are we reluctant to make a trial? If only a slight success should come out from this trial, gaining thereby only two or three centuries of life, would even this not be better than the early death of the masses?” Even a mere two or three extra centuries would be nice. Ko Hung seems to have been able to dismiss easily, breezily, the tradition that opposed the idea. “As to Wen-tzu, Chang-tzu and Kuan-ling Yin Hsi…the final word is not there at all. Sometimes they equate death and life, saying there is no difference. They consider life as hard labor and death as rest…. They are not worth bothering with.”
But in the West the voices of the apologists have always had more power. In the West, to propose that we try to reason our way to eternal life is to break our most ancient taboos about the use and abuse of knowledge. Our prevailing view has been that the gods didn’t mean us to have it, and we shouldn’t want it. So immortalist after immortalist has had to struggle against the hostility and ridicule of his time. The immortalists were up against what Gruman calls “the rationales, and rationalizations, which tend to entangle the prolongevist in a net of fear, guilt and despair.”
Western civilization’s ambivalence was sealed by one of the founding documents of the Renaissance, written by Christopher Marlowe, who went to college around the corner from the Eagle and Child, at Corpus Christi. Marlowe got his B.A. in 1584 and his master’s in 1587. Just out of school he wrote the play Doctor Faustus. The play was based on folktales and legends, stories that may have been inspired originally by a petty fraud who sold a chaplain in jail a facial-hair remover. The ointment worked but it removed the poor man’s face with his hair. That con artist became a magnet for tall tales. The legends and their ambitions grew far beyond hair removal. They were immortalized by Marlowe late in 1588 or early in 1589 in Doctor Faustus, a passionately ambivalent portrait. On the one hand, it’s a pride-goeth-before-a-fall story. On the other hand, it’s a sympathetic portrait of the man and his dilemma, as if the new age, the modern age, were confessing and lamenting its own flaws.
When the play opens, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is looking for something worthy of him. Act one, scene one, Faustus in his study. What should he do with his time—argue philosophy? he asks himself. No, not good enough. “A greater subject fitteth Faustus’ wit.”
Be a physician, Faustus, heap up gold,
And be eternized for some wondrous cure.
But no, that would not be enough, either. He could do so much in that line that whole cities would escape the plague, and a thousand desperate maladies would be eased, and he would be remembered forever; and still he would want more, still he would not have reached high enough. Even as a great doctor, the greatest in the world, Faustus would still be mortal: “Yet art thou still but Faustus and a man.”
There was only one way to achieve immortality in medicine, and that way was impossible.
Couldst thou make men to live eternally,
Or, being dead, raise them to life again,
Then this profession were to be esteem’d.
Only the conquest of death would be worth the time of a scholar as gifted as Faustus. And Faustus knows that this is impossible. So he sells his soul to the devil for knowledge and power. In the end, the devil comes to take him down to hell.
Marlowe defined the apologists’ position for modern times; and a few years later another Cambridge graduate, a young lawyer and philosopher, Francis Bacon, defined the opposing position. The grand project of Bacon’s life was the reformation of learning. He had a vision of what it might mean to find things out; to go beyond all the learning and wisdom of the ancients and extend the boundaries of knowledge as far as the great voyages of exploration in his day were expanding the map of the world. Bacon’s books helped launch the project we call modern science; and in a manuscript he called the Valerius Terminus, which he never published, he laid out his project’s ultimate goal. “To speak plainly and clearly,” he wrote, “it is a discovery of all operations and possibilities of operations from immortality (if it were possible) to the meanest mechanical practice.”
When Bacon wrote those lines, King James the First had just taken the throne and ordered a new translation of the Holy Bible. Bacon argued that scholars should begin to read the natural world around them with the same reverence and care as they read Scripture. Natural philosophers in great teams, companies, and committees should begin to read and translate the great text of the world. Scholars in the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Paris, and Bologna should go beyond their books. They should interview sailors about the Indies and Cadiz. They should interview miners about their quarries and blacksmiths about furnaces. Doctors should stop quoting Hippocrates and start examining their patients—which Renaissance doctors rarely did. Bacon thought they should even dissect the dead bodies of some of the patients they had lost and learn to decipher “the secrecies of the passages” (the italics are Sir Francis Bacon’s). Then they might be able to figure out what went wrong. The traces of disaster must be in there in the body somewhere and doctors should talk about them. “Whereas now, upon opening of bodies, they are passed over slightly and in silence.”
And this project was not sacrilegious but sacred, Bacon wrote. The first man and woman knew it all; they had “pure and uncorrupted natural knowledge,” before they tasted the forbidden fruit and were thrown out of Paradise. Adam and Eve enjoyed not only perfect knowledge but perfect power; and there was no death in the world. Once we recover what our First Parents knew, we will conquer death again.
Most philosophers and theologians read Genesis rather differently. They explained our sorrows and our mortality with the doctrine of original sin. We sinned and we fell. Death was handed us by God because we deserved it—we asked for it. But Francis Bacon preferred the arguments of Roger Bacon, a thirteenth-century English friar, scholar, alchemist, and immortalist. (They weren’t related, although their ideas were close kin.) In Roger Bacon’s optimistic reading of the Holy Scriptures, God had not intended us to suffer and die. After all, God had made Adam and Eve wise enough to name all of creation. It was only after the Fall that they had lost their wisdom. To figure out what they had forgotten when they fell would be to recover Eden, and immortality.
In this telling of the story, what mattered most was not original sin, but original wisdom. We did not have to accept death. If we were smart, and worked very hard to learn the ways of nature, we could fight our way back to the original bliss of Adam and Eve before the Fall.
Francis Bacon titled his first proposal to King James The Advancement of Learning. In a famous passage he writes that no man “can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works.” Much later, toward the end of his life, he laid out the research program for the quest for longevity in a little book entitled The History of Life and Death, or, The Prolongation of Life.
“To the Present and Future Ages,” Bacon begins. “Greetings.” He knows how heavily the West’s long history of moral judgment will weigh on his readers, present and future; in the preface of his History of Life and Death, he acknowledges that his proposal runs against his readers’ feelings of guilt and sin. He concedes that they may fear “that Knowledge hath in it somewhat of the serpent.” They may remember the snake that tempted Eve and Adam to taste of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, for which the Lord threw them out of Paradise. But the sin of the first man and woman was not the pursuit of knowledge, Bacon says. Their sin was pride.
Why don’t we have medicines for long life? Bacon raises the question as impatiently and incredulously as the alchemist Ko Hung had done a dozen centuries before him. All we have is medicine to treat and cure diseases, Bacon says. “As for those things which tend properly to long life, there is but slight mention, and by the way only.” He lists the recipes for long life that he has collected: potions of henbane, mandrake, hemlock, tobacco, nightshade, and dragonwort. The bulk of The History of Life and Death is a farrago of these recipes, like a hundred other how-to-live-forever books of its time and ours. Bacon even gives advice on underwear, and what we would call red long johns: “Some report that they have found great benefit in the conservation of their health, by wearing scarlet waistcoats next to their skin, and under their shirts, as well down to the nether parts as on the upper.” The book includes potions for morning, noon, and night. Wine in which gold has been quenched. (That idea goes back to the alchemists—drink gold and become immortal as gold.) Pearls or emeralds, powdered extremely fine, and well stirred in the juice of four fresh lemons. Ivory, ambergris, horn of unicorn, the bone of the stag’s heart, powdered.
Bacon offers all these potions only as suggestions, he says, although he has some faith in the “impregnation of the blood” with pearls and sandalwood and pulverized gold leaf. He also approves of “all those things which yield an odor somewhat earthy, like the smell of earth, pure and good, newly digged or turned up,” including strawberry leaves, and strawberries, raw cucumbers, “vine leaves, and buds, also violets.” He feels that “the smell of new and pure earth, taken either by following the plough, or by digging, or by weeding, excellently refresheth the spirits.” (The English garden was already blooming.) “Nay, and we know a certain great lord who lived long, that had every morning, immediately after sleep, a clod of fresh earth laid in a fair napkin under his nose, that he might take the smell thereof.”
Hope itself is good for the prolongation of life. Even a small amount, and we have a whole new view from a winter window, “so that hope appears to be a kind of leaf-joy, which may be spread out over a vast surface like gold.”
What is radical and original about Bacon’s book is not the prescriptions but the premise: that we should mount a vast testing program to search for the secrets of the prolongation of life; and that this program would become the triumph and centerpiece of the advancement of learning. The conquest of aging might not be possible in his own time, but it was not impossible, in his view; “those things are to be held possible,” he wrote, “which may be done in the succession of ages, though not within the hourglass of one man’s life.”
After his death, Bacon became a hero of the scientific revolution. Generations of Bacon’s followers read and reread the story of his last days, as told in John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, which he wrote in the late 1600s: “As he was taking the air, in a coach with Dr. Witherborne (A Skotchman, physician to the King) towards Highgate, snow lay on the ground, and it came into my Lord’s thoughts, why flesh might not be preserved in snow, as in salt. They were resolved they would try the experiment presently. They alighted out of the coach and went into a poor woman’s house at the bottom of Highgate Hill, and bought a hen, and made the woman exenterate it, and then stuffed the body with snow, and my Lord did help to do it himself.”
Assuming the story is true, that was one of the first experiments that Bacon ever tried with his own hands. It was also his last experiment. The snow so chilled him that he fell sick and died within three days. But the hen may have been, at least for a little while, preserved.
What we call modern science was born with these immortal longings. To many philosophers of the Enlightenment, the idea that we have to submit to aging seemed ludicrous. In England, Thomas Hobbes implies the importance of life extension in his single most famous line. Hobbes had been one of Bacon’s favorite secretaries; it was Hobbes who told Bacon’s biographer the story of the fatal chicken in the snow. Death terrified Hobbes. He once wrote that his mother had given birth to twins: “to myself and to fear.” Hobbes enshrines the Enlightenment’s greatest hope for civilization by its negative in his description of life before civilization. He says the life of man in a state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The power of the line is in its emphasis on the last dreadful word.
The greatest French philosopher, René Descartes, was just as convinced as Bacon that mortals can solve the problem of mortality. Descartes turned from more abstract philosophy to the search for eternal youth when his hair turned gray at the age of forty-one. He wrote, “We could be free of an infinitude of maladies both of body and mind, and even possibly of the infirmities of age, if we had sufficient knowledge of their causes.” He thought he had found the path himself, but he went down as ignominiously as Bacon. Descartes caught a cold in midwinter on a visit to Sweden and died at fifty-four. (Those immortalists didn’t button up their coats.) One of his friends and admirers claimed that if only Descartes had not caught that cold, he might have lived five hundred years.
Many of the founders of modern science continued to hope that they or their followers would solve the problem of mortality. Who knew what wonders could be accomplished within a few centuries by the new natural philosophy? In 1780, Benjamin Franklin wrote in a letter to Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, “We may learn to deprive large masses of their gravity, and give them absolute levity, for the sake of easy transport. Agriculture may diminish its labor and double its produce; all diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured, not excepting even that of old age, and our lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian standard….” Beyond the standard of Moses, Noah, and Methuselah; or Seth, who lived to the age of 912; Enos, 905; Mahalaled, 895; and Jared, 962. “People that will live a long life and drink to the Bottom of the Cup expect to meet with some of the Dregs,” Franklin wrote in a letter eight years later, trying to be philosophical about what he called his three incurable maladies, “the Gout, the Stone, and Old Age.” But Franklin did not expect that people would have to meet and drink those dregs forever.
In France, another friend of Franklin’s, the Marquis de Condorcet, one of the greatest minds of the Enlightenment, and a devout admirer of Francis Bacon, predicted that “a period must one day arrive when death will be nothing more than the effect of extraordinary accidents,” when “the duration between the birth of man and his decay will have no assignable limit.” Condorcet saw immortality as the climax of the advancement of learning. He wrote this passage of prophecy in a Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind when he was in hiding from the Terror during the French Revolution. Soon after, Condorcet was captured, and died in one of the prisons of the Revolution at the age of fifty.
The founders of modernity felt so purely sunny and wholehearted about its future in its first days, when they could wave the dreams of immortality and patriotism together like a pair of flags. Thomas Jefferson commissioned a portrait of Bacon to hang in Monticello. Enlightenment optimism appealed enormously to the American founding fathers. So much of the local culture of self-improvement uncurled from that first seed. “Knowledge is power,” said Bacon; and the chief value of power would be to buy us time. “Time is money,” said Franklin. He knew that we would always want time as much as money, love, fame, or any other prize we hope to win in this life, if time allows. We would use our science to buy time. Once when Franklin was visiting England, he had a cask of Madeira wine shipped to him from Virginia. He found three flies floating in the cask. They made him think of death, and the future of the great experiments he had helped to launch. Franklin wrote to a friend in Paris:
I wish it were possible…to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they may be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence, I should prefer to any ordinary death, the being immersed in a cask of Madeira wine, with a few friends, till that time, to be then recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country!
Mixing, in one barrel, his hopes for science, immortality, and the United States of America.
Mortality seems to be a problem for which every people on Earth began reporting solutions the moment they invented writing. And yet each generation is ready to believe the problem is solved or about to be solved at last. These overenthusiastic reports right from the beginning are like telltales, the ribbons that sailors tie to the tops of their masts to show which way the wind is blowing. Our perpetual readiness to believe we have the answer is a measure of the force of our private hopes and our ambitions as a civilization.
The great Russian biologist Elie Metchnikoff took up the problem of mortality in 1914 with the complaint that “science knows very little about old age and death.” He developed a theory that we are slowly poisoned to death by the bacteria in our bowels. As a remedy, he drank sour milk every day. He explained his theory in a popular book, The Prolongation of Life: Optimistic Studies. Not long after Metchnikoff’s death, two biochemists at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, in New York, showed that fruit flies bred without bacteria in their guts live a shorter time than fruit flies with bacteria in their guts. Public fascination with Metchnikoff evaporated, but yogurt never went away.
At about the same time there was a craze for grafting monkey testicles onto old men. It built on the work of a French neurologist and physiologist in the late nineteenth century, a man with the euphonious name of Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard, who was Harvard’s first professor of the pathology of the nervous system, and who coined the word “rejuvenation.” Brown-Séquard gave himself shots of fluid that he’d extracted from the testicles of young dogs and guinea pigs. He was seventy-two at the time, but he looked at least twenty years younger, and he claimed that the injections restored some of the sexual potency of his youth. He announced his experiment in a famous lecture in which he told his audience that he had only just that morning “paid a visit” to his young wife Madame Brown-Séquard. With that “paid a visit,” which has a double meaning in French, Brown-Séquard created an international sensation. He inspired a series of doctors to take up rejuvenation, including Eugen Steinach in Austria and Serge Voronoff in Russia, who became celebrities themselves. It was Voronoff who specialized in transplants of ape testicles, beginning with his first operation in 1920. They were expensive procedures but three hundred men are said to have undergone them in the next five years. Steinach was nominated half a dozen times for a Nobel Prize for his rejuvenation operations (although he never won). He didn’t do transplants; he did vasectomies. The hope there, as a historian of medicine, Diana Wyndham, explains, “was that, instead of giving life to children, aging men would give life to themselves.” Steinach was even more celebrated in his day than Brown-Séquard and Voronoff, thanks in part to his book Rejuvenation through the Experimental Revitalization of the Aging Puberty Gland, which he published in 1920, the year that he began offering the operation. Men who got the vasectomy were said to have been “Steinached.” An article in Scientific American Monthly reported that year, “It seems that the magic hand of science has found that Elixir of Life…for which Faust bartered his soul.” According to the article, old men who had been Steinached “not only looked fresher and young, but felt an increase in strength and vigor, while aged trembling hands grew steady, feeble tottering steps became firm and failing masculine instincts and impulses acquired new vitality.” In the 1920s, more than one hundred Viennese university professors and teachers were said to have been Steinached, including Sigmund Freud. Freud may or may not have felt younger after being Steinached. He didn’t like to talk about it.
Another famous man to be Steinached was William Butler Yeats, who read about the rejuvenation operation in a popular book called The Conquest of Old Age. Yeats underwent the operation in the spring of 1934, and his surgeon continued the experiment afterward by inviting Yeats and a beautiful young poet to dinner at his house. Yeats was sixty-nine. His wife was forty-two. The young poet, Ethel Mannin, was thirty-four. They may have had an affair. Yeats did start an affair with another young poet and actress, Margot Ruddock, six months later. Around Dublin people began calling him “the gland old man.” Yeats believed the operation had made him a new man. Only a month before his death he wrote, “I am happy, and I think full of an energy, of an energy I had despaired of.” The operation, or faith in the operation, seems to have helped give Yeats an outpouring of great poetry and wild romance in the last years of his life.
Eventually the world forgot Steinach, but kept the poetry.
Of course, it’s easy to laugh at these early attempts at rejuvenation. Sympathetic historians of aging remind us that these were sophisticated and reasonable projects for their time. Brown-Séquard is now recognized as the founder of the science of endocrinology and the study of sex hormones. Metchnikoff won the Nobel Prize in 1908 for research in immunology. And it was Metchnikoff who coined the word “gerontology.”
One of the most distinguished biologists who tried to solve the problem of mortality in the early twentieth century was Alexis Carrel, who won the Nobel Prize in 1912 for his pioneering work in vascular surgery. Carrel was a star researcher at the Rockefeller Institute. His labs and surgery rooms filled the whole top floor and the attic of Founder’s Hall, which was the first building on the campus. The fifth floor was given over to his labs, and his operating rooms were in the attic. Carrel had them all painted black. The walls, the furniture, and every piece of equipment in his operating rooms had to be black, and everyone who worked in them had to wear black surgical masks and gowns. (Whatever else it did for the experiments, the black added drama.) Carrel had developed an early antiseptic, as a surgeon in the French army during World War I. Then he turned to, among other things, the project of breeding mice for longevity. He was a short, odd-looking man, one eye brown, one blue, and he spoke with a heavy French accent. He got extraordinary attention in the papers for his claims that he was keeping cells alive year after year in a petri dish. Carrel wrote in 1911 in the Journal of the American Medical Association that his results “demonstrate…that death is not a necessary, but merely a contingent, phenomenon.” Carrel thought it might soon be possible to keep a human head alive as long as he wanted. Like Brown-Séquard, Voronoff, and Steinach, he made headlines: “Carrel’s New Miracle Points Way to Avert Old Age,” trumpeted the New York Times. “Flesh That Is Immortal,” shouted the World’s Week.
But Carrel’s immortality project turned out to be premature, too. The cells in his petri dishes were not immortal after all; they were being replenished with young cells month after month by the young scientists and assistants who tended them in the black attic, wearing their black gowns. No one knows if the sorcerer’s apprentices deceived the great man deliberately, or if it was an honest mistake. Carrel’s claim was proved wrong only in 1961, when Leonard Hayflick, a cell biologist at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, demonstrated that normal human cells do not divide indefinitely in a petri dish. Hayflick was able to show that in the open air (which is 21 percent oxygen) our cells divide about fifty times. In air with the reduced level of oxygen that prevails inside our bodies (about 3 percent) human cells in a petri dish will divide about seventy times. Then the cells get old and tired, a state that is known to cell biologists as senescence. The cells in Carrel’s dish went from symbols of immortality to symbols of mortality. Hayflick has spent the rest of his career (he is now eighty-one) arguing that it is impossible for gerontologists to extend the human life span.
Our long lives now are made up of all the extra seconds, minutes, hours, and years that the advancement of learning has given us. These gifts of time come down to us from even the least and meanest inventions, from the privy, the chamber pot, the mousetrap, the pitchfork and scythe, the broom and dustpan, from every little life-saving or timesaving gadget ever invented, including the first nail and the first screw. Benjamin Franklin contributed more than a few of those inventions, including the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, and Franklin bifocals. With the bifocals, he was tickled that he had solved at least one of the problems of old age. He wrote to a friend that “if all the other Defects and Infirmities were as easily and cheaply remedied, it would be worth while for Friends to live a good deal longer.” But they’ve all contributed to the same project, from the first fire, and the first chipped, serrated flints; from the first look our ancestors took at the horizon when they stood upright on hind legs; to those bifocals.
This is just what Bacon hoped for the advancement of learning. The goal and index of all our learning would be long life. And Bacon’s prediction did come true. Each of us lives on the capstone of a pyramid that is the sum of the contributions of every invention and material improvement since the Stone Age. Our bodies survive for seventy or eighty years because of every advance in medical knowledge from the most basic discoveries in anatomy to the latest discoveries of Baconian “secrecies of the passages.” The hipbone is connected to the thighbone. The sacrum is connected to the iliac. (And the joint that connects them is the sacroiliac.) Scientific revolution and technological transformation have changed human life for better and for worse in innumerable ways, and the greatest change, the sum of it all, the ultimate payoff, is indexed by our life spans. This is the biggest accomplishment of our species to date: it is the cumulative gift of fire, language, science, art, law, and medicine. This is the apex of the pyramid that we’ve been constructing from the beginning. The building of this Rome took the whole of human history, and all the roads led here.
Better food, better water. Better public sanitation and personal hygiene. Better education, also known as the advancement of learning. You can frame all of this as a quest to extend our lives, just as the founders of the Enlightenment hoped. The failures have been staggering. But the progresss of our civilization has made life, on the whole, less nasty, less brutish—and certainly longer. And even though the quest for immortality keeps falling short of its ultimate goal, generation after generation, it does succeed in the most practical, pragmatic, basic ways in the task of sustaining each generation for a little longer than the year before. That thought goes back way before Bacon, too. According to Sumerian legend, Gilgamesh was the first to dig wells. At least one Babylonian tablet seems to suggest that Sumerians invoked his name whenever they started to dig a well. They chanted, “Well of Gilgamesh!”