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Can science really make us immortal?

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Salon has published an excerpt from Adam Leith Gollner's upcoming book about 'the science, belief, and magic behind living forever.' Gollner surveys the work of researchers from around the world who are trying to reverse the effects of aging and asks, "Is a breakthrough near?"

Indeed, life extension is definitely a growth industry. Gollner points to work being done in regenerative medicine, cellular biology, and genetics.


He even points to bizarre experiments in which a yellow pigment called Thioflavin T (or Basic Yellow 1) can make worms live 60 to 70 percent longer, and how spermidine, a molecular compound found in human semen as well as grapefruit, can significantly prolong the life span of worms, fruit flies, and yeast.


He writes:

These strange-sounding experiments are yielding findings that could affect our lives. Will longevity research yield breakthroughs leading to immortality? Tinkering with the genes in yeast or roundworms has real effects on longevity in those species; that doesn’t mean those genes will perform similarly in humans. And experiments on human cells in vitro do not guarantee similar functioning in vivo. So dying yourself golden yellow will be useless—unless you plan on standing really, really still in an urban center’s touristic thoroughfare. It won’t help you live longer, but sightseers will likely throw consolatory pennies at you.


This paragraph beautifully encapsulates the essence and tone of Gollner's article. He looks at the science, says it's interesting, but pulls back noting that it's unlikely to yield the kind of life-extending benefits that its developers and hopeful consumers are anticipating.

Later in the article he says,

Whether or not the elimination of aging and death are possible end points, many researchers have formed companies that court or are funded by the multinational pharmaceutical industry. While the idea of Harvard and MIT biologists in bed with giant corporations may seem upsetting to nonacademics, it’s been a growing reality in the field for the past two decades. “In the early 1980s, it was nearly unthinkable for academic scientists to found for-profit corporations,” explains George Washington University professor of law Lewis D. Solomon. But by the 2000s, the situation had changed completely. As Nobel laureate Eric Kandel stated in 2003, “These days, it’s hard to think of a really good biologist who isn’t involved with a company.” Guarente portrays the division this way: “My lab tries to learn more and more about the basic biology underlying aging and survival. The company, meanwhile, is trying to translate this knowledge into drug development.”

Adding to the complications of academics-cum-businessmen, scientists at major institutions occasionally make unverifiable, potentially irresponsible statements to garner publicity and grant funding. Attracting investments from the phalanx of wealthy older Americans looking to sink their private fortunes into the war on aging takes snazzy sales pitches, not dry displays of data collection. Professors with connections to Big Pharma may honestly desire to help civilization, but the skewed gold-rush aspect of longevity research means even the most scrupulous academic biologists stand to benefit personally from misunderstood discoveries. Because the potential for personal gain taints most aspects of aging science, trustworthiness can be hard to gauge.

This is nothing new. In the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill said that there is no scientific evidence against the immortality of the soul except for negative evidence, meaning the absence of evidence that it exists. In earlier times, promises of immortality were a way for the powerful to maintain power over other people. By hanging the threat of eternal damnation over their heads, the ruling classes could keep civilians in line. For this reason, Mill’s predecessor Hume considered the notion of an afterlife to be a barbarous deceit. “There arise, indeed, in some minds, some unaccountable terrors with regard to futurity,” Hume wrote, “but these would quickly vanish, were they not artificially fostered by precept and education. And those, who foster them: what is their motive? Only to gain a livelihood, and to acquire power and riches in this world. Their very zeal and industry, therefore, are an argument against them.” Exploiting the fear of death is a venerable, often lucrative, tradition.


While much of Gollner's cynicism is well warranted, he runs the risk of understating the potential for radical life extension. His mocking tone, especially towards the end of the article, belies his prejudicial thinking on the matter. Perhaps he should spend more time actually debunking the science instead of taking great pains to poke fun at those in support of this incredible prospect.

Anyway, there's tons to this article still worth reading, including his take on the Cynthia Kenyon/Leonard Hayflick battle, and his take on biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey.


Top image: The Fountain.