IMMORTALITY: More of a liability than an asset?

Posted on March 6, 2010 in Sci-Tech

Aakriti Gupta:

Through ages, since the birth of mankind, man has been intrigued by the possibility of living on forever. Maybe it’s a part of being human, as we strive to live beyond the span of life meant for us. This is the reason why immortality is of major importance in our myths and legends, where man is constantly on the quest for immortality. Religion, although has a different perspective, places enormous emphasis on the immortality of the soul. It is a subject for scientists and researchers today as they search for ways to achieve an indefinite lifespan.

Since the beginning of history, there has been considerable interest in the attainment of immortality, which reflects in our mythological accounts. The Garden of Eden is said to be a place where the first human beings, Adam and Eve, lived in eternal happiness; they were immortal. The legends of the Greeks are filled with the adventures of the immortal gods and humans who seek immortality through their deeds or through the acts of gods. The legend of the Philosopher’s stone also shows how alchemists have been searching for the recipe for the ‘elixir of life’ for centuries. Even our own Hindu mythology has had its share of legends of immortality, from men who yearned for it — Hiranyakashipu, to those who achieved it — Bhishma. Thus, we can see that the human search for an eternal life has spanned cultures, centuries and the wide lands.

In recent years, the hope for finding ways to immortality has been given a major revival. The development and mushrooming populations of the jellyfish, Turritopsis Nutricula, served as a confirmation for those involved in the research for biological immortality that it is possible for a species to survive indefinitely, as sought by them. This species has accomplished trans-differentiation which allows it to return to polyp stage after a certain age, and thus to continue living indefinitely. This may be interpreted as simply a rewind button to revert to a certain age, in simplest terms. This new development has given scientists a direction to work towards — because to eliminate or “conquer the blight of involuntary death”, the three causes of death — aging, trauma and disease — are to be eliminated. Turritopsis Nutricula, an invertebrate species, has shown us that death by aging can be conquered.

Similarly, there are a few more ways of achieving immortality known to mankind, which scientists are working on presently. One of them, genetic modification, presents the possibility of giving cells the potential to divide beyond the Hayflick limit (which is the limit beyond while the telomeres of a chromosome cannot divide, thus makingits lifespan unending), which can prevent aging, also called senescence. Another possibility is cryogenics — although we certainly have seen some science-fiction horrors through that one! Also, a new theory which may become a reality in the future is mind uploading, a process of attaining immortality which involves the transfer or copying of the complete personality of a human being to a computer, by connecting it with the brain. But here, the question arises — are we really supposed to go to such extents?

There is not a speck of doubt that the human brain and its capabilities are unparalleled. There is a very high probability that we will find the key to immortality, considering the progress that has been made so far. Within the last fifty years, we have managed to double the average human lifespan! We have found cures to diseases previously thought incurable. Although we have achieved a lot, we cannot afford to be so complacent in our quest that we forget the consequences of our actions. There is a lot that needs to be considered before we achieve this state. It will have a huge impact on humanity and we need to debate the very value of such innovations. Even from a more pragmatic point-of-view, the biggest implication of attaining immortality would be overpopulation. Our planet already cannot afford to provide the resources that our growing population needs, or rather desires. In such a scenario, won’t immortality turn into the bane of our existence? Watching the world around us grow old, die, while we live indefinitely seems to be an abhorrent idea. Also, with a life that’s eternally long, there would be a dearth of motivation; life would cease to have much value either. Are we REALLY willing to have that?

The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz.