By Ryan Lau | United States
Mortality, as humanity currently stands, is a defining attribute of the human condition. In fact, save the exception of a few crustaceans and ageless microorganisms, it is the condition of life itself to die. The tiniest life forms all the way up the most prosperous humans all recognize death as a future action. Essentially, organisms define it as a scarcity of life.
There is not enough life to go around to satisfy all those in possession of it, and thus, life makes choices, some conscious, some unconscious. The tomato plant drops its seeds, preparing a new generation for life, not long before death. The fox avoids poisonous berries, knowing they would further impose scarcity. The human being, of course, carefully selects an occupation, spouse, location, hobby, and much more, all with the knowledge that he is choosing these over others, making his limited life the best that he can. In every instance, life forms use scarcity as a driving force in conscious or unconscious decision-making.
Now, imagine a world in which scarcity is no longer a factor. Somehow, someway, the world has overcome its own beautiful yet crippling condition. What exactly would this entail? Philosophers have created many models of such a world. Yet, post-scarcity of life is a largely uncharted territory. Without a doubt, this would fundamentally change what it means to be a human being. Such a change is no easy task, but scientists are beginning to lay the groundwork. Yes, they are taking the first steps towards immortality, through the tiny organism of Caenorhabditis Elegans.
The C. Elegans worm, which has a lifespan of just two weeks, may hold the key to immortality in its short-lived body. Specifically, it contains the gene known as DAF-2, which has shown vast potential in the field of life extension. In fact, when molecular biologist Cynthia Kenyon first mutated the DAF-2 gene in these worms in 1993, the results were amazing. One simple mutation doubled the life expectancy of the worms to four weeks, halving the aging process. The strong and direct result showed that there are living organisms with genes that control aging and mortality. Though a long way off, could such a gene show movement in the direction of immortality?
To answer this question, it is first important to recognize what immortality truly means. Despite many often giving it the wrong meaning, it does not have to mean the full end of death. Simply put, immortality is the end to death by natural causes. Those worms would still meet their end if Kenyon was a cruel scientist and lit their habitat on fire. They would still perish if sliced in half or poisoned. Yet, they will take twice as long to die of old age, as their cells double twice as many times. Can this doubling in lifespan be the first step to immortality? The simple answer is yes.
In order to end relative mortality, humanity must extend their life expectancy by more than one year for every calendar year that passes. Essentially, this would mean that the average human will never die, though many of course still will, from unnatural causes, including violence and disease. Imagine a man born today, when he is age 40, with a life expectancy of 90. In the next year, the ever-increasing pace of technology and science increases the life expectancy to 91. On his forty-first birthday, he has the same estimated 50 years left of life. In a sense, he has just lived through the entire year without being a second closer to death.
The following year, the man turns 42. Yet this time, technology and medicine have continued to accelerate, as they always have throughout human history. Now, the life expectancy has soared to 92 years, one month. Though the man just lived through an entire year, assuming he has not drastically changed his lifestyle habits, he is now one month further from mortality than he was two years ago. Could this really be in our future?
Surely, we are nowhere near this current state. In the United States, the life expectancy rises by a couple of years each decade. Yet, this increase, since the 1800’s, has drastically accelerated. Similarly, the amount of human knowledge has accelerated, at increasingly rapid rates. In fact, 13 months from now, humanity will know twice as much as it knows today. The medical field will double in knowledge in 18 months. As a comparison, human knowledge in 1900 doubled in 100 years, and in 1945, it doubled in 25 years. What will happen, then, when our doubling rate reaches one month? Well, the rates will continue to increase, as the technology discovered and used will only enable us to further our knowledge even more.
As this rate increases for human and clinical knowledge, scientists and doctors may be able to use the study found in C. Elegans, and apply it to the human state of being. A similar gene, if present in the many thousands of human genes, could perhaps double human life expectancy. Moreover, doctors will be working with more knowledge and success than ever to cure physical disease. As humanity works faster and faster, will we eventually see a day when one of those ailments is mortality itself? Without a doubt, we are still far from this state ever becoming a reality, but at our current rate of increasing knowledge, as well as life expectancy experiments on lower life forms, it just might be a possible future.