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What nightmares may come, when we shuffle onto an immortal coil

by Michael Hoffman

“In 20 years human beings will neither die nor age.”

That’s Shukan Gendai magazine’s headline. Is it possible? Is the age-old dream about to come true? Are homo sapiens, who have been dying for 190,000-odd years, on the cusp at last of immortality?

Myriad champions down the millennia have waged their battles against Death. The first known one is Gilgamesh, of the 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian epic that bears his name. Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, journeys to a distant land where dwells the world’s only immortal man — who is willing to help, on one condition: Gilgamesh must stay awake for a week. He fails, and earns a stinging rebuke: “Behold this fellow who seeks eternal life! Sleep swirls over him like a mist.”

So much for that. Gilgamesh died but his quest lives on. His successors are legion. Among them is the Chinese Taoist sage Xu Fu, who in the 3rd century BC led an armada of 60 ships — crewed, it was said, by 3,000 virgins — across the eastern seas in search of the elixir of eternal life. What he found instead, says legend, is Japan, where, legendarily, he settled and introduced the Japanese to rice farming.

There’s no end of marvelous tales. Some, to the modern sensibility, are plain crazy, like that of the 16th-century Hungarian noblewoman who pursued deathless eternal youth by bathing in her young daughter’s blood. They all have the same ending, which the Biblical Book of Genesis sums up very well: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

So what is Shukan Gendai telling us — that our death sentence has been revoked?

If it has, the hero of this story is not a warrior-king or a mystic or a quack but a scientist. His thesis arouses more skepticism among his peers than support, but over the years the support has been growing, if slowly. He’s a 49-year-old British biogerontologist named Aubrey de Grey. He has a doctorate from Cambridge, is editor in chief of the academic journal Rejuvenation Research, has authored numerous books on aging, and is chief science officer of the SENS Foundation. SENS stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. The last two words are, to all practical purposes, synonymous with immortality.

De Grey works at the cellular level. His famous “seven causes” of aging and death all have to do with cell damage and cell deterioration, and amounts to this: We age because our cells do. Cell deterioration, he believes, can be retarded; cell damage can be repaired. The SENS Foundation has been pursuing this modern elixir of youth for 20 years. De Grey figures another 20 years should do it. We’re almost there. Think of the implications: many people now living will never die.

When he started, the consensus was that de Grey was a crank. Support even now is cautious and qualified. Shukan Gendai quotes several Japanese experts who agree that cellular rejuvenation is theoretically possible, though they question whether that will necessarily lead to immortality or even to a much extended youthfulness. De Grey, undaunted, invites us to imagine a world transformed. We’ll get old without it mattering. The young will look up to us for our experience and wisdom, instead of down on us for our infirmity and dementia and the drain we are on the economy. We’ll need neither nursing homes nor final resting places, since there’ll be no final rest. Death, shadow on our lives since our species emerged into consciousness, will shadow it no longer.

So what’s wrong?

Immortality, it seems, is not to everyone’s taste. Most of us don’t want to die, but the thought of living forever can seem more eerie than inviting. Writer and philosopher Tatsuru Uchida, professor emeritus at Kobe Women’s College, in a discussion with Shukan Gendai puts it this way: Immortality would come in one of three forms; it could be attained by isolated individuals, by the human race as a whole or by some undefined elite. For the solitary immortal living eternally among passing mortals, it would be hell, Uchida says. Imagine living on and on with friends and family gone and with the world you knew changing out of all recognition.

An immortal human species seems better, but isn’t: “The planet would be like a commuter train at rush hour” — which is repugnant enough but only the beginning. “Food, drink, clothing, housing, everything would be in short supply; we’d stink, we’d be filthy, we’d pray for death but it wouldn’t come.”

Immortality reserved for elite survivors hardly brightens the picture, in Uchida’s view. The immortals would be natural rulers over servile mortals. They would be as gods. But gods on Earth don’t have things all their own way, as they do in heaven. Immortal, they would grow slack; they would cease to innovate; while mortals, downtrodden and discontented, would have every incentive to exercise, develop and enlarge their brainpower and use it to the immortals’ discomfiture. What then? An eternal war that neither side could ever win or lose?

Uchida’s pessimism with regard to immortality is characteristically Japanese. Japan’s is one of the world’s very few major cultures — it may be the only one — to have always valued transience over eternity. The 14th-century writer-priest Kenko, in a miscellany titled “Grasses of Idleness,” gave that outlook its classic expression: “If man were never to fade away … but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.”