Allan Massie: Science pushes back the years

Once immortality was a gift bestowed by gods, but research suggests we can defy time. What what will this mean for society, asks Allan Massie

Most of us would wish to live longer  as long as we remain fit and healthy. Picture: Getty

The idea of defeating old age and even death has been with us for a long time. In Greek mythology, there was a handsome young fellow called Tithonius who was in love with Eos, the Goddess of Dawn. Aware that he was getting older while she remained young and beautiful forever, he asked her to make him immortal. She couldn’t do it herself but passed on the request to Zeus, who obligingly granted it.

Unfortunately, Tithonius had asked only for immortality, not for eternal youth. So he became a horrible-looking old man, suffering aches and pains and unable to die. Eos took pity on him and turned him into a grasshopper, presumably an immortal one. Motto: be careful of what you ask from the gods.

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Tennyson wrote a fine poem about the poor chap, and Aldous Huxley was inspired by his story to explore the idea of infinite extension of life in his last good novel After Many A Summer.

Not surprisingly Jonathan Swift found the idea interesting, and, being Swift, also rather horrifying. In the third book of Gulliver’s Travels, his hero comes across immortals known as Struldburgs on the island of Luggnagg. They are, quite rightly, regarded as a menace by normal people. So, “as soon as they have completed the term of 80 years, they are looked on as dead in law”, forbidden to take part in civic life.

“Otherwise,” Swift explains, “as avarice is the necessary consequence of old age, these immortals would in time become proprietors of the whole nation and engross the civil power, which, for want of their ability to manage, must end in the ruin of the public.” In this context, I merely remark that the SNP might have been well-advised to declare that octogenarians are dead in law and, therefore, not entitled to vote in the referendum, it being commonly assumed that there is probably a No majority in that age group.

Be that as it may, the possibility of extending life far beyond what is now its usual term is apparently becoming a reality. Of course, thanks to medical advances, this has been happening for some time. Most of us can already expect to live quite a bit beyond the Bible’s allotted span of 70 years. But the science is marching quickly. Aubrey de Grey, co-founder of SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence), believes that we can eliminate the symptoms of ageing, and live for as long as 1,000 years. Ninety per cent of us apparently die of what is nothing more than old age – bits wearing out and all that – and this, he says, is unnecessary.

A thousand years may seem a touch extravagant, but we are already accustomed to being fitted with spare parts that help to keep us going. Then that great killer, cancer, is usually, though not always, a disease of old age, and, if/when a cure is found, then that will be another cause of death that has been abolished.

Moreover, research into other ways of keeping us going is proceeding apace. Synthetic small molecules have been found to stimulate the production of a class of enzymes called sirtuins in laboratory mice; and this apparently perks them up no end. Then there is something called daumone, an external hormone secreted by nematode worms (whatever they are), which on being fed to elderly mice has reportedly reduced the risk of death by 48 per cent.

Now, most of us are quite in favour of staying alive, so long as our bodies and minds keep functioning with reasonable efficiency. For many the real fear is dementia, and most of the over-70s I know will say that if that happens and the mind crumbles, they hope that somebody will be kind enough to put a pillow over their face and press down hard. Unfortunately, for obvious and respectable reasons, few are ready to oblige. Nevertheless, many will agree with me that it’s preferable to go to the grave than to go nuts.

However, assuming that the life-extension scientists can also find ways of fending off dementia, how do we feel, individually and as a society, about the prolongation of life? Are we happy about the prospect of so lop-sided a society?

There are hitches. Aubrey de Grey, with the enthusiasm of a pioneer, says he hopes to make it possible for people of 90 to wake up feeling as ready to go as they did when they were 30, and with no greater chance of not waking up the next day as they had 60 years previously. However, he admits that this transformation will require “hi-tech intervention”, which is what he says he is working on.

The likelihood is, of course, that such intervention would be very expensive and, therefore, that – for a long time anyway – it would be far more readily available to the rich than the poor. It’s already the case, even in wealthy countries like ours, that the poor die younger. So it’s probable that the life-extension sciences will widen that disparity still further. Is this what we want? Is it something that will make for a Good Society? I don’t think so.

Of course, even on the individual level there are questions to be asked about life-extension. What about work? Are we going to be able and willing to go on working. Some of us might want to. Others who spend their 50s looking forward to the day when they can retire might be horrified to find themselves condemned to several more decades of labour? And what about the young? Would they be squeezed out of employment by those whose greater experience was valued?

It’s quite possible that the life-extended might be as useless and miserable as Swift’s Strulburgs. Why prolong life, some sage once asked, save to prolong pleasure? Why indeed? Can the life-extension zealots assure us of continuing pleasure? I don’t know. Nobody knows. But evidently the prospect of life-extension is real. We had better start thinking about it. Will it make for individual happiness and social contentment? If not, shouldn’t we oldies get ready to shuffle off the mortal coil?

One thing is sure: few of us want to end up like Tithonius, condemned to live in decrepitude and misery. Worse than Tithonius indeed, there being no kindly former lover and goddess on hand to change us into a grasshopper.