The Immortality Question

Oct 12, 2011   //   by Pabitra   //   Book Review, Featured, Global Issues, Science And Technology  //  No Comments

This post is inspired by a talk by Dr. Harvey Fineberg, ex-Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and a medical ethicist (see below for the full video of the talk) and works of Cambridge University geneticist Aubrey de Grey but based broadly on the works of Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans, an experienced investor, entrepreneur and scientist who co-founded RxGen, a pharmaceutical services company. These are fascinating men, each can shake your belief system fundamentally – so watch out! Incidentally, Juan calls himself a futurist.

Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans proposed in their book ‘Homo Evolutis: short tour of a new species’ (A Kindle version of the book is available in Amazon.com at 3 dollars – I think my best spent 3 dollars in months!) that humans are possibly speciating into a new kind of super hominids for the first time in a horizonal speciation and in a directed evolution where unlike the previous evolutionary history humans as a species are not subject to a one way natural selection but nature is modified by humans to the extent that humans are controlling evolution to some effect.

For less scientifically oriented, evolution or biological evolution is a process (discovered and proposed by Darwin and later confirmed by biologists as an impeccable scientific theory which deals with living systems) that works on multitudes of living beings on earth on a slow but inevitable way such that species compete genetic strand by strand to adapt with Nature with the best possible way to survive. The system is dumb trial and error but its long term effects are profound, in as much as, a species succeeds to stay in the race of survival by developing new traits, capabilities, colors, shapes or by becoming a more developed species by branching out from the tree of life and another that loses the race gets extinct. This is known as survival of the fittest and an altogether new species that branches out from the ancestors is said to be ‘speciated’ from that ancestor. We humans (Homo Sapiens) are believed to have speciated from our nearest cousins, the Chimps, about 6 million years ago.

For the ones who already know this, Juan and Steve’s book raises some profound and fundamental questions. The Darwinian theory of biological evolution considers only natural (like habitat, food, temperature etc.) elements as determinants of the evolutionary processes. But Humans have come to modify or control these natural elements such that the evolutionary determinants are no more natural and as opposed to vertical speciation as in natural biological evolution, we have started to speciate in a horizontal direction – an evolutionary track that is directed by development of science and technology. As one corollary of Juan and Steve’s hypothesis, humans are speciating into hominids with hitherto unthinkable capabilities, thanks to developments in genomics and genetic engineering. In effect, in foreseeable future we can renew our bodies completely from skin cells turned into pluripotent stem cells and can download our memories into the renewed body as binary codes much like computer software.

This will mean we can be immortal, in the sense that future medical technologies can enable us to elongate our life spans almost indefinitely. Part of humanity that will choose such extension, may be termed as Homo Evolutis. I am not sure how exactly I feel about the prospect of seeing Homo Evolutis or speciating into one. What about you? Will you like to be immortal or like your descendents to be immortal?

This immortality question opens a Pandora’s box. Not only because the notion of immortality is one part spiritual but also because it is difficult to foresee the effects of such directed evolution may have on human civilization and societies. In a TED discussion that I had, as many as 9 commenters against 5 expressed excitement, willingness to explore or embrace the immortality (in a sense that they welcomed a life elongation technology that can make them live between 600 to several thousand years!). Apart from these 14, few expressed confusion or got into spiritual aspect of such prolonged life span.

What nobody did (there were 51 comments to the discussion thread) was to foresee or discuss the completely unique and, from our present level of perception, somewhat bizarre consequences of such speciation.

For example in a world of Homo Evolutis, it will be extremely difficult to maintain institutions like marriages because not many parents will welcome to outlive their children. In a world where medical technology enables the dominant species to replace body parts at will, change sex, clone mutants from one’s body at will without any dependence on sexual reproduction, no society structured in a manner and function like the one that we have now is imaginable.

Secondly, try as we might, it is difficult to dispose of the question of permanence of our physical bodies even in our common human life span scale. The idea of the permanence of our physical body is a bit flawed. Even without modern technological intervention, your body is renewed, cell for cell, regularly. You have new liver every 5 months, new heart every 20 years, new pair of lungs – every 2/3 weeks, new skin in 2/4 weeks, new bones in 10 years, new intestines in 2/3 days. Only organs that do not regenerate is the brain and eyes. So it’s a bit tricky to say how old you are because material wise your body is not the same it was a decade ago.

It is not known why brain cells do not regenerate. From embryo, the pluripotent stem cells go through 16 generations of divisions producing exact same stem cells and then they start specializing into organ cells, brain cells being one of those. Maybe they do not regenerate in order to keep our memories saved. But if Juan and Steve are taken seriously, we are at the threshold of technologies that can genetically tweak the rate of death of brain cells greatly enhancing its life and if memories can be coded they can be copied and downloaded into our brains.

Thirdly, the most vexing of the insights that emerge from Juan and Steve’s narrative is that this process of horizontal, directed and technology induced speciation of Homo Sapiens have started right from the time humans discovered wheels, learnt use of fire, agriculture or animal husbandry. We are no less cyborgs now with our increased mobility and transportive capabilities with cars and airplanes, hugely increased vision with binoculars, capability to experience marine life with scuba diving gears, than you can imagine for a Schwarzenegger movie. Juan and Steve foresee these capabilities grafted into our bodies with a vastly advanced medical technology. So, in a sense, one may ponder how human we are by now and how much difference does it make to become Homo Evolutis.

When you look at vast fields of wheat what you are actually seeing is something basically un-natural because Nature did not ordain those wheat plants to grow side by side in mathematical precision – we did. When you look at the huge udders of dairy cows, you do not always realize that this is an artificial species created by selective breeding to serve us. The Nature around us is largely regulated and controlled by humans – so immortality, or a huge life span in that world is not likely going to be an extended biblical paradise.

Feature Image Credit: The Daily Galaxy

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