What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality — Plutarch
One day, a prince along with his advisor was walking the streets of his city in disguise. The king was not used to mingling with his subjects. He kept walking along the street, passed the busy market and came upon a very sick man. He was so aghast by the sight that he questioned the state of the man’s existence. To which the advisor replied “there are many sick people in this world. Death and disease affect many”. The prince has never seen a sick man before. His world was in a tailspin and he began questioning his own existence. He started thinking of life after death. He was so moved by the sight of the unimaginable that he gave up his kingdom, his wife and child and became a hermit. He roamed near and far in search of answers often starving himself to the brink of death. Until one day, finally, he uncovered the purpose of life. He realized that the purpose of life is to free the soul from the cycle of life and death — a state of transcendence called ‘Nirvana’. Some of you may have guessed who this story is about. It is about the prince turned Buddha — the founder of Buddhism in 6th century BC-Siddhartha Gautama. There are many visions of this truth around the world. Perhaps, that’s the natural order of things.
However, this article is about mankind’s quest for a different purpose- eternal life ie transcending death using technologies that range from cryogenics to artificial avatars. From the fountain of youth at Bimini to the use of algorithms, this article chronicles mankind’s quest for leaving an unending legacy, a never ending story and an unnatural craving more enduring than the quest for money or power. At the end, this article attempts to answer the question: are such desires unnatural?
Everyone Wants Answers
From time immemorial, everyone wants to know ‘what is beyond death?’ Now, nature has devised the game in such a way that the only way to find out is to actually die. As morbid as it sounds, death is ironically one of the biggest motivators in life. Nothing brings out the real you as the awareness that the clock is ticking. For billionaires, they want to use their resources to live forever even if that means staying frozen in liquid nitrogen after death. For more humble people like you and I, we want to pass on our wisdom and love to our loved ones. Who knows when you will get to see the people around you in the afterlife, if there is one that is. For scientists, the quest to find the genes responsible for aging could lead to profound knowledge and holds the key to wresting a few more years from Mother Nature for millions of humans. I think I have said enough morbid things to spoil the ten seconds you took to read this paragraph. Instead, let me now detail what the world is upto as far as creating life after death is concerned. I cannot promise less morbidity but I can promise many interesting stories. Also, I began this article on a philosophical note. Therefore, I intend to leave you with a philosophical question at the end.
The Fountain of Youth
At the outset, let me reiterate the power of hope. If not for anything, the fountain of youth, like many other fabled myths, has inspired countless explorers to start their voyage. Inadvertently, many ended up finding altogether different things. As foolish as these myths may sound, they are the reason for many of mankind’s most wonderful discoveries. The moral of the story is that we should all dream with our eyes open. That’s what makes our dreams dangerous and our journey that much more meaningful. Believe in romanticism even if the world tells you otherwise.
The fountain of youth must not be confused with a word evoking similar visions i.e. a liquid called the Elixir. The Elixir is a mythical, magical potion that helps alchemists convert base metals to gold in a process called ‘Alchemy’. The earliest accounts of the fountain of youth are found in the writings of Herodotus (5th century BC). In Ancient Greece, fish-eaters were called Ichthyophagi. Herodotus story mentions the Ichthyophagi questioning the Mythical Macrobians on the source of their longevity. It is said the Macrobians, believed to have lived either in a place in Modern day Horn of Africa or India, lived 120 years. The king Of The Macrobians leads the Ichthyophagi to a source of water that would turn their skins all new as if they never aged. Washing the skin repeatedly in that water was what made them live longer.
One of the most remarkable things about these legends is the fact that many of them point to the fountain of youth being in modern day India. For instance, the book ‘The Travels Of Sir John Mandeville’ alludes to the fountain of youth being located in Kollam-a place in the south Indian state of Kerala.
The book, a medieval fantasy, is inspired by stories about Alexander the Great traveling with his servant to find the ‘Water of Life’. The story of the servant can also be found in the middle eastern stories of the sage Al-Khidr. As time moved on, the myth of the fountain of youth failed to die. The 16th century explorer Juan Ponce de Lyon is said to have spoken to native American Indians. The Indians were believed to have told him to search for the fountain of youth in a city called Bimini in modern day Bahamas. European woodwork as symbolized by the work of Lucas Cranach the Elder and French art were often inspired by the Fountain of Youth. In Indian mythology, the gods would often gift immortality to devotees who dedicated a large portion of their life to excruciating penance. Today, we all seek youth in different forms. The average annual expenditure on cosmetics in the United States is a staggering $8 Billion. As per global cosmetics giant L’Oreal, the global cosmetics market is pegged at approximately Euro 200 Billion with a growth rate of 4–5% in 2017. Approximately 37% of the market today is in Asia. As per the Independent, UK, the average British woman spend £70, 000 on cosmetics in her lifetime which translates to more than £1,300 annually. While this may not seem to be unnatural to many because cosmetics is a massive industry, true beauty descends from genes and inner peace. Of course, my household is also responsible for cosmetic consumption. However, I am also witness to many in the developed world turning back to nature for answers under the guise of the word ‘organic’. In short, we still have not abandoned our search for the fountain of youth.
As per the World Health Organization, global average life expectancy increased by 5.5 years between 2000 and 2016, the fastest increase since the 1960s. However, is it possible for our life expectancy to continue increasing forever. In fact a couple-Morano and Jeanne Calment of France, died at the record-setting age of 122 years.
In 1961, American anatomist Leonard Hayflick discovered that human fibroblasts stop dividing after 40 or 60 times. This limit called ‘Hayflick Limit’ upended a long held dogma that human cells are immortal. The only immortal cultured cells, Hayflick discovered, are cancerous cells. As per Wikipedia, senescence (/sɪˈnɛsəns/) or biological aging is the gradual deterioration of functional characteristics. The word senescence can refer either to cellular senescence or to senescence of the whole organism. Organismal senescence involves an increase in death rates and/or a decrease in fecundity with increasing age, at least in the later part of an organism’s life cycle.
The MIT Technology Review published an article titled ‘Finally, the drug that keeps you young’. The article describes how Judith Campisi, a professor at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, California stumbled upon cell senescence. Simply put, it is a state in which cells stop dividing. The MIT Tech Review article goes on to explain ‘In the past five years, this insight has led to the pursuit of a new class of drugs known as senolytics, which eliminate senescent cells and, in animal experiments, restore more youthful characteristics’. Thus, in addition to cosmetics, scientific research is opening the possibility of extending youth. The question remains: will modern science and genetic engineering result in an asymptotic expansion in human life expectancy? It is very hard to answer this question but to close the loop — it feels theoretically possible to reach the age of the ancient Macrobians as described by Herotodus in his writings. It may not be unnatural for humans to live a 120 years.
Transhumanism is a global movement that believes that our life is just a pitstop on a longer continuum. Ray Kurzweil, an eminent futurist, along with many others, believe in a future after death. One of the key technologies which is part of this larger thought process is Cryonics which has its roots as early as 1954. Cryonics is derived from the Greek word ‘kryos’ meaning cold. It is often compared to an old gambit called ‘Pascal’s Wager’.
Pascal’s Wager is an argument in philosophy presented by the seventeenth-century French philosopher, mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal (1623–1662). It posits that humans bet with their lives that God either exists or does not exist.
Cryonics or the science of using sub-zero temperatures for preserving human bodies for revival later is another attempt at immortality. Cryonics uses extremely cold elements such as nitrogen, helium etc. freezed at roughly -196C to cryopreserve human bodies for possible revival later. As of 2014, about 250 bodies were cryopreserved in the United States, and 1,500 people had made arrangements for cryopreservation after their legal death. Cryonicists believe that as long as the human brain can be restored or repaired ie the human brain has not entered information theoretic death, it can be revived later. Nanomedecine or molecular medicine can be used to repair the brain on revival. Nobody knows what happens later but cryopreservation has entered our lexicon as much as the digital afterlife. Of course, it raises a lot of legal and ethical issues. David Shaw, writing in the journal ‘Bioethics’ compares Cryonic preservation to Pascal’s wager. Little surprise why.
A Y-Combinator startup ‘Nectome’ was recognized in 2018 for its research in chemically preserving the brain without freezing. As per its website, the company states its mission as ‘..we-design and conduct experiments to discover how the brain physically creates memories. And, we develop biological preservation techniques to better preserve the physical traces of memory’. Stuart McIntyre, the founder of Nectome won the Large Mammal Brain Preservation Prize for his technique called ‘vitrifixation’ which uses chemicals to freeze the brain for reanimation later.
An important concept to keep in mind is the concept of The Connectome. A connectome (/kəˈnɛktoʊm/) is a comprehensive map of neural connections in the brain, and may be thought of as its “wiring diagram”. More broadly, a connectome would include the mapping of all neural connections within an organism’s nervous system. In this video, Sebastian Seung explains why the Connectome holds the key to our memories and perhaps to transhumanism.
Instead of living forever, what if we could create a virtual, digital avatar that transcends death? In a 2014 movie titled ‘Transcendence, Johnny Depp played an eccentric but leading authority on Artificial Intelligence (AI). He attempts to create a sentient being that lives after death in a computerized form. In other words, he uses algorithms to reverse information theoretic death. Information-theoretic death is the scrambling of information within the human brain to such an extent that recovery of the original person becomes theoretically impossible. As a man of science, I found the concept unbelievable — a bit like classical physicists prior to the introduction of quantum physics. As a spiritual man, I found the concept abhorrent.Today, I have a pendulum in my mind that swings back and forth between what I consider the natural order of things and what I don’t.
Most people are content with writing books, letters or leaving behind objects of desire to rekindle memories because they believe life is finite. Once again, as I leaf through the latest issue of the MIT Technology Review, I cannot believe what I am reading. In a quest to help people achieve digital immortality, Hossein Rahnama attempts to create ‘Augmented Eternity’ -a digital afterlife for his clients. Many people have tried the concept before with the resources at their disposal. Hossein Rahnama, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the RTA School of Media and is the Director of Research and Innovation at Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone. His latest gambit is not a solitary effort. Experts around the world are now debating the ethics of a digital afterlife. Digital afterlife is big business.
What Is Unnatural?
As you can infer from the above, there is thin line between the natural and the unnatural. In fact, it keeps getting thinner.
There are many things we regard as unnatural depending on where our belief system lies. We may regard transcendence as one of them. The problem with that theory is that it is a big generalization that hides the nuances involved in coming to the conclusion that immortality is unnatural.
Of course, there are two sides to every coin. While genetic engineering and modern day technologies such as CRISPR CAS-9 and RNA interference are incredibly powerful and can help is replace faulty, disease causing genes, these technologies are not without side effects. If I have to adapt a famous Newtonian law of physics, I would say every action tinkering with nature has an equal and opposite reaction. This aphorism in no way will stop our quest for new knowledge.
As an intelligent species, nature has endowed us with the power to search for answers. In doing so, creating powerful yet dangerous technologies is an inevitable outcome. Therefore, it may not be unnatural for us to search for answers or to play god. Our inherently curious nature increasingly shapes our desire to create completely different worlds however different they may be from the natural world. The key lies in what happens next. The purpose for the use of these technologies will guide our future as a species. On seeing the atomic bomb explode, J. Robert Oppenheimer exclaimed with dismay that he had become Lord Shiva-an ancient Hindu god capable of destroying the world. Einstein, in equal measure, turned to religion for answers. As young Peter Parkers’ uncle often reminds him in Spiderman : ‘With great power comes great responsibility’. My hope is that the profundity of this statement is never lost on us. Lest we end up as our own worst enemies.