Immortality Could Be Cool
Dying is a tragic event and, if we did not get old or sick, immortality
could be cool. For this reason, in search of eternity, we humans invented
several millennia ago a personal spirit –an energy, a consciousness– that would
reincarnate, be reborn or resurrect at some point in the future. For the very
same perpetuating obsession, we also try to do remarkable things that perhaps
will allow us to survive in history... or at least in Google. As the atheist he
is, Woody Allen does not believe in the first alternative and dislikes the
second one: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work... I want
to achieve it through not dying". In recent decades scientists are paying
much attention to the American comedian. Let's have a look at a couple of
recent news on the subject.
Cryptographer, programmer and futurist Harold Finney, at age 58, died
recently of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a devastating
neurodegenerative disorder. Most people diagnosed with ALS would prefer a quick
death to any alternative treatment that would prolong a life of immobility. Not
the stubborn Finney. Even when his body was almost totally paralyzed, the
cryptographer, aware of his lucidity, decided to fight until beyond his last
moment. When he could no longer communicate at all, he was disconnected from
his ventilator and, following his instructions, his body was frozen in liquid
nitrogen as soon as he was pronounced dead.
The body of Finney and the body of a few hundred hopeful patients are
frozen at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a Scottsdale (Arizona)
non-profit organization, waiting for technological developments that eventually
will not only return them to life but cure the diseases that killed them.
Perhaps in some fifty years, futuristic Finney will resurrect, at his age, my
guess, he passed away last August. (Some Christian theologians argue that when
we resuscitate at the end of time everyone will be 33, the age of Jesus when he
With a different approach and much good sense, other scientists are
focusing their research toward immortality on the genetic code of those who are
still alive. CRISPR (a weird acronym) is a field of genetic engineering that
studies some molecular micro-fractions that recurrently repeat in the long DNA
chain. (I suppose no one knows why they repeat). Around CRISPR there have grown
a wide variety of techniques that, among the many miracles they could lead to,
are the resurrection of both mammoths, (the relatives of elephants which
disappeared some 4,500 years ago) and, eventually, Neanderthals (our closest
cousin which went extinct some thirty millennia ago).
Harvard Medical School scientist and engineer George M. Church sees an
impressive potential in the matter. If a CRISPR technique could recreate a
creature that disappeared several millennia ago from DNA samples recovered from
an ancient fossil, it must be quite simpler to reverse the biological age to an
old millionaire who is still alive and has enough money to afford the charge.
Says Dr. Church: “The objective is not to extend death, to extend the worst
part of our lives, but to reverse aging. We are looking at full genome
sequencing of super-centenarians. It’s probably not their environment that’s
making the rule on time, but hopefully rare factors.” As with the revival of frozen bodies, this
other wonder will not materialize soon, not within the next half century.
Each person has their own estimates, optimistic or pessimistic, about
their own life expectancy. Like most people, this columnist would love ‘to
live’ quite a few more years, the stress on 'to live' is deliberate... because
he is not interested in only 'enduring' or ‘lasting’. As long as we have
physical health –as the brain is part of the body, adding 'mental' is
redundant, long live life!
However, since science does not run that fast and the grim reaper is
lurking with his macabre scythe cutting out heads at random, it is best to
accept our temporality and detach ourselves as much as we can from the wish to
exist forever. Although the survival instinct is in our genes, we must make
ours the thoughtful verses of Colombian poet Porfirio Barba Jacob*
"...There is, oh Earth! a day... a day... a day... when we weigh anchors
never to return... A day when ineluctable winds blow by… A day when no one can
retain us". In any instant of that day, we will go away and gone we will
be. We may not be ready for the occasion but… Are we warned? Absolutely, yes!
Atlanta, December 12, 2014
* Translation by Colombian Writer Nicolás Suescún