The God Quest: The Human Longing for Immortality

By Ball, Philip | New Statesman (1996), July 24, 2015 | Go to article overview

The God Quest: The Human Longing for Immortality


Ball, Philip, New Statesman (1996)


When on his travels Gulliver discovers that among the inhabitants of Luggnagg live the Struldbrugs, born with a red spot on their foreheads indicating that they never die, he is delighted. "Happy nation, where every child hath at least a chance for being immortal!" he exclaims.

It is true, says Gulliver's interpreter in Jonathan Swift's novel, that long life seems to be the universal desire and wish of mankind. But that is just because of "the common imbecility of human nature". Then Gulliver learns that the Struldbrugs, though immune to death, are not protected from old age, and he is horrified. "No tyrant could invent a death, into which I would not run with pleasure, from such a life," he decides.

The strange thing about our dreams of immortality is that they persist even while so many of the stories we tell about them end badly. The Immortal in Jorge Luis Borges's story of that name ends up wearily treading the world in search of an antidote to the elixir of youth that, in his foolishness, he sought out. This ennui with eternity is shared by the characters of Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time novels and the immortal Q in the Death Wish episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

Even if the ravages of age are not physical, they are moral, as the perpetually youthful Dorian Gray discovers when his ageing portrait records his soul's corruption. When Odysseus elects to return home to Penelope rather than remain in an island paradise with the beautiful nymph Calypso and become immortal, we suspect that he has chosen well.

But still we can't stop craving eternity, which is why many religions have found "life everlasting" such a powerful recruiting tool. This irreconcilable conflict--experiencing the sadness, frustration and discomfort of the ageing process, yet knowing the folly of wishing it away indefinitely --is precisely why we need myths. Yet myths may be fed, not banished, by science. Once scientists researching the biology of ageing--biogerontology--found that some of its depredations can be slowed, a quasi-scientific cult of technological immortality was inevitable.

Myths live on by disguising themselves in the apparel of modernity. So it is fully to be expected that immortality today is a business offering to tailor clients' diet regimes, that it is expounded at conferences in PowerPoint presentations, that it announces itself with words such as "telomere extension" and "immune regulation". This is distressing to serious biogerontologists, who worry that funding of their careful work on age-related disease and infirmity will seem boring in comparison to supporting folks who promise to let us live for ever. They are right to be concerned but sadly theirs will ever be the fate of scientists working in a field that touches on fabled and legendary themes, where both calculating opportunists and well-meaning fantasists can thrive. Age-related research until recently has been rather marginalised in medicine, and the gerontologist Richard Miller of the University of Michigan suggests one reason for this: "Most gerontologists who are widely known to the public are unscrupulous purveyors of useless nostrums."

For an introduction to this biogerontological mythology, I recommend last year's documentary The Immortalists, which profiles two of the most vocal advocates of scientific immortality: the computer scientist Aubrey de Grey and the biotech entrepreneur Bill Andrews. Yet the film shows that these men aren't lone mavericks with unconventional ideas about ageing and its abolition, but participants in a complex and self-supporting network of techno-myth. And as is the case with, for example, human cloning, nutrition and the surprising properties of water, there is no convenient partitioning here into respectable and cranky science. In consequence, the immortality market can't simply be eliminated by the appliance of science; it needs to be understood as a cultural phenomenon. …

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