Monday, March 16, 2015


The gift of men, in Tolkien's universe, is death. The better life gets, though, the less welcome the gift becomes. Searching for immortality, through magic or religion, is one of the oldest themes in history. The radical advances in average human lifespan that we have seen in the last 100 years have been achieved mostly through science and sanitation, and so science now looks like the most promising venue for further life extension. I suppose it's natural for the most favored to resent "the gift," and if you have a few hundred million rattling around in your pocket, why not give the alternative a shot.

You will probably want to know that Google is on the case:


Bill Maris has $425 million to invest this year, and the freedom to invest it however he wants. He's looking for companies that will slow aging, reverse disease, and extend life.

The easy technical problems of life extension have been solved, or nearly so. Control disease, avoid catastrophe, replace defective organs with cloned replacements. The tough one, cellular senescence, remains. Our joints, organs muscles and brains get old and creaky because the cells that make them up do. They age and get decrepit from cellular damage or just lose the ability to faithfully reproduce themselves.

One reason reproducing cells lose that ability is because in each reproductive cycle, the telomeres that end chromosomes get shorter, and as they get shorter, there reproductive capacity fades and ends. Well that should be easy, you might say, just tell them to stop that. In fact that happens, and it's a fundamental facet of developing cancer. The telomere shortening, it seems, is partly a cancer preventive. Even more fundamental is the accumulation of cellular damage from insults to the DNA. It's not obvious that either of these problems can be solved, now or in the future.

The ancient Egyptians shot at immortality apparently depended on having the resources to put up a nice pyramid, and it's highly plausible that radical advances in life extension (real and imaginary) might be accessible only to the super rich. That's sure to be annoying to those of us left out, but the alternative is not so hot either. Suppose everybody could live comfortably to 500 or a thousand years old? Where would we put them all? Would reproduction have to be forbidden to all - or at least to those choosing life extension?