The Hunt for Immortality: Just Stop

Posted on August 19, 2013


Achieving actual, biological immortality – or even just a relatively modest increase in average human lifespans – would be an unmitigated disaster.

Once again in the news, we see stories of scientists studying the genetic makeup of strangely afflicted children who never seem to age.  Not only do they appear not to age, they never grow up.  And not only do they not grow up, they are profoundly disabled in various other ways: blindness, deafness, cognitive disorders, inability to walk or speak, a general failure to develop at all.

These children’s condition is a mystery, but it doesn’t look like a picture of hope for mankind.  It is devastating.  And yet, the usual chirpy, bright-eyed, would-be Ponce de León types swoop in seeking their own  versions of the Fountain of Youth in these children’s misfortune.  They are sorely, sorely misguided.

First of all, it is obvious that these children do age; their affliction is less a matter of “aging” than it is of development.  They remain small, they retain their baby teeth, their brains fail to mature; but have a look at 43-year-old Nicky Freeman, who is compared to a 10-year-old.  His skin is not that of a 10-year-old; he is truly a 43-year-old trapped in an under-developed body.


I suspect that as 20-year-old “toddler” Brooke Greenberg, or 8-year old “newborn” Gabby Williams continue to put on years as Nicky Freeman has, we will see obvious, physical signs of aging in their small bodies.  Meanwhile, their families are saddled not with a miracle, but with the responsibility of round-the-clock care for patients who will never be able to live unsupervised, much less independently, and all of the emotional pain and worry that comes with that.

Somewhat related to these strange cases is the equally strange case of extensive Laron dwarfism among remote villagers in Ecuador.  Again we have people who grow little taller than three feet, and apparently never get cancer or diabetes.   Researchers, blinded by the stars in their own eyes, see these patients as “remarkably youthful in appearance.”  Really?  Check out the photo of this patient at age 67 (he eventually died in an accident 20 years later).  He looks not only 67, but a well-weathered 67.  He is not youthful; he does not look youthful.


It turns out these patients don’t live any longer than their unaffected relatives; they just die of things other than diabetes or cancer.  “A lot of strange causes of death… acute conditions,” says one researcher.

Healthy old age is great, but it is sheer folly to tamper with the length of the natural human lifespan, much less to seek biological immorality.  Much of the explosive population growth that is now over-drawing and destroying our renewable resources is a result of a relatively modest increase in average human lifespans.  Don’t believe it?  Here is the simple formula determining the rate of natural increase:

Birth rate (b) − death rate (d) = rate of natural increase (r).

It is true that much of our increase in average lifespan is due to much improved infant and childhood mortality numbers; the many people who died before age 5 in the past brought the averages down significantly.  When we speak of people in the past living to an average age of, say, 50, it does not mean that most people keeled over at 50.  It means that a lot of people  died a lot younger than that, but a lot of people lived to be older than that.  There have always been those “outliers” who achieved lifespans of 100 years or more.  Check out the roster of the last surviving veterans of our various wars.  From the American Revolution to the First World War, the last survivors were all over 100 years old, save for one 98-year-old who was the last living veteran of the Mexican War.  The oldest was the last Civil War veteran at age 112.  The fact that we have had these centenarians in every era of our history proves that 100-year lifespans are not new; what is new is child and youth survival rates, as well as improved medicine at all ages.

But what if we increase the natural lifespan to 150 years and beyond?  The impact on the raw mathematical formula is exactly the same:  a lower death rate overall, and a concomitant spike in population growth.  Being in the midst of one such spike already, this would be a population spike we can ill afford.

We don’t even know how we are going to feed and provide water for all the normal-lifespan people who are expected to show up in the next few decades; why ever would we want to tip the balance even farther against our dwindling natural resources?  Who gets their lives extended, and who doesn’t?  What about social resources like pensions, medical care, Social Security or similar programs?  What the hell are we thinking?

I am not citing “divine law” in this matter.  My concern is much more immediate and pragmatic: we die as individuals because without that feature, our species would not survive.  Individuals do not evolve for changing conditions; for that, we need ongoing cross-breeding, the occasional mutation, a wide variety of individual traits in constant circulation.  Some individuals won’t survive to reproduce; others will be more successful, at least until the next Ice Age or asteroid impact or orbital perturbation or whatever.  Then, once again, some individuals will have traits that enable them to survive, those traits will be passed on, and onward our species goes (not necessarily “upward,” mind… just onward).

So if the species needs this continual re-mixing of its variety of traits in order to survive long-term, obviously the older individuals have to make way in the ecosystem for the newer individuals.  That is the purpose of death. The paradox is that if no one ever dies, the whole species eventually will, either by outstripping its own resources, or by failing to adapt to a changing environment.

Don’t believe it?  I will go back to my usual example of deer in a wildlife management area.  Say that every spring, new fawns are born, but the oldest adults never die.  What do you get?   Somehow, it seems so obvious when we talk about deer outstripping their food supply.  But somehow, human beings – some of our most intelligent, yet some of our most shortsighted – remain in complete, abject denial about their own analogous situation.