Immortality Explored In 'Long For This World'

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How long would you want to live, if you could stay mentally and physically on top of your game? iStockphoto hide caption

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How long would you want to live, if you could stay mentally and physically on top of your game?


Human life expectancy increases at a rate of about two years per decade — or roughly five hours a day. Some scientists think it's possible to live for 500 or even 1,000 years. But if we could live that long, would we want to?

In his book, Long For This World, Jonathan Weiner, 56, explores the possibilities for immortality. He tells NPR's Neal Conan that many gerontologists — specialists who study aging — hate the word immortality.

"It suggests this kind of supernatural aura that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve," he says.

Still, Weiner says many mainstream gerontologists are talking about work that's essentially the same as those on the fringe who embrace the term.

"From where I sit, it's very similar," he says.

Cover of 'Long For This World'
Long For This World: The Strange Science Of Immortality
By Jonathan Weiner
Hardcover, 320 pages
List price: $27.99

Read An Excerpt

Weiner says experts inside and outside the mainstream are asking themselves the same questions: How long do we want to live? How long is it possible to live? How long should we live?

Weiner's main character, gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, is also asking those questions. The author describes De Grey as "a youngish Methuselah" who is "at the edges of this enterprise, trying to defeat aging." De Grey thinks the many-headed Hydra of aging, where each head is a late-onset disease, can be defeated one head at a time. Weiner says De Grey believes "if we could live in the state of health that we had at, say, 12 years old, then we would have lifespans of a thousand, or more — even a million — years."

All the same, Weiner admits that short of very futuristic scenarios, death will never be cured.

"We're always going to be up against the truck that comes whizzing down the street," he says.

According to Weiner, the goal is to emulate the actual hydra, not the mythical one.

"It continually restores itself with its stem cells," he says, so "it's immortal in the sense that it's no more likely to die at a week old or two weeks old or two years old, than it was at one day old. It's aging negligibly."

Of course, if the pond dries up, the hydra dies. Weiner says that until then, it's "functionally immortal." So, biologists ask, why don't we do that? Why do our bodies stop renewing themselves after about the age of 12?

Weiner says the answer to that question lies in evolutionary biology.

"It was important for us to build sturdy bodies that will last until we reach the age of reproduction," he says.

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Author Jonathan Weiner won a Pulitzer Prize for The Beak of the Finch, a book about evolution. Deborah Heiligman hide caption

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Jonathan Weiner

Author Jonathan Weiner won a Pulitzer Prize for The Beak of the Finch, a book about evolution.

Deborah Heiligman

According to Weiner, you're on the upswing until about the age of 20. After that, once you pass the age of reproduction and young parenthood, he says, "evolution by natural selection really ignores you. You're disposable, in some sense, because you've passed on your genes."

Weiner says that's why "we aren't built to last."

So, what is possible? In the foreseeable future Weiner says we could gain extra decades — good decades — of life without disease and infirmity.

Weiner says that many people around his age are starting to consider what to do with all that extra time.

"Since we have a longer lifespan, and a longer healthy life expectancy," he says, "maybe we can add another chapter."

According to Weiner, that attitude is bound to get more popular as life expectancies increase.

Excerpt: 'Long For This World'

Cover of 'Long For This World'
Long For This World: The Strange Science Of Immortality
By Jonathan Weiner
Hardcover, 320 pages
List price: $27.99

Chapter One

This is a good time to be a mortal. Life expectancy today is roughly eighty years for anyone in the world's developed countries. And life expectancy is still improving, which is why each day we live now we are given the gift of more time down the road. It's as if we're all driving on a highway that is still being built, and the roadbuilders are adding to it at a good rate. Our bodies haven't changed. We haven't evolved. A few generations is too brief a time for our life spans to have gained thirty years through evolution. It's only that our circumstances have gotten more comfortable. A field mouse in the wild lives about one year. The same mouse in the safety of a cage lives about three years. With our farms and supermarkets and reservoirs and thermostats, we have done for ourselves what we have done for a pet mouse. We have tripled the life expectancy that our ancestors enjoyed or suffered in the wild.

The study of longevity is now in an almost feverish state. Twenty years ago, not many biologists worked on the problem. The field was small. It seemed old. You might say the science of eternal youth was looking and feeling its age. Efforts to extend the human life span in any serious, deliberate way had gotten nowhere since the studies of the ancient Greeks and Babylonians; since the tomb-builders and tomb-robbers of Egypt; since the glory days of the Taoist deep breathers, extreme dieters, and sexual athletes of China ("He who is able to have coitus several tens of times in a single day and night without allowing his essence to escape will be cured of all maladies … "). But today the science of longevity is growing fast. Once more it is turbulent, and painfully confused. It feels young again. The faces of the biologists who argue at international meetings about where we are, where we are going, and what we can or should do when we arrive, really are getting younger, because many new people are joining the field.

Specialists in this field call themselves gerontologists. The word comes from the Greek root geron, which means old man, but that suggests a focus that is misleadingly narrow. While it's true that the problems that limit our life span are normally most visible and cruel when we are old, gerontologists care about much more than the last years of life. They want to understand the whole span. Pediatricians treat the young. Geriatricians treat the old. Gerontologists try to understand why our bodies change from youth to age, why we age at all — why we are mortal. The problem of longevity is a deep problem because to understand it well enough to do anything fundamental about it, you first have to answer the questions: What makes us mortal? Why do we die? Why do we get frail year by year and ever more likely to die? When does the decline start — at forty? At thirty? When sperm meets egg? And where does it start — in the cells that compose the fabric of our tissues? In the way the organs talk, or fail to talk, to each other? What is aging? This is one of the hardest problems in biology. It is even harder than explaining consciousness. No one has managed to explain consciousness yet, either, but for some time we've had the source narrowed to a zone above the neck.

As gerontologists do begin to locate and explore the sources of mortality, many of them feel an incredible excitement. It's true, of course, that every mortal reaches the end of the road eventually — somewhere around the age of one hundred twenty, even supercentenarians seem to come up against a wall, and most gerontologists accept that wall as our limit. But they have hopes that they can help more of us reach it, and alleviate some of the suffering of old age along the way. As we approach some kind of limit now, it seems likely to most gerontologists that to go much further with either our average life expectancy or our maximum life span we would require a breakthrough in their science, in their understanding of the wellsprings of mortality. Only if they can figure out what aging is and what to do to change its rate will human life span take another big jump. Most gerontologists do not expect to see that breakthrough in their lifetimes. One group of conservative, well-respected gerontologists has proposed that our goal should be to add another seven good years to the human span. A few of the most enthusiastic people in the field have begun to argue for much more. If they are right, then our descendants in another few generations may expect to live as long as Moses, who is said to have lived 120 years; Noah, who lived 950 years; or Methuselah, the oldest man in the Bible: "And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years: and he died."

Aubrey de Grey thinks there is no limit. He is convinced that we can double or triple our life span again and again, and so onward and upward. We can engineer as long a life span as we like, "even life for evermore" (Psalm 133). That's hardly the majority view in gerontology. On the other hand, the field is so splintered and spiky right now that it's hard to find a majority view. Gerontologists can't agree on a way to measure aging, or what they mean by aging. Because so much of the action takes place in the United Kingdom and the United States, they can't even agree on how to spell the problem under discussion: aging or ageing. They fight over definitions of longevity, health, life expectancy, life span, maximum life span. But even in this overheated moment, Aubrey is the most fervent of them all.

Excerpted from Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality by Jonathan Weiner. Copyright 2010 by Jonathan Weiner. Excerpted by permission of Ecco.

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