Immortality Explored In 'Long For This World' 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 explores the possibilities.
NPR logo

Immortality Explored In 'Long For This World'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128168264/128168254" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Immortality Explored In 'Long For This World'

Immortality Explored In 'Long For This World'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128168264/128168254" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

As the laboratory explodes and flames destroy both the mad scientist and his misbegotten experiment into eternal life, a voice very much like Boris Karloff's intones: There are things mankind is not meant to know.

And that last scene from too many 1930s B-movies is the way a lot of people react when told that scientists are actually working on immortality.

Sure, life spans increased over the past 100 years or so, and maybe, continued improvements in medicine, sanitation and nutrition could give our grandchildren a decade or so more. But is anybody really serious about 500 years, 1,000 years?

The answer is yes, at least a few, and Jonathan Weiner has been talking to them for a new book that asks profound questions about evolution and aging, about why some creatures are essentially immortal, whether we might figure out that trick, and even if we could live as long as Methuselah, whether we'd want to.

Later in the program, David Savage joins us to wrap up this year's Supreme Court session. But first, if science allowed us to live in good health to 500, 1,000 years, how long should we live? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jonathan Weiner's new book is titled "Long For This World: The Strange Science Of Immortality," and he joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. JONATHAN WEINER (Author, "Long For This World: The Strange Science Of Immortality"): Thanks very much for having me.

CONAN: And the Jacob's Ladder is going in the background and getting all kinds of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEINER: With the angels running up and down it.

CONAN: The "Brain from Planet Arous" is there, and all kinds of stuff is going on. These people are really serious. You're talking to people who are actually doing research on immortality.

Mr. WEINER: Many of the gerontologists I talked to hate the world immortality because it suggests this kind of supernatural aura, the Boris Karloff effect, Frankenstein. And that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, who were thrown out of the Garden of Eden just for this reason. God was afraid that they would eat of the Tree of Life and make themselves immortal.

So in the West, at least, this is a big fear we have. On the other hand, many mainstream gerontologists are talking about work that's essentially the same as the fringe people who like the word immortality. They eschew the word immortality, but they want to essentially conquer aging.

So from where I sit, it's very similar, and it raises similar problems for each of us as mortals and for our society. How far do we want to go? How far can we go? All of those intertwined problems are posed now by this extraordinary research.

CONAN: And how far should we go, if given the option? And yet it seems like - you talk - there are two kinds of hydras in your book. And one is a small, multi-celled creature that seems to be, for all intents and purposes, immortal. The other is, of course, the creature of myth, conquered by Hercules, though it eventually gets him in the end.

But it's the creature who's - every time you cut one head off, two appear in its place. And that seems, a lot of people would say, the hydra, that hydra, Hercules' hydra, that's the one - you try to conquer aging, that's the kind of problem you've got.

Mr. WEINER: That's right. And I think that's inescapable. That is what we are up against. If we try to go out against aging, we're facing a multi-headed monster that has gotten us throughout time.

So the main character of my book, the gerontologist I chose to follow, is at the edges of this enterprise, trying to defeat aging. His name's Aubrey de Grey, Aubrey David Jasper Nicholas de Grey, and he's got a beard down to here. He looks like a youngish Methuselah.

And he thinks that if we set our minds to it, we can lop off every one of the heads of the hydra. and if another one grows, you know, if we learn how to beat cancer, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer's, diabetes, all of those monstrous heads of late-onset disease, if another one crops up, we'll lop that one off, too.

If we could live in the state of health we had at, say, 12 years old, then we would have life spans of 1,000 or more, even a million years, he argues. And why not try, in his view.

CONAN: Yet most - those of us who are older than 12 notice that some things have already begun to slow down. Our knees aren't what they once were. It's sometimes an effort to get out of bed in the morning.

Mr. WEINER: Alas, true. And that was part of my interest in this story, being part of the baby boom, along with you, Neal. We all have a certain extra interest in this subject now that we might not have had at 20 -although even at 20, you were thinking about - you were thinking about being immortal...

CONAN: We do have immortality in the sense that we pass our seeds onto the next generation and onto the next generation after that. Isn't that the human condition?

Mr. WEINER: That is the human condition to date. But, of course, the human condition, until rather recently in history, was that we couldn't fly. We wanted to fly. We couldn't get off the ground. Now, we can do that.

Benjamin Franklin, you alluded to Ben a while back in talking about death and taxes. He didn't think we would have to endure death forever. He thought the scientific revolution would find a cure for aging. And he thought those wonderful Benjamin Franklin bifocals, which we now wear as progressive lenses, were a first step.

All you have to do is solve all these hydra-headed problems one at a time, very patiently, starting maybe with a little thing like bifocals, and eventually, you have cured aging.

CONAN: And yet isn't a condition of life death?

Mr. WEINER: We're always going to be up against the truck that comes whizzing down the street, and we're never going to be able to cure the problem of death, unless you get into all kinds of very futuristic scenarios about downloading brains and minds and identity. That's not what we're talking about here.

What we're talking about here is approaching the lifestyle of the hydra, which you mentioned.

CONAN: The other hydra.

Mr. WEINER: The other hydra. The other hydra really is immortal in the sense that it's a little, freshwater creature. It lives in ponds. It is maybe a millimeter to a centimeter long. It continually restores itself with its stem cells, and 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 than it was at one day old.

It's aging negligibly. If the pond dries up, it's gone. But until then, it is functionally immortal. And so the question these biologists ask is: Why can't we be like that?

CONAN: Because it replaces its cells faster than they wear out. And we do, too. We do spectacularly well, as you point out, up until the age of 12 or so, and then things start going downhill.

Mr. WEINER: And evolutionary biologists have an explanation for that, which makes a great deal of sense. It was important for us to build well, build sturdy bodies that will last until we reach the age of reproduction.

So until maybe the age of 20, you're on an upswing. Once you've passed the age of reproduction and young parenthood, evolution by natural selection really ignores you. You're disposable, in some sense, because you've passed on your genes. And that's why we aren't built to last.

In the Stone Age, most people never made it to the age of 20. Most babies - babies had a life expectancy that precluded the first gray hair. They were just here and gone.

So now we live longer. Now we value decades that our own evolutionary past never or very, very rarely saw. So now, maybe it's on us to try to make the improvements that evolution by natural selection was powerless to give us, to build for centuries rather than build to last for an obsolescence of 20, 25 years, and then there go the knees.

CONAN: Jonathan Weiner is obsolete. He's here in the studio with me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So am I. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. So if we could live 1,000, 5,000 years, how long should we live? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's begin with Bill, Bill with us from Orem in Utah.

BILL (Caller): Hi, hi. Hey, thanks for this topic today. I think it's really, really interesting and exciting, I think. I don't think there's really, in my opinion, a limit on how far we ought to reach for how long someone could live. It could open up all sorts of possibilities.

I think there's - and I'm a very devoutly religious Christian person, and I don't think there's any, you know, moral downside to it, either, in my understanding, anyway.

And I think it's kind of exciting to think that you might be able to live for 500, 1,000 years and see the life of your children progress, you know, farther on and be able to have longer advancements and...

CONAN: Hey, Bill, just think about keeping track of all the birthdays.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BILL: Yeah, absolutely. But I think it would be a lot of fun. I think it would be - and I don't see much downside, except for the fact that if it all of a sudden costs much, much more for this sort of a health procedure, then there might be some discrepancy between the rich who may be able to afford it and have longer wealth-building years than the poor who wouldn't, and then you'd have this rich-get-richer syndrome. That's the concern I see. But that's just at first blush of impression of the topic.

CONAN: And that's something that you explore in the book, Jonathan Weiner.

Mr. WEINER: Yes, I do. In fact, that first-blush reaction goes one way or the other, very strongly. People either react the way you do and say that sounds good to me, another 500, 1,000 years. Or they react with horror, real horror - oh, no, not for me. And wouldn't that be a disaster for the human species?

And, in fact, you really can argue it either way. If you imagine the social disruption that this represents, if you think of the enormous changes, even, say, in the institution of marriage that might follow from life spans centuries-long. When you pledge until death do you part, you're pledging until maybe the next millennium. That's a big change in one of our fundamental institutions, and that's only the beginning. It's really a transformation of the human condition we're talking about.

I want to bring the discussion a little bit closer to the present moment, because we get futuristic and a little bit, I don't know, sort of a - a supernatural aura surrounds the topic when we talk about 500, 1,000 years.

Suppose we're even just talking about 20 more years or 50 more years. If they're healthy years, then is that good for the economy, or is that bad for the economy?

People are taking this seriously enough now, because science is moving fast enough with regenerative medicine and with hopes for genomics, that we might be able to gain those extra decades.

Then what happens? You have a much healthier workforce, but you also have much more of a struggle for the young coming up.

CONAN: And Lloyd's of London won't know what to do. Bill, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

We're talking with Jonathan Weiner about his new book, "Long For This World: The Strange Science Of Immortality." Stay with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Jonathan Weiner is our guest. We're talking about his new book, "Long For This World: The Strange Science Of Immortality." People have long tried to find the secret to stop or reverse aging, the fountain of youth, if you will.

You can read more about some of the ways people sought to extend life in ancient times in an excerpt from the book at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we're taking your calls. If you were allowed to live, say, another 20, 30, 40, 50 years beyond your present expectations of lifespan, say they're good years, would you want to do it? What would the changes involved be?

Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And Jonathan, I was curious. You write a chapter about the evolution of aging, and there's an idea that I just never encountered before, and that is effectively that life invented death.

Mr. WEINER: Yes. Well, in a way, that is a circular statement because without life...

CONAN: You can't have death.

Mr. WEINER: That's right. But beyond that, if you imagine an immortal organism, and then you imagine it like the hydra, an organism...

CONAN: Or single-celled organism, dividing, dividing, dividing, effectively immortal.

Mr. WEINER: That's right. If it's never more likely to die than it was 10 minutes ago or 10 years ago, then it will be out-competed, eventually, by cells that have invented aging and invented death. And as a result, the invention of death arises very, very early, according to present evolutionary thinking. It arises right back at the beginning, which is something like the story of Genesis, at the level of the single cells.

(Soundbite of laughter)

That fall takes place almost immediately, and then it takes place a second time when cells come together and form multi-cellular bodies, our distant ancestors, because once they start building nerves that have memories, they build in a new kind of obsolescence. Those nerves won't last forever. So why build bodies that'll last forever. And again, you have this invention of aging and death.

CONAN: And an email on that point from Matt(ph): Isn't death an essential part of evolution? As the environment changes, each species needs a variety of genetic variance in order to ensure appropriate adaptation. In our species, this means sex and death.

And you can make that case. Probably, probably, this is the kind of argument at root that people have had with medicine forever, though. I mean, the argument could be, that harsh one, the baby with the clubbed foot should be left on the mountainside.

CONAN: The Spartan approach, yes.

Mr. WEINER: It wasn't meant to live. So which side are you on? Those who take the extreme view of, say, Aubrey de Grey, the gerontologist in Cambridge, England, whom I followed, would argue that you're being deathist to take that side. How can you not be on the side of life and the struggle for existence?

CONAN: This, another email from Donald(ph): Your guest stated God was afraid of Adam and Eve becoming immortal. In actuality, the Bible suggests that humanity was created for eternal life. Their desire to be like God led them to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their punishment was the loss of immortality.

I only write because as a pastor, it seems to me that, theologically, science is well within bounds trying to extend human life.

Mr. WEINER: You can really argue that the that story either way. I think the line in Genesis is: lest they eat of that fruit and live forever. So is it life everlasting in heavenly terms or here on earth?

There's another line in the Bible that struck me. I think it's one of the apocryphal books, arguing that God did not mean death to occur. God did not make death. And that's again the evolutionary argument, that we weren't really designed to die. We were designed only to maintain ourselves to a certain point and then start to fall apart. And therefore, it doesn't violate our design code, so to speak, in order to try to make the old machine last longer and longer.

CONAN: Let's get Kevin(ph) on the line, Kevin with us from Orleans in Massachusetts out on Cape Cod.

KEVIN (Caller): Hi, yeah, there's a famous book called "The Denial of Death."

Mr. WEINER: Yes.

KEVIN: I think that's relevant, because asking the question is you know, can we live forever reminds me of this Aubrey de Grey guy reminds me of when Edward Teller was celebrating the 50th anniversary of inventing the hydrogen bomb out of Los Alamos.

And I happened to be there then, and they interviewed him on TV and said do you regret anything? And he said, well, I only regret that what I've done has made people distrust scientists, think that we're creepy.

And he was, and Dr. Strangelove in the movie, and I think this guy is kind of barking up that tree of it's such a ridiculous idea that it's real counterproductive just in general.

CONAN: And also, Teller took credit for other people's work, so not unknown in this field, either.

Mr. WEINER: That's right. It's what do I want to say? It's not only Aubrey de Grey, I should make clear, who's talking about late-life interventions prolonging our lifespan. In some ways, you could argue that all of medicine is trying to prolong our lifespan. That's what it's been about forever.

And you could also argue that it behooves us, if we can if we can intervene to postpone the onset of all of those diseases that get us after 60, say, with increasing likelihood year by year, we should do that just in the name of simple preventive medicine.

So although I share your uneasiness about all of this, and I'm not speaking as an advocate, and I'm not speaking as an acolyte of Aubrey de Grey, I found the more I talked with Aubrey and the more I followed the mainstream gerontologists that there are really serious problems here to disentangle for us.

It's very hard to draw the line between the conventional medicine we all want and root for and the kind of work that Aubrey and the fringes of gerontology are campaigning for. It's not easy to sort out, and it behooves us to try.

CONAN: We should point out Kevin, thanks very much for the call the pediatricians deal with children. Geriatricians deal with very old people. Gerontologists deal with the entire span of the human life.

Mr. WEINER: That's right. They essentially want to understand why we are mortal, what makes our span mortal. And they understand more and more of that.

I hadn't realized people didn't know that. Until fairly recently, people, biologists couldn't tell us why we are mortal, why we age, and now they do have a much more solid understanding of that.

CONAN: This from Steve(ph), who emails to say: As long as I can still retire at 65, go for it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: One of the changes that might come in. This from Kate(ph) in Portland: If I could add a healthy 20 years, I would do it in a heartbeat. Right now, at 56, if I could justify it, I would go back to school and become an architect, but the cost and time just isn't worth it because I likely don't have enough time left in the career to become really good, 20-plus years and then 20 more to make a difference. Add 20 years to my life, suddenly I do.

Mr. WEINER: That's a beautiful thought, and many people I happen to be 56 also. Many people at about this age are starting to think since we have a longer lifespan and a longer healthy life expectancy, maybe we can add another chapter.

And I think we're going to see more and more of that as our life expectancy continues to increase.

CONAN: Let's go to Adam(ph), Adam calling from Denver.

ADAM (Caller): Hello, thanks for having me. I have kind of a two-part, two-sided question and comment. I'm 30 years, and I don't have any children. I don't plan on having any children. And in that respect, I sort of look at it like I could be around for 1,000 years and not do too much more damage to earth.

And I'm curious, nowadays with even the length of life that we have now, generally, that there's, you know, becoming five, six, seven generations of humans that are alive in the same family during the lifetime, and obviously, that helps use up everything we've got on earth. So that's part one of it.

The other half of that is that I was just recently, just six months ago, diagnosed with some really gnarly brain cancer that says I've got three to five years to live. So then I'm saying, well, sure, let's bring out all the pull out all the medical stops, and let's keep me around as long as possible. And I'm just mostly curious about the population change idea.

CONAN: Sorry to hear about the diagnosis, Adam.

ADAM: Thank you.

Mr. WEINER: I'm sorry to hear it. I think we're all, of course, in the same boat, being mortals, and we all have this common interest in science moving ahead fast. And the question you were asking first was...

CONAN: Well, it's similar to this email question from Chris in Bend, Oregon. If every human or organism that has ever lived was still living, at what point does the carrying capacity of the land limit expansion? In other words, how much are the resources of the planet with all these aging people and all of their grandchildren and great, great, great, great, great grandchildren take up?

Mr. WEINER: It's a huge question, and it may be the most - single most important objection to a plan like this. Aubrey de Grey's argument is that we will all avoid having children. We will all decide that we don't want to have children because we have so much life ahead of us. Aubrey feels that way himself. He doesn't want to have children, and he thinks a world without children would be a good thing. So his answer is very curt and blithe on that subject of overpopulation.

CONAN: Adam, good luck to you.

ADAM: Thank you very much.

CONAN: All right. Here's an email, this from Peter in Portland. What if what we know as death is only a transition point to another stage in our total cycle?

Mr. WEINER: Then you're in a hurry to get to heaven. But most mortals, whether they believe in an afterlife or not, are dragging their feet as that time comes.

CONAN: If Aubrey lives to be 100 or 500 or 1,000 and has no children and nobody has children, what happens when all of those metaphorical buses hit him and the rest of us? Are we just going to die out?

Mr. WEINER: He argues that there would be just enough - you know, people would have frozen sperm and eggs. People would maintain just enough of a new generation, a new crop coming up that we would be able to maintain a steady state, or we would colonize other planets. Anyway, he says, it behooves us to conquer aging and conquer death because aging is the single most important cause of death on the planet. We have to fight it. We'll deal with all those other problems down the road.

CONAN: Hundreds of thousands of people die every day from it.

Mr. WEINER: A hundred thousand people every day, according to Aubrey's calculations. He says - this is a scene with which I start the book, because I found it so dramatic and so characteristic of Aubrey. He was on his fourth beer before dinner. He drinks very, very deeply of the cup of life. And he was saying: 100,000 lives - I'm at the spearhead of the single most important cause on this planet that humanity is engaged in. And so it's very important that I not be assassinated or run over by a truck.

CONAN: We're talking with Jonathan Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize winner, about his new book: "Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And here's an email from M. Martin(ph): My husband, 78, and I, 68, already fail to understand many commercials on TV. We will never be able to keep up for another 100 years.

Mr. WEINER: The idea is that these rejuvenation therapies will allow us to maintain the health and vigor and brain power and new experience power that we had when we were, say, 30 years old. And so, if the - if you're, say, 70 and the thought of another 100 years makes you feel tired, that's because you've already endured some decades of the decline of aging, and these guys want to prevent that decline from taking place.

CONAN: You talked about evolution's design, if you will, for us, so that as soon as we pass on our genes at 20 or so, if we could get a date, that at that point we are, well, relatively superfluous. There is another theory, which you also cite in the book, the grandmother hypothesis, that, indeed, people are - older people, the old ones, are good to have around because they helped take care of the kids. They pass along knowledge. And we are increasingly, as we evolve through the years, knowledge-based civilizations.

Mr. WEINER: Yes. That's a very optimistic theory. I love that theory. The grandmother hypothesis - of course, it's also the grandfather hypothesis - says that we are still worth a great deal to our genetic lineage as we get older because we can help our kids raise their kids. And if that's so, then uniquely, our species has already embarked on the evolution of dramatic life extension. We already live much longer life spans naturally than the other primates, our closest relatives on the planet.

And so, again, you can find a hopeful message there for your own life, and you can also find a hopeful message for this enterprise of trying to extend the species' lives.

CONAN: And, indeed, that there are some kinds of animals that have adapted for longer life - bats, for example, about the same size as a field mouse, outlive the field mouse by, well, 10 times.

Mr. WEINER: That's right. That's right. It seems to happen again and again in evolutionary history that when a population finds itself suddenly protected from predators that used to get it very young, it evolves a much longer life span. In other words, now it has less of a low ceiling ahead of it, and so it builds to last. And, again, that might be what we're looking at now consciously, because we're conscious mortals - presumably, unlike the bats and the mice. We know that we're mortal, and we can try deliberately to extend our life span. And so what really is wrong with that?

You know, I have to say I'm enjoying this conversation very much, partly because even though I follow these gerontologists for years, I'm still trying to sort it out myself. It's very deeply troubling and confusing, I think.

CONAN: Nobody has any problem with extending life expectancy at the early end. Most of that life expectancy was short because so many children died very, very young. Everybody's in favor of children living longer, and that extends, on-average, life expectancy. What's wrong with extending it on the other end, too? As long as it's good years.

Mr. WEINER: Exactly. And we're already doing that. Most of the great gain that we've seen in the last 200 years in life expectancy - life expectancy doubled in the last 200 years. Most of that came from improvements in child mortality, infant mortality, mothers surviving child birth. All of those nightmares, we're very happy to have awaken from.

In the last 50 years, most of the gain in life expectancy, which has continued to climb on a straight line, most of that gain from - came from improvements in life expectancy at older ages, in the second half of life. So we're already on that path.

CONAN: So, Jonathan, we'll have you back in 50 years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEINER: I'll be happy to be here.

CONAN: Jonathan Weiner's book is "Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality." Thanks very much for joining us today.

Mr. WEINER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Coming up: The Supreme Court left several controversial decisions for last, from gun bans in cities and states to gay rights on campus. We'll wrap up the Supreme Court session with David Savage. Stay with us.

This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.