As early as three and a half billion years ago, life happened. Unless, of course, you are a Creationist, but for the sake of this little thought experiment, indulge me, will you? Earth was just a bunch of matter and energy doing matter and energy stuff, and then, somehow or another, some of that stuff coalesced into a living cell…a single cell, yes, but alive nonetheless. That cell – technically your ancestor, by the way – splits into two and then into four, and pretty soon evolution is on its way.
The earth itself is believed to be approximately four and a half billion years old. So for at least a billion years, earth was lifeless, and then…life! If somehow, without creating any weird paradoxes, you could be an outside observer of earth on the very day before life started, you would probably think to yourself “Surely life on earth isn’t possible; it’s literally never happened in a billion years.”
You make a wager with your buddy that life will never happen on earth, everything you own, your hovercraft, spaceship, teleportation device, iPhone, monthly subscription to Time Travel Weekly, everything. The next day you lose it all on what seemed like the surest of sure-thing bets ever. Your buddy decides to throw you a bone and let you keep an issue of Time Travel Weekly so you have something to do while you’re bored and homeless floating around in space.
Old Reliable Death
To date at least so far as we know, everything that has ever lived has eventually died. Of everything that has ever once been alive, we’re like “0-for-a gazillion” on immortality statistics. Like they always say, “The only sure things in life are death and taxes!” The joke part of that saying is supposed to be the “and taxes” part, the fact that the misery of having to give some of your money back to Uncle Sam is as reliable as the most reliable thing we know, death. Reliable, yes, but inevitable? Well…
“There is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death. This suggests to me that it is not at all inevitable and that it is only a matter of time before biologists discover what it is that is causing all the trouble.” – Richard Feynman
We only need to look back at the wager you and your buddy made over the beginnings of life on earth to remember that just because something has never happened does not mean that it never will happen. Things change, and while life on earth was a non-thing for a billion years or more, at one point it became a thing. Change is one thing that IS truly inevitable. If life can start from no life, what’s to say that life won’t someday figure out how to not die?
“It is remarkable that after a seemingly miraculous feat of morphogenesis (creating life), a complex metazoan should be unable to perform the much simpler task of merely maintaining what is already formed.” – evolutionary theorist George Williams
It’s vastly important to have an open mind to the possibilities of things that have never been done, otherwise maybe they never will get done. Think of all the crazy things that were done by people for the first time ever, creating fire, making tools, capturing electricity, learning to fly, going to the freaking moon, building computers, Donald Trump…seriously amazing stuff. Sometimes all it takes is an open mind.
“The only reason we die is because we accept death as an inevitability.” – Seth MacFarlane (that guy who does Family Guy)
Isn’t Seth MacFarlane a cartoonist? Well, yeah…but what if he’s on to something? Maybe he’s the biggest visionary of them all! I mean, Walt Disney had a lot to do with the beginnings of the space program, so cartoonists do have somewhat of a good track record here. Speaking of which, Walt also had himself cryogenically frozen, so he may not be done creating illuminating ideas for the human race just yet, assuming we can, in fact, solve this whole death thing.
Clarifying Death and Immortality
At this point I can imagine a lot of…um…consternation amongst the diverse population of people who may be reading this. I think some clarifications and definitions are in order.
First off, this discussion excludes any concept of reincarnation, heaven, or other afterlife theories. I am strictly talking about us as individual human entities with our own physical bodies and whether or not those beings someday die…heart stopped, organs off, brain no think, straight-up physical world existence perishes. This is what everyone thinks of as standard death, the funeral, the burial, etc. This is pretty straightforward (I hope).
With immortality, however, there are really two very different concepts we could discuss here: biologic immortality and absolute immortality.
Biologic immortality basically means that an organism doesn’t age. It is perpetually able to maintain and repair itself well enough that it can stand up against the normal conditions of the world indefinitely. As long as it has food, protection, sun, air, whatever it needs, it stays at its physical peak. An organism that is biologically immortal, however, is still susceptible to catastrophic death. If some outside force does so much damage to the organism that it can’t recover, it would still die. Hypothetically applying this to humans, if we were biologically immortal, we would never get old, never have grey hair, always be able to have babies, and put companies that make walking canes out of business. However, if we went skydiving and the chute didn’t open, we would still die (catastrophic death).
Absolute immortality is a totally different concept. This would imply that we literally can’t die, no matter what happens to us. If we went skydiving, we wouldn’t need a parachute, we could just land on our feet and go about our day. I don’t know if this category is a special, magic category that requires some sort of mythical force energy, or if it’s just a super advanced, resilient version of an organism that has already accomplished biologic immortality and has strengthened itself against all possible environmental changes so that nothing can break the order and consciousness of its matter. In other words I’m undecided if absolute immortality is some special thing of its own or part of a spectrum like this:
Mortal 🙁 —> Biologically Immortal 🙂 —> Absolutely Immortal (You won life) 🙂 🙂 🙂
Regardless, for the purposes of the rest of this post, we are talking about biological immortality. This does, however, raise a very interesting question…suppose humans do attain biological immortality but are still susceptible to catastrophic death (and despite your beliefs, imagine you are atheist for a minute and death literally means eternal nothingness). You would never age and always feel like you were twenty-five and physically awesome, but if someone or something killed you, you still died. You theoretically have the potential to live FOREVER, but if someone shot you, ran into you with a car, or threw you off a building, you would still die.
How unbelievably tragic would that make death?! How much more careful would people be crossing streets? Would anyone ever fly a plane again? Many people justify risk taking these days by the old adage “We all gotta die sometime…” but if that were no longer true? I can’t even imagine the extent to which that would modify everyone’s behavior. And how big of a dick would a murderer be in this world of biologic immortality? I mean, murderers are pretty much already some of the biggest dicks ever, but with biologic immortality at stake?! I’m having a hard time even wrapping my head around the enormity of that kind of sadness.
Senescence, Biological Aging, and an Ugly Tradeoff
In order to really understand what biologic immortality is and how it would even be possible, we need to develop a high-level understanding of some terms and processes within cell biology. We need to understand how cells behave and how they keep us healthy and living in the first place. If you’re not terribly interested in cell biology, though, you can skip this section and maybe come back to it later if you so choose.
Mitosis is the process by which cells replicate and divide to continue repairing living tissues (if they are, in fact, mitotic cells; some cells are not). If you remember back when you were first conceived – and who doesn’t? – you were one tiny little egg that split into two and then four and then eight and then eventually those cells kept multiplying and growing until you were a full-grown human.
This basic process of cells replicating and dividing continues to happen throughout our lives to keep repairing tissues so that we remain alive and healthy. There are two main types of cells, and a wild card type, that are involved in this story…
As the name implies, mitotic cells are the ones that undergo mitosis to replicate and divide. Because of this, they are the cells that can repair the tissues they belong to quite well. These include epithelial cells in the skin, fibroblast cells like in the kidneys and liver, endothelial cells like in blood vessels, and…the wild card…stem cells (more on that later). Mitotic cells and the process of mitosis make for one of the body’s basic abilities to heal and stay healthy in the face of environmental stress (entropy) that the universe puts us through each day.
Post Mitotic Cells
These cells do NOT undergo mitosis, replicate, and divide. They can still replenish themselves and do their best to remain young, but the process is slower since they can’t just “give birth” to new, young replacement cells all the time. Post mitotic cells include cells like neurons, found in the brain and other parts of the nervous system, and heart muscle cells. If you’ve heard that it takes a long time for brain cells or nerves to heal, it’s true, and this is why.
Back to Stem Cells
While mitotic cells can keep us alive and healthy by dividing into new cells of their same kind, stem cells are sweet wild card cells that can become whatever they want to be when they grow up. They are undifferentiated until the body sees a need for them. When they are called upon to fix a problem, perhaps heal some muscle tissue, they magically turn into a muscle cell and go jump in line. Stem cells are sweet but limited, and once they’ve done their wild card trick, most evidence is that they are done and won’t multiply. In that way stem cells are really cool fixes while they last, but once they are used up, we can’t draw upon our wild cards anymore and have to either rely on mitosis or simply keeping existing cells healthy.
Back to Mitosis
So stem cells are cool while they last, and cells can do their best to keep themselves healthy and avoid damage, but mitosis is a key process here in keeping us young. Mitosis happens in an interesting way, though. Each time a cell divides, it copies its DNA for the new cell, but it doesn’t copy all the way to the end. With every successive division, then, the DNA gets shorter, which could spell disaster, because it can lead to cancer. What is cancer in its basic form? Cancer is essentially messed up DNA (damage, mutations, breaks, etc.) that leads to misbehaving cells that are no longer running the same DNA playbook as healthy cells.
Thankfully, our DNA is structured in a way that we can handle this shortening. If you can picture that famous double-helix DNA graphic you’ve seen on TV or in books, each end has a little cap called a telomere, kind of like the plastic caps on the ends of your shoelace or the twisty ends of a Tootsie Roll. The telomeres don’t have any important coding DNA like the meat in the middle, they’re just there to protect DNA damage during the shortening that happens during copies. Telomeres “take one for the team,” if you will. Problem solved, right?
Well, telomeres can only last for so long in most mitotic cells. Eventually (on average after sixty replications), the telomere becomes too short for another copy, and the body creates a signal for the cell to stop dividing so as not to risk damage to the important coding DNA in the middle. This limit is called the Hayflick Limit (named after a scientist who discovered it). And this state that a cell finds itself in, sad and unable to divide anymore, is called “senescence.” I know you were wondering when we’d finally get to explaining the term that started the subheading of this section, so thank you for your patience.
More on Senescence
Here is where we find at least one of the major forks in the road in our biologic aging discussion. A cell reaches a point where continuing to divide causes DNA damage and cancer (thus it is widely accepted that senescence evolved as a means of preventing cancer). When it is senescent and can’t divide, though, it’s ability to quickly health and restore our tissues slows greatly. And once stem cells are mostly depleted, our weapons against normal wear and tear are extremely diminished, and we begin to show signs of aging. If humans are going to get beyond aging, without cancer, and bask in the glory of biologic immortality, this is likely a critical point at which breakthroughs are needed.
A Clarification on Cancer
So if senescence prevents cancer, why do people still get it? Senescence is a programmed thing to prevent what the body knows will surely cause cancer, but there are other ways cancer can form. Sometimes cells simply make copying mistakes, so even though there’s plenty of telomere, they simply miscode the middle parts of the DNA (they are human after all!). Also we can get direct DNA damage from an environmental stressor, something like exposure to nuclear radiation, that damages or breaks the DNA of existing cells. Senescence clearly isn’t a “cure” for cancer, it is simply a program that evolved to block one of the multiple paths to cancer.
That was a lot of cell biology, but essentially what we need to know is that keeping cells healthy helps slow aging and death. Cells don’t have to do this on their own because we have mitosis to give birth to new cells and our wild card, stem cells, to call into action to repair tissues. Stem cells can run out, though, and mitosis has a limit, the Hayflick Limit, at which point they stop dividing and enter senescence. Once stem cells are depleted and more and more cells enter senescence, our ability to repair slows and aging accelerates. If we solve the aging problem, though, then we also have to solve the cancer problem which becomes statistically more likely the more times our cells divide.
What Possible Evidence Is There AGAINST the Inevitability of Death?
Perhaps part of the reason evolution took this approach (the path of senescence, aging, and eventually death), was that so many organisms were dying of catastrophic death anyway. If it’s highly likely that a human is going to die from a parasite, a bacteria, or a lion attack, why not put energy and resources into reproduction, passing on the DNA, rather than trying to preserve any given life of any one organism? Perhaps it is all an exercise in resource economics, and evolution didn’t have much pressure to put many resources towards immortality…at least in the case of humans and many other organisms we know.
As time has passed and humans have become more conscious and civil, though, we have begun to solve many of these catastrophic death causes. While many humans thousands of years ago would die by age thirty, and lots of them during the actual birthing process, today we find ourselves in a relatively cushy environment with a life expectancy approaching eighty years and some outliers topping 120. Is it possible our species will evolve in the direction of immortality given this new environment within which it finds itself? Is it possible human technology and innovation can do something to encourage and speed up this process?
The “Immortal” Jellyfish
Perhaps the best, or at least most well-known, example of a biologically immortal creature is the Turritopsis dohrnii, a tiny jellyfish that cycles back and forth from childhood to adult. After it becomes sexually mature and makes babies via asexual reproduction, it reverts back to a baby itself, and it is believed this cycle could go on indefinitely so long as it doesn’t die a catastrophic death brought on by disease or predator or other catastrophe. For this very reason, scientists are paying close attention to see if they can learn any useful tips on not dying (or at least lessening the blow of aging). Here’s a little video of the adorable and ageless wonder.
The jellyfish is able to regain its youth through a process called transdifferentiation where cells are able to transform themselves from one type into another. Does that sound familiar at all? It should because it’s quite like our earlier discussion about stem cells…with one slight difference. While are stem cells are undifferentiated to start with, ready to spring into action and become whatever cell is needed, the transdifferentiation process in the jellyfish actually takes existing cells of one kind and turns those cells back into other kinds. It’s almost as if every cell in the jelly fish is a wild card stem cell. That just got me even more excited about the possibility of stem cell therapies.
I actually have a funny little story about this immortal jellyfish too. A few years ago when word of this “immortal jellyfish” creature starting spreading widely, my brother brought it up at the dinner table one night with the family. Clearly I was extremely excited about this story. My sister, on the other hand, didn’t get what the big deal was:
My Brother: So there’s a jellyfish that can live forever!
Me: (Spits water on brother’s face) Are you freaking kidding me?!
My Sister: (Stares at us very unimpressed)
My Brother: (To my sister) Did you here what I just said?!
My Sister: Yeah, what’s the big deal?
My Brother: Are you freaking kidding me?!
Me: Are you FREAKING kidding me?!
My Brother and I: (Stare and shake heads at our sister)
Every once in a while, my brother and I continue to ask her what she thinks of the jellyfish, now having had another year or two to grow up and appreciate the implications of biologic immortality. On the surface she seems to respect the feat more than she used to, but I can’t tell if it’s just to appease us or because she’s actually grasping the significance of it all. Anyway, back on track here…
We were talking earlier that life may play a game of tradeoffs, making the most of available resources to keep life alive as a whole, not necessarily any one organism. Humans can reproduce well, but we also age and die. Then we discover that there’s this jellyfish creature that has the best of both worlds. But what doesn’t the jellyfish have? Well, it can’t live outside water. It can’t walk. It can’t talk. It doesn’t have consciousness in the way that we know it as humans. Evolution apparently found those human things much more important for us to maintain the species, and those things require freakish amounts of energy and the most complex product of life that we know so far in this universe, our human brains.
I am grateful evolution took us in this direction, by the way. I would much rather have an eighty-year life with consciousness, walking, eating other animals, building computers, flipping off bad drivers, and reading terrible fortune cookie fortunes than a potentially indefinite life floating aimlessly in the ocean without Netflix. But evolution is greedy and keeps moving forward, so…?
If we evolved from these other organisms, things like jellyfish that can reproduce and maintain youth, is there any reason we can’t someday regain biologic immortality ourselves? As environmental pressures and catastrophic death risks subside, will evolution go to work on adding the immortality trick back to our repertoire? If we added more energy and resources to the system, could we help evolution get over that hump and rediscover our dormant abilities to fight aging and death?
A Sign the Human Genome May Be Working on Immortality
Sometimes solutions are counterintuitive. What exactly is cancer? Well, it is rogue cell growth with abnormal or mutant DNA. It changes the way the cell normally operates, albeit currently to our detriment. The cells appear to be rather undifferentiated (not too unlike stem cells are). It also grows uncontrollably to spread and form tumors as it bypasses the senescence process. And how does it do that? It hijacks the genetic code and turns on a gene that produces an enzyme known as telomerase. This enzyme is able to rebuild the telomeres, the end caps of our DNA we discussed earlier, to continue the growth process indefinitely. The telomerase gene is normally inactive in all human cells except for embryonic stem cells…unless cancer strikes.
There is a growing school of thought that cancer may be evidence of an adaptation experiment within our genome. Life has seen a number of different mutations and changes in DNA over time; that’s part of how new species evolve new traits and sometimes into completely new species altogether. As with all changes, sometimes they make us better, and sometimes they don’t, but even the ones that do aren’t always perfect in the beginning. Just as it takes a bit of trial and error and some failure to invent new technology, biology can take time to perfect the process of evolution.
Cancer takes over our cells and reprograms them for unrestrained growth, something that theoretically could be used for perpetual regeneration and immortality of the entire organism if harnessed properly. Think about tumors, for example. They are masses of undifferentiated cells that have the ability to continue growing despite our internal mechanisms to stop such growth (like senescence). To me it seems possible that this is a work-in-progress of a new system, not too unlike our existing stem cell system, that is trying to find a way to keep us alive indefinitely.
The system clearly has many “bugs” to work out yet as cancer growths certainly don’t get along with the rest of our body systems at present, but maybe, once perfected, the entity we call “cancer” will build us mechanisms to regenerate ourselves more effectively and replace the current system of senescence and aging. It has the growth part of things down, but it hasn’t yet figured out how to use that growth effectively by turning it back into properly functioning cells.
Stem cells, if you recall, are amazingly useful for repair and growth, but they are limited. Just imagine, though, if someday evolution refines this “cancer” system to the point where our bodies used tumors as some bottomless reservoir of stem-cell-like super cells that could also be deployed to repair anything else within our body!
Cancer clearly isn’t a new “thing,” but maybe evolution is trying to use this old thing in a new way to respond to new and emerging stressors present in our environment. We have introduced a number of new carcinogens in the recent past that can be at the very least correlated with cancer: smoking, radiation, chemicals and toxins, and electropollution. Consider the following from an article in Scientific American:
“The team’s hypothesis is that when faced with an environmental threat to the health of a cell—radiation, say, or a lifestyle factor—cells can revert to a “preprogrammed safe mode.” In so doing, the cells jettison higher functionality and switch their dormant ability to proliferate back on in a misguided attempt to survive.”
Two of the most promising potential breakthroughs in the science of anti-aging have to do with stem cells and telomerase. The idea behind stem cells is obvious; if we can introduce more of those undifferentiated cells into our body that can repair and replace tissues, we could clearly extend life and help heal people. Telomerase is being heavily studied as a potential therapy now that we understand this linkage between telomere shortening and aging (then again, our body’s purposely suppress telomerase to prevent cancer, so that possible breakthrough has another big hurdle to cover).
Cancer is already using these both of these concepts, undifferentiated cells and telomerase, to proliferate. We are feverishly trying to “cure” aging, but cancer might beat us to the punch. We are also trying to “cure” cancer, and wouldn’t it be ironic if we were “curing” a system our body was trying to develop for us as a means to solve aging?
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em
Often times complex problems require very different, outside-the-box thinking. It seems possible we may be going about this cancer thing the wrong way. We may be better off working with cancer and trying to find a way to use it for good. Consider the following excerpt from this NCBI research paper:
“And like animal populations, cancers respond to insults with selection for the clones that are most fit under that context, such as during chemotherapy. While this view may seem depressing from a therapeutic standpoint, by understanding cancer from an evolutionary and ecological perspective, we should be able to design more rational therapeutic approaches that manipulate cancer’s evolutionary trajectories for patient benefit.”
In other words, what we’re doing to “cure” cancer clearly isn’t working, and maybe there’s a different way to go about this. Perhaps we’re really trying to “cure” evolution, and it’s a hopeless battle. Maybe we can work with evolution instead and help guide it for our benefit.
I would never suggest that we stop trying to help people who have cancer in the present or near future. Likewise, the tragedies of everyone dealing with cancer are very real. I think it’s possible, though, that different ways of thinking – improving general health and altering our environment to change the course of cancer – may be more effective in improving and prolonging the lives of cancer patients. Furthermore, research dollars may be better spent trying to figure out how to harness cancer for good, and in the long run it might even become a powerful anti-aging tool if we can help it play nice with the healthy cells too.
I keep coming back to the theme of entropy in a lot of these posts. Entropy is the natural tendency for the universe to move towards disorder and chaos. Life is a battle, swimming against the current of entropy as efficiently and as long as we can. It takes energy to dissipate entropy and create order. If we are able to capture enough energy and keep dissipating entropy, why can’t we live longer, much longer, potentially even forever? Cancer creates growth, possibly immortality, but in an unorganized way. With enough energy to dissipate that entropy, however, human ingenuity and/or evolution could harness the power of cancer growth for our benefit, potentially solving aging along the way.
I am certainly no expert here and don’t claim to have any answers, either to aging or cancer. The things I have read and learned, however, lead me to believe that death may not be inevitable, aging could be postponed much longer than we currently know, and cancer might not have to be a killer. Just because cancer is currently our enemy doesn’t mean we won’t find out, someday down the road, that it was actually just our brother all along (if we could begin to understand it and work together). And just because nothing has ever not died doesn’t inherently imply that everything always will die. If we’re lucky, we just might be on the brink of something unprecedented.
Final Thoughts on Not Dying (or at Least Living Much Longer)
Most every time that I’ve been part of a discussion on extreme anti-aging and or potential immortality, there always seems to be a lot of perturbation about the idea. Perhaps it’s because not dying falls into most people’s category of “clearly impossible,” so they don’t give it full and proper consideration. It might also be due to the fact that the idea is so far out there that it’s hard to wrap one’s brain entirely around it, and the mind just kind of short circuits and rejects it. Whatever the reason, I tend to see three main argumentative points:
I don’t want to live that long anyway; I’d just get bored
No offense if this is you, but I find that preposterous. How many times do we all say “If only I had more time…I’d…?” And how many people are quoted on their deathbed saying “I wish I had done/seen/been to…” If you read books, you could never read them all. If you love to travel, you’d probably never see every city or place of interest. You would certainly never meet every person, catch every known species of fish, climb every type of tree in existence, or listen to every song. And think of all the things to do that haven’t even been invented yet for doing? Life is amazing, and I’m certain I could entertain myself another 100 years, another 1,000 years, probably even another 10,000 years.
I don’t want to live that long and get old and just pee on myself
Well, anti-aging, by definition, isn’t just living longer, it’s staying young, fit, and healthy. I wouldn’t want to live 1,000 years in a wheel chair not able to feed myself or enjoy the wonders around me either. But the proposition is that by remaining healthy and removing the effects of aging, living longer would just be a byproduct.
“The only difference between my work and the work of the whole medical profession is that I think we’re in striking distance of keeping people so healthy that at 90 they’ll carry on waking up in the same physical state as they were at the age of 30, and their probability of not waking up one morning will be no higher than it was at the age of 30.” – Aubrey de Grey
I want to die someday so I can go to heaven (or some afterlife)
Now in this case they want to live forever too, just not on earth. But despite large amounts of religious faith in some people, I would argue we have no real proof or guarantee until we actually die. What if death is really just a permanent end of our consciousness?
Have you ever had that freakout moment where you sit and visualize what it’s like sleeping and not being conscious and extrapolate that out forever in context of what death could mean? And then your mind bounces and races back to safety in the present and you go watch a funny show on TV or call a friend on the phone to avoid reliving that thought experiment again? And maybe you put off going to sleep a little longer because you’re still kinda freaking? I have, and it’s creepy as hell (pun intended)! I’m not ready for that. I won’t be ready for that in 50 years either, or 100, or even in 1,000…if I’m still healthy and happy and don’t have to be ready for it.
I love doing stuff in this world, sharing things with people, laughing and funny stuff, yelling at rabbits in my yard, and explaining to people why I’m different from them. I have to accept that I may have an end to this life at some point, but I also have a right to survive if I wish. We fight to survive all our lives, through sickness and war; why should I stop fighting just because I’ve already lived eighty-five years, especially if I still feel great and love being here on earth (or mars)?
We already practice survival and anti-aging all the time. We invent drugs and therapies and operations that save lives in ways we never could years before. I understand someone who is terminally ill and/or suffering, but why do we put a time-constraining number on our lives? Why do we start expecting we’ll die soon just because we’ve reached an age at which most of the recent earthly population, on average, in the past, has died? Shouldn’t we use our health status as our guide? If we’re still healthy at 90 or 120 or 150 and beyond, let the fight for survival continue with fervor! Live, damnit…live!
I don’t know if I’ll survive long enough to be any older than my elders before me. None of us do. But I plan on continuing to swim against that stream of entropy so long as I feel good, I enjoy living, and I have a purpose for which to continue doing so. The first step in making that a reality is setting my mind on the goal. What about you?