Of all the specters that haunt the human heart, none are more feared than the Grim Reaper. The knowledge that each of us will someday become a lifeless, rotting corpse is not only sobering, it’s downright terrifying.
Bringing comfort to people terrified of their own mortality is traditionally the job of the clergy. However, now a well-funded group of researchers has thrown its own hat into the ring. These scientists have already shown that they can slow down the aging process. If their efforts continue to bear fruit, then some of us alive today may still be alive centuries from now.
That’s all well and good for individual humans. But what will extended lifespans mean for humanity as a whole? Will antiaging technology usher in the Millennium? Or, will it destroy everything that makes life worth living? Our future may very well hinge on the answer to these questions.
Science Tackles Old Age
Medical experts have long assumed that age-related decline is unstoppable. But recent data says otherwise.
Take the anti-diabetes drug metformin, for example. A solid body of evidence suggests that it not only controls blood sugar levels, it also slows down the metabolic clock that plays a key role in the aging process. Ongoing research is underway to track its effects over the long term.
Metformin is just one of hundreds of existing medications and supplements being studied for their life-prolonging benefits. Other leading candidates include:
- Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) – which performs key metabolic functions in every cell of the human body. It’s believed that NAD supplements may help to treat age-related conditions like arthritis.
- Pterostilbene – an antioxidant that seems to prevent long-term cell damage. Pterostilbene is chemically similar to resveratrol, a compound commonly found in red wine.
- Alpha lipoic acid – which is already used in Europe to treat diabetic neuropathy. Studies strongly suggest that it can help protect the body against dementia, stroke, and other conditions that prey on the elderly.
- Dasatinib – a prescription medication originally developed to treat leukemia. Research indicates that it may rid the body of so-called “zombie” cells that exacerbate the aging process.
Options for life extension go well beyond nutritional supplements and conventional medicines. For example, researchers at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, have rejuvenated the internal organs of elderly mice through genetic engineering. Advanced technologies like CRISPR may give science the power to exorcize the aging demon from our DNA forever.
This brings us back to our original question: Is living a greatly expanded lifespan worth the potential cost to ourselves and to society? To explore this concern, let’s look at how death has shaped our attitude towards life since humanity first evolved.
The Beauty of Life Is in Its Brevity – or so They Say
The knowledge that our days on Earth are limited has inspired countless acts of nobility and altruism over the centuries. Soldiers sacrifice their lives for nationalist ideals. Ordinary people give their lives to rescue complete strangers, knowing that the world will remember them as heroes. Artists plumb their souls for fresh sources of inspiration, racing against their own mortality to leave a lasting legacy.
Built into all of these actions is the assumption that death is both inevitable and universal. But what if this was no longer the case? Would we still make the most of our lives if we could ward off death ad infinitum? Or would we endure eons of miserable monotony, too afraid to live yet too afraid to die? The prospect is disturbing enough to make good old-fashioned mortality seem pleasant in comparison.
Eternal Life – for Those Who Can Afford It
Another dark implication of life extension technology is the impact it could have on human society. That’s because granting immortality to everyone who asks is simply not feasible. The Earth, or the galaxy for that matter, may not have the resources to support billions or trillions of death-averse homo sapiens forever.
This points out two dystopian options for the future. On one hand, civilization may collapse as human beings battle each other for access to antiaging treatments. On the other hand, we might find ourselves living in a two-tiered oligarchy, where a handful of elites enjoy virtual immortality while the rest of us struggle, suffer, and die over a brief span of years.
How do we prevent these dark scenarios from becoming reality? The answer may lie with Star Trek and its vision of a world in which individuals accept their mortality as the price of a better life for humanity in general.
What Would Gene Roddenberry Do?
Those familiar with the Star Trek universe know that the Earth of the future is governed by the Federation, an interstellar authority that bans certain types of technology due to the danger they pose to society.
These prohibitions include laws against radical life extension treatments. The world of the 24th Century is filled with people who age gracefully and live well over the age of 100. However, only advanced aliens, like the Q Continuum, survive for eons, and even they eventually regret their inability to die.
This ties into a recurring theme of the Star Trek franchise: that our technical progress must never outpace our moral and spiritual progress. There may come a day when humanity is ready for immortality; but that day is far, far in the future.
This doesn’t mean that medicine should abandon its mission of curing disease and extending life. But it does mean that we should weigh every advancement against its impact on society.
We’ve already seen what modern, technology-based industry can do to our environment. Extreme life extension may pose a similar threat to our souls, unless we proceed with absolute caution. In the end, we may realize that our mortality is one of life’s greatest, and most misunderstood, blessings.