Is Immortality Possible?

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Immortality has been humanity's goal since, well, one caveman fell over and didn't get back up and his mate figured out what had happened.

It has certainly been the focus of many a sci-fi story, with it's promise of trans-human eternity, and before that religions that gave the suffering masses something to hold out for. But is immortality really attainable?

The Non-Natural Solutions

In the words of our favourite martian survivalist Mark Watney, we can "science the shit out of this". If nature hasn't provided our feeble bodies with the means to survive more than 60-100 years of age then we can turn to our old friend technology to save us.

Getting Chilly: Cryogenics

One of the oldest ideas for immortality is the concept that if we could just freeze people before death we might allow them to cheat death and wait for a time when humans have naturally figured out how to be immortal. Should the person never be defrosted they are, in a way, immortal already, stuck in stasis. Certainly there are real world examples of people being saved from death by surviving the cold, such as the example of the 19 year old Jean Hilliard who collapsed from hypothermia on her way to a friend's home in -22 degree cold. Jean physically froze but remained alive with her heartbeat dropping to 12 beats per minute in a body temperature too low to record in hospital. Her body went into a form of hibernation but, like the water-bear organisms, when she was gradually thawed she regained normal function and seemed to return back from the dead. This is, of course not such an easy process and tissue damage is a very real threat, but if done correctly freezing could at least offer a pause button, if not full blown immortality. Hardly a fun way to spend the centuries though...

Getting Downloadable: Transhumanism

"I know kung fu"
As you ladies and gents may know by now, I find it hard to latch on to many sci-fi books, but one of my absolute favourites is Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan, which also helped inspire the excellent Eclipse Phase role playing game. In both of these humanity's mortality is decoupled from the body completely as they are able to download and upload their brains as data. Space travel soon becomes simple: so long as a pioneer has set up a computer and set of receptive bodies on another planet beforehand people can download themselves across the stars in seconds. Anyone rich enough can travel wherever there are bodies available and, similarly, move their consciousness into new bodies when their old ones get outdated or old. All you need is technology in robotic or bioengineering that is sophisticated enough to download the data of a brain and allow it to function. After all, brains are just a complex series of electrical signals, it isn't too much of a leap to think that this information could be replicated and,with it, comes consciousness. Heck, create back-up data and even if the body the consciousness is currently riding in is destroyed you could choose to just revert back to an earlier copy - like loading up an old game save.
Eventually humans may even turn away from a need to interact in the real world at all and boom! You've got the Matrix.

The problem? Well, this may be a very long way off if it's possible at all. The brain's data itself is nothing to be sniffed at, with its 86-100 billion neurons amounting to potentially 2.5 petrabytes of storable information (aka 3 million hours of Tv shows, or almost two World of Warcraft Servers). However this is dependant on how the brain works. The problem is that we can't view the brain as a simple binary system of logical switches that are either 'on' or 'off'. Our neurons interact as patterns and are, in fact, incredibly flexible and always changing to fit new information and trimming themselves to efficiencies. The brain may well be just too complex to ctrl+C ctrl+V.

Getting Duplicated: Cloning

If you don't know about Dolly the sheep then, well, you're a little behind. But fear not, we're all curious here and google is your friend. I can wait.

Good? Good. So, animal cloning (and, by extension, human cloning) is already a reality and has been for years though the process is incredibly inefficient (around 2% success rate) and full of controversy. However if we were to pursue a transhuman option where our brain-data might live forever, what better way is there of securing our lineage than just cloning ourselves new bodies each time our old ones wear out?
Well there is the problem of clones being different people despite being biologically identical - just ask any identical twin. When you create a clone you create a consciousness that has little to do with the parent but for having the same genetic wiring. But assuming we could 'wipe out' this issue and put an immortal person's brain inside to live again, having a clone might not be as easy as just having a new shiny younger version of yourself.
The problem is in the cloning process itself. Because clones are created from older animals, without the natural influence of reproductive cells the cells that they are created from are already old. When these cells duplicate they don't start off new, but instead can inherit the same age-deficiencies of the cells before them. The cells replicate as normal and these defects - which are a key part of what causes us to age - replicate too, leaving the clone vulnerable to age-based diseases and deficiencies. Dolly herself, the famous clone, died of a virus-based tumor to the lung that, some think, may have been early onset due to this ageing issue.
The good news is that this doesn't always happen - sometimes the cells replicate without problem and are as 'young' as expected. But it's certainly an issue that science is only just beginning to tackle. And, in the end, it still leaves the issue that clones are completely different, sentient, people from the host. We can't kill that life to shove in our own...can we?

Of course there are many more ways of extending human lifespans through technology, from nanotech to mechanical developments and more, though whether this can really create 'immortality' is, like cloning, very much up for debate.

The Natural Solutions

Perhaps our best option is to look to nature for inspiration. Nature has, after all, been creating many near-immortal animals for million of years...

Taking it Slow

You know how some people's parents let them have a hamster as a pet because, all things considered, they're only going to be a burden for a couple of years? Like many small creatures their metabolism is through the roof, largely because their hearts beat at 400 beats per minute, and so longevity isn't their strong point.
For other - usually larger - animals, instead taking a slow pace in life means that their life expectancies are surprisingly long. take a look at the Galapagos tortoise clocking in at 176 years old (and still sexually active), the huge bowhead whale clocking in at 211 years, or the Quahog clam at 450 years old. A slow metabolism aids many animals and allows them to remain relatively constant once they hit puberty. For the clam instead slow cell-replacement process allows it to reach such a ripe old age.
However the most impressive example could be the glass sponge, thought to have a growth development so slow and constant that specimens exist that are 15,000 years old.

In a way it shares similarities to Cryo-sleep. The body is slowed down enough that longevity is possible. But, let's be honest here, humans aren't likely to want to slow the pace of living any time soon, and our pesky little hearts will keep on humming as quick as they like.

Avoiding Mutation
A bristlecone pine

As mentioned above, one of the key features of aging is the mutation of the cells. As cells and DNA replicate over time there is a higher likelihood that some errors will be replicated with them and the quality is likely to lessen. However with bristlecone pines for example, scientists have found no significant increase in mutation rates with age. and remain youthful at the cellular level, even if they bear the scars of external forces, like lightning strikes. it appears as if they have special areas that act as repositories to stem cells, and it is this cells that help keep them youthful. In these repositories the stem cells replicate at a much slower rate, which lessens that chance for mutation and so allows the tree to have access to healthy cells. This is why stem cells really are a buzzword in many areas of experimental science - they're pretty darn magical.

Unfortunately, as impressive as these cells might be, they need the slower lifespan of a tree to do their work. Put them in a human, with our buzzing little hearts and fleeting busy lives, and they wouldn't be able to extend our lives very far. We're just not living correctly for it.

A teeny tiny Bdelloid
DNA Theft

While stem cells could be remarkably useful in keeping creatures youthful, as we've seen sometimes we can't quite access our own as we would like. Enter the Bdelloids who have manged to find an alternative route to keeping fresh: if their DNA isn't quite working well enough they will go ahead and steal shiny new DNA from other creatures.

These microscopic creatures are all technically females but, like most microscopic creatures,they reproduce asexually which is usually a dangerous process as errors in DNA are more likely to be replicated with repeated use. however the Bdelloids have the remarkable ability to 'steal' DNA from their surroundings, with one creature typically holding DNA elements from 500 different species. No matter what befalls them, and little light fingered creativity and they can patch themselves up. Like their cousins the water-bears you can boil them, dry them out, and even nuke them and they'll liable be able to recover. The known record for a Bdelloid being able to survive drying up is 9 years.

Reverting Backwards

Turritopsis Nutricula
In the end, no matter how fascinating all these potential immortality methods are, there is only one method that seems to create a seemingly endless loop of 'immortality' and this belong to the Turritopsis Nutricula jellyfish. Normally, these little jellyfish live relatively average lives, living and dying as we might expect. But when a crisis arises, such as starvation or significant injury, it starts to transform itself remarkably. In what has been dubbed the 'Benjamin Button' effect it transforms all of its cells into a younger state, turning into a blob like polyp as cells break down. From here, the cells are flexible and it can regrow, transforming old cells with old functions, such as nerve cells, into new cells with new functions, such as reproductive cells. It effectively hits reset and begins it's life all over again, without ever having died.
Now this reversal process isn't unheard of with jellyfish, in fact when at the polyp stage many jellyfish can mature a little and then revert back. But once it has hit full adult stage other jellyfish can't reverse the clock. Turritopsis Nutricula is unique. 

So...Is Immortality Really Possible?

This is it. The big question. Can we really shrug off our own natural inclination to die? The answer from our own clever technologies and from nature seems to be sure, maybe. Certainly it seems that we could slow down the ageing process if we could reverse the decay of our own cells, probably through a clever use of stem cells or through borrowed DNA patching. While we will never be the kinds of animals that can grow exponentially or slow down our lifestyles to match the longevity of species like the tortoise or tree, we could potentially encourage our bodies into voluntary hibernation. While we can't have a flexible enough life cycle as to mimic the cyclic immortality of Turritpsis Nutricula, nevertheless the species has a lot to tell us about what could push cells back into youth again. In the end, we may develop a deep enough understanding of our own minds and bodies that we could take a step into the digital, rendering all of these advancements near-pointless when we can build our own vessels of consciousness.

Perhaps the biggest question isn't whether we can become biologically immortal, but instead what that biological immortality would feel like.

A great man once said that time is relative and this doesn't only apply to the science of the stars. Think back to your school days and the onset of the six weeks holidays when that summer would stretch out in what seemed like forever - you'd return back to school and you'd barely even remember how to write it felt like it had been so long. think of how fast six weeks pass now that you're an adult - you can jump a good two months while barely even registering it. As you grow older your brain develops, your experience grows and, when you get down to it, the percentages start to add up. When you're 5 years old you've lived for approx 260 weeks, so 6 weeks is 2.3% of your entire lifespan. And it feels like it. When you're 30 and you've lived out 1,560 weeks you're looking at 0.03% of your life. And it feels like it. Time literally moves faster as we get older because our units of measurement take up less and less percentage of our lived experience. How must time feel to someone at 200 years old? Or 2,000? Unless our consciousness slows down and we become more like the trees, how would our minds cope with the change?
Similarly if we somehow managed the jellyfish route, to revert ourselves back to children to be reborn over and over, losing our memories each time, at what point can we say we're the same person?

It's a knotty philosophical question as well as a complex scientific puzzle. But if we know anything of humans as a species, it's that we won't rest until we pried the lid off pandora's box and taken a peek inside. After all, it's only human.

-Immortal Jellyfish -
- The Immortal Jellyfish - Epic Wildlife
-The Immortal
-turritopsis dhornii - Wikipedia
- "Immortal" jellyfish swarm world's oceans - National Geographic
- Earth Story: the animals and plants that can live forever - BBC
- 5 animals that live forever - Reader's Digest
- 6 unassuming animals that are secretly immortal - cracked
- 5 ways science is making us immortal - cracked
- cloning myths - learn genetics
-Top 10 transhumanist technologies
-Will cloned animals suffer premature ageing?
-If your brain was a computer how much storage space would it have?
-Is it time to move past the idea that our brain is like a computer?
-Woman frozen solid: Jean Hilliard story
-BBC earth story: Can anything live forever?
-Bdelloids surviving on stolen DNA

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1 comment:

  1. Achieving Physical Immortality? - No problem at all! - I can make everybody Immortal in less than a month - We humans can stop aging (by wiping out all diseases) and live forever (like our Creators from the planet of Nibiru - The Anunnaki) - I got the key to our Biological Immortality - By staying absolutely healthy all the time - By doing my discovery (just an exercise for a minute a day) - My WVCD - The Weapon of Virus and Cancer Destruction, that cures and prevents any diseases, known on Earth for millions of years, even radiation disease (concerning space flights) - I will describe my WVCD to everyone, who sends me a check for one million bucks - Everybody will stay absolutely healthy all the time, living their Endless Lives, for Infinite Health = Immortality.