What have we not done to live forever? Adam Leith Gollner’s research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is out now as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. Over the past seven weeks, this chronological crash course has examined the ways humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history. This is the final installment.
You have to get old. Don’t cry, don’t clasp your hands in prayer, don’t rebel; you have to get old. Repeat the words to yourself, not as a howl of despair but as the boarding call to a necessary departure. —Colette, Les Vrilles de la Vigne
In 1927, before Charles Lindbergh set off across the Atlantic Ocean, newspapers described the flight as a guaranteed “rendez-vous with death.” While the Spirit of St. Louis hummed toward France, human-formed phantoms and vapor-like spirits materialized before Lindbergh’s eyes. These “inhabitants of a universe closed to mortal men” spoke to him, reassuring him and helping him find his way. This inner experience, he wrote, seemed to penetrate beyond the finite. It was an epiphany that guided the rest of his life.
After his pioneering flight, he received millions of letters, thousands of poems, countless gleaming accolades. Whole cities attended parades in his honor. Wing-walking skywriters spelled HAIL LINDY high in the air. Former secretary of state and later U.S. Supreme Court chief justice Charles Evans Hughes gave a speech in New York heralding “science victorious.”
In the euphoria’s wake, having managed one impossibility, Lindbergh wondered if he mightn’t help solve another. Working alongside Nobel Prize–winning cell biologist Alexis Carrel (who claimed, erroneously, that cells divide endlessly and are therefore naturally immortal), Lindbergh came to question whether death is “an inevitable portion of life’s cycle,” musing that perhaps scientific methods could hasten the arrival of bodily immortality.
Lindbergh had been raised to believe that “the key to all mystery is science.” The idea that science will allow men to become gods was instilled in him by his grandfather, a well-known surgical dentist. For postflight Lindbergh, solving the basic mystery of death seemed only as challenging as flying across the sea. It just meant doing what people said couldn’t be done. Yet as he aged, and as his experiments didn’t yield the hoped-for results, he began questioning his desire for immortality. He became an environmentalist, spending time in the wilderness and observing cycles of life and death in nature.
In his later years, he characterized himself as a former disciple of science, someone who’d mistakenly enthroned knowledge as his idol. “I felt the godlike power man derives from [it],” he wrote. “I worshipped science.” He publicly acknowledged how mistaken he had been, adding that “physical immortality would be undesirable even if it could be achieved.” In his final years, he became convinced of the necessity of dying. In death, he concluded, “is the eternal life which men have sought so blindly for centuries not realizing they had it as a birthright … Only by dying can we continue living.”
When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, in 1969, there was a pervasive sense that immortality was next. After all, if we were able to reach other worlds, how could we not live forever? “Transcendence is no longer a metaphysical concept,” trumpeted sociologist F. M. Esfandiary. “It has become reality.” His book Up-Wingers argued that our ability to send rockets into space meant we would soon never die. By the end of the twentieth century, he predicted, we’d be ageless, interstellar denizens of orbital communities, easily space-hopping in and out of planets and moons. Robot servants would take care of our every need, armies of clones would fight alien enemies, teenagers would soar over clogged urban centers in winged cars. We’d also be able to alter our bodies’ genetic scripture at will.
“Nobody in this generation has to die, unless they want to,” Timothy Leary assured disciples, in the 1970s. “They can become immortal and go to the stars.” He himself did end up going to the stars—when he died. He didn’t become immortal, but seven grams of his cremated ashes ended up in orbit aboard a Pegasus rocket. A different end from the endlessness he’d envisioned, but an apt end nonetheless.
Will scientific breakthroughs ever allow us to escape the human condition? Each time technology attains a new paradigm, some of us start imagining we’ll live forever as a result. When Craig Venter created the first synthetic genome in 2010, newspapers claimed science had “officially replaced God.” After CERN’s particle accelerator seemingly established the existence of the Higgs boson in 2012, journalists announced that we’d soon be traveling around the galaxy at light speed. Each small step for science becomes a giant leap for immortalists.
We’ve always been like this. As soon as frozen food became standard in grocery stores, cryonicists began staging demonstrations in front of funeral parlors, carrying placards saying why die? you can be immortal. Our ability to program computers filled us with more of the same hopes. If we can make motherboards, we assured ourselves, why, surely we can code our own DNA to attain immortality!
Examples of such thinking still abound today. Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle Corporation, gives out more than $40 million a year through his foundation dedicated to ending mortality, or at least to “understanding lifespan development processes and age-related diseases and disabilities.” His biographer Mark Wilson notes that Ellison sees death as “just another kind of corporate opponent he can outfox.”
Then there’s Ray Kurzweil, the futurist computing expert who has been involved in everything from speech-recognition technology to electronic keyboard synthesizers. Kurzweil is convinced that informatics will get faster and faster until man and machine merge into a robot-like Human Version 2.0 in the coming decades. Are his predictions in keeping with his veritable accomplishments? Or is he out to lunch? Perhaps a bit of both? In the words of Douglas R. Hofstadter, the Pulitzer-winning author of Gödel, Escher, Bach, Kurzweil offers “a very bizarre mixture of ideas that are solid and good with ideas that are crazy. It’s as if you took a lot of very good food and some dog excrement and blended it all up so that you can’t possibly figure out what’s good or bad.”
Google recently hired Kurzweil to be their director of engineering, and his ideas have influenced everything from Google Glass to their self-driving cars. Next up for Kurzweil-disciples Sergey Brin and Larry Page? A newly-launched anti-aging company called Calico. As the cover of the September 30 issue of Time put it: “Can Google solve death?” The answer seems obvious. We created the Internet: Shouldn’t we also be able to solve death?
It’s a hallowed narrative. We find telomerase; pitchmen immediately start calling it “the immortalizing enzyme.” But then we learn that telomerase plays a role in cancerous tumor growth. We discover a jellyfish that regenerates itself; the media dubs it “the immortal jellyfish.” But then it turns out these jellyfish aren’t immortal at all. In reality, the immortal jellyfish is extremely weak, easily killed, and often eaten by slugs. Will Sirtuin research yield a pill that allows us to eat whatever we want while getting the benefits of caloric restriction, letting us live healthy lives for decades longer than ever before? GlaxoSmithKline has gambled $720 million on that dream. Results, so far, are mixed. Nature recently reported that “Sirtuins, far from being a key to longevity, appear to have nothing to do with extending life.”
Thanks to technological progress, we can do more now than ever before. We may even become cyborgs one day. But will we ever become gods?
There’s a passage in Truman Capote’s unfinished Answered Prayers, where he goes to see Collette to discuss becoming a grown-up person.
Her painted eyelids lifted and lowered like the slowly beating wings of a great blue eagle. “But that,” she said, “is the one thing none of us can ever be: a grown-up person. If you mean a spirit clothed in the sack and ash of wisdom alone? Free of all mischief, envy and malice and greed and guilt? Impossible … Of course, men can have grown-up moments, a noble few scattered here and there, and of these, obviously death is the most important. Death certainly sends that smutty little boy scuttling and leaves what’s left of us simply an object, lifeless but pure … To be durable and perfect, to be in fact grown-up, is to be an object, an altar, the figure in a stained-glass window: cherishable stuff. But really, it is so much better to sneeze and feel human.
Adam Leith Gollner’s The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever (Scribner) is out now.