Dying is a tragic event and, if we did not get old or sick, immortality could be cool. For this reason, in search of eternity, we humans invented several millennia ago a personal spirit –an energy, a consciousness– that would reincarnate, be reborn or resurrect at some point in the future. For the very same perpetuating obsession, we also try to do remarkable things that perhaps will allow us to survive in history… or at least in Google. As the atheist he is, Woody Allen does not believe in the first alternative and dislikes the second one: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work… I want to achieve it through not dying”. In recent decades scientists are paying much attention to the American comedian. Let’s have a look at a couple of recent news on the subject.
Cryptographer, programmer and futurist Harold Finney, at age 58, died recently of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a devastating neurodegenerative disorder. Most people diagnosed with ALS would prefer a quick death to any alternative treatment that would prolong a life of immobility. Not the stubborn Finney. Even when his body was almost totally paralyzed, the cryptographer, aware of his lucidity, decided to fight until beyond his last moment. When he could no longer communicate at all, he was disconnected from his ventilator and, following his instructions, his body was frozen in liquid nitrogen as soon as he was pronounced dead.
The body of Finney and the body of a few hundred hopeful patients are frozen at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a Scottsdale (Arizona) non-profit organization, waiting for technological developments that eventually will not only return them to life but cure the diseases that killed them. Perhaps in some fifty years, futuristic Finney will resurrect, at his age, my guess, he passed away last August. (Some Christian theologians argue that when we resuscitate at the end of time everyone will be 33, the age of Jesus when he died).
With a different approach and much good sense, other scientists are focusing their research toward immortality on the genetic code of those who are still alive. CRISPR (a weird acronym) is a field of genetic engineering that studies some molecular micro-fractions that recurrently repeat in the long DNA chain. (I suppose no one knows why they repeat). Around CRISPR there have grown a wide variety of techniques that, among the many miracles they could lead to, are the resurrection of both mammoths, (the relatives of elephants which disappeared some 4,500 years ago) and, eventually, Neanderthals (our closest cousin which went extinct some thirty millennia ago).
Harvard Medical School scientist and engineer George M. Church sees an impressive potential in the matter. If a CRISPR technique could recreate a creature that disappeared several millennia ago from DNA samples recovered from an ancient fossil, it must be quite simpler to reverse the biological age to an old millionaire who is still alive and has enough money to afford the charge. Says Dr. Church: “The objective is not to extend death, to extend the worst part of our lives, but to reverse aging. We are looking at full genome sequencing of super-centenarians. It’s probably not their environment that’s making the rule on time, but hopefully rare factors.” As with the revival of frozen bodies, this other wonder will not materialize soon, not within the next half century.
Each person has their own estimates, optimistic or pessimistic, about their own life expectancy. Like most people, this columnist would love ‘to live’ quite a few more years, the stress on ‘to live’ is deliberate… because he is not interested in only ‘enduring’ or ‘lasting’. As long as we have physical health –as the brain is part of the body, adding ‘mental’ is redundant, long live life!
However, since science does not run that fast and the grim reaper is lurking with his macabre scythe cutting out heads at random, it is best to accept our temporality and detach ourselves as much as we can from the wish to exist forever. Although the survival instinct is in our genes, we must make ours the thoughtful verses of Colombian poet Porfirio Barba Jacob* “…There is, oh Earth! a day… a day… a day… when we weigh anchors never to return… A day when ineluctable winds blow by… A day when no one can retain us”. In any instant of that day, we will go away and gone we will be. We may not be ready for the occasion but… Are we warned? Absolutely, yes!
Atlanta, December 12, 2014
* Translation by Colombian Writer Nicolás Suescún