|Last Updated: Friday, 3 December, 2004, 00:01 GMT |
'Don't fall for the cult of immortality'
Ko Hung believed that animals could be changed from one species to another (the origin of evolutionary thought), that lead could be transformed into gold (the origin of alchemy), and that mortal humans can achieve physical immortality by adopting dietary practices not far different from today's ever-popular life-extending practice of caloric restriction.
Ko Hung died at the age of 60 in 343 AD, which was a ripe old age for his time, but Hsien apparently didn't work well for him.
The famous 13th Century English philosopher and scientist, Roger Bacon, also believed there was no fixed limit to life and that physical immortality could be achieved by adopting the "Secret Arts of The Past". Let's refer to Bacon's theory as SATP. According to Bacon, declines in the human lifespan occurred since the time of the ancient patriarchs because of the acquisition of increasingly more decadent and unhealthy lifestyles.
Physical immortality is seductive. The ancient Hindus sought it, the Greek physician Galen from the 2nd Century AD and the Arabic philosopher/physician Avicenna from the 11th Century AD believed in it. Alexander the Great roamed the world searching for it, Ponce de Leon discovered Florida in his quest for the fountain of youth, and countless stories of immortality have permeated the literature, including the image of Shangra-La portrayed in James Hilton's book Lost Horizon, or in the quest for the holy grail in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. What do the ancient purveyors of physical immortality all have in common? They are all dead.
Prophets of immortality
I was doing a BBC radio interview in 2001 following a scientific session I had organised on the question of how long humans can live, and sitting next to me was a young scientist, with obviously no sense of history, who was asked the question: "how long will it be before we find the cure for ageing?"
My guess is that when all of the prophets of immortality have been asked this question throughout history, the answer is always the same.
The modern notion of physical immortality once again being dangled before us is based on a premise of "scientific" bridges to the future that I read in a recently published book entitled Fantastic Voyage by the techno-guru Ray Kurzweil and physician Terry Grossman.
They claim unabashedly that the science of radical life extension is already here, and that all we have to do is "live long enough to live forever". What Kurzweil and others are now doing is weaving once again the seductive web of immortality, tantalising us with the tale that we all so desperately want to hear, and have heard for thousands of years - live life without frailty and debility and dependence and be forever youthful, both physically and mentally.
The seduction will no doubt last longer than its proponents.
To be fair, the science of ageing has progressed by leaps and bounds in recent decades, and I have little doubt that gerontologists will eventually find a way to avoid, or more likely delay, the unpleasantries of extended life that some say are about to disappear, but which as anyone with their eyes open realises is occurring with increasing frequency. There is no need to exaggerate or overstate the case by promising that we are all about to live hundreds or even thousands of years.
The fact is that nothing in gerontology even comes close to fulfilling the promise of dramatically extended lifespan, in spite of bold claims to the contrary that by now should sound familiar. What is needed now is not exaggeration or false promises, but rather, a scientific pathway to improved physical health and mental functioning.
If we happen to live longer as a result, then we should consider that a bonus.
S Jay Olshansky is a professor at the School of Public Health, UIC and author of The Quest for Immortality.