Should we believe in — or even want — immortality?


Most of these trials are going to fail, Kirkland said. Most trials do. “People should try to be dispassionate, even though everyone has a stake in this game. I mean, every living person does.”

I called the biologist Martin Raff, who retired from University College London 20 years ago, when he was not quite 65. Among other things, Raff had worked on cellular senescence. He told me that after a long and lucky life, he feels ready to depart. 

Today the field that Benzer foresaw in his Fly Room in the last century is being taken seriously not only on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley and Riyadh but also at the National Institutes of Health. It’s beginning to look more like a normal branch of research medicine, just one more plausible program to pursue.

The idea, of course, is to add good years to our lives without drawing out the number of bad years at the end.

The study of the clock really may teach us ways to slow down some of the fundamental deterioration we call aging, to treat whatever it is that leaves our bodies increasingly vulnerable to chronic diseases as we get older—senescent cells, for instance. If we can do that, according to what is known as the geroscience hypothesis, we can fight all those chronic diseases at once: arthritis, atherosclerosis, cancer, deafness, dementia, diabetes, osteoporosis, stroke.

The idea, of course, is to add good years to our lives without drawing out the number of bad years at the end. This is called the compression of morbidity. No one knows if it can be done, so the compression of morbidity is really a hypothesis on top of a hypothesis. Still, that is what most centenarians are able to do. They stay healthy two or three decades longer than the rest of us, and many of them feel quite well at the age of 100. “The bird is fine, the bird is fine, the bird is fine, it’s dead.”

But we’re all still mortals, and our kind will be mortal for a long, long time. 

I Zoomed with a Canadian writer and academic I know, Andy Stark, author of The Consolations of Mortality. Maybe it’s just sour grapes, Andy told me, but he thinks we are actually better off being mortal. His book explores many of the drawbacks of eternal life, including the terrible problem of boredom. How many times would you really want to ride the roller coaster? In Long for This World, I look at other problems, too, including the sixth extinction—the planetary catastrophe that is unfolding around us, inflicted by the fulfillment of so many human wishes. How much of that disaster would you really want to watch?

A few years ago, Andy Stark gave a talk at a symposium about the science of longevity. Aubrey de Grey was in the audience. When Andy was done, Aubrey strode up to the stage and challenged him. If I offered you an extra 30 healthy years, Aubrey said, you’d take that, wouldn’t you? And after that, wouldn’t you take the next 30 years, and the next 30? And so on?



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