Medical science has reached a point where some people alive now may live forever. Extensions of existing treatments may soon be able to save us from all the effects of illness and old age, and more radical technologies may protect us from the results of accident or assault as well. Bryan Appleyard looks at three broad approaches to achieving immortality: extensions of conventional medicine, cryonic suspension and, oddly, survival of the personality after physical death.
'Calorie Restriction', or permanently adopting a semi-starvation diet, is one of the most popular 'conventional' schemes for life extension. Apostles for this creed (and it really is as much faith as science) consume as little as half the recommended daily food intake; they look like famine victims but claim their system will extend life by decades. Other conventional life-extenders take as many as 250 pills per day. Both groups hope their methods will keep them alive until even better medical science can extend their lives even further, and so on ad infinitum.
Cryonics is the process of freezing the head or whole body in the hope that doctors in the future will be able to reverse the process without damage and repair whatever caused 'life suspension' to be chosen in the first place. It was first proposed in the 1960s but has attracted money-down support from only a few hundred people in the forty years since the first customer was frozen.
Appleyard spends as much time on the afterlife, in heaven or hell or haunted houses, as on cryonics. After long discussions of spiritualism and Christian ideas about what happens to us when we die, he is pretty clear that no-one really wants to achieve immortality through dying. As if to underline that point, he notes that the CEOs of both the main cryonics companies are committed Christians.
The rest of his conclusions are more tentative. He finds that existing conventional strategies are unproven but the best of them (good exercise and nutrition) should help us maintain good health even if they donŐt give us many more years. Cryonics, on the other hand, is a wild punt. It is risky and expensive but there is a (very low) chance it could pay off extremely well.
Finally, there may come a time, perhaps twenty to fifty years from now, where all bets are off because technology allows mankind to do things which are beyond our present understanding. When we can upload our minds to computer hardware, will we still be human?
Appleyard ponders the psychological and economic consequences of longer lives, too, although he fails to find satisfactory answers. How will we deal with boredom? Will the birth rate drop even further or will the planet get overcrowded even faster? What about the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few very old people?
How to Live Forever or Die Trying is readable and thought-provoking but unfocused and rather superficial.
Simon & Schuster, $34.95
Bringing the study up to date
New Scientist has treated these matters at length in a special report, 'Cheating Death', on October 13, 2007, with contributions from many of Appleyard's sources. The only area they don't touch (and one can't blame them) is the afterlife.
Review added July 2007
(originally published May 2007)
and updated June 2008
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