Our pursuit of immortality dates back to the beginning of human civilisation. Even among the oldest of mythologies and folktales, the concept of an elixir of life or the fountain of youth was quite prevalent and it has been passed down from one generation to the next. Sadly, this daring endeavour, much like Icarus's attempt to fly to the sun, was mostly unsuccessful and in the worst cases, disastrous.
But homo sapiens are rarely the species to be halted by 'minute' inconveniences. Although we are yet to achieve anything that remotely resembles immortality, one would be hard-pushed not to say that human civilisation has come a long way in extending the longevity of human life.
Just two centuries ago, the average life expectancy of a human being was less than 40 years; owing to advances in medical research, that figure has almost doubled. According to recent United Nations estimates, the average life expectancy throughout the globe is around 72 years.
But men are not simply stopping here. And very wealthy men, like the multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos, are pouring money into the endeavour to conquer ageing.
The drive to take the next step—to live as long as we choose—has sparked a scientific arms race in search of the elixir of life, backed by Big Tech and Silicon Valley, while longevity medicine transforms the lives of many older people.
In his book 'The Price of Immortality', author and journalist Peter Ward explores the history of these ideas as well as the science behind supposed anti-ageing treatments. He also discussed these ideas in-depth in an exclusive interview with The Business Standard.
First of all, please tell us about the background of the book 'The Price of Immortality.' We want to know what made you enthusiastic about this topic.
So, my first book was about space and the space industry, and in particular, the privatisation of space. I spoke to a lot of people who were space enthusiasts, who wanted to go and live on Mars and go to other planets.
But one of the questions that always comes up for them is how do you go further than the solar system because obviously, it takes so much time. They were interested in extending their lifespans.
That came up in the reporting of my first book, and the idea kind of stuck with me, because I feel like that was a really interesting topic. Then I found out about this church in Florida – the Church of Perpetual Life – which is this sort of group of enthusiasts who want to live forever, and believe that they are going to live forever.
I went down to Florida, visited the church and met the people. And so, as I got further into the topic, it just got more and more interesting. It made sense to write a book about it. Even after finishing the book, there are still loads of things that are fascinating and worth exploring.
The idea of living forever has many devotees. Who are these people? What are the ways they pursue their agenda and to what extent?
It is now being pursued by fringe scientists, cult groups and tech billionaires, united by a conviction that a way to make humans immortal will eventually be found.
Each group goes about it differently. You have the sort of enthusiasts, for whom, it is their hobby. They believe that they are going to live forever. They try to make that happen by going to these meetings at places like the Church of Perpetual Life. They volunteer for scientific studies, and they give money to research and fund anti-ageing medicine.
The next step up is from people like Aubrey de Grey – a biomedical gerontologist and chief science officer of SENS, a non-profit for researching the ageing process – who views that medical technology would one day advance to a degree that people will no longer die of age-related issues.
Beyond that are the people with the big money; the Silicon Valley billionaires who are putting in as much money as they need to try and slow down ageing.
They are putting money into a broad range of research. It is sort of difficult to nail down what each of them is doing, because they kind of throw money at everything, just in case something works eventually.
In the pursuit of living longer (or forever), what role is played by science fiction or ancient mythologies?
Ideas, such as the elixir of life inspire a lot of people, which is weird if you think about it. Because all of the ancient mythologies and all the tales of immortality are sorts of cautionary tales.
They are always warning us not to pursue immortality. A good example is the story of Troy with Achilles. He was told he could be immortal: "you can be immortal, but you have to go to Troy, and you will die there, but your name will live forever." That is, if you want to live forever, you have to die first.
Even going back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest story ever recorded, is a cautionary tale saying: "You really should not try and live forever. Death is a natural thing."
It is a strange one because it inspires people. And we do see it in science fiction today. Even modern science fiction films usually adopt a cautionary tale when depicting a pursuit of immortality. In the film 'Highlander', some people become immortal after being beheaded. But in that context, the idea of living forever may not sound that fascinating.
But, yes, all of these play a big part in inspiring people in some way. If you look at some of the people who are trying to push this agenda forward, a lot of them have been inspired by science fiction at some point.
Rightly so, we think it is fascinating how, from ancient mythologies to modern science fiction, the concept of living longer is still ingrained into our human beings.
I guess it is something deep inside us. I mean, our first instinct as a species is to survive. We are just taking this basic idea, and pushing it forward. We are biologically programmed to try and survive no matter what.
The pursuit of anti-ageing tech is a just extension of that. "What if we could live a little bit longer? What if we could live forever?" Such questions are fascinating inquiries of humanity.
So, how big is the anti-ageing business? How are the fraudsters using the opportunity?
I have spoken to some people, and they believe in their work. They will not say anything bad about it, for it is hard to admit that you paid a lot of money for no reason.
I spoke to one person who had stem cell therapy to help his cancer treatment move along, he said it did not do anything.
But yeah, it again goes back to the dawn of time. Ever since we have been fascinated by mortality, there have been people that are going to take advantage of that.
So, the fraudsters have always been there persuading people to take so-called elixirs of life (whatever that meant in different times and places).
But the modern equivalent is things like these dodgy stem cell clinics and other treatments. And they often do not operate in their home countries, rather they are sort of forced to go to countries where the regulation is lax.
There are other fringe topics, such as freezing your body and mind uploading. I do not think anyone is seriously going after these. People need to remember that while it is an exciting topic, pitfalls are numerous too – full of ways for people to con you out of your money.
If you are pursuing a long life, the best thing to do is to eat healthy and exercise, not chase some miracle cures or some sort of complicated and experimental surgery. It is definitely a boring answer, but that is the best thing to do.
What would be the societal and political implications of such technology? Don't you think inequalities will rise and a certain group of super-rich people will be like superhumans and better than the rest of us?
That is one of the real dangers, something that I answered at the end of my book. Look at our societies right now with existing inequalities: in America, for instance, regular healthcare is just only for the rich to avail.
Likewise, anti-ageing or age-reversing treatments and medicines - if invented- would only be accessible to the rich. There might be a two-tier system.
I am not talking about living forever. But if we can extend life by 30 or 40 years – which is quite realistic in the near future and would have a serious impact on society – the elites will gain from technological advancement and the non-elites will scramble around.
In politics, for instance, you would have more older people to satisfy. It would take longer for a generation to die off, and for new ideas to emerge. It would impact the property market making it harder to get on the property ladder as more people own houses for longer.
Obviously, it could easily lead to vast overpopulation. And then we start eating up resources faster than we do now. There are a lot of issues that come with it. And it is hard, as they are very theoretical, to properly predict but those are some possibilities that could happen and definitely things we should think about.