The Quest for Immortality (Part 1)

Sud Alogu
11 min readDec 13, 2023

The quest for immortality and prolonged life is not a recent phenomenon but has been a part of human culture since early civilizations. This pursuit is evident in ancient legends like that of King Gilgamesh and in the practices of Taoists in China and in ancient Egyptian texts. Throughout history, various methods, including alchemy, dietary supplements, and even rejuvenation through exposure to certain substances, have been attempted to reverse aging.

In modern times, the pursuit of anti-aging strategies continues, fueled by consumer interest, especially among baby boomers and the elderly. This has led to a surge in the marketing and use of anti-aging products, although many of these have been met with skepticism and warnings from the scientific community about their effectiveness and safety.

Contrary to popular belief, contemporary research in anti-aging is not just limited to the efforts of charlatans. Many reputable scientists, funded by both government and private sectors, are conducting serious research in biogerontology. Their goals range from modest improvements in health during old age to ambitious aims of significantly extending human life, free from age-related diseases and disabilities.

There are three main models of prolongevity under scientific consideration:

  1. Compressed Morbidity: This model, promoted by physician James Fries, envisions a scenario where humans live long, vigorous lives followed by a quick decline and death due to senescence. This model allows for an increase in average life expectancy but not in the maximum lifespan.
  2. Decelerated Aging: In this model, the aging process is slowed, potentially increasing both average life expectancy and the maximum lifespan. The goal is to enable older adults to maintain their health and activity levels for a longer period.
  3. Arrested Aging: This ambitious model aims to reverse the aging process in adults, restoring vitality and function. It suggests a future where aging could be indefinitely postponed, leading to dramatically increased life spans and the concept of ‘virtual immortality’.

While these models may seem incredible, the rapid progress in biomedical science means they cannot be dismissed out of hand. The potential consequences of successful anti-aging interventions are profound, affecting individual and collective life experiences, and raising significant ethical issues, especially if access to these interventions is not universally available.

The Quest for Immortality

There was a transformative period at the turn of the 20th century, marking the advent of what was known as “new biology.” This period saw the emergence of various experimental biological sciences, driven by a vision of controlling life and achieving human longevity. This new scientific paradigm raised profound questions about ethics, human destiny, and the interplay between science and religion. Key thinkers of this era included H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Olaf Stapledon, Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.B.S. Haldane, and Julian Huxley, who engaged in public debates over the scientific, social, and ethical implications of these scientific advancements.

The works of Charles Darwin, particularly his theory of natural selection, cast doubt on the notion of inevitable human progress. Darwin’s ideas suggested that human evolution and progress were contingent, not guaranteed, and subject to natural laws beyond our control. This view was vividly portrayed in the writings of H.G. Wells, especially in “The Time Machine,” which depicted a bleak future for humanity as a result of Darwinian evolution.

“The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells is a pioneering science fiction novel that tells the story of an unnamed Time Traveler who invents a machine that enables him to travel through time. The Traveler first goes to the year 802,701 AD, where he encounters two distinct species of post-humanity: the Eloi and the Morlocks.

The Eloi are a gentle, frail, and simplistic people living in a seemingly idyllic world, while the Morlocks are terrifying, ape-like creatures who dwell underground. As the Traveler explores this future world, he discovers the grim truth: the Eloi are essentially cattle, bred and preyed upon by the Morlocks. This dystopian vision reflects a future in which humanity has evolved into two species as a result of social class divisions.

Eventually, the Traveler further journeys into the future and witnesses the dying Earth under a swollen red sun. Returning to his own time, he tells his story to a group of disbelieving friends. Finally, he makes one last journey into the future from which he never returns.

In response to the perceived limitations imposed by Darwinian theory, a new kind of biology, “experimental biology,” emerged. This field embraced a more experimentalist approach to scientific law, focusing on observable, demonstrable, and controllable phenomena in the laboratory.

One significant area of focus was eugenics, initially conceived by Francis Galton, aiming to improve the biological quality of future human generations. This field divided into negative eugenics, which involved decreasing the reproduction of the “defective,” and positive eugenics, which aimed to increase the reproduction of the “gifted.” These ideas were further popularized and debated by figures like George Bernard Shaw, who saw them as a means to potentially halt and reverse the degeneration of the human race.

The period after World War I witnessed a shift in focus towards a more future-oriented biology, propelled by new fields such as genetics, experimental embryology, and eugenics.

Central to this discourse was the concept of controlling human evolution and destiny through biological means. Key figures like J.B.S. Haldane, Julian Huxley, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien engaged in public discussions about the potential and ethics of controlling human evolution and engineering longevity. The generation born around 1890, influenced by H.G. Wells’s early novels, saw in the new biology a way to reshape the future, moving away from the pessimism of Wells’s earlier works.

During the interwar period, intense debates emerged around human biological futurism, heightened by contemporary advances in biology, physics, and astronomy, as well as the socio-political upheavals of the era. This debate was further complicated by the ideological struggles between Soviet communism and German national socialism, each with its own vision for the human future.

J.B.S. Haldane, a renowned biologist, became a prominent voice in this debate. In his essays like “Daedalus, or Science and the Future” and “The Last Judgment,” Haldane envisioned a future where human evolution and destiny were under complete human control. These visions included ectogenesis (in vitro fertilization and development), eugenics, and bioengineering, leading to significant extensions of human lifespan and even the colonization of other planets.

H.G. Wells, influenced by these new ideas, collaborated with Julian Huxley and his son Gip to write “The Science of Life,” a sequel to “The Outline of History.” This work reflected the influence of Haldane’s ideas and addressed the biology of the human race, including the possibility of a collective human mind and will.

Julian Huxley, a key figure in this movement, continued to advocate for Evolutionary Humanism throughout his life, combining Darwinian science with spiritual dimensions. He played a significant role in UNESCO and promoted themes of population control and enlightened eugenics, contributing to the establishment of modern evolutionary theory.

Olaf Stapledon, in his 1930 book “Last and First Men,” painted a detailed philosophical pseudohistory of humanity. This work envisioned numerous human civilizations and species, each evolving and adapting in various ways. The narrative aligns with Haldane’s ideas, emphasizing the control and shaping of human evolution. Stapledon’s vision spans from the creation of super-brained humans to the final human species capable of living for hundreds of thousands of years, foreseeing humanity’s need to colonize other planets due to inevitable cosmic events.

Julian Huxley, another influential figure, shared this futuristic vision, believing that humanity stood at a crucial point in its evolutionary history. He collaborated with H.G. Wells on “The Science of Life,” a text reflecting the ideas of Haldane and Stapledon about the future of humanity. This work discussed the possibility of controlling human evolution through eugenics and bioengineering, aiming to extend human life and enable colonization of other planets.

These thinkers shared a common belief that traditional religion was untenable in a material, Darwinian world. They posited that humanity must understand its existence on an evolutionary cosmic scale and seize control of its destiny through science, particularly biology. The vision included using negative eugenics to halt human degeneration and positive eugenics for creating new human forms for space exploration. This science-based faith was seen as providing answers to profound questions about ethics, destiny, and the meaning of life.

The visionaries, who were generally politically left-leaning and rationalist, saw science as the basis for true spirituality and were dismissive of established religions. Their ideas emphasized that the immortality of the human race, rather than individual immortality, was paramount. Contributions to the survival and advancement of the species were considered the true meaning of life, with individual death seen as a necessary part of evolutionary progress.

This nexus of ideas among these visionaries, while groundbreaking, also provoked significant reactions, particularly due to their political and philosophical orientations and their radical reimagining of human destiny and spirituality.

Bertrand Russell, a distinguished mathematician and logician, was one of the first to respond critically to these visions, particularly to Haldane’s “Daedalus.” In “Icarus, or the Future of Science,” Russell warned of the dystopian potential of eugenics. He feared that science, particularly negative eugenics, could be misused by governments to promote the power of dominant groups and suppress dissent. Russell also expressed skepticism about positive eugenics, suspecting that it would lead to a subservient and non-innovative population.

Aldous Huxley, in “Brave New World,” offered a fictional critique of the implications of these scientific visions. His portrayal of a technocratic utopia, where human production and behavior are scientifically controlled and designed for societal stability, highlighted the potential loss of individuality and freedom. This novel, along with others by Huxley, explored the human consequences of scientific advancements like drugs and bioengineering, often highlighting the dystopian aspects of these developments.

C.S. Lewis, a prominent author and religious philosopher, was another significant critic. In response to Haldane and Stapledon’s visions, Lewis wrote a trilogy of novels beginning with “Out of the Silent Planet,” which depicted a universe governed by benevolent forces, contrasting sharply with the materialistic, Darwinian worldview of the visionaries. Lewis used his works to criticize what he saw as the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of visions like Haldane’s “The Last Judgment,” portraying them as absurd and dangerous.

Lewis’s sequel, “Perelandra,” continued his critique, pitting his protagonist against a character representing Haldane’s philosophy. The novel depicted a struggle on Venus, highlighting the moral implications of tampering with natural order and the arrogance of seeking to control human evolution and destiny.

These critics shared concerns about the ethical and social implications of the new biology and its potential to reshape human destiny. They feared that the visions of the future by the scientific visionaries, while technologically fascinating, could lead to dystopian outcomes, including the loss of individual freedom, the misuse of scientific power, and the erosion of moral and spiritual values.

This text delves into the critical reactions to the futuristic and scientific visions presented by key intellectuals like Haldane, Huxley, and Stapledon, focusing particularly on the responses from C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who represented traditional and religious perspectives.

C.S. Lewis, through his literary works, especially his “Space Trilogy,” countered the visions of scientific control over human destiny. In “Out of the Silent Planet,” Lewis introduces Ransom, who represents traditional and moral values, and Weston, a character embodying Haldane’s philosophy. Lewis critiques the idea of using science to manipulate or control life, considering it contrary to divine order and a source of evil. In “Perelandra” and “That Hideous Strength,” Lewis continues to explore these themes, presenting a struggle between moral and spiritual values and the cold rationality of scientific manipulation.

J.R.R. Tolkien, a close associate of Lewis, shared many of his views. In his “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Tolkien presents a mythic story where the “One Ring,” symbolizing the power of science and technology, tempts individuals with immortality and control over nature. The trilogy is an allegory about the dangers of losing touch with nature and the moral degradation that can result from the misuse of power. Tolkien’s narrative emphasizes the importance of preserving natural order and warns against the destructive potential of science and technology.

These critiques from Lewis and Tolkien represent a broader concern about the ethical and moral implications of scientific progress. They fear that the pursuit of scientific control over life, especially through eugenics and bioengineering, could lead to dystopian outcomes, a loss of individuality, and the erosion of moral and spiritual values. Their works provide a counter-narrative to the scientific optimism of their contemporaries, emphasizing the need for moral and ethical considerations in the face of scientific advancement.

This debate among British intellectuals of the time reflects the broader tensions between science and religion, progress and tradition, and the role of individuality versus societal control. The perspectives of Lewis and Tolkien highlight the enduring concern about the role of science in society and its impact on the human condition.

Robert Heinlein, a central figure in American science fiction, explored themes of human longevity in his work “Methuselah’s Children.” The novel revolves around a family with extreme longevity, persecuted by a society envious of their supposed secret to long life. Heinlein’s narrative underscores the importance of individualism, contrasting with the collective consciousness concept favored by the British visionaries.

Heinlein’s “Beyond This Horizon” further critiques the British visionaries’ ideas, particularly Haldane’s. The novel attempts to portray a eugenic utopia that respects human dignity and individualism. It emphasizes gradual and voluntary genetic changes, opposing the forced collective approach. This reflects Heinlein’s familiarity with genetic developments and his moral objections to certain aspects of the British visionaries’ ideas.

Arthur C. Clarke, influenced by Stapledon, represents a more nuanced position. Clarke’s works, such as “Childhood’s End” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” explore humanity’s potential to evolve into higher forms of existence. However, unlike Haldane and Stapledon, Clarke’s approach is more sympathetic to religion, suggesting a coexistence of scientific progress and spiritual growth.

In “The City and the Stars,” Clarke imagines a future where immortality is achieved through information storage and regeneration, presenting a unique solution to the quest for immortality. However, he also cautions against the stagnation that such immortality could bring, advocating for human exploration and progress.

The critiques and adaptations of the British visionaries’ ideas by American authors like Heinlein and Clarke demonstrate a cultural shift. While the British thinkers’ ideas were rooted in socialism and collective consciousness, American authors tended to emphasize individualism, democracy, and a balance between scientific advancement and moral considerations. This reflects the broader intellectual and cultural differences between the two societies during the mid-20th century.

In “Profiles of the Future” (1963), Arthur C. Clarke revisits his ideas on immortality, presenting a thoughtful exploration of future scientific developments. Clarke begins with a historical analysis of past predictions about the future, identifying where they went wrong, and then ventures his own forecasts based on contemporary science. He discusses the potential for extending human life through mechanical replacements and suggests a limit of about a thousand years for continuous human existence. Clarke also contemplates the concept of immortality as he had previously envisioned in his novel “Diaspar,” leaving open the question of whether this is mere fantasy or a future reality.

Clarke’s book also includes a chart projecting future developments in various fields through 2100. Looking back from 2004, one can see both optimistic and prescient elements in his predictions, such as personal radio, artificial intelligence, and the possibility of immortality by 2100. This reflects Clarke’s Law, which suggests that when a distinguished scientist says something is possible, they are likely right, but when they claim something is impossible, they may be wrong.

There is also the historical and cultural specificity of these debates. The association of manipulative experimental biology with anti-religious sentiment, for instance, was a product of its time and may no longer be relevant. Different thinkers have explored the new human biology with respect to individual freedom and religious dimensions, suggesting the potential to move beyond past conflicts.

A key consensus among these diverse perspectives is the tension between individual and collective human interests. The prolongation of individual life may conflict with the evolution and survival of the human species as a whole. This tension is evident in the works of Wells, Haldane, Huxley, Stapledon, Lewis, Tolkien, and Clarke, each exploring it from their unique viewpoints. The ultimate test of a life, they suggest, lies in its contribution to a higher purpose — be it divine, evolutionary, or part of a broader cosmic destiny.

The legacy of thought experiments by these authors give plenty for us to ponder, as it seems that with every passing year, we inch closer to a destiny where mankind yields more power over nature.

Source:

  • The first and second chapter of “The Fountain of Youth: Cultural, Scientific, and Ethical Perspectives on a Biomedical Goal

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