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Could humans live 1,000 years?

March 17, 2013 - Lee Smith
Science writer Jonathan Weiner, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, wrote a book last year titled “Long for this World: The Strange Science of Immortality.” It’s obviously fascinating. Maybe most important: Yes, really. Great minds are taking immortality seriously.

Both evolutionary biologists and molecular biologists have shown it is possible to dramatically expand the lifespans of fruit flies, round worms, etc.; the first group of scientists through selective breeding, the second by manipulating DNA. Of course, these approaches are two sides of the same coin. Restricting their caloric intake has likewise had dramatic effects in mice.

What about humans? In the 20th century, their average lifespans doubled, in developed nations. That was 30 years in one century, thanks to better hygiene, medicine, nutrition and other factors, such as being able to control their environments, i.e. home furnaces.

And now the question is being raised: What about thousand-year lifespans? Could and should it be done?

The major problem under the “could” category boils down to “aging,” which seems to be the resulting damage of problems inside and outside of our cells over time. But what if those problems could be cleaned up? Could a 50-year-old’s aging be stopped or even reversed? It’s tantalizing to imagine, but still seriously problematic. On the other hand, “immortalist” scientist Aubrey de Grey has identified seven cellular-related issues. He thinks it is just a (simple) matter of finding solutions.

As an evolutionary matter, aging seems to be more of a “who cares?” as far as our DNA is concerned. Humans (animals) seem programmed to grow to maturity and reproduce. All the problems in our DNA that emerge in middle age and beyond are not relevant to reproduction, so there hasn’t been a reason to rid ourselves of them.

I’m about two-thirds of the way through the book, so I’ll have to see if Weiner addresses a few things I’m curious about. For instance, if human beings started demanding that their mates have long-lived parents and grandparents, would that send us on our way? Could they meet on longevity dating website!? Obviously, one “problem” in moving toward immortality is that young people who date and mate don’t really care about it.

And what about the obviously controversial matter of manipulating human DNA? Will some rogue scientist inevitably dive in?


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