BY JESSE JAMES
Spanish Conquistador and explorer Juan Ponce de Leon scoured Florida during the early 16th century for the legendary Fountain of Youth, a spring that restores youthful vitality to all who drink from it. Tales of this mythical source of immortality have been circulating in written form since the writings of Herodotus in the the 5th century BC.
From the moment our half-ape ancestors experienced that eureka moment of bipedalism and dropped from the trees, humans have chased dreams of immortality. Yet the fountain of youth remained elusive, like smoke from a distant ship just over the horizon. Our forebears seeking immortality had but two choices; the first was to make a contribution to humanity by penning a book or discovering a formula in the hope that posterity would preserve their good names. Oh, posterity, what a poor sort of immortality you are! Those more prone to porn than prophecy made a biological contribution instead – they had lots of sex and made babies, hoping their selfish genes would stumble on through the generations. Both of these ancient roads to immortality – though well-travelled – led only to an abyss. Be it Einstein or Fabio, Shakespeare or Stalin, the best a man could hope for was to die in his sleep.
This evening I was having a rather placid discussion with a friend of mine when the subject of immortality popped up. ‘You’re going to live a normal human lifespan, Jesse. No one has ever lived past one hundred and thirty years, why would you?’
Living forever seems, well, impossible. The stuff of science fiction and Hollywood movies. But there is a good reason for that, and the reason has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual impossibility of eternal life.
Humans evolved during the Pleistocene era, a period characterized by small tribes, slow-moving objects, short life spans and small numbers. Our brains, including our faculties of intuition, were forged during this evolutionary period. Phone numbers are ten digits long because we can’t easily remember more than ten random numbers. Even the most popular high school cheerleader counts less than 200 real friends because we are not programmed to remember more than two hundred faces. Why? Because ancestral villages were small. Large numbers are foreign to us – we just don’t get it. We leap to our feet in outrage when some young punk shoots up a school, killing dozens, but we can barely summon the generosity to donate a few hundred dollars (‘just one cup of coffee per day’) to a million blind, starving children in Africa. A million? A billion? Those big numbers don’t mean shit to us. You cannot envision a million hungry kids, or a billion jelly beans, or a hundred billion anything. But the number ten does mean something to you because you can imagine ten apples. The difference between 10 apples and 30 apples is real, visceral, intuitive. Yet the difference between a million famished children and ten million famished children means almost nothing, intuitively, but it is no less real for all that. My point is that your brain was hardwired during the Pleistocene era to grasp features of life that were unique to that specific era; small numbers, short time frames, slow speeds. Living forever involves big numbers and long time spans, just the sort of thing we did not evolve to comprehend. The concept of immortality – no end in sight, keep on trucking away – just ‘feels’ wrong. It can’t be right. Intuitively, our minds balk. Which is exactly why my friend Kristen balked, intuitively, when the subject of human immortality popped up.
So let me put it plain as Jane: your intuition is fucked.
Biological immortality – the complete absence of biological aging – is hardly the stuff of science fiction. Lobsters, for example, never grow old – they just get bigger, hornier, and more fertile as time passes. They die, surely, but that’s because other animals enjoy eating them. Clams can live up to a thousand years, but they too provide tasty morsels for other creatures of land and sea, so their quest for immortality also meets doom on your dinner plate. (As legend has it, one giant clam scored its revenge when a Phillipine diver tried to pry a 14 pound pearl from its mouth. The clam chomped down and hung on to the poor guy until he expired). Even more immortal than lobsters and clams – and much less deadly – are tiny worm-like creatures called ‘planarians,’ which have been called ‘immortal under the knife.’ You lop off its head; it grows a new one. These pesky little creatures never age, period – they just replace old or damaged tissue with brand spanking new tissue. Now that’s a neat trick!
Aging, clearly, is not an inevitable feature of life. It is a feature of human life. But it is far from inevitable given the inexorable march of progress.
Whenever the subject of immortality comes up, people react as if it is impossible. In fact, they often spit out that very word: ‘impossible.’ But when you use a word like that with a philosopher like me, well, the knives come out pretty quickly.
Some things might well be impossible. According to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, it is impossible for any object to accelerate faster than the speed of light (but not impossible for particles to move faster than light at ALL times, such as tachyons). Since time began at the singularity of the Big Bang, it is probably impossible to know what happened before that moment, if anything. And according to the known laws of physics, it is impossible – like, really really impossible – to know the precise position and velocity of a subatomic particle. Not even God could know such things.
How does human immortality stack up against those monumental impossibilities? Like a candle to the sun.
There is nothing in the laws of physics, chemistry or even biology that forbids humans from living forever. The word ‘impossible’ and ‘immortal’ should never dance together in the same sentence.
Since the knives are now fully deployed, let’s take another peek at my friend’s silly intuitive fallacy: ‘You’re going to live a normal human lifespan, Jesse. No one has ever lived past one hundred and thirty years, why would you?’
Apparently she was suffering from a debilitating cognitive bias known as ‘insensitivity to sample size.’ Insensitivity to sample size is such a serious disease among professionals and laymen alike that it is worth examining in some depth. The following discussion might even save you from getting ass-raped by your family doctor. I kid you not.
Most doctors do not understand sample size, but well they should. Let’s say you stroll into your physician’s office for an annual checkup and he suggests you book an appointment for a colorectal exam as a precaution. He warns you that men have a 70% chance of developing colon cancer by age 75. If he talks such rubbish, you should leap to your feet in horror, demand that he resign immediately as a doctor and suggest that he look for a job flipping burgers. He is obviously a fool.
If men have a 70% chance of developing colon cancer by age 75 – and I am a man – does this mean that I too have a 70% chance of developing colon cancer by age 75? No. Hell no. The original prediction was based on an across-the-board sample size of all men, but the sample size of me is precisely one – me. I am a raw vegan, I do not smoke, I do not drink, I exercise daily, I do not have a family history of colon cancer. To calculate a probability base rate for me would require finding people exactly like me, right down to my genes. The only person exactly like me is me (no evil twin brothers out there, I promise!). The sample size of me is one. You could, however, fix some arbitrary cutoff point for similarity to me; raw vegans who exercise and don’t smoke. Or raw vegans who exercise and don’t smoke and don’t have a history of colon cancer. Or just raw vegans, or just vegans, or just people who exercise – the devilish statistician can pluck any arbitrary set of traits that I exhibit, find people with similar traits, check their history of colon cancer and – BAM! – calculate a base rate. It is a kind of magic. It is also a hideously arbitrary approach to probability; so arbitrary, in fact, that it renders the entire approach meaningless. I could always argue that the sample size was too big, that you must prune it down to more closely resemble me, ad infinitum until the only person you can find with those traits is, of course, me.
I have a friend who smokes like a chimney, chugs beer every night until he collapses, never exercises, survives on milk and hamburger, and one of his parents died of colon cancer. Do we both have a 70% chance of getting colon cancer at age 75? In other words, is his chance of getting cancer at age 75 the same as mine? No fucking way – unless you equate probability theory with the Oracle of Delphi.
Now that we understand the disorder known as ‘insensitivity to sample size,’ let us take another glance at my friend’s comment: ‘You’re going to live a normal human lifespan, Jesse. No one has ever lived past one hundred and thirty years, why would you?’
Things look a bit different now, don’t they? True indeed that no one has ever lived past one hundred thirty years, but nobody with my genes or diet or knowledge or supplement regimen or commitment or lifestyle has existed in the past thirteen billion years. Not one person identical to me – ever. My sample size is precisely one, so the statistical argument of comparing my possible lifespan to the lifespans of other people simply falls apart. My diet is unique: I eat only raw, organic, vegan, gluten free foods absent all processed sugars. How many humans or proto-humans throughout the eons have subsisted on such a diet? Prior to the past thirty years and the boom of ‘health food’ stores, probably none. Zero. I also ingest over two hundred different supplements, hardly any of which were available twenty years ago. How many people prior to the late 20th century adopted such a supplement regimen? Definitely none. In the present day a certain number of people may be attempting to push the boundaries of longevity – and some of those individuals may even possess the willpower and financial resources to maintain an optimal diet and supplement regimen, just like me. Perhaps there are hundreds, even thousands of such people today, but fifty years ago there were none. And before that, none. Therefore, not one single person who has ever properly quested for immortality through diet, lifestyle and supplementation has failed to achieve it, simply because none have tried.
You could flip my friend’s statistical argument on its head; since no one like me has ever existed, no one like me has ever died. By that reasoning, I must have a 100% chance of immortality! WOOHOO!
My friend must have slept through her philosophy course because the argument is absurd on its face; ‘Since no one has ever lived forever, you will never live forever.’ Uh huh. Rewind to 1899 when Orville and Wilbur wright showed their flying machine design to a potential investor, who may well have scoffed: ‘No one in the history of humanity has ever flown, what makes you think you can fly?’ Prior to 1954, nobody had ever run a four minute mile and many athletes believed it was impossible, until Roger Bannister made fools of them all. The entire history of human progress is littered with exceptional people doing things that no one has ever done before. In fact, that is precisely the driver of human progress: exceptional people doing things that no one has ever done before!
A thousand years ago we thought the earth was flat; how many poor souls had to be torture-murdered at the stake or broken to pieces on the wheel to dispel that silly notion? Five hundred years ago who would have believed that we could re-grow a heart or a lung with something called ‘stem cells’? Genes were not even discovered until the mid-19th century and the DNA double-helix was not known until the mid-20th, six short decades ago. Had you informed a proper Renaissance man that in three hundred years scientists would possess the technology to clone a human he would have laughed in your face. Spit too, maybe. Technology is advancing at a blistering, exponential pace; we simply cannot know, cannot predict, what fantastic new discoveries related to life extension will be realized in the next few decades. Already scientists have successfully increased the lifespan of mice by over 200% and even reduced their biological age from 2 years to six months by administering a supplement called NAD. Mice share 97.5% of their DNA with humans.
The name of the game, in the words of futurist and visionary Ray Kurzweil, is to ‘live long enough to live forever.’ Humans are kludgy creatures; we will slowly grow older, no matter what our diet or supplement regimen. The idea is to keep the grim reaper at bay long enough to finally escape this dilapidated prison known as ‘carbon-based life.’
My body is my possession; my mind, even more so. I do not intend to let anyone steal my possessions – grim reaper or no – without a fight. If Death is creeping up on me anyway, as my friend Kristen proposes, I may as well be shot for a lion as a lamb.
At least I hope to live longer than Ponce. Despite years of frantic searching, Ponce de Leon never found the Fountain of Youth, but he did find some angry natives who shot him up with poisoned arrows, ending his quest for immortality at the ripe old age of forty seven years.
Copyright 2015 JESSE JAMES