Humans have long been yearning for an
immortal life and everlasting youth—to continue living freely without having to
confront death. A renowned novel written by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, reveals this desire for immortality.
Victor Frankenstein, the fictional character in Frankenstein who is a gifted scientist, attempts to cross the boundary of science by reviving a creature made from separate dead body parts. As abnormal as his experiment was, it resulted in a horrifying creation, and Victor fails to take responsibility for what he has done. Nowadays, many researchers are struggling to develop ways to reverse aging, and the story of Frankenstein and his immortal creature does not seem completely impossible after all. However, just as the creature’s unnatural existence easily led him to be abandoned in his community with no one taking responsibility for him, the similar situations could occur when humans finally achieve near immortality. First of all, the implication of life extension science needs exploration.
In modern days, scientists have
developed the study of slowing down or reversing the ageing process, widely
known as life extension science. Researchers in this field attempt to expand the
maximum lifespan as well as the average life expectancy of humans.
According to Underwood, Bartlett, and Hall, who wrote “Professional and personal attitudes of researchers in ageing towards life extension,” many researchers these days actively focus on “strong life extension,” which extends the human lifespan beyond the current observed maximum of 122 years. Although no specific ways to achieve indefinite human lifespan exist, some of the possible methods have been discussed, such as organ cryopreservation, stem-cell therapy, and nanotechnology.
Based on the information provided by 21st Century Medicine, cryonics is the method in which human or animal bodies that cannot be treated with current medical technology are preserved at a low-temperature. With the hope of recovery in the future with highly advanced technology, the bodies await in frozen states. To prevent ice formation, which could ruin the bodies, technicians use antifreezes called cryoprotectants. With current technology, only cells, tissues, and some small organs are reversible by cryopreservation, and scientists are working on reversing the freezing process including recovery of personality and memories encoded in brain.
Stem cells are like the building blocks of the body. They are unspecialized cells; however, not only do they have potential of developing into any of 220 different cells in the human body, but they also are capable of self-renewing multiple times. Thus, the use of stem cells can be very effective in replenishing failed cells in the human body. Nevertheless, controversy in researching stem cells has arisen since the stem cells known to be most effective in curing diseases are harvested from human embryos, as debated on “Ethics of Stem Cell Research” written by Andrew Siegel.
To continue, further development in nanomedicine can enable cellular repair of many processes responsible for ageing. Apart from these methods, genetic therapy has been proposed as another future strategy to overcome ageing, which seeks to replace deficient genes with artificially modified genes. In addition, many people these days are consuming chemical products designed to supplement consumers with extra nutrients such as vitamins and minerals to promote healthy and longer lives.
With all these possibilities to achieve immortal human life, many concerned voices have spoken out. While some people seem excited to hear about further progress in life extension, others bring up ethical issues and certain social impacts that longevity can breed. The question is: is immortality sustainable in our society?
If indefinite human lifespan is achieved
throughout the world, would we be able to sustain this phenomenon? The carrying
capacity of Earth is estimated to be between 7.7 to 12 billion according to “Population
Growth and Earth’s Human Carrying Capacity” written by Joel E. Cohen. This means
we can sustain at most several billion more people on Earth. However, assuming a
continuously decreasing mortality rate due to life extension, we will reach
that maximum at a fast pace.
Most importantly, do we really want several billion more people in this world? Even if we consider future technologies and assume that many more resources will be available, we have to consider how the quality of our lives will change. Do we want to live in a world where the population will only keep increasing endlessly? Achievement of immortality could readily lead to serious overpopulation problems, not to mention the adjustments that social institutions will have to make regarding retirement as well as healthcare.
Another major problem that could arise from human immortality would be the rise of unemployment. Unemployment already poses disconcerting problems in many developed countries these days, and the ratio of the retired population to the working population continues to increase. Moreover, having obtained longer time to stay in their workplace, the employed population will fail to provide younger generations with places to work, and the competition will only escalate as the population increases.
All things considered, human immortality brings with it various social and economic problems. One of the main themes contained in Frankenstein is the lack of responsibility for scientific advancement which leads people to fear new development. Though achievement in life extension and anti-ageing technology could yield many solutions for improving human health, we should still proceed with caution and consider the potential harms it may come with and who will take responsibility for them.
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Shelly, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Random House, 1999. Print.