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Food For Thought:
Physical Immortality
Friday, August 17, 2000


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NHNE: Food For Thought: Physical Immortality
Thursday, August 17, 2000
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One Sunday morning, the priest noticed that little Anthony was staring up at the large plaque that hung in the foyer of the church. The plaque was covered with names, and small American flags were mounted on either side of it. The ten year old boy had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the priest walked up, stood beside the boy, and said quietly, "Good morning Anthony."

"Good morning father," replied the young man, still focused on the plaque.

"Father Murphy, what is this?" Anthony asked.

"Well, son, its a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service."

Soberly they stood together, staring at the large plaque.

Little Anthony's voice was barely audible when he asked, "Which service, the 9:00 or the 10:30?"

--- Source Unknown



Everyone on this list knows that our race is passing through a time of extraordinary change. Never in the history of this world has one species dominated the planet so thoroughly, or changed itself and its surroundings so quickly and profoundly. And we show no sign of stopping. Not only is human knowledge DOUBLING, by some estimates, EVERY EIGHTEEN MONTHS, but we are systematically overcoming virtually every obstacle that keeps us bound to planet Earth and normal evolutionary processes.

One of the biggest obstacles humankind has faced is death. We all grow old and die. Now, however, even this supposedly insurmountable barrier is crumbling, and in its wake we are likely to see yet another remarkable leap in human development...

--- David Sunfellow



An interview with acclaimed science writer Ben Bova
on the topic of human immortality

From "Future Presence"
August 10, 2000, Vol. 2, No. 1
A Newsletter published by THE ARLINGTON INSTITUTE (TAI)
Produced by Scott Johnson & TAI
Web: www.arlingtoninstitute.org
eMail: scott@arlingtoninstitute.org

To subscribe to the "Future Presence" Newsletter:



Wouldn't you like to live forever? Sure you would. Maybe part of your religious faith is based upon that fervent hope. Maybe you'd like to travel the stars, and you wish there was a way to stick around long enough to do it. Acclaimed science writer Ben Bova believes that you are likely to get that chance.

In his 1998 book, "Immortality", Bova makes a strong argument that contemporary medical advances, particularly in the fields of cellular and genetic therapy, are leading inexorably towards the radical, exponential increase of human lifespans. He argues further that this will result in the virtual immortality of the human species, and that if you're in your sixties or younger, you have an excellent chance of being around for, well, a lot longer than you may have thought possible.

Accidents and violence will not disappear, of course. People will still be vulnerable to poor judgment, bad luck, and evildoers. But death from old age, death as the inescapable end of life, will become a thing of the past, a dark memory of primitive days. [from "Immortality", Avon 1998]

Crazed ramblings of a science fiction scribe? Well, Bova is indeed well known for his hard science fiction; he was once editor of Analog and has taught the craft at Harvard, and he won the Hugo award six-times and was a Nebula Award nominee. He has also written over 25 nonfiction books, however, and he was editor of Omni, a broadly focused (i.e. science fact and some science fiction) magazine as well. Bova's true science credentials are impeccable. He has been involved with the U.S. space program since the years before NASA was formed; he is President Emeritus of the National Space Society <http://www.nss.org/>; and he is a frequent lecturer on a vast array of science topics, including the relationship between science and politics. His mentor? Issac Asimov.

Bova acknowledges the pitfalls of prophesy, especially with something as incredible as the prospect of thousand-year human lifetimes. But his track record is actually better than most, and that includes pure scientists; Bova's book cites numerous examples of their failed prophesies, including Rutherford's and Einstein's insistence that it would never be possible to extract energy from the atom. In 1949, publishers rejected a novel by a young Ben Bova because they deemed the plot "too fanciful." The plot described a space race in which the Americans, frightened by the Soviets' beating them into orbit, mobilize a massive program to get to the moon before their Russian counterparts. The Sea of Tranquility and mankind's giant leap were just twenty years away. (Bova has also predicted in his writings, among other advances, virtual reality and solar power satellites.) TAI's Scott Johnson spoke recently with Ben Bova about the prospect of virtual human immortality...in our lifetimes.


TAI'S SCOTT JOHNSON: Let's cut to the chase. Tell me, in a nutshell, why you believe that humans are on the cusp of radically extending their lifespans.

BEN BOVA: Well, because of the breakthroughs that have come along in the last five or six years in the areas of cellular biology and genetics. There are samples of cells that have been immortalized, that do not age or die. They just keep going like the little pink bunny in the television commercials. The next step is to learn how to do that with people. This means that within five years, you will begin to see therapies in clinical trials that will extend the human life span indefinitely. You will be able to live as long as you want, and remain young as long as you live.

TAI: Aren't there some potential threats that might emerge that could strike so suddenly -- and I am not just talking about accidents, but actual diseases -- that they would attack too rapidly for any therapy to make a difference? Like some ghastly mutation of Ebola, for example.

BOVA: Well, what happens when you immortalize human cells is that they become as they were when you were very young. Their repair mechanisms are enormously better than in an adult or an aged person. So, even with very rapidly attacking viruses, the damage from them can be repaired before they become a real problem.

TAI: Could you talk a bit about the Hayflick limit and its ramifications for cellular mortality, and what you see as our ability to overcome or bypass this limit?

BOVA: Well, the work that I am talking about has already overcome the Hayflick limit, which is basically this: an American biologist named [Leonard] Hayflick found, in the 1970s, that every type of cell in the human body will reproduce itself a certain number of times and then stop. When it stops, it curls up and dies. When enough of your cells start to do that, you get what we call aging. Your joints get stiff, your vision gets poor, your muscles lose strength, you get wrinkles. And when enough of your cells curl up and die, you die. Whole systems break down, and you die. The treatment that has immortalized these human cells, these cells that have evaded the Hayflick limit, they have gone now more than twenty times their normal life span. If you could do that for a [whole] human being, twenty times your normal life span would be several hundred years.

TAI: What kind of reaction has your thesis gotten from the scientific community?

BOVA: Most of the scientific community agrees that this work is very solid. The only disagreement is how quickly it will come along. Scientists see all the problems. I look at the forest rather than the trees, and I think this will come much faster than most of the scientists in the field now believe.

TAI: Putting aside the "macro" social implications of this -- which we will get to -- what about the psychological impact, on an individual level, of knowing that you can live for as long as you want? What will it do to or for a person's sense of ambition, survival, what have you?

BOVA: I'd think it would make everybody feel very damn good. Suppose I came to you and told you that you can live for as long as you choose. Are you going to feel down about that, or kind of excited and happy?

TAI: It sounds pretty good to me.

BOVA: Yeah. And I think anyone who's physically and mentally healthy will want to continue living. I was signing copies of Immortality at a book store in Denver. An elderly man came up and gave me a copy to sign, and he said, "You know, I'm ninety years old and I don't want to live forever, but another hundred years would be good!" [laughter]

Which to me indicated that, if you're feeling good, then you're not ready to go, you don't want to die. No organism wants to die, unless you're so much in physical or mental pain that death seems preferable to living. But if you're healthy, if you're feeling good, you don't want to die. Look around you: every organism in the world is struggling to stay alive. Every blade of grass, every bacterium, every person; we all want to live as long and as well as we can.

Now we are getting the capability of living as long as we desire. Not just hundreds of years, but thousands.

TAI: Playing devil's advocate for a moment, you have so many people doing extreme sports or thrill-seeking, or explorative activity like space travel or mountain climbing. You often hear some variation of, "Well, you gotta go sometime, so I want to do everything I can while I am here." If you take that inevitability out of the equation, will we see more of a sort of "accident-avoidance" attitude, where people feel like, if they don't have to die, why take an excessive risk?

BOVA: Well, I think you've hit on a very important point, Scott. I think that, as people realize they don't have to die, risk-taking will happen less and less. I think we'll become much more conservative with our bodies and lives. I think we'll learn to live better.

But more important to me, I think we'll start to consider the real long-term problems that we face. We'll no longer to be able to say, "I don't care about the environment, I don't care about greenhouse warming, that's something that's not really going to have any effect until I am dead and gone." No, you'll be here.

The long-term problems -- our relationship with our environment, our relationships with each other, race relations, the way we run our governments -- these things will become of utmost importance to us, because the long-term consequences are going to hit us.

People will learn how to take a new sense of responsibility when they know that they are going to live as long as they choose to, because they will want to make the world as good as it can be.

TAI: Let's talk about some of those long-term problems, some of which are likely to be exacerbated by longer life spans. First, the environment: it's becoming common scientific wisdom that there is something to global warming, that there has been a steady global temperature increase in recent years, and that we probably, as a species, have something to do with it. If we are able to radically increase our life span, it stands to reason that we will face an exponential population increase as well. What's that going to mean for our environmental situation?

BOVA: You've hit on a key problem. When we learn to reduce the death rate to almost zero, we're going to have to reduce the birth rate as well. Children will be rare and probably treasured. The birth of a baby will be a community-wide event of great joy. Otherwise, we're just going to overpopulate the world and create more problems than longevity is worth. I think that we are going to have to take a new look at reproduction and lower the birth rate. I think it will be voluntary in countries like the United States, but probably there will be government rules and regulations in other countries. China, for example, already has laws limiting the size of families. These laws might get harsher and more restrictive.

TAI: I've already asked you about the reaction of scientists to your book. I'm curious: have you gotten much hate mail from religious fundamentalists?

BOVA: Not hate mail, but certainly arguments and some great shock from people who have said, "This is not how God intended us to be." I always marvel at people who believe they understand God's mind. Every major scientific breakthrough has been greeted with cries of great dismay from some of the religious faithful, who think that any change is a break in our bargain with God.

TAI: Galileo comes to mind.

BOVA: There was a time when diseases like smallpox were regarded as scourges from God that you're supposed to put up with. Cotton Mather, who was a pretty conservative minister in Puritan New England, took the bold step of inoculating his son against small pox during the smallpox epidemic in Boston in the 17th century. He was roundly condemned by his fellow ministers for trying to "evade God's will."

Now, we no longer think of smallpox as a punishment sent from God. We think of it as a virus that we have learned to control and, indeed, wipe out. There isn't any smallpox anymore, except in a couple of labs where some samples are being kept.

TAI: You do talk some in your book about the impact of virtual immortality on religion. There's a quote where you say that "the moral codes that religions teach are usually backed by the idea of eternal retribution in the next life," and that the prospect of "this life" lasting indefinitely would thwart this aspect of religion. It seems likely, doesn't it, that religion would adapt? What do you think we might see in terms of the transformation of people's beliefs?

BOVA: I think eventually, although it might take centuries, you'll see people believing that we are to create heaven here on earth (or wherever we happen to be living, in space maybe). The threat of death and eternal punishment won't be with us, but that doesn't mean people shouldn't live moral lives. We're going to have to become much more adults. Instead of depending on this big poppa in the sky to spank us when we're naughty, we're going to have to learn how to be good for our own sakes.

TAI: You mentioned that we might be living in space. As someone who's been involved with the space program from the early days, what impact do you think virtual immortality will have on space exploration?

BOVA: It opens up the stars to us. We have always looked at the distant stars outside the solar system and said, they're so far away. Even with the best technology we can envision, it will take hundreds, thousands of years to get there. Well, now we have hundreds or thousands of years, or maybe more. We will be able to cruise through the universe because our life spans will be tremendously elongated. And it means that, even with the kind of technology we can envision today, the stars will be ours. We don't need space warps or all the science-fiction gimmicks for getting around the speed of light. We can cruise leisurely through the universe because we'll have all the time we want to do it.

TAI: That also has ramifications for the prospect of extraterrestrial contact. The argument is frequently made that we couldn't be visited by beings from elsewhere, because the distances are too vast. Virtual immortality seems to give the lie to that belief.

BOVA: My personal belief is that we haven't been visited because extraterrestrial intelligence is at least as smart as Jane Goodall. They want to observe us without interfering with us.

TAI: So you think there's a chance that's already happened?

BOVA: It's going on now! That's just my personal belief. There's no evidence whatsoever for or against it.

TAI: You do talk some in your book about the impact of virtual immortality on many of our social arrangements, particularly Medicare and Social Security in this country. These are systems that are already in trouble. How do you think we will deal with this once people are living for exponentially longer spans, or virtually forever?

BOVA: They'll become anachronisms, because people will not be aged and infirm. The very concept of retirement will go by the boards, when everyone lives like a 20- or 30-year-old for hundreds or thousands of years. You won't retire; you will change careers. You'll work for a certain amount of time; when you've put up enough money so that you can stop working, you'll live off the interest of your money.

When you're bored, you'll learn something new. Maybe you'll become a concert violinist. Maybe you'll go off and explore the solar system. But the idea of getting so old and feeble that you can't work, that you'll need to be taken care of -- that's going to disappear.

TAI: Okay, I have a little bit of a personal interest in asking this, because my parents are in their early sixties, so they are probably not too far off from your age. Do you think that you'll be around for this?

BOVA: I think they'll probably perfect it the afternoon of my funeral. [much laughter] That's the cynic in me. I think there's a very good chance that people in their mid-sixties will live to see this. Time is on our side. Perhaps what they'll see is just the beginning, that we'll extend our lives maybe twenty or thirty years. But during those twenty or thirty years, new things will be found that will extend your life even further. That's why I called the book Immortality: Most people living today, even people in their mid-sixties, will see a continuation of medical and biological improvements that will allow them to extend their lives, first decades, then centuries -- and, eventually, indefinitely.



TAI: As we enter the next century, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing humanity?

BOVA: I think it's the same challenge we've always faced: how do we live with each other in a fair and peaceful way? Populations are rising; we are chewing up the environment; we're wiping out every other form of life on Earth. We've got to learn how to live in balance with the environment and with each other.

I'm the biggest advocate of space exploration that I know. But I do believe that this Earth is the place where we've evolved, it's our home, and we should certainly learn how to take care of it.

TAI: What is humanity's greatest strength?

BOVA: Our intelligence, undoubtedly. That's what we have used since there have been human beings. We don't have the strength of a lion or the wings of an eagle, or the swimming ability of a whale. But we fly farther, we lift greater weights, we do more things than any animal can do, because of our intelligence. We learn how to build machines, do things better.

TAI: What do you think is likely to be humanity's greatest accomplishment in the 21st century?

BOVA: There'll be several great accomplishments. One of them will be the harnessing, finally, of nuclear fusion energy. Fusion will be as large a step in our history as the original taming of fire. With fusion energy, our energy needs are solved for as far into the future as you can see. I think, of course, the extension of human life spans, the elimination of death and aging, is going to be an enormous stride, and it will also cause enormous changes.

And I do think that, sometime in this coming millennium, we will make contact with other intelligent creatures. They won't think like us, they won't look like us, it may be difficult to find out if they're intelligent or not because they will be so different. But eventually we will find other intelligences that we can converse with and interact with. Certainly I expect us to find other forms of life, possibly as close as Mars, that won't necessarily be intelligent -- most likely they'll be microbial or bacteria. But finding life elsewhere is going to bring big changes as well.

TAI: Where do ideas come from?

BOVA: Well, if I knew that, I'd patent it. [laughs]

TAI: You'd write even more books than you have already, right?

BOVA: Well, I'd write fewer books, but they'd be better. [more laughter]

TAI: If you had an audience of a billion people, and only a few minutes to address them, what would you say to them?

BOVA: Oh, Lord, now that's a good question. I think, "Be kind to each other. You know, each of you in your own culture has some version of the Golden Rule, of doing to others as you would want them to do to you. This is the key to human behavior." This is not a secret; it's not something we have to discover. We know how to do it. It's just that we don't do it because we are very shortsighted; we tend to look for the immediate gain and neglect long-term benefits.

I think following the Golden Rule and looking at the long term -- which is something that science fiction teaches you to do -- is very important. If people thought more about the long-term consequences of what they do, I think they would be much more moral and much closer to the Golden Rule.



















The mission of NewHeavenNewEarth (NHNE) is to answer humankind's oldest, most perplexing questions: Who are we? Where are we from? What is the origin and purpose of life? Instead of relying on ancient or contemporary wisdom, or the knowledge of isolated experts, we are building a global network of seekers from all walks of life, from all parts of the world, lay people and professionals alike, that can pool talents, experience, and resources to unravel life's great mysteries.

We also believe that our planet is passing through a time of profound change and are seeking to create a global community of like-minded people that can safely pass through whatever changes may come our way and help give birth to a new way of life on our planet.


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