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slow death

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 29-Oct-2009

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 17

Wordcount: 857

No funerals, no kids, no wrinkles: a magical world that never says die

Elizabeth Farrelly

Once, as a peripatetic postgrad, I spent a chill fortnight as house guest of a woman who, although attractive and educated, appeared distinctly standoffish. This I politely put down to congenital Britishness (hers). Then, one lunchtime, she sat me by the AGA (uh, no, not as in Khan), fed me soup and detailed her determination never again to smile, much less laugh. The reason? Wrinkles.

It was bizarre then; more bizarre now that we know the simple act of smiling sends endorphins and serotonin skipping around your brain. And true, she was not a happy woman, though she did have lovely skin. No doubt she’ll make a lovely corpse, in a Lady of Shalott kind of way – which is the girl-equivalent of dying with most toys.

That was back in the foetal stages of the glorious, undying crusade against les rides, well before you could just squirt some subcutaneous toxins in and lose the no-laugh discipline altogether. And it does seem fitting, somehow, that we signify our dedication to smoothness over connectivity by injecting micro-death into our main means of mien. So un-weird has this become that pretty soon I reckon it’ll be required reading. Not to Botox will evince failure, bad taste or at the very least, bad form.

Already it feels rude to tell the nice cosmetics girl, who is only trying to help, that actually you rather like your wrinkles. That history – as in, having one – is not necessarily disgusting. Next, if the immortalists have their way, it’ll be rude, even immoral, to retain any of the lumpiness – of flesh, pigment, hair, voice, skin – of having lived. Ageing itself will be frowned upon. Already this is on the cards. Ageing, insists the British gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, will soon be optional. People now in their 60s may live to 1000.

It’s news to cheer your inner chimp. Let it be me, oohh, oohh, grimace, slap the armpit. But what will agelessness really mean, not just for Gaia, already groaning behind the arras, but for those living the life of the undying?

Historically, immortality is the province of fruit loops and snake charmers. Alex Chiu’s website, for instance, offers the Immortality Device, the Gorgeouspil and the Super Chi Flush. These, applied jointly or severally, ensure physical perfection, immortality, extreme wealth, world peace, global sustainability and an end to that eco-regrettable urge to procreate.

Immortality, like alchemy and perpetual motion, goes to our deep desire to cheat; the more impervious the rule, the more imperative our urge to tunnel under. The standard, suck-on-that-Icarus comparison is with flying, which once seemed equally batty. In 1903, even as The New York Times predicted a million-year wait for the “machine which will really fly”, Orville Wright was tightening the screws on the first powered plane. Immortality is stupid – or (whispers the chimp) is it?

De Grey is 46, although with nipple-length beard and the body mass of a garden hose he contrives to look Methuselaic (yes, there is the odd wrinkle). In March he founded SENS, or Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, and his lectures bristle with the catchy acronyms (CR for calorie reduction, LEV for longevity escape velocity) and multi-coloured typefaces that usually mean you’ve mistaken the local clappy-cult for the dry-cleaners, again. Three alpaca suits for Jesus. That can happen.

But de Grey also has a Cambridge doctorate, a Silicon Valley background in artificial intelligence and editorial control of the peer-reviewed Rejuvenation Research, dangerously mixing his snake oil with science. In 2005 Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review offered $20,000 to anyone who could prove his ideas wrong. No one could – which doesn’t mean he’s right, or even sane. It just means he’s plausible.

In de Grey’s scenario, death still occurs but the “carnage” of death-by-ageing, which currently offs 100,000 people a day, has ceased. What does it mean? Absent mass exodus into space, a standing-room-only planet, for starters. Either that or, says de Grey, we will have to choose between a high death rate and a low birth rate. Put simply, we’ll stop breeding. This causes de Grey no heartache since, as he says, “having a child is by far the most ecologically damaging single action that anyone can take”.

OK, so a world full of densely packed young-looking old people. Forget how weird the toddler feels sitting for storytime on the knee of granny who is 850 but has the bosomy smoothness of a 20-year-old. There are no toddlers. No kids. No retirement. No religion, since death has become a minority interest. And not much poetry or song or theatre any more, since mortality was so much their mainstay. But that’s all good, because no one has much energy anyway, since the strict calorie-reduction required for immortality, and the fact that everyone now knows everyone, produces its own ennui. It’s like the world has been Botoxed.

The only organism known to be biologically immortal is the hydra. But – and here’s the cost – it has no central nervous system. Hydra can move enough to eat but cannot, probably, feel anything.

As Achilles found, having been maternally dipped in the pool of immortality, there’s always a rub. Still, if numbness is what it takes …


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