A snapshot on the fight against death

We are humans. We are animals that are born, grow and die. A life, indeed, limited by death. Some, through religion, have tried to address this issue. People believed and still legitimately believe that their soul will go to heaven once they die.

However, we are now really close to finally defeating death through science. The aim of this article is to address this exact topic; immortality. This will be done through two sets of arguments. The first one will deal with the social issues related to the topic; the second with the scientific part. Although human death has not yet been cured, it is thought that it will be within the next fifty years, bringing social issues that will have to be considered.

Let’s first go to the basics.

Some claim that defeating death would bring serious demographic issues and further inequality. These are amongst the most common arguments against the topic, as Seth Shostak screened in The Huffington Post (2010).

It can be argued that if the cure to death was found, it would bring serious demographic issues, in the sense of an exponential population growth. Even though, this issue could easily be avoided by giving initial access to the cure to only a few, to which some birth regulations that avoid having children could be applied. This way, population would not experience significant growth.

However, this brings us to the true social issue humanity would be facing; further inequality in the already unequal society. This would happen because only the most powerful would have initial access to the cure. This is indeed a big social issue, but not so different from the unfair situation we face nowadays. According to The World Health Organization (2013), life expectancy at birth for both sexes in Swaziland is of fifty-three years, in contrast with seventy-nine years in Monaco.

For everyone to have access to the cure in today’s world, having children would need to be prohibited, in an attempt to keep the population constant. This is rather unlikely to happen, as there are plenty of other basic social issues to be solved in developing regions before even start thinking about reducing the birth rate to zero. In addition, it should also be considered that such a cure would most likely be coming from the private sector, and thus its price would be high. It can therefore be agreed that the cure to death would widen the inequality gap between poor and rich, as only the second would have initial access to it.

As the world develops, birth rates will carry on going down in developing countries as an infection of the already old Europe and North America. That, joint with the interplanetary colonization planned in projects such as “Mars One”, would make the cure to death available for an increasing number of people.

Overall, from a social perspective, curing death would not necessarily be linked to a population increase, under correct regulations. However, these regulations would indeed make the world a more unequal place. As with most big innovations (ie. The Industrial Revolution or the Internet), new economic models would also need to be develop.

Let’s now go through the scientific issues the cure to death faces today. In which stage is it?

If you died today, when the cure to death is not yet available, you could be frozen in a cryonics institute at temperatures below -130ºC. Those who defend the practice of cryopreservation argument that by freezing yourself or only your brain (neuropreservation), you would be preserving that thing that makes you be who you are – your consciousness, and that it could be very possible to bring you back to life in a future. Cryonics defends the known as “connectome centric” model of the human mind – in essence, at the end of the day, we are nothing more than the 100 billion neurons (and trillions of connections) inside of our skull. In addition to freezing you at such low temperatures, a process known as vitrification would need to be applied. This consists on adding chemicals called cryoprotectants to our circulatory system, to prevent water molecules from gathering together to form ice (which would produce serious damage). As a consequence, you would need to die under controlled conditions at a hospital, so the circulatory system does not obstruct. In a future, which could be in hundreds of years, experts from the Cryonics Institute or Alcor Life Extension Foundation, could perhaps unfreeze your brain without damaging it, bringing it back to life. Later on, it is thought that your brain could be connected to a robotic body. Bioquark recently granted ethical permission to attempt to use biologic peptides and stem cells to reactivate clinically dead brains, ILFScience reported (2016). So technically, there is a chance that you could already defeat death if you cryogenically froze yourself.

However, cryonics is selling a technology that does not yet exist. Chances for you to revive seem low. First of all, any disaster could happen in the center you are cryopreserved. In Arizona, where Alcor is located, only in 2015 two hurricanes were reported – Hurricanes Blanca and Linda. In addition, you need to expect that future generations managing the cryonics center will be willing to reanimate you. Finally, as João Pedro de Magalhães reports, with today’s technologies, cryonics severely damages the body cells, which means that it will take huge scientific advances, in areas such as stem cells and nanotechnology, to make these cryopreserved individuals alive and healthy again. In addition, even if the brain did not get damaged, technologies that would make it possible to reanimate the brain and transplant it to a robotic body would also need to be developed.

Being immortal is scientifically impossible in today’s knowledge. That is the reason why we need to wait a little longer to truly defeat death.

But how long is it longer?

Many are already working on this. Scientist Aubrey de Grey is focusing his research on defeating biological aging, by fighting cancer and other degenerative diseases. Many centers of regenerative medicine are also investigating on neuro-regeneration to stop brain death. Fully working robotic bodies are also being developed. Once these have been achieved, one of the ways we could defeat death would consist on correctly connecting the medulla oblongata to an artificial spinal cord that would rule the robotic body. Backing this argument by the opinion of most scientists researching the topic, such as Jose Luis Cordeiro, it could be agreed that we will truly defeat death within the next fifty years.

All in all, defeating death would increase the inequity gap between poor and rich, which is something to bear in mind. Living forever or banning births seems too far if we analyze the current state of poor countries, as there are many other basic needs to be solved first. Moreover, poor people would most likely not be able to economically afford the cure. From a scientific perspective, it is expected that within fifty years we will be able to defeat death due to the developments that are being done in the field. Nowadays nearly everyone assumes that it is simply normal to die and are skeptical about the topic. Once the cure to death is found, it will represent one of the biggest disruptions ever seen. Although I am not a scientist – which is to be taken into consideration when looking at the limitations of this paper, I strongly believe that we may soon be able to make of humankind a truly powerful race.