The Science of Immortality

March 4th, 2014

Guest post by Stephen Cave, author of the book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization. You can also watch his TED talk, or follow him on Twitter @stephenjcave

Why do we seek immortality?
Easy: because the alternative is to die. And nothing motivates us quite like the looming presence of the Reaper.

Indeed this motivation is so powerful that the simple fact that you are now reading about death will already have shifted you, dear reader, into a different state of mind. If you are religious, you will now be feeling more religious. If you are patriotic, you will now be more patriotic. If you have something against foreigners then you will now have become more xenophobic. Whatever makes up the kernel of your world view, you will now more aggressively defend it and reject whoever opposes it. All because I just reminded you that you will die.

Over 400 studies from the field of social psychology have demonstrated this phenomenon.  In all these experiments, half of those whose views were being tested would be reminded about their death – for example, by being interviewed in front of a funeral parlour, and there other half not. The opinions of these two groups could then be compared on a range of issues. In every case, those reminded of their death would more strongly defend the central elements of their worldview.

An example: a group of Christian students were asked to give their opinion of the personalities of two people. These people were very similar in all respects – except one: one was a Christian, like those being tested, and the other was a Jew. The control group who weren’t reminded of their own death judged the two people very similarly. The other group, who had been reminded of their mortality, judged their fellow Christian much more positively and the Jew much more negatively.

But other studies shows that this effect is not just limited to religion. Those for whom law and order is an important part of their worldview, for example, become stricter in its enforcement. In one classic study, a group of judges in Tucson in the USA who were reminded of their mortality set a bail for a prostitute that was nine times higher than those who were not reminded of their mortality.

The researchers behind the 400 experiments were inspired by Sigmund Freud and an American anthropologist called Ernest Becker. Their theory is called Terror Management Theory, as it is about the stories we tell ourselves to manage the terror of death. We have the same will to live as all creatures. But unlike other creatures, at least as far as we know, we also have the awareness that this will to live will one day be thwarted. So we must live in the knowledge that the worst thing that could possibly happen — for each of us, our own death — one day surely will. We must each live in the shadow of a personal apocalypse. And that is not easy.

But exactly because this awareness of mortality would be debilitating were we fully conscious of it, is why we develop certain stories that deny the reality of death. They promise us that we can somehow escape the Reaper and keep living — without end.

And it is very likely that every one of you subscribes to at least one such immortality story. Perhaps you are religious: Christianity is explicitly an immortality story, with the promise of everlasting life at its core. Or perhaps, like Einstein, you believe that “our death is not an end if we can live on in our children, for they are us; our bodies are only wilted leaves on the tree of life.”

Or perhaps, like Aubrey de Grey and Bill Andrews, the two men featured in The Immortalists, you place your faith in scientific progress.

All cultures in human history have had some kind of myth or legend of an elixir of life or fountain of youth — something that can keep disease, ageing and death itself at bay. Such stories can be found in ancient India, Babylon, Egypt, China, etc. Since the advent of modern science, these stories have continued to be told, but using whatever scientific vocabulary is fashionable. A hundred years ago hormone treatments, which had just been discovered, were all the rage; one professor made a fortune by sewing slices of monkey testicles onto millionaires with the promise it would turn back the clock. Another had the rich and famous queueing up for a vasectomy in the belief it would make them young again.

Half a century later, the double Nobel Prize-winning Linus Pauling, father of biochemistry, advocated vitamin C as the elixir of life. Today our elixirs are telomeres, stem cells and nanotechnology. Humans have told such stories since the beginning of recorded history, and I suspect they always will. And though our descendants might, if they’re lucky, live a little longer than us, thanks to the work of people like Bill and Aubrey, neither we nor they will live forever.

The only real science of immortality is therefore not telomeres or nanotech. It is the research from social psychology that shows how it we alone of creatures must live with the fact of our mortality; and which explains why we are therefore driven to tell ourselves these stories of defeating ageing, disease and death.