Jesus revolutionized the meaning of dying. For Christians everywhere, the dawn of Easter morning reminds us of his triumph over death. Our belief in the resurrection of the body is the core of our Christian faith. But what if we could radically extend our life spans? Or even prolong life indefinitely?
A number of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are currently waging a war on death. In the past few years, these “visionaries” have funded companies aimed at radically extending our longevity. One of the earliest enthusiasts, British biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, started a company called SENS Research whose mission is to find a way to extend the healthy human life span by hundreds of years. In 2013, Bill Maris, the creator and CEO of Google Ventures, convinced the founders of Google to start a company called Calico Labs. Funded with a billion dollars, the company’s goal is to study the biology of aging and develop life-extending drugs.
Then in 2014, Craig Venter, famous for his work sequencing the human genome, established Human Longevity, Inc., a company whose goal is to amass a huge database of human genome sequences for use in life-extension research. Even Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has gotten into the prolonging-life business. He and his physician wife, Priscilla, have pledged to donate more than $3 billion toward a plan to “cure, prevent, or manage all disease within our children’s lifetime.”
It is important to note that this research is not directed at eradicating the kind of deaths we would see as tragic—the type of cruel illness that cuts short the life of a child, or a controllable disease, such as malaria, that disproportionately affects the global poor. Instead, the goal of longevity research is to dramatically increase the human lifespan.
The mysteries surrounding how and why we age have not been unraveled. Scientists cannot even agree on the exact cause of aging, much less on the possibility of controlling it. Some experts believe the biological aging process is caused by the switching on and off of certain genes. Others think genetic mutations occur and accumulate with increasing age, causing cellular and molecular deterioration. Numerous other theories abound. Regardless, efforts to delay aging—a phrase many researchers prefer to anti-aging—have delivered little success. One drug, Metformin, long used to treat type 2 diabetes, has modified aging in some animals. But so far it is hard to find much else that shows promise in this area of research; and nothing for humans. Hovering over that effort, however, and reflected in the debate about what to even call the research, is a long-standing argument among some leading researchers on aging: Will it ever be possible to radically extend life expectancy? One group says no; another says yes. Many of the most ambitious scientists and entrepreneurs, ever optimistic, are not part of that debate.
To some people life-extension research may seem like a perfectly good idea. If we could eradicate all disease and use anti-aging drugs to enable people to live to two hundred years old, or even indefinitely, what a great world it would be. Sounds like the Garden of Eden before the Fall. But is it? Do we really want to do battle with death? Medicine itself has long carried on such a struggle, but has accepted death as an unavoidable part of human life.