‘Nothing is certain but death and taxes’, said Benjamin Franklin, but we think that he was too pessimistic. We deny that taxes are inevitable or desirable, and we see no reason to take a different attitude towards death. Though it is not yet known how to do away with either, doing away with them is just a matter of knowing how.
Death from old age is not a fundamental part of what makes us human any more than defecation is. They are both merely unfortunate and entirely contingent accidents of nature. What makes us human is the ability to think, to create new ideas about the world. Death gets in the way of thinking. It is alien to everything truly human and we should try to get rid of it.
The explanation for why we die is quite simple: the human body is a collection of design kludges brought about by millions of years of random trial and the elimination of error. The human body evolved, not to live for as long as possible but to pass on genes. Our lifespan is merely the accidental consequence of adaptations selected for that purpose.
But we have different, better purposes in mind. So what can we do about this? We could contemplate designing a human body Version 2.0 that would last longer, but this would be extremely difficult and is definitely not something we could even begin to embark on today. We can work on replacing organs when they fail, but that will only take us so far. A better, more general approach is that advocated by Aubrey de Grey, a geneticist at Cambridge University. The idea is to intervene using biotechnology to remove damage to our bodies as it accumulates, before it poses a serious problem. It is called Engineering Negligible Senescence (ENS). The recent discovery of the chemical that allows stem cells to divide indefinitely often is an important step towards ENS:
Scientists have identified a molecule that allows special cells from embryos, called stem cells, to multiply without limit.
The UK researchers have dubbed the molecule Nanog, after the mythological Celtic land of the ever young.
Stem cells found in embryos are special because they can turn into almost any type of cell in the body, whether it is a heart cell, skin cell or brain cell.
Research into these cells is expected to lead to revolutionary new treatments for a range of conditions from Parkinson's Disease to heart failure and diabetes...
"If Nanog has the same effect in humans as we have found in mice, this will be a key step in developing embryonic stem cells for medical treatments."
The end of death as an inevitable part of human life is now one step closer. Hurray!