An Article on the Immortality Project

The Immortality Project has been around for a couple of years, a modestly sized fund for academics that intends to make awards spanning everything from the hard life sciences to philosophy and theology. The central theme is in fact immortality, in any of its varying meanings, though it is pretty clear that the driving impulse here is religious rather than scientific. In that it is perhaps an unwelcome echo of an earlier age, something you'd expect to see undertaken by contemporaries of Isaac Newton, those with only one foot set into the Age of Enlightenment, and for all the wrong reasons.

I'm still of the mind that this project is something of a poisoned chalice. It does fund actual science, such as investigations into the biology of hydra with an eye to determining whether physical immortality exists in the natural world. There are few species such as hydra where the possibility of agelessness exists, but it isn't completely straightforward to pin that down to whether it is in fact the case or just looks a lot like it for a few years. It isn't as though you can wait for an indefinite period of time to check, and few scientists even study this question in the first place. Funding is better than no funding. But this funding comes from an organization that is about to embark on paying theologians to generate more nonsense about angels on the head of a pin, and other, similarly futile undertakings from ethicists that have absolutely nothing to do with advancing actual, concrete, actionable human knowledge. The organization will be trying to paint a picture with all of this, mixing up rigorous science with religious and secular fictions, and that certainly rubs me the wrong way.

Still, money has no provenance, and knowledge gained is knowledge gained. But I am concerned about the long-term effects of this sort of project. I noticed an article on this topic today:

Living Forever, the Right Way

But if mankind can become immortal - and, granted, that's a big "if" - what will it mean? What would a world filled with people who never age look like? Will immortality damage the environment and deepen the class divide? Is the immortal life even a life worth living?

One of the philosophers looking for answers to some of these tough questions is John Martin Fischer, a UC Riverside professor best know for his work on free will and determinism. He is leading the Immortality Project, an ambitious and first-of-its-kind endeavor fueled by a $5 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The project will eventually involve dozens of scientists, philosophers, and theologians.

While not yet fully scaled, the project's biological sciences component, which will look to the natural world for clues on how to extend human life, is well underway. Last June, Fischer and a panel of judges announced ten winners of the Immortality Project's $250,000 research grants (the philosophical and theological grants will be awarded this June). One winner was Dr. Daniel Martínez, a world-leading expert on the hydra, a multicellular fresh water organism. Some sub-species of hydra are capable of regenerating themselves - "almost as if they were immortal," Fischer says - while others cannot. Martínez is trying to figure out why. "He's doing this with an eye to figuring possible ways that this could apply to human longevity and possibly human immortality," Fischer says.

There is also plenty of room for innovation regarding the ethics of immortality; experts are looking at everything from examinations of near-death experiences to comparative religious ideas about the afterlife to gain a better understanding of the phenomenon. By the time the project concludes in 2015, Fischer hopes to have set the foundation for a discussion about potential criteria for ethical long-term living. Call it a life-hack for immortality - because it's one thing to live forever, and another to live forever well.

"Innovation" is not a word I'd apply to ethics, the secular theology of our times. It must be a pleasant job to be paid to make up new myths that will be used by believers to justify interference with the process of saving lives through better medicine. That said, it is way too early for anyone to be spending large sums of money agonizing over potential, not yet actual, perhaps nonexistent moral issues relating to greatly enhanced human longevity. We're all still dying here and now, today, on a short timeframe, and where are the establishment foundations spending money to address the moral aspects of that important concern? Meanwhile the medical research projects that might put a halt to aging and age-related disease in the decades ahead are very poorly funded indeed. At this time $5 million would fund a full year of SENS research and advocacy, for example.

But it isn't news that priorities are badly askew in this world of ours.


Another powerful anti aging therapy is Telomere Lengthening. Dr. Bill Andrews is the leading researcher in this field. Find out what "stunning announcement" he has made that may fully crack the code on anti-aging.

Posted by: chris at June 28th, 2014 2:43 PM

A lot of aspects of aging don't have much (if anything) to do with telomeres.

Posted by: Michael at June 28th, 2014 5:31 PM

I have a 2-part question: what percentage of the scientific community agree that cumulative damage is the driving force behind aging? Also, what is the likelihood that there may be other forces driving aging that we still don't know about?

Posted by: David at June 28th, 2014 9:40 PM

@David: I know of no survey of cumulative damage versus programmed aging proponents, but cumulative damage views are the overwhelming majority judging by what I see of publication rates. Programmed aging papers are largely localized in only a couple of journals at this time.

Other forces driving aging: insofar as damage goes it has been 30 years since the last form of damage that contributes to aging was identified. That strongly suggests the research community has everything listed that matters over the present human life span. I would be surprised to find out that there are no other, more subtle structural issues that arise over much longer periods, especially in the workings of the brain. But first things first.

Posted by: Reason at June 29th, 2014 8:24 AM

The "cumulative damage" theory doesn't make a lot of sense to me, given that:

1. It doesn't do anything to explain the lack of variability between the rates of aging of humans living in vastly different environments (e.g., at the equator vs. at the poles);

2. It's difficult to square with the fact that exercise (and therefore increased metabolic activity) increases, rather than decreases, life expectancy;

3. It's very difficult to square with the different lifespans of different species, even those of similar body mass living in similar environments (e.g., bluefin tuna vs. sea tortoise);

4. From an evolutionary standpoint, there is an obvious reason for programmed aging (to increase generational turnover and drive sexual recombination) and no real obvious reason for "allowing" cumulative damage to accumulate (through some kind of neglect) in a way that causes fairly acute deterioration at the end of a specific lifespan;

5. Evidence continues to mount that telomere shortening drives aging rather than merely being correlated with it - the most striking of which is Dr. DePinho's proof-of-concept experiment with telomerase knockout mice, but also, e.g., large-scale mortality studies on both humans and wild birds.

Posted by: Jon Cornell at September 9th, 2014 1:07 AM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.