An argument can be made that the human attribute that most drives
human affairs is awareness of individual mortality, an awareness
that pervades all human interactions, strategies, personal
choices, all of human history and politics, and all of the arts.
The reality that one's life has a limited, even ephemeral,
duration is unpalatable at best and terrifying at worst, and any
notion, scheme, or vague promise of immortality or even of
significant life extension is grasped and held tight to the chest
with both arms. We're like poor rats caught in a sealed room
filled with slowly (or quickly) rising water, panic always in the
wings of our minds, and so since the beginning of human history
the process of aging and death has been a focus of myth,
mysticism, and twisted science.
On the 21st of February in the year 1888, the painter Vincent Van
Gogh arrived in the town of Arles in the south of France to
produce 300 remarkable paintings and drawings, go mad, and ten
months later cut off his ear and wind up in a local insane
During the time he was there, Van Gogh was a familiar figure in
Arles, an eccentric who was often nasty to children. One of these
was a twelve year old girl named Jeanne, who later spoke of Van
Gogh as "very ugly, ungracious, impolite, sick -- a loco."
Van Gogh died two years later by suicide.
The little girl Jeanne, born and raised in Arles, died in Arles
in 1997 at the age of 122 years and 164 days. She remains the
oldest human on record in official documents. She rode a bicycle
until she was past 100 years old. She also ate about two pounds
of chocolate a week and stopped smoking cigarettes only at the
age of 117. One of her famous bon mots was, "I've never had but
one wrinkle, and I'm sitting on it."
When Jeanne Calment was born, her life expectancy was about 40
years. She lived more than three times her life expectancy, and
we have as little understanding of how that happened now as we
did when she was born. We've learned a great deal about the
biology of aging and longevity, but the great puzzle, the Holy
Grail of biology, remains undiscovered: What precisely determines
the aging and longevity of biological systems?
The question that occurs to each of us is simply stated: If it's
possible for Jeanne Calment, why not me?
And if 122 years is possible, why not 244 years or 500 years?
Meanwhile, Jeanne Calment remains the oldest human being on
record, a parameter of the human species.
The modern interest in longevity probably began with the
publication in 1964 of Alex Comfort's book Aging: The Biology of Senescence. In addition to a detailed survey of current
understanding and research in the field, Comfort, a biologist
trained in medicine, also presented himself right off as a
visionary with the following statement that engendered a
If we kept throughout life the same resistance to stress,
injury, and disease which we had at the age of ten, about one-
half of us here today might expect to survive in 700 years'
A striking statement, but there was no evidence to warrant that
statement in 1964 and there is no evidence for it today.
Comfort's idea was based on assumptions concerning declining
"power of self-adjustment and self-maintenance" in humans and
other animals -- processes which most biologists today would call
homeostasis and tissue repair. These two processes are certainly
involved in health and disease, and to the degree that health and
disease determine life-span these processes are also involved in
longevity. But to what degree are they involved and how is a
life-span of 700 years arrived at? Comfort's conclusion was
cavalier when he wrote it and remains so today. Unfortunately,
his book was widely read around the world and used by others to
tout an enormous variety of pills, potions, nostrums, and schemes
to improve resistance to stress, injury, and disease and thus
extend human life-span by centuries into the future. We are still
experiencing the negative consequences of Comfort's widely read
People who grasp whatever is at hand in the hope that it will
slow or stop the rising water of mortality are not to be faulted
or derided. But there are those who exploit this vulnerability to
achieve or maintain power, or for financial gain, who exploit
with twisted science and do great harm in the process.
Given the raucous bazaar of ideas about how to live longer or
even how to live forever, we want to know what's possible now --
in our own lifetime. It's reasonable that during any era the
known and documented maximum life-span should be the primary goal
of clinical and basic research. Certainly, what we know about the
maximum human life-span as marked by the life of Jeanne Calment
is that a life of 122.5 years is at least possible. Longevity
mongers or immortality mongers who offer us many centuries or
eternity should be dismissed, especially if they have one or both
hands out with palms up waiting for cash up front. So far, what
is possible now, is a longevity of 122.5 years, and I see no
reason why a breakthrough cannot occur during this century to
make it possible for many people to attain that age. Meanwhile,
research on aging and longevity is underfunded, not overfunded.
The cost to the U.S. taxpayers of one month of the Iraq war would
fund a serious war against mortality for ten years.
I'm an optimist about aging and longevity. I believe science and
technology will continue to change the circumstances and details
of human life in ways that are not imaginable. No one who lived
500 years ago could have predicted what human life is like today,
and no one who is alive now can predict what human life will be
like in the 26th century. Don't even try; you cannot do it. The
science-technology spiral is essentially unpredictable. In
understanding the nature and impact of science in the modern
world, it's important to realize that science and technology
cannot be separated. The reason is simple: basic science produces
new applied science (technology), and new technology in turn
produces new methods of doing basic science, which leads to new
science that produces new technology, and so on. The science-
technology spiral is unending, and because of this spiral it's
not possible to predict with any certainty where science and
technology will go in the future. So if we want to be reasonable,
we need to admit that as far as aging and longevity are
concerned, anything is possible. Maybe not now, not soon, but
imagine us a thousand years from now, ten thousand years from
now. Ten thousand years is hardly any time in a species destiny
of maybe millions of years. Is it a consolation for our present
relatively short existence? Why not? The great adventure of the
human species will continue, and the connection of each of us to
that species and to the human adventure is our bond to eternity.