The Human Condition

Is a 1000 year old human a possibility?

Can Humans Live to 1,000? Some Experts Claim We Can.

Cambridge University geneticist Aubrey de Grey has famously stated, “The first person to live to be 1,000 years old is certainly alive today …whether they realize it or not, barring accidents and suicide, most people now 40 years or younger can expect to live for centuries.”

Perhaps de Gray is way too optimistic, but plenty of others have joined the search for a virtual fountain of youth. In fact, a growing number of scientists, doctors, geneticists and nanotech experts—many with impeccable academic credentials—are insisting that there is no hard reason why ageing can’t be dramatically slowed or prevented altogether. Not only is it theoretically possible, they argue, but a scientifically achievable goal that can and should be reached in time to benefit those alive today.

“I am working on immortality,” says Michael Rose, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine, who has achieved breakthrough results extending the lives of fruit flies. “Twenty years ago the idea of postponing aging, let alone reversing it, was weird and off-the-wall. Today there are good reasons for thinking it is fundamentally possible.”

Even the US government finds the field sufficiently promising to fund some of the research. Federal funding for “the biology of ageing”, excluding work on ageing-specific diseases like heart failure and cancer – has been running at about $2.4 billion a year, according to the National Institute of Ageing, part of the National Institutes of Health.

So far, the most intriguing results have been spawned by the genetics labs of bigger universities, where anti-ageing scientists have found ways to extend live spans of a range of organisms—including mammals. But genetic research is not the only field that may hold the key to eternity.

“There are many, many different components of ageing and we are chipping away at all of them,” said Robert Freitas at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, a non-profit, nanotech group in Palo Alto, California. “It will take time and, if you put it in terms of the big developments of modern technology, say the telephone, we are still about 10 years off from Alexander Graham Bell shouting to his assistant through that first device. Still, in the near future, say the next two to four decades, the disease of ageing will be cured.”

But not everyone thinks ageing can or should be cured. Some say that humans weren’t meant to live forever, regardless of whether or not we actually can.

“I just don’t think [immortality] is possible,” says Sherwin Nuland, a professor of surgery at the Yale School of Medicine. “Aubrey and the others who talk of greatly extending lifespan are oversimplifying the science and just don’t understand the magnitude of the task. His plan will not succeed. Were it to do so, it would undermine what it means to be human.”

It’s interesting that Nuland first says he doesn’t think it will work but then adds that if it does, it will undermine humanity. So, which is it? Is it impossible, or are the skeptics just hoping it is?

After all, we already have overpopulation, global warming, limited resources and other issues to deal with, so why compound the problem by adding immortality into the mix.

But anti-ageing enthusiasts argue that as our perspectives change and science and technology advance exponentially, new solutions will emerge. Space colonization, for example, along with dramatically improved resource management, could resolve the concerns associated with long life. They reason that if the Universe goes on seemingly forever—much of it presumably unused—why not populate it?

However, anti-ageing crusaders are coming up against an increasingly influential alliance of bioconservatives who want to restrict research seeking to “unnaturally” prolong life. Some of these individuals were influential in persuading President Bush in 2001 to restrict federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. They oppose the idea of life extension and anti-ageing research on ethical, moral and ecological grounds.

Leon Kass, the former head of Bush’s Council on Bioethics, insists that “the finitude of human life is a blessing for every human individual”. Bioethicist Daniel Callahan of the Garrison, New York-based Hastings Centre, agrees: “There is no known social good coming from the conquest of death.”

Maybe they’re right, but then why do we as humans strive so hard to prolong our lives in the first place? Maybe growing old, getting sick and dying is just a natural, inevitable part of the circle of life, and we may as well accept it.

“But it’s not inevitable, that’s the point,” de Grey says. “At the moment, we’re stuck with this awful fatalism that we’re all going to get old and sick and die painful deaths. There are a 100,000 people dying each day from age-related diseases. We can stop this carnage. It’s simply a matter of deciding that’s what we should be doing.”

One wonders what Methuselah would say about all this.

Why toddlers suddenly learn to talk.

Kids become chatterboxes within months of barely being able to speak a few words. How come?

Children do not need any specialised learning to suddenly improve their vocabularies. Instead, their behaviour can be described by a simple mathematical rule of thumb.

Parents become familiar with the so-called “word spurt”, the slightly disconcerting stage of a child’s life when they go from hardly talking to suddenly uttering hundreds of new words, sometimes after hearing them only once. (This can be disconcerting for parents whose children are suddenly uttering profanities like a angry truck-driver.)

At 18 months the average child can say 50 words, but by age two, they have learned up to 350 words; half a year later their vocabulary has doubled to 600.

Scientists have proposed various theories to explain children’s language land-grab. Perhaps learning a few basic words helps a child learn others. The theory of “naming insight”, for instance, suggests that at around 18 months children suddenly realise that each object has a specific name. (It’s not until around two that a child learns that when they cover their eyes and ‘hide’, that you can still see them.)

Another theory, called “fast mapping”, suggests that children quickly understand that groups of objects are related, and therefore they learn unfamiliar words describing objects within familiar groups more quickly.

Characteristic curve

Of course, there may be a much simpler explanation. The acceleration in a child’s learning may inevitably happen due to the way most languages are structured.

All languages contain a characteristic distribution and pattern of words. Where most are of medium difficultly to learn, there are a few that are either very easy, or very difficult. Children always learn a number of words in parallel. These parameters have been factored into computational models which simulate how long it takes to learn 10,000 new words.

Guess what? The simulation the model produces the same characteristic acceleration in learning. Essentially learning one new word makes learning another new word even easier. This allows a child to move through words of medium difficulty more quickly since their learned in parallel. Acceleration is an unavoidable by-product of variation in difficulty. (It’s a network effect.)

Of course computer modeling isn’t the real world and may not accurately get to the heart of while kids learn language so amazingly fast, but adults don’t learn as quickly and don’t show a similar acceleration in their language learning.

Puppy Love

puppylovePuppy Love isn’t just just the glassy-eyed look that teen girls get when watching Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Nope, it’s an actual condition in which teens show a number of manic and risky behaviors.

It seems that there is some scientific evidence to show that adolescents who feel ‘madly in love’ may be right. They actually are ‘mad’.

Lovestruck teens show many of the symptoms of a condition called ‘hypomania’ (a less pronounced form of regular mania) in which they sleep about an hour less that teens who aren’t smitten. They also act more compulsively, spend more money, drive faster, and pass more notes in class. (The note’s also have 500% more hearts and balloon writing on them than normal class notes.)

One study demonstrated that youngins in early-stage intense romantic love acted exactly as psychiatric patients during a hypomanic stage, concluding that intense romantic love in teenagers is a “psychopathologically prominent stage”.

Oddly enough, the symptoms of hypomania overlap with those of regular mania. These symptoms are visible in teens as periods of depression, endless texting to friends, ‘Do not enter’ signs appearing on their bedroom doors, an inability to be ‘understood by anyone, and a pronounced decrease in how cool they think their parents are. Don’t worry, there’s nothing you can do about this. (You may still want to hide the car keys and affix a geo-locator to your teen.)

Ah, the wonder of those teenage years. Hair sprouting everywhere and mania to boot.