Scientific immortality: who wants to live for ever (apart from billionaires)?

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By Lianne Kolirin

What do you buy the man who has everything? If Silicon Valley’s billionaires are anything to go by, immortality is definitely top of the wish list.

Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Sergey Brin (Google) and Peter Thiel (PayPal) are all said to have invested in science and tech companies that are exploring the possibility of achieving eternal life.

However, the rest of us would apparently prefer to remain mere mortals, according to research carried out in conjunction with the Religion Media Centre.

Six out of 10 people would reject the prospect of “scientific immortality” if it became an option, according to a study carried out as part of a project entitled Science and Religion: Reframing the Conversation.

Just under one in five people (19 per cent) would welcome the opportunity to live for ever if scientists could make it happen, according to research carried out by Dr Nick Spencer and Dr Hannah Waite, from Theos, a think tank on religion in society, and the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. Data came from an extensive YouGov survey of more than 5,000 UK adults, and 100-plus interviews with leading scientific and religious thinkers, in a project funded by the Templeton Religion Trust.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the paper published online this week, also revealed that the young are more open to the idea, with almost a quarter (24 per cent) of 15 to 29-year-olds saying they would like to live for ever if scientists could engineer it — compared with 11 per cent of those aged over 70.

Responses also appear to be divided along gender lines, with a quarter (25 per cent) of men in favour compared with just 12 per cent of women.

The controversial topic was up for discussion on Tuesday afternoon when the RMC gathered an online panel of experts to discuss “The promise of scientific immortality: who wants to live for ever?”

Researchers quizzed 5,153 adults in the UK on the subject, breaking the area down into three main areas: scientific immortality as a concept, cryogenics and cloning.

Dr Spencer told the online briefing: “The top-line findings is the billionaires have to do quite well to sell this to at least the British public.”

As part of the wider project to examine the relationship between science and religion, the study also questioned respondents about faith. It found that those who attend services, pray or read holy texts were less likely to agree to scientifically enabled immortality.

Dr Predrag Slijepcevic, senior lecturer in life sciences at Brunel University, told the online gathering that scientists are “completely sceptical” about cryogenics, while cloning is an “ethical minefield”

He said scientific research on animals suggested life could be expanded by 10 to 30 per cent using “some pharmacological or even genetic interventions”, but that it remains “wild speculation”.

Nevertheless, he argued that “everyone can help themselves age in a healthy way”, adding that diet restriction has proven to be successful in controlling numerous conditions including cardiovascular disease, dementia and diabetes.

Neil Lawrence is the inaugural DeepMind professor of machine learning at Cambridge University. He said the idea of achieving eternal life by “uploading your brain electronically” is “equally as implausible as cryogenics”.

“What’s quite interesting about the fascination people have with these ideas is they’re much more like … a lot of ideas in older religions, like the idea that immortality might be attainable by … being a great hero or being of the correct parentage,” he said.

“It feels like a surrogate for religion, because a lot of the people who are most obsessed with it are people who declare themselves atheists, but seem to be reconstructing religious ideas through access to these apparent technologies.”

Dr Joanna Collicutt, a psychologist and pastor, was not surprised that women were less interested in eternal life than men. “Women have an intimate biological awareness” of time through the menstrual cycle, childbirth and menopause, she said.

“There’s perhaps more experience of being out of control and the sense of something bigger,” she said, questioning whether the response might be different if a woman’s reproductive clock could also be extended.

She also understood why age would affect people’s responses, “What you’re doing when you’re young is you’re extrapolating directly from where you are now into the future,” she said. “You don’t yet have enough experience of the ebb and flow of time, over a long period, to perhaps take a different perspective on the issue.

“It’s a bit like small children … they want to grow up as fast as they possibly can. But adults saying ‘no, don’t rush it, enjoy it’. Our perspectives of time are really different.”

Through her work with older people, Dr Collicutt believes the desire to live longer is not driven by a quest for immortality, but our relationships.

“Most of the old people I work with don’t want to live much longer but if they do it’s for reasons around their relationships,” such as wanting to live for a wedding or a new child, she said.

“We know that high self-esteem is one of the things that we use to defend against fear of death. I think it’s interesting that it’s rich men who are high achievers are drawn to this sort of stuff.”

Professor Wilson Poon, a physicist at Edinburgh University, believes death has been “overused as a metaphor”. “We blindly say, ‘Oh, my iPhone has died or my computer has died, or my car has died, as if it’s appropriate to use the same verb as we used to say, ‘My goldfish has died’,” he said.

“The result of that is that we don’t think nearly enough about what is so special about biological death. We are evolved to die and that evolution has honed this process to contribute to the cyclical economy of life, he said.

Yet the Rev Professor Douglas Davies, director of the Centre for Life and Death Studies at Durham, has detected a shift in thinking about death, pointing to  deeply held attitudes linking the body to the environment.

He said there has been a rapid growth in woodland burial and “soon we will have the alkaline hydrolysis of human corpses introduced into the UK, where we will flow down the drains into the rivers. There’s deep significance in the pragmatic decisions about what we and our families do with our bodies”.

The panel overall felt that more discussion should take place in society around the subject of death. Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner said: “The more we talk about death, when we talk about immortality, the more we talk about fear, terror, of death, terror of pain, and therefore bring, I hope, meaning to our day-to-day life.”


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