WHY CAN’T WE LIVE FOREVER?
Would you like to live 1,000 years? You won't, because dying is the price you must pay for enjoying the sunset or a symphony, or having the curiosity to read this article
ASSUME THAT you are in the prime of life. No aches anywhere. You leap out of bed in the morning, bursting with energy. You run up three flights of stairs without losing your wind. You play three sets of tennis with no sign of fatigue.
Why shouldn’t you go on and on in this way forever? There is nothing in your design to indicate that you cannot. Only experience teaches you otherwise—the visible ageing and decline of friends and relatives, the knowledge that disease cannot be staved off.
Like you, great philosophers and great scientists have wondered why immortality is impossible. And like you, in the fullness of your health and vitality, they have refused to accept sickness and decay as inevitable.
The Spanish explorer, Ponce de León, searching for the Fountain of Youth in Florida, typifies them all. A whole literature has been written about old Dr. Faustus, that scientific recluse of the Middle Ages, who bartered his soul for endless youth, riches, love. We have thousands of volumes by chemists and biologists who declined to accept the Psalmist’s threescore years and ten as the span of life, or even to believe that we must grow old.
“What is old age?” they ask. A disease to be conquered like any other, some answer. The onward march of medicine, the patient experimenting with life in its myriad forms, the astounding surgical skill that has been developed in the last half century— what other object has all this but the indefinite lengthening of our days?
With new telescopes probing outer space, with physicists revealing more and more about the stuff of which this world is made and holding out the promise of changing base metals into gold and lighting whole cities with the energy in a spoonful of matter, with rocket ships in the distant offing ready to take men to the moon—who doesn’t want to live forever?
To the experimental biologist of today life is a problem in physics and chemistry, a problem in wear and tear, in disease and chemical decomposition. A man is to him only a machine, like the automobile, only very much more complex, and for that reason more difficult to study. Suppose, he reasons, we take this living machine to pieces, study every part, find out how and why it works. Wouldn’t we know more about what happens when disease strikes home, and hence more about prolonging our days as long as we please?
Perhaps the most ardent of these seekers was Dr. Alexis Carrel, of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York. There, in a windowless laboratory, so completely robed in a sterile costume that only his eyes could be seen through slits in a hood, he stood face to face with immortality every day. He actually proved that the flesh of which we are composed is immortal.
Jan. 17, 1912, was a historic day in Carrel’s life. That day he took from an incubator a nine-day-old fertilized egg, washed it, sterilized it, lifted out the unborn chick, laid it on a sterilized base. Skilfully he cut out the beating heart, snipped off a bit only eight hundredths of an inch square, and transferred the speck to a clot of embryonic chicken juice—its supply of food.
Two days passed. The speck doubled in size. Carrel cut half of it away with a blade only a tenth of an inch long. The other half he washed, to rid it
of killing wastes, then returned it to a fresh clot of juice.
There was something terrifying about the rapidity with which that bit of unborn chick’s heart grew. Each cell divided in half and each half again in half. And so, by self-division, the cells reproduced. The process was like the spreading of a fire. Theoretically, in one year the original fragment would be 13 quadrillion times bigger than the sun, were it not regularly pruned, washed, and fed.
Carrel’s bit of chicken heart has served its purpose. Yet it is possible that a century hence the descendants of the original technicians may be standing over the culture, performing the same surgical and antiseptic rites. Chickens and men will come and go, governments will totter and new ones will take their places. That precious living flame will burn on and on so long as it is tenderly cared for by trained technicians. It is immortal.
All one-celled life is immortal. If lower budding and self-dividing organisms were not held in check by their enemies and by such catastrophes as the drying up of a pond or the slipping of a rock, they would take possession of the earth.
All living things are made of cells—countless billions of them. Some of them are germ cells that carry within them the blueprints of a finished plant, mosquito, fish, bird, dog, elephant, man. When they grow they give orders. “Grow a hand here and a brain there,” they seem to say. And in the proper place appear a hand and a brain and other parts
made of body cells. Both germ and body cells are immortal. But we who are composed of them cannot live forever.
Carrel saw to it that the cells with which he experimented had a chance to achieve immortality, by controlling the conditions under which growth could proceed forever. Other experimenters, more violent, discovered that life in its lowest forms is extraordinarily tough.
Take, for example, Paul Becquerel. This French scientist plunges dried spores and bacteria for three weeks into liquid air and for 77 hours into liquid nitrogen. Compared with such intensely cold liquid gases a lump of ice is like so much glowing iron. Yet two years after their immersion into these killing liquids they were as active as ever and reproduced normally.
The late Prof. Jacques Loeb performed a similar experiment with fruit flies. At 50 degrees F. his fruit flies lived 177 days, nearly six months; at room temperature, 54 days; at 86 degrees, only three weeks. A hot life is a fast life for an insect. Man is a warm-blooded animal, and no tampering with his bodily heat is possible. Still Loeb could not help wondering what would happen if we were intelligent fruit flies and if we were kept in refrigerators from birth to death at a temperature of 45.5 degrees F. The answer was that human life would be extended 1,900 years.
The latest effort to conquer disease and to prolong life comes from Soviet
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Why Can't We Live Forever?
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Russia. There Alexander A. Bogomolets has been using what he calls ACS, an abbreviation of the more formidable “antireticular cytotoxic serum.”
According to the wilder accounts, ACS can cure anything from cancer to schizophrenia, scarlet fever to arthritis. Stalin and the aged Kalinin, president of the U.S.S. R., are said to receive periodic “shots” of it. Wounds and broken bones that refuse to respond to the usual treatment are said to heal miraculously. Old people into whom it is injected are as spry as youngsters. Bogomolets is so impressed that in his opinion there is no reason why the span of life should not be prolonged to 150 years with his serum.
Bogomolets built upon the work of Bordet and Metchnikoff. Bordet, a Belgian bacteriologist, who first thought of a simple test for syphilis, was the man who discovered what are now called cytotoxic serums.
These are serums which are poisonous to some kinds of cells. Back in 1900 he injected cells from the liver of a rabbit into a totally different animal, with the expected results. That is, the second animal at once began to form defenses, called antibodies, against the invasion.
After several injections the blood serum is so far poisoned that the second animal eventually is killed. Before that happened Bordet injected the serum from the second animal back into the rabbit. He found that its liver seemed to melt away. More sensational was the discovery that just a little of this cytotoxic serum will invigorate tissues instead of killing them. Metchnikoff repeated Bordet’s experiments and threw more light on the serum. Bogomolets picked up the clue 24 years later and began systematic studies in his clinic.
What sets Bogomolets apart is his selection of connective or reticular tissue—the netlike basis of flesh and bone—as the serum-making material. Anatomists had paid not too much attention to this tissue. To them it was just so much structural material. Cancer specialists had observed that sometimes it will choke cancer cells to
death. It is certainly an essential in the healing process.
To Bogomolets it became the “cement of life.” He prepares his ACS by immunizing horses with the cells of bone marrow and the spleen taken from a human corpse. He injects serum from the horse under the skin. The results claimed still seem incredible in the West. Cancer is said to have disappeared, arthritis to have been “cured,” scarlet fever arrested in 24 hours, arteriosclerosis banished (arteriosclerosis is one of the ailments, perhaps the most serious, of old age), and the particular form of insanity known as schizophrenia conquered. If all this were true, not only could life be prolonged but many diseases against which medicine is still helpless could be dealt with as readily as it deals with diphtheria.
In a report to the Empire Rheumatism Council Dr. Francis Bach, however, states that 48 selected patients with various types of “rheumatism” were treated by the Bogomolets method, that ACS is not a cure for “rheumatism,” that “definite subjective improvement” was observed in only seven of the 48 patients, that in another seven there was only slight improvement, and that three cases of rheumatoid arthritis which showed improvement relapsed two months later. Professor Strozhesko, in whose clinic the action of the serum was tested in “rheumatism,” has stated that best results are obtained with infectious diseases.
For further results we probably shall have to wait a year or two until Dr. Harry Goldblatt of Western Reserve University, Cleveland, completes his studies. He is the man who showed that high blood pressure is related to kidneys. Aided by a grant of $15,000 he has been making ACS and distributing it to clinicians who have in turn reported their findings to him.
One group is testing ACS in arthritis, another in cancer, a third in schizophrenia. Goldblatt will say nothing about the results as yet, but it is believed that in cancer ACS at least relieves pain.
It will be no easy matter to evaluate the findings. The power of suggestion is enormous. Physicians sometimes give bread pills or just sweetened colored water to patients, with remarkable results. Goldblatt and his associates know all this and will make the proper allowances. But even if ACS will do only a quarter of what is claimed for it, it’s important.
The attempt to prolong life will have to be made under strict clinical control, and we shall have to wait at least a generation before the results are evaluated.
What do all these experiments come to? Merely that the body, a collection of cells, is what the physicists call a “closed system,” like an automobile. Our inability to live forever lies right here. No closed system can endure unless it can inspect itself, stop corrosion, oil itself, keep itself in repair. An automobile can’t do that. The body can—but imperfectly. If we can’t live forever, it is because of this imperfection.
What if we could tamper with this closed system we call a man? What
if we could slow it down or speed it up just as if it were an engine? What if we could remove some of its wornout organs, as if they were carburetors and brake linings, and substitute others for them?
The biologists have taken the first steps in developing methods of changing parts of the body, somewhat as we unscrew burned-out lamp bulbs and screw in new ones. Since it is impossible as yet to experiment with living creatures without killing them in this process of substituting new for old parts, the scientists have begun by contriving glass bodies in which organs are kept alive and watched. By far the most successful of these experimenters was Carrel. Within the sterile glass of a pump which Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh devised he kept more than 1,000 organs alive from two to 30 days-— hearts, lungs, spleens, livers, reproductive organs, glands.
If some day the trick of exchanging a worn-out kidney or a poor thyroid for a sound one becomes an ordinary surgical operation, there must be a “bank,” or storehouse, from which fresh organs can be drawn as they are needed. Imagine in New York, Paris, London a building given over to preservation of organs, so conditioned that bacteria will be thoroughly washed out of the air.
On every floor are glass bodies with organs inside—hundreds of them. Thyroids on the first floor, corneas of human eyes on the second, reproductive organs on the third, lungs on the fourth, bladders and kidneys on the fifth.
On the top floor is the transplanting room, with ultra-violet lights overhead to kill the few bacteria that manage to evade scientific vigilance. There the master surgeons perform their work of rejuvenation.
Suppose these transplantations succeed. What would be the result? Ten, 20 years added to the span of life, youth prolonged, disease more or less conquered—but not immortality !
We are getting at the very heart of this problem of living forever. The implications are clear. The amoeba and the paramecium, which know the trick of living forever—would you want to he like them, drifting through slimy water, responding only to the contact of food? The life of a fruit fly hibernating in a refrigerator—is that worth living? If living for 10,000 years is your ambition, are you ready to become a clump of ice in a liquid gas as cold as outer space, unconscious of the stars overhead, of trees rustling in the wind—your flame of life turned so low that it is almost extinct? Every conceivable way of achieving immortality that works in theory or practice involves a sacrifice of the artist, the patriot, the saint, the lover—above all, a sacrifice of mind.
Gradually it dawns on us why we are not destined to be immortal. The long progression of organic life that started in a bit of slime, which first reproduced itself by self-division, and passed through oysters, snails, fish, birds, elephants, dogs, and momentarily ends with man, means something. It looks like a striving for something—looks as if nature decided early that there couldn’t be im-
mortality if there was to be evolution, immortality means stagnation.
Despite the teeming life of the earth there are only a few survivals from the very earliest days, and these are protoplasm and the one-celled creatures, the original bricks. In experimenting to arrive at man, nature junked more forms of life than we have today.
But in all these experiments with beasts and men one organ has steadily improved. And that’s the brain. Here there is no neglect or slipping back, as there is in tails, appendices, extra eyelids, and third eyes (there’s one in the brain called the “pineal gland,” which never developed). First the spinal cord apjiears. Then a little brain. And the brain gets bigger, better, more complicated as we ascend the ladder of life. Evidently intelligence was the goal. Is man the end of Nature’s experiment?
You know well enough what the answer is—know well enough that Nature never stopped with fins and wings and forefeet until she had arrived at real, grasping hands, never stopped with gills until she had fashioned lungs. So it is with the brain. There is no doubt about her wanting a superman equipped with a superbrain.
Suppose that man goes the way of the dinosaur. In what way will his successor be better in brain and mind? In awareness. Awareness of what is “out there,” as he looks at stars, oceans, waving grass, and in what his loves and his hates mean.
Here, for example, is Einstein talking about a fourth dimension. The experts agree that without it some occurrences in the vast universe cannot be satisfactorily explained. But our brains and our minds are no more able to perceive it than a fish is able to imagine what is beyond the rock around which he slides. It Einstein is right, man’s successor will be aware of this fourth dimension because of his better brain.
One supreme gift that we received
with our brains is the gift of thinking and talking and using our hands to grasp tools. If we survive, our successor will study us and marvel at our chatter. He will not talk to a friend, but just think at him, no matter what the separating distance may be. Deliberately controlled telepathy? Exactly. Some of Prof. J. B. Rhine’s subjects at Duke University have named with such accuracy the order of unseen picture cards in a shuffled pack that lucky guessing is ruled out as an explanation. There was a time when hypnotism was similarly scoffed at. We are clumsy telepathists because of our undeveloped brains.
And so with the strange premonitions of disaster that made some stay ashore who had booked passage on the ill-fated Titanic, and the “hunches” which we follow, contrary to all the logic of a situation and which prove so often to be right, and the “inner sight” with which mystics and artists seem to be endowed. Probably these abilities, such as they are, must be compared with the thinking of a dog at our stage of evolution. A great composer like Beethoven does not reason much about a symphony, except about the values of notes and the musical iorm. He “gets” the music, experiences it directly. A faculty like this, still crude, still given to very few, is the beginning of a new approach to the mystery of the universe, but a beginning that cannot be developed without a new brain.
But if this superman is to come he must pass through us, just as we passed through all the life that preceded us in the sense that it had to be created before we could appear by the process of evolution. Thinking man would never have evolved out ot an immortal and therefore stagnant race of apes or from whatever it was that he sprang.
Why can’t we live forever? Because nature wants the superman. And the superman must come out of mortal man.