Friday, October 1, 2010

Who Would Want To Live Forever As A Jellyfish?

“Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.” – Pope Paul VI.

Someone did actually tell me that when I was a teenager – my father. He was fond of saying, “from the time you are born, you begin to die”. Being young feels like being in possession of immortality. The reality that you will die someday is a sobering thought, as no one will escape death. With the possible exception of Turritopsis nutricula , the potentially immortal jellyfish.

National Geographic explains:

Another mystery is how the jellyfish achieve their remarkable age reversal. Miglietta speculates that the creatures have very effective cellular repair mechanisms that allow them to age without incurring the usual ravages of time.
Miglietta dismissed news reports from this week that implied the jellyfish could hold a key to anti-aging drugs for humans.

"Nobody is looking into that," she said, "and I don't think you're going to find any secrets in these creatures."
But while they won't yield the next Botox, the jellyfish just might help fight one of human health's greatest threats—cancer—according to biologist Stefano Piraino of the University of Salento in Italy.

Like cancer cells, "some cells of this jellyfish that were supposed to [die] … are able to switch off some genes and to switch on some other genes, reactivating genetic programs that were used in earlier stages of the life cycle," Piraino said.

Of course this doesn’t mean it can’t die by accident, and I suppose given the odds of avoiding accidental death if one can live forever, there may in fact be no immortal jellyfish. But it’s an intriguing phenomenon that a species theoretically possesses immortality, and why it should of all things belong to a jellyfish is even more intriguing. Why not humans? I guess that wasn’t in God’s plan if you accept the biblical version of human creation, that man was initially immortal, but death came because of sin. I don’t accept such child stories, because death has been going on for as long as earth has existed, which is about 4.5 billion years, and didn’t begin some 6,000 years ago in a mythical Eden.

What turritopsis does, however, is raise the possibility of humans eventually achieving immortality in some distant and now unimaginable scientific future. It’s not at all improbable, in my opinion, given the advances made in science just in the last hundred years. But doesn’t this ever also raise incredibly complex ethical questions? For countries which still have the death penalty, would they need it? Murderers could be sentenced to 50-100 years in prison, and still come out as young. But if they killed a potentially immortal being, would 50-100 years in prison be enough? Perhaps in that case it may really have to be life for life. If you kill an immortal, then you must be deprived of immortality. But questions like this are not the most important. Who would determine who lives forever? (Presuming that this achievement was scientifically engineered, and not naturally through evolution.) What about overpopulation? We would undoubtedly have to also achieve inter-planetary and even inter-galaxy travel to avoid this.

A most intriguing question of all is, have other beings somewhere in the universe achieved immortality? Could "God" be such an immortal being? If he/she/it had lived for millions of years, I suppose what we now consider “impossible” might be mundane to such a long-lived being (that might also be an explanation to the problem of evil, and why the creator doesn't intervene). Getting into the more controversial UFO/extraterrestrial phenomenon, Allen Tough shares some provocative thoughts on What Role Will Extraterrestrials Play In Humanity's Future? (Originally published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Vol. 39, pp 491-498 [November, 1986])

Our own progress in several areas of life has been very dramatic over the past 10,000 years. If we survive another 10,000 years, it is highly likely that we will again make dramatic progress in several areas. When we turn our attention to other civilizations that are 10,000 or perhaps even a million years older than we arc, there can be little doubt that some of them will be far beyond us in their biological, mental, technological, psychic, communication, or travel capacities. Also, because they originated in bodies, physical environments, and social environments that are highly different from ours, their patterns of perceiving, thinking, and relating may be vastly different from ours.
It is highly likely, therefore, that many of the capacities in the flowing list have already been developed by one advanced civilization or another in our Galaxy. It is unlikely that any one civilization will have all of the listed capacities: it is quite probable, though, that each of these capacities (with one or two exceptions) now exists somewhere in our Galaxy. We ourselves will probably possess many of these capacities someday if we continue to develop for another 10,000 or 1,000,000 years. Indeed, the list is based partly on the thoughtful writing of various authors about the long-term future of humankind, which has been one of the author's professional interests for the past ten years.

The ultimate question to all of this is: Given the chance to achieve immortality, would you choose to live forever? At least jellyfish don’t have to contend with in-laws.

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