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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 August 2006, 14:03 GMT 15:03 UK
Live forever
Maria Esther de Capovilla - officially the world's oldest woman - has died in Ecuador aged 116
Maria Esther de Capovilla died aged 116 in Ecuador this week

By Brendan O'Neill

A Harley St plastic surgeon plans to sell an anti-ageing drug. But do you want to live forever, or perhaps to the ripe old age of 1,000? There was a time when beating biology to become immortal was the stuff of dreams.

Dr Jeya Prakash claims he has reversed the ageing process by injecting himself and his wife with a human growth hormone which has improved their memories and removed wrinkles. He now plans to open a clinic offering the anti-ageing treatment.

For staying young is a fantasy long indulged by navel-gazing billionaires who spend a small fortune to become cryogenically frozen upon death so that they can make a comeback in the future when medical science has moved on.

And it's the stuff of fairytales. Various mythical stories tell of a Fountain of Youth, a mystical spring that grants eternal vitality to all who drink from it.

These are pipe dreams. For most of us getting older, frailer and eventually popping our clogs are simple facts of life.

Now, however, there is a growing band of scientists and philosophers who truly believe that biological boundaries can be pushed back, allowing humans to live to 200, 300, 1,000 and maybe even longer.

Optimistic

Calling themselves "transhumanists", they argue that it is time humans broke free of their "biological chains".

They want to harness medical, genetic and technological developments to improve the human body and mind - literally to make "better humans" - which will allow us to live longer and longer lives.

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In March this year, a five-day international conference - Tomorrow's People: The Challenges of Technologies for Life Extension and Enhancement - was held at the James Martin Institute at Oxford University.

Speakers debated questions including: "How will humans re-engineer the human body?" and "What is natural about us and does it matter?"

One of the speakers, Dr Aubrey de Grey - a geneticist at Cambridge University and described as "perhaps the most optimistic" of the scientists who want to lengthen human life - believes that many of us who are fairly young now will live to 120. He told the conference there's probably someone alive today who will live to be 1,000.

Meanwhile, a new book - Designer Evolution: A Transhumanist Manifesto by Simon Young - aims to explain how science, done well and properly, can help to "eliminate disease, defeat death and enhance both body and mind beyond the limitations of the human condition".

Moral obligation

Earlier this year the political think-tank Demos launched a pamphlet titled Better Humans? The Politics of Enhancement and Life Extension in conjunction with the Wellcome Trust.

VOTE RESULTS
Would you want to live to 1,000?
Yes
 69.97% 
No
 30.03% 
1159 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion
It explores whether "smart pills" (which can apparently improve human memory and cognitive abilities), anti-ageing technologies and cosmetic surgery will help to make stronger, smarter and longer-living humans - and whether such a development would be ethically sound.

There has been heated debate between scientists excited about the possibilities for life extension and those who think the discussion needs an injection of perspective.

So what is the reality? Are we on the cusp of overcoming our natural limitations, or is this the stuff of science fiction? And would it even be desirable to live much longer lives than we do now, much less to live forever?

Peter Healey, convenor of the conference in Oxford, says that there is disagreement between scientists about the possibilities for life extension.

"Some believe that new developments will allow us to rise above our nature and live for hundreds of years, others think the improvements in life expectancy will be incremental."

He points out that life expectancy has increased massively over the past century as health, sanitation and living standards have improved.

In 1901, life expectancy for newborn babies was 45 for boys and 49 for girls. These days 45 is considered young(ish). By 2000, life expectancy was 75 and 80 respectively.

"If we continue to make medical and scientific breakthroughs, why shouldn't life expectancy rise even further over the next 100 years?"

Medical advances

While living to 1,000 or beyond might be some time away - if it ever arrives - Mr Healey points out that we are already developing ways to build and improve on what nature has given us.

"Through stem-cell research, we are looking at ways that tissue can regenerate. For example, a mouse injected with certain stem cells can now re-grow its tail if it should lose it. Imagine that technology in humans who become injured or who have weak hearts - perhaps they, too, will re-grow what they need.

In the name of living maybe a couple of years longer, we end up with more boring and fearful lives in the here and now
Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
"There are also cochlear implants which help people to hear, scientists are developing plug-in devices that will boost intelligence and help us to learn languages quickly, there are pills that can improve memory."

All of these developments represent attempts to extend and enhance the average human lifespan.

In response to critics who argue that these new technologies, and the broader attempt to make "better humans", smells a bit like eugenics, Mr Healey says that most of the work takes place in a "clear moral framework".

Some are more concerned by the focus on extending the human lifespan. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, a writer for the Lancet and author of The Tyranny of Health, is all in favour of medical and scientific developments to improve human health. But he argues there is more to life than living longer.

"The quest for longevity leads to the subordination of life to the goal of delaying death. The quality of life is surrendered to the quest for quantity."

Wither away

He points out that it is not only the transhumanist wing of science that seems more interested in longevity of life over quality of life; so too is much of the health and beauty establishment today.

"The quest for a longer life is expressed in the contemporary preoccupation with health and healthy living.

"In the name of living maybe a couple of years longer, we end up with more boring and fearful lives in the here and now."

For Dr Fitzpatrick, the struggle to improve the human condition cannot be reduced a scientific or technological issue alone, it must be social too.

"The key question is not how much longer can we live, but what can we achieve and how can human society advance if we do live longer and healthier lives."


Add your comments using the form below.

Way back HG Wells wrote some scientific fictions which people too enjoyed them as fictions and nothing more. Nobody believed that quite a few of them will become hard facts with the passage of time. No wonder the longevity of human life becomes a routine thing in the near future too.
M A Bhatti, Slough, Berks, England

Do they have plans to make a cow feed 2,000 people? The economic world would collapse, leaving everyone in poverty, and it would eventually become impossible to feed the huge population. But I guess not everyone would be able to afford it, so keep on going with the science.
Greig Sheer, Scotland

What shouldn't be dismissed is the possibility that by living longer we might be backed into the best possible corner and be forced to become more responsible and ethical in our behaviour. An example would be our improving but still woefully myopic attitudes to the planet; it's easy to allow the Earth to fall into a state for future generations if we as landlords don't live long enough to face the consequences in person. Might living longer grant us a greater chance for broader wisdom or are we really condemned as a species to be stuck in a rut of narrow-minded selfish behaviour? Where might we have been if Albert Einstein, faculties intact, had lived long enough to join forces with Stephen Hawkings?
Gavin Revitt, Sheffield

I'd like the chance to live longer, so long as I have a quality of life that means that I have the ability to continue improving myself, working and travelling. However, I am very aware that only the richest can and will be able to afford these treatments, while the poorer produce new generations and die while they thrive. the other problem about the suggested longevity is, how about their descendants? Sooner or later, there will be too many people who are not clearing the path for this children or grandchildren, and as we are currently complaining about the boom in the elderly population, imagine how much worse it will become when there are 4 or 5 generations of the same ancient families crowding out the world!
Heather, Wolverhampton

Our pensions are on their last legs already, this would surly bring down the economy or at the very least have very old people living in abject poverty. Stop trying to play god.
Cheryl Calcutt, Market Bosworth, Warwickshire

Excellent news, we are not designed to grow old, why do people do everything in their power to hang on to youth and look young if it were natural to age? Surely we would accept it and be content, I know society and media promote youth and the pressure is on, but who wants to deteriorate? Looking forward to getting into my 1,000th year. Bring on the science!
Suz, Gloucestershire

Extending life sounds quite fascinating, but its quite un-natural. Quantity is very much important if it comes along with the quality. There will be millions who will opt for it, but will that be really interesting if the population will start increasing exponentially.
Jeevan, Stone, UK

The universe, stars and everything else are still powered by an enormous energy source (believed to be the Big Bang, or The Creation depending on your beliefs). One day the energy will run out. The universe will cease to expand, the suns and starts will collapse and everything will wind down. What a horrible end to those 'eternals' left behind.
James, Deanshanger

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