Has Death Outlived It’s Usefulness?

In a monastery in New Hampshire in 1981, two groups of men in their seventies and eighties relived the 1950s. The men talked about the launch of the first United States satellite and Castro’s victory. They watched Anatomy of a Murder and black and white television and read back-issues of magazines. They engaged in discussions of sports figures of the 1950s. The first group pretended they were really experiencing the 1950s for the first time, whereas the second group simply remembered what it was like to live in that time period.

Afterward, the men’s minds and bodies were tested — both groups performed better physically and mentally. However, the men who pretended they were youthful again, as opposed to those who reminisced, demonstrated a dramatic improvement in performance. The youth had awakened within them.

Most people believe that aging is inevitable, that our bodies decay, a process that culminates in death. Through the study of the two groups of men, psychology professor Ellen Langer found that ideas internalized in childhood can shape the aging process. In fact, research shows that finding the Fountain of Youth is not as far-fetched as it may seem and the potential for immortality lies within our own bodies.

Right now, we’re a multi-cellular organism programmed for death. Apoptosis or programmed cell death purifies a tissue from cells that have become detrimental to the organism. Analogously, in a concept called ‘phenoptosis’, our own programmed deaths are a mechanism of separating the healthiest kin, a community of organisms, or population from individuals that nature recognizes as unhealthy.

Although cancer horrifies us with its devastating and tragic effects on the human body, its hardiness as a cell may prove instructive on this point. Once a few genes in a cancer cell mutate, the cancer cell becomes immortal.

Right now, we’re essentially pre-programmed to fail. Right now, your personal ambition may be to live, but as soon as you have children (as soon as you make better versions of yourself), your body is ready to step out of the way. Death acts to push older generations out of the way, in order to allow younger generations to rise. Picture the twelve-year-old version of yourself. As a child, most of your injuries healed without a scar; you were always acquiring new energy and your intake of energy exceeded your expenditures of it. If the tip of your finger had been sliced off, it was possible for the fingertip to grow back. If you had that self-healing capacity when you were twelve, you should be able to continue self-healing and become more robust through adulthood so long as your intake of energy exceeds your expenditure of it.

Regeneration is possible among both invertebrates and vertebrates. Crickets can regenerate their legs perfectly. When fleeing a predator, lizards shed their tails. A new tail, albeit imperfect, grows back in place of the lost one. Salamanders regenerate limbs perfectly in about forty days; this regeneration is possible because the specialized cells in a salamander’s limbs are able to dedifferentiate or regress to a less-specific form and then re-grow.

Along the same lines, even when 75% of tissue is lost, the human liver is capable of regenerating into a whole liver. Why shouldn’t we also be able to regenerate our hearts or other organs?

In the wild, humans lived, reproduced and died in order to acquire a gene like the one that favors our consumption of green plants. However, the gene-based model of replication is being replaced by the meme model. In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to describe a unit of cultural transmission such as ideas, beliefs, stories, songs or patterns of behavior. Like genes in the bodies of humans, memes are “hosted” in one or more minds; memes can be reproduced from mind to mind through imperfect imitation.

Nowadays, we can acquire traits via memes. In other words, another person can advise you to eat green plants and you can follow that advice. You can learn not to step in front of a train, not to eat toxic materials and to seek out knowledge simply be communicating with other people. While you can’t learn to be 6’ 7”, natural selection through memes favors immortality through knowledge. The longer you live, the wiser you’ll be.

DOI: 10.3907/DO10J18

Originally published in The Journal of the Palo Alto Institute on October 1, 2010.