The Quest For Immortality

Concerns about human mortality date back at least 20,000 years when Cro-Magnons, the first Homo sapiens, prepared one of their own for burial. Cro-Magnon funerals are taken as evidence by anthropologists that those people thought like us. They knew about death, and in their sorrow, they adorned the corpse with prized possessions, possibly thinking they would be of use in a spiritual afterlife. In grieving for their lost loved ones, Cro-Magnons were drawn to a quest for immortality, but one that dealt with the soul rather than the body.

Distant relatives of the Cro-Magnons, living 4,000 years ago in Egypt, carried on the same tradition but on a colossal scale. Egyptian pharaohs were buried with all their worldly possessions and even a little food to see them on their way. According to their mythology, the dead, if accepted, could pass to the spirit world of the sun god, Amun-Ra, and his sister, Amunet, where they would live for eternity. The practice of burying the dead with all their belongings disappeared down through the millennia, but many people still believe in the eternal life of chosen spirits.

With the rise of science, and the appearance of powerful medical therapies, the quest for immortality has shifted from the spiritual to the physical. Although the origins of the scientific method can be traced back to the time of the Cro-Magnons, it did not assume its present form until the 20th century. Indeed, historians have noted that 90 percent of all scientists who have ever lived are still alive today.

The accomplishments of Louis Pasteur and other microbiologists at the turn of the last century and the explosive growth in biological research since then have provided cures for many terrible diseases: diphtheria, polio, and smallpox, to name but a few. These triumphs have given us reason to hope that someday we will be able to reverse the effects of age. If protozoans can live millions of years, why not the human body?

But so far, all attempts at physical rejuvenation have failed. Many such attempts date back to the turn of the early 1900s and involved the use of concoctions, potions, and even radioactive cocktails, often with disastrous results. One such concoction, popular in the 1920s, was Tho-Radia, a skin cream containing thorium and radium, two radioisotopes discovered by the great French physicist Marie Curie. The radioactive material was supposed to have an antiaging effect on the skin, but their use was abandoned when Curie and other scientists working with radioisotopes began having serious medical problems. Madame Curie developed cataracts, kidney failure, and a fatal leukemia, all from overexposure to radioactive materials.

More recently, a new wave of antiaging therapies have been developed, employing everything from a shift in lifestyle to specific hormone supplements. Antiaging creams are still with us, only now the active ingredient is retinoic acid (vitamin A) instead of radium. Whether any of these treatments will be successful is in doubt, but the failures so far are like the first tentative steps of a toddler. We are only beginning to understand the tremendous complexities of the cell and the way an organism changes with time. As our science matures, we may be able to reverse some effects of age, but whether this leads to physical immortality is a hotly debated topic at the present time.

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