When Adam and Eve ignored God’s warnings and ate from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, God is reported to have said:
The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.
To this end:
After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
But a growing number of experts are convinced that some combination of fruit and vegetable smoothies, radical low-calorie diets, raw food ‘Primal’ diets, hormone injections, or advanced biotechnology can sneak us back into the Garden, promising “virtual immortality before the end of the century.” As one doctor of immortality explained: “It’s nonsensical to believe nature, God, whatever, created life only to allow it to end after a set period of time […] A living being, once created, should be allowed to live indefinitely, or — put it another way — should not be allowed to die. Otherwise, what was the point of creating it in the first place?”
Indeed, the apparent absurdity of death has, in all seriousness, been the subject of not insignificant reflection and debate among humans for at least as long as I can remember. Nor is it only in modern times that human beings have turned their attention to the prospect of defying death and attaining immortality. For example, during the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.) nine brothers in south-east China reportedly succeeded in creating the elixir of immortality and, to celebrate their achievement, rode into heaven on nine giant carp. The nine He brothers were, unfortunately, the exception rather than the rule. Chinese elixirs of immortality tended to suffer from an over-reliance on mercury, lead and arsenic; the life-extending properties of which are not immediately evident to the modern mind.
Perhaps some of our modern day immortalists would find more in common with the “internal” school of Chinese Alchemy which sought to preserve health and attain “spiritual” immortality through particular physical, mental, and spiritual exercises; think “Chinese yoga”. Of course, “spiritual” immortality was surely not as attractive as actual immortality, but at least it didn’t require the ingestion of mercury sulphide. Then again, taking a chance with mercury sulphide might not seem so bad when the modern alternative could include a lifetime of fruit smoothies or the regular ingestion of raw meat.
What really sets the contemporary search for immortality apart from its historic precursors is the engagement with modern science. If there is a way to achieve immortality, dramatically extend human lifespans, or at least conserve physical health into old age, we are much more likely to find it via scientific methods than through the extremely haphazard methodology of the alchemists. It is solely due to modern biology that we can comprehend the nature of death on a physical level, and thereby define the problem that our would-be immortals hope to resolve.
Despite being so well equipped by modern science, we are nevertheless at one of the worst points in history to comprehend the spiritual or existential significance of the problem of death. Not because we lack the time or the intelligence, but because we lack the will to engage in this kind of question. In the present age technology comes first, meaning comes later, and ethics is an optional afterthought. First we must achieve immortality, then we can decide what it means, then we can argue pointlessly over whether or not it was a good idea.
Regardless of whether you think the Genesis story divinely inspired or merely a treasured cultural insight, in its full context it tells us that there is something fundamentally wrong with the human condition, and that this wrongness precedes human death. Death is not the problem, in other words, but a crude and unfortunate solution. Likewise, the Chinese alchemists – when they weren’t convincing emperors to eat their mercury-laden concoctions – seemed to understand that death was a consequence of the human spirit wrongly expended through fruitless efforts. Hence the internal school’s preoccupation with reversing this loss of vitality and returning to the state of an innocent child.
For a modern audience these themes translate into a simple heuristic: the kinds of people most interested in becoming immortal are not the kinds of people we would like to have around forever. The evidence for this is simple but compelling. First, bring to mind the kindest, most loving, humble, and all-round virtuous people you know – the kind of person who inspires you with their goodness. Now, imagine these people announcing to you that they have decided to a) drink nothing but smoothies for the rest of their life, b) eat nothing but raw food for the rest of their life, c) dramatically reduce their caloric intake for the rest of their life, d) take daily hormone injections for the rest of their life, or e) undergo experimental anti-aging drug treatments, all with the express intention of living forever.
What this little thought experiment should demonstrate is that the kinds of people we would most like to live forever are those least likely to want to do so. At the heart of the matter is an inverse relationship between human virtue and seeking immortality. What separates the virtuous from those anxious to defy death is, in my experience, the virtue of humility. The humble are those who see themselves as they really are, without pretensions of grandeur. They recognise their own faults and are thereby, paradoxically, preserved from one of the ugliest faults of all: the kind of vain narcissism in which we find ourselves worthy of living forever.
Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.