Science," however you unpack that charged concept, touches pretty much every aspect of our lives these days. Isn't it surprising, then, how little you read about it in Christian magazines, except in connection with a handful of hot-button issues? If only Christianity Today's budget permitted, the magazine could employ a full-time science editor to keep up with breaking news, hang out with researchers at work, attend the occasional conference, and read, read, read, for we live in a golden age of science-writing, and there would be no shortage of material worth passing on to a larger audience.
Maybe an enlightened donor will step up. In the meantime, let me tell you about one exceptionally good book that touches on matters of interest to us all: Jonathan Weiner's Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality (Ecco). Weiner's narrative deftly interweaves three strands: an overview of human speculation on aging and the prospects for immortality, from antiquity to the present, mixed with his own reflections on mortality and the meaning of our lives; an introduction to the scientific study of aging, with an emphasis on the findings and controversies of recent decades; and an up-close portrait of one long-bearded maverick, Aubrey David Nicholas Jasper de Grey, obsessed with life extension and the quest for virtual immortality.
Weiner's perspective is that of a thoroughly secularized Jewish intellectual, deeply conversant with modern science (especially biology), which has been his province as a writer, but also knowledgeable in other spheres. He is well aware of Christian teachings about death and the afterlife, and he alludes to them on several occasions, but they don't figure significantly in his account. ("For us—for my crowd, at least," he remarks late in the book, "when arguments turn cosmic, the great contraries in life tend to be material.")
"We are always dying," Weiner writes, "and always reborn. And that is living. Our bodies are not finished products but works in progress, works continually being dismantled and repaired, rebuilt and restored, destroyed and healed at every moment in the act of living."
But as we age, the balance gradually shifts: more is being dismantled than is being repaired. Why is that so? Can anything be done about it? Weiner surveys opposing big-picture views. On the one hand, there's the notion that aging and death itself can be explained in strict Darwinian terms as adaptations: "accomplishments that we complicated creatures should be proud of. Amoebae and other single-celled organisms are forced to remain immortal because they do nothing but divide and divide." And on the other hand, there's the seemingly outrageous suggestion that "aging is just an accident."
But it's not at all outrageous, if, as Stephen Jay Gould has argued, we human beings ourselves are "glorious accidents." In the alternative understanding of aging and death passionately advocated by Aubrey de Grey,
The project of eternal youth and perpetual health becomes as plausible as any other human dream that evolution itself has not granted us but that we might have some hope, with industry and luck, to arrange for ourselves, like flying through the air, or curing the whooping cough, or making life so comfortable that most of us can expect to reach the age of eighty.
Many gerontologists, whatever their opinions about such controversies, are working on a much more modest scale. Weiner visits Janet Sparrow, for instance, a Columbia University researcher who is "trying to find ways to prevent one of the common vision problems of old age, macular degeneration. It is a simple case of the simplest aging problem, the problem of clearing away debris as we get older." And yet as Weiner shows, even this "simple problem"—one that has troubled my 87-year-old mother—is fiendishly complicated. Thanks to the painstaking work of researchers like Sparrow, the threat of this particular affliction may one day be greatly reduced, as so many ills have been tamed, and subsequent generations will take the result for granted.
What Sparrow is seeking to accomplish on a very small scale, Aubrey de Grey envisions for the whole human organism. For the details of his current plan (he calls it WILT: Whole-Body Interdiction of Lengthening of Telomeres), you'll have to read the book. Suffice it to say that his SENS (Strategies for Engineering Negligible Senescence) are not likely to be effected anytime soon.
Aubrey (as Weiner refers to him) is the reason that, improbable as it may seem, one can imagine Long for this World inspiring a movie. You won't quickly forget the picture of him sitting across the table from Weiner in the Cambridge pub frequented by Watson and Crick when they were trying to figure out the structure of DNA. Stroking and twining his beard ("it pools in his lap when he sits down"), Aubrey presents his theories with an arrogant assurance that brooks no dissent, all the while downing pint after pint of ale. (Aubrey drinks beer the way I drank coffee before aging caught up with me. And this is the man obsessed with the "junk" that fouls our bodies as we age? Hmmm.)
If Aubrey does make it to the big screen, moviegoers won't need to bring Kleenex. His story is a weird cross-breeding of A Beautiful Mind with something along the lines of Charles Portis's novel Masters of Atlantis, with plenty of sheer nuttiness. If you have a weakness for tales of brilliant, eccentric autodidacts, especially of the British variety (and more especially of brilliant, eccentric autodidacts who never learned to drive), you won't want to miss it (the book or the movie).
In part, it's a deeply creepy story. In the utopian future Aubrey envisions, "human life would be completely transformed, of course. Among other things, virtually everyone on the planet would feel as Aubrey did [that is, as Aubrey does right now], that there was little point in having children, because there was so much to do. Each of us would feel that we had so much life ahead to enjoy just for ourselves." In short, the European Union's dream of heaven on earth, taken to its logical conclusion.
In "The Trouble with Immortality," his next-to-last chapter, Weiner dissents from Aubrey's gospel, but much of his dissent is based on "a dread of eternal repetition," a sense that eternal life would be boring. He quotes a number of people who share this sentiment, including the philosopher Bernard Williams: "Immortality, or a state without death, would be meaningless."
Ah. Well, if Bernard Williams said so, it must be true. But I must say that I have never found the prospect of eternal life boring, and that I have never understood why this assertion is regarded with more seriousness than we would accord to some restless fellow who announced (as many do, often in a tone dripping with contempt) that life right now is boring, so boring. And perhaps that's why, on the last page of the book, even as he rejects Aubrey's promise of immortality, Weiner confesses: "I'm surprised to find myself wavering. Maybe I'm half of the devil's party without knowing it."
Weiner's book appears at a moment when many Christian thinkers contend that we as believers are too much preoccupied with promises of endless felicity under the larches of paradise. They claim that this overemphasis on the afterlife grossly distorts the gospel, interfering with our ability to fully participate in God's kingdom here and now. With all due respect, I wonder what they are talking about. Too much talk about heaven? Not in my neighborhood.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
Other articles on immortality include:
Go Gently into That Good Night | Fear of mortality lies at the root of our bioethics confusion. A Christianity Today editorial. (Jan. 2, 2007)
The Techno Sapiens Are Coming | When God fashioned man and woman, he called his creation very good. Transhumanists say that, by manipulating our bodies with microscopic tools, we can do better. Are we ready for the great debate? (January 2004)
Heavenly Bodies | What do we gain from a bodily resurrection? (February 2003)
How Immortality Almost Killed Me | My quest for immortality and lasting significance reflects the fact that God has put eternity in the human heart. (March 3, 1997)
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