Interesting to see someone as establishment as Safire getting the idea.
January 1, 2000
ESSAY / By WILLIAM SAFIRE
WASHINGTON -- Of all the instincts in animals, the strongest
is the will to survive. In the human animal, that inborn
defense is sometimes overcome by the maternal instinct,
by love of country or comrades in battle, or by an illness like
depression. But in most of us, nothing makes the weak strong or
the fearful brave as much as our bodies' innate drive to stay alive.
Because of that survival instinct, in the millennium to come a
curious question will occupy the minds of our descendants. It
seems almost nutty to ask it today, but tomorrow's question will be:
One sober-sided school of scientific thought holds that Homo
sapiens sapiens, our species now celebrating its 100th millennium,
is born with an inner clock. That genetic clock directs our cells not
only to grow but to age and decay. It is set to run no more than 120
or 130 years.
Few of us live to that full span because of illness, accident or war.
But the clear trend is toward filling up more of that span: in the past
century alone, life expectancy in the U.S. has gone from 46 to 76.
Now add the ingredient of diseaselessness: conservative scientists
say that in the coming century cures will be found for the leading
killers -- heart disease, cancer and stroke -- and genetically
influenced diseases will be engineered out of existence.
With the major killers gone, and with organ transplants or prosthetic
innards replacing worn-out human parts, more people will be
pushing up against that presumed clock. Centenarians will be
Now take the leap: What if the hypothesis of the clock-watchers is
mistaken? As the lengthening of life in the 20th century showed us,
a life span of "three score and ten" is not the most reliable prediction
in the Bible. Where is it written in our genes that a signal will direct
our bodies to close up shop at 120?
I put that question to the great Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Dr. Guy
McKhann. He and his wife, Prof. Marilyn Albert, the new head of the
Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute in Boston, are completing
a book about the untapped potential of the aging brain. (They are
"experts on aging"; never call them "aging experts.")
"Maybe you're asking the wrong question," says Dr. McKhann.
"Assume there is some finite span of time set by an internal clock,
as studies of other species suggest. Then the real question
becomes: Can we reset the clock?"
That's what all the recent excitement among scientists over stem
cells is about. If the next-to-last year of the second millennium is
remembered for anything, it will be for the discovery of the human
body's ability to regenerate itself.
These stem cells -- non-differentiated globs of cells that divide
randomly and blossom into nerve or muscle or brain cells -- are
being shown to be a source of replacement of dead or dying cells.
We never thought that to be possible. These wild-card cells may be
found not just in embryos but in adult bodies, and could, in effect,
reset the clock -- time and again, doubling and redoubling the life
span. Ponce de León's fountain of youth may be within our reach.
"Some organs, like the liver, will be relatively easy to regenerate,"
says Dr. McKhann. "The brain is harder, but we should be able to
replace parts of the brain afflicted with diseases, as well as to
improve short- and long-term memory in the renewing brain."
At a millennium's turn, we can think even bigger. If the instinct for
survival remains paramount, most of the geezers of the next few
hundred years will want to stick around. At first, that seems
troubling; as the Ira Gershwin lyric observed: "Methusaleh lived 900
years. / But who calls dat livin' / when no gal'll give in / to no man
what's 900 years?"
Answer: For future people, doddering will no longer be an option.
Throw out those second-millennium images of codgers in
wheelchairs staring at the wall. The Gramps of a century or so from
now will be swiveling on the dance floor with his replacement hips
and fresh lungs and newly enlivened brain and pocketful of potency
Granted, as mortality recedes and babies keep coming, it could get
a little crowded here. After the population of earth reaches 30 billion,
what then? Solution: Start shipping the spry old folks out on a
mission to colonize the solar system. "Happy 200th birthday,
Grandma -- here's your ticket to Mars, and say hello to your parents
This calendar-induced speculation is not directed at those of us
today who will probably keel over even before our genetic clocks run
out. But for those readers of a distant tomorrow who will flip back
through the millennia to access The New York Times Archive, one
will say, "You know, this fellow was incredibly prescient." And
another will respond, with all human skepticism, "Sure, he was right
-- but do you really want to live forever?"
-- Doug Jones Rocket Plumber, XCOR Aerospace http://www.xcor-aerospace.com
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