The idea that humans can live for ever has long been central to religion, But increasingly, it “has other devotees”. Progress in the nascent science of age-reversal has raised the prospect of extending lifespans considerably – even, some believe, to the point of immortality. In this absorbing book, the British journalist Peter Ward “delves into the origins of these beliefs and the science of purported cures for ageing”.
He discovers the “immortalists” to be a “motley crew of fringe scientists, cultish groups and tech billionaires”, many of whom stake their claims on obviously fraudulent therapies. Yet their beliefs are not quite “pure fantasy”. As the ageing process is better understood, it is quite conceivable that scientists will develop gene and stem-cell therapies that can, at least, slow it down. Ward is a “vivid storyteller”, and his portrait of this “diverse movement” is “fluent and balanced”.
One aim shared by many immortalists is to reach what is called “longevity escape velocity”, If people can live a few years extra, this theory holds, science will have discovered ways to extend their lives a little longer; and once they’ve lived that bit longer, science will have made another breakthrough – and “so on, ad infinitum”. Even so, many immortalists hedge their bets by arranging for their bodies to be cryogenically frozen should they die, Ward’s account of this technology is particularly illuminating. He recounts the “fiendishly comic” missteps made by the cryonics pioneers of the 1960s, and probes what he calls the “cryonicist mind”.
It’s tempting to dismiss immortalists as “American cranks”, But the movement’s most prominent member is in fact English. Aubrey de Grey – an Old Harrovian with a “luxuriant” beard – wrote its “sacred text”, The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Ageing, in 1999. And these days, immortalists are not all “mad scientist” types. Another of Ward’s subjects, the Spanish biochemist Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte (pictured), is a “chic 62-year-old with a commanding presence”. A director of the Jeff Bezos-backed Altos Labs in California, Izpisua has carried out “stunningly successful” anti-ageing experiments on mice, and states matter-of-factly that “within two decades, we will be able to prevent diseases and ageing”. Ward’s book is a “well-rounded” and often “jaw-dropping” guide to a fascinating subject.