(John Clark)

Mr. Natural

Forget the creepy promise of techno-longevity. Instead, take our advice: Live fast, die hard, and leave behind a worn-out, used-up, good-looking corpse.

Bill McKibben

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IT WAS 7:15 ON A GRAY WINTER MORNING, and I was walking across an icy parking lot at the Lahey Clinic, outside Boston, when I slipped and went down hard. Banged but not broken, I jumped up in the cartoon-quick way that guys do, as if to imply that I hadn’t actually fallen but was just making a planned reconnaissance of the pavement. It was precisely the kind of accident that I’d had my share of in my first 40 years. A fluke, an outlier, unpredictable.

I was headed in for a full-day battery of tests. Lahey is a vast medical city, its walls filled with posters reminding patients that U.S. News & World Report ranked it one of America’s top hospitals, a Harvard of healing. Partly I was there as a reporter, finishing work on a book about the efforts of technoscientists to use genes, nanotechnology, and other new disciplines to keep us alive and young forever. But mostly I was there as a recent arrival at that milestone that is 40, ready for my first real overhaul—an “executive physical,” they call it. Looked at another way, I was there for my entrance exam into a statistical universe I’ll inhabit for the rest of my life.

Your first four decades are the random decades. Maybe you slip on that patch of ice, maybe your SUV rolls into a ditch. But nothing medically serious happens to a large enough group of people to amount to a statistic worth knowing; the leading causes of death are still things like accidents, homicide, suicide, infectious disease. But slowly, subtly, sometime around midlife, your particular data points start to arrange themselves on the larger human curve. Flukes settle into probabilities, percentages. The doctor wants to start tracking your good cholesterol, your bad cholesterol. If you are a male, this new world hits home the first time someone in a white coat puts a glove on and tells you to bend over. (“Mildly enlarged,” my Lahey doctor, internist John Przybylski, told me. “You have to get up at night to pee? That’s your prostate knocking at the door.”) By the end of my day at Lahey, after I’d been through half a dozen tests—from X-ray (obvious signs of arthritis around my lowest vertebra) to colonoscopy to allergy (lung capacity starting to decrease)—the avuncular Dr. P. promised we’d be able to calculate how likely I was to die of a heart attack by the age of 50.

My results were not all that startling, or all that bad, just the first inexorable signs of what could only be termed decline. All on schedule—but that was the point. My body was now on a schedule. “We’re here to talk to you about the next 40 or 50 years of your life,” the doctor said as he picked up my chart. Looking a little more closely at the dates, he corrected himself subtly: “The next 30 or 40 or 50 years of your life.”

THIS, OF COURSE, is the great boomer bummer. Most of us alive today can reasonably expect to live to 75, while at the turn of the last century the average American dropped dead at 47. But that great leap in life expectancy won’t repeat itself in this millennium—it came with revolutions in sanitation and antibiotics. Even if we wiped out cancer, we’d add only a couple of years to the average lifespan. But that doesn’t mean we’re going quietly into the good night. Not us—we’re entitled; we’ve got technology. Never mind Viagra. It gets way, way weirder than that.

A confluence of new technological developments has suddenly led some from this generation to imagine that there might be an escape clause, a way out of mortality altogether. It doesn’t take much poking around the techie Web sites to find people dreaming hard about physical immortality. And their dreams sound increasingly more like science fiction than science.

Consider, for example, Dr. Michael West, the head of a Massachusetts company called Advanced Cell Technology, which in 2001 (a year before the Raelian UFO cult’s Clonaid claimed to have done so) cloned a human embryo. West didn’t grow it into a baby, partly because he has other things in mind. Some of those things involve curing diseases—he’d like to harvest stem cells from cloned embryos to see if they’re of use in the fight against, say, Parkinson’s disease. But right about there, West parts company with what we normally consider medicine. He has told one interviewer after another that what he’s really interested in is keeping humans alive—and young—forever. A team of biologists who worked for him at another corporation managed to synthesize telomerase, the enzyme that keeps cells from dying off after so many divisions. Now he’s imagining “making body components one by one,” each of them “made young by cloning. Then our body would be made young again segmentally, like an antique car is restored by exchanging failed components.”
Such sentiments are not uncommon. At a conference on advanced technology in 1999, University of California at San Francisco molecular geneticist Cynthia Kenyon explained how she had dramatically extended the lives of a class of worms. It was, she told her fellow researchers, as if a nonagenarian suddenly looked forty-something. “Just imagine it: I’m 90,” said the 45-year-old scientist. And if genes won’t do the whole trick, researchers are ready with a wide array of other plans. Nanotechnologists—who manipulate matter at the atomic and molecular levels—believe that their tiny machines will soon be able to patrol the bloodstream, constantly repairing damage and eventually replacing all the functions of the circulatory system. When a nanotechnologist was asked in a recent New York Times article if he would miss the beat of the unneeded heart, he said no: “The noise in my ears keeps me up when I try to go to sleep.”

A few years ago, Alcor Life Extension Foundation, the Scottsdale, ArizonaÐbased cryonics company that is reportedly storing Red Sox legend Ted Williams’s frozen carcass, was investigated for freezing the head of an 83-year-old woman before she was declared legally dead. Alcor’s attorney called in depositions from top scientists; Eric Drexler, the father of nanotechnology, asserted that “future medicine will one day be able to build cells, tissues, and organs to repair damaged tissues.” Hans Moravec, head of the Mobile Robot Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, in Pittsburgh, took the idea further. “It requires only a moderately liberal extrapolation of present technical trends,” he said, “to admit the future possibility of reversing the effects of particular diseases, of aging, and of death, as currently defined.”

It is at least possible, in other words, that we stand somewhere near the dawn of that great human dream, life eternal. So why does it sound a little…nasty?

ALWAYS BEFORE, life has meant passing through. Making way for those who will come after. Coming to terms with decline. Living intensely in the moments we get. Accepting that the day will come when, instead of telemarking off the icy cornice, we’ll rock by the fire and remember telemarking off the icy cornice. Understanding that, like everything before us, we will rot our way back into the woof and warp of the planet. That’s what humans are: animals that can anticipate their demise.

And being human has always meant being, in some irreducible way, yourself. Not a genetically programmed machine designed for maximum performance, not an interface with silicon or with nanomachines giving you more power by orders of magnitude. That basic identification—I am me—is the reason that, in the end, activities like sports have real meaning. Otherwise it doesn’t mean much to accomplish anything, because who is it doing the accomplishing?

Think I’m exaggerating? The same theorists working to get rid of the human heart are also busy imagining sports the new breed of humans—or semi-robots—might want to play. “This could be an especially interesting prospect for highly dangerous activities you might not otherwise have the nerve to try,” writes nanotech pioneer Robert Freitas in his essay “The Birth of the Cyborg.” Boxing, parachuting, mountaineering. In such a world, people could “feel reckless,” Freitas says, “without risking personal harm.” Without, in other words, it meaning a thing. You could be Super Mario.

OR YOU COULD CHOOSE otherwise and be yourself. As the afternoon at Lahey wore on, there was one exam left: the stress test. I stripped down to my shorts while a pretty nurse shaved my chest and hooked me up to a set of monitors. I climbed aboard the treadmill and began to walk, in accordance with the standard Bruce protocol for the Treadmill Exercise Stress Test, beginning at 1.7 miles per hour on a 10 percent grade and getting steeper and harder every three minutes. But—and this will amaze health club athletes—you get to hold on to the front bar. It’s true that by the time the 21 minutes were up, my forearms were cramping. But it’s also true that I was going six miles per hour up a 22 percent grade. And I was still able to wheeze “No problem” every time the nurse asked me how I was doing. I aced the test—me, my own out-the-door-every-afternoon-for-a-run-bike-ski self.

“Now I’ll be able to say yes when people ask if anyone’s ever gotten all the way through,” the nurse said. Could one impress pretty nurses with a nonbeating nanoheart? Could one impress oneself? When I sat down with the doctor, we looked over all my numbers and calculated that there was a 3 percent chance I’d die of a coronary before the decade was out. Three percent’s not nothing, and in the next decade it will get higher, and the decade after that, and then, by God, it will someday happen. But I’ll take it. I can deal with being a real human.

From Outside Magazine, May 2003 Lead Photo: John Clark

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