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If Death Is Natural Then Why Are Some Immortal?

Fotolia_46534404_XSWoody Alen famously quipped that he doesn’t want to accomplish immortality through his work but through not dying. But we are often told that death is natural. Much of the time the statement is left hanging without support as if it is totally obvious. Occasionally, someone will go the extra mile by repeating the (Buddhist?!) mantra that everything and everyone born will die and become food and/or raw material for the next generation – the proverbial great circle of live.

But the above claim is at best incomplete. And, at worse, totally false. First of all it doesn’t acknowledge or explain the great variability of life spans we find out there in the “natural world.” Why, for example, some creatures live many times the average human life? What is it that makes them better, more natural, more suited to or worthy of longer lives than us? Why is it natural for a sea shell or a sponge to live for 400 or 1,500 years respectively, while humans are “naturally” capped at 100 or so?

Secondly, and more importantly, what about the growing list of organisms that have skipped the philosophical debate altogether and have already embraced different versions of biological immortality?! Is that a sign that, having realized they will never achieve immortality through their work, those organisms had no other option but to go for the real thing?!

If death is natural then why do some organisms seem to be immortal?

If you are not familiar with those creatures here is a short list:

Immortal-Jellyfish-thumb1. The Turritopsis Nutricula aka the Immortal Jellyfish: Technically known as a hydrozoan, it is the only known animal that is capable of reverting completely to its younger self. The jellyfish does this through the cell development process of transdifferentiation. Scientists believe the cycle can repeat indefinitely, rendering it potentially immortal. [The main issue often raised by critics with this process is one of identity – is the offspring considered to be the same specimen or not. Most biologists argue that it isn’t. In fact, bacteria are also said to be biologically immortal, but only at the level of the colony, since the two daughter bacteria resulting from cell division of a parent bacterium can be regarded as unique individuals.]

Hydra2. The Hydra is a genus of small, simple, fresh-water animals that possess radial symmetry. Hydra are predatory animals belonging to the phylum Cnidaria and the class Hydrozoa. They can be found in most unpolluted fresh-water ponds, lakes, and streams in the temperate and tropical regions and can be found by gently sweeping a collecting net through weedy areas. They are multi-cellular organisms which are usually a few millimeters long and are best studied with a microscope. Biologists are especially interested in Hydra due to their regenerative ability; and that they appear not to age or to die of old age.

Echiniscus3. Tardigrades (commonly known as waterbears or moss piglets) are small, water-dwelling, segmented animals with eight legs. Tardigrades are notable for being one of the most complex of all known polyextremophiles. (An extremophile is an organism that can thrive in a physically or geochemically extreme condition that would be detrimental to most life on Earth.) For example, tardigrades can withstand temperatures from just above absolute zero to well above the boiling point of water, as well as pressures greater than any found in the deepest ocean trenches, ionizing radiation — at doses hundreds of times higher than would kill a person and have lived through the vacuum of outer space. They can go without food or water for nearly 120 years, drying out to the point where they are 3% or less water, only to rehydrate, forage, and reproduce.

Candy stripe flatworm4. Planarian flatworms: Planarian flatworms appear to exhibit an ability to live indefinitely and have an “apparently limitless [telomere] regenerative capacity fueled by a population of highly proliferative adult stem cells.”

Planaria can be cut into pieces, and each piece can regenerate into a complete organism. Cells at the location of the wound site proliferate to form a blastema that will differentiate into new tissues and regenerate the missing parts of the piece of the cut planaria. It’s this feature that gave them the famous designation of being “immortal under the edge of a knife.”

Very small pieces of the planarian, estimated to be as little as 1/279th of the organism it is cut from, can regenerate back into a complete organism over the course of a few weeks. New tissues can grow due to pluripotent stem cells that have the ability to create all the various cell types. These adult stem cells are called neoblasts, which comprise around 20% of cells in the adult animal. They are the only proliferating cells in the worm, and they differentiate into progeny that replace older cells. In addition, existing tissue is remodeled to restore symmetry and proportion of the new planaria that forms from a piece of a cut up organism. The organism itself does not have to be completely cut into separate pieces for the regeneration phenomenon to be witnessed. In fact, if the head of a planaria is cut in half down its centre, and each side retained on the organism, its possible for the planaria to regenerate two heads and continue to live.

Lobster5. Lobsters: Because they are prized as a delicacy seafood, most people are familiar with those large marine crustaceans – they have long bodies with muscular tails, and live in crevices or burrows on the sea floor. Three of their five pairs of legs have claws, including the first pair, which are usually much larger than the others. What most people don’t know, however, is that older lobsters are more fertile than younger lobsters. Lobsters also keep growing throughout life, don’t show any signs of ageing and have been reported to live 100 or even 200 hundred years before ending on someone’s dinner table.

In addition to the above five examples, there are a few other potential candidates that may have accomplished biological immortality. Some of the best known applicants are the Rougheye Rockfish, the Aldabra Giant Tortoise, the sea anemone and others. And chances are that we will continue to discover other similarly fascinating biologically immortal organisms.

Now, we have to be clear that biological immortality doesn’t mean actual immortality. There is a full spectrum of other causes that can lead to death. [For example, you can be a 200 year old fish or lobster and still get caught and eaten.] It is with this recognition in mind that Dr. Aubrey de Grey is very careful with the language he uses when describing his work – prolonging healthy life-span, defeating ageing etc. De Grey often stresses that he is not working on immortality because, for example, perfectly healthy people can and do get run over and killed by cars every day. So Aubrey insists on being clear that his work focuses on the internal, biological factors, and not the external ones, which are outside of his control. And it is the former that are usually associated with “the natural causes for death.”

But if they are so “natural” then why do some organisms seem to avoid them altogether?! And, more generally:

If death is natural then why are some biologically immortal?

To me the answer is clear – there is no such thing as “natural”! The world is full of diversity and organisms do what they can to adapt in the best way possible to ensure survival. Therefore I see absolutely nothing wrong or unnatural with us using smart technology to achieve biological immortality. There is not such thing as “natural death”. There is only death and a variety of causes that can lead to it. Just like we managed to eliminate death from the plague, we would eventually be able to eliminate death from old age. This may not mean the death of death proper but it will certainly go a long way because it will be the death of “natural death”!


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  • mijan126

    If we eliminate death from old age and health problems related to old age, then what will we do with our exploding population?

  • Thanks for asking this popular question friend.

    If you note the countries with the shortest lifespans are the ones with the population explosion.

    Let me say this the other way, there is a relationship between longevity and population growth in that in countries where people live longer and healthier lives there are much fewer births and no such thing as population explosion. In fact, quite often those countries have negative growth and can only grow their population via immigration from the second and third world.

    So, in my view the best way to take care of the population growth is to provide an environment where people can live more prosperous, better educated, healthy and long lives. Once you do that the population will, at least, stabilize. Some even argue that it will go negative like it is in Canada and Germany. So longevity is our friend, not the enemy. It is short lives that make people have many kids because they are unsure as to how many will survive…

  • Steve Morris

    If we can develop the technology to achieve biological immortality, then the technology needed to grow more food and build more houses sounds like a trivial extension.

  • Totally agree Steve. The same applies to abundance of energy which is needed for food and construction…

  • In addition, the Singularity provides more than enough capacity to support much larger populations, and to expand the sphere of the habitable, for example to the moon.

  • Energy is already infinite relative to our needs. Thorium nuclear, renewables… give solar another 10 years and it can mostly replace fossil fuel.

  • Dirrogate

    Also in addition to what Socrates said, don’t forget that with more intelligent people, we can spread out to other “heavenly” bodies… the moon etc.
    Technology will have advanced far enough to first spread out the population to so-called un-inhabitable regions of the Earth and then onward onto other self sustaining colonies on the moon if need be.

    Long lifespans does not mean we breed like a bunch of rabbits.

  • Pawelotti

    Let us not forget that we shall be colonizing space too. There is more than enough room for us.

  • thefermiparadox

    I always find it peculiar when most people’s first thought about this subject is questions regarding the negatives consequences. Really interesting, especially due to the positive outcomes beat the negative by a gigantic margin. And all the questions on the “negative or neutral” consequences can be easily dealt with. We are talking about what we cherish most and we all strive to not die every day. Basically we will figure it he change in society like we always have. Our species is ingrained with fear of change but we always do and it’s usually always for the better. This issue should be number one before everything else. Death takes all meaning from life. Lets not pretend otherwise.

  • Berradaaa

    Immortally is the thing we should think about it …, we can also revive all our ancestors …, keep in mind with science there is nothing can be considered as : impossible or can’t be done …, do not forget we have kinda an unlimited space.

  • Wholewitt

    Moving people off earth is not feasible unless we have unlimited energy. This may be possible with LENR but yet to be shown. Most likely are small colonies on the moon and Mars. They will grow themselves, you will never move millions of people from earth much less billions..
    You only need population growth using the exponential growth model we have now which leads to disaster. Prolonging life will create many problems and there will be a population increase as long as food is available. Just take Mormons as one example, there is no reason for them to have large families but they do. Or look at the resources used to care for old people now. I could go on but only improving quality of life, not the length, is a good course until population is greatly lowered.

  • LoveYourDNA

    If we don’t get our psychology in line with our technology, we’re doomed. We can make all the scientific advancements in the world, but if we continue to allow our pea brains to hold us back what’s the use?

  • LoveYourDNA

    Exactly! We’re putting the cart before the horse. We need to be able to sustain said population without killing Mother Earth BEFORE we start talking about immortality!

  • Totally agree with you friend! Plus, as we know biology moves very slowly. So, the only way we can grow our brains is with technology.

  • thefermiparadox

    Well said. Amen 🙂

  • doctorzen

    I wrote about lobster longevity here: http://bit.ly/14DH77P

    Smithsonian blog has another long post by other crustacean biologists: http://bit.ly/15yrDCi

    There is NO evidence that lobsters live hundreds of years. The best estimates for clawed lobsters are 50 years for males and maybe 70 years for females, tops. For Caribbean spiny lobster, the best estimate is about 20 years.

    The greater fertility probably doesn’t correct for body size: lobsters carry eggs under tail; eggs are all about the same size; bigger tail means more eggs. In crayfish, when you correct for size, reproduction stays about the same per body mass throughout life.

    I haven’t had a chance to track down the data for the other four examples. As with the lobster, I suspect there is less than meets the eye.

  • JosephManuel

    Let us say death is unnatural and then try to prove it rather than saying death is natural. We are responsible for our flawed mental models not nature

  • Well, I tried to begin doing that friend, though the focus was on deconstructing the popular dominating presumption of the naturalness of death…

  • Bill

    Anyone read what he wrote about the lobsters? I understand what is the focus, but here appear a question, what this animals can be use for a scientific arguments ? ( consider that they aren’t immortals, but yes, just not aging)

    ps: I’m from Brazil, sorry if my English is bad

  • munkyBeatz

    Good statement Socrates! There is a direct correlation between education/development/wealth/etc and birth rates. Third world countries have higher birth rates due to the simple fact that they generally need as many children as possible to help support the family by working. It was the same in the US, where it was the norm for a family to have 6 or more children not too long ago. As countries advance, adults make more educated decisions in relation to birth control and planned pregnancies.

  • Pingback: Death to Death! [I Won't Go Gentle Into That Good Night!]()

  • Christian

    I agree with Socrates, and answering wholwhit, YES, we CAN NOT move million of people from earth, but we can establish a limit to the number of people that can live on earth, it means the number of people that the earth is capable to carry on, based on the earth resources (please look for The Venus Project, Resource Based Economy) So if there are too many people we can move these people to another places (planets moons, I don’t know) a little bit each travel(we are inmortal at this point so there is no reason to desperation) until the number of people on earth is the estimated for earth, and if you are thinking how we could reach other planets, well let me share good news, lately a new type of ION ENGINE was develped, it is called VASIMR(look up in google) That is capable to travel from earth to mars in just 36 days, and with less fuel, and smaller, JUST WITH ONE ENGINE, just imagine if we make bigger engines an put like 12 of these bigger engines on a ship, on it’s web page it is said that with bigger engines it could reach 80%of lightspeed, and could reach Alfa Centauris in just 40 days…coreect me if I’m Wrong, and please forgive my bad english, it is not my mother tongue…

  • Brendan Bone

    Of course there is such thing as natural, what a stupid conclusion, just because some creatures have biological immortality, doesn’t mean that natural doesn’t exist. Everything is natural, if there happens to be biologically immortal creatures then that is natural obviously. It is because you have incorrect presumptions on what natural is, just because someone says its natural to die doesn’t mean it is natural to die. Don’t blame nature because of your own misunderstanding of the concept.

  • Jordan Winkler

    What we have always done. Put smart people to work to increase production of food. Living a long time is the same effect as having a kid to replace you. Also space is pretty big.

  • Jordan Winkler

    Solar is better off planet though. Here it at even the theoretical 100% absorption will not beat fossil fuel when quick energy is desired.

  • Matt Rowland

    As Socrates said, bacteria are “immortal.”

    It seems the telos of human evolution — after we hack genetics & nano-tech — will be to become post-humans that are MORE LIKE bacteria. Bacteria have been here longer than anything else alive.

    I think after the genetic/cyber singularity, biological
    humans (to the extent biology still exists) will be more like
    hyper-“intelligent” (yet without “thought”) bacteria, reproducing asexually.

    Sex will be a redundant, obsolete technology. We will instead be able to clone ourselves rapidly, exchanging DNA via transduction rather than
    sex — with very high variations in phenotype (any number of arms, legs,
    heads, ad infinitum), feeding off the external environment w/out

    What do you think?

    Humans aren’t going to stay humans. Why would they?

    The asexually self-replicating post-human “humans” will of course be
    immortal (unlike bacteria), but networked in colony/colonies. They’ll be
    alive, but won’t need “thought” because of the collapse of the
    traditional consciousness gap between observer & observed.

    Thanks, all the best,

  • Matt Rowland

    In other words, a “singularity” is defined as the closing of a “loop”….

    What loop?… The loop of consciousness — i.e. a being that observes something external in time.

    The singularity is the telos of the most essential drives of all technology: namely, toward immortality, self-replication and freedom from suffering.

    Thus (see below) we will become more like bacteria. That is the utopia we are talking about.

    We won’t have consciousness, we won’t experience time, but we may still be alive and immortal.

  • Matt Rowland

    Does anyone here dig Marshall McLuhan?

    With the Singularity is also the ultimate telos of McLuhan’s aphorism “The
    Medium is the Message.”

    If we see “technology” as adaptation for survival – then the
    following principles of scientific “progress” will surely
    continue us on an evolution to something much more complex but
    ultimately analogous to bacteria in all their diversity:

    Fundamental principles – Scientific “progress” pursues the same drives as Evolution:

    1. immortality
    2. self-replication
    3. freedom from suffering

    According to these principles, bacteria are the most successful – possibly
    the most “intelligent”? – species then, now and after the

    See my comment below for how humans will ultimately network our minds like a
    colony, eliminate the “need” for language, self-reproduce
    asexually, exhibit extremely high phenotypic diversity.

    The future of humanity – post-Singularity – will be achieving the
    bliss of bacteria.

    Bacteria are the most intelligent and least intelligent of organisms.

    Bacteria are the most alive and least alive of organisms.

    Such is the paradoxical, dual logic of the Singularity — when the observer collapses into the observed. So it will be with the post-human humans.

  • Actually, Allen was quoting Jack Benny, but whatever.

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