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Immortality


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#1 DukeNukem

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Posted 15 March 2006 - 07:56 PM


Dying for Survival


Imagine an immortal animal. Evolution so fashioned his glands and organs that his parts replace themselves as soon as they cease to function. His teeth may wear down or be knocked out, but he always has another set handy. His joints never suffer from arthritis; his legs remain forever as springy as an adolescent's. His bones do not grow brittle or his skin flabby. Cataract is unknown to him. No plaques of cholesterol deposit on his arterial walls. His heart muscle and alveoli of his lungs renew themselves. He is invulnerable to cancer and all forms of viral, microbial, bacterial infection. He exists in total harmony with his environment--never too cold or hot, never hungry or thirsty, never wanting for oxygen. As he has no reason to die he doesn't, but lives on and on through the ages--growing a bit bored, perhaps, but animals seem to agree that life is better than death on almost any terms.

Has evolution ever produced such a prepossessing creature? Theoretically it should be possible for the various components of the endocrine system of an animal so efficiently to collaborate that physical obsolescence is simply banished from its life program. We know of certain plants--for example, lichens and the bristlecone pines of California's Inyo Forest--that live many thousands of years, near enough to immortality so far as animal lifespans are concerned. But the oldest animal of which there is a record seems to be a tortoise that managed to struggle through 150 years (plus, perhaps, another 25 years or so)--not all that much older than many old men.

Paradoxically, if immortality has ever been attained, it has quickly been eliminated, simply because immortality cannot survive. An immortal animal would be a dead animal--the representative of a vanished species. As we saw in the first volume of this series, Oasis in Space, as least four times in the past 600 million years the reef communities around the world have all been all but obliterated by upheavals in the environment still not completely understood. Skeletons of palm trees have been discovered in Antarctica. At one time there were meadowlands on that continent, now under hundreds of feet of ice, not unlike the plains of the American West. Faced with this dimension of drastic environmental transformation any immortal animal would be helpless. His ideal adjustment to the old environment spells certain extinction in the new. Locked into this "perfection," he cannot adjust. Immortal or not, he must die.

The mechanism by means of which the animal world responds to the challenges of a changing environment, and by means of which species establish themselves and adapt and survive, is the births and deaths of individual animals. There is no such thing as the perfect animal, much less the immortal one. But in any large population there is one individual with a thicker hide, another with a more flexible snout, another with a bigger cerebrum, another with the tendency to bear twins, another with sharper hearing. And so on. In other words, any successful species presents the environment not with an army of perfect individuals but with a smorgasbord of different characteristics dispersed through its membership. Then, when the environment challenges its species, the species has a chance to come up with an answer. If the weather grows cold, for example, the thick-skinned individuals will tend to make it, the thin-skinned ones to die out. As the cycles of sex, birth, and death follow one another down the generations eventually all members of the species carry the thicker skin and there is an adjusted balance between the demands of the environment and the capacities of the animal. The species has adapted and survived.

The process does not always work so simply. Immense as the dinosaur population was at the end of the Cretaceous Period, some 65 million years ago, the smorgasbord of natural variations within the species was too limited for the challenges the environment posed it. The dinosaurs had gone too far down one particular evolutionary road; unable as individuals and species to find a solution to the radically altered climate, they died out. And there are other factors which compromise or exaggerate the "normal" operations of natural selection. These belong to the story of evolution. But man is the great zoological eccentric who should command our attention here. For man's brain gives him tools with which to participate directly, consciously, in his own evolution. To start with, he has grown as interested, or almost interested, in individual survival as in species survival. Egged on by this concern for individual survival he has learned to screen himself from many of the "natural" agents of the selection process. Puerperal fever, tuberculosis, pneumonia, smallpox, diphtheria, plague--all these grim reapers which for thousands of years winnowed out the human species are mostly fears of the past. A boy who 150 years ago might have died f whooping cough can now live to maturity--perhaps to become a great physician who discovers the cure for yet another mankilling disease.

If man is a unique exception as an animal it is a recent phenomenon. He is what he is because of the loves and deaths and births of uncountable legions of animals who have lived and perished since the first tiny cells stirred in the ancient oceans 3 billion or so years ago. From these lowly entities the natural-selection process has moved man steadily forward: past the jellyfish and the mollusk, past the turnoffs to equally successful evolutionary strategies like the insects', into the early experimental chordates, the mammals with their invaluable specialty of caring for their young, to the primates--to himself! Trillions of generations, trillions of deaths--each on a small link in the chain of evolution, each one a survival-ticket for man. Biological sciences are only a few generations short of being able to interfere consciously with genetics and to produce eternal youth. If we are reasonable enough to avoid a nuclear holocaust and to control population, immortality will no more be a Utopian dream.


Introduction by Jacques Cousteau from the 1972 book series, "The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau" Volume 2.

Edited by dukenukem, 15 March 2006 - 08:06 PM.


#2 Live Forever

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Posted 15 March 2006 - 09:18 PM

But the oldest animal of which there is a record seems to be a tortoise that managed to struggle through 150 years (plus, perhaps, another 25 years or so)--not all that much older than many old men.


Got me to thinking what the oldest animal in the world was, so I googled it. There is a tortoise from Galapagos named Harriet who turned 175 in November. She used to belong to Darwin himself. Interesting...


:)

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#3 manofsan

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Posted 19 March 2006 - 06:48 PM

dukenukem,

If mankind develops the ability to alter itself genetically towards the goal of achieving immortality, then this ability to alter ourselves through technological means would then eclipse the gradualism of hereditary natural selection. And the traditional practice of brute force selection from diversity resulting from random processes could be overtaken by principles of engineering, which could eliminate a lot of useless combinatorial overhead.

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#4

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Posted 20 March 2006 - 08:15 AM

Wow Duke, I thought you wrote that yourself.. Thanks for sharing anyway. JC was a remarkable thinker (as well as explorer and documentary maker).

#5 DukeNukem

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Posted 20 March 2006 - 03:35 PM

I only wish I could write something this thoughtful! I posted this somewhere else, too, and here was my introduction to it:

While vacationing in Belize this January, at the resort's library I discovered a multi-volume set of oceanography books by the pioneering underwater explorer, Jacques Cousteau. By pure fate, the first one I picked up (there must've been 20+ volumes in the series) had the editorial below, regarding the role of mortality to the survival of all species on Earth, and Cousteau's consideration that one species alone should rise above the shackles of death.  I was so moved reading this, having been scribed some 34 years ago, by a gentleman clearly bravely wise beyond his time, that I asked to photocopy the relevant pages, and have recently typed them in. I was unable to find the article printed online, so this will likely be one of the few places it's can still be enjoyed.



#6 jmmathieu

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Posted 20 March 2006 - 10:10 PM

Got me to thinking what the oldest animal in the world was, so I googled it. There is a tortoise from Galapagos named Harriet who turned 175 in November. She used to belong to Darwin himself. Interesting...


:)


As for animals, I've heard a few reports that the koi actually lives over 200 years, the longest recorded I believe is something like 222 years.

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#7 Lazarus Long

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Posted 21 March 2006 - 02:17 PM

We have been gathering stats on this issue for both plant and animals. You may find the results surprising.

http://www.imminst.o...=ST&f=48&t=2272

We also have an entire section devoted to such examples.

http://www.imminst.o...?s=&act=SF&f=48

I am beginning to see a common thread in discussions of the topic of evolution and aging, some people (not those represented here) are more committed to the process rather than the goals.

Can evolution be said to have goals?

Not *intelligent ones* but certainly there are some clear imperatives and survival is one of them. Life has been selecting for intelligence as a clear advantage for survival. It has has also been generally selecting for robustness, or *fitness* and a part of what fitness represents is manifested in longevity not just procreation.

Some of this is discussed in the section on Aging Theories, in particular in a thread about whether Evolution is the cause of aging.
http://www.imminst.o...f=175&t=3717&s=

Paradoxically, if immortality has ever been attained, it has quickly been eliminated, simply because immortality cannot survive. An immortal animal would be a dead animal--the representative of a vanished species. As we saw in the first volume of this series, Oasis in Space, as least four times in the past 600 million years the reef communities around the world have all been all but obliterated by upheavals in the environment still not completely understood. Skeletons of palm trees have been discovered in Antarctica. At one time there were meadowlands on that continent, now under hundreds of feet of ice, not unlike the plains of the American West. Faced with this dimension of drastic environmental transformation any immortal animal would be helpless. His ideal adjustment to the old environment spells certain extinction in the new. Locked into this "perfection," he cannot adjust. Immortal or not, he must die.


This is a questionable example and subject to the kind of fallacy I am suggesting. It does raise the important aspect however of adaption as possibly dependent on death though it is not necessarily true to say that adaption can only occur through the death. Learning is a form of memetic adaptation and humans clearly are moving outside the rules for selection with respect to normal selection pressures as they impose a species specific selection pressure on all life for the planet. Adapt to us or die off. Roaches and rats have no problem but whales and most cetaceans do.

The other fallacy is to assume that all the *immortal* animals are now dead. Some species of bacteria are measured in the hundreds of millions of years for age, plants in the tens of thousands but the point that Cousteau makes is valid in respect to *competition* (as well as environment) and clearly the species with the most intelligence and the most fitness establish the *general* rules (conduct or behavior) of survival. BTW, just because a species is immortal wouldn't in itself guarantee that it also wasn't another species' dinner.

As selection creates intelligent fitness it is also creating a logical drive to survive longer and longer. Doing so requires adaptability. While we humans contemplate modifications of our genome to accomplish this we are also already doing so through technology and learning (memetics). I wonder however if the underlying imperative for life goes beyond the individual selfish gene and into a larger synergistic relation to *life* as a whole?

What I am rambling a little about is that the preservation of life is not just about an individual but the conditions under which life thrives. When I say that some people are more committed to the means than the goals, I am suggesting that they are misinterpreting death to be a goal (necessary) when in fact it is only one means (operative method) for selection and others are imaginable.

The creation of alternative methods remains a possibility. Still, the *objective* (if we can actually use that word) for even selfish genes is to survive and do so through what ever *means* of replicating become possible. I suspect our focus here at Imminst is on the creation of such operative alternative *means* for evolution to continue not just longevity.

The premise that *mortal challenges* (through death, competition, and environmental compatibility) are necessary for maximizing adaption and evolution is a strong one. However I do not think that death is the only answer to that challenge.

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#8 EmbraceUnity

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Posted 27 January 2007 - 05:34 AM

There is a plant called King's Holly that is 45,000 years old.




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