I posted a comment at Smithsonian Magazine’s article on The World’s Oldest Living Things, and at Project Syndicate’s article asking the question “Should We Live to 1000?” re-stating a principle that has developed slowly in my mind for about thirty years—and I come from a family of geniuses. The principle is that immortality consists of four distinct categories or principles, which are generally realized alone and individually, without strong support from the others.
The first principle is the wisdom of age before youth. According to this view, it is possible to conserve youth into a gradual endowment that pays off gradually, later in life. Perhaps life only requires a number of governing principles, which grant opportunities. The second principle is noble athleticism. Someone endowed with a very great form of health could nobly live longer than anyone, by virtue of a privileged advantage. this seems expensive, and as some people have learned about athletes, in real life there may be some proneness to degeneration, as the pumped-up metabolism hits a wall. The third principle is what I call “vampirism”—the reliance on medical science or parasitically preying on other organisms. This has seemed serious only in the context of advanced medical science (that is, unless vampires are real). The fourth principle is sheer adaptation. Perhaps something like reaction time, metabolism, or business savvy could pay off with very special circumstances.
In the case of the world’s oldest plants, each seemed to have some of these characteristics, either by strong competition with other organisms, or strong vitality, or some highly specific means-to-an-end, or adaptation to the environment. In the case of the world’s longest-lived people, what is often cited is a genetic disposition combined with a steady diet, enough sleep, and avoiding the worst habits. Largely these are factors that meld with the four characteristics: this may include compatibility with medicine, not gaining weight from being over-athletic, responding intelligently to the environment on a daily basis, and having good mental habits.
Reaching this point in history it doesn’t seem very exciting to be so moderate as to require someone to be genetically adapted, or make healthy choices. However, the tradition dates back centuries to primary examples that once seemed very extreme, examples of paradigmatic virtue.
There is a report of a monk in China who once sealed himself in a cave for ten years, eating nothing but a special kind of moss. When the cave was opened ten years after the beginning of his project, he was still alive. He even smiled, and greeted people. Sagacious people have long been seen as prime examples of the sort of pious and humble characters who would pursue the path of immortal life. The character Lao Tzu described a path that was dark, a “Gateway to all understanding” (Mitchell translation). Likewise, the opposing Chinese view of Confucius advocates that virtue for the family and government will benefit the individual with fortune and long life. Perhaps these characters are the best evidence that immortality could be found by eating some special kind of moss.
One Chinese man is now called the God of Immortality, because he is supposed to have lived for over 350 years. While this is an exception, not everyone believes the Biblical account that life is capped at 150.
Recent news reports that a substance called Telomerase, when used in certain types of gene therapy, extends the life-spans of rats by 25% in one dose. While the same evidence has not yet been found in humans, this is the first evidence of a form of medicine that improves lifespan in any organism by an amount that may be more pronounced than the passage of time.
Perhaps combining contemporary medicine with more traditional principles of advantage, such as my four categories, would lead to greater longevity. While not all athletes live to old age, research has shown that exercise improves the strength of bones and muscles. Wisdom is often said to connote long life, such as prudence, moderation, and the pursuit of happiness. Recent movies have promoted a character of exhilaration that suggests sheer adaptation as a kind of option for future urbanites. Perhaps a dose of immortality is only possible for those that respond intelligently to information. Combining multiple of these factors may also improve the advantage for long life. Moderate life-long athleticism for example, is widely reported amongst adults who are functional in their 80’s. And there is evidence that those that don’t develop Alzheimer’s have been motivated to make prudent decisions to curtail stress factors during the productive years of life.
Furthermore, there may be a principle of ascertained risk which is put into medical research, which is more accountable in the principles of the mind than it is in the outward character of athletes, interactions, or even knowledge. This new character of risk encountered in medicine points towards a conservation of momentum, a return to Aristotle’s principle of moderation, and an affirmation of any quantifiable categories of functional longevity.
Therefore, where stress encounters risk, it no longer seems advisable to stress the limit. Where products have allure, the new test is for conservation of prior examples. For in the past, everyone is more wise, but everyone is less fortunate. Medicine should be grounded not only in the vampire-urge to use chemicals, but also in other categories of functional longevity: the wise one, who works with a will. The chimeric one, who knows his environment. And the strong one, who has the mandate of heaven.
Personally, I return to my own principled advantage, to live so moderately that age comes before youth. With that principle in mind, athletes, doctors, and dopplegangers may cower with fright.