As the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill begins to make its way through the House of Commons, my fluffy thoughts turn inevitably to Space: 1999…
Although the second monster (or man-in-same-rubber-suit-painted-a-different-colour) crazed season got too silly for words, the FIRST season – well known as a cure for insomnia though it many be – has two BIG sci-fi themes: (A) aliens, with ways to strange for us to understand; and (B) immortality, it's a BAD thing.
What's THAT got to do with HuFEB, I hear you ask. And well you might!
But let's just try thinking things through.
Opposition to the Bill really comes from two distinct, but conjoined, sources. First there are the people who want to protect the interests of the unborn embryo (and linked to them are the pro-lifers who are hoping to reduce the limit on the number of weeks at which abortions can legally be performed). Second, there are those who are opposed to the mixing of human and fluffy animal cells on the grounds of" Ewwwwww!"
In fact, the POINT of "hybridising" cells like this is to take the INSIDES of human cell and the OUTSIDES of a fluffy animal cell and make an ARTIFICIAL STEM CELL – thus saving the need to harvest stem cells from, well, unborn embryos… so if they actually applied any logic at all, the two groups of rebels would actually be on opposite sides.
What are stem cells for? Well, they are cells that haven't decided what bit of the body they are going to be YET. So the idea is that you can use them to rebuild almost any broken bits, including bits like nerves and brains that we haven't had any idea how to fix before now.
Now, at the moment, people get old and drop dead because their bodies are constantly wearing out. In fact it's a fair miracle of engineering that they keep going AT ALL. You are under constant attack from the environment, even from things that you think of as GOOD for you – sunlight and oxygen are actually concentrated beams of radiation and a powerful chemical agent respectively (the effect of oxygen on cars is to make them rust, so just think what it's doing to your insides!).
This did not used to matter because most people PEGGED OUT as a result of disease and malnutrition in their early forties. But nowadays we have a whole load of medicines and antibiotics to defeat most disease and (in Great Britain) more food than is good for us. So lots of people are living a LOT longer and we have discovered a whole NEW range of exciting diseases that you get when you get old.
And a lot of them are rather horrid, including especially the ones that melt your brains and turn you into vegetables.
But if stem cell technology lives up to all its promises, then these could be a thing of the past too. Because as bits of your body wear out, you just go down to stem-u-like and grow a new one.
Heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, skin… as they wear out, just pop in a new one. And if your brain goes melty, then with luck and hard work we can fix that too.
Sounds brilliant doesn't it.
You should all be able to live to a ripe old age without any of the suffering and indignities that we fear today.
The question is… how old IS a ripe old age going to be if you can keep replacing parts?
We've already seen the consequences of ONE substantial increase in life expectancy: a now-ageing tide of BABY BOOMERS who have benefited from free education, received generous final salary pension schemes and soaked up all the property in the country leaving young people stranded without a foot on the housing ladder and facing the prospect of fewer and fewer people IN work having to support the retired while trying to pay off their student loans and fund their own pension plans too.
Just imagine how much WORSE it could get if instead of living to ninety or a hundred, the baby boomers live on to TWO hundred. Or FIVE hundred. Or forever!
And if that's not horrifying enough, then remember that you'll have a generation of immortal Generation X-ers living right up there with them and moaning about how they never got to see any of the benefits their parents had, while they struggle to meet the repayments on their PERPETUAL mortgages.
But then globally resources are already running short. The good news is that the rate of population growth seems to decline once a new stable plateau is reached, so with a bit of luck you humans' population will get to about twenty billions and then stop. The bad news is that the planet can only just about support so many, and certainly can't COMFORTABLY support so many, especially with the West taking so much more than its share.
Basically, you monkeys aren't just occupying too much of the SURFACE of the planet, you're looking at taking up too much of its timespan as well.
It doesn't have to be like that.
After all, who wants to live forever? Well, pretty much EVERYONE, I would have thought, especially if you can keep your HEALTH.
But you ARE going to need to start thinking and planning for how to make the world actually WORK when it's full of people who are old.
(And I say this to a planet where people stick the world's deadliest poisons in their faces in the DELUDED belief that killing their expression stone dead makes them look young again!)
Working longer is ALREADY on the cards, but you are going to have to find an equitable settlement between the generations, and find a way to live more within the means of the planet. Or, more accurately, your FAIR SHARE of the planet. Or you are going to have to find another one. (Yes, you knew "Let's Build Rocket Ships" was coming somewhere!)
(Mind you, actually the biggest advantage of a longer lifespan is that it starts to make INTERPLANETARY exploration look more possible.)
But you also need to learn to stay flexible, open-minded and interested in CHANGE as you grow, to avoid falling into a rut and falling out of your time.
The CURSE of long life is that there are no forevers – everything you know will END; but the BLESSING is that there is ALWAYS something NEW.
There is so much to learn and see and do in the world that who WOULDN'T want more life to try and do it all in!
So that is the ULTIMATE key to living longer… go out there and LIVE it!