Jellyfish immortality isn’t for me

At six thousand six hundred and some words, you’d think that Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality? (New York Times MAGAZINE, December 2, 2012) would have something of consequence ot say about its subject.

It doesn’t.

After a rather perfunctory summary of the research into the so-called “immortal jellyfish,” Nathaniel Rich’s article devolves into a mostly tongue-in-cheek profile of the weird Japanese hydrozoan researcher and karaoke song-writer who is the most enthusiastic proponent of the peculiar kind of immortality represented by the Turritopsis dohrnii.

And it is a peculiar kind of immortality, indeed. When Turritopsis is old, or sick, or injured, it curls up in the equivalent of a fetal position and “ungrows,” turning itself back into the puddle of polyp jelly as which the species begins its life. Once it has re-polyped, Turritopsis repeats its life cycle, over and over again, apparently interminably. In other words, instead of spewing out eggs or sperm and then dying, the adult turns itself back into an infant and goes right on living.

Wow! If only we could do that, right?

Well, not really. Turritopsis has no brain to speak of, and its immortal life is really little, if anything, more than a series of individual creatures that recycle the materials of their predecessors.

Imagine that you were immortal in the same way as Turritopsis. After your near-fatal stroke, or some other life-threatening episode, your body and the brain within it “grow younger,” until you’re back to the egg and sperm cells from which you began.

When you next reach your present state of life, are you really you? Not in any way that differs importantly from any other kind of reincarnation that leaves you unaware of your past lives. In effect, you die, and then someone else replaces you by recycling your raw materials. Not much of an immortality.

Are there any alternatives?

One way to become immortal would be to find a way to deactivate whatever aging mechanisms make our bodies wear out. Our cells and organs would simply keep on replacing and regenerating, forever and ever.

We need to be careful about this solution, however. Consider Jonathan Swift’s satirical reductio ad absurdum of this kind of immortality. If you think that there’s a generation gap now, what might happen to a host of immortal but senile Struldbrugs in a few hundred years?

And what about your will — if you’re never going to die, how are your children (and their children’s children’s children’s … you get the idea) ever going to inherit the family farm, or the dotcom company? Worse, do you really like the idea of your slacker son living in your basement for the next couple of thousand years? How much can you afford to spend on frozen pizzas and beer if the bum never moves out?

Then there’s the Star Trek problem. In “The Mark of Gideon,” Kirk is transported to an alien planet whose people never die. There are so many of them, there is nowhere on the planet that is not crowded with shoulder-to-shoulder people. (We are left to work out for ourselves what that means for their mating customs. Perhaps you just marry the most desirable person with whom you are in endless direct contact?) Kirk’s function is to transfer alien diseases to the planet (by kissing the leader’s beautiful blonde daughter, of course — what else?) so that the people can die and ease the crowding.

So no crowding. We’ll need some sort of population control. Most promising, given our profit-is-king culture, is for some group of scientists and entrepreneurs to patent the immortality treatment. That would mean that Bill Gates and Mitt Romney would get it, but most of us wouldn’t, alleviating the people crunch in a free enterprise-friendly way.

There’s a lot more space for data in computer hard drives these days, so maybe the most efficient way to live forever would be to copy every connection and every bit of information from every human brain onto a mega-flash drive and let the fleshy bodies rot away, no longer needed. Or, Matrix-like, let the meat power the batteries for the banks of computers that will store our minds.

If nothing else, that solution would put paid to the idea that there’s no such thing as a mind in the first place. If it’s right that the mind is the brain’s expression of itself, an emerging property of all that chemical and electrical activity, then by preserving the brain’s circuits and beeps precisely, you’re preserving the self the wiring generates.

Too computational for you? Sorry. It’s the best that I can do.

At least you won’t have to dissolve into a puddle of polyp jelly!

4 thoughts on “Jellyfish immortality isn’t for me

  1. I think that immortality is itself not possible for reasons of physics itself. The cells of the brain and body are likely entangled in a quantum sense, and over time this state is altered by external and enviromental factors, which is largely why you are not the same person you were 10 or 20 years ago. It is possible that by now you are an entirely different person, in fact. The only certainty we have is that the temporary cannot be made permanent, and that we are not permanent in any sense. Thinking that you are is just pure folly, be it man or jellyfish.

  2. Many physicists are not convinced that we have quantum consciousness, but I do agree that physical immortality is likely impossible. Still, I wasn’t entirely joking about the possibility of one day “duping” the brain in some way. Just don’t ask me how to do it!

    • The illusion of self offers some interesting possibilities. Tool users, game players and Ramachandran’s subjects all carry around an illusion of an extended or truncated self which they believe, use and defend. (The interesting thing about Rama’s work is that the self with the phantom limb can be so easily reformed. Contrast this with the years of psychoanalysis needed for meaningful affective change.)
      Now if and when we have a cloud computing interface that is as easy to use as a familiar tool, we may develop an extended illusion of self which will include the cloud. Just like the dolphin, who sleeps one hemisphere at a time, our extended consciousness may be able to transcend sleep at first and then, perhaps, decay.

  3. I think, the implications of personal entanglement are primary, as we are all that we have met, for better or worst, or possibley to no effect whatsoever. I love my dog, or my girlfriend in a real sense because they are part of who I have become, I am entangled in the quantum sense, and they in a real sense have become a part of me. Quantum consciousness is yet another extension beyond this, and is secondary, so I think.
    It is interresting that there is linear time in which we live, experience, and recognise, but there is also non linear time, which is irrational, and at right angles to linear time. In non linear time everything that ever was, is, and ever will be exists simultaneously, and perhaps in this sense we are imortal, but so is everything then?

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