Smorgasbord Guest Writer – Part 5 – A Question of Immortality by Horatio Grin

Today my guest Horatio Grin explores the subject of immortality. Since the dawn of man the search for everlasting life has fascinated humans and is considered to be the Holy Grail by certain scientists. Today Horatio looks at the possibility that there are already certain humans who might carry the answer to this fascinating possibility.

Part 5: A Question of Immortality by Horatio Grin

There is a popular legend, told in many forms. It concerns a young man who meets and falls in love with a beautiful fairy maid. She is reluctant to return his affection because of the heartache it will bring. When he persists in his wooing, she weakens and marries him. Their life is blessed. They prosper. She bears him children, handsome strong sons and clever beautiful daughters. And they are happily… for a time.

As the years pass, the children grow up and the husband grows old. The fairy wife remains unchanged. Resentful and bitter at life’s unfairness, the husband treats her badly; even though he once promised, years ago, he never would. Early one morning, or late one evening, with great sadness in her heart she takes her leave of the man she once loved, and the children and grandchildren, she still does.

Often the story does not end there, for the fairy wife is seen again and again over the coming years. Grandchildren and even great grandchildren, now old men themselves, remember having seen her long ago when they were but infants. Seeing her once more these many decades later, they are struck by how time has left her untouched.

The tale is typical among the Celts with variations found in Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well as among the Cornish, the Manx and the Breton. Further afield, it is also found in the stories of Chinese fairies or in the Middle East (where fairies are called Peri) and in the traditional tales of Africans and North American Indians.

Belief in the immortality, or at least the very long life, of fairies may have its roots in a simple explanation. In early societies, girls were often married with the onset of puberty. As shocking as it is today this could be as young as 11, with motherhood soon following.

It is not hard to do the sums and see women would be grandmothers at 24, great grandmothers at 36 and great, great grandmothers at 48. While, at the age of 60, they would be matriarch of a dynasty of 5 generations.

The average life expectancy for a male child born in medieval times, or earlier, was 30 years of age. Many died before the end of their teens, but if a young man reached the age of 20, he had a good chance of surviving into his mid-fifties. Less than 10% of the whole population reached 60.

Although women can expect to live longer than men today, in the past they fared less well. Studies of the medieval population of Europe show men often outnumbered women by as much as two to one. A significant contributing factor was death in childbirth. Due to the risks associated with being constantly pregnant from such a young age, reaching 60 would be a huge achievement for a woman.

With such a low life expectancy in the general population, and high mortality during childbirth, a woman over 60 would seem ancient to her contemporaries. If she looked young for her years – and everybody ages differently – or if she were able to cast the illusion of glamour so as to appear young, she would seem almost immortal.

Or perhaps the fairy race is indeed immortal. Immortality need not be forever and ever. With our short span a few more decades of life and youth is be a gift none would refuse.

The idea of immortality has been with humanity all through recorded history. It was first written of in the epic of Gilgamesh, at least 5,000 years ago. The gods and goddesses, and the fairy races of every culture in the world were all considered immortal.

One of the aims of alchemy was to discover the elixir of life. Both Nicholas Flamel and the Comte de Saint Germain were said to have gained immortality in this way. In the 20th century, Theosophists, and even the Nazis, claimed immortals called ascended masters were overseeing our world’s progress and development. So perhaps it is true and fairies do actually live a long, long time.

Genetics is revolutionising our understanding of why we age and die. It was once thought death was an evolutionary oversight. Now we understand ageing, and even death, is programmed into every individual. It is controlled by our genetic inheritance in exactly the same way as our hair or eye colour.

However it is not quite as simple as some other traits, which are controlled by one set of genes. According to new research there are about 1,800 genes that may alter our expected lifespan.

Life-expectancy is influenced by many factors, such as predispositions to cancer, heart disease or high blood pressure. These factors in turn may be determined by genes controlling the width of arteries or perhaps the ability to digest fats, or even eliminate waste. Such predispositions may well be influenced by how we live our lives: exercise, smoking, drinking alcohol and eating.

Laboratory rats kept on a reduced calorie intake live almost twice as long as others not having their food intake restricted. A study is currently underway looking at the effects on non-human primates. With the expected lifespan of the monkey subjects being around 50 years it will not deliver results for another 15.

Some researchers believe many cancers are linked to lifestyle and environment. The discovery of genetic markers indicating a predisposition to certain cancers, make others think lifestyle factors are irrelevant. Cancer, like obesity and heart disease they claim, is simply down to your genetic inheritance. Admittedly the science is in its infancy.

It is currently a highly complex process to analyse an individual’s genetic makeup. Yet doctors believe in the future, it will be possible to diagnose each and every human being at the genetic level during gestation and by introducing modified genes inside virus type organisms, fix any defects before the foetus has left the womb.

At one time it was thought old age happened through biological neglect. Animals breed when they are young and pass on their genes. Once they have bred and successively reared offspring there is no need for the organism to stay alive. To put it bluntly, once the selfish genes are passed to the next generation, and offspring are successfully reared, the parent is of no further biological use.

Recent studies show the truth of aging to be very different. Every cell in the human body is capable of replacing itself between 40 and 60 times, called the Hayflick limit. With each replication of the cell, part of the DNA, called the telomere, breaks off. When there is no telomere left, cell division stops. At this point the cell starts to wear out. When the accumulated damage to the cells of the body becomes too great, we die by default.

This is why cloning has proved a disappointment. When adult genes are introduced into an empty egg, the telomere is short – for it is the same length as all the other cells in the adult donor. Even though the new animal is an infant, it has the same remaining cellular lifespan as the donor; with the same number of cell divisions left before it reaches the hayflick limit and dies.

Experiments to artificially increase the telomere have proved equally disastrous. In some cells the end of the telomere never breaks off. These cells are truly immortal; able to divide eternally. They are called cancer.

Knowing how genes control aging gives a mechanism to understand why each and every person ages at different rates. Most human beings cluster in the middle of any characteristic: think of a traffic snarl up over a humped backed bridge. The majority of us are neither too tall nor too short: too dark nor too fair. But there are always minorities at the extremes.

At one extreme of ageing there is the disease, called progeria that gives young children all the symptoms of extreme old age. But what lies at the other extreme?


Eternal youth?

Recently the oldest person alive on the planet celebrated his 146th birthday. There are villages in Japan, where people in their 80s and 90s look as young and are robust as others decades their junior.

Thirty years ago, most reputable scientists put a maximum limit of 250 years on the human life span. Today scientists speak in terms of 2,000 years, baring accident. Some are already making the claim that within the next few decades, given expected advances in gene therapy, doctors will be able to prevent or at least delay aging, and perhaps even, eventually, cure death.

Now we are aware of the doctors’ current understanding and their expectation of a cure for ageing at the genetic level, all that remains is to ask, has this already happened naturally?

From the origin of life on this planet some 3.7 billion years ago, tiny random changes to the genetic code called mutations took life from undifferentiated single celled organisms to well… us. And we are by no means the pinnacle of creation.

The changes doctors will make to increase our lifespan are nothing more than directed mutations: the human equivalent of GM (genetically modified) crops. Knowing that, it is perfectly possible such random changes have already occurred in the gene pool.

While it is true they may not have all occurred in one individual or even in our own species, bear in mind our direct ancestors have been on this planet for some seven million years, interbreeding with each other. In the past, humans did not travel as freely as today. This produced small isolated populations that interbred over generations. When this happens in nature, it consolidates genes within the population and results in a new species. As the numbers in a species increase, it travels further afield. It is how we left Africa and colonised the world.

When the incomers meet another species living in a new part of the world, the tendency is for the two groups to interbreed, passing on both sets of genetic advantages to the resulting offspring. This is why Western Europeans have 4-6% of their genes from the Neanderthals.

If mutations favouring immortality exist, they will eventually succeed in coming together. When they do, they will confer a genetic advantage on their longer lived progeny. This means more surviving offspring who in turn pass on their advantageous genes to their children. If people had mutations favouring immunity from illness or granting longer life, natural selection meant they flourished over their weaker brethren.

It may surprise you to know that in the short time HIV has been devastating the world there is already a mutation in a small number of the human population that makes them immune to the virus. In the past a disease like HIV might have killed the majority of mankind, but the small immune group would have survived and repopulated the earth, leaving the virus no more deadly than its ancestor the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus is to monkeys.

We are all aware of our species’ exponential population growth. Despite 2 world wars, myriad other wars, plagues and genocides the world population grew from 1.65 billion to 3 billion between 1900 and 1970. Since then it has doubled to 6 billion. What we forget is that although the world population before the 20th century was low, the birth rate was much higher than today. What kept the numbers down was the high mortality rate. What has allowed today’s world population to boom is better medicine.

Therefore, given a higher birth-rate spreading favourable mutations and isolated populations consolidating any genetic advantage, it is not inconceivable that immortals, or at least those living significantly longer than we dare expect, walk among us today.

©HoratioGrin 2017

Previous posts

You can find out more about the author here:

Part one – Lost Beginnings of the Fairy Races

Part Two – Tales of the Old Gods

Part 3: Twilight of the Gods by Horatio Grin

Part 4: The Problem with Erlkings by Horatio Grin

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