Curing Ageing Part One: Myths and Legends

Written by on August 2, 2008 | History Fragments

Aubrey de Grey’s claims regarding the defeat, or cure, of ageing fascinate me. In my most recent short story, “Blind Control“, I explored the idea of someone obsessed with the idea of extending his life, but I’ve started thinking more about the subject. In particular, I’m trying to imagine such a scenario where it is possible for people to live until they were 1000 years old or more, as de Grey claims is possible.

So I began to look at some of the myths and legends about immortality and longevity (to give a sense of historical perspective) in order to understand the origins of our fascination, and then look at how the focus of immortality shifted from being one closely related to religion, to one linked with science. Ultimately, what I really wanted to do is speculate on the kind of impact such a change would have on our world, how people would see it, how it would affect them, directly or indirectly.

I initially set out a single post on the subject, but it quickly ballooned into something else, so consider this the first part of what will likely be a two or three part series (hey, who knows, maybe more).

Legends of Longevity
History is littered with myths and legends regarding eternal youth or eternal life. Initially, immortality was closely linked to Gods and deities, either bestowed as gifts from them, or (in some cases) as a curse.

Possibly the oldest legend about longevity is that of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian king who ruled around 2600BC. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, after his friend, Enkidu, died and “turned to clay”, Gilgamesh “began to fear death”, and travels to an island where a man named Utnapishtim and his wife live. As Gilgamesh explains to a scorpion-being:

“I have come on account of my ancestor Utanapishtim, who joined the Assembly of the Gods, and was given eternal life. About Death and Life I must ask him!”

After a hazardous journey, Gilgamesh finally reaches his destination filled with sadness and fear, where Utnapishtim tells him:

“Through toil you wear yourself out, you fill your body with grief, your long lifetime you are bringing near (to a premature end)!”

Nevertheless, Utanapishtim reveals his story to Gilgamesh, and agrees to grant him eternal life, but he fails to pass a test that Utnapishtim sets him, which is to stay awake for six days and seven nights. Devastated, Gilgamesh proclaims:

“The Snatcher has taken hold of my flesh, in my bedroom Death dwells, and wherever I set foot there too is Death!”

In the Bible, Adam and Eve had the gift of eternal life, but it was taken from them when they sinned by eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. And, in the Book of Genesis, “Methuselah lived 969 years, and then he died”, although it could be possible that this is down to a translation error.

Religion has a very close connection with early longevity myths. In Greek lore, the Apotheothenai were mortal men and women granted immortality, normally by the Gods, or by consuming ambrosia or nectar, which was considered the food or drink of the Gods. Notable examples from Greek legend are: Helen, the Queen of Sparta, who (along with her husband) was granted immortality and allowed to live in the paradise of Elysium; and Heracles (otherwise known as Hercules), who was taken to live amongst the Gods by the Goddess Athena. (A full list can be found here.)

Not all of these legends had happy endings, of course. Probably the most famous of these is the story of Sisyphus, who tried to cheat Death by escaping from the Underworld, and then by capturing Death himself. As a result, he was sentenced to eternal torture, but appears to have attained his goal of eternal life anyway.

Hinduism also has a similar drink to ambrosia, called Amrita, which is also associated to granting eternal life to the gods. The literal translation means “non-dead”. It was believed to have been found “at the Churning of the Ocean, when Rahu, the demon, succeeded in obtaining a sip, forcing Vishnu to cut off his head in order to prevent him from gaining complete impregnability”.

What is interesting for me from this small selection of legends is this idea that cheating death bestowed a God-like status on the individual in question. I also find it quite obvious that quite a few of the stories involved individuals in positions of power: kings, queens and rulers seeking to prolong their lives. Despite those mentioned here, there are others, even one about Alexander the Great (in the Alexander Romance) trying to find a river that granted immortality.

In addition, the consequences of achieving long life, or immortality, resulted in being able to live in some form of eternal paradise; or, in the case of Sisyphus, eternal damnation. This utopia vs. dystopia theme is, I think, a strong one, even today, in discussions around immortality, and even curing ageing.


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History Fragments
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The Prophetic Words of Samuel Butler

Written by on November 6, 2007 | History Fragments

We would do well to remember that this war has been taking place for almost two hundred years. We are not unique in identifying the threat. We are unique in that we are prepared to fight.

Statement made upon the arrest of Freedom Club member, Mr X, circa 2020-2025.

[W]e find ourselves almost awestruck at the vast development of the mechanical world, at the gigantic strides with which it has advanced in comparison with the slow progress of the animal and vegetable kingdom. We shall find it impossible to refrain from asking ourselves what the end of this mighty movement is to be. In what direction is it tending?

Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.

Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race. If it be urged that this is impossible under the present condition of human affairs, this at once proves that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.

The Notebooks of Samuel Butler, by Samuel Butler, 1835-1902

Robots and Children

Written by on November 6, 2007 | History Fragments

“The children also came to prefer hugging QRIO more than they preferred hugging a teddy bear or an inanimate robot doll, and they touched QRIO carefully, in the same way that they touched other children, rather than bashing it as they did the doll.”

Robot Dearest? by B. Lester, Science Now Daily News, 5th November 2007

History Fragments: Google Knows

Written by on October 21, 2007 | History Fragments


We are writing to inform you that your electronic CV has been rejected for the position of Senior Developer. An automated scan of your details using Google revealed several things about your personality that indicate you are not a suitable candidate for this company. Regardless, your qualifications appear to not meet the level we require, and your medical history also indicates that you have various health problems that could adversely impact your performance.


Secretary for XXXXXXX


Why not, asks Mayer, “take the things you care about – your watch, your phone – stick little tags on them and watch for their receiving signals”? This is not a joke. “It would have been really useful to me yesterday when I lost my cellphone while it was out of power. It took me half an hour to find it had fallen behind a dresser.” And why not go one step further and tag your partner or your children, so that you can find out where they are whenever you want? Googleytes point out that we already do this with newborn babies and pets.

Google’s overall goal is to have a record of every e-mail we have ever written, every contact whose details we have recorded, every file we have created, every picture we have taken and saved, every appointment we have made, every website we have visited, every search query we have typed into its home page, every ad we have clicked on, and everything we have bought online. It wants to know and record where we have been and, thanks to our search history of airlines, car-hire firms and MapQuest, where we are going in the future and when.

This would not just make Google the largest, most powerful super-computer ever; it would make it the most powerful institution in history. Small wonder that the London-based human-rights group Privacy International has condemned its plans as “hostile to privacy”, and EU ministers called Google’s vision “Orwellian”. Even John Battelle, one of the net’s leading evangelists, who co-founded the technology bible Wired magazine, and wrote The Search, the definitive study of Google’s rise, now says: “I’ve found myself more and more wary of Google, out of some primal, lizard-brain fear of giving too much control of my data to one source.”

Google. Who’s looking at you? by John Arlidge, TimesOnline, 21st October 2007

Making Music

Written by on August 10, 2007 | History Fragments

The iBox sat in the corner, waiting for a flick of the wrist. It came, from a short, fat blonde that looked even bigger in her too-tight skirt.

“What would you like to hear, please?” it asked.

“Umm.” She giggled, looking at the sky for some sort of divine inspiration. “Something girly, a bit of pop. Something from the 90’s, like the Spice Girls?”

“You have been charged one pound. Your song shall play in two minutes time. Thank you, and have a fun evening!”

It played the song, exactly four minutes long. It sounded just as she asked for.

This piece of software analyses the underlying mathematical patterns in music and tells worried record company execs what they may or may not need to change in order to get the song into the charts.It is a heartbreaking notion, but one already being adopted by many labels. So now that we have decided that a computer is better able to listen to a song than a human being, how long before we conclude that computers rather than people should write the songs themselves? And would it really matter providing it fitted McCready’s algorithm and charted high?

From, Could Platinum Blue save the music industry, by Ben Marshall, Guardian Arts Blog, Music.