Quora – According to the theory of evolution, why do we die? Your answer is very clear, but why then is the immortal jellyfish immortal? Compared to other jellyfish, what characteristic does it have, from an evolutionary point of view?
[ 20/4/20 ]
John Ramsey is kind of right, and also wrong. The real answer is much more complex, yet also remarkably simple.
In 1974 (as I completed undergrad biochem) I realized that if you look at any life form at the germ line level, then it is immortal – there is an unbroken line of cellular life going back in time. How do you tell which of two cells that result from a division is the original? In a sense you can’t. Sometimes one has more of the original than the other, and sometimes they are an equal mix (details of that get really complex – but for the sake of this story we can ignore them).
So in 1974 it became clear to me that once we got a mechanism that would allow us to periodically reset the genome of all our cells, we would be able to extend life indefinitely.
If you want to understand the details of how it works, then you need to understand the idea of antagonistic pleiotropy (as per Williams and Medawar) and the roles of telomeres in producing the Hayflick limit and the tension between cancer (individual cells becoming deaf to the signaling of their neighboring cells to stop growing for any of a huge class of reasons) and the need for repair of damage that sometimes happens in reality. If you want to understand that in detail (and get a very good understanding of how market competition produces existential level risk to humanity at multiple levels) then listen very carefully to this discussion and recursively apply the principles as deeply as you are able across all levels of replicators in reality (mimetic and genetic):
Indefinite extension of lifespans in humans is entirely possible, and it does require some fairly high tech. Cancer is a real issue, and we need very high tech ways of detecting and defeating it at the cellular level in order to extend life indefinitely (as a “terminal cancer” survivor I have rather intimate experiences of it).
Same applies at the cultural level.
Maintaining cooperation and open signaling at all levels of society and culture is equally important in creating an environment where individuals have a reasonable probability of living a very long time with reasonable degrees of freedom. Detecting and removing cheating strategies on the cooperative is central to that (all levels).
Almost all of our current economic and political systems are infected with high level cheating strategies; and those economic and political systems are also currently vital to our survival. Identifying and removing those cheating strategies while leaving the agents and systems otherwise unharmed is critical to making this work.
If you understand antagonistic pleiotropy, you understand the answer to the question; and provided that you also understand that all complexity and freedom is founded in cooperation (not competition) then you also understand the key to our future as individuals and as a species.
And for many people, that set of ideas is likely to be too much of a paradigm shift for them to be even able to understand what is present.