In contast to David Adam, this is a book whose place in my mental library has diminished rather than increased in the years since – to the extent I had forgot reading it at all until I searched the TLS site. Go figure. As time goes by, the omission of any discussion of dementia (as marked by the non-mention of Alzheimer) strikes me as even more notable, especially as a figure like Aubrey de Grey is given such prominence.
A short history of living longer 308pp. Yale University Press. £18.99 (US $30).
In March 1626, Sir Francis Bacon stopped his carriage to stuff a chicken with snow, thus contracting the bronchitis that would kill him. The experiment was intended to investigate a potential means of immortality.
Bacon, four years earlier, had written his History Naturall and Experimentall of Life and Death, intended as a manual of the prolongation of life. This age-old ambition assumed more urgency in the early modern era, as humanists began to question the received authority that three score and ten was the limit of human existence. Reports, utterly unencumbered by any documentary evidence, of centenarians such as Thomas Parr who died allegedly aged 152 in 1635, further encouraged efforts at life extension.
The biblical patriarchs provided most inspiration for would-be immortalists. Genesis reported that Adam lived to 930, Noah to 950 and Methuselah to 969. St Augustine and Flavius Josephus had robustly defended the literal nature of these ages, and in the early modern era they served as exemplars of human potential. Clearly something had gone wrong since Genesis, and, as David Boyd Haycock’s narrative reveals, a familiar cast of villains were indicted – faulty diet, alcohol, lack of moral fibre, excess emission of seminal fluid and so on. Two distinct approaches to longevity are evident throughout Mortal Coil: A short history of living longer – one of lifestyle modification and one of seeking an elixir of eternal youth..
For eternal youth, rather than prolonged age per se, was and is the dream. Aristotle held that, as one ages, the body’s life-giving heat gradually dries out the organs and the flesh. Heat was both source of life and source of death. For early moderns, reconciling this with the longevity of the patriarchs was a challenge.
For some, it led to millennial despair – the world was growing old and decrepit and humanity along with it. For others, it was a source of optimism, suggesting that prolonged, vigorous life was possible. This optimism, fed also by occasional cases such as Parr’s, survived into more secular ages sceptical and then dismissive of scriptural authority.
Dreams of longevity are closely linked with other utopian dreams – witness the interest of such figures as Condorcet, William Godwin and Descartes (who believed he could live for 500 years).
The history of living longer is a repetitive one. As Haycock describes yet another scheme for longer life, usually consisting of a simple diet, celibacy, sleep, frugality and refraining from anything that could be described as excitement, one feels a certain déjà vu. There are exceptions to this rule. Francis Bacon encouraged consumption of rich fatty meats, sweet fruits and honey. The idea that red wine bestows health is not a new one conveniently discovered by French epidemiologists- in 1638 the London physician Tobias Whitaker wrote The Tree of Humane Life hoping to prove “the possibilitie of maintaining Life from infancy to extreame old age without any sicknesse by the use of Wine”.
The unintended consequences of the search for long life are often more interesting than the search itself. Haycock traces the roots of the Royal Society to Bacon’s proposed establishment of Salomon’s House, an institution devoted to the long-term advancement of learning.
Modern endocrinology developed in part as a by-product of the search for a “magic bullet” of longevity. The early twentieth-century attempts to use testosterone to rejuvenate – such as Serge Voronoff’s grafting of monkey testes on to human ones, and Eugen Steinach’s use of vasectomies – attracted much public attention, and mockery. W. B. Yeats submitted himself to Steinach’s procedure, followed by hormonal injections in 1934. Dublin wags dubbed him “the gland old man”, perhaps confusing Steinach and Voronoff.
Genomics and modern medicine have unravelled many of life’s secrets and, in the Western world at least, can sometimes seem capable of the miraculous. Aubrey de Grey, celebrity posthumanist and possessor of a beard of Dostoevsky-like proportions (free of grey hairs) believes that there is a human being currently alive who will live a thousand years. Prolonging life will be an incremental process, he claims – as the centuries progress, means of prolonging vigorous life for another twenty years or so will be discovered, rather than there being one great discovery revealing the key to long life. De Grey is far from a mainstream figure, and other gerontologists are profoundly sceptical of the possibility and desirability of such long life.
Fully engaging in these debates is not part of Haycock’s remit (and in a footnote he intimates a belief that the danger of environmental catastrophe far outweighs the problems of a vastly older population), but one feels that if he had considered them more explicitly, the book itself would possess more vigorous life.
In the index we find a host of eminent medical and philosophical names (almost all male, despite – or maybe because of – the well-known tendency for women to live longer than men), but not that of Alois Alzheimer. All utopian dreams have within them the stuff of nightmare, and long life is no different.