PUBLISHED BY AGAVE PUBLISHERS LLC
Almost nothing is pure fiction anymore. That’s
certainly true for our search for eternal life, and
my story The Devil’s Song. So, while I am
writing fiction, fiction and truth walk hand
in hand. One day we will know where one stops
and the other begins. When that day comes we
may gain our deepest wish. *
James Watson and Francis Crick describe the double
helix DNA molecule in 1953. The “double strand”
configuration was history’s defining moment. Immortality
seemed just around the genetic bend.
How to Live Forever
The rare air of the San Luis Valley is stimulating and I wonder if people here are healthier. I don my old brown cardigan sweater, jeans, and hiking boots and spend the morning exploring the town of Alamosa. I promise myself warmer clothes at Wal-Mart. Retracing my steps I locate the Student Union at Adams State College and hang around the register area until I see Conrad walk in. Short sleeves, my God. He’s clearly ten years older, and I hope wiser.
“Hey Forrester, let’s get some coffee and talk.” It’s as if we last saw each other Monday.
He looks at me carefully but never says I look fit. Maybe he is wiser.
Universities and colleges are the only
institutions where demented geniuses,
anti-Americans, and psychotic gangsters
survive and flower. Well, maybe Hollywood
and its offspring can compete.
The Student Union is swarming with attractive young women, bantering males, and the clattering of dishes moving from full to empty. The noon sun rushes in from oversized windows at the north and east, framing the distant Colorado Rockies in their understated magnificence. A hint of winter slips through the doors as students come and go.
Conrad and I plow through the buffet line. We manage to find a small table near a window overlooking a well-clipped garden and the mountains beyond. Only then do I see that Conrad’s food tray has three cups of steaming coffee and two chocolate chip cookies. I should have known. So much for a quiet luncheon.
“Well,” Conrad ventures as he crams a cookie in his mouth, “how do you like Adams State College? Far removed from the technoglamour of Berkeley, but, hey, it has its advantages.” He eyes a denim-clad beauty reading a calculus book at a nearby table. “Did you know that Coronado made it all the way to this site on a tributary of the Rio Grande River?”
I taste my fried chicken and consider why I hadn’t refused to join Conrad in his grandiose scheme. “Jesus, Conrad, either you’re way ahead of your time, or – and this is what I suspect – you’re delusional. You can’t just flip a genetic switch and expect to get younger.” I start to say more but he won’t let it come out.
“What’s your problem, Mark; have you no faith in science?” He begins working on his second cup of coffee and looking freely around the dining area. “Not only can it be done, I’m going to do it, with your help, with your help. I’ve isolated plenty of genes that affect aging, and now I’m ready to put a picture together. Maybe I can’t change aging like a genetic switch, but I’m damn close to it. You’re here, and that’s what counts. You’ll come around. Just wait.”
I look at Conrad with disbelief. Sure he is a damn good molecular biologist, but not that good. He is like a deprived little boy with his first electric train and a ticket to Mars. In fact, when I look closely at his intense nearly black eyes I see that bright, ambitious, and excited boy. I also see a black cavern without end and without explanation.
“Conrad, I don’t know why the hell I agreed to come. It can’t be because of your winning personality. Maybe I’m just bored. I badly need . . . I don’t know. But I do know the literature. All attempts to reverse the aging process are made of tissue paper.” Damn, he is laughing at me. “We stuff our cabinets with vitamins, fish oils, and supplements, jog ’till our ribs show white, avoid cell-damaging UV stimulation, and meditate until the cows come home. The end still comes, often as a random matter, a genetic imperative, or a quirk of unavoidable fate. We might, through un-Godly sacrifices, slow the death clock for seconds, minutes or days, as if that matters, but we never pass backward to remain at a preferred state. How could it be different?”
With what might have been a smirk, Conrad finishes his third coffee and looks around. “I’m going to get another cup of coffee. Do you want something? But, dear friend, I leave you with a simple comment and a tiny quiz. You’ve been talking only about life extension in humans. You’re right there, so far. Now I want you to consider the evidence in other species. I mean stuff that has never been tried with humans. Talk to me about that before you tell me I’m crazy.” With a small grunt he moves quickly toward the largest coffee urn, but unnecessarily close to the young woman with the shiny black hair and a worn calculus book. The woman moves slightly in response to the breeze generated by Conrad.
“Megalomaniac, megalomaniac,” the words keep pumping in my brain, interfering with a grand view of the eastern slope of the mountains. The union slowly becomes quiet, as students slip away for their MWF classes or find a corner to pursue their studies, worm their way through the Internet on laptops, or punch out numbers on their cell phones.
Conrad bounces double-time back to our table showing saucer-wide eyes. I see his Napoleonic profile that so closely fits his aspiring ambitions. Had Napoleon been as focused and smart we’d all be driving French cars, God forbid.
He sits, lines up his three fresh coffees, and challenges me with a simple “Well?” As he impatiently wafts through his fourth cup of coffee, I finish my chicken and dump the remains in a nearby trash can. I sit down just a bit off center and feel pains that again announce my age. “Well?” he repeats with an edge of agitation in his voice. “What animal studies, where longevity has been stretched beyond belief, would you say have relevance to human rejuvenation? Come on, let’s take a look.” He’s waving his hands in synchrony.
I grab his flashing eyes with my own gaze, wipe the chicken grease from my mouth with a paper napkin, adjust my glasses, and begin, not knowing where my thoughts will lead.
“I think, Conrad, that the biggest barrier you face is not genetic or physiological, but philosophical. You can tinker with the mechanisms, but ultimately your real problem is understanding what time is. Can it reverse itself? That, it seems, is what you’re up to, bending time by changing the DNA or whatever. Damn, man, if time is an arrow with only one direction, coming from the deep past through a nanosecond of the present, shooting forward into the future, then you haven’t a chance. You may be able to slow the arrow, but you can never change its trajectory.”
“Hmm,” Conrad muses. “You’re an evolutionist, not a philosopher, and I asked you about important animal studies. Besides, I don’t give a damn about philosophical issues. I got a half-dozen pretty good philosophers here at Adams State, and as far as I can tell, the only thing they know about is their own history. I’m so sick of hearing about Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s axioms, Socrates’ morality, and Kant’s imperatives, that the drivel simply comes in one ear and out onto the floor through the other. They don’t have a clue as to what’s important. Anyone who hasn’t had a new idea in over 2,000 years doesn’t have a word worth listening to.”
With that Conrad points to the gray ceramic tiles, letting me know where my philosophical thoughts went.
“It is the problem, the problem.” I persist. “You may not like it, but there it is. Now, just because no one understands time, doesn’t mean that there’s no solution. I think there is. I’m just a used-up biologist, 20 years your senior, but it strikes me that an evolutionary perspective might clear the air, and even make your genetic experiments more useful.”
I finally have Conrad’s interest. He starts to drink from his fifth cup of coffee, but nervously puts his cup back down with a clatter. “This better be good,:” he says quietly. “Go on.”
My thoughts are coming together inexplicably, more cohesive than they have been in years. Maybe it’s because of the lack of oxygen at well over a mile high. “Okay, here’s what I think. Natural selection has cobbled together millions of organisms for only one purpose, reproduction. But to do that natural selection has had to work against the processes of entropy.”
“What? Entropy,” Conrad exclaims. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Everything,” I reply. “In a closed system, where no additional energy is coming in, all systems tend toward randomness – eventually all organized systems deteriorate, break apart, and become, well, simply, molecules without order. It’s like a chocolate cookie crumbling in your hand.” I eyed his remaining cookie.
“Okay, so what? We all know what entropy is.”
I see the skepticism, skepticism that in fact we share. “Here’s my point, Conrad. If it weren’t for entropy, we wouldn’t believe that there is time. There would be no time; there would be only eternal stability. We actually form our concepts of time around the process of entropy. One event after another breaks down order into chaos. We see it, and it seems to flow in only one direction. We call it time, our obsession with deterioration and death. Take your chocolate chip cookie as a model for the universe. When you simply hold it up, nothing is happening, at least to our naked eye, but if you crumble it, it moves from a state of order to one of disorder. Essentially, if the cookie doesn’t change there is no time, but as it crumbles we see the accumulation of disorder. It changes; it shows the progress associated with time. It has time.”
“I’m beginning to lose you, Professor. Where are you headed?”
I put out my hand as if to hold Conrad to his chair. “Physicists are beginning to question whether there really is a time line in the universe. Maybe there isn’t. We just interpret correlated events as time. For example, the late Nobel Laureate at the University of Texas, Ilya Prigogine believed that there are pockets in the universe, where the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that is, entropy, doesn’t hold. With sufficient energy and through self-assembling processes, more complex forms are born, not less complex forms that we experience as entropy. The arrow of time is reversed. Again, when you make the cookie from the various ingredients you are building order. There is a change and we see that change as evidence of time. In this case it’s anti-entropic, but nevertheless time-specific. If you believe all this, then time can run in different directions, forward and backward, and it moves at different speeds.
“So, here’s your bottom line, Conrad. Natural selection has targeted processes that act in opposition to entropy. It had to be that way or organisms would not have survived long enough to reproduce. In other words, there has been evolution of traits in young animals that move random molecules toward new orders, an actual reversal of time.”
Conrad forgets his coffee and sinks into his own worldview. Moments pass. “Tell me, Mark, what kinds of genes build characters; what kind of genes change time? Where are they on strands of DNA?”
I hesitate, down some water, and watch Conrad squirm. I could have guessed his question. “There may be an answer. Certainly your question is the important one. These genes act early in life and control development. They are ordinary genes with the extraordinary job of reversing entropy. Remember, development is a building process that gives life; it is not the destroyer; it is not a degenerative process. It’s a generative process. It builds time into the organism. In a sense, it builds cookies.”
Conrad isn’t satisfied. “But, but, all organisms die sometime. We may develop, but at some point entropy sets in, and it’s curtains.”
“I know, Conrad, and yes there’s a mystery here. The developmental geneticists believe that the genes for growth and development are there only to serve reproduction. Once reproduction takes place and that critical game is over the genes shut down or actually become disruptive. They’re useless, and to throw in a metaphor, natural selection no longer cares. What we then see clearly is entropic time whittling away at the grand structure cobbled together by natural selection.
“Conrad, I haven’t really thought about it before this moment, but what you should be doing is isolating developmental genes that build new structures and functions. You ask, what kinds of genes are these? Fair question, and I don’t know for sure. But I’ll put my money on homeobox genes – hox genes. As you know, these are genes that control the development of the overall body plan of vertebrate and invertebrate species, everything from insects to primates. During embryonic development their actions specify head from tail, left from right, and the organization of wings, limbs, and organ systems. They are clearly anti-entropic genes. Conrad, these are the most critical genes that natural selection has put together to reverse time, if only for the short time necessary for reproduction to occur. Further, and this should really interest you, these genes are nearly identical, no matter which species you look at. In evolutionary parlance, hox genes are highly conserved over millions of generations and species. They are the most essential genes that all organisms share.
“If you can find out how they are regulated by physiological and environmental stimuli, you can turn hox genes on again in older individuals and essentially stave off death forever more, maybe with chemical triggers.” I look directly at Conrad and say deliberately, “Forget the slight variations in genes that extend lifespan They’re trivial. Get out of the gene mutation business. Go for the jugular and create new life in organisms that are reaching their limits. Build time into aching bodies.”
Conrad is silent, as though hypnotized. At last he puts his thoughts together. “There’s something that really bothers me with your scheme. What I think about is the vast number of genes that are expressed during development. Get this: In fruit flies, Drosophila, Michelle Arbeiman and her colleagues have shown that most genes first become active during early development. Some of these genes later become active again, but about 88 percent do their developmental job early. In fact, about 86 percent of all their genes sampled change in activity during development. Now, let’s see. If we’re guessing that Drosophila has about 10,000 genes total, that means that over 8,500 genes have something to do with development.
“This is crazy. There is no way to figure out which ones are truly critical – it’s like looking for a rare species of fish in the whole Pacific Ocean – impossible.”
“No, Conrad, who the hell cares what genes are important late in development.” I’m sweating under icy skies. “What’s critical is finding and activating the earliest ones that regulate everything else, including future genetic activity. That’s why I think that hox genes are important. They function early and trigger hundreds and thousands of subsequent genes. These are the only ones you have to worry about; the others take care of themselves.
“Think of it this way. It’s like putting together a complex car in a factory. There are thousands of parts that go together, but they easily find their place once the simpler underlying chassis is constructed. Everything depends on this initial framework. What I’m telling you is that the few homeobox genes are fundamentally important in creating the human chassis. Once that’s done everything else follows in logical sequence. It self-assembles. Sure, a shoebox full of genes is needed to create a fly, but only a few genes act as triggers. I think these are the hox genes.
“If we can reactivate these critical genes in older individuals a new wave of development will occur. Old parts will be replaced by new parts. Entropic time is replaced by developmental time. That’s what I think.”
I am sweating bullets. None of this stuff had I thought about in any detail. It just comes to me, percolating through my unconscious, guided by who I am and what I learn, finally spilling out over a small sun-drenched table in Alamosa, Colorado. It is a beautiful concept, as grand as the Rocky Mountains. I know it is right, its beauty convinces me. I know I’ll be dead tired by dinner but for now I’m as young as Conrad.
Conrad drops his hands in his lap and sits still for the first time. I hit a home run and don’t even realize I hold a bat. He looks up with a stare that cuts to the deep, reminding me of what Ibana cautioned about the dark side of Conrad. The chocolate chip cookie goes down Conrad’s gullet: his smoky eyes snap with sparks from an unknown land. Conrad says, “Mark, with your help we can destroy God once and for all.”
Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, August 1, 2014.
*Chapter from The Devil’s Song.