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By STEPHEN CAVE / nytimes.com / Published: August 27, 2011.
Gemaeldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin/Art Resource, NY.
“The Fountain of Youth,” painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1546, illustrates our long obsession with immortality.
Stephen Cave is the author of the forthcoming book “Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization.”
IMAGINE nobody dies. All of a sudden, whether through divine intervention or an elixir slipped into the water supply, death is banished. Life goes on and on; all of us are freed from fear that our loved ones will be plucked from us, and each of us is rich in the most precious resource of all: time.
Wouldn’t it be awful?
This is the premise of the TV series “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” a co-production of Starz and the BBC that has been running over the summer and ends in September. The “miracle” of the title is that no one dies anymore, but it proves to be a curse as overpopulation soon threatens to end civilization. The show is a nice twist on our age-old dream of living forever. And it is right to be pessimistic about what would happen if this dream were fulfilled — but for the wrong reasons. Materially, we could cope with the arrival of the elixir. But, psychologically, immortality would be the end of us.
The problem is that our culture is based on our striving for immortality. It shapes what we do and what we believe; it has inspired us to found religions, write poems and build cities. If we were all immortal, the motor of civilization would sputter and stop.
Poets and philosophers have long been attuned to the fact that the quest for immortality drives much of humanity’s peculiar ways. But only in recent decades has scientific evidence backed this up.