Gilgamesh, Bryan Johnson, and the Fountain of Youth: do you want to live forever?

Mark Fielding
January 12, 2024

Life extension research has captured the minds of enthusiasts who take multiple pills a day and immerse themselves in the latest research. It's time to ask the question: do you really want to live forever?

King Gilgamesh had wealth, power, and fame. In Enkidu - depicted as half-man half-bull - he had a friend. As was expected of kings in 2500 BC, the pair set off to slay a demon. Their success angered the gods, and Enkidu was punished by death. Terrified of the same fate, Gilgamesh embarked upon a new quest: immortality.

We’ve always dreamed of living forever, but immortality remains as distant as it ever was. In the 4,000 years since the Epic of Gilgamesh was written, life expectancy barely creeped above 30. That stagnation lasted until the 20th century when - buoyed by scientific progress - life expectancy more than doubled to just under 80 years. 

That said, this progress mostly came from helping more newborns survive their early years, rather than extending the lifespans of those who lived to old age: Roman statesman Seneca, who lived halfway between Gilgamesh and the present day, lived to the age of 92!

Gilgamesh, an ancient king who ruled in modern-day Iraq, wanted to live forever. His failure remains an inspiration to advocates and opponents of the longevity movement.

Modern anti-ageing centres like Calico, Altos Labs, the Academy for Lifespan Research and the US Government’s National Institute On Aging are investing billions to make longevity the norm, not the exception.

Today, the face of the longevity movement is entrepreneur Bryan Johnson. Having sold his company Braintree to PayPal in 2013 for $800 million, his new focus is spent, simply put, on ‘not dying’ To reverse the biological age of each of his 79 organs, he takes 110 pills per day. He says it’s working. 46 years after he was born, Johnson says he is “ageing slower than the average 10 year old.” 

His approach is rooted in emerging scientific research which, though relatively new and uncertain, has garnered attention from a growing anti-aging community that numbers in the hundreds of thousands, gathering on dedicated forums and Reddit. Their theories build on ideas like restricting calorie intake, building muscle mass through endurance exercises like weightlifting, and drugs.

The most promising is rapamycin. In studies, the experimental drug has extended the lifespan of mice by 25%. A similar result in humans would mean an extra 18 years of life.

But that is not the only drug with potential life extension benefits. Following positive trials on mice, anti-diabetic drugs acarbose and canagliflozin are hoped to extend human lifespan.

Indeed, 2023 was an exciting year for those seeking to “reverse ageing with a single pill”, as David Sinclair put it, President of the Academy for Lifespan Research. He was speaking in July, after Harvard researchers identified a chemical that could reverse the ageing in mice after just 7 days. A few months later, the FDA formally endorsed the first trials for a drug that could extend the life of dogs.

But research giveth, and research taketh away. Today’s acarbose could be yesterday’s fisetin, a purported life extension drug now judged to have little to no impact. Wine and green tea are out too, but rest assured that better life-extending panaceas will emerge from the labs. Longevity strategies are already available to millions. Gilgamesh’s dream could become a reality.

Extending lifespans to centuries could greatly enrich the human condition. You could live through future entire periods like the Renaissance, witnessing centuries of cultural and technological progress. You could witness scientific breakthroughs, master multiple crafts, learn numerous languages. You could grow up with your children. You could run and play with your great-great-grandchild.

Florence was a birthground of the Renaissance and the architect of its cathedral, Arnolfo di Cambio, died half a century before it was finished. How would living through the entirety of these periods enrich the human condition?

Any serious life extension would demand a complete re-evaluation of our societal structure. Reconsidering what it means to be human and to be alive. We thrive on the new, the challenging, and the unexplored. The ticking of the clock drives our motivations. Awareness of the precious time we have is one of the few facts of life that connects us all. 

Over-population and lack of resources are often front of mind when it comes to longevity, but even if those material questions could be solved, would you find perpetual fulfilment in an infinite life?

Let alone immortality: dramatic life extension for everyone remains decades away, if not centuries. But rising investment in the sector suggests that progress will come. In the year 2300, it may be common to see centenarians living like teenagers. It’s time to consider the Gilgamesh question: do you really want to live forever?

“We can potentially reverse ageing with a single pill.”

— David Sinclair, President of the Academy for Lifespan Research

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Mark Fielding
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Driven by an acute awareness that the internet experience of his children will be vastly different to his own, Mark writes about emerging technology, particularly artificial intelligence and blockchain, with one eye always on the future. As an independent writer, he explores web3 for LVMH, metaverse events of RLTY, and writes gaming stories and lore for the highest bidder.