Tom Sutcliffe: Death comes to us all – and very useful it is too

Social Studies: Our deaths in the abstract have a social utility. They make space for those behind us
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The Independent Online

I'm not in any hurry to die. In fact I very much hope that my health and my finances last out until the stuff I have to do to keep body and soul together occupies a smaller proportion of my day-to-day existence than all the stuff I'm keeping the body and soul together for.

That's my definition of a good old age, anyway – not a life without obligations entirely, but one in which I spend a bit less time at the low end of the see-saw. So I was cheered to read about the Harvard researcher who had, apparently, discovered a way to reverse the degenerations of age – a report headlined, on one over-excitable website, with the enticing line: "Eternal Youth Potion Discovered".

You may not be entirely surprised to learn that an eternal youth potion hasn't actually been discovered. The Harvard research involved telomeres – a kind of biological shoe-lace tag on the end of the chromosomes. Every time a cell divides the shoe-laces shorten, until finally there isn't enough frayed end left to make a workable knot. End of cell and, by extension, us too eventually.

An enzyme called telomerase stops the ends fraying so quickly, and when it was injected into mice engineered to lack the ability to make their own, they were found to cast aside their little mousy Zimmer frames and bounce around with renewed vigour, the exciting thing being that damage acquired appeared to be reversed, not merely stalled.

Exciting enough then, even if you can't slap Eternal Youth on the bottles. But of course there's a catch. Adult humans don't produce telomerase because (it's believed) this helps to inhibit the cancerous growth of cells in later life. So nobody can be quite sure whether an elixir of youth derived from this research might also be pulling the trigger on dormant cancers. It might be that you would find yourself playing a game of Russian roulette with a gun that had only two chambers. How many people would dare take on those odds?

Even if they found a way round that catch 22, there would be another problem, which is that – however we feel about the matter personally – our deaths in the abstract have a social utility. There have been times in human history when this has been vividly demonstrated, as in the boom of economic and intellectual activity that followed the Black Death – ownership and opportunity having been suddenly intensified by all those empty spaces. But it remains true – in a much less conspicuous way – of our times too. And if the relatively modest expansion of life-spans delivered by modern medicine has already caused demographic problems, just imagine the havoc an Eternal Youth Potion would cause.

Death makes space for those behind us – and since the decrepitude of age is one of the very few things that can reconcile us to yielding our places on the planet, its abolition would have far-reaching consequences. Sadly for all of us, on an individual level, Eternal Youth isn't yet available; fortunately for society as a whole, we have a bit of time before it becomes so in which to work out how we might solve the problems it will cause.

Turning a crisis into a bit of a laugh

I knew there was something familiar about the placard the moment I saw it in a press photograph of a protest (it appeared both in the Irish protests and in the student demonstrations against tuition fees). "Down with this sort of thing", it reads.

I couldn't immediately place the feeling of déjà vu, but then I got it: it was one of the protest signs used by Father Ted and Dougal when they fruitlessly attempted to get the cinema-goers of Craggy Island to boycott The Passion of St Tibulus, a film which had been declared blasphemous by the church authorities.

It was very funny in its original context – and still is, to be honest, in its new ones. Which is a bit of a problem, really. Protruding, say, from a crowd of notionally enraged citizens, furious that their country's sovereignty had been pledged for cash at the European Commission pawnbroker, it unhelpfully conveys the suggestion that the whole thing is a bit of a laugh. And since a demonstration is partly intended to get in the papers so that all those who didn't go on the march think, "Oh, perhaps I should be furious too", that isn't very helpful. It so effectively defuses the image, in fact, that it makes you wonder whether it is an act of subversion.

If, at future protests, we see people carrying posters reading, "Careful now" – Dougal's placard – I think further investigations will be necessary.

Lady G shuts up,the world coughs up

It isn't easy to work out from the Buy Life website whether the celebrities pledging to commit digital suicide on 1 December tomorrow (signing off Facebook and Twitter until their devotees cough up) aim to raise $1m each or $1m collectively. If it's the latter, it seems a feeble target given that many of those involved have millions of "followers". But if it's the former, there's surely a good chance that the lesser celebrities will languish in limbo forever.

Either way, isn't there something ugly about the notion that we can live perfectly comfortably with the real deaths of Third World children, but will be goaded into charitable action by the terrifying prospect of missing Lady Gaga tweeting about her eyelashes falling into her morning coffee?