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

Related Topics

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?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: Take a moment to imagine you're Ed Miliband...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff

Letters: No vote poses difficult questions – so why rush?

Independent Voices
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits