by David S. Bennahum
The MEME Book Club: An excerpt from Apocalypse Pretty Soon, by Alex Heard.
In this issue of MEME:
The MEME Book Club: An excerpt from Apocalypse Pretty Soon, by Alex Heard.
APOCALYPSE PRETTY SOON: TRAVELS IN ENDTIME AMERICA
(W.W. Norton &Co., January 1999; USD$ 24.95)
"Obviously, I'm an optimist to some degree," said Larry Wood, an
amiable, hardbodied 50-year-old with fashion-forward ideas about
the future of the human body, "but I really believe we could be the
first generation that's going to live forever. Either that, or we'll be
the last generation to die."
That's optimism, all right, though the second part might inspire
pretty bleak daydreams. Suppose you believe, as Wood does, that
technology has the potential to conquer aging someday, vastly
increasing human longevity, perhaps delivering the ultimate gift:
physical immortality. Now suppose you die a year before the
technology rolls out. You wouldn't know what you'd missed, but for
Wood there's infinite agony in just knowing he might miss it.
Extrapolating hopefully from real-world developments in aging
research - which could, in theory, increase the maximum human
lifespan by a few years or decades during the 21st century - he's
convinced that scientists will deliver immortality within 50 years, so
he's determined to hang on.
Through the slight fuzz of a long-distance connection he described
his predicament. "The whole thing is this," he said. "You do
whatever you can for the next 10 years. Then the next 10 years."
For Wood this has meant a longtime involvement with "life
extension," a blanket term for a variegated pile of fringe health
regimens and futuristic enthusiasms. His quest has taken him down
some tangled paths - for a while he was interested in cryonics, or
body freezing, in hopes that he could be thawed and brought back
from the dead in the future - and once it even landed him in jail. In
1990 Wood, who holds an undergraduate degree in biochemistry
from Cornell, started a company called Unlimited Longevity
Research that sold life-extension products, mainly dietary
supplements and drugs. That year agents from the Food and Drug
Administration raided his offices in Thousand Oaks, California.
After a complicated flurry of legal tussling, Wood was eventually
charged with interstate commerce of a controversial body-enhancing
substance called G.H.B. He served six months, though his conviction
was later overturned on appeal.
When I first talked to Wood in the summer of 1997, he had given
up on cryonics ("It doesn't work"), placing all his bets on exercise
and supplements. His routine included regular exercise (he had
$40,000 worth of fitness equipment in his garage), healthy habits (a
balanced diet, not much red meat, no smoking or hard alcohol), and
daily intake of dietary extras.
Lots and lots of extras. Wood faxed me his menu, which added up
to roughly 140 grams of liquids, powders, and capsules that he
swallowed or injected every day. Some items were typical enough,
including a whopping 10 grams daily of Vitamin C. Some were
things whose anti-aging properties or safety is highly controversial -
like melatonin, a presumed "antioxidant," or dehydroepiandrosterone
(D.H.E.A.), a naturally produced hormone whose manufacture in the
body declines with age. Life extensionists believe that swallowing it
can restore youthful vigor.
Most, whatever they're for, were exotic chemicals that to my
layman's ear sounded like lawn-and-garden sprays: ornithine,
Is it safe to mix all this stuff together?
Wood doesn't really know. He's his own lab rat, out there alone on
the megadosing frontier, and he's aware that he might be hurting
himself. "One person told me I'll probably die of liver cancer," he
said cheerfully. As a safeguard, Wood makes regular visits to the
doctor for blood tests that might reveal signs of "imbalance" that
could lead to organ damage.
In the end, he feels certain he'll be fine, an opinion that is
definitely not shared by Dr. Victor Herbert, a physician and
nutrition expert who (at my request) inspected Wood's intake, and
who basically shrieked that Wood was committing supplement
suicide. "This will shorten his life," he said. "It may kill him of
cancer - brain, pancreas, testes, prostate, you name it. It will produce
His advice for Wood? "Don't touch this stuff!"
So there you have it. Physically, Wood is either saving himself or
hastening his demise. But how about spiritually? What, if anything, is
going on there?
Obviously, Wood's goals aren't cozy-puffy metaphysical. He's a
rock-ribbed atheist, focused entirely on the material preservation of
his body. Still, you could argue that he represents a new type of
spiritual seeker. At a time when science has robbed many people of
their ability to believe in an afterlife, Wood is fantasizing about an
immortalizing relationship with a newer, more accessible god:
technology. In exchange for accepting the chilly scientific verdict
that we are, in the end, little more than meat puppets, soulless life
support systems for our D.N.A., he just wants somebody, somehow,
to keep the puppet dancing longer.
In a way, it isn't asking too much. Science hasn't been all that nice
to our souls, but it has been very good for our "containers," so
there's a natural human tendency to want more. The average lifespan
in the United States has almost doubled since 1900, thanks mainly to
advances in medicine and nutrition, and there are scientists, real
ones, who think lifespans could be doubled again during the 21st
Wood isn't alone in his fidgety longing. He's joined by a fairly
sizable subculture of Americans who clamor for a life-extending fix.
Most aren't as intense as Wood, but some are, and some bring a
surprising measure of spirituality to their immortalist dream. One of
the more self-consciously "religious" buffs is Herb Bowie, 46, an
Arizona-based life-extensionist and the author of Why Die?, an odd
little book that pushes the unique notion that physical immortality is
not only coming, but that people can make it happen by having faith
that it's coming. It's a tricky idea that grows out of an old New Age
practice called Rebirthing, which has it that what people believe
influences their physical, spiritual, and emotional "reality" in
tangible ways, at a fundamental level.
"An extension of that," Bowie explained, "is the idea that perhaps
even death is something we create through a combination of social
and mental conditioning." Bowie urges his readers to absorb the
deep-soul conviction that immortality is their birthright and to stop
feeling guilty about wanting it. If enough people do so,
immortalizing faith would become immortalizing fact: with the
majority of the world clamoring to live forever, the mighty engines
of government and commerce would, by universal demand, be
redirected toward the goal, and we would see a "war on aging"
comparable to the golden age of the space race.
The believer's task is to ... well, to believe this, and to live as if
immortality were coming soon. "Immortality is something I already
am," reads one of Bowie's good-news tenets, "something I am
creating for myself on a daily basis."
That's a challenging faith commitment, but Bowie is firm about it.
"If scientists are going to offer us the option of extending the human
lifespan through technology," he told me, "we have to start resolving
these conflicts in our psyche."
The human yearning to live forever is an ancient literary theme,
usually delivered with a castor-oily dose of warning: Immortality is
for the gods, not men. Greek mythology tells of Sibylla, a young
woman whom Apollo gave eternal life but (mean guy) without
eternal youth. Sibylla grayed and shrank until she fit inside a tiny
bottle, a forlorn creature known as the Sibyl who peeped out a sad,
endless refrain: "I only want to die!"
In Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift presented the struldbrugs,
rare beings who were born with the gift of immortality. Gulliver
assumed they would be "happiest beyond all comparison." In fact,
they just kept getting older, sicker, and crabbier, and they too longed
for death's release. Swift also presented an ultra-rationalist attitude
toward mortality by introducing the Houyhnhnms, the wise horse-
beings Gulliver met during his final set of adventures. The horses
regarded Gulliver as a beast, indistinguishable from the Yahoos, the
noxious, carnal, cowardly humanoids who lived only for their
grossest material pleasures. The horses saw death stoically, as the
natural, unremarkable end to a life properly lived, and expressed
"neither joy nor grief" when a fellow horse passed on.
Swift wasn't necessarily endorsing this as the right attitude for
people, which is good, because I doubt many humans could be so
Houyhnhnm-cool about death. We're passionate creatures, and most
of us assume that when the time comes we'll splutter and yowl like a
Yahoo who's stubbed his toe. Life-extension believers represent a
third attitude: Steely defiance. They believe in directed rage, fighting
back, refusing to accept the final defeat.
Obviously, many informed people consider this outlook bizarre,
ignorant, and silly. One prominent critic of the immortalist fantasy is
Dr. Leonard Hayflick, a biogerontologist whose name is attached to a
term that life-extension buffs love to hate: the Hayflick Limit.
Hayflick earned fame in the 60's when he and a colleague debunked a
longstanding belief that normal human cells in a tissue culture were
immortal. His work showed that normal cells die after about 50
divisions, indicating that they have a built-in mortality "clock."
Recent work has suggested that his "limit" may not, in fact, be
insurmountable, but he still doubts that scientists will ever figure out
a way to string out the current maximum lifespan of around 125.
Moreover, pointing at the social problems super-longevity would
bring - start with overpopulation - he just thinks it's a bad idea.
"Let's say a little white immortality pill does become available
tomorrow," Hayflick told me. "Do we really want people to have it?
I can think of a lot of people - Hitler, Stalin, serial killers, rapists -
who I wouldn't want to see live forever. We should leave these
things to nature."
The immortality faithful certainly don't buy that. "Hayflick is
tired," said Will Block, a co-founder of the Life Extension
Foundation, a California-based outfit that sells life-extension
products. "He falls into a group that has an almost federal-
department-of-aging view, which is one that ignores enormous
amounts of exciting work and doesn't have a visionary quality."
The "federal" snipe is a reference to the National Institute on
Aging, a government research body that tends to look at aging from
a droopy "let's keep people healthy longer" perspective that both
bores and annoys the buffs. Enough people share Block's conviction
- tens of thousands, I'd estimate, based on the sales figures they claim
- that a thriving service sector exists to fill their needs, made up of
private research groups, mail-order supplement providers, a
publishing mini-genre, and renegade clinics that provide powerful
substances like human growth hormone (another body-juice that
declines naturally as you age) to anyone willing to pay for expensive
Block's group is one of about a half dozen whose entire business
consists of selling anti-aging nostrums like D.H.E.A. and multi-
substance wellness blends with names like Life Extension Mix and
Super Radical Shield. Elsewhere, mass-market longevity books make
dazzling promises that beckon readers to share the dream. The
Melatonin Miracle, a best-seller in 1995, focuses on melatonin's
alleged anti-aging benefits. Reversing Human Aging says the answer
lies in telomeres - tiny chromosomal tips that are depleted every time
a healthy cell divides - and predicts that within 20 years science will
learn how to replenish them and deliver lifespans of "200, possibly
500 years." Grow Young with H.G.H., a book by an energetic
Chicago-based buff named Ronald Klatz, touts human growth
hormone as "the amazing medically proven" way to "reverse" the
effects of aging.
All of these claims are a stretch. Most mainstream gerontology
researchers maintain that the anti-aging benefits of H.G.H.,
D.H.E.A., and melatonin are unproved or nonexistent. Furthermore,
since the aging process is still largely a mystery, victory dances are a
bit premature. Whatever causes aging (it may be the ravages of
metabolism on cells, or the environment, a genetically encoded
cellular lifespan, or something else), the battle is far from being
won, and it may never be.
And yet, as the buffs are keenly aware, some serious scientists do
suggest that research could add several healthy decades to the human
"The idea that lifespan can be extended has moved from being a
fringe idea to a subject for serious research," said Dr. Thomas
Johnson, a geneticist at the University of Colorado who, in one
promising area of inquiry, has manipulated roundworm genes in a
way that doubles the creatures' lives. He's convinced that a drug
could someday be developed that would neutralize protein products
that lead to aging in cells, and he's involved in a new company -
GenoPlex, based in Boulder, Colo. - that hopes to do this. He
believes that doubled human lifespans are possible, perhaps in our
Another optimist is Dr. Roy L. Walford, a pathologist and
researcher at U.C.L.A. who served as the team physician during the
Biosphere 2 project, in which a squad of humans lived for two years
inside a sealed-off indoor ecosystem. Walford's baby is calorie
restriction. This sounds strange, but it's based on a long-recognized
fact: reducing calorie intake in lab mice extends their lives
dramatically, and it's the only technique proven to do so in a
mammal. Whether it works for people is still an open question - data
released in 1997 indicates that it works in lower primates - but
Walford is a believer. He told me that the de facto calorie restriction
practiced inside Biosphere 2 (the Biospherians weren't able to grow
enough food in there, so they fasted involuntarily) resulted in a
range of quantifiable benefits, like dramatically decreased cholesterol
Some of Walford's colleagues think he's gone off the deep end
with his extrapolations, but at 73, he was still practicing the gospel,
living on an 1,800-calorie-a-day diet, as opposed to the
recommended 2,000 to 2,500 for adults. He insisted that a person
who started calorie-restricting at 18 would have a chance of living to
In good health? "It's possible. People make the mistake of getting
into a struldbrugs obsession," he said, referring to those miserable
"That's not the case," he added with grumpy certainty. "The health
curve will increase with the survival curve."
And what would be the upper limit on that survival curve?
"Limit? I don't see a limit."
Intrigued by such pronouncements, I decided to visit a few
prominent life-extensionists. Not the research people, but the buffs in
the trenches, the strivers and self-picklers and supplementers who
live in painful awareness of the miracles that might (or might not)
await them in the years ahead. A few calls revealed a clear pattern of
buff concentration. Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and Southern
California - Meccas of youthful narcissism and elderly roosting -
were all hotspots. For efficiency's sake, I settled on a swing through
First stop: Tonapah, Nevada, a tiny, high-desert outback town
several hours north of Las Vegas. Tonapah is home to a pair of
founding figures in the popular longevity subculture, Durk Pearson
and Sandy Shaw, a husband-and-wife team who in 1982 published
Life Extension, A Practical Scientific Approach, an 858-page
summary of the free-radical theory of aging. Free radicals are
byproducts of chemical processes in the body; some researchers
believe they damage cells in a way that produces the effects of aging.
Durk and Sandy, drawing partly on the research of Dr. Denham
Harman, a researcher at the University of Nebraska, recommended
taking massive doses of antioxidants to reduce the free radicals'
effects. Although critics slammed the book as a factually sloppy
farrago of other people's work, a fascinated public kept it on best-
seller lists for months, making Durk and Sandy the closest thing the
movement has had to celebrities.
I heard about them from the first life-extension buff I ever
encountered: Jack Wheeler, a flamboyant libertarian and adventure-
travel guide whom I met in 1993. Wheeler said Durk and Sandy
introduced him to life extension way back in the 60's, when they
became friends on the Southern California libertarian circuit. Durk
and Sandy had an additional interest in life extension, which
dovetailed nicely with their unhappy-with-government ideas. (The
buffs are usually prickly about government, their gripe being,
usually, that heavy-handed federal regulators are clumsily, stupidly
standing between the people and the life-extending substances that
could save them.) They'd read about Harman's work in science
journals, and were already whipping up their own experimental
batches of antioxidant mix using bulk tubs of pharmaceutical grade
"They had this formula - lots of Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and lots of
B - that they made in their own lab," Wheeler recalled. "I'd go visit
them and help mix it up. They didn't have any encapsulation
equipment, so we would just carry this powder around in plastic bags
and choke it down by the spoonful. It tasted awful. Oh, god! You
have no idea!"
Wheeler helped make Durk and Sandy famous. He'd built a name
for himself as a boy adventurer and globe-trotting action man - he
guided tourist fly-ins to the North Pole, for example - and he was a
frequent guest on "The Merv Griffin Show." In a stirring moment of
show-biz synergy, Wheeler told Merv about Durk, an act that led to
many "Merv" appearances by Durk and Sandy and, eventually, the
book contract. Durk and Sandy spent much of the 80's stoking their
career, touring life-extension gatherings and health-food expos,
creating and licensing products, and pushing their ideas while
wearing glitter-rock costumes that made them look like refugees
from "Starlight Express."
Durk and Sandy remained high-profile during the late-80's "smart
nutrient" craze, but when I talked to Wheeler in 1997, I realized I
hadn't seen any sign of them for a while. Had they given up? Or
Nope, said Wheeler. They were fine, and as far as he knew, they
were still figuring to live a long, long time. How long?
"Well, they say 30,000 years." Wheeler explained the reasoning:
Durk and Sandy's mixes would keep them going for another 50
years, long enough, perhaps, for the "rapid doubling" of scientific
knowledge to solve the last riddles about aging. Wheeler shared their
hopes, though as a "safety net" he was looking into a technique they
weren't interested in: cryonic freezing after death, with the hope that
he could be thawed someday and revived.
"That's the bet, anyway," he said.
My road trip from Las Vegas to Tonapah involved a five-hour
northward squiggle through a mountainous, increasingly Martian
landscape. Nye County is old silver-mining territory that these days
is better-known for a streak of libertarian cussedness. (A few years
ago, Nye County officials tried to declare federal environmental laws
null and void in the county.) Durk and Sandy moved there from
Southern California to stretch their freedom-loving legs; the
breaking came when local zoning nannies refused to let them build a
personal "library" in their backyard.
On a cool summer afternoon, Durk picked me up on the tiny
commercial strip in Tonapah, smiling behind the wheel of a big
white truck. I followed him to his house, which was perched on a
dry, scruffy hill above town. In his emphatic, analytical voice, he
explained that the truck itself factored into his personal life-extension
"The vehicle weighs forty-six-hundred pounds. It has a chrome
moly-steel roll bar in it. So if some drunk idiot in a twenty-five-
hundred-pound car crashes into me, he's likely to get killed, and I'm
likely to get a few bruises and aches and pains."
At 54, Durk looked healthy - he was a big, strapping guy - but he
also looked his age, maybe older. His signature feature was a frizzy
mane of Peter Frampton hair that had turned gray. Sandy, also 54,
looked her age too. A slim, dark-haired woman who spoke in an
excited bray, she greeted me inside a modest dwelling that was
unbelievably cluttered with bric-a-brac, art, and scientific journals.
The walls and rooms were crowded with images of Durk and Sandy
in their glitzy 80's prime, but as they showed me around, they
explained that these days they rarely left home. They made money by
licensing their mixes and preferred to stick around the pad, beetling
through scientific journals and books. They subscribed to roughly 50
of them - everything from Cell to Free Radical Biology & Medicine
- at a cost of $15,000 a year. Out back on a dusty lot they were
building the new library and lab to hold it all.
We cozied up outside. Durk stretched out on an old chaise longue,
Sandy sat in a chair. Wheeler's 30,000-year figure turned out to be a
stretch, but they did have great anticipations.
"I really don't expect to live forever because if nothing else
accidents will get you sooner or later," Durk said. "That could be a
very long time, though. If it were possible to maintain a person's
health at what it was in the early 20's - and we don't know how to do
that yet, we may never know how, but it's certainly a worthy goal -
you would have an average time to death of about 800 years. So you
eliminate things like common accidents, slips and falls in the shower,
which is easy enough to do. You eliminate all that and it might be
like 2,200 years mean time to death. That's a very long time."
"There's an awful lot an individual can do to reduce the risk of
accidents," Sandy put in quickly.
Those were large "ifs." I asked them what, exactly, would do away
with aging? Durk assumed that genetic research will eventually
identify the precise genes that both cause and counteract aging and
disease. "The next step, then, is to find out what those good genes are
and get them. I really think that type of therapy will be as common
50 years from now as giving a kid a shot to immunize him against
diphtheria and whooping cough."
"I think 25 years from now," Sandy said.
"How will you 'get them'?"
"You put the genes in," said Durk. "You inject an adenovirus that
contains that good gene, and if effects all your cells. Like a cold."
"The doubling for knowledge in the area of aging mechanisms is
now, say, five years," he continued. "We're 54. The idea that science
will not understand what causes aging and be able to deal with it in
another half century is ludicrous. By the time we're 80, aging will be
as irrelevant as smallpox."
That's a major leap of faith, but Durk and Sandy have made it.
And they were surprisingly blasé about it all, like a pair of lounging
cats waiting for someone to give them an immortalizing scratch on
the belly. Whether they believed all this deep down or not, I can't
say, but they seemed very happy, and there was something musky
and disheveled about their "crib" that hinted at great delight in
Yahoo carnality. Maybe they were living in a dream world, but I had
to admire their quirky joi de vivre. I asked them to walk me through
their daily routines.
"O.K.," said Durk, sitting up. "We get up in the morning and we
take our first dose of nutrient supplements for the day. We also take
brain foods, nutrient supplements designed to help the brain."
"These are substances the brain can use to make
neurotransmitters," Sandy interjected.
"Um, all right. Are all these things pills?"
"No. These are drinks. It's a very nice-tasting iced tea."
They laid out the rest, explaining that, basically, they glug this
stuff four times a day, try to avoid stress, and eat what they want.
They didn't buy calorie restriction as a viable option for themselves -
why live that way? - a conviction they vividly demonstrated later,
when we went to lunch at a local Mexican food restaurant and
downed beef tostadas topped with enough sour cream to clog the
Jack Wheeler, I recalled, was capable of gluttony, but he always
performed penance with intense physical activity. "You both
probably exercise a lot, right?"
"No," Durk said shamelessly, "we really don't do any formal
"We do believe we should be doing more exercise," Sandy said,
"Ahhh, frankly, we prefer to read."
"Hey," I said. "I'm not judging you. I was just asking."
"Neither of us really cares for repetitive-type exercise," Sandy
confessed with a gush of relief. "It just bores us silly."
Fine, no exercise. Plenty of red meat and fat. No interest in
freezing. Clearly, Durk and Sandy might need a safety net. What
about cloning? Would that be useful to them?
"Aaaah, a clone is just a twin, it's not you," Durk sighed, adding
that the technology did have tangy potential: It would eventually be
possible to take a cloned human liver cell, implant it in a pig, and
grow a new human liver that could then be transplanted to a person.
"And there you go," he said brightly, "you'll get yourself a new
liver and a bunch of bacon!"
I'd read somewhere that it would be possible to clone yourself and
"harvest" organs from your twin. "But I don't understand that," I
said, hoping to steer our talk into shadowy territory. "Wouldn't that
be rather ... ghastly for the clone?"
Sandy: "I think they're talking about a clone that would have no
brain. It would be decerebrate. So it wouldn't really be a person at
all, it would just be a factory of organs."
"Aaaah," said Durk, waving that off. "They won't need that. It'll
be a lot easier to use a pig."
Last question: Did they really expect to be alive far, far, far in the
"I'd be more surprised if it didn't happen than if it did," said
Sandy nodded. "We've got a tremendous opportunity."
Durk and Sandy may be happy to "wait and see" about immortality,
but some life-extension buffs feel compelled to take action. No one
exemplifies this spirit better than Saul Kent, a gray and craggy 58-
year-old based in Southern California. Kent is a layperson, but he
has long been involved in amateur animal experiments designed to
"perfect" that famously controversial backup technique: cryonic
freezing. Among other things, Kent and his pals have lowered the
body temperature of lab animals close to the freezing point, and
warmed them again, to see what they can withstand and to study the
effects of frigid temperatures on cells.
"For several years now, we've been able to take dogs to a few
degrees above freezing and revive them," Kent told me soon after we
met. "I have a pet dog named Franklin who went through that
Kent was fielding my questions on a sunny Saturday morning in
the lobby of a generic, one-story office building, home to a mad
scientist's lair called 21st Century Medicine. Mild, clinical chemical
smells wafted through the lobby, and as we sat there, I couldn't help
but notice how much Kent actually looked like a mad scientist. He
had a leathery-lipless Frankenstein mouth, wild, stringy Igor hair,
and very, very intense eyes.
Surprisingly, I found myself warming to the man. Kent had been a
serious grouch when I first called him up, but in person he had a
(moderately) lively sense of humor that animated his funereal
bearing, and he was able to joke about his strange fixation. "At the
age of four," he said, smiling, "I realized that people die, and I
decided that would not be a good idea."
On the downside, there were those pooch experiments, which
sounded icky and senseless. Kent made me promise not to reveal his
office's address, because he feared attack by animal-rights advocates.
As well he might. Over the years dozens of dogs have died in the
name of Kent's certitude that cryonic preservation or low-
temperature "suspended animation" can work, despite obstacles that
have convinced bona fide scientists that these ideas - particularly
freezing - are absurd. First, icing down bodies is a destructive
process: When you freeze someone, spiky ice crystals form that
rupture cells and wreck organs. Second, when people are frozen,
they're dead. Its many miracles notwithstanding, science has yet to
figure out how to bring anyone back to life.
All the same, Kent decided long ago that he could not just sit on his
hands waiting for science to deliver longer lifespans. 21st Century
Medicine is the research arm of the Life Extension Foundation, a
supplement-selling, Florida-based outfit that Kent founded with a
fellow buff named Bill Faloon. In 1997, flush with cash from the
sale of anti-aging nostrums and other supplements, Kent and Faloon
embarked on the Life Span Project, a multi-year, multi-million-
dollar private research effort designed to "blaze new pathways" in
The project had various parts, including a tie-in with credentialed
researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the University of
California at Riverside to test the rejuvenation properties of
substances like melatonin on elderly rodents. Dubious-sounding
canine experiments would continue at this facility and a new, larger
space nearby. Kent introduced me to Brian Wowk, a pale, portly
young Canadian Ph.D. who was coming on board to investigate how
to deal with the problem of ice crystals rupturing cell tissue. I also
met Mike Darwin, 43, an uncredentialed researcher, lacking so much
as a college degree, who was studying the effects of ischemia - the
cutoff of blood flow - on the brains of dogs. Darwin was a
prematurely white-haired man with tense features and a crisp
speaking style. Kent handed me off to him for a tour of the main lab,
and Darwin showed me around a lair that looked like a veterinarian's
surgical theater. He wasn't so smiley; he was visibly unhappy with
"I'm anti-media," he said grimly.
It's hard to blame him. Cryonics has been a public laughing stock
for decades, and it seems that every few years some scandal or
pathetic episode pops up to remind journalists to poke fun at it.
The idea apparently was first conceived by a man named Robert
Ettinger, in a 1962 book called The Prospect of Immortality: The
Revival and Rejuvenation of Frozen Bodies. And while the freezing
part of that title has proved simple enough, thawing and revival still
elude discovery. There are currently a handful of companies in the
U.S. that will freeze you, but there aren't many takers. (Contrary to
popular myth, Walt Disney did not choose to be frozen, though Dick
Clair, a writer for "The Carol Burnett Show," did.) Alcor - one of
the best-known outfits, and one that Kent and Darwin were affiliated
with for years before splitting off on their own - had 33 customers
on ice as of early 1997: 13 bodies and 20 "neuros," or heads without
bodies. (Many cryonics buffs believe that science will one day be
able to grow a new body to match a preserved head.) The full-body
freezing process, simplified, works like so: After you die,
technicians pump out your blood and replace it with anti-freeze. The
body or head is wrapped in protective materials and suspended in a
tank of liquid nitrogen.
Therefore, what "cryonics" really entails is a limbo world of cold
storage and black comedy. Kent has been an active player on this
stage. He became a fringe superstar after the 1987 death of his
mother, Dora Kent, who had signed up with Alcor as a "neuro." The
news media reported that Dora was beheaded and prepared for
freezing before the proper official arrived to declare her legally
dead. Kent has always denied this, but the allegation touched off a
lengthy, highly publicized investigation that featured gruesome
sideshows. Dora's head and (mysteriously) her hands had been
removed by Alcor's technicians, among them Mike Darwin, and the
Riverside County Coroner's office labeled the case a homicide after
an autopsy revealed a lethal amount of barbiturates in Dora's brain.
The Alcor people said the drugs were administered post-death to
preserve the gray matter for its future rethawing, and though the
controversy surged for a while, in the end no charges were filed.
Darwin is media shy, in part, because he's been caught up in such
fiascoes, but also because he fears for his life if the animal-rights
people know where to find his lab. The rightsniks, no doubt, would
not be pleased with his antics: the research protocol he described to
me was the stuff of a nightmare. It involved stopping a dog's heart
for 15 minutes or more, trying to learn which drugs (or
combinations) would help lessen the effects of ischemia in the dog's
The application to cryonics? Well, just this. When you die, the
blood flow to your brain is cut off, causing neurological damage.
The cryo-buffs would like to come up with a drug soup that would
be administered to a dead "patient," preserving the brain as fully as
On behalf of this questionable goal, many dogs were being
"sacrificed" by Darwin, at a rate of one every two weeks.
"It's a brutal thing," he said, looking anguished. "The work we do
here is punishing, for us and for the animals. We're very good at
pain management, but if somebody slit me up both sides of the groin
and put all kinds of instruments in me, and killed me for 15 minutes,
and then reperfused me and put me on a ventilator for a day, I don't
think I'd be feeling too hot, no matter what you gave me."
Uh huh. Call me an old sentimentalist, Mike, but I'd say it's more
punishing for the animals.
Such episodes give "suspended animation" a ghoulish air that
strikes many people as highly unamusing. Should dogs really die so
that obsessive men can fantasize about living longer?
Darwin and Kent made no apologies, and for both men, there was
an obvious desperation in the hurry-up nature of this research.
Neither looked like he was cheating death with dietary supplements.
"It's not an optimal situation," acknowledged Kent, who wears a
metal bracelet on his wrist that tells physicians and paramedics to
whistle in the freezer boys if he's found dead. "I coined the phrase:
'Being frozen is the second-worst thing that can happen to you.' But
whether the odds are high or low that I can be revived, I don't care.
I just want to make the odds better."
At the end of my visit, Kent introduced me to Dr. Stephen R.
Spindler, a professor in the department of biochemistry at the
University of California at Riverside. Spindler was hired to help
direct the Life Span Project's rodent research on the effects of
supplements. He's also an old hand at researching calorie restriction,
which for decades has been known to extend the life of lab mice.
(The mystery is how.) A dapper, compact man who practices a mild
calorie-restriction regimen himself, Spindler offered to show me his
lab at Riverside, so I followed him over.
En route, I sorted my thoughts on all this stuff. Larry and Herb
and Durk and Sandy seemed harmless enough, but obviously, I had
to be against the dog-slaying. Calorie restriction seemed O.K., but I
did have to wonder if that would be a desirable way to "live" just to
tack on a few more years. A typical platoon of calorie-restricted
mice eat about 40 percent less than their unrestricted counterparts.
Put in terms I could understand, that comes out to about 100 percent
fewer trips to New Orleans. The idea of living life as an extended
pursed-lip tightrope act seemed too rational to be much fun.
Put another way, it seemed too "Houyhnhnm." Say what you will
about the superior moral virtues of the horse people in Gulliver's
Travels, but admit this: they were awfully boring. Little wonder that
no one mourned when they died. They probably couldn't tell the
difference. The Yahoos weren't proper role models, either - they
were too animalistic, nasty, and ignorant - but at least they knew how
to have a good time, even if their primary amusements were
howling, fornicating, and defecating.
Inside his lab, Spindler introduced me to his wife and lab pardner,
Patti Mote, a kindly woman who loaned me a white coat. We walked
upstairs to a small room where the racks of mice are kept. Against
one wall was a rack of individually caged, calorie-restricted mice;
against the other, the so-called "ad libs," furry fatties who could eat
whatever and whenever they wanted. With dramatic consistency, I
was told, the fatties were unhealthier and died sooner. I leaned in to
study them closely. They looked sluggish, lazy, and swollen, like
little fur-covered sausages with hangovers. By contrast the dieters
were alert, pert, and active. Even though I'm a naturally too-skinny
guy myself, I felt no kinship bond with the fit-and-slim mice, who
struck me as too smug and Houyhnhnm-like to love. I liked the
fatties. The Yahoos.
The Spindlers grabbed a Houyhnhnm mouse and a Yahoo mouse
and showed me "the dowel test," a measure of mouse dexterity. They
laid a long wooden dowel over a dry sink, creating a sort of Dowel
Bridge over Sink Canyon. They put a dieter on the dowel and slowly
turned it. It kept its balance, no problem. Then they put a Yahoo
through the same paces. The hapless tub clutched and blobbed and
quickly fell. But ... was I imagining it? He seemed to be smiling as he
"He fell off without me even rolling the dowel," Spindler observed
Good for him. As far as I was concerned, that made him a
champion. His sloppy-but-heroic effort brought to mind Alexis
Zorba, the "life force"-y character created by Nikos Kazantzakis in
Zorba the Greek. At one point, describing his vision of the afterlife,
Zorba imagines God as a big, strong, hard-partying guy who greets
newly arrived souls with a bucket of water and a sponge. At heaven's
gate, you cower before him and confess your sins until he's heard
"Flap! Slap! a wipe of the sponge, and he washes out all the sins,"
says Zorba. "'Away with you, clear out, run off to Paradise!' he says
to the soul."
The "scolding" points at the rustic-but-elegant truth of Zorba's
theology: God is proud of you for arriving a little stained and sinful.
Blessed are those who live a little.
My last stop in California was with Max More and his wife Natasha
Vita More, who live in a perky white-walled apartment in Marina
del Rey. "More" is an assumed name that they adopted in keeping
with a futuristic philosophy that guides their lives. It's called
Extropianism - as in, "away from entropy" - and its 5,000 or so
adherents long for a day when technology, in various ways, will
carry people past the limits of the human body.
On a brilliant southern California Sunday morning, the Mores told
me about the final days of Timothy Leary, who, before his death in
early 1996, had signed up for cryonic treatment with an outfit Mike
Darwin performed technical work for, CryoCare. Freezing Leary
would have been a notable coup, but he backed out, apparently citing
his family's wishes that he not turn his death into a sideshow.
The Mores weren't there, but they didn't find this a happy
conclusion. In an issue of Extropy, a magazine Max edited, Max and
Natasha both lamented Leary's decision as a cop-out, a capitulation to
That's a novel way of looking at it - death as a bad lifestyle choice
- but it was no joke to the Mores. They seemed sincerely stricken.
"Tim was not a long-range planner," Natasha said sadly.
"He was surrounded by people who were hostile to cryonics, who
were very much into reincarnation and Buddhism, things like that,"
Max added. "Plus, a close confidante of his, John Perry Barlow, had
this idea that -"
"That death was to be honored."
"That you were to die with dignity and grace and that death is this
wonderful and natural thing. I think Barlow got Leary to see himself
as a new Socrates, taking his hemlock."
And what was Barlow trying to prove?
"That dying," said Max, "is still an acceptable choice."
Apocalypse Pretty Soon
While you're there, be sure to say hello to "Quivering Casey," the
A.P.S. staff expert on longevity research!
The official home page of Herb Bowie, the ever-optimistic author
of Why Die?: A Beginner's Guide to Living Forever. Here, you can
also join "The Immortality Book Club."
Walford, the staff M.D. inside the Biosphere 2 bubble, is a
longtime life-extension researcher, focusing on calorie restriction.
Alcor Life Extension Foundation
Major players in "cryonics," or body freezing in hopes of future
World Transhumanist Association
Dedicated to overcoming the limits of the human body via
The Life Extension Foundaton
World's largest purveyor of life-extension supplements (or so they
Excellent site run by Max More and Natasha Vita More, prominent
figures in the "extropian" movement, a science-is-best lifestyle with a
major life-extensionl thrust.
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