Part I: The Intrusion of Death
A Medical Fact Or Legal Fiction?
By one man
sin entered into the world,
and death by sin;
and so death passed upon all men.
We all know
that we must die, sometime. This is a fact of life. Man is, in
short, a mortal creature.
The Greeks, with tongue
in cheek and with considerable subtlety of thought, held that
the ideal was to die young but to postpone dying as long as possible!
It is indeed hard to know whether a short life of youthful health
is to be preferred to a long life with the accompanying ills
of old age. Given the choice, most of us would settle for the
latter. There may be, however, something to be said even for
failing health, for as Sir Charles Tennyson (grandson of the
famous poet) remarked in an interview recently, "the surest
recipe for a long life is never to feel really well"! (1) There could be some sound
medical sense in this, though the difficulty lies in defining
how much ill health one ought to be prepared to "enjoy"
with this in view. It is a paradox that we wish for long life
while fearing the process of growing old which inevitably goes
with it. The Greeks certainly hit upon the ideal, but how difficult
it is to achieve.
1. Tennyson, Sir Charles, The Listener, BBC,
London, 8 July, 1971, p.39, in an interview.
we are increasingly finding out from biological and medical research
is that both senescence and even death itself almost certainly
form no essential part of the process of being alive, that natural
death is unknown to vast numbers of living things, that functioning
protoplasm per se is in no way naturally subject to death.
For animals below man, death seems to be a statistical probability
rather than a biological necessity.
Physical immortality now emerges
as a perfectly valid concept, and the phenomenon of death appears
rather as an intrusion, something foreign to life even for
man himself. It is true that man now dies inevitably.* Yet
the evidence increasingly supports the view that death is no
more "natural" for him than it is for millions of lower
forms of life which simply go on living for ever if they are
not killed. In man, death is more like a disease than a consequence
of having lived.
The anthropologist Gy. Acsadi and
the demographer J. Nemeskeri, both of the Hungarian Academy of
Sciences of Budapest, recently pooled their energies and their
information to produce what must surely be the most thorough
analysis of the factors governing human mortality ever undertaken.
Their conclusion is summed up quite early in their text with
the words: (2)
Although 50 million people died
every year in the last decade, biological death could not once
be ascertained. Using adequate standards, examination always
established some disease, injury or poisoning as the cause of
death [emphasis mine].
According to the present state
of our knowledge, people die of diseases and of pathological
processes. The possibility of long human life without pathological
signs and whether human death of a purely biological character
without pathological changes is at all conceivable, is still
an open question. It would, however, be of some interest to study
the extraordinary life spans of certain people, possibly achieved
by the interaction of exceptionally favourable circumstances.
These two authorities,
in spite of their admission that "it would be of interest"
to study the life histories of some very long-lived individuals,
do not by their own confession have much confidence in the many
reports now available (quite apart from the records in Genesis)
* Herman Bavinck commented: "Men of science
are by no means in agreement about the causes and nature of death.
Over against those that see in death a natural and necessary
end of life there are many who find death an even greater riddle
than life, and who roundly declare that there is not a single
reason why living beings should from some inner necessity have
to die." [Our Reasonable Faith, translated by Henry
Zylstra, Grand Rapids, Baker, 1956, p. 2581.]
2 of 17
2. Acsadi, Gy. and J. Nemerski, History of Human Life Span
and Mortality, Akademiai Kiado, Budapest, 1970, p.15.
of such people! They
say, "Many examples of longevity have been recorded in literature
but there is little value in the reports." (3) We shall consider scores
of records of long-lived individuals in a later chapter, but
for the moment it is enough to note that Acsadi and Nemeskeri
would virtually exclude the reality of natural death for
man altogether. Man always dies from accident or disease: natural
death is more legal fiction than medical fact.
But surely one may ask, Even if
a man does not die of either accident or disease, may he not
die simply of old age? Well, even this is surprisingly difficult
to establish, as we shall see. The evidence available from many
lines of research at the present moment agrees in this that there
really is, as Acsadi and Nemeskeri are saying in so many words,
no known case of a human being dying a natural death. In short,
he is really always "killed" by something, and
usually the death certificate will specify what that something
They are not alone in this conclusion.
Some years ago, in 1938, an editorial in the medical journal
Lancet under the title "Old Age in Mind and Body"
took notice of the visit to England of one of the world's most
renowned pathologists, Dr. Ludwig Aschoff, who had completed
a series of critical review articles in Medizinische Klinik
on the morbid anatomy of old age. The editorial notes: (4)
It is easy to adopt the sophism
that it is life that consumes the body, and that natural death
marks the exhaustion of a store of energy; but this explains
nothing since it is not necessarily those who live strenuous
lives who die young. . .
In Dr. Aschoff's long experience
(he is now 71 years of age) he has never found a case of purely
natural death: autopsy has always revealed some pathological
process as a cause.
Sometimes, however, he has noted
that disease may be less distressing in its effects on the aged
and he recalls the "unexpected" death at the age of
97 of a colleague only two days after he himself had seen and
talked with him. Here Aschoff expected to find a case of natural
death, for there had been no sign of illness, but at autopsy
a severe lobar pneumonia of 4 or 5 days standing was found together
with numerous metastases of a malignant tumor of the thyroid.
This old physician who was well qualified to appreciate his physical
state, had suffered little discomfort and had apparently been
unaware of his condition.
Dr. Hans Selye of Montreal, probably the world's leading authority
on human stress, asserted that in all his autopsies he has never
yet seen a man who died simply of old age, nor does he think
anyone ever has. (5)
Dr. George W. Casarett, radiation pathologist at the University
of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry at the time of
writing, was reported in Science News Letter as saying
Gy and J. Nemeskeri, ibid., p.16.
4. Aschoff, Ludwig: in the editorial, "Old Age in Mind and
Body", Lancet, 9 July, 1938, p.87.
5. Selye, Hans, quoted by Stephen E. Slocum, "Length of
Life", Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation,
vol.13 (1), 1961, p.19.
that he knew of no evidence
indicating the existence of a "built-in time clock."
(6) Aging is a
"pathological consequence." From a philosophical point
of view "man could be a potentially immortal animal."*
It is necessary
to pause for a moment to consider what is meant here by the term
"natural" death as used by Aschoff. He meant death
as a result simply of the passage of years in the absence of
disease or accident as a cause. If life is a fixed and measured
quantity having a precise end as it has a precise beginning and
having a limited power to sustain itself, then, when a man exhausts
this limited supply of energy, he dies naturally, expectedly,
inevitably. What is becoming clearer increasingly as a result
of research into life processes is that there is no such limitation.
A living thing does not age in the accepted sense, in the sense
that a car does, or a pair of shoes. It is apparently capable
of unending renewal of its own energies. Life, once initiated,
will continue indefinitely. A living thing must have its life
terminated for it by some mechanism not inherent in the living-ness
of the thing itself. We shall see plenty of evidence of this
Thus when a man dies, he really
dies because something kills him. He is, in fact, put to death.
It may be by some disease, or it may be by a defect, or injury,
or accident. The cause of death is foreign to the phenomenon
of life. Death is strictly not "natural" to man so
far as the medical evidence goes.
Yet, commonly speaking, medical literature
in general and death certificates in particular use the term
"natural death" while really they mean something quite
alien to nature in the sense that disease is alien. For example,
a recent article on some factors in sudden death due to heart
failure while driving a car is titled, "Natural Death at
the Wheel." (7)
This article is illustrated from twelve cases. All of them describe
serious accidents resulting from the sudden "natural"
death of the driver at the wheel. And every single case reveals
that the sudden death was not natural at all. All the deceased
had heart failure as a result of some pathological condition
of long standing. Such things as severe coronary arteriosclerosis,
acute myocardial infarction, massive subarachnoid hemorrhage
caused by rupture of a congenital aneurysm, and so on. It is
perhaps useful to employ the word natural here to distinguish
these deaths from poisonings, drownings, and such like accidents,
but one can hardly speak of a diseased heart
6. Cassaret, George W., "Radiation Slows
Down Aging in Dogs", Science News Letter, 30 Aug.,
* C. F. von Weizsacker, an internationally known biochemist,
observed: "I see no biochemical reason why individuals should
not be possible who would stay alive indefinitely, if not killed
by force." [Relevance of Science, London, Collins,
7. West, Irma, G. L. Nielson, Allen E. Gilmour, J. R. Ryan, "Natural
Death at the Wheel", Journal of the American Medical
Society, vol.205, 1968, pp.226-271.
as a natural heart or
a death by disease as a natural death if one wishes to be precise.
It is true that medical literature often
employs the term natural death and the meaning is clear
enough in the context, but in point of fact such types of death
are really anything but natural. They are pathological. Aschoff
used the term in a more precise sense, and his conclusion is
fully corroborated by Selye and Acsadi and many others in the
field. No man ever dies a strictly natural death simply marking
the termination of his own little allotment of life energy. Man
dies, slain by some intrinsic defect which undermines the vitality
of his cells, yet which is still unidentified except in so far
as the Bible tells us that death gained entrance in the first
place (Romans 5:12) through the eating of a forbidden fruit (Genesis
S. Simms of Columbia University in 1947 was reported to have
expressed the view that "there is at the present time no
proof for or against the possibility that we can some day extend
our active life an extra one hundred or two hundred years with
retention of youthful health, intelligence, and appearance."
(8) In a more popular
vein, Simms was prepared to go much further by saying that if
the human body could retain throughout life the ability to resist
disease and to repair breakdown which it possesses at the age
of ten, "man would have a life expectancy of 800 years and
some individuals might survive 22,000 years!" (9)
Twenty-two thousand years seems
rather an exaggeration, but it at least points up a notable fact
of life that is increasingly emerging from gerontological research,
which is that we do not appear to have any built-in limitations
against achieving immortality, but only acquired ones,
acquired by inheritance or by experience from birth or perhaps
even from the time of actual conception. Dr. Selye said: (10)
When a living cell is nourished,
washed and sheltered in a test-tube, it neither decays nor dies;
it divides and it endures. (11) It defeats
Biologists were familiar with this technical
form of immortality when I was a medical student thirty years
ago. Cell tissue from rats and chicks born at about that time
is alive and healthy in laboratory tubes today. On the human
scale of life, this tissue would be nearly a thousand years old.
No one knows how far man can prolong his life.
If medical research
should ever find ways of doing for whole organisms what can even
now be done for some tissues, then the world will be a different
place entirely! Millions of people will live on year after year,
century after century, accumulating wealth and experience
8. Simms, H. S.: quoted in British Medical
Journal, 5 July, 1947, p.14 from the Journal of Gerontology,
vol.1, 1946, p.24.
9. Simms, H. S.: quoted by Ernst LaFrance and Sid Ross, "Can
We Live to be 120?", Magazine Digest, 1950, p.46.
10. Selyle, Hans, "Is Death Ineviatble?", MacLean's
Magazine, 15 Aug., 1959, p.13.
11. On this see Hayflick's findings discussed in Note #123.
and, hopefully, wisdom
as well. The very fact of an enormously expanded time for the
gathering of knowledge by each individual would certainly accelerate
man's mastery over the forces of Nature -- if he does not simply
destroy himself in the process. There is a sense in which we
are witnessing this process of acceleration even today simply
by the perfection of alternative means for rapid communication
and dissemination of knowledge on a large scale. In the pre-Flood
days of Noah, longevity enormously multiplied man's capacity
for much the same reasons, but sadly increased his wickedness
to a crucial point at the same time.
In terms of his physical being,
man might well turn out to be almost a different kind of creature.
Dr. V. Korenchevsky of the Gerontological Research Unit, Oxford,
in an address to a group organized for the first time specifically
to do research on aging, held in July, 1946, at the Imperial
College in London, remarked: (12)
The aim is not only a longer
life but a stronger one -- to add life to years, not just years
to life -- not only prevention of the premature appearance of
senile decay but also elimination of those pathological features
which are not necessarily associated with normal old age, since
they are not present in some rare cases of less pronounced pathological
As ageing starts very early, actually
with the normal process almost the whole of the
span of human life will be changed, and therefore in some distant
future man will probably become in some respects a different
J. B. S. Haldane, looking forward to the same prospect, foresaw
that "man would develop slowly, continuing to learn up to
maturity at 40 [sic!], then living several centuries. . . . He
would be of high general intelligence by our standards, and most
individuals would have some special aptitude to the degree we
call genius." (13)
That cells need never die
has been known for a long time -- ever since microscopes allowed
man to study the life cycle of unicellular creatures like the
amoeba. These creatures have a life "cycle" only in
the sense that they grow into two. They do not have a life cycle
in the sense that they are born, mature, grow old and die. For
they never die at all in the ordinary sense: that is to say,
they are not subject to natural death. They only die accidentally.
At maturity they divide into two so-called daughter-cells, passing
on all their substance and leaving no corpse. It may be true
that the original amoeba "disappears," but this is
no more death than that the boy in becoming a man "dies"
in so doing. The daughter-cells in turn mature to repeat the
dividing process, and so on ad infinitum. They are, in
the strictest sense, immortal.
12. Korenchevsky, V., "Conditions Desirablefor
th Rapid Growth of Gerontological Research", British
Medical Journal, 28 Sept., 1946, p. 468.
13. Haldane, J. B. S.: in Genetics, Paleontology and Evolution,
Princeton University Bicentennial Conference (Series 2, Conference
3), 1946, p.26.
are by no means the only unicellular organisms which enjoy immortality.
Paramecia do also. One well known experiment conducted by L.
L. Woodruff of Yale reveals what the potential of life is in
this respect. In 1943 a culture of single-celled paramecia had
completed its 37th year of continuous growth during which time
it had passed through 20,000 generations. (14) If all the individuals produced had been allowed
to live they would have covered the entire surface of the earth.
It was estimated by Professor George A. Dorsey that at the time
of the 10,000th generation, if each generation had equaled a
human generation, Woodruff's original single paramecium would
now be well over a quarter of a million years old; yet as he
points out, it remains eternally young and shows no loss of virility.
And this brings
us to an important matter of definition. By "immortality"
biologists mean physical immortality, of course, not spiritual
immortality. Moreover, they do not mean that an animal possessing
immortality cannot die: they mean only that it NEED not die.
Such creatures may be killed by poisoning, or dehydration, or
starvation, or crushing, and so forth. But inherently and by
nature they are quite capable of living on for ever and ever.
This is what is meant in the present context and throughout the
rest of this volume by the term immortality. The point
is a very important one, both by reason of what it does mean
and of what it does not mean. It does not mean they are beyond
the power of death; and this is most fortunate for otherwise
the surface of the earth would soon be yards deep in living tissue.
Augustine, writing in the early
part of the fifth century A.D., observed of Adam when he was
first created that "it was not impossible for him to die
but it was possible for him not to die." Or as he put it
in the original, non imposse mori sed posse non mori.*
His statement is precisely correct as a definition of immortality
when used by biologists. It was not impossible for Adam to die,
for by an act of disobedience in eating a forbidden fruit he
evidently introduced into his body some toxic agent which upset
its originally perfect balance and initiated, that day, a process
of dying which was only completed centuries later. As we shall
see, there are excellent reasons for believing that the Genesis
record intends us to understand that if he had not disobeyed
he would not have become subject to physical death. And Augustine's
profound insight into Adam's position exactly expresses what
the modern biologist means when he speaks of an animal as being
14. Woodruff, L. L.: noted by Florence Moog,
"The Biology of Old Age", Scienctific American,
June, 1948, p.41.
15. Dorsey, George A., Why We Behave Like Human Beings,
Blue Ribbon Books, New York, 1925, p.105.
* Augustine: De Genesi ad Litteram, Book I, 25,
it is not merely that certain single-celled creatures have the
gift of immortality, but even tissues composed of thousands of
cells enjoy the same immortality if they are protected adequately.
At the Rockefeller Institute in 1912 Alexis Carrel removed a
bit of heart tissue and immersed it in a nutrient solution of
food stuffs extracted from embryos. Trimmed back to size every
so often and regularly provided with fresh nutrients, this tissue
lived and grew until the experiment was terminated in 1946, forty-three
years later. A chicken hatched in 1912 would have been dead by
1928 almost certainly, yet there is no reason to suppose that
this little segment of heart tissue would ever have died if the
equipment which sustained it in the laboratory had not failed
and brought the experiment to an end.
Whole organisms of quite
complex structure and of large size may very well enjoy a similar
immortality. Professor Raymond Pearl in his book The Biology
of Death had no hesitation in asserting that "natural
death is not the inevitable penalty of life." (16) Even highly specialized
cells are, he pointed out, "essentially immortal."
And Professor H. J. Muller of the Department of Zoology, Indiana
University, is perhaps even more explicit. He says, "Natural
death is not the expression of an inherent principle of (functioning)
Similarly, T. Dobzhansky observed: "Life carries the potentiality
of endless self-replication, but the realization of this potentiality
is restricted by the resistance of the environment." (18)
A. Zahl, Associate Director of the Haskins Laboratories in New
York City at the time of writing, said: (19)
Senescence and death are by
no means universal biological phenomena. . . . Perennial
organisms, for example, are not in fact subject to senescence
and never wear down to natural expiration. This condition prevails
presumably, because the body tissues of such organisms have not
been specialized to the point where they have wholly lost their
reproductive capacity. . . . Among organisms of this class,
life can be stopped (as it most often is) only by accident, attack
by preying organisms, or severe environmental adversity.
subsequently: "We may infer from the absence of inevitable
death among the lower organisms that there is nothing in the
fundamental nature of protoplasm that demands a wearing out [emphasis
mine]. A man is protoplasm; a sequoia is protoplasm. One has
a death-determined cycle; the other does not. A man is a mammal;
so is a mouse. Yet one lives thirty times longer than the other."
(20) But as Zahl
has just finished demonstrating, size really has nothing to do
with it. The rotifer lives only a few days; an amoeba, which
is smaller, lives for ever. . . . An elephant (dying between
55 and 60 years of age), which is about sixty times the weight
of a man,
16. Pearl, Raymond, The Biology of Death:
Monographs on Experimental Biology, Lipppincott, Philadelphia,
1923, 275 pp., reviewed in British Medical Journal, 3
March, 1923, p.382
17. Muller, H. J., "Life", Science, vol.125,
18. Dobzhansky, Theodosius, "Man Consorting with Things
Eternal" in Science Ponders Religion, edited by Harlow
Shapley, Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York, 1960, p.118.
19. Zahl, Paul A., "Need There Be Death?", a contribution
in a report published by the New York Joint Legislative Committee
on "Problems of the Aging", 1950, p.134.
20. Zahl, Paul A., ibid., p.135.
is not as long lived
as a man, while some fish, though lighter than man, may live
much longer. A sturgeon caught in Lake of the Woods (Ontario,
Canada) in 1954 was estimated by the Department of Lands and
Forests to be 152 years old. This estimate was subsequently confirmed
by microscopic analysis. (21)
Now some of the living things which enjoy
immortality, to which Zahl makes reference, belong within the
plant kingdom, e.g., the sequoia. In 1938 Sir Julian Huxley published
a series of short essays, one of which was titled "The Meaning
of Death." In this essay he explored briefly the question
of whether death is in any sense natural for living things. With
respect to plant life, he wrote: (22)
We have records of trees of
vast age and size, whose death seems only to have been due to
accident, that is to say, to something in the external world
and not in the tree itself, and therefore something that could
be avoided . . . . There is nothing inherent in the tree
itself which causes its death, merely the long-continued shocks
and buffets of the world, preventable things one and all; by
which I mean that if one could shelter the tree from storms,
keep off its active enemies, and provide it with a reasonable
amount of food, water and air, we must suppose that it would
go on living forever.
He then speaks
of one particular tree in the Calcutta Botanical Gardens which
has been sheltered artificially from at least some of these active
enemies, and which shows every sign of continuing indefinitely.
On this he comments: (23)
Thus we have persuaded ourselves
that a single individual can in some cases go on living indefinitely,
and two pertinent questions arise and demand an answer.
First, if functioning protoplasm
is not, necessarily, subject to death, why did death appear?
And secondly, granted that death must come for mankind, would
it be possible in ourselves for instance to postpone its coming
. . . for a short space, for a long space, or even for ever?
So we are in
effect on the edge of a whole new concept of what life is and
of what death is. It is true that immortality appears to be reserved
for lower forms of animal life and for plants, but the reasons
for this limitation are being actively explored at the present
time and there is no evidence to support the view that the basic
nature of life in the higher organisms is in any fundamental
way different. The programming of death into life below man by
the Creator appears to be a deliberate arrangement for reasons
which are becoming increasingly clear to biologists. Moreover,
even now there are grounds for believing that some of the higher
forms of life are only subject to
21. Sturgeon: Ontario Government Service Bulletin,
1 May, 1954.
22. Huxley, Sir Julian, "The Meaning of Death" in Essays
on Popular Science, Penguin Books, London, 1938, p.105.
23. Huxley, Sir Julian, ibid., p.105.
death by accident. This
is probably true, for example, of fishes which may or may not
have a pre-determined life span but which actually fail to achieve
greater longevity only because the longer they live the greater
are their chances of succumbing to predators. Sir Edwin Ray Lancaster,
over eighty years ago, said, "Fish are not known to get
feeble as they grow old and many fish are known not to get feebler."
(24) Sir Peter
Medawar comments on this acute observation: (25)
Fish may be potentially immortal
in the sense that they do not undergo an innate deterioration
with aging, and yet the naturalists who ought to know about it
simply can't be sure! Whether animals can, or cannot,
reveal an innate deterioration with age is almost literally a
domestic problem; the fact is that under the exactions of natural
life they do not do so. They simply do not live that long.
support the view that fishes never die of old age, indeed do
not age at all in the sense in which aging is applied to man.
Dr. G. P. Bidder, in his Linnean Lecture on Aging in 1932, argued
that fish continue to grow without limit and never undergo senescence
nor suffer natural death. He stated that he could not remember
any evidence of any marine animal dying a natural death. (26) Lincoln Barnett observed
more recently: (27)
Some biologists believe that
for aquatic animals, liberated from the destructive power of
gravity by the dense medium in which they dwell, growth, though
it may slacken almost to cessation, never halts entirely. So
long as they escape -- or are protected -- from the primitive
dangers of the sea, fish may therefore continue to grow by simple
enlargement year after year. And so long as they continue to
grow, according to this theory, they do not grow old. For them
there is no old age, only the violent death that lurks everywhere
in the world of water.
It may be observed
that salmon age and die as part of the breeding cycle. This has
the appearance of natural death in the sense that it is natural
enough for the salmon. However, it may also be noted that a number
of organisms which suffer death as a result of the activity of
reproduction, do not die if this particular activity is prevented.
This is apparently true of certain simple forms of life which
have developed a mode of sexual reproduction; for example, the
Infusoria. They normally multiply by a process of union
with a mate which is called conjugation which seems to
be in some way responsible for their subsequent dying. Sir Julian
Huxley notes that if by feeding them on a special diet they can
be induced to multiply without conjugation (an alternative method
of reproduction of which they are capable), death is obviated.
As he says, "Experiments of
24.Lancaster, Sir Edwin Ray: quoted by Alex
Comfort in "The Biology of Old Age" in New Biology,
vol.18, 1955, p.19 (published by Penguin Books).
25. Medawar, Sir Peter B., The Uniqueness of the Individual,
Basic Books, New York, 1957, p.57.
26. Bidder, G. P., reported under "Senescence" in British
Medical Journal, vol.2, 1932, p.583.
27. Barnett, Lincoln, The World We Live In, Time Inc.,
New York, 1955, p.150.
only after hundreds of generations when it seemed clear they
might go on forever) seemed to show that functioning protoplasm
is not in itself mortal, but that the cause of death is to be
found in the external conditions; for by altering these, death
may be put off, it would seem, indefinitely." (28) Something of this kind
could conceivably be true of salmon who otherwise provide us
with a notable exception to what is observed elsewhere in marine
So fish do die but, with the one
notable exception which may not actually be an exception, fish
do not appear to die a natural death. They become prey to predation
or disease or accident of some kind. And as for land animals,
both birds and mammals, Bidder put forward the theory that they
die because of size limitations. If their cells went on multiplying
without hindrance, their size would increase to the point where
the animal could not navigate either on wings or feet. The limitations
upon life on land or in the air have been thoroughly and intriguingly
explored by a number of zoologists. The consequence is that the
animal must collapse, as it were, by the very encumbrance of
its own size. (29)
Where such animals (mammals included) are not embarrassed by
the fact of weight per se, size limitations do not place
the same constraints upon their continuance and accordingly they
may live a lot longer. . . . Only accident and perhaps some functional
limitations of a physiological nature operate here. Marine animals,
like whales, fall within this category. The elephant, on land,
may reach a weight of five tons and live possibly 55 or 60 years;
whereas the whale reaching a weight of up to one hundred and
fifty tons, or thirty times as much, may live between 65 and
There is a principle
here that life is always associated with growth and that so long
as an organism is growing it is not subject to natural death.
It is quite conceivable that man
himself, if he were to live on and on, might for the same reason
be far larger in stature, if not giant in size . . . a fact which
could shed light on certain statements in the early chapters
of Genesis respecting the size of men at the time of the Flood
and shortly after (Genesis 6:4). It does seem, however, that
there must be some limitations for man on account of his upright
posture, as ably pointed out by F. W. Went. (30) It is conceivable that the growth factor in man might
be asymptotic, i.e., steadily slowing up with age but continuous
nevertheless. As Alex Comfort has pointed out, "All, or
almost all, organisms grow more slowly the larger they get."
(31) The consequences
of such growth for man, if Adam had not lost for us our physical
immortality, are explored in a later chapter.
Even yet, man contains within himself
some at least of the seeds of his pristine condition of immortality.
Dr. Kenneth Walker has stated
28.Huxley, Sir Julian, "The Meaning of
Death" in Essays on Popular Science, Penguin Books,
London, 1938, p.104. Plants that die bearing one crop of seeds
can, if kept under conditions that prevent flowering, be made
to continue indefinitely in their vegetative form. Their life
is extended probably without limit provided that the ageing effect
of seed and flower production is prevented.
29. The factor of size is dealt with subsequently: See Notes,
30. Went, F. W., :The Size of Man", American Scientisit,
vol.56 (4), 1968, pp.400-413.
31. Comfort, Alex, "The Biology of Old Age" in New
Biology, vol.18, 1955, p.18 (published by Penguin Books).
this fact very effectively:
In the "theory of the continuity
of the germplasm" published in 1885, Weismann showed that
at a very early period the fertilized ovum (which later becomes
the embryo) separates into two parts, a somatic part and what
Weismann called the propagative part. The somatic half grows
into the body of the individual, while the propagative half forms
only the germinal epithelium or reproductive glands. A clear
and very early division is therefore made between the cells which
are to form the body and those highly specialized cells which
become the sex glands and eventually give rise to the next generation.
A man's body is doomed to die, but in a way, his reproductive
cells are immortal .
was writing so many years ago, and although certain of his conclusions
are now considered questionable, his concept of the immortality
of the germ plasm has stood the test of time. Weismann wrote:
"Death", i.e., the end of life, is by no means,
as is usually assumed, an attribute of all organisms. An immense
number of protozoa do not die, although they are easily destroyed,
being killed by heat, poisons, etc. As long, however, as the
conditions which are necessary for their life are fulfilled they
continue to live, and they thus carry the potentiality of unending
life in themselves. . . . Death is not an essential attribute
of living matter.
Weismann developed his theme in the following way, allowing for
some editing on my part: "Death is not, as has hitherto
been assumed, an inevitable phenomenon essential to the very
nature of life itself. Protozoa (the very lowest unicellular
forms of life) are immortal. Metazoa (more complex than protozoa)
have lost this power . . . in some of their cells, but not in
all. The immortality of the protozoan organism has merely passed
over to the ova or spermatozoa: the other cells (body cells)
will die, and since the body of the individual is chiefly composed
of them, it will die also." (34)
Some pages later, after exploring
the implication of what he calls "this division of labour,"
he observed: "This limitation (the surrender of immortality
of the whole organism) went hand in hand with the differentiation
of the cells of the organism into reproductive and somatic cells."
I have already noted that Weismann's
views, so lucidly expressed throughout his writings, have been
challenged at one or two points in modern times. It may be well
to state very briefly where the current disagreement exists.
Weismann believed that all somatic or body cells had fully surrendered
their immortality. It
32.Walker, Kenneth, Meaning and Purpose,
Penguin Books, London, 1959, p.63.
33. Weismann, August, Essays Upon Heredity and Kindred Biological
Problems, translated by E. B. Poulton, S. Schonland and A.
E. Shipley, in 2 vols, Oxford, 1888, vol.1, p.25, 159.
34. Weismann, A., ibid., vol.1, p.111.
35. Weismann, A., ibid., p.158.
is now known that in
certain forms of life below man, body cells have not entirely
lost their immortality, as we have already seen in the case of
Alexis Carrel's chicken tissue culture. Even so, such cell cultures
are highly artificial and would certainly not retain their immortality
under natural conditions. There are one or two other rather complex
aspects of current embryological doctrine which demonstrate Weismann
to have been in error but they do not significantly challenge
what has been quoted above and are rather too involved to introduce
at this point.
The substance of Weismann's view
is simply that when the organization of the cells in more complex
animal forms involved a division of labour, certain of these
cells retained their original immortality but the majority of
them did not. The loss of immortality by the majority of the
cells in the animal led inevitably to the death of the animal
as a whole. As a consequence most of the higher organisms are
mortal, though some of their tissues can be shown under appropriate
conditions of culture to be capable of living on almost indefinitely.
It is the animal as a whole which has surrendered its immortality.
The reason why this surrender has been built-in by the Creator
will be considered subsequently in Chapter 8.
In man, the situation is more complex.
Some intrusive factor appears to be resident in the somatic or
body cells which act upon the whole organism like a fatal disease.
There are those who believe that this fatal disease or mortogenic
("death generating") factor will one day be identified
and that, when it is, human life will be enormously extended,
the individual then becoming subject to death only by accident.
was customary to ask with Job, "If a man die, shall he live
again?" (Job 14:14). Today, in the light of current knowledge,
the question is being rephrased to read: "If a man lives,
why should he ever die?" About all we can agree upon is
that the great majority of living things (in terms of numbers
of individuals) are not subject to death at all except by being
killed, and of those animals below man which do appear to have
a limited life span, the limitations are still for the most part
due to external factors. Only man seems to have the limitations
within himself, so that even barring fatal accidents, death would
still occur for pathological reasons.
123. (See p.5) In recent years
the concept of the inherent immortality of excised tissue in
vitro has been challenged by the findings of Leonard Hayflick
who reported that cells derived from human foetal lung tissue
cultured under rigidly controlled conditions would survive only
50 + 10 doublings [Experimental Cell Research, vol.25,
1961, p.585]. These findings were reported in great detail and
were confirmed by others later. (See also L. Hayflick, "The
Limited in Vitro Lifetime of Human Diploid Cell Strains,"
Experimental Cell Research, vol.37, 1965, p.614-636.)
14 of 17
In 1974 Hayflick contributed a paper
under the title "Cytogerontology" in Theoretical
Aspects of Aging in which he again summed up his findings
to that date. In this same volume S. Gelfant and C. L. Grove
wrote, with reference to Hayflick's findings: "These studies
originally reported by Hayflick and Moorehead in 1961 showed
that normal animal cells cannot be maintained in vitro indefinitely,
but rather have a limited life span. The life span is expressed
in the proliferative capacity of the cells in culture and it
is also directly related to the age of the donor from which the
cultured cells were taken. The maximum life span of human diploid
cells in vitro is about ten months. This life span represents
approximately 50 cell population doublings, and it applies to
cells taken from the youngest possible tissue, that is, from
foetal tissue. By comparison, shorter life spans and progressively
fewer cell population doublings are observed in cultures originating
from adult and old human tissue." [Theoretical Aspects
of Aging, edited by M. Rockstein, New York, Academic Press.
1974, p.107, 108].
David E. Harrison, on the basis
of Hayflick's reported results, confidently asserted that "his
work refuted the fifty-year-old dogma that normal cells could
be immortal in tissue culture" [Letter to the Editor, Science,
vol.192, 1976, p.614 under a heading "Hayflick's Achievements"].
Harrison clearly had in mind such experiments as those conducted
by Alexis Carrel [Journal of Expimental Medicine, vol.15,
1912, p.516] and A. H. Ebeling [ibid., vol.17, 1913, p.273]
in which chicken tissue cells were maintained for years until
the experiment was terminated by failure of the equipment.
It is important to note that Hayflick's
experiments involved normal diploid cells. Under certain conditions
of cell culture abnormal (heteroploid) cells may suddenly appear
for some reason, and these cells are capable of maintaining their
Hayflick is careful to note in
his paper "Cytogerontology" that "the in vitro
end point measured by us as loss of capacity for division is
simply a very convenient and reproducible system, but may have
little to do with the actual cause of in vivo aging" [in
Theoretical Aspects of Aging, p 94].
It should also be noted that Hayflick
himself, in 1968. had reported:
of the experiments in culturing mouse cells has brought to light
a highly interesting fact. It has been found that when normal
cells from a laboratory mouse are cultured in a glass vessel,
they frequently undergo a spontaneous transformation that enables
them to divide and multiply indefinitely. This type of transformation
takes place regularly in cultures of the fibroblasts (i.e. cells
of connective tissue) of man and other animals. These transformed
cell populations have several abnormal properties but they are
truly immortal: many of the mouse derived cultures have survived
for decades" ["Human Cells and Aging," Scientific
American, Mar., 1968, p.32].
There are therefore at least
two possible explanations for Alexis Carrel's findings and for
the findings of a number of others since: the culture medium
may have contributed something to the extended survival of the
cells which was lacking in Hayflick's experiments, or the cells
themselves may have spontaneously transformed to an abnormal
condition. It was for this reason that Hayflick later underscored
that his cells were normal. He specifically states that they
are not the same as the HeLa cells from cervical tissue which
George O. Gey of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
had started with in 1952 and which were still growing and multiplying
in glass cultures in 1968, and may even yet be flourishing. These
exceptional cells did not have the usual 46 chromosomes of a
normal human cell but anywhere from 50 to 350 per cell. They
were cells that sometimes behaved like cancer cells and would
form tumors when implanted in live animal tissue.
Rona Cherry and Lawrence Cherry,
under the heading "Uncovering the Secrets of a Longer Life,"
noted that while cells from fetuses died around the fiftieth
division, cells from young adults divided about fifty times before
dying, and those from mature adults only about twenty times [The
New York Times Magazine, 12 May, 1974]. This circumstance
seems a clear validation of Hayflick's findings that cells so
cultured in vitro do have a limited life span.
Accordingly, Hayflick considers
that normal animal cells are programmed with a limited life.
This may be true of animals by divine design, to prevent over-population.
It may be true of human beings now because of the penalty
imposed on man for his sin. It need not have been true of Adam
Paul T. Libassi notes that if Hayflick's
experiments reflect aging in the whole organism, "man's
biological clock is wound for about 110115 years" [The
Sciences, New York Academy of Sciences, vol.14, no.9, 1974,
p.7]. This seems remarkably close to a statement made in Genesis
6:3 that after the Flood man's life span should not be allowed
to exceed 120 years. To take the words to mean that God would
grant the old world only 120 years of grace before the Flood
would destroy it, is in Kalisch's view "utterly
at variance with the context." Kalisch has a long note on
this passage that pretty well covers (and invites rejection of)
all the then current alternative interpretations [Historical
and Critical Commentary on the Old Testament: Genesis, M.
M. Kalisch, London, Longmans, 1858, p.175ff.].
August Weismann, with extraordinary
foresight, addressed the same question of whether there is really
a limit placed upon
cell multiplication many years ago when
he wrote: "The hypothesis upon the origin and necessity
of death leads me to believe that the organism did not finally
cease to renew the worn-out cell-material because the nature
of the cells did not permit them to multiply indefinitely, but
because the power of multiplying indefinitely was lost when it
ceased to be of use" [Essays Upon Heredity and Kindred
Biological Problems, translated by E. B. Poulton, S. Schonland
and A. E. Shipley, Oxford University Press, 1889, vol.1, p.25].
Unicellular forms seem to have no such limitations imposed upon
them, so that the base of the food chain is virtually guaranteed
so long as conditions that will support life are maintained.
One criticism of Hayflick's experiment
may have to do with the nature of the culture medium. In a special
report under the title "Cellular Theorics of Senescence"
[Science, vol.186,1975, p.1105, 1106], Jean L. Marx noted
that "Lester Packer of the University of California, Berkeley,
and James R. Smith of the Veterans Administration Hospital in
Martinez, California, added vitamin E to cultured Wl-38 cells.
These cells which they obtained from Hayflick are the same human
embryonic cells that normally have an in vitro life span encompassing
only about 50 divisions. But in the presence of vitamin E, an
antioxidant that can interfere with reactions mediated by free
radicals, the cells continued to divide and to have youthful
characters for about 120 population doublings: after that they,
too, became senescent and died out. Packer and Smith estimate
that the concentration of the vitamin in the enriched culture
medium is approximately the same as that in serum in vivo. Packer
said that these results do not necessarily conflict with Hayflick's
hypothesis that the cells have a built-in 'biological clock'
that determines the number of population doublings. He thinks
that they may have such a programmed potential but that it is
not always attained. Addition of antioxidants to the (cell) environment
may allow the cells to reach their full potential for dividing
and thus achieving an apparently lengthened life span."
Here, then, we have the same cells
treated with a culture medium that more nearly approaches the
medium in which cells would be bathed in a healthy body with
a proper diet, living not for 50 doublings but for 120. If modern
man has a life potential of, say 70 years, the new potential
for cell population doublings should ideally give him a theoretical
life span of approximately 170 years which comes close
to the Vilcabamba, Azerbaijan, etc. people. Moreover, it should
be remembered that these cells are taken from human tissue of
man as he now is, not as he once was in pre-Flood time
and certainly not as he was before he fell.
Indeed, it now appears that the
so-called "Hayflick limit" may, in a sense, be an artifact,
that is to say, "the inevitable consequence of normal culturing
procedures." It should in fact be quite possible to produce
"an immortal steady state culture." Such a population
"might be propagated indefinitely." [See R. Holliday,
et al., "Testing the Commitment Theory of Cellular
Aging," Science, vol.198, 1977, p.366f.]
Even more recently, E. Bell and
co-workers have questioned whether the Hayflick phenomenon is
a sign of aging or whether it is not rather evidence of cell
differentiation. They observe: "The notion that diploid
cells age in vitro is based on the observation that they undergo
only a limited number of population doublings. . . . In
this article we examine these assumptions and provide evidence
for an alternative interpretation namely, that cessation
of proliferation of diploid cells . . . represents a step of
differentiation and not one of senescence.
Hayflick's technique of subculturing
is seen to be an "upsetting" factor in cell culture
which "forces" the cells to "exchange immortality
for specialization." They conclude that "cells of organisms
need not be programmed intrinsically to die." ["Loss
of Division Potential in Vitro: Aging or Differentiation?",
Science, vol.202,1979, p.11581163].
128. (See p.11) Size: see
an excellent discussion of this point by J.B.S.Haldane, "On
Being the Right Size" in The World of Mathematics,
ed. J.R. Newman, N.Y., Simon & Schuster, 1956, Vol. II, p.952
ff. In this connection with man, see a valuable paper by
F.W. Went, "The Size of Man," Amer. Scientist,
56, 4, 1968, p.400-413. See also T. McMahon, "Size
and Shape in Biology," Science, 179, 1973, p.1201
ff. I have a copy of a diary kept by a Parson for forty
years in the later half of the eighteenth century. He tells
how he went to see, in Norwich (England), a giant pig which was
nine feet long and four feet high! He observes as a by-the-bye
that it had to be supported on its legs and when it fell over
was unable to raise itself [Woodforde, James, Diary of a Country
Parson, ed. John Beresford, Oxford, 1926, in 5 vols., Vol.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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