Mortal Coil: A Short History of Living Longer

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 August, 2008, 12:00am

Mortal Coil: A Short History of Living Longer

by David Boyd

Haycock Yale University Press HK$240

'To philosophise,' Montaigne wrote, 'is to learn to die.' He was paraphrasing Cicero and making an ancient point: only by leading examined lives can we reconcile ourselves to the inevitability of our deaths.

The legendary sanguinity of philosophers such as Socrates and Epicurus on their deathbeds seems to bear witness to the truth of the aphorism. In Mortal Coil, however, David Boyd Haycock has written a compelling history of man's scientific search for longer life, one that reminds us of the many enlightened minds who wanted more than the consolations of philosophy.

Setting aside questions of the immortal soul, this brief study details the search for physical longevity and immortality in the context of western science and medicine from the 17th century to the present. These dates may loosely serve as bookends to an age of reason but this volume shows that man's ceaseless and fumbling search for long life is driven by an impulse as old as Gilgamesh.

Boyd Haycock's account begins with the 'Great Instauration', a movement led by Sir Francis Bacon to overthrow the system of learning derived from the ancients with new scholarship based on empiricism. Bacon's latter work was greatly driven by the goal of achieving physical longevity and he believed the scientific revolution would continue, to test the 'power and compasse of mortality'.

In many respects this was an early form of what we now term medical research: theories about the role of diet and mental health in determining lifespan, as well as conjecture about the curative properties of just about everything.

It is the author's great achievement, however, that throughout this wide-ranging enquiry he is able to preserve the often hazy distinction between simple medical investigation and that undertaken with longevity as its principal aim.

In fact, Boyd Haycock convincingly demonstrates how much of early scientific undertaking was governed by the desire to escape the finality of death. It was the sight of his first grey hair that sparked Descartes' interest in longevity, which dominated his later work. In 1638, at the age of 42, he was confidently telling a friend that he might yet 'live a century longer'.

When he eventually died at the age of 50 in Stockholm, an Antwerp newspaper reported that 'in Sweden a fool has died who claimed to be able to live as long as he liked'.

John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Benjamin Franklin are here too but of all those who sought a new kind of longevity, few lived beyond their 80s.

This book could easily be read as a history of human fallibility and credulousness in the face of mortality. Boyd Haycock's intimidating bibliography reflects the admirable level of attention he gives to those once popular scientific perspectives that now seem ridiculous: piquant reminders that contemporary truths can fast become historical trivia.

At the age of 68 poet W.B. Yeats underwent a fashionable operation that promised nothing short of physical rejuvenation: a vasectomy and injections of a crude cocktail of sex hormones. Until his death eight years later in 1942 he relished the effects of this 'second puberty' and, in seeming vindication of the link he saw between creativity and desire, went on to four extramarital affairs and produced some of his best work.

It was not until just before the second world war that the assumption that death began with withered reproductive glans fell out of vogue and eye-watering remedies such as testicular grafts from monkey donors disappeared off the market.

Of course, now even these assumptions no longer seem ridiculous. The benefit of a sweeping, detailed history such as this is that, with a long enough timeline, one can fully appreciate the circular march of irony. In a comprehensive chapter on the state of modern attempts at finding longevity, Boyd Haycock shows that its contemporary proponents realise they are fighting against the pull of evolution.

Ailments such as Alzheimer's disease, cancer and heart disease are the biggest obstacles to achieving longevity, precisely because they strike long after sufferers have already reproduced and passed on their flawed genetics.

For humans, as for every other species, sex may be little less than life and death.