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Highlander: There can be only one and the impact of longevity on society


Highlander, staring Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery, is one of best movies of the 1980s.  I watched it again last night and, although it is dated and cheesy, it remains a great film with some fantastic music sung by Freddie Mercury.  The primary concept of the film is what it would be like to be immortal and this concept overlaps with the themes covered by History, Future. Now: namely seeing the present in the context of history and the future in the context of the present.

For those of you who have not seen the film, it is about an immortal man, Conor Macleod, who is born in the Highlands of the 1500s and cuts back and forth between the modern day (1986) and various events over the 450 years of his life.  There is a final gathering of other immortals in New York City and he ends up as being the only immortal being left alive.  His prize for winning this contest is the ability to know the thoughts of every living being on the planet.

It is this ability to look at the world through a long historical time frame which is so interesting to History, Future. Now. As a mind experiment, lets imagine what the world would be like if people could live, like Conor Macleod, forever.  A number of issues immediately spring to mind:

  • What would it do to the concept of relationships with your family members?
  • How would you manage issues like work and property rights?
  • How would you establish a hierarchy, which is traditionally based on age and experience?
  • How would we look at equality – would it be right for some people to be poor and others rich forever?
  • How would we experience the world in terms of taking risks and pushing boundaries?
  • Would we be excited to innovate, as it would be the only change we could experience, or would we be terrified of change?
  • What would our attitude be to climate change and global warming?
  • What would our attitude be to nature and the environment?
  • What would our attitude be to science and technology?
  • Would we be willing to undertake construction and engineering projects that took hundreds of years to complete: for example allowing us to cross the empty expanse of space to other stars and planets?

Immortality would be incredibly disruptive to society.  It would be both a blessing and a curse.   Whilst nobody is expecting immortality to be widespread anytime soon, there is a whole sub section of medicine and science that is making progress towards significant extension of life: albeit in, worms,  mice, rats and monkeys.

Cynthia Kenyon, for example, is an expert in biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California at San Francisco, and is focused on the influence of genetics on age-related diseases, from cancer to heart failure, in living things.

Her biggest breakthrough was figuring out that there’s a “universal hormonal control for aging”: carbohydrate intake, which can have a dramatic effect on how two critical genes behave, reducing insulin production and boosting repair and renovation activities. So far, her theory has proved true for worms, mice, rats, and monkeys — and she suspects it applies to humans, too.

She gave a talk at TED in July 2011 which describes her findings, which you can find below.

Another TED talk comes from Dan Buettner, who describes how people today live to well over 100 in good  physical health and tries to explain why these people live longer.

Which brings us back to Highlander and Freddy Mercury’s wonderful ballad: Who wants to live forever.  Watch it and enjoy.


Heather:  My beautiful man, my husband.

Highlander:  I am that my love.

Heather:  I have never really known

Highlander:  What?

Heather: Why you stayed.

Highlander:  Because I love you now as much as the first day we met.

Heather: And I love you.  I don’t want to die. I want to stay with you, forever.

Highlander:  I want that too.

Heather: Will you do something for me Connor?

Highlander:  What Blossom?

Heather: In the years to come, will you light a candle and remember me on my birthday?

Highlander:  Ay love. I will… Goodnight my bonnie Heather.

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