Every person yearns for immortality. It is a universal desire, born from the brevity and preciousness of life, nurtured by myths and hallucinations, driven by biological imperative. We all want to see how our stories end. We all want to see what happens to our myriad personal vignettes. We all want to see how the seductive, tentacled plots of our lives are ultimately wrapped up. Better still, we hope that our stories are endless, that new vignettes blossom eternally, and that our personal plots twist and turn forever.
In this grand and perhaps vain yearning for the indestructible self, we overlook a more subtle immortality that runs through every person who has ever lived and sired offspring. It is not the dramatic personal immortality described above. It is not the endless existence of the specific biographical person we are each intimately aware of, with all of the unique epigrams and memories of our distinct selves. However, there is something integral to us that has lived for billions of years and is likely to live billions more. We are each a part of something enormous and magnificent that stretches our understanding of the scope and breadth of life.
In a very real sense, we are all 3.5 billion years old. The particular bits of genetic information that inhabit the center of each of our selfish universes have continuously evolved over eons, periodically shedding one protein shell in exchange for a new one. Our body, nominally constructed of water and minerals, is a temporary home for an organizing force that has been alive for a very long time. This organizing force has migrated from one temporary home to another in an unbroken stream that sneaks quietly into the realm of immortality.
From very humble and simple origins in an earlier epoch, human DNA has evolved ever broader and more spectacular mechanisms to protect itself and to transfer itself from one generation of temporary host to the next.
The structure of the cell itself is a shell to protect the fragile DNA and to give it machinery to continually replicate itself. Cells are protected by additional “shells” of organs, skeletons, and other complex biological machinery to further facilitate nourishment, protection, and regeneration of DNA. We have evolved to an extent that we are able to construct “shells” that stand apart from our bodies, such as clothes, houses, and even cities. These “shells” all serve to protect the corporal host, and therefore to protect the DNA that created and defines the host.
Even our evolved systems of ethics and morality can be thought of as sophistical neural “shells” that allow us to navigate successfully in a bewildering world of relationships and interdependence. These neural “shells” optimize our ability to mate, parent, and collaborate with others, giving our DNA further assurance of protection and continual regeneration.
Not only does our DNA pass from host to host across the generations, our bodies replace most of their cells every seven years or so. In this context, we are each periodically reconstructed with fresh molecules and minerals. The only thing that is constant in this continuous renewal is the information represented by our DNA. This information, which has been refined over billions of years in an unending river out of Eden, instructed inanimate material to assemble into each of us. Every person who has ever lived has been constructed from this river of information, and those who have sired children have fed the river with additional trickles of information. Everybody is a temporary carbon-based host for an organizing force that itself has never experienced death since its inception many eons ago.
Some religions hypothesize about an eternal life force called the soul. In a sense, they are certainly right that there is an information-based essence to your being that stands apart from the chemistry of your corporal existence. However, all religions that postulate an eternal soul are simply speculating that other aspects of your “essence” are of divine origin. What is not speculation is that the fount of information that created and recreates you is your DNA. It is a kind of communal soul that is processed and modified by every person who has ever lived. It is not a soul with a personal personality nor an eternal encapsulation of individual ego. Rather, it is the blueprint of life in general. It is the template of animate, replicating existence.
Is this continuously-replicating web of DNA truly immortal? History argues in its favor, given the 3.5 billion-year ordeal that it has already survived. Thus far, it has bridged countless generations and morphed into millions of species that inhabit the entire planet. It has populated the seas, the skies, and the earth with a plethora of stunning flora and fauna. It has undergone spectacular adaptations to a wide array of inimical environments, and it has survived innumerable cataclysms. At some point, it may even hitchhike with its biological hosts on a journey through space to continue replicating elsewhere in the universe.
Unfortunately, entropy will almost certainly establish an upper boundary on the longevity of this organizing life force. Nearly every theory of our future points to the physical demise of the universe due to the second law of thermodynamics. But that probable demise is likely to happen billions of years in the future. Until then, our DNA will continue to proliferate, in some form or another, perhaps even on places other than earth.
This description of immortality is perhaps not the individualized version that most people yearn for. But rather than rue the temporal nature of our corporal hosts of the DNA life force, we can choose instead to celebrate the blessing of every moment of awareness that this living river out of Eden has bequeathed to us. We are each a part of this endless river, which still has an infinity of stories to tell and countless vignettes to unfold. And if we are so blessed, our children will be our unique contributions to this stream of immortality.
(With gratitude to Richard Dawkins for the “river out of Eden” allegory).