For this episode of Lifespan News, Ryan O’Shea takes a look at the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and asks if real people can actually become eternal beings.
The newest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been released, and audiences everywhere are learning more about the Eternals – a group of super powerful quasi-immortal beings with the goal of protecting humanity from the Deviants. But what are these Eternals capable of, and could any humans match their abilities for real? We’ll explore the science on this episode of Lifespan News!
When it comes to the Marvel Universe, there is so much backstory, and speculation, and contradictions that we could spend hours explaining the origin story and variations and we are going to skip almost all of that because that information already exists. We’ll link to a video from the New Rockstars if you want to dive further into that, but, super high level –
The Eternals exist because of the actions of the Celestials, ancient god-like beings that are the givers – and takers – of life on various planets. The Eternals have been around for quite a while, but how long depends on how we define things and which version of the story you’re looking at – but let’s say that it’s somewhere between 7 thousand years and millions of years. They are immune to aging, but they have more than longevity going for them. They also have complete mental control over their physical forms, enabling them to have superhuman healing abilities in the rare situation that they are actually harmed.
They also all have varying degrees of standard baseline powers such as super strength, telepathy, and teleportation, but as individuals, they have specialized and cultivated extreme abilities in one or a few different skills.
For example, Ikaris has mastered levitation and flight not with wings made from wax and feathers, but by mentally controlling gravitons. He also has significant control of cosmic energy, and the ability to shoot it in concentrated beams from his eyes.
Thena also has immense control of cosmic energy, using it to manifest weapons on-demand, which comes in quite handy, literally, given that she is also a master of hand-to-hand combat.
Phastos is a technopath, a master inventor and technologist creating the tools and weapons that the other Eternals use in their fights – even if he does rely on store-bought furniture.
Sprite is a master of illusions, creating fictions that are able to be seen, heard, touched, smelled, and even tasted. With this, Sprite can alter perceptions of reality, and impact memory.
These are just some examples of the powers that Eternals can have. But could any of these powers actually exist, and if so, could humans get them? Let’s see what the latest science has to say.
First, let’s start with the big one – longevity. These characters are called Eternals for a reason. Humans, on the other hand, are seen as lucky if they are able to reach age 100, and even then they are often frail and dealing with numerous health problems. So, can humans age more like the Eternals? Well, the answer could very well be “Yes”, and there are multiple approaches we could use to accomplish this. There are some studies that indicate that changes such as caloric restriction or intermittent fasting could extend lifespan, and there is interesting longevity work involving the diabetes medicine metformin, as well as compounds such as rapamycin and NAD. However, studies are still ongoing and there’s still a lot of work to be done. We’ve covered these studies on previous episodes of Lifespan News, and we’ll link to some of them in the video description.
Regardless, it’s unlikely that these changes are going to result in Eternal-like longevity. For that, we’re going to have to learn to repair existing damage to the body, and ideally prevent it from occurring in the first place. This is where the work of organizations such as the SENS Research Foundation comes into play. SENS seeks to apply the principles of regenerative medicine to repair the damage of aging and prevent and reverse age-related ill-health. They have identified seven types of damage, and have a program designed to research and address each one. And SENS is just one of numerous groups that believes that humans reversing and preventing the damage of aging is not only possible, but able to be realized in the not-too-distant future. Big names such as the Google & Alphabet affiliated Calico and the brand new Jeff Bezos-backed Altos Labs are working to build a future in which us humans can be a bit more like the Eternals.
Now, I mentioned at the very beginning that these Eternals are quasi-immortal, and that’s because, technically, these beings can sometimes be killed. But that’s quite rare, and historically they’ve made use of some very helpful safety measures. Previous appearances of the Eternals in Marvel lore discussed Eternal Madness, which is a condition that inflicts Eternals when they become overwhelmed and confused by the centuries of knowledge and memories inside of them. This can cause them to be forgetful or erratic, and really result in some negative consequences, but it can be eliminated by, for lack of a better term, killing that Eternal, and then resurrecting them from their last safe backup. Essentially, if an Eternal is killed, or does face an issue such as Eternal Madness, they have had the option to be reset to a stable point in the past.
Humans do not have this capability, and these backups would be extremely difficult to master if they are even possible, but they are being worked on. In 2008, the University of Oxford’s Anders Sandberg and Nick Bostrom published “Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap”, a 130-page document freely available online that describes just how and why it might be possible to create a digital version of the human brain. The paper directly states that “such emulation would enable back-up copies and digital immortality”. And work has continued since then. Groups such as the Carboncopies Foundation are running a number of research projects with the goal of making whole brain emulation a reality. But the huge question is – are these backups, or mind uploads, actually you? What does it even mean to be you? The Eternals seem to have decided that, yea, these backups are the people themselves. I’m not so sure, but that’s an issue for another video.
Now, how about the illusions cast by Eternals such as Sprite – these detailed, multi-sensory experiences often indistinguishable from reality? Well, that’s happening too. Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that the company Facebook was changing its name to Meta, and shifting their focus to the creation of the Metaverse – virtual worlds in which we can spend our time living, working, and playing in immersive environments that make it very easy to lose awareness of your physical surroundings, becoming completely enveloped by the virtual experience. Even today, with VR as rudimentary as it is, it is not uncommon for people to actually attempt to lean on a piece of virtual furniture, to actually fall if they step out into a void, or to get scared of things that aren’t really in the room with them. Even if you aren’t physically transported to these places, your brain certainly is. And more sensory experiences – such as touch and smell, can also be included. And maybe you’re thinking that you’d know if you’re in a VR headset, so you can’t really be fooled. But what about augmented reality? What about holograms, projections, and advanced screens? I’d say that it will be very possible to be convinced that what you’re experiencing is in physical reality, when it’s nothing more than a convincing digital fiction. After all, how do you really know that you’re not in an illusion right now?
Of all of the Eternals’ powers, the ones that might seem most outlandish and fictional are psychic abilities – the ability to read or control minds, or telepathically communicate. But once again, science could make it possible. Elon Musk’s company Neuralink is working to create brain–machine interfaces that directly connect the human brain to the larger digital world. For now, they are working on what might be considered medical devices, but ultimately, these brain-machine interfaces may make it possible to link brains together in a telepathic connection, or hook brains up directly to the Internet. Now some people say that this isn’t even possible, and if it is, it’s far in the future. But Elon Musk has proven doubters wrong before, and I’m very hopeful that he will again. And once we have theis brain-to-brain communication even things like the Uni-Mind, in which multiple Eternals combine into a single connected being could exist.
So there you have it – just a few of the ways in which the work of scientists and engineers could result in a future in which humans end up quite a bit more like the Eternals than many of us may have thought possible. And we could do more of these episodes, because there are a lot more powers, and a lot more technology. So if you’re interested in this type of content, please let me know. Make sure to subscribe so that whatever we do next, you’ll know about it. This is Ryan O’Shea, and we’ll see you next time on Lifespan News!