08/13/2012 09:35 am ET Updated Oct 13, 2012

What Will the Immortals Eat?

In ancient Greek stories, the immortal gods fed on ambrosia and drank nectar, delicacies both too rich and too insubstantial for flesh and blood mortals. But metamorphoses could occur, and when mortals like Heracles became gods and went on a regular diet of ambrosia and nectar, their red blood changed to gold ichor.

But that was in the distant, mythic past. What about the distant, projected future? Russian cosmists, immortologists, transhumanists, American and European futurists have predicted, that we (or at least our descendants) will enjoy such a long lifespan that it could serve -- practically -- for what we call forever. Not in the kinds of bodies, economies, cultures, locations, or lifestyles we now occupy, but in extended, evolved versions of our present selves and circumstances. So what will that experience of practical eternity be like? What will those immortals look like? What will they do? And a question that may not be as trivial as it sounds: What will the immortals eat?

The Russian cosmists, who have probably devoted as much serious thought as anyone can to the details of hypothetical alternative futures, propose some interesting possibilities. Nikolai Fedorov (1829-1903) argued that our goal should be resurrection of all who have lived rather than immortality only for those who will live in the distant future, and thought that a solution to the problem of waste and nourishment was central to the task. Fedorov believed that all matter on earth contains the dust of our departed ancestors. Particles of our ancestors have entered into all the animals, plants, and minerals from which we take our nourishment -- thus in order to live as we now live we must, literally and figuratively, be cannibals:

Having recognized universal resurrection to be our duty, we should not be frightened to recognize also that primitive humanity was guilty of the sin of cannibalism toward even their closest relatives, and that we do not have the right to condemn that sin, because even at the present time we are living on the account of our ancestors, from whose dust we derive our food and clothing;  thus all history may be divided into two periods: a first period of direct, immediate cannibalism; and a second period of covert people-eating, which continues to this day, and which will continue as long as man does not find a way out of his imprisonment  on earth. But after this second period a third must necessarily follow -- a period of universal resurrection as the single effective expiation for the sin of cannibalism.  (Filosofiia obshchego dela, [Philosophy of the Common Task] I, 109)

In Fedorov's thought, no re-education about the food pyramid, no redistribution of wealth from rich to poor will solve the problem -- or relieve whatever Oedipal guilt we may feel -- that life for us requires us consciously or unconsciously to work for the death of our parents, to act as if those who came before us must give way so that we may progress. In other words, living requires us to devour our ancestors.   

It would be difficult to imagine a change more radical than the one Fedorov proposes. For Fedorov, only a radical restructuring of our world and of ourselves -- he calls it "regulation of nature" -- will  do. If to achieve immortality means that we will continue to live more or less as we do now, only without dying, then in Fedorov's view we will only be as immoral as we are immortal. He argues that we must stop viewing ourselves as free, independent men and women and begin to think of ourselves primarily as sons and daughters of men and women. Instead of submitting to the natural drive to become parents of children who will eventually devour us and later be devoured by their own children, we should reverse everything, control our natural drives and turn all our energy and attention toward restoring life to the parents from whom we have taken it.

So if we don't want to be cannibals what will we eat? Fedorov, and later the eminent life scientist Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945) proposed that in our self-directed evolution we work toward a goal of autotrophy, literally "self eating," as now practiced in rudimentary form by certain plants and bacteria. Not in the immediate future, but perhaps in far distant times, we may need fewer and fewer parts of the body we now feed, and eventually become more like mentally and spiritually advanced plants communicating in rich mindfields than like advanced primates leaping faster and higher in more and more expensive sneakers . We could eventually be enormous inter-connected sensibilities with a minimal physical presence. But -- science fictive speculations aside -- Fedorov and the cosmists suggest that whatever we turn ourselves into in the distant future, we will certainly have to adapt to living conditions elsewhere throughout the universe that may not currently support life as we know it here on  "prison" earth. In their view, the entire cosmos will be our home. But to be "at home" we will have to be radically different creatures than we are today, subsisting on things unthinkable today. If the cosmists are right, for better and worse, not only burgers and fries, but also house salad with dressing on the side will only be a faded memory from a remote past.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus is offered a choice: stay on a resort-quality island with a beautiful goddess, eating ambrosia and drinking nectar with her forever, or plunge once more into the thunderous, wine dark waves, endure more pain and suffering and face at best a future in which he and his for now beautiful wife will grow old and eventually die. We know the choice he made. But that was Odysseus, long ago. Our choice, approaching, may not be as clear.