While much of the mainstream media will try to discredit the seemingly outlandish idea of radical life extension, I’m not one of them. Death is awful, and we need to get rid of it sooner rather than later. We also need to lose this idea that not wanting to die is somehow crazy or deviant. Not wanting to die is actually one of the most rational beliefs a person can have.
Photo: Heisenberg Media/Flickr
Back in 2014, when asked about his most ambitious goals for the future, billionaire Peter Thiel told an audience at the Venture Alpha West Conference that he’s “very passionate about trying to do something to really get some progress on the anti-ageing and longevity front”, describing the field as “a massively under-studied, under-invested phenomena”. Speaking recently to the Washington Post, he said, “I’ve always had this really strong sense that death was a terrible, terrible thing…I prefer to fight it.”
To that end, Thiel has invested millions in the Methuselah Foundation, a research group dedicated to extending the human lifespan by advancing tissue engineering, genomics and regenerative medicine. Headed by biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey, the group has distributed more than $US4 million ($5.2 million) to support research in this area. De Grey himself has outlined a plan, called Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, to stall — and even reverse — the ageing process. The Thiel foundation has also given money to Cynthia Kenyon, an anti-ageing researcher from the University of California, San Francisco. Failing advances in this area, Thiel has also signed up to be cryonically preserved in the event of an untimely death.
Thiel is not alone in his desire to stave off death. Inspired by advances in genetics, regenerative medicine, cellular biology and cybernetics, an increasing number of people are calling for an end to ageing and mortality. Ageing, these self-proclaimed immortalists claim, is a disease that can and should be stopped. They argue that it’s not an inexorable process, and that the human body, like any other machine, can be modified and restored to a former glory.
And indeed, the science is starting to bear this out. We’re learning that ageing is a genetically programmed process, and that there are things we can do to dramatically slow it down, from the use of advanced “senolytic drugs” and the destruction of worn-out cells, through to mitochondrial and blood rejuvenation therapies. And by studying supercentenarians, we’re learning about the genetic prerequisites for a long and healthy life.
Armed with these and other tools, doctors of the future will matter-of-factly prescribe these therapies to extend the lifespans of their patients. To do otherwise would be a violation of that famous oath they all take upon graduation. Organs worn out? Perhaps it’s time to grow some new ones. Cells not reproducing properly? Let’s replenish them with younger versions. Brain cells failing? Get yourself some synthetic replacements.
Indeed, this tired idea that we’ll eventually come up with some sort of magical longevity pill is nonsense; radical life extension will come in the form of multiple interventions and procedures, and few will question it. Only those tired of life will opt out. Eventually, death will become voluntary. We may even reach a time when we’ll have to fight for our right to die.
Just as important as pointing out the science, advocates of superlongevity also claim to have moral legitimacy. Life is good, and death is bad — that pretty much sums it up for the immortalists. The idea that death is somehow “natural” and an in indelible aspect of the human condition is rejected. As J.R.R. Tolkien once said:
There is no such thing as a natural death. Nothing that happens to man is ever natural, since his presence calls the whole world into question. All men must die, but for every man his death is an accident. And even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation.
No doubt, we’ve been conditioned to believe that death at 20 is tragic, while death at 90 is natural. But if we could live to 10,000, we would consider the death of someone at 350 to be just as tragic. Death is also incredibly wasteful, forever annihilating a person’s memories and experiences. And for those who have lost someone, it’s a dreadful thing to have to deal with.
Ageing and dying is also incredibly expensive. According to S. Jay Olshansky, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois in Chicago, a person’s risk of dying doubles every seven years, and the expenses required to keep these people alive continues to escalate. By 2030, Olshansky calculates that medical costs in the US alone will reach $US16 trillion ($20.8 trillion). To stave off this fiscal crisis, he says we need to introduce meaningful interventions to keep people vibrant and healthy. Ultimately, the goal is to extend healthy lifespan, and drive medical costs down.
A case can also be made that life extension touches upon issues of civil liberties, personal freedom and choice. Denying people access to life extension technologies may eventually be deemed unconstitutional and unnecessarily cruel. Once these interventions come into existence, refusal to treat the elderly could even be deemed a form of geronticide. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds; political scientist Francis Fukuyama has actually argued that the government has a right to tell its citizens they have to die.
In terms of accessibility, it wouldn’t be fair to deny affluent groups access in consideration of social inequities. Today, we don’t ban technologies because not everyone can have them. Instead we should fight for affordable, fair and universal access.
Radical life extension will also bring desirable social consequences, such as an increased concern for personal responsibility. Given indefinite lifespans, we might start to behave in a more sustainable and environmental manner knowing that we’ll still be around a few centuries from now. And in conjunction with other forms of human enhancement, we may start to cultivate deeper and more profound forms of knowledge and wisdom.
Without a doubt, radical life extension will present a host of problems, but nothing qualifies as a true deal breaker. A form of gerontocracy may creep in, where the elderly refuse to give up wealth and power, but we’ll likely find ways to adapt. Likewise, we’ll have to find ways to get along with our great, great, great, great, grandchildren and the absurd generation gaps.
Our planet, with its 7.4 billion people, is already dealing with an overpopulation problem. More accurately, it’s not the sheer number of people that’s the problem — it’s our collective global footprint. Earlier this week it was announced that our civilisation had devoured an entire year’s worth of natural resources in just seven months. We’re already on the path to environmental and social catastrophe, regardless of whether radical life extension happens or not. The goal is to build technologies, forge policies and change our lifestyle habits to accommodate a growing population. Potential solutions include new energy sources, molecular nanotechnology, habitable megastructures (both on and off planet) and space colonisation.
Also, this idea that we’ll be bored with radically extended lives is stupendously ridiculous. There will be so much to do in the future we won’t know what to do with ourselves, whether it be perfecting every martial art, learning all the Earth’s languages, chasing virtual Pokemon on Mars or living multiple lives in cyberspace. Failing all these we could just re-engineer our brains to not be bored with superlongevity.
Some of these ideas might sound upsetting and outlandish, but we are talking about a rather monumental transition for our species. We spend our entire lives coming to grips with our mortality, so when someone proposes that death is something we can actually eliminate, there’s naturally going to be some push back. Eventually this cognitive dissonance will turn to acceptance. Today’s immoralists just happen to be on the leading edge of this social and biological inevitability.