Ideas on Life Extension
Life extension offers a desirable alternative to a short life, but what is it that we actually want to extend?
Certainly not just the biological body, for that would negate alternative possibilities for embodying prosthetic forms and synthetic platforms. While there is sufficient information on the current emerging and speculative technologies for prolonging life and a flurry of theories on the potential transference of cognition onto nonbiological systems, there is a deficit on the literature framing the beginning of life extension and forming a historical account.
In A History of Ideas About the Prolongation of Life1 (1977) Gerald J. Gruman traces the origins of what he calls life prolongation. Starting with some of the earliest ideas up until 1800, Gruman investigates an array of practices that stem from multicultural perspectives.
The human desire for longer lives tempted early chemists, scientists and philosophers. Gruman sets out by introducing what he refers to as “apologisms” in myth, philosophy, medicine and religion — all views that engage a scientific interest in overcoming death but resort to defending certain taboos, neo-orthodoxy, and secular existentialism.
Finding links that evidence points of departure from these apologist leanings, Gruman seeks out the earliest chemists of Taoism in China and their chemical uses, and whose proto-science allude to Gruman’s prolongationist stance. Notably, according to Gruman, the beauty of alchemy is in its dare to mix substances, techniques, and prospects and, even though alchemists were unable to find the “quintessence” of life, alchemy did prevail as a forerunner to the field of chemistry.
Forming a more theoretical model in the middle ages, Roger Bacon’s supposition in Opus Majus (1267, approx.) reasons why a brief life is accidental and subject to improvement. Bacon argues that an alternative to the “fixed” life is fundamentally worth scientific investigation and that we ought to seek alternatives. Bacon proposes the necessity for fresh air and cleanliness, an interesting throwback to the Taoist use of breathing exercises as a possible remedy to senescence. Gruman focuses on the Taoists and their unity of nature, pantheism, mysticism, quietism, primitivism and finally, the idea of transformation from a short-lived life to a long-lived life.
Why is it that the heavens and the earth live so long? Why is the universe transforming, yet human is fixed? To the Taoists, the “[hu]man is born with a fixed amount of some vital substance, which is consumed either slowly or quickly according this his[/her] rate of activity.” (p. 3) Is this a warning? Gruman supposes that it is. “Here the warning is made that the emotions tend to use up the original supply of vital breath allotted to each individual. The percept that temperance promotes longevity, particularly focal in Taoist quietism, is found throughout the history of geriatrics; we shall meet it again, for example, in the Renaissance work of Cornaro, De vita sobria.”2 (p. 3)
Gruman duly notes that the Italian Renaissance is considered to be the precursor of modern culture, but the literature on life extension is one aspect of the Renaissance culture that goes unnoticed. It was Luigi Cornaro (1467-1566), a Venetian nobleman who was, perhaps, an exemplar for health and fitness. Apparently at 35, Cornaro became ill and having barely survived death, he turned his life around and began a rigorous diet and exercise and wrote: “I have decided to write on the vice of intemperance in eating and drinking” (Cornaro, 15) and then he proceeded to live happily to the age of one hundred.
The idea of material or corporeal prolongation was held in the 1600s by Rene Descartes, Sir Frances Bacon and Benjamin Franklin. Nonmateriality and “individual independence” was the salvo of William Godwin, most noticeable in his utopian writing Enquiry Conferencing Political Justice (1793). Around the same time, Marquis de Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un Tableau Historique des Progres de l’Espirit Humain (1794) sought an inherent aspect of superlongevity influenced by organized, social leadership.
Godwin, with a staunch desire for individualism, believed that it should be possible to lengthen life through “mind over matter.” (A parallel can be found in the self-help scholarship of positive thinking and meditation.) Condorcet too sought superlongevity, but as a social goal of science:
“[w]ould it be absurd then to suppose that this perfection of the human species might be capable of indefinite progress; that the day will come when death will be due only to extraordinary accidents or to the decay of the viral forces, and that ultimately, the average span between birth and decay will have no assignable value?”
Condorcet’s interest was mainly in medical science and public health. Notably, Condorcet followed Descartes’ directive in suggesting that medical research could one day control the operation of the “human machine”, as a watchmaker keeps a timepiece in perfect running order.
Through this history of life extension, the Alchemists were ridiculed for their attempt to turn metal into gold, and thus senescence into immortality. Yet the alchemists may have been the most logical because they did not seek perfection; they sought chemistry, while others, admired for their scientific prowess, may have been less logical in pursuance of perfection.
Today, it is not so much the biological body that we see as being the definitive vehicle for life extension, nor is it the desire for perfection, a notion that signifies stasis and completion. While the body has perceptual significance, it is the person—the self, the continuous identity that is essential. Interesting enough, this brings us back to chemistry. And through this we look to the brain and its perceptual relationship with the body, the electrical, chemical charges, and the fuzzy elements of personhood, agency and personal identity. In deciphering what it is that we want to protect and extend, we search through the wetware and identify the person and his/her attributes of agency, self-awareness, and a notion of past and future. We look at agency and the capacity to make choices and implications of free will. But what is it that we want to extend? Hands down, it must be the continuation of the “unique” identity of a person over time that is worth protecting and extending as the “quintessence” of life.3
The trends in history of life extension arrived at in the 20th century use the scaffold of a utopian ideal in extending healthy life; the Darwinian and neo-Darwinian proposition of why we evolved; and the Marxist, social democratic, Christian and liberal theories of what we are supposed to do with our lives. Outside this scaffold are ample opportunities to argue an awareness of tricksters of lore and superfluous intension. We grind our teeth on the possibilities of living longer. And it is here where the grinding offers viable potential—combining the chemistry and technology with the “mind over matter” into the innovative designs of new bodies and new environments that form the sequel to the history of Gruman’s prolongationist stance.
A symbiosis of the alchemists, the scientists, the philosophers and the hypermodern emerge, and speculative technologies become the makings of a new framework that builds upon the old, negotiates the present, and tempts the not-yet-known.
“The problem of death is a central part of the dilemma of modern man. …To bring the modern dilemma towards a positive resolution, the best hope would see m to be a reaffirmation of meliorism, which, in regard to the problem of death, would entail a progressive lengthening of the span of life.4 (Gruman 1966, p 5)
Natasha Vita-More is a media artist/designer, Chairman of Humanity+, Founder and Director of Transhumanist Arts & Culture, and Artistic Director of H+ Laboratory.
References and Footnotes
1Gruman, Gerald, MD, PhD. A History of Ideas About the Prolongation of Life. (1966) New York: Springer. 2003. (Available:
2 Full title: Luigi Cornaro, Discorsi della vita sobria del sig. (no date) [trans. Discourses on the Sober Life]. (Available:
3 Personal identity is the continuation of a “unique” person over and through time.
4 Meliorism is an idea that humans can, through their interference with processes that would otherwise be natural, produce an outcome that is an improvement over nature. (Wiki)