The War on the War on Death Begins

Anti_DeathWhen Google launched their Calico project aimed at working toward the end of aging and the radical extension of the human lifespan, I figured that – quite apart from any scientific progress this might lead to – it would serve to project life extension into the public eye, and start some interesting discussions.

And this does seem to be happening, at least to some extent.  A couple days ago the New York Times ran an article by 83 year old author Daniel Callahan, entitled “On Dying After Your Time.”   The theme of the article is that extending human life is a bad idea, for a variety of reasons.  The  author thinks life extension advances will probably result mainly in the lengthening of the unpleasant, sickness-plagued, mentally-feeble period at the end of most modern human lives.  He also foresees that an increase in the population of incapable old people will drag the economy down.

One ironic aspect of Callahan’s article is that, as he notes,

At 83, I’m a good example. I’m on oxygen at night for emphysema, and three years ago I needed a seven-hour emergency heart operation to save my life.

He then notes that

 our duty may be … to let death have its day.

One doesn’t have to be that much of a cynic to detect a tad bit of hypocrisy here – especially given that the vast majority of the world’s population cannot afford heart operations or oxygen treatment of this type.   Does he think society should have prevented him from keeping himself alive to write news articles and otherwise enjoy his 80s?  Callahan seems in no hurry to let his own death have its day, and I can’t blame him.  But he does seem eager to prevent the rest of us, who aren’t yet 83, from trying to extend our lives as far as possible.

Overall, given the depth of what has been written previously by others about life extension (both pro and con), this one is a rather shallow article. Callahan implicitly assumes that human life extension would entail mainly extending the ailing, unhealthy portion of human life.   But this is exactly why many life extension advocates speak about “healthspan extension” rather than lifespan extension — to emphasize that what is intended is extension of healthy, mentally and physically fit lifespan.   Aubrey de Grey has clarified this point in his talks hundreds of times by now (and in the early chapters of Ending Aging), but, well, whatever….

Via some consulting work I did for Genescient Corp., I have personally participated in research using AI and genomics to design herbal remedies that give middle-aged fruit flies much longer lives (the goal being not to make super-flies, but to learn about non-organism-specific aspects of aging; and also as a test case for extending lifespan, the intention being to work up to human life extension).   Genescient’s longer lived fruit flies are not only longer lived but healthier, smarter and have more sex than their normal-lifespan comrades. Longer life doesn’t have to mean longer dotage — it can mean a longer and consistently BETTER life.

The comments from New York Times readers, at the bottom of Callahan’s article, are actually more interesting than the article itself.  They give a reasonable cross-section of opinions from everyday people regarding life extension research and the prospect of avoiding death.   Of course, the commenters on this article are not a representative sample of any crisply definable population – but they still provide an interesting sampling.

My own comment on the article started with some text I’ve incorporated above, and closed with:

If you feel that death is what gives your life meaning, feel free to die. As for me, I would much prefer to live on indefinitely. I’m curious what the world and universe will be like in 100, 1000, 100000 years. I have a lot to learn and a lot to give, more than can fit in an ordinary human lifespan.

Death is natural, but so are bacterial infections, yet we happily kill the latter with antibiotics. In 100 years when the plague of involuntary death has been abolished, folks will look back amazed that their predecessors considered aging an ordinary and acceptable thing.

A commenter with the handle Avid Rita slammed my reference to antibiotics with a note that

We happily kill with antibiotics, but we can’t fool mother nature — we’re inadvertently killing bacteria that enhance our health in the overuse of antibiotics. Not to mention the increasingly resistant bacterial strains.

— but is this really to-the-point?   Does she advocate giving up antibiotics and going back to the days when a simple strep throat infection was fairly likely to kill you?   The peerless composer Scriabin died at age 43 from an infected sore on his upper lip – almost surely antibiotics would have saved him.   Whether or not we can fool Mother Nature, we can certainly bypass some of the hard medicine she dealt to our ancestors – which is why the average lifespan is much longer now than it was before civilization.   Does she also advocate rolling back flush toilets, running water for hand-washing and other modern sanitary advances, because they’re unnatural and have some risk of killing life-enhancing bacteria?

Against the notion that technology will inevitably fail to prolong healthy life, succeeding only in prolonging dotage, Dick Depre refers to the New York Times’ history of technology pessimism:

On Oct. 9, 1903, the New York Times wrote, “the flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years.”

 But it wasn’t ten million years later. In fact, on that very SAME DAY, on Kill Devil Hill, N.C., a bicycle mechanic named Orville Wright wrote in his diary, “We unpacked rest of goods for new machine.”

Some commenters expressed an exhaustion with life and a lack of enthusiasm for living indefinitely.  Robert Guenveur wrote:

I’m tired of living, but afraid to die.
And I’m only 70.
Life is no longer fun. Or living.

This is a heartfelt and moving sentiment, yet I have known many teenagers to feel the same way.  This sort of feeling has less to do with age, and more to do with one’s own neurochemistry and the life one lives, I suspect.

Avid Rita, on the other hand, enjoys life, but wants to die anyway:

Having been caretaker for both elderly parents in their demise, and assistant to several other aged dear ones influences my own approach to aging. At age 61, I seek to experience the totality of life, including aging and eventually dying, without trying to escape authentic life with desperately trying to deny time and backtrack to youth.

Personally, I don’t want to backtrack to youth – rather, I want to go on further and further.   By age 70 I will have accumulated a massive amount of knowledge and ability, way beyond what I have now at 47.  I don’t want to go back to being a relatively ignorant 20 year old – rather, I want to move on to being an even more knowledgeable and capable 120 year old .. and 200 year old … and 120000 year old … etc.

Some commenters raised economic concerns, e.g. bikerman noted that

With pensions becoming a thing of the past, better paying jobs going overseas, rampant age discrimination, and conservatives cheering the death of retirement age benefits, the prospect of longer lives would be cruel joke for many as we enter are elder years.

However, others noted the shortsighted nature of this sort of concern.   Microsrfr pointed out that

What the author is missing is that with longer quality life span, we will work longer and therefor contribute to social security and buy substantial amounts of goods and services longer. In fact, at some point, we could go back to college for a second career. I would love to have time for a second career in biological engineering.

And Josh Hill noted

One thing that often gets left out of these “too expensive to live” discussions (unless of course you inherited money from Daddy and don’t need Medicare) is that real per capita GDP has far outstripped the cost of caring for an increasing number of elderly people.

 When I hear that Medicare will take up 5.x% of our GDP, I shake my head. Our GDP per capita is on the order of $50,000 a year! The problem isn’t that we as a society can’t afford to take care of our grandparents, but that virtually all of the economic growth since Ronald Reagan has gone to the rich. Return to the distribution of wealth that the country had during its prosperous progressive years, and the problem vanishes, along with so many others.

Indeed.   Society is becoming wealthier and wealthier, as technology advances.   The distribution of wealth on the planet is becoming more uneven, which is a problem, but not a good reason to avoid curing aging.  Rather, the prospect of curing aging should give us even more impetus to push for a more broadly beneficial distribution of resources.  The struggle for a better socioeconomic order isn’t going to go away anytime soon; but imperfect as it is, the economy DOES ongoingly adapt to the rest of human reality, and I strongly suspect that it will adapt successfully to life extension as it occurs, alongside the other radical technology innovations we have coming this century.

I will give the last word to commenter John Teets, whose post strikes me as a beautiful, somewhat stream-of-consciousness poem to the wonders that radical life extension will offer:

Have you ever wanted to write a train of sonnets, all different, yet related, all exquisitely appreciative of what’s gone before, yet at the same time innovative? 

 If not, maybe a longer life isn’t for you. 

 Would you perhaps also want to learn how to paint so well that you can express what gives your life meaning? 

 If not, by all means, buy yourself a postage stamp of land. Select an urn that fits your soul like an old shoe. 

 Have an urge to lay down some tracks? 

 No? Maybe a few last nights listening to Requiem (written and performed by other people, of course) chased down with cough syrup sounds like a “appropriate, natural” end. 

 Might you want to know how the theory of everything looks once the loose ends are tied up? You know, the theory with surprise after surprise after surprise…

 Too technical to be beautiful or invigorating? By all means, glaze over then close your lids. 

 Never get around to those trips to the Great Wall and the Pyramids? Miss the balloon ride over the great migration with your loved ones? 

 Maybe you should punch your ticket. 

 There’s too much to fit in a life. Don’t assume that people so desperate to experience them they’d extend life are merely planning for additional years on life support. 

 That’s the same lack of imagination that prompts “No” to so many questions like these. A death wish. Making lemonade from lemons. 

 How people critique great endeavors tells you more about them than about the projects.


John Clark posted the following on the Singularity list, in response to Callahan’s article and this one.  Seems apropos.

I think the primary motivation for pushing the “death is good” meme is sour grapes, most people believe a way to substantially extend their lives will never be found soon enough to help them personally, so they desperately try to convince themselves that they don’t even want it. If there were a actual treatment readily available that would make Mr. Callahan live a longer healthier life I think the amount of time that passed before Mr. Callahan requested it could be measured in milliseconds.

32 Responses

  1. Terren says:

    I have two concerns with RLE. One is stagnation of culture. For instance, in science, consider the quote by Max Planck:

    “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

    If nobody dies, then the status quo is much more likely to hold. Furthermore, the wealthy and powerful will continue to hold and accumulate their wealth and power, calcifying the cultural structures that support them. It is the equivalent of a president whose term literally never ends.

    The other concern I have is that, counter-intuitively, eliminating aging will make death a much bigger concern than it is now. There will be so much more to lose. Avoiding accidents and attacks will become paramount, and the culture of safety many refer to now as “the nanny state” will look like the Wild West in comparison.

    Cultures need regeneration of its constituent parts in exactly the same way that our bodies need regeneration of cells. I’m afraid our culture will calcify and ultimately die as a result of RLE.

    • Calum says:

      Great comment. However, I suspect neither problem is as grave as it seems. Changes of opinion can be significant – even extreme – within the space of a single human lifespan. I’m 54 and I disagree with most of what my 20 year-old self thought. And as regards people with very long lifespans becoming pusillanimous by risk-avoidance, if we can create backups (a big if, admittedly) the problem will evaporate.

      • Terren says:

        Hi Calum,

        If it were merely a change of opinion regarding e.g. scientific attitudes, then I’d agree. But what is actually at stake is career and reputation… something death takes care of nicely. OTOH it is an incredibly rare individual that can admit their career was based on a gamble that lost, and start all over again. Note also that this extends to all varieties of human endeavor, not just science.

        I agree with your comment about “backups” but would just note that while RLE is conceivably right around the corner, backups are not. It’s not yet clear that backups in the meatspace are even possible.

        • Calum says:

          It’s rare for someone to make such an admission at the moment, Terren, but if people had careers lasting hundreds of years they would be less likely to insist on sticking to positions which had obviously been undermined. And presumably the rate of change in scientific knowledge and cultural sophistication will continue to speed up, making it harder for stubborn people to stay stubborn.

          You’re right about backups being some way off. Personally, I think the sooner the better!

  2. Nicholas says:

    Honestly I dont think many people would want to live forever. Thats not to say I do not believe most people would welcome radical life extension, just that I prefer viewing it as “removal of involuntary death”. Different people want to live longer for different reasons. When my grandfather died he was satisfied with his life. While not doing everything he wanted he did do enough to be content. The only hesitation he had was leaving us behind.

    He was content to die not because he hated life, but because he had his fill of it. I think eventually most of us would reach this point. A point where we feel we had experienced all we wanted to, accomplished what we’d like.

    Sadly many die before they reach this point. Some will be content to die at 70 or 80, others will take centuries or millenia. Some wont ever want to die. Still this is all optional, no one is forcing this on you. When you are ready to die you can stop treatment and allow yourself to die.

    This isn’t all or nothing. Just let people go at their own pace and take as long as they need to finish their journey.

  3. Lelala says:

    Interesting post!
    I also suggest you read “the regrets of the dying”, a report created by a palliative-nurse –


  4. Sally Morem says:

    That elderly commentator said something I agree with. I have zero interest in the prolongation of life if it simply means years or decades more of enfeeblement in the nursing home.

    What I want, and what I believe life-extension researchers are digging into, is the extension of “youth span” and then actual reversal of the deleterious effects of aging.

    Would I love to live an extremely long time with the body of a happy, healthy, in shape 20-something? Youbetcha. How about with the body of a 90-something? No way.

    If our accelerating medical tech can turn us all into 20-somethings, I see no need at all for any government support at all for those who according to the calendar are “elderly.” Say goodbye to Medicare, Social Security, and all other such programs. The society composed of the forever young will be forever free of welfare in all its nefarious forms.

    • Brad Arnold says:

      I believe we are heading into a new economic paradigm of abundance (as opposed to the scarcity paradigm – Malthusianism if you will – which currently defines it). Therefore, social welfare (the dole) will be naturally enhanced, not eliminated. As far as the notion that RLE is simply allowing senescent decrepit old people to live a bit longer – that is a easily disabused notion which people who are naive on the subject use as the first argument against change that enters their head (directly from their butt).

  5. Though not mentioned hereabouts, there is one complication of human healthspan extension that WILL have to he addressed: population growth. While a burgeoning human population is already a problem, lengthening lifespans could exacerbate the problem because out planet does not have unlimited resources.

    • Which is why it is so imperative that we become denizens of space. Either as inhabitants of other planets; creators of artificial worlds; or as some form of life, able to persist within the interstellar void.

    • Ryan says:

      I personally feel that will be less of a problem than you believe it to be. First, as our technology improves along with overall education and standards of living, it can be readily shown that people have fewer children. Now, let’s extend that out. We now have indeterminate lifespans where we are eternally young and ever increasing tech and standards of living. Quite frankly if that was an option right now I could easily say I wouldn’t even think about having children for a few hundred years, if not longer. Gives me time to go out and experience other things, learn more, and perhaps position myself into whatever cultural/economic system exists at the time (because I highly doubt it will be what we have now) to ensure that any offspring I have will have a happy, fulfilled life. Factor in expanding out into the solar system and accessing the resources in the asteroid belt and we won’t be having to worry about resources for at least a while.

  6. DCWhatthe says:

    Walk the walk. When the anti-immortalists give us a time limit for their own personal lives – e.g., they tell us they will cap it at 85 or 90 or whatever – THEN I’ll buy into their rhetoric, at least as it applies to THEM.

    Until that happens, it’s just one group of people trying to tell another group what they should or shouldn’t do.

    No need to follow their edicts. If you did, and chose to end your existence at some point, for the ‘greater good’, you would miss their sudden change of mind, when practical immortality becomes available.

  7. Ed Franco says:

    Thank you, Dr. Goertzel, for your commentary on the NY Times article. It seems to me that most folks approach this topic from a strictly pragmatic (i.e., scientific, medical, or biological) point of view. Whereas those elements are valid and vital, there may be an even more important aspect: the emotional desire for longevity.

    Almost certainly, a healthy 102-year-old would want to become a healthy 103-year-old. As I see it, there are two prerequisites for becoming a healthy 102-year-old: the belief that it is possible, and the subsequent desire to make it happen. Most of us now believe it is possible, as healthy centenarians no longer exist only in the realm of science fiction. But the question remains: How many of us have the desire to get there?

    The world we live in today is a less than kind place. And for many, life on this planet is one of struggle and hardship. It’s my personal belief that unconditional kindness extended between and among all people is the missing ingredient that would facilitate a desire for dramatic longevity commensurate with the possibility that already exists.

    Ed Franco

  8. not bob says:

    Why on earth does it have to be another war on something
    Isn’t there enough war in the world ?

    Why do you have to follow along with the war mongers meme and call it a war ?

  9. Dick Lepre says:

    The NYT article comes as close as possible to completely missing the point about what notions such as SENS and Calico are about. They are not about keeping sick people alive for a longer time in their states of malaise. They are about avoiding and alleviating age related disease. SENS is not about keeping old people alive longer. It is about keeping people’s bodies young longer.

    Interestingly, the author points out that longer lives would cost Medicare (he did not mention Social Security.) Two points, SENS is about avoiding diseases and the expense associated therewith and if people are going to live longer then clearly the fiscal models of Medicare and Social Security which already are underfunded by $77.9 trillion (according to Treasury) need to be addressed with or without life extension.

    SENS and Calico are about keeping people healthier and such notions may well be the keys to not having Medicare fiscally destroy our economy. These are not merely about good health, they may well be about good economics.

  10. Brad Arnold says:

    What you’ve noted is individuals who have easily refuted opinions against RLE. How about the power and wealthy entities who genuinely benefit and profit from the status quo? No, RLE will be developed as a weapon to give an edge to one team, not to benefit humanity in general.

    • Brad, which entities specifically are you thinking of? The medical industry? Indeed the FDA does not consider aging a disease (hence will not approve anti-aging drugs, only drugs documented to combat specific age-associated diseases), which impedes US progress on anti-aging research.

      • Brad Arnold says:

        I am specifically thinking of governmental and non-governmental organizations Mr Goertzel. In my opinion a lot of talk and thinking in the RLE community is utopian and liberal hogwash (no offense – I am only strongly pointing out that there is conflation of what ought to be with what is). RLE needs lots of money, power, and ruthlessness to manifest, and in return (as in the nature of such things) it will give the entity that possesses it a great return on it’s investment. Perhaps a liberal democracy like the US simply isn’t up to the task, while a totalitarian state like China is. Or perhaps a supra-governmental organization (which will go un-named) will seize the brass ring of immortality first.

        What is very apparent is that the governmental bureaucracy and regulations I see won’t enable me to enjoy that treasure, given my age. Heck, the US government can’t even pass a budget or enact rational and obvious policies, let alone successfully pursue RLE which a determined minority oppose.

        • Greg says:

          In western democracies the trend has been more to the conservative right in economics but also more to the liberal left in morality. So for example before 1980’s but after late 1930’s there was more equal wealth distribution. Also for many decades their has been a gradual liberalizing of sex attitudes; divorce acceptance and homosexuality. Although these things are opposite from the perspective of conservatives and liberals they both have some negative retrograde effects. Although not all are retrograde but a majority are.
          Both these trends have negative economic effects. Like some of the liberal atitudes are making families less stable so harder for them to earn or be educated the same. Also although I cannot give statistics to back it up if families are less stable it seems logical their members are less healthy. Although the conservatives may disagree with the liberal atitudes they also to some extent coast along with the trends in a hypocritical way.
          If people have to pay more % taxes and be more vulnerable to economic recessions from middle class down then the wealth will tend to distribute toward already wealthy.
          Although China is totalitarian I don’t know that their government is unbiased enough to distribute wealth any more evenly. In both types of societies when there is a large % of the population with less wealth it is hard to have enough money from taxes for research like health extension. Some types of research in the US is receiving lots more money relatively than other research of a similar theme; that would hold more promise be more efficient and cost less when it comes to fruition and implementation. Example Tokomak (in Europe) and Laser fusion power research versus Focus Fusion. Also even Cold Fusion needs a lot more support because a lot of low profile peer research has verified that there is a large output of unexplained heat energy.
          So even when research is been supported the support is back to front for the areas concerned. It is the same in health research. So much is been spent on drug research to promote a minuscule of extra life extension but with debilitating disease. At least some of the disease caused by the drugs side effects.
          Where is the money that would go into research that would gain treatments to work in harmony with natural biological processes or without side effects?

  11. Most people I meet say that they want to die when their time comes, but… not just yet. This kind of talk is clearly nonsense in the majority of cases, and I tend to ignore it. I see the same people coming in the Emergency Department with heart attacks, pneumonia, injuries, and all they want to do is to use technology to help them live.

    But a few relevant comments I will make are:

    1. The chances that Google’s Calico will come up with the cure for aging are the same as those of SENS-based concepts, i.e. trivial. Reductionistic approaches have not and will not, in my view, result to anything concrete.

    2. The continual progression of technology, particularly communication technology will, as you know Ben, lead to the emergence of the Global Brain, and this is one of the keys to solving aging.

    3. People will not have a real choice whether they will live longer or not. It will not be a matter of taking a pill or an elixir, but a matter of engaging in a hyperconnected society, i.e. what we all do, at least in industrialised countries.

  12. Scott says:

    I wish I could find the exact source for this, but I can’t.

    Larry Niven, in one of his many books, wrote something like this:

    “In the end, the supporters of life extension didn’t have to win any of the myriad debates or arguments about whether it was right, or just, or moral. They simply had to outlive those that said living forever was wrong.

    Two hundred years later, every single opponent of life extension had either died, or publicly recanted and taken treatment to avoid dying.”

  13. Mark Plus says:

    I think you’ve read too much into this. But then transhumanists engage in too much cargo-cultism and play-acting in general. Concentrate on tangible H+ projects that you can put in front of people – clunk! – so that they can experience them with their own senses and decide for themselves that the transhumanists just might have something valuable to offer the world.

    • Mark Plus, yep, that’s exactly what I’m doing with most of my time: working on real science and technology projects, moving us toward a wildly better future step by step (or at least trying)….

      But as I’m still a mere human, every now and then I need to relax, and writing H+ Magazine articles is one way for me to do that 😉

  14. Tyler Love says:

    I would like to see what this world would be like in thousands of years. I am only 15 years old and their is much I have to learn and even more that I will never know. The question of extending a human lifespan all depends on whether you would be able to extend youth with it. I would love to be able to experience all this world has to offer and possibly any worlds beyond ours. Their are many things I, and the majority of my generation will never be able to experience. Also, would you force an extended lifespan on a child? Or would you give them the choice? One saying I heard was “Does an AI want to be self aware?” You have to give them a choice. But when you give them the option, you are also giving people another method of seperation.

  15. Calum says:

    No need to worry. When healthy life extension becomes a practical possibility, the nay-sayers will evaporate.

  1. December 2, 2013

    […] bengoertzel When Google launched their Calico project aimed at working toward the end of aging and the radical […]

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