The War on the War on Death Begins
When 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.