Arguments against life extension

Paul Raven @ 06-08-2010

Via Michael Anissimov, here’s a spectacularly empty diatribe against “deathhackers” by TechCrunch‘s Paul Carr. Carr objects to the idea of radical life extension as advocated by transhumanists, which is fair enough, but as written here most of his objections seem to boil down to personal distate toward those advocates. Ad hominem ahoy!

… go to any Silicon Valley party right now and you’ll find a scrawny huddle in the corner discussing the science of living forever…

[…]

Apart from rabid over-achieving, there’s another thing that unites all life-extension obsessives: they look like death. “Medievally thin and pale,” is how the Times (quoting Weiner’s book) describes [Aubrey] de Grey.

This just in: unattractive and/or geeky people interested in living longer. Film at eleven!

Amongst the ire and jealousy of “rabid over-achievers” (and a little bit of self-promotion, natch), Carr does have a point to make, namely that death is our greatest motivator:

What if the real reason these entrepreneurs have achieved so much is precisely because – more so than other mortals – they were born with a keen understanding they are working to a fixed (if unknown) deadline? It’s that fear of death that makes them succeed, not the other way around.

Regular readers will remember that this is an idea I have a great deal of personal sympathy with, though I’ve never suggested anyone else should be prevented from chasing immortality just because I’m not sure I’d want it for myself.

Anissimov also links to a rebuttal of Carr by Greg Fish, usually more of a gadfly against transhumanist tropes than a defender thereof:

Instead of telling entrepreneurs and angel investors who have a very real passion for science and technology to embrace their mortality, Carr should be encouraging them to pursue their lofty goals. Yes, ask them pointed questions, ask them to show you their thought process, and try to steer them from fantastic, pseudoscientific, or wishful thinking, but encourage their ideas because these people can take us to new places with the right support, motivation and a guiding hand from biologists, chemists, physicists, and hands-on researchers. No one has ever made a breakthrough by refusing to aim above mediocrity, and that’s why we shouldn’t be trying to promote the gospel of “eh, it’s good enough,” among those who love to think outside the box.

Let the dreamers dream, in other words; I’m down with that, pretty much.

But there’s a bit of serendipity here, as life extension is very much on my mind at the moment. I’ve been reading Getting To Know You, David Marusek’s first short story collection; if you’ve read Marusek in the short or long form, you’ll be aware of his imagined future where radical life extension is ubiquitous among the privileged, and where a servitor underclass of clones and artificial intelligences works for them to prop up the “boutique economies” that make such a world possible. The story “Cabbages and Kale, or: How We Downsized North America” neatly captures my own personal concern about life extension technology, namely that – like almost all technologies, at least at first – it will be the exclusive province of those who are already rich, politically powerful and long-lived.

By the by, this also dovetails with the Matt Ridley essay I linked to earlier today, in that Marusek’s answer to the economic problems of a functionally immortal power class is to have them restrict reproduction in order to keep the population at a level where the system still works: a voluntary stagnation, a rigged equilibrium. But the point I’m making here is this: technologies are never inherently bad, but the way the world works tends to gift their benefits to those who have the least need of them. We shouldn’t fear life extension, but fearing life extension held exclusively in the hands of the political classes is a very wise move indeed.

[ I very heartily recommend Marusek’s short stories and novels to Futurismic readers; not only is he a writer of great craft and skill, but he deals with the complex sociopolitical outcomes of technological ideas like life extension and nanotechnology which are, at present, little more than attractive possibilities lurking beyond the horizon. ]

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5 Responses to “Arguments against life extension”

  1. Totoze says:

    I’m on the same line about the life extension. I’m worried by the consequence of overpopulation, by the fact that I really would not see some persons to live forever, and by the fact that it will give a tremendous power to few companies.

    But at the same time, I don’t want to die ou to see people I like dying, and that’s the same for biologists. So life extension is probably unavoidable, except in case of the crush of the society.

    BTW, I found that concerning technology, usually peoples who care tend to divide in 2 groups : a technophobic one, and a technolatrous one.

    It’s really interesting to read someone who can have balanced arguments.

  2. Chad says:

    All technology is evil and all technology is good. Just because it can be used for evil is not a reason not to create it. Splitting the atom seems to lean to the evil side at this point in history, but whose to say others don’t build off of that and discover clean fusion, which saves us from Waterworld. I will take my chances with advances and the changes it brings, as I know I don’t want to live in a world where the people who are afraid of change are in charge.

    Maybe the current Einstein gets to live to be an energetic 200 and with the extra 100-125 years he figures out a cheap space elevator, FTL, etc.

    Note: Paul…not accusing of you of being afraid of change. Just suggesting that the more we hold ourselves back the more the people that are afraid of change get control. This is the current problem with the U.S….fear is killing us.

  3. Tom J says:

    Also note where Carr says:

    “human bodies aren’t supposed to live much beyond 80”

    Think 20*. The fact that large numbers of humans live for 80 years is the result of several centuries-worth of technological developments designed to improve human health.

    What Aubrey de Grey is proposing is just the next logical extension of this – instead of looking at external factors impacting on health (access to clean water, hygiene, environmental quality etc) he proposes we look at the internal processes that lead to aging within the human body.

    *: Obviously both Carr and I are indulging the naturalistic fallacy here – who are we to say what “nature” intended? Who is this “nature” anyway and since when did “nature” get to boss me around?

  4. Sarah Ennals says:

    Then there’s an old favourite of mine, John Wyndham’s The Trouble with Lichens, in which two researchers independently create a drug that radically slows the aging process. One keeps it secret, insisting humanity isn’t ready for it (though he’s not above using it on himself and his own family); while the other, who is both radical and subtle, peddles it to the powerful, quietly awaiting the day the leaders of the world suddenly realize that if they’re all going to be around for centuries, they’d better start taking better care of the environment…..

  5. Jetse says:

    It’s an old debate, that often overlooks a salient point: the first life extension treatments will be highly experimental, and bound to have all kinds of bugs and side effects. So I for one don’t mind to let the super-rich be the guinea pigs for it.

    Secondly, once a type of life extention is proven to work, then almost everybody will want to have it. Like any other new technology, once it is proven to work, then companies around the world will try to replicate it, or find a non-patented way around it, and sell it to as many paying customers as possible. Even if such treatments are extremely expensive, (competing) companies will try to find ways to make those cheaper.

    Once the cat is out of the bag, it won’t go in again. Once life extension works, it will slowly seep down to most of the population. I don’t see how the elite could keep it to themselves: it’s akin to keeping antibiotics restricted to the ultra-rich only. It’s not going to work.