My smart colleague George Dvorsky over at Gizmodo published a defense of “radical life extension” this morning. This is a largely pseudo- or quasi-scientific pursuit favored by billionaire parasite Peter Thiel (among others), based upon the idea that, essentially, death is a pathology rather than a natural fact of existence, and thus can and should be eliminated or conquered or indefinitely postponed through scientific or medical means. Apologies to George, but: This is a repugnant idea, and not worth defending.
First, whether you agree with them or prefer to sneer at them down the slope of the beaker of teenager blood you’re chugging to maintain your smooth complexion, many people—most, in fact! nearly all!—already believe that death has been conquered in some way or another. From ancient Egyptian belief in a rewarding afterlife for those who lived sin-free lives, to Hindu and Buddhist beliefs in cyclical rebirth, to varying Abrahamic beliefs in the possibility of eternal life through divine salvation, to the sense of permanence and legacy that people of all varieties get from invention and procreation, belief in a discernible avenue to conquering death—or, at the very least, to conquering the infantile, debilitating, irrational fear of it—unites the overwhelmingly vast majority of all human beings who have ever lived.
This cross-section of the species—which, again, comprises nearly everyone who ever existed—gets no mention here, as is typical in discussions of radical life extension; their beliefs, evidently, are too silly to deserve mention, unlike, say, physically rewiring our nervous systems. (Yes, indefinite life is extremely cool and good, love to put electrodes in my brain to stimulate my faltering will to persist for no reason.)
Then there are the ideas here:
Aging 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 $16 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.
Even the casual reader ought to know full well that “radical life extension” is the precise and entire reason why “aging and dying is also incredibly expensive.” That is to say, aging and dying have become expensive and torturous exactly because so many people, particularly but not exclusively in the scientific and medical communities, believe and propagate the belief in a scientific and/or medical and/or moral and/or ethical obligation to fight them endlessly—the belief that a person only gets old and dies when they have failed to prevent it.
This gets at the central point, which concerns the idea, as expressed by George Dvorsky, that “not wanting to die is actually one of the most rational beliefs a person can have.” I can see at least three problems with this idea. First, is not wanting to die all that rational to begin with? Can you show me some proof that being dead is all that bad an arrangement for people who are dead? Maybe death is okay! I have never heard a dead person complain about being dead. I have never heard a dead person extoll the virtues of it, either! Seems to me that this premise is pretty unproven, and therefore that the argument for its rationality is pretty weak!
More to the point, if rationality is to be the standard, here (more on this in a second), then probably we should take a moment to consider, in cold, rational terms, the consequences of “radical life extension.” What is to happen to the human population when individuals no longer age out of it? Are people meant to stop reproducing? They’ve been doing that for longer than they’ve been homo sapiens; are we meant to “rationally” discard this core function of living organisms so that Peter Thiel can have lebensraum to continue investing in tech startups for all eternity?
No. According to George, “potential solutions include new energy sources, molecular nanotechnology, habitable megastructures (both on and off planet), and space colonization.” Ah yes. Fantastical, resource-consuming solutions ... to a problem that literally has never existed before and will have to be invented at extraordinary cost for no good reason. That’s rational? Humanity should have to colonize outer space to create habitat for a bunch of ninnies who are afraid of something organisms have been doing for longer than humans have existed?
This, I must say, is a spectacularly bizarre vision of humanity’s future: One in which treating death as a curable pathology leads to humanity itself becoming a pathogen, expanding exponentially and recklessly throughout the cosmic ecosystem for the sake of accommodating a selfish, shortsighted desire for both procreation and endless individual longevity, to no discernible end and for no particularly defensible reason beyond Uh, we’re afraid of dying even though literally everyone and everything did it for the first few billion years of life on earth. Personally, I would much rather die than participate in that monstrosity. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
It’s also a rather meager and poor idea of human potential. That we will use our big brains and boundless imaginations to technologize a way of eliminating this completely ordinary and universal thing, out of simple, dumb-ass fear—rather than using those big brains and boundless imaginations to eliminate the simple, dumb-ass fear of it. This is not an optimistic, futurist outlook; it is a fearful, reactionary one. We can do better than that! We can be okay with dying. We can be chill about it!
But let’s get back to the idea of rationality, for a second. Just as easily as one can argue the fear of death is rational, one can just as easily—more easily, even!—argue for the rationality of the imperative to die. Fearing overpopulation and resource depletion is rational! In strictly rational terms, one might argue for a hard cap on the size of the human population! Presumably you are recoiling from the implications of this idea, unless you are a sociopath. Which brings me to the third problem with this the fear of death is totally rational and therefore “radical life extension” is good argument: Just because a fear is rational does not mean it is a good basis for reorganizing all of human society forever.
Fear of the dark is rational: In the dark, one of your primary senses (sight) is disabled, leaving you vulnerable to unseen dangers. Like death, darkness is less knowable than the alternative, and therefore one may rationally fear it. That does not mean that society should orient itself around eliminating darkness forever. Darkness, turns out, has its benefits. It is good for healthful sleep, for example.
Fear of high precipices is rational: At the side of a high precipice, common missteps and losses of balance take on life-or-death stakes. That does not mean science should concern itself with sanding down every cliff or balcony or ledge in the world. Tall things are okay. You can even enjoy being on top of them, so long as you don’t toss yourself off their sides.
The point being argued in slightly bad faith, here, is that rationality is just one among many possible bases for weighing the virtue of an idea, not least because one’s perception of what is or is not “rational” depends hugely upon what one assumes to be true. Assume that society is burdened by the care it must provide to congenitally disabled or small or vulnerable people, and eugenics becomes rational. Assume that individuals will always act upon narrow self-interest, and the extremities and savageries of late capitalism become rational. Assume that death is bad, and transfusing the harvested blood of broke millennials into yourself becomes rational.
But actually: Death is okay! Aging is okay! It happened to your great-great-grandparents, and they seem pretty chill about the whole thing. They do not seem to have any regrets, at present. Whether you believe they are in heaven, or Fólkvangr, or reincarnated as frogs, or are simply and finally nonexistent, you do not hear them complaining about having missed the splendors that came after them, and you won’t, either.
This is Gawker Media’s last week as an independent media operation, and while that shouldn’t affect you much one way or the other as a reader, we’re still going to take advantage of a pretext to run some especially stupid posts. If you have any ideas for such posts, hit us at email@example.com.