Should We Die?
Radical longevity may change the way we live—and not necessarily for the better.
“So, you don’t want to die?” I asked Zoltan Istvan, then the Transhumanist candidate for president, as we sat in the lobby of the University of Baltimore one day last fall.
“No,” he said, assuredly. “Never.”
Istvan, an atheist who physically resembles the pure-hearted hero of a Soviet children’s book, explained that his life is awesome. In the future, it will grow awesomer still, and he wants to be the one to decide when it ends. Defying aging was the point of his presidential campaign, the slogan of which could have been “Make Death Optional for Once.” To (literally) drive the point home, he circled the nation in the “Immortality Bus,” a brown bus spray-painted to look like a coffin.
He knew he’d lose, of course, but he wanted his candidacy to promote the cause of transhumanism—the idea that technology will allow humans to break free of their physical and mental limitations. His platform included, in part, declaring aging a disease. He implanted a chip in his hand so he could wave himself through his front door, and he wants to get his kids chipped, too. He’d be surprised, he told me, if soon “we don’t start merging our children with machines.” He’d like to replace his limbs with bionics so he can throw perfectly in water polo. Most of all, he wants to stick around for a couple centuries to see it all happen, perhaps joining a band or becoming a professional surfer, a long white beard trailing in his wake.
Istvan made his fortunes in the real-estate business, but in 2003, he was working as a reporter for National Geographic in Vietnam when he almost tripped a landmine. The experience shook him so badly he quit journalism and devoted his life to transhumanism. “I thought, ‘death is horrible,’” he told me. “How can we get around it?”
But his central goal—pushing the human lifespan far beyond the record 122 years and possibly into eternity—is one shared by many futurists in Silicon Valley and beyond. Investor Peter Thiel, who sees death as “the great enemy” of man, is writing checks to researchers like Cynthia Kenyon, who doubled the life-spans of worms through gene-hacking, as the Washington Post reported last April. Oracle founder Larry Ellison has thrown hundreds of millions toward anti-aging research, according to Inc magazine, and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin launched the Google subsidiary Calico specifically with the goal of “curing death.” Under President Donald Trump, the quest for immortality might pick up steam: Among the candidates he is reportedly considering to head the Food and Drug Administration is Jim O’Neill, who sits on the board of the anti-aging SENS Research Foundation.
Some life-extension endeavors are already here. Several companies already offer cryogenic freezing to people who wish to have their dead bodies cooled with liquid nitrogen and stored for centuries, with the hope that new medical technologies will by then be available to re-animate them. A British teenager who sued for the right to be cryogenically frozen after her death from cancer in October now floats in frosty slumber in a Michigan cryostat facility.
Meanwhile, scientists in California are expected to launch a clinical trial in which participants will have their blood “cleaned” of age-related proteins, the Guardian reported, with the goal of helping them live longer and healthier lives. A drug called rapamycin, which extended the lives of mice by a quarter, is also being tested. The thinking is, “if we figure out what chemical event signals to the body that it’s time to wrap things up,” said Sheldon Solomon, a psychology professor at Skidmore College, “you could be at a certain age for a long time.”
The billionaire technologists’ obsession with living forever can approach a sort of parody. Oracle’s Ellison once said, “Death makes me very angry"—suggesting this pillar of nature is just another consumer pain-point to be relieved with an app.
But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it can be. Let’s say human lives will soon get radically longer—or even become unending. The billionaires will get their way, and death will become optional.
If we really are on the doorstep of radical longevity, it’s worth considering how it will change human society. With no deadline, will we still be motivated to finish things? (As a writer, I assure you this is difficult.) Or will we while away our endless days, amusing ourselves to—well, the Process Formerly Known as Death—while we overpopulate the planet? Will Earth become a paradise of eternally youthful artists, or a hellish, depleted nursing home? The answers depend on, well, one’s opinion about the meaning of life.
I didn’t realize how much mainstream support there was for eternal life until I had dinner with a friend who, it’s worth noting, is even more traditional than I am—he’s not even on Twitter.
“I interviewed this guy who wants to live forever,” I said. “Isn’t that wild?”
“What do you mean?” my friend asked. “You don’t want to live forever?”
If he never died, he explained, he could finally pursue all the hobbies and dreams he’s never had time for. Even alternate careers, like architecture. (He’s a lawyer.) He’s never quite understood calculus, but with all the time in the world, he could master it. He would take a sabbatical every four years to travel the world.
I’ll admit, his passion for a long life of solving integrals and kayaking through rainforests did drag me closer to the immortality corner. Even if I extended my life by just a few years, I could finally get to the bottom of my Netflix and Pocket queues.
And I had been silently dismissing life-extension enthusiasts’ spiels about seeing their great-great-grandkids grow up, since I don’t have kids and probably never will.
But—but—if I was certain I could stay sharp and energetic well into my 90s, maybe my stance on motherhood would change. I wouldn’t worry so much about kids cutting into my productivity if my ability to produce was limitless. Sure, I’d probably have a few sleepless nights and groggy days in the early years. (Unless, of course, Silicon Valley really gets cracking on those robot wet-nurses.) But once Olga Jr. was out of the house and working as a Martian News correspondent or whatever, I could more than make up for lost time.
This feeling of abundant possibility is one of the chief motivations of the pro-longevity crowd. “Projects and ambitions like mastering every musical instrument in the orchestra, writing a book in each of all the major languages, planting a new garden and seeing it mature, teaching one’s great-great-grandchildren how to fish, traveling to Alpha Centauri, or just seeing history unfold over a few hundred years are not realistic: there is simply not enough time to achieve them given current life expectancy,” wrote Nick Bostrom, an Oxford philosopher and grand-daddy of life-extension (so to speak), with fellow philosopher Rebecca Roache in 2008. But, they continue, “if we could reasonably expect from an early age to live indefinitely, we could embark on projects designed to keep us occupied for hundreds or thousands of years.”
Among the many downsides of dying is the prospect of never reaching one’s full potential. Right now, I’m projected to die when I’m about 82. But what if it takes me until I'm 209 to write the great American blog post?
Still, a common fear about life in our brave, new undying world is that it will just be really boring, says S. Matthew Liao, director of the Center for Bioethics at New York University. Life, Liao explained, is like a party—it has a start and end time. “We get excited because the party’s going on for an hour, and we don’t want to miss it. We try to make the most of it while we’re there.”
“But imagine there’s a party that doesn’t end,” he continued. “It would be bad, because you’d think, ‘I could go there tomorrow, or a month from now.’ There’s no urgency to go to the party anymore.”
The Epicureans of ancient Greece thought about it similarly, Solomon said. They saw life as a feast: “If you were at a meal, you’d be satiated, then stuffed, then repulsed,” he said. “Part of what makes each of us uniquely valuable is the great story. We have a plot, and ultimately it concludes.”
Dan McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, explains that people make sense of their lives through narrative arcs. Without an ending, there can’t be a story. How would we process life events differently, given infinite do-overs? For example, because we have a vague sense that people are supposed to die at roughly 80, we now grieve people who die at 20 more than those who die at 78. But if people began living to 500, that might change, McAdams pointed out. There might be far more tragedy in the world if we’re mourning the loss of every 90-year-old the way we now would a child. “We’re just so much trained by evolution and culture to know that our life is going to be relatively short and constrained,” he said, “and to be somewhat cautious so we don’t screw it all up.” (Of course, if technology also makes us smarter as it makes us live longer, who knows what types of new arcs we’ll construct for ourselves.)
Bostrom dismisses the thought that there’s something about impending death that adds meaning or motivation to our days. “It often seems the young are most energetically pursuing different kinds of activities, and the closer you get to death, the more people lean back,” he told me. “Partly it’s due to their reduced energy and health.”
Which, of course, he hopes we can fix.
Once living longer becomes possible, who will get to do it? Istvan believes life-extension technology should be available to everyone, not just the wealthy. He supports a universal health-care system with life extension as one of its core benefits. (Health-care costs wouldn’t spiral out of control, he and some others think, because the longer-living humans would also be healthier. Istvan plans to pay for this universal Zoltancare by selling government land in the western United States.)
Others believe that soon after life-extending technology becomes available, the price will drop rapidly and it will become attainable by most—just as occurred with personal computers.
“But the worry in the short-term, is what happens? The rich could get richer and the poor could get poorer,” Liao said. Because the rich could afford to extend their lives first, and life-extenders could amass more resources over the course of their long lives, income inequality could grow even more profound.
Then again, that’s how things work now. “If someone comes up with a new cancer drug, we don’t say ‘let’s not use it until every person has access to it,’” Bostrom told me. “By that logic, we should stop kidney transplants.”
Even if eternal life gets equitably distributed, there’s still the problem of what to do with all the excess centenarians running around. Eventually, we’re going to run out of room here on Earth. One solution would be to dramatically curtail reproduction, focusing instead on the health and longevity of those already here. As the philosopher Jan Narveson put it, “we are in favor of making people happy, but neutral about making happy people.” That might mean, though, that you won’t have a great-great-great-grandkid to attend the dance-recitals of.
There is a chance that worrying less about death might short-circuit our naturally tribalist natures, easing resource-allocation issues in the process. Solomon, the Skidmore psychologist, researches terror management theory, which suggests the knowledge of our eventual demise makes people psychologically retrench. Being reminded of death causes study subjects to adhere more firmly to their existing worldview, mistrust outsiders more, and even to, ahem, support charismatic leaders who may not be very qualified. So in some ways, eliminating the prospect of death might make us want to ratify all the climate treaties and equitably divvy up the world’s food supply.
... That is, of course, unless immortality has the opposite effect, making us paranoid that we’ll die too soon for no reason. After all, even if we can eliminate aging, we can’t eliminate chance. “Let’s say you expected to live to 5,000 and your head’s being frozen, there’s a power outage, and it turns into a pile of mush,” Solomon said. “We might become even more hyper-vigilant.”
Liao and others think one answer to the overcrowding problem might be interstellar space travel—which, they assume, will be invented by then. When Earth turns into an overpopulated dump, Liao says, the immortal can just hop between planets.
I told him an eternity spent on Venus among youthful billionaires does not appeal to me.
“What if all your friends go to Venus?” he asked. He offered an earthly comparison: “You’ll be here while everyone’s in Brooklyn?”
(Everyone’s already in Brooklyn, though, and I’m still here in Northern Virginia.)
Space travel is also how Liao envisions us overcoming the boredom problem. Right now, the journey between solar systems is too long for a human to accomplish in a normal lifespan, but with life extension, that won’t be a concern anymore. We won’t run out of things to do, the thinking goes, because there will always be another planet to explore. We’ll all cheerfully grow old aboard our interstellar minivan.
And in general, Liao explained, humans engage in lots of pleasures that aren’t repetitive, like forming new relationships, making music, learning things, and experiencing natural wonders.
“If that’s what human existence is about, and you can continue to do that, why not be able to live longer?” he asked me.
“I guess I do like hiking,” I said.
“You might even enjoy hiking on Mars,” he said.
Eh, don’t push it.
The somber side to the debate is whether life extension will cause us to lose our appreciation for natural human vulnerability. In other words, society might begin to preference those who have swallowed anti-aging drugs, making un-enhanced humans a sort of rotting underclass.
Parents who have babies with mild disabilities might be blamed for “not doing Gattaca,” as Liao puts it. (Istvan’s platform reads, “Develop science and technology to be able to eliminate all disabilities in humans who have them.”) We’ll have to wrestle with whether those who don’t take fountain-of-youth pills should be charged more for health insurance. Worse yet, by jetting off to a new planet, the enhanced and immortal could abandon Earth to mere mortals, the cruelest and most extreme form of segregation.
Life-extensionists’ zeal for perfect cells does, to some, sound like an invective against uniqueness. That’s what Melinda Hall, a philosophy professor at Stetson University and author of a recent book about transhumanism, takes issue with. “People with disability are saying, ‘this is a primary part of my identity,’” she told me, “so when you’re saying you want to get rid of disability, it sounds genocidal.”
Istvan dismisses disability-rights advocates as a fringe minority, saying “I would bet my arm that the great majority of disabled people will be very happy when transhumanist technology gives them the opportunity to fulfill their potential.” (Betting your arm is, of course, no biggie when you can just get a bionic one.)
In general, Hall said, the transhumanists have the wrong idea about the problems facing humanity. “People are going to be starving and dying, but we’re going to build a colony on Mars?” she said, “That’s going to cost billions of dollars, and I think that should be spent somewhere else.”
Of course, that won’t stop the billionaires from following their dreams. Perhaps our best hope is that on the path to immortality, they’ll discover something useful to broader swathes of society. Metformin, an old diabetes drug recently shown to extend the life of animals, is now being tested as an anti-aging pill. If it really does allow people to stay healthy in old age, some would regard it a “public health revolution”—even if it fails to help Peter Thiel meet his cyborg-descendants in 2450.
In that way, today’s life extensionists might follow the proud tradition of other explorers who shot for another galaxy and ended up straddling the moon. “The alchemists write about trying to find elixirs of gold and immortality. They never find that, but they discovered chemistry,” Solomon said. “Ponce de Leon never found the fountain of youth, but he found Florida.”