Would you choose immortality?

This article is a transcript from my podcast, Professor Andy Miah Faces the Future. Tune in at your favourite podcast provider.

In case you haven’t heard, over the last 20 years or so, a number of scientists have been working on the problem of death. Now, I guess you could say that everyone’s working on this problem, in some way. Whether it’s through the food you eat, the exercise you do, or the risks you choose not to take, death avoidance is a persistent part of our lives, even if we’re not always consistent on seeking to minimize the chances of it happening. After all, we are a species that likes to smoke, eat too much, climb mountains, and even defy gravity.

So, it’s probably fair to say that, while most of us don’t really want to die, we also want to live life to the fullest, so that we feel we have made our time on Earth worthwhile. But these scientists are trying to stop all that.

And it was around 20 years ago that I became familiar with a community of people who wanted to treat ageing as a disease, not something we should accept, but something we should seek to eradicate.

Broadly speaking, the specialism in science where these questions are rife is called biogerontology and the aims of people working in this area are pretty broad. Not all of the scientists will claim to be pursuing immortality, but in my mind, this does seem to be the inevitable end goal of all such research and we really need to acknowledge that.

Now, if you ask the general public whether they would like to live forever, most of them will say no. In fact, around 10 years ago, I held a conversation with Aubrey de Grey in which we asked the audience how many of them would like to stick around for as longer as possible. Nearly nobody said yes.

So, we asked them again, ‘who would like to live for 1000 years?’. A few more hands went up. Then ‘500?’. More hands, and so on, until we got down to 80 years, at which point, nearly all hands were up. It doesn’t always go this way.

In another event, I chaired a conversation between human enhancement enthusiast Professor John Harris and anarchic artist Heath Bunting, in which John’s exposition on the merit of living forever was met with some resistance. Not only did Heath not want to live forever, he didn’t even want to live until 80 years old. He expressed the idea that living fast and dying young would be just as appealing an existence, as, perhaps, the slow burn to extinction that the immortalists may face.

And a lot of how we feel about living a longer life does hinge on what kind of life it is we are imagining. We may be less keen on living forever if time beyond 100 is riddled with illness, disease, immobility, and limited cognitive capabilities. In short, we want to guarantee a better quality of life, before we sign up. And, as things stand, we can’t ensure those conditions throughout the current, expected life course, though we don’t see people seeking to check out from life before they begin to encounter these problems, at least not typically.

Of course, if you want to face the future of death well, it means being prepared for its inevitable occurrence. No human has ever managed to avoid death, and even the concept of biological immortality is a bit sketchy. That doesn’t mean there is no precedent in biology for immortality and some biogerontologists have latched onto the regenerative capacities of some species as a basis for describing a biological precedent that could have application to humans.

Some people have even committed to the possibility of reanimation after death and have invested vast amounts of money to ensure that their newly deceased bodies are perfectly preserved to maximise the chance of their return, whether it’s 100 or 1000 years in the future; once science has figured it out.

And there is a growing number of people who are queuing up to have themselves frozen at death. Reports od Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Simon Cowell and even Larry King are out there claiming they’ve done it or are thinking about signing up.

And herein lies the clue as to why we might feel that becoming immortal is a little bit iffy. Because it makes sense doesn’t it, that celebrities are the ones who feel they need for their lives to keep going.

But I do think there are better reasons to want this that have nothing to do with our ego. Instead, it follows from a quite simple belief that existence is preferable to non-existence. If you believe this, then continued existence is also preferable compared to its cessation. If you value your life, then it’s not unreasonable to value its continuation.

In my mind, this is what separates out the crazy, ego obsessed celebrities who think that the world needs them to stick around from those who lead simple lives in which they long to see what happens to their loved ones in the future or who are so fascinated with everything that life has to offer, that they can’t help but want to keep turning the pages, rather than put the book down.

So, I’m absolutely signed up to living forever; which doesn’t mean that I think we’ve got anything figured out properly about how that would actually work.

If we could all, suddenly, press a button and achieve immortality, there’s clearly a lot of stuff to re-think, not least of which is the entire life course. From decisions about when and whether to have children to figuring out how we approach our working life and how wealth is distributed.

Now, I know that these questions seem very far removed to the reality of what Planet Earth has to deal with right now. As individuals, we are still struggling to stay alive — even if we, as a species, seem to be doing pretty well. I say ‘seem to be’, partly because even making the most basic claims about how we are doing as a species are not without criticism.

To say that we are doing well as a species, perhaps, by drawing attention to all the discoveries we have made or technologies we have created, or even all the people we have generated, is to elevate ourselves to a position of isolation, as if we can talk about our success independent of all other life on earth.

We all know that this doesn’t make sense. If you study ecosystems, you very quickly build an appreciation for how symbiosis underpins the health of any individual species. We need crops to flourish and for that, we need other life forms to do well.

Historically, the discoveries made by humans have all made it easier and easier to demote the interests of other species. We move entire populations of animals out of areas so that we can build cities. We create and destroy animal life so we can feed more humans.

And so, framing the problem of death as a matter that is pertinent to just the interests of our species is to deeply mischaracterise its role within our biological world.

While humanity has yet to fully come to terms with the point at which it is willing to curtail its lifestyle freedoms in favour of the survival freedom of other species — such consideration is critical to having the right kind of perspective on the prospect of death.

The problem we have as a species — and it’s not just a problem about the length of our lives — is our ability to accept limitation as a characteristic of existence. Instead, we seek to push back the limits, to extend the breadth of our possibilities indefinitely. And the absence of boundaries may work contrary to our own interests. Without the certainty that death will occur, we may struggle to prioritise things in life that really matter, just because there will always be more time for those other things.

Yet, I still think that the desire for biological immortality is completely reasonable and not radical at all. It expresses a sentiment about the value of life that we all should seek to uphold.

Accepting the prospect of death within our lifetime may well be the best way to prepare for it, even if Aubrey de Grey would have us believe that the 1000 year old human has already been born. And there may be major, practical challenges with embracing even a small amount of life extension.

But when push comes to shove, I doubt we will, as a species, vote for an upper limit to life and, instead, do all we can to extend it for us, for the other life forms we value and, perhaps, even for all species. And this will then become the new normal.

Chair in Science Communication & Future Media @SalfordUni / written 4 Washington Post, Wired + found on CNN, BBC Newsnight, TEDx #posthuman

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