March 8, 2006

Deathist Nation

Critics of life extension fear the risks of longer lives but don't acknowledge the danger and difficulty of enforcing death

By George Dvorsky, June 10, 2004

The late Freddy Mercury of Queen once asked, "Who wants to live forever?" Pose the question to the growing community of transhumanists, immortalists, cryonicists and various life extension aficionados around the world, and most would surely raise a hand and proclaim, "Uh, that would be me, thank you very much."

Predictably, ever since the mainstream have caught on to such seemingly outlandish desires, life extension advocates have been met with much scorn, ridicule and rolled eyes.

But not for the reasons you might think. The bio-Luddites certainly don't think these people are crazy—at least, not about the prospect of lifespan augmentation and thwarting aging altogether. No, the bio-Luddites are very concerned that this wish might actually come true. And the transformation of humans into a deathless species, they argue, could be disastrous on many levels.

So as the prospect of radical life extension becomes more real with each passing year, prominent bio-Luddites have gone on the offensive to convince immortal wannabes that death is where it's at. They speak in a flowery and comforting tone, proclaiming that death defines our species and endows our lives with meaning, purpose and social stability.

The most outspoken of these thanatophiles are, of course, Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama, both of whom sit on the President's Council on Bioethics in the US. They're not alone, however, and can count a number of bioconservatives—including Charles Krauthammer and Bill McKibbin—on their side.

I consider myself open to ideas and alternative perspectives, but as I consider the arguments of the bio-Luddites and look deeper into their meaning, I have come to realize that the death-promoting propaganda campaign is more than just a battle for hearts and minds. I get the impression that—should radical life extension technologies become readily available—these detractors, some of whom have the ear of the President, would go much further than fighting a war of words in their attempt to ensure that we never gain mastery over our mortality.

And while their direct concern is for the people of the US, their encroaching cross-border influences, including the pressure they've put on the UN to impose their vision of international standards, should cause concern for people the world over. So I'm forced to consider what it would take to stop the coming antiaging revolution, and in doing so to fear the kind of future the bio-Luddites have in mind.

Big Brother wants you dead

At times the bio-Luddites sound parochial and authoritarian, and at their worst they sound downright ideological and even totalitarian.

Indeed, as Kass has repeatedly stated, "the finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual, whether he knows it or not." And frighteningly, when asked by Brian Alexander, the author of Rapture: How Biotechnology Became the New Religion, if the government has a right to tell its citizens that they have to die, Fukuyama answered, "Yes, absolutely."

Just what, exactly, does this dynamic duo have in mind for the citizens of the US, and by virtue, the rest of the world? I am completely bewildered as to how, at the dawn of the biotech century, such a policy of death could actually be put into place in an ethical, safe and legal manner.

Actually, it can't. It would take an authoritarian iron fist to stop antiaging efforts, creating a Brave New World far scarier than the one the bio-Luddites think the transhumanists and life extensionists would introduce.

Shame on you for living

How might this play out? Before the bio-Luddites do anything drastic, they'll likely ramp up the deathist rhetoric to convince people they should abstain from both developing and utilizing life extension technologies. I can already imagine the guilt-tripping psychological warfare. "Die or your children won't be able to find a job," one ad might go.

Realistically, this will have very little impact on people's opinions. As demonstrated by the Viagra phenomenon, hormone therapy and a host of other successful "antiaging" products, the demand for a longer, healthier lifespan is powerful and widespread. Moreover, believing that people should see death as a "blessing" is rather unintuitive at best—especially if those people are still physically and psychologically vibrant.

Indeed, as Herald Tribune columnist Rich Brooks recently pointed out, "It is death, Kass might say, that gives urgency to life. It drives us to discovery, to cross oceans and reach into the emptiness of space; it is the reason we squeeze pleasure and meaning from every moment and see beauty in every sunset." But if death is such a blessing, asks Brooks, "then why don't we embrace it? Why is life such a desperate enterprise?" Ultimately, says Brooks, "it's because each of us has only one life—a prospect that leads us to live out our lives with meaning and purpose."

And yes, the slope is always slippery. "When disease or hardship strikes, we decide as individuals whether to seek life-extending treatment," says Brooks. "Taken collectively, these decisions set the course for humanity. Our collective will to live drives the quest for cures and life-saving technology. Thus taking advantage of medical breakthroughs affirms our humanity rather than diminishing it."

Thus, given the inevitable failure of a pro-death propaganda campaign, the bio-Luddites will have to take their fight to the next level.

Declaring War on Life

Thanks to the efforts of pioneering biogerontologists such as Aubrey de Grey, Leonard Hayflick and Cynthia Kenyon, aging is increasingly coming to be regarded as a disease—and one that can be defeated. Coming from a computer science background, de Grey in particular has shown how aging is nothing more than a solvable engineering problem.

It'll only be a matter of time before these researchers make greater and greater strides in their work, resulting in a steady flow of life extension interventions destined for the market. The human lifespan will become increasingly longer and longer, and every year of extra life will bring people closer to the next antiaging intervention.

Unless, of course, drastic measures are put in place to prevent this from happening. Similar to the current War on Drugs, it's conceivable that a bioconservative government could impose a War on Life, fighting against life extension research and related technologies. Scientific research would be closely monitored and regulated, with scientists being forced to work within state-sanctioned guidelines.

This is not as farfetched as it might sound. Current governments in both the US and Canada, for example, have enacted extremely stringent policies in regards to stem cell and cloning research. The US in particular currently boasts one of the most anti-science regimes in all of its history. Given the prominence of religious and Luddite forces, combined with a mostly scientifically illiterate and politically challenged populace, the US government may continue this regressive policy as human enhancement technologies increasingly come info focus and into practical use.

Impossible to enforce

And like the useless War on Drugs, this war would also have its share of problems and victims. Quelling scientific research into life extension would be exceedingly difficult, creating a giant black market for both researchers and clinicians, and forcing an exodus of scientists to countries with less stringent regulations.

Conservative nations could petition the UN to impose global bans on such research—much as they're trying to do now with human cloning—but again, imposing and enforcing such a policy for developing a technology that would have such exceptionally high demand would be insanely costly and tragic.

Not to mention what a travesty this would be to the nature of scientific inquiry in general.

And finally, such a blanket fight against antiaging would be impossible to define and circumscribe. Most diseases are caused by aging and the steady deterioration of the body. How would we decide what constitutes a life extension intervention? How could we possibly delineate between a therapeutic medical practice and a life extension practice?

Logan's Run

Well, one way around this dilemma for the bio-Luddites would be to enforce a maximum lifespan. In such a scenario, after passing a certain age the elderly would be denied life-extending treatments. Since it would be impossible to distinguish between any kind of health intervention and life extension, the elderly would simply be allowed to die.

This reminds me of the campy 1976 sci-fi film Logan's Run. The movie takes place in a post-apocalyptic hedonistic world where no one is allowed to live beyond the age of 30. The Orwellian culture is laden with deathist rhetoric and citizens are made to feel shamed for even thinking about living beyond 30. When their time is up, they're forced to attend a death ritual called "renewal" for the illusory chance of a continued life called "rebirth." If anyone dares to avoid this state-imposed euthanasia, a crime referred to as "running," the offenders are tracked down and mercilessly killed on the spot by "sandmen," a specialty corps put into place for just such purposes.

Quite suddenly, given the position of the bio-Luddites, the horror of Logan's Run seems a disturbingly real possibility. If, as Fukuyma asserts, the state has the right to tell its citizens that they have to die, and assuming that such a policy would be put in place when life extension technologies arrive—which they will, regardless of propaganda campaigns and draconian anti-science measures—this would seem the only possible recourse to guarantee population turnover.

Which begs the question: What should the maximum allowable lifespan be? How old do people have to be before they start to negatively impact society, families, the sense of the human life cycle and their perception of a fulfilling and meaningful life? Any decision about a maximum lifespan would be utterly arbitrary. No figure could ever possibly make sense to everyone or be agreed upon.

Further, a policy of enforced euthanasia would be ageist to the extreme and a gross violation of human rights. The elderly would have all the justification in the world to fight against the implementation of gericide. And they will continue to have every right for equal access to the best and most effective health interventions that medical science has to offer. In fact, the elderly are already starting to organize and agitate, as recently demonstrated by a group of elderly New Yorkers who openly smuggled drugs from Canada to protest what they see as overly strict and unjust trade regulations.

Worse than useless ethics

When our species was pre-societal, humans could expect to live just a few years past 30. As recent as last century, life expectancy was not much more than 40. Today, the average lifespan is well into the 70s and creeping into the 80s. And people are not just living longer, they're living vibrantly into their elder years. Today's 70 and 80 year olds are completely unlike the elderly I remember seeing when I was child growing up in the 1970s.

And no one seems to be complaining. In fact, they're celebrating—and rightfully so. Society has coped very well with these changes by steadily adapting to the realities of having longer-lived citizens. There's no reason to believe that culture, society and its institutions won't continue to change and adapt to future issues, including any potential overpopulation problems.

And as for the bio-Luddite deathists, they're offering Americans the worst and most useless kind of ethics. It is an ethics without foundation in reality and devoid of pragmatic guidance and practical solutions. It simply doesn't do for the coming realities of 21st century life.

Consequently, the pro-death rhetoric is only resulting in a confused and scared populace, backwards and stifling legislation and a depraved indifference to the 50 million lives lost each year. And since the members of the US President's Council on Bioethics recognize the scientific plausibility of negligible senescence, their systematic curtailment and prevention of life extension research could be construed someday as a crime against humanity.

Don't believe their hype. Fight for your right to live.

Copyright © 2004 George Dvorsky

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, June 10, 2004.

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Good to review this for historical perspective. The bio-luddites never really gained a serious foothold in preventing life extension. Turns out, the U.S. government ended up sponsoring (through the military), a lot of regenerative medicine and prosthetic technology mainly aimed at soldiers coming back from Iraq. Now with the new administration (2009), I would be more worried about enviro-luddites opposing life extension technology based on the problems of overpopulation, pollution, etc. And there is the theme that no such technology should be developed or allowed if it is not shared equally. Equality before progress is not the best meme for life extension.