Are you excited about Silicon Valley entrepreneurs investing billions of dollars to extend life and even “cure” death?
It's amazing that such technologically challenging goals have gone from sci-fi fantasies to fantastic possibilities. But the biggest obstacles to life extension could be cultural: the anti-individualist fallacies arrayed against this goal.
A recent Washington Post feature documents the “Tech titans’ latest project: Defy death. “ Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist, has led the way, raising awareness and funding regenerative medicines. He explains: “I’ve always had this really strong sense that death was a terrible, terrible thing… Most people end up compartmentalizing and they are in some weird mode of denial and acceptance about death, but they both have the result of making you very passive. I prefer to fight it.”
Others prefer to fight as well. Google CEO Larry Page created Calico to invest in start-ups working to stop aging. Oracle’s Larry Ellison has also provided major money for anti-aging research. Google’s Sergey Brin and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg both have funded the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation.
Beyond the Post piece we can applaud the education in the exponential technologies needed to reach these goals by Singularity U., co-founded by futurist Ray Kurzweil, who believes humans and machines will merge in the decades to become transhumans, and X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis.
The Post piece points out that while in the past two-thirds of science and medical research was funded by the federal government, today private parties put up two-thirds. These benefactors bring their entrepreneurial talents to their philanthropic efforts. They are restless for results and not satisfied with the slow pace of government bureaucracies plagued by red-tape and politics.
“Wonderful!” you’re thinking. “Who could object?”
Laurie Zoloth for one. This Northwestern University bioethicist argues that “Making scientific progress faster doesn’t necessarily mean better — unless if you’re an aging philanthropist and want an answer in your lifetime.” The Post quotes her further as saying that “Science is about an arc of knowledge, and it can take a long time to play out.”
Understanding the world through science is a never-ending enterprise. But in this case, science is also about billionaires wanting answers in their lifetimes because they value their own lives foremost and they do not want them to end. And the problem is?
Zoloth grants that it is ”wonderful to be part of a species that dreams in a big way” but she also wants “to be part of a species that takes care of the poor and the dying.” Wouldn’t delaying or even eliminating dying be even better?
The discoveries these billionaires facilitate will help millions of people in the long-run. But her objection seems rooted in a morally-distorted affinity for equality of condition: the feeling that it is wrong for some folks to have more than others—never mind that they earned it—in this case early access to life-extending technologies. She seems to feel that it is wrong for these billionaires to put their own lives, loves, dreams, and well-being first.
We’ve heard this “equality” nonsense for every technological advance: only elites will have electricity, telephones, radios, TVs, computers, the internet, smartphones, whatever. Yes, there are first adopters, those who can afford new things. Without them footing the bills early on, new technologies would never become widespread and affordable. This point should be blindingly obvious today, since the spread of new technologies in recent decades has accelerated. But in any case, the moral essential is that it is right for individuals to seek the best for themselves while respecting their neighbors’ liberty to do the same.
The Post piece attributes to political theorist Francis Fukuyama the belief that “a large increase in human life spans would take away people’s motivation for the adaptation necessary for survival. In that kind of world, social change comes to a standstill.”
Nonsense! As average lifespans doubled in past centuries, social change—mostly for the better—accelerated. Increased lifespans in the future could allow individuals to take on projects spanning centuries rather than decades. Indeed, all who love their lives regret that they won’t live to see, experience, and help create the wonders of tomorrow.
The Post cites physician and ethicist Leon Kass who asks: “Could life be serious or meaningful without the limit of mortality?”
Is Kass so limited in imagination or ignorant of our world that he doesn’t appreciate the great, long-term projects that could engage us as individuals seriously and meaningfully for centuries to come? (I personally would love to have the centuries needed to work on terraforming Mars, making it a new habitat for humanity!)
Fukuyama and Kass have missed the profound human truth that we each as individuals create the meaning for our own lives, whether we live 50 years or 500. Meaning and purpose are what only we can give ourselves as we pursue productive achievements that call upon the best within us.
The Post piece quotes Fukuyama as saying “I think that research into life extension is going to end up being a big social disaster… Extending the average human life span is a great example of something that is individually desirable by almost everyone but collectively not a good thing. For evolutionary reasons, there is a good reason why we die when we do.”
What a morally twisted reason for opposing life extension! Millions of individuals should literally damn themselves to death in the name of society. Then count me anti-social.
Some might take from Fukuyama’s premise a concern that millions of individuals living to 150 will spend half that time bedridden, vegetating, consuming resources, and not producing. But the life extension goal is to live long with our capacities intact—or enhanced! We want 140 to be the new 40!
What could be good evolutionary reasons why we die when we do? Evolution only metaphorically has “reasons.” It is a biological process that blindly adapted us to survive and reproduce: it didn't render us immune to ailments. Because life is the ultimate value, curing those ailments rather than passively suffering them is the goal of medicine. Life extension simply takes the maintenance of human life a giant leap further.
Yes, there will be serious ethical questions to face as the research sponsored by benevolent billionaires bears fruit. But individuals who want to live really long and prosper in a world of fellow achievers need to promote human life as the ultimate value and the right of all individuals to live their own lives and pursue their own happiness as the ultimate liberty.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.