Posted: October 8, 2012
popular Halloween costume in Boston in recent years has featured the late Red Sox left-fielder Ted Williams, decapitated, holding a goo-filled jar in which his head is suspended. There used to be no hero in Boston like Williams, a baseball Hall of Famer and arguably the greatest hitter who ever lived. But his children's decision to have Williams beheaded and flash-frozen by an Arizona "cryonics" laboratory after his death in 2002, in hopes he might be brought back to life someday, has reduced him to a ghoulish laughingstock.
It is human to rage against the dying of the light. But striving for immortality is a contemptible act of cowardice before the inevitable, a waste of the limited time we are allotted here on earth, and an arrogant affront to the order of things. In writing 100 Plus, a defense of various present-day attempts to defeat death, Sonia Arrison is aware she is arguing a case that has been ridiculed by Swift, Goethe, Mary Shelley, and Oscar Wilde. She doesn't much care. Against these scoffers she sets the views of contemporary futurists and Silicon Valley venture capitalists, many of them affiliated with the new Singularity University, of which Arrison is a founder and promoter. Her book is a pep talk and a political call to arms against bioethicists, regulators, and others urging us to think twice about whether it is wise to meddle with our lifespans.
Arrison is eager not to be confused with various longevity faddists of yore, from Ponce de Leon to Serge Voronoff, who a century ago started a fad for grafting monkey testicles onto those of aging men. The Irish poet William Butler Yeats underwent a related procedure (vasoligation), close enough to Voronoff's to win him the mocking nickname "The Gland Old Man." The English philosopher John Gray has recently published an account (The Immortalization Commission) of certain 19th-and 20th-century seekers of immortality in Britain and Russia. We might call them crackpots today.
But this time is different, Arrison insists. We know better now. She focuses on big technological advances—on tissue engineering and "organ-printing," for instance, which have succeeded in producing artificial bladders and windpipes. She is especially enthusiastic about various gene-mapping projects, which have brought the price of sequencing an individual genome down to about $5,000 and are on the verge, as the genetic entrepreneur Craig Venter puts it, of turning biology into an information technology. Cryonics, of the sort that Ted Williams's family placed such stock in, figures in her vision of our future, too, especially now that "vitrification" permits corpses to be flash-frozen without damaging swelling.
It is not always easy to tell whether Arrison is arguing for longevity or immortality. The book's foreword, by PayPal founder and libertarian philanthropist Peter Thiel, makes clear that his goal is immortality; he is not investing all that dough in Singularity University just to fight death to a draw. But Arrison claims only to be considering a world in which people live to be 150. Alongside technological fantasy, she includes a lot of what could be called "health tips": Drinking red wine. Taking resveratrol supplements. Restricting calories. That sort of thing.
And in fact, it is modest, steady advances in longevity, not miracle cures, that are the revolutionary force in our time. Over the past century-and-a-quarter, life expectancy has been rising by 2 or 3 months every calendar year. Girls born in 1950 could be expected to live till 70; today's newborns are expected to make it to 80. This progression has already caused the major political headache of our day. Longer lifespans mean either that people will no longer be able to retire at 65 or that they'll need to content themselves with much less once they do. Such problems will only worsen as longevity increases.
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Social scientists have done a good deal of thinking about how our institutions have already reacted to increased longevity. A superb long essay by the French economist Hervé Juvin, The Coming of the Body (2010), gives some examples. Smoking has come to seem more dangerous than it did when even non-smokers lived only till 60. Marriage has come to seem a bigger sacrifice, now that it means 60 years of commitment and three-quarters of a life, than it did when it meant 25 years of commitment and half a life.
Arrison, by contrast, has a weakness for linear extrapolation. This allows her to wish away some of the more serious misgivings about longevity. She assumes that longer lifespans will be matched by increases in geriatric health. If the experience and institutional memory of a 62-year-old is a boon to his firm, imagine how much better a 132-year-old would be! She worries little about retirement problems because "savings invested at a younger age would be earning interest over a longer period of time." Every problem she touches turns to a straw man.
At the core of Arrison's optimism are a number of widely held fallacies about the benefits of education. High education is correlated with high incomes in this country, true, but the correlation is based on relative education levels, not absolute ones. Those (our president included) who believe that everyone can receive today's college-level salaries if everyone can be sent to college do not understand how specialization works. They might as well argue that, because kickers score more points than offensive linemen, the best NFL team would have 53 kickers on it.
In Arrison's account, every problem associated with longevity gets solved through such on-paper correlations. Will a lower death rate cause overcrowding and environmental damage? No, because longevity is correlated with wealth, wealth with education, and education with environmentalism. That means the likelihood of a new "green revolution" that would increase food supplies. "There are new technologies on the horizon that promise to make the planet a cleaner and healthier place," she writes. Let's hope they appear! If they do, this longevity revolution could work. If they don't, we will adjust to it through the traditional methods: famine and plague.
Her key premise, however, is that wealth is correlated not just with longevity but also with every other good thing. "The longevity revolution," she writes, "depends on the strong and sustained efforts of a diverse set of people who refuse complacency." To judge from the ones she cites, this set of people isn't diverse at all—it's made up almost exclusively of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are rich as Croesus. Her arguments tend to run in the same direction as a torrent of corporate investments.
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Arrison has the fundraiser's gift of seeing rich people the way rich people see themselves—as seekers, not self-seekers. Bill Gates, for instance, "has dedicated his life to improving the world for others through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He is a brilliant individual, and the world is fortunate to have him still playing an active part." She quotes Larry Ellison as an ally, since he once said, "Death makes me very angry." Ellison may be a visionary when it comes to selling software. When it comes to longevity, he is just another wealthy man raging in vain that if he can't take it with him he's not going.
Arrison is a libertarian. Her mission is to protect entrepreneurs working on edgy longevity projects from "government," which is often a way of saying that she wants to protect them from bioethics. "If we have the ability to help others avoid death for longer than they otherwise would," she writes, "not pursuing that goal is tantamount to murder." While admitting that this sounds a bit over-the-top, she keeps admiringly quoting people who feel the same way. A technologist called Ramez Naam writes: "It's those who oppose individual and family genetic choice who have, in essence, decided that there's a certain ‘correct' genetic heritage for humanity (the one we have today) and that the populace should not be allowed any choice in the matter." Oh, yes, in essence! One hopes that Naam is being quoted out of context here, rather than saying what he seems to be saying, which is that anyone reluctant to join radical experiments to "improve" mankind is to be singled out as a menace.
The University of Chicago bioethicist Leon Kass is singled out that way in this book, along with others Arrison describes as "anti-longevity activists," such as the Yale bioethicist Daniel Callahan. The Harvard political scientist Michael Sandel appears here, too, for his argument that "eugenic parenting is objectionable because it expresses and entrenches a certain stance toward the world—a stance of mastery and domination that fails to appreciate the gifted character of human powers and achievements." It is a lovely passage, which places these questions of longevity in exactly the right context, but Arrison quotes Sandel only to mock him. "It is no particular ‘gift'," she writes, "to die at 80 rather than at 150."
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In the old days one would have said that God had hardened Arrison's heart. Nowadays, her inability even to understand Sandel's point is a good measure of how weakly armed we are, philosophically, to enter the important, world-changing debates that we're apparently about to have. Arrison, looking at death, sees three alternatives. First, we can "accept our fate under the reasoning that somehow humans are responsible for it." Second, we can mythologize it. Third, we can "attack the issue head-on." She leaves out the only sane option, which is an acceptance that we are only human. This is the opposite of claiming responsibility for death. The philosophical conclusion is to live as best we can, through reason and tradition. Tradition, which doesn't even make a hint of a scintilla of an echo of an appearance in Arrison's book, is important because it permits us not to squander time re-verifying things that have been learned, generation after generation. It allows us to project ourselves forward and back in time more effectively than organ-printing and resveratrol supplements are likely to manage.
That is true whether one believes in religion or not. Arrison is not hostile to religion per se. She seems to mean it as a compliment when she insists that the futurist Ray Kurzweil, her colleague at the Singularity University, is starting a new "religion of transhumanism." She just lacks an ear for it. "People will continue to be religious once the threat of death and the promise of the afterlife are no longer ‘top-of-the-mind' issues," she writes. But why would these cease to be top-of-the-mind issues? Why would the impending end of a 150-year life be any less troubling than the impending end of a 70-year life? Eternity is a long time in either case.