Friday, October 2, 2009

Anti-Aging in the Media: The Independent on Immortality

Anti-Aging in the Media: The Independent on Immortality
This is so much more peaceful than immortality. (Photo by net efekt)

Most of the anti-aging articles I've written about on this blog have ranged from neutral to positive, but every now and then there's a columnist out there with a different kind of mission.

A mission to tell the world that living longer is bad, that death is good, and that we should stop spending so much effort on trying to change things. This time it's E Jane Dickson from The Independent showing her true colors as someone who apparently sees no problem with masses of people dying from old age every day. Her message? 'Immortality isn't all it's cracked up to be'.

She begins by describing how future doesn't look like we imagined it would 20 years ago. Where are the flying cars and robots doing our housework for us? Clearly, then, all predictions about the future must be wrong. And who could be more wrong than Ray Kurzweil, the lord of all predictors:

"I believe, he says, "that in around 20 years we will have the means to reprogram our bodies' stone-age software so we can halt, then reverse ageing. Then nanotechnology will let us live for ever."

I've said before that Kurzweil's vision of immortality in 20 years seems optimistic (though not completely impossible) to me, but I see the reversal of aging – be it through nanotechnology or some other means – as inevitable, whether it takes 20 or 100 years. But Dickson doesn't see it quite like that:

There is, of course, a considerable gulf between theoretical science and its universal application. God knows the non-theoretical stuff is problematic enough. Video recorders have been round for more than 20 years and not all of us know how to work them. But even if, for the sake of argument, immortality were technically possible, what would we do with it?

So not only is it going to be ridiculously difficult to apply the theory – which obviously must be faulty itself – into practice, we shouldn't even try! I guess we should've just skipped inventing video recorders in the first place, because not everyone on the planet can use them properly. While we're at it, let's get rid of televisions, computers, iPods, cars, microwaves, and everything else that might pose a technical challenge.

But, even if it were possible to use rejuvenation therapies to extend lifespan, we shouldn't. Why? A couple of lame jokes later Dickson lays down her main arguments against immortality. Number one:

How will we fit the extra people on the planet? (Indeed, if nobody ever dies, is it desirable – or even possible – for new people to be born?)

Ah, yes. The inevitable overpopulation argument, always thrown out there without much contemplation. Perhaps it has not occurred to her that the more developed a nation, the slower the population growth. It's the poor countries where population growth is a problem. And why do these people have so many children? As an insurance against old age. Apparently maintaining the status quo and having lots of kids who are more or less destined to the same fate is a better solution than actually making people healthier and less reliant on the next generation.

As for new people being born into a world where people are immortal, I don't see why it would be impossible. I just don't see much reason for it. Let's face it: the main reason why any living thing reproduces is to spread its genes; to make them immortal. But this is poor man's immortality. This is nothing but a diluted version of yourself remaining alive, while you, the unfortunate carrier, vanish into the great big void.

If we have true immortality of the self, who needs immortality of the genes? For those who wish to reproduce for other reasons – say, having children to keep you company – there's still lots of room on this planet. Besides, since immortality in the sense that absolutely nothing can kill you is very difficult (if not impossible), some new people would need to be created just to keep the population count where it is. And if we do run out of space here on this earth, we can head for other planets.

But, perhaps the most important question to ask those who put forth the overpopulation argument is this: Are you really willing to let masses of people die now just to reduce the changes of a hypothetical scenario where some people yet to be born might have to live in a more crowded world?

Enough about overpopulation. As I mentioned, Dickson has another ace up her sleeve. Reasons against living forever, take two:

Our fascination with the notion of eternal life is instinctive and atavistic. Every morality tale we tell ourselves, from the grail legend to science fiction (not forgetting most world religions), is wound about the notion of human mortality. Death is traditionally the leveller, the absolute against which all else is measured. Take away that absolute and you take away the reason, or at least some good reasons, for living.

This is a twist of the old "only death gives meaning to life" nonsense. But look at how Dickson herself dilutes it even further by saying that immortality wouldn't take away all the reasons for living, just some. I wonder what those reasons are – fear of dying, decrepitude in old age, too little time to pursue all your dreams, loss of loved ones? Because those are all fabulous aspects of the human life we just couldn't do without, right?

And, finally, even if immortality itself were good (just see how the article kind of goes from "immortality is bad" to "it might be pretty cool" to "let's not do it anyway"), there would still be thousands of good reasons not to do it. Well, okay, maybe just one. But a very important one. I call it the argument from jealousy, which states that not everyone might achieve immortality at the same time:

A world where only the poor grow old and die is not most people's idea of progress. And it's a short leap to the Huxleian nightmare of a New Order where the young and lovely are serviced by a subspecies of ageing drones.

Dickson is afraid that only the rich will be able to afford these treatments, while the poor will have to stick with mortality. Not only that, but the immortals will turn them into some kind of slaves with their newly-acquired powers. Into ageing drones.

As much as this scenario keeps me up at night, I would suggest that Dickson take a closer look at who might be to blame if only a priviledged few were to get their hands on rejuvenation therapies. If you have a business that offers anti-aging therapies, who would you rather have as your customers, a couple of rich kids or the entire world? And if you're foolish enough to choose the first option, others would soon rush in to offer similar services at a cheaper price to fill demand. This is basic economics. TV's, cars, and computers were all once luxury items, and now they're nearly ubiquitous.

The only instance that really can prevent access to these therapies is your friend the government. Regulation is the thing I'd watch out for when major breakthroughs in anti-aging science become a reality. The rhetoric will no doubt include the very same things Dickson is talking about, with the results of regulation of course being completely opposite to what is said and intended. The obvious consequence of "rejuvenation should not be available only to the rich" is "the government must produce rejuvenation therapies through a monopoly".

And given the horrible track record of government services, I can only imagine what "government immortality" looks like. But enough ranting, let's end all this on a lighter note. Here's an uplifting quote from very end of the article:

We need to fight down the herd panic on the issue of ageing and its natural consequence. Because immortality is not the answer. It is the only and original fate worse than death.

Okay, so I was lying. That's a terrible quote. What the hell was she thinking when she wrote this article?

For more information on anti-aging and immortality, see these posts:

Why Aging Is a Global Disaster That Needs to Be Solved
Who Wants to Live Forever? Results from a Global Survey
Anti-Aging in the Media: Daily Telegraph on Curing Aging
How to Live Forever: My 5 Steps to Immortality

Digg Technorati Stumbleupon Reddit Blinklist Furl Yahoo

3 kommenttia: October 4, 2009 at 8:50 AM  

90+% of the comments in response to that article appear to disagree with Dickson. Nice to see that readers don't believe everything the media says.

JLL, is there a way to contact you?

JLL October 5, 2009 at 12:45 PM,

You can contact me at: inhumanexperiment(at)

Science Bloggers Association October 5, 2009 at 2:40 PM  

Nice Blog. Congrats.
-Zakir Ali ‘Rajnish’
{ Secretary-TSALIIM & SBAI }
[Editor- Children’s Poem & Adult’s Poem]

  © Blogger template 'Perfection' by 2008

Back to TOP