The cover of The Postmortal is one of the coolest images I’ve seen in a long time. Death impaled by his own scythe – be not proud, indeed.
The idea behind Drew Magary’s great new book is simple: aging, as it turns out, is caused by one gene. Shut that gene off and you stop aging; accidents and disease are still a problem, but you’ve cured death by natural causes. Now compound that discovery with the fact that any person who gets the Cure simply stops aging. People don’t become younger, they just don’t get older, frozen at their “Cure age.” What happens next?
In an effort to find out, Magary takes us through the life of John Farrell, a New York lawyer who gets the Cure for aging at the age of 29 in the year 2019. From that point on, things go rather poorly for John and the rest of humanity. As one might expect, curing aging doesn’t cure social ills, over-population, ennui, or a host of other human hangups. Mark Frauenfelder has an excellent synopsis of the book over at boingboing.net, and I share his opinions about the book’s bleak tone and high quality.
Magary’s argument through the text is essentially this: death creates meaning. Not mortality, but guaranteed natural death due to aging. The idea that no matter what you do, how you live your life, the concept that you will be born, mature, grow old, and die creates human meaning. Magary has a point: from the riddle of the Sphinx to Tyler Durden to the final books of Harry Potter, aging and death seem to be at the epicenter of human thought. I don’t deny him that at any moment any one of us could meet a tragic end. Life is precious in part because it is not meant to last.
But here is where I struggle. The Postmortal is not about a post-mortal society, it is about a post-aging society. Lots and lots and lots of people die in Magary’s vision. In fact, he seems to argue that in the absence of death, people will not only seek death but will create circumstances that create death and thereby, create meaning. It is only when Farrell’s life is most in peril that he finds purpose in existence. But Farrell is never immortal, no one is. So my question is: is the process of aging as meaningful as the condition of being mortal? Read More
The future is impossible to predict. But that’s not going to stop people from trying. We can at least pretend to know where it is we want humanity to go. We hope that laws we craft, the technologies we invent, our social habits and our ways of thinking are small forces that, when combined over time, move our species towards a better existence. The question is, How will we know if we are making progress?
As a movement philosophy, transhumanism and its proponents argue for a future of ageless bodies, transcendent experiences, and extraordinary minds. Not everyone supports every aspect of transhumanism, but you’d be amazed at how neatly current political struggles and technological progress point toward a transhuman future. Transhumanism isn’t just about cybernetics and robot bodies. Social and political progress must accompany the technological and biological advances for transhumanism to become a reality.
But how will we able to tell when the pieces finally do fall into place? I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution was asked a while back by his readers: What are the exact conditions for counting “transhumanism” as having been attained? In an attempt to answer, I responded with what I saw as the three key indicators:
As I groped through the intellectual dark for these three points, it became clear that the precise technology and how it worked was unimportant. Instead, we need to figure out how technology may change our lives and our ways of living. Unlike the infamous jetpack, which defined the failed futurama of the 20th century, the 21st needs broader progress markers. Here are seven things to look for in the coming centuries that will let us know if transhumanism is here. Read More
Dying is a touchy subject. Euthanasia makes people upset. Whichever side of the debate you are on, you are caught between the hard place of human suffering and the rock of informed autonomous free choice. Euthanasia is really a debate about not dying of natural causes. For so long, we’ve understood death to be only OK if it was natural or demonstrably accidental. Anything else was murder, manslaughter, or war. Not only God, but we humans, have set our canon against self-slaughter. “Voluntary active euthanasia,” as Daniel Brock denotes it, is not natural, nor is it demonstrably accidental. Thus, we instinctively categorize it as morally wrong.
Instead of attempting to root out the source of that instinct and investigating whether or not voluntary active euthanasia actually violates morality, many use the blurred line created as reason enough to oppose a chosen death. Ross Douthat of the New York Times argues that Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian’s efforts to provide assistance to those suffering created a moral slippery slope:
And once we allow that such a right exists, the arguments for confining it to the dying seem arbitrary at best. We are all dying, day by day: do the terminally ill really occupy a completely different moral category from the rest? A cancer patient’s suffering isn’t necessarily more unbearable than the more indefinite agony of someone living with multiple sclerosis or quadriplegia or manic depression. And not every unbearable agony is medical: if a man losing a battle with Parkinson’s disease can claim the relief of physician-assisted suicide, then why not a devastated widower, or a parent who has lost her only child?
Note that Douthat doesn’t consider Parkinson’s a medical disease. But more to the point – Douthat’s argument is that we don’t know what degree of suffering makes the choice to die morally palatable. Degree of suffering is the wrong criterion. None but the sufferer can define it and it can never be truly communicated. What is at stake here is not only the free and informed choice of the dying, but our very understanding of what it means to “die of natural causes.” Read More
With the headlines screaming “age-reversing” possibilities regarding the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard University’s results with mice telomerase manipulation, I felt a bit of cold water was in order. I am as excited as can be about serious evidence for how important telomeres and telomerase is for anti-aging medicine, don’t get me wrong. But that evidence doesn’t mean there is going to be a longevity pill in our hands this year, this decade, or even this century. And more than a few folks with a grasp of science better than mine agree.
Thankfully, I’m not the only one. My fellow Discover blogger Jennifer Welsh has a great post on 80 Beats about why the discovery, though exciting, is far from a genuine anti-aging solution. The Harvard team showed the following. Mice engineered to lack telomerase aged prematurely. When given telomerase treatments, the mice rejuvenated to age-appropriate health without adverse side-effects. That’s it. That’s the extent of the discovery.
It still remains to be seen if telomerase treatments can delay normal aging, reverse normal aging, or extend life in any way in mice. From there scientists have to then figure out what side-effects there are, why those side-effects occur, and then somehow translate the results to human beings. In short, the Harvard team only confirmed the hypothesis that telomerase in mice impacts the aging process and that it may have potential uses in treating premature aging. Hypotheses beget hypotheses. And not all our hypotheses hinge on mice. Read More
But probably not!
You see, I was merely quoting Margaret Somerville, the Director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Canada. In addition to thinking gay marriage is bad for the kids, Somerville really does not like transhumanists. She thinks that personhood is the “world’s most dangerous idea,” (sounds vaguely familiar) because if aliens, animals and robots have rights too, we won’t value humans anymore. In her recent piece, calmly titled “Scary Science Could Cause Human Extinction” Somerville makes a strange argument about xenotransplants (i.e. organ transplants). First, she beats up on transhumanists and our support of life-extension. She attempts to link life-extention with genetically modified animal organ transplants. She then argues that the transplants will, get this, cause a mutant virus leading to a global pandemic obliterating humanity. I am not joking:
[Using genetically modified pig-hybrid organs] poses a risk, not only to transplant recipients, their sexual partners, and their families, but also, possibly, to the public as a whole. An animal virus or other infective agent could be transferred to humans, with potentially tragic results – not just for the person who received the organ but for other people, who could subsequently be infected. And there might be a very remote possibility that it could wipe out the human race.
Somerville’s argument abuses the word “potentially” and its synonyms in a desperate attempt to draw a link in the reader’s mind between xenotransplants and a cataclysmic plague. Human-to-human disease transmission during transplants is extremely low, and the genetic differences between humans and animals, even hybrids, would lower the risk all the more. Martine Rothblatt, (a Fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies) wrote a whole book, Your Life or Mine, addressing the fears around xenotransplantaion. In short, Somerville’s concerns about xenotransplantation are not based in science, but in bioLuddite hysteria. Somerville’s case against xenotransplantation is in terminal condition already, and things only get worse from here.
The world is getting old. Most developed nations have an aging population that outnumbers the young ‘uns. Ted C. Fishman’s new book, Shock of Gray, argues that this huge wave of elderly just might change the world. Recently interviewed at Salon, Fishman talked about a potential anti-agism civil rights movement, globalization fueled by young people immigration (get on my lawn?), and my favorite old-person related topic, super-longevity:
Our life span averages have leaped in the past century, as you point out, and I wonder if you think there’s a point where we’ll hit a ceiling. Now that you’ve read the science, is there really a possibility for immortality?
I only read the science as a layman and I can only tell you who I trust, which is based on emotional signals as much as empirical ones. I do think maybe eventually we’ll be able to reengineer the human body so that it’s some mix of mechanization and biological miracle and we live forever. But in the lifetime of anybody who’s reading the book, I think there are big limits to the expansion of the human life span. Our genetic makeup is such that the genes that help us grow when we’re young tend to turn against us as we get old.
[What's] more important than antioxidants [for extending our lives]?
I don’t know, I’m not a scientist. But looking over all the places where longevity is more common, sociability is a telling characteristic. Antioxidants might be very promising, but this is the cycle of all promises of anti-aging — hype and debunking, hype, debunking. But we do know what the sure things are. Public health, sociability and literacy.
Those last three pieces - public health, sociability, and literacy – would seem to rule out most of the “eat this food, not that food” logic around longevity. Combine that with advice of the oldest twins in Britain, to enjoy “laughter and having a joke with each other” and you’ve got a pretty good recipe for long life: read a bunch, hang out and laugh with friends, and live somewhere nice. That is a set of goals I can shoot for with gusto.
I do, however, hope that, as Fishman says, we might be able to “reengineer the human body so that it’s some mix of mechanization and biological miracle and we live forever.” While we’re waiting for that to happen, it seems the key to living a long time is to just enjoying being alive. Maybe if I enjoy being alive long enough, I’ll live to see super-longevity become a reality. Then I can enjoy being alive for a really, really long time. On that note, I’m going to go read a book and have a laugh.
Image from manuel | MC on Flickr
“Who wants to live forever?” Freddie Mercury asks on behalf of the Highlander. Michio Kaku (whom you should be reading because he’s wonderful) has started a two-part investigation over at Big Think on just that query. The cliché question comes from the basic problem of living a long time: no one wants to die, but no one wants to get old either. Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Weiner‘s new book Long For This World examines the science and scientists of gerontologology (aging). Stanford University professor of internal medicine Abraham Verghese reviewed Long For This World in The New York Times and was inspired by Weiner’s discussion of longevity. Verghese reflects on his own experience with terminally ill patients:
As a young physician caught up in the early years of the H.I.V. epidemic, I was struck by my patients’ will to live, even as their quality of life became miserable and when loved ones and caregivers would urge the patient to let go. I thought it remarkable that patients never asked me to help end their lives (and found it strange that Dr. Kevorkian managed to encounter so many who did). My patients were dying young and felt cheated out of their best years. They did not want immortality, just the chance to live the life span that their peers could expect. What de Grey and other immortalists seem to have lost sight of is that simply living a full life span is a laudable goal. Partial success in extending life might simply extend the years of infirmity and suffering — something that to some degree is already happening in the West.
I cannot get over the logic Verghese displays here. He notes the will of people to live in spite of suffering and lowered quality of life. The patients merely wanted “the chance to live the life span that their peers could expect.” Does he mean the life span science and civilization has already artificially extended fifty years beyond biological design? How does one differentiate between a 30-year-old who wants to be healthy enough to live to fifty and a 90-year-old who wants to be healthy enough to live to be over 100? Verghese is unable to reconcile the desire to live with a terminally low quality of life. The goal of anti-aging is not to simply increase the number of years a person spends alive; instead, the goal is to make every year, even into mid and late life, as healthy and youthful as possible.
Considering cryonics? Before you sign up to freeze yourself — or just your brain! the whole thing (you) might be overkill–after you die so that you can be unfrozen and then un-deadened in the future, you might want to consider your current relationships. As it turns out, a lot of those who plan to go into cryonic suspension when they are “deanimated” have trouble with their loved ones, primarily wives. In Kerry Howley’s NYT Magazine piece “Until Cryonics Do We Part” about Robin Hanson, a George Mason University economics professor and forward thinker, and Peggy Jackson, a hospice worker and Hanson’s wife, we get a glimpse of the tension wanting to live forever can cause. You see, Hanson wants to cryonically preserve his brain, and Jackson thinks that idea is a bit absurd.
The voyager space probe took a year to get to Saturn and four to get to Jupiter. If I’m planning a trip to those two planets, I jsut don’t have enough reading material (or video games and movies ) to keep me entertained for that long. But nothing makes a flight go faster than sleeping through it, right? So how about finding away to spend most of that in some kind of hibernation, instead of rereading the Sky Mall for the 10,000th time. This is probably why a recent episode of Eleventh Hour (last night was a rerun, so I’m talking about “Flesh” in this article) had our crime fighters chasing down a NASA-developed germ that put it’s victims into a state of hibernation (it also was sexually transmitted and flesh-eating, but more on that another time).
Amanda Tapping is tall, which was a surprise to me, even though I’ve been watching her performance as Samantha Carter on the Stargate franchise for years. I suspect the kind of framing that has enabled Tom Cruise to gaze down at his various female leads. I got the chance to discover the truth about Tapping’s height last night at a preview screening for her new show, Sanctuary, which airs tonight at 9/8c on the Sci Fi channel.