Done with Death?

The holiday season has arrived, and with it will come higher mortality rates. For a number of reasons, including stress and cold weather, more people die around this time of year. While many accept death as a natural certainty, there is a growing movement that aims to do away with it.

In The Scientific Conquest of Death, a group of well-respected scientists and theorists take on the biological and philosophical arguments against radically extending the human life span. The first half of this new book is dedicated to scientific questions, and the reader discovers some incredibly interesting facts. For example, aging is not universal. There are a bunch of different life forms that, if left free from disease and predators, would never die. Examples include lobsters, turtles and banana trees.

One of the authors, Dr. Joao Pedro de Magalhaes of Harvard Medical School, looks at aging as a disease like cancer or AIDS. He writes, “Aging is a sexually transmitted terminal disease that can be defined as a number of time-dependent changes in the body that lead to discomfort, pain, and eventually death.” Other essays in the book touch on nanotech, biotech, and stem cell research and explain how these new technologies could lead to a cure for aging.

Can We Conquer Age, and Should We?

Not everyone believes that aging can be conquered. To those people, scientist Michael West points out that it was hard to believe that we’d ever go to the moon. Indeed, it was the case that Robert Lusser, the rocket scientist after whom Lusser’s Law was named, was adamant that man would never go to the moon. In an on-camera interview in the 1950s, Lusser confidently informed the world that “Man can never go to the moon, let alone Mars.” Ironically, in 1969, seven months after Lusser died at age 69, man did just that.

But even if one concedes that it might be possible to stop the process of aging, there are some who object to the idea of what would essentially be human immortality. The second part of the book does a marvelous job of addressing the issues that arise, such as the potential for overpopulation.

In response to neo-Malthusians who would put limits on how long people can live to prevent overpopulation, Dr. Max Moore points out that the global population is currently flatlining and that as technology advances we will have more tools available to help solve problems associated with population growth. For instance, farming technologies have already made it efficient and easy to drastically increase crop yields. But more important is Dr. Moore’s philosophical response.

Human Nature To Fix Problems

He writes, “If we take seriously the idea of limiting life span so as to control population, why not be more proactive about it? Why not drastically reduce access to currently commonplace medical treatments? Why not execute anyone reaching the age of seventy?” Clearly, if we did ever face population problems in the future, the answer is better found in slowing population growth than in increasing deaths.

A second common objection to super-longevity is that it isn’t natural. But since when does natural equate with good? As Mike Treder, executive director of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology points out, “Tooth decay is natural — should dentistry be outlawed? Polio is natural — should we ban the Sabin vaccine? Cholera is natural — should we allow epidemics to rage unchallenged?”

Of course not, and it is an entirely human response to try to fix problems that are harming people — including death. Some 150,000 people die globally every day. In the U.S., it’s about 200,000 a month (6,500 a day). Given these numbers, it does seem rather odd that we aren’t demanding a solution now. Perhaps one reason is that we live in a culture of death — a culture that has convinced us that death is natural, good, and impossible to fight against, so we shouldn’t even try.

But we should try, and as this book shows, some very smart people are currently engaged in finding the solutions. In the Bible, people were said to have lived for upwards of 900 years, and it would be nice to get back to that kind of run on life. As Rabbi Neil Gillman once said, “There is nothing redemptive about death. Death is incoherent. Death is absurd.”

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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