Ageless Mortals

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-Dylan Thomas

Aubrey de Grey doesn’t promise that the lights won’t go out, but he does think we may be able to change when and how they go out. He rages not at death but decline. Of course, if bodily decline can be successfully staved off, then a major cause of death will have been removed. Accordingly, de Grey envisions a future where the human lifespan will be “radically increased.” Although his present essay is oddly reticent about attaching a number to the word “radically,” the website of de Grey’s Methusaleh Foundation is more forthright. The Bible puts Methusaleh’s age at 969 years and de Grey is confident that science could restore such antediluvian longevity to humankind. He calls for a life-prolongation project that would deliver a 1,000-year human lifespan. Presumably, life would still be cut short either by events that continue to elude rational control — accidents, acts of God (like the flood that did in Methusaleh), and acts of others (war and murder) — or, I suppose, by deliberate choice, whether heroic self-sacrifice or suicide. So, we won’t be deathless, but we will be ageless (or pretty nearly so). Death will come, but not as a predictable culmination of a life cycle.

De Grey’s thought has the distinct advantage of being visionary and radical. The boldness of his forecasting invites equally far-reaching speculations (including some forebodings) about the character and shape of human lives measured in centuries rather than decades. Before I say “yes” to a whole lot more life, I would want to think about the relation between more life and a good life. I must admit that I don’t find persuasive de Grey’s attempt to silence potential doubters and dissenters by brandishing the specter of age-discrimination and insisting on “our duty.” If the powerful desire for self-preservation, coupled with the fear of death, is not enough to fill the anti-aging ranks, I don’t think calls to duty will do it.

After all, most of us — so long as we’re not environmentalists of the humanity-hating stripe — already have pretty pronounced pro-longevity sympathies. Over the last century, there have been tremendous gains in average life expectancy throughout the developed world. In the United States, for instance, the figure went from 48 to 78 as a result of reductions in infant mortality and other causes of premature death. Similar improvements in nutrition, safety, and longevity are earnestly being sought in less developed nations. At the same time, scientists and doctors are searching for cures for the diseases that afflict us in later life. All of this is welcome. Right now, the human lifespan is 122 years (maximum lifespan is set by the longest-lived individual of a species). You might say we are endeavoring to make life expectancy approximate lifespan. To the extent that we can close that gap, human beings could expect to live long and relatively healthy lives.

I suspect that de Grey is correct that in the course of this desirable work to allow us to live out our natural lifespan, we will increasingly turn our attention to the mysteries of aging. We will seek to arrest or even defeat senescence. Age-retardation techniques, whatever they may be (candidates at this point include caloric restriction, genetic manipulation, regenerative medicine, antioxidants, and manipulation of hormones and telomeres), will open the prospect of re-engineering the human lifespan. This is an altogether different prospect — not a modest postponement of aging, but a dramatic one.

I don’t know whether a 1,000-year lifespan is scientifically feasible, but I’m quite willing to grant for the purposes of the argument that it is. More interesting, at least for a political scientist with a humanities bent, is whether it’s desirable. The cliché one often heard about Marxist communism was that it “sounds good in theory, but won’t work in practice” — in other words, that it was desirable, but not feasible. I always thought the cliché had it backwards. It was the communist dream itself that was undesirable. Sitting here with an aching back and my share of middle-aged complaints, I’m not quite willing to say that agelessness is undesirable but, on the other hand, I can’t shake the conviction that the achievement of a 1,000-year lifespan would produce a dystopia. Our moral obligations to posterity require us to give more comprehensive thought to what we bequeath them — not merely physically, but psychologically and politically.

De Grey singles out for criticism the “Ageless Bodies” chapter in Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. He faults the President’s Council on Bioethics for asking questions –

“unnerving questions” that “fester in the audience’s mind.” To my mind, unnerving questions are the stuff of philosophic inquiry. We should wonder about the effects of a 1,000-year lifespan on the “moral contents of life.”[1]

Let me start my own speculations with what might seem a frivolous topic: pet dogs. For those who love their dogs, the disproportion between the human and canine lifespan is already painful. I know of dog-lovers who just can’t bring themselves to get a new puppy after they’ve lost one too many. How would one feel at, say, 370 years of age, contemplating pet number 30-something? The physical energy required for a new puppy is nothing compared to the psychic energy. So, I don’t think it’s absurd to worry about the effects of extremely long life on our commitments, aspirations, and receptivity to new life and love.

Perhaps we won’t find it disturbing to be so out of sync with the rest of creation (particularly not if we take a chosen few, like our dogs, with us into hyper-longevity). Our human companions, in any case, would be equally long-lived. But how would human relations be affected? How would monogamy fare? It’s not doing great as it is, but could one even imagine the vow “till death do us part” when death might be nine centuries away? If monogamy simply disappears as a promise and an expectation, we might be confronted with the human version of the puppy problem: would there be enough psychic energy for ever-renewed love? Life takes its toll on the spirit as well as the body. What would the tally of disappointments, betrayals, and losses be over a millennium? Would we love other people more or less than at present? Would we be better partners, parents, friends, and neighbors? What would it be like to experience the continued vitality of the body in conjunction with the aging of the spirit? Would it mean the best of both worlds: the vitality of youth with the wisdom of maturity? Or the worst of both worlds: the characteristic vices of age with the strength of will to impose them on others?

The consequences of radical life-prolongation would not be purely individual, but social and political as well. Since tyranny is an aspiration coeval with political life, we might wonder what the effects of millennial existence would be on the possibilities of tyranny. Every era so far has generated instances of life-long rule — of tyrants who die in their beds having quashed all hope of liberty during their lifetimes. Would a 1,000-year lifespan also mean 1,000 years of the likes of Stalin — a Stalin who perhaps uses agelessness (and other biotech discoveries) as a tool of political control?

Even without the threat of vastly extended tyranny, a nation of ageless individuals could well produce a sclerotic society, petrified in its ways and views. Senescence escorts us, more or less gracefully, off the stage, making room for fresh generations. The aging of individuals may be one condition for societal renascence. Fascinatingly, longevity research in animals suggests that one cost of age-retardation is sterility or decreased fertility. If there are trade-offs between long life and new life, then the quest for individual immortality may pose dangers for the well-being of the human collective, whether at the level of the family, the nation, or the species. While frailty and finitude don’t seem such good things, they may be inextricably entwined with other very good things that we would not want to sacrifice.


[1] The phrase comes from Pierre Manent in Modern Liberty and Its Discontents.

Diana Schaub is Professor of Political Science at Loyola College in Maryland and a member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s provocative lead essay, Aubrey de Grey, the Chairman and Chief Science Officer of the Methuselah Foundation and a leading proponent of radical life extension, examines the arguments and rhetorical stategies of those who oppose the effort to defeat death. Setting his sights on the “pro-aging trance,” the “Tithonus error,” “biomedical wishful thinking,” and two ways the “geronto-apologists” evade the real question, de Grey argues that reconciliation to death is a kind of discrimination, but that “old people are people too, so aging must be seen for what it is: a scourge that deprives far more people of far more healthy years than any other.”

Response Essays

  • In her reply to de Grey’s lead essay, Diana Schaub, a professor of political science at Loyola College in Maryland and member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, emphasizes our duty to think through all the consequences of much-longer lifespans. Can monogamy survive 1000-year lives? “What would the tally of disappointments, betrayals, and losses be over a millennium?” Schaub asks. If some societies now must wait for tyrants to die, won’t they have to wait a long time in an ageless world? And tyranny aside, “a nation of ageless individuals could well produce a sclerotic society, petrified in its ways and views,” Schaub submits.

  • Ronald Bailey, Reason magazine’s science correspondent and author of Liberation Biology: The Moral and Scientific Case for the Biotech Revolution offers a vigorous and straightforward answer to this month’s question: “Do we need death? No. Next question.” But before turning to the next question, Bailey tackles some of the worries Diana Schaub raised in her reply to de Grey, and even addresses “pro-mortalist” arguments Daniel Callhan, our next commentator, has made elsewhere. “The highest expression of human nature and dignity,” Bailey claims, “is to strive to overcome the limitations imposed on us by our genes, our evolution, and our environment.”

  • Daniel Callahan, co-founder of the bioethics think tank the Hastings Center, digs beneath Aubrey de Grey’s premises and fundamentally challenges the idea that radical life extension would be a good thing. The argument against aging and death, Callahan argues, is “utopian” and depends on speculative “fairy tales” about the nature of very long lives. In a world of radical life extension, we might find people are “forced to continue working unless society and their children were prepared to support them for hundreds of years.” And social mobility may be imperiled if the old do not make way for the young. “Nature knew what it was doing when it arranged, through natural selection, to have all of us get old and die,” Callahan maintains.