Do We Need Death?

No. Next question.

All right, seriously folks, why would anyone think that that we need death? Pro-mortalists generally fear that longer lives will result in a nursing home world, filled with aging, miserable, debilitated people draining resources from the young to keep themselves alive. Second, they worry about the social consequences of longer lifespans.

In his lead essay, Aubrey de Grey ably demolishes the nursing-home-world dystopias. The point of anti-aging research is not to make us older longer, but to make us younger longer. Enough said.

So what about the social consequences of radically longer and healthier lives? In that regard, Diana Schaub in her reaction essay raises many questions for reflection about those consequences, but curiously she fails to actually reflect on them. Schaub isn’t “willing to say that agelessness is undesirable,” but she simultaneously “can’t shake the conviction that the achievement of a 1,000-year lifespan would produce a dystopia.” She then simply recapitulates the standard issue pro-mortalist rhetorical technique of asking allegedly “unnerving questions” and then allowing them to “fester in the mind.” Sadly, all too many bioethicists think they’ve done real philosophic work by posing “hard” questions, then sitting back with steepled hands and a grave look on their countenances.

So instead of just letting questions “fester,” let’s actually make a stab at preliminary responses to some of the questions posed by Schaub and other pro-mortalists. If people lived for 1,000 years, Schaub asks, “How would human relations be affected? How would monogamy fare?… would there be enough psychic energy for ever-renewed love?” First, the real question is: why has monogamy already begun to fall apart in developed societies? I suspect that the increase in life expectancy over the last century may have had a bit to do with it, but surely the advent of truly effective contraception and the entrance of women fully into the paid workforce are far more significant factors. Schaub worries about declining psychic energy, but so far declining psychic energy correlates pretty well with declining physical energy.

Schaub next asks, “What would the tally of disappointments, betrayals, and losses be over a millennium?” Turn that around–what would the tally of satisfactions, affections, and triumphs be over a millennium? Modern material and intellectual abundance has already offered many of us a way out of the lives of quiet desperation suffered by our impoverished ancestors. The 21st century will provide an ever-increasing menu of life plans and choices. Surely exhausting the coming possibilities for intellectual, artistic, and even spiritual growth will take more than one standard lifetime. Schaub’s conviction that 1000-year lifespans would end in dystopia so distorts her vision that only gloomy questions come to her mind.

Schaub then queries, “Would we love other people more or less than at present? Would we be better partners, parents, friends, and neighbors?” Again she does not attempt an answer to her own questions. As someone who has a “conviction” that an ageless dystopia looms, she surely has an obligation to try to explain why she thinks longer-lived folk may not love as deeply or might be worse neighbors, friends, and parents. Does she have any evidence that shorter-lived people in past centuries and societies loved more deeply or were better neighbors, friends and parents? It is very suggestive that as life expectancies increased over the past century, levels of violence also declined. [1] Perhaps empathy has a chance to increase as life becomes ever more valuable.

“What would it be like to experience the continued vitality of the body in conjunction with the aging of the spirit?” asks Schaub. Whatever can she mean by “aging of the spirit?” She initially suggests that longer healthier lives might happily unite the vitality of youth with the wisdom of maturity. But being a pro-mortalist, Schaub inevitably must try to direct our attention to the possible downsides. So she worries that instead longer lives would combine the “characteristic vices of age with the strength of will to impose them on others.” Just what are the “characteristic vices of age” that trouble her? Which of the traditional vices — gluttony, anger, greed, envy, pride, lust, indifference, melancholy — does she expect will increase among hale near-immortals?

As Georges Minois notes in his History of Old Age: From Antiquity to the Renaissance, the most commonly mentioned fault of old age is avarice. [2] Roman playwright Terence wrote, “A vice common to all mankind is that of being too keen after money when we grow old.”[3] In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift warned that “avarice is the necessary consequence of old age.” [4] Swift was describing the immortal, but not ageless, Struldbrugs. I do not doubt that material comfort and security grow in importance as physical vitality ebbs and mental acuity withers. But perpetually vital oldsters would have no need for such security because they can count on having the mental and physical powers to apply to their pursuit of new goals and possibilities. No failure is permanent, but instead becomes a learning experience.

In addition, Schaub suggests that “a nation of ageless individuals could well produce a sclerotic society, petrified in its ways and views.” Hastings Center co-founder, Daniel Callahan (who will be participating in this discussion) makes a similar argument. “I don’t believe that if you give most people longer lives, even in better health, they are going to find new opportunities and new initiatives,” Callahan writes. [5] To back up his claim, Callahan cites the hoary example of brain-dead old professors blocking the progress of vibrant young researchers by grimly holding onto tenure. That seems more of a problem for medieval holdovers like universities than for modern social institutions like corporations.

Assuming it turns out that, even with healthy long-lived oldsters, there is an advantage in turnover in top management, then corporations that adopt that model will thrive and those that do not will be out-competed. Besides, even today youngsters don’t simply wait around for their elders to die. They go out and found their own companies and other institutions. Bill Gates didn’t wait to take over IBM; he founded Microsoft at age 20. Nor did human genome sequencer Craig Venter loiter about until the top slot at the National Institutes of Health opened up. And in politics, we already solve the problem of clutching oldsters by term-limiting the presidency, as well as many state and local offices.

Schaub offers no data nor even a plausible line of reasoning that longer healthy lives will result in “social sclerosis.” In fact, the available evidence cuts the other way. Social and technological innovation has been most rapid in those societies with the highest average life expectancies. Yale University economist William Nordhaus estimates that the huge increase in average life expectancy in the United States, from 47 years in 1900 to 77 years today, has been responsible for about 40 percent of the increase in our standard of living.[6]

Schaub conjures the possibility of near immortal tyrants–Stalin and Hitler forever. Frankly, I am not persuaded by the implied argument that everyone must continue to die before age 100 in order to avoid the possibility of millennial tyrants. Must we really surrender to the tyranny of aging and death in order to prevent human despotism? Wouldn’t a better strategy be to focus on preventing the emergence of tyrants, either of the short- or long-lived variety?

At the end of her essay, Schaub worries about decreased fertility; that healthy oldsters would be less interested in reproducing. A first response is: so what? Shouldn’t the decision to have children be up to individuals? After all, already countries with the highest life expectancies have the lowest levels of fertility. A lack of interest in progeny could have the happy side effect of addressing the possibility that radically increased human lifespans might lead to overpopulation. No one can know for sure, but it could well be that bearing and rearing children would eventually interest long-lived oldsters who would come to feel that they had the time and the resources to do it right. Since assisted reproductive techniques will extend procreation over many decades, people who can look forward to living and working for hundreds of years will be able to delay and stretch out the period of parenthood.

Pro-mortalist Callahan has asserted “There is no known social good coming from the conquest of death.” In point-counterpoint debate with Gregory Stock, the director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Society at UCLA about whether or not doubling human lifespans is a good idea, Callahan points that the “problems of war, poverty, environment, job creation, and social and familial violence” would not “be solved by everyone living a much longer life.” He further demands that all problems he thinks might arise from dramatically increasing lifespans be solved in advance. Callahan claims, “The dumbest thing for us to do would be to wander into this new world and say, ‘We’ll deal with the problems as they come along.’”

Callahan’s argument is a non sequitur. People already engage in lots of activities that do not aim directly at “solving” war, poverty, environmental problems, job creation, and the rest. Surely we can’t stop everything until we’ve ended war, poverty, and familial violence. Anti-aging biomedical research wouldn’t obviously exacerbate any of the problems listed by Callahan and might actually moderate some of them. If people knew that they were likely to enjoy many more healthy years, they might be more inclined to longer-term thinking aimed at remedying some of those problems.

Callahan’s demand that all problems that doubled healthy lifespans might cause be solved in advance is just silly. Humanity did not solve all of the problems caused by the introduction of farming, electricity, automobiles, antibiotics, sanitation, and computers in advance. We proceeded by trial and error and corrected problems as they arose. We should be allowed do the same thing with any new age-retardation techniques that biomedical research may develop.

Finally, the highest expression of human nature and dignity is to strive to overcome the limitations imposed on us by our genes, our evolution, and our environment. Future generations will look back at the beginning of the 21st century with astonishment that some well-meaning and intelligent people actually wanted to stop biomedical research just to protect their cramped and limited vision of human nature. Our descendants will look back, I predict, and thank us for making their world of longer, healthier lives possible.


[1] Steven Pinker, “A History of Violence,” [pdf] New Republic, March 19, 2007.

[2] Georges Minois, History of Old Age: From Antiquity to the Renaissance, University of Chicago Press, 1990, p 95.

[3] Terence, The Brothers.

[4] Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels.

[5]Gregory Stock and Daniel Callahan, “Debates: Point-Counterpoint: Would Doubling the Human Life Span Be a Net Positive?,” J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci.2004; 59: B554-B559.

[6] William Nordhaus, “The Health of Nations: The Contribution of Improved Health to Living Standards,” NBER Working paper, no. 8818, February, 2002.

Ronald Bailey is the science correspondent for Reason and author of the book Liberation Biology: The Moral and Scientific Case for the Biotech Revolution

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.