The Immortals Won’t Have Alzheimer’s But They Will Have Forgotten Much

To de Grey’s last post: One can disapprove of all sorts of things without calling for the force of law against them. I would have thought that was a distinction familiar to libertarians.

Readers might find it more interesting if we were to engage in a consideration of the merits and demerits of the project to conquer death. To that end, let me return to Ron Bailey’s incredulous question: “All right, seriously folks, why would anyone think we need death?” Maybe Bailey is not aware that Jews, Christians, and Muslims (who together constitute a substantial portion of the world’s population) not only believe that the children of Adam need death, but actually deserve death. So, Bailey’s question does have a serious religious answer, an answer that includes an alternative route to a deathless existence. But, we can dispense with all that since the scientific faith now promises heaven on earth — and at such small cost: the scientific priesthood only requests our money not our dedication to the moral struggle of living well.

So, if we limit ourselves to this-worldly considerations, why would we need death? In my last post, I suggested a linkage between the fullness of our erotic lives and the fact of mortality. The notion is not novel, but runs through the texts of love, from Plato’s Symposium to the poetry of John Donne. It is also on display in the ordinary experience of mothers and fathers.

The bonds of political community may also depend on death. For anyone interested in pursuing this thought, I recommend the essay by Joseph Bottum, entitled “Death & Politics,” in the June/July 2007 issue of First Things. He argues for three propositions:

1.  The losses human beings suffer are the deepest reason for culture,

2.  The fundamental pattern for any community is a congregation at a funeral,

3.  A healthy society requires a lively sense of the reality and continuing presence of the dead.

If deathlessness ever arrives for human beings, I would cast my lot with the elephants who are said to gather and grieve over the bones of their departed. Elephant culture might already have surpassed the culture of immortalists. Based on the posts so far, cultural ignorance — of the history of religion and love and politics — is one clear cost of the quest for a non-transcendent immortality.

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.