Imagine a world free of disease and ageing. A world where your body stays fit and healthy, instead of slowly withering away towards inevitable decay. One of the world’s earliest written works, The Epic of Gilgamesh, deals with the quest for immortality. Humans have been trying to defeat death since they realised they could die. And for the first time in history, we’ve got a chance.
Over the past century, we’ve cured diseases, halted epidemics, and added 30 years to the average lifespan. If we keep going, we’re going to gradually push average lifespan further and further. We might not live forever. Our children might not live forever. But our grandchildren could plausibly have an average lifespan of 100. And perhaps their grandchildren will live forever.
This thought terrifies some people. To the neophobes and the conservatives, any tinkering with biology is too much tinkering with biology. Death is the one constant in our changing world. Death comes to kings and peasants of all classes, colours, and creeds. The idea of challenging this makes some people break out into a cold sweat. But I think humanity has a duty to light up our bright torches of science and progress, and drive back the dark fog of death. The quest for immortality is the most noble quest, and anyone who hinders it has blood on their hands.
Immortality has a simple, intuitive appeal. Life is good, so more life must be better. Dying is bad, so let’s not die. The argument for immortality is childishly simple, which is actually a point in its favour. Immortality is so obviously, intuitively, logically good that even kids understand its appeal. Not wanting to live forever means wanting to die. And I should hope none of you want to die.
At the moment, our short lifespans limit us. The central problem of economics is that we have limitless desires but limited resources with which to satisfy them. I might want a house and a car, but only have enough money for one. As I see it, the central problem of life is that we have limitless desires, but limited time in our life to achieve them. I want to be an engineer and an artist. I want to have a career and a family. Immortality means having all the time in the world – enough to do both.
Can you ever have too much time? Some people think immortality would be torture. Ask the English novelist Susan Ertz, who wrote: “Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” What would you do with eternity? My answer is simple: anything you like.
Catch up with your great-great-great-great-grandchildren. Complete every Harvard degree. Become a novelist and listen to every classical symphony. Spend a few centuries working on space travel, then build your own spaceship and travel the galaxy. Visit aliens, or if they don’t exist, make them. The possibilities are (heat death of the universe non-withstanding) literally endless. Literally.
Yet, many disagree. George Bush’s council for ethics called the search for immortality “spiritually immature and unmanly”. Famous academic Francis Fukuyama worries it would destroy our “human dignity”. The romantics and poets say death is part of the human experience, that “meaning and pain, meaning and transience are inextricably intertwined” (Bill McKibben). Transhumanist Joe Quirk’s elegant dismissal of this says it all: “If we all live long healthy happy lives, Bill’s favorite poetry will become obsolete.” What exactly is Fukuyama’s “human dignity”, and is it really more important than meeting your great-great-great-grandchildren, or never having to make your wife a widow?
Many condemn life extension research as “unnatural”. Yes, the idea of celebrating your 800th birthday does seem unnatural to us. But celebrating your 80th birthday would have seemed equally unthinkable to the Romans, whose average life expectancy was only 35. Every century, the limits of biology are pushed further. Dismissing immortality as “spiritually immature” is a slap in the face to the thousands of scientists who added 30 years to our lifespan over the 20th century.
Immortality won’t make everything perfect. How will we deal with overpopulation? Or ensure equal access to this technology regardless of class? Or stop the creation of a new caste of immortal super-rich Murdochs and Rineharts? We’ve got a century to answer these questions and iron out the creases. Until then, death comes for all of us, and it is in humanity’s best interests to stave it off until the day we can vanquish it for good.
Adam Chalmers lives forever on Twitter: @adam_chal