There are two paths to superlongevity: only one of them is good

Memento Mori Ivories

Looked at in the longer historical perspective we have already achieved something our ancestors would consider superlongevity. In the UK life expectancy at birth averaged around 37 in 1700. It is roughly 81 today. The extent to which this is a reflection of decreased child mortality versus an increase in the survival rate of the elderly I’ll get to a little later, but for now, just try to get your head around the fact that we have managed to nearly double the life expectancy of human beings in a little over two centuries.

By itself the gains we have made in longevity are pretty incredible, but we have also managed to redefine what it means to be old. A person in 1830 was old at forty not just because of averages, but by the conditions of his body. A revealing game to play is to find pictures of adults from the 19th century and try to guess their ages. My bet is that you, like myself, will consistently estimate the people in these photos to be older than they actually were when the picture was taken. This isn’t a reflection of their lack of Botox and Photoshop, so much as the fact that they were missing the miracle of modern dentistry, were felled, or at least weathered, by diseases which we now consider mere nuisances. If I were my current age in 1830 I would be missing most of my teeth and the pneumonia I caught a few years back would have surely killed me, having been a major cause of death in the age of Darwin and Dickens.

Sixty or even seventy year olds today are probably in the state of health that a forty year old was in the 19th century. In other words we’ve increased the healthspan, not just the lifespan. Sixty really is the new forty, though what is important is how you define “new”. Yet get passed eighty in the early 21st century and you’re almost right back in the world where our ancestors lived. Experiencing the debilitations of old age that is the fate of those of us lucky enough to survive through the pleasures of youth and middle age. The disability of the old is part of the tragic aspect of life, and as always when it comes to giving poetic shape to our comic/ tragic existence, the Greeks got to the essence of old age with their myth of Tithonus.

Tithonus was a youth who had the ill fortune of inspiring the love of the goddess of spring Eos. (Love affairs between gods and mortals never end well). Eos asked Zeus to grant the youth immortality, which he did, but, of course, not in the way Eos intended. Tithonus would never die, but he also would continue to age becoming not merely old and decrepit, but eventually shrivel away to a grasshopper hugging a room’s corner. It is best not to ask the gods for anything.

Despite our successes, those of us lucky enough to live into our 7th and 8th decades still end up like poor old Tithonus. The deep lesson of the ancient myth still holds- longevity is not worth as much as we might hope if not also combined with the health of youth, and despite all of our advances, we are essentially still in Tithonus’ world.

Yet perhaps not for long. At least if one believes the story told by Jonathan Weiner in his excellent book Long for this World.  I learned much about our quest for long life and eternal youth from Long for this World, both its religious and cultural history, and the trajectory and state of its science. I never knew that Jewish folklore had a magical city called Luz where the death unleashed in Eden was prevented from entering, and that existed until  all its inhabitants became so bored that they walked out from its walls and we struck down by the Angel of Death waiting eagerly outside.

I did not know that Descartes, who had helped unleash the scientific revolution, thought that gains in knowledge were growing so fast that he would live to be 1,000. (He died in 1650 at 54). I did not realize that two other key figures of the scientific revolution Roger and Francis Bacon (no relation) thought that science would restore us to the knowledge before the fall (prelapsarian) which would allow us to live forever, or the depth to which very different Chinese traditions had no guilt at all about human immorality and pursued the goal with all sorts of elixirs and practices, none of which, of course, worked. I was especially taken with the story of how Pennsylvania’s most famous son- Benjamin Franklin- wanted to be “pickled” and awoken a century later.

Reviewing the past, when even ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs offer up recipes for “guaranteed to work” wrinkle creams, shows us just how deeply human the longing for agelessness is. It wasn’t invented by Madison Avenue or Dr Oz if even the attempts to find a fountain of youth by the ancients seem no less silly than many of our own. The question, I suppose, is the one that most risks the accusation that one is a fool: “Is this time truly different?” Are we, out of all the generations that have come before us believing the discovery of the route to human “immortality” (and every generation since the rise of modern science has had those who thought so) actually the ones who will achieve this dream?

Long for this World is at its heart a serious attempt to grapple with this question and tries to give us a clear picture of longevity science built around the theoretical biologist, Aubrey de Grey, who will either go down in history as a courageous prophet of a new era of superlongevity, or as just another figure in our long history of thinking biological immortality is at our fingertips when all we are seeing is a mirage.

One thing we have on our ancestors who chased this dream is that we know much, much, more about the biology of aging. Darwinian evolution allowed us to be able to conceive non- poetic theories on the origins of death. In the 1880’s the German biologist, August Weismann in his essay “Upon the Eternal Duration of Life”, provided a kind of survival of the fittest argument for death and aging. Even an ageless creature, Weismann argued, would overtime have to absorb multiple shocks eventually end up disabled. The the longer something lives the more crippled and worn out it becomes. Thus, it is in the interest of the species that death exists to clear the world of these disabled- very damned German- the whole thing.

Just after World War II the biologist Peter Medawar challenged the view of  Weismann. For Medawar if you look at any species selective pressures are really only operating when the organism is young. Those who can survive long enough to breed are the only ones that really count when it comes to natural selection. Like versions of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, nature is just fine if we exit the world in the bloom of youth- as long, that is, as we have passed our genes.

In other words, healthful longevity has not really been something that natural selection has been selecting most organisms for, and because of this it hasn’t been selecting against bad things that can happen to old organisms either, as we’re finding when, by saving people from heart attacks in their 50’s, we destin them to die of diseases that were rare or unknown in the past like Alzheimers. In a sense we’re the victim of natural selection not caring about the health of those past reproductive age or their longevity.

Well, this is only partly true. Organisms that live in conditions where survival in youth is more secure end up with stretched longevity for their size. Some bats can live decades when similar sized mice have a lifespan of only a couple of years. Tortoises can live for well over a century while alligators of the same weight live from 30-50 years.

Stretching healthful longevity is also something that occurs when you starve an animal. We’ve know for decades that lifespan (in other animals at least) can be increased through caloric restriction. Although the mechanism is unclear, the Darwinian logic is not. Under conditions of starvation it’s a bad idea to breed and the body seems to respond by slowing development waiting for the return of food and a good time to mate.

Thus, there is no such thing as a death clock, lifespan is malleable and can be changed if we just learn how to work the dials. We should have known this from our historical experience over the last two-hundred years in which we doubled the human lifespan, but now we know that nature itself does it all the time and not by, like we do , by addressing the symptoms of aging but by resetting the clock of life itself.

We might ourselves find it easy to reset our aging clock if there weren’t multiple factors that play a role in its ticking. Aubrey de Grey has identified seven- the most important of which (excluding cancerous mutations) are probably the accumulation of “junk” within cells and the development of harmful “cross links” between cells. Strange thing about these is that they are not something that suddenly appears when we are actually “old” but are there all along, only reaching levels when they become noticeable and start to cause problems after many decades. We start dying the day we are born.

As we learn in Long for This World, there is hope that someday we may be able to effectively intervene against all these causes of aging. Every year the science needed to do so advances. Yet as Aubrey de Grey has indicated, the greatest threat to this quest for biological immortality is something we are all too familiar with – cancer.

The possibility of developing cancer emerges from the very way our cells work. Over a lifetime our trillions of cells replicate themselves an even more mind bogglingly high number of times. It is almost impossible that every copying error will be caught before it takes on a life of its own and becomes a cancerous growth. Increasing lifespan only increases the amount of time such copying errors can occur.

It’s in Aubrey de Grey’s solution to this last and most serious of super-longevity’s medical hurdles that Weiner’s faith in the sense of that project breaks down, as does mine. De Grey’s cure for cancer goes by the name of WILT- whole body interdiction of the lengthening of telomeres. A great deal of the cancers that afflict human beings achieve their deadly replication without limit by taking control of the telomerase gene. De Grey’s solution is to strip every human gene of its telomeres, something that, even if successful in preventing cancerous growths, would also leave us without red and white blood cells. In order to allow us to live without these cells, de Grey proposes regular infusions of stem cells. What this leave us with would be a life of constant chemotherapy and invasive medical interventions just to keep us alive. In other words, a life when even healthy people relate to their bodies and are kept alive by medical interventions that are now only experienced by the terminally ill.

I think what shocks Weiner about this last step in SENS is the that it underscores just how radical the medical requirements of engineering superlongevity might become. It’s one thing to talk about strengthening the cell’s junk collector the lysosome by adding an enzyme or through some genetic tweak, it’s another to talk about removing the very cells and structures which define human biology, cells and platelets, which have always been essential for human life and health.

Yet, WILT struck me with somewhat different issues and questions. Here’s how I have come to understand it. For simplicities sake, we might be said to have two models of healthcare, both of which have contributed to the gains we have seen in human health and longevity since 1800. As is often noted, a good deal of this gain in longevity was a consequence of improving childhood mortality. Having less and less people die at the age of five drastically improves the average lifespan. We made these gains largely through public health: things like drastically improved sanitation, potable water, vaccinations, and, in the 20th century antibiotics.

This set of improvements in human health were cheap, “easy”, and either comprised of general environmental conditions, or administered at most annually- like the flu shoot. These features allowed this first model of healthcare to be distributed broadly across the population leading to increased longevity by saving the lives primarily of the young. In part these improvements, and above all the development of antibiotics, also allowed longevity increases from at older end of the scale, which although less pronounced than improvements in child mortality, are, nonetheless very real. This is my second model of healthcare and includes things everything from open heart surgery, to chemo and radiation treatments for cancer, to lifelong prescription drugs to treat chronic conditions.

As opposed to the first model, the second one is expensive, relatively difficult, and varies greatly among different segments of the population. My Amoxicillin and Larry Page’s Amoxicillin are the same, but the medical care we would receive to treat something like cancer would be radically different.

We actually are making greater strides in the battle against cancer than at any time since Nixon declared war on the scourge way back in the 1970’s. A new round of immunosuppressive drugs that are proving so successful against a host of different cancers that John LaMattina, former head of research and development for Pfizer has stated that “We are heading towards a world where cancer will become a chronic disease in much the same way as we have seen with diabetes and HIV.”

The problem is the cost which can range up to 150,000 per year. The costs of the new drugs are so expensive that the NHS has reduced the amount they are willing to spend on them by 30 percent. Here we are running up against the limits to second model of healthcare, a limit that at some point will force societies to choose between providing life preserving care for all, or only to those rich enough to afford it.

If the superlongevity project is going to be a progressive project it seems essential to me that it look like the first model of healthcare rather than the second. Otherwise it will either leave us with divergences in longevity within and between societies that make us long nostalgically for the “narrowness” of current gap between today’s poorest and richest societies, or it will bankrupt countries that seek to extend increased longevity to everyone.

This would require a u-turn from the trajectory of healthcare today which is dominated and distorted by the lucrative world of the second model. As an example of this distortion: the physicists, Paul Davies, is working on a new approach to cancer that involves attempting to attack the disease with viruses. If successful this would be a good example of model one. Using viruses (in a way the reverse of immunosuppressives) to treat cancer would likely be much cheaper than current approaches to cancer involving radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery due to the fact that viruses can self-replicate after being engineered rather than needing to be expensively and painstakingly constructed in drug labs. The problem is that it’s extremely difficult for Davies to get funding for such research precisely because there isn’t that much money to be made in it.

In an interview about his research, Davies compared his plight to how drug companies treat aspirin. There’s good evidence to show that plain old aspirin might be an effective preventative against cancer. Sadly, it’s almost impossible to find funding for large scale studies of aspirin’s efficacy in preventing cancer because you can buy a bottle of the stuff for a little over a buck, and what multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical company could justify profit margins as low as that?

The distortions of the second model are even more in evidence when it comes to antibiotics. Here is one of the few places where the second model of healthcare is dependent upon the first. As this chilling article by Maryn Mckenna drives home we are in danger of letting the second model lead to the nightmare of a sudden sharp reversal of the health and longevity gains of the last century.

We are only now waking up to the full danger implicit in antibiotic resistance. We’ve so over prescribed these miracle treatments both to ourselves and our poor farms animals who we treat as mere machines and “grow” in hellish sanitary conditions that bacteria have evolved to no longer be treatable with the suite of antibiotics we have, which are now a generation old, or older. If you don’t think this is a big deal, think about what it means to live in a world where a toothache can kill you and surgeries and chemotherapy can no longer be performed. A long winter of antibiotic resistance would just mean that many of our dreams of superlongevity this century would be moot. It would mean many of us might die quite young from common illnesses, or from surgical and treatment procedures that have combined given us the longevity we have now.

Again, the reason we don’t have alternatives to legacy antibiotics is that pharmaceutical companies don’t see any profit in these as opposed to, say Viagra. But the other part of the reason for their failure, is just as interesting. It’s that we have overtreated ourselves because we find the discomfort of being even mildly sick for a few days unbearable. It’s also because we want nature, in this case our farm animals, to function like machines. Mechanical functioning means regularity, predictability, standardization and efficiency and we’ve had to so distort the living conditions, food, and even genetics of the animals we raise that they would not survive without our constant medical interventions, including antibiotics.

There is a great deal of financial incentive to build solutions to human medical problems around interminable treatments rather than once and done cures or something that is done only periodically. Constant consumption and obsolescence guarantees revenue streams.  Not too long ago, Danny Hillis, who I otherwise have the deepest respect for, gave an interview on, among other things, proteomics, which, for my purposes here, essentially means the minute analysis of bodily processes with the purpose of intervening the moment things begin to go wrong- to catch diseases before they cause us to exhibit symptoms. An audience member asked a thought provoking question, which when followed up by the interviewer Alexis Madrigal, seemed to leave the otherwise loquacious Hillis, stumped. How do you draw the line between illness without symptoms and what the body just naturally does? The danger is you might end up turning everyone, including the healthy, into “patients” and “profit centers”.

We already have a world where seemingly healthy people needed to constantly monitor and medicate themselves just to keep themselves alive, where the body seems to be in a state of almost constant, secret revolt. This is the world as diabetics often experience it, and it’s not a pretty one.  What I wonder is if, in a world in which everyone sees themselves as permanently sick- as in the process of dying- and in need of medical intervention to counter this sickness if we will still remember the joy of considering ourselves healthy? This is medicine becoming subsumed under our current model of consumption.   

Everyone, it seems, has woken up to the fact that consumer electronics has the perfect consumption sustaining model. If things quickly grow “old” to the point where they no longer work with everything else you own, or become so rare that one is unable to find replacement parts, then one if forced to upgrade if merely to insure that your stuff still works. Like the automotive industry, healthcare now seems to be embracing technological obsolescence as a road to greater profitability. Insurance companies seem poised to use devices like the Apple watch to sort and monitor customers, but that is likely only the beginning.

Let me give you my nightmare scenario for a world of superlongevity. It’s a world largely bereft of children where our relationship to our bodies has become something like the one we have with our smart phones, where we are constantly faced with the obsolescence of the hardware and the chemicals, nano-machines and genetically engineered organisms under our own skins and in near continuous need of upgrades to keep us alive. It is a world where those too poor to be in the throes of this cycle of upgrades followed by obsolescence followed by further upgrades are considered a burden and disposable in  the same way August Weismann viewed the disabled in his day.  It’s a world where the rich have brought capitalism into the body itself, an individual life preserved because it serves as a perpetual “profit center”.

The other path would be for superlongevity to be pursued along my first model of healthcare focusing its efforts on understanding the genetic underpinnings of aging through looking at miracles such as the bowhead whale which can live for two centuries and gets cancer no more often than we do even though it has trillions more cells than us. It would focus on interventions that were cheap, one time or periodic, and could be spread quickly through populations. This would be a progressive superlongevity.  If successful, rather than bolster, it would bankrupt much of the system built around the second model of healthcare for it would represent a true cure rather than a treatment of many of the diseases that ail us.

Yet even superlongevity pursued to reflect the demands for justice seems to confront a moral dilemma that seems to be at the heart of any superlongevity project. The morally problematic features of superlongevity pursued along the second model of healthcare is that it risks giving long life only to the few. Troublingly, even superlongevity pursued along the first model of healthcare ends up in a similar place, robbing from future generations of both human beings and other lifeforms the possibility of existing, for it is very difficult to see how if a near future generation gains the ability to live indefinitely how this new state could exist side-by-side with the birth of new people or how such a world of many “immortals” of the types of highly consuming creatures we are is compatible with the survival of the diversity of the natural world.

I see no real solution to this dilemma, though perhaps as elsewhere, the limits of nature will provide one for us, that we will discover some bound to the length of human life which is compatible with new people being given the opportunity to be born and experience the sheer joy and wonder of being alive, a bound that would also allow other the other creatures with whom we share our planet to continue to experience these joys and wonders as well. Thankfully, there is probably some distance between current human lifespans and such a bound, and thus, the most important thing we can do for now, is try to ensure that research into superlongevity has the question of sustainable equity serve as its ethical lodestar.

 Image: Memento Mori, South Netherlands, c. 1500-1525, the Thomson collection
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An Epicurean Christmas Letter To Transhumanists

Botticelli Spring- Primivera

Whatever little I retain from my Catholic upbringing, the short days of the winter and the Christmas season always seem to turn my thoughts to spiritual matters and the search for deeper meanings. It may be a cliche, but if you let it hit you, the winter and coming of the new year can’t help but remind you endings, and sometimes even the penultimate ending of death. After all, the whole world seems dead now,  frozen like some morgue-corpse, although this one, if past is prelude, really will rise from the dead with the coming of spring.

Now, I would think death is the last thing most people think of, especially during what for many of us is such a busy, drowned in tinsel, time of the year. The whole subject is back there buried with the other detritus of life, such as how we get the food we’ll stuff ourselves with over the holidays, or the origin of the presents, from tinker-toys to diamond rings, that some of us will wrap up and hide under trees. It’s like the Jason Isbell song The Elephant that ends with the lines:

There’s one thing that’s real clear to me,


no one dies with dignity.


We just try to ignore the elephant somehow

This aversion to even thinking about death is perhaps the unacknowledged biggest obstacle for transhumanists whose goal, when all is said and done, is to conquer death. It’s similar to the kind of aversion that lies behind our inability to tackle climate change.Who wants to think about something so dreadful?

There are at least some people who do want to think of something so dreadful, and not only that, they want to tie a bow around it and make it appear some wonderful present left under the tree by Kris Kringle. Maria Konovalenko recently panned a quite silly article in the New York Times by Daniel Callahan who was himself responding to the hyperbolic coverage of Google’s longevity initiative, Calico. Here’s Callahan questioning the push for extended longevity:

And exactly what are the potential social benefits? Is there any evidence that more old people will make special contributions now lacking with an average life expectancy close to 80? I am flattered, at my age, by the commonplace that the years bring us wisdom — but I have not noticed much of it in myself or my peers. If we weren’t especially wise earlier in life, we are not likely to be that way later.

Perhaps not, but neither did we realize the benefits of raising life expectancy from 45 to near 80 between 1900 and today, such as The Rolling Stones. Callahan himself is a still practicing heart surgeon- he’s 83- and I’m assuming, because he’s still here, that he wouldn’t rather be dead. And even if one did not care about pushing the healthy human lifespan out further for oneself, how could one not wish for such an opportunity for one’s children? Even 80 years is really too short for all of the life projects we might fulfill, barely long enough to feel at home into the “world in which we’re thrown” ,quite literally, like the calf the poet Diane Ackerman helped deliver and described in her book Deep Play:

When it lifted its fluffy head and looked at me, its eyes held the absolute bewilderment of the newly born. A moment before it had enjoyed the even, black nowhere of the womb, and suddenly its world was full of color, movement, and noise. I have never seen anything so shocked to be alive. (141)

And if increased time to be here would likely be good for us as individuals, sufficient time to learn what we should learn and do what we should do, I agree as well with Vernor Vinge that greatly expanded human longevity would likely be an uncomparable good for society not least because it might refocus the mind on the longer term health of the societies and planet we call home.

That said, I do have some concern that my transhumanists friends are losing something by not acknowledging the death elephant given that they’re are too busy trying to push it out of the room. The problem I see is that many transhumanists are, how to put this, old, and can’t afford or aren’t sufficiently convinced in the potential of cryonics to put faith in it as a “backup”. Even when they embrace being deep- froze many of their loved ones are unlikely to be so convinced ,and, therefore, they will watch or have knowledge of their parents, siblings, spouse and friends experiencing a death that transhumanists understand to be nothing short of dark oblivion.

Lately it seems some have been trying to stare this oblivion in the face. Such, I take it, is the origin of classical composer David Lang’s haunting album Death Speaks. I do not think Lang’s personification of death in the ghostly voice of Shara Worden, or the presentation of the warm embrace of the grave as a sort of womb, should be considered “deathist”, even if death in his work is sometimes represented as final rest from the weariness of life, and anthropomorphized into a figure that loves even as she goes about her foul business of killing us.  Rather, I see the piece as merely the attempt to understand death through metaphor, which is sometimes all we have, and personally found the intimacy both chilling and thought provoking.

This is the oblivion we are all too familiar of biological death, which given sufficient time for technological advancement we may indeed escape as we might someday even exit biology itself, but I suspect that even over the very, very long run, some sort of personal oblivion regardless of how advanced our technology is likely inevitable.

As I see it, given the nature of the universe and its continuous push towards entropy we are unlikely to ever fully conquer death so much as phase change into new timescales and mechanisms of mortality. The reason for us thinking otherwise is, I think, our insensitivity to the depth of time. Even a 10,000 year old you is a mayfly compared to the age of our sun, let alone the past and future of the universe. What of “you” today would be left after 10,000 years, 100,000, a million, a billion years of survival? I would think not much, or at least not much more than would have survived on smaller time scales that you pass on today- your genes, your works, your karma. How many of phase changes exist between us today and where the line through us and our descendants ends is anyone’s guess, but maintaining the core of a particular human personality throughout all of these transformations seems like a very long shot indeed.

Even if the core of ourselves could be kept in existence through these changes what are the prospects that it would survive into the end of the universe, not to mention beyond?  As Lawrence Krauss pointed out, the physics seem to lean in the direction that in a universe with a finite amount of energy which is infinitely expanding no form of intelligence can engage in thinking for an infinite amount of time. Not even the most powerful form of intelligence we can imagine, as long as we use our current understanding of the laws of physics as boundary conditions, can truly be immortal.

On a more mundane level, even if a person could be fully replicated as software or non-biological hardware these systems too have their own versions of mortality (are you still running Windows ME and driving a Pinto?), and the preservation of a replicated person would require continuous activity to keep this person as software and/or non-biological hardware in a state of existence while somehow retaining the integrity of the self.

What all this adds up to is that if one adopts a strict atheism based on what science tells us is the nature of reality one is almost forced to come to terms with the prospect of personal oblivion at some point in the future, however far out that fate can be delayed. Which is not to say that reprieve should not be sought in the first place, only that we shouldn’t confuse the temporal expansion of human longevity, whether biological or through some other means, with the attainment of actual immortality. Breaking through current limits to human longevity would likely confront us with new limits we would still be faced with the need to overcome.

Some transhumanists who are pessimistic about the necessary breakthroughs to keep them in existence occurring in the short run, within their lifetime, cling to a kind of “Quantum Zen”, as Giulio Prisco recently put it, where self and loved ones are resurrected in a kind of cosmic reboot in the far future. Speaking of the protagonist of Zoltan Istvan’s Transhumanist Wager here’s how Prisco phrased it:

Like Jethro, I consider technological resurrection (Tipler, quantum weirdness, or whatever) as a possibility, and that is how I cope with my conviction that indefinite lifespans and post-biological life will not be developed in time for us, but later.

 To my eyes at least, this seems less a case of dealing with the elephant in the room than zapping it with a completely speculative invisible-izing raygun. If the whole moral high ground of secularists over the religious is that the former tie themselves unflinchingly to the findings of empirical science, while the latter approach the world through the lens of unquestioning faith, then clinging to a new faith, even if it is a faith in the future wonders of science and technology surrenders that high ground.

That is, we really should have doubts about any idea, whatever its use of scientific language, that isn’t falsifiable and is based on mere speculation (even the speculation of notable physicists) on future technological potential. Shouldn’t we want to live on the basis of what we can actually know through proof, right now?

How then, as a secular person, which I take most transhumanists to be, do you deal with idea of personal oblivion? It might seem odd to turn to a Roman Epicurean natural philosopher and poet born a century before Christ to answer such a question, but Titus Lucretius Carus, usually just called Lucretius, offered us one way of dampening the fear of death while still holding a secular view of the world.  At least that’s what Stephen Greenblatt found was the effect of  Lucretius’ only major work- On the Nature of Things.

Greenblatt found his secondhand copy of On the Nature of Things in a college book bin attracted as much by the summer- of- love suggestiveness of the 1960’s cover as anything else. He cracked it open that summer and found a book that no doubt seemed to reflect directly the spirit of the times, beginning as it does with a prayer to the goddess of love, Venus, and a benediction to the power of sexual attraction over even Mars the god of war.

It was also a book in the words of Lucretius whose purpose was to “ to free men’s minds from fear of the bonds religious scruples have imposed” (124) As Greenblatt describes it in his book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, in Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things he found refuge from his own painful experience not with death, but the thought of it, and not even the fear of his own oblivion, but that of his mother’s fear of the same.  As Greenblatt writes of his mother:

It was death itself- simply ceasing to be- that terrified her. From as far back as I can remember, she brooded obsessively on the imminence of her end, invoking it again and again, especially at moments of parting. My life was full of operatic scenes of farwell. When she went with my father from Boston to New York  for the weekend, when I went off to summer camp, even- when things were especially hard for her- when I left the house for school, she clung tightly to me, speaking of her fragility and of the distinct possibility that I would never see her again. If we walked somewhere together, she would frequently come to a halt, as if she were about to keel over. Sometimes she would show me a vein pulsing in her neck, and taking my finger, make me feel it for myself, the sign of her heart dangerously racing. (3)

The Swerve tells the history of On the Nature of Things, its loss after the collapse of Roman civilization, its nearly accidental preservation by Christian monks, rediscovery in the early Renaissance and deep and all but forgotten impact on the sentiment of modernity having had an influence on figures as diverse as Shakespeare, Bruno, Galileo, More, Montesquieu and Jefferson. Yet, Greenblatt’s interest in On the Nature of Things was born of a personal need to understand and dispel anxiety over death, so it’s best to look at Lucretius’ book itself to see how that might be done.

Lucretius was a secular thinker before there was even a name for such a thing. He wanted a naturalistic explanation of the world where the gods, if they existed, played no role either in the workings of nature or the affairs of mankind. The basis to everything he held was a fundamental level of particles he sometimes called “atoms” and it was the non-predetermined interaction of these atoms that gave rise to everything around us, from stars and planets to animals and people.

From this basis Lucretius arrived at a picture of the universe that looked amazingly like our own. There is an evolution of the universe- stars and planets- from simpler elements and the evolution of life. Anything outside this world made of atoms is ultimately irrelevant to us. There is no need to placate the unseen gods or worry what they think of us.

Everything we experience for good and ill including the lucky accident of our own existence and our ultimate demise is from the “swerve” of underlying atoms. The Lucretian world makes no sharp division, as ancients and medievals often did, between the earthly world and the world of the sky above our heads.

The universe is finite in matter if infinite in size, and there are likely other worlds in it with intelligent life like our own. In the Copernican sense we are not at the center of things either as a species or individually. All we can experience, including ourselves, is made of the same banal substance of atoms going about their business of linking and unlinking with one another. And, above all, everything that belongs to this universe built of atoms is mortal, a fleeting pattern destined to fall apart.

On the Nature of Things is the strangest of hybrids. It is a poem, a scientific text and a self-help book all at the same time. Lucretius addresses his poem to Gaius Memmius an unknown figure whom the author aims to free from the fear of the gods and death. Lucretius advises Memmius  that death is nothing to fear for it will be no different to us than all the time that passed before we were born. To rage against no longer existing through the entirety of the future is no more sensical than raging that we did not exist through the entirety of the past.

Think how the long past age of hoary time

Before our birth is nothing to us now

This in a mirror

Nature shows to us

Of what will be hereafter when we’re dead

Does this seem terrible is this so sad?

Is it not less troubled than our daily sleep? (118)

______________________________

I know, I know, this is the coldest of cold comforts.

Yet, Lucretius was an Epicurean whose ultimate aim was that we be wise enough to keep in our view the simple pleasures of being alive, right now, in the moment in which we were lucky enough to be living. While reading On the Nature of Things I had in my ear the constant goading whisper- “Enjoy your life!” Lucretius’ fear was that we would waste our lives away in fear and anticipation of life, or its absence, in the future. That we would be of those:

Whose life was living death while yet you live

And see the light who spend the greater part

Of life in sleep still snoring while awake.( 122-123)

It is not that Lucretius advises us to take up the pleasure seeking life of hedonism, but he urges us to not waste our preciously short time here with undue anxiety over things that are outside of our control or in our control to only a limited extent. On The Nature of Things admonishes us to start not from the position of fear or anger that the universe intends to eventually “kill” us, but from one of gratitude that out of a stream of randomly colliding atoms we were lucky enough to have been born in the first place.

This message in a bottle from an ancient Epicurean reminded me of the conclusion to the aforementioned Diane Ackerman’s Deep Play where she writes to imagined inhabitants of the far future that might let her live again and concludes in peaceful lament:

If that’s not possible, then I will have to make due with the playgrounds of mortality, and hope that at the end of my life I can say simply, wholeheartedly that it was grace enough to be born and live. (212)

 Nothing that happens, or fails to happen, within our lifetimes, or after it, can take away this joy that it was to live, and to know it.

Visions of Immortality and the Death of the Eternal City

Vangough Flowers in a blue  vase

It was a time when the greatest power the world had yet known suffered an attack on its primary city which seemed to signal the coming of an age of unstoppable decline.The once seemingly unopposable power no longer possessed control over its borders,it was threatened by upheaval in North Africa,  unable to bring to heel the stubborn Iranians, or stem its relative decline. It was suffering under the impact of climate change, its politics infected with systemic corruption, its economy buckling under the weight of prolonged crisis.

Blame was sought. Conservatives claimed the problem lie with the abandonment of traditional religion, the rise of groups they termed “atheists” especially those who preached the possibility of personal immortality. One of these “atheists” came to the defense of the immortalist movement arguing not so much that the new beliefs were not responsible for the great tribulations in the political world, but that such tribulations themselves were irrelevant. What counted was the prospect of individual immortality and  the cosmic view- the perspective that held only that which moved humanity along to its ultimate destiny in the universe was of true importance. In the end it would be his movement that survived after the greatest of empires collapsed into the dust of scattered ruins….

Readers may be suspicious that I am engaged in a sleight of hand with such an introduction, and I indeed am; however much the description above resembles the United States of the early 21st century, I am in fact describing the Roman Empire of the 400s C.E. The immortalists here are not contemporary transhumanists or singularitarians but early Christians whom many pagans considered not just dangerously innovative, but also, because they did not believe in the pagan gods, were actually labeled atheists- which is where we get the term. The person who came to the defense of the immortalists and who laid out the argument that it was this personal immortality and the cosmic view of history that went with it that counted rather than the human drama of politics history and culture was not Ray Kurzweil or any other figure of the singularitarian or transhumanist movements,  but Augustine who did so in his work The City of God.

Now, a book with such a title not to mention one written in the 400s might not seem like it would be relevant to any secular 21st century person contemplating our changing relationship with death and time, but let me try to show you why such a conclusion would be false. When Augustine wrote The City of God he was essentially arguing for a new version of immortality. For however much we might tend to think the dream of immortality was invented to assuage human fears of personal death the ancient pagans (and the Jews for that matter) had a pretty dark version of it. Or, as Achilles said to Odysseus:

“By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

For the pagans, the only good form of immortality was that brought by fame here on earth. Indeed, in later pagan versions of paradise which more resembled the Christian notion “heaven” was reserved for the big-wigs. The only way to this divinity was to do something godlike on earth in the service of one’s city or the empire. Augustine signaled a change in all that.

Christianity not only upended the pagan idea of immortality granting it to everybody- slaves no less than kings, but, according to Augustine,  rendered the whole public world the pagans had found so important  irrelevant. What counted was the fact of our immortality and the big picture- the fate that God had in store for the universe, the narrative that got us to this end. The greatest of empires could rise and fall what they will, but they were nothing next to the eternity of our soul our God and his creation. Rome had been called the eternal city- but it was more mortal than the soul of its most powerless and insignificant citizen.

Of course, from a secular perspective the immortality that Augustine promised was all in his head. If anything, it served as the foundation not for immortal human beings nor for a narrative of meaning that stretched from the beginning to the the end of time- but for a very long lived institution- the Catholic Church- that has managed to survive for two millennia, much longer indeed than all the empires and states that have come and gone in this period, and who knows, if it gets its act together may even survive for another thousand years.

All of this might seem far removed from contemporary concerns until one realizes the extent to which we ourselves are and will be confronting a revolutionary change in our relationship to both death and time akin to and of a more real and lasting impact than the one Augustine wrestled with. No matter what way one cuts it our relationship to death has changed and is likely to continue to change. The reason for this is that we are now living so long, and suspect we might be able to live much longer. A person in the United States in 1913 could be expected to live just shy of the ripe old age of 53. The same person in 2013 is expected to live within a hair’s breath of 79. In this as in other departments the US has a ways to go. The people of Monaco, the country with the highest life expectancy, live on average a decade longer.

How high can such longevity go? We have no idea. Some, most famously Aubrey de Gray, think there is no theoretical limit to how long a human being can live if we get the science right. We are likely some ways from this, but given the fact that such physical immortality, or something close to it, does not seem to violate any known laws of nature, then if there is not something blocking its appearance, say complexity, or more ominously, expense, we are likely to see something like the defeat of death if not in this century then in some further future that is not some inconceivable distance from us.

This might be a good time,then, to start asking questions about our relationship to death and time, and how both relate to the societies in which we live. Even if immortality remains forever outside our grasp by exploring the topic we might learn something important about death time and ourselves in the process. It was exactly these sorts of issues that Augustine was out to explore.

What Augustine argued in The City of God was that societies, in light of eternal life had nothing like the meaning we were accustomed to giving them. What counted was that one lead a Christian life (although as a believer in predestination Augustine really thought that God would make you do this if he wanted to). The kinds of things that counted in being a good pagan were from Augustine’s standpoint of eternity little but vanity. A wealthy pagan might devote money to his city, pay for a public festival, finance the construction of a theater or forum. Any pagan above the level of a slave would likely spend a good deal of time debating the decisions of his city, take concern in its present state and future prospects. As young men it would be the height of honor for a pagan to risk his life for his city. The pagan would do all these things in the hope that they might be remembered. In this memory and in the lives of his descendants lie the possibility of a  good version of immortality as opposed to the wallowing in the darkness of Hades after death. Augustine countered with a question that was just as much a charge: What is all this harking after being remembered compared to the actual immortality offered by Christ?

There are lengths in the period of longevity far in advance of what human beings now possess where the kinds of tensions between the social and pagan idea of immortality and the individual Christian idea of eternal life that Augustine explored do not yet come into full force. I think Vernor Vinge is onto something (@36 min) when he suggests that extending the human lifespan into the range of multiple centuries would be extremely beneficial for both the individual and society. Longevity on the order of 500 years would likely anchor human beings more firmly in time. In terms of the past such a lifespan would give us a degree of wisdom we sorely lack, allowing us to avoid almost inevitably repeating the mistakes of a prior age once those with personal experience of such mistakes or tragedies are no longer around to offer warnings or even who we could ask- as was the case with our recent financial crisis once most of those who had lived through the Great Depression as adults had passed.

500 years of life would also likely orient us more strongly towards the future. We could not only engage in very long term projects of all sorts that are impossible today given our currently limited number of years, we would actually be invested in making sure our societies weren’t making egregious mistakes- such as changing the climate- whose full effects wouldn’t be felt until centuries in the future. These longer-term horizons, at least when compared to what we have now, would cease being abstractions because it would no longer be our great grandchildren that lived there but us.

The kinds of short-termism that now so distort the politics of the United States might be less likely in a world where longevity was on the order of several centuries. Say what one might about the Founding Fathers, but they certainly took the long-term future of the United States into account and more importantly established the types of lasting institutions that would make that future a good one. Adams and Jefferson created our oldest and perhaps most venerable cultural institution- The Library of Congress. Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. Later American political figures, such as Lincoln, not only did the difficult work of keeping the young nation intact, but developed brillant institutions such as Land-Grant Colleges to allow learning and technological know-how to penetrate the countryside. In addition to all this, the United States invented the idea of national parks, the hope being to preserve for centuries or even millennia the natural legacy of North America.

Where did we get this long term perspective and where did it go? Perhaps it was the afterglow of the Enlightenment’s resurrection of pagan civic virtues. We certainly seem no longer capable of taking such a long view- the light has gone out. Politicians today seem unable to craft policy that will deal with issues beyond the next election cycle let alone respond to issues or foster public investments that will play out or come to fruition in the days of their grandchildren. Individuals seem to have lost some of the ability to think beyond their personal life span, so perhaps, just perhaps, the solution is to increase the lifespan of individuals themselves.

Thinking about time, especially long stretches of time, and how it runs into the annihilation of death, seems to inevitably lead to reflections about human society and the relationship of the young with the old. Freud might have been right when he reduced the human condition to sex and death for something in the desire to leave a future legacy inspired by death does seem to resemble sex- or rather procreation- allowing us to pass along imperfect “copies” of ourselves even if, when it comes to culture, these copies are very much removed from us indeed.

This bridging of the past and the future might even be the ultimate description of what societies and institutions are for. That is, both emerge from our confrontation with time and are attempts to win this conflict by passing information, or better, knowledge, from the past into the future in a similar way to how this is accomplished biologically in the passing on of genes through procreation. The common conception that innovation most likely emerges from youth, if it is true, might be as much a reflection of the fact that the young have quite simply not been here long enough to receive this full transmission and are on that account the most common imperfect “copies” of the ideas of their elders. Again, like sex, the transmission of information from the old to the new generation allows novel combinations and even mutations which if viable are themselves passed along.

It’s at least an interesting question to ask what might happen to societies and institutions that act as our answer to the problem of death if human beings lived for what amounted to forever? The conclusion Augustine ultimately reached is once you eliminate death you eliminate the importance of the social and political worlds. Granting the individual eternity means everything that now grips our attention become little but fleeting Mayflies in the wind. We might actually experience a foretaste of this, some say we are right now, even before extreme periods of longevity are achieved if predictions of an ever accelerating change in our future bear fruit. Combined with vastly increased longevity accelerating change means the individual becomes the only point in history that actually stands still. Whole technological regimes, cultures, even civilizations rise and fall under the impact of technological change while only the individual- in terms of a continuous perspective since birth or construction- remains. This would entail a reversal of all of human history to this point where it has been the institutions that survive for long periods of time while the individuals within them come and go. We therefore can’t be sure what many of the things we take as mere background to our lives today- our country, culture, idea of history, in such circumstances even look like.

What might this new relationship between death and technological and social change  do to the art and the humanities, or “post-humanities”?  The most hopeful prediction regarding this I have heard is again Vinge, though I can not find the clip. Vinge discussed the possibility of extended projects that are largely impossible given today’s average longevity. Artists and writers probably have an intuitive sense for what he means, but here are some examples- though they are mine not his. In a world of vastly increased longevity a painter could do a flower study of every flower on earth or portraits of an entire people. A historian could write a detailed history of a particular city from the palaeolithic through the present in pain staking detail, a novelist could really create a whole alternative imagined world filled with made up versions of memoirs, religious texts, philosophical works and the like. Projects such as these are impossible given our limited time here and on account of the fact that there are many more things to care about in life besides these creations.

Therefore, vastly increased longevity might mean that our greatest period of cultural creation- the world’s greatest paintings, novels, historical works and much else besides will be found in the human future rather than its past. Increased longevity would also hopefully open up scientific and technological projects that were centuries rather than decades in the making such as the recovery of lost species and ecosystems or the move beyond the earth. One is left wondering, however, the extent to which such long term focus will be preserved in light of an accelerating speed of change.

A strange thing is happening in that while the productive lifespan of an individual artist is increasing- so much for The Who’s “hope I die before I get old”–  the amount of time it takes an artist to create any particular work is, through technological advancement, likely decreasing. This should lead to more artistic productivity, but one is left to ponder what any work of art would mean if the dreams of accelerating technological change come true at precisely the same time that human longevity is vastly increased? Here is what I mean: when one tries to imagine a world where human beings live for lengths of time that are orders of magnitude longer than those today and where technological change proves to be in a persistently accelerating state what you get is a world that is so completely transformed within the course of a generation that it bears as much resemblance to the generation before it as we do to the ancient Greeks. What does art mean in such a context where the world it addresses no longer exists not long after it has been made?

This same condition of fleetingness applies to every other aspect of life as well from the societies we live in down to the relationships with those we love.  It was Augustine’s genius to realize that if one looks at life from the perspective of individual eternity it is not the case that everything else becomes immortal as well, but that the mortality of everything we are not becomes highlighted.

This need not spell the end of all those things we currently take as the vastly important long lasting background of our mortal lives, but it will likely change their character. To use a personal story, cultural and political creations and commitments in the future might still be meaningful in the sense that my Nana’s flower garden is meaningful. My Nana just turned 91 and still manages to plant and care for her flowers that bloom in spring only to disappear until brought back by her gentle and wise hands at the season’s return. Perhaps the longer we live the more the world around us will get its meaning not through its durability but as a fleeting beauty brought forth because we cared enough to stop for a moment to orchestrate and hold still, if even for merely a brief instant, time’s relentless flow.