The one percent discovers transhumanism: Davos 2016

Land of OZ

The World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland just wrapped up its annual gathering. It isn’t hard to make fun of this yearly coming together of the global economic and cultural elites who rule the world, or at least think they do. A comment by one of the journalists covering the event summed up how even those who really do in some sense have the fate of the world in their hands are as blinded by glitz as the rest of us: rather than want to discuss policy the question he had most been asked was if he had seen Kevin Spacey or Bono. Nevertheless, 2016’s WEF might go down in history as one of the most important, for it was the year when the world’s rich and powerful acknowledged that we had entered an age of transhumanist revolution.

The theme of this year’s WEF was what Klaus Schwab calls The Fourth Industrial Revolution a period of deeply transformative change, which Schwab believes we are merely at the beginning of. The three revolutions which preceded the current one were the first industrial revolution which occurred between 1760 and 1840 and brought us the stream engine and railroads. The second industrial revolution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought us mass production and electricity. The third computer or digital revolution brought us mainframes, personal computers, the Internet, and mobile technologies, and began in the 1960’s.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution whose beginning all of us are lucky enough to see includes artificial intelligence and machine learning, the “Internet of things” and it’s ubiquitous sensors, along with big data. In addition to these technologies that grow directly out of Moore’s Law, the Fourth Industrial Revolution includes rapid advances in the biological sciences that portend everything from enormous gains in human longevity to “designer babies”. Here we find our rapidly increasing knowledge of the human brain, the new neuroscience, that will likely upend not only our treatment of mental and neurodegenerative diseases such as alzheimer’s but include areas from criminal justice to advertising.

If you have had any relationship to, or even knowledge of, transhumanism over the past generation or so then all of this should be very familiar to you. Yet to the extent that the kinds of people who attend or follow Davos have an outsized impact on the shape of our world, how they understand these transhumanist issues, and how they come to feel such issues should be responded to, might be a better indication of the near term future of transhumanism as anything that has occurred on the level of us poor plebs.

So what was the 1 percent’s take on the fourth industrial revolution? Below is a rundown of some of the most interesting sessions.

One session titled “The Transformation of Tomorrow”  managed to capture what I think are some of the contradictions of those who in some respects feel themselves responsible for the governance of the world. Two of panel members were Sheryl Sandberg COO of Facebook, and the much lesser known president of Rwanda Paul Kagame.  That pairing itself is kind of mind bending.  Kagame has been a darling of technocrats for his successful governance of Rwanda. He is also a repressive autocrat who has been accused of multiple human rights abuses and to the dismay of the Obama administration managed to secure through a referendum his rule of Rwanda into the 2030s.

Kagame did not have much to say other than that Rwanda would be a friendly place for Western countries wishing to export the Fourth Industrial Revolution. For her part Sandberg was faced with questions that have emerged as it has become increasingly clear that social media has proven to be a tool for both good and ill as groups like Daesh have proven masterful users of the connectivity brought by the democratization of media. Not only that, but the kinds of filter bubbles offered by this media landscape have often been found to be inimical to public discourse and a shared search for Truth.

Silicon Valley has begun to adopt the role of actively policing their networks for political speech they wish to counter. Sandberg did not discuss this but rather focused on attempts to understand how discourses such as that of Daesh manage to capture the imagination of some and to short-circuit such narratives of hate through things such as “like attacks” where the negativity of websites is essentially flooded by crowds posting messages of love.

It’s a nice thought, but as the very presence of Kagame on the same stage with Sandberg while she was making these comments makes clear: it seems blind to the underlying political issues and portends a quite frightening potential for a new and democratically unaccountable form of power. Here elites would use their control over technology and media platforms to enforce their own version of the world in a time when both democratic politics and international relations are failing.

Another panel dealt with “The State of Artificial Intelligence.” The takeaway here was that no one took Ray Kurzweil ’s 2029 – 2045 for human and greater level AI seriously, but everyone was convinced that the prospect of disruption to the labor force from AI was a real one that was not being taken seriously enough by policy makers.

In related session titled “A World Without Work” the panelists were largely in agreement that the adoption of AI would further push the labor force in the direction of bifurcation and would thus tend, absent public policy pushing in a contrary direction, to result in increasing inequality.

In the near term future AI seems poised to take middle income jobs- anything that deals with the routine processing of information. Where AI will struggle making inroads is in low skilled, low paying jobs that require a high level of mobility- jobs like cleaners and nurses. Given how reliant Western countries have become on immigrant labor for these tasks we might be looking at the re- emergence of an openly racist politics as a white middle class finds itself crushed between cheap immigrant labor and super efficient robots. According to those on the panel, AI will also continue to struggle with highly creative and entrepreneurial tasks, which means those at the top of the pyramid aren’t going anywhere.

At some point the only solution to technological unemployment short of smashing the machines or dismantling capitalism might be the adoption of a universal basic income, which again all panelist seemed to support. Though as one of the members of the panel Erik Brynjolfsson pointed out such a publicly guaranteed income would provide us will only one of Voltaire’s  three purposes of work which is to save us from “the great evils of boredom, vice and need.” Brynjolfsson also wisely observed that the question that confronts us over the next generation is whether we want to protect the past from the future or the future from the past.

The discussions at Davos also covered the topic of increasing longevity. The conclusions drawn by the panel “What if you are still alive in 2100?” were that aging itself is highly malleable, but that there was no one gene or set of genes that would prove to be a magic bullet in slowing or stopping the aging clock. Nevertheless, there is no reason human beings shouldn’t be able to live past the 120 year limit that has so far been a ceiling on human longevity.

Yet even the great success of increased longevity itself poses problems. Even extending current longevity estimates of those middle-aged today merely to 85 would bankrupt state pension systems as they are now structured. Here we will probably need changes such as workplace daycare for the elderly and cities re-engineered for the frail and old.

By 2050 upwards of 130 million people may suffer from dementia. Perhaps surprisingly technology rather than pharmaceuticals is proving to be the first order of defense in dealing with dementia by allowing those suffering from it to outsource their minds.

Many of the vulnerable and at need elderly will live in some of the poorest countries (on a per capita basis at least) on earth: China, India and Nigeria. Countries will need to significantly bolster and sometimes even build social security systems to support a tidal wave of the old.

Living to “even” 150 the panelists concluded would have a revolutionary effect on human social life. Perhaps it will lead to the abandonment of work life balance for women (and one should hope men as well) so that parent can focus their time on their children during their younger years. Extended longevity would make the idea of choosing a permanent career as early as one’s 20s untenable and result in much longer period of career exploration and may make lifelong monogamy untenable.

Lastly, there was a revealing panel on neuroscience and the law entitled “What if your brain confesses?” panelists there argued that Neuroscience is being increasing used and misused by criminal defense. Only in very few cases – such as those that result from tumors- can we draw a clear line between underlying neurological structure and specific behavior.

We can currently “read minds” in limited domains but our methods lack the kinds of precision and depth that would be necessary for standards questions of guilt and innocence. Eventually we should get there, but getting information in, as in Matrix kung-fu style uploading, will prove much harder than getting it out. We’re also getting much better at decoding thoughts from behavior- dark opportunities for marketing and other manipulation. Yet we could also be able to use this more granular knowledge of human psychology to structure judicial procedures to be much more free from human cognitive biases.

The fact that elites have begun to seriously discuss these issues is extremely important, but letting them take ownership of the response to these transformations would surely be a mistake. For just like any elite they are largely blinded to opportunities for the new by their desire to preserve the status quo despite how much the revolutionary the changes we face open up opportunities for a world much different and better than our own.


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

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.

The Longevity Crisis


When our most precious and hard fought for successes give rise to yet more challenges life is revealing its Sisyphean character. We work as hard as we can to roll a rock up a hill only to have it crush us on the way down. The stones that threatens us this time are two of our global civilization’s greatest successes- the fact that children born are now very likely to live into old age and the fact that we have stretched out this old age itself so that many, many more people are living into ages where in the past the vast majority of their peers would be dead. These two demographic revolutions when combined form the basis of what I am calling the Longevity Crisis. Let’s take infant mortality first.

The changes in the pattern of infant mortality rates from 1900 until today is quite simply astounding. In the US a child born at the beginning of the 20th century had a 10% chance of dying before the age of 1. In some cities the rate of infant deaths was as high as 30%. By the end of the 20th century this rate of infant deaths had declined by over 90%. For all of human history up until very recently families that wanted children needed to shoot for high numbers. Many of their children would likely die before they had even learned to speak. More would likely die before reaching age 5.

As late as 1920, 30% of Americans still worked on farms which gave additional impetus to have large families. This combined with the lack of effective birth control (“the pill” wasn’t widely available until 1960) meant that average household size was large- around 4 children- though this was down from the average of seven children per household in the 1800s.

Everything about this story leads to the outcome that the number of children born per woman eventually shrinks. The compression has already happened almost everywhere and in some places such as East Asia including China, Japan and South Korea and in Europe it is happening much faster than in others.

Ultimately in terms of the sustainability of our species this decline in the birth rate is a very good thing. Demographics, however, is like a cruise ship- it is hard to turn. In the lag time the world’s population is exploding as societies are able to save the lives of children but continue to have nearly as many of them. We are living through the turning. As this incredibly cool video graphic from the Economist shows it took humanity roughly 250,000 years to reach 1 billion of us in 1900, but thereafter the rate of growth skyrocketed. There was only a little over a century between our first billion and second billion. 40 years later in 1960 we numbered 3 billion. Only 14 years after that we reached the 4 billion mark and the time between adding another billion would shorten to about a mere dozen years with 5 billion reached in 1987, 6 billion following 12 years later in 1999, and 7 billion a dozen after that in 2011.

Thankfully, the rate of population growth is slowing. It will take us 14 years to pass the 8 billion mark and 20-25 years to reach what will perhaps be the peak of human population during this era-  9 billion in 2050. Though comforting we shouldn’t necessarily be sanguine in light of this fact-  we are still on track to add to the world the equivalent of another China and Europe by the middle of the century. Certainly, these people will, with justice, hanker after a middle class lifestyle putting enormous pressures on the global environment. Add to that the effects of climate change and it seems we are entering a very dangerous and narrow chute through which humanity must pass.

Making the chute even narrower will be the fact that the transition from a high birth rate to a low one is occurring under equally unprecedented conditions regarding human longevity. As pointed out by Ted C. Fishman in his Shock of Grey a person born in 1900 had an average life expectancy of 49 years. By 2000 we had turned that into almost 77 years diligently increasing the average human lifespan by between 1.5 and 2.7 years per decade. (p.14)

It needs to be stressed here, however, that the vast majority of these gains in life expectancy are the result not of keeping the old alive, though we have gotten much better at that, then making sure children survive. The fact that many less children die today skews the average life expectancy upward. These were relatively “easy” gains technically speaking and involved public investments as much as anything else: better sanitation, clean drinking water, routine vaccinations, diet and antibiotics.

Fishman has a neat way of giving us perspective on what the achievement of 80 year longevity means for our species by putting it in terms of life years. At merely the same rate of longevity increase as we have today the world’s population in 2050 will have lived around 500 billion years more than had they be born in 1900! (p.14) That number, 500 billion, not only reveals the extent of the environmental challenges we face, but gives us an idea of the depth of human experience and creativity we might gain. Our longevity and numbers seem to add time to the universe itself.

If you want a jaw-dropping visualization of humanity’s demographic rollercoaster, not to mention a humbling perspective of your own existence within the warp and woof of being and not being, you can get little better than World Births and Deaths in Real-Timea real time simulation of reported human births and deaths created by software developer Brad Lyon.

Aside from the sheer environmental impact of what in the near future will be our increasing human numbers there is the question of how we deal with the transition to what are in essence old societies. Take a rapidly aging country such as Japan. By 2050 Fishman sees the percentage of the Japanese population over age 65 to be a jaw dropping 40%. (p. 145) The dependency ratio, that is the ratio that measures the number of workers per dependent children and elderly is expected to reach 1:1.  We have never seen a dependency ratio like that, and Japan isn’t even the worst. Cities such as Shanghai are projected to have a percentage people of over 65 as high as 60%. As a result of its draconian 1 child policy China faces the real danger of growing old before it gets rich.  

In Europe too we are seeing the emergence of elderly societies. Fishman again captures the problem quite well writing of Europe where no country is getting proportionally younger and in the worst of the lot, Spain, especially:

Translate the numbers into an estimate of how many people need help with their basic needs, and Spain begins to look like a country that is literally handicapped. Unless medical advances deliver millions of people from infirmities they are now destined for, one out of every six to eight Spaniards will need help with walking, going to the toilet, or doing some other activity that we take for granted until it becomes too difficult. (114)

When transhumanists and their opponents debate the former’s wish lists of medical and technological breakthroughs: radically increased healthy longevity, regenerative medicine, cognitive enhancements, cyborg technologies, advanced AI and robotics the dispute is normally centered around the question of human enhancement and the empowerment of healthy individuals.  My guess is that in the long run, however, the development and deployment of these technologies will have occurred not in the interests of the minority of healthy individuals that want them, but because without the use of such technologies societies will simply cease to be functional.

For our survival not as individuals, but as a society, we desperately need technologies and medical breakthroughs that keep the elderly functional and contributing for as long as possible. We need a major investment in regenerative technology, and major research into arresting especially neurological decline. We need cheap and effective exoskeletons that will allow the elderly to retain mobility well past their 65th year, and robots to do much of the work we may no longer be fit to do. The deployment of such technologies will need to be global because the Longevity Crisis is global and will hit especially hard those societies which remain poor.

We also need to avoid losing the gains in longevity we have made in the past century.

If you’re in the mood to be freaked out there’s nothing better than this recent Frontline documentary Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria. To bring up my oft quoted Orgel’s Second Rule “Evolution is cleverer than you are” as shown in this documentary bacteria who are the true lords of the earth are busy outsmarting us. Our overuse of antibiotics and our obsessive compulsive craziness for things like antibacterial dish soap is threatening us with a surge of resistant bacteria that could reveal our seeming defeat of communicable diseases in the last century- which has added to our numbers of both young and old- tragically temporary.

It was this defeat over communicable diseases that transformed death into primarily an experience of the old whereas in all ages prior it was terrifying precisely because of its randomness and especially its impact on the young- a thief in the night- the Grim Reaper and his scathe.

We might also eat our way into shorter longevity. Quoted by Fishman, one of the top thinkers on longevity outthere-  S. Jay Olshansky- thinks that today’s generation of diabetic children have a good chance of living shorter lives than their parents. (205)In the West we haven’t seen that since the late Middle Ages when longevity declined by a decade from 48 to 38 years.

As Olshansky points out in his The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging simply continuing the trend of increasing longevity we have now is likely to prove difficult.

… adding 80 years to the life of an 80- year- old person is far more difficult than adding 80 years to the life of an infant. The implications for life expectancy are obvious. As life expectancy climbs beyond its current level (80 and older) death rates must fall at a progressively faster pace to achieve even small gains in life expectancy.

This is the stark reality of entropy in the life table. Increasing life expectancy in a population already long-lived is like walking up a hill of increasing slope while carrying a stone of increasing mass.

Gains in life expectancy are already slowing and entropy in the life table ensures that gains in the future will be even slower.  (p. 87)

Olshansky is especially well known for popularizing the idea of the “longevity dividend”. He wants us to focus our medical research on finding ways to slow biological aging. Olshansky does not see this refocusing as a means to transhumanist ends- neither radical longevity let alone biological immortality strike him as realistic goals, and one might add as did Kevin LeGradure launching off the recent Pew survey on the subject that the goal of radical longevity is not one the public is hankering for in any case.

Rather, what Olshansky wants us to do is find ways to slow aging so that we can compress the time frame in which human beings suffer terminal illnesses. Longevity isn’t the goal here, but the delay of chronic and debilitating diseases many of the elderly are under current conditions doomed to suffer. Increased average lifespan is a secondary effect. For those interested primarily in increased longevity the promise of shortening the length of frightening and devastating illnesses such as Alzheimer’s is a potentially politically broadening selling point for increased public funding for longevity related research. Indeed, our very success in holding off death in the middle aged and those in their 60s and 70s demands, on grounds of compassion, that we attempt to compress the timeframe in which people suffer the new types of very emotionally and physically painful diseases of aging that our success has inadvertently created.

As noted, we have been extremely effective at rolling back the death of children from threats such as infectious diseases. We are also extremely effective at saving the middle-aged, say a 59 year old who suffers a heart attack. Yet, the sisyphean nature of reality always manages to strike back. A person saved while a child by antibiotics or as an adult through heart surgery- threats to life that would have killed the person quickly- has the chance now of dying from Alzheimer’s diseases an extremely crippling and expensive condition that might take a decade or more to result in death.

Alzheimer’s is especially frightening- not merely for the way it robs the individual of their identity and is therefore one of the most tragic of diseases both for the sufferer and her loved ones, but because of the scale of the disease. Olshansky predicts that on current trends the US will have 16 million Alzheimer’s sufferers by 2050. That’s over 3 million more people than live in my beloved Pennsylvania or as many people as there are in the country of Australia.

The longevity gains we had in the past were largely the result of investments in public health. It was our devotion to one another as fellow citizens and human beings that gave us the miracle of hundreds of billions of more human life years. When as they should be these are years of love and wonder, insight and creativity, and, we can hope -wisdom.

Ensuring that the majority of us can remain healthy and productive with our increased years will require perhaps even greater public investments, many of them in technologies transhumanists have long held dear. Above all, continuing the gains we have had in longevity by both avoiding going backward and increasing longevity will take both shoring up our public health capacities so that we can avoid the return of pandemic killers. (The most galling effect of the recent blockheaded government shutdown was that it compromised the essential work of the CDC in preparing for a potentially devastating flu outbreak.) As the Frontline documentary points out public sector investment is necessary to deal with issues such as bacteriological infection because the market does not find research into necessities such as new antibiotics profitable.

The very complexity of the problem of figuring out how to slow the process of aging going forward will likewise demand massive public investments into areas little touched by today’s medical researchers refocusing our efforts on understanding the underlying mechanisms of aging rather than just trying to come up with cures for specific diseases. At the same time we will have to ensure we fully support the development of the young or society will have poisoned itself at the root, along with ensuring that the benefits of medical and technological advances are shared both within our societies and globally. We can make it through the Longevity Crisis and beyond but only if we do so in the spirit of a supportive family- young, old and in the space between.

Immortal Jellyfish and the Collapse of Civilization

Luca Giordano Cave of Eternity 1680s

The one rule that seems to hold for everything in our Universe is that all that exists, after a time, must pass away, which for life forms means they will die. From there, however, the bets are off and the definition of the word “time” in the phrase “after a time” comes into play. The Universe itself may exist for as long as 100s of trillions of years to at last disappear into the formless quantum field from whence it came. Galaxies, or more specifically, clusters of galaxies and super-galaxies, may survive for perhaps trillions of years to eventually be pulled in and destroyed by the black holes at their centers.

Stars last for a few billion years and our own sun some 5 or so billion years in the future will die after having expanded and then consumed the last of its nuclear fuel. The earth having lasted around 10 billion years by that point will be consumed in this  expansion of the Sun. Life on earth seems unlikely to make it all the way to the Sun’s envelopment of it and will likely be destroyed billions of years before the end of the Sun- as solar expansion boils away the atmosphere and oceans of our precious earth.

The lifespan of even the oldest lived individual among us is nothing compared to this kind of deep time. In contrast to deep time we are, all of us, little more than mayflies who live out their entire adult lives in little but a day. Yet, like the mayflies themselves who are one of the earth’s oldest existent species: by the very fact that we are the product of a long chain of life stretching backward we have contact with deep time.

Life on earth itself if not quite immortal does at least come within the range of the “lifespan” of other systems in our Universe, such as stars. If life that emerged from earth manages to survive and proves capable of moving beyond the life-cycle of its parent star, perhaps the chain in which we exist can continue in an unbroken line to reach the age of galaxies or even the Universe itself. Here then might lie something like immortality.

The most likely route by which this might happen is through our own species,  Homo Sapiens or our descendents. Species do not exist forever, and our is likely to share this fate of demise either through actual extinction or evolution into something else. In terms of the latter, one might ask if our survival is assumed, how far into the future we would need to go where our descendents are no longer recognizably, human? As long as something doesn’t kill us, or we don’t kill ourselves off first, I think that choice, for at least the foreseeable future will be up to us.

It is often assumed that species have to evolve or they will die. A common refrain I’ve heard among some transhumanists  is “evolve or die!”. In one sense, yes, we need to adapt to changing circumstances, in another, no, this is not really what evolution teaches us, or is not the only thing it teaches us. When one looks at the earth’s longest extant species what one often sees is that once natural selection comes us with a formula that works that model will be preserved essentially unchanged over very long stretches of time, even for what can be considered deep time. Cyanobacteria are nearly as old as life on earth itself, and the more complex Horseshoe Crab, is essentially the same as its relatives that walked the earth before the dinosaurs. The exact same type of small creatures that our children torture on beach vacations might have been snacks for a baby T-Rex!

That was the question of the longevity of species but what about the longevity of individuals? Anyone interested the should check out the amazing photo study of the subject by the artist Rachel Sussman. You can see Sussman’s work here at TED, and over at Long Now.  The specimen Sussman brings to light have individuals over 2,000 years old.  Almost all are bacteria or plants and clonal- that is they exist as a single organism composed of genetically identical individuals linked together by common root and other systems. Plants and especially trees are perhaps the most interesting because they are so familiar to us and though no plant can compete with the longevity of bacteria, a clonal colony of Quaking Aspen in Utah is an amazing 80,000 years old!

The only animals Sussman deals with are corals, an artistic decision that reflects the fact that animals do not survive for all that long- although one species of animal she does not cover might give the long-lifers in the other kingdoms a run for their money. The “immortal jellyfish” the turritopsis nutricula are thought to be effectively biologically immortal (though none are likely to have survived in the wild for anything even approaching the longevity of the longest lived plants). The way they achieve this feat is a wonder of biological evolution.The turritopsis nutricula, after mating upon sexual maturity, essentially reverses it own development process and reverts back to prior clonal state.

Perhaps we could say that the turritopsis nutricula survives indefinitely by moving between more and less complex types of structures all the while preserving the underlying genes of an individual specimen intact. Some hold out the hope that the turritopsis nutricula holds the keys to biological immortality for individuals, and let’s hope they’re right, but I, for one, think its lessons likely lie elsewhere.

A jellyfish is a jellyfish, after all, among more complex animals with well developed nervous systems longevity moves much closer to a humanly comprehensible lifespan with the oldest living animal a giant tortoise by the too cute name of “Jonathan” thought to be around 178 years old.  This is still a very long time frame in human terms, and perhaps puts the briefness of our own recent history in perspective: it would be another 26 years after Jonathan hatched from his egg till the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. A lot can happen over the life of a “turtle”.

Individual plants, however, put all individual animals to shame. The oldest non-clonal plant, The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, has a specimen believed to be 5,062 years old. In some ways this oldest living non-clonal individual is perfectly illustrative of the (relatively) new way human beings have reoriented themselves to time, and even deep time.When this specimen of pine first emerged from a cone human beings had only just invented a whole set of tools that would make the transmission of cultural rather than genetic information across vast stretches of time possible. During the 31st century B.C.E. we invented monumental architecture such as Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt whose builders still “speak” to us, pose questions to us, from millennia ago. Above all, we invented writing which allowed someone with little more than a clay tablet and a carving utensil to say something to me living 5,000 years in his future.

Humans being the social animals that they are we might ask ourselves about the mortality or potential immortality of groups that survive across many generations, and even for thousands of years. Group that survive for such a long period of time seem to emerge most fully out of the technology of writing which allows both the ability to preserve historical memory and permits a common identity around a core set of ideas. The two major types of human groups based on writing are institutions, and societies which includes not just the state but also the economic, cultural, and intellectual features of a particular group.

Among the biggest mistakes I think those charged with responsibility for an institution or a society can make is to assume that it is naturally immortal, and that such a condition is independent of whatever decisions and actions those in charge of it take. This was part of the charge Augustine laid against the seemingly eternal Roman Empire in his The City of God. The Empire, Augustine pointed out, was a human institution that had grown and thrived from its virtues in the past just as surely as it was in his day dying from its vices. Augustine, however, saw the Church and its message as truly eternal. Empires would come and go but the people of God and their “city” would remain.

It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the Catholic Church, which chooses a Pope this week, has been so beset by scandal that its very long-term survivability might be thought at stake. Even seemingly eternal institutions, such as the 2,000 year old Church, require from human beings an orientation that might be compared to the way theologians once viewed the relationship of God and nature. Once it was held that constant effort by God was required to keep the Universe from slipping back into the chaos from whence it came. That the action of God was necessary to open every flower. While this idea holds very little for us in terms of our understanding of nature, it is perhaps a good analog for human institutions, states and our own personal relationships which require our constant tending or they give way to mortality.

It is perhaps difficult for us to realize that our own societies are as mortal as the empires of old, and someday my own United States will be no more. America is a very odd country in respect to its’ views of time and history. A society seemingly obsessed with the new and the modern, contemporary debates almost always seek reference and legitimacy on the basis of men who lived and thought over 200 years ago. The Founding Fathers were obsessed with the mortality of states and deliberately crafted a form of government that they hoped might make the United States almost immortal.

Much of the structure of American constitutionalism where government is divided into “branches” which would “check and balance” one another was based on a particular reading of long-lived ancient systems of government which had something like this tripart structure, most notably Sparta and Rome. What “killed” a society, in the view of the Founders, was when one element- the democratic, oligarchic-aristocratic, or kingly rose to dominate all others. Constitutionally divided government was meant to keep this from happening and therefore would support the survival of the United States indefinitely.

Again, it is somewhat bitter irony that the very divided nature of American government that was supposed to help the United States survive into the far future seems to be making it impossible for the political class in the US to craft solutions to the country’s quite serious long-term problems and therefore might someday threaten the very survival of the country divided government was meant to secure.

Anyone interested in the question of the extended survival of their society, indeed of civilization itself, needs to take into account the work of Joseph A. Tainter and his The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988). Here, the archaeologist Tainter not only provides us with a “science” that explains the mortality of societies, his viewpoint, I think, provides us for ways to think about and gives us insight into seeming intractable social and economic and technological bottlenecks that now confront all developed economies: Japan, the EU/UK and the United States.

Tainter, in his Collapse wanted to move us away from vitalist ideas of the end of civilization seen in thinkers such as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. We needed, in his view, to put our finger on the material reality of a society to figure out what conditions most often lead them to dissipate i.e. to move from a more complex and integrated form, such as the Roman Empire, to a more simple and less integrated form, such as the isolated medieval fiefdoms that followed.

Grossly oversimplified, Tainter’s answer was a dry two word concept borrowed from economics- marginal utility. The idea is simple if you think about it for a moment. Any society is likely to take advantage of “low-hanging fruit” first. The best land will be the first to be cultivated, the easiest resources to gain access to exploited.

The “fruit”,  however, quickly becomes harder to pick- problems become harder for a society to solve which leads to a growth in complexity. Romans first tapped tillable land around the city, but by the end of the Empire the city needed a complex international network of trade and political control to pump grain from the distant Nile Valley into the city of Rome.

Yet, as a society deploys more and more complex solutions to problems it becomes institutionally “heavy” (the legacy of all the problems it has solved in the past) just as problems become more and more difficult to solve. The result is, at some point, the shear amount of resources that need to be thrown at a problem to solve it are no longer possible and the only lasting solution becomes to move down the chain of complexity to a simpler form. Roman prosperity and civilization drew in the migration of “barbarian” populations in the north whose pressures would lead to the splitting of the Empire in two and the eventual collapse of its Western half.            

It would seem that we have broken through Tainter’s problem of marginal utility with the industrial revolution, but we should perhaps not judge so fast. The industrial revolution and all of its derivatives up to our current digital and biological revolutions, replaced a system in which goods were largely produced at a local level and communities were largely self-sufficient, with a sprawling global network of interconnections and coordinated activities requiring vast amounts of specialized knowledge on the part of human beings who, by necessity, must participate in this system to provide for their most basic needs.

Clothes that were once produced in the home of the individual who would wear them, are now produced thousands of miles away by workers connected to a production and transportation system that requires the coordination of millions of persons many of whom are exercising specialized knowledge. Food that was once grown or raised by the family that consumed it now requires vast systems of transportation, processing, the production of fertilizers from fossil fuels and the work of genetic engineers to design both crops and domesticated animals.

This gives us an indication of just how far up the chain of complexity we have moved, and I think leads inevitably to the questions of whether such increasing complexity might at some point stall for us, or even be thrown into reverse?

The idea that, despite all the whiz-bang! of modern digital technology, we have somehow stalled out in terms of innovation is an idea that has recently gained traction. There was the argument made by the technologist and entrepreneur, Peter Thiel, at the 2009 Singularity Summit, that the developed world faced real dangers of the Singularity not happening quickly enough. Thiel’s point was that our entire society was built around the expectations of exponential technological growth that showed ominous signs of not happening. I only need to think back to my Social Studies textbooks in the 1980s and their projections of the early 2000s with their glittering orbital and underwater cities, both of which I dreamed of someday living in, to realize our futuristic expectations are far from having been met. More depressingly, Thiel points out how all of our technological wonders have not translated into huge gains in economic growth and especially have not resulted in any increase in median income which has been stagnant since the 1970s.

In addition to Theil, you had the economist, Tyler Cowen, who in his The Great Stagnation (2011)  argued compellingly that the real root of America’s economic malaise was that the kinds of huge qualitative innovations that were seen in the 19th and early 20th centuries- from indoor toilets, to refrigerators, to the automobile, had largely petered out after the low hanging fruit- the technologies easiest to reach using the new industrial methods- were picked. I may love my iPhone (if I had one), but it sure doesn’t beat being able to sanitarily go to the bathroom indoors, or keep my food from rotting, or travel many miles overland on a daily basis in mere minutes or hours rather than days.

One reason why technological change is perhaps not happening as fast as boosters such as singularitarians hope, or our society perhaps needs to be able to continue to function in the way we have organized it, can be seen in the comments of the technologists, social critic and novelist, Ramez Naam. In a recent interview for  The Singularity Weblog, Naam points out that one of the things believers in the Singularity or others who hold to ideas regarding the exponential pace of technological growth miss is that the complexity of the problems technology is trying to solve are also growing exponentially, that is problems are becoming exponentially harder to solve. It’s for this reason that Naam finds the singularitarians’ timeline widely optimistic. We are a long long way from understanding the human brain in such a way that it can be replicated in an AI.

The recent proposal of the Obama Administration to launch an Apollo type project to understand the human brain along with the more circumspect, EU funded, Human Brain Project /Blue Brain Project might be seen as attempts to solve the epistemological problems posed by increasing complexity, and are meant to be responses to two seemingly unrelated technological bottlenecks stemming from complexity and the problem of increasing marginal returns.

On the epistemological front the problem seems to be that we are quite literally drowning in data, but are sorely lacking in models by which we can put the information we are gathering together into working theories that anyone actually understands. As Henry Markham the founder of the Blue Brain Project stated:

So yes, there is no doubt that we are generating a massive amount of data and knowledge about the brain, but this raises a dilemma of what the individual understands. No neuroscientists can even read more than about 200 articles per year and no neuroscientists is even remotely capable of comprehending the current pool of data and knowledge. Neuroscientists will almost certainly drown in data the 21st century. So, actually, the fraction of the known knowledge about the brain that each person has is actually decreasing(!) and will decrease even further until neuroscientists are forced to become informaticians or robot operators.

This epistemological problem, which was brilliantly discussed by Noam Chomsky in an interview late last year is related to the very real bottleneck in Artificial Intelligence- the very technology Peter Thiel thinks is essentially if we are to achieve the rates of economic growth upon which our assumptions of technological and economic progress depend.

We have developed machines with incredible processing power, and the digital revolution is real, with amazing technologies just over the horizon. Still, these machines are nowhere near doing what we would call “thinking”. Or, to paraphrase the neuroscientist and novelist David Eagleman- the AI WATSON might have been able to beat the very best human being in the game Jeopardy! What it could not do was answer a question obvious to any two year old like “When Barack Obama enters a room, does his nose go with him?”

Understanding how human beings think, it is hoped, might allow us to overcome this AI bottleneck and produce machines that possess qualities such as our own or better- an obvious tool for solving society’s complex problems.

The other bottleneck a large scale research project on the brain is meant to solve is the halted development of psychotropic drugs– a product of the enormous and ever increasing costs for the creation of such products. Itself a product of the complexity of the problem pharmaceutical companies are trying to tackle, namely; how does the human brain work and how can we control its functions and manage its development?  This is especially troubling given the predictable rise in neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.   It is my hope that these large scale projects will help to crack the problem of the human brain, and especially as it pertains to devastating neurological disorders, let us pray they succeed.

On the broader front, Tainter has a number of solutions that societies have come up with to the problem of marginal utility two of which are merely temporary and the other long-term. The first is for society to become more complex, integrated, bigger. The old school way to do this was through conquest, but in an age of nuclear weapons and sophisticated insurgencies the big powers seem unlikely to follow that route. Instead what we are seeing is proposals such as the EU-US free trade area and the Trans-Pacific partnership both of which appear to assume that the solution to the problems of globalization is more globalization. The second solution is for a society to find a new source of energy. Many might have hoped this would have come in the form of green-energy rather than in the form it appears to have taken- shale gas, and oil from the tar sands of Canada. In any case, Tainter sees both of these solutions as but temporary respites for the problem of marginal utility.

The only long lasting solution Tainter sees for  increasing marginal utility is for a society to become less complex that is less integrated more based on what can be provided locally than on sprawling networks and specialization. Tainter wanted to move us away from seeing the evolution of the Roman Empire into the feudal system as the “death” of a civilization. Rather, he sees the societies human beings have built to be extremely adaptable and resilient. When the problem of increasing complexity becomes impossible to solve societies move towards less complexity. It is a solution that strangely echoes that of the “immortal jellyfish” the turritopsis nutricula, the only path complex entities have discovered that allows them to survive into something that whispers eternity.

Image description: From the National Gallery in London. “The Cave Of Eternity” (1680s) by Luca Giordan.“The serpent biting its tail symbolises Eternity. The crowned figure of Janus holds the fleece from which the Three Fates draw out the thread of life. The hooded figure is Demagorgon who receives gifts from Nature, from whose breasts pours forth milk. Seated at the entrance to the cave is the winged figure of Chronos, who represents Time.”