Russell Blackford is an Australian writer. This article is based, in part, on his "Life Extension and its Enemies", Quadrant magazine, December 1999.
Copyright © Russell Blackford
If some H.G. Wellsian counterpart to me had been alive a century ago, and speculating about the future development of science and technology, how would his contemporaries have reacted if he'd managed to make a series of broadly accurate prophecies about the 20th century?
He might have predicted how communications in the developed world would be revolutionized by the spread of telephones, radio broadcasts, television and the Internet. He might have described the emergence of sophisticated motor cars, aviation, space vehicles and probes, impressive ocean vessels, large-scale engineering techniques, freely available electricity, awesome weapons of mass destruction, extraordinarily precise scientific instruments, and biomedical advances in fields such as antibiotics, organ transplants, contraception and genomics. By the turn of the millennium, so he might have prophesied, all fields of human enterprise and activity would be altered strangely, dramatically and deeply by science and technology.
At the beginning of the 20th century, anyone seriously putting forward such a vision would have risked being called a crackpot, a fraud, or extravagant opportunist-at best, some kind of utopian dreamer. Yet exactly these innovations and more have come to be. While it is difficult to predict just what technological and social changes will take place during this new century and millennium, recent experience suggests they will be enormous. The development of technology will further shape how we live, how we see ourselves, perhaps our very nature.
Barring a successful program by governments to suppress technological change, we will increasingly transcend our biological limitations. In particular, it is possible that current research on the causes of human aging will lead to genuine breakthroughs in maximum life expectancy, not merely average life spans, opening up dramatic changes in social organization and mores.
Those who oppose the development of futuristic technologies often express skepticism as to whether they are possible. There are, indeed, scientific and philosophical arguments as to why some technologies may not be feasible, at least as they are currently imagined by speculative thinkers. Despite the swiftness and power of our aircraft, we have never equaled the freedom and beauty of the birds.
However, as more technologies move from the realm of pure speculation to that of in-principle achievability, skepticism will increasingly be superseded by frightened resistance from neo-Luddites, with expressions of repugnance when new technologies appear "unnatural" and appeals for relinquishment when they appear too powerful. Radical technologies to extend human life are already encountering opposition, even though it is too early to state authoritatively that our maximum life expectancy, as opposed to the average life span, can be increased.
My fear is that we are more likely to turn out to be the last generation of mortals than the first generation of immortals. Yet, some scientists well qualified in the relevant fields speak openly of the possibility that aging can be defeated. There is at least a hope that we can live far longer, healthier and more active lives than ever before. This realization has caused a backlash, and it is surprisingly difficult to find support for such an attractive prospect from the cultural elites. On the contrary, writers, intellectuals and journalists display a negativity towards radical life extension that often shades into horror or disgust.
Worse, there is every sign that this backlash could grow into a widespread political struggle to ban life-extending technology and research. The current reaction to genetic technologies provides a precedent for this. The political forces that would be ranged against any effective life extension technology could easily win out-at least for a time. We have already seen such bizarre statements as Margaret Wertheim's wish to have the "choice" of a society in which she is not only free to decline the use of radical life extension technology, but in which everyone else is prevented from doing so, even if they want to. She actually argues for this in the name of freedom!
Supporters for legislative prohibitions will be found on both the Right and Left of the traditional political spectrum. The religious Right advocates the coercive use of state power to control private behavior inconsistent with its moral and metaphysical views. The Left has largely renounced its support for individual liberty. Many left-wing intellectuals and political agents see the political arena as one where power is to be seized and used to impose their own visions of the good. They have abandoned the classical liberal ideal of a society in which people are free to pursue their own values and life plans with as little restriction as possible. In those circumstances, Wertheim will not be alone in wishing to invoke the state's guns and police to suppress any radical life extension technology that begins to look feasible.
Why all this resistance to something that seems good-the prospect of living much longer, of living healthily and actively deep into what we now think of as old age... and beyond? Why the urge to suppress our freedom in this area? Often, the opposition seems to be on metaphysical grounds, or it flows from a rationalization of death's inevitability as somehow desirable.
Wertheim is opposed to life extension fundamentally because she sees it as "selfish", but that alone is not usually a reason for conduct to attract legal prohibition. We are normally free to pursue self-regarding interests as long as we don't interfere violently or unreasonably with the bodies or property of our fellows. To be fair, she develops an argument that is not obviously ridiculous. She posits the following dilemma. If the technology is developed, it will either be restricted to a wealthy elite or become widely available. If it is closely confined to the wealthy, this will increase the gap between rich and poor. If it is spread widely, particularly if this applies globally, the outcome will be environmentally disastrous.
Well, we do not normally suppress goods and services because they may be disproportionally available to the rich. The whole point of legitimately acquiring wealth is that it becomes possible to buy things that are unavailable without it. However, it could be argued that the possibility of a radically extended life would be so important that it should become accessible to everyone. It is one thing (so the argument might go) to live in a society where some people possess many times the material wealth of others. The problems are an order of magnitude greater in a society where the rich have transcended their biology, leaving others behind and creating a formerly unimaginable gap between their interests and those of everyone else.
There is some force in this. It is certainly arguable that every attempt should be made to offer the choice of powerful new technologies, such as radical life extension, as widely as possible, as quickly as possible. But this confronts us with the other horn of Wertheim's dilemma. She relies on the undoubted fact that the Earth has a limited carrying capacity for human beings, which would be tested all the more severely if life expectancy increased.
At the same time, improvements in biomedical technology do not happen in a vacuum. For example, widely effective use of nanotechnology for biomedical purposes would exist only in a world that had developed nanotechnological manipulation for other purposes, such as new kinds of manufacturing. Powerful technologies for augmenting the human life span by attacking the genetic bases of aging would exist only in a world with high levels of genetic expertise for other uses, such as improved nutrition. No effective technology for radical life extension will be developed while work in other technological fields stays still. A world in which radical life extension is available will be one with vastly greater resources than ours.
Furthermore, there is a tendency for populations in developed countries actually to shrink unless growth is encouraged by the state through migration programs and other means. Affluent and educated people turn away from having large numbers of children in order to concentrate on other domains of their lives. If high levels of technology including, but not limited to, radical life extension became available globally, it should not be assumed that long-living human beings would breed at the rates that have predominated in past centuries under quite different social and economic arrangements.
A society of the very long-lived people might appear strange to us and do many things differently, but it need not have a devastating effect on global resources. In any event, no one has ever suggested that such considerations provide a legitimate argument against sanitation, immunization, safe roads and other measures for public health and safety, though average life spans would be reduced drastically if these were abandoned. Any interference by the state with people's control of their own bodies is surely a last-ditch resort for dealing with population problems.
Fortunately, the opponents of life extension will not have things all their own way. It is one thing to ban a technology such as reproductive cloning, which is likely to have attractions for relatively few people. It is quite another to deny us technologies that open up the possibility of dramatically enhanced lives for everyone. For myself, I see the argument as one between people who are committed to advancing the power of medical science to give us more life, and those who prefer to deny our freedom and impose their personal moral views. The position of the latter group is neither intellectually persuasive nor an acceptable basis for public policy in a liberal society. As the debate begins over radical life extension, I have no doubt which side I am on.