Some Comments On "Should Humans Be Allowed To Live Forever?"

Nothing gets me bristling quite like questions about healthy life extension that involve words such as "allowed," "permitted" and so forth. Whatever happened to the presumption of freedom? A commenter on a post about the SENS Challenge proffers an interesting exchange for consideration:

Both Nuland and the Editor of Technology Review, Jason Pontin, made clear that they believe extending the human lifespan is a terrible thing which could adversely and irrevocably effect our species by transforming our nature in dangerous ways.


I therefore thought it would be timely for me to publish an exchange of letters I had with Jason Pontin. (There did not appear to be anything in Jason Pontin's letter which suggested he would want it kept private or which would be embarrassing to him.)

It certainly seems that Pontin comes to view healthy life extension in a manner similar to Leon Kass when it comes down to it. There is the presumption of central authority making decisions for us - controlling our future access to healthy life extension technologies - and the sense that "something could be done" to prevent people from extending their healthy life spans. As I've pointed out in past posts, that something is called murder, no matter how you might go about organizing or whitewashing it. See this comment from Pontin, for example:

That said, you raise the issue of personal freedom. Does personal freedom--including the freedom to life--trump all other interests? Societies traditionally limit personal freedom, even the freedom to live, for any number of reasons. I am not saying this is a good thing--but I don't think the argument of "choice" can decide whether or not Immortality is a Good Thing.

No! My private views on life extension are, as Aubrey de Grey has noted, "ambivalent." Reason is also mistaken if he believes I think life extension, if possible, could be easily regulated by a central authority. If it really could be done, then such would be the demand, it probably would be done.

Since my own views on the subject of life extension are usually misunderstood by those committed to fighting aging, perhaps some clarification is in order.

1). Indefinite life might be good for me, and I might wish it for those that I love, but an entire world of superagenarians might be a bad thing. This is a simple application of Kant's categorical imperative.
2). I am not sure significant life extension is possible: even if we could avoid senescence in replicating cells, DNA damage seems an unavoidable consequence of metabolism - and I don't know how that could be "fixed."
3). But if human life extension is possible, it's obviously very important news, and worthy of serious attention: human beings have wanted to extend their lives since they could first formulate a thought.

Posted by: Jason Pontin at July 31st, 2005 3:51 PM

I certainly don't wish to mischaracterize Jason Pontin's views on life extension. But from my reading of his February editorial ( he was far from "ambivalent" as he states above. Indeed, the following excerpts from his editorial (read the whole thing for context) make it quite clear that he is opposed:

"For even if it were possible to ?perturb? human biology in the way de Grey wishes, we shouldn?t do it. Immortality might be okay for de Grey, but an entire world of the same superagenarians thinking the same kinds of thoughts forever would be terrible."

Posted by: Daniel Wiener at July 31st, 2005 5:07 PM

I don't see anything in Mr. Pontin's response that actually contradicts the quoted passage.

Posted by: J Thomason at July 31st, 2005 7:57 PM

Pontin needs to go back and re-read his Kant. What he (Pontin) promotes is a world where everybody ends his own life after a set time (with regulators to strongly encourage that time, if possible). In a world where the technology allows a life not limited by aging, ending it is suicide. Kant himself wrote that suicide is against the Categorical Imperative since such a world of universal suicide could not exist as a system -- meaning that it could not have enduring existence (

I am no Kantian, but Pontin's weariness of life and old people seems ironic. He sticks to his old ideas, yet bemoans a world where everybody has old ideas. He edits a magazine of technology, but repeats over and over his own ignorance as to whether some technology is possible, as though lack of knowledge as to how some problem will be solved somehow precludes an eventual solution.

But then maybe I'm just mad at him for first ruining one of my favorite magazines, Red Herring, and now taking another hi-tech magazine down this depressive, timid, wishy-washy path. Sigh.

Posted by: Foolish Mortal at August 1st, 2005 2:11 PM

"For even if it were possible to 'perturb' human biology in the way de Grey wishes, we shouldn?t do it. Immortality might be okay for de Grey, but an entire world of the same superagenarians thinking the same kinds of thoughts forever would be terrible." (Attributed to Jason Pontin by Daniel Wiener.)

I'll have to come back and review the context on another occasion, but it looks as if Pontin thinks he could countenance Aubrey de Grey living a long, long time, because he thinks de Grey is interesting. It seems he finds the idea that the generality of us be allowed to live beyond what has until now been considered a normal human lifespan repugnant, because the things we think and say are just too vulgar. I understand that ugly oligarchs, self-styled aristocrats, have been saying such things about hoi polloi over and over for thousands of years. A struggle to rid the Earth of such vulgarity could be dubbed "reverse Pontinism." If there must be Pontinism at all, let it be that.

Posted by: Exoteric at August 1st, 2005 6:19 PM

Foolish Mortal, I am quite familiar with my Kant - and do, in fact, remember his ideas on suicide - which seems irrelevant to the current discussion, since life extension is not currently possible.

There seems to be a kind of moral idiocy to the extropian/transhumanist/longevity community. They all argue that children would become rare in a world where every one lived indefinitely - but they feel no moral qualms at all about a world without new people in it. This is why I raise the issue of Kant: whereas I might wish to live in a world where I lived forever, a world where every one lived forever might be awful - if it meant no new people.

I think it almost fantastic that this basic philosophic insight is so difficult to grasp for those who want to Fight Aging. And I can only conclude it says something about the narcissism of the members of the community.

I am extremely skeptical that Foolish remembers my "ruining" Red Herring, since when I became the editor. there were 3,000 subscribers and it was a newsletter.

Finally, before Foolish decries my "ignorance" - no one knows whether DNA damage resulting from metabolism is "fixable." The current thinking of most working biogerontologists is that the idea itself is implausible.

Posted by: Jason PPontin at August 2nd, 2005 6:27 AM

The idea that there would be no 'new' people is foolish. I have three kids. If I expected to live until 300 I could easily see taking a break from kids for 10-20 years then having three more. And three more after another break. I like kids - as does my wife - and we would have more if we were going to live that long. Why not? Family is great and someone needs to reproduce to help conquer the stars.

Jason, I don't think you have to worry about no new people. People want kids (and the small minority that don't are free to not have them) - and just becuase you don't die of age doesn't mean you won't die. Lots of ways to get terminated out there...

Posted by: buffpilot at August 2nd, 2005 8:36 AM

Well, Buffpilot, do your own math: if every couple has 9 children over the course of 300 year lives, and each of those children has 9 children... the world, already arguably over-burdened with humanity, would very quickly become over-populated. Indeed, there are some fairly common models for this. If the population growth of 1950 (which was a little over 3 per couple at the time) had not declined, the entire world's surface would be covered in humanity some time around 2500. Fortunately, population growth is declining, and will stabalize sometime around the year 2120.

Aubrey de Grey is fairly candid about this aspect of life extension on his SENS Web site: if radical life extension were possible, children would become fairly rare. I find that idea fairly horrible, since I am convinced that new people are most productive of new ideas. The notion of an entire world of the same people fills with me a kind of existential dread - a dread that seems to find no echo in de Grey, Reason, et al. You either see it, or you don't.

Once, when I queried de Grey about this, he argued (honestly if unconvincly to my mind) that the moral obligation to those who already exist trumped that of those who might one day exist.

Posted by: Jason Pontin at August 2nd, 2005 9:20 AM

So long as there are people who want children there will be children. The healthy life extension community certainly isn't monolithic on this or any topic, but you can see some sensible thoughts on trends and rates of childbirth in a Max More essay here:

Personally, arguments based on a lack of children as a bad thing are a little strange. If people want children, they'll have them. If they're comfortable without them, they won't. Our opinions on the topic don't really matter when it comes down to it - people will come to their own accomodations and actions, just as they have over the past two hundred years of shrinking childbirth rates and extended healthy life span, and we should trust them to do so.

Posted by: Reason at August 2nd, 2005 9:35 AM

Jason and Reason,

I have read de Grey comments that kids would be 'rare'. I think he is wrong and very narcissistic in his approach to a lot of the issues involved with a rapid expansion of the life span. The pull to have children would still be there even if you lived to 1000. And most people would have them - and with more time I would expect more children per couple. The effect would be greatly increased population over time but probably more slowly. Think if you lived to 1000 and had a new spouse every 100 years and one child with each. Your effective birth rate would be 10 births/couple. A pretty high rate but spread over a lot more time. And I would still have the 9 kids ? and I can do the math!

Reason ? the article you linked to was interesting but I felt did not buttress your argument. Lowered fertility in developing countries is a good thing, but Max forgets that growth in these countries going down assumes a death rate. To stabilize, the death rate must equal the birth rate. What very long longevity does is greatly reduce the death rate. I believe that the ?replacement rate? is about 2.1-2.3 births per couple. If we suddenly became immortal the birth rate would have to plunge to 0.1-0.3 per couple. I have a hard time seeing only 1-3 in 10 couples having a single child over their lifetime. (Number probably needs to be higher to factor in accidents over a longer time, but still?)

De Grey and company don?t want to die (neither do I ) and I agree with them that there is no moral need to do so. But the SENS website hand waves over all the problems with the transition to greatly increased longevity (and there will be many ? the current terror war as 14th century religious fanatics rebel against the freedom inherent in the modern world is just a foreshadow of what?s coming IMHO). The idea that war, poverty, terrorism etc will go away if we all could live to 300 is nonsense. The bombings in London on 7/7 prove my point. The terrorists who blew themselves up could easily have looked forward to 50 years of healthy life in one of the nicest, most modern countries in the world. Instead they blew themselves up. Similarly just because I can live to 300 or 1000 I would just not have kids is ludicrous. I might wait an extra 10-20 years to bank some more cash, but I would still have them.

We live in interesting times that are rapidly changing ? I just hope to keep up.

Posted by: buffpilot at August 2nd, 2005 10:59 AM


Sorry for the Red Herring crack. I regretted it as soon as I hit "Post."

"Ignorance" was not intended as a crack, though -- I meant it in the "lacking knowledge" sense. Any cursory review of the history of science and technology shows innovations overwhelming confident experts proclaiming some area of knowledge complete or some task impossible. We've all read the quotes about astronomy being completely known (Newcomb, 1888), nothing new to be discovered in physics (Lord Kelvin, 1900), etc., etc.

"The current thinking of most working biogerontologists" seems like a phrase straight out of Monty Python -- it sounds like self-satire. These are early days indeed in this infant field.

I don't know an extropian from a transhumanist (I got here from Instapundit), but there is no "moral idiocy" in wanting to live longer and wanting and liking children. I haven't read much science fiction for a couple of decades, but there are many, many imaginative scenarios for humans increasing in number almost without limit.

And this is the nub of it. I like your phrase, for I also "think it almost fantastic that this basic philosophic insight is so difficult to grasp" that technological progress continues and is accelerating, and yet you, who edit a hi-tech magazine, are incapable of looking past the next speed bump.

Posted by: Foolish Mortal at August 2nd, 2005 11:19 AM

People too often make the mistake of extrapolating from a relatively tiny segment of history, or from their own personal experience and intuition, without taking into account feedback mechanisms which will come into play to modify a trend before it reaches a reductio ad absurdum conclusion. There is no good way of knowing whether children will be a rarity in a world without aging, or whether the lack of deaths will lead to overpopulation, or whether our society will become ossified by the preponderance of elderly people who have used up their creative juices and care only about safety and stability.

These are questions which we'll just have to deal with when the time comes, and the answers will probably be quite unexpected and difficult to anticipate. A century or so ago many people feared an inevitable malthusian catastrophe, as humanity exponentially bred itself beyond subsistence levels. Who then would have seriously expected that rising societal wealth and technological progress would lead to sharp voluntary reductions in birth rates and a leveling off in population growth (with the prospect of actual population decreases in various parts of the world)?

Human beings are very flexible, and individuals will react in a variety of ways to the prospect of indefinite life prolongation. Economic and social feedback forces will shape those reactions. I'm not worried about it. Instead, I'm looking forward with great curiousity to learning how it all shakes out.

Posted by: Daniel Wiener at August 2nd, 2005 5:44 PM

Once again, I find myself expaining the desire for an unlimited personal future.

Much of the criticism and attacks on the possibility of indefinitely long healthy lifespan (post-mortality) seem to be on the part of those who has lived the conventional life and lacks the imagination to live "outside the box".

As someone who live in the adult playground of LA during the late 80's as well as a totally "disconnected" open life in Asia during the 90's, I view the aging process as simply a pest, a thorn in the side, that gets in the way of me being able to live a completey free and open life.

I actually have not met any of the "immortalists" here in the states (judging from the internet, there are a lot of us), but all of the expats I met in bars throughout Asia all thought a cure for aging and immortality was pretty cool. Long-term expats (read Fred Reed's description of them, its accurate) are driven by freedom and being able to live ones life without the constraints of a conventional life cycle. Some of them do marry, most do not. They are definitely driven by desire not to live life in a pattern or to be a part of someone else's parade. These are all sentiments that I share.

We don't like the conventional life cycle because, on the whole, its basically boring, limited, and involves a lot of hassle without much payoff. In other words, its a lousy deal.
The problem with the critics is that they have lived the conventional life and honestly believe that?s where its at. They cannot imagine anyone not wanting to have the kids, the mortgage payments, and the boring expensive cars. They cannot imagine just dropping everything, selling it all off, and moving to Thailand or Belize.
The point of immortality is to explore all of life's options. You want to live in Japan for 10 years, go do it. You want to start a software company in Singapore and spend 5 years building it up, go do it. You want to simply hang out in Bali or Boracay for months at a time, you can do it.

Immortality is about You Can Do It. You can do what you want for as long as you want, then go on to do something else.

The most frightening thing to me about these people is their complete lack of comprehension about this kind of freedom. It simply does not register in the brains. These people live their limited, dark, depressing lives and think that all there is to life.

This is really quite depressing.

If I was superrich, I would buy some of these people a one-way plane ticket to Asia (or Latin America) and make them stay there for 5 years or so. It just might open their horizons.

Posted by: Kurt Schoedel at August 3rd, 2005 9:21 AM

I dislike discussions about "managing" things that are still only exist in the future. They are worse than predicting chaotic events with computer models, like the weather 50 years in advance. We just don't have the data.

As lifespans get longer, programs like social security will almost surely have to be abandoned or converted into a needs-based system. Whole industries, such as insurance, would be effected. The medical industry won't give this technology away, and I have yet to find a drug without side effects, many of which would loom large if one was looking at immortality. Quality of life is more important to me than length of life.

As technology develops to cure cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, etc. we're likely to discover new ways for bodies to fail. We can't overlook the fact, either, that microbes evolve to meet our breaththroughs.

I favor continued research in these areas, but any attempt by government to control or direct science should be eschewed. There are too many scenarios and too many politicians and special interest groups to trust any planners to make the optimum choices.

I advocate waiting and seeing. It's way too early to predict how our research will end.

Posted by: AST at August 3rd, 2005 1:07 PM

Any attempt by the government or any other form of authority to prevent the development and access to prolongivity is genocide, plain and simple. Any government that does this is morally equivalent to the Nazis and the Stalinists. To say that we transhumanists are moral idiots is a mockery of morality itself. We transhumanists are on the side of life. Our detractors are not. We have the moral high position, they do not.

In a free society, individuals have the right to live for and to pursue their own personal dreams and goals. The only legitimate function of a government in such a society is to act as an arbitrator of disputes between such free individuals. The moment that people are required to give up their freedom and lives, not to fight to defend freedom from an implacible enemy, but meerly to preserve a certain form of social structure, is the moment that such a social structure is worthy of utter contempt, nothing more.

It is outrageous that people living in a free society such as ours would even question the right of individuals to control their own personal destinies. Justin and others have the right to their own personal opinions about prolongevity. When such therapies become available, they even have the right to choose not to utilize them themselves. They have no business, whatsoever, advocating using the corrupt force of government to limit other people's right to make such a choice for themselves.

I am well aware that the advent of post-mortality is going to eliminate the age-graded, hierarchial society that we have today. I have always despised the conventional age-grade society anyways and look forward to its elimination with great eagerness.

I am also perfectly comfortable with the concept of a post-mortal society that has no kids. I look forward to this as well.

I have lived on or visited four continents and a variety of cultures around the planet. I have enough personal experiences and what not to know what I am into and what I am not. I know enough of what I want out of life such that I do not

Posted by: Kurt Schoedel at August 4th, 2005 10:54 PM

But Kurt, open, democratic socities limit individual freedoms all the time. As Isaiah Berlin, the British liberal philosopher once wrote, "What is freedom for the wolves is death for the sheep."

I am interested, however: Why do you "look forward" to a world without kids--that is, without new people?

Posted by: Jason Pontin at August 5th, 2005 9:48 AM

I'll echo Jason's question: Why would a world without kids be something to look forward to? I can understand how particular individuals might not want children and will choose not to have them. It's not a choice I personally would make; having a daughter and raising her to adulthood was a marvelous experience which I would not want to have missed. Other people will have other preferences.

But individual preferences say nothing about the societal costs or benefits of not having any children. Nor do I see how this issue is intrinsic to the debate over life extension.

My suspicion is that some defenders of life extension fear that the question of children (or lack thereof) in a society where aging has been conquered is a valid and threatening point of criticism. So they attempt to sidestep the question by arguing that a lack of children is just hunky-dorey.

I don't think the elimination of aging will drastically change human nature, as some people fear and others hope. If anything human nature, on the average, will become more stable. As long as new children are not coercively forbidden by government edicts, there will be plenty of people who will choose to bring babies into the world. At the same time, societal pressures to have large families in order to assure support for infirm parents in their old age will abate.

So neither extreme -- a world without children or rising overpopulation due to people who won't die -- strikes me as a likely scenario. The human race will cope and adapt to indefinite life extension, just as it has managed with other radical advances like reliable birth control.

Posted by: Daniel Wiener at August 5th, 2005 1:17 PM

Yes, Jason, free societies do limit the rights of individuals, when they infringe apon others. For example, the state rightfully limits me be able to go out partying tonight and driving home drunk. Similarly, we have laws against consumption of recreational drugs.

However, the right to life is assumed to be unlimited. My life is my highest value. If some kind of space aliens were to come in and threaten to enslave or kill us all, of course I would sacrifice my life to fight and destroy them, if that is what it took. However, I would never consider to sacrifice my life and love of it for any other cause. You see, in the first example, I am sacrificing my life in the defense of life and freedom ITSELF. In the second case, I am expected to sacrifice my life and freedom, just to maintain a certain form of social order. This is eseentially what Hitler and Stalin believed in. My point is, in the absence of a "freedom-threatening" enemy, I consider my right to life to be absolute and beyong reproach by any government or other human institution.

Human institutions exist to serve the human individual. Not the other way around. I do not consider myself to be subservient to the goals of any particular human institution. In fact, I consider all human institutions to be only resources to be exploited for whatever purpose I see fit to pursue. I would never consider giving up my life just to preserve a human institution.

About a world without kids. I simply don't give a rat's arse about this issue. It is the opponents, not advocates, of prologevity who throw up the issue of kids as a straw man argument against prologevity. I refuse to accept this as legitimate argument against prologevity.

FYI, I have no kids and have no desire to have them. Living in SoCal in the late 80's and through out Asia in the 90's, I lived in very "child-less" social melieus and found that I was able to create the life and happiness that I wanted, despite being in a "child-less" melieu.

I think Daniel is right. Some people will have kids, others won't in the coming post-mortal society. Just like today.

Posted by: Kurt at August 5th, 2005 3:24 PM
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