Dying to Live Forever

Greg McMullen dropped me a line to let me know that his thesis is available online (in PDF format); an examination of the pro-radical life extension community.

The idea that bio- and nanotechnologies could drastically extend human lifespans is gaining currency, both among supporters and opponents of the potential technologies. Loosely organized immortalist groups are under political fire from all sides, faced with opposition from well-organized conservative, religious and environmentalist groups. If they do not find political allies soon, immortalists may find that the technologies they have such high hopes for are banned before their potential can be realized.

This thesis explores the culture of those who believe that human lifespans should be open-ended and propose technological interventions to keep us youthful and prevent "involuntary death." A study of mythological and fictional tales of immortality lays the groundwork for an examination of immortalist discourse. Through Serge Moscovici's theory of social representations and Norman Fairclough's critical discourse analysis, the beliefs and attitudes of immortalists are explored and suggestions are made for improving engagement with potential political allies.

It's very interesting and readable - don't let the first half of that last sentence above fool you. As a part of looking at the healthy life extension community, for example, it contains an examination of the Immortality Institute folk and an interview with biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey.

Beyond that, the thesis touches on many of the issues I've briefly explored in this blog over the past couple of years, as well as a topic that I don't tend to look at all that much in this forum: the relationship between technological development and mythology. We are, if nothing else, creatures of myth; our constant chatter and communication of a thousand different forms and voices produces resonances. These resonances are stories and story forms of varying strength (pervasiveness, geographical or cultural extent, frequency of retelling, level of variation) that we find attractive for consistent, basic reasons relating to the human condition; our physiology; the hardwired desires we've inherited as primates; the way in which we form societies and relationships; certain consistent patterns within those societies and relationships. The Hero's Journey (the Monomyth) is one such resonance, but there are many others; long, short, old, new, widespread, or limited in extent.

Given a technology that allows us to do something new, we will turn that capacity to build our world a little closer to the world of myth that makes us comfortable. In the process, some feedback or change to the human condition slowly - very slowly - introduces changes into our mythic structure.

Myth drives the application of technological capabilities, which then in turn change the myth - but in the short term, myth is in the driving seat, all other things being equal. For our near-term future, the myths of longevity and immortality - and the myths used to make us feel better about lacking both - are important considerations when it comes to raising support for research to greatly extend the healthy human life span. From the thesis:

The common thread running through our earliest mythological tales of immortality is that death, while not necessarily desirable, is unavoidable and a fundamental part of being human. In spite of his best efforts, Gilgamesh could not achieve immortality. Given a choice, Tithonus likely would have chosen death over eternal decrepitude. While there is no suggestion in these stories that death gives value to life, they both certainly leave the impression that we should grow accustomed to the idea of dying, because there can be no desirable alternatives to it.

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