The Unthought Conservatism of the Deathists

You might recall Sherwin Nuland as the author of a pro-death piece on the work and aims of biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey published - to much furor from the healthy life extension community - two years ago. Nuland stands in much the same camp as another noted deathist, Leon Kass - both labor under the singularly strange viewpoint that the present length of human life is just as it should be, and we should do nothing much to change it.

A chapter of "The Art of Aging" is given over to a [biogerontologist] named Aubrey de Grey, who believes that, through manipulations at the cellular and molecular levels, death itself can before too long be all but eliminated. In measured prose, Nuland states his own belief that eternal life is a bad idea. "For reasons that are pragmatic, scientific, demographic, economic, political, social, emotional and secularly spiritual," he writes, "I am committed to the notion that both individual fulfillment and the ecological balance of life on this planet are best served by dying when our inherent biology decrees that we do." Not nice, in other words, to fool with Mother Nature.

I would hope that I don't have to work too hard to point out just how nonsensical this position is. Let us start by asking whether a Nuland transposed to 1900 would argue the same point, back when life expectancy at birth was 40-something years and all older people suffered far more than they do today. Think about that a moment: in an upward trend over centuries, there have always been those who stood astride the engine of progress and said "enough - it's fine just here, danger lies ahead." The opponents of progress always been wrong to do so, and they're just as wrong today.

Our present length of healthy life and life expectancies at various ages are already highly unnatural; clearly Nuland does not advocate a return to a primitive era of no medical intervention and short lives of suffering, yet there is no such thing as "dying when our inherent biology decrees that we do" today. To support such a thing is senseless. From cradle to old age, modern medical technology increases our health and our odds in the life expectancy game - and those odds continue to improve.

As for Kass, I see this viewpoint as an unthought conservatism (in the sadly fading, non-political sense of the word) - the knee jerks in response to change, and the knee's owner thereby justifies the present state of being as the best possible. The gut drives the brain. But you don't have to look far afield at all to see that such a position is utter nonsense, the "justifications" all smoke and mirrors. Worse, it is a veil, an excuse of the flimsiest sort, for failing to work to prevent billions of unnecessary deaths from age-related disease in the decades ahead.

As we see in the world about us and our long human history, there is no position simultaneously so vile and nonsensical that it fails to attract defenders and advocates to paper over the horrors of the basic premise with serious-sounding words and scholarly writing. In the article I link to above, it's clear that the journalist buys into Nuland's view, for example, and more is the pity thereby.

Remember this: there are many people in the world who want you and everyone you know to suffer and die on their schedule, far sooner than you might. There are people in the world who would suppress all medical research for increased longevity - exactly the sort of research that has increased the healthy life expectancy of the old over the fifty years, and will accelerate this trend going forward. If everyday folk like you and I go along with these deathists in silence, if we do not loudly point the nature of the Emperor's clothes, then we will get what we deserve - suffering and death for failing to stand up for ourselves, failing to support longevity research, and failing to build a better future for all.

Technorati tags: ,


In general, I agree with the opinions expressed in this article. I see no good reason to choke off life extension research. On the other hand, when does it become too much of a good thing? I have a post on my blog that asks the question, "do you really want to live to be 200?" It looks at the down side of life extension not in terms of its cost to society (would we pay social security for 130 years?} but the emotional drain that this might cause on us as human beings. If you're interested in reading this post, hop over to

Posted by: Douglas Hanna at March 5th, 2007 6:36 PM

I guess I'm a new guy on the block, but I'd like to question this (perhaps due to my lack of experience in this field). Do I really want to live to be 200? Well, yes! I do right now. What I really want though is the choice to live to 200, or not, as I see fit at the time. The aging process is a natural tyranny, made even crueler by our understanding of what's happening to us (as compared to other animals). Currently, I want to live to 200, but as I get older, I'd like to be able to revise my opinion, rather than being forced to live some pretty much arbitrary length of time, defined by some biological clock. If I became horribly disabled, maybe I'd choose to die early; if I'm enjoying life and a remain physically and mentally fit, even as I grow older, why die? Age forces the degradation of my faculties upon me; stopping that biological clock, or its effects, could give us that choice. I'd say that's one crucial part of the puzzle - choice. Perhaps some would choose not to alter the aging process, for some reason (moral? religious? wanting to remain closer to some imagined natural norm?) and that's fine, for them. But I'd become very bad-tempered if they sought to impose their choice on me as well.

Posted by: falco at January 21st, 2008 8:41 PM
Comment Submission

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. New comments can be edited for a few minutes following submission. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.