A History of Life Extensionism in the Twentieth Century

Subcultures and initiatives that support the extension of healthy life through medical research have grown considerably in the past twenty years, finding one another and merging with the spread of the internet, then raising funds and attracting attention in increasingly large cycles. Prior to this, however, these subcultures were thin threads indeed, tiny groups and single individuals out on the fringes of culture. Yet these roots of the present day life extension movements extend back a long way, and as is argued in the book "A History of Life Extensionism in the Twentieth Century" they were influential upon medicine even then. Here is an interesting review that touches upon the greater public support for extending healthy life that exists in Eastern Europe and Russia versus the West, something that has been noted in recent years with greater contact and collaboration between the English language and Russian language longevity science communities:

A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century by Ilia Stambler is the most thorough treatment to date of the ideas of famous thinkers and scientists who attempted to prolong human lifespans. In this detailed and impressively documented work - spanning 540 pages - Dr. Stambler explores the works of life-extensionist thinkers and practitioners from a vast variety of ideological, national, and methodological backgrounds.

In substance, I agree with Dr. Stambler's central observation that life-extensionist thinkers tended to adapt to the political and ideological climates of the societies in which they lived. I do suspect that, in some regimes (e.g., communist and fascist ones), the adaptation was partly a form of protection from official persecution. Even then, Soviet life-extensionists were unable to avoid purges and denunciations if they fell out of favor with the dominant scientific establishment. My own thinking is that life-extensionism is a powerful enough human motive that it will attempt to thrive in any society and under any regime. However, some regimes are more dangerous for life-extensionism than others - especially if they explicitly persecute those who work on life extension.

Even so, I have been tremendously interested to delve into Dr. Stambler's discussion of the deep roots of life-extensionist thought in Russian society, where ideas favoring life prolongation have taken hold despite a long history of authoritarianism and more general human suffering. I even remember my own very early years in Minsk, where I found it easy to adopt an anti-death attitude the moment I learned about death - and where, even in childhood, I found my support for human life extension to be largely uncontroversial from an ethical standpoint. When I moved to the United States, I encountered far more resistance to this idea than I ever did in Belarus.

While most Americans are not opposed to advanced medicine and concerted efforts to fight specific diseases of old age, there does still seem to be a culturally ingrained perception of some "maximum lifespan" beyond which life extension is feared, even though it is considered acceptable up to that limit. I think, however, that the dynamics of a competitive economy with some degree of freedom of research will ultimately enable most Americans to accept longer lifespans in practice, even if there is no intellectual revolution in their minds.

Link: http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/stolyarov20140918


American films and story telling have endlessly repeated "Frankenstein" narratives regarding science. Scientists are often portrayed as "mad" -literally insane. They are somehow crossing into some taboo area of God or Nature which should be left alone. The anti GM food call such products "Franken-Food." And many environmentalists would prefer to give little mosquito nets to millions of Third World denizens instead of DDT. So there is a Luddite streak running alongside the Yankee Know-How of the American mindset.

Posted by: Jersey Jones at September 19th, 2014 10:25 AM

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