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Is Death Natural? Can We Extend Our Lives?
Death is as natural as birth. So say the large majority of people today. But is death natural? This question is for now merely academic but we could very well be on the cusp of technological advances that make it far more than an academic question.
Ray Kurzweil argues in his impressive books, The Fantastic Voyage and The Singularity Is Near, that the key now is to “live long enough to live forever.” His point is that our generation is the first that will be able to take advantage of new technologies and have a choice about living longer than the normal life span, possibly far longer. Kurzweil goes further in his follow up book Transcend and suggests that there will be three types of life extension made possible in coming decades: 1) medical techniques by the 2020s or so for slowing or even stopping aging; 2) some years later biological and medical techniques will appear that can turn back the clock to whatever age you want to be (biologically); 3) and even later we’ll see neuroscience techniques for uploading your consciousness into whatever form you want to take (robot, Internet, etc.).
Death certainly has been natural up until now. The large majority of creatures are born and live a life of finite duration, with that duration determined by how long their bodies can withstand inevitable breakdowns, predators or accidents. There are a few interesting exceptions. Hydras, for example, are small creatures related to sea anemones that live in freshwater. Hydras don’t die unless they’re eaten and stem cells seem to be involved in this unusual ability to keep on keeping on.
Harvard’s medical school produced some very intriguing evidence in 2010 with an experiment that succeeded in reversing many signs of aging in lab mice by injecting telomerase, an enzyme that keeps the mice cells’ telomeres from degenerating, into their cells. Intact telomeres stop the chromosomes unraveling and this slows or stops cell death. The mice showed remarkable improvements from this treatment alone.
It’s not that simple, of course, because there are a great many ways for our bodies to go wrong, as is clear from reading Aubrey de Gray’s book, Ending Aging. So while telomerase treatments in humans will likely be part of rejuvenation techniques in years to come they won’t be the whole story.
Is It Unnatural To Extend Our Lives Through Technology?
I’ve been asking people for years now what they think about the potential to extend their lives with technology, or even to choose immortality if it’s a real option. I get varying answers but I often hear (from my mother, for example) that it just seems unnatural to extend our lives using technology.
I can see their point but I don’t think I agree with it. We do, of course, extend our lives with technology all the time. When we fight cancer or any illness with medical technology we are using arguably unnatural techniques. So what’s unnatural about using new medical procedures to extend life even further?
There is an entirely different argument, however, about the naturalness of life extension that relates to the nature of evolution. The conventional view of evolution is that there is no directionality, no necessary progress, in evolution. Darwin himself thought that there was but the modern view is that such views are misguided and perhaps chauvinist. The data, it seems to me, however, strongly support the view that evolution is progressive in some ways. Eric Chaisson’s book Cosmic Evolution supports this notion.
One very interesting directionality in evolution is what Teilhard de Chardin called “an ascent toward consciousness.” In fact, he defined evolution as an ascent toward consciousness in his book, The Human Phenomenon. The biological world does indeed seem to exhibit a clear trend toward expanded perceptive abilities and greater cognitive abilities. There are always exceptions that we can highlight. For example, bats and some moles have evolved away their eyes for the most part as a result of disuse. But the general trend is pretty undeniable: most types of creatures have evolved over time more ways to perceive the world and better ways to process and act on that information.
Accepting this fact we can look to broader evolutionary themes for some relevant insights about the naturalness (or not) of death. This argument may seem a stretch but bear with me here.
The success of evolutionary processes, at least in terms of producing adaptive novelty, depends on the succession of generations: birth, death, birth, death… This is the case because novelty is thought to appear only in new organisms at birth (setting aside epigenetic novelties for the moment). Natural selection is all about culling random novelties that don’t provide any advantage to the organisms at issue, through death or an inability to reproduce. Most random mutations are negatively adaptive in that they actually lead to worse performance in terms of obtaining food, or avoiding predation, or finding more mates, etc. And because the large majority of mutations are not beneficial, species need to have a lot of births and deaths in order to find those beneficial adaptations in the space of possible adaptations.
The Ascent Of Consciousness
This situation is changing, however, with the ascent of consciousness—recall that this was Teilhard de Chardin’s way of characterizing evolution more generally. Now that consciousness has reached the level of human consciousness, which is a step change in the nature of consciousness, to be sure, we are taking evolution into our own hands. Cultural evolution is now increasingly trumping biological evolution. Let me unpack this statement a bit.
Biological evolution works through the random mutations and natural selection already discussed (genetic drift and some other mechanisms also play a part but for present purposes focusing on natural selection alone is sufficient). The conventional view is that biological evolution is an entirely vertical process because acquired characteristics can’t be passed on to offspring. Lamarck is still reviled in conventional circles today because he believed that acquired characteristics could be passed on and that individual striving was in fact the primary force behind evolution. We now know, with the advent of epigenetics, that some evolutionary change is indeed Lamarckian because epigenetic changes can be acquired and passed on to offspring. For example, new research suggests that humans and chimps differ so remarkably, despite sharing 99 percent of their genes, due to epigenetic differences.
More generally, cultural evolution is uncontroversially Lamarckian. What I mean is that cultural evolution, which is all about ideas and the evolution of ideas, operates through acquisition of ideas by individuals and then the passing on of those ideas in slightly changed form to friends, co-workers and family. Language, for example, is a good example of cultural evolution. Languages are always changing, and we can look to the Oxford English Dictionary’s list of new words each year as proof positive of this phenomenon even in an era of written language.
Here’s the crux of my argument: because cultural evolution is now taking over from biological evolution in terms of the future of the human species we don’t need individuals to die anymore to ensure that evolutionary change continues. Rather, ideas can and do change in a Lamarckian manner and this happens horizontally (person to person) as well as vertically (parent to offspring). We individuals don’t need to die in order to keep evolving as a species. So if evolutionary change is the sine qua non of what is “natural,” we are now at the point where it may be more natural for individuals to stick around and be part of the play of ideas for far longer than is possible under our heretofore natural lifespans.
In other words, if humans are now characterized by our ideas as much or more than our physical forms then there’s no need anymore for our physical forms to undergo the same processes of birth and death if life is to keep ascending toward new forms of consciousness. We can individually evolve and continue that arc of evolution as individuals.
Whether we do in fact continue to evolve in such a manner is entirely our individual choice. But it would be nice, it seems to me, to at least have that choice. So I personally am looking forward to having more options in terms of extending my life beyond the 80 or so years we can normally expect. It should be a fun ride.