The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever is Adam Leith Gollner's ambitious and engrossing exploration of all things eternal: he tackles the question from theological angles and scientific angles, visiting cryonic facilities and David Copperfield's island, among other locales. Here, he answers the question: why don't we want to live forever?
In 1994, the host of the Miss USA competition asked Miss Alabama, Heather Whitestone, one of those questions that usually only comes up at the end of sparkling, languid dinner parties: “If you could live forever, would you want to?”
“I would not live forever,” replied Miss Alabama, “because we should not live forever, because if we were supposed to live forever, then we would live forever, but we cannot live forever, which is why I would not live forever.”
As convoluted and circular (and beautiful) as that logic is, it turns out most of us would agree with Miss Alabama. According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, the average American isn’t interested in living forever—let alone extending life spans much beyond where they’re already at. At present, the current average U.S. life expectancy is 78.7 years. Pew’s findings show that our median ideal life span is 90 years: that’s how old most of us would choose to be when we die. The majority of those surveyed (56%) said they would personally refuse treatments that, if they existed, could prolong life by as little as a few decades. An even starker figure: only 4% of us want to live to be older than 120 years.
What gives? When faced with the possibility that humanity’s most cherished dream of all time might actually come true, we respond with a collective “meh”? Doesn’t everyone want to live as long as technologically possible?
To be clear, what’s being proposed by radical life extensionists isn’t merely drawing out those final, pain-glazed years of age-related illness and immobility. Quite the opposite. Specialists are talking about finding cures to the degenerative diseases of senescence—solving the riddle of aging itself—allowing hale, nimble nonagerians to stretch their sunset years beyond the foreseeable horizon.
Tempting, but people aren’t buying. Two-thirds of Americans think that medical scientists would offer treatments without fully understanding how they worked. A majority of respondents felt that such treatments would be “fundamentally unnatural.” What side effects might there be? No one knows, because the treatments don’t even exist yet. At this point, there’s a general wariness toward those pushing speculative, unproven remedies. (It’s not like they haven’t been doing so for the past few millennia.)
Despite the average American’s skepticism, billions of dollars are currently being pumped into longevity research. Institutional scientists the world over, aided by ultra-wealthy benefactors, are feverishly trying to decode the biological processes underlying aging. Pharmaceutical giants like GlaxoSmithKline are working with molecular biologists from MIT and Harvard to develop longevity drugs. Lamenting a society stuck in a “pro-aging trance,” radical futurists are advocating for biotechnological advances such as filling our bloodstreams with disease-fighting nanobots, uploading our minds into computerized hard drives, and creating cyborg-like bodies for “human version 2.0.” The movement’s leaders assure us that physical immortality is around the corner.
Will any of this happen? Scientists have already found ways to significantly extend lifespans in simple organisms. The Pew Research Center makes clear that none of these approaches have yet proven effective in humans. “But together they give a sense of the possible avenues ahead,” the report notes.
With anti-aging science gaining academic and scientific legitimacy, it’s time to kickstart a wider conversation on the movement’s bioethics. According to the survey, only 7% of U.S. adults have actually taken a close look at the ideas behind radical life extension, while the majority of Americans have never heard about the subject at all.
The debate is still in its early stages, but already it’s a passionate one. Those who find the desire for never-ending life delusional rail against the way the “Robot Cultists of the techno-immortalist sect” are turning “embarrassing commonplace circus-barker deception and crack-pottery into full on fulminating faith.” On the other side, prolongevists scornfully refer to those who consider death to be a fact of life as “deathists.” According to leaders of the USA Longevity Party, “deathism needs to be eliminated like other ‘isms’ before it: sexism, racism,” and so on. How far we’ve come: our capacity for disentangling fact from fiction has been reduced to classifying death—the one seeming certainty in life (besides taxes)—as a backward belief.
It’s all too easy to deny the reality of death. The expression hope springs eternal itself first appeared in a 1733 poem mocking the foolish desire to become godlike through science. For as long as people have wanted to evade finality, “deathists” have satirized them.
In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift tells of the Struldbruggs, immortals whom Gulliver assumes must be the happiest people ever. But, it turns out the immortals hate being condemned to perpetual continuance. They are peevish, friendless, morose, and have terrible memories. Because language evolves, they speak old dialects nobody understands anymore, and therefore they barely ever talk. When they do, it’s to spout envy toward people who can die. They’re bitter, crotchety grumps whose message for the rest of us is that living forever might be the harshest curse imaginable. We only imagine immortality being a good thing, Swift concludes, because of the imbecility of human nature.
Immortalists today would say that Swift committed the Tithonus error—the presumption that extending life would also extend those difficult years at the tail end of most elderly lives. It’s a conceit that goes back to classical mythology. When the goddess Aurora beseeched Zeus to immortalize her lover, Tithonus, she neglected to request eternal youth as well; decrepitude ensued.
There’s still no way to stay young forever. Molecular biologists are making important breakthroughs, and perhaps one day those findings will translate into human applications. For now, even if there were a way to extend human life—and there really isn’t—most of us wouldn’t want it, as the survey shows. Instead, we’d opt for what inevitably awaits us, that ultimate grace bestowed upon all humans: the chance to die when our time eventually comes.
We can look upon finality with denial or acceptance, but as Miss Alabama knew, technology isn’t yet capable of allowing us to avoid the unavoidable. There are no examples of anything immortal every found by science. Imagining that there’s a way around the reality of death is magical thinking. We should see existence for what it is: composed of as many summers as winters, of both sweetness and tragedy, of beauty pageants as well as degenerative diseases. Why prolong it? We’ve all been granted a life’s time. Ephemeral though it may be, that’s all we get. It’s a brief, extraordinary moment. Let’s make the most of this séjour while it lasts.