Psychology Yesterday

Stories from the behavioral past

A Beginner's Guide to Living Forever

Some think immortality or something close to it is in the realm of possibilities

Is man’s ultimate dream within reach? A growing contingent of “radical life extension” supporters declares it is. Since the late 1990s, a number of scientists and entrepreneurs have openly stated that dramatic life extension is both feasible and desirable, the possibility of eliminating death also not completely out of the question. Millennial fever and the decoding of the human genome further stirred up interest in immortality, a confluence of forces encouraging the challenging of accepted beliefs about life and death. It was thus not too surprising that thousands of Americans began to seriously pursue immortality or something close to it, doing whatever they could to live well beyond one hundred years. Some started to take a hundred pills a day or endure daily injections of supplemental solids and liquids in the belief that doing so would add many decades to their life span. Others were restricting their caloric intake to 1,200 calories a day based on research showing that doing so would extend one’s life span by thirty percent. Books like Why Die? A Beginner’s Guide to Living Forever, Immortality: How Science is Extending Your Life Span- and Changing the World, and Gary’s Null’s Ultimate Anti-Aging Program appeared on bookshelves, the latter’s videocassette “How to Live Forever” so popular it was given away by National Public Radio as a pledge premium. Although so-called experts had different opinions regarding how to “de-age,” as radio host Null called it (cloning, stem cells, gene therapy, and computer chips inserted into the brain are just a few), it was clear that immortality was in the air as we turned the century and millennium.

Over the next decade, the radical life extension and immortality movement picked up steam but, at the same time, drew critics. Leon Kass believed the conquest of disease, aging, and death has long been “the unstated but implicit goal of modern medical science,” suggesting that all of us have essentially served as guinea pigs for a larger, future cause. For Kass and others, radical life extension was not only impossible but a very disturbing development, antithetical to basic humanism. The full-fledged pursuit of immortality would create considerable anguish, he and others argued, not at all the Holy Grail many believed it would be. Daniel Callahan made a similar case, with virtually every aspect of society- from marriage to education to the economy- to be much altered, and not for the better. Market forces were driving the pursuit for dramatic life extension, he felt, with biotechnology companies the ones to gain the most from it.

Critics of radical life extension also pointed out the obvious fact that the issue of age would be much transformed. The prospect of a ninety-year old being considered an adolescent was very alarming, such a scenario throwing our entire social order out of whack. A worldwide divide between a new class of “immortals” and those unable to become one would create conflict right out of H.G. Wells’s or Philip Dick’s science fiction, Francis Fukuyama has argued, with philosopher Hans Jonas adding that the presence of fewer young people would make humans a stagnant, not very interesting species. Sheila Jasanoff felt that we were already a split society on many levels, a much grayer population to only exacerbate the problem. Finally, Howard L. Kaye pointed out that, with so much more life to lose, our fear of death would be even greater, the possibility of being killed by an accident positively terrifying.

Supporters of radical life extension thought otherwise, of course. Freed from the looming apprehension about death, we would become much more creative and productive, people like Aubrey de Grey claimed, viewing children as more distracting than anything else. With a couple of centuries or more lifespan, self-fulfillment would not be a dream but a reality, humans finally able to achieve everything they wanted in life. “We can look forward to an infinite process of transformation and improvement with no fear of an inevitable boredom and meaninglessness,” Max More, a leading member of the immortality movement wrote, with mind-altering drugs available should things get a little repetitive. A bit Orwellian, perhaps, but the fact was that humans had already undergone radical life extension, with longevity nearly doubling over the past century. If antibiotics, better nutrition, and cleaner water were responsible for dramatically extending life in the 20th century, what was wrong with biotechnology doing it in the 21st?

While having especially high stakes, the debate over radical life extension was the latest of a long line of critical social issues involving death and dying in America. For almost a century, the nation had struggled with the “problem” of death, the end of life antithetical to many of our defining cultural values. Over the last decade and a half, the issues surrounding death and dying had risen in intensity, an attempt to make “the last taboo” an integral part of the national conversation. The conversation is destined to grow only louder over the next few decades, as Americans try to come to terms with the psychological, philosophical, and spiritual consequences of death.

Lawrence R. Samuel, Ph.D., is an American cultural historian who holds a Ph.D. in American Studies and was a Smithsonian Institution Fellow.

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