[Paleopsych] The Australian: Christopher Pearson: No future in eternity

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Sat Jul 9 15:50:20 UTC 2005

Christopher Pearson: No future in eternity

I SUPPOSE most people have sometime or other toyed with the fantasy of
eternal youth and health. Damien Broderick, a science contributor with The
Australian, has turned it into a magnificent obsession.

In his futurological books The Spike: Accelerating into the Unimaginable
Future and The Last Mortal Generation: How Science Will Alter Our Lives in
the 21st Century, he has seriously canvassed the chances that immortality
is at hand. In last week's The Weekend Australian Review he was at it
again, reviewing a new work by Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman entitled
Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever.

Surveying the latest evidence, Broderick is up-beat. "It seems likely that
powerful research programs will let us first slow, then halt, the leading
causes of death - heart disease, cancer, stroke, infections - then,
perhaps, reverse ageing, that slow terrible corrosion of our youthful flesh
and lively minds."

How can this be? "Knowledge is doubling and deepening at a prodigious rate,
and even that rate is accelerating ... some of those alive now may thrive
indefinitely, kept youthful by the same recuperative processes that build
brand-new babies from ageing sperm and ova."

Fine and dandy for the fortunate young, you may be thinking, but what about
the rest of us? Are we the last to feed the worms or crematorial fires?
"Perhaps not, if a kind of maintenance engineering can be applied to our
ailing bodies. The remedy may be complicated: genomic profiling, pills,
supplements, stringent diet, more exercise than we care for ... In the
slightly longer term, our bodies may be infused with swarms of machines not
much larger than viruses, nanobots designed to scavenge wastes and repair
tissue damage at the scale of cells."

Broderick envisages a future in which "every human will have the choice of
staying healthily young indefinitely or of stepping aside, if they choose,
to make room for a new life, assuming, of course that we linger on this
planet and that we remain strictly human".

> From a futurologist's perspective, inter-planetary emigration is probably
neither here nor there. However, an attenuated relationship with the
strictly human does raise philosophical problems. Broderick is a
techno-triumphalist; tomorrow belongs to him. "No doubt the arguments will
continue for generations until all those opposed to endless life have died."

If his confidence is warranted, it's surprising that there hasn't been more
of a fuss made about such startling developments. Admittedly you can go to
the Immortality Institute's website or log on to the World Transhumanist
Association, but so far not a peep out of the federal Government. Are they
just trying, yet again, "to underpromise and deliver in spades" as John
Howard is wont to say? Usually voluble sources were tight-lipped, so I
decided to try thinking like a futurologist.

Supposing immortality were technically feasible, how would people avail
themselves of the opportunity? First World economics suggests that they'd
have to pay for it and that, like any scarce resource, it would be rationed
by price. Initially the capital cost would be astronomical and keep eternal
youth as the preserve of the very rich and, no doubt, their pets.

If electoral pressure -- and occasional riots -- obliged the G8 governments
to pour endless public funding into nanobot research, cryogenics and
cloning, the unit cost would fall. But even if immortality became a
national health service item, there would still be tricky distributional
issues. For example, someone would have to make decisions about who was
least likely to benefit from treatment and explain why they'd, as it were,
missed the bus.

Then again, think of the recriminations from the Third World, unless the
elixir of life were made freely available and as UN cant puts it: "Within a
socially acceptable time frame."

Or forget about the recriminations and think instead about a rogue state or
a terrorist organisation getting a nuclear weapon. How easy to hold the
life-enhanced (but by no means indestructible) populations of the developed
world to ransom: the slogan would be immortality for all or for none.

Even if enlightened self-interest triumphed, in an orderly transition to a
post-mortal world, there would still be pesky economic issues to sort out.
What, for example, happens to countries where huge amounts of capital are
diverted from other kinds of productive investment into a bottomless pit of
human resource development? In a society where those entering into
immortality spend most of their time at the gym or taking (on Broderick's
reckoning) 250 pills a day, who does the work and prepares the food?

After time and tide have borne away the last mortal cohort, there'd be an
end to the transfers of inherited capital that previously helped keep the
wheels of industry and speculative enterprise turning. For fear of running
short, business and investors would become highly risk-averse. While some
optimists might reckon that there's always time to make more money, most of
us would be playing it safe and hoarding or saving up for planetary
migration and to fund the next generation of life-enhancers.

Talking of the next generation, reproduction as we have known it would lose
any sense of urgency. The notion of immortality through progeny and the
survival of one's genes would fade away. Indeed, given the amount of time
that would have to be devoted to personal regeneration, it would be
surprising if people had any left over to devote to parenting. Besides, the
zero population growth lobby and the greens would doubtless be arguing that
there's no more room, at least on this over-crowded continent.

Presumably, in the transition period, adopting Third World babies would be
permitted. It might also be possible - borrowing the model of carbon
emissions trading - to buy the reproductive entitlements of adults who'd
been talked into renouncing their access to immortality. Forward-thinking
regimes such as China's might well set up a market in the reproductive
rights of long-term prisoners and those condemned to death, to cover
administrative costs and so forth and to complement the existing trade in
body parts.

Futurologists seldom take much notice of scarcity economics and they're apt
to assume technological progress means abundance for all. It hasn't so far,
of course, and -- if scarce resources meant rationing the right to
reproduce -- we would all be in terrible trouble. For it is the experience
of parenthood that most effectively teaches us, men especially, the lessons
of selflessness. That hard-wired capacity for unconditional love of
helpless offspring turns self-preoccupied adolescents into adults almost
overnight. Without parenthood, the race would become spoiled and go to rack
and ruin.

It is, I suppose, just conceivable that Broderick may be right about the
theoretical possibility of indefinitely prolonged life. However, human
nature is less malleable than human physiology and ill-adapted to
immortality's challenges. I also have my doubts about whether, if offered
the everlasting option, all that many of us would take it.

After all, well-adjusted people tend to develop a serene acceptance of
finitude. Then again, the sense of an ending is all that makes some lives,
especially very long ones, bearable in the meantime. Robert Louis
Stevenson's popular Requiem captures the sense of a welcome end:

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

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