Do I want to live forever?

Part of the Tomorrow’s People conference was a series of set-piece lectures by John Harris, professor of philosophy at Manchester University. In his final talk he started with a quote from a philosopher I really respect — Douglas Adams. He used Douglas’s story of Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged who became immortal by accident:

“To begin with it was fun, he had a ball, living dangerously, taking risks, cleaning up on high-yield long-term investments, and just generally outliving the hell out of everybody.

In the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, and that terrible listlessness which starts to set in at about 2.55, when you know that you’ve had all the baths you can usefully have that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the papers you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o’clock, and you will enter the long dark teatime of the soul.

So things began to pall for him. The merry smiles he used to wear at other people’s funerals began to fade. He began to despise the Universe in general, and everyone in it in particular.”

John Harris then went onto argue that finding technologies that help us achieve immortality is a good (and almost inevitable) thing.

Now, I’ve disagreed with almost everything John has argued in his lectures and this was no exception. However, he has helped me to work out what I think about enhancement. Before the conference I hadn’t really made up my mind even though I had edited a book about it.

I realised I don’t want to ‘cure’ ageing or rush headlong into the other smarter and stronger enhancements that were also talked about at the conference. I think of ageing as a good and often beautiful thing creating incredible variety in our societies that we learn a great deal from.

I’m sure life expectancy will creep upwards and I don’t have a problem with that but the radical intervention based approach to halting the aging process that some people argued for during the conference isn’t where I’d put all my money right now.

You can’t talk about this without mentioning biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey. Our profile of Aubrey in Better Humans? has been painted by some as supportive for his crusade to end aging. That’s certainly not what I meant by it. I meant the article to be about his role as a creator of public debates on the future of science which he’s very good at, and I’m glad that our interview has given him more profile because I think he gets people thinking in a way that other scientists shy away from. I also think he’s a very nice guy and I’ve enjoyed our conversations.

But Aubrey, for example, argues that money to give people in Africa mosquito nets so they don’t get malaria should be diverted into anti-aging research. I don’t believe that . I don’t believe in Aubrey’s assertion that a life saved through postponing aging is the same as a life saved by stopping someone from dying in a road traffic accident.

I’m not a bioconservative, I’m up for enhancements as and when they come along as positive byproducts of medical research although I’ll pick and choose as I go. I’m just not a rampant transhumanist. My approach is to stay involved and encourage other people to be involved in the shaping of technologies as they are being conceived . In the end I don’t think either the bioconservatives or the transhumanists will get their way.

And that’s why the best talk at the conference for me was Peter Schwartz of GBN. Peter didn’t go for the usual academic approach of ‘giving a paper’. Instead he told us he was from the year 2050, didn’t he look good for his age (104), and that he was going to tell us was what happened after the conference. This gave him a chance to talk through the various scenarios he imagines for human enhancement as if they’d happened. And the most interesting thing about this is something that every other speaker missed. They do all happen. There’s never one path for history, different people do things in different ways. Things evolve, they don’t just materialise. We work out a way to survive in a complex world that’s not always the best way or the worst, but we muddle through.

And that’s the way I’d like human enhancement to develop and the way I think it will. By contrast John Harris’s approach was universal, he argued that the transhumanists were right and that we should shift all our research priorities to follow. I just don’t think the world should — or does — work like that.

So there you go. After a year and a half working on the issue, reading lots of books and articles, meeting many of the characters involved and even editing a book on the subject, I can safely say I’m not a transhumanist or a bioconservative.

And by the way, the average life expectancy of someone who is immortal (ie does not age) is apparently around about 1,100 years because even if you eliminate ageing there are still plenty of other ways to die. There’s a cheery thought.

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