Book Review: The Scientific Conquest of Death: Essays on Infinite Lifespans, ed. Immortality Institute (Buenos Aires: LibrosEnRed, 2004), 294 pages.

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture on November 11, 2006

This is the first book published by Immortality institute, a collection of essays devoted to propagating the new gospel that death’s tyrannical rule over humankind is approaching the end of its reign. It appears that death’s days are numbered, thanks to advances in anti-aging technology, the promises of nanotechnology and therapeutic cloning, and other technologies. This book is unabashedly about conquering the scourge of aging. Repeatedly, death and aging are referred to as diseases (Jo? Pedro de Magalh?s actually refers to aging as a “sexually transmitted terminal disease, p. 48, and Shannon Vyff “the greatest killer of all time,” p. 226). Whether or not the majority of the scientific community regards death as a disease is another matter.

The book is divided into two large sections, the first deals with the science of immortality, and the second deals with the ethical dilemmas surrounding the battle against death and the potential problems of living a very long time. The first section includes contributions from evolutionary biologist Michael Rose and prolongevity apologist Aubrey de Grey, along with articles by futurist Ray Kurzweil and entrepreneur Michael D. West. Among the most promising technologies are therapeutic cloning, nanotechnology, and genetic therapy.

While some proposals deal with the aging human body (nanotechnology and therapeutic cloning for the replacement of crucial bodily organs), it is clear that the human body will one day need to be disposed of, if immortality is to be attained. de Grey breaches the subject first, proposing that one day we may have to ‘backup’ our cognitive state onto something more reliable. But other suggestions include ‘digital digestion,’ ‘programmable blood,’ new hearts and eventually brains (p. 96ff). Sooner or later, we’ll become more machine and less biological, allowing our downloaded consciousness to explore new hyper-dimensional worlds, absorbing ourselves into other minds and virtual realities. Existence in such virtual worlds, with super-sensitive hyper tactile skin (made from “nanoengineered supple materials”) would allow us endless opportunities for interaction with others (both real and simulated), for business and sensual encounters (p. 105). Indeed, William Sims Bainbridge writes enthusiastically about the progress towards ‘cyberimmortality.’

In the second section, we find social, religious, and ethical issues addressed from a variety of vantage points, most either offering less by way of argument than by pure persuasion, or offering up yet more scientific solutions to the problems that have been created by science of immortality itself. In fairness to the editors, they do include a couple of genuinely skeptical articles, one questioning the ability for any computational device to have a proper sense of time consciousness, and an article from English professor Eric S. Rabkin, who argues from literary history that a life without limits is no life at all. Yet, so high-octane is the enthusiasm expressed in the first half of the articles, that the second half, unfortunately, reads more like a parochial or paying a token lip-service to ethical concerns, given that the ‘objections’ they address are either faint shadows of more substantive concerns. This should not be terribly surprising, given that the majority of contributors here already see little difficulty with any problems posed by the solution to death.

It might be tempting to read these articles on the conquering of aging and the defeat of death with a bemused smile on one’s face, given the seemingly radical ideas put forth in this book-assertions and predictions which sound only slightly more credulous coming from the mouths of Dr. Spock or captain Kirk on the starship Enterprise. Thus, after reading this collection of essays, I’m not sure whether to be bemused or scared out of my wits. It might be tempting to look upon all of these musings as the spontaneous ebullitions of hyped-up techno-utopians caught up in the collective moral effluvium of their own ‘high’ ideals. Yet, we must not forget that there were many Luddites who at one time believed that travel to the moon was equally ludicrous. Indeed, it would be hard to take this book seriously without keeping this realization in mind. But when one concedes that some of these things might one day be possible, this book is likely to be perceived as either the millennial dawning of a new age of science, or downright scary.

The Immortality has put together a book about which it is impossible to be neutral. Yet, I perceive that this book will probably be noted more for its polarizing than proselytizing effect. In the end, I’m not sure then that many sceptics will be convinced that a future where death occurs primarily by choice would be a better world to live in than the present world, though this is by no means need be construed as a tacit approval of death by starvation, war, or genocide. Throughout the book, the idea that death ideally would be purely voluntary-barring the occasional accident or homicide-was the most disturbing. I wonder how many people would choose to live in a world where there is literally nothing left to die for, where the primary cause of death becomes essentially as a choice, because there is nothing left to live for (a.k.a. suicide). I think the words of C. S. Lewis provide an apt summary to those who are trying to grasp at scientific immortality: “wise enough to see the death of their kind approaching, but not wise enough to endure it. 1

1C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1938), 159.

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