Longevity: What is it all about?
The philosophical backbone of longevity research is closely related to that of Transhumanism. The Transhumanist philosophy is centered on the advancement of cognitive and health related aspects of humanity. The enhancement of these aspects is believed to lead to increased longevity. Moreover, with the help of emerging technologies, it is thought by some researchers that longevity could be extended to unthinkable limits, thus making these long-living persons ‘transhuman’ – hence the name.
Transhumanism is a complex, varied field with many sub-disciplines within it, reflecting the variation of schools of thought. Therefore, it would be crude to attempt to explain in just a few paragraphs. However, we can briefly touch upon its history and trajectory without doing injustice to the concept.
Seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) is often cited as one of the earliest visionaries of transhumanism. In his Discourse on Method, he reflected on the future of medicine, imagining a time in which aging – and the associated physical and mental degeneration – would no longer exist, or at least be preventable (Mirkes, 2019).
Later during the Gothic period, the motif of creating and modifying humans was predominant in the arts and humanities. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are prime examples of this increased interest in trans/infra-human capabilities. At the same time, nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the ‘Übermensch’ (i.e. a person who has transcended their normal human limitations/actualised their ‘self’) is also thought to have been a precursor to Transhumanist thought.
In the early 20th Century this motif continued to garner interest, demonstrated in the works of biologist Julian Huxley and cryptologist I.J. Good. By the 1960’s, American academic Robert Ettinger had become known as the ‘father of cryonics’ for his work in the field, giving the Transhumanist movement a boost in popularity. From the 1980’s onwards, Los Angeles became the hub of the movement, with figures such as Futurist Max More leading the intellectual front, and organisations such as the Alcor Life Extension Foundation and the Extropy Institute coming into existence.
Implications and criticisms
On the face of it, the quest to extend human life seems both timeless and noble. Generally speaking, who doesn’t want to live longer? As the famous Woody Allen joke goes:
Life is ‘full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering,
and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly’ (Annie Hall, 1977)
The aims of longevity and Transhumanist research seem – at face value – uncontroversial. However, as with almost every movement or school of thought, longevitists and transhumanists are not without their critics. Criticisms of those looking to extend the maximal lifespan through the use of emerging technologies are divided into two categories: practical criticisms and ethical criticisms.
Practical criticisms tend to relate to the feasibility of extending human lifespans. Many of these criticisms see both technology and medicine as limited in their ability of exponentially increasing longevity. Similarly, a second practical criticism is that of overpopulation and its consequences on environmental and political issues.
Ethical criticisms, on the other hand, are much more diverse and complex. A primary ethical criticism is most often voiced by religious institutions and figures. They argue that longevity and transhumanist aims seek not only to play the role of God (insofar as choosing when one dies), but that they also attempt to imitate what is promised in the afterlife – i.e. an eternal life. Thus, longevitists are deemed to be dissidents, undermining the power of the theistic God.
However, longevitists have argued against this, comparing their work to that which most of us do, simply on a grander scale. For example, many of us often engage in new exercise regimes, experiment with alternative diets and take vitamin supplements, in an attempt to improve our health and thereby extend our life. Thus, it is argued, longevity research aims to do the exact same thing, only on a larger, more systematic scale. Therefore, the religious argument would have to consider any attempt to increase one’s life span as a form of ‘playing God’.
In equal measure, other ethical criticisms focus on points such as the morality behind genetic modification and the implications of immortality regarding the meaning of life. Overall, the perspectives offered by longevitists, transhumanists and others, provide an inarguably valuable insight into what the future and emerging technologies may hold. If unlimited longevity and an ‘eternal life’ will one day be possible, how this will change society is a question relevant for every living person.