Before the 7.6 billion people alive today, demographers estimate that about 100 billion people lived and died. This is the reality of the human condition. Memento mori, as medieval Christians reflected—Remember that you have to die.
What if it didn’t have to be this way? There are, in fact, organisms whose bodies steadily and reliably replace cells with healthier cells, and whose tissues and organs self-repair and maintain their vigor. They’re called children. And there are cells in adults that divide indefinitely. They’re called cancer. What if there were a way to genetically re-engineer and chemically reprogram our cells to divide indefinitely like they do in children, and to continue this process throughout adulthood without becoming cancerous? Could we become immortal?
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work,” Woody Allen once said, “I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” There are today well-funded groups of scientists who believe we can do just that. If these techno-dreamers succeed, would you want to live for 150 years? 300 years? Or even 500 years? I’m not talking about being brain-dead and bedridden on a morphine drip. I mean living a full, rich physical and mental life for centuries, possibly forever. Would you opt for immortality?
Most people say they would not. In surveys that ask people how long they would like to live, most say that they would not want to carry on much past the current average life expectancy. This is another example of status quo bias, or our emotional preference for whatever it is we are used to.1 Our personal life expectations are yoked to those of our generation’s life expectancy. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll of 2,012 American adults, for example, 60 percent said that they would not want to live past the age of 90, while another 30 percent said they would prefer to cash out by age 80. And these findings were consistent regardless of income, belief (or not) in an afterlife, and (in some cases) even anticipated medical advances. When it was proposed that “if new medical treatments slow the aging process and allow the average person to live decades longer, to at least 120 years old,” a slight majority of 51 percent said that they would not personally want such treatments, and that it would be “fundamentally unnatural” and “a bad thing for society.”
Leaving aside for a moment the societal question of overpopulation, resource depletion, and how we would feed and provide for the billions of surviving centenarians (and beyond), I find the “it wouldn’t be natural” objection to radical life extension readily gainsaid by a simple thought experiment. If you were given a death sentence of, say, tomorrow, would you want to live one more day in order to get your affairs in order and to tell everyone you love how you feel about them? Of course you would. How about one more week? Definitely. Another month? Absolutely. One more year? Well, there are more things to do, so sure. Would you like to live another decade or two or three? Sure! That would give you time to travel and perhaps even take up a new career.
At some point I might find the time horizon at which you’d say “that’s enough”—perhaps a half century from now—but fast-forward to the day before that date and we’re back to the cycle of wishing for one more day, week, month, year, decade…. Unless you are terminally ill and in such pain and misery that one more week or month is manageable only through massive doses of morphine, at no point is a reasonably healthy and happy individual realistically likely to be willing to check out early just because “it wouldn’t be natural” to continue. As for society, let the nihilists and the cynics fall on their swords. I’ll take another sunrise and sunset, thank you.
The Pew findings bear this out. Respondents were more likely to favor life extension if they are younger, believe that future medical treatments would provide a higher quality of life, if they could still be productive by working longer, if they wouldn’t be a strain on our natural resources, if older people were not seen as a problem for society, and if living longer did not result in debilitating diseases and disabilities.
What is natural is for healthy, happy, and productive people to desire to continue living and loving for as long as they remain healthy, happy, and productive. More and more, people are ignoring the aspiration captured by the rock band The Who in their 1965 anthem My Generation: “I hope I die before I get old.” This includes the band’s aging frontmen Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, who are still touring half a century after they flirted with taking the path of their drummer Keith Moon, who died at age 32 from the then customary drug overdose.
The idea of living forever, in fact, is not such a radical idea when you consider the fact that the vast majority of people already believe that they will do so in the next life. Since the late 1990s Gallup has consistently found that between 72 and 83 percent of Americans believe in heaven. Globally, rates of belief in heaven in other countries typically lag behind those found in America, but they are nonetheless robust. A 2011 Ipsos/Reuters poll, for example, found that of 18,829 people surveyed across 23 countries,2 51 percent said they were convinced that an afterlife exists, ranging from a high of 62 percent of Indonesians and 52 percent of South Africans and Turks, to a low of 28 percent of Brazilians and only 3 percent of the very secular Swedes.
So powerful and pervasive are such convictions that even a third of agnostics and atheists proclaim belief in an afterlife. Say what? A 2014 survey conducted by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture on 15,738 Americans between the ages of 18 and 60 found that 13.2 percent identify as atheist or agnostic, and 32 percent of those answered in the affirmative to the question: “Do you think there is life, or some sort of conscious existence, after death?”
Depending on what these people believe about what, exactly, is resurrected in the next life—just your soul, or both your body and your soul—the belief among religious people that “you” will continue indefinitely in some form in the hereafter is not so different in principle from what the scientific immortalists are trying to accomplish in the hear and now.
I am very skeptical of all religious scenarios of the afterlife, and I have my doubts that these techno-immortalists will succeed, especially for my generation of baby boomers edging ever closer to the upper ceiling of our life expectancy. But I secretly hope that along the way they will at least stumble across cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s before I succumb to these scourges of our species. And if they do succeed in radically extending human life, instead of settling for John Donne’s conviction that “One short sleep past, we wake eternally,” we should opt for Dylan Thomas’s conviction and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
In the meantime, whether there is an afterlife or not, we don’t live there and then. We live here and now. So make the most of every day, every relationship, and every opportunity to make your life, and the lives of those in your orbit and elsewhere and in future generations, just a little bit better than they were before. That is all any of us can hope for. It may not be heaven, but it is a type of heaven on earth.
Mr. Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His latest book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia, published January 9, 2018 by Henry Holt and Co.
References and Notes:
1 Samuelson, W. and R. J. Zeckhauser. 1988. “Status Quo Bias in Decision Making.” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 1, 7-59.
2 Countries surveyed were Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the U.S.