What is life extension? The term is employed in various ways which obliges a slender clarification. Firstly, it is often used as a shorthand for life extension science (more formally known as biomedical gerontology) – the science devoted to attaining indefinite longevity. Secondly, it denotes the longevity which constitutes the objective of life extension science. Thirdly, it sometimes refers to the increase in average human lifespan already achieved by improvements in medical practice and technology. Lastly, it can also refer to the various movements geared towards the dissemination of knowledge on the feasibility and desirability of indefinite longevity.
Life extension intuitively connotes something radical and new. As the scientific pursuit of indefinite longevity, life extension makes a legitimate claim to radicalism. However, if life extension is framed generally as an assault on any event which shortens the human lifespan, then it loses its novelty. In the latter sense, ever since man gained respect for germ theory, implemented systematic hand washing and hygiene; ever since man made use of antiseptics, antibiotics and vaccines, he has practiced life extension. It is no statistical anomaly that the advent of the industrial revolution saw a sudden and unprecedented increase in the average life expectancy – largely the result of the attenuation in infant mortality rates emanating from technological and societal implementations afforded by the revolution (systemic hygiene, sewers, central heating, clean drinking water, more food, cheaper clothing, more hospitals, antibiotics, vaccines etc.). These fundamental amenities and practices along with continual advances in surgery and diagnostic and therapeutic technology have undoubtedly led to an astounding increase in the average life expectancy. But changes in the maximum lifespan have been less significant (if not nil) – a situation further complicated by the paucity of historical support for long-lived persons (for there has never been a dearth of extraordinary claims to longevity; a fact which modernity greets with appropriate skepticism). Some biogerontologist speculate that the maximum human life span is somewhere in the region of 125 years and may even be under evolutionary prescription. Jeanne Calment, the oldest person on historical record, lived to 122 years, 164 day.
The fact that aging is the primary (and seemingly the only inevitable) mode of death has resulted in a necessary particularization of the general life extension agenda to an assault on aging. In this sense, life extension refers to anticipated technology and is interchangeable with biomedical gerontology. In the realm of medical technology, we have undoubtedly gone far; but not far enough, and the inevitable next stage in health care is the dawn of radical life extension. Life extension, as the scientific pursuit of indefinite longevity, is sometimes referred to as radical life extension to differentiate it from increases in average lifespan achieved under existing systems of medical policy, practice and technology. All these policies and technologies have the fundamental commonality that they systemically seek to treat the symptoms of aging. Radical life extension is predicated on a substantially different philosophy – the bold objective of annihilating aging itself.
It verges on tragedy that we pump billions of dollars annually into the elimination of the symptoms of old age – cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis, hypertension, cancer, type II diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease – yet tackling the root of the problem – aging – seems taboo. It is driven by a attitude which preaches “good” but eschews “better” and “the best”. Such illogically must have part of its origin in what Aubrey de Grey termed the pro-aging trance – the impulsion to leap to embarrassingly unjustified conclusions in order to put the horror of aging out of one’s mind.
The principle technologies by which aging elimination is expected to be achieved are stem cell research, tissue engineering, organ replacement, genetic modification and molecular repair nanotechnology – with molecular repair nanotechnology representing the most revolutionary form of life extending technology. An important safeguard against death before the advent of or access to life extending technology is cryonic preservation. Cryonics is therefore indispensable to the life extension agenda and it is not surprising to find that a number of life extensionists are also cryonicists.
It would be remiss to speak about life extension without commenting on its moral aspect. Life extension, as indefinite longevity, represents the moral imperative of rendering the human lifespan – in so far as it is possible – a matter of choice. No apologies can be made for that fact. In its defense one need resort to no sophistries of argumentation. The fundamental moral principle of life extension is the right to life – which is accompanied by no clause on the duration of that life. A corollary of the right to life is the right to the highest quality of life one has access to or can afford. A necessary requirement of a quality life is health. Life extension therefore represents the rendering of a person’s health a matter of choice in so far as it is possible. It is inconceivable that a person’s demand for good health violates any moral principles or that a person’s desire for an indefinite health span challenges any moral proscription.
Those who proclaim the inevitability and even the utility of death are pitiable in so far as they represent victims of centuries of subjugation and have acquired sympathy for the oppressor. It is also an affront to human ingenuity and antithetical to the human spirit that man should entertain the notion of death as a solution to overpopulation – a Malthusian pessimism which has no place in the 21st century. To pronounce that no effects would issue from the implementation of life extension technology would be to play the charlatan as the injection of any great technology into society is bound to create a momentary disequilibrium. Whatever problems may emanate from human life extension, I am convinced that they are not beyond the ingenuity of man and are small relative to life extension as a supreme benefit and moral imperative.
A fundamental objective of life extension is the advent of the Methuselarity – a term coined by Aubrey de Grey to refer the point in our progress against aging at which our rational expectation of the age to which we can expect to live without age-related physiological and cognitive decline goes from the low three digits to infinite. A related concept is The Longevity Escape Velocity – also coined by de Grey – which refers to a threshold in life extension which would allow us to deplete the levels of all types of damage more rapidly than they are accumulating.
I unreservedly proclaim that the advent of radical life extension – in the form of the Methuselarity – will represent a turning point in history. Time shall be severed in two – before and after the Methuselarity. I anticipate that the attainment of the Methuselarity will be accompanied by an economic climate which will place as much emphasis on the dispersal of life extending technology as its further improvement. This will culminate in a spatial homogenization of medical technology and will herald the beginning of the end of medicine as the very technology which affords the realization of life extension (molecular repair nanotechnology) will be compatible with the efficient elimination of pathogens, detoxification, and general repair of bodily damage even in extreme situations such as high-dose whole-body irradiation, 3rd and 4th degree burns and decapitation. I also envision artificial augmentation of the immune system through recombinant DNA technology and the seamless integration of nanobots into our biochemistry (see Freitas’ microbivore).
The same technology will also permit the reanimation of patients who have undergone cryonic preservation – the only safeguard against death before the advent of or access to life extending technology.
True to its inexhaustible generality of application, molecular nanotechnology in the form of molecular assemblers (a technology which will most definitely emerge concurrently with the quality of molecular repair technology suitable for radical life extension) will transform the rules of economic exchanges and the very spirit of social relations by ushering an age of plenty.
The post-Methuselarity will also place a premium on the value of life and will incite our enthusiasm to engineer a safe society. In the absence of death by aging and disease, simple statistical analysis predicts a median lifespan of 1200 years for a 12-year-old and a maximum of 25,000 years (with a probability of one-in-a-billion). In a safe society, the average and maximum human lifespan are unimaginable.