Two Books That Increase My Rational Optimism

(Monday, October 5, 2009, 6:32 p.m.)

I have, for a very long time, been an optimist about humanity collectively, but a pessimist about my own life as an individual. It boils down to this: humanity has progressed immensely over the centuries, both technologically and culturally, but a person only has 100 years or less to enjoy their life before Death takes away everything from them. This somber truth is one of the reasons why the world religions that promote belief in an afterlife have such appeal to believers.

But what if the reign of Death were ended? What if we cured disease and not only stopped, but figured out how to actually reverse aging? What if we could rejuvenate aged cells of our bodies and could make genetic "fixes" to remove hereditary diseases like Huntington's chorea? What if we could live as long as we really wanted to, having hundreds of years to study things that interest us, to write novels and symphonies or whatever we wanted to create, to master skills we wanted to learn, to grow and nurture relationships with special someones that could continue to enrich our lives for centuries? Wouldn't our lives have the potential, at least, to be richer, better, more joyful, if we were not constantly being pursued by the shadow of Death? How much human potential is wasted because a person has such a tiny life-span that they are unable to reach their full intellectual and creative potential before Time cuts them off?

To most people, the prospect of life as long as you choose, seems sheer fantasy, or it seems something that must be attained "beyond the grave," through some mechanism suggested by one of the world's great faiths. But the truth is that science is working on this problem right now during our lifetimes, and our understanding of what causes aging and "natural" death has increased. Two books I have been reading recently discuss this and more. TRANSCEND, by Ray Kurweil and Terry Grossman; and The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil discuss these things at much length. A central premise of these two books, as well as Fantastic Voyage, also by Kurweil and Grossman, is that we are figuring out the mechanisms of aging and will soon figure out how to stop and even reverse it through biotechnology, and eventually medical nanotechnology (sub-microscopic robots capable of making repairs to cells). The authors believe that the necessary biotechnology will be available in less than 20 years and the necessary nanotechnology in on the order of 30 years. That means that if you and I are able to stay alive long enough, the technology necessary to keep us alive indefinitely will become available and rapidly drop in price, so we can all afford it. TRANSCEND discusses the generalities of what we know about aging and what we can do about it given the technology we've got, and it offers a program of health preservation based on where we are with today's technology. The Singularity is Near (which deserves a separate blog entry) discusses how technology could augment the human species and some of the benefits and consequences of this.

I'm currently reading TRANSCEND and the authors make some very sensible recommendations, along with good explanations of why they make those recommendations. TRANSCEND is an acronym which stands for:

Talk with your doctor
Assessment (of your current health state)
Supplements (because the body does not produce all necessary nutrients thanks to our evolutionarily inherited self-destruction through aging)
Calorie reduction (i.e. eating less)
New technologies (as they emerge) and

The first part of the book discusses the problems of aging and the leading causes of death: heart disease, stroke, cancer, etc. The second part of the book describes their health program in detail with a chapter devoted to each of the nine TRANSCEND components. I note that I eat far too much sugar and high-glycemic load carbohydrates, and that I don't get enough exercise. I also currently don't take any supplements. (Kurzweil and Grossman have been criticized by some for recommending a lot of supplements, but if it's true that the older body does make enough of the crucial enzymes, etc., then it makes scientific sense to take supplements to offset the "planned obsolescence mechanisms" of our genetic programming.)

There are some people who will say that Death is part of the natural order of things and therefore must be right and proper for us. But I think this line of reasoning is a good example of what is called the naturalistic fallacy. It is true that there are potential issues with overpopulation once people start becoming immortal en masse, but I believe (along with Kurzweil) that there will be technological and cultural solutions to this problem in the future.

Why should we say Death is good? It seems to presume that Life must be misery and that it is best not prolonged too long. Philosophers were maybe right to make this observation in the days before germ theory and knowledge of DNA, but I say the game has changed. Long life won't always have to mean more suffering. Much of the suffering comes from the genetic programs we've inherited that cut our lives short. Originally, a short life-span may have been good for the human species because it insured that the aged and infirm would not weigh down the tribe and keep it from surviving famines, wars, and other misfortunes from without. But now that we are members of modern civilization, we're no longer in the environment we were "evolved for." Our genes, as they are written, hinder us in many ways, making us too aggressive and short-lived. A race of longer-lived immortals would probably have less tendency to war and take risks through violence because each individual would have a longer time-horizon to look forward to and want to preserve. (Observe that inner-city gang-kids believe their lives will be short, and they have no real futures. Observe also that suicide bombers are often drawn from the ranks of the chronically unemployed, people who don't believe there is much future in their lives on earth.)

When faced with the potential prospect of very long lives, we may be better motivated to take care of our planet and nurture positive relationships with other people who we're going to be around a long time. We would be able to learn from our mistakes and carry that learning hundreds of years forward as individuals. We wouldn't be constantly repeating the mistakes of history because we'd remember those mistakes from being alive when they were made. I look forward to a time when we can say, with Paul of Tarsus (but without the Apostle's ascetic mysticism): "O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" Thus, I welcome material out there, such as these books, that increases my rational basis for optimism.

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