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Book Review: The Scientific Conquest of Death


When I heard this summer that the Immortality Institute was publishing its first book, The Scientific Conquest of Death: Essays on Infinite Lifespans, I asked for an advanced copy to review for the Speculist.

I was surprised and honored when Bruce Klein and Reason from FightAging emailed me a working draft. This was a valuable blog-lesson for me: ask and you shall (sometimes) receive.

I'm happy to report that the book is a complete success.

This book is a collection of essays divided into two parts: Science and Perspectives. The Science half of the book is written by scientists well-known to life extension enthusiasts: Aubrey de Grey, Michael West, Robert Freitas, Ray Kurzweil, and Marvin Minsky to name a few.

These authors work in different fields but share a vision of a future where degenerative aging is a choice - and a rather unpopular choice. For most of these scientists, it's not so much a question of "if," but "when:"

We can no longer pretend that we know so little about how to cure aging that the timing of this advance will be determined overwhelmingly by future serendipitous discoveries: we are in the home straight already.

-Aubrey de Grey

While I found the Perspectives half of the book a little slower going, ultimately it may prove to be more important than the first half.

While the authors of the Science section outline potential paths to the goal, the Perspective authors ask whether the goal is worthy. Will we be plagued by overpopulation or lethargy if death is removed from the picture?

The objections [to eternal youth] can be divided into two different categories: practical and philosophical. Practical worries might include: the population problem, the problem of scarce resources and environmental pollution, eternal youth that is only available to the wealthy, the accumulation of too much wealth and power by an elite group of immortals�

A philosophical objection to life extension is the worry that the longer we lived, the less we would value our time. After all, a basic economic principle is that the value of a resource tends to increase the more scarce it is. Would we somehow value each moment less if we lived longer? Another worry that people may have is that a desire for life extension is somehow selfish. Perhaps budding immortals would become really self-centered and narcissistic?

-Marc Geddes

To its credit the Immortality Institute allowed debate on these issues. Several of the Perspective essayists are quite critical of the goal of life extension.

But if the authors of the Science portion the book are correct that radical life extension is coming, any philosophical arguments against life extension will ring hollow when it arrives. The Perspectives section is of greater value when it debates how to adapt our society to life extension, rather than whether we should pursue it.

The publication of this book is certainly a landmark for the Immortality Institute. The Institute should be proud of this accomplishment. More importantly, this book is a milestone in the quest for life extension. The depth of the bench here, the willingness of respected scientists to contribute to such a book, is an important development.

These contributors and others that follow can now investigate the possibility of radical life extension without the fear of being thought unserious. This alone could make all the difference.

The Scientific Conquest of Death: Essays on Infinite Lifespans, will be available within the next couple of weeks at Amazon.com.

Click here for the Table of Contents, introductions for both the Science and Perspective portions of the book, biographical sketches of the authors, and additional resources.


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Stephen --

Well, you've certainly got us all looking forward to reading it. Let's put a link up as soon as it's available on Amazon.

You're right about the importance of discussing these issues now. Kurzweil recently predicted that by 2030, the differences between and 30-year-old and a 120-year-old will be negligible. If he's right, the economic and social impact is hard to imagine. Interesting times lie ahead.

Stephen, you make a great point about the distinction between "allowing" a technology and "adapting" to a technology.

The thing that puzzles me here and not just about some of the essays you mention in this book: why debate whether or not to "allow" life extension? It's pretty clear that in a remotely democratic society, that we will allow reasonable life extension because that will be what everyone wants. Why ignore this?


Exactly. Life extension is being and will be pursued until one of two things happen:

a. It's proven conclusively to be an impossible dream, or (more likely)

b. It becomes a reality.

Extended life holds too much promise - is too valuable - not to pursue. Arguments against pursuing it now are moot. It will be pursued.

If life extension becomes a reality (and I think it will), then arguments against adaptation will be even less likely to carry the day. Can you imagine going to the doctor's office in 15 years, being told that a series of monthly injections will arrest and/or reverse aging, and you telling the doctor, "No, Thanks."

Neither can I.

The debates that we should be having are:

a. Can this be done?

b. How will our society be affected by it if it becomes a reality?

I don't mean this as a criticism of the book as a whole. The first half of the book doesn't suffer from this problem much at all. And the second part of the book deals with many important issues about adapting ourselves and our society to this massive change.

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