BY STEPHEN KNAPP
“ …Transhumanists aren’t about almost. Their ultimate goal is eternity, and that’s going to require a complete shift from biology to technology.”
Near this region is a fountain, and whoever drinks of its waters three times on an empty stomach will have no sickness for thirty years; a person who can bathe in this fountain, be he a hundred or a thousand years, will regain the age of thirty-two.
—The Letter of Prester John, 11th century AD
For at least as long as people have been dying, they’ve been banking on a magic bullet that can stop Death in its tracks.
The ancient manuscripts are alive with pools and potions guaranteed to restore depreciated human equipment to showroom condition. Great fortunes have been expended in search of the elusive Elixir of Life, and many a robust romantic has dogged the secret of eternal vigor straight into early grave. While still a young man, Alexander the Great marched onto the Indian Subcontinent not because he didn’t have enough empire already, but because he’d heard tell of a Spring of Immortality somewhere thereabouts and he was determined not to become an old man. He got half of his wish, anyway.
If every Fountain of Youth has so far come up dry, the race to beat the Reaper is running hotter than ever, and there’s reason to believe we might actually be gaining on the gallows. Instead of looking for Methuselah in myth and magic, however, the modern Ponce de León hopes to find him in science and technology. It’s called Transhumanism, and a lot of people expect to begin taking cool, deep draughts of everlasting life by 2050, if not sooner.
Technology in the 21st century is a speeding freight train that’s about to go airborne, and no field has seen greater advancements than medicine. New drugs, new therapies and a whole host of new appliances are coming onto the medical market almost daily.
Flesh is fragile, corruptible, impermanent. The first weapon in the Transhumanist’s anti-death arsenal is bioengineering. If your kidneys go south on you, just grow new ones. Laboratory-grown human skin is already old hat, and artificially cultivated internal organs transplanted into animals are, in many cases, proving themselves just as good as the originals. Factory-farmed guts could be going to market within five years.
Machinery is strong, durable, impervious. Replace doomed biological components with sturdy manufactures and Charon is out of business. Again, in many ways, we’re halfway there. The Food and Drug Administration has already signed off on more than 4,000 devices that can be medically implanted in the body. More than a million Americans wear pacemakers, upwards of seven million are currently walking around thanks to commercially produced hips and knees, and almost 60,000 spinal cord stimulators are installed every year. Add to that the huge advances made in the kindred fields of prosthetics and robotics, and a half-mechanical “augmented” human being could be expected to function almost indefinitely.
But Transhumanists aren’t about almost. Their ultimate goal is eternity, and that’s going to require a complete shift from biology to technology. Given that our current computational curve is approaching 90 degrees, optimists predict that within 25 years, we’ll be able to imprint the complete contents of the human brain onto silicon, every unique memory, mood and aptitude intact, and slip the chip into a fully functional robotic body. Assuming they’ve purchased the suggested perpetual service warrantee, the resulting cybernetic citizen could be expected to last virtually forever. Whether or not the “soul” can be preserved digitally doesn’t factor into the equation, Transhumanism being a spur line of Humanism and dismissive of theological considerations.
When the Ichthyophagi showed wonder at the number of the years, he led them to a fountain, wherein when they had washed, they found their flesh all glossy and sleek, as if they had bathed in oil, and a scent came from the spring like that of violets.
—Herodotus, fifth century BC
As Transhumanists envision it, our inevitable conquest over mortality will usher in a glorious “Post-human Age,” freed from the fear of death and positively awash in useful technologies, we’ll have both the time and the tools to craft a more rational, responsive and compassionate society. There’ll be no secrets in the post-human world, as we wirelessly communicate our every thought, emotion and experience to each other the way computers do, which is effortlessly and at the speed of light. It’s presumed that this will make us more empathetic and collaborative, and hence less self-interested and more concerned with the greater social good. Think “Organian Council” as opposed to “Borg Collective.”
If there’s a flaw in the Transhumanist’s reasoning, it’s that people aren’t necessarily reasonable creatures. Despite our instinctive aversion to dying, it would seem that most of us prefer it to the alternative. Numerous surveys have been conducted posing the possibility of eternal life, with anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of respondents indicating they would refuse an offer of immortality. The most common reason given is “boredom,” as in “all the ages to come is a lot of time to kill.”
Just as likely, though, is our instinctive faith in a rational cosmos. However poor our understanding of the Natural Order, there is one. And whatever death is, it’s one half of that order’s fundamental mechanism. The undying, it might be believed, would live in direct opposition to the celestial structure, an eternal sour note in the Music of the Spheres. But vague philosophical reservations aren’t going to put the brakes on life-extending technologies, or divert the age-old quest for immortality.
Ponce de León succumbed to the Natural Order in 1521 at the age of 47, laid low by a native spear in the Florida wilderness. As he lay dying by inches on his Havana deathbed, he might have found mortality less bitter had he known that, although he never discovered the storied source of eternal life, its legend would make him immortal.
We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered. Now what may foeman’s malice do to harm us?
—The Rigveda, 16th century BC