in skeptical defense of transhumanism…

August 3, 2010

Skepticism, no matter how snarky or critical, is not the same thing as naysaying. While the differences could be mentioned again and again in abstract and high level posts by science and skeptical bloggers for the next century, the stereotype of a skeptic as a cynical contrarian out to kill everyone’s buzz still persists. So, instead of trying to argue why that’s not the case through metaphors and analogies, I thought I’d show you a very real case of skepticism vs. naysaying to demonstrate the difference between technical objections to an idea and just being a cynic. The part of the cynic will be played by Paul Carr of TechCrunch and his post about why we need to abandon all hope of life extension technologies and embrace death as something that’s supposed to happen in about eight or so decades. Yes, that’s right, this time I’m going to be defending transhumanists.

Normally, there’s not a whole lot of post material for me on a blog about tech startups, but the transhumanist and Technological Singularity trends, both of which I’ve covered pretty extensively, have quite an impressive following in Silicon Valley. So it only makes sense that those who closely follow big shots in the world of tech and their newest projects would also at least mention their lively interest in transhumanism and the ideas of Ray Kurzweil, who established Singularity University in the heart of the famous tech corridor, and is offering a course in futurism/networking opportunities to paying clients. In a roundabout and muddled way, Carr hits the key notes about the mindset of those who think that technology is a panacea and that the answer to every problem is more technology, just like hammers see every problem as just another nail. But where he quickly goes off the rails is in saying that our bodies are only supposed to last about 80 years and we probably don’t have a shot at changing that. That statement simply isn’t scientifically valid.

Aging is a very complex process, one that we don’t yet really understand as well as we should, but there’s no law of nature that caps lifespan and it’s theoretically possible for an organism with an unlimited lifespan to evolve if given the chance. True, as explained in the link, these creatures would probably find it pretty difficult to live in a world that evolved around cycles of birth and death, but since there is no killer gene or a big ticking time bomb in our cells that acts like nature’s kill switch, it’s remotely plausible. Of course, because there’s no one exact cause of death we could try and bypass or mitigate, life extension is a very complex endeavor, and more of an art than a science at this point since testing treatments on human subjects would take centuries, while the discipline itself is just getting off the ground. It simply hasn’t finished the basic research needed to develop really promising life extension techniques. To dismiss the entire concept solely because we haven’t had time to find something truly viable just yet is awfully short-sighted. But Carr seems to have zero interest in the science of the subject matter he chose to tackle, and quickly jumps into the realm of philosophy.

You see, his thesis is that our short lives drive us to achieve as much as we can, as soon as we can, and the exceptional and creative individuals who accomplish immense projects before they hit middle age are simply trying to make every day count. Take away the threat of the Grim Reaper, he warns, and where’s the motivation to succeed? Again, an interesting argument from a philosophical perspective, but scientifically and logically unfounded. As noted before, humans would certainly be able to adjust to longer lifespans without the huge dystopian disruptions predicted by naysayers of life extension research. As far as personal accomplishments go, that depends on the person. Just like some of us are driven by relentless energy and zeal, others couldn’t be bothered to find a lost remote. Those driven to achieve, will. Those who are content with their routines will simply continue their routine for a longer span of time. And funny enough, it’s the driven and ambitious whose interest and money are propping up the quest for life extension because they want to accomplish more than a typical human lifetime will grant them. They want to reach for the stars, in some cases, quite literally.

Instead of telling entrepreneurs and angel investors who have a very real passion for science and technology to embrace their mortality, Carr should be encouraging them to pursue their lofty goals. Yes, ask them pointed questions, ask them to show you their thought process, and try to steer them from fantastic, pseudoscientific, or wishful thinking, but encourage their ideas because these people can take us to new places with the right support, motivation and a guiding hand from biologists, chemists, physicists, and hands-on researchers. No one has ever made a breakthrough by refusing to aim above mediocrity, and that’s why we shouldn’t be trying to promote the gospel of “eh, it’s good enough,” among those who love to think outside the box.

[ illustration by Martin Lisec ]

Share