Updated: Feb 21
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Editor's Note: This essay, written by Joe Bardin for Immortalists Magazine, highlights the role of democracy in the pursuit of indefinite life extension.
To date, liberal democratic governments have contributed little to the effort of immortalizing our sciences. Domestically, the US Food & Drug Administration regularly plays the villain, obstructing the development of advanced modalities like gene therapy, while seeming to relish restricting access to anything that shows efficacy from human growth hormone to exosomes. Even where there is less outright resistance, democracies seem able to muster little more than a commission or conference to explore longevity. Immortalists, impatient for impact, may be tempted to look to more authoritarian governments to drive change and get results. This would be a massive and quite possibly mortal error.
Immortality embarks us into the unknown like no other human journey ever taken. We don’t know how to get there, what it will take, or what there will even look like.
The mind’s eye itself fails us when it comes to clearly seeing forward into this next edition of being human. On this journey, myriad opportunities to be wrong will present themselves every step of the way. The aptitude to assess assumptions, admit error and reset our course will be at least as important as the ability to set it in the first place.
Already, just in the last five years, we’ve seen significant re-consideration of senolytics strategies, the approaches to cleanse the body of senescent cells. What was best practices one year is replaced by a new best practices the next. The debate on telomerase, the enzyme that lengthens telomeres, rages on, with some seeing it as a short cut to immortality, and others to cancer.
The capacity to self-correct, to identify error and re-set co-ordinates accordingly, will be vital as we progress into the era of unlimited lifespans. Questions will not be restricted just to the biological sciences, but to economics and society-building as well. Consider political opposition to public welfare programs today, and how it may have to yield to a universal basic income, as
AI and robotics do more and more of the work for us. These are the kinds of 180 degree changes we will need to be able to execute moving forward.
Democracies have the capacity to self-correct.
Accountability to voters, no matter how fraught with manipulation and lies and narrowly splintered interests, creates that rare condition where power must answer for its errors. Authoritarian regimes face no such accountability.
The Soviet Union under Stalin famously rejected the field of genetics as a whole, suppressing thousands of scientists, and effectively neutering its own ability to advance research in biology. In Nazi Germany Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, already proven, was attacked as being “un-German”, because, of course, Einstein was Jewish. The racist scheme of Deutsche Physik, Aryan physics, which were supposed to be superior to just plain physics, was propagated by two Nobel laureates in physics, Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark.
The two most influential advancements in science in the 20th Century, relativity and genetics, were resisted by authoritarian regimes with their own ideological agendas. This shows that science and scientists are no bulwark against bullshit. We’ve seen the institutions of science and their leaders deny and denigrate the science of immortality for decades.
To enable unlimited lifespans, we need a political environment in which the best ideas have a chance, even when they disrupt what those in power want to believe.
We recently voted out an administration that found itself unable to admit error in virtually anything. One could fairly easily argue that that single flaw lost Donald Trump a highly contested election, a result which that administration still can’t bring itself to acknowledge.
A full-fledged authoritarian regime would be even more rigid, more resistant to accountability to the media, to the public, to scientific fact. The refusal to reckon with reality when it does not align to one’s pre-conceived notions represents a massive risk to the emergence of immortality, because in this ultimate net new endeavor we will all certainly be wrong many times over.
Already, science is struggling with its own age old assumptions about the centrality of the role of death in life. Even scientists who embrace immortality disagree fundamentally about how to pursue it and where best to invest time, energy and funds. And this is just the beginning.
Nobody likes to be wrong. We will all have to build up our tolerance for it. And we need democracy to help ensure that those at the top build up their tolerance too.
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About the Author
Joe Bardin is the author of Outlier Heart: Essays from my Life as an Immortalist (IFERS Press). His essays have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines, and have been anthologized in the Transhumanism Handbook (Springer). His plays have been performed both domestically and abroad. Joe serves as Director of Communications for People Unlimited and the Coalition for Radical Life Extension, the presenter of RAADfest. He is an accomplished messaging strategist working with established and startup brands to strategically differentiate them in the marketplace.