The delusion of immortality


Imagine all the poor transhumanists who were born in the 19th century. They would have been fantasizing about all the rapid transformations in their society, and blithely extrapolating forward. Why, in a few years, we’ll all have steam boilers surgically implanted in our bellies, and our diet will include a daily lump of coal! Canals will be dug everywhere, and you’ll be able to commute to work in your very own personal battleship! There will be ubiquitous telegraphy, and we’ll have tin hats that you can plug into cords hanging from the ceiling in your local coffeeshop, and get Morse code tapped directly onto your skull!

Alas, they didn’t have a Ray Kurzweil or Aubrey deGray to con them with absurd exaggerations.

I was reading this absurd techno-fetishist claim that all we have to do is make it to the year 2045, and we’ll live forever. Any time you see this magic date of 2045 appear, it comes from one source: Ray Kurzweil and his dogma of Singularitarianism. It’s not going to happen. Or rather, there could be some radical amazing breakthrough, but it’s not going to happen as an inevitable consequence of a pattern of technological change, and it’s definitely not going to happen on Kurzweil’s metaphysical timetable.

Here’s the problem: you can’t simply extrapolate current technologies into the future, because a fundamental property of such change is that it requires novel technologies. So no, you can’t sit in the middle of the 19th century and argue that the future is all about the expansion of steam and coal, because someone is going to come along and derail your future with, say, internal combustion engines, or electric motors and high-capacity batteries. And don’t you dare sit there and feel smug about your Tesla car, because if we do innovate, the Tesla will be about as quaint as a Stanley.

But Futurians love to argue that broad trends are predictable, and inevitably will point to Moore’s Law as an example (as does that article!). Sorry, gang, but Moore’s Law is dead. I’d like to call this Myers’ Law — every technological trend will inevitably hit a ceiling, that will require abandonment of the technology — but it’s such a familiar concept to biologists who watch populations change over time that it’s unfair of me to claim it.

Another problem is that Futurians will glibly invent trends that don’t exist. Kurzweil is particularly guilty of this — he loves to cherry pick data and slap it on a graph to fit his preconceptions — and his followers never stop to look at the quality of the data and question the validity of his numbers. They just like the direction the line is going, and that’s enough for them. It makes the Singularity manifest in my lifetime? Then I approve. Don’t question it.

You cannot avoid comparisons to the predicted second coming of Jesus in these things, so go ahead and make it yourself.

That article is specifically talking about aging, though, and says that it’s inevitable that we’ll fix it. There are just seven little problems we have to address, and then we can live forever.

It’s symptomatic of the happy ignorance that permeates the whole idea that one of those problems is…cancer. Yes, we just have to cure cancer, and we remove one of the obstacles to immortality.

They predicted the objections people might raise — but we don’t have a cure for cancer, and that’s simply a ridiculous proposal — by also announcing their strategy for curing cancer. We’ll just turn off telomerases in all of our cells, and then cancer cells will automatically expire! Yay! It’s so easy! Why don’t you go tell your doctor to start giving you telomerase inhibitors?

It’s silly because your somatic cells already inactivate your telomerases. Cancers acquire mutations that switch them back on. There are also less well understood alternative mechanisms of telomere lengthening. Ask a cancer researcher, and they’ll tell you that they don’t expect to find a magic bullet.

It’s also a self-defeating strategy, because another cause of aging is the gradual death of stem cell populations. Every population of cells has a built-in time-limit that kills them off after a certain number of cell divisions — it’s like Carousel from Logan’s Run or the replicant expiration date in Bladerunner. Basically, their cure for cancer is to enforce the expiration date on cells even more forcefully.

But don’t you worry, they’re aware of the problem! So one of their seven strategies is to develop technology that replenishes stem cells. It’s all a hugely circular game of whack-a-mole. We’ll smack down this one problem! But that causes another problem to pop up. So we whack that one down! Then that creates another one. Whack! The hammers are just flying frantically here, and they’re so self-promoting that they don’t actually cure anything, but instead simply fuel an ever-accelerating game of perpetually whirling hammers.

But have no fear. We’ll eventually put a boiler and a coal chute on the hammer smacking machine, and then we’ll live forever!

One thing missing in all the techno-speculation is any consideration of whether individuals ought to live forever, if it were possible, and who is going to receive the benefits of these necessarily expensive biomedical interventions — medical interventions that will require constant life-long tinkering. It’s no surprise that the most enthusiastic proponents of technological life extension are young, well-off libertarian types who assume by default that they of course will be the beneficiaries of Futurian progress, that they will always have the money (forever!) to keep themselves healthy and young, and that the people who can’t buy in to their scheme don’t deserve it, anyway.


  1. #1 dean
    United States
    March 19, 2016

    Kurzwell seems to have mastered the art of saying nothing of substance in such a way to make people without the capability for thought love him. A true sideshow barker.

    It’s no surprise that the most enthusiastic proponents of technological life extension are young, well-off libertarian types who assume by default that they of course will be the beneficiaries of Futurian progress

    Libertarians following something foolish and not grounded in reality? Oh yeah, that’s what they do.

  2. #2 Brett
    March 19, 2016

    I have pity for Kurzweill. It must be so frustrating, seeing all these advances and then dreading that you’re almost certainly going to be dead before 2050 unless something radical happens.

    As for the “whack a mole” aspect of it, I made the point over on your other blog that if you’re making progress with it, then what’s the problem? Human life spans would be increasing, in fits and starts most likely, even if that means we run into new health issues that didn’t matter previously because we were dying too young.

  3. #3 Reason
    March 19, 2016

    I can’t help but observe that you seem out of your depth when critiquing the present state of aging research. You sound unfamiliar with recent developments in the field, the sweeping changes and advances that have taken place in culture, knowledge, and technology of aging research over the past fifteen years, and very rapidly in the past five.

    A first step for anyone looking to critique SENS as a path to rejuvenation is to look at who is on the scientific advisory board, and has signed their name to a statement of support for the damage repair approach exemplified by SENS. Take your time; given your background, I’m sure you recognize most of those names.

    It is interesting that you choose to criticize seeking a cure for cancer based on attacking the one commonality shared by all cancerous cells, that they must lengthen their telomeres. Are you suggesting it is not feasible, that there is some specific thing that makes this unworkable? If so, perhaps you should write a paper on the topic, and raise your objections before groups like the CNIO Telomeres and Telomerase Group under Maria Blasco spend even more time on this path. They and a number of other noted research groups are presently investigating various forms of telomere extension interdiction as a basis for cancer treatment. The SENS researchers are far from the only group working on this, and their approach of investigating ALT mechanisms for disruption, since other people are not putting enough effort into that side of things yet, is considered reputable within the community. See this article in the Scientist, for example:–Delete-Cancer/

    So to my eyes, if there is any happy ignorance here, it isn’t on the part of those researchers who are trying this approach to universal cancer therapies.

  4. #4 See Noevo
    March 20, 2016

    “I’d like to call this Myers’ Law — every technological trend will inevitably hit a ceiling, that will require abandonment of the technology — but it’s such a familiar concept to biologists who watch populations change over time that it’s unfair of me to claim it.”

    I’d like to know more about Myers’ Law.
    In your opinion, what *biological* trend most recently hit a ceiling that required its abandonment?
    “That article is specifically talking about aging, though, and says that it’s inevitable that we’ll fix it…
    another cause of aging is the gradual death of stem cell populations.”

    Why did aging – and the decrepitude and death that ultimately go with it – evolve?

    In the billions of years of evolution since the first aging life forms, why hasn’t the biological trend of aging been abandoned?

  5. #5 Reason
    March 20, 2016

    There are a number of evolutionary theories with various degrees of support and maturity regarding why aging dominates. It is a central question in evolutionary biology. It is clearly possible, in lower animals at least, to do away with aging. Hydra, for example, do not age to a surprising degree:

    There are many negligibly senescent species in which there is no or very little apparent deterioration until right before death, though we can argue that they almost certainly do age, just slowly and with a quite different life history from most species.

    One theory on the evolutionary origins of aging has it as an arms race to the bottom. Aging helps enhance selection during periods in which environmental circumstances change, so species that age dominate eventually. We age because the world changes. See this paper for an outline of that view:

    At the other end of the support and development spectrum, we have this example based on group selection, with aging as a way to control population dynamics. This is a blog post from the researcher who originated the theory, which is a better starting point than the papers:

    It is actually pretty hard to move far in exploring current thinking on the evolution of aging without bumping into group selection or things that look a lot like group selection. It seems reports of its death are exaggerated.

  6. #6 Joe Johnson
    New York
    March 20, 2016

    Why is this PZ Myers? He literally doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Sounds like a case of envy to me.


  7. #7 GregH
    March 21, 2016

    Why is who indeed?

  8. #8 G
    March 22, 2016

    PZ, I’m thrilled that you’re taking on the Singularitologists.

    The Transhumanist cult has become an epidemic plague in the Bay Area tech community. It’s worse than the New Age nonsense back in the 80s, when you’d go to a party and someone would inevitably ask “who’s your guru?” and “what’s your astrological sign?”, and get offended if you said “none of the above”.

    Eventually the New Age cult died of ridicule, and it’s to be hoped that the Transhumanist cult will go the same route. Between here and there, PZ, please keep up the good fight. Many of us, including many who have been technology professionals since before it was “sexy,” are with you on this.

  9. #9 Michael
    New York
    March 22, 2016

    Well PZ., guess you got it all figured out. Lets tell those scientists to stop innovating. Lets Tell the new recipients of transplanted wombs that have taken babies to term that its just not worth our time. Lets Stop 3D organ regeneration. Lets stop stem cell therapy, lets stop pursuit in optimizing our health, because PZ says so. Well PZ, you sound like one of those people who would day say the Wright Brothers. Two guys in a bike shop who changed the world. you were probably one of those people saying cloning would never happen, that we wouldn’t map the human genome. That a heart transplant couldn’t happen. Well PZ, sorry bud, but you seem to lack imagination, that’s why like the old saying goes, those who can’t do, Teach. You seem to have a lot of contempt for Ray and Aubrey. Maybe they are overly optimistic, but Ray has been right about many things. he predicted the self driving car. you probably would have said “never happen”. Guess what PZ, my Tesla drives itself just fine. Don’t worry, you don’t have to buy one, they are for the dreamers. When they come up with a heart grown from your own cell’s with no rejection factor, and if you need one, don’t worry, you don’t have to have one, you certainly weren’t part of the solution, Don’t worry, we will give you one. May you live a thousand years PZ and then we can kick back and have a laugh on how misguided you were. Cheers.

  10. #10 G
    March 23, 2016

    Michael @ 9:

    More Singularitarian apologia, lacking only the Galileo Gambit but substituting the Wright Brothers Gambit instead: chattering about heart transplants when what’s clearly visible below the surface is militant evangelism for soul transplants.

    Denial of death is a powerful force, but if you consider yourself a rational person, you will face it head-on: Some day you will die. Pass away, kick the bucket, drop dead, whatever.

    If traditional religion is correct and the soul is detachable from the brain, you’ll go to some kind of hereafter. If current neuroscience is correct and the mind is the product of the brain, wholly and solely, then at death there is nothingness, and you will cease to exist. The Temple of Alcor will not save you for resurrection in some future Kingdom of Heavenly AI.

    “Upload” is a pure fantasy, and The Singularity is nothing more than a syncretism of millennial Christianity and Hindu reincarnation myths. It’s not hard to see how it spreads: the prevalence of Evangelical Christianity in America at-large, and the prevalence of Hindu culture among Indian computer scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley, provide fertile ground.

    I have nothing against people choosing to believe the Christian or Hindu versions of what happens at death, or various syncretisms of them if they so choose. After all, (as long as Ted Cruz doesn’t become our next President, keyword search “Dominionism”) it’s still a free country with freedom of religion.

    But what I object to, and many others in the sciences and technology fields object to (not only PZ Meyers but also Jaron Lanier and others) is the attempt to foist a new religion on the world by wrapping it in high-tech in an attempt to make it look sciencey. I reserve my right to atheism about the Singularity, and my right to preach accordingly.

    If you’re serious about facing the prospect of nothingness at death, you should take up traditional Buddhist meditation exercises that are oriented toward coming to grips with nothingness. Familiarity in this case breeds fearlessness.

    As for Ray the K and the robot car, if I had a cult with billionaire followers, I could also muster up the budget to inflict some of my fantasies on the world. So could you, so could PZ, etc.

    The world needs thorium fission and controlled fusion to save itself from the biggest existential threat in human history (climate change), but instead we get more baubles such as robot cars. Why? Ultimately, because the billionaires behind the baubles are terrified of nothingness.

    Enough is enough. Learn to love biology, and stop looking for the Kingdom of Heaven in a god-simulator box.

  11. #11 Louis Charles Morelli
    New York - USA
    March 25, 2016

    Please, do not read my four itens below for not calling me names…

    1 – It’s not uploading the mind, but recycling the body. This people ate talking uploading when, unconsciously, they are merely being used in a reproductive mechanical process of the biological life’s creator. The creator, about 10 billion years ago, was self-recycling its physical system/body after death, but the system identity was the same. The method for doing that was separating half of its energy while it young ( the energy is in state of growth) – which was a kind of stem cell – while the another half goes with the body attacked by entropy degenerating till dying. After death and fragmentation, the dusty was mixed with that “stem energy” and the whole body was born again (see the MatrixLight/DNA formula for all natural systems and you will understand it).

    But, who was the ” creator”? Of course, not this planet alone, life is dependable of sun’s energy. But the solar system does not have pulsars, quasars, black holes, which are necessary parts for a biological copy of that system to work. Who have them is the galaxy. That’s the necessary and enough creator, anything else. And original galaxies were self-recycling.

    Biological life is the tentative to reproduce the creator – this galactic system – in a biological fashion, because here we have the liquid state of matter and from it, organic chemistry.

    2) The biological tendency to die is a consequence of the first force in this universe that brought dynamics upon a inertial space substance: waves of light, and waves of light are born, they grow, they reaches the maturity and they degenerates, dying, being fragmented into photons. Since that biological systems are the light formula plus inertial matter substance… the phenomena of death was encrypted in it before its origins.

    3) But… the fragmented photons has the tendency to group and making the reverse way that its original wave did, going back to rebuild the wave till reaching the source again. It is the dark light or negative energy. So, I should remember here that since the first PZ Myers’ article about this imortality issue, all comments have described all variant hypothesis but they forgot one: Teilhard du Chardin and the super-conscious organism. As in quantum entanglement, each bubble of consciousness inside the head of each human has its counterpart in a spherical layer around the planet, the collective unconscious mind, that is being nurtured as a fetus. And as in quantum split experiment, yours mind exists in two places at sometime, just now, the difference is that in the other place it is still a fetus. Now, the part inside a living human head is spinning to left, its counterpart in the ” nebula” is inactive spinning to right ( because we are using the serial processor of left hemisphere and not the parallel processor of the right). When the human bubble die, the other part is still alive, and will be part of the Gaia’s super-organism. Impossible hypothesis? Maybe, but at MatrixLight/DNA Theory we are testing it.

    4) The brain does not produce the mind. Yours brain did not produced yours mind because the mind was existing before the origins of yours brain, in yours parents’ heads. So like yours physical body, yours mind was genetically encrypted before the formation of yours brain.

    -“Ahhh…, but, it was the ancestors brains, coming since the monkeys that produced the mind.”

    – ” This is not a scientific proved fact, it is yours theory. You need go back to that time for proving it. This problem would be solved if you knew about the Universe composed by dark matter and light. The expansion of light waves causes friction in space substance creating particles and the energy. So, all known bodies are made off dark matter and light, anything else; meat and the photons of sun’s light. The problem is that a light wave have a sequence of different states of frequencies/vibrations performed by the life’s cycle process. In another words, a light wave has the code for life. So, since the atoms to galaxies to human beings, all systems are made off hardware ( substance or matter of space) plus software ( light wave). As we see above, every light wave rebuild itself and goes back to its source, which must be a natural system but, ex-machine and conscious, since that consciousness is manifested here. So, yours hardware part dies… but yours software/conscious part is going to be re-build in the big wave of the super-organism. Ok this is merely other theory, that we are testing it because it makes rational sense facing our knowledge and thousands of evidences”

  12. #12 G
    March 25, 2016

    Louis Charles Morelli @ 11:

    What’s your native language? I get the distinct impression it’s not English, so knowing what it is may help me figure out some of what you’re trying to say.

    From what I can figure out, you’re postulating some kind of cosmic “substance dualism.” At present that does not comport with the findings of modern neuroscience, and some of the specifics sound like “new religion.”

    For example: “A spherical layer of mind-stuff around a planet,” and the stuff about “spinning to the left / right” are all indications that what you have there is not a scientifically testable theory, but a religious philosophy based on some kind of subjective experience.

    The Gaia hypothesis, as far as ecological science is concerned, is legitimately about the existence of interacting feedback mechanisms among organisms, and between organisms and their environment. Margulis and Lovelock chose the name “Gaia” as a metaphor, not as a way of saying that the Earth was a deity or even a conscious being or anything like that. The latter interpretations are also not-science, though you can have them as religion if you like.

    if your ideas are based on anything coming from current science, by all means provide a couple of names of scientists who are involved, and whose publications or at least whose ideas, can be found online (somewhere other than Google, which is blocked on my system for security reasons).

    But frankly I’m highly skeptical, because much of what you say sounds like “revealed truth” rather than scientific theory. I’ve had plenty of mystical experiences too, but I treat them with appropriate caution, and treat their content as metaphor and symbolism rather than as literally true. Two of those experiences that I can think of, involved insights that turned out to be consistent with modern science; many others did not; and in building one’s worldview, that distinction is highly useful in sorting the insightful wheat from the erroneous chaff.

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