crasch (crasch) wrote,

The Scientific Conquest of Death


The mission of the Immortality Institute is to conquer the blight of involuntary death.

Some would consider this goal as scientifically impossible. Some would regard it as hubris. Others say: "Don't mention the 'D–word', it will just scare people, and turn them away from the very real possibility that modern science will help us to dramatically extend our healthy life span."

What should we make of this? Is it possible that scientists – or at least humankind – will "conquer the blight of involuntary death?" If so, to what extent will we succeed? What is in fact possible today, and what do the experts predict for the future? Is such a thing as 'immortality' feasible? Moreover, is it desirable? What would it mean from a political, social, ethical and religious perspective?

This book will help to explore these questions.

When the Institute was approached regarding the possibility of distilling some of the lively and insightful debates that take place within its online forums into book form, questions arose over what such a book should contain. In the last few years, a couple of very good books on the scientific conquest of death have been published. (These are indexed in the bibliography at the end of this work.) How would this book be special?

After careful consideration, the answer seemed clear: This should be the first truly multidisciplinary approach to the topic. We would discuss not only biological theories of aging, but also biomedical strategies to counter it. Moreover, we would consider alternative approaches such as medical nanotechnology, digitalization of personhood, and cryobiological preservation. But this would only be part of the whole. We also wanted to tackle some of the questions that are usually left unanswered in the last chapter of scientific books: If we accept that radical life extension is a real scientific possibility, then where does that leave us? Would it create overpopulation, stagnation and perpetual boredom? How would it change our society, our culture, our values and our spirituality? If science allows us to vastly extend our life span, should we do so?

It became clear that a single author, however knowledgeable, could not possibly address this kaleidoscope of topics adequately. Thus, we decided to publish a compilation of essays. Some stem from an open call for papers, some are invited contributions by established authorities in a particular field, and a few are specially selected reprints. From among the numerous contributions, we carefully choose those the best in our eyes. Considering the multitude of topics and the quality of the submissions, it was an exceptionally difficult task. The result can only ever be a compromise. A compromise between conveying scientific information adequately, and accessibility to the lay reader; between philosophical depth, and the desire to stress relevancy; and, of course, between limitless curiosity, and the very limiting constraints of space. We hope that you like the result.


This book is divided into two sections: science, (including biology, biomedicine, nanotechnology, digitalization and cryonics) and perspectives (including literature, history, philosophy, sociology and ethics). This is not a strict division, as scientific possibilities are the starting point for all philosophy, and, in turn, the scientists in this book are not blind to the philosophical implications of their work.

All essays are followed by their relevant citations. All web hyperlinks are valid as of April 2004. Please do not hesitate to call the Institute if a link is out of date, as we might be able to help chase it down. Please also note that the Institute provides additional graphics, charts, and other relevant material online and free of charge to all purchasers of this book.

This book concludes with remarks, an extensive bibliography for further reading, information on the contributing authors, and a few words of thanks.

But – as we shall soon learn – there is no time to waste: Follow us into an exploration of the scientific conquest of death.

The road to immortality is just the turn of a page away.

Chapter I:

SCIENCE: Biomedicine, Nanotechnology and other strategies

We start, as is proper, by defining the subject matter. What is immortality? How can we define it in a scientifically sensible manner? Is immortality even biologically possible? These and other questions will be addressed in "Biological Immortality" by Michael R. Rose, Professor of evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine and author of Evolutionary Biology of Aging, a book that created a complete departure from the views that had dominated the field of aging research since the 1960's. We will learn that far from being a scientific impossibility, there are now good reasons for thinking that biological immortality is fundamentally possible.

If aging can, in theory, be conquered – how would, how should we go about it? Aubrey de Grey, an authority in the field of anti-aging theory from Cambridge University, outlines a general strategy for proceeding with "The War on Aging." In his essay, Aubrey de Grey touches on numerous issues, both scientific and societal, that will be taken up later in the book

After these introductions, we move to consider individual aspects of this strategy. Firstly, on the biomedical side, microbiologist João Pedro de Magalhães provides a summary overview of how "The Dream of Elixir Vitae" might be realized.

One of the most topical and promising approaches to extending healthy life span is stem cell tissue engineering. Michael West, president of Advanced Cell Technology and one of the "founding fathers" of modern stem cell research has written "Therapeutic Cloning." It gives us an exciting insight not only into the scientific background, but also into his very personal experiences and hopes in relation to the conquest of death.

While stem cell research is still an immensely dynamic field, we have recently seen the emergence of another exciting area of potential anti-aging treatments: "Nanomedicine" – the science of creating medical devices through nanoscale and eventually molecular manufacturing – has received intense media scrutiny and generous public funding in the US and Europe. Robert A. Freitas, a true pioneer in this area, describes how tiny machines could be effective in the conquest of death. As a special bonus, a second part of this chapter, including numerous illustrations, is published online.

Once inspired to consider molecular-sized machines, we are not limited to healing and repairing our aging bodies: Ray Kurzweil, well known futurist and the recipient of the 1999 US National Medal of Technology introduces us to "Human Body Version 2.0," where advanced technology constructs and defines the very substance that we are made of.

This introduces a second vision of immortality, one that ventures beyond biology. Dr. William Sims Bainbridge, Deputy Director for the Division of Information and Intelligent Systems at the National Science Foundation, considers how digital information about personality, feelings, likes and dislikes can be recorded. By archiving the uniqueness of a person, we might achieve some "Progress toward Cyberimmortality." But can we be more ambitious? Will we one day be able to copy our 'selves' onto a computer?

"Will Robots Inherit the Earth?" asks Professor Marvin Minsky, who in 1959 co-founded what became the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. He proposes humankind will indeed leave behind the constraints of biological mortality – not only conquering death, but also expanding in consciousness.

"All very well," one might contend. But will these predictions come true within our own life spans? For those who seek to conquer death, dreams of a distant future might not suffice. However, Dr. Brian Wowk, physicist and cryobiologist introduces us to "Medical Time Travel" via cryopreservation – the science of maintaining the human brain until the scientific predictions that we were considering in this section have indeed come to pass.
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