An epic journey – Do You Want To Live Forever?

The ethics of life extension is an immensely complex topic. It touches on a number of social and political issues, though also philosophical and metaphysical perspectives, and draws us into a consequentialist calculus over the rights of people living now and those of future, unborn generations. A number of these issues are explored in the thought provoking Channel 4 documentary Do You Want To Live Forever?, in which writer and director Christopher Sykes, follows biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey in his quest to be the man that conquers ageing.


Biogerontologist, Aubrey de Grey (from Do You Want To Live Forever?, Channel 4, February 3rd 2007, 18.35)

In addition to extensive footage with de Grey himself, the programme also features a ‘cast of characters’, from de Grey’s mother Camilla, to award winning physicist Freeman Dyson. In interviewing each of these characters Do You Want To Live Forever? offers a number of different perspectives on the ethics of life-extension research. Although the views of different commentators are spread throughout the 75minute programme, they provide an excellent source of capsule quotes which articulate many of the ethical arguments and issues in the debate around life-extension.

Feasibility and Desirability

In a recent talk at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre, Aubrey de Grey made the distinction between the feasibility and the desirability of life-extension research. He encouraged the audience to separate the two when considering whether or not to support the development of life-extension technology, and suggested that many ethical objections to his “SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) programme” were really technical issues couched in philosophical language (this is somewhat illustrated in the de Grey and Sykes’ interview with a taxi driver between 00:10:50 and 00:12:27). While de Grey apparently advocates this position because it obviates or diffuses many of the criticisms against indefinite life-extension research, it also serves as a way to focus solely on the ethical implications of effectively doing away with death. This is the topic of this BioethicsBytes post: the desirability of indefinite life-extension. Here I suspend questions of feasibility and ask the reader to consider whether or not this development would good or bad, independently of whether they believe it to be possible.

If you had all the time in the world what would you do with it?

This is an important theme in the discussion of the desirability of life-extension and in Do You Want To Live Forever? it is explored in two ways. Firstly, how do our experiences of life contribute to our assessment of the desirability of life-extension?; and, secondly, how would our experience of life change as a result of it being indefinitely longer?


Freeman Dyson (from Do You Want To Live Forever?, Channel 4, February 3rd 2007, 18.35)

Freeman Dyson, for example, suggests that “our humanity depends on the old ones getting out of the way so the young ones have a chance to do things fresh” (00:23:17). As a physicist now in his 80’s, Dyson highlights how his experiences of science might have been very different had even the greatest 18th and 19th century physicists been around and quotes Marx in that “science makes progress by funerals” (00:23:54). While de Grey believes that “the longer you lived the more creative you’d become” (00:22:34), it is interesting to speculate on whether the science and technology (e.g. genetic engineering, stem cell technology, etc) that he suggests will bring about indefinite life-extension would have emerged had it not been for all the funerals that, according to Dyson, arguably paved the way.

In considering the experiences that make up our contemporary human lives, our experience of death is not insignificant. Particularly here, where it is a technology that aims to bring an effective end to death that is at issue. In Do You Want To Live Forever? “death” as both an event and a concept which is integral to our experience of life, is explored by John Mortimer, a barrister and playwrite. He looks on the relationship between the experience of life and the idea of death as akin to that of a picture and its frame: “you can’t imagine an infinite painting” (00:45:33), he says. He suggests that death is what makes life “rather knowable…and very significant, because that’s what you’ve got” (00:46:05). His image of an infinite painting raises an interesting question, as perhaps what he is trying to suggest is that the boundedness of paintings is a part, not only of their beauty, but also of what makes them ‘paintings’. In this sense he highlights how, at present, our very concept of what ‘life’ is may be inextricable from the notion of ‘death’. Thus, indefinite life-extension seems bound to bring about a radical reappraisal of the meaning of ‘life’ in its most fundamental sense. This may be indicative of the huge scope of social change introduced by de Grey’s ideas.

Another life-experience that both contributes to the richness of contemporary human life and would most likely change as a result of vastly increased life span is ‘birth’ – specifically, experiences of bearing children. Biologist Martin Raff is particularly vocal on this point. For him having children has been a central experience within his life; one that he implies has ‘made his life worth living’. However, he highlights that should indefinite life-extension become possible, this might have to change. He notes that in order for overpopulation not to become a serious problem the rates of childbirth would have to drop dramatically. While de Grey’s solutions to this problem are dealt with in more detail below, Raff’s comments beg the question that, if in order to continue living indefinitely, you had to give up certain aspects or privileges we take for granted today, would that leave you with a life worth living? This highlights the paradoxical nature of questions of desirability: that extending your life indefinitely may alter it to such a degree that it may become a life not worth living at all (let alone extending). Aubrey de Grey’s response to ethical arguments of this type can be read on the Methuselah Foundation website.

Overpopulation (see 00:31:00 to 00:32:52)

This is perhaps one of the most often noted of the potential practical problems associated with indefinite life-extension, particularly where life-extension was available to all of humankind, as de Grey suggests it should. The question here is that, if we extend life indefinitely and effectively eliminate death, though continue to have children as a part of our life experience, will we end up in a situation of overpopulation where our resources are insufficient to cope the the number of healthy, living humans? Within bioethics this is frequently expressed as a ‘Malthusian worry’ (see for example Davis, J.K. (2004). “The Prolongevists Speak Up” In The American Journal of Bioethics 4(4):W6-W8) involving the balance between population growth and resources. While commonsense suggests this situation would be inevitable, there are a number of competing arguments within the life-extension debate on the likelyhood and significance of the overpopulation scenario. Do You Want To Live Forever? explores this theme in relation to two ethical principles: firstly, in terms of choice and autonomy; and secondly, in terms of obligations to people already living over those yet to be born.

De Grey himself highlights the connection between these two themes. He states that “ultimately it’s a matter of choice. Do we want to continue our youthful lives of the people who are already alive, or do we want to have turn-over of people dying…and being replaced by people who are born?” (00:31:19). He acknowledges that people may have different opinions about which of these options is the most desirable, but argues that if we are able to extend healthy lifespan and thereby avoid people having to die horribly our ethical obligations lie with those who are already alive. Thus, de Grey’s arguments suggest that research and development into life-extension technology is, not only desirable, but an ethical imperative. He positions this choice as both the individual and societal level. A similar argument is made by Max More in his article Life Extension and Overpopulation, which appears on Ray Kurzweil’s AI website (Kurzweil also features as a commentator in this programme), and de Grey’s arguments are elaborated in de Grey, A.D.N.J. (2004). Aging, childlessness or overpopulation: the future’s right to choose. Rejuvenation Research, 7(4):237-238.

Writer and director Sykes, elaborates some of de Grey’s strategies on how this ‘choice’ might be implemented at the societal level: “Aubrey says that to avoid overpopulation the birth rate and the death rate would have to balance, and there could even be a law that say if you want a child you would have to find somebody to die first” (00:32:00). While perhaps this statement should not be taken as a literal expression of de Grey’s specific views, it highlights that at a social level the implementation of life extension might be an issue of management and policy. In these circumstances one wonders what might be learnt from contemporary attempts to regulate reproduction at the societal level (see for example debates around the ‘one child policy’ brought into effect in China in 1979, as discussed in Hesketh, T. and Wei Xing, Z. (2005). “The Effect of China’s One-Child Family Policy after 25 Years”, New England Journal of Medicine, 353(11):1171-1176).


Jay Olshansky (from Do You Want To Live Forever?, Channel 4, February 3rd 2007, 18.35)

While not explicitly explored in Do You Want To Live Forever?, the views of other ‘life-extensionists’ (or ‘prolongevists’) are relevant here, particularly those of Jay Olshansky who suggests that Malthusian worries associated with life-extension are unfounded. In his talk at the 10th congress of The International Association of Biomedical Gerontology held in Cambridge in 2003 he suggests that “if we achieved immortality tomorrow and the birth rate remained the same (currently approximately 1 percent per year), the world’s population would take 140–150 years to double – half the rate at which the population doubled in the period following World War Two” (Davis, 2004: W7). Olshanksy’s full talk can be heard on the Methuselah Foundation website.

A “fair share” of life

Another objection that is raised to indefinite life-extension is that it is somehow “allowing the individual to grab more than his fair share” (00:24:09). This raises a number of questions, particularly when viewed in light of ethical discussions of ‘fairness’ in terms of resource allocation and outcomes and motivations in bargaining situations (see for example the 2003 special issue of Social Justice Research, 16(3)). This begs the question of how much life each individual is entitled to, and whether ‘life’ can or should be considered in this way?


Sherwin Nuland (from Do You Want To Live Forever?, Channel 4, February 3rd 2007, 18.35)

According to Sherwin Nuland, author of a now infamous article in Technology Review on the SENS program, de Grey approaches this question from a rights perspective. Nuland suggests de Grey’s belief that “the most basic right that any human being has is to live as long as he wants to…the most basic right is the right to stay alive” (00:49:13). Nuland disputes this and states that, as far as conventional ethics conceptualises ‘rights’, the right to stay alive “is not a right at all” (00:49:34). For Nuland this is but one example of the way in which the values and concepts that underpin the logic of the SENS programme are so “different from the norms of society and science” (00:50:37) that is makes it difficult to establish a basis from which the desirability of life-extension research can be assessed. Insofar as many of de Grey’s claims are based upon a fundamental ‘right’ that many ethicists believe is not a ‘right’ at all, this problem may be similar to those found in other areas of bioethics where debates are ongoing because incompatible consequentialist and deontological positions, for example, are unable to find a common frame of reference.

Science and non-science/facts and values (see for example 00:53:00 to 00:54:39)

That the norms and values underlying SENS may be out-of-synch with those of wider society is nicely illustrated in the sections of Do You Want To Live Forever? that deal with whether de Grey’s life extension program is science or non-science (also referred to her a pseudo-science). Here scientists, including Jay Olshansky (see above), discuss differing standards of proof within de Grey’s SENS programme and ‘standard’ scientific research.

For Olshansky this relates to the types of questions scientific proof needs to address, and states that in science the proper question: “Do you have any proof at all that the intervention you are proposing will do what you say it does?” (00:53:58). In contrast de Grey states: “I am confident that I’m right because I have worked hard to get people who ought to know to explain to me why I am wrong – and they haven’t been able to” (01:08:21). This appears to be a fundamental difference between de Grey and scientific critics: de Grey wants his critics to prove that his plan for life-extension won’t work, whereas they want him to prove that it will work. It is this incompatibility that leads some of the scientists featured here to suggest de Grey’s SENS programme is non- or pseudo-science.


Jason Pontin (from Do You Want To Live Forever?, Channel 4, February 3rd 2007, 18.35)

This incompatibility came to the fore in the context of Technology Review‘s SENS Challenge. The purpose of this challenge was to establish “whether de Grey’s proposals were science or fantasy” (Pontin, J. “Is defeating ageing only a dream?”, Technology Review, Tuesday July 11, 2006) by soliciting proof that the SENS programme would not work from the scientific community. There were a number of entries, however none of the groups were awarded the $20,000 prize. As Do You Want To Live Forever? highlights, an impasse was the result: “the judges weren’t convinced that Aubrey’s right, but neither did they think that Estep and his colleagues [one of the entrant groups] had shown Aubrey to be wrong” (01:11:50). Technology Review‘s editor Jason Pontin sums up this impasse in the closing sections of the programme: “SENS exists in a kind of ante-chamber of science…[it] doesn’t rise to the level of being testable” (01:12:25).

Old wine and new bottles

A final theme that runs through Channel 4’s Do You Want To Live Forever? is one that has frequently been noted in bioethical debates around biotechnology: that many new developments are not really new at all, they are like ‘old wine in new bottles’. This argument is used by David Gobel who presents life-extension accomplished by medical means as comparable with “when a young child is given a vaccine which prevents a horrible disease” (00:28:21). Viewed in this way life-extension research is no different from other types of biomedical research which target disease and, thereby, increase the healthy life expectancy of an individual or population. This comparison seems particularly applicable given that much anti-ageing research focuses preventing or curing the diseases associated with ageing (see for example the list of topics covered in the Proceedings of the 10th Annual Congress of The International Association of Biomedical Gerontology). Another ‘posthuman‘ formulation of this argument is that the indefinite extension of life is just another step in the ongoing process of human evolution. This is expressed by Tatiana Covington, a 300 member, in the statement “do you think this is the end of evolution? That would be horrible. Evolution is only starting” (00:34:47).


David Gobel (from Do You Want To Live Forever?, Channel 4, February 3rd 2007, 18.35)

However, the same argument is also used by de Grey’s critics. In his discussion of the scientific basis of the SENS programme, Olshanksy notes that insofar as de Grey is at present offering the promise of an effective ‘cure’ for ageing, rather than the cure itself, this is an age old way of packaging pseudo-science as real science. Olshanksy’s argument appears to be that de Grey’s claims can themselves be seen as old wine in new bottles – though here the comparison is not intended to be reassuring.

Overall, the documentary Do You Want To Live Forever? is an insightful and thought-provoking overview of many of the practical and ethical themes and arguments with the area of life-extension. This is an advanced topic, but as the material presented here is both interesting, and well explained and illustrated, this programme could form the basis for more general discussions of the issues outlined above. For example, in terms of the separation of feasibility and desirability, this may be a useful way to start to introduce what bioethics is, and similarly, the contrast between science and non-science in terms of underlying values offers an interesting way of highlighting how and why different ethical frameworks may come into conflict in practical situations.

Do You Want To Live Forever? was first broadcast on Channel 4 on 3rd February 2007 at 6.35pm. Members of the BUFVC may obtain copies for educational use (TRILT identifier 00608985). A copy of the programme can also be seen on GoogleVideo (although we cannot vouch for the provenance of that copy).

5 Responses to An epic journey – Do You Want To Live Forever?

  1. John Salvia says:

    This is exactly what I need for my ethics essay!

    Thank you!

  2. Glad we can be of service

  3. Michael Goldsmid says:

    I personally found the doc a bit lacking on the factual side, and although the idea is very taking, we havent seen any actual evidence, although i am still open minded, just not convinced

  4. Synchronium says:

    Chris, I finished that essay ages ago. I always meant to come back and post it, so here it is: Living Forever: Is It Really Worth It?


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