Passing On

Early in the new millennium, I drove north for a day into the hinterlands of Quebec to interview a former French sportswriter and small-time race-car driver named—full name—Rael. He’d been abducted by aliens in the early 1970s and had spent the subsequent two decades raising money to do what the spacemen had instructed him to do: build a giant embassy so they could return in style. By the time I got there, the operation—and for that matter, Rael himself, with his topknot, designed to serve as an antenna, and his special white jumpsuit that looked as if someone had dropped extra- strength bleach in the Enterprise washing machine—looked a little bedraggled. But Rael had found new life in recent years. His semi-cult, the Raelians, had opened a post office box in the Bahamas to raise money for a nonexistent cloning operation. “I had no actual intention of having a lab there,” he said with a laugh. “The goal was to have a big media coup about nothing. We got $20 million in publicity for $1,000. We were laughing our eyes out about it.”

I liked Rael, to tell the truth. For a charlatan, he was remarkably frank. And he knew which buttons to push. He’d just published a book called “Yes to Human Cloning,” but the subtitle was more interesting: “Eternal Life Thanks to Science.” “Right now, cloning is for people who aren’t able to have a baby.That’s not so interesting.We support it because it’s a first step. But the top of the steps is eternal life.”

And here’s the thing: Rael is indistinguishable from a long list of scientists who have about the same worldview.To hear its proponents describe it, man’s oldest dream, some form of immortality, suddenly looms as a possibility—even an inevitability. Some concentrate on “life extension” and others on “downloading consciousness” to some silicon substrate, but all come from the same place, it seems to me: the conviction that to grow old and die is intolerable.

For example: Michael West, CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, the man who first cloned embryos and grew them to a six-cell stage. He’s testified before Congress; he’s been in a thousand news stories; he’s raised lots of venture capital. No nut, this guy. To describe his view of how we might attain immortality, West likes to use the analogy of a classic car continually rebuilt with new parts: “You could take a person of any age—120 years old—and take a skin cell from them and give them back their own cells that are young!”

Or another example: Eric Drexler, king of nanotechnology, testifying in a court case defending a company that freezes corpses in the hopes that they’ll someday be revivified. “Future medicine,” he says, “will one day be able to build cells, tissues and organs, and to repair damaged tissues. … These sorts of advances in technology will enable patients to return to complete health from conditions that have traditionally been regarded as non-living and beyond hope, i.e., dead.”

And: Dr. Cynthia Kenyon, a professor of biochemistry at the University of California, Irvine, whose experiments with nematodes have convinced her aging is far from inevitable. She invited colleagues at one scientific meeting to imagine a world with extended life spans, a world in which someone looking like her, glamorous and honey-blonde at 45, could actually be 90. According to the account of the meeting in The New York Times, “Most of the scientists said the question no longer is ‘Will it happen?’ but rather ‘When?’”

For me, what’s interesting is that these people are scientists—the same hardy breed that has assured us for some time that

they did not need the superstitious consolations of religion, that they were able to face the cold, hard world on its own. Ha. It’s hard to imagine people more freaked out by the most basic fact of the human condition, our own mortality.Yet, when you look closely, their arguments for immortality, or simply for an expanded lifespan—the benefits they propose—are banal: If we live forever, they say, we’ll be able to get really good at doing things like playing the piano. Also, people would stop polluting because they’d know they have to live in the muck forever. And they’d treat each other better because they’d be stuck with each other. And again and again and again.These arguments are so trivial on the surface, they hardly bear rebuttal. I mean, Mozart did what he did before he was 35. I mean, lots and lots of people figure out in their teens not to pollute. I mean, if you plan on being good to the people you meet, you can just do it.

No, the morbid fear of mortality masks the real and deep disease of our age, one that even scientists are clearly prey to, despite their years of contemplating nature’s wonders. We have become people who think that we—each of us as individuals—represent the sum total of meaning. We have allowed ourselves to become hyper-individualists in a way the world has never seen before. On average, an American has half as many close friends as someone 50 years ago did. We inhabit huge houses almost by ourselves; we eat meals with friends and family and neighbors half as often as a generation ago. With the aid of cheap fossil fuel, we’ve become the first human beings who have no practical need of our neighbors for anything. If you’ve got a credit card and an Internet connection, you can have the planet delivered to your doorstep. Hence, we find it impossible to imagine the world without us. It induces a kind of panic so deep we can barely take it in; if we’re not the center of the universe, then we’re nothing. We have lost the connections that always allowed humans to see themselves as part of something meaningfully larger. David Abram, the great scholar of the animist traditions, wrote that “in any culture awake to the sensuous world, death is not a big problem, since it’s obvious that nothing really vanishes:You just transform back into the soil and the wind and the chattering leaves.” Tell that to Rael. Tell that to Michael West.

But even in our overwhelmingly human world, we should be able to figure this out. Immortality, if it ever was achieved, would mean many things. Without mortality, for instance, no time. All moments would be equal: If for everything there is an endless season, then there is also no right season. No time to be born, nor to mourn, nor to rejoice, nor to die—the future stretches before you, endlessly flat. And without mortality, no possibility of sacrifice. Here, I’m thinking less of the dramatic offerings of a King or a Gandhi: I mean chiefly the profound daily, joyful heroism of bringing up a child in the full knowledge that he or she will supplant you. In the Raelian future, there might still be some beings called children, with whom you originally had some financial or tangential biological connection and who perpetually trail 20 years behind you, but you would never “pass on” your life.

The immortalists imagine that if one bite of the apple gave us consciousness, another bite or two might take away the pain that came with that consciousness—the knowledge that our lives do not go on forever. But it is at least as likely that the next bite will erase meaning instead: that meaning and pain, meaning and transience, are inextricably intertwined.That all the harmonies that make human life wonderful and special depend on the approximate shape of a human life.They may survive the gradual lengthening of longevity science slowly produces, but not the destruction of the outer limit—120 years at best—that is the human lot. Immortality is not just “more,” whether or not “more” is a good thing. It’s different, completely different.

Could such a thing happen here—could the essential selfishness of the immortalists’ design really overtake us and cut us off from all that bears real meaning? Could we talk ourselves into such a thing? Sure, we could. We’re a people who decided we needed to drive around in vehicles built for forest rangers, never mind the cost to the environment. In a perfect consumer society, there’s no limit to our folly. Here’s Michael West again, one of the scientists who helped raise the curtain on these scientific possibilities: An interviewer asked him whether immortality wouldn’t lead to overpopulation and a strain on the world’s resources, and he replied that it was true, that “an elimination or slowing of human mortality would aggravate the problem.” But, he added, “Why put the burden on people now living, people enjoying the process of breathing, people loving and being loved? The answer is clearly to limit new entrants to the human race, not to promote the death of those enjoying the gift of life today.”

Again, high marks for frankness. Now, now, today. Me, mine. He and his colleagues want to stop time. But you can’t enjoy the “gift of life” forever. Maybe with these new tools you might live forever someday, but the joy of it—the meaning of it—will melt away like ice cream on an August afternoon.

About the Author

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books on science, environment and society, including “Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age,” from which this essay is adapted.

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