When John Davis first started looking into the ethics of life extension, he came across a surprising piece of information. According to surveys conducted by the Pew Center and various universities, a slight majority of people stated they would not choose to extend their lives if they had the option to do so. For Davis, a professor of philosophy at California State University, Fullerton, this unwillingness to live longer was a puzzle worth exploring. In his book New Methuselahs: The Ethics of Life Extension, Davis explores the quandaries that may arise if and when medical technology advances enough to keep us alive much longer than our current lifespans.
“I think initially it will exacerbate inequality,” Davis says of the first life-extension drugs that appear. “There’ll be a period of time when only a few people can get it, and I have a hunch that it may not be possible to develop life extension without running into that situation.”
This, he says, might be one reason for the public’s apparent reticence to use such technology if it existed: they may realize that such technologies would be too expensive, either for themselves or for others, and the injustice of it is distasteful. After all, a 2021 Gallup Poll found that 1 in 5 Americans already can’t afford healthcare when they need it. The healthcare system as it is already fails to help many people and exacerbates inequality in lifespans. It’s not hard to imagine a world in which the ultra-rich have access to longevity treatments while others are left to die early.
“The injustice of unequal access would be a very serious problem, but I think it could be solved,” Davis says.
With the right type of government support, life-extending drugs and technologies could be made available to a larger segment of the public.
And having large numbers of people living longer could mean changing our relationship to life and the world around us, and even enhance our ability to perpetuate humankind.
Another way to look at extending the fate of Homo sapiens is to consider space exploration. Whether it’s research into sending humans to Mars or the idea of a generation ship that carries humans across the universe through multiple generations, the vastness of space offers a tantalizing opportunity to imagine humanity’s future.
Geographer Deondre Smiles has looked at this subject and raised several concerns. A professor at the University of Victoria and citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Smiles described the idea of space exploration as a continuation of the settler colonial mindset that led to Indigenous genocide and largescale environmental degradation. “Space represents yet another ‘unknown’ to be conquered and bent to America’s will,” Smiles writes in Society and Space Magazine. Even if such colonization is for the purpose of ensuring the survival of Homo sapiens, questions still need to be asked about how empty space really is, and what we might be destroying in our attempts to extend humanity’s reach.
“There’s this idea that it’s human destiny to shape our environments to suit us, as if it’s something that’s desirable and almost our destiny as mankind,” Smiles says. “It reminds me very strongly of manifest destiny.”
In the context of extending an individual human’s lifespan or humankind’s lifespan, Smiles thinks it’s essential to ask why we are so intent on pouring resources into the endeavor.
Referring to Silicon Valley billionaires who have donated huge sums to research both space travel and life extension, Smiles asks, “Why would you want to do that? Is it to be able to experience new things or is it to enrich yourself further, have more time to accumulate wealth and exploit more people?”
Whether we want to live longer through medicine, or push our species farther through space travel, both Davis and Smiles agree that it’s not only a question of developing new drugs or technology. That our planet has a finite amount of resources should play a significant role in any consideration of longer life.
“The problem that really worries me is that life extension would lead to significant overpopulation and cause environmental damage way beyond what we expect right now. It’s the biggest problem of all,”
says Davis. “In some ways I feel all the issues about whether extended life is desirable or if life would lack meaning are really distractions.”
For Smiles, it’s not necessarily a question of limiting population growth, but rather of society’s ability to manage resource distribution. “If we extend our lifespan at the expense of the environments around us, there would be nothing to enjoy. With space, it’s oftentimes framed that we’re trying to move beyond the Earth and give it a chance to heal, yet still engaging in deeply exploitative practices on Earth.”
Prolonging life must go hand in hand with living in good relationship with the rest of our planet’s organisms, Smiles says. It’s a sentiment Davis agrees with; the technological requirements for pursuing life extension wouldn’t even possible if the planet were to experience a full-scale collapse.
The idea is similar to certain myths of immortality that don’t include the stipulation of good health. In Greek mythology, for example, the mortal Tithonus falls in love with the immortal Eos, who petitions Zeus to grant Tithonus eternal life. But in forgetting to request that Tithonus also receive perpetual youth, Tithonus is cursed to grow old and withered for all eternity, eventually transforming into a cicada. While the myth speaks more to the individual cost of an unhappy immortality, the same idea could easily be applied to a long life that includes privation and massive habitat destruction.
Ultimately, immortality is nothing more than a thought exercise, at least for now. While advances in medicine have led to longer and longer lifespans over the last several centuries, there is no guarantee that science will ever be able to give us 200 or 2,000 years to spend in healthy bodies—physical or digital.
That said, the thought exercise is an important one. The desire for perpetuating life, on an individual and species-wide level, shapes our motivations and behaviors. What we want out of life has a direct impact on what other people and creatures might be able to get as well. Perhaps the ultimate goal for immortality should be to break out of individualistic thinking, and even move beyond our species survival, to the world at large. After all, the fate of the planet and of humankind are inextricably bound.
Lorraine Boissoneault is a Chicago-based writer covering science and history. She is the author of the narrative nonfiction book “The Last Voyageurs.”