The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering. ~Bruce Lee
Immortality has always been big business. The ancient Egyptians mummified their kings as a way to preserve the physical body for the future; they regarded death as a temporary interruption and believed enlightened souls would reanimate their corpses. The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, wanted so badly to live forever that he ingested gold and mercury, ironically bringing death more quickly to his own doorstep. Sumaria had Gilgamesh, Spain had Ponce de Leon, and France had Nicholas Flamel, an alchemist believed to have discovered the philosopher’s stone.
The same desire for eternal life exists today. There are several biotech companies, fueled by Silicon Valley fortunes, devoted to solving “the problem of death.” So-called biohackers – some prefer the term transhumanist or life extensionist – are investing incredible amounts of time, money, and energy into practices that alter their physiology in hopes of living longer – to ages of 200 years and beyond. Their possible fountain of youth is to be found in stem cells, in intermittent fasting, in wearing glasses that block blue light, in synthetic growth hormone injections, in ingesting the narcolepsy drug modafinil. These biohackers spend countless hours meditating in infrared saunas, followed by more time in cryogenic chambers, followed by time hooked to neurofeedback machines. They stand on vibration plates under ultraviolet sunlamps and down illegally obtained herbs from China.
These titans of immortality hail mostly from Silicon Valley. Google director of engineering Raymond Kurzweil holds that biotechnology will render humankind effectively immortal by the year 2045. Tech giant Jeff Bezos is an investor in Nootrobox, a longevity startup selling nootropics (brain drugs). Dave Asprey, of Bulletproof Coffee fame, has stated he expects to live to be at least 180 and proudly admits he injects stem cells into his spinal cord. “I decided that I was just not going to die,” he told reporters matter-of-factly. Billionaire Elon Musk funded Neuralink, a company working towards merging the human brain with computers (I read two whole articles about it and still don’t understand it). Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have pumped millions into Calico, a secretive health venture interested in solving the problem of senescence using research from naked mole rats, animals that, as ugly as they are, seem not to age. And if these men die before their goals? Hundreds of the super rich have reserved cryogenic chambers to preserve their physical bodies in liquid nitrogen until future advances in technology can reanimate them.
It’s not that I’m against biohacking. I love using technology to feel stronger and sharper and employ some of these strategies myself. But is immortality a suitable life purpose?
I could argue for overpopulation; if no one dies but babies continue to be born, then only the super rich will be able to afford the limited resources that overpopulation will create. I could argue that those billions might be better spent to fight climate change; who wants to be alive in 200 years if our planet is a wasteland? I could argue for global inequality – the life expectancy in Africa is still 20 years shorter than the lifespan of those living in the U.S. – and the egocentric viewpoint of that 1%.
But my argument is less global and more personal. I believe a fundamental recognition about life’s preciousness is missing for most of us. I look around and see a world addicted to distraction and diversion. We struggle to find value in our individual moments, so why would we crave more moments to waste?
I suspect we seek life quantity because we’re profoundly lacking in life quality.
These men are simply worshiping at the altar of technology instead of worshiping at the altar of real life. They meditate only to modify their physiology, not to be awake in the moment. They forget that life’s meaning increases because we have a fixed time limit on earth. The nature of the human experience is one of transience and impermanence.
The biohackers also forget that immortality needn’t look like a body that doesn’t die. Perhaps a greater goal is legacy, or leaving a heritage that will benefit future generations. A perfect example is Bill Gates. While he could easily devote his time, money, and energy into living forever, he has chosen instead to help billions of people gain access to clean water and poured millions of dollars into research to eradicate existing diseases.
If you ask me, that sort of legacy is true immortality.