The Washington Post recently reported that a number of tech pioneers such as Google, Pay Pal, Facebook, eBay and other giants of Silicon Valley are plowing billions into biomedical research hoping to dramatically extend human life spans. Apparently these high-tech Ponce de Leons are on the prowl for their own 21st century “fountain of youth.” Although such a chimerical quest might provide amusement to those of us more pragmatically inclined, the fact is that a number of high-tech gurus are “dead serious” (pun intended) about defeating the ravages of aging and death, in their own lifetimes if possible.
Google’s Sergey Brin, for instance, has apparently donated $150 million for gene modification research, targeting people such as himself who share a particular gene that has been linked to Parkinson’s disease. Sounds curiously like those big banks who purchased “credit default swaps” to insure against potentially toxic mortgages. So is Brin’s strategy to insure against potential diseases using “genetic default swaps?” Wait, it only gets weirder.
Oracle founder Larry Ellison, hoping to live forever, has donated some $430 million to anti-aging research according to the Post. “Death has never made any sense to me,” Ellison is quoted as reflecting. “How can a person be there and then just vanish, just not be there?” Granted, I am not too sure that death makes much sense to any of us. But Ellison really goes off the rails with his confused metaphysical speculations. Apparently he’s got the time machine reel running in reverse. Like the rest of us poor mortals Larry started out by NOT being there. He only popped into existence, with a little help from his parents, at conception. The remarkable thing is that he, or any of us, came into being at all. Death isn’t the magical “poof” experience, Larry, conception is.
Nobody really needs $430 million in seed money to figure out such a simple biological fact. But does one simply vanish at the moment of death, barring the use of high explosives? Yet even a pulverized suicide bomber can hardly be said to simply vanish. Mr. Ellison is obviously a very intelligent man to have amassed such a fortune as Oracle represents, but he has apparently not seriously considered the concept of a soul which transcends and survives the body. Too bad. He might have saved himself a fortune if only he had attended class that day.
Death is a fearsome thing to be sure and I don’t mean to make light of it, but it becomes intolerably frightful if we adopt Larry Ellison’s philosophy. And to assume that boatloads of money will keep the grim reaper at bay is as naïve as it is ludicrous. After all, it is more often something unexpected that ultimately kills us. Besides, a world where people lived for hundreds of years would quickly degenerate into a social dystopia marred by lethal generational infighting. Would Mr. Ellison’s heirs be content to wait 200 years for their inheritance? Stanford senior fellow and political theorist Francis Fukuyama warned that a large change in human life spans might bring social changes to a standstill, leaving aging dictators in power for centuries. Imagine the elevated levels of Joseph Stalin’s legendary, and murderous, paranoia if he were still in power today. Then consider how Social Security and similar safety nets would be strained beyond endurance if life expectancies and retirements stretched out interminably.
I am reminded of a humorous line in the play Fiddler on the Roof, “if the rich could pay others to die for them, the poor would make a very good living.” A more serious philosopher, Boethius, once observed that it is much harder for a rich man to face the prospect of death since he has so much more to lose. Death is truly the great leveler. It respects neither rich nor poor; the weak or powerful. Mega-billionaire Bill Gates rather sensibly chided Silicon Valley’s “fountain of youth” culture of narcissism noting, “It seems pretty egocentric while we still have TB and malaria (impacting people in poor countries) for rich people to fund things so they can live longer.”
Still, a brave new bionic world of reprogrammed DNA, digitization of your brain, and microscopic “nanobots” intended to repair damaged tissue from within appears to be just around the corner. Such costly, esoteric technologies undoubtedly appeal to the supercilious vanity of a few uber-rich tycoons who presume an entitlement to purchase immortality like a Gucci handbag or a new BMW. But in the long run death is an impartial arbiter, unimpressed and unmoved by anyone’s bank balance. Even if one delays the inevitable for a while, the odds eventually catch up. Playing God is a poor substitute for recognizing his rightful sovereignty over our very life, including its natural end. Death is not a vanishing act, it is a time of reckoning when the soul will finally meet the One who first brought it forth from nothing. For some death resembles a dark opaque curtain, relentlessly drawn down on one’s life, while for believers it promises to be a transparent portal, the gateway to a glorious future of immortal existence.
Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs and Roman Emperors also attempted to use their power and wealth to gain access to immortality, or so they thought. Their elaborate designs to insure exclusive immortality were over-ridden by a simple Jewish carpenter who proclaimed that all men and women, not just a select few, were entitled to eternal joy as well. Ironically, his very death and resurrection gave those poor, swarming masses the right and opportunity to live forever. But it seems that some of today’s business elite have reverted to old ways of thinking, to their inevitable disappointment. Imperial Rome is long dead as are the dynasties of Egypt and its leaders. It seems a precarious throwback to emulate old, failed civilizations in the current search for immortality. Besides, there is a more direct and dependable route to the same end. It only requires one to possess Faith, not untold billions.
Francis J. Pierson