Beliefnet
We are crossing hugely important thresholds, right now, in our lifetimes. This is a significant moment in history and probably the most anomalous and bizarre in the story of this species.

...in the rich world, we have comparatively few problems left to be solved. We are not, needless to say, underfed. Our lives are not consumed in wearisome toil. The spread of public health measures allows most of us to live a natural span of years. In material terms we currently live in utopia as it has always been pictured. And the things that keep it from seeming like utopia? The violence, the stress, the lack of solitude and silence, the lack of deep relationships, the failing sense of purpose, the ennui--are these susceptible to technological cure? Or are they more easily treatable by reducing the technology we already have?

[Developing countries aside,] the world is clearly not in need of dramatic further improvements. There is tinkering around the edges yet to be done, perhaps, with scourges like childhood disease, but the conscientious effort to spread and share existing innovations could solve most of the problems we face. That said, it is enormously hard to turn off the thinking that spurs us on. For a very long time we were clearly improving the conditions of our life with technological progress, and hence the momentum behind that push is enormous. With one exception, what we have still to gain is trivial and not worth either the physical or spiritual risks of this accelerated grandiosity. That exception is death. And it becomes exceedingly clear, reading these theoreticians and prophets, that that is what the game is about. For all our lengthened life spans and more comfortable lives, we still die. And that is seen as unacceptable.

It is clear that these revolutionary technologies are being driven by people with immortality, or something very near it, on their minds. In genetic engineering circles, much talk in the last year has centred on the promise of longer lives. As Danny Hillis, a computer scientist, says, "I’m as fond of my body as anyone, but if I can be 200 with a body of silicon, I’ll take it." One odd thing is that it is precisely this same class of thinkers--hyper-rationalist scientists, who have long sneered at religion as the refuge of the weak--who can’t face the fact of their own mortality. But clearly their own discomfort with mortality goes so deep that they will risk not only the dangers that come with genetic engineering, but even the loss of meaning that will attend this post-human future.

It is the ultimate flowering of consumerism, this ability to purchase immortality; and all who have read fairy tales should know enough to at least be wary of it. What does it mean to be human without dying? We don’t know. Perhaps, shorn of this gut fear, we would evolve into more benign and loving people--or perhaps become hubristic monsters. Whatever we would be, we would no longer be human: death is too much a part of our condition. Already our inability to think about death drives much of the craziness in our culture: the endless, expensive attempts to ‘support life’ in its final days, the crude industries like cosmetic surgery and the inability to see our old as elders with a role to play. And the promise of immortality is an undeniable lure: who knows for sure that they would not swallow that pill, take that nano-injection? But if we are to think reasonably about these new technologies, we have to think about what is really driving them. The coming environmentalism, or whatever it will be called, may have to offer a defense of dying as an integral and necessary part of life, a gravity we should not seek to finally escape.

A single organism does not grow forever, constantly gaining new capabilities, constantly commanding more terrain from all around it. It grows for a while and at some point it stops growing. Some signal--a receding tide of hormones, perhaps--shuts down its expansion. Some of those signals--the comfort in which we live, say--might convince us that we had grown enough. Some of those signals--the rising temperature, the equations suggesting that genetic engineering could get out of hand--might convince us that it was impractical to grow further. In fact, something a little akin to that seems to have happened in regard to human fertility: a billion different families, making individual calculations about how far they had progressed and about the difficulties of expanding further, seem to have dramatically slowed the planet’s demographic tide in a generation.

 

In our material lives, however, it’s another story. Full speed ahead, the more the merrier! Any slowdown in economic growth is unthinkable, which is one reason we dare not question new technologies. Saying no, plateauing, would seem to imply a kind of stagnation, which is an unpleasant word, especially next to the exciting idea of growth. If we view ourselves as a species, stagnation implies a kind of evolutionary backwater.

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