In our previous article on this topic, we defined transhumanism and talked about how the union between the human and the machine would allow us to overcome our limits in terms of intelligence and capabilities. In this article, we will talk about the other two pillars of transhumanism: Superlongevity and Superhappiness.
Radical life extension has been one of the greatest goals of human beings throughout history. The first narratives and yearnings of humanity, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the search for the elixir of life, or the Fountain of Eternal Youth, confirm that one of the greatest desires of human beings for thousands of years has been to avoid aging, disease, and death.
In its Superlongevity form, transhumanism proposes to act in two steps. The first is to extend life considerably. For example, getting to live 130 years normally. The second is to achieve rejuvenation, elimination of disease, and lives of a potentially indefinite length, which could be called "immortality" or "amortality."
This is because viewed objectively, aging is the world's leading cause of illness and death. Currently, about 150,000 people die due to aging every single day, with all the personal suffering that accompanies it for many years, and the damage also caused to loved ones. Aging is probably as bad as all the diseases in the world combined, being also the root cause of most of the diseases that cause death. It is worse than any war ever fought combined, causing more death and suffering than any of them. Yet there is no law of physics that says that a biological being has to die. In this sense, many transhumanists have proposed that aging and death be seen as curable diseases.
Some people consider that death is not a bad thing. For transhumanists, this is called a post hoc rationalization, a visceral form of thinking in which we start with a settled conclusion and that we then justify with weak and false reasons that we do not question. We are so used to thinking that death is culturally and biologically inevitable that it has not occurred to us to question it. If you knew that a person or an accident was going to kill all your loved ones and everyone you knew, wouldn't you try to avoid it? However, we do not question death, as it is something very integrated into the way our societies have been built.
As some contemporary philosophers have argued (particularly, Thomas Nagel and Shelly Kagan), it is not the act of dying in itself which is bad, since we cease to exist at the moment of our death. Instead, death and aging are bad because they cause us a loss of future possibilities in our life. If there were a multiplicity of possible futures available for us, with positive and rewarding experiences in our future, we have lost them when we died. In addition, we must add to this the pain and suffering caused to our families and loved ones by our death, as well as any loss of possible contributions that we could have made to society. Therefore, death and aging are very important losses on a personal, family, and societal level. [i]
However, talking about "immortality" in the strict sense is a mistake. Rather, we should think of "lives of indefinite length", also called "amortality". If a person decides that life no longer provides anything for them, or if their life prospects have been seriously damaged by some unexpected and irreparable event (for example, a serious traffic accident, an explosion, or a natural catastrophe), they should be allowed to die in the most humane way possible.
Going from the moral and philosophical level to the scientific level, thinking about immortal beings is not that rare. In fact, we have multiple clues about many immortal beings that occur in nature. Prokaryotic cells, like bacteria, are immortal under ideal conditions, for they simply divide into two symmetrical cells (binary fission), and the old cell thus transforms into two young cells. The hydras Cnidaria, organisms of a few millimeters, constantly renew the tissues of their bodies. We have also known since the 1950s that cancer cells are biologically immortal, and we have known since the 1890s that germ cells do not age. Coming closer to us bigger animals, various types of jellyfish, such as Turritopsis dohrnii, are also immortal. Other immortal animals are Planarian worms, which due to their use of highly proliferative stem cells, are able to regenerate a complete worm from one part.
In fact, some research on mice has almost doubled their life expectancy. [ii] Scientist Michael Rose has managed to multiply the life expectancy of Drosophila melanogaster flies by four, and scientist Robert Reis has managed to multiply the life expectancy of C. elegans worms by ten. [iii] This is equivalent to a human being living 150 years, 360 years, or 900 years, respectively.
Some of these technologies today include calorie restriction, telomerase injections, stem cell treatments, and gene therapies. This is because aging generates damage to the body that accelerates over the years. Specifically, as gerontologist Aubrey De Gray lists:
Extracellular debris, such as misfolded proteins that are left outside the cells.
Dysfunctional cells, which become dangerous to the surrounding cells.
Nuclear mutations in DNA, which make the person more susceptible to many diseases.
Cell loss and tissue atrophy, which lead to the inability of the body to replace damaged cells. [iv]
Finally, other transhumanists such as Natasha Vita-More consider that the anti-aging technology par excellence will be nanotechnology, tiny robots that can be injected into our body and will be dedicated to repairing our cells. In addition, it is expected that robots will be eventually developed as "Full-Body Prosthetics" that we will control from a distance, as we are too vulnerable to accidents in the outside world. If we eventually reach a much longer lifespan, we should do everything possible to avoid potential accidents that could end our precious lives.
Some works within transhumanism, such as those of David Pearce, co-founder of the World Humanist Association (now Humanity+), do not focus on improving our capabilities or our longevity, but our capacity to have positive experiences, happiness, satisfaction, or human flourishing, as well as avoid suffering, especially the kind of suffering that does not lead to personal growth. [v]
David Pearce philosophically argues that we have a moral imperative to improve the lives of all sentient beings. This leads us to promote the flourishing and well-being of living beings and the elimination of unnecessary suffering.
Part of these goals will be met thanks to technology. For example, by promoting the artificial evolution of the human being through technologies, such as CRISPR, we will reach levels of happiness never seen before and that we cannot even imagine. This will be done by promoting or regulating the body's production of the hormones of happiness (such as oxytocin, dopamine, and arginine vasopressin). Furthermore, this will lead us to a world where experiences of suffering are essentially eliminated.
The Future of Transhumanism, in the short term
It is expected that the advances required for transhumanism will be fast. It is possible that in the coming decades we will see a great leap in some of these technologies, especially now that large technology companies are investing in scientific research in these areas. Very rapid progress is likely to emerge in at least one of these disciplines, as happened in the 2010s with the rise of CRISPR.
Technological leaps are mostly unpredictable. Therefore, it is necessary to start an ethical discussion on these issues now, based on valid arguments and not gut reactions for or against these technologies. It is necessary to admit that societies change over time, and that material conditions will also shape our preferences and needs.
The adoption of transhumanism will not be forced, but a personal decision for each one of us. However, as technological changes emerge, it may be the wisest decision for most of us.
[i] The arguments of Nagel and Kagan can be found respectively in Nagel, Thomas (1979/2012). Mortal Questions. Chapter 1. Cambridge University Press. and Kagan, Shelly (2012). Death. Chapters 10 to 12. Yale University Press.
[ii] See the awards from the Methuselah Foundation.
[iii] Michael Rose has written a large number of articles and books on the subject, such as "The Long Tomorrow: How Advances in Evolutionary Biology Can Help Us Postpone Aging" and "Does Aging Stop?".
[iv] De Gray, A., & Rae, M. (2008). Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime. St. Martin's Press
[v] David Pearce has spent most of his career arguing for his vision, since Pearce, D. (1995). The Hedonistic Imperative to his most recent Pearce, D. (2017). Can Biotechnology Abolish Suffering?
[vi] This article is partially inspired by the TransVision World Transhumanist Congress, which took place in Madrid in 2021. Much of this information comes from notes that were taken throughout multiple conferences over several days, and therefore some ideas might come from a variety of authors. To see a complete list of the speakers that inspired this content, see https://www.transvisionmadrid.com/speakers