First thoughts on Aubrey de Grey: A roadmap to end aging

We’d like here at Dreaming-Robots to bring to you attention talks and academic work related to robotics, cybernetics and transhumanism. Occassionally, we’ll offer some commentaries, thoughts, and in-depth readings on such work. In what will be the first of a recurring series, then, here are some thoughts on a TED Talk by Aubrey de Grey, entitled A Roadmap to End Ageing.

If you’ve missed it, here is the talk (it’s 18 minutes long, as he frequently complains):
There is much to talk about here, and I would like to return to this talk in other posts. However, for now, I would like to raise one aspect of this talk that troubles me somewhat: not that we might live forever, in itself, but at least one of the consequences of doing so that I don’t think de Grey considers.

De Grey says he doesn’t want to impose our values on  future generations, that it is wrong, that it is immoral to do so. And with that I would agree. But de Grey does not seem to see that that is exactly what we would be doing were we to defeat ageing.

On the one hand, perhaps say that we do ‘fix’ our species,  cure humanity of this disease de Grey calls death; would then the values of those immortals not forever be the values of the future? We don’t  need to employ the argument about the immortal dictator to see why this would be a bad idea. We all love our grandparents, but we rarely agree with them. Perhaps it is some naive belief in the progress of our species, but I would like to think that one day my children, too, will be embarrassed by my ideas (not matter how right-on and progressive I know them to be.)

I am not arguing that we need to kill off diseased, deranged or otherwise defective individuals in order that the human race can realise a glorious, perfect future self. I merely wish to point out that ensuring eternal life for certain human might have this effect of cementing a certain set of values, some of which are desirable but others that are clearly not. We might be glad for the battle against ageing to be won in our lifetime, but I think we would horrified at the thought that they might have done this 1000, 500 or even 100 years ago. How would the world today be a poorer place if Victorians — and all of their descendants — were still walking around, or, worse still, maintained their dominant ideology?

If we defeat ageing, we are doing exactly what de Grey describes as immoral — imposing our values on future generations.

However, this also introduces a second, much more important point. The dream of eternal life is itself a product of our values – a set of values and conception of human nature that pathologises ageing and denaturalises death, that sees ageing as an unwanted and unnecessary side effect of living. Such a conception of death is not universal; it is not a natural part of the human condition. It is particular to our culture. We don’t have to imagine some alien variety of human being in the distant future to imagine a human culture with different values, with a different conception of death – many human cultures born past and present have already  constructed value systems that  do not pathologise ageing or death. (On the contrary, broadly speaking, many cultures have honoured the elderly and the ageing process.)

So, when de Grey says that out would be immoral to not pursue the means and technologies to end ageing and death, we need to remember that this moral judgement comes from a particular moral vision, a conception held by a particular people at a particular time, i.e. us. And we must remember that this vision of morality, like all others, can die out with the generations, or cultural perspective, that maintains it. Whether or not such beliefs should be allowed to die out is a question for another blog or a longer study; however, it would be erroneous – and rather narcissistic – to forget that such a moral vision is itself situated, and that neither it, nor we, are eternal and transhistorical.