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Review of Ilia Stambler’s “A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century”

A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century by Ilia Stambler is the most thorough treatment to date of the ideas of famous thinkers and scientists who attempted to prolong human lifespans. In this detailed and impressively documented work – spanning 540 pages – Dr. Stambler explores the works of life-extensionist thinkers and practitioners from a vast variety of ideological, national, and methodological backgrounds.

Dr. Stambler’s opus will enable today’s advocates of human life extension to understand the immensely rich and interesting historical legacy that they can draw upon.

In substance, I agree with Dr. Stambler’s central observation that life-extensionist thinkers tended to adapt to the political and ideological climates of the societies in which they lived. I do suspect that, in some regimes (e.g., communist and fascist ones), the adaptation was partly a form of protection from official persecution. Even then, Soviet life-extensionists were unable to avoid purges and denunciations if they fell out of favor with the dominant scientific establishment. 

My own thinking is that life-extensionism is a powerful enough human motive that it will attempt to thrive in any society and under any regime. However, some regimes are more dangerous for life-extensionism than others – especially if they explicitly persecute those who work on life extension. If, on the other hand, complete freedom of scientific inquiry exists (with no barriers to performing research that respects all human rights or getting such research published), then significant progress can occur in a variety of political/ideological environments.

Even so, I have been tremendously interested to delve into Dr. Stambler’s discussion of the deep roots of life-extensionist thought in Russian society, where ideas favoring life prolongation have taken hold despite a long history of authoritarianism and more general human suffering. I even remember my own very early years in Minsk, where I found it easy to adopt an anti-death attitude the moment I learned about death – and where, even in childhood, I found my support for human life extension to be largely uncontroversial from an ethical standpoint. When I moved to the United States, I encountered far more resistance to this idea than I ever did in Belarus.

While most Americans are not opposed to advanced medicine and concerted efforts to fight specific diseases of old age, there does still seem to be a culturally ingrained perception of some “maximum lifespan” beyond which life extension is feared, even though it is considered acceptable up to that limit. I think, however, that the dynamics of a competitive economy with some degree of freedom of research will ultimately enable most Americans to accept longer lifespans in practice, even if there is no intellectual revolution in their minds. The key challenge in the United States is to remove inadvertent institutional obstacles to progress (e.g., the extremely time-consuming FDA approval process for treatments), and also to prevent new obstacles from being established. Once radical life extension does occur, most Americans will explicitly or tacitly embrace it.

Dr. Stambler portrays American life-extensionist thinking as aligned with a capitalist, free-market, libertarian outlook – and this is often true, but it may be an exception to the book’s thesis that life-extensionist thinkers adapt to the predominant ideological environments that surround them. My own observation regarding American life-extensionism is that it does seem to correspond with a type of free-market libertarianism that is far outside the current ideological mainstream (though it is growing in popularity).

The views of Peter Thiel, Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis, Reason (of FightAging.org), and Max More are far from the views of the political establishment in Washington, D.C., which tends to be much more in favor of a centralized welfare/security nation-state with elements of corporatism, but not a libertarian free market.

The love of liberty is a strong part of American history and culture – and continues to feature strongly in the attitudes of many Americans (including some wealthy and prominent ones) – but I do not think the political establishment reflects this idea at all anymore.  An interesting thought on this matter is that it might have become easier in recent years for life-extensionists not to represent the dominant paradigm in their society or regime and still to prominently pursue life-extension endeavors.

If this is so, then this would be an encouraging sign of a greater emerging diversity of approaches, and generally greater tolerance of such diversity on the part of regimes. After all, the American regime, for all of its flaws, has generally not been cracking down on the libertarian life-extensionists who disagree with it politically. At the same time, as Dr. Stambler points out, the United States remains the leading country in life-extension research – and this occurs in spite of the political disagreements between many life-extensionists and the regime.

A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century offers tremendous value to readers in encapsulating a diversity of vantage points on and approaches toward human life extension throughout history. While many of the pioneers in this area failed to achieve their ultimate goal, they did advance human biological knowledge in important, incremental ways while doing so.

Furthermore, they navigated political and ideological environments that were often far more hostile to unhampered technological progress than the environments in many Western countries today. This should enable readers to hold out hope that continued biomedical progress toward greater human lifespans could be made in our era and could accelerate with our support and advocacy.

Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II) is an actuary, science-fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. Mr. Stolyarov regularly produces YouTube Videos discussing life extension, libertarianism, and related subjects.



COMMENTS

Looks like interesting reading. What I want to comment on here, though, is the idea that the correlation between life extensionism in the US and a relatively marginal position on overall political ideology is a sign of that country’s great tolerance for diversity. I think I agree with this: American life extensionists just don’t need to be particularly conformist in other ways in order to be allowed to embrace and promote life extension. On the other hand, I’m less convinced that the relatively libertarian bias of American life extensionists (there are notable exceptions of course) is actually helpful. While the commitment of the political establishment to the libertarian ideal may indeed be rather low currently, self-styled libertarians tend to go way too far in denouncing government itself as a threat to liberty, rather than as a necessary defender of it.

If and when radical life extension does become available it will present enormous and largely unpredictable challenges for society. If we really want to make it happen quickly, AND successfully deal with those challenges, then the movement needs to migrate towards the political centre. I think there is a huge untapped potential of people who understand the importance of government and collective-decision making and at the same time are open to considering the benefits of life extension, or at least can be convinced. Associating life extension with the political fringe does not encourage that potential to be tapped.

> AND successfully deal with those challenges, then the movement needs to migrate towards the political centre. I think there is a huge untapped potential of people who understand the importance of government and collective-decision making and at the same time are open to considering the benefits of life extension, or at least can be convinced. Associating life extension with the political fringe does not encourage that potential to be tapped.

@Peter,
The research for life extension, at this moment in time, I agree must be funded immensely by the U.S. government. However the U.S. government is made up of two forces which, under Obama, we witnessed, simply could not get along.

The republican party continues to this day to spread war, as in real war, on the ground troops, low-income people of the U.S. to be either hurt and wounded, come back with PTSD, or killed. They also continue to vote for and spread anti-science rhetoric in the name of “God.” On top of that, the republican party continues to support hostile legislation to life extension and even the most basic of scientific principles. The “middle” you are talking about does not exist for science, there is no middle in the U.S. - for the middle should start with popular EU or Canadian parties as the “far right” in my opinion.

With that said, I do agree with your opinion on U.S. style libertarians, they are not libertarians at all, instead they are simply “capitalists without regulations.”

Hi Kris,

I agree that if one looks at the inter-party political debate in the US one can quickly come to the conclusion that the political center does not exist. But I think it would actually be a false conclusion, since if you go below the rhetoric and look at what American people actually think you’ll find that most people have quite nuanced views (perhaps not particularly coherent or well-thought-out, but nuanced nonetheless) that align with one party on some issues and the other on others.

Of course, if “moving to the political center” means embracing anti-science rhetoric in the name of “God” then I agree that the life extension movement needs to give it a very wide berth. But the truth is that you can still find plenty of conservatives who are not remotely anti-science, and who are also staunchly secular. Similarly, on the left there are still people who believe that social democracy has more to give, and draw inspiration from that even if (in the US) the word “social” still tends to be something of a taboo. This is basically the center I am talking about: sane, rational, pro-science thinkers with mainstream views, whether center-left or center-right, on the nature and role of government.

@Peter: I don’t think you understand American Politics that well, and I am sorry to say this publicly.

If we see another Bush like regime in the U.S. organizations and academic scientists will face, yet again, an anti-science monster, and with the support of Fox News, the regime can do almost anything it likes - but remember, in the U.S. most anti-science rhetoric coming form the republican party are “smoke screens” for larger projects to throw off the middle and left.

For example, Bush and Cheney put out the smoke screen of: ending Planned Parenthood, outlawing abortion, and adding to the constitution anti-gay marriage laws.

These endeavors were to create a chaotic left in preparation and during the Iraq War.

However they did indeed cut funding from ACORN, Planned Parenthood, and many other important organizations that rely on sound scientific arguments for their existence.

We (as in the US) can never go back to a time period like that. We cannot control radical, irrational Republicans like, Jeb Bush and his brother, the people of the U.S. are helpless under such a Regime.

I can elaborate on how regimes like these are “good” for the “far left”, but I do not and have never encouraged that kind of thinking, because once the destruction is done, its basically done, and the world and the U.S. has to wait 4-8 years to try and undo what the crazy religious far right has done to not only us as a nation, but to the world.

Take only two examples: the Iraq death toll, and the republican’s stance on global warming.

If one where to take into account just those two aspects of the republican party, one should declare them obsolete for a civilized world.

Well, I’m also capable of being horrified by the prospect of another Bush/Cheney-like régime, Kris. Perhaps the problem is with the term “political center”. I’m certainly NOT saying that life extensionists should just sit on the fence on every other political issue. That’s not what I meant. What I meant was that the movement needs to appeal to the mass of people who understand the importance of government and collective decision-making, and for that it probably needs to reduce the extent to which it is associated with essentially anti-government libertarian positions.

Still, a re-run of Bush/Cheney is by no means the only threat we face, so we have an interest in keeping things in perspective, and in that context I find statements like, “These endeavours were to create a chaotic left in preparation and during the Iraq War,” somewhat disturbing, since it seems to apply an intentionality and planning that strikes me as highly implausible. I certainly agree that destructive policies must not be welcomed on the basis that they are “good” for the “far left” - I’m glad you’re at least not falling for that one - but I’m also not sure that demonising the republican party as a whole, which seems to be a favourite sport of the American Left, is particularly helpful. Apart from anything else, the GOP enjoys the electoral support of getting on for half of the American people (or at least that proportion of them that bother to vote), so perhaps it might be better to encourage the moderate elements there rather than writing them off entirely?

I think for me this is more than anything about avoiding letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. There is always so much to deplore, if we are so inclined, but sometimes it can be more useful to focus on the positive and see how we can reinforce it. And for me, recognition of the importance of government and collective decision-making is a positive aspect of mainstream US politics that indeed needs to be encouraged.

> the GOP enjoys the electoral support of getting on for half of the American people (or at least that proportion of them that bother to vote)

Not true. The U.S. has man laws and regulations restricting who can vote and when. Therefore the people who do vote were allowed to vote, and the people who might have been allowed to vote may be apathetic, or not voting in protest. I am more concerned with the people who are not allowed to vote because of laws and long waiting lines.

We need real voting reform now in the US.

See my comment on the other thread: no disagreement with the need for voting reform. But the issue I’m addressing here is whether or not the life extension movement serves its interests well by aligning itself with anti-government libertarianism, which in its practical effects really seems to me to be not so different from the anti-State anarchists we’re discussing on the other thread. Both seem to me to woefully underestimate the importance of government and collective decision-making. You may be concerned (and rightly so) with people who are unable to vote, but the fact remains that there is a vast swathe of American people who freely and without any coercion vote republican. And I’m sure some of them can also be persuaded to support life extension. Does it really make sense to alienate them?

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