Death and the Human Animal

Here Mary Midgley, now in her 90s, reflects on the profound implications of attempting to abolish death. The more one thinks it through, the less desirable the prospect seems. An earlier version of this article appeared in Philosophy Now, March-April 2012

Till lately, people discussing death didn’t have to consider the idea of actually abolishing it.  Now they do. The ‘new immortalist’ movement   declares   its   intention   to ‘end   the   scandal   of involuntary death’.  It holds  that  (as  Aubrey  de  Grey  puts  it) ‘humans have a right to live as long as they wish’. (We must ask later what kind of a right this is). And it claims that they will indeed soon be able to do this. The prediction is that, quite soon, the recent increase in the human life-span will start to accelerate faster than people age. When the human race achieves this ‘longevity escape velocity’ we will effectively be immortal.  In fact, the first person who will live to be a thousand may already have been born.

This gospel is being spread rapidly by the Immortality Institute in the United States and to some extent here too. Starting from the way in which the human life-span has indeed lately become longer in rich countries, immortalists argue that this increase both can and must be taken to its logical terminus. Normal dying must  stop  altogether.  Except  for  occasional  accidents  and murders we should all live in perfect health for ever. I should emphasise right away how different this is from just saying that we ought to lengthen lives by treating the diseases of old age – a point on which we might all agree. Proposing the actual removal of death is a different kind of step which alters the meaning of life itself. It needs to be looked at separately.


Death and Individualism

When I first came across this idea, I thought it made no sense at all. And I have to say that, after attending to it fora time, I’m inclined to come back to that opinion. ButI don’t think that it is actually  as  cheap  or  as  easy  to  reach  as  it  first  appears. Immortalism is rooted in a great many ideas that are current and accepted today. It fits in too well with the individualism of the Enlightenment to be dismissed as a casual aberration. Fora start, our current thinking surely does view the saving of human lives as a  pre-eminent  obligation.  As  Immortalists  point  out,  we  all welcome any effective life-saving and call anxiously for more of it. We don’t even allow people to die when they want to – however much they want to. In fact, human life is now the only thing that is  universally  agreed  to  be  sacred  –  a  word  which,  in  other contexts, is viewed with great suspicion today. By contrast, many people  view  the  killing  of  other  animals,  for  meat  or  other purposes, as perfectly normal and harmless. And, as for the Earth itself, though we’ve lately begun to grasp that it can be seen as a living whole which is entitled to reverence – Gaia – that reverent view of it is certainly not yet our normal, official attitude.

Behind this special emphasis on preventing human death lies the rather extreme kind of individualism that is now prevalent – the quasi-deification of the ego, the great reverence for the self as the one remaining valuable thing in the world – which can seem to make its indefinite preservation absolutely necessary. And the ideas that used to balance this reverence aren’t as influential as they  once  were.  The  old  certainty  that  we  are  bound  to  die because we lie under the same conditions as the rest of nature is countered today by a belief in the transcendent, all-conquering powers of civilised Man.

Here humanism shades into transhumanism – an ardent belief in an indefinite, perhaps endless vista of  possibilities that are supposed  to  lie  open  to  our  species.  Our  faith  in  technology, especially  medical  technology,  is  backed  here  bya  deeper message that, as humans, we are virtually exempt from earthly conditions anyway and ought to take advantage of that exemption. Both actual technological successes and  science-fiction’s images of further technology have impressed us so much that we are no longer  sure  that  anything  is  actually  impossible.  As  Arthur  C. Clarke pointed out, it is quite hard now to distinguish between technology and magic, and magic has no limits. Prophets urge us to believe that we have moved right outside the bounds of nature – that we are now effectively supernatural and ought to live up to that status.

This  rather  mysterious  widening  vision  is  what  has  made startling proposals like immortalism look plausible ever since writers like Wells and J.D. Bernal started to express them. And it accounts  for  the  remarkable  way  in  which  these  proposals combinea factual witha moral meaning. We are told both that human immortality is bound to happen and that we must strain every nerve to make sure that it does. Like the Marxist revolution, immortality seems somehow to be both inevitable and obligatory. The double force already felt in words like progress spreads out here to cover the idea of evolution ina way quite foreign to Darwin, and  we  are  asked  to  put  our  backs  into  bringing  about  this inevitable future.


Facts, Values and Politics

When facts get mixed with values like this it is usually best to start by separating them, so perhaps we should begin witha few facts about possibilities. At the scientific level, Immortalists can bring forward serious reasons for supposing that immortality can be achieved. (Of course more   orthodox scientists oppose this with equal fervour, but they agree in taking it seriously). There is more room for debate than might be expected about possibility here because the physiological causes of aging and death have never been quite clear. There seems to be no specially-wired mechanism  designed  to  make  us  age  and  die  because,  of course, none was ever needed. Outside causes of death always cleared away the passing generations in the course of nature, leaving room for their successors. Evolution went on without any special culling mechanism. Thus these questions about strictly medical possibility still remain on the table.

If, however, we turn to ask about political possibility, things get  harder.  We  need  to  ask:  what  would  life  be  like  in  an immortal   society?   When a   whole   community   has   been immortalised,  what  happens  to  the  population  question…? Even optimists on this subject agree that resources can’t be stretched for ever to supply indefinitely-increasing crowds. Very soon, if not at once, it would surely be necessary to give up having children almost completely…This is a pretty dramatic change. Is it actually a change for the better? Children are, of course, often annoying but people still seem fairly sure that they want them, as the Chinese are finding out. And what would adult life be like if no new people ever arrived in society?

Things are no less puzzling at the other end of life because, of  course,  that  other  end  will  vanish.  What,  for  instance, happens to retirement and pensions? Recent proposals to raise the  pension  age  to  accommodate  that  very  increase  that Immortalists celebrate have produced cries of outrage. But if nobody  ages  or  dies  any  longer,  would  there  still  be  any pensions?  Would  people  stop  working  at  all?    Newspaper headlines  now  often  ask  such  questions  as,`  Who  pays  for longevity?’ and, from where we now stand, this seems to be a fair question.

Besides  these  difficulties  about  organizing a  universal death-free  society  there  are  also  awkward  questions  about equality. How do we get there in the first place? Who gets this new privilege first? Which of the politicians or press-lords whom we least want to see around us for ever would be at the front of this queue? (It is as well to remember that other people, as well as oneself, will get this awkward gift). Starting  (again) from where  we  now  are,  there’s  surely  no  doubt  that  the  first immortals would simply be some of the most privileged people in the most privileged countries. This would produce a rather special  form  of  inequality  which  those  of  us  who  were  left behind might surely refuse to tolerate.

Immortalists reply that these are just local difficulties which can be dealt with by revising a few current arrangements. Is that right?  Or do they indicate deeper trouble? On the face of things, they certainly seem to. Old age and death form, along with childhood, a feature of life’s pattern which pervades all human cultures. At present, they shape the whole way in which we  conceive  of  our  lives.  They  make  up  a  fixed  cycle,  a crescendo   and   diminuendo   that   frame   human   efforts everywhere, a rhythm that links us to the natural world in which we live. They mark us out as creatures akin to the rest of life, beings  that  are  at  home  on  the  earth,  not  supernatural outsiders crashing in to conquer it.

We have no idea how we would get on without that context. No doubt we  would devise some other  world-picture to replace it, but what would that picture be? Would the overcrowding be dealt with by colonizing space – a potent dream that has long ruled science-fiction. This dream was first shaped in the thirties by J.D. Bernal, who predicted that the intellectual elite (mostly scientists) would live on as fully mechanised, fleshless bodies in hollowed-out asteroids, established for ever in those cold celestial silences that so frightened Pascal. Or do we prefer the milder multiworlds of Asimov and the Starship Enterprise, which are  what  Stephen  Hawking  apparently  looks forward  to  –  a rather less alarming prospect but perhaps not really a more plausible one?   As things now are, we do quite enjoy those dreams but we have certainly not ceased to feel that the earth is our home. As Tennyson’s Tithonus put it –

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall. The vapours weep their burthen to the ground, Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath… Why should a man desire in any way To vary from the kindly race of men, Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?

This isn’t a thought that strikes us every day but it is isn’t an eccentric one either. It  resonates very widely with our tradition. Indeed, no less a prophet than Steve Jobs expressed it lately when he was describing how he reacted to the discovery that he had cancer. This shock, he said, had suddenly made him get back to work as nothing else could have done. He added –

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make  the  big  choices  in  life.   Because  almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things all fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is important.…. No-one wants to die. Even people who want to go to Heaven don’t want to die to get there.  And  yet  death  is  the  destination  we  all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the best invention of life. It is life’s change-agent. (Guardian, October 7 2011, pp. 9 & 51)

This is, of course sound biology and to my mind it is also human common-sense.  The  imperative  to  save  life  has  always  been balanced by a clear sense that it can’t be saved for ever – that all life is, by its nature, something vulnerable and passing. Even while it lasts, we know we are subject to all sorts of chance disasters which we can’t possibly dodge for ever. The command to save life is, like so many of our principles, just one side of a dialectic – an imperative that constantly has to be balanced against its opposite. Nobody supposes that it’s always wrong to allow a death.


The Meanings of Death

In fact, the question of how to view death isn’t a duel between black and white – saving it or losing it. It really is a choice of evils – one of those clashes where, as Aristotle saw, we have to navigate between equally unwelcome extremes. I have often been puzzled by the way philosophers, from Epicurus on, have argued abstractly about whether death is ‘an evil’.  It seems so obvious that the question about evils must always be ‘is this one worse than the alternative?’ A great many things, such as pain and grief, are bad and frightening in themselves but are still essential parts of our existence. Pain and grief are not just necessary  means  to  life’s  good  things,  they  are   necessary aspects   of   life   as a   whole.   Sympathy   and   sensibility, discouragement and disappointment expose us to a lot of pain, but we would probably still choose to keep them rather than be given a permanent emotional analgesic.

The trouble about fitting death into our lives is, then, that we need both to remember it and to forget it. We have to be clear that it is there, but not let it stop us doing what we have to do meanwhile   We know things can always go wrong. This uncertainty is upsetting but we can’t get rid of it merely   by removing death. Plenty of other things can shatter our plans just as effectively and, if death were removed, people would probably  take  to  fearing  those  instead.  The  game  itself would go on and would surely not get any easier. Indeed, it might even get harder – more worrying – if we knew that we had to play it for ever.

And after all – as Steve Jobs points out – the only thing that makes  it  possible  for  any  of  us  to  be  here  now  is  that  our innumerable ancestors all had the good manners not to live for ever but to die when their time came. Without that, they could never have developed the way of life that we now enjoy and could certainly not have passed it on to us. Thus, when the Immortalists claim that ‘humans have a right to live as long as they  wish,  the  right  in  question  seems  to  be a  right  of  a particular generation – a right held against our possible rivals, against those future people who might take our place after us but who won’t now have the chance to. Did our ancestors also have that same right? Were they entitled to prevent us from existing? This seems wrapped in mystery.

In any case, not all humans have wanted to claim such a right. Plenty of them have expressed, as Steve Jobs does, their acceptance  of  the  thought  that  we  cannot  live  for  ever.. As Edmund Spencer put it –

Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas, Peace after war, death after life doth greatly please

But this acceptance is the polar opposite of the temper that inspires the New Immortalists and other Transhumanists today.


An Endless Prospect

This brings us to the social and psychological side of the matter. How would our life become different if normally no-one died? What, in fact, would an endless earthly life be like?

This is the aspect of the matter that I find most intriguing, but it hardly seems to interest Immortalists at all. Their aim is much more to avoid dying than to achieve some particular way of living. They only touch on these  social issues when they are forced to defend themselves against political objections, and even then they clearly don’t think much of them. Thus Robert Ettinger, the high-priest of cryonics, explains that he hopes great multitudes will take advantage of their new opportunity to get themselves deep-frozen so as to last until the blessed future comes. People object that, when they are all revived, the flood of newly-thawed-out citizens might raise population-difficulties. But Ettinger is not alarmed. He writes –

The frozen population would increase by four billion every  thirty  years.  If  it  takes  300  years  for civilization  to  reach  the  immortality  level,  there would then be some forty billion people to revive and relocate – if we assume, for simplicity, that it all happens at once…. There is ample room on our planet for forty billion people. (Quoted by Bryan Appleyard,  How To Live Forever Or Die Trying, p.199, emphasis mine)

(Incidentally, the number actually frozen so far is apparently just sixty-seven, but about a thousand more, including de Grey, are signed up for possible future treatment).

De Grey himself usually answers these wider objections by saying that immortalists will deal with them when the particular difficulty arises. He explains that he doesn’t see himself as a general theorist searching for large truths but as an engineer, looking for solutions to particular practical problems. He thinks this is best done by tackling only one problem at a time, and he sees the extension of human life as just one such problem. The trouble with this is, of course, that, even for engineers, problems don’t come separately packed, and, when we are dealing with living  creatures,  the  great  network  of  interconnections,  both within them and around them, is crucial.. Population pressure and savage inequality aren’t just future complications which might arise some day. They are already rampant evils today and increasing the human lifespan seems likely make them worse. So they can’t possibly be kept separate from it.

What, however, would it be like for everybody to look forward to an endless death-free future? It is not a new thought that this prospect  is  actually  quite  alarming.  Long  before  the  New Immortalism arose people have suggested that we need death in order to give a shape to life – a shape without which life can become  meaningless.  Thus  in  Bernard  Shaw’s  play  Back  to Methuselah   Adam   and   Eve   appear   when   they   have   just discovered the death of animals. At first they are appalled to think that the same thing might happen to them. But then they wonder about the prospect of going on for ever without an end and they start to suspect that that would be even worse. Adam cries out ‘I can’t face the horror of having to be with myself for ever…I do not like myself. I am tired of myself. And yet I must endure myself, not fora day or many days but for ever. That is a dreadful   thought’.   Similarly   Milan   Kundera,   in   his   novel Immortality,  remarks, ‘What is unbearable in life is not being but being oneself’.

Shaw’s Adam and Eve decide to settle instead fora lifetime of three hundred years. And, as it happens, a woman who has just lived for three hundred years is the central figure in Karel Capek’s play  The  Makropoulos  Affair  (which  provided  the  script  for Janacek’s opera). Here a woman who once took an immortality-potion has reached the point where she will need another dose of it in order to go on. At first she tries desperately to get hold of the recipe. But when she gets it, she gradually realises that, after all, she isn’t going to take  it. She really has no reason to go on living, so she’s content to die. Her successive lives have been good but she has had enough of them and she doesn’t want to repeat them. She is tired of repetition. There is no reason for her to go on.


Bored Stiff?

Critics have suggested that this must be because of accidental features in her life. But Bernard Williams, ina fascinating essay on the story, rejects this. He believes –

that  the  supposed  contingencies  are  not  really contingencies,  that  an  endless  life  would  be  a meaningless one and that we could have no reason for  living  eternally a  human  life.  There  is  no desirable or significant property which life would have more of or have more unqualifiedly if we lasted for ever…[As Aristotle said about Plato’s Form of the Good]“nor will it be any more good for being eternal; that which lasts long is no whiter than that which perishes in a day’… (Problems of the Self; pp. 89-.100)

Williams is surely right that the value-associations which have always coloured words like immortal and eternal can’t stay with them once we begin to talk literally. Just going on and on without stopping  is  not  what  people  have  always  meant  by  eternity. Medical immortality simply isn’t a religious concept because value is always relevant. Richard Dawkins tried to exploit those value-associations  when  he  wrote  that  ‘the  genes  are  the immortals’  but  this  is a  con;  what  lasts a  long  time  is  not necessarily divine.  There is nothing paradoxical about Williams’s conclusion that, for humans, a life that is eternal in this sense would be too repetitive to be liveable. The notorious difficulty of spelling out how an endless life could be lived singing hymns in Heaven shows the force of this difficulty.

Again, in his collection, Labyrinths, Jorge-Luis Borges writes the  story  of a  Roman  soldier  who  eagerly  searches  for  the Fountain of Immortality. He finds a strange, meaningless, empty city which he is told is the City of the Immortals, and near it are some miserable, naked people who don’t even seem to be able to talk. He tries to teach one of them to speak, and fora long time can’t succeed. But at last he is astonished to hear the man say something about the Odyssey. He asks him ‘What   do you know of the Odyssey?’ `Very little’ the man replies. ‘It must be a thousand and one hundred years since I wrote it’. Their river, from which  the  soldier  has  himself  been  drinking,  is  indeed  the Fountain of Immortality. These people are ageless, and repetition has wiped all meaning from their lives long ago. So the soldier promptly sets out in search of the Fountain of Mortality in the hope that it will reverse this dreadful process.

Some immortalists recognise this problem about what to do with one’s immortality, or even with one’s extended life. Nick Bostrom,  who  is  an  Oxford  philosopher,  has  suggested  that people’s brains may need to be enlarged so as to cope with maintaining interest in an almost limitlessly extended life. This surely  shows  an  amazing  faith  in  the  reliability  of  medical technology – a faith which does, indeed, pervade many aspects of this project. He adds, however, that not everybody may need this expansion; some people may just not mind doing the same things repeatedly for ever.

This  whole  difficulty  has  been  described  as a  form  of boredom. Aubrey de Grey briskly replies that boredom can easily be dealt with; we just need better education and training. As he says,  ‘nobody  with a  good  education  gets  bored,  only  those people who have never been given the skill to make a lot out of life’. Whatever may be thought about this generalisation, de Grey is surely right to ask fora rather less casual, more penetrating name for this trouble than boredom. Boredom can cover all sorts of failure of motivation. Meaninglessness, however, is something more  specific.  It  indicates a  particular  kind  of  trouble  –  the absence of a ruling pattern, a pervasive rhythm, bringing the elements of life together as parts of the whole.

For  humans,  of  course,  this  pattern  of  meaning  always spreads far beyond a single life through communal enterprises involving many others, enterprises lasting far longer than a single life-time. In fact, it is this sense that one is part of a larger whole –  in  fact,  many  larger  wholes  –  that  can  make  death  seem less  than  catastrophic.  Notoriously,  too,   many  people  have found, as Steve Jobs did, that the shock of expecting death, whether for oneself or others, is what makes them aware of this background  pattern.


An Enclosing Pattern

In fact, it looks rather as if this need for an enclosing pattern is a fixed part of our nature. Immortalists, of course, clearly don’t think that we have any such fixed, given nature that might block their plans. They see people either, in behaviourist terms, as infinitely  malleable,  or  as  being  driven  always  by a  single overriding motive – the fear of dying. But that   prudent fear is certainly not an overriding motive; in fact, other motives override it all the time. Reminding people repeatedly about health and safety simply stops them listening. Quite normal humans engage constantly in dangerous sports like rock-climbing, motor-cycling and hang-gliding and the whole history of culture makes it clear how much they enjoy fighting. Fear of death is just one part of a whole forest of feelings that are natural to us, feelings which continually clash and jostle together and must be balanced as we try  to  live  our  conflict-ridden  lives.  Immortalists,  like  other Utopians, focus so exclusively on the one evil  they want to root out that they forget to provide for the rest of life.

In  fact,  we  are  not  abstract  entities.  We  are  mammals, members of a particular primate species, equipped with a jumble of natural motives that suits our characteristic way of life. We often forget about this common heritage and suppose that we are infinitely adaptable because the differences between our cultures interest us so much more than the nature that we share. But that nature is very powerful.

Immortalists  want  us  to  see   the  habit  of  dying  as  just  a cultural quirk, a passing fashion that we can change. Of course they are right to point out that people often do change what seem to be fixed customs and may then start doing things they once thought were against their nature. For instance, we in the West no longer think that we have to fight duels or hang, draw and quarter traitors, and we are trying to give up usury and smoking. But some of these customs are in fact much harder to change than others.  War and slavery are still very resistant and nobody has managed to get rid of alcohol. Polygamy has officially been abolished here but it is surely still with us, even if only in serial form.  In  short,  though  humans  do  like a  change  they  are not infinitely adaptable psychologically any more than they are so physically  –  indeed,  since  brains  are  physical  things  the two aspects inevitably go together. There are limits to reshaping our  motives.  Some  customs  can    be  changed  more  easily than others.

Where, then, on that spectrum of mutability should we place this practice of dying?  Transhumanists always want to put such practices at the shallow end as if they could be easily cleared away like wearing wigs. Thus that ardent transhumanist Plato advised that families should be abolished, children being brought up communally without knowing who their parents were. Like many  other  reformers,  too,  he  wanted  to  get  rid  of  private property. But nobody has made these ideas work, and most of us would  agree  that  this  is  because,  in  spite  of  their  many drawbacks, these things are essential to human nature. The question is; is dying also essential?

When immortalists talk of the ‘scandal of involuntary death’ they suggest that death is something bizarre, an anomaly, a strange fact that doesn’t fit the order of the world we know. But actually, of course, what is strange and scandalous is not death but life. Even the simplest living things are so complex that the mere fact of their existing and functioning at all is miraculous, and in human beings that complexity is of course vastly greater. To expect such sensitive and delicate systems as these to work forever against all the chances of a violent world without wearing out is surely absurd, and would still be so however good the new medical maintenance arrangements might be. And since we are by nature so transient it is surely plausible that our emotional nature too fits that transience. However discontented we may be with our present mortality we might well (as these writers have suggested) find it still harder to adapt to the prospect of endless survival..

This change is indeed one of quite a different order from the shifts of custom just mentioned.  Dying isn’t just a local practice acquired by one culture or even a trait confined to our species. It’s the life-pattern of all advanced animals whatever. The only creatures that don’t die individually are very simple ones like amoebas which reproduce by dividing. Ina sense these creatures are indeed, death-free. The original amoeba  is, in a way, still with us. Its examples haven’t changed, and that lack of change is exactly the price that they pay for being immortal. Steve Jobs is surely right; death is indeed life’s best invention, its change-agent.

What made possible the whole rich forest of later speciation –  among  whose  twigs  we  now  live  –  was  indeed  simply  the invention of real, final, individual death. This happened when animals   took   to   the   more   complicated   sexual   modes   of reproduction which allowed variety and provided for innovation. Each  member  lived  briefly,  but  the  huge  range  of  further possibilities constantly branched out further. In fact, death was the price paid for this whole development – the price of real life. It was what made possible that fruitful individuality that we now so  much  prize.  But  that  kind  of  individuality  is  just  what immortalists  now  want  to  freeze  and  ossify,  thus  ending  the creative process for ever. This desperate attempt to keep the profits of human evolution without paying for them is surely one more case of tunnel vision – of reformers so hypnotised by a single cause that they quite forget its human context.

Dr. Mary Midgley isa distinguished moral philosopher an author of many books. The Essential Mary Midgley was published in 2005 and much of her more recent work has explored the implications of the Gaia Hypothesis.