Soft Technologies: Radical Life Extension

In an earlier post on this blog (“Soft Technologies and Animal Experiments”) I suggested that we should not look to new technologies, as conventionally understood, to replace animal experiments and/or address all of our medical ailments.  Rather, it was suggested that we might “explore and develop new ways of coping and/or caring for one another that do not require our current industrial infrastructure.”  I referred to such approaches as “soft technologies”.

One area of research that may be better addressed with soft technologies than with animal experiments and hardware is longevity or radical life extension.

Longevity studies carried out on animals—including rodents and primates—have yielded conflicting results.  Studies have often taken the form of subjecting animals to a calorie restricted diet with individual animals receiving 30 or 40 percent fewer calories than would otherwise be deemed healthy.  That is to say, animals have been forced to live the whole of their lives in a semi-starved state in hopes that humans might figure out a way to live longer than they currently do.

Other attempts at life extension have included developing new pharmaceuticals and even genetic engineering.  Of course, both of these strategies cost animals their lives.

Moving from longevity studies to so-called “radical life extension” one inevitably encounters Ray Kurzweil.

In 2005, Ray Kurzweil (along with Terry Grossman) released a book titled Forever Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever and in 2010 he (again, with Terry Grossman) released Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever.   The titles are meant to be taken literally; Kurzweil, in fact, believes that he himself has a reasonable chance to live forever and that those who are born today have an excellent chance at immortality.  I am not sure what, if any, population control measures he anticipates being imposed if his vision of immortality is realized.

In contrast, is an idea I gleaned from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness:

“if you want to slow down the inner feeling of your life passing, and perhaps passing you by, there are two ways to do it. One is to fill your life with as many novel and hopefully “milestone” experiences as you can…[t]he other way…is to make more of your ordinary moments notable and noteworthy by taking note of them…The tiniest moments can become veritable milestones.” (p. 163)

Kabat-Zinn suggests that many people actively pursue the first strategy.  It often takes the form of exotic vacations, extreme sports, and other big experiences.  I suspect he might include recreational drug use on such a list.  It is difficult for most people to successfully pursue such a strategy for any significant length of time.  It may be financially prohibitive or it may end in injury (or addiction).  It’s resource intensive.

His second method is seemingly available to everyone.

It may at first seem that a crude sleight of hand has been performed.  Surely, Kurzweil and those who starve laboratory animals would not be satisfied with the Kabat-Zinn solution.  It’s unlikely they would see it as even answering there concerns; it might be said that if it’s an answer, then it’s an answer to a different question.

But what Kabat-Zinn’s solution does is call into question the starting assumptions of Kurzweil and the longevity studies.  Whereas the former are strictly zeroed in on the number of years and days between birth and death, a purely quantitative approach; Kabat-Zinn offers a qualitative solution by providing a method for us to make more of the time we do have, to live a rich life and not merely a numerically lengthy one.  Kabat-Zinn rescues and re-affirms the value of the subjective experience of one’s life which is important because subjectively, almost any amount of time can slip away if it’s not savored and if we aren’t mindful of it.

Kurzweil and company are essentially seeking to give an addict more money in hopes that he or she will make it last longer.   Kabat-Zinn aims to cure the addiction…and without putting animals in cages!

"A 23-year study comparing calorie restricted rhesus monkeys, left, to normally-fed monkeys, has shown that calorie restriction may not increase one's lifespan."

“A 23-year study comparing calorie restricted rhesus monkeys, left, to normally-fed monkeys, has shown that calorie restriction may not increase one’s lifespan.”

This is Mass Society


Confined in crowded conditions chickens will violently peck one another due to the stress.  Pigs will bite each other’s ears and tails.  The animal agriculture industry’s answer to such problems is to simply cut off the tails and blunt the teeth of piglets prior to confinement so as to minimize so-called “carcass damage” which translates into profit loss.  Chickens have the ends of their beaks seared off with a hot blade in a process known as debeaking or sometimes, euphemistically, as beak trimming.  The animals are mutilated so as to better fit the industrialized food system while creating minimal friction (i.e. profit loss).

Chickens are seen inside cages on a truck near a poultry market in Dengzhou

The August 20, 2013 issue of WIRED Magazine featured the photography of Michael Wolf who has documented the incredibly dense, high rises of Hong Kong in a project titled Architecture of Density.

The article accompanying Wolf’s photos explains:

“In the United States, we’re spoiled with space. Even in New York City, where it can sometimes feel as though you’re walking on top of the person in front of you, we have the luxury of expansive parks and comparatively well-sized apartments. To live in Hong Kong is truly to live in a mega-city, where your apartment building can have a population greater than entire towns in Nebraska.”

Like the creation of large scale factory farms, the creation of Hong Kong’s massive high rises is a strategy to maximize profit with attention to the biological needs of the captives being limited to what does and doesn’t interefere with the pursuit of profit:

“The driving force behind Hong Kong’s expansive high-rise culture is purely economic. To maximize revenue, the government needs to keep the land expensive, which means they need to keep it rare. Contractors will bid on a small plot of land, driving the price up, and whoever wins has the choice: Do you build high or low?”

All the economic incentives are in favor of density: packing people into high rises, packing chickens into battery cages.  It’s amazing we humans aren’t pecking each other to death…but then again maybe we are.

The consequences of living in such dense spaces and at such vast scales is difficult to determine.   Not surprisingly, crude experiments have been carried out on other animals but these have not proven to be conclusive.  Most notable are the experiments of John B. Calhoun.


In 1962, Calhoun published “Population Density and Social Pathology” in Scientific American.  Calhoun created self contained “rodent universes” (his term) that initially provided for the basic needs of the confined animals but simultaneously set the stage for rapid population growth and severe overcrowding.  The results included sexual deviancy, aggression, mothers neglecting or even attacking their pups—in Calhoun’s words “going berserk”.   Infant mortality reached levels as high as 96 percent in some groups.

“Like Pavlov’s dogs or Skinner’s pigeons, Calhoun’s rats came to assume a near-iconic status as emblematic animals, exemplary of the ways in which behavioral experimentation at once marks and violates the human-animal distinction.” (source)

Calhoun was criticized—by J.Z. Young, amongst others—for carelessly extrapolating results from his highly controlled rodent experiments to human society.

Experiments with human subjects carried out by psychologist Jonathan Freedman in 1975 reportedly did not find similarly negative results.  Additional studies since that time have seized on numerous variables as to why different people either succeed or fail to cope with dense living environments.  In short, the same density does not affect every person in the same way or to the same extent (in fact, not every rat was affected in the same way or to the same extent in Calhoun’s experiments).  Much of the stress that is reported is attributed to an excessive amount of unwanted social interaction; some people are better able to manage social interaction and can create their own sense of personal space despite being in a high density population. (source)

But to adequately consider the question of density, it is important not to overlook what might be considered to be the indirect harms of density such as noise and other forms of pollution.  These things do negatively affect dense populations even if the subjective experience reported by some individuals being in a densely populated space remains positive.  A recent study conducted by NASA scientists and published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology established a link between population density (as opposed to simple population size) and air pollution.  And an editorial in The New York Times recently cited a study of people living near airports which found that even those who reported sleeping soundly and being undisturbed by airplane noise exhibited “blood pressure spikes, increased pulse rates, and set off vasoconstriction and the release of stress hormones”.

So in the absence of definitive answers, we are left to ponder the photography of Michael Wolf.   Wolf, in fact, does not view the density of the high rises as dystopian.  He currently lives in a 21 story building and describes the experience of “look[ing] out on a sea of 5000 apartments” as “fascinating”.  While I think his photos are indeed fascinating, I see them as fascinating in the same way that turning over a rock and seeing countless crawling creatures quickly scatter is fascinating.

I can’t help but think that only badly mutilated or severely stunted animals—human or nonhuman–could live in such spaces; that we are being mutilated for the sake of a larger system and that such density limits our potential.  Like battery chickens, we spend our whole life without the freedom to spread our wings.


Note: John B. Calhoun began his career at Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine.  Jackson Laboratory was the subject of a  previous post..

Recommended sources:

Medical Historian Examines NIMH Experiments in Crowding

Escaping the Laboratory: The Rodent Experiments of John B. Calhoun and Their Cultural Influence

The Urban Animal: Population Density and Social Pathology in Rodents and Humans

Psychological Musings: The Effects of Population Density and Noise

upc chickens