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.”