What if there was a way, if not to wipe out death completely, to at least delay the inevitable? To not only make possible lives that extend beyond the current U.S. lifespan of almost 79 years, but to make those lives worth living?
In his new book, Immortality, Inc.: Renegade Science, Silicon Valley Billions, and the Quest to Live Forever (National Geographic), Shadyside-based writer Chip Walter explores a concept that might sound preposterous until one considers other technological or scientific advances — air travel, heart transplants, nanotechnology — that once seemed beyond human comprehension.
“I wanted to tell a big story,” says Walter, who will speak on Jan. 16 in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ Made Local series. “And I wanted to tell it as if I was looking back on it, telling history. That someday people will look back and say, 'Ha! This is when it started to happen, this thing that completely capsized the human condition.'”
In order to attract readers who might not be familiar with molecular biology or the Law of Accelerating Returns, Walter needed a hook. He found it through compelling characters who are intent on cracking the mystery of aging. There’s Ray Kurzweil, the noted futurist and inventor; Craig Venter, who’s done groundbreaking work in genomics; Arthur Levinson, a former chairman of Apple; and Daphne Koller, an expert in artificial applications in biomedical sciences.
Most of them have family histories marred by early deaths. Beyond those experiences, they all “want to take on challenges that other people would not consider,” Walter says. “I think Ray Kurzweil loves attacking what other people consider impossible. Venter wants to live a good life in the sense of a full life, and his version of a full life is that every idea he comes up with, he’s going to make happen.”
Walter says that while concepts like immortality are often associated with spirituality or religion, those ideas are rarely, if ever, broached in Immortality. He adds that anyone who works in this field has the underlying belief that the "soul is encased in [the] brain." The economic stresses of prolonged human life, too, are debated but mostly dismissed in his book.
“Kurzweil’s answer is 'science and technology will solve these problems,’” Walter says. “We will learn how to more sustainably control the planet and also fewer and fewer people will be born. And that is already happening.”
While some may scoff at the idea that life can be prolonged beyond its perceived limits, there’s evidence that humanity has only just begun to explore its limitations. The proof — or at least, the plausibility — of longer lives can be found in the animal kingdom. Walter cites numerous examples of longevity in nature, including bowhead whales that can live more than 200 years in the icy depths of the Arctic Ocean.
Given the average lifespan was less than 50 at the turn of the 20th century, why shouldn’t we live longer?