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Enormous Wealth and Eternal Life

The deepest of our deep pockets are now pumping millions into immortality research. Should we be amused — or alarmed?

Blogging Our Great Divide
April 05, 2017

by Sam Pizzigati

How many registered nurses fantasize about living forever? Probably not many. How many math teachers daydream about immortality? Probably not many there either. Traffic cops? Waitresses? Civil engineers? All likely the same story.

We have no evidence that any economic grouping in our society sports a significant number of folks who obsess over eternal life. With one exception. The ranks of the awesomely affluent, a new piece of New Yorker reporting details, include a growing cohort of those who believe we can “choose to make death optional.”

In Silicon Valley, the epicenter of high-tech wealth, these “immortalists” are putting their money where they want their future to be. They’re bankrolling all sorts of ventures designed to bust the bounds of the historic human lifespan.

One Silicon Valley startup, Unity Biotechnology, has already raised $116 million, the New Yorker notes, “from such investors as Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel, billionaires eager to stretch our lives, or at least their own, to a span that Thiel has pinpointed as ‘forever.’”

Why are the wealthiest among us working so avidly to avoid their own personal mortality? Many people of means in the I-want-to-live-forever crowd, the New Yorker speculates, may be reacting to the premature loss of loved ones. Mega-billionaire Larry Ellison, for instance, lost his mom to cancer back in his student days.

“Death has never made any sense to me,” Ellison has noted.

But plenty of people of modest means have, of course, also lost loved ones prematurely, and those losses haven’t sent them chasing after elixirs that promise eternal life.

We need to look a bit deeper for an explanation of why so many rich today are fixating on immortality. Understanding how inequality works may help with this explaining.

The more unequal a society becomes, philosophers and social scientists alike have pointed out, the more money matters — and delivers social status. The more wealth you accumulate in a deeply unequal society, the more you feel yourself successful, important, and even indispensable.

You begin to see yourself, in short, as “God’s gift to humanity.” And if you rate as such a gift, don’t you have an obligation to humanity to stick around as long as humanly possible?

Many of today’s deep-pocketed immortalists see technology as the best ticket to life without death. They see us “retooling” our biology and maybe merging our natural bodies with high-tech hardware — a la RoboCop.

Research along these lines is already revving up. Technological advances over coming decades could make “even the finest human specimens of 2017,” notes journalist Jeremy Olshan, “in hindsight seem like flip phones.”

This new technology will cost a pretty penny. That cost gives no pause to the kingpins of Silicon Valley. They can afford anything. The rest of us can’t. What does that mean for our human future? The new technologies of the immortalists, predicts historian Yuval Harari, could “lead to greater income inequality than ever before.”

“For the first time in history,” adds Harari, author of the newly published Homo Deus, “it will be possible to translate economic inequality into biological inequality.”

And that brings us back full circle to the challenge that drives what the New Yorker describes as “the great majority of longevity scientists.” These researchers, unlike our billionaire foreverists, have no interest in making us immortal. They just want us to enjoy healthier and longer lives.

One part of the progress we need to make toward that goal, these scientists note, will require a better understanding of conditions like cancer and heart disease. None of us can foresee how long gaining that understanding will take.

But we already do know how to overcome the single most deadly social condition behind ill health and early death. That condition would be economic inequality. Researchers have firmly established that people who live in relatively equal societies live longer and healthier lives than people in deeply unequal societies.

So eat right, exercise, and do whatever you can to contribute to the struggle for a more equal world. Let’s hope we get there before the immortalists write inequality into our DNA.

Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow Sam Pizzigati co-edits His most recent book: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900–1970. Follow him on Twitter @Too_Much_Online.

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