A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century by Ilia Stambler is the most thorough treatment to date of the ideas of famous thinkers and scientists who attempted to prolong human lifespans. In this detailed and impressively documented work – spanning 540 pages – Dr. Stambler explores the works of life-extensionist thinkers and practitioners from a vast variety of ideological, national, and methodological backgrounds. Dr. Stambler’s opus will enable today’s advocates of human life extension to understand the immensely rich and interesting historical legacy that they can draw upon.
In substance, I agree with Dr. Stambler’s central observation that life-extensionist thinkers tended to adapt to the political and ideological climates of the societies in which they lived. I do suspect that, in some regimes (e.g., communist and fascist ones), the adaptation was partly a form of protection from official persecution. Even then, Soviet life-extensionists were unable to avoid purges and denunciations if they fell out of favor with the dominant scientific establishment. My own thinking is that life-extensionism is a powerful enough human motive that it will attempt to thrive in any society and under any regime. However, some regimes are more dangerous for life-extensionism than others – especially if they explicitly persecute those who work on life extension. If, on the other hand, complete freedom of scientific inquiry exists (with no barriers to performing research that respects all human rights or getting such research published), then significant progress can occur in a variety of political/ideological environments.
Even so, I have been tremendously interested to delve into Dr. Stambler’s discussion of the deep roots of life-extensionist thought in Russian society, where ideas favoring life prolongation have taken hold despite a long history of authoritarianism and more general human suffering. I even remember my own very early years in Minsk, where I found it easy to adopt an anti-death attitude the moment I learned about death – and where, even in childhood, I found my support for human life extension to be largely uncontroversial from an ethical standpoint. When I moved to the United States, I encountered far more resistance to this idea than I ever did in Belarus. While most Americans are not opposed to advanced medicine and concerted efforts to fight specific diseases of old age, there does still seem to be a culturally ingrained perception of some “maximum lifespan” beyond which life extension is feared, even though it is considered acceptable up to that limit. I think, however, that the dynamics of a competitive economy with some degree of freedom of research will ultimately enable most Americans to accept longer lifespans in practice, even if there is no intellectual revolution in their minds. The key challenge in the United States is to remove inadvertent institutional obstacles to progress (e.g., the extremely time-consuming FDA approval process for treatments), and also to prevent new obstacles from being established. Once radical life extension does occur, most Americans will explicitly or tacitly embrace it.
Dr. Stambler portrays American life-extensionist thinking as aligned with a capitalist, free-market, libertarian outlook – and this is often true, but it may be an exception to the book’s thesis that life-extensionist thinkers adapt to the predominant ideological environments that surround them. My own observation regarding American life-extensionism is that it does seem to correspond with a type of free-market libertarianism that is far outside the current ideological mainstream (though it is growing in popularity). The views of Peter Thiel, Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis, Reason (of FightAging.org), and Max More are far from the views of the political establishment in Washington, D.C., which tends to be much more in favor of a centralized welfare/security nation-state with elements of corporatism, but not a libertarian free market. The love of liberty is a strong part of American history and culture – and continues to feature strongly in the attitudes of many Americans (including some wealthy and prominent ones) – but I do not think the political establishment reflects this idea at all anymore. An interesting thought on this matter is that it might have become easier in recent years for life-extensionists not to represent the dominant paradigm in their society or regime and still to prominently pursue life-extension endeavors. If this is so, then this would be an encouraging sign of a greater emerging diversity of approaches, and generally greater tolerance of such diversity on the part of regimes. After all, the American regime, for all of its flaws, has generally not been cracking down on the libertarian life-extensionists who disagree with it politically. At the same time, as Dr. Stambler points out, the United States remains the leading country in life-extension research – and this occurs in spite of the political disagreements between many life-extensionists and the regime.
A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century offers tremendous value to readers in encapsulating a diversity of vantage points on and approaches toward human life extension throughout history. While many of the pioneers in this area failed to achieve their ultimate goal, they did advance human biological knowledge in important, incremental ways while doing so. Furthermore, they navigated political and ideological environments that were often far more hostile to unhampered technological progress than the environments in many Western countries today. This should enable readers to hold out hope that continued biomedical progress toward greater human lifespans could be made in our era and could accelerate with our support and advocacy.