For over forty years, futurists ranging from scientists to science-fiction writers have proclaimed biological immortality is within the grasp of our technology. It has eluded the reach of technology for those forty years, but it would be foolish to assume it will do so for another forty.
We got here by being gene replicators. Biological immortality promises to perpetuate existing genes. Proponents of biological immortality ignore the obvious downside: there is no way for this miracle to be equitably distributed. (For my review of Ben Bova's book, Immortality, see "Immortal or Immoral?") The likely consequence of an inequitable distribution is a division of our species into replicators and perpetuators.
At first, there will only be a few perpetuators—and they most likely will keep their new aristocracy a secret. Eventually, the world will know and innumerably more will want immortality than can have it. I doubt devices such as lotteries will placate the masses. (I also doubt that any long-term division into replicators and perpetuators will result in H. G. Wells' Eloi and Morlocks.)
It is possible, however, that perpetuators, since they are initially the rich and powerful, will offer inexpensive digital immortality in an attempt to pacify the replicators. A division of the world into biological and digital immortals is another scenario ripe for conflict. (Perhaps, there are already conspiracy theorists who believe that perpetuators exist now and are behind the advancement of digital immortality.)
It is more probable that the difference between perpetuators and replicators will be cast in terms of immortals versus mortals. This puts the current division of "haves" and "have-nots" in a whole new, and far more unsettling, light. It is hard to imagine the implementation of biological immortality for the few without extreme social upheaval, even bloodshed.
In contrast, digital immortality, precisely because it is both less desirable and less defined, is a safer path to pursue. Digital immortality is also less invasive, less disruptive, less controversial, and far less expensive. It will be more practical for more people more quickly than biological immortality. Since it will exist in cyberspace, it will use many magnitudes less of the planet's resources.
Is there any justification for our being more interested in preserving our biology than our brains? And should we not be concerned how biological immortality will alter biological evolution? As the planet fills with immortals, what is their incentive to procreate? Could biological immortality end biological evolution? Are we really ready for that?
Biological immortality has two main pitfalls. Either it will become the exclusive province of the rich or it will fatally exacerbate the crowding of the planet. A lesson we should have learned long ago is that we cannot extend life without also limiting birth. That is, biological life and biological birth. However, no such constraints seem to exist for the extension of digital life.
Therefore, why not settle for digital immortality— and biological mortality—for all? That way there will be always be biological evolution, which will not only add to the sum of digital immortality, but also continue our alternative biological future.
Perhaps digital immortality is the beginning of the digital evolution of our consciousness, of our very selves. If so, then how we implement it will not only affect the future of digital immortality but the evolution of the species.
Bova, Ben. Immortality: How Science Is Extending Your Life Span and Changing the World, Avon Books, 1998.
Ettinger, Robert. The Prospect of Immortality, Doubleday, 1964.
Wells, H. G. The Time Machine, Airmont, 1964.
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Last updated 3/17/02
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