Lindbergh and Carrel's quest to live forever

It’s difficult to follow up a best-selling book about the cultural history of the penis, but David M. Friedman has a knack for engaging readers in topics that others find difficult to broach. This time he tackles the touchy subject of death by relating the intertwined biographies of Charles Lindbergh and Alexis Carrel in his new book, “The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever.”

Like most people, I had only heard of Charles Lindbergh as an aviator and in the context of his first child having been kidnapped and murdered. Imagine my surprise, then, when I happened upon a passage in Cardiopulmonary Bypass: Principles and Practice outlining Lindbergh’s contributions to Alexis Carrel’s isolated organ perfusion research in the 1930s – contributions which, for the first time, “permitted sterile, pulsatile perfusion at variable ‘pulse rates’ and variable perfusion pressures.”

Wait a moment. How did the world’s most famous aviator become involved in organ perfusion? Although much information about Lindbergh and Carrel’s work exists online, Friedman’s book provides a much more personal history of these two accomplished men.

Lindbergh’s overnight catapult into fame and adulation as the first man to fly across the Atlantic ultimately culminated in his loathing the press and greatly valuing privacy. A few years after his groundbreaking flight from New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh began thinking about things other than aviation. In particular, he wondered why people should have to die. Always an ambitious person, he decided to enter the realm of biology in order to seek the solution to eternal life. Once he made his quest known, it was not long before he was introduced to Alexis Carrel.

Carrel, a French scientist working at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, had already been awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1912 and was far along in his own personal quest for immortality when Lindbergh came along. Convinced that the body was little more than a machine with replaceable parts, Carrel had begun his research by culturing cells from animals and keeping them alive indefinitely after the animal had died, thus “proving” the immortality of man and inviting him to move on to the next step: culturing entire organs. So far, Carrel had been successful at keeping the organs alive outside of the body for a few hours by perfusing them with a nutrient medium, but infection invariably set in and caused the organs to fail.

Lindbergh tackled the problem of creating a better perfusion pump with gusto. Using his engineering expertise and an innate sense for biology he eventually developed a pump that kept the perfusate sterile, thus allowing organs to be kept alive for several days or even weeks. Carrel and Lindbergh published their preliminary results in Science (“The Culture of Whole Organs,” July 21, 1935) and Lindbergh described the perfusion pump in a separate article published later (“An Apparatus for the Culture of Whole Organs,” September 1935, Journal of Experimental Medicine). The entire effort was then written up for publication as a book (“The Culture of Organs”) in 1938. As a team, it was obvious that Carrel and Lindbergh were made for one another.

That was true in more ways than one. Carrel was a eugenicist through and through, and often expounded on his ideas and philosophies with Lindbergh when they weren’t in the lab. Lindbergh had long considered himself superior to the masses of people he sought to avoid (especially journalists), and Carrel’s theories provided him justification for his opinion of himself and other “great men.” Eventually, Lindbergh became so enamored with eugenics that he developed a profound respect for Nazi Germany, much to his protégé’s dismay. Eugenicist or not, Carrel (like most Frenchmen who lived through World War I) hated the Germans and cautioned Lindbergh against speaking too loudly in their favor.

But speak loudly Lindbergh did. In fact, he abandoned the laboratory altogether in order to promote his new cause: non-interventionism. Becoming the spokesman for the America First Committee, he toured the U.S. speaking against America’s involvement in World War II, arguing that we should instead allow the situation in Europe to play out on its own accord. But while he believed that America should not involve itself in foreign wars, he also said that he would be the first to defend his country if it were attacked.

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh tried to make good on his promise. However, having thoroughly irritated the Roosevelt administration with his anti-war rallies, he was prevented from serving his country as anything but a civilian. To prove his patriotism Lindbergh fought in the South Pacific, providing cover for American bombers and pilots and eventually shooting down a Japanese plane himself, with the knowledge that if he were caught he would receive no aid from the U.S. and would stand alone.

Carrel, meanwhile, returned to occupied France after retirement from the Rockefeller Institute and tried to create an organization of the brightest thinkers in France to create policies to guide and govern the common people and return his country to glory. Ultimately this project failed and Carrel died ostracized and under house arrest.

When the war was over, Lindbergh visited the concentration camps in Germany and saw the horror and devastation perpetrated in the name of supposed science. He was beside himself and couldn’t believe that the “neat” and “organized” Germans that he had admired would commit such atrocities. He returned to the U.S. to examine his life – and came to the conclusion that he, too, had allowed science to dominate his perspective. He documented his monumental change in attitude in a book called “Of Flight and Life” in 1948. Friedman documents:

“…Lindbergh was urging Americans to break free from the “grip of scientific materialism,” lest it lead them, shackled and helpless, to “the end of our civilization.” The choice facing America, Lindbergh wrote, was as simple as it was stark: “If we do not control our science by a higher moral force, it will destroy us.”

This about-face led Lindbergh to an even greater revelation: that he was no longer an immortalist. After spending time in Africa and coming to appreciate the beauty of nature, Lindbergh dedicated the remaining years of his life to environmentalism. Friedman writes that “The person who once tried to save the world by saving white civilization would now try to save the world from white civilization.” Lindbergh wrote:

“When I watch wild animals on an African plain, my civilized [method] of measuring time gives way to a timeless vision in which life embraces the necessity of death.” I see individual animals as mortal manifestations of immortal life streams; and so I begin to see myself. I am not only one, I am also many, a man and his species. In death, then, is the eternal life which men have sought so blindly for centuries, not realizing they had it as a birthright.”

When faced with a cancer diagnosis in 1974, Charles Lindbergh had already made his peace with death, believing now that it was only through death that man may become immortal. With the same determination that he had done everything in his life, he planned his funeral down to the last detail. When the time came, he flew to his home in Maui and reminisced with his wife and children about his life – one of the most accomplished lives of the 20th century. Then, the man who was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, who made the “Model T” of perfusion pumps, and who became a great political activist turned environmentalist, finally abandoned science…or, as he told the doctors who wished to continue treating his cancer in its last stages, “no, science has abandoned me.

Famous preserved body parts

The website TopTenz recently published a list of the Top 10 Most Famous Preserved Body Parts. The list includes Galileo’s finger and Albert Einstein’s brain. As has been discussed on this blog before, the preservation of human brains (no matter how frivolous the intention) raises a number of important questions about the nature of death and the possibility of  future resuscitation. The brain constitutes the physical basis of the person and, under ideal conditions such as prompt vitrification, preserving the brain is akin to preserving that person.

Not mentioned in this list is the strange fate of the brain of Benito Mussolini, the fascist leader of Italy. It is claimed that parts of Mussolini’s brain are contained in a box together with his remains in a tomb in his birthplace Predappio in Italy. In his travel diary “They Stole Mussolini’s Brain (Well, Almost),” industrial musician Boyd Rice published a hilarious account of his visit to Predappio and involvement in an (ultimately abandoned) attempt to steal Mussolini’s brain.

Further reading:

Albert Einstein’s brain and information-theoretic death

Also on TopTenz:

Top 10 Researchers who Experimented on Themselves

The secular case against immortality

In 2003 George Hart published an article called “The Immortal’s Dilemma: Decontructing Eternal Life” , making a secular case against immortality.  Hart mainly uses logical arguments and provides a fair amount of room to address a number of possible objections to his position. In a nutshell, Hart considers two variants of immortality, one without the option of termination and another with this option. The former is argued to be undesirable (a position that most life extensionists would agree with) and the latter is impossible because of the (logical) inevitability of a deathwish among immortals:

“Personal immortality poses this dilemma: without the termination option, we will face infinite periods of time when we will wish we could terminate our immortality; with the termination option, we will eventually and inevitably face a period when we will exercise the termination option and thus put the lie to our supposed immortality.”

In his 2004 article “Deconstructing Deathism: Answering a Recent Critique and Other Objections to Immortality,” mathematician, cryonics activist, and author of “Forever for All,” Mike Perry, reviews a number of arguments against immortality and those of George Hart in particular. Perry does not find Hart’s position on the inevitability of an executed deathwish persuasive. Perry also takes issue with Hart’s position on personhood and the memory and information requirements of immortals.

One aspect that seems to be prevalent in philosophical arguments against immortality is the alternate use of personhood and boredom objections. When it is argued that immortality does not necessarily have to be boring, critics of immortality answer that an unending life with infinite experiences necessitates demands on  memory information storage that will undermine the requirement that immortality is only meaningful if it is experienced by the same person. Alternatively, when an unchanging personality is assumed, it is argued that boredom will inevitability occur. But the choice between loss of personhood or boredom may not be necessary if personhood is not defined in such a “dogmatic” fashion but allows for both psychological continuity and meaningful identification with the past. As Perry notes:

trying as we are to anticipate the possible future before it happens, and how we will deal with our problem of memory superabundance when many new options should have opened up. In that hopefully happy time a “science of personal continuation” should have taken shape to properly deal with the matter. Nay-sayers like Hart try to discount any such prospects once and for all, based on today’s perspectives with their inevitable limitations.”

Toward the end of the article, Hart’s personal position on immortality becomes more pronounced and his reasoning less careful. Hart speculates that it may be “that only a finite life can be meaningful because only a finite life can be a story that has a beginning, middle and end. Death is what frames our life, and only a framed life can have meaning.” But why life can only be meaningful when it is perceived as a story with an ending instead of a never ending story remains obscure. Toward the end of the article , the author becomes even more blunt when he states that “life is meaningful when it is lived; that is enough. To ask for more is almost greedy.” But this argument is proving too much and would undermine any case to prolong life by scientific means, including conventional medicine. Hart is too fine of a writer to mean this. So how long is too long?

Although arguments against immortality should be evaluated on their philosophical merits, it is often not hard to detect the person behind the argument. As discussed before, this issue is particularly present among writers who stress the issue of boredom and stagnation in relation to immortality, employing a one-dimensional and unimaginative view of life and experience in order to make the case.

When discussing the (logical) inevitability of a deathwish among immortals, Perry further notes that “the rather morbid dwelling on a putative, recurring death-wish suggests that Hart may not be so happy with his own life,” as evidenced by statements such as:

“In theory you can imagine without contradiction what it would be like to be alive for a trillion or even a trillion trillion years from now. This thought experiment creates its own horror, one that is mind-numbing and nauseating.”

Perhaps secular “pro-death” philosophers believe that the case against religion is strengthened by debunking one  of the reasons people believe in the supernatural (the promise of immortality). But this would be throwing away the baby with the bathwater. If scientific means will become available to extend the maximum human life span, there is no a-priori reason why secular thinkers should not rejoice in that development, just as we are now embracing advances in medicine to heal and prolong life.

Although speculation about how immortality may affect human psychology can be intriguing, our limited  knowledge about the universe and lack of empirical observations of actual immortals make this a highly speculative affair, leaving much room for injecting personal feelings and wishful thinking. These feeling can be negative, as evidenced by the life extension cynics, or meliorist in nature, as expressed in the writings of Mike Perry:

“Clearly there are many possibilities, but I conjecture that personality types capable of and desiring very long survival will not be so varied or inscrutable as to baffle our understanding today. Instead they should basically be profoundly benevolent, desirous of benefiting others as well as themselves, and respectful of sentient creatures in general. They will acknowledge that enlightened self-interest requires a stance with a strong element of what we would call altruism. They will be intensely moral, but also joyful in the exercise and contemplation of their profound moral virtues—for an element of joy will be essential in finding life worth living, even as it is today. These joyful, good-hearted beings, then, will be the types to endure, and will refine their good natures as time progresses, so as to increasingly approximate some of our ideas of angelic or godlike personalities, as endless wonders unfold to their growing understanding. “

Few philosophers against immortality argue that today’s lifespan is too long. Which again raises the question, how long is too long? Ultimately, such an answer can only be answered empirically by the individuals who will live a much longer lifespan than those living today.

Mike Perry – Deconstructing Deathism: Answering a Recent Critique and Other Objections to Immortality

Death is nothing to us

The idea that death gives meaning to life is widespread but does not reflect careful reasoning, and is often a  desperate rationalization of human mortality. As a consequence, life extensionists have not been at great pains to defeat “pro-death” arguments. A (secular) philosophical position that is harder to refute is that we should not fear death because we cannot experience it. This is the classical argument of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.):

Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terror; for those who thoroughly apprehend that there are no terrors for them in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the person who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.

Many philosophers have felt uncomfortable with such reasoning and have gone  out of their way to refute it. This should not be surprising since humans are “hardwired” for survival. An outlook on death that seems strongly at odds with our evolved survival instinct is bound to be challenged. Epicurus’ position on death has further been challenged as nihilistic. For example, if death is not bad because it cannot be experienced by the person himself, on what moral grounds should we refrain from killing a person, provided the method is instantaneous and the individual in question is not known by others who can mourn his death?

In the collection “The Metaphysics of Death,” many contributors feel pressed, sometimes venturing into fairly obscure arguments, to refute the Epicurean position. But as Stephen Rosenbaum points out in his contribution “Epicurus and Annihilation,” the position of Epicurus on death is often misunderstood.  Epicurus did not argue that we should not fear the process of dying or the prospect of dying.

One can prefer life over death without committing to the view that death is bad for a person. Although our survival instinct usually prevents us from looking at it in such a way, in real life we have an ongoing “choice” between life or death. Although death cannot be experienced as being bad, we generally have good reason to prefer life over death, provided life is experienced as positive or has the potential to become positive. Although life extensionists would prefer to have stronger arguments against the Epicurean view on death, a preference for good experience over no experience can do the work just fine.

Liberty and oblivion

In 1991 the Libertarian Alliance published an article called “Immortality: Liberty’s Final frontier” (PDF) by David Nicholas. In this article the author argues that “the continuing fact of death renders all talk of liberty ultimately futile.” The author further argues that our concern for the future will diminish as we approach death. But instead of facing the enemy, we devise all kinds of defensive strategies.

Life extensionists often speak disparagingly of such coping mechanisms. But as argued on this blog before, one can hardly blame people for trying to live in peace with the inevitable. Raging at the prospect of death, if no rational means can be imagined to overcome or delay it during our lifetime is foolish and unproductive. But as Herbert Marcuse said, there is a difference between accepting death and elevating it to something that gives meaning to life.

Historically, the delay between the technical ability to place a person in low subzero temperatures to avoid decomposition and its actual implementation was not excessive at all. Perhaps the biggest technical obstacle to broader acceptance of cryonics is that most people still believe that the inability of the human body to sustain itself as an integrated organism must necessarily mean the end of the person as well.

In her  dissertation “An Examination of the Bio-Philosophical Literature on the Definition and Criteria of Death: When is Dead Dead and Why Some Donation After Cardiac Death Donors are Not” Leslie Whetstine dissects traditional definitions of death and proposes an “ontological” definition of death that recognizes what is important in humans: personhood and consciousness. Such a definition of death should make us think twice before giving up on a person when technologies are available that offer the prospect of being cured and restored to good health in the future.

Overcoming death is an ambitious (perhaps too ambitious) objective to sway the general public, not in the least because it contains a strong element of wishful thinking. But spreading the “meme” that most people who currently are destined for the worms or the flames still possess the neurophysical basis of their personality at “death” might have a better chance.

But we should be careful not to present the fight against death as a fight for liberty.  Death is not a man-made imposition and should not be brought under the rubric of human freedom. It can become an issue of liberty when political mechanisms are used to prevent people to take advantage of the means that offer them a chance to postpone death and prolong life. If we present the case for life extension and experimental medical procedures such as cryonics in a thoughtful manner, such scenarios may be minimized.

Immortality and boredom

If immortality means a zero chance of death, it is doubtful whether mankind (or any lifeform) will ever achieve this. Nevertheless, advocates for extending the maximum human life span often face arguments that address the negative features of being immortal. It is important to be aware that arguments against immortality do not necessarily apply to radical life extension. In absence of contemporary technologies to extend the maximum human life span, it is premature to make a case for immortality. But since some arguments that are raised against immortality are raised against living a lot longer as well, it can be beneficial to address them. One such argument is that immortality would lead to boredom.

This is the argument that Bernard Williams makes in his article “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality” (reprinted in the collection “The Metaphysics of Death”). Elina Makropulos is a 342 old character in Karel Čapek’s play “The Makropulos Case,” whose unending life has become boring and cold.  Although Williams discusses a number of interesting issues about death, the article does not contain a logical argument to believe that an unending life will necessarily lead to boredom.

The argument that immortality leads to boredom can take two forms; empirical and logical. In the first case we would observe immortal people and conclude they will become (increasingly) bored. Clearly, this approach is not possible. A milder form of this approach would be to observe very old people and to extrapolate from this to immortality. But this does not seem to be very promising. Many old people are still very curious and involved with the world, even when struggling with aging-induced  medical complications. Perhaps there is a tipping point after which old people will get bored. Perhaps not.

The other argument that immortality leads to boredom is logical in nature and is derived from the properties of being immortal as such. This does not seem to be very promising either. The assumption in such arguments is that an immortal person will exhaust all there is to live for. There are at least two problems with such a line of reasoning. The first problem is whether such a state of affairs (a fixed person with finite possibilities and experiences) logically follows from immortality. Why not assume there will be infinite possibilities and experiences (even if the person stays “the same”) instead? The other problem is that such a line of reasoning reflects an impoverished view of life, emphasizing just quantity and progress. In this view, life is a one-dimensional journey in which all things are tried and left behind. Such an outlook on human  existence does not leave room for the possibility that some experiences get richer the more we experience them. It neither leaves room for the possibility that we attach intrinsic value to things, aside from their relationship with the past or the future.

Williams anticipates such arguments when he writes:

“if one is totally and perpetually absorbed in…an activity, and loses oneself in it…we come back to the problem of satisfying the conditions it should be me who lives forever, and that the eternal life should be in prospect of some interest.”

Such an argument is not persuasive because being perpetually absorbed in something is not equivalent to that person not existing. But it is not even evident why immortality would require a person to be perpetually absorbed in something or face boredom. As Max More points out, “There is no guarantee of being engaged with life, but ennui has to do with laziness rather than the availability of too much time.”

The argument that immortality will lead to boredom is not empirical, and to the extent that a logical argument is made, it is inconclusive. Perhaps arguments of this kind do not so much reflect logic but temperament, just like ontological arguments in favor of pessimism and optimism tell us more about the philosopher in question than about the nature of the universe.

Bernard Williams does believe that as long as the desire to live exists, he does not want to die. He does not know when life will reach a point after which he would be better off not living. That is all that we need right now because no one is offering scientific means to become immortal. And even if such means would become available, one is not obliged to use them or remain immortal. Perhaps one reason why immortality has such a bad reputation in fiction is that it is often portrayed as a state of being with no way out or as a curse.

See also: Max More – Meaningfulness and mortality (Cryonics #125, vol.12, no.2, February 1991)

Edvard Munch's Death in the Sick Chamber

Edvard Munch’s painting “Death in the Sick Chamber” (1895) portrays death as expressed through the survivors. A striking aspect of this work is that all the people in the room do not console one another and are physically and emotionally isolated.

In “Modern Art and Death”, Carla Gottlieb writes:

….the faces are contorted, not in mourning for a beloved lost member, but in fear of the unknown which has just swallowed the deceased, fear for themselves who are eventually to meet the same fate. In this agony, each person is alone; each survivor turns away not only from the dead but also from the other participants in the scene. Faced with death, the family bonds fall apart, revealing their superficial character. Thus Munch experienced death as dissolving family ties…

The accompanying black and white lithograph evokes an even bleaker atmosphere, as can be seen in the sunken eyes and grim mouth of the woman facing the viewer.

Munch shows the destabilizing and alienating effects of death. Although the people in the room seem to be at a loss how to proceed in life, there is closure. In cryonics such closure is not available. Cryonics also destabilizes the fabric between people because some may survive and others may not. The idea of cryonics can also produce guilt about loved ones who died and never got the chance. These factors, and not just technical feasibility alone, may explain why cryonics is so unpopular.

Carl Jung on the soul and death

In the future, Carl C.G. Jung may not be so much remembered for his contributions to science as for his beautiful writing, imagination, and wide range of interests. In his meditation on death, “The Soul and Death” (“Seele und Tod”), Jung treats death as the inevitable descent after an ascent up a hill. Jung’s stoic reconciliation with death is understandable, even rational, in a time when the scientific conquest of death was not a practical possibility. Now that the practical means are available to participate in a time when rejuvenation may be possible, we need  imaginative thinkers, writers and poets to give expression to a conception of life that is not an inevitable road to degeneration and oblivion.

Fragment of Carl C.G. Jung – The Soul and Death (in: The Meaning of Death, Herman Feifel, editor)

I have often been asked what I believe about death, that unproblematical ending of individual existence. Death is known to us simply as the end. It is the period, often placed before the close of the sentence and followed only by memories of aftereffects in others. For the person concerned, however, the sand has run out of the glass; the rolling stone has come to rest. When death confronts us, life always seems like a downward flow or like a clock that has been wound up and whose eventual “running down” is taken for granted. We are never more convinced of this “running down” than when a human life comes to its end before our eyes, and the question of the meaning and worth of life never becomes more urgent or more agonizing than when we see the final breath leave a body which a moment before was living. How different does the meaning of life seem to us when we see a young person striving for distant goals and shaping the future, and compare this with an incurable invalid, or with an old man who is sinking reluctantly and without strength to resist into the grave! Youth — we should like to think — has purpose, future, meaning, and value, whereas the coming to an end is only a meaningless cessation. If a young man is afraid of the world, of life and the future, then everyone finds it regrettable, senseless, neurotic; he is considered a cowardly shirker. But when an aging person secretly shudders and is even mortally afraid at the thought that his reasonable expectation of life now amounts to only so many years, then we are painfully reminded of certain feelings within our own breast; we look away and turn the conversation to some other topic. The optimism with which we judge the young man fails us here. Naturally we have on hand for every eventuality one or two suitable banalities about life which we occasionally hand out to the other fellow, such as “everyone must die sometime,” “one doesn’t live forever,” etc. But when one is alone and it is night and so dark and still that one hears nothing and sees nothing but the thoughts which add and subtract the years, and the long row of disagreeable facts which remorselessly indicate how far the hand of the clock has moved forward, and the slow, irresistible approach of the wall of darkness which will eventually engulf everything you love, possess, wish, strive, and hope for — then all our profundities about life slink off to some undiscoverable hiding place, and fear envelops the sleepless one like a smothering blanket.

Thomas Donaldson on cryonics and anti-aging

Just a superficial look at the history of the life extension movement will suffice  to show the rise and fall of numerous fads and trends in ideas about the mechanisms and “treatment” of aging.  Psychological meliorism and simplistic visions of biochemistry create overly optimistic expectations about extending the maximum human lifespan.  But how can we know if a treatment is able to extend the maximum lifespan of humans without giving it to them and waiting….

In his article “Why Cryonics Will Probably Help You More Than Antiaging” (2004), cryonics activist Thomas Donaldson contrasts cryonics with antiaging as a means to life extension and argues that a major advantage of cryonics is that cryobiology research can move at a much faster pace than anti-aging research, especially as it pertains to humans:

The best possible proof that a treatment will indefinitely prolong the lives of human beings must come from a demonstration of its effects on human beings. Not fruit flies, worms, mice, or rats, but human beings. Yet there’s a small problem here: we are human beings ourselves, and a proof that a treatment prolongs the lifespan of people will take … at least the lifespan of some people…cryobiology can progress much faster than antiaging. Not only that, but its progress almost totally lacks the problems of proving that an advance has happened. The state of a brain, or even a section of brain, after vitrification and rewarming to normal temperature, shows directly whether or not the method used improved on previous methods.

What about treatments that have been shown to extend the maximum lifespan in small mammals? Or using  treatments that have been shown in humans to stop or slow down the aging process?

“It takes a long time and the actual reports on clinical use of a drug for physicians to get an idea of the effects of longterm use of that drug.  Very few drugs of any kind get formal tests for the entire lifespan of normal people taking them.”

Even if people are not prevented from experimenting with various life extension technologies, these epistemological and practical problems cannot easily be overcome.

“No matter what some scientists say, a cure for aging involves many problems all of which will need time for their solution. Even now, you may be young and feel that you need not think about cryonics because some means to slow your aging will come before you’ve gotten very old, and from that still other means to slow your aging even more … and so to true agelessness. In this article we have seen why such dreams of a rapid solution to aging cannot come fast for any of us. At the same time, cryonic suspension able at least to preserve our brains in a reversible form, allowing restoration of vital functions, looks likely to come much sooner.”

And as Robert Prehoda pointed out in an old interview, successful treatment of aging will still leave an individual vulnerable to accidents:

Immortality is statistically impossible because accidents would eventually eliminate all individuals in any non-aging population.

Despite these arguments, the life extension and “transhumanist” movement remains many times larger than the people who have made cryonics arrangements.  Some reasons for this are explored in another entry, but the mystery remains.

Interview with Cryonics Institute president Ben Best

This is the first in a series of interviews with individuals in the life extension and cryonics movement. We start off with an interview with Ben Best, president of the Cryonics Institute.

What is your philosophy toward life?

I think that “sense of life” or emotional involvement  in life is the most crucial determinant of orientation toward life per se. I can rationalize and try to  understand my sense of life — and probably exert  influence — but to assert that I have “control” of  it would be saying too much. Existentially, although I sometimes feel “thrown” helplessly into the world,  for the most part I have a conviction that I must accept responsibility for my conditions and exert  effort & intelligence to improve — and that effort  & intelligence can produce results.

I have an immense appreciation of my life and  experiences whether those experiences are positive or negative. I certainly don’t enjoy negative or  painful experiences at the time I am experiencing them (and do not seek them out), but I am glad to have  them in my history. My greatest regrets in life are not so much things that I have done or that have  happened to me, but things that I have not done. The great evils of life are aging and death. If  these two evils could be remedied there would be  time enough to use all that has been learned from  the negative experiences and to create positive experiences that fulfill the promises of life  which I have experienced in tantalizing tastes.  (This is not to say that I have not already  experienced life in a wide variety of ways.)

But regrets aside, I love all that I have  gotten from life, and I simply want more, more,  more… And I am sad that there aren’t more  people who feel the same way. I have written on  these themes on my website:

Are you still a practitioner of caloric restriction?

I practice calorie restriction only to the  extent of eating fewer calories than I would  eat were I not so conscious of benefits of  restricting calories. I was once far more  aggressive in restricting my calories than I currently am. My CRAN (Caloric Restriction with  Adequate Nutrition) practices have been described on my website:

Do you believe that taking supplements can extend life?

Yes, I think there is no question that supplements  can “square the curve” and extend average lifespan. A major breakthrough occurred in the mid-1990s when  the AMA published a study showing that selenium supplements caused a 50% reduction in cancer  incidence [JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION;  Clark,LC; 276(24):1957-1963 (1996)]. Formerly the  medical establishment insisted that dietary supplements  are of no benefit. My website contains considerable  evidence of supplements reducing the incidence of  various disease conditions:

More controversial is the claim that supplements  can extend maximum lifespan. Unfortunately, too many people believe that lack of convincing evidence  that supplements can extend maximum lifespan is equivalent to evidence that supplements do not  extend lifespan in any way. “Squaring the curve” and preventing disease may be a means to live long  enough (and healthy enough) to benefit from rejuvenation technologies — whether or not  supplements can extend maximum lifespan.

How did you get involved in cryonics?

I was very interested in my health from an  early age — and not because I had serious health problems (I haven’t). I also had an early aversion  to death, and later, as a teenager, enjoyed science fiction stories that described  immortality and endless youth. I found  the PROSPECT OF IMMORTALITY in a health  food store and I also read Alan Harrington’s  THE IMMORTALIST. I argued in favor of the idea  of cryonics years before I became seriously  involved. After getting my computing science degree  and beginning work as a programmer in Toronto  in 1987 I seriously studied life extension and less seriously got involved in cryonics  (became a Director of the Cryonics Society of Canada). My emphasis was more on life  extension, because I did not give cryonics a very good chance of working. Since that time  I have become much more optimistic about the chances of cryonics working. And hopefully I am improving  the chances of cryonics working.

Do you think humans can achieve immortality?

Sadly, no. Forever is forever, and something will  eventually kill every human. I have written about this subject in detail on my website:

What do you consider the most important reasons why  not many people sign up for cryonics?

They don’t enjoy life enough or they discount the reality/proximity of death or they believe that cryonics is in opposition to religion. The third reason is probably  the most important for the most people, but I believe that  it is important to mention the first two reasons as an  explanation for the attitudes of people who do not  use religion as an argument against cryonics.

Do you agree that cryonics should be presented as a form  of long term critical care medicine?

This is a far more reasonable approach than  opposing cryonics to religion, especially because cryonics can only hope to extend life, not guarantee  immortality. I more often describe cryonics as “experimental medicine” to emphasize that it is  unproven and not guaranteed to work.

Have you talked to children about cryonics?

Not much. I did have a recent experience in  which I spoke to about a hundred middle school  students about cryonics in five classes (groups of  20) for about an hour per class. The students were mostly silent, asking very few relevant questions,  so I can’t say much about what it is like to discuss cryonics with children. I was later told  that the next day the children came to class with many relevant questions.

What are your other interests besides cryonics and life extension?

My website shows a range of my interests:

which include travel, history, philosophy, economics,  computing, business, and science in general. I have interests, like massage and humanistic psychology, which  I have not discussed on my website. I have some good  friendships, and I am interested in my friends. I am actually  interested in almost everything to some extent and my love  of learning, thinking and understanding has much to do with  my love of life.

I have made a hobby of learning about every element in the periodic table. I have cards with information about each element, and I study these cards while I work-out on my stairmaster, which is my main form of exercise. (I have tried running, but injured myself too often. Stairmaster allows study while getting low-impact aerobic exercise.) A large portion of my Wikipedia edits (aside from cryonics and life extension) are clarifications of information about elements and compounds — questions that occurred to me while studying on my stairmaster.

I have also recently become more interested in planetary science and space travel. Formerly, a desire to see the world of the future did not play much of a role in my craving for extended youth, but increasingly I add a disappointment for not being able to see and participate in all of the exciting things that will happen.

The only sport that interests me very much is women’s tennis. Some of my best friends are women. I am fascinated by women  and hope that I will someday have a lasting and fulfilling  relationship with one. However, I am too much of  a workaholic devoted to cryonics and life extension to  spend much effort on that project.

What kind of jobs did you work before being elected President of CI?

I had many odd jobs before working as a taxi-driver  and teamster (including semi-trailer driver). I also worked as a computer operator, tutor/teaching assistant  and as a pharmacist. Then I became a computer programmer  for a bank and taught computer programming languages  (APL and Java) at night school in Toronto.

What made you decide to run for president of CI?

I decided that the time had come for me to devote my  life to cryonics. I felt that I could make a unique and profound contribution to the workability of cryonics.  Although work as a computer programmer paid well, the  product of my labor was not personally meaningful to  me (which is not the same as satisfaction with doing a good job). It is extremely satisfying to me to be  able to do the work I do as CI President. I cannot think of any other work I would rather be doing. And  I have no desire to not be working as long as I can  do this work.

How did you meet Saul Kent, and to what extent does Mr. Kent  currently influence your actions and behaviors?

I met Saul Kent at the October 1989 Cryonics Conference held near Detroit Michigan:

Although Saul has been very influential in other cryonics  organizations, this was not the case with the Cryonics  Institute. I am not often in communication with Saul, but I respect what he has done for cryonics and on a few  occasions I have deferred to his wishes on matters  that were not of great significance. I am not conscious  that he influences my actions and behaviors aside  from my appreciation of his financing of cryonics-related  research. Saul is certainly influential in terms of his  authority at Suspended Animation, Inc., with whom many  CI Members (including me) have contracts for  standby/stabilization. But for the most part I have not  dealt with him directly.

What do you consider your biggest failures and achievements at CI?

I failed to get the IRS to grant 501(c)13 status to the  Cryonics Institute. I failed to get a patent for CI-VM-1. I failed to change CI policy to allow acceptance of  neuro patients. I have failed to restore the ability of CI to perfuse in the CI facility.

I succeeded in going through all of the CI Member files  and creating a computer database that provides a means of  quantifying and quickly accessing Member information (and in  the process eliminating bad records of lost and deceased members).  I have greatly improved the content (not the appearance)  of the Cryonics Institute website. I have made significant  revisions to the paperwork and I created contracts for Standby/Transport services for CI Members with  Suspended Animation. I have created computer control for patient cooling. I have placed all of the financial  bookkeeping on CI’s computer, relieving the CI Treasurer of most of the chores of gathering data  for financial statements and payment of taxes. I have written case reports for all new CI patients. I have caused prepayments  to be treated as liabilities rather than income. I have  changed the fiscal year to be the calendar year.  I continue to make improvements in CI perfusion  equipment and procedures. Among other things…

CI encourages member involvement through elections and  mailing-lists. Do you think CI benefits from this?

I co-created the CI Members’ forum with John de Rivaz  and I am pleased with the channel of communication that it has promoted. The forum has put CI Members in touch  with CI Members, Directors, Officers and Staff. I am  usually a very active participant in the CI Members’ forum.

I have actively encouraged CI Members to be candidates  in the Board of Director elections. I think that voting  and running for office increases Member participation  in the Cryonics Institute — which I believe is a  good thing.

What kind of improvements would you like to implement  at CI in the coming years?

I want to improve the efficiency of patient cooling and add the capability to cool two patients simultaneously.  I want to be able to create financial statements more  quickly and easily. I want to improve perfusion methods  and equipment, with a particular eye toward reducing edema.  I want to improve the safety associated with operations in  the patient care area. I want to restore the ability of CI  to perfuse at the CI facility. I want better documentation  for what is done at CI. I need to address the challenges of growth, including adding physical capacity and  additional staff. For CI (and in the cryonics community in general), I would like to see more fruitful attention  and effort devoted to wireless vital signs alarm systems.  Too many cryonicists living alone have suffered massive  ischemia, autolysis and decomposition due to the absence  of such systems. Cryonicists who have a cardiac arrest  while sleeping next to a spouse would also benefit.

What is a typical day like at CI?

Most days involve a reasonable amount of answering  the phone and e-mail. Readings are taken of liquid nitrogen levels in the cryostats daily, which I only  do when Andy is away. Filling of some cryostats is done twice weekly by Andy — only once weekly are all of the  cryostats re-filled. Andy does the member paperwork and  building maintenance. I do the bookkeeping/tax payments  and website updates. A large part of the time I am researching and writing. When we get a patient, the  patient becomes the center of attention.

You have investigated the issue of molecular mobility at low  temperatures. Has this made you more or less skeptical about  intermediate temperature storage for cryonics patients?

I am more skeptical about the value of intermediate  temperature storage, but I am skeptical of my skepticism  because my results are so inconclusive.

At the recent CI training, Alcor’s Readiness Coordinator Regina Pancake attended and led a successful case simulation. Do you think it would be a positive development if there was more mutual assistance and cross-training between staff and members of cryonics organizations?

The co-operation between CI and Alcor in the last few years has been reasonably good. A CryoSummit was held between Alcor, ACS and Alcor in August 2002. After some wrangling I was permitted to attend an Alcor training in October 2003. In the summer  of 2007 Tanya and I co-led a training in Alberta. Dr. Pichugin  gave some training to your wife Chana when she was an Alcor  employee in December 2007. In May 2008 Alcor sent Regina  to attend the CI Cryonics Rescue Training. I would like to witness/participate in an Alcor case, but the  opportunities for doing this seem limited.

The thorniest issue related to co-operation between CI and Alcor has to do with local response in areas where there is a mix of Alcor and CI Members, such as in Toronto and the UK. The UK has set a good example (with Alcor approval) of allowing both CI Members and Alcor Members to participate in the trainings. But where proprietary information is involved such as the Critical Care Research meds, even signing a non-disclosure agreement would not be an option for CI Members insofar as they are the people the non-disclosure agreements are designed to “protect” against. Worse, if a CI Member becomes terminal and the local group decides to do volunteer standby and stabilization, how much Alcor equipment can be used? Alcor invests a great deal of money in that equipment, and proprietary sentiments are completely appropriate. In practice, this has not been a problem thus far, but if both cryonics organizations continue to grow, situations of this nature are bound to arise and I hope that reasonable solutions can be found.

How do you feel about competition in cryonics?

I believe that arrogance and complacency are poison  for cryonics organizations, and competition is of value in shaking complacency (sometimes). I definitely think  that it would be a bad idea for cryonics to have all the eggs in one organizational basket. I opposed the  idea of a merger between Alcor and CI when the issue was raised at the CryoSummit in 2002. There is already  too much vulnerability to lawsuits and legal/political  threats. More organizations in more locations  (including more countries) would reduce this vulnerability.

Some people say that CI should offer its own standby and  stabilization services. Do you agree with this?

CI does not have the resources to provide standby  and stabilization in the Detroit area, much less anywhere else. There is very little demand for these services by  CI Members — and very little willingness to pay more than  the minimum. CI Members interested in contracting for  standby and stabilization do so with Suspended Animation.

I have attempted to provide both local and remote CI  Members with support in volunteer standby and stabilization.  The May 2008 training was given as part of this support,  although only six CI Members attended. I have obtained and  discussed equipment that local groups could use, but very few CI Members showed any interest. I will continue to  support volunteer effort by CI Members, but my expectations  are not high.

What are the prospects of CI Members coming to the CI area  to retire, create mutual support communities and start  cryonics hospices?

A few CI Members have shown an interest in creating  a mutual support community near CI, but for the most part CI Members would rather remain near home and family  when they become terminal. In a couple of cases, CI Members  with serious health problems have recently moved to be  near CI. This creates the potential for faster  response, but in both cases the Members are living  alone and may not benefit without alarm systems.

Dr. Yuri Pichugin resigned his post at CI several months ago.  Are there any plans to hire a new researcher or to continue  research at CI in some way?

There are no plans for a new researcher. Concerning  R & D, I think the most immediate need is for greater Development, rather than Research — except to the  extent that my own studying & experimentation with equipment & procedures is considered research.

In the recent past you have stated that there should be the  equivalent of a “Manhattan Project” for cryoprotectant toxicity. Can you elaborate on this? How do you think cryonics can realize this goal?

I have elaborated on this in the March/April 2008  issue of LONG LIFE magazine. Eliminating or greatly reducing  cryoprotectant toxicity would be the greatest possible step  toward suspended animation through cryopreservation with  vitrification. If suspended animation through cryopreservation  became a reality there would be immediate acceptance and  adoption by conventional medicine. Patient stabilization  would be perfected by researchers all over the world and  adopted in hospitals and other medical facilities.

I think that too much research effort in cryonics is devoted  to whole body vitrification, which is a side issue.  Cryoprotectant toxicity needs to be the focus of attention,  and studied with experiments directed toward understanding  the molecular mechanisms on a theoretical level — not simply  trial and error. Whole body vitrification could very well be  achieved more quickly if cryoprotectant toxicity was the  focus of study.

CI is regulated as a cemetery, you are not allowed to cryoprotect patients in your own facility, and neuropreservation seems to be controversial in Michigan. Is it not time to relocate CI to another state?

It would be far too costly and risky to attempt to move to another state.