Even if you’ve been following the presidential campaign pretty closely, you may not have heard about Zoltan Istvan, the hopeful from the newly formed Transhumanist Party. Istvan’s platform is simple: We should all live forever. He’s driving across the country in a bus painted to look like a coffin, with big white letters on its side: “Immortality Bus.”
Transhumanists believe in transcending the limits of the human condition with the help of computers, robotic melds of humans and machines, and medicines that will grant our oldest wish, the dream of eternal life.
Istvan is modeling his “Immortality Bus” tour on Ken Kesey’s famous cross-country bus trip, which helped to inspire a generation of hippies. (Kesey called his bus “Furthur” or sometimes “Further.”) Early this month Istvan set out from San Francisco. He made his first campaign stop on Sept. 6 at a place called the Biohacking Labspace, in Tehachapi, Calif. There he got a computer chip implanted in his hand. “And the rest of the world won’t be far behind,” he predicts in a campaign statement that he posted last week on a website called Tech Insider. “The 1960s were about peace, love and drugs. I believe the next decade will be about virtual reality, implants and transhumanism.”
Computer implants are not for everybody. Transhumanists are very early adopters. Many of them are techies, and many are young. Before running for president, Istvan’s previous claim to fame was the invention of the extreme sport of volcano boarding. That’s not for everybody, either.
But eternal life does have a somewhat wider appeal. Our “immortal longings,” in Shakespeare’s phrase, are the theme of some of the oldest and greatest stories ever told. They impel the sacred literatures of ancient Egypt, Israel, Babylonia, Greece and China. They probably go back to the caves.
I’ve been following the immortality crowd, from a certain distance, for many years. I got interested when biologists whom I knew and respected began studying the problem of longevity at the level of DNA. Back in the 1990s, Seymour Benzer, of Caltech, was able to genetically engineer a mutant fruit fly he called Methuselah. Another biologist, Cynthia Kenyon, was engineering Methuselah worms.
And since then the power of genetic engineering—or, as it is now called, gene editing—has advanced a great deal. Just in the last few years, a new technique called CRISPR has made gene editing almost as straightforward in a lab as find-and-replace is in a text on your computer. If we were very lucky, and very wise, technologies like CRISPR may someday make it possible for us to revise and rewrite some of the worst of the flaws in the human condition, and do something about the worst scourges of old age: Alzheimer’s, atherosclerosis, cancer, diabetes, stroke.
But meanwhile, and for the foreseeable future, these diseases are still with us. So is old age, which transhumanists call a disease in itself. And there is no cure in sight.
For these and other reasons, I won’t be getting on the Immortality Bus.
There is one goal in the science of longevity that I do take seriously. It’s an idea known as the Longevity Dividend. If we could only figure out how to slow aging even just a little—and again, nobody has done that yet—then we would be fighting all of the late-onset diseases at once. In that way the National Institute on Aging could transform the medical landscape. The institute deserves a much bigger budget and should widen its focus to try to understand the nature of aging itself. I think that’s an idea worth voting for.
Jonathan Weiner, a Pulitzer-prize-winning science writer, teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. His latest book is “Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality.” He will be the keynote speaker at a conference on the Science of Longevity, Friday and Saturday at the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City.