Evolutionary Life

Voices of the Emerging Movement for Conscious Evolution

December 2006

====  Feature Article & Dialogue ====

The Dark Side of Immortality

and the Gifts of Death

by Michael Dowd

with responses from David Sunfellow and Tom Atlee
and, subsequently, Steve Burrows

Let us hope and pray that few heed the call of Peter Ragnar and Ray Kurzweil to strive to live forever, because otherwise there may be little hope for planet Earth and the body of life.

Thinking of extreme physical longevity and immortality as desirable may have made sense from a flat-earth perspective. From an evolutionary, ecological perspective, however, such thinking is pernicious. Ragnar and Kurzweil, of course, are beautiful, gifted men doing a tremendous amount of good in the world. I honor each of them for their enormous contributions and find Ragnar's regular health column in What is Enlightenment? to be consistently inspiring. But it seems to me that neither Ragnar nor Kurzweil has thought very deeply about the implications of hordes of immortal human beings. It's no coincidence that the only form of life most of us know that has an ideology of living forever is cancer.

From a science-based, evolutionary perspective, we do not merely believe that death is natural and generative at all levels of reality, and thus no less sacred than life. We know it. It is a widely accepted scientific fact.

A litany written by Connie Barlow to honor the vital and divine role of death in the Universe reads:

Without the death of stars there could be no planets and no life. Without the death of creatures there would be no evolution. Without the death of elders there would be no room for children. Without the death of fetal cells we would all be spheres. Without the death of plants and animals there would be no food. Without the death of old ways of thinking there would be no room for the new. Without death there would be no ancestors. Without death, time would not be precious.

What then are the gifts of death?

The gifts of death are Mars and Mercury, Saturn and Earth. The gifts of death are the atoms of stardust within our bodies. The gifts of death are the splendors of shape and form and color. The gifts of death are diversity, the immense journey of life. The gifts of death are food, the sustenance of life. The gifts of death are seeing, hearing, feeling – deeply feeling. The gifts of death are the urgency to act – the desire to fully be and become. The gifts of death are joy and sorrow, laughter and tears. The gifts of death are lives that are fully and exuberantly lived, then graciously and gratefully given up, for now and forevermore. Amen!

From an integral (nested holons) point of view, to glorify God is to pursue the wellbeing of the larger and smaller holons of your existence and know that, in so doing, you are pursuing your true Self-interest. To sin is to pursue your own perceived self-interest at the expense of the larger or smaller holons of your being.

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out, given an understanding of exponential population growth within a finite context (a spherical planet, for example), that if you want a world with children, death is an absolute necessity. If all we have is birth, with no death, very quickly Earth would be overrun with humans! Thus, if millions of billions of us begin living extraordinarily long lives, (or, God-forbid, forever), we would immediately need to call for a moratorium on giving birth. And anyone who thinks that space travel is the way out of this dilemma is seriously out of touch with reality. In the next several thousand years, and most likely much longer than this, there will never be more than the tiniest fraction of humanity (less than one millionth of one percent of the human population) living anywhere else than right here on planet Earth.

I suggest we stop glorifying longevity and immortality and give death the honor it so rightfully deserves.

Thank God for death!

Response from David Sunfellow of New Heaven New Earth

Thanks for sharing this essay with me. While I sympathize with the core concerns of your essay (that death is a vital part of life, that the Earth would be overrun with humans if we master death, and that putting an end to death would theoretically also put an end to children), I am left with three nagging thoughts:

1. These days, with humankind's lack of awareness, depth, and intelligence becoming increasingly obvious, it seems foolish (dangerous even) to position ourselves strongly for, or against, anything. Thus, whenever I encounter something that presents itself as the one true and obvious way and, at the same time, dismisses positions that are different from its own, one part of me cringes, while another part of me is ready to bet money something important is being overlooked.

2. While I agree with the concerns you have itemized concerning preventing and/or seriously delaying death, I'm not convinced that overcoming death and illness (and all other kinds of limitation) is not a natural part of evolution. What makes you think that evolution did not intend to create beings (humans in this case) that can transcend all the limitations of the created universe? Since humans have arisen out of the pool of evolution, what is there to say that doing what comes naturally to us (facing and overcoming all limitations in this case) is not exactly what the Doctor ordered, and intended?

3. While you and I may not be able to see how a species such as ours can live forever (or thereabouts) without unleashing all kinds of hell on ourselves, the Earth, and the universe at large, maybe we can. Maybe, for example, once we've eliminated illness and extended our life spans to hundreds or thousands of years, a better, wiser, dramatically more conscious culture will emerge. I can easily imagine, for example, that a culture made up of people who have hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of life experience to draw upon, would make much better decisions that a culture made up of a bunch of babies who don't live long enough to experience and integrate life's big lessons. It also doesn't seem far fetched to me that we could find ways to sustain a culture that is full of ancient citizens while,
at the same time, making room for new ones. Expanding to other parts of the universe could make this possible.

Bottomline: I think there is a lot of room for thoughtful consideration of this topic and am personally not at all convinced that the elimination of illness, death, and other physical limitations are not exactly what humans are intended, by Spirit and evolution, to do.

Response to David Sunfellow by Tom Atlee of the Co-Intelligence Institute

Great response, David. One additional note:

It may be that Michael's response to the prospect of immortality is also part of evolution, and just what the Doctor ordered! Ultimately, it seems, everything that is done or not done is part of evolution and, in the big picture, can be considered intended.

As consciousness increasingly enters the picture, however, and wise choice becomes a force of evolution, the question of the extent to which something is wisely intentional and chosen arises.

My take is that the back and forth represented by Kurzweil, Michael, you and me in this correspondence constitutes an example of the kind of process through which wise choice can emerge. My question then becomes how to invoke or institutionalize adequately broad and deep (in terms of information, insight, and participation) dialogue and deliberation to call forth wise choice as a culture / civilization?

And David's response to Tom

Tom said:

My take is that the back and forth represented by Kurzweil, Michael, you and me in this correspondence constitutes an example of the kind of process through which wise choice can emerge. My question then becomes how to invoke or institutionalize adequately broad and deep (in terms of information, insight, and participation) dialogue and deliberation to call forth wise choice as a culture / civilization?

I think that's the million dollar question -- and million dollar solution. I just hope enough of us can find a way to do this before it's too late.
While I think it is important that we wrestle with the growing multitude of issues that face humankind -- global warming, immortality, nuclear proliferation, asteroid strikes, gamma-ray bursts, what have you -- it seems to me that our primary focus must be on designing collectives, systems, methods, processes, states of consciousness that can deal with problems in general. In other words, there is always going to be another problem that threatens us. Some will be exceedingly dangerous and moving in our direction exceedingly fast. Some may already be here, but we are as yet unaware of them. The only solution I can see is to continue to expand our awareness, deepen our connections to one another and life, create new, increasingly effective ways to get answers and implement solutions -- and hope our plug
doesn't get pulled before we do.

Physicist David Deutsch gave an insightful lecture on this topic in 2005 at TED. It's well worth watching if you haven't seen it already:

I don't think homo sapiens, in our current form, has what it takes to make the grade. We're either going to evolve to some higher form, or join the dinosaurs...

And Steve Burrows' response on 11/25/06, after having read all of the above...

Dear Michael,

Immortality, as it is defined, is impossible, but what is wrong with living as long as you want to? Why is it good to lose all the life's knowledge and bonds with others built over a lifetime? I've never personally known anyone who wanted to die when they were dying. If the basic molecules in us are replaced constantly, we are "different" from one moment to the next, why is it necessary to end our "patterns" at some arbitrary number of cycles?

Since our universe is billions of years old, and is only getting started, what is the difference between 100 years of life and 100 million years? To the universe, there is no difference, to humanity it could be very meaningful. Is the reason for having short lives, cut off in our prime, merely to conserve resources? As you are aware of evolution, you know the availability of resources is always growing, we will never run out. This small dot of a planet is not the only place in the universe suited for humans. Bringing life to the universe, helping it wake up, will mandate vast human lifespans.

Evolution is progress, and having people die at some fixed lifespan is not progress. The great story will be all the more vibrant with the voices of our living ancestors. There will always be new places to go for the young, the long lived who are in the way will simply be bypassed, as they are now. I deeply mourn the loss of anyone, particularly those who are still trying to make life better for the rest of us. Watching an old man give his last lecture, his life's work only just begun, his childhood dreams still years from fruition, was heartbreaking almost beyond enduring. Thinking of the contributions to humanity that will be lost when he dies brings me to tears. I fervently hope that humanity will not slow in the quest for vast lifespans and give it all the support I can.

Just because dying young is the way evolution made changes in the past, it won't be the way evolution will conduct itself in the future. Humans are bringing into the universe a new form of evolution that is much faster than biological evolution. Dying young will not help the new evolution.

The Great Story has only just begun, the evolution of the past is not the evolution of the future. Take evolution to its logical outcome and see what it really means. Open your eyes to the infinitely vast, undiscovered future of evolution.

May you and Connie live long, full lives that allow you to experience your Great Story.