DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEW of Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman: Fantastic Voyage: The Science Behind Radical Life Extension; Martin Rees: Our Final Hour


Author (or Editor):  Ray Kurzweil, Terry Grossman, MD

Title:  Fantastic Voyage: The Science Behind Radical Life Extension

Fiction? No

Publisher:  Plume

Date:  2005

ISBN:  0-452-28667-0

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound, 452 pgs

Relevance to doaskdotell: gays in intimate occupations similar to the military


The 1966 movie by this name depicted a submarine miniaturized to the size of a cell, traveling through a diplomat’s body and brain after an assassination attempt. The book’s thesis is that we can radically extend life, possibly indefinitely, as long as Methuselah in Genesis, with our research in biotechnology and genetic therapy, and eventually with the nanotechnology of the show Jake 2.0.  We will soon reach a point where expected lifespans on actuarial tables (as in LOMA) will be greater than 1 for many ages, which in theory means infinite life spans.

Life extension, however, also will require enormous lifestyle changes and self-discipline beyond the habits of most people in the West. A lot of this has been reported before in the media – undernutrition, reducing refined carbohydrates to almost zero, and careful engineering of various fats and proteins in the diet. Much of this takes expense, manual effort, and social cooperation beyond what most people could live with today. In short, you have to become a “health nut.” You have to do without a lot of conveniences, ranging from processed foods to dry cleaning. I recall a medical talk show in the mid 1990s hosted by Dr. Gabe Mirkin (in suburban DC Maryland) and his first question when anyone called in was always, “what are your numbers? .. I’m glad!” He was the exponent of the extremely low-fat diet. (But this book advocates low carbs!)  

The authors provide a great deal of details in terms of chemistry. The bonding angle in the water molecule even explains a lot, as do a lot of obscure processes like methylation. Of course, he gives a lot of details about how anti-oxidants work.

But it is the social implications that need examination. The authors point out that evolution does not favor longevity for its own sake. People need to live and be vital long enough to reproduce themselves. After that, it might even be advantageous if the old died to make way for the young (a kind of “Logan’s Run”) an idea that is morally unacceptable in a society that is to value human life as sanctified. Also, man did not evolve eating processed and contaminated foods.

A society committed to longevity would have to redefine many priorities. People may not have as many children, but may work much longer than today (otherwise social security and pensions really will collapse). But the social cooperation would seem to demand much more social loyalty from individuals to the family unit and to community than is conceivable today in our individualistic culture. Maybe such a culture actually favors gay marriage (for those so inclined), and mandates various kinds of socialization. One byproduct of much healthier lifestyles would be the slowing down of aging. That means that married sexual partners may retain their attractiveness indefinitely, and the whole paradigm of “in sickness and in health” that challenges the sexual commitment of so many married couples is redefined. Not only catastrophic diseases (breast cancer) could be eliminated, but the more subtle effects of aging due to TMG, insulin overproduction and intolerance, adult-onset diabetes, and similar degeneration or “cell death” (even Dr. Phil calls it that) could be reversed.  Some young men today degenerate in appearance with shocking speed, becoming overweight, with pot bellies (the pear shape), going bald in the legs. Their sense of success comes from financial and sexual “performance” but even that goes with degenerative disease. All of this, it seems, comes from lifestyles that accept our lifespans as finite, and expendable after the normal 3 score and ten. It doesn’t have to be that way.  

Sir Martin Rees. Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning: How terror, error, and environmental disaster threaten humankind's future in this century-on earth and beyond. Basic, 2003, ISBN 046506826, 228 pages, paper. Rees is a Royal Society Professor at Cambridge University in London.  If the previous view on this page shows how technology can make things go very right and extend life, this book shows how it could end things. The fourteen chapters contain a lot of speculation of how things can go very wrong, and there is probably not a point in trying to list all of them here. The early part of the book is a history of the Manhattan Project and Cold War nuclear arms race. Then he gets into how the nature of the threat has changed with asymmetry, which means that a small non-state actor or even one disgruntled individual can wreak enormous havoc with an interdependent "civilized" world (with threats ranging from suitcase nukes, dirty bombs, computer worms, to bio-weapons and maybe eventually nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. He gives some analysis of the Malthusian concerns over population, with mixed assessment of the lower birth rates. He offers some bizarre speculations of how well-intended physics experiments could start chain reactions that could destroy the earth. His discussion of "infection" of matter by "strangelets" sort of resembles the way prion diseases work in the brain, where protein molecules. But it definitely sounds plausible that new kinds of "micro nuclear weapons" could exist and be designed by terrorists or "mad scientists." 

Rees's thesis gives us reason to ponder what makes us tick. Technology has given us the opportunity to go our own ways as individuals, yet curiously makes us vulnerable to having everything that makes modern life meaningful yanked away from us by forces beyond our own individual control -- maybe by disgruntled individuals. Yet, some of us shun conventional socialization (through religion and family, especially -- all of which demands liking people "as people") because it seems so susceptible to the power games of others, too. 





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