Distraction Free Reading

Cryonics in the Cradle of Technocivilization

Tall cylindrical container shown in center foreground, with a yellow-hued brain and spinal cord suspended in liquid. Cylinder is in a clear display case, with a large blue-tinted closeup photo of brain folds as backdrop.

Brain and spinal cord from 1935 in a sealed vat, National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring, Md., 2012. Photo by Sandra Lea Abrams, DOD. CC BY 2.0.

Until recently, cryonics typically appeared in the media and in science publications as the butt of jokes or an occasion to delight in scandals, gore, zombies and decapitation. But a convergence of old alliances and new research formations in the cradle of technocivilization have legitimized broadly research into the indefinite extension of life. Today, it no longer surprises me to see prominent mainstream science publications put out serious pieces on cryonics as a credible scientific project. Cryonics, for those who haven’t heard of it, is the practice of freezing and storing human bodies upon legal death, with hopes of future re-animation. In its July 2 issue, The New Scientist carried a cover story called ‘The Resurrection Project,’ with three full features on various aspects of cryonics. In the fall, the MIT Technology Review had published a piece called ‘The Science Surrounding Cryonics,’ written in response to a piece published a month earlier called ‘The False Science of Cryonics’—which in turn was a response to a very popular front page New York Times story documenting the last days of a young woman who, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, had opted to be cryopreserved upon death.

As it has gone about the ever-industrious business of boundary maintenance, institutional science has worked diligently to dismiss cryonics-related work as taboo science. For example, the Society for Cryobiology, the professional association for scientists who work on low temperature preservation of all biological matter, explicitly denies membership to anyone engaged in “freezing deceased persons in anticipation of their reanimation.”

Taboo science no longer

Since its dubious beginnings in the 1960s, cryonics has not entirely shed this status as a ‘taboo science’ (or non-science), but it has certainly gained credibility compared to only a few years ago. And it’s not because there have been game-changing breakthroughs in the science, technology or techniques of cryonics. To be sure, there have been improvements in protocol and preservation materials; researchers have achieved what they regard as hopeful results in supporting experiments in animals (for example, rabbit kidneys have been brought back to function from cryopreservation at -45 degrees). However, these developments have not changed the essentially experimental nature of the project, which ultimately still relies more than anything on the projected powers of future science to repair damage and reanimate the body/mind.

The slow mainstreaming of cryonics—its movement from forbidden towards permitted science, from non-science to, well, possibly some kind of science—has primarily to do with the way in which cryonics is embedded in other related projects. Cryonics has historically been a space of convergence, a catchment site, for a number of different, and sometimes but not always eccentric, technoscience ideas and projects, some of which also have moved out of their shadowy beginnings into the limelight of legitimacy. Additionally, I think that developments in biotech have tilted if not flipped the ontological ground around life and death, thereby making radical life extension or immortality projects a plausible part of the general technoscientific imaginary.

Take ‘cooling’ procedures that cryonicists have used upon the official, declared death of a person to slow the metabolism, and eventually stop the onset of further damage to the (mainly brain) cells. Over the past few years, ‘induced hypothermia’ has become the preferred technique for bringing people back from a stroke in what is now commonly known as resuscitation medicine. Big centers at places like the University of Pennsylvania are doing well-funded, bona fide research into hypothermia as a medical intervention. They describe their work in terms that seem almost directly lifted from cryonics: “cooling the body, saving the brain,” or even label the state of the body as “suspended animation.” The media talks about it in terms of “slowing death’s spiral.” One might be forgiven for thinking that cryonics had made it into hospital emergency rooms.

The mainstreaming of nanotechnology is another related example. When Eric Drexler, still an MIT student, proposed the idea of nanobots reconstructing matter at an atomic level—that is, fully from the ground up—cryonicists and a certain group of West Coast Futurists that overlapped with them were the first to hail the implications. Indeed, before writing about nanotechnology, Drexler was exposed to cryonics and the futurists through the meeting group L-5, where space colonization, immortality, and molecular technologies met to produce a particular orientation towards the future that still informs the futurist sensibilities today: into Henson’s vision of space colonization, Hans Moravec and Marvin Minsky added mind uploading, Drexler sprinkled some nanotechnology, while a cryonicist called Saul Kent brought in suspended animation. Drexler’s 1986 book, The Engines of Creation, which established nanotechnology, included a chapter on cryonics.

Nanotechnology was not initially received with open arms, but today we see and hear ‘nanotechnology’ all around us. This year’s Nobel in Chemistry went to teams that have developed the first functioning molecular machines. And so the success of nanotechnology has served to legitimize Drexler and the organization he co-founded with Christine Peterson, his former wife. The Foresight Institute, now based in Silicon Valley, has since the 1980s been an advocacy arm for nanotech, whilst its interests, advocacy, presentations, and membership overlap with cryonics.

One could add the example of calorie restriction, which was an experimental approach adopted early by futurist life extension advocates but that, given its incredible effectiveness in mice, has become an increasingly visible part of medical and anti-aging research as well as a popular ‘lifestyle choice.’

There are more examples, but the point is that cryonics can’t be considered in isolation, as it too often is. Although it was the first actualized project to pursue technoscientific ‘immortality,’ it grew in its crib alongside other futurist endeavors and life extension projects. Many of those—private space (i.e., colonizing space), Artificial Intelligence (i.e., uploading minds), anti-aging research via molecular biology (i.e., defeating death)—have also become more mainstream (and sanitized) as their technologies or their advocates have made their way to the cradle of technocivilization, Silicon Valley, where all these projects are converging and where the largest growth in cryonics membership hails from.

Formations of long life

To trace the broad connections between cryonics, AI, neuroscience, cryobiology, and the whole range of affiliated and converging sciences, is to quickly find your way not only into the NSF, NIH and a wide range of university labs, but into the state in the form of NASA, DARPA, and the DOD. Many among the futurist life extension groups have had long-running links with NASA and DARPA, while the Pentagon opened a new office in Silicon Valley last year called Defense Innovation Unit–Experimental (DIU-X).

In Silicon Valley (and to some extent elsewhere), it is common to see people like Aubrey de Grey appear on the same stage as Brian Kennedy from the Buck Institute and other regular anti-aging researchers, and surprising to see how much they all (at least publicly?) agree on. A few years ago, the radical life extensionists would berate the anti-aging researchers for their narrow vision regarding the possibilities of breaking through the human lifespan, while in turn the anti-aging researchers would roll their eyes at claims often made by others regarding defeating death or at least producing a good healthy 1000-year old. Now everyone is speaking of “health span nudging up life span.” Now immortality is a taboo word.

De Grey’s case is representative of these shifts, and echoes neatly back to the MIT Tech Review. In 2005, the journal published an editorial along with a piece by Dr. Sherwin Nuland which called de Grey’s claims “science fiction,” labeling him a rogue scientist who looks like Rip Van Winkle. Letters flooded in from ‘immortalists’ who had noticed that the articles ridiculed but made no substantive point. The magazine offered a prize to any scientist who could prove to an independent panel that de Grey’s claims had no scientific merit. No one has come forth with any accepted, definitive counter-claims. From that point on, de Grey’s star has risen in the firmament, as he appeared on countless magazine covers and, perhaps most importantly for the movement’s sense of credibility, at a number of speaking engagements at established scientific institutions, including the prestigious New York Academy of Sciences. All of this has allowed him to base the headquarters of his SENS Foundation in Mountain View, CA.

De Grey recognized his community of maverick supporters quickly and they embraced him equally as a maverick. The conservative libertarian Peter Thiel, one of the early founders of PayPal, and celebrity futurist Ray Kurzweil were two of them. Both are cryonicists who talk about defeating death, cyberimmortality, and mind uploading. Through people like Thiel and Kurzweil, ideas such as space exploration, mind-uploading (as a way to defeat biological death), or cryonic preservation (as a means of awaiting a super-advanced future), gained visibility, credibility and capital in Silicon Valley and beyond. It would not be long before Google entered the fray—first by hiring Kurzweil as an advisor, then by setting up its own company to defeat the disease of aging. Though Google’s California Life Company (Calico) sounds like a 50s insurance company sending friendly salesmen with pocketliners door to door, it hired the biggest names in the biotech field, including Cynthia Kenyon (who, it might be added, was an early L-5 attendee).

In the meantime, Kenyon has doubled the lifespan of science’s favorite species, the worm c. elegans, through genetic manipulation (also, it seems that when the worm is re-animated from deep freeze it keeps some of its learned behaviors). Other developments that encourage the ‘science of immortality’ include research on mice that shows them living much longer on calorie-restricted diets, and getting younger and stronger muscles when given boosters of NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide), a molecule in our cells, while research on telomere length indicates these molecules as a controller of senescence. Between NADs and telomeres and their technoscientific cachet as genomic science (as opposed to, say, fuddy duddy gerontology), anti-aging has revved up into high science with scientists like MIT’s Lenny Guarente, scientists who are not only doing research but starting their own anti-aging supplements companies, such as selling “Metabolic Repair” products. BioViva, a company founded by Elizabeth Parrish, carried out the first human experiment off-shore, with Parrish volunteering herself as Patient Zero. Telomerase, a telomere extending enzyme, was delivered to tissue and cells in her body through a viral vector in order to repair her shortening telomeres and thus avoid or even supposedly reverse the senescence of cells. She presents at cryonics and radical life extension conferences.

So the original contention of Robert Ettinger and the cryonicists from back in the 60s seems to have been mainstreamed: that death is not to be taken as an inevitable, less a natural, part of life. This is both an ideological and an ontological shift, as Herbert Marcuse pointed out some time ago.

When I point to the mainstreaming of a once taboo science, I am not suggesting that everyone on the West Coast or in Silicon Valley today is walking around with cryonics contracts, waiting to be taken down to metabolic stasis in liquid nitrogen temperatures. Far from it. Still, all the alliances and new formations show why and how the credibility of research into the indefinite extension of life, including cryonics and its affiliated sciences, is not easily dismissed with a smirk and a Rip van Winkle quip. Many lay friends who were incredulous a few years ago when I would tell them stories about cryonics and mind uploading, now say, “well, if Google has taken it on you know something’s going to happen.” Indeed. But what exactly will happen, and to whom, is a whole other matter. That the Pentagon is so deeply enmeshed in, and uncritically accepted by, these Silicon Valley networks raises classical sociopolitical questions about who and whom. Peter Thiel’s unabashed support of Trump makes the prospect of long life look like an indefinite sojourn in a gated hell for many people. Some transhumanists and Silicon Valley citizens have distanced themselves from Thiel, but many key life extension groups, such as the SENS foundation, have refused to. So while no one is quite sure what the secretive Google project, California Life Company, is up to, the name makes inadvertently clear whose lives shall matter in the end game of immortality, as it unfolds in the cradle of technocivilization.

1 Comment

  • Mark Pontin says:

    Look, I understand that to you these are all hitherto semi-heretical notions that now have become socially non-taboo. But if you intend to do science anthropology, shouldn’t you learn enough science to think critically about the different sorts of claims you’re discussing?

    Some of the cell-rewriting, biogenetic strategies you mention here could possibly work out. There’s other things you don’t mention, like directed organogenesis (regenerative medicine), that will almost certainly start bumping the actuarial charts upwards over the next couple of decades

    Conversely, we’re mostly made of water. There’s more chance of freezing a cloud and reheating it, and expecting that cloud to re-assume its morphology than there is of putting human cellular structures composed mostly of water through two phase changes — from standard body temperature to zero degrees, then back again — and having them retain their structure and function.

    Now, just conceivably, suspended animation or bio-stasis may turn out to be achievable in the future through some technology whose scientific underpinnings haven’t emerged yet. Cryonics – simply freezing and reheating human bodies, turning them into crystallized mush – won’t do it.

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