By Gina "Nanogirl" Miller 2003 all rights reserved.
The concept of being resurrected from the dead is not a new one. The quest for human immortality has been demonstrated in many ways: resurrection; heaven; reincarnation; ghosts; leaving long-lasting imprints of ourselves and our work such as writing; Egyptian mummification and vampire stories. Immortality is a very ancient part of mythology. The Gilgamesh epic, 3rd millennium BC is one of the oldest recorded stories of man's search for immortality. Gilgamesh is listed as an actual Sumerian king of c. 2700 BC but in the mythical epic is portrayed as a half-God, half-human who goes on a quest in search of the secret of eternal life*1.
Lucretius, ca. 98-55 BC, an Epicurean philosopher and poet from Rome did not believe in a potential state of immortality but did believe in an atomic theory of matter and based on that he speculated that perhaps one could be rebuilt by reassembling the atomic structure of a human being*2.
In 1773 Benjamin Franklin wrote an oft-quoted letter in response to Jacques Dubourg. "I wish it were possible …to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But…in all probability, we live in a century too little advanced, and too near the infancy of science, to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection”*4.
Nikolai Fedorov (1829-1903), a Russian philosopher and teacher was one of the first to consider bringing back the dead by using science*3. Fedorov, both an advocate of science and a committed Christian suggested that immortality could be obtained by means other than divine intervention and that it would be consistent with God's will as he believed that God gave humanity and therefor we should be more active in using it. He believed that the greatest goal of science should be the restoration of life and immortality. He understood that "knowledge and control over all atoms and molecules of the world" would be an important tool in achieving this.
Humans have a natural tendency to strive for immortality, as exemplified by the Egyptian and Sumerian rituals and religious thought. The desire to be immortal is an extension of the will for self-preservation which humans share with other creatures as part of the Darwinian imperative of survival of the fittest. When we are in critical situations our body responds chemically with a rush of adrenaline and we choose to fight or flight in attempt to preserve our lives. Expanding on this basic response we take medication so that we are healthier or to treat disease. The health market is a major industry and everyone knows that being well means living longer. As we advance in medicine and technology there are more options available to extend our lives.
As early as the seventeenth century the English scientist Robert Boyle reported reviving small fish and frogs after brief exposure to subfreezing temperatures*5. I experienced this natural miracle in my own life. My grandparents owned property in California where I spent my summers as a child. They had a windmill that connected to a water trough which fed water into a manmade pond. In the trough my grandmother kept some large goldfish and in the winter the water would freeze and the fish were frozen still. One summer I returned and I saw goldfish swimming in the trough and I asked grandma if she had put new ones in. She said "no, they're the same fish". It’s not that I didn’t trust her but they were frozen solid, they weren’t even moving, they were by definition dead for an entire winter. So I ran an experiment and marked a blue spot on the fish and waited for winter and another season of summer. The fish were swimming in the trough and my marks were on them. They were the same fish and I thought to myself. ”I wish, I wish, I was like a fish."
Some major advances affecting the way we think about death occurred in the twentieth century. In 1946 Jean Rostand found that glycerol was a protectant for animal tissue, greatly improving survival rates for cells which had been cooled to low subfreezing temperature and then rewarmed*6. In 1965 Isamu Suda at Kobe University in Japan removed a cat's brain from its body, perfused it with glycerol and froze it for six months. After the brain had been restored to body temperature it demonstrated electrical activity*7. Traditional medicine was also making great strides and people were revived from hypothermic states of respiratory and cardiac arrest which were previously thought to be death.
James Bedford a 73-year-old retired psychology professor in Glendale, California volunteered to be first cryonically preserved. When he died of kidney cancer in 1967 he became the first person to be frozen under controlled conditions with the goal of eventual revival. With Bedford, a new practice known as cryonic suspension was created*8. Originally frozen by the Cryonics Society of California, Bedford was eventually transferred to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation's facility in Scottsdale, Arizona *9 where his cryopreservation continues.
Presently several companies in the U. S. offer cryopreservation, more than one hundred people are currently preserved and almost a thousand are signed up for the procedure which will be performed at their legal death*10. Clients receive a bracelet or necklace that alerts EMT's or hospital staff to call their number and what precautions to take. The staff of the cryonics company will then fly out to retrieve the body, cool it with ice and bring it back to their facility. The body is then treated with a cryoprotective agent to reduce or eliminate damaging ice crystals as the temperature is lowered. Finally the body will be cooled and put into a insulated dewar/container in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of 196°C (-320°F). The body will then be maintained at the facility. The most common method to arrange for payment is through a life insurance policy which makes the cryonics company the beneficiary and they use this money for your care at a cryonics facility.
To bring someone back would require repairing what caused the person to die as well as any tissue damage that occurred during cryopreservation. When someone signs up for cryonic suspension it is with the hope that a future technology will be able to accomplish those things and the emerging science of nanotechnology*11 is a good candidate. In 1994 Charles Platt vice president of the cryonics company Cryocare commented on the book “Engines of Creation” byK. Eric Drexler. "Drexler proposed the concept of nanotechnology-machines on the molecular scale, theoretically capable of repairing individual cells. At last, cryonics advocates were able to describe exactly how they hoped future science could undo the freezing damage that still tended to occur even when cryoprotectants were used”*12. With a technology advanced enough to revive people from cryopreservation there is also the possibility that people could live in an eternally youthful and healthy state.
Nanotechnology is an emerging science that manipulates structure on the very small atomic scale. By using atoms to build structures, it is predicted that it may be possible to repair damaged cells within the human body using nanorobots. This could be a viable tool to repair not only those living with illness but also the cryonically suspended. At some point down the road nanotechnology research may itself evolve to the point where it extends life, but for those who’s lifetime will runout before that happens, cryonic suspension is a placeholder.
Cryonics has had it’s legal challenges. When 83-year-old Dora Kent was cryonically preserved at Alcor in 1987 the procedure was relatively new and misunderstood, she was only the 8th patient to undergo the process. There was a coroner's investigation and the Alcor staff were arrested. They were released and Alcor sued the county and won, the county paid Alcor 90 thousand dollars for false arrest and illegal seizure.
In 1988 Thomas Donaldson, a mathematician, was diagnosed with a virulent form of brain tumor with a low survival rate. Fearing the tumor would severely damage his brain before it killed him Donaldson appealed to the California courts for the right to be cryopreserved before his legal death. His request was denied,*14 however, fortunately his tumor has stayed in remission with treatment.
In July 2002 professional baseball star Ted Williams died and his three children had a very publicized debate over his personal wishes to be cryopreserved*15. The family was in dispute with each other over his wishes to be cryonically suspended. While the Ted Williams case brought a discussion about cryonics into major broadcast media and American living rooms, it was mostly negative. Williams is currently cryonically preserved at Alcor.
Why is cryonics so controversial? Since the dawn of humanity people have been conditioned to expect death and so far everyone who has lived has died. Someone living beyond a natural death would be a huge change and change can be scary. But death is also scary and we have created a vast array of beliefs to alleviate our fears about dying. For example if we are good in life we will be rewarded with a heavenly afterlife where there is no pain or sorrow. This creates comfort and an escape from an otherwise final nonexistence. Cryonic suspension could provide the scientific version of immortality.
Some have called cryonics quackery because it is not feasible, however traveling into space was not feasible at one time and yet research continued and we have gone to the moon. Those a century or two ago would not have thought it possible but because something hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it can’t.
Opponents of cryonics say it’s wrong because it’s unnatural. But natural is not always good, diseases such as cancer and Alzheimers occur naturally but they are not good. And the unnatural is not always bad. We have created: computers, hospitals, equipment and medication to cure illnesses, prosthetics, pacemakers, and synthetic organs. These are unnatural man made tools created to provide better health and extend lives. In contrast to the what the current medical field considers ethically correct to aid ourselves, opponents of cryonics think we shouldn’t have all the health and life we want, but that it should be limited.
When it comes to improving our health and longevity, where is the line drawn? And who draws it? When either cryonic suspension is successful or nanotechnology extends life or provides immortality will a frightened public try to stop it? Will someone tell me how long I am allowed to live? Will the health of my body be managed, or limited by someone else? Will it be a doctor who’s oath is to “do no harm” or will it be governed by new rules? I believe it should be up to the person as it is now, do I want to take vitamins? Do I want this surgery to extend my life? Etc. The public is not being forced to take vitamins but they are available to those who want them. People will not be forced to use nanobots or be revived, it will be a personal choice. Progress should not be halted by those who don’t want access to it.
However there are preliminary concerns for cryonicists because today, life or death decisions are often being made for patients by hospital staff. But not forcing you to be alive but the opposite. Hospitals can and do refuse the right to care. It’s called “medical futility” or “futile medical care”. If the doctor or hospital doesn’t think the quality of life justifies the cost of care, they are entitled to refuse treatment. Surprisingly there are no guidelines or rules that hospitals have to follow about when it is ok or not ok to pull the plug.
In some cases hospitals have pulled “wanted” life support from patients who expressed that he/she does not want to die. There have also been legal battles between families and hospitals about keeping a loved one on life support or not. This is usually about money and the cost for care. It costs money to take care of a patient and especially for prolonged care.
I’ve been to the doctors with my mother and we were talking about this issue. I said I would not want the plug pulled and the doctor said “yes you would”, she said that she saw people who were plugged in and she wouldn’t want to live that way. But that’s HER decision, not mine. There have been people who have woken from a coma years later, what seems gone is not always gone. I felt as if I passed out right there in the office and didn’t wake up for a couple days she would pull the plug because SHE wouldn’t want to live that way and I wouldn’t have a chance. My mother on the other hand would want the plug pulled and that’s her decision, what she feels is too far “gone” should be respected, as it should be for everyone, not the hospitals.
Many people find out about this after it is too late, make sure you have a living will that expresses your wishes and if you do not want to be resuscitated make sure you have a DNR - Do Not Resuscitate provided to your doctor.
Anti science and nanotechnology critic Bill McKibben wrote in his book Enough*16: "Without mortality, no time. All moments would be equal; the deep sad, human wisdom of Ecclesiastes would vanish. If for everything there is an endless season, then there is also no right season. No time to be born, nor to mourn, nor rejoice, nor die. 'Anytime' is not the same as time that matters. The future stretches before you, endlessly flat." Why would there be a difference in cherishing time if there was more of it? Time would be the same. Let’s think about our current lifespan, it may be 70 to 90 years or more which is a long time, if you are 20 does having all that time left make today less valuable to you? Emotionless or flat? I don’t find my current season of life any less valuable or meaningless simply because I expect future seasons. I cherish every season. Today is as meaningful to me as tomorrow will be. I don’t think knowing I am going to die makes things more vibrant in this moment. I am not thinking about dying at this moment, I am living in this incredible life that I appreciate so much because I am alive, I am living it. Not because I am going to die.
He says that living indefinitely would be too long and too boring. Within today’s life expectancy there are days where people are bored but most people don’t think “I’m bored, I must be living too long, why am I even alive, I want to die”. It’s a particular situation that is boring, not the length of life. With all the time in the world you could read every book you ever wanted to read, you could learn and master many subjects. With more time you could become a wiser better skilled person and you could use this knowledge to help society and help indefinitely.
As travelers from the past cryonic resuscitees would be a valuable, direct link to our ancestral culture. Imagine if some great person like Einstein for example, were here to share his knowledge with us and what great new contributions would he make if he had our newer technologies? What would it be like to have a conversation with someone like Michelangelo or Aristotle? How incredible it would be to hear their stories and experiences from them first hand. Of course we can’t go backwards but there will be many more great people that may want to stick around in the future.
In the case of Ted Williams the media attacked cryonics. On the CBS news his estranged daughter, Bobby Joe Ferrell, said, "my dad is in a metal tube, on his head. So frozen that if I touched him, it would crack him because of the warmth from my fingertip”*17. A person who is in cryonic suspension would not be touched, they are in a protective dewar and are not taken out. If and when the technology allows for a person to be revived then they would be taken out but only after the temperature has been warmed so that touching would not be a problem.
A talk show radio WEEI 850am disc jockey said about the Ted Williams case, "It's macabre, the whole thing is macabre”*18. But the current funerary options are even more macabre. I apologize in advance for the next two sentences. Cremation consists of burning your body into a small pile of bone fragments often along with nails and screws and other parts of the original container. Burial in a casket leads to the skin and hair slipping off exposing whats underneath and eventually you are eaten up by your own bacteria from the inside out.
While in cryonic suspension your whole body is contained in a tube in a facility untouched by anything external. Cryonic suspension by comparison is far less damaging and macabre. Even less macabre is that with cryonic suspension there is a chance that one might have a second chance at life. Without it, there is zero chance. One should have the right to do what they want with their body after death, wether it’s cremation, buried or cryopreservation.
Now let’s talk about the present, people in general not the cryonicists, are doing things right now to provide better health and live longer lives but in an article at Reason Online, Ronald Bailey writes "…the President's Council on Bioethics is now considering whether or not it is ethical to pursue biomedical research aimed at extending human life spans. Last month the Council met to discuss the staff working paper 'Age-Retardation: Scientific Possibilities and Moral Challenges'…the paper worries…age retardation might undermine 'the meaning of the life cycle' so that we would not be able 'to make sense of what time, age, and change should mean to us'…Longer lives could also slow down 'innovation and change' since 'innovation is often the function of a new generation of leaders.'"21
There will still be young people, that will not change. This is age discrimination, what they are basically saying is “You are an older person you lack innovation and are worthless to society”. Consider this: at age 70 Benjamin Franklin helped draft the Declaration of Independence, John Glenn while still a senator returned to space at age 77, at the age of 78 Chevalier de Lamarck proposed an evolutionary process, that acquired characteristics were passed on to offspring, at 85 Theodor Mommsen became the oldest person to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature, at 89 Arthur Rubinstein performed at London's Wigmore Hall, Pablo Picasso painted the very night before his death at age 91, at 93 Chemist Paul Walden was giving chemistry lectures, at 102 Alice Porlock published her first book “Portrait of My Victorian Youth”, artist Beatrice Wood who lived to be 105, wrote a book at age 90 and her last 25 years were her most artistically productive, she worked at the potters wheel every day until 103 and continued to make work until she died, filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira at 73 became a full time director, he was making a film a year past the age of 100 and was still working on films when he died at 106. Those are a few examples, there are many, many more older people who have and continue to make great contributions to the world. And if an older person had a longer healthier life what more could they achieve?
The article says that people who live longer lives would lack of innovation but if you want more innovation, than why would you want to stop advances that help us living longer? That is innovation.
I don’t feel comfortable with the government deciding how long we should live and that they think being older is a bad thing, what age would they decide is the maximum and how would they make sure no one got older than that? There is really only one way and that’s pretty scary.
Let’s say they decide 90 is the maximum lifespan, first of all one person’s 90 may not be the same as another, as far as lifestyle. And who decides who has a valuable life and what counts as contributing to society? While Picasso is creating art perhaps another person is perfectly content at home reading by the fireplace. Both lives are valuable, but are they going to think so?
Hope for the Future
There has been a lot of hopeful progress made. In the mid-1980s a beagle named Miles had his blood replaced with "base perfusate," a preliminary to cryoprotection and deep cooling. During the operation, directed by UC Berkeley's Dr. Paul Segall at the Trans Time cryonics facility in Emeryville, California, Miles was cooled to near the freezing point and his heart and breathing stopped. The dog was then rewarmed after 15 minutes of clinical death, his blood was replaced, and he returned to consciousness and tail-wagging good health, making guest appearances on the Phil Donahue show and in People Magazine19. The brain experiment of Suda the cat mentioned earlier, and scientists have also now frozen and successfully revived embryos, sperm, and corneas20.
If cryonics doesn’t work, nothing is lost; the dead will simply stay dead. And if cryonics does work, they will have everything to gain. There is no guarantee it will work, however there is a 100 percent guarantee that if you’re buried or cremated you are not coming back and death is final. Perhaps one day humans will reawaken from death and make a giant leap for all humanity in the process. Or one day maybe cryonics won’t be necessary because of the future advances in nanotechnology that could prevent death all together (for those who want that). There are babies and children who have cancer and through no fault of their own will not survive and will never have the opportunity to experience the life they deserve. There are mothers who would give anything for a chance to have more time with their child. There are sick people all across the world who would love to have access to treatments or technologies to extend their lives. And there are people who died young in cryonic suspension, this gives them hope. These are real people, it’s not just an ideology for hospitals to decide or governments to decide.
If Bill McKibben had his way, we would not progress as a society but stagnate or maybe even regress. We have the capability to continue to grow in knowledge, advance our skills, become better human beings and better caretakers of our earth. We don’t want to waste those capabilities. There is so much beauty in this world, so much undiscovered, so many nooks and crannies that we’ve yet to see, for some of us a lifetime isn’t enough to appreciate it all and learn from it all, maybe this is something Gilgamesh understood.
As appeared in cryonics magazine.
Copyright Gina Miller
1. The Epic of Gilgamesh http://www.aina.org/books/eog/eog.pdf
2. A. Forever For All by R. Michael Perry page 30 B. Lucretius was a believer that atoms existed before they were generally accepted in the early 20th century by scientists.
3. Forever For All by R. Michael Perry page 33
4. Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler http://www.foresight.org/EOC/
5. Forever For All by R. Michael Perry page 37
6. Man Into Superman R.C.W. Ettinger page 231
7. Forever For All by R. Michael Perry page 39
8. The Spike by Damien Broderick page 56
9. Alcor Life Extension Foundation http://www.alcor.org
10. Alcor Life Extension Foundation http://www.alcor.org/AboutCryonics/index.htm
11. Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler, The Foresight Institute http://www.foresight.org, Nanotechnology Industries http://www.nanoindustries.com
12. The "Impossible" Dream by Charles Platt http://www.cryocare.org/history.txt
13. Great Mambo Chicken & The Transhumanist Condition by Ed Regis chapter 3
14. Forever For All by R. Michael Perry page 41
15. The Boston Globe http://www.boston.com/sports/redsox/williams/july_17/Chums_say_Williams_never_said_he_wanted_remains_frozen+.shtml
16. Enough by Bill McKibben, p. 159 (preprint ed.).
17. CBS segment from 48 Hours (video taped television)
18. ABC news Talk Radio WEEI 850am Sports Radio (video taped television)
19. Great Mambo Chicken &The Transhuman Condition by Ed Regis page 91
20. MSNBC affiliate WHDK in Boston (video taped television)
21. Reason Online April 9, 2003 http://www.reason.com/rb/rb040903.shtml