The Man Who Fights Death

Conventional obituaries will say that he died, of heart and respiratory failure, but he doesn’t believe so, nor do many of his friends and admirers.

His body won’t be buried or burned, as most people in his non-metabolizing state are, because those methods of interment would result in a state that even he and they would have recognized as death. Instead, as his bodily functions progressively failed, with a tub of chilled water at bedside, he was declared legally dead so that he could have himself chilled down, his fluids replaced with an anti-freeze solution, ultimately to liquid nitrogen temperatures, to continue a quest on which he had spent most of his life to date: to live indefinitely long.


He is not the first to be so preserved, though he is one of only a few hundred in history. But he is the man who made knowledge of the notion widespread to the point that there is a popular mythology of it (no, Walt Disney was not frozen), and it has become a staple of science fiction and even comedy, such as Woody Allen’s Sleeper and Matt Groening’s The Simpsons and Futurama, the latter in which it is key to the very premise of the show. In fact, the producer of both of those shows had a lot of fun with the idea earlier, when he was a still cartoonist.

He is a man far ahead of his time. As cryonics pioneer Mike Darwin noted in his “obituary” for Ettinger Sunday:

Cryonics depends upon a number of paradigm-changing observations: Death is a gradual process rooted in progressive loss of biological structure (information) and is not a binary condition in most cases. Life does not depend upon continuous function or metabolism; widespread cryopreservation of human embryos was required to bring this idea into the public consciousness. Cryopreservation is possible for a wide range of cells and tissues, and even when uncontrolled freezing occurs, vast amounts of cell and tissue structure remain either intact or inferable (i.e., theoretically possible to reconstruct and restore to health and life from their damaged state). Advances in biology and medicine offer the prospect of growing new organs and regenerating or replacing damaged tissues; this is no longer considered wild speculation, but rather, is today progress expected by the public as a result of the logical progression of biomedicine. Finally, the ideas of nanoscale engineering and computation and their implications for cell and tissue repair (nanomedicine) are still not fully appreciated by the public, although understanding and acceptance of these ideas is growing.


Part of the problem, of course, is that the idea defies “common sense.” As some have argued with me in the past, “dead is dead.” Except when it isn’t –when a drowning victim, not breathing, is revived, when a heart is stopped for surgery, and then restarted. Others make an inductive argument: everyone who has been born has died. (Well, as far as we know; possible exceptions are a staple of science fiction). Well, actually, that’s not even true. There are billions of people alive today who have never died, and they live in an era in which technology has advanced greatly. In the past, one could have said “everyone who is bitten by a rabid animal dies,” or “everyone who gets cancer dies,” or “everyone who has contracted AIDS dies.” Technological advances have conquered these problems, at least to a degree. Why not, at some point, death itself? It may not have happened soon enough for Bob Ettinger but to declare that it didn’t is to miss the point. Following his own advice, along with his mother, and his (two) wives (which may make for an interesting relationship for them all if his theory pans out), he has put himself into an ambulance to the future, where he hopes to find better medical care than offered by the present.

One might think that it would be a concept that would be embraced by conservatives who, based on their rhetoric with regard to abortion and euthanasia, would want to conserve nothing more than life itself. But William F. Buckley, founder of National Review, couldn’t get his head around it:


Once, Mr. Ettinger told the New Yorker, he shared a stage with conservative commentator William F. Buckley.

“He was aghast at everything I said. He thought it was immoral, unethical, unsanitary, against the will of God!” he recalled, laughing. “Buckley understood nothing.”

“Liberals” don’t much take to it, either. The science fiction great Isaac Asimov was notoriously opposed to the notion, at least for himself, even though he agreed with the scientific merits and, along with Frederik Pohl, actually urged the republishing of Ettinger’s book on the subject. He refused it himself on the grounds that he wanted to live a “normal” lifespan. And this would be consistent with his (implied) view expressed in (e.g.) Bicentennial Man that one of the things that defines our humanity is our mortality.

If there is a political philosophy that is congenial to the notion of indefinite lifespan, it is libertarianism, and the connection between the two has long been noted. And Ettinger, after all, wasn’t just the father of cryonics as it came to be popularized, but it could be said that he fathered transhumanism itself with his book Man Into Superman.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Traditional conservatives tend to believe that individuals ultimately belong to God, and modern “liberals” tend to believe they are units of the state, or should be part of Gaia’s circle of life. Only libertarians believe that individuals belong to themselves, and want to preserve themselves and their lives as long as happily possible, which also explains their attraction to transhumanism, because they also don’t make as much of a fetish of the human condition as do conservatives.


So, Robert Ettinger, transhumanist, life-extension pioneer, rest at last  in peace.

For now.


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