September 7, 2021 - 7:00am

Picture this: a bunch of the world’s richest entrepreneurs and most brilliant scientists get together to discuss the prolongation of human lifespans. 

In a Hollywood movie, the next scene would be a zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic wasteland. But in the real world, we cut to the formation of Altos Labs — a very well funded start-up dedicated to the development of treatments capable of rejuvenating animal cells and eventually, it is hoped, entire human beings. 

According to an eye-popping report in MIT Technology Review, investors in the new company include the tech billionaire Yuri Milner. The founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, may also be involved — though that is less clear. 

This is not the first time something like this has happened: “Altos is certain to draw comparisons to Calico Labs, a longevity company announced in 2013 by Google co-founder, Larry Page.”

It’s eight years on and there’s still no sign of human immortality, but the most interesting question is not whether such ventures will, in time, succeed — but whether we should want them to. 

Proponents of immortality science will no doubt suspect a religious bias in their opponents. And in my case, I’ll openly admit they’d be right to. If you believe in an immortal human soul, then what happens to our bodies is not the top priority.

However, we don’t have to rely on religious arguments against hi-tech coffin-dodging. Nor do we have to assume a population crisis if people put off popping their clogs. If it ever came to that point we’d just stop having babies instead (as indeed we already are). 

No, the real problem with immortality is stagnation. After all, we already know what artificially enhanced longevity does to a society. Old people have never had it so good. They’ve never lived as long, or held as much wealth, or sewn up our institutions to the extent they do now. Stagnation soon leads to outright decadence.

Consider politics. In 2020, the top five candidates for President of the United States (Trump, Biden, Sanders, Warren and Bloomberg) were all in their seventies — and look how well that turned out. 

And then there’s the tech sector itself. The tech lords who dominate our lives all made their breakthroughs when they were still young — Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Page and Brin. They created the companies that define the internet as it is today.

The trouble is they they’ve defined it for too long. Beyond the mere elaboration of old products from new, the internet has stopped evolving. All the major platforms, all the key technologies, all the most powerful companies have been in place for a decade or more.  Thus even in the most dynamic and disruptive of industries there is the tendency for innovation to turn to domination and preservation of power. 

Thank goodness, then, for the rejuvenating effects of mortality. The grim reaper removes one set of players from the board and allows the game to begin again. Unless, of course, one removes death from the board. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.