Should We Be Teaching Kids They Never Have to Die?

I first discovered death when I was four years old. My mother was going through my clothes, deciding what could be passed down to my brother and what could be given away. She did the same with my brother's clothes and when she went to put the items she'd decided to get rid of in a bag, my brother told her to keep them and give them back to me so I could wear them when I got small again. "You can save it all!" he told her.

"That's not how it works," my mom told him and proceeded to tell the both of us that one day we would both be adults, and then we would be be old, and then we would die. And death, she told us, happened to everyone. Even people we loved. And that's how I've been operating ever since, recognizing that death is inevitable.

Not so, according to Gennady Stolyarov, a transhumanist and author of the new children's book Death is Wrong. Stolyarov claims that children don't have to accept death's icy embrace, that they can vanquish it with technology and research and science. And then they can live forever. (What one would do with eternal life is not a subject covered in this book, but I imagine if I had it I would do a lot of napping, which would probably defeat the purpose.)

Stolyarov is a believer of Transhumanism, a movement geared towards enhancing all human capacity, from intelligence to life extension. In an article for The Huffington Post Zoltan Istvan describes transhumanism thusly:

Transhuman literally means beyond human. Transhumanists consist of life extensionists, techno-optimists, Singularitarians, biohackers, roboticists, AI proponents, and futurists who embrace radical science and technology to improve the human condition. The most important aim for many transhumanists is to overcome human mortality, a goal some believe is achievable by 2045

Stolyarov's book focuses on making these concepts easy for children to understand. In it he makes arguments for why immortality is important and fights the opinions of those that don't believe in his cause, citing that objections such as overpopulation, boredom, and the fact that death plays an important role in the human life cycle are "excuses." But Stolyarov's view of death as a problem that can be solved with technology and his urging children to reject the idea that death is inevitable may be too simplistic. It glosses over the fact that not everyone would be able to afford (or possibly even be allowed) to take part in the immortality that he is preaching and completely rejects death as being anything more than humanity's biggest enemy.

Joelle Renstrom writes this on Slate:

Stolyarov sells kids an updated myth of pharaohs, the fountain of youth, and Gilgamesh cloaked in the singularity, the theorized point at which technology and superior artificial intelligence fundamentally alter life. He implies that death is the Problem and that solving it will ensure smooth sailing, which is irresponsible at best and disastrous at worst. He mentions how much interest our accounts will accrue, how much free time we'll have, and how we'll treat Earth better since we'll be around longer. But he glosses over the downsides, including the inevitable class divides and social strife that would arise from the continued death of those who can't afford immortality. Vanquishing his own lifelong dread of death seems to trump the consequences.

And it does appear that Stolyarov's main motivation is to stave off his own mortality and find a way to extend his life. In a post on his website, The Rational Argumentator, Stolyarov details why he wrote the book.

My greatest fear about the future is not of technology running out of control or posing existential risks to humankind. Rather, my greatest fear is that, in the year 2045, I will be 58 years old and already marked by notable signs of senescence, sitting at the kitchen table, drinking my morning coffee, and wondering, "What happened to that Singularity we were promised by now? Why did it not come to pass? Why does the world of 2045 look pretty much like the world of 2013, with only a few cosmetic differences?" My greatest fear is that, as I stare into that mug of coffee, I would recognize that it will all be downhill from there, especially as "kids these days" would pay no more attention to technological progress and life-extension possibilities than their predecessors did.

I agree that death is a frightening concept, one that keeps me up many nights. I often have to remind myself that it's likely far off, that I've only hit 30, that even if I do have to die, I don't have to do it right now. And sometimes I wish I was a scientist working on life-extension, growing hearts and livers in a lab. And then I think back to a conversation I once had with a former clinical supervisor when we were discussing a client who was approaching death.

"In order to connect, you have to think about how you would handle your own death." She told me. "How do you feel about dying?"

"I don't feel about dying," I told her jokingly. "I've read that we'll be able to start growing lungs and hearts and livers by 2045. I'm holding out until then."

"And what makes you think," she said, "that when hearts and livers are for sale in jars that you will be on the list to get one?" And I had no answer.

I want to agree with Stolyarov that the singularity is coming and that in less than thirty years we will have harnessed life-extension to a point where we can all at least live to be 100. But I don't know if this is a concept we should be selling to children, especially without looking at the complexity of what such advances could mean. Let's wait until they're better equipped to handle it. And if this book is to be given to children, perhaps it should come bundled (technology!) with a copy of Tuck Everlasting so that they know what they might be getting themselves into.

Stolyarov is running an Indiegogo campaign to raise enough money to give away 1,000 copies of the book to children for free. The fundraiser ends in 40 days but is nowhere near funded. The Kindle version of the text retails for $0.99 on Amazon.

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