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 even 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 searches for answers to avoid death. He fails and dies
because it is the wrong quest for a human1. Lucretius, ca.
98-55 BC, an Epicurean philosopher, did not believe in a
potential state of immortality but did subscribe to an atomic
theory of matter. Based on that he speculated that perhaps
one could be rebuilt by reassembling the atomic structure
of a human being2.
Fedorov (1829-1903), a schoolteacher and librarian in Moscow,
was one of the first to consider actually bringing back
the dead by using science3. This is where it becomes a question
of morality versus mortality. Fedorov, both scientific and
a committed Christian, suggested that immortality could
be obtained by means other than divine intervention, but
maintained that it would be consistent with God's will and
even morally mandated.
the idea of life extension through science well predates
Fedorov. 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.
have a natural tendency, through the mental apparatus, 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 to self-preservation,
which humans share with other animate creatures, as part
of the Darwinian imperative of survival of the fittest.
When we are placed in critical situations, our body responds
chemically with an adrenaline rush, and we choose to fight
or flee in an unconscious attempt to preserve our lives.
Expanding on this basic response, we take medication so
that we may be healthier or to treat a disease. The health
market is a major industry and everyone knows that being
well means living longer. Many people stop smoking in hopes
that it will add a few years to their lives. As we advance
in medicine and technology there are more options available
to extend our lives. Along with these advances, however,
we encounter those who feel there is a point at which we
have too much technological aid. I will return to this topic
in connection with the controversy over cryonics.
early as the seventeenth century the English scientist Robert
Boyle reported reviving small fish and frogs after brief
exposure to subfreezing temperatures5. In my own life I
experienced this natural wonder. My grandparents had property
in Termo, California, where I spent my summers as a child.
There was a windmill that connected to a water trough and
conveyed water into a manmade pond. In the trough my grandmother
kept some large goldfish. In the winter the water would
solidify and the fish quite still and also look frozen.
One summer, on returning to the property, I saw the fish
swimming about and asked my grandmother if she had put new
ones in. She said "no, they're the same fish".
So I marked the fish and waited for winter and another season
of summer. The fish were swimming, and my marks were on
them. I should have known not to doubt Grandmother: they
were the same all right. I thought, "I wish, I wish
I was like a fish."
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 rewarmed6. Then 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 activity7. Traditional medicine
was also making great strides, and people were revived from
hypothermic states of respiratory and cardiac arrest-what
was previously thought to be death.
In 1967 James Bedford, a 73-year-old retired psychology
professor in Glendale, California, died of renal cancer
and became the first person to be frozen under controlled
conditions with the goal of eventual reanimation. With the
Bedford freezing a new practice known as cryonics was established.8
(Frozen by the Cryonics Society of California, Bedford was
eventually transferred 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 death10. Compared
to conventional funerary arrangements (burial or cremation)
the service is expensive, costing anywhere from about $30,000
to more than $120,000 depending on the type of arrangement
and protocols used. The most common way to arrange for payment
is through a life insurance policy which makes the cryonics
company the beneficiary. Clients receive a bracelet and/or
necklace that tells EMT's or hospital staff to call a number
and what to do and not do to the patient in their care.
In a typical arrangement the staff of the cryonics company
will then fly out to obtain the body, cool it with ice,
and bring it back to their facility. Once there the body
is treated with a cryoprotective agent, a kind of antifreeze,
to reduce or eliminate damaging ice crystals as the temperature
is lowered. Finally the body will be cooled and put in an
insulated container or dewar under liquid nitrogen, at a
temperature of 196°C (-320°F). (A variant on this
is the "neuro" or head-only option, in which only
the head is preserved, the rationale being that technology
capable of reanimating the patient can also recreate the
rest of the body, through procedures at least distantly
related to cloning. Neuros are cheaper and easier to handle
might be expected, no one has yet been reanimated. To reasonably
do so would require repairing what killed the person and
reversing the effects of aging as well as undoing any tissue
damage that occurred during cryopreservation. A person who
signs up for cryonic suspension hopes that future technology
will be able to accomplish all these things. And indeed,
the emerging science of nanotechnology11 is a good candidate
to someday develop this capability. In 1994 Charles Platt,
vice president of the cryonics company Cryocare, commented
on Engines of Creation, a 1986 book by 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 technology advanced so far that people
could be reanimated from cryopreservation, there is also
the possibility that the means would exist to maintain them
indefinitely in a state of youthful health.
Cryonics has had to brave some legal challenges. When 83-year-old
Dora Kent was gravely ill with pneumonia in 1987, her son
had her transferred to Alcor's facility, then in Riverside,
California. There she died and was cryopreserved (as a neuro).
Through an oversight no physician was present to sign the
death certificate, and it led to a coroner's investigation.
The headless body was autopsied and the cryopreserved head
was demanded too but could not be found. Metabolites found
in the body left the impression that Mrs. Kent was still
alive when the cryopreservation procedure was started, and
the death was ruled a homicide.13 (Patients to be cryopreserved,
however, are given metabolic support, including oxygenation,
to reduce tissue damage prior to deep cooling, which could
account for the metabolites.) Eventually the courts ruled
in favor of Alcor. Kent remained in suspension and no charges
were filed. 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 legal death.
His request was denied,14 though fortunately and against
the odds, the tumor has stayed in remission. A third legal
battle erupted in July 2002, when baseball star Ted Williams
died and his three children had a very publicized debate
over his personal wishes to be cryopreserved15. Currently
the conflict has calmed down and Ted is reportedly preserved
at the Alcor facility. (Alcor officials themselves have
not confirmed this, citing reasons of confidentiality.)
But the Ted Williams case brought cryonics and an associated
ethical debate to major broadcast media and American living
is cryonics such a controversial topic? Some reasons can
be conjectured. Since the dawn of humanity people have been
conditioned to expect inevitable death. So far, everyone
who has ever lived has died, putatively excluding the gods.
Perhaps this alone suggests why talk of scientifically defeating
death seems blasphemous to many and tends to mire its advocates
in controversy. Gilgamesh, at the end of his quest for immortality,
is told that his humanity requires him to accept death,
that death is necessary, right, and proper. So we ask, what
makes something "right," or at least, seem right
in the minds of many? A partial answer, at least in some
important cases, must be its sheer lack of novelty, its
being "traditional." If a certain thing, on the
other hand, has never been done before it may appear unsettling
and even frightening, to the point that it simply seems
wrong. In any case we are conditioned to accept our demise,
and have cultivated a vast array of beliefs to alleviate
our fears. If we are good in life, for example, it is said
we will be compensated with an immensely rewarding, heavenly
afterlife, where no pain or sorrow exists. This and other
afterworld beliefs engender a hope of escaping the otherwise
final nonexistence. We have, in essence, created an alternate
immortality to the scientific prospect that is offered by
in turn is "unnatural," say opponents. But how
substantial is this claim? In particular, we may ask, how
desirable is it for something to be "natural"
anyway? It seems clear that "natural" should not
be simply equated with "good." Diseases such as
the common cold or tuberculosis occur naturally, and we
recognize that death may happen through natural causes but
don't generally applaud when our loved ones perish this
way. The unnatural in turn is not necessarily bad. Consider
the world we live in. We find a plethora of examples of
the unnatural, even in methods used to extend our lives:
computers, hospitals with electronic equipment, drugs that
interfere with viruses and other sources of disease, prosthetics,
contact lenses, warm clothes, heaters, gym equipment, processed
vitamin supplements, hearing aids, pacemakers, and even
synthetic organs. This is evidence that our technological
progress has reached the point of enhancing our own humanity.
Arguably too, many of these devices are endorsed on grounds
of basic medical ethics, which posits that it is good to
provide good health and, along with it, as much life as
possible. This is what cryonics seeks to provide as well,
yet mainstream medicine often disparages cryonics as quackery,
due to its unproven nature. Cryonicists, however, are not
out to deceive anyone, but provide honest information for
the prospective patient, so that they may choose through
informed consent if they are willing to take this gamble.
Many of the greatest advances in medicine were based on
experiments in which the results were previously unknown.
In contrast to the medical ethics of good health, opponents
of cryonics suggest that we should not have all of the health
and life we want, but that it should be limited.
McKibben in his book, Enough16, says: "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." But I think
McKibben's concerns are not hard to address. Why should
it make any difference in cherishing time, if it is endless?
Time would still exist, it would just be in greater abundance.
Let's think about our natural lifespan. I am young enough
that I can expect to live another 60 years, a rather long
time. Does my assumption that I have years of life to live
cause this moment in time to be "flat"? I do not
find this season of life any less valuable, or meaningless
altogether, simply because I expect future seasons. I cherish
every season. Today is as meaningful to me as tomorrow is
and will be. McKibben's statement also underscores the sentiment
that living indefinitely would be too long, and too banal.
True, with today's limited life expectancy there are days
or moments in which people can get bored. But, I ask, must
this always provoke the response, "I'm bored, I don't
even know why I'm alive, I want to die"? Certainly
not. It is a particular situation that is boring, not life.
With all the time in the world, you could read every book
you ever wanted to read, and master many subjects. Intellect
could perhaps become greatly expanded. It is this last point
that also creates a fear, a dread of the superhuman.
people fear that these advanced options would further widen
the gap between those who excel and who do not, in an already
highly competitive society. These fears inhibit interest
in the idea returning to consciousness after decades or
centuries of sleep, as might happen with cryonics patients.
But, as with McKibben, I think the concerns can be reasonably
addressed. In the first place, of course, we have to acknowledge
that the worriers have a point. Things would have to be
pretty far along to be able to reanimate people in cryopreservation
and offer them the prospect of indefinite, youthful health.
Moreover, we can assume that advanced technology would be
available for everyone so that all could go as far as they
were willing. Many then must have progressed very far indeed,
yet this outcome need not overwhelm the traveler from the
past. Though the world might have inconceivable technological
marvels, cryonic resuscitees would still be a valuable,
direct link to our ancestral culture. Future denizens could
carry on their superhuman life as usual, but would have
an added benefit deserving their respect and appreciation.
By comparison we can imagine the interest that would be
shown if someone from a remote historical time, or even
a not-yet-human from far more distant past, could live again
and, in one way or another, transmit experiences from that
the case of Ted Williams the media aired and debated the
cryonics issue, often showing lack of appreciation. On the
CBS news the 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 talk show radio WEEI
850am disc jockey said about the Ted Williams case, "It's
macabre, the whole thing is macabre"18. In other ways
cryonics all too often is presented and perceived as bizarre
or gruesome, relative to more conventional means of "disposal
of the dead." This of course is silly, given the real
purpose of cryonics and the scientific premises on which
it is based. We are talking about someone who is already
dead, by conventional standards. The more typical funerary
options do not have much to offer by way of comparison.
When one is buried in the ground, soil organisms and other
destructive mechanisms make short shrift of what remains.
Cremation does an even more thorough job: DNA does not even
survive. Nasty stuff, we might say. Cryonic suspension by
comparison is far less damaging, thus less macabre, with
the added benefit that it is not certain the "deceased"
is really dead. In fact, it is death itself that is more
deserving of the epithet macabre than is a potential second
chance at life.
for the Future
If cryopreservation does not work, nothing is lost; the
dead will simply stay dead. Those who sign up willingly
accept this risk. And if cryonics does work, they ultimately
have everything to gain. The issue, of course, is far from
settled and probably will remain so for some time. Yet there
have been hopeful signs, of which the following are a few
highlights. The cat brain experiments of Suda have been
noted. 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 (not below it), and his heart
and breathing stopped. The dog was then rewarmed, 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. Scientists have also now
frozen and successfully revived embryos, sperm, and corneas20.
one day humans will reawaken from death and make a giant
leap for all humanity in the process. With continued research
in understanding the brain, along with future technological
advances, the dream could be realized of fully restoring
the cryopatient's memories and self. Legal issues could
be crucial here. The best possible cryopreservation may
not be consistent with existing laws, as was the case for
Thomas Donaldson. But, important as it is, the right to
do as one wishes with one's body (including a premortem
cryopreservation) is not the only factor in the prospects
for human life extension. In a recent 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 I suggest the paper
in question is actively participating in age discrimination.
The document suggests that those who live extended lives
will demonstrate a lack of innovation and change. This is
most ironic since this is exactly what it is protesting,
innovation and change. The article considers life extension
which is the aim of cryopreservation (though it could happen
by other means too). It appears as though the powers that
be are deciding if it's good for us to live longer! The
suggestion, in fact, is that maybe it isn't, which is disheartening,
especially since it reflects the opinion people with sizable
vision of the reanimated cryonics patient is a symbol of
hope. Hope for what the world may one day become, a world
without disease, right here on earth. Cryopreservation,
nanotechnology, and immortality are all hyperlinked and
all highly controversial. If Bill McKibben had his way,
we would not progress as a society but stagnate, perhaps
even regress. Let's imagine this on a personal level. What
if you or I never evolved and never learned new things but
remained the same, out of simple fear? Fear of change is
often the culprit preventing progress. Yet without change,
we would not grow and that is the true joy in life. We have
the capability to grow in knowledge, grow in relationships,
advance our skills, and change and develop into better human
beings. The same holds true for us as a society. Growth
will happen. As we evolve and advance, we will encounter
problems, certainly, but we must not stop or turn back.
Progress is our best hope of desired outcomes.
1. World Literature http://novaonline.nv.cc.va.us/eli/eng251/gilgameshstudy.htm
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
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_
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
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
2003 May 31, 2003 Gina Miller
to Mike Perry for editing this paper!
read this supplement to the above paper, Imaginary conversation
about cryonic suspension. There are two characters, Nikolai
a man who recently signed up for cryonic suspension and
Bertrand a man who believes that death is inevitable. By
Gina Miller, May 31, 2003.