Time magazine’s cover story “Can Google Solve Death?” was published on the last day of September 2013 and was written by Harry McCracken and Lev Grossman. The subtitle—“The search giant is launching a venture to extend the human life span. That would be crazy—if it weren’t Google”—evokes an insight Ken Auletta noted in his 2009 Googled: The End of the World As We Know It, quoting an unnamed “CEO of one media conglomerate”: “The brilliance of [Google’s] business is that consumers love them. Consumers never loved Microsoft,” and, “Name a business that [Google is] not going to disrupt.” Google’s quest to “solve death” is the business to be disrupted—and because it’s beloved Google, it’s not only a welcomed pursuit, but also one that might actually be solved. A life span without end.
To eradicate death and harvest an earthly version of the resurrection of the body and life everlasting is secularism’s ultimate redefinition of the Christian ethos. Why would Silicon Valley orient its energies on it? Yet, if Time (never a publication to miss out on putting its own stamp on popular trends—see its declaration of Pope Francis as Person of the Year in 2013) is touting such a quest from the likes of Google, then secularism’s aim to foster human-driven resurrection is less a fringe theory than a probability.
The Time piece centered on the launch of Google company Calico, the slogan of which—“We’re tackling aging, one of life’s greatest mysteries”—suggests Google’s great, fascinating contradiction: its ability to be both transparent and cagey at the same time. Indeed, how did a mere search engine competing in the late 1990s with AskJeeves and Alta Vista emerge to map the globe (Google Maps), copy its books (Google Books), and invent driverless cars (formerly Google X, now just X), as well as possess the knowledge of what is being searched for all around the world—and by whom? Its omnipotence has not been lost on the Obama administration, which, according to a 2015 Wall Street Journal report, has met with Google executives more than 230 times.
Meanwhile, and not coincidentally, the field of biotechnology exploded in both research funding and profits. The job site AngelList reports 2,940 startups in relation to biotechnology. While the ostensible purpose, according to the institutions and foundations involved in the work, is to extend healthy lives and defeat enemies such as cancer, apprehension simmers, slowly coming to the fore: What were once ideas relegated to the sci-fi shelves—genetic modification or radical life extension, for instance—are now serious subjects of conquest pioneered by the high-profile executives of the most influential tech firms, who have already won people over with the multimedia triumphs that have forever reshaped the cultural landscape.
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could they didn’t stop to think if they should.” This observation from Dr. Ian Malcolm, Michael Crichton’s character in Jurassic Park, already seems archaic 25 years later. The Atlantic’s 2012 interview with game designer and professor Bennett Foddy, “Radical Life Extension Is Already Here, But We’re Doing it Wrong,” asks, “Some ethicists have pointed out that death is one of the major forces for equality in the world, and that welfare disparities will be worsened if some people can afford to postpone old age, or avoid it altogether, while others are unable to. What do you say to them?” Foddy agrees with the line of questioning, saying it is unfair that a certain part of the world has a longer life expectancy than others: “It’s not a good that benefits you only if other people are worse off.” It is perhaps a more perceptive question than intended. Beyond the somewhat socialist notion that everyone must live to be a certain age in order to enforce equality, it raises another idea: is the ambition to reverse anti-aging meant for everyone? Will living to be 150 actually be in the best interest of the planet’s billions? And once the arbitrary 150 becomes indefinite, what are the economic and social implications—who will pay the price?
Who is to be saved? These are the questions of the new societal religion. Whether conscious or not, the Silicon Valley giants, the self-proclaimed innovators seeking to cheat death, are at the same time carving out doctrines of a new faith. They cannot ignore the obvious: how to deal with God. “What is incontrovertible is that a religious impulse guides our motive in sustaining that scientific inquiry. If not, what else?” a microbiologist named Dr. Joshua Lederberg once wrote.
“To God alone pertains the judgment of death and of life,” said St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae. Whether or not one believes this, the biotech titans know they must convincingly address it in their own way before their moonshot vision is realized. While Google may be the most recognizable Silicon Valley entity jumping into the life-extension arena, it is not alone. Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison is there, too. “Death has never made any sense to me,” Ellison once lamented to biographer Mike Wilson, author of The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison. “How can a person be there and then just vanish, just not be there?” Driven by this question, Ellison looked to the best and formed a decisive union between tech and biology, developing a relationship with the 1958 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, who was recognized for &ldquohis discoveries concerning genetic recombination and the organization of the genetic material of bacteria.” At the time, the recipient was 33 years old. He was the above-quoted Dr. Joshua Lederberg, who died in 2008 at age 82 of pneumonia.
Lederberg was the catalyst for the creation of Ellison’s nonprofit corporation, the Lawrence Ellison Foundation (formerly the Ellison Medical Foundation). Initially meeting after Lederberg delivered a speech at Stanford in the early 1990s that Ellison happened to hear, the two bonded over the topic of aging. Eventually, Lederberg was tapped as chair of the foundation’s scientific advisory board in 1997, and he remained on the board until his death. The geneticist’s accomplishments span the decades, the Nobel Prize and other accolades that followed only capstones to a brilliant career. In a 1966 journal article, “Experimental Genetics and Human Evolution,” Lederberg flatly observes, “The context of modern man includes steadily increasing reliance on medicine, i.e., euphenics, from ovulation onwards.” He preferred the term “euphenics”—which Lederberg himself invented—over a similar word: eugenics.
Lederberg was at the forefront of computer science and artificial intelligence, which supported his genetics work, a foresight indicative of his ability to merge his research with public policy—with one eye on the present and another to the future. He became a sought-after figure for the Department of Defense, NASA, the World Health Organization, and the CDC, was a scientific advisor to nine US presidents, and was president of Rockefeller University as well as a long-time professor at Stanford. He was an adviser on President-elect Kennedy’s transition team in 1961 and received the Medal of Freedom from President Bush in 2006. Writing for the Washington Post in 1969 Lederberg posited, “[M]olecular biology will have far more impact on human affairs via abstract philosophy than as an engineering technology.” That ordering of a philosophy was central to Lederberg. He knew both that engineering technology would rapidly develop, and yet without an underlying set of ideas to guide it, it would never gain traction beyond the lab. “Science has a long way to go in completing its account of the history of the universe and the origin of life and I see no point in pitting that process against one labeled as ‘religious,’” he observed elsewhere.
In the same 1969 Washington Post article (entitled “Science Has Long Known Ways to Make Subhumans”), Lederberg cites the debate on how advances in science would affect the social order. Life extension concerned Lederberg not so much as an ethical question, but in terms of biology: “What could be a more drastic effect on human biology, overall, than adding another decade or two of old age to the average life?” Today, especially. In a population of over 7 billion, as attractive as the idea of life extension is, beyond the obvious logistic issues such as economic and renewable resources, something deeper is at a play—a survival of the fittest. This is the philosophy of transhumanism. This is the ideology of the new age, of elites eagerly seeking to reboot the Arthurian quest for the promises of the Holy Grail, not as a Christian relic but as the source of human immortality.
Just not for all. Lederberg on such social adjustment: “We are on the shakiest ground trying to sort out the genetic basis of such social diseases as crime and delinquency.” He continues, “Instability of family life, the estrangement of the generations, and the shallowness of human communication are more prevalent and cumulatively more serious diseases than violent crime, and must be given equal account in any effort to define ‘the good man,’ or in any lament of human deterioration. Who will cast the first stone?” As this was 1966, Lederberg was writing in the midst of LBJ’s sprawling Great Society, and in the first full year after the closing of the Second Vatican Council—two years before Humanae Vitae confirmed the Church’s position on human reproduction.
It was a time of a setting sun and the dawn of a new regime. Lederberg himself acknowledges as such: “Inevitably, biological knowledge weighs many human beings with personal responsibility for decisions that were once relegated to Divine Providence.” Father James Schall, SJ detailed Lederberg’s contribution to the new world order in his prescient 1971 book Human Dignity and Human Numbers, foreseeing the impact of the new regime’s social prerogative: a new Darwinism unshackled by religious suppression, with contraception as the origin point leading to reproduction of only a certain select few, abolishing marriage and the family not only as societal bedrocks for successive generations, but as spheres of cultural influence—thus, of any relevance whatsoever. “Children are to be produced scientifically for the genetic good of the race,” Father Schall notes. Included is the elimination of sexual differences, ushering in an age of postgenderism, and doubling down on the right to choose—on both ends of the life spectrum.
“The Promethean prospect of eternal regeneration awaits us,” boasted the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003. As the likes of the Lederberg-inspired, Silicon Valley-funded corporations push into new realms of what were formerly considered ethical gray areas, public support remains positive—“Google solves death”: beloved brand confronts dread. “With some longer term, moonshot thinking around health care and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives,” read part of Google’s Larry Page’s statement in the press release announcing Calico. As Calico’s CEO is Apple chairman Arthur Levinson, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, also chimed in: “For too many of our friends and family, life has been cut short or the quality of their life is too often lacking.”
It is hard to deny the emotivism conveyed by the heads of two of the planet’s most influential companies and the desire to halt mortal issues. Yet it is precisely emotivism that stumps for the support of advancing biotechnology, leaving little room for concepts such as redemptive suffering and penance, let alone God’s grace. When emotivism is allowed to influence arenas such as the justice system, or when the ecclesial temptation to misplace mercy as Bonhoefferian “cheap grace” predominates, rarely will reason, logic—truth—prevail. And the emotivism molecular biology’s power promises is just the type of PR it needs in order for its manipulators to achieve their objective.
That objective must first remove the one bastion of defense that still defies it. “We have a different standard,” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stated in his homily just prior to the 2005 conclave, “the Son of God, true man. He is the measure of true humanism.” Against the prowess of the heads of Google, Oracle, and Apple—equipped as they with the world’s wealth, government collaboration, an unquestioning populace, and minds the caliber of a Joshua Lederberg—how does such a statement as Cardinal Ratzinger’s even stand a chance?
It is the great question of the day for the Catholic who recognizes his footing is at a crossroads, particularly in the “final confrontation” that Cardinal Wojtyła of Krakow pointed out to his American audience in 1976: “We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel versus the anti-Gospel.”
“I see no evidence for this stuff,” Larry Ellison once said about “the particular dogmas of Judaism. I do not believe they are real. They are interesting stories. They are interesting mythology, and I certainly respect people who believe these are literally true.” And yet certainly it cannot be lost on Ellison that science and technology are steeped in such stories in their own right; they are today’s religion.
Transhumanism’s quest for immortality can be put another way: transhumanism seeks to manufacture the immortal into mortal—a twisted incarnation. Archaic dogmas—the notion of God, the soul, the afterlife—are being reinvented now, the secular rebooting of religion, with a catch: this is not a concern about life after death, but eternal life in the here and now. This appeals directly to “the scandal of particularity,” as Carl E. Olson notes. In his book Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? he writes of those who believe that “Christianity is too literal, too earthly-minded, too rational, and too focused on Jesus as a unique figure.” The lure of immortality offered by the tech elites, then, proposes a much more appealing way toward a world without end.
But the question remains: who is to be saved in this new faith, this new immortality?
The plan for salvation appears to include four stages.
The first two are progressing rapidly: depopulation and distraction. The prototypical example for population control is National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200), the project of then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger analyzing countries deemed problematic and of concern to United States national security because of their billing as overpopulated nations. The study’s recommendation of limiting these populations is a microcosm for the elitist requisite of a lowered population. In the 2015 Washington Post’s profile, “The Human Upgrade—Tech Titans’ Latest Project: Defy Death,” Ariana Eunjung Cha writes, “Life extension would radically change the most important building block of society: the family. No one seems able to predict what life might be like when half a dozen or more generations are alive simultaneously.” But if one were to imagine a world as a result of lowered global birthrates, far removed from the days of chaos and unrest in brimming metropolises, six or more generations living on private islands or coastal enclaves is far more predictable.
Of course, the Catholic Church has no place in such a scheme, what with its emphasis on the family and the human person, and on the responsibility, freedom, and will each individual possesses. Enter Dan Brown, whose 2013 literary concoction, Inferno, features not only the return of The Da Vinci Code hero Robert Langdon, but a transhumanist villain and his fixation on a world too populated for the transhumanist philosophy to materialize—targeting, once again, the Church’s teachings in Humanae Vitae as detrimental to stability. It joins other high-profile movies exploring transhumanist themes, such as Ridley Scott’s ongoing Alien–Prometheus series, and, in tandem with surging interest in biotechnology, the lure of Silicon Valley, the popularity of its CEOs, and coverage from the mainstream media, the marketing campaign is on.
When people orient their lives around devices developed by such technology firms, the public persona of these companies gains credence, further distancing one’s understanding of the Church’s breadth on the greater context of life and death. A digital device seemingly has all the answers. The digital, the virtual, the cloud—these are the invisible, the new sensus supranaturalis—which brings us to the stage of distraction. We need to look no further than Joshua Lederberg, from 50 years ago: “Play rather than work will be the substratum of human activity, and the transmutation of play into cultural progress will replace the underpinning by industrial and military technology of its superstructure of basic science.” From adults prolonging adolescence to preoccupations with such unrealities as pornography, distraction leads to indifference, insensitivity, soullessness.
Finally, what are the final two stages, the endgame of the new doctrine of resurrection, the new spirituality of man post dignitatem humanam? Both are intrinsically tied together. They may be dubbed moonshot ideas, but such false modesty defies the intense ambition of their visionaries to realize them.
Clonal propagation. “The chief human motivation for taking advantage of clonal reproduction would, undoubtedly, be in the quest for some kind of immortality, which plainly has a deep influence in the network of human affairs,” Lederberg wrote in “Orthobiosis: The Perfection of Man.” Who controls such power is essential to steering clear of the obvious hazards cloning threatens. “A well-established totalitarian society might, indeed, try to assure its own perpetuation by genetic technology, as further support to its existing apparatus of thought control.” And so clonal propagation would be best left to the trusted hands in the cloud who have long made their personalities and their interests in such biotechnology possibilities known—the well-respected billionaire CEOs and their cherished tech firms.
Transconsciousness. Until an indefinite lifespan is resolved, man must make do with the body he’s given. It can only endure so much until it ceases to function. “Like any ongoing adventure, I have no idea how it ends. But I know it will,” Larry Ellison admitted in May when he served as commencement speaker at the University of Southern California.
But consider an existence beyond living in a body. Attempts are underway to upload memories to a computer; transconsciousness involves uploading your own awareness, accessible anywhere, in anything. Consider an existence both of body and out of body, both transphysical and within the normal limitations of the human person, if you are in the mood “to just be yourself” rather than the experience transconsciousness affords. You are in control, you are resurrection. Whether one’s soul is successfully synced with the transconsciousness experience is perhaps a relative question, but a perplexing one: are immortals to be soulless digital numbers, or can the new Adam finally become just like a god?
Perhaps you have noticed there is no mention here of love. The only kind of love that can exist in these realms is not of the imago Dei, but of the imago sui—narcissism. And yet, once again, all this reveals that secularism is nothing more than an attempt to remake Christianity’s understanding about man, God, and the world. The lusty promises of immortality proposed here are only empty copies of man’s real purpose: to know, love, and serve God.
Because of the belief that Christ’s death blew open the doors of death, man lives in the light of Resurrection faith, though not without battles. “Eternal life’ is not—as the modern reader might immediately assume—life after death, in contrast to this present life, which is transient and not eternal,” Benedict XVI wrote in Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two. Benedict is speaking about zōē: “life.”
“Eternal life’ is life itself, real life, which can also be lived in the present age and is no longer challenged by physical death. This is the point: to seize ‘life’ here and now, real life that can no longer be destroyed by anything or anyone.” It is a concept more revolutionary than anything than what the abstract philosophy of molecular biology propositions. It is a concept, perhaps the only concept, which can seriously challenge the dominance of the new regime. But first, scales must fall—the light of Resurrection faith persists.
Until that manifesto becomes the song of humanity’s revolution for immortality, one more citation about the new regime:
“Quite simple and obvious things, at first—sterilization of the unfit, liquidation of backward races (we don’t want any dead weights), selective breeding. The real education, including pre-natal education. […] But we’ll get on to biochemical conditioning in the end and direct manipulation of the brain…”
“But this is stupendous, Feverstone.”
This is Lord Feverstone, also known as Richard Devine, speaking to Mark Studdock. Feverstone is passionately speaking about the strategy of an organization he is associated with called the N.I.C.E., the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments. It is a work of fiction, from C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. It also very well succinctly and chillingly describes secularism’s moonshot doctrine of resurrection.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!
Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.