Cryonics and Natural Selection
“…it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself” so reads a quote that, in modified form, often has been mistakenly attributed to Charles Darwin but was in fact a description of Darwin’s views penned down by a Professor of Management and Marketing named Leon C. Megginson in 1963. But, surely, one reason for the popularity of this quote is that it captures the modern view of evolution quite well. In this column I would like to briefly reflect on what cryonics means in the context of evolution and natural selection.
Any cryonicist that has not kept his support of cryonics completely to himself must have found himself in a situation where even the most reasonable arguments seemed to leave someone else completely indifferent, or even hostile. Even in the case of family members or friends there comes a point where one cannot help thinking, “well, if you would rather die than think, fine, I am not going to stop you.” It appears, then, that people who make cryonics arrangements are part of an extremely small group of people that will escape the common fate of all humans (i.e. death), as a consequence of being extremely open-minded and adaptable. But is this the “survival” that the theory of natural selection speaks of?
The modern theory of natural selection is essentially about reproduction. It is not necessarily the longest-lived species (the survivors) whose (genetic) traits will become more common in a population but the ones whose fitness leads to greater reproductive success. It can hardly be denied that cryonicists are extraordinarily capable of adapting to change (or ready to adapt to future change) but it has also been quite firmly observed that cryonicists (or life extentionists in general) are lagging the general population in terms of reproduction, either because of the higher number of single persons or because of the lower interest in having children. It is sometimes observed that whereas most people seek “immortality” by ensuring their genes will survive in future generations, cryonicists see immortality by seeking to survive themselves. In addition, even allowing for a growing interest in cryonics, the number of people making cryonics arrangements is simply too small to have a meaningful effect on the genetic and mental traits of future generations. At best, cryonicists may find themselves being perceived as independent, courageous, individuals that were simply more capable of anticipating the future of science and medicine.
It is tempting, indeed, to think of cryonicists as a homogeneous group of people who are extraordinarily analytic and adaptable but a closer inspection of the motives of people who make cryonics arrangements suggests something different. Indeed, if we look at the early days of cryonics, we see a disproportionate number of cryonicists who where extraordinary visionaries, sometimes independently arriving at the same conclusions (think of Robert Ettinger and Ev Cooper). As cryonics received more mainstream exposure, however, we see different reasons why people endorse cryonics. A partner has cryonics arrangements and the other person is persuaded to do so, too. Subcultures in which making cryonics arrangements is strongly endorsed (like transhumanism). A strong fear of death that prompts a person to do anything to not die, regardless of a dispassionate assessment of cryonics. In more recent times, even career considerations can be a factor as more “market-based” salaries are available in the field of cryonics. Still, despite the possibility that the personality type that chooses cryonics is increasingly getting more diverse, it still makes sense to talk about the demographics of cryonics for as long as the cryonics population is substantially different from the general population.
Where does all this leave us concerning cryonics and natural selection? Since natural selection is basically about reproductive success despite death it would not be correct to characterize the small group of cryonicists that will survive (where others do not) as an example of Darwinian evolution in action, I think. It may be tempting to use Darwinian terminology to characterize our situation but upon closer scrutiny there are problems with this. What might be said, though, is that (successful) cryonicists will be in the extraordinary situation to live for such a long time that they can see human evolution further unfold and even be in a position to consciously direct it through human enhancement.
This is a web-exclusive edition of the Cryonics magazine column that was omitted from the December 2014 issue.