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Humanist resurrection: is cryonics scientific or quackery?

By Maggie Hall


Maggie is a former Chair of Brighton Humanists, a member of the Humanists UK Dialogue Network, and a Humanists UK School Speaker. She is also a retired Teacher of Speech and Drama. This month, she delves into the strange concept of cryonics, by which some people hope to regain life after death.



On 12th January, 1967, James Bedford, an American psychology professor at the University of California, made history by becoming the first person to be cryopreserved after legal death in hope of future revival. His body remains preserved at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona. He was 73 at the time of his death and was suffering from an untreatable kidney cancer which had metastasised to his lungs.


Cryopreservation is the process of preserving biological material by cooling to sub-zero temperatures (as opposed to cryogenics, which is the study of the behaviour of materials at very low temperatures). Cryopreservation of various organic cells, tissues, etc. had been taking place for some time and a previously embalmed body had been frozen and later thawed and buried, but this was the first time anyone had attempted to freeze a complete human body with the intention of possibly reviving it in some future time when it might be possible to cure the individual concerned of whatever it was that caused death.


Approximately 500 bodies have been cryopreserved worldwide, and around 5,000 people have signed up to a waiting list. The method uses liquid nitrogen, with no electricity being involved, so that no damage will be caused in the event of a power outage. It’s a very expensive way of trying to cheat death, with even the smallest cryogenic freezer costing upwards of £40k. Cryopreservation of your whole body could cost around €200k with Tomorrow Bio in Germany. If you just had your brain frozen (presumably in the hope that it could eventually be placed in a robot body) it would cost you a mere  $80k at US-based Alcor. Prices vary according to location and method used. These costs are for preservation only. There does not appear to be any current guidance on the possible cost of revival.


Advocates and sceptics

Cryogenics is generally viewed with scepticism in the scientific community, which largely regards it as a pseudoscience with virtually no possibility of ever being successful, although some scientists have been prepared to have their heads preserved, one of these being Dr Anders Sandberg, a senior research fellow at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute, who is also on the board of the Brain Preservation Foundation. He does acknowledge, however, that there is only a three percent chance of revival.


The first person to propose the possibility of cryopreservation and revival of a human body was Robert Ettinger in his book The Prospect of Immortality, published in 1962. In 1976, Ettinger founded the Cryonics Institute and his corpse was cryopreserved in 2011.


Some interesting names appear in the list of those planning to be preserved, including Paris Hilton, the American media personality. Others on the list and those already preserved include people in the fields of computer science, transhumanism, economics and the entertainment industry. The story that Walt Disney was cryopreserved turns out to be a myth. His body was cremated and interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery. The American psychologist and LSD advocate Timothy Leary (1920–1996) was a long-time cryonics advocate and signed up with a major cryonics provider, but he changed his mind shortly before his death and was not cryopreserved.


Ethics

Clearly there are ethical considerations attached to the practice of cryonics. Those of a religious persuasion are likely to prefer the method of resurrection offered in the Bible or in other holy texts, although it could be said, depending on your point of view, that neither option is very likely to become fact.


Most of the ethical objections raised concern the lack of evidence for its efficacy. The American health educator William T. Jarvis wrote: “Cryonics might be a suitable subject for scientific research, but marketing an unproven method to the public is quackery.” The entry on cryonics in the Skeptic’s Dictionary agrees: “A business based on little more than hope for developments that can be imagined by science is quackery.”


Even if the procedure were to be proven to work, it would only be available to the small portion of the population that could afford it, creating a kind of “cryopreservation elite”. It is possible to imagine a world where a tiny group of very rich people go on and on living and in the process consume several life’s worth of food, accommodation, medicine and other resources, whilst the rest of the population succumbs to early death due to lack of access to them.


To me, the obvious objection to people living forever, by whatever means, is the effect on population numbers. We already have over eight billion people vying for space on this planet and almost 820 million of them are undernourished, according to a UN report. As early as the end of the 18th century, the undesirability of the absence of death was recognised by Thomas Malthus, who wrote in An Essay on the Principle of Population: “The power of population is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”


Eventually, the planet Earth will itself die. Do we want to outlive it?

 

References and further reading

 

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Valerie Mainstone
Valerie Mainstone
Apr 01

Thank you Maggie, as always, for an interesting and accessible article, beautifully written.

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