Steve Jobs once said that “death is probably the best invention of life”. Queen Elizabeth II reigned a full 70 years and lived to be 96, becoming the longest reigning monarch in British history. With advances in life-extending technologies and Silicon Valley’s billion-dollar quest to reverse human aging, it’s worth asking: Was the Queen’s death necessary for moral and political progress, or does progress result from something other than funerals?
New age-reversal technologies promise people will one day be able to live decades longer healthily, and these therapies could save trillions of dollars in retrospective measures like old-age pensions and Alzheimer’s treatment in the US alone. Anti-ageing drugs could be a much-needed answer to our demographic crisis, as the US is projected to spend half of its federal budget on adults ages 65 and older each year through 2029.
But could it lead to a fiasco of moral, political, and technological progress if older (and healthier) adults hold onto positions of power longer? Would radical life extension, as Elon Musk predicts, lead to less innovation? Is human death an engine of progress or a technical problem to be solved?
The fact is, Queen Elizabeth’s (or anyone else’s) funeral will not magically ensure moral or ideological progress. Yes, the Queen’s death means that new British banknotes and coins will no longer feature her face, but King Charles’s, and the British national anthem will be updated.
Similarly, when Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un die, administrative changes will be plentiful. But Russia will still carry Russia’s historical legacy and will continue to be led by a president chosen by the current president himself. And North Korea will likely be ruled by a healthier Jong-un.
Broadly speaking, change occurs when living—not dead—people drive it. Progress is not some mystical, dialectical, or predetermined process that miraculously unfolds once burials take place. Progress is the result of the hard work and actions of innovative, living thinkers – like Vitalik Buterin, who co-founded the decentralized blockchain Ethereum at the age of 23, and like Henry Ford, who created the Model T (the world’s first affordable car). at 45. It’s the product of young revolutionaries like Greta Thunberg and older tycoons like Elon Musk himself.
Progress does not happen at a funeral, but in a healthy, living human being. It is not up to the allegorical effects of death, but up to every living human being to advance our ethics, our politics, and our technologies. Refusing the development of life-prolonging therapies on the basis that malicious actors or regimes could live on is as reasonable as refusing treatment for Alzheimer’s for fear we might end up as non-demented autocrats.
I propose that life is life’s best (and most progressive) invention. Anything wrong with the governments of Russia, North Korea, Britain, or the United States would hardly be fixed by the continued existence of cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or heart disease. In fact, the diseases of old age and their consequences occupy such a large part of our federal budgets (which make up more than two-thirds of all burials) that death as it exists today should be understood as the polar opposite of progress.
Raiany Romani is a bioethicist and IDEA (In-deep Effective Altruism) Fellow at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter @raianyromanni.