Todd T.W. Daly was interviewed by Brent Waters concerning his recently published book Chasing Methuselah. Read along and be sure to check out some excerpt from the new book at the end of the interview!
What is your elevator speech for describing your book?
This book looks at how aging has been transformed from an inevitable reality of human existence to a problem for technology, the role that Christianity has played in this transformation, and asks, from a Christian perspective, how we should think about slowing aging and what might be at stake if we do so.
What prompted you to write the book?
Chasing Methuselah grew out of my original research for my PhD in theology and ethics at the University of Edinburgh. I’ve always been interested in how Christians use or engage Scripture in trying to understand contemporary moral problems, especially those that are usually considered bioethical issues.
When I first began investigating the possibility of slowing human aging, the scientific literature eclipsed any serious ethical consideration; there were only 3 or 4 articles addressing the topic from a Christian perspective. In the early 2000s there was still some concern over whether slowing aging merited much attention from theologians and ethicists, as the history of life extension is littered with stories of failure, ranging from hyperborean legends, potable gold, radical diets, to xenotransplantation (monkey gonads), electromagnetic therapy, and Bulletproof coffee. It’s also difficult to disentangle the scientific pursuit of longevity from the much stronger claims of those arguing for immortality, though the claims of the latter are based on science too.
But the deeper question behind these disputes—“How should we think about aging and trying to slow it down in light of the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ?”—was a compelling one, and seems to defy easy answers.
On the one hand, life is indeed a gift from God, so it’s not entirely clear why trying to help our bodies age more efficiently would be a bad thing. On the other hand, we live in a fallen world where our desires, which will always outstrip our biology, will never be fully satisfied until we behold the One who can “catch the heart and hold it still.” (Augustine) When framed in this way, the most important questions may be those of virtue and motive, questions like, How might life extension shape us? How might life extension impact the body’s role in the formation of Christ-like character? Is our participation in life extension animated by fear or hope?
Who did you write the book for? What is your audience?
I wrote this book for Christians who might be interested in learning how aging has come to be seen as a problem for science, and for those who might wonder what Christian theology may have to contribute to the discussion. While it’s aimed at Christians who are at the seminary or post-graduate level, the earlier chapters require no theological background. Even the latter chapters, which contain more theology, engage with the Church Fathers, who are surprisingly readable. Readers less familiar with some of the Greek philosophical background are invited to skip over some sections without sacrificing the basic argument of the book. In short, anyone interested in the topic of slowing aging would gain something from this book.
Let’s assume that in the not too distant future we are able to greatly extend human longevity, complete with youthful bodies and first-rate cognitive abilities. Do you think this might change our attitudes toward parenthood and offspring?
It already has. Population studies from the 1930s have already noticed a correlation between lengthening lifespans and lower fertility rates. In regions where lifespans have gone up, birthrates have gone down. While this correlation belies any one simple cause, it is interesting to note that as longevity has increased, generativity rates have steadily declined. One potential cause is that without some sense of own mortality the desire to have children is somewhat diminished. But that is hardly a settled question. Nevertheless, greatly extended lives would inevitably seem to weaken the deep connection between death and new birth. As our lives are increasingly shaped by our desires and less by the limitations of our aging bodies, the whole idea of having children may appear as more of an option rather than an obligation (as in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) or as a grateful submission to the rhythms of biological existence.
Moreover, if we live under the illusion that we have been granted a very long life, how much energy would we want to devote to the next generation? It is difficult to imagine that birth rates would continue to decline. Would we want our children to have extended lives as well, if indeed it were a matter of choice (and not, for instance, a product of germ line modification)? If so, how would greater longevity impact the length and/or progression of the stages of maturity? Would parents want to raise children whose adolescent stage lasts a decade or more? On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine parents not wanting to give their children every possible advantage to enjoy a significantly longer, healthier life. Otherwise, we might be faced with the bizarre possibility of parents possibly being “younger” than their own offspring. What parent would welcome a scenario where they’re likely to outlive their own children? Raising a family is already difficult enough; having to do it for a longer period of time seems a significant deterrent. Though there may also be the possibility of an extended period where parents and their children are able to treat each other as peers, I believe that many would be parents might find the extra labor involved in helping their children attain independence too daunting.
More generally, I suspect that we will be less likely to invest in offspring, preparing them for a world that will continue without us. Even if we are, if life extension also significantly reduces the period of morbidity preceding death—which is indeed a major goal of engineered longevity—we may lose one of several reminders of our own finitude that might otherwise come from experiencing the gradual diminishment of our physical abilities. If, at age eighty I’m still able to match the physical and mental stamina of my forty-year-old son, I might very well be lured into thinking that life will continue like this indefinitely, and thus squander an opportunity to impart the kinds of things that can only be known through a proper numbering of one’s days (Psalm 90:12). Even if we aren’t spared a slow decline, I wonder whether we’ll be able to raise children in such a way that they are able to care and comfort us as we inevitably fade away.
What was the greatest joy and the greatest challenge in writing Chasing Methuselah?
I really enjoyed exploring the Desert Fathers’ understanding of fasting and their understanding of longevity. Christians in the west still tend to regard asceticism with suspicion, with the assumption that such practices are rooted in a hatred of the body. While it is not difficult to find examples in church history to substantiate such a claim, Athanasius and St. Antony understood the centrality of the incarnation of Christ as evidence that redemption is accomplished for the whole person–body and soul. While fasting concerned properly ordering one’s body and soul in submission to God, they believed that the body could only benefit from a well-ordered soul. The Desert Fathers’ understanding of fasting became a theological lens through which to evaluate contemporary scientific efforts to slow aging, such as “caloric restriction (CR) mimetics,” which might ideally come in the form of a pill. For Christians, how does fasting differ from CR mimetics? What’s at stake if Christians decide to use CR mimetics to live longer? This book tries to answer this question.
The greatest challenges in writing this book came with organizing the material in some coherent fashion, given especially that there were no book-length theological treatments on slowing human aging that attempted to cover so much ground with respect to the history of the search for the fountain of youth, responses to the idea of modulating longevity from within the Christian tradition, and contemporary scientific developments with respect to longevity. When, for various reasons I needed to set the manuscript aside for a couple of years, I was astonished at how quickly life extension technology had developed. I envisioned adding a paragraph or two to the opening chapter, but quickly realized more work would be needed to account for the six inch high stack of technical articles published during that time. Half of the opening chapter had to be re-written to account for these new technological developments.
Do you have any quirky habits as an author?
I can’t write until I’ve had a few cups of coffee with another cup growing cold within arm’s reach. I also usually need to straighten up any room I’m writing in. If it appears cluttered or messy to me, I need to straighten it up a bit before I undertake writing. Otherwise, a messy environment seems to considerably disturb my already disorganized thoughts and ideas. I’ve always had trouble sitting still, so I’m rarely able to write for more than thirty minutes at a time before standing up to do something. I’m especially gifted at self-sabotage when it comes to getting into any writing flow. If, for instance, I’ve managed to write a sentence that pleases me–even if I’ve only been at it for ten or fifteen minutes–I’ll channel that extra energy into doing something else, like going for a run, making more coffee, or cleaning out the litter box. I may or may not return to writing for the rest of the day.
Is there another book on the horizon?
I’m planning on writing a shorter, less academic work, which explores how Christians should think more generally about human aging from a biblical perspective, and what Christians have to gain or lose in extending the human lifespan. Beyond that, I’m fascinated with synthetic biology, and suspect that there’s a need for a book that explores the slippery concept of “nature” from a robust Christian doctrine of creation. When the material world is viewed largely as the playground for human desire–even when many of these desires are morally appropriate–it seems hard to avoid Babel-like outcomes. Indeed, the advent of “BioBricks” invites the comparison. But is every project doomed to replicate that biblical monument to human power and instrumentality? Christians have already adopted several stances on synthetic biology, from outright prohibition to enthusiastic reception. Neither of these responses are convincing. Should/does nature itself or the material world have any built-in limits? Whose interpretation of nature counts? What does “nature” mean within the Christian doctrine of creation? I find these questions fascinating.
Some excerpts from select chapters in Chasing Methuselah.