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Pioneers: Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794)


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#1 G. Stolyarov II

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Posted 26 December 2018 - 01:35 PM


The 18th-century Age of Enlightenment brought forth a paradigm shift in perceptions of the human condition and potential. The thinkers of the Enlightenment systematically articulated the case for rationality, science, and technology dramatically improving human well-being and overcoming what were previously considered to be immutable limitations. Those of us today who support the pursuit of indefinite life extension, rejuvenation biotechnology, and emerging research and its applications in a wide array of transformative fields are essentially continuing the project that the Enlightenment philosophers began. Although they had a much more rudimentary toolkit at their disposal, the most visionary minds among them were remarkably able to anticipate many aspects of our contemporary world and even to see beyond it. 
One such individual was Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), among the most talented polymaths, philosophers, economists, political scientists, mathematicians, administrators, and authors of the 19th century – a man who unfortunately lived far ahead of his time and whose life was claimed by the tumult of the French Revolution in 1794. Condorcet died in prison under mysterious circumstances, after running afoul of the murderous Jacobin faction that seized power in 1793-1794 and perpetrated a Reign of Terror that subverted the ideals of the Enlightenment.Shortly beforehand Condorcet completed a work that set forth the blueprint for human progress to come – the Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain (Outlines of a historical view of the progress of the humanmind), published posthumously in 1795. At the end of this work, Condorcet briefly but insightfully articulated much of the terminology and conceptual framework that characterizemany thoughts in the life-extension movement today. 

Condorcet divides human history into ten epochs, the first nine of which bring the human species to the era of the French Revolution; the tenth epoch is Condorcet’s vision for humankind’s future. Much of what Condorcet articulated has already come to pass – including dramatic improvements in agricultural and industrial processes, broadening of education, major progress toward gender equality, and decreases in the average number of children per family as economic development, education, and living standards have improved. Condorcet even posited an early version of what is today known as the “law of accelerating returns” (a phrase popularized in our era by RayKurzweil):

" All the causes which contribute to the improvement of the human species, all the means we have enumerated that insure its progress, must, from their very nature; exercise an influence always active, and acquire an extent for ever increasing. The proofs of this have been exhibited, and from their development in the work itself they will derive additional force: accordingly we may already conclude, that the perfectibility of man is indefinite. (Condorcet 289-290) "

Regarding improvements in longevity, our era already features some of the developments that Condorcet anticipated. In Condorcet’s time, most people still did not die of biological “old age”; average life expectancy in France remained below age 30 for much of the 18thcentury (ref), and rich and poor alike often fell victim to infectious diseases, warfare, political turmoil, and poor lifestyle habits before reaching any advanced age – and high rates of reproduction accompanied (and were in part motivated by) devastatingly high rates of infant mortality. For Condorcet, bringing average life expectancies into the late seventies and early eighties, as is the case for virtually all “developed” countries today, would have constituted astonishing progress. Condorcet focused first on the major proximate causes of mortality in his time – malnutrition, lack of sanitation, poor living conditions, unhealthy work environments, and life-shortening vices – including lack of physical exercise and the indolence that he associated with the luxury of the aristocracy. Regarding the overcoming of these perils, Condorcet observed: 

" This law [of the perfectibility of organic life] extends itself to the human race; and it cannot be doubted that the progress of the sanative art, that the use of more wholesome food and more comfortable habitations, that a mode of life which shall develop the physical powers by exercise, without at the same time impairing them by excess; in fine, that the destruction of the two most active causes of deterioration, penury and wretchedness on the one hand, and enormous wealth on the other, must necessarily tend to prolong the common duration of man’s existence, and secure him a more constant health and a more robust constitution. (Condorcet 290) "

The methods of human rationality, as directly accessible to the mind and capable of being implemented through societal reforms, could achieve the kinds of lifestyle-related improvements Condorcet described. But he ventured further to address the even more significant potential lifespan extension that medical progress could unlock: 

" It is manifest that the improvement of the practice of medicine, become more efficacious in consequence of the progress of reason and the social order, must in the end put a period to transmissible or contagious disorders, as well to those general maladies resulting from climate, aliments, and the nature of certain occupations. Nor would it be difficult to prove that this hope might be extended to almost every other malady, of which it is probable we shall hereafter discover the most remote causes. (Condorcet 290-291) "

Condorcet’s prognostications directly address the question of what will remain once the most proximate 18th century causes of death and disease (infections, poor climate, bad working conditions) are greatly diminished. In our time, this has essentially happened, and heart disease, cancer, and degenerative illnesses of the brain have become the most common killers (and even the rates of death from some of these ailments are in decline). Condorcet’s contemporaries did not understand the causes of these then-rarer ailments (since most did not live long enough to get them), but we now know them all to be consequences of the degenerative processes of biological aging at the cellular and molecular levels. Condorcet recognized that the mindsets and methods of Enlightenment rationality could be applied to identify and defeat these maladies as well – and the outcome would be indefinite longevity:

" Would it even be absurd to suppose this quality of melioration in the human species as susceptible of an indefinite advancement; to suppose that a period must one day arrive when death will be nothing more than the effect either of extraordinary accidents, or of the slow and gradual decay of the vital powers; and that the duration of the middle space, of the interval between the birth of man and this decay, will itself have no assignable limit? Certainly man will not become immortal; but may not the distance between the moment in which he draws his first breath, and the common term when, in the course of nature, without malady or accident, he finds it impossible any longer to exist, be necessarily protracted? As we are now speaking of a progress that is capable of being represented with precision, by numerical quantities or by lines, we shall embrace the opportunity of explaining the two meanings that may be affixed to the word indefinite. (Condorcet 291) "

The distinction between “indefinite life extension” as the prolongation of lifespans without a fixed upper bound and “immortality” in the sense of indestructability or invulnerability is important for advocates of longevity today and have been repeatedly articulated to persuade the general public to recognize that the life-extension project is the logical continuation of the improvements in medicine, lifestyle, and environment which have already brought about major lifespan increases during the past two centuries. Condorcet was the first to articulate that distinction; when we speak of indefinite life extension, we are indeed building upon Condorcet’s vision and carrying it forward using the next generation of medical technologies. 

Condorcet did not definitively posit whether or not there is some remoter upper bound to possible lifespans, but he did explore both possibilities: 

" In reality, this middle term of life, which in proportion as men advance upon the ocean of futurity, we have supposed incessantly to increase, may receive additions either in conformity to a law by which, though approaching continually an illimitable extent, it could never possibly arrive at it; or a law by which, in the immensity of ages, it may acquire a greater extent than any determinate quantity whatever that may be assigned as its limit. In the latter case, this duration of life is indefinite in the strictest sense of the word, since there exist no bounds on this side of which it must necessarily stop. And in the former, it is equally indefinite to us; if we cannot fix the term, it may for ever approach, but can never surpass; particularly if, knowing only that it can never stop, we are ignorant in which of the two senses the term indefinite is applicable to it: and this is precisely the state of the knowledge we have as yet acquired relative to the perfectibility of the species. (Condorcet 291-292) "

Whatever other limits, if any, humans might come to face if they live centuries or longer, Condorcet convincingly demonstrates that we will never be certain that such limits have been reached – so the possibility of indefinite longevity and the striving toward it are always the appropriate working hypothesis and practical approach. Condorcet’s empirical prediction, which has held true thus far (with temporary aberrations in times of major warfare or societal turmoil), is that mean life expectancy will continue to increase without end:

" we are bound to believe that the mean duration of human life will for ever increase, unless its increase be prevented by the physical revolutions of the system; but we cannot tell what is the bound which the duration of human life can never exceed; we cannot even tell, whether there be any circumstance in the laws of nature which has determined and laid down its limit” (Condorcet 292).  "

It is fitting for Condorcet to conclude his treatise – the last work of his life – by pointing to a gloriously open-ended future, where the same miseries and oppressions that shortened his own life need not befall future generations. A great mind born too soon, Condorcet could not prevent his own death but could bestow a vision for us to implement:

" This sentiment is the asylum into which he retires, and to which the memory of his persecutors cannot follow him: he unites himself in imagination with man restored to his rights, delivered from oppression, and proceeding with rapid strides in the path of happiness; he forgets his own misfortunes while his thoughts are thus employed; he lives no longer to adversity, calumny and malice, but becomes the associate of these wiser and more fortunate beings whose enviable condition he so earnestly contributed to produce. (Condorcet 294) "

Many in life extension may feel called by this heroically ambitious, boldly optimistic project for the transformation of humankind – whose epitome and, indeed, the central aim, is the extension and expansion of lifespans without bounds.


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