Book Review: Peter Ward’s ‘The Price of Immortality’

The late J.R. Richard was a Major League Baseball phenomenon of the 1970s for the Houston Astros. If the radar guns were accurate, no one’s fastball traveled faster than Richard’s.

Where it perhaps gets interesting is that no one since has thrown faster than Richard. While records are made to be broken, the speed of the fastball apparently isn’t. The explanation that I’ve always heard is that the human arm quite simply isn’t designed, or hasn’t evolved, to throw the ball faster. Which is apparently why Richard was and remains the fastball standard.

This came to mind while reading Peter Ward’s new book, The Price of Immortality: The Race To Live Forever. While Ward’s book proved a disappointment, his subject isn’t. Though fastballs remain fast, but aren’t getting any faster, Ward writes with arguably not enough optimism that “Medicine has extended average life expectancy significantly in the past century, and scientists now turn their expertise to more extreme measures to stop people from dying.”

With life expectancy rising, the people Ward describes as “immortalists” are in search of ways to make life a forever concept. Ward’s book “is about the most literal take on mortality: to live forever physically in the world as we know it.” And to understand this literal approach to immortality better, Ward “plunged into the world of immortalists, hoping to unravel what was real and what was false.” Which, in a very real sense was the biggest problem with The Price of Immortality.  

What should have been a reporter’s account of the not unreasonable desire to improve health and subsequently extend life very quickly morphed into a stage for the author to take potshots at rich people, the U.S. health system, and seemingly capitalism in general. “Billionaires” in particular are criticized, which speaks loudly to how Ward’s politics blinded him to the source of rising life expectancy.

Seemingly lost on the author is that in the late 19th century Johns Hopkins, a billionaire-equivalent for his time, gave away $7 million of his Baltimore-Ohio Railroad fortune to what became Johns Hopkins University. It was the largest donation ever of its kind at the time, and the funds made it possible for a real medical school to be formed. Before then, U.S. medical schools were largely of the night variety, and research didn’t define their missions. If you were sick, there were realistically no cures. As the late Dr. Lawrence D. Dorr (one of the world’s most prominent orthopedic surgeons) observed in his 2011 historical fiction book about medicine, Die Once Live Twice, when you were born in the 19th century you had as good of a chance of dying as you did living. A broken femur came with roughly 33% odds of dying, and if you lived your lone option was amputation at a time when painkillers were less than modern….A broken hip was a death sentence. Cancer? Forget about it. Except that as Dorr reminded readers, cancer was low on the list of killers simply because pneumonia, tuberculosis and other every day diseases put you in an early grave well before cancer did. Even by the early 20th century, Dorr reported that cancer was still a distant eighth among American killers. How things have changed.

Indeed, as Ward reports “Americans have a one in six chance of dying from heart disease, one in seven chance of succumbing to cancer, and one in twenty-seven chance of chronic lower respiratory disease ushering in their downfall.” About Wards stats, notice how he doesn’t even mention pneumonia, tuberculosis, yellow and scarlet fever, etc. Which is the point. As Ward himself acknowledges, and as was previously quoted, “Medicine has extended average life expectancy significantly in the past century.” Cruel as cancer is, along with heart disease and diabetes, it’s paradoxically a sign of progress that per Ward, those are the maladies that get us thankfully later and later in life.

Okay, so why the remarkable progress? Previously mentioned was Johns Hopkins, at which point it’s essential to bring up John D. Rockefeller, by many miles the richest man of his time. As Ron Chernow reported in his biography of the great industrialist, Rockefeller gave away $530 million in his lifetime alone; $450 million of it to medical pursuits. Think how crucial this was. Rockefeller’s preternatural business skills that lit up formerly dark houses (kerosene) at night and powered an economy more and more reliant on fuel (refined oil) funded immense, life-extending leaps. Rather than taking care of the soon-to-be-dead, doctors and scientists would increasingly find cures for that which used to kill us with ease; thus explaining the title of Dorr’s novel. People would live, and better yet, avoid death thanks to medical advances born of profits that were increasingly being matched with the creative in thought such that people were surviving formerly ruthless diseases that so cruelly stalked us not too long ago.

All of this rates mention given Ward’s disdainful treatment of billionaires. His dislike is plain early on. He’s clear that the immortalist movement is particularly popular among billionaires “presumably bored of ways to flaunt their wealth, and relentlessly pursuing the goal of everlasting life.” Wait, what? Has he no understanding of how brutal and short life would be absent the superrich? Has he ever heard of the Silicon Valley-based corporation, Grail? Funded by billionaires with names like Gates and Bezos, it will enable early detection of cancer well before it begins to spread, thus potentially extending life for quite some time.

Assuming the billionaires of today even partially achieve their “goal of everlasting life,” history is clear that we’ll all be beneficiaries of this progress; progress that Ward sneeringly shrinks to a way to “flaunt” wealth after having allegedly exhausted all other avenues. And of course the U.S. healthcare system naturally is swiped at too as one supposedly “built for the profiting few.” Oh please. As of the mid-20th century, the biggest line item on U.S. hospital budgets was linens. Nowadays these profit-focused hospitals are marvels of technological advance. The latter is obvious to anyone who visits them, but it’s also obvious from reading Ward himself. As he once again acknowledges in contradictory fashion, “Medicine has extended average life expectancy significantly in the past century, and scientists now turn their expertise to more extreme measures to stop people from dying.” All true. The problem for the author’s book is that rather than draw the clear connection between profits, abundant fortunes and remarkable advances in life expectancy, Ward plays politics. Billionaires are bad, Americans with their focus on profits are bad. No, such a view isn’t serious. Which means it’s difficult to take Ward’s book seriously.

Worse for readers legitimately interested in medical advances meant to extend life, Ward hasn’t written a book for you. Instead, he’s written one heavily focused on the wacko side of life extension. As opposed to a serious look at advancing medicines inevitably funded by the superrich, and that improve the length and quality of life for more and more of us, Ward spends many chapters and pages on the cryonics movement. For those who don’t know, cryonics is the “art of freezing the dead.” Will it prove beneficial over time? Perhaps yes. Who knows? It’s hard to get an answer from Ward in that his attention is directed more at the eccentrics in the movement, as opposed to the possibility that there’s something valid about the art.

According to Ward, the movement was long defined by “backstabbing, jealousy, and outright fraud.” Groups formed in concert with the movement’s rise included the Life Extension Society, and a magazine meant to chronicle the doings of those in and around the Society, “Freeze-Wait-Reanimate.”

Ward tells readers about cryonics original Robert Ettinger, who wrote a sci-fi novel The Penultimate Trump, which was inspired by the thinking of a French biologist Jean Rostand, who had “explored the possibility of using low temperatures to affect the properties of living things in the 1940s.” Yet even there, and arguably unsurprisingly, Ward used the novel’s title to remind readers of his politics. Ward writes that Ettinger’s novel “thankfully was not a prophetic warning of what the world would endure decades later.” Oh please. How very unoriginal, as is his oh-so-predictable assertion later in the book that “the lies of Fox News” helped put Trump in the White House. And if this critique of Ward’s politics has you the reviewer assuming it’s the stuff of a loud Trump partisan, just Google your reviewer’s name and Donald Trump. The titles of opinion pieces alone will quickly set you straight.

With Ettinger discredited (if that’s how it can be put), Ward tacks to Mike Darwin who, among other things, wrote “an open letter to the body of James Bedford…” The chapter about Darwin is titled “The Curious Case of the Missing Frozen Head.” It’s just a reminder that as opposed to writing about serious attempts to improve life as we know it, Ward’s aim is to largely mock the very notion.

Darwin ultimately founded Alcor, which seemingly to this day is the biggest name in cryonics. “By 1990, the organization had grown to three hundred members and was fast outgrowing its Riverside headquarters.” Supposedly “California’s vulnerability to earthquakes” was the impetus for the company moving its headquarters to Scottsdale, AZ in 1993. About Alcor, if the name rings a bell, particularly to sports fans, there’s a reason why. The offspring of baseball legend Ted Williams famously engaged in legal wrangling about Alcor’s freezing of Williams’s body after his death in 2002. Yes, it’s that kind of book.

Rather comically, Ward writes that a major problem for the industry is that “cryonics is unregulated,” and because it is, “there is no way of going to a government agency and checking whether the company freezing your body has a history of malpractice.” About stem-cell therapy, the good clinics are, according to Ward, “impossible to distinguish from those which are fraudulent and dangerous” due to a lack of regulation. Yes, that’s it. Without regulation businesses would actively aim to gyp their customers because, you know, businesses apparently aren’t reliant on reputation to grow. After which, who in government would have the knowledge to call balls and strikes in a nascent industry that, assuming it proves worthy in time, will be defined by relentless failure on the way to worthiness? Investors trying to shape the future routinely hit and miss with capital commitments, yet we’re supposed to believe those in the government’s employ can see what the world’s greatest venture capitalists routinely do not? Instead of making these kinds of points, Ward avoids seriousness, he mocks, he shoots fish in crowded barrels, plus he pretends that his reporting skills had rendered him fit to “unravel what was read and what was false” about the desire for immortality. See the commentary about venture capitalists once again to understand why Ward can’t be what he aims to be. But that presumes the author wants to go deep into the question of life extension. It’s hard to make that case after reading Ward’s book.

Instead of digging deep into serious attempts to extend life, he keeps tacking toward faith. His book is full of characters, as opposed to committed thinkers eager to bring a different, healthier world into the present. Readers are treated to Mormon immortalist Lincoln Cannon’s assertion that “eventually humanity would overcome death,” to Neal VanDeRee’s assertion to Ward that “I know I’m going to live for five hundred, one thousand, ten thousand years,” to Alexei Turcon of the Longevity Party in Moscow, along with RAADfest, “the immortalist version of Coachella.” Eventually the author acknowledges that “immortalists make a soft target for mockery, sneering, and condemnation,” yet it’s Ward himself who’s doing the mocking, sneering, and condemning. This critique isn’t made as a defense of immortalists as much as it’s a yearning to know better if there’s a serious side to what Ward portrays as nuts.

Of course, when he tacks toward serious, he so often does so in order to be political. Healthcare, in Ward’s eyes, is “America’s most broken, and profitable, institution.” Such an assertion contradicts. And having mocked Donald Trump, it will no doubt not surprise readers that Peter Thiel similarly wins the author’s obloquy. Ward writes that “if ever there was a powerful reason to abandon life extension research, it might be the thought of Peter Thiel living forever.” Except that Thiel’s risk-taking has vastly improved the world as we know it, whereas his critic in Ward has…Returning to stem-cell therapy, Ward notes that the treatments can cost up to and beyond $1 million. One would think the previous truth would bring on introspection in the author about the superrich as “venture buyers” of sorts, whose risks taken on what’s unproven provide crucial information? Naaah. Rich people are bad, don’t you know? They’re show-offs. But the challenge with being so political is that it causes Ward to be unwittingly contradictory of himself at seemingly all turns. And this includes his critiques of the rich. Alas, toward book’s end, Ward writes “Perhaps, ultimately, the race to live forever is best run by the billionaires and corporations.” You think?

Indeed, while the rich are known to invest in life extension concepts when not allegedly flaunting their wealth, Ward cites Silicon Valley gadfly and immortalist bigwig Aubrey De Grey as believing that the Valley’s “forgiving attitude toward failure is the secret to its success.” Absolutely. At the same time, failure is expensive. Very expensive. Thank goodness for billionaires, right? Ward never quite makes the connection, if at all. Again, he goes back and forth, but usually backwards. At one point he laments the possibility of long life since it would supposedly cause the rich to “hoard resources,” and in doing so, they would reduce “opportunities for younger generations.” Thick books could be written about the previous point, which is beyond divorced from reality. With brevity in mind, assuming the billionaires of the world are “hoarding” when they’re not “flaunting” (Ward seemingly can’t decide what he hates more), the simple, basic economic truth is that in hoarding the rich will by definition be creating major opportunity for future generations. Savings are what create corporations, they’re what enable remarkable technological leaps (including life extension style leaps), but as always Ward has his politics.

Which is too bad. Again, I chose to read and review this book based on a very real desire to understand better the possibilities of longer life. Also, there was a desire just to learn in general, and to be fair to Ward, occasionally he delivers. He writes of a French woman named Jeanne Calment who lived until she was 122, or did she? It turns out there’s some speculation that the Calment who died at 122 was in fact her daughter; her daughter maintaining the fiction in order to escape estate taxes. He tells us about turritopsis dohrnii, a small sea creature that apparently is immortal. It turns out Sponges live for thousands of years. Who knew? I was and am interested. I was a supporter or “Right to Try” a few years ago, and Ward points out that the FDA rarely blocks requests to try as is. Interesting. Though people should still be free to try whatever they want, and very crucially without seeking permission from the FDA, Ward forced me to see the other side. Good. The problem was that Ward again seemed consumed by the wacko side of the immortalist movement, and then as always politics come into play.

Eager to let his readers know how very seriously he took the rapidly spreading coronavirus in 2020, and how much he still takes it seriously, Ward makes sure to let readers know early on that he started researching and writing the book just “months before the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the world as we knew it.” According to Ward, the latter “forced the rest of us to confront death in a way each generation believes it never will.” Readers no doubt know where this is going. Having established himself as allegedly serious about the virus, Ward heaps scorn on virus “statistics [that] came with the caveat that a significant percentage of deaths were made up of either the elderly or people with pre-existing conditions.” According to Ward, the previous qualification reassured the lockdown skeptics that “death was something that happened to other people.” The analysis is utter nonsense.

The statistics were valuable as a way of understanding who was at risk. You see, every action in life is a tradeoff. While Ward self-righteously tells the reader about the thankfully very few who died with the virus, others less emotive in thought recognized that it would be tragic to put so much of the world’s population out of work and in desperate poverty in response to a virus that by Ward’s own admission was largely lethal to a very small percentage of the elderly population. While Ward’s wraps himself in deep concern for the very old, others like your reviewer pointed out that as the developed world took a break from reality, the U.N.’s World Food Program reported that 135 million around the world were rushing toward starvation as a consequence of the lockdowns that halted so much economic activity that so much of the world is reliant on in order to live. Notable about the previous number is that the New York Times (surely no friend of the lockdown skeptics) upped the number facing starvation to 285 million. Yet Ward is the saint? Is he serious?

Back to the contradictory nature of his questionable analysis, we can return to the “immortalists” on whom Ward heaps such ridicule. Without defending some of their fringe members for even a second, Ward notes that “Many of them went underground” in response to the spreading virus, which was “a necessary measure to increase their chances of living forever.” Ward adds that “Meetups [of immortalists] were canceled, in-person conferences moved online,” which was and is the point. It’s the one lockdown skeptics have made from day one: People do not need to be forced to avoid sickness or death. They’re wired to strive mightily to avoid what might hurt them. In Ward’s words, “survival” is “one of humanity’s strongest instincts.” Precisely. Force from the political class was superfluous.

All of which speaks to just how much the always political Ward wrote a book that has sadly not enough to do with its title. Readers expecting actual reporting on real attempts to improve medicine should look elsewhere. Though the title of Ward’s book gives the impression of major efforts to achieve impressive medical leaps, politics always gets in the way. Ward has views about the coronavirus, about billionaires, about wealth in general, and about the kind of people on the fringe of the immortalist movement. That’s what his book is largely about.

Which means The Price of Immortality is in so many ways a deceptive title. Peter Ward’s readers deserve better, his subject deserves much better, plus the publisher should respect his readers more.

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