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10 June 2016

Lessons from Underground Airlines

In the grand sweep of history, how much difference can one person make?

For example, consider the influence of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States. What alternative history might have arisen if that great statesman had been felled by an assassin’s bullet, not (as in actual history) in 1865, after the conclusion of the American Civil War, but much earlier in his presidency?

That alternative scenario provides the backdrop to the speculative novel “Underground Airlines” by Ben H. Winter. It’s a novel that speculates, masterfully, about the trajectory of an alternative history.

Underground Airlines

Imagine if early martyrdom of Lincoln, before any civil war could start, had precipitated a colossal long-standing compromise in the United States, with northern anti-slavery states warily coexisting with southern pro-slavery states, not just for a few more years, but for long decades – indeed, right up until the present day. Imagine if the “underground railroad” rescue mechanism of safe houses and secret routes to transport fugitive escaped slaves, that existed in actual history from the 17th to the 19th century, persisted in modified, modernised form right up until the twenty first century, now known as “underground airlines” (the words which form the title of Winter’s book). Imagine if the latest features of modern society – such as GPS tracking and ubiquitous mobile computers – coexisted with industrial scale slavery in the “Hard Four” recalcitrant states of the deep south. And, worst of all, imagine an extension, right up till today, of the massive double think (self-deception) in which good people persuade themselves that the whole system is acceptable. Imagine the double think with which these bystanders view fugitive slaves on the run, as fair game to be hunted by trackers from the south acting on behalf of massive slave-holding conglomerates.

Winter’s book features double think writ large. Characters that, to outward appearances, seek to help runaway slaves, are secretly assisting the trackers, and allow themselves to feel comfortable with that double think. They accept the brute facts of slavery, and make peace (of a sort) with their personal accommodation to that worldview.

Personalities from actual history intrude, under the skilful choreography of the writer, into the alternative Underground Airlines history. Shunned by much of the rest of the industrialised world, the alternative America occupies a relative backwater on the global stage. The FDR and LBJ mentioned in quiet moments in the narrative wielded an impact far more local, in Underground Airlines history, than in actual history. A reference to a recent “gulf war” turns out to have nothing to do with the Middle East.

More than clever plotting

Winter’s book deserves praise for its clever plotting. Revelations of character motivations come as surprises, but not as jolts: the reader is gradually made aware of a bigger picture with its own, horrible logic. It adds up to gripping reading.

But more than that: Underground Airlines deserves praise for its astuteness in recognising that there was nothing inevitable about the abolition of slavery. The circumstances that we nowadays find overwhelmingly objectionable – the “Inhuman Bondage” described at length by real-world historian David Brion Davis in his epic account of the rise and fall of new world slavery – could be seen by otherwise admirable men and women as necessary, inevitable parts of a way of life that has many redeeming positive aspects. These apologists were wrapped in a set of perceptions – their “accepting slavery” paradigm – which prevented them from acknowledging the full awfulness of bound servitude. Despite their intelligence, their thinking was constrained. Despite the kindness that lay in their hearts, there were marked limits to their compassion.

Inhuman Bondage

I came across the work of David Brion Davis in the course of researching my own recently published book, The Abolition of Aging. Here’s an extract from near the end of my book:

The analysis by Davis makes it clear that:

  • The abolition of slavery was by no means inevitable or predetermined
  • There were strong arguments against the abolition of slavery – arguments raised by clever, devout people in both the United States and the United Kingdom – arguments concerning economic well-being, among many other factors
  • The arguments of the abolitionists were rooted in a conception of a better way of being a human – a way that avoided the harsh bondage and subjugation of the slave trade, and which would in due course enable many millions of people to fulfil a much greater potential
  • The cause of the abolition of slavery was significantly advanced by public activism – including pamphlets, lectures, petitions, and municipal meetings.

With its roots in the eighteenth century, and growing in momentum as the nineteenth century proceeded, the abolition of slavery eventually became an idea whose time had come – thanks to brave, smart, persistent activism by men and women with profound conviction.

With a different set of roots in the late twentieth century, and growing in momentum as the twenty-first century proceeds, the abolition of aging can, likewise, become an idea whose time has come. It’s an idea about an overwhelmingly better future for humanity – a future that will allow billions of people to fulfil a much greater potential. But as well as excellent engineering – the creation of reliable, accessible rejuvenation therapies – this project will also require brave, smart, persistent activism, to change the public landscape from one hostile (or apathetic) to rejuveneering into one that deeply supports it.

My claim in The Abolition of Aging is that most of us accept a terrible double think. We avidly support research against diseases such as cancer, dementia, and heart failure. We are aware of the destructive nature of all these diseases. But we shy away from research into the main underlying escalator of these diseases – the factor that makes these diseases more likely and (when they occur) more serious. This factor is biological aging – namely, the gradual deterioration of our molecular, cellular, and organic systems. We’re too ready to accept biological aging as a given.

We say it would be good if people could avoid being afflicted by cancer, dementia, or heart failure. We advocate people taking steps to decrease the chances of these diseases – for example, not to spend too much time under the direct sun, unprotected. But we tell ourselves that it’s somehow natural (and therefore somehow admirable) that biological aging accelerates in our bodies. So we acquiesce. We accept a deadly compromise.

The Abolition of Aging seeks to overturn that double think. It argues that rejuvenation is a noble, highly desirable, eminently practical destiny for our species – a “Humanity+” destiny that could, with sufficient focus and organisation, be achieved within just one human generation from now. Rejuvenation – the periodic reversal of the accumulation of significant damage at our molecular, cellular, and organic levels – can lead to a rapid decline in deaths from diseases of old age, such as cancer, dementia, heart failure, and lots more. Despite the implications of this change for our economic and social systems, this is an overwhelming good, which we should welcome wholeheartedly.

I’m happy to report that The Abolition of Aging has already featured as the #1 bestseller (in the UK) of the Gerontology section of Amazon.

Gerontology bestsellers UK

Next steps

Let’s return to the question from the start of this blogpost: In the grand sweep of history, how much difference can one person make?

We can’t all be Abraham Lincoln. But as I review in the final sections of my book, there’s a lot that each one of us can do, to tilt upwards the probability that successful rejuvenation therapies will be widely available by 2040. This includes steps to:

  1. Strengthen communities that are working on at least parts of the rejuveneering project
  2. Improve our personal understanding of aspects of rejuveneering – the science, roadmaps, history, philosophy, theories, personalities, platforms, open questions, and so on – and help to document aspects of that better understanding, by creating or editing knowledgebases or wikis
  3. Become involved with marketing of one sort or another
  4. Undertake original research into any of the unknowns of rejuveneering; this could be part of formal educational courses, or it could be a commercial R&D undertaking; it could also be part of a decentralised activity, in the style of “citizen science”
  5. Provide funding to projects that we judge to be particularly worthwhile.

Our contributions are likely to be more significant when they connect into positive efforts that others are already making. For example, I’m impressed by the activities of the Major Mouse Testing Program (MMTP), which you can read about here. I’ve just made a contribution to their crowdfunding campaign, and I encourage you to consider doing the same.

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