If a new technology is developed in the next few years that radically extends the life expectancy of human beings, odds are good that it will come out of a company backed by Peter Thiel. In the new issue of Inc., I talked to the billionaire venture capitalist about why he's been putting so much of his time and money into biotech startups, particularly those focused on health and human biology.
While he believes companies like Emerald Therapeutics and Immusoft will be huge businesses, it's also very much a personal quest for Thiel: He doesn't want to die. Few of us do, but most are at least resigned to the reality. Thiel thinks that's odd and a little pathological.
"The way we deal with mortality is through some strange combination of acceptance and mortality," Thiel told me during a long interview at Founders Fund's offices in San Francisco. That is, we all accept, in theory, that no one lives forever, while avoiding thinking about the prospect of our own deaths.
"When you combine extreme pessimism and extreme optimism, they sort of converge," he says. "Extreme pessimism tells you there's nothing you can do. Extreme optimism tells you there's no need to do anything."
In the "grief cycle" model theorized by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, denial is the first of five stages individuals experience when reckoning with death, and acceptance is the last. Thiel believes what we all need is a lot more of stage two, anger. "I'd like the fighting stage to be really long," he says.
In addition to the personal, emotional reasons for accepting death, there are also some logical arguments for it. Death serves many purposes, including population control and resource redistribution. Were it to recede sharply, overpopulation and inequality could become acutely worse.
Thiel doesn't sweep these objections aside so much as suggest they'd be good problems to have. "In most cases, I come down on the side of it's better than being dead, even if there are some problems with it," he says.
Those concerned about the societal impact of extreme longevity don't really understand how the science is likely to advance, he says. "It gets framed too much as, 'If we have this one pill, and if you take it, you live forever.'" But death isn't an on-off switch, Thiel believes. If we "cure" it, it will happen one increment at a time: a cure for Alzheimer's disease here, a remedy for sarcopenia there, each one supplying a small piece of the overall anti-aging puzzle. "In practice, it will always be framed in terms of these very specific interventions, and it seems to me in every instance the moral answer has to be, yes, we should do this," he says.
One last line of objection is what you might call the metaphysical: What element of meaning might life lose if it's no longer finite? Or, more concretely, might the urgency that drives people to achieve great things diminish when faced with an unlimited time horizon in which to achieve them? Steve Jobs famously suggested as much in a commencement address in which he called death "the single best invention of life."
"I believe the exact opposite of that," Thiel says. "Maybe it's when people think they have no time left that they don't undertake things." He recalls a conversation some years ago with a granduncle who was 85 years old. "He was like, 'I could've gotten four PhDs in my retirement. I didn't think I would live this long.'"