Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Monday, July 26, 2010

Are "Hostile Wives" Too Cool Toward Science?

I recently reviewed Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future. I note the shallowness of those science-policy arguments that pretend that the issues — like embryo-destructive stem cell research, or proposals to mitigate climate change — are purely scientific and that disagreement over them results chiefly from differing literacy in and enthusiasm for science.

Transhumanism, of course, has inherited much from the ideologies that spawned this scientism, and so falls prey to it as well. Consider a recent example from that reliably credulous disseminator of scientistic tropes, Michael Anissimov.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine published a feature article on the men who want their heads chopped off and frozen when they die, the women who love them, and the marital strife that results when they both keep at it. Attacks of spousal common sense are, of course, a barrier to icy immortality, and so cryonicists safely package them up and stick them on a shelf with the label “hostile-wife phenomenon.” The article explores the bizarre and often sad features of romantic relationships of cryonicists, and focuses on one couple in particular, prominent transhumanist Robin Hanson and his wife Peggy Jackson, who happens to be a hospice worker.

Anissimov, writing about the Times article, bundles up “hostile-wife phenomenon” even more neatly: “My explanation for the phenomenon is pretty simple: gender differences in enthusiasm towards science.” Okay, but “enthusiasm for science” — if we do truly just mean science — means enthusiasm for empirical facts and the discovery and understanding of them. But the article makes it sound as if Ms. Jackson is as curious and intelligent as her husband, and as well-informed of the empirical facts of cryonics. How can her differing enthusiasm for cryonics then be a matter of differing enthusiasm for science? Might there be something else at stake?

As the article notes, her hostility to the idea is “rooted less in scientific skepticism than in her personal judgments about the quest for immortality.” It continues, “Peggy finds the quest an act of cosmic selfishness.” “[T]o be rocketed into the future — a future your family either has no interest in seeing, or believes we’ll never see anyway — is to begin to plot a life in which your current relationships have little meaning.” Indeed, lending some support to her judgment, the article notes that Robert Ettinger, the father of cryonics, advised his followers in the late 1960s, “Divorce your wife if she will not cooperate.”

Ms. Jackson’s level of enthusiasm for science itself can’t explain her differing judgment from her husband on the good and bad of cryonics.

(In fact, notably and rather hilariously, the first commenter on Anissimov’s post was Robin Hanson himself, and, though he falls for the same trope, he does so by way of succinctly countering Anissimov’s argument: “Women are actually more enthusiastic about most medicine than men. Women go to the doc more often, and push men to go more often than men push women. So this isn’t about women not being as pro science.”)


  1. I commented about this on Hanson's blog, so I will make the same comments here.

    I think the real reason for the hostile wife phenomenon is the fear of loss of control on the part of the woman. Women like to have control over the big decisions in life. For example, whether or not to have kids, etc.

    I read a blog discussion along with several media articles on the effects of a male birth control pill.


    The key paragraph is:

    "The same goes for a vasectomy. Most single women would run a mile from a man who’s had one, even if they don’t particularly long for children, because we don’t really like our men making unilateral decisions, whether that’s about curtains or babies."

    The NY Times cryonics article about a few weeks later and I noticed the commonality of a man getting a vasectomy (without the wife or girlfriend’s consent) and signing up for cryonics. Its the same deal. A man is making decisions involving future-time orientation unilaterally. This creates the sensation of loss of control that is emotional disorientating to many women. I think a man expressing future-time orientation in anything except for bringing home the bacon is very, very frightening to a great many women.

    I think this is the real deal underlying the “hostile wife phenomenon” in cryonics.

  2. If the author would have consulted the original article that introduced the "hostile wife phenomenon" in cryonics, he would have observed that it included an extensive review of biological, psychological, and sociological explanations for hostile interference with someone's cryonics arrangements:


  3. I have been eagerly awaiting Futurisms’ post on this noteworthy article. As the two comments above make manifest, there is an amazing refusal on the part of transhumanists and cryonics-boosters to actually engage Ms. Jackson’s argument that there is something wrong with the effort to live again, and so escape death, and in particular that this is profoundly in tension with the very idea of marriage and family. Instead of addressing her claims, she is immediately lumped together with ‘the wives,’ and then diagnosed with some form of dementia (the return of ‘hysteria’?). “Something must explain this irrational, obstructive behavior.” Kurt9 invokes a “fear of loss of control.” Ashwin’s source offers a range of possibilities from pecuniary interests, to sexual differences in risk taking. And then there’s Anissimov’s idiotic postulate about enthusiasm for science. Somewhere a feminist social historian is writing a book on the gendered nature of the transhumanist movement and the talk of ‘hostile-wife syndrome’ will be a key exhibit. Which is to say, seconding what I take to be Mr. Schulman’s point, that the proper, intellectually serious approach, is to begin by taking up her claims, ignoring the sexual difference. Indeed, to turn the tables, while I don’t believe most transhumanists are misogynists in any ordinary sense of the term, the immediacy with which Ms. Jackson’s arguments are traced to a sub-rational root could be taken to indicate an anxiety or nervousness of some kind.

    This said, the fact that the Jackson-Hanson disagreement is so common in the ‘cryonics community’ is itself an interesting phenomenon. I suspect that it might point to something important about the family and the sexual difference. Of this, however, the cryonics-boosters are oblivious -- just as Mr. Hanson is oblivious of the tension between his being a husband and a father and his desire to live again with or without his wife and children -- because they are so unreflective about their individualism. But on this subject my daimon prevents me from saying any more.

  4. I know all three persons who wrote the document linked to in the second comment. All three of these individuals are highly intelligent, articulate individuals who have many years experience in cryonics. I would think that their experience and knowledge would make them FAR more knowledgeable about the "hostile wife phenomenon" than anyone else.

  5. My daimon urges caution, but my wife urges me to reply. I have no doubt that there are people who have more experience with "the hostile wife phenomenon"! Mine is quite a delight. Moreover, I think I owe it to her to listen to her arguments when she tells me something I'm doing is "a cosmic act of selfishness" and undermines my claim to being serious about my family. I would hope that your three authorities feel the same way, but the document in question looks and sounds awfully like an attempt to explain away an argument by tracing it to subrational roots. In their list of reasons for a wife objecting the possibility is never mentioned that she is right to object, that this particular 'personal wish' is no mere personal wish for a husband and father.

  6. Nicely put, tlcraig. I'd be interested to see a similar document examining the other side: the subrational roots of the desire of husbands to be cryogenically frozen. (I suppose that the mirror reasons of those offered to explain away "the hostile wife phenomenon" would be excessive enthusiasm for science, the sensation of a desire for complete control, excessive interest in risk-taking due to high testosterone levels, etc.)

    Although something tells me that such a document still wouldn't be enough to do away with cryonicists' sense that they have actual reasons for wanting to do what they want to do.

  7. I think you guys are confused about this issue. The "hostile wife phenomenon" is not about money. The first thing that is told to people wanting to sigh up for cryonic suspension is to provide for the financial needs of their families first. The reason for this policy is both moral and strategic. Moral because it is a duty for a man to provide for his family first. Strategic because it reduces, up front, the incentives of the family to attempt to obstruct the suspension arrangements.

    The experience has been that money is rarely, if ever, at the root of the hostile wife phenomenon. If the family is well-provide for financially and one goes into cryonics suspension, no one is loosing anything. The family gets what they would get if the guy did not get suspended and the guy gets suspended. The family is not experiencing any loss. Thus, characterization of cryonics as being "selfish" is completely off base.

    Since its not about the money and no one is loosing anything, there is no rational objection to cryonics in this context. Thus, the "hostile wife phenomenon" must be considered sub-rational. I think Robin Hanson's characterization of it as a form of male "Sati" is quite accurate.

  8. You are correct that the decision to make cryonics arrangements has consequences for a family. But the decision *not* to make cryonics arrangements has consequences as well. One can also argue that giving up on life so easily is an example of abandonment and "a cosmic act of selfishness."

    I think that we live in a culture of increasing instant gratification. Whenever medicine runs into a problem that cannot be solved with contemporary medical technologies we stick that person in the ground or burn him. This may provide closure, but I do not think it is prudent.

    Robin Hanson’s wife, wonders “what’s so good about me that I’m going to live forever?”
    This sounds a lot like a form of secular original sin to me. As a general rule, we do not require people to "justify" their existence as a condition for seeking medical treatment.

    I wrote about this argument and some nastier responses to the NYT Magazine article here:


    One reason why cryonics produces these kind of responses is because cryonics is too often linked to immortalism and stuff like mind uploading. It cannot be denied that some of the most vocal people who have made cryonics arrangements are interested in immortality and transhumanism but this is not the way that cryonics is conceived at the major cryonics organizations.

    As a matter of fact, some people (including myself) have made great efforts to distance cryonics from the wishful thinking and scientific meliorism that characterizes transhumanism:


  9. Robin Hanson comes across as a difficult sort of personality for most people to relate to. He reminds us of the geeky boys who get beaten up by the athletic boys in middle school.

    If Howley's article had instead profiled a successful cryonicist business man with typical male interests like guns, hunting and sports, but he had a wife who didn't approve of his cryonics arrangements, I suspect people have responded differently to his point of view.

  10. Rather than looking for explanations in terms of deep psychology or personal defects on one side or another, this conflict, like most human conflicts, is probably better understood as rooted in differing points of view.

    Suppose, first, that cryonics really does offer a way to escape Death's icy hand and live again, perhaps indefinitely. In that case, who could be blamed for wanting it, regardless of what anyone else, no matter how close, might think about the matter? Do we ask wives whose husbands have died to commit suicide? Not in our culture. If a man is a Christian, and his partner an atheist, should he stop going (and giving) to church? Who thinks so?

    From this point of view, then, the point of view of cryonics believers, coolness toward the criticisms of unbelievers and rejection of their admonishment that one should not wish to survive other family members is entirely reasonable.

    But from the point of view of an unbelieving wife, cryonics may appear to be a weird cult, its promise of immortality a ridiculous delusion, a waste of money (exactly how much is enough?), an embarrassment to the family, and an indication that the husband is more concerned with taking care of himself.

    Both points of view are entirely understandable. Although I personally think cryonics is silly, my advice to "hostile wives" would be to either find a more compatible partner, or just chill out.

  11. Mark,

    As someone who subscribes to the potential of "Drexlerian" nanotechnology, why do you think cryonics cannot work?

    I don't believe in the possibility of "Drexlerian" nanotechnology and, in fact, neither do most of the people in the cryonics organizations themselves. Yet I think cryonics has a reasonable chance of working providing one receives a decent neuro-preservation. The potential of regenerative medicine, which does not rely on "Drexlerian" nanotechnology clearly points to the possibility of regeneration of complete bodies.

  12. There's a pretty simple explanation as to where motivated skepticism for cryonics originates. If you currently are skeptical of cryonics, you should carefully consider whether this applies.

    Historically, there has been a powerfully optimized meme regarding the topic known as death. If you lost vital signs, you were irrevocably lost. There was nothing that could be done. The belief evolved that there is a mysterious point termed "death" which is in principle irreversible.

    From this we developed a custom of honoring or dishonoring people who no longer exist by the mechanism of treating their corpse in certain ways. When criminals were were beheaded with their heads rolling around on the ground and subsequently being stuck on a pike, it was a highly visible sign of disrespect and disgust for the kind of life lived by the deceased. Similarly, steps taken to reduce grotesque appearance of the corpse by embalming or cremation have evolved as a token of respect. Neanderthals had this same tendency -- we've recovered neandethal skeletons buried in full armor.

    This notion of "rewarding" or "punishing" people after their death serves purely as a signal to the living as to what kind of life should be considered worth living. Likewise, a person's final moments take on a special significance, despite being just a tiny fraction of their total lifespan. What were they doing when they went? Were they anxious, or accepting? There is a certain poignancy of accepting death rather than fighting, which I imagine a hospice worker like Peggy Jackson would easily relate to. Collectively these special attitudes towards the experience in one's final moments and state of one's remains after death are the Historical Death Meme.

    Now, bring cryonics into the picture. The cessation of vital signs is no longer a sign of irreversibility-in-principle. The best mechanism for survival at this point is stabilization followed by cryopreservation. Stabilization is not a cosmetically appealing procedure. If stabilization happens late, this causes disfiguring edema. The scientific fact that it is the best hope the patient has for preserving their brain structure is overshadowed by the cosmetic details -- purely because of the HDM.

    But this isn't the only big issue. The bigger issue, which I think is where the bulk of the hostility originates, is that the HDM itself begins to look ethically questionable once you begin to consider that cryonics is admissible. In preparing someone's corpse, in ignoring their ischemic state as soon as vital functions appear irrecoverable to today's technology, you are doing the patient a disservice. It's not just a disservice, but potentially fatal disservice. In fact, by denying them their one shot at life you are showing them a sort of disrespect.

    In other words, the perfect conditions for cognitive dissonance have been established. The HDM is highly valued, and an integrated part of the identity of practically our whole society. Doctors must be comfortable giving up on patients, and morticians must be comfortable doing cosmetic rather than life-saving surgery. Heirs must be comfortable taking money that could have been used to cryopreserve their parents and grandparents. To admit that cryonics has a valid chance of working, is affordable, is ethically motivated, and is seriously scientifically motivated and well-researched, would be to strip them of that comfort.

    The feelings of unease must be transferred to cryonics as a means of keeping the HDM from appearing unethical, silly, prescientific, and superstitious. Since cryonics is relatively unfamiliar (in terms of the supporting science and actual practice) and has a variety of associations with science-fiction's hand-waving plot devices and religion's resurrection fantasies, a motivated skeptic need not work very hard to make themselves feel this way.

  13. Kurt,

    I have always thought Drexler's scenario for reanimation in Engines of Creation was the weakest and least-plausible, if otherwise perhaps the most emotionally impressive, part of that book. I once asked him if he'd really worked out any numbers to justify its feasibility; his response was pretty incoherent. I've never seen any serious treatment of this question; perhaps Freitas has something somewhere. I'm not saying I know that reanimation is impossible, but I certainly don't think it would be as straightforward as suggested by Drexler's sketch.

    My impression is that most cryonauts these days are transhumanists who don't care if reanimation is possible or not. Their hope is that their frozen brains will one day be cut up into little bits by scanner/disassemblers, and the pattern of neuronal connections used to implement simulations of themselves. That, I think is more likely possible, but it's no way to escape the Reaper.

    That gets us back to all the issues discussed at such length in the thread following my Uploading post. I'm not going to follow through on another such discussion right now. But these are the questions I would ask: If you are dying now, what difference does it make to you whether or not, a century or two from now, someone cuts up your frozen brain into little bits and recovers the data on neural connections? Suppose they do so. What difference does it make to you, as you face Death now, whether they go ahead and run the simulation, a hundred years in a future we can't even imagine, or not? Whether they run one copy, or two, or many? Whether they run some and stop them? Whether they run a clean copy, or a modified or corrupted one? Whether the data recovered is really an accurate and complete account of what is going on in your brain that makes you what you are like? Etc.

    To which most transhumanists would probably reply by asking me why I care if Drexlerian reanimation is possible, because what difference can it make if the restoration uses the same atoms, or even the same type of information processors (living human cells), provided they instantiate the same input-output functional relationships? Well, exactly.

    What difference, indeed, even if the functions are not the same (and really, they could not possibly be exactly the same, in any scenario)?

    This is the absurdity of the whole obsession. This is the silliness of cryonics, of uploading, of transhumanism itself.

    Besides, how do you know if such a technology will ever be realized, whether anyone will care enough to implement it for you, whether someone might forget to refill your LN2 Dewar, perhaps as the US economy collapses when China pulls the plug, or after some glitch sends the nukes a-flyin'? And again, what difference can it possibly make to you, if you are in the end stages of a terminal illness, and have only days until your last breath?

    Well, I guess it might be comforting to believe in (at least the possibility of) such a day of Rapture, rising, reincarnation, as in so many religious fables. To by laid to rest, appropriately mummified, under a pyramid.

    What gets me is that most of these people are actually smarter than that. They ought to be able to think their way through this, and stare down their fear of mortality, given the utter absurdity of any alternative other than just trying to live well for as long as you can, and leave the (human) children to inherit tomorrow.

  14. Besides, how do you know if such a technology will ever be realized, whether anyone will care enough to implement it for you, whether someone might forget to refill your LN2 Dewar, perhaps as the US economy collapses when China pulls the plug

    You clearly do not understand the nature of self-interested groups to create their own future outcomes.


    The increasing technological capabilities of small groups of individuals should be especially comprehensible to someone like yourself who obviously subscribes to the concepts of nanotechnology.

    They ought to be able to think their way through this, and stare down their fear of mortality, given the utter absurdity of any alternative other than just trying to live well for as long as you can, and leave the (human) children to inherit tomorrow.

    This is just "deathist" claptrap. I cannot believe that intelligent people still spout this kind of intellectual pollution.

  15. Kurt,

    You clearly don't want to think about the deeper questions that I posed - the first set. The absurdity of caring about what some people might do with some part of your remains long after your still-inevitable death. The absurdity of thinking that if they do certain magical things, such as running a computer with a program that simulates you, that "you" will resurrected and your death will have been only a long nap. Think about it some more. How can it possibly make a difference to you now, whatever they do then? How can it save you from that cancer or whatever is killing you? To believe it does is clearly nonsense.

    To leave the world to the children, whether yours genetically or those of your people, may sound like "deathist claptrap" to you, but it is real, and it is the best comfort reality can offer.

    As for the self-interested groups, etc., no way Alcor is going to function past an economic/social collapse, nuclear war, or any number of other scenarios that you have no way of knowing whether they will occur or not. I'm not saying collapse is likely, but I'm mean enough to suggest the image of future tomb raiders scavenging Alcor for scrap stainless and having fun kicking your thawed but mummified head up and down the hallways.

    If we're lucky, maybe the world muddles through, deGrey turns out to be right, and with nanomedicine and all, we won't have to face The End for a very long time. Otherwise, we're stuck with the human condition as it's always been.

    Then again, I guess a century from now your upload, after its reinstantiation, can reread these comments of mine and have a good laugh at poor old Mark Gubrud, who won't be attending the party at the far end of the galaxy...

  16. There's nothing absurd or childish about caring about your future self and whether it exists or not beyond a given point.

    Defining your future self as a given set of atoms or as uninterrupted consciousness is absurd, and for obvious reasons.

  17. I don't know why but my first thought was that this would make for a very complicated court case. Whether it is from a criminal point of view - say the husband/wife forcefully makes the decapitation happen, it would become a nightmare from legal or forensic science stances. Human rights issues would also go haywire, I think.


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