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Nematodes, Climate Change, and Extinction Level Events

microscopic image of nematode

Human-driven global warming is having devastating impacts around the world. The Earth is warmer now than it has been since records began. Indeed, according to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the planet is hotter now than it has been in 125,000 years. This has led to record temperatures across the globe, with doctors in some places, like Arizona, having to treat people for third-degree burns after simply touching the pavement. Combine this with the deadly Mediterranean wildfires, the rapid rise in sea temperatures, and the shifting ocean currents, and we are on course for a bleak future.

However, while scientists have been predicting many of these impacts for decades, some more unusual happenings have come a little out of left field: case in point, the survival of ancient nematodes, a type of roundworm.

Now, I know that worms do not seem exciting compared to entire islands being ablaze or the seas getting so warm that there is a mass die-off of ocean life. Yet, these worms are fascinating as they are old, very old.

In an article in PloS Genetics, scientists recount how they discovered the frozen worms while excavating a fossilized squirrel burrow in northeastern Serbia. After bringing them back to their lab, the scientists thawed the worms, which are less than a millimeter long, and immersed them in a nutrition-rich environment. A couple of weeks later, the worms began wriggling and eating. Sadly, they died after only a few months, but not before reproducing, and now scientists and researchers are studying their descendants.

What makes this interesting is how long the worms had been in suspended animation. Similar species to the one excavated tend to live a total of 20-60 days. Yet, the worms recovered from Siberia were over 46,000 years old. This means that before they had gone into suspended animation, they were sharing the planet with Neanderthals, mammoths, and saber-toothed tigers. In itself, this is incredible. Those worms excavated from the permafrost could have been the oldest living multicellular organism to have existed. At the very least, they are contenders for the crown of the oldest reanimated multicellular creature.

While these worms will not help humanity’s quest for functional cryopreservation, their discovery does have immediate implications for the study of biological evolution; as Professor Teymuras Kurzchalia notes, “Our findings are important for the understanding of evolutionary processes because generations times could be stretched from days to millenia, and long-term survival of individuals of species can lead to the refoundation of otherwise extinct lineages.” In other words, the scale at which some species play out their lives has been extended dramatically.

The reason these worms were accessible to those scientists is because the Siberian permafrost is melting, and it is melting because the planet is heating up. As the frost recedes, scientists and explorers will gain access to more natural time capsules like stumps, crevices, and maybe even small caves. This means that more and more discoveries of this nature might be possible, and even more worms and other invertebrates species could be revived. In turn, this could provide even more insight into the natural mechanisms that underpin life on this planet. After all, if it has happened once, that is some reason to believe it could happen again.

This possibility, however, is not all sunshine and rainbows. While learning about how life came to be is an inherent good, not every organism that emerges from the newly revealed earth might be as harmless as a worm. Some could be actively dangerous. That is not to say that dinosaurs could be exhumed from the ice, brought back to life, and immediately go on a rampage (despite what films like Dinosaurus! tell us). Instead, it is far more likely that global warming could release ancient viruses and other pathogens from their icy slumber. If this happened, it could have devastating consequences.

The prospect is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Jean-Michel Claverie, emeritus professor of medicine and genomics at the Aix-Marseille University School of Medicine in France, has been testing samples taken from the Siberian permafrost to see what viruses are contained within and whether any could still be infectious. He’s managed to revive viruses from samples over 48,500 years old. Fortunately, these viruses are harmless to humans, targeting only amoebas. This, however, is a result of his deliberate choosing, as he wishes to avoid reviving anything which might infect humans. Indeed, pathogens we are susceptible to could be buried just below the surface, simply waiting for global temperature to rise enough to release them.

This is not simply scaremongering either. In 1997, a body discovered in Alaska contained the genomic material from the virus responsible for the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic (which killed roughly 500 million people). In 2012, The New England Journal of Medicine reported that mummified remains could be reservoirs of DNA fragments from ancient pathogens, including smallpox (which has killed more than 300 million people since 1900 alone). Finally, scientists traced an anthrax outbreak in Siberia directly back to the burial grounds of long-dead animals that had, until recently, been covered in permafrost (Anthrax being 100% fatal without treatment and only 55% survival with it).

In addition to the horrors we know about, the permafrost could harbor viruses and pathogens about which we have no idea, and more importantly, which our immune systems have no way of combating. As temperatures rise and increasing amounts of previously isolated ground are revealed, the danger grows that a disease that has not seen the light of day for hundreds of thousands of years, and to which we have no natural defense, could be released.

What does this mean for us? Well, in one sense, it should motivate us to up our efforts to reduce our carbon emissions, slowing and eventually reducing the global warming for which we are all responsible. On the other hand, however, we have already got a plethora of reasons to stop climate change, from ecological collapse to increasing the likelihood of war and famine. Is another potential danger going to tip us over the edge into more drastic action? Probably not.

Unfortunately, it seems that we may have to live with the ever-possible danger that the price for our modern way of life is the release of an ancient pathogen; one which could be as innocuous as the common cold, as deadly as smallpox, or potentially something far worse.

Cryonics: The Trap Objection

photograph of hand pressed on thawing glass

Cryonics is the technique of preserving the bodies (or brains) of recently deceased people with the hope that future scientific advances will enable these people to be revived and live on. The technology to revive cryons (i.e., cryonically preserved people) doesn’t exist, and there’s no guarantee that it will ever be developed. Nevertheless, there’s a chance that it will be. This chance motivates people to spend money to undergo cryonic preservation.

The basic argument for cryonics is that it might not work, but what do you have to lose? As my colleague Richard Gibson has noted, we can think of the cryonics choice as a wager.

If you choose not to be preserved, then you certainly won’t enjoy any more life after death (I’m assuming there’s no spiritual afterlife). But if you choose to be preserved, then although there’s a chance you won’t be revived, there’s also a chance that you will be revived, enabling you to enjoy more life after you die.

Therefore, choosing preservation is a better bet, assuming the costs aren’t too high. By analogy, if you have to choose between placing a bet that has no chance of winning, and placing a bet that has some unspecified but non-zero chance of winning, the latter is definitely the better bet (ignoring the costs of placing the bets).

I want to explore an objection to this argument. Call it the Trap Objection. The Trap Objection questions the presupposition that revival would be a good outcome. Basically, the Trap Objection points out that while revival might be a good outcome for a cryon, it’s also possible for a cryon to be revived into a situation that is both undesirable and inescapable. Thus, the wager is less straightforward than it appears.

To appreciate the Trap Objection, first note that life is not always worth living. Life is filled with lots of bad things, such as pain, grief, and disappointment, to which we would not be exposed if we were not alive.

Most of us believe that most of the time the good in our lives outweighs the bad, and thus life is on balance worth living despite the drawbacks. Such assessments are probably usually correct (although some question this). It sometimes happens, though, that the bad things in life outweigh the good.

For example, the life of someone with an agonizing incurable illness may contain lots of pain and virtually no compensatory goods. For this person, life is no longer better than nothing at all.

Second, note that sometimes suicide is on balance good and consequently justified when life is no longer worth living. For example, the incurably ill person may reasonably view suicide as preferable to living on since living on will bring him more bad than good but death will permanently close the account, so to speak. And because suicide is sometimes justified and preferable to living on, it is sometimes a great misfortune when someone loses the capacity to choose death. If the incurably ill person were unable to choose to escape the agony of his life, this would likely be a great misfortune for him.

Let a Trap Situation be any situation wherein (i) a person’s life has permanently ceased to be worth living yet (ii) the person has lost the capacity to choose to end their life. For example, individuals with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease are often in Trap Situations, unable to enjoy life but also unable to end it. Trap Situations are very bad, and people have very good reason to want to avoid them.

Now we are in a position to formulate the Trap Objection. The Trap Objection is that there is a chance that choosing cryonic preservation will lead to a Trap Situation, and until we have some understanding of how high this chance is and how bad the most likely Trap Situations would be, we are not in a position to determine whether cryonic preservation is a good or bad bet. But a death without cryonic preservation will certainly not lead to a Trap Situation. Thus, choosing against preservation is arguably the safer and better option.

By analogy, if you have to choose between placing a bet that has no chance of winning or losing any money, and placing a bet that has some unspecified chance of winning you some unspecified amount of money and some unspecified chance of losing you some unspecified amount of money, the former is arguably the safer and better bet (ignoring the costs of placing the bets).

Cryonics could conceivably produce many types of Trap Situations. Here are some examples.

Brain Damage: The cryonics process irreversibly damages a cryon’s brain. The cryon is revived and kept alive by advanced technology for centuries. But the cryon’s brain damage causes her to suffer from irreversible severe dementia, rendering the cryon unable to enjoy her life and also unable to end it.

Environmental Mismatch: A cryon is revived into a radically unfamiliar social, political, and technological environment. The cryon is unable to adjust to this new environment and reasonably wants to end her life. The cryon is unable to end her life, however, because suicide is culturally and legally prohibited, and the means exist to enforce this prohibition.

Valuable Specimen: The technology to revive cryons is developed in the distant future. Future humans are interested in learning about 21st century humans, but only a few have been successfully preserved. A cryon from the 21st century is revived and studied. The study techniques are barbaric and make the cryon miserable to such an extent that the cryon reasonably wants to kill herself. But because the cryon is a valuable specimen this is not permitted.

Mind Upload: A cryon’s brain is scanned, and the cryon’s consciousness is uploaded to a virtual world that is owned and operated by a technology company. The cryon finds life in the virtual world to be unbearably depressing and wants to opt out, but because the activities of the virtual world’s digital inhabitants generate economic value for the technology company, inhabitants are not permitted to terminate themselves. Mental processes in the virtual world are simulated at 1,000 times their normal speed, such that one day in the real world feels like one thousand days to the digital inhabitants. The virtual world is maintained for 50 real-world years, which the cryon experiences as 50,000 years of unbearable depression.

This sampling is meant to illustrate that revival needn’t be a good thing and might actually be a very bad thing – even an astronomically bad thing, as in Mind Upload – for a cryon. It does not represent an exhaustive mapping of the relevant possibility space.

I don’t know how likely it is, either in absolute or relative terms, that a cryon will be revived into a Trap Situation, although the likelihood is definitely non-zero. Moreover, it’s unclear how to go about determining this likelihood from our current perspective. Contemporary cryonic practitioners will claim that they would never revive a cryon into a Trap Situation. But it is very unlikely that the technology to revive cryons will be developed within the (natural) lifespan of any living cryonic practitioners. Moreover, the world could change a lot by the time the technology is developed. So, the significance of these claims is dubious.

It seems that even if we ignore pre-preservation costs, choosing cryonic preservation is not clearly a safe or good option.

If you are so terrified of nonexistence that you would prefer the chance at any sort of future life to certain annihilation, then cryonic preservation does seem reasonable. But this preference seems unreasonable. In some situations, the certainty of death should be preferred to the uncertainty of life.

The Pascal’s Wager of Cryopreservation

photograph of man trapped under ice

In 1967, James H. Bedford, a psychology professor at California University, died. However, unlike most, Bedford didn’t plan to be buried or cremated. Instead, the Life Extension Society took ownership of his body, cooled it, infused it with chemicals, and froze it with dry ice before transferring it into a liquid nitrogen environment and placing it in storage. Bedford’s still preserved remains reside in Scottsdale, Arizona, under the Alcor Life Extension Foundation’s watchful eye. Upon undergoing this process, Bedford became the world’s first cryon – an individual preserved at sub-zero temperatures after their death, hoping that future medical technology can restore them to life and health. In other words, Bedford’s the real-life version of Futurama’s Philip J. Fry (minus the I.C. Wiener prank).

While Bedford was the first cryon, he is by no means alone. Today, Alcor is home to roughly 190 cryonically-preserved individuals. All of them hoped, before their deaths, that preservation might afford a second chance at life by fending off biological decay until possible restoration. But, Alcor is not the only company offering such services. Oregon Cryonics, KrioRus, and the Shandong Yinfeng Life Science Research Institute provide similar amenities. While exact figures are elusive, a recent New York Times article estimates that there are currently 500 cryons globally hoping, after paying between $48,000 to $200,000, to undergo the procedure upon their demise. Indeed, as I have written elsewhere, cryopreservation is no longer housed solely within speculative fiction.

Cryopreservation’s growing popularity might lead one to think that the potential for revival is a sure thing. After all, why would so many people spend so much money on something that isn’t guaranteed? Nevertheless, resurrection is not inevitable. In fact, not a single cryon has ever been revived. Every person who has undergone preservation is still in storage. The reason for this lack of revival is comparatively simple. While we can preserve people relatively well, we don’t have the technology or know-how to revive cryons. So, much like burial and cremation, there’s a (probably good) chance that cryopreservation is, in fact, a one-way trip.

This might lead us to the question why people are willing to invest such significant sums of financial and emotional capital in something that seems like such a poor investment. When money could be spent enhancing one’s life before death, bequeathed to loved ones, or donated to charity, why are people willing to flitter tens of thousands of dollars away on such a slim hope. One potential answer to this uniquely modern dilemma comes from the seventeenth-century philosopher and theologian Blaise Pascal and his argument for why we should believe in God’s existence.

Pascal’s Wager, as it is commonly known, is an argument that seeks to convince people to believe in God, not via an appeal to scripture or as an explanation for why the world exists. Instead, Pascal argued that individuals should believe in God out of self-interest; that is, believing in God is a better bet than not believing in him.

Pascal starts by admitting that we cannot ever truly know if God exists. Such certainty of knowledge is simply unobtainable as God, if they exist, is a divine being residing beyond mortal comprehension. In other words, the existence of God is not something we can ascertain, as God’s existence cannot be proven scientifically or reasoned logically.

However, even though we cannot positively claim God’s existence from evidence or inference, we can make claims about what would happen if we did/didn’t believe in God in cases where God either exists or not. In his 1994 book chapter, McClennen formulates Pascal’s argument in the form of a decision matrix like the one below:

God Exists God does not exist Total outcome rating
Wager for God Gain all (+1) Status quo (0) +1
Wager against God Misery (-1) Status quo (0) -1


Either we believe in God, or we don’t, and either God exists, or they don’t. Out of this combination of possibilities arises four potential outcomes. If God exists and we believe in them, we’re afforded the chance to go to heaven. If God exists and we don’t believe in them, we go to hell and suffer eternal torment. If God doesn’t exist, then it doesn’t matter if we believe in them or not, the outcome is the same.

So, Pascal argues, in the face of incomplete information, it is best to place our bets on that outcome that has the most significant payoff: God’s existence. Even if you’re wrong and God doesn’t exist, the worst result is that everything stays the same. On the other hand, if you wager that God doesn’t exist, and they do, an eternity of agony in hell awaits you. If you’re wrong, the best outcome is everything being the same. In other words, the worst outcome if you believe in God is the best outcome if you don’t. Again, if you’re going to gamble, you should put your money on the better payouts.

What does this have to do with cryopreservation? Mirroring Pascal’s acknowledgement that we cannot honestly know if God exists, we also cannot know if the technology required to revive people from cryopreservation will ever be developed. It might, and it might not. Firm knowledge of this is something we simply cannot gain as it is impossible to know what developments in medicine and technology will occur over the next several centuries. In the face of this uncertainty, we’re left with a similar wager to the one Pascal envisioned. Either we believe that cryopreservation will be entirely successful, enabling curative revival, or we don’t. So, drawing inspiration from McClennen, we can make a matrix mapping the outcomes of such a belief, or lack thereof:

Cryopreservation works Cryopreservation does not work Total outcome rating
Wager for cryopreservation Revived (+1) Dead; money wasted (-0.5) +0.5
Wager against cryopreservation Missed the chance at a revival (-1) Dead (0) -1


Much like gambling on the existence of God, gambling on cryopreservation’s success provides the best outcome (a return to life), whereas wagering against its development provides the worst result (missing out on the chance for more life). Even if cryopreservation isn’t successful when one thinks it would be, and that person wastes their money financing a futile endeavor, that still isn’t as bad an outcome as missing out on the chance of revival. Overall, then, a belief in cryonics affords the best result.

This form of arguing is common amongst those who advocate for cryopreservation, with many asserting that even if there is a minute chance that cryopreservation will work, it is infinitely preferable to the certainty of death offered by burial or cremation. As The Cryonics Institute asserts, “The Cryonics Institute provides an ambulance ride to the high-tech hospital of the future. When present medical science has given up on you or your loved ones, we seek another solution. The choice is yours – Do you take the chance at life?”

Now, this argument only works if you believe in the validity of Pascal’s original wager, and there are reasons not to. But, when faced with the gaping maw that is one’s demise, isn’t any gamble preferable to the certainty of death?

Life, Death, and Cryonics

Cryogenics, also known as cryonics, is a form of preservation involving the storing and preservation of a body at very low temperatures in hopes of one day reviving and repairing the body. Although to date no humans have been revived after freezing, some scientists think they are coming closer to making revivement though cryogenics a real possibility. Recent reports of a terminally ill British teen being frozen upon her death have brought cryogenics and the ethical debates surrounding the topic back into the news.

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