Has Cryonics Taken the Wrong Path?

This article was written in April, 2006, published on the Alcor News Blog on August 15, 2006, and republished in Cryonics February 2014.

The unnoticed conflict between rescue technology and futurist philosophies.

By Stephen Bridge

A Quiet Hero

A friend of mine died this winter. He wasn’t interested in cryonics, but what he didn’t do is not the point of this essay. What he did do has saved uncounted lives, maybe including yours. The way this man went about his life has given me a clue to what I think is a major hidden problem with cryonics.

Douglas Crichlow was a year behind me at DePauw University (Greencastle, Indiana) when he arrived as a freshman in 1967. We all thought he was interesting but overly obsessed with fire trucks and ambulances. In my mind, he was just a kid who hadn’t grown out of a childhood excitement, unlike me in my sophomoric sophistication. Most of Doug’s conversation was about fire departments, emergency medical services, and disaster preparedness. It turned out he was amazingly well read in these subjects. Remember, in 1967 there were few EMTs, the concept of paramedics was brand new, and CPR was only a few years old. A national training program for EMTs and paramedics didn’t begin until 1970. Disaster management was not yet even a concept.

In 1967 ambulance services in all but the largest cities were provided not by hospitals or fire departments. They were provided by the local funeral homes. If you were injured in an automobile accident, the hearse took you to the hospital. The driver had no oxygen, no CPR, no remote understanding of trauma treatment. If you didn’t make it to the hospital, well, you were already in the hearse. And in these days, before airbags, shock-absorbing body frames, and high seatbelt use, there were a LOT of fatalities.

Doug was a bit overweight, walked with a limp from a childhood injury, was kind of a nerd, and was a freshman who thought he knew how the world needed to be changed. But he was also amiable, a persuasive speaker, religious without being a pest about it, and well read in a wide variety of subjects. In his favorite subjects, he seemed to have read everything in print.

Doug’s enthusiasm about emergency services was contagious with many students, including his roommate, Steve Collier, and several other older students, notably Derrick Warner. The three of them and several other students formed the DePauw Volunteer Fire Brigade. They even talked me into it. The local fire department scoffed at these students — until the local newspaper caught on fire and threatened to burn down Greencastle’s entire downtown. 20 DePauw students showed up to haul and man hoses, fetch food for the firemen, and stayed to clean up. That made a BIG impression.

By the time Doug was a senior, the DePauw Fire Brigade was an ongoing organization working on fires on campus and around the city. (It still exists today, and this initial cooperation between “town and gown” was so successful that every DePauw student now has a requirement of community service.) By this time Derrick had graduated and was living in Greencastle, so he, Steve Collier, and Doug turned their attention to the problem of no ambulance service in Putnam County. When they could not persuade the City Council, the fire department, or the hospital to begin ambulance service, they bought an ambulance on credit and started their own service, showing up at accidents. When they began saving lives, other people noticed. The organization they started, Operation Life, still provides ambulance service in Putnam County. Doug was obsessive about the details. He wrote SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) for everything his team did. When he couldn’t find training manuals for his EMTs, he called experts all over the country, and then typed up his own manual.

After the Blizzard of 1978, Doug moved to Indianapolis to become Director of Emergency Management and Civil Defense. In 1983 he formed his own consulting company and became a nationally known expert in the field of emergency preparedness. In 1985 his company organized and hosted in Indianapolis the first World Conference on Disaster & Emergency Management which attracted government, fire, police, and medical leaders from all over the United States and 20 other countries to discuss the planning, coordination, and response to major disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and terrorism. Unfortunately, emergency medicine wasn’t able to save Doug himself. He died suddenly of cardiac arrest this year, just a week after his mother had died of cancer.

You won’t find much about Doug Crichlow on the internet, although one important summary of modern disaster management approaches is available in his article “Taking a comprehensive approach to handling disasters.”

However, hundreds of people influenced by Doug are now fire fighters, EMTs, emergency room physicians, and emergency management directors for towns and cities all over America. He didn’t invent emergency services; but if you are ever injured with your life in danger, and an ambulance with trained EMTs or paramedics shows up to rescue you — instead of a hearse and mortician, you can thank Douglas Crichlow and a handful of others like him.

Comparing EMS and Cryonics

Although I helped on the student fire department, I wasn’t much under Doug’s influence at college. At the time, I was deeply into my major of theatre and just not that interested in fighting fires and saving lives. In retrospect, I think I was also too ignorant about the world and not ready to notice what needed to be changed.

I wasn’t open to ideas about changing the world until 1976 when I met a somewhat similar missionary for saving lives — Mike Darwin. Like Doug, Mike was well read in many areas and intensely well read in the things that interested him most: cryonics/cryobiology and emergency medicine. He had a reserve of energy that seemed inexhaustible and he could argue his points persuasively. And by 1976, there had been a couple of deaths in my family, and my mother and both grandmothers would die in the next year and a half. Mortality was sitting on my couch staring at me every night and I was ready to listen to Mike telling me there was a solution.

Today emergency medical services are available just about everywhere in the United States. Most fire fighters in Indiana are also EMTs and trained to save lives. If you want to do emergency medical work for a living, there are dozens of programs ready to give you the chance to learn. Every large city and most medium-sized ones have a disaster plan and do disaster drills. Doug and his peers have had an obvious and lasting effect on the world.

Cryonics, on the other hand, is in some ways still stuck in the 1960′s. It’s not popular and still looks like a cult to many people. So far it does not appear to be on its way to having a lasting effect on the world. A handful of people have labored mightily to bring forth a lot of suggestive evidence but not much proof that they can achieve what they plan. Why did EMS succeed while cryonics success has stalled?

Emergency Medical Services have not been around too much longer than cryonics, yet the idea of EMS quickly moved into the mainstream of American life. The most important reason is obvious — EMTs, paramedics, ambulances, and trauma centers get immediate results. It doesn’t take long to prove that the medical model saves more lives than the mortuary model. After 40 years of emergency work, EMS personnel can point to millions of rescued people, living witnesses to the success of the model. It is straightforward, easy to understand, easy to assimilate into your life. Yes, these people will still die anyway, just at older ages, unless technologies like cryonics can intervene. But cryonics has no rescued patients going on television talk shows to show that cryopreservation rescued them, and we won’t have any such witnesses for decades at least. “Hey, guys, we can now preserve cells a whole lot better than we did last year,” just doesn’t have the same effect as living people telling how they were “miraculously” saved by the paramedics.

There is another very subtle difference that might play into the different levels of success, however — a difference in the main players. As unusual as Doug Crichlow seemed to me at that youthful stage of our lives, he was still much more in the mainstream of American life than was anyone in cryonics then — and few, if any, cryonics leaders could be said to be part of the American mainstream since that time. Doug was a moderate Republican and he became a respected and successful government leader and businessman. He had a long, loving marriage to his wife and was the devoted father of two daughters. He was a sincere Christian without being confrontational about it. He had no goal for his work other than to save lives. He treated emergency medical services as the standard service every community should provide and he didn’t load the idea down with considerations of politics, religion, or race. There were no Bible verses printed on the sides of the ambulance; no “free Gospel reading with every rescue.” It was just good medicine.

In contrast, just about all of the early leaders of cryonics had some combination of extreme minority views and were “outsiders” in many ways. Most could be labeled as rebels — atheist or agnostic, libertarian or Randian or even anarchist, and they usually had family relationships outside of what most Americans consider the “ordinary” way to live (one-partner, heterosexual marriage with children). A large percentage of cryonics leaders and cryonics members have been childless couples, long-term singles, or homosexual.

Even more importantly, Robert Ettinger and many others of the early advocates for cryonics proclaimed that cryonics was part of a radical change in human nature, that humans would eventually turn into something “beyond” human — immortal, omniscient, space traveling super-beings, maybe in the form of robots or computer software. The concept of cryonics as an especially advanced form of emergency rescue service became clouded in a fog of transhumanist evangelism. I have even heard people argue that they support cryonics because they think it will help to overturn religion. For an immense percentage of Americans, these concepts are bewildering or even terrifying. “Our grandchildren are not going to be human? And these people want to destroy our religion? What kind of crazy people want that?” How could we expect that people turned off by what they see as weird or offensive futurist ideas would be turned on to the concept of cryonics? Who wants to be part of a future that will be inhospitable to their beliefs and ideas — led by the people who are often gleefully telling them this?

While this was certainly not the intent of Robert Ettinger, cryonics may have veered from being a mainstream medical rescue technology almost from the beginning. “Like calls to like.” Perhaps the personalities and attitudes of cryonicists in the beginning actively put off the mainstream and only appealed to other people swimming down a narrow waterway off to the side.

It would be interesting to replay history and see what would have happened had, say, Doug Crichlow and Mike Darwin met at the right time in their lives. Would they have bonded and worked together in their common interest in saving lives? Their combined knowledge and drive could have had a dynamic effect on others. Or would their personalities and very different philosophical views have bounced them apart like the opposing poles of magnets? Would a more mainstream, Christian, family-oriented approach to cryonics have made a difference to the early success of cryonics? If Robert Ettinger had been a religious, observant Jew, could this idea have become a part of general medical culture, or even become popular with a particular sub-group of American Jews? Or is the concept itself too far beyond the mainstream to have ever appealed to the people that Doug Crichlow got involved in his grand idea? Could anyone with a personality and background much different from Robert Ettinger have even come up with the concept of cryonics?

We were who we were, of course, and we can’t go back and change that; we can only go forward from where we are. But we can become more aware of where we are. The really interesting thing is that these options still face us; although I don’t think we have ever called these choices “options” before. We can still choose where we will place our focus for the next two decades — how much emphasis to place on medical rescue, how much to stick with our appeal to futurists and computer technicians, how much to appeal to the mainstream culture.

Note that these choices we have to make are not mutually exclusive. We must increase our understanding and ability to handle the medical end of cryonics. If we wish to attract more mainstream members, we want to do so without losing the futurists among us. But we need to make these decisions consciously and be aware that they are decisions.

Transhumanists, futurists, and cryonics

Would a greater emphasis on medical rescue have made cryonics more popular? How much was the public and medical involvement with cryonics damaged by its association with the concepts of physical immortality, future superhumans, expansion into space, libertarianism and anarchy, and an underlying antagonism toward religion and “traditional family values”? Would ambulance-based rescue services have been given a chance if presented with such philosophical baggage?

Mike Darwin and others liked to shock friends with scenarios of what options might exist for future humans: group sex in free fall; the ability to change genders daily or to choose the “hermaphrodite option;” the ability to make immense changes to one’s brain, like implantable language chips or pleasure switches; the ability to make startling changes to one’s body, like functional wings, blue fur, or replacing your skull and other bones with titanium. Keith Henson’s favorite scenario was making ten thousand duplicate copies of himself and sending them out into the galaxy to explore. They would all meet in a few millennia for a party on the far side of the galaxy to share information, swap tales, and plan their move to other galaxies. It was interesting to watch the division at parties, as some people moved toward Mike, Keith, and others and as just as many moved into other rooms completely.

Of course, these very ideas attracted many people to cryonics in the early years. Many of these people didn’t care about or even completely understand the basic purpose of cryonics — to save lives. They simply saw it as part of something that was interesting to talk about, or possibly just as a tool that they might be able to use to get them to a future that interests them more than today’s reality. And since they were most interested in the future, they often did not spend enough time in the present to focus on the hard tasks of learning physiology and chemistry, getting EMT/paramedic training, writing technical reports, evaluating procedures, doing both laboratory and literature research, and the other nitty-gritty daily details necessary to make cryonics a survival technology where success means “saving lives.” Instead, too many of them (including me) focused on how to make cryonics popular, where success means “gaining members.”

Now I must admit that some of these visions of the future attracted me to cryonics: Even though I had read science fiction for many years, this was the first time that I actually envisioned myself as part of the future. And in 1977, it was easy to get into cryonics “on the ground floor,” to see that I could be a major part of changing the world. Cryonics was not only a solution to a problem of life and death; it was a grand adventure and a chance to defy authority (that was my generation, remember).

So I am stuck here with contemplating whether or not another pathway would have been better for the success of cryonics, while acknowledging that that pathway might well have not attracted me to cryonics at all. And I must contemplate how much the choices of my friends and myself over the past 25 years have prevented or delayed the success of cryonics, as well as how they have advanced it.

And I must further admit that an over-emphasis on future technology is probably inherent in the very concept of cryonics. We cannot rescue our cryonics members now. That can only be done by medical personnel of the future. We are attempting to move these patients through time to a hospital of the future. Before we invest our money, our time, and our very lives in such a speculative pursuit, we have to imagine the kinds of futures that will allow for success. For the limited technological and scientific understanding of most humans, however, these futures do not appear to be in any conceivable straight line from today’s reality. And most people simply do not have the imagination to conceive of how the world could change in 100 years or more. Even the writers of science fiction and futurist speculation, whom one would think would have a better grasp on the future, have trouble developing a plausible, coherent vision of a future reality, with rare exceptions.

EMS only has to rely on 30 minutes into the future, the time for transportation and for the hospital to be ready for the patient. They don’t concern themselves with 100 years in the future. Perhaps we are at a point in the development of cryonics where we should put more emphasis on the first 30 minutes and less on the next 100 years.

Where are the medical personnel?

We understand — or should understand — that cryonics is not about saving “dead people.” It is about redefining the limits of “death.” Cryonics is the last step of medical technology, not an alternate type of storage of the dead. “Death” means a permanent cessation of life. If a comatose patient is labeled as “brain dead” by physicians, yet eventually wakes up and resumes his life, the newspaper headline should not be, “Brain-dead patient revives!” It should be, “Patient mistakenly labeled as brain-dead revives!” Likewise, if cryonics works and these patients are eventually resuscitated to their conscious existence, then we can show that they also were “mistakenly labeled as dead.”

So, where are the medical rescue personnel in cryonics? Over the past 40 years of this endeavor, perhaps no more than a dozen people who had a deep scientific understanding of the principles of cryonics have actually committed themselves to the scientific research or medical rescue aspects of cryonics. And only three of them (Jerry Leaf, Mike Darwin, and Steven Harris) started from a physical medicine background (and only Harris had an M.D.) Yes, other physicians have been members or board members, but most have had specialties in psychiatry and were involved much more in the business and promotion side of cryonics than the medical side. (Alcor has had other paramedics and nurses as employees and volunteers; but none have stayed involved long enough to provide many solid long-term contributions.)

Why have the medical people avoided cryonics? Certainly there has been little money in cryonics, especially compared to medicine. Leaf, Darwin, and Harris accumulated a lot more stress than wealth from their involvement in cryonics (approximately Stress = 100; Wealth = 0). And most medically-trained people, like most other mainstream-focused, educated people, don’t want to be involved in something as “socially unacceptable” as cryonics has been over the years. The publicity for being involved in cryonics cases has been risky for several medical professionals. But this cannot explain it all. I have met many paramedics, EMTs, nurses, and physicians over the years and quite a few of them were willing to take chances in other areas of their lives, taking business risks, publicly supporting unpopular causes. Cryonics is about saving lives. Why haven’t more of these people jumped into helping us?

It’s a long list:

  1. We still haven’t done a good enough job explaining how cryonics fits into the field of medicine. Too many medically trained people don’t “get” cryonics, don’t see where the “life-saving” comes in.
  2. Even for those medically trained people who do “get cryonics,” we haven’t placed our focus on the medical requirements, so these bright people don’t see where their niches are.
  3. Cryonicists on average have not been nearly as welcoming of medically trained people as we would like to think we have. Some Alcor administrators over the years have been actively hostile to medical people or generally hostile to bright people with new ideas. Yes, these ideas are often naive and simplistic, but none of us automatically understood the subtleties of cryonics the first time we heard about it, either. Others gave us the chance to learn. Can we do less for physicians and nurses?

    Even worse in some ways may have been people like me when I was Alcor’s President. Under my leadership, we talked about needing medical personnel; but we weren’t ready to receive medical volunteers and employees because we had no plan for using them. We certainly missed out on people who could have helped us. Active hostility can be attributed to the problems of an individual. But lack of preparation and the lack of a plan for bringing in new technical volunteers or employees lower the reputation of the entire organization and even cryonics in general.

  4. The very fact we can’t show that cryonics produces “survivors” removes some of the excitement and motivation for why most emergency personnel choose their jobs — saving lives is exciting and gives the rescuer a strong sense of pride. Many medical personnel in general get much of their sense of self-worth from helping people recover. A patient saying “thank you for helping me” is a motivation as strong as income. Waiting a century or two for the thank-yous is probably not going to provide the same emotional rush. As one medical student said to me, “I just can’t get excited about patients who don’t talk back.”
  5. Several people have written in the past that one of the biggest problems with improving cryonics techniques is that we can get very little feedback. We can’t show better survival results from changing techniques, even if we tried them on animals, because the set of processes of dying, fluid replacement for cryoprotection, and cool-down to storage temperature has so many variables. And since we don’t know how to revive even animals from cryopreservation, the end result of one research project can look pretty much like another. (Yes, we can show small incremental improvements in certain narrowly-defined details, but nothing that will impress people outside of cryonics.) In medicine, success or failure can be measured in terms of “who survives and for how long.” We don’t have that in cryonics, and it is frustrating for everyone. Why become a medical rescue person in cryonics if you can’t tell if you are making a difference with your knowledge and your presence?
  6. We only do 2-5 cryopreservations a year. Rescue workers can do that many rescue cases on one busy day. Emergency room physicians can have that many cases going on at the same time. Even if we had rescue personnel as full-time or part-time employees, how do we keep them busy? Giving tours? Measuring chemicals? Since we have too few suspensions, we would have to do animal research to keep people usefully occupied and to learn techniques and build teams — which is expensive and uncertain and maybe pretty useless unless you already have the medical/scientific people in place doing the planning. Many people have told cryonicists that they need to do more animal research, like Mike and Jerry used to do.

    The expense of research is a major difficulty, of course, but the costs may not be where you think they are. We could find the money for any individual experiment. But the federal and practical requirements for doing animal research are much more difficult to follow than they were 25 years ago. You pretty much need a full-time person just to make sure you are following all of the reporting and filing requirements, plus the requirements for animal care and handling, medical waste handling, and security of your medications. Many cities are hostile to animal research and will add extra requirements or simply refuse to permit it all. And we must not forget that doing animal research in the same facility in which you care for your patients will subject those patients to higher risk from animal research protestors.

    Mike Darwin once pointed out, quite rightly, that our need to protect our patients has made cryonics organizations much more conservative and less likely to take risks than we were 25 years ago. It may be time to increase the further legal and physical separation between patient care, suspension rescue teams, and research. In order to make progress, someone has to be able to take risks.

  7. Cryonics’ dependence on future technologies — that might take a century or more to develop — distances the result from the action so far that the results are beyond the manageable limit of most people’s imaginations. It becomes hard to take the concept seriously, and this distance probably works to take away the sense of urgency for the younger cryonicists and younger medical personnel alike.
  8. Cryonics organization staff are also distanced from the results and may be willing to make and tolerate more mistakes because “our friends in the future” will take care of everything.
  9. Our emphasis on telling everyone how great things will be in the future both chases people away by making us sound like a cult and takes energy and time away from what our focus should be — making sure that we are doing well enough with rescues, perfusion, and cool-down today that we can be confident we ARE saving individual lives and not merely DNA for cloning.
  10. I’m not sure if this one is more cause or more effect. Jerry Leaf and Mike Darwin also had that incredibly valuable obsession with soaking up knowledge and with getting the details right that the best medical personnel have. Such obsessions are time-consuming, expensive, and annoying to those who are not similarly obsessed. This approach doesn’t make for big jumps in capability because it focuses on small steps — a thousand preparations before the first small step, and a thousand more for every step after that. It’s not sexy; it doesn’t make for good public relations stories; it doesn’t get the non-medical people excited and involved. It’s hard work. I see a severe shortage of these obsessions in cryonics organizations today.

    It’s the sort of thing that Doug Crichlow did well. And in the EMS field, it eventually impressed the medical personnel and government officials.

  11. And finally, there is one possible reason that is so big that “Number 11” is inadequate to label it. This may be a difficult truth for some of us to accept — we may chase away medical personnel and other helpful people because we are so focused on ourselves.

Almost everyone who has committed themselves to working in cryonics has done so because they wanted this idea to work for them — they wanted to save their own lives. Sure, they were willing to let other people get their lives saved, too; but they didn’t get involved in order to do good for others. And therefore many cryonicists, and even cryonics organization staff, may stop well short of the maximum effort needed to make this idea work. Doug Crichlow was primarily motivated by saving the lives of other people. So are most emergency medical personnel. They never run out of people who need help and so they never run out of motivation to keep going.

We may not be able to get many medical people involved in cryonics if it remains primarily about saving ourselves. I still maintain that the decision makers, public speakers, and Directors for cryonics organizations should be suspension members of that organization. But we need to make room in cryonics for medically trained people whose major motivation it is to help others. They may be the ones who bring new knowledge and innovations and who care about the details, because it is the right way to do things. And to get these people, we must change our approach to the other problems I listed above.

Where do we go from here?

I am not trying to promote one cryonics organization over another in this article. I write more about Alcor because I know it best. But I want to emphasize that there has never been a cryonics organization with more than 3-4 people at one time actively promoting and developing medical and scientific improvements. Even today, after four decades, no organization is better than one traffic collision away from a major loss of biomedical understanding and capability. No current organization looks marginally competent when compared to even a tiny hospital in a rural town.

Most employees and Directors of all of the cryonics organizations are people who became interested in cryonics because they are interested in the future and want to stay alive as long as possible. They became actively involved because they are responsible people and they didn’t see anyone else stepping forward. But they are typically writers, business owners, attorneys, accountants, life insurance sales people, etc. with the occasional engineer (and one librarian) tossed into the mix. They are not medically inclined and may not appreciate the medical issues and the need for detail involved.

Today’s organizations must take the initiative to make cryonics not just popular, but to make cryonics WORK. This might mean turning down interviews, spending money on research instead of ads, maybe even placing less focus on membership growth because management time and financial resources are going into upgrading our rescue capability instead.

Our Choices

I expect a lot of disagreement with my proposition and I encourage you members to express your opinions. We must have that discussion now. If no one is interested in follow-up to this article, then I may as well devote the rest of my days to gardening, home repair, and dusting my book collection. I always thought that my cryonics participation would return results in an increased chance of a long lifespan and adventures in the future. But I’m no longer so confident, and I’m no longer sure that I made the best decisions when I had the opportunity to lead.

Let’s look at one key decision that was made a year ago as an example of the confusion we are faced with. Alcor hired a promotion/production company to produce a DVD for Alcor. It is called The Limitless Future: A documentary exploring mankind’s quest for a long and healthy life. This production is basically a well-produced infomercial about cryonics; very obviously aimed at making a more mainstream audience comfortable with the basic concept. I (not being mainstream) felt very uncomfortable after I saw it the first time but I didn’t know why. I showed it to a young friend who had just been introduced to cryonics and who had watched the Discovery Channel documentary (Immortality on Ice) a couple of weeks previously. She put her finger on the problem right away — it was an attempt to appeal to the people least likely to be interested in the concept. She said that even with all of the fine camera work, narration, and intelligent heads on view, it was less interesting than one live lunch with a real cryonicist. Where was the sense of adventure, of changing the world?

So here I am in this article arguing against too much emphasis on that futurist radicalism that got me involved in the first place. But that doesn’t mean I am now happy with the focus of The Limitless Future. I am still uncomfortable with it; but I have added a second reason — it doesn’t make a good case for cryonics being a workable part of emergency medicine. But then we as cryonicists haven’t given the producers anything in that direction to promote, except for a vague dream of the future.

What do you say, Alcor members (and other cryonicists)? Do we put our energies into medical rescue? Do we push back all of our talk about transhumanism, uploading, the Singularity, politics, and conflicts with religion? Or do we focus on the high tech community and talk more about the future? Do we try to appeal to the mainstream of the English-speaking world? Do we try to broaden our focus beyond ourselves?

Remember, the question is not, “What do you want us to do?” The question is something that should be much more important to you — “What approach will be most effective in saving lives?”