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Nick Bostrom is a Swedish philosopher at the University of Oxford. ...
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> ***Humanity is a curious species. Every once in a while, somebody...
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GENETICS
The fable of the dragon tyrant
N Bostrom
...............................................................................................................................
J Med Ethics 2005;31:273–277. doi: 10.1136/jme.2004.009035
This paper recounts the tale of a most vicious dragon that
ate thousands of people every day, and of the actions that
the king, the people, and an assembly of dragonologists
took with respect thereof.
...........................................................................
.......................
Correspondence to:
N Bostrom, Department of
Philosphy, University of
Oxford, Oxford, UK;
www.nickbostrom.com;
nick.bostrom@philosophy.
ox.ac.uk
Accepted for publication
29 April 2004
.......................
O
nce upon a time, the planet was tyran-
nised by a giant dragon. The dragon stood
taller than the largest cathedral, and it
was covered with thick black scales. Its red eyes
glowed with hate, and from its terrible jaws
flowed an incessant stream of evil smelling
yellowish green slime. It demanded from
humankind a blood curdling tribute: to satisfy
its enormous appetite, ten thousand men and
women had to be delivered every evening at the
onset of dark to the foot of the mountain where
the dragon tyrant lived. Sometimes the dragon
would devour these unfortunate souls upon
arrival; sometimes again it would lock them up
in the mountain where they would wither away
for months or years before eventually being
consumed.
The misery inflicted by the dragon tyrant was
incalculable. In addition to the ten thousand
who were gruesomely slaughtered each day,
there were the mothers, fathers, wives, hus-
bands, children, and friends who were left
behind to grieve the loss of their departed loved
ones.
Some people tried to fight the dragon, but
whether they were brave or foolish was difficult
to say. Priests and magicians called down curses,
to no avail. Warriors, armed with roaring courage
and the best weapons the smiths could produce,
attacked it, but were incinerated by its fire before
coming close enough to strike. Chemists con-
cocted toxic brews and tricked the dragon into
swallowing them, but the only apparent effect
was to further stimulate its appetite. The
dragon’s claws, jaws, and fire were so effective,
its scaly armour so impregnable, and its whole
nature so robust, as to make it invincible to any
human assault.
Seeing that defeating the tyrant was impos-
sible, humans had no choice but to obey its
commands and pay the grisly tribute. The fatal-
ities selected were always elders. Although senior
people were as vigorous and healthy as the
young, and sometimes wiser, the thinking was
that they had at least already enjoyed a few
decades of life. The wealthy might gain a brief
reprieve by bribing the press gangs that came to
fetch them, but, by constitutional law, nobody,
not even the king himself, could put off their
turn indefinitely.
Spiritual men sought to comfort those who
were afraid of being eaten by the dragon (which
included almost everyone, although many denied
it in public) by promising another life after
death, a life that would be free from the dragon
scourge. Other orators argued that the dragon
had its place in the natural order and a moral
right to be fed. They said it was part of the very
meaning of being human to end up in the
dragon’s stomach. Others still maintained that
the dragon was good for the human species
because it kept the population size down. To
what extent these arguments convinced the
worried souls is not known. Most people tried
to cope by not thinking about the grim end that
awaited them.
For many centuries this desperate state of
affairs continued. Nobody kept count any longer
of the cumulative death toll, nor of the number
of tears shed by the bereft. Expectations had
gradually adjusted and the dragon tyrant had
become a fact of life. In view of the evident
futility of resistance, attempts to kill the dragon
had ceased. Instead, efforts now focused on
placating it. Although the dragon would occa-
sionally raid the cities, it was found that the
punctual delivery to the mountain of its quota of
life reduced the frequency of these incursions.
Knowing that their turn to become dragon
fodder was always impending, people began
having children earlier and more often. It was
not uncommon for a girl to be pregnant by her
sixteenth birthday. Couples often spawned a
dozen children. The human population was thus
kept from shrinking, and the dragon was kept
from going hungry.
Over the course of these centuries, the dragon,
being well fed, slowly but steadily grew bigger. It
had become almost as large as the mountain on
which it lived and its appetite had increased
proportionately. Ten thousand human bodies
were no longer enough to fill its belly. It now
demanded eighty thousand, to be delivered to
the foot of the mountain every evening at the
onset of dark.
What occupied the king’s mind more than the
deaths and the dragon itself was the logistics of
collecting and transporting so many people to the
mountain every day. This was not an easy task.
To facilitate the process, the king had a railway
track constructed: two straight lines of glistening
steel leading up to the dragon’s abode. Every
twenty minutes, a train would arrive at the
mountain terminal crammed with people, and
would return empty. On moonlit nights, the
passengers travelling on this train, if there had
been windows for them to stick their heads out
of, would have been able to see in front of them
the double silhouette of the dragon and the
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mountain, and two glowing red eyes, like the beams from a
pair of giant lighthouses, pointing the way to annihilation.
Servants were employed by the king in large numbers to
administer the tribute. There were registrars who kept track
of whose turn it was to be sent. There were people collectors
who would be dispatched in special carts to fetch the
designated people. Often travelling at breakneck speed, they
would rush their cargo either to a railway station or directly
to the mountain. There were clerks who administered the
pensions paid to the decimated families who were no longer
able to support themselves. There were comforters who
would travel with the doomed on their way to the dragon,
trying to ease their anguish with spirits and drugs.
There was, moreover, a cadre of dragonologists, who
studied how these logistical processes could be made more
efficient. Some dragonologists also conducted studies of the
dragon’s physiology and behaviour, and collected samples—
its shed scales, the slime that drooled from its jaws, its lost
teeth, and its excrements, which were specked with
fragments of human bone. All these items were painstakingly
annotated and archived. The more the beast was understood,
the more the general perception of its invincibility was
confirmed. Its black scales, in particular, were harder than
any material known to man, and there seemed no way to
make as much as a scratch in its armour.
To finance all these activities, the king levied heavy taxes
on his people. Dragon related expenditures, already account-
ing for one seventh of the economy, were growing even faster
than the dragon itself.
Humanity is a curious species. Every once in a while,
somebody gets a good idea. Others copy the idea, adding to it
their own improvements. Over time, many wondrous tools
and systems are developed. Some of these devices—calcula-
tors, thermometers, microscopes, and the glass vials that the
chemists use to boil and distil liquids—serve to make it easier
to generate and try out new ideas, including ideas that
expedite the process of idea generation.
Thus the great wheel of invention, which had turned at an
almost imperceptibly slow pace in the older ages, gradually
began to accelerate.
Sages predicted that a day would come when technology
would enable humans to fly and do many other astonishing
things. One of the sages, who was held in high esteem by
some of the other sages but whose eccentric manners had
made him a social outcast and recluse, went so far as to
predict that technology would eventually make it possible to
build a contraption that could kill the dragon tyrant.
The king’s scholars, however, dismissed these ideas. They
said that humans were far too heavy to fly and in any case
lacked feathers. As for the impossible notion that the dragon
tyrant could be killed, history books recounted hundreds of
attempts to do just that, not one of which had been
successful. ‘‘We all know that this man had some irrespon-
sible ideas,’’ a scholar of letters later wrote in his obituary of
the reclusive sage who had by then been sent off to be
devoured by the beast whose demise he had foretold, ‘‘but his
writings were quite entertaining and perhaps we should be
grateful to the dragon for making possible the interesting
genre of dragon bashing literature which reveals so much
about the culture of angst!’’
Meanwhile, the wheel of invention kept turning. Mere
decades later, humans did fly and accomplished many other
astonishing things.
A few iconoclastic dragonologists began arguing for a new
attack on the dragon tyrant. Killing the dragon would not be
easy, they said, but if some material could be invented that
was harder than the dragon’s armour, and if this material
could be fashioned into some kind of projectile, then maybe
the feat would be possible. At first, the iconoclasts’ ideas were
rejected by their dragonologist peers on grounds that no
known material was harder than dragon scales. But after
working on the problem for many years, one of the
iconoclasts succeeded in demonstrating that a dragon scale
could be pierced by an object made of a certain composite
material. Many dragonologists who had previously been
sceptical now joined the iconoclasts. Engineers calculated
that a huge projectile could be made of this material and
launched with sufficient force to penetrate the dragon’s
armour.
The manufacture of the needed quantity of the composite
material would, however, be expensive.
A group of several eminent engineers and dragonologists
sent a petition to the king asking for funding to build the
antidragon projectile. At the time when the petition was sent,
the king was preoccupied with leading his army into war
against a tiger. The tiger had killed a farmer and subse-
quently disappeared into the jungle. There was widespread
fear in the countryside that the tiger might come out and
strike again. The king had the jungle surrounded and ordered
his troops to begin slashing their way through it. At the
conclusion of the campaign, the king could announce that all
163 tigers in the jungle, including presumably the murderous
one, had been hunted down and killed. During the tumult of
the war, however, the petition had been lost or forgotten.
The petitioners therefore sent another appeal. This time
they received a reply from one of the king’s secretaries saying
that the king would consider their request after he was done
reviewing the annual dragon administration budget. This
year’s budget was the largest to date and included funding
for a new railway track to the mountain. A second track was
deemed necessary, as the original track could no longer
support the increasing traffic. (The tribute demanded by the
dragon tyrant had increased to one hundred thousand
human beings, to be delivered to the foot of the mountain
every evening at the onset of dark.) When the budget was
finally approved, however, reports were coming from a
remote part of the country that a village was suffering from
a rattlesnake infestation. The king had to leave urgently to
mobilise his army and ride off to defeat this new threat. The
antidragonists’ appeal was filed away in a dusty cabinet in
the castle basement.
The antidragonists met again to decide what was to be
done. The debate was animated and continued long into the
night. It was almost daybreak when they finally resolved to
take the matter to the people. Over the following weeks, they
travelled around the country, gave public lectures, and
explained their proposal to anyone who would listen. At
first, people were sceptical. They had been taught in school
that the dragon tyrant was invincible and that the sacrifices it
demanded had to be accepted as a fact of life. Yet when they
learnt about the new composite material and about the
designs for the projectile, many became intrigued. In
increasing numbers, citizens flocked to the antidragonist
lectures. Activists started organising public rallies in support
of the proposal.
When the king read about these meetings in the news-
paper, he summoned his advisors and asked them what they
thought about them. They informed him about the petitions
that had been sent but told him that the antidragonists were
troublemakers whose teachings were causing public unrest.
It was much better for the social order, they said, that the
people accepted the inevitability of the dragon tyrant tribute.
The dragon administration provided many jobs that would be
lost if the dragon was slaughtered. There was no known
social good coming from the conquest of the dragon. In any
case, the king’s coffers were currently nearly empty after the
two military campaigns and the funding set aside for the
second railway line. The king, who was at the time enjoying
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great popularity for having vanquished the rattlesnake
infestation, listened to his advisors’ arguments but worried
that he might lose some of his popular support if he was seen
to ignore the antidragonist petition. He therefore decided to
hold an open hearing. Leading dragonologists, ministers of
the state, and interested members of the public were invited
to attend.
The meeting took place on the darkest day of the year, just
before the Christmas holidays, in the largest hall of the royal
castle. The hall was packed to the last seat and people were
crowding in the aisles. The mood was charged with an
earnest intensity normally reserved for pivotal wartime
sessions.
After the king had welcomed everyone, he gave the floor to
the leading scientist behind the antidragonist proposal, a
woman with a serious, almost stern expression on her face.
She proceeded to explain in clear language how the proposed
device would work and how the requisite amount of the
composite material could be manufactured. Given the
requested amount of funding, it should be possible to
complete the work in fifteen to twenty years. With an even
greater amount of funding, it might be possible to do it in as
little as twelve years. There could, however, be no absolute
guarantee that it would work. The crowd followed her
presentation intently.
Next to speak was the king’s chief advisor for morality, a
man with a booming voice that easily filled the auditorium.
‘‘Let us grant that this woman is correct about the science
and that the project is technologically possible, although I
don’t think that has actually been proven. Now she desires
that we get rid of the dragon. Presumably, she thinks she’s
got the right not to be chewed up by the dragon. How wilful
and presumptuous. The finitude of human life is a blessing
for every individual, whether he knows it or not. Getting rid
of the dragon, which might seem like such a convenient
thing to do, would undermine our human dignity. The
preoccupation with killing the dragon will deflect us from
realising more fully the aspirations to which our lives
naturally point, from living well rather than merely staying
alive. It is debasing, yes debasing, for a person to want to
continue his or her mediocre life for as long as possible
without worrying about some of the higher questions about
what life is to be used for. But I tell you, the nature of the
dragon is to eat humans, and our own species specified
nature is truly and nobly fulfilled only by getting eaten by
it...’’
The audience listened respectfully to this highly decorated
speaker. The phrases were so eloquent that it was hard to
resist the feeling that some deep thoughts must lurk behind
them, although nobody could quite grasp what they were.
Surely, words coming from such a distinguished appointee of
the king must have profound substance.
The speaker next in line was a spiritual sage who was
widely respected for his kindness and gentleness as well as
for his devotion. As he strode to the podium, a small boy
yelled out from the audience: ‘‘The dragon is bad!’’
The boy’s parents turned bright red and began hushing and
scolding the child. But the sage said: ‘‘Let the boy speak. He is
probably wiser than an old fool like me.’’
At first, the boy was too scared and confused to move but
when he saw the genuinely friendly smile on the sage’s face
and the outreached hand, he obediently took it and followed
the sage up to the podium. ‘‘Now, there’s a brave little man,’’
said the sage. ‘‘Are you afraid of the dragon?’’
‘‘I want my granny back,’’ said the boy.
‘‘Did the dragon take your granny away?’’
‘‘Yes,’’ the boy said, tears welling up in his large frightened
eyes. ‘‘Granny promised that she would teach me how to
bake gingerbread cookies for Christmas. She said that we
would make a little house out of gingerbread and little
gingerbread men that would live in it. Then those people in
white clothes came and took Granny away to the
dragon...The dragon is bad and it eats people…I want my
Granny back!’’
At this point the child was crying so hard that the sage had
to return him to his parents.
There were several other speakers that evening, but the
child’s simple testimony had punctured the rhetorical balloon
that the king’s ministers had tried to inflate. The people were
backing the antidragonists, and by the end of the evening
even the king had come to recognise the reason and the
humanity of their cause. In his closing statement, he simply
said: ‘‘Let’s do it!’’
As the news spread, celebrations erupted in the streets.
Those who had been campaigning for the antidragonists
toasted each other and drank to the future of humanity.
The next morning, a billion people woke up and realised
that their turn to be sent to the dragon would come before
the projectile would be completed. A tipping point was
reached. Whereas before, active support for the antidragonist
cause had been limited to a small group of visionaries, it now
became the number one priority and concern on everybody’s
mind. The abstract notion of ‘‘the general will’’ took on an
almost tangible intensity and concreteness. Mass rallies
raised money for the projectile project and urged the king
to increase the level of state support. The king responded to
these appeals. In his New Year address, he announced that he
would pass an extra appropriations bill to support the project
at a high level of funding; additionally, he would sell off his
summer castle and some of his land and make a large
personal donation. ‘‘I believe that this nation should commit
itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of
freeing the world from the ancient scourge of the dragon
tyrant.’’
Thus started a great technological race against time. The
concept of an antidragon projectile was simple, but to make it
a reality required solutions to a thousand smaller technical
problems, each of which required dozens of time consuming
steps and missteps. Test missiles were fired but fell dead to
the ground or flew off in the wrong direction. In one tragic
accident, a wayward missile landed on a hospital and killed
several hundred patients and staff. Now, however, there was
a real seriousness of purpose, and the tests continued even as
the corpses were being dug out from the debris.
Despite almost unlimited funding and round the clock
work by the technicians, the king’s deadline could not be
met. The decade concluded and the dragon was still alive and
well. The effort, however, was getting closer. A prototype
missile had been successfully test fired. Production of the
core, made of the expensive composite material, was on
schedule for its completion to coincide with the finishing of
the fully tested and debugged missile shell into which it was
to be loaded. The launch date was set to be the following
year’s New Year’s Eve, exactly twelve years after the project’s
official inauguration. The best selling Christmas gift that year
was a calendar that counted down the days to time zero, the
proceeds going to the projectile project.
The king had undergone a personal transformation from
his earlier frivolous and thoughtless self. He now spent as
much time as he could in the laboratories and the
manufacturing plants, encouraging the workers, and praising
their toil. Sometimes he would bring a sleeping bag and
spend the night on a noisy machine floor. He even studied
and tried to understand the technical aspects of their work.
Yet he confined himself to giving moral support and refrained
from meddling in technical and managerial matters.
Seven days before New Year, the woman who had made
the case for the project almost twelve years earlier, and was
Against senescence 275
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now its chief executive, came to the royal castle and
requested an urgent audience with the king. When the king
got her note, he excused himself to the foreign dignitaries
whom he was reluctantly entertaining at the annual
Christmas dinner and hurried off to the private room where
the scientist was waiting. As always of late, she looked pale
and worn from her long working hours. This evening,
however, the king also thought he could detect a ray of relief
and satisfaction in her eyes.
She told him that the missile had been deployed, the core
had been loaded, everything had been triple checked, they
were ready to launch, and would the king give his final go
ahead. The king sank down in an armchair and closed his
eyes. He was thinking hard. By launching the projectile
tonight, one week early, seven hundred thousand people
would be saved. Yet if something went wrong, if it missed its
target and hit the mountain instead, it would be a disaster. A
new core would have to be constructed from scratch and the
project would be set back by some four years. He sat there,
silently, for almost an hour. Just as the scientist had become
convinced that he had fallen asleep, he opened his eyes and
said in a firm voice: ‘‘No. I want you to go right back to the
lab. I want you to check and then recheck everything again.’’
The scientist could not help a sigh escaping her; but she
nodded and left.
The last day of the year was cold and overcast, but there
was no wind, which meant good launch conditions. The sun
was setting. Technicians were scuttling around making the
final adjustments and giving everything one last check. The
king and his closest advisors were observing from a platform
close to the launch pad. Further away, behind a fence, large
numbers of the public had assembled to witness the great
event. A large clock was showing the countdown: fifty
minutes to go.
An advisor tapped the king on the shoulder and drew
his attention to the fence. There was some tumult. Some-
body had apparently jumped the fence and was running
toward the platform where the king sat. Security quickly
caught up with him. He was handcuffed and taken away.
The king turned his attention back to the launch pad, and
to the mountain in the background. In front of it, he
could see the dark slumped profile of the dragon. It was
eating.
Some twenty minutes later, the king was surprised to see
the handcuffed man reappearing a short distance from the
platform. His nose was bleeding and he was accompanied by
two security guards. The man appeared to be in frenzied
state. When he spotted the king, he began shouting at the top
of his lungs: ‘‘The last train! The last train! Stop the last
train!’’
‘‘Who is this young man?’’ said the king. ‘‘His face seems
familiar, but I cannot quite place him. What does he want?
Let him come up.’’
The young man was a junior clerk in the ministry of
transportation, and the reason for his frenzy was that he had
discovered that his father was on the last train to the
mountain. The king had ordered the train traffic to continue,
fearing that any disruption might cause the dragon to stir
and leave the open field in front of the mountain where it
now spent most of its time. The young man begged the king
to issue a recall order for the last train, which was due to
arrive at the mountain terminal five minutes before time
zero.
‘‘I cannot do it,’’ said the king, ‘‘I cannot take the risk.’’
‘‘But the trains frequently run five minutes late. The
dragon won’t notice! Please!’’
The young man was kneeling before the king, imploring
him to save his father’s life and the lives of the other
thousand passengers onboard that last train.
The king looked down at the pleading, bloodied face of the
young man, but he bit his lip, and shook his head. The young
man continued to wail even as the guards carried him off the
platform: ‘‘Please! Stop the last train! Please!’’
The king stood silent and motionless, until, after a while,
the wailing suddenly ceased. The king looked up and glanced
over at the countdown clock: five minutes remaining.
Four minutes. Three minutes. Two minutes.
The last technician left the launch pad.
30 seconds. 20 seconds. Ten, nine, eight…
As a ball of fire enveloped the launch pad and the missile
shot out, the spectators instinctively rose to the tips of their
toes, and all eyes fixated at the front end of the white flame
from the rocket’s afterburners, heading towards the distant
mountain. The masses, the king, the low and the high, the
young and the old, it was as if at this moment they shared a
single awareness, a single conscious experience: that white
flame, shooting into the dark, embodying the human spirit,
its fear and its hope…striking at the heart of evil. The
silhouette on the horizon tumbled, and fell. A thousand
voices of pure joy rose from the assembled masses, joined
seconds later by a deafening drawn out thud from the
collapsing monster as if the Earth itself was drawing a sigh of
relief. After centuries of oppression, humanity at last was free
from the cruel tyranny of the dragon.
The joy cry resolved into a jubilating chant: ‘‘Long live the
king! Long live us all!’’ The king’s advisors, like everybody
that night, were as happy as children; they embraced each
other and congratulated the king: ‘‘We did it! We did it!’’
The king, however, answered in a broken voice: ‘‘Yes, we
did it, we killed the dragon today. But damn, why did we
start so late? This could have been done five, maybe ten years
ago! Millions of people wouldn’t have had to die.’’
The king stepped off the platform and walked up to the
young man in handcuffs, who was sitting on the ground.
There he fell down on his knees. ‘‘Forgive me! Oh my God,
please forgive me!’’
MORAL
Stories about ageing have traditionally focused on the need
for graceful accommodation. The recommended solution to
diminishing vigour and impending death was resignation
coupled with an effort to achieve closure in practical affairs
and personal relationships. Given that nothing could be done
to prevent or retard ageing, this focus made sense. Rather
than fretting about the inevitable, one could aim for peace of
mind.
Today we face a different situation. Although we still lack
effective and acceptable means for slowing the ageing
process, we can identify research directions that might lead
to the development of such means in the foreseeable future.
i
‘‘Deathist’’ stories and ideologies, which counsel passive
acceptance, are no longer harmless sources of consolation.
They are reckless and dangerous barriers to urgently needed
action.
Many distinguished technologists and scientists tell us that
it will become possible to retard, and eventually to halt and
reverse, human senescence. A recent straw poll at the 10th
Congress of the International Association of Biomedical
i
Calorie restriction (a diet low in calories but high in nutrients) extends
maximal lifespan and delays the onset of age related illnesses in all
species that have been tested. Preliminary results from an ongoing study
on rhesus and squirrel monkeys show similar effects. It seems quite likely
that calorie restriction would work for our species too. Few humans,
however, would be willing to put themselves through a lifelong hunger/
diet. Some researchers are searching for calorie restriction mimetics—
compounds that elicit the desirable effects of lowered caloric intake
without us having to go hungry.
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Gerontology revealed that the majority of the participants
thought it either probable or ‘‘not improbable’’ that
comprehensive functional rejuvenation of middle aged mice
would be possible within 10–20 years.
2–4
At present, there is
little agreement about the timescale or the specific means,
nor is there a consensus that the goal is even achievable in
principle. In relation to the fable (where ageing is, of course,
represented by the dragon), we are therefore at a stage
somewhere between that at which the lone sage predicted the
dragon’s eventual demise and that at which the iconoclast
dragonologists convinced their peers by demonstrating a
composite material that was harder than dragon scales.
The general ethical argument in the fable is simple: there
are obvious and compelling moral reasons for the people in
the fable to get rid of the dragon. Our situation with regard to
human senescence is closely analogous and ethically iso-
morphic to the situation of the people in the fable with regard
to the dragon. Therefore, we have compelling moral reasons
to get rid of human senescence.
The argument is not in favour of lifespan extension as
such. Adding extra years of sickness and debility at the end of
life would be pointless. The argument is in favour of
extending, as far as possible, the human healthspan.By
slowing or halting the ageing process, the healthy human
lifespan would be extended. Individuals would be able to
remain healthy, vigorous, and productive at ages at which
they would otherwise be dead.
In addition to this general moral, there are a number of
more specific lessons:
1) A recurrent tragedy became a fact of life, a statistic. In the
fable, people’s expectations adapted to the existence of
the dragon, to the extent that many became unable to
perceive its badness. Ageing, too, has become a mere
‘‘fact of life’’—despite being the principal cause of an
unfathomable amount of human suffering and death.
2) A static view of technology. People reasoned that it would
never become possible to kill the dragon because all
attempts had failed in the past. They failed to take into
account accelerated technological progress. Is a similar
mistake leading us to underestimate the chances of a
cure for ageing?
3) Administration became its own purpose. One seventh of the
economy went to dragon administration (which is also
the fraction of its GDP that the US spends on health
care). Damage limitation became such an exclusive
focus that it made people neglect the underlying cause.
Instead of a massive publicly funded research pro-
gramme to halt ageing, we spend almost our entire
heal th budget on health care and on researching
individual diseases.
4) The social good became detached from the good for people. The
king’s advisors worried about the possi ble social
problems that could be caused by the antidragonists.
They said that no known social good would come from
the demise of the dragon. Ultimately, however, social
orders exist for the benefit of people, and it is generally
good for people if their lives are saved.
5) The lack of a sense of proportion. A tiger killed a farmer. A
rhumba of rattlesnakes plagued a village. The king got
rid of the tiger and the rattlesnakes, and thereby did his
people a service. Yet he was at fault, because his
priorities were wrong.
6) Fine phrases and hollow rhetoric. The king’s morality
advisor spoke eloquently about human dignity and our
species specified nature, in phrases lifted, mostly
verbatim, from the advisor’s contemporary equivalents.
5
Yet the rhetoric was a smokescreen that hid rather than
revealed moral reality. The boy’s inarticulate but honest
testimony, by contrast, points to the central fact of the
case: the dragon is bad; it destroys people. This is also
the basic truth about human senescence.
7) Failure to appreciate the urgency. Until very late in the
story, nobody fully realised what was at stake. Only as
the king is staring into the bloodied face of the young
pleading man does the extent of the tragedy sink in.
Searching for a cure for ageing is not just a nice thing
that we should perhaps one day get around to. It is an
urgent, screaming moral imperative. The sooner we
start a focused research programme, the sooner we will
get results. It matters if we get the cure in 25 years
rather than in 24 years: a population greater than that
of Canada would die as a result. In this matter, time
equals life, at a rate of approximately 70 lives per
minute. With the meter ticking at such a furious rate,
we need to stop faffing about.
8) What happens next? The king and his people will face
some major challenges. Their society has been so
conditioned and deformed by the presence of the
dragon that a frightening void now exists. They will
have to work creatively, at both an individual and
collective level, to develop conditions that will keep
lives flourishingly dynamic and meaningful beyond the
accustomed three score years and ten. Luckily, the
human spirit is good at adapting. Social stasis will also
have to be avoided, and this might require some
institutional changes—for example, education might
have to become a periodic activity engaged in through-
out the lifespan rather than just in the initial segment
of a person’s life. Another issue that they may
eventually confront is overpopulation. Maybe people
will have to learn to have children later and less
frequently. Maybe they can find ways to sustain a larger
population by using more efficient technology. Maybe
they will one day develop spaceships and begin to
colonize the cosmos. We can leave, for now, the long
lived fable people to grapple with these new challenges,
while we try to make some progress in our own
adventure.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
I am grateful to many people for comments on earlier drafts,
including especially Heather Bradshaw, Roger Crisp, Aubrey de Gray,
Katrien Devolder, Joel Garreau, John Harris, Andrea Landfried, Toby
Ord, Susan Rogers, Julian Savulescu, and Ian Watson.
REFERENCES
1 Lane MA, Ingram DK, Roth GSJ. Nutritional modulation of ageing in non-
human primates. J Nutr Health & Aging 1999;3:69–76.
2 De Gray A. Report of open discussion on the future of life extension research.
Annals NY Acad Sci. In press.
3 De Grey ADNJ, Ames BN, Anderson JK, et al. Time to talk SENS: critiquing the
immutability of human ageing. Annals NY Acad Sci 2002;959:452–62.
4 Freitas RA Jr. Nanomedicine [vol 1]. Georgetown, TX: Landes Bioscience,
1999.
5 Kass L. Ageless bodies, happy souls: biotechnology and the pursuit of
perfection. The New Atlantis 2003;1 http://www.thenewatlantis.com/
archive/1/kass.htm (accessed 20 Oct 2004).
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www.jmedethics.com
on February 5, 2022 by guest. Protected by copyright.http://jme.bmj.com/J Med Ethics: first published as 10.1136/jme.2004.009035 on 29 April 2005. Downloaded from

Discussion

Other Papers by the same author on Fermat’s Library: - [Are You Living In a Computer Simulation?](https://fermatslibrary.com/s/are-you-living-in-a-computer-simulation) - [Why we need friendly AI](https://fermatslibrary.com/s/why-we-need-friendly-ai) Here is a great animated video by CGP Grey summarizing this paper: [![dragon](https://i.imgur.com/ROZue0m.png)](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZYNADOHhVY) Nick Bostrom is a Swedish philosopher at the University of Oxford. He is known for his work on existential risk, the anthropic principle, human enhancement ethics, superintelligence risks, the reversal test, and consequentialism. He authored more than 200 publications including New York Times bestseller *Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies*. You can learn more about Nick on his personal home page: [nickbostrom.com](http://www.nickbostrom.com) ![Nick Bostrom](https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b4/Nick_Bostrom.jpg) > ***Humanity is a curious species. Every once in a while, somebody gets a good idea. Others copy the idea, adding to it their own improvements. Over time, many wondrous tools and systems are developed. Some of these devices – calculators, thermometers, microscopes, and the glass vials that the chemists use to boil and distil liquids – serve to make it easier to generate and try out new ideas, including ideas that expedite the process of idea-generation.*** **Just because something is natural does not make it good or necessary.** This is a great expansion on this essay by CPG Grey: [Why Die?](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C25qzDhGLx8) Wonderful story told of our current scientific struggles to solve real life problems. Kudos to engineers, scientists, technicians, historians, socialogists, doctors, ... and many more (the list is too long). wonderful. Human brains need to be cleared off of the millennia of death acceptance. We need to see aging and death not as natural and inevitable but as a degenerative disease to be fought like all of the others. > ***“Let us grant that this woman is correct about the science and that the project is technologically possible, although I don’t think that has actually been proven. Now she desires that we get rid of the dragon. Presumably, she thinks she’s got the right not to be chewed up by the dragon. How willful and presumptuous. The finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual, whether he knows it or not. Getting rid of the dragon, which might seem like such a convenient thing to do, would undermine our human dignity. The preoccupation with killing the dragon will deflect us from realizing more fully the aspirations to which our lives naturally point, from living well rather than merely staying alive. It is debasing, yes debasing, for a person to want to continue his or her mediocre life for as long as possible without worrying about some of the higher questions about what life is to be used for. But I tell you, the nature of the dragon is to eat humans, and our own species-specified nature is truly and nobly fulfilled only by getting eaten by it...”*** ### TL;DR Over millenia our brains have adapted to view death as a natural part of life. The author challenges the reader to re-think this - ***why do we take aging and death so naturally, why don't we fight against it?*** In this fable the dragon represents aging and death. Humans first think that the dragon is unbeatable and the accept the dragon and all of it's requests. Over time humans study the dragon and build new technologies with which they might be able to find the dragon. They work together to fight the dragon in oder to regain control of their future/destiny. A fascinating and well written paper. You can find the HTML version of this paper here: [The fable of the dragon tyrant](https://www.nickbostrom.com/fable/dragon.html) > ***Humanity is a curious species. Every once in a while, somebody gets a good idea. Others copy the idea, adding to it their own improvements. Over time, many wondrous tools and systems are developed. Some of these devices – calculators, thermometers, microscopes, and the glass vials that the chemists use to boil and distil liquids – serve to make it easier to generate and try out new ideas, including ideas that expedite the process of idea-generation.*** > *** Thus the great wheel of invention, which had turned at an almost imperceptibly slow pace in the older ages, gradually began to accelerate. ***