Do we really want to live forever?

Research into ageing is progressing to the point where a substantial increase in  the human lifespan may become reality within a generation or two. In November 2010  Ian Sample of the Guardian reported   http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/nov/28/scientists-reverse-ageing-mice-humans#history-link-box   ) on research at the John Hopkins University of Baltimore which has rejuvenated  mice

“What we saw in these animals was not a slowing down or stabilisation of the ageing process. We saw a dramatic reversal – and that was unexpected,” said Ronald DePinho, who led the study, which was published in the journal Nature.

The question which humans need to consider seriously now rather than later are  the effects , both on the individual and on society at large, of substantially increased lifespan.

Greatly increased human lifespans are potentially profoundly dangerous because they will detach humans from the lifespan evolution has prepared them for.  it is a mistake to imagine that few people live to be old until recently, the very low average life expectancies in the past and the third world today were and are primarily due to infant deaths before the age of 5 with very heavy mortality in the first year.  If you got past 5 you had a good chance of reaching adulthood and if you reached adulthood a sporting chance of living  beyond 6o, with significant numbers living into what even today we would consider extreme old age.  In short,. There have always been people living to the outer limits of the natural human  life span so that any substantial increase in longevity will mean entering into virgin territory. 

The greatest fully-authenticated age to which any human has lived is 122 years 164 days by Madam Jeanne Louise Calment of France. She was born on February 21, 1875 and died on August 4, 1997. However, few humans have ever got past 110. More and more people are living to be 100 in the developed world but the vast majority of those die not long after reaching their century.  The average  lifespan of those not struck down early by illness, accident or  violence is  probably between 80-90. 

Suppose  humans begin to live until the average lifespan is  160, about double the average of those living in developed countries now.  That will mean some will probably live to 200+.  Few would welcome a century or more of extreme old age with all its natural physical privations.  But suppose  that scientific advances slowed the ageing process to half it is now , with a man of 80 being the equivalent physically of a man of 40 today.  Surely that would remove the obstacle to enjoying twice our current lifespan?  It would probably not do so.

The person might be physically the same at 80 as they were previously at 40,  but the psychological and sociological place they would be in would be completely different. Imagine having to live with the same partner for 120 years or more. Think of having to deal with your siblings for  a century and a half.  Consider the prospect of having to occupy yourself, with work or otherwise, for 120—140 years, with many decades of waiting for advancement.   Some would  adjust to it, but I doubt whether most would be able to beat off ennui . In this context it is worth thinking of the large number of people, mainly men, who die early in their retirement.

Of course, in all probability expanded life expectancy would not mean a life where the ageing process had been  slowed proportionately to the increase in lifespan, but even if  it  had been, an  average lifespan of  160 would mean  twice as long suffering the physical and mental inhibitions of old age.  Nor is it probable that all illnesses could be prevented or cured or damage caused by accidents or wilful violence repaired to restore the damaged individual to full health and capability. Imagine suffering from arthritis not for twenty years but forty years or having to care for someone suffering from dementia  for  half a century.  The toll on individuals and the taxpayer would be vast.

To those problems would be the prime sociological one of how and when to breed. Even if puberty was delayed in the same way general agein and a person was likely to be 50 before they bred rather than 25, that would still leave 110+ years to know their children. And who would want to have a childhood stretching out to 50 years?

Then there would be the problems of vast population inflation even if breeding rates remained as they are today because twice the longevity equals twice the population and the subsequent pressure on resources.

If age was extended beyond  160 all these problems would multiply.

There would be the very real  danger of the rejuvenation treatment being restricted to the rich or some other form of an elite. This would in effect create two species of homo sapiens. It would also provoke, sooner or later, great social unrest.

Could man ever be immortal even in principle? ? To achieve  that would require the ending of all mortal disease and the repair of all mortal  injury, but even then death from accident, war or murder would happen sooner or later.  Perhaps it will become possible to “download” a personality with all its memories and then “up load ” the personality to an artificial body or more probably a clone of the original, but what would that be,  you or something else altogether?

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Comments

  • Paul N.  On December 26, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    It is not arthritis that bothers me as pain killers become increasingly effective:-)

    All fauceirs, even our universe, have a limited life span, and for a good reason. Death is the ultimate feedback mechanism, unspecific though but never failing.

    Remember worker bees’ life span evolved because with age bees get more likely infected by parasites and become a burden to the hive. The same holds true for humans, and humans not only get infected by biological fauceirs, viruses, bacteria and protosoic parasites, which can be managed with medical advancements, but humans can get infected by social fauceirs too, political ideas, ideologies, whimsicals and so on. How can we treat these if we even aren’t aware that these might be parasitic too?

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