On Immortality

Immortality, or at least extreme longevity, is a familiar theme of SF/F which (almost) always seems compelling, from the classic immortal vampire of Bram Stoker, to the body-hopping, post-singularity consciousnesses depicted in Charles Stross’s Accelerando. However, like many other SFnal tropes, this one is slowly becoming more science fact than science fiction. For example, it seems that scientists have succeeded in stopping the aging process in mice livers (insert joke about hard-drinking rodents here).

This put me in mind of a TED talk I watched a short time ago by anti-aging researcher/firebrand/Alan-Moore-stand-in/caffeine-fueled nutjob (and I mean that in the nicest possible way), biomedical gerontologist Aubrey De Grey, in which he talks about aging as a disease, and lays out the general ideas behind his “Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence” (SENS) proposal, and the activities of the Methuselah Foundation, which he co-founded to promote anti-aging research, awareness and acceptance.

Check it out:

(As an aside, do yourself a favor and check out the TED site if you haven’t done so already. It’s chock-full of free talks by some of the leading creative, scientific, and philosophical minds in the world. It’s a constant source of inspiration for me, and I talk it up whenever I get the chance.)

De Grey’s presentation is intentionally light on science (that’s not what TED’s about, after all), but it certainly sparks some questions. I’d venture to say that most of us here would like to see the futures we so enjoy speculating about: we want to see how it all works out. We want our flying cars, or our jetpacks, or our own winter home on Mars, etc. But what are the practical implications of longevity? How would we, as individuals and as a society,  adapt to such a change in our way of life, in how we fundamentally experience life?

For instance:

Would it be acceptable to be a student for fifty or one hundred years, hopping from school to school on a protracted search for knowledge? How would scientific achievements be affected, if you could have geniuses like Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking stick around for some eight or nine hundred years?

How would young people’s perceptions of the old change? If a 200-year-old woman old doesn’t look like a decrepit little old lady on death’s door, and her wits are still very much about her, will the young regain some of the respect for the wisdom of their elders that other cultures still have? Conversely, will the old make way for the young, or will they declare that they have absolutely no reason to step aside, and continue holding on to the reins of power (be it in politics, academia, the arts, or wherever)?

Taking a purely logistical tack, one could safely assume that if people stop dying of natural or pathological causes, birth control would no longer be a choice: it would be a necessity. There just wouldn’t be enough space on this planet if the old stopped making space for the newborn by giving up their ghosts. Would we become a society composed exclusively of adults, or would special allowances be made for keeping children around? Would adults then extend their childhoods, much in the same way that so-called “grups” have extended their youth into their thirties, and even their forties?

Additionally, we would probably be forced into serious efforts to colonize space, again, due to lack of space on Earth. Space travel would also be a bit more feasable, at least in terms of making it out to remote places, since manned expeditions wouldn’t have to depend on schemes like cryogenic stasis or generation ships in order to keep humans alive long enough reach their destination (now, what to do on board these ships for hundreds of years without going insane, or dying of boredom, that’s a different story altogether).

What about our attitude towards death in general? I think it can be safely said that this is already rather unhealthy in Western culture, but what happens when the only deaths that occur are purely spontaneous and accidental? How would you feel if, when you’re 1000 years old,  your parents, aged 1400, suddenly died in a plane crash (or in a freak accident on a Martian colony, for that matter)?

These questions and many more may be poised to become serious issues instead of idle speculation, if people like De Grey are correct, and aging is something that can not only be reversed, but prevented in the first place. Personally, I plan to live to the ripe old age of one hundred and twenty. It’s a notion I’ve had in my head since I was a child for some reason, and I look forward to living through what little future I can experience within that lifetime. If I can get more years, in good health, then bring ’em on.

How about you? Would you like to live for 1000 years? What other issues do you think we’ll have to wrestle with if this comes to pass?


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